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Orvieto clouds-resized2

Orvieto

In the center of Italy is Umbria, a green land of deep forests and medieval hill towns. One of the most dramatic of these hill towns is the small city of Orvieto which is located atop a volcanic plug of tuff.  Atop the taupe butte, the ancient towers and campaniles of Orvietto rise above the dark green hills.  One building stands out beyond the others, the Duomo di Orvieto which is universally acclaimed for having the consummate masterpiece of Italian Gothic cathedral facades.

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Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the Cathedral of Orvieto was commissioned by Pope Urban IV sometime around 1263 as a suitable place to keep the Corporal of Bolsena, a miraculous uhhh cloth which soaked up the miraculous blood of Jesus which spouted out of a miraculous host (the sacred bread) in the nearby town of Bolsena.  The Cathedral was begun in earnest in 1290 as a classic Romanesque basilica, however progress was fitful.  When Giovanni di Uguccione succeeded Fra Bevignate as principal architect (project manager?) of the cathedral, the design morphed from Romanesqe to Italian Gothic.  It was an inspired upgrade which incorporated the best of both styles in the breathtaking facade (which is said to have been the creation of the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani).

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Creation of Eve (probably by Maitani)

The Facade is such a masterpiece, with so many things going on, that it is nearly impossible to describe properly.  Wikipedia resolutely approaches the task by breaking down the individual elements as follows:

The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) of the Evangelists created by Maitani and collaborators (between 1325 and 1330) standing on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.

The bas-reliefs on the piers depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th-century sculpture. These marbles from the fourteenth and fifteenth century are the collective and anonymous work of at least three or four masters with assistance of their workshops, It is assumed that Maitani must have worked on the reliefs on the first pier from the left, as work on the reliefs began before 1310.

The glittering mosaics of Mary’s life which make up such an impressive part of the facade have been redesigned and replaced since the originals were installed in 1390. However the great central rose window is an original by Orcagna.  The widow is surrounded by statues of Apostles within niches in the manner of French Gothic style.

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Naturally I was unable to find any high-resolution photos that really do justice to this supremely complicated book of a building, but here is a link to a clickable high resolution image if you want to examine particular individual elements.

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Actually the interior of the church might really be the feature of greatest interest to artists, featuring exquisite murals by Fra Angelico and crazy violent “Antichrist” mural by Luca Signorelli, but we will address those another day. How much apocalyptic stuff can we handle right now?  Let’s just enjoy the exquisite outside of this Italian Gothic wonder.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

 

I’m sorry for the paucity of posts this month.  To mark the end of the somewhat disappointing two thousand teens (the teens? the ’10s? how do we even write out that decade?), I have been in a seasonal creative slump.  This brown mood might not be solely a reaction to the lackluster decade (and the troubling path of ignorance and excess which humankind currently seems to be set upon), but also a reaction to the death of my first artistic mentor, my mother’s mother Constance Fay Pierson (April 24, 1927 to December 7, 2019).

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Grandma has a competently written obituary in the Weston Democrat which outlines her life of education and travel (although sweeping stories of Somalia, the Congo, Kenya, Italy, and Indonesia during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s were obviously more thrilling to hear about in person). Likewise, the writer has indicated the primacy which family had in Grandma’s world by the simple expedient of naming everyone in her immediate lineage (although it is too bad that the pets Johnny, Flash, Muffy, & Pharaoh didn’t get a shout out, since they were family too). However, neither the obituary nor the eulogies at the funeral have done justice to Grandma’s creative and artistic life.  Since her encouragement, patronage, and teaching were instrumental to my own life path, I would like to share some of her lessons with you.

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The vivid beauty of the places she went was enormously important to Grandma Connie, and she was always remarking upon the unique characteristics of the clouds, the trees, the waves or the hills of a particular place at a particular time.  Grandma could paint and she made charming alla prima paintings of the places she went and the things which were most striking to her (I have included a picture of a North African dhow above and a road in Central Africa a few paragraphs below…but alas, I don’t know the dates).  She also had a deep love of the the sculptures of the ancient Mediterranean world, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and, above all, the paintings and drawings of Italy and France.  Since she lived outside Washington, we would go look at those works at the National Gallery or the Walters Museum when I was visiting her as a child.

Grandma showed me how she painted and she bought me my first real paint set at an art store outside of Annapolis. She made sure I had each of the fundamental necessary colors, cerulean, ultramarine, ochre, sienna, sap, Naples yellow, cadmium and alizarin red, white, and black…but when I also wanted a preposterous iridescent yellow with scintillant stuff in it, she bought that for me too.   It wasn’t so good for painting the Chesapeake Bay or the sky but it was great for portraying imaginary glowing dinosaurs or ancient divinities.

This was important because one of Grandma’s greatest talents was to see a boring hall and say”what if this hall was lined with suits of armor holding halberds and great swords?” or to look upon a squatly constructed house and say “it would be so beautiful if it had a cupola or a Gothic spire.” She could see things with her imagination!

Now nobody is likely to come along and build pagodas or widow’s walks upon the concrete & clapboard dime stores and garages of Clendenin, West Virginia, but the feasibility of such ideas was not necessarily the most important thing to Grandma. She loved the humor and the wild unpredictable joy of imagining such juxtapositions.

The secret key to endowing life with beauty and meaning is not necessarily lovely items or cross-referenced tomes, but observation first and then imagination–the rainbow-colored skeleton key which unlocks, well, everything.  In our world of store-bought imagination, everyone’s faces are glued to their computers & cell phones to see what color-by-numbers digital wonders Hollywood can whip up.  Grandma Connie always advocated looking at the beauty of the actual world, then, if such was insufficient for your amusement, she suggested juxtaposing it with fabulously dressed luminaries from all of world history or with amazing and beautiful animals.  If there was no actual ostrich just add one!

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At her funeral a stout bearded mountain man of West Virginia unexpectedly appeared and signed the mourning ledger. It was one of her students from when Grandpa was in Vietnam and Grandma was teaching high school French back in West Virginia.  He said “I never though of myself as a scholar, but Mrs. Pierson convinced me otherwise. I went to college because of her…and I majored in Romance languages!” Grandma would have been delighted to have influenced his lifepath towards scholarship, but she also would have been delighted by the unexpected juxtaposition of the man and the major.

We are going to need to mash a lot more unexpected ideas together if we are going to get anywhere. We need to make better use of our imaginations not just in art, but everywhere.  That is one of the major lessons of art!

I wish I could have written more about Grandma’s amazing life, or about the things we drew and talked about together.  I also wish I had told you more about her generosity, her erudition, or her elegance, but there is no time: I need to go draw some beautiful monasteries with the Tuscan moon…and some ichthyosaurs wearing feathered hats.  Grandma taught me that the beauty, significance, and grace of the past is never gone.  It lives on in art and can be summoned forth anew with additional creative enterprise.  The world’s beauty and the human imagination are both never-ending fountains of meaning and delight.  Thank you Grandma, for showing me his truth of art and life. Now to get to work on some never-seen juxtapositions to honor (and baffle) her spirit.

 

Cassini-2

Seven hundred million miles away the Cassini spacecraft is preparing for death this coming September (2017). Launched in 1997 (when I moved to Brooklyn) the joint Italian/American space exploration mission to Saturn has seen and done things beyond comprehension. Lifted out of Earth’s gravity well by means of a Titan IVB/Centaur It flew through the nothingness and slingshotted around Venus (twice), the Earth, and Jupiter. It discovered new oceans on Enceladus and launched a lander onto the supermoon Titan (the first ever landing in the outer solar system). Cassini was used to tested general relativity: the craft broadcast radio past the sun to the Earth so that scientists could measure how the star’s gravity distorted the electromagnetic waves. Powered only by pluck (and, uh, 33 kilograms of plutonium-238) the little probe visited 20 moons.
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But all good things come to an end, and this final phase may be the most dramatic. On April 26th the craft began weaving between Saturn’s rings and the top of the planet’s atmosphere. The image at the top is an artist’s conception of how this might look for Cassini. The second image is a picture of the enormous hexagonal storm at the north pole taken April 30th. The image below is an infrared picture of Saturn. Cassini is scheduled to make 20 more of these passes before its final fiery plunge into Saturn itself, so prepare for more mind-boggling images of the gas giant.
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Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Here is Andrea Mantegna’s exquisite tempera masterpiece showing the crucifixion of Jesus.  I am going to present it without much comment except to note that it is a high-resolution file so you can (and should!) click on it to see a larger version. By doing so you will be sucked into the disturbing, beautiful 15th century world of Mantegna where everything and everyone seems to be carved of some aristocratic stone (quarried perhaps from the Golgotha they stand upon). Tempera paint gives an artist the ability to paint with disquieting hyper-realism, but it takes away some of the velvety shadows and lifelike glow which have made oil paint the preferred medium for western art for six centuries.  In the hands of an all-time master like Mantegna tempera’s strengths and limitations creates an unearthly effect fully appropriate for the death of the savior.

A model dressed as Angitia

A model dressed as Angitia

The Romans borrowed most of their official pantheon from the Greeks–but the Roman canon of gods was large & diverse: other deities great and small sneaked in from a variety of non-Greek cultural traditions (like Charun the blue hammer-wielding Etruscan god of death or mighty Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, night, and the crossroads). Angitia was a goddess of serpents, snake-charming, magic, and healing among the Marsi, a Latin tribe who lived in the mountainous region of Italy which is today known as Abruzzo. The Marsi (whom I keep miswriting as Martians) were integrated into the original Roman alliance early on in Roman history and their language and culture was quickly subsumed by the growing republic, but Angitia survived in her original form through the long centuries of Roman hegemony. A great temple was built for her on the shores of Lake Fucinus (a large lake drained in the 19th century).

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

Although there is evidence that Angitia was originally a local goddess, the Romans found was to Hellenize her, and writers identified her as a granddaughter of the sun (and sister of the golden-eyed Cretan sorceresses Medea and Circe). Some later sources even equate her directly to Medea, who after all vanished in a serpent-drawn flying chariot after poisoning her children with Jason and Jason’s younger trophy wife.

Medea--Image from an Ancient Greek Vase  (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

Medea–Image from an Ancient Greek Vase (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

In classical antiquity, serpents were strongly associated with healing magic—and this became a particular specialty of the serpent-goddess Angitia. She was reputedly able to cure sickness and poisoning—particularly snakebite. Snakes obeyed her whims and she possessed power of life and death over them by merely speaking a word. The lands which had originally been inhabited by the Marsi also acquired a magical reputation and were alleged to be the haunt of witches, sorcerers, and supernatural beings.

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn't look super happy about it)

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn’t look super happy about it)

Even when the Roman Empire eventually blew apart and was replaced by Christian kingdoms and city-states, the worship of Angitia did not wholly vanish. Throughout the middle ages, Abruzzo was the site of “the Feast of the Serpari” a spring festival dedicated to snakes. Serpent charmers would collect local snakes in order to perform great tricks and shows while healers assuaged pains and illnesses. A statue of San Domenico was draped with snakes and carried through the region in a great procession, after which the snakes were cooked and eaten (although in today’s festival they are replaced with snake-shape confections and sinuous breads).

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.

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It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.

or even clothing!

or even clothing!

I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!

Man with a calabash pipe

Man with a calabash pipe

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

The House of Borromeo was an influential family of Lombardi aristocrats who ruled Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore (a long prealpine lake which snakes through Lombardy and up into Switzerland).   Various members of the Borromeo family played important roles in the politics of Milan and of the Catholic reformation (particularly as Archbishops), and even today they control a business empire with considerable wealth and clout.

The Gardens of Isola Bella

The Gardens of Isola Bella

More importantly, however, the Borromeo family was responsible for one of the world’s most impressive residences—an immense palazzo and exquisite formal garden which take up the entirety of Isola Bella, a small island on Lake Maggiore.  Isola Bella was once a rocky crag with a small fishing village on it (the whole island is only 320 metres long by 400 metres wide), however, in 1632 Carlo III set out to build a grand palace and garden on the tiny spot of land.  The climate of Lake Maggiore is uncommonly mild, and the Count undoubtedly was looking forward to cool summers and warm winters on his isolated retreat.  Not even rapacious aristocrats get everything they want however, and the villa’s construction was interrupted by a plague which broke out in Milan in the middle of the 17th century.

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The palazzo is just another enormous beautiful Italian palace filled with sumptuous rooms, art masterpieces, and precious treasures but the tiered baroque gardens are truly remarkable.  Exquisite Mediterranean plants thrive beneath a background of snow-topped Alpine peaks.  Magnificent stairs and formal statuary add additional splendor to the garden.

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

Although aesthetes might find it difficult to pin down the most remarkable feature of this remarkable place, we here at Ferrebeekeeper have an easier task.  The gardens at Isola Bella feature one of the most striking mollusk-themed rooms on Earth.  The shell grotto room connects the ten-tiered garden on one side of the island with the huge mansion on the other—it is literally the linchpin of the island.  The grotto was designed to provide a cool retreat from summer.  The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways are all covered with intricate murals made from shells and black pebbles.  So ornate is the shell-work that it took workmen and architects a century to complete the grotto…

A different room in the grotto

A different room in the grotto

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Leopard attacked by a Snake (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River.   He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery.  Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning.  Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years).  He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation.  During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle.  He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).

The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans).  His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones .  Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces.  The colors and patterns themselves are at war.  Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat.  The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered.   The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.

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Self Portrait (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes.  Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well.  Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.

Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period.  Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms.  Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times.  Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film).  However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes.  For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters.  To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.

Caccia all’anatra (Pietro Longhi, 1760, oil on canvas)

Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice.  Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery!  The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy.  Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.

Marie Adelaide of France as Diana (Jean-Marc Nattier, 1745, oil on canvas)

Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France.   Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana.   The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe).  Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.

Diana and Cupid (Pompeo Batoni, 1761, oil on canvas)

Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome.  Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid.  The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap.  The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition.  All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there.  Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.

(Simone Martini, c. 1324, tempera on panel)

Born in Siena, Simone Martini was a painter whose masterful technique, elegance, and narrative themes greatly influenced the development of the International Gothic painting style. Completed sometime around 1324, this is one of his masterpieces, a three panel altarpiece (with two additional tiny tondo portraits of holy elders of the church)  which illustrates the saintliness of Agostino Novello, a thirteenth century Sicilian nobleman and scholar who renounced earthly life after being left for dead on a battlefield. In an attempt to avoid public life, Agostino joined the Order of Saint Augustine–but a former schoolmate from the University of Bologna recognized him and informed influential bishops of Agostino’s learning. Agostino was dragged into the scholarly life of the church where he rose to become Pope Nicholas IV’s confessor and Grand Penitentiary.

Detail of altarpiece

By the time of this painting, some of the real details of Agostino’s life were being supplanted by miraculous stories, here arrayed in four small story panels around the central portrait of the holy man.

Detail of altarpiece

The stories are painted with delightful detail and elegance.  The narrative flow of each tale is immediately obvious. In the top left corner Agostino appears like spiderman, hanging upside down from a wall to revive a child who has been mauled by a creature which seems to be a cross between a Labrador retriever and a dragon.  The bottom left panel finds the renowned scholar swooping out of heaven to catch a falling child.  Continuing to the bottom right corner, Saint Agostino pops through a hole in existence to heal/resurrect a baby which has fallen from a badly constructed hanging crib (child safety seems to have been a major problem in Medieval Italy).  The top right story-picture shows Agostino aiding a praying knight whose comrade is trapped beneath a fallen steed.

Detail of altarpiece

The center panel shows the Saint standing serenely in a grove of stately trees which are filled with singing birds. He holds a book as an angel whispers divine truth in his ear—a lovely metaphor for scholarship.

Detail of fallen knight

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