Archive for Venetian Red in Italy

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.

By LIZ HAGER

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.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, ca. 1455
Fresco,
(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
Fresco
(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.

By LIZ HAGER
© 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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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
Fresco
(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

By LIZ HAGER

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.

By LIZ HAGER

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: Carpaccio’s Bequiling Portrait of a Lady

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER

Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1510
Oil on canvas,
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Vittore Carpaccio’s (1455-1523/6) delightful portrait of a Venetian woman is squeezed into the corner of an upstairs gallery at the Borghese Museum. She hangs on the same wall as Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man and Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna with Child, although not with them, as Borghese curators have sequestered her in a narrow space on the opposite side of the entry door. Despite the separation, it’s a fitting grouping, since the Bellinis (Gentile and Giovanni), as well as Massina, are widely considered to be Carpaccio’s artistic influences.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Man, 1475
Oil on wood, 30 x 24 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

An early Venetian Renaissance painter of the generation before Titian, Carpaccio specialized in narrative paintings of religious events set into scenes of everyday life in Venice. (Among his best known works are The Legend of St. Ursula and Life of the Virgin cycles.) Largely associated with the merchant classes of the city, Carpaccio never enjoyed aristocratic patronage or a prestigious official position, though he did receive a number of commissions from various scuole in Venice.

One must wonder if it was Carpaccio’s modest position in the Venetian hierarchy or his well-known crisis of confidence (around 1510) in the face of the radical innovations of younger artists Titian and Giorgione that has placed him in the echelon of lesser painters.

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero, 1473
(Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp)

Nevertheless, Carpaccio occupies an vital spot in history of Italian Renaissance art, not just as a chronicler of the city of Venice, but as a faithful reporter on the rising middle class. Long before the time of Guardi and the Canalettis, Carpaccio painted grand spectacles and elaborate ceremonies of the type that would define the golden age of Venice.

Vittore Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies, 1505

In his depiction of Venetian life, Carpaccio was fond of recording minute and exotic detail in a realistic style that betrayed the popular influence in Italy at the time of the Netherlandish painters. He brought that same attention to detail to bear in his portraits. As a result, they become intriguing windows into his sitters’ souls and superb records of the life of the middle class through their accoutrements.

Already unusual for her free flowing hair (recall the last time you saw a portrait of a lady from this period with her hair down!), which Carpaccio creates as feathery feminine delicacy, this Lady‘s jaunty cap makes her all the more appealing. Carpaccio demonstrates that a Venetian woman need not be outfitted in the sumptuous costume of the aristocratic class; through the rendering of her marmoreal skin he imbues her with greater exotic allure than any damask dress studded with emeralds and rubies could.

Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of an Unknown Man With Red Beret, 1490-93

Wider Connections

“Men’s Portraits of the 15th Century”
More Vittore Carpaccio

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.

By LIZ HAGER

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 in Rome: The Jewel in Rome’s Carolingian Crown

Posted in Architecture, Liz Hager, Mosaic with tags , , , , on June 5, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER

Apse Mosaics, Santa Prassede, Rome. The iconographic program consists of themes associated with the Apocalypse.

A stone’s throw from the madding crowds at Santa Maria Maggiore lies Santa Prassede, nearly empty the other afternoon when I visited.  Santa Prassede has all the attributes of its larger cousin but in a more intimate setting, which fosters a truly contemplative experience. (No tour groups here!)

Early 20th century terrazo floor (detail), Santa Prassede.

Santa Prassede occupies an important position in the pantheon of early Christian churches.  Santa Praxedes (Prassede) and Prudentiana were the daughters of Roman senator Prudens (first century AD), who was immortalized in a brief passage in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy.  Santa Prassede, like the earliest Christian churches, especially those on the Esquiline hill, was built on top of Roman imperial structures and, as a consequence, follows the Roman basilica plan (apse, nave and aisles).

The alleged pillar on which Christ was flogged before his crucifixion.

Though previous churches occupied the space, the structure in its current form was inaugurated by Pope Hadrian I in around 780, but it was really  Pope Paschal (817-824), who created the true glory of Santa Prassede.  At the forefront of the Carolingian Renaissance, during his reign, Paschal undertook two ambitious programs—the first, building new churches; the second to recover martyr bones from the the catacombs and distribute them throughout churches in Rome.

15th century tomb marker, floor of Santa Prassede

The mosaics date from Paschal’s time. The apse mosaics are a stunning example of the no-holds-barred Carolingian program—in this case, Christ flanked by Saints Peter and Paul who present Prassede and Pudenziana to God. Below them, is the band of lambs with the central haloed lamb as the symbol of Christ’s resurrection. For the care with which the sheeps’ fur and heads are depicted, I find this the sweetest of all the Carolingian elements.  Along the outer registers are numerous scenes, depicting others being welcomed into Heaven by saints.

The grand program is magnificent, but it is the tiny chapel of St. Zeno inside the church that qualifies Santa Prassede as a true jewel in my book. This is the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics and it was without a doubt the unexpected highlight of a day filled with wonderful art viewing. As the lights came on (as in all Rome’s churches you must feed the light meter), the sparkle of encrusted tesserae of turquoise and gold in this tiny space took my breath away.

If you are a fan of the mosaic art as I am, Santa Prassede is not to be missed under any circumstances.

Mosaic bust of Christ and four saints, Chapel of St. Zeno, Santa Prassede.

Venetian Red in Rome: Native Son

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note:  Summer being the travel season, Venetian Red is hitting the road. Christine Cariati holds down the fort in San Francisco, while Liz Hager files all month from Italy.

By LIZ HAGER

Michelangelo Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome
The upper source of light in the painting mimics the natural light from the Chapel windowbut what about the mysterious second source of light?

Though Michelangelo Merisi (1571—1610) hailed from the little village of Caravaggio in Lombardi, Rome claims the painter as its own. The Eternal City is already home to a dozen or more of the attributed Carravaggios, which are spread among its churches and gallerias. The current exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale has brought perhaps 20 more Carravaggios to the city.  In a world that contains perhaps 60- 80 authenticated Carravaggios, June was beginning to look like a month in which one might temporarily satisfy a life-long craving for the painter’s work.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome

Despite being a braggart, brawler and rogue (or maybe because of them), Carravaggio was an enormously popular painter during his lifetime. Given his lifestyle, however, he was dead at 39.  His reputation fell into neglect for 300 years, until Roberto Longhi single-handedly put him back onto art historical map. Longhi made a persuasive argument for the originality of Carravaggio’s charioscura technique and his influence on subsequent masters, including Gerritt von Honthorst, Rembrandt, Georges de la Tour and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci,

Carravaggio moved to Rome in 1591 or 92. It was tough going at first (lots of paintings of fruit bowls), but he eventually found work on important projects through the cultured and powerful Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte . (The Cardinal was also a supporter of Galileo.)

It was the Cardinal who in 1596 recommended the young painter for the Contarelli Chapel project (through Pope Clement VIII to project overseer Virgilio Crescenzi).  Nothing Carravaggio had done before the St. Matthew cycle approached the scope and power of this first public commission. The paintings are massive—the two horizontal paintings occupy most of their respective walls, right and left of the altar.

Venetian Red captures the Carravaggio viewing frenzy at the Contarelli Chapel, 5/30/2010

The cycle was instantly controversial, and one glance at any of the other typically Baroque paintings in the church will instantly convey why. As near perfect examples of the Carravaggio’s mature style, the paintings feature the intense light and dark rendering that paradoxically obscures the human form (that Renaissance artists had worked so hard to promote) and defines it in highly naturalistic way. In respect to the latter accomplishment, it would seem that Carravaggio was thumbing his artistic nose at then current Baroque and Mannerist conventions. Further to the probable annoyance of his patrons, it’s as if the primary subject of each painting is not St. Matthew, but the unseen, divine source of light.  The first version of  The Inspiration of St. Matthew was actually rejected (and subsequently destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in WW2).

Whew, that’s better.

There was a substantial crowd jammed in front of the chapel, but for a Carravaggio lover the wait to get to the front was well worth it.

Wider Connections

Carravaggio.com
Carravaggio: The Final Years
Jonathan Harr—The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

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