Archive for the People & Places Category

From the VR Archives: Lay of the Land

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Photography, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2013 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

 Black plug

David Milne, Black and White Trees and Buildings, 1915/6
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 61.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Reading landscape painter Ian Robert’s Creative Authenticity  reminded me of our post on David Milne, little known I fear outside Canada. Northern Exposure: The Landscapes of David Milne.

Black plug

Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust

Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust, 2009,
Willow branches,
Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, San Francisco

That led me to VR coverage of Patrick Dougherty’s Upper Crust,  fanciful organic site structures, staged in the Civic Center’s Aliota Piazza: Patrick Dougherty in San Francisco.

Black plug

Platon, Silvio Berlusconi

Platon, Silvio Berlusconi, 2009

And finally to the political landscape and Platon’s photographic portraits of world leaders: Eye of the Beholder: Platon’s Portraits of Power.”

Venetian Red in Ravenna: All That Glitters

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mosaic, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.


The Presbytery and Apse of San Vitale (constructed 526-547 CE)
(Photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

To stand in the presbytery of San Vitale in Ravenna is to be struck nearly dumb by the basilica’s dazzling mosaic program. Narrative compositions complemented by decorative motifs cover literally every square centimeter of the surrounding walls. Individual tesserae—in shades of turquoise, green, red, brown, black, white, and of course gold, glittering gold—skillfully placed, create a riot of color that magically blends into a gorgeous chromatic harmony.

The sheer physical grandeur of the space and its uncompromising sensuality is almost overwhelming. It’s an exquisite feast for the eyes; they strain to take in all the heavenly morsels.

Exterior View, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

But oh the morsels! The side walls of the presbytery contain Old Testament stories of sacrifice—on the one wall, Abel sacrificing a lamb paired with Melchesidek offering bread and wine; on the other, Abraham visited by angels in the valley of Mambre with the Sacrifice of Isaac. Each lunette created by these scenes is crowned by a pair of angels, holding a medallion with a cross and depictions of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles with their animal symbols.  The narrative program soars skyward to the cross-ribbed vault of the presbytery, which contains paradisiacal scenes of fruits, flowers, birds and angels. Appropriately, the four wedges of the vault converge in the center in a crown that encircles the Lamb of God.

View of Presbytery Arch
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Christ Medallion, Presbytery Arch
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The apse feature perhaps the most famous panels in San Vitale—on the left, Emperor Justinian with court and church officials; on the right, Empress Theodora, looking all the world like a goddess, surrounded by her court. Between them, a clean-shaven Christ the Redeemer sits with open arms majestically facing the congregation, flanked by San Vitale (accepting the martyr’s crown) and Bishop Ecclesius (who began construction of the church in 526) holding a model of the church in his hands.

Emperor Justinian with entourage, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Emperor Justinian with Entourage (detail), 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Christ the Redeemer, Apse, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Inside the triumphal arch that separates the presbytery from the octagon-shaped nave are 15 mosaic medallions—12 apostles and the two sons of San Vitale rise along the arch to meet Jesus Christ.

Presbytery Vault showing Lamb of God medallion, 526-547 CE
Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The artisans of San Vitale didn’t stop at the walls. The Byzantine-styled column capitals as picturesque as anything Romanesque, featuring crosses, vegetation and peacocks (the latter being references to Paradise). The floors too are covered with wonderful, though less colorful designs, inspired by Roman mosaics.

Capitals with peacocks and other paradaisical motifs, 526-547 CE
San Vitale, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Floor Mosaics, San Vitale, Ravenna, 526-547 CE
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

The mosaic program at San Vitale was meant to convey a single idea—the redemption of mankind by Christ. One cannot help but believe that Bishops Ecclesius and Maximian intended this awe-inspiring experience. Perhaps they reasoned that, if the attention of their congregation were to wander during a service, it should come to rest on instructive scenes of miraculous beauty. Thus, the mosaics of San Vitale served many purposes—they were a reminder to the 6th century world of the meaning of the Eucharistic rite, the glory of a newly-sanctioned religion, and of the idea that beauty is created by man in service of the divine.  Today, whether enjoyed within a religious or secular context, the art here is among the most beautiful on any wall in Italy.

Interior of Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, ca. 417
East Wall with upper lunette depicting apostles;
lower lunette depicting The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

Amazingly, San Vitale is just one of the eight similar buildings in Ravenna, many of which also house some of the best-preserved Byzantine style mosaics outside present-day Istanbul. The group also includes the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Neonian Baptistery,  the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Citing “outstanding universal value” UNESCO designated the group a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Good Shepherd, ca. 417
Mosaics, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Ancient Mosaics)

Dome Mosaic, ca. 417
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
(Photo © Breic, Flickr)

Not only are the mosaics an artistic treasure, but they have historical significance as well.  Three people responsible for the buildings—Emperor Justinian I, Galla Placidia, and Theodoric the Great—were key players in the drama that was the decline of the Roman Empire.

Ravenna and the Decline of the Roman Empire

Though Gibbon puts the fall of the Roman Empire at 476, in many ways the Empire was already declining by the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE). The Emperor divided the by-then unwieldy empire into a tetrarchy, ruled by himself and three subordinates. This only served to further destabilized the empire, making it actually harder to manage. Though largely a tolerant ruler, Diocletian nonetheless was persuaded to wage a series of horrific persecution campaigns against the Christians that lasted from 303-311.

Constantine’s Hand, Capitoline Museum, Rome
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

On the heals Diocletian’s abdication (305 CE) and dissolution of the Tetrarchy, the new Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (311) and proclaimed tolerance against the religion in his 313 Edict of Milan.  Additionally, as a strategic move, he established his power base on shores of the Bosphorus, building a new city on the ruins of an old, Byzantium. And though in the 4th and 5th centuries Rome was still the seat power for the Western half of the Empire,  she competed openly with factions ruling in Constantinople.

View of the nave mosaics, ca. 561
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Though historians now dispute the notion that Ravenna was ever the capital of the Western Roman Empire, there is no argument about her military importance in the 4th and 5th centuries as the first line of defence against invading Goths or about her administrative importance as conduit between Rome and Constantinople.

View of the nave mosaics, ca. 561
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
(Photo © 2006 Mary Ann Sullivan)

The Goths—divided into two main tribes, Visigoths and Ostrogoths—repeated attacked the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Forces led by Visigoth Alaric I finally succeeded in sacking Rome in 410 CE.

Ravenna Sidebar: Whether she went willingly or not, Galla Placidia—daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and sister to the then current Emperor Honorius—left Rome with the Goths. Alaric died shortly thereafter. His brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him and married Galla Placidia in 414 in an attempt to strengthen alliances in the Empire. Ataulf was killed a few years later, the Goths surrendered, and Galla Placidia returned to Rome as part of the treaty.  Her brother, Emperor Honorius, then forced her into marriage to co-Emperor Constantius III in 417. She was soon widowed. A devout Christian, Galla Placidia committed herself thereafter to building churches in Rome, Ravenna and Jerusalem, while exercising the duties of Regent (until her son Valentine III reached his 18th birthday).

The final blows were dealt in 476 when Romulus Augustus was deposed and exiled by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. Julius Nepos, the legitimate emperor recognized by the Eastern Empire (i.e. Byzantine) continued to live in Dalmatia until he was assassinated in 480.  The Western Roman Empire continued under Ostrogothic rule until Theodoric the Great was defeated by the forces of the Byzantine forces in 554, led by Justinian I.

Baptism of Christ, Cupola, late 5th century
Arian Baptistry, Ravenna
Erected by Theodoric the Great
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Ravenna Sidebar: Justinian (reign 527–65) took a leading role in shaping church policy. As an adamant defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he attempted to rid the Empire of the last vestiges of paganism and opposed competing Christian sects, including the Arians and the Monophysites.Justinian’s reign is further distinguished by an exceptional record of architectural and artistic patronage and production in Constantinople and beyond, including most famously Hagia Sofia.

In 540, the Byzantine general Belisarius conquered Ravenna, a critical step in Justinian’s campaign to reclaim Italy from the Ostrogoths. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Ravenna Bishops must have been thankful that their city had fellow Christian protectors. It is clear that various buildings received his indirect patronage (for propagandistic purposes?) or perhaps curried his favor. The portraits of him in San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo tell us so.

Portrait of Justinian,
Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, Ravenna
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

With Justinian, the Byzantines had effectively became the Roman Empire.  While Byzantine emperors never gave up the idea of reconquering Rome, as the centuries wore on, the Byzantine Empire declined in political influence and became more isolated from Europe. Still, as the mosaics in Ravenna remind us, at one time their power reached the glittering heights.

Wider Connections

David Talbot Rice—Art of the Byzantine Era (World of Art series)
World Heritage sites
Dante online
Bryon and Ravenna
PDF—The Art of Gold in Mosaics

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Many Marys of Piero della Francesca

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy.  This is the second of two posts on Piero della Francesca.

© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, ca. 1455
(Museum of the Madonna del Parto, Monterchi)

It seems only fitting to follow The Legend of the True Cross post with an entry on Piero della Francesca’s Madonnas. After viewing scores of 13th and 14th century Madonnas stylized in the Byzantine icon tradition, I found Piero’s Marys refreshingly human. I can imagine scores of the faithful loosing their hearts to these radiant beauties.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto (detail)

There’s a physicality about Piero’s figures, which derives I think from the artist’s sensitive modeling of light and dark, but also from the figures’ weighty stances and individualistic features—i.e. full lips, averted eyes, not to mention a very unusual pregnant belly.

Piero della Francesca, Mary Magdelene, ca. 1460
Fresco, 190 x 105 cm
San Donato cathedral, Arezzo)

Through these techniques, Piero managed to create an archetypal Virgin with attributes beyond the usual sweetness, docility, and humility. His Madonnas display an earthy strength and dignity, characteristics I believe that no artist before or after him equally achieved.

Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia, ca. 1460
Tempera and gold leaf on wood
(Municipal Picture Gallery, Sansepolcro)

Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of Misericordia
(detail showing The Madonna of Mercy), ca. 1460

Piero was greatly influenced by the Northern masters, and no doubt that is part of the reason he made his Madonnas resemble real people. I suspect, however, that years and years of looking at the country girls around him imprinted on his mind a particular female presence. And this he translated into figures of transcendent spirituality.

Piero della Francesco, The Annunciation (detail), ca.1432-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

One can be lucky to see most of the Piero Madonnas along small corridor between Arezzo and Urbino.  The drive from  Sansepolcro (Piero’s birthplace) to Urbino is especially spectacular. From Sansepolcro, Italian route SS73 climbs precipitously up the  towering Apennines. The views are thrilling, if dizzying at times. Once through the pass, the road descends into a picturesque valley populated by gently rolling hills, before arriving in the hilly environs of Urbino.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna of Senigallia, ca. 1470-78
Tempera on wood
(Ducal Palace, Urbino)

Wider Connections

The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca
Popular Images of the Madonna
Other Piero Madonnas:

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Masterwork of Piero Della Francesca

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During July Venetian Red continues to post on topics of interest in Italy. This is the first of two posts on Piero della Francesca.

© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Apse of the Basilica of San Francesco (Arezzo) showing
Legend of the True Cross frescoes by Piero della Francesca
and 13th century crucifix.

Arezzo seduces, especially on the first weekend of every month when the city hosts its annual antiques fair. Merchant booths are lined up chock-a-block along the streets that radiate downhill from the Duomo. One could spend many pleasant hours scanning tables piled with lace, jewelry, lamps, paintings, sculpture and house-hold goods.

Piero della Francesca, The Story of Adam (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Arezzo is also the epicenter of Piero della Francesca country. No antique dealer’s offering entices as alluringly as the Basilica of San Francesco, an otherwise unadorned 12th century church, which safeguards the Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. Ruined by centuries of moisture and crude repair, the frescoes were painstakingly restored and unveiled in 2000.

Piero della Francesca, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

While not as majestic a visual program as Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Piero’s Legend attempts arguably a more ambitious feat; that is, the visual interpretation of a single, highly-complex narrative. What’s remarkable about the frescoes is the spiritual power of the subject matter, which Piero manages to convey without the use of excess theatricality. Each scene is rendered with appropriate solemn majesty and yet the figures are, as Vasari reported “so well executed that but for the gift of speech they seemed alive.”  Nothing in my opinion comes close to the simple and earthy elegance of the human figures in the San Francesco frescoes (unless of course it’s figures in another Piero fresco). And though these faces were executed some five and a half centuries ago, they resonate fully in our modern world. It’s confirmation to Piero’s long-lasting appeal that many 20th century artists, including Cezanne, Seurat, and Giorgio Morandi, were explicitly inspired by his color palette and style of modeling.

Piero della Francesca, The Vision of Constantine (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Invention of the True Cross (detail) ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

After decades of scholarship, the details of Piero’s life (1415-1492) remain sketchy. Although well known in his own time as a mathematician and a painter, Piero’s reputation was virtually obliterated in the decades after his death, through the destruction of many of his works. In 1508, for example, Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of his frescoes at the Vatican (along with those of other great painters of the previous century) to make way for Raphael’s Stanze. Similar fate befell Piero frescoes in Perugia, Florence and Ferrara, to Ancona, Loreto and Pesaro. Given the relative paucity of extant work, it wasn’t until Roberto Longhi’s monograph was published in 1927 that the artist’s reputation as one of the greatest Quattrocentro artists was secured. (VR readers will remember that it was Longhi who resurrected Caravaggio.)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero was born and died in Sansepolcro (where the grand Polyptych of Mercy is on view in the Municipal Picture Gallery), a stone’s throw from Arezzo. He trained Domenico Veneziano and associated with Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Brunelleschi. Though he worked in Florence and Rome for periods of time, he never strayed far from Tuscany. He remained at heart a country painter; witness his predilection for the earthy features of country folk around him.  Man or woman, royalty or commoner, holy or not, these figures have, as John Pope-Hennessey described it in The Piero Della Francesca Trail, “a natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur.”

Piero della Francesca, The Annunciation (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Piero della Francesca, The Exaltation of the Cross (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

As the only extant Piero fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross is a precious gem. But it is the faces that provide the true sparkle.

Piero della Francesca, The Invention of the True Cross (detail), ca.1457/8-1465
from Legend of the True Cross cycle
(Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo)

Wider Connections

Restoration of Legend of the True Cross
Piero della Francesca: The Frescoes of San Francesco in Arrezzo
Judith Veronica Field—Piero della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art

Venetian Red in Tuscany: Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri

Posted in Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Site Work, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

Daniel Spoerri, Grass Sofa, 1985-93


Daniel Spoerri’s delightful sculpture park lies just past Seggiano on the country road to Castel del Piano. Filled with contemporary art, Il Giardino provides a refreshing respite from the days upon end one spends in Tuscany viewing 13th century altarpieces. Respite, that is, if one has the good fortune to find Il Giardino. Even armed with a detailed map and explicit directions, this visitor nearly missed it. The spider web of poorly-marked roads that criss-crosses the area easily confounds even the most experienced of navigators. On the verge of making what I was sure was another in a sequence of wrong turns, I noticed, less than 100 meters up the road, two large but tasteful signs announcing the garden.  And, of course, the entrance was exactly where the directions said it would be. . .

Spoerri (born 1930) was born Daniel Isaac Feinstein in Romania and emigrated with his mother to Switzerland in 1942.  The artist is best-known for his “snare-pictures,” sets of objects (such as table settings) found in chance positions, which he affixes together on boards for posterity. In fact, Spoerri has produced a wide body of work, which generally has its artistic roots in Dadaism.

He opened the garden in 1997, but it is still off the beaten track for English-speaking visitors (though German and Italians seem to know it). Think of Il Giardino as a scaled-down version of Storm King—a network of paths, fields, and forested knolls punctuated by about 100 pieces of sculpture. Spoerri is of course well-represented by perhaps two dozen works, including the 1991 very clever Circle of Unicorns and Chamber No. 13, Hotel Carcasonne, Rue Mouffetard 24, Paris 1959-1965, a full-size fun-house-like reconstruction in bronze of the room in which he wrote An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. But he has also filled the park with many other artists, most of whom, though well-known in Europe, might be new to American visitors. (Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, and Meret Oppenheim are exceptions.) Swiss-born Eve Aeppl is well-represented by scores of her “extraterrestian” busts, but the park also includes “one-offs” from artists like Roberto Barni (figures on seesaw); Olivier Lucerne (whimsical gaggle of concrete geese); and Italian Giampaolo di Cocco (astartling and sobering Ars Moriendi, which consists of elephant carcasses).

My favorite piece at Il Giardino has to be Israeli artist Dani Karavan‘s site work Adam and Eve. The sliced and gilded trunk of an olive tree creates an abstract pas de deux that speaks to deep layers of symbolism, which are all the more enriched by the work’s siting in Tuscany. Perhaps it was just that they had colonized my subconscious, but I couldn’t help but think of Adam and Eve as a contemporary echo of all those 13th century altarpieces.

Wider Connections

Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri
Daniel Spoerri images
Daniel Spoerri: Coincidence As Master

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Abbey at Sant’Antimo

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.


On the approach to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The road to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo descends in a steep spiral through vineyards, fields of grass, and groves of olive and cypress trees. On the way down, the abbey—which includes a grand but typically unfussy Romanesque church, its slightly leaning bell tower, and companion cypress—is always in view. The stunning approach heralds Sant’Antimo as the most special of places, center of its own still beautiful corner of the universe.

On approach to Sant’ Antimo.

If the view from on high weren’t enough, on the valley floor a pilgrim (whether spiritually or artistically inspired) is met with another breath-taking vista. The sandy-colored church harmoniously blends with newly-baled hay, as well as the light and dark greens of the grass and trees. The colors of the site speak powerfully to its ancient agrarian roots.

Sant’ Antimo must surely be the most picturesque site in the Val d’Orcia. It’s all the more amazing for having remained virtually unchanged for the last 1,000 years.

Sant’ Antimo—view from apse to the bell tower.
Note the animals and vine motifs, typical of the Romanesque style.

Legend suggests that Charlemagne consecrated Sant’ Antimo. Possibly he passed through the Val d’Orcia on his way to and from Rome for coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. Documents reliably confirm Sant’Antimo in this spot around 814, though in much less a noble form than the structure which greets visitors today.

Sant’ Antimo—Virgins and Four Evangelists

The 11th century brought an explosion of the monastic orders, as well as growing crowds of pilgrims eager to travel great distances in order to see relics from the Holy Land. As a result, extensive ecclesiastic building ensued. All over Europe, but particularly in France, Germany and Italy, Romesque style churches proliferated.

Sant’ Antimo is a fine example of the classic Romanesque style—it consists of a nave, lateral aisles, a transept in emulation of the cross, a main apse, and radiating chapels. Curiously, it owes more to the French than the Italian Romesque tradition.

Entryway, Sant’ Antimo

The abbey lies not far from the Via Francigena (also known as the Via Roma), one of the primary routes on which pilgrims and merchants alike made their way back and forth from Canterbury to Rome. Proximity to the Via (which passes between Siena and Viterbo, both nearby) would have invested Sant’ Antimo with a certain prestige as a popular stop on near the pilgrimage route. No doubt this is one of the reasons the original church was expanded and embellished by its Benedictine monks around 1100. Certainly, the Via must have allowed for French Romanesque influences to filter into this valley.

The sculptural detail at Sant’ Atimo contains motifs found in the Romanesque world—i.e. foliage (classical Roman tradition); geometric forms (from Celtic Christianity);  biblical or mythological animals (from the Byzantine world).   But some of the column capitals reflect Lombardi characteristics, betraying the multitude of cultural influences at work on the abbey.

Entryway, Sant’ Antimo (detail)

A thousand years after these masters finished Sant’Antimo, it remains actively in use. Taking refuge inside the church from the scorching Tuscan sun, I was greeted by the telltale sounds of liturgical chanting. Just in front of the apse, eight monks stood in two rows facing each other, singing their mid-day prayers.  I rested my irritated body and contemplated the elegance around me to solemn but mellifluous accompaniment.

Wider Connections

More historical detail on Sant’Antimo
The Community of Sant’Antimo (with excellent details on history and artistic elements)

Venetian Red in Rome: The “Restitution Room”

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , , on June 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.


Label in the “Restitution Room” at the Villa Giulia.

At the end of a long hallway in a wing of the Villa Giulia (Museo Nazionale Etrusco), sandwiched in between the Etruscan armament and jewelry displays, is a room brimming with Etruscan-era pieces repatriated from American museums. The large Euphronious’ s Krater from the Met is there, as are dozens of pieces from the Getty and objects from institutions like The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Princeton University’s Art Museum.

Euphronios’s Krater, Etruscan, 6th century BC
(Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Rome)

Except for the subtle note on the art work labels, there is nothing that advertises this space as a “Restitution Room.”  And yet, it’s pretty obvious that it was planned specifically to send a message (or two). Otherwise, it seems to me, MNE curators would have integrated each piece within its respective type in other sections of the museum.  Suffice it to say, there is no organizing principle that binds these pieces together, save for their shared identity as recovered pieces.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I visited the “Restitution Room” only  days after a new case had been filed in the Italian courts, this time against antiquities curator J. Michael Padgett of the Princeton University Art Museum. Readers will remember the recent trial in Rome of Getty director Marian True, who was charged with consorting with shady dealers to buy looted antiquities. Though five years old, the case has not yet been resolved. Nevertheless, Ms. True’s career has been completely tanked.

Curator Marian True (©New York Times)

I still can’t decide exactly what Italian officials are trying to convey through the organization of this room.  Is it a manifestation of Italian pride—a symbol that the government has been victorious over powerful American museums? Does it visually signify ultra-diligence on the part of the Italian government in protecting its people’s venerable culture? Or is it simply a well-aimed shot over the bow of the antiquities market, warning all of the folly of trading in illegally procured objects.

Whatever the true message of the “Restitution Room,” it certainly co-opted my thoughts long after I had left the Villa Giulia.

Wider Connections

“Museums into the Fray: The Marian True Trial”
Vernon Silver—The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece
Sharon Waxman—Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

Venetian Red Bookshelf: The Age of Wonder

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Science, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by Christine Cariati

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

William Blake, Urizen as the Creator of the Material World, 1794
title page, Europe, A Prophecy

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder is truly an exhilarating book. Richard Holmes deftly captures the sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world that inspired the explorers and scientists of the 18th century in their quest for discovery in the face of daunting hardships. The book discusses discoveries in the fields of botany, natural history, astronomy, meteorology and chemistry.

Undated portrait of explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806)

The Age of Wonder isn’t just about science, it’s about culture. Holmes illuminates the work of the scientists, artists and poets of the Romantic Age (1770-1830) and beautifully illustrates how these disciplines were intertwined. The book has a large and engaging cast of characters, including botanist Joseph Banks, astronomers William Herschel, his sister Caroline and son John, explorer Mungo Park, chemist Humphry Davy and doctor Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802).

Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, London

These scientists shared a romantic imagination about nature with poets like William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron—and Holmes quotes these poets to great effect in his text. During this intoxicating period of discovery, the writers and poets of the day were as intensely interested in science, as scientists were in the work of the poets. Many of these scientists and poets were also intimate friends, and a few of the scientists also wrote poetry, as did Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, addresses his speculations about evolution in his book-length poem, The Botanic Garden (1791).

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Joseph Banks, 1771-73
Oil on canvas, Private collection

The Age of Wonder pivots on the life of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who used his influence and passion for science to develop a culture in which the scientists and explorers of  the late eighteenth century could flourish. In 1768, Banks, as a young botanist, sailed with Captain James Cook on the Endeavor, making a three-year journey to the South Seas. One of the goals of this voyage was to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. Banks also brought back many botanical specimens from the South Seas and the eastern coast of Australia, many of which plants bear his name today. Upon his return, Banks became a life-long friend of King George III, who shared his interest in botany, and in whose many improvements to Kew Gardens, Banks played a large part. In 1781, Banks was knighted for his tremendous accomplishments as Director of Kew Gardens. Banks introduced many exotic species and planted over 50,000 shrubs and trees, transforming it from a rambling estate into a beautiful scientific and botanical paradise.

Camille Pissarro, Kew Gardens, the Path to the Main Greenhouse, 1892
Oil on canvas, Private collection

Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, a post he held for forty-two years. During his tenure at the Royal Society, he exerted tremendous influence on the work and careers of many giants of the age, including the astronomer William Herschel. One of the interesting points that Holmes makes, is that Banks, like Herschel and others, believed that science was best done by amateurs. For those without private means, Banks helped to obtain backing from King George III and other aristocrats who had an interest in science.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries
The first crossing of the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, 1785

While The Age of Wonder explores the link between science and poetry, it also has some interesting things to say about the art of the day. In his chapter on the invention of the hot air balloon, Balloonists in Heaven, Holmes talks about how this invention spawned the new field of meteorology. As well as inspiring the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, the Romantic Age fascination with the substance and beauty of clouds was influential on the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable.

J. M. W. Turner, Sunset, 1830-35
Oil on canvas
Tate Gallery, London

John Constable, Weymouth Bay from the Downs Above Osmington Mills, 1816
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There was also an overheated, excessive side to this romantic view of science—the idea of the solitary, obsessed scientist, willing to make a Faustian bargain with the devil in order to unearth the secrets of existence. Aspects of this idea were brought to vivid life in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written in 1817, when Shelley, the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was only nineteen years old. Shelley might have been partially inspired by the argument then raging about Vitalism, a doctrine which posited the existence of a Life Force that animates all living creatures. She was perhaps also influenced by accounts of  hideous experiments conducted by Giovanni Aldini to revive dead animals—and human corpses—by applying electrical current. However, in Shelley’s moving book, Frankenstein’s creature was a poetic, lonely philosopher, who laments his fate—not the amoral, wrathful monster of later plays and films.

Theodore Von Holst, frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1831
Steel engraving, Private collection

Perhaps we are approaching another golden age where the great minds of science and art come together, and science is once again viewed as a romantic adventure. In the meantime, I urge you to read Holmes’ engrossing and engaging book about the cultural impact of scientific discovery.  — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections

Interview with computer scientist and author David Gelertner on the interconnection of art science:

The Eye of the Beholder: Platon’s “Portraits of Power”

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Politics with tags , , , , on December 9, 2009 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved

Platon—Muammar Qaddafi, 2009, photograph (courtesy The New Yorker).

Since the early 1990s, British photographer Platon has enjoyed unparalleled access to personalities and potentates. Nowhere is his work with the latter group more effectively displayed than in the recent photographic essay “Portraits of Power,” which appeared in the December 7th issue of The New Yorker.  The accompanying blurb provides entertaining background:

This past September, when nearly all the world’s leaders were in New York for a meeting of the United Nations, Platon, a staff photographer for this magazine, set up a tiny studio off the floor of the General Assembly, and tried to hustle as many of them in front of his lens as possible. For months, members of the magazine’s staff had been writing letters to various governments and embassies, but the project was a five-day-long improvisation, with Platon doing his best to lure the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and Muammar Qaddafi to his camera.

For the few minutes available in this chaotic setting to prepare and capture an image, it was the photographer who held the true power. Absent were the endless preparation, preening and pretense of a more formal studio environment. In these spontaneous moments, has Platon managed to capture the true essence of his subjects? That often depends on the context in which the images have been displayed and the eye of the beholder.

It is not a mystery why Ahmadinejad and Obama occupy the first spread (in the magazine). I didn’t wish to read too much into the obvious difference in their format (the former was shot in color; the latter in black and white); and yet I thought I detected a particular glint in Ahmadinejad’s eyes. Was it bravado or just the germ of a new scheme designed to annoy the West?

In his portrait Boris Tadić (President of Serbia) seems to emit kind-heartedness and benevolence. But he’s been paired in the magazine presentation (though not online) with Stjepan Mesić (President of Croatia), suggesting an altogether different reading. I could not help but ponder their respective faces for remnants of the intertwined and unhappy history of their two countries.

Above them, perhaps as an intended counterpoint, Brian Cowen (Ireland) and Gordon Brown (UK) have been joined in the amicable grin of inescapable fraternity.

Most of the African delegation has been grouped together (again in the magazine presentation), and I wondered whether their individual expressions—laughing, pursed lips, eyes averted, and no apparent emotion—reflected the current outlook their respective citizenry.

As I scanned the online grid, one disarming thought predominated—for all their worldly power, these people looked surprisingly normal. Pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda) could be an accountant, except that he happens to be Africa’s biggest success story.  Adury Rajoelina (Madagascar) might work as an engineer at Google,  were he not the youngest President in the bunch, having come to power in a coup. Michelle Bachelet might be been someone’s very cool aunt; well, she probably is that, along Chile’s first female President.  In these images once again is revealed the paradox of the human face—i.e. in the countenance of one is reflected the multitude.

Sometimes the most disarmed was the photographer himself. Of Qaddafi Platon notes:

This picture was probably one of the most intimidating moments I’ve had in my life. . . Obama had just arrived with a huge security entourage and then of course Qaddafi chooses that moment to come and sit for me. So as he’s walking towards me there’s probably 200 people following him. It was just like a crazy,  intimidating circus. And then I start noticing that the American secret service guys who are guarding the steps of the room where Obama is, their eyes are darting around really really fast. They’re looking at each other in a very aggressive way, because they see this chaos coming toward them.  And he (Qaddafi) comes up to me completely in slow motion. . . He’s got no eyes, his eyes are so dark, I couldn’t see them.  I felt like I was in a weird dream.

Platon—Silvio Berlusconi, 2009, photograph (courtesy The New Yorker).

And, finally, there was my personal favorite, Silvio Berlusconi, for its perfect readability. No guessing here—the naughty smile of an impudent man!

Wider Connections

“Portraits of Power” Slide show
Platon’s Republica collection of 120 of the photographer’s works.

Venetian Red: Notes From the Field

Posted in Design, Liz Hager, Travel, Words & Symbols with tags , , , on November 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

In Notes From the Field, we highlight innovative, witty, and thought-provoking design elements recorded by our readers from around the world.

Signpost, 11/2/09, Perú. (Photo courtesy of Juanita Garciagedoy.)

Juanita writes:

The llama-crossing sign is on the road that goes through Reserva Salinas Aguada Blanca, a few hours from Arequipa, Perú.  The reserve is home to many species of plants, birds, and critters, including wild vicuñas and domesticated alpacas and llamas.  Tourists are only permitted to go there with a guided tour, and on our bus there were several Peruvians, and several Europeans including Mira, a Finnish adventurer and instructor of surfing and physical education.

I took a multiple shots of this signpost, but prefer this one for the sense of surrealism I derive from it.

Venetian Red adds: We like this sign for its multiplicity of information. While locals are cautioned about the road hazard, visitors are additionally alerted to the more poetic cultural message embedded in the sign’s image. You’re not in Kansas, Toto!

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