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there is beauty all around us

Month: March, 2017

THE GOLDEN MEAN IN CHURCH FACADES

Milan, 15 March 2017

Many years ago, when I first visited Italy, one of the things that struck me was the very flat facades which Italian churches had. In the Basilica dei Fieschi, the topic of my last post, we came across a typical example of the genre.

These facades were so different from the much more vertical and more articulated church facades of Northern Europe which I was used to. I throw in here pictures of la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Cologne Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey as examples of what I mean.



Much more than these facades, I find that the facades of Italian churches, with all those acres of flatness, can be quite boring, if not downright ugly, to look at unless something is done to liven them up. Consider, for example, the facade of the Florentine Church of Santo Spirito, which my wife and I came across in our recent visit to Florence.

I mean, look at that! It’s just like staring at a blank wall from your office window. Every time we crossed the square in front of it – which, given the location of our rented apartment relative to the locations of the places we were visiting, was quite often – I would comment disapprovingly on the facade’s drabness, its flatness, its total boringness until my wife finally remarked with a touch of asperity that I was repeating myself. But I mean, look at it!

Somewhat less flat but just as drab are the facades of those Italian churches – and there are many – which for some reason never got completed, initially because of lack of money, or quarrels about proposed designs, or the start of wars, or the break-out of pestilence, and thereafter simply through inertia. The facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, also in Florence, is an excellent example of this type.


Those rough bricks are just crying out for an elegant, visually interesting facing to be added. That, of course, was the plan. A competition was held, which Michelangelo won. His facade that would have looked like this.

He had gone so far as to choose the marble for the facade. But the Medici pope who was paying was short of cash. So Michelangelo had to choose a cheaper stone. Then the Pope died. Then there was a war. Then Michelangelo was called to Rome by another pope, and that was the end of that. There have been at least three attempts since then to complete the facade, the latest no more than a few years ago, but all have come to naught.

Of course, it is not automatically the case that a finished facade will look better than the original bare brick. Personally, I think that Michelangelo’s facade would have been a definite improvement. But that’s because I’m a fan of simplicity in design, and Michelangelo’s has all the looks of a simple design. Take a look at this facade, though, built more or less at the same time that Michelangelo’s wasn’t.

This is the church of the Certosa di Pavia, which my wife and I visited a few days after our visit to the Basilica dei Fieschi. This was a Carthusian monastery whose creation had been ordered by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. The church was to be his family’s mausoleum, and therefore had to be suitably magnificent. For this purpose, he gave the monks access to large amounts of funds which they could only use to embellish the church. So when the Carthusian monks started on the facade, only the best was acceptable, and the more, the better. To the fundamentally sober facade, a riot of Renaissance statuary and bas-reliefs were added, covering every square centimetre of the facade’s surface. Let me zoom in on just a few of the details.


Luckily, all this hue and cry in stone does not overcome the overall effect, which is really very pleasing on the eye.

Not so in the case of Milan’s cathedral.

Here, the statuary and other embellishments on the facade have gotten completely out of hand. The effect is not helped by the over-the-top statuary and embellishments having invaded every square centimetre of the entire outer envelope. All this gives one the feeling that the cathedral is drowning in white marble froth.

So where does this all leave us? Well, I suppose we have here yet another example of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean: we should always seek the middle ground between the extremes of excess and of deficiency. So in our case, neither facade-less nor frothy facade.

With this in mind I invite readers to go back to facade-less Basilica of San Lorenzo. What design could we propose to Florence’s city fathers? Let me immediately say that the obvious proposal of simply finally installing Michelangelo’s design won’t fly. This was there the very recent suggestion by the-then mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (who, fyi, went on to briefly be Prime Minister of Italy). This proposal was shot down, on the grounds that putting up Michelangelo’s facade now would be akin to making fake Louis Vuitton handbags (that precise simile was not used, I hasten to add). So a copy of an old design is out. Which is a pity, because I think that the facade of the Florentine church of San Miniato, for instance

or of Pisa’s cathedral

would both nicely fit the golden mean principle.

Personally, I think we should take our cue from San Miniato’s use of colored lines, although maybe to avoid the criticism of simply copying the past, we could adapt a more modern approach to line-drawing: a Mondrian style, for instance.

A follower of Mondrian’s actually adapted the style to a building facade, although in this case it was a very secular subject, a café in Rotterdam.

Given the ecclesiastical nature of our subject as well as its venerable age, I think we would need to go for more muted colours than Mondrian’s signature blues, reds, and yellows. Perhaps we could adopt the more muted hues of his earlier works.

If I had access to an app which would allow me to make architectural drawings, I would come up with a design to propose to readers. Instead, I will just leave it to their imagination as to what a Mondrian-like facade on the Basilica of San Lorenzo might look like.

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Facade Basilica dei Fieschi: my photo
Facade Notre-Dame cathedral: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_de_Paris
Facade Cologne cathedral: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/related/ma_cologne_cath_01.htm
Facade Westminster Abbey: https://www.colourbox.com/image/london-westminster-abbey-west-facade-image-3357405
Facade Santo Spirito church: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Facciata_di_santo_spirito_01.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_lorenzo_Facciata.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo – Michelangelo’s design: http://www.fiorentininelmondo.it/it/home/143-san-lorenzo-e-la-facciata-di-michelangelo.html
Facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.visual-italy.it/IT/lombardia/pavia/certosa/
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certosa_di_Pavia
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.settemuse.it/viaggi_italia_lombardia/pavia_certosa.htm
Facade Milan cathedral: https://www.pinterest.com/mayavnt/duomo-milan/
Milan cathedral from side: http://topsy.one/hashtag.php?q=DuomodiMilano
Facade San Miniato church, Florence: https://www.gonews.it/2014/09/23/i-monaci-di-san-miniato-al-monte-chiedono-aiuto-per-il-restauro/amp/
Facade Pisa cathedral: https://www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/it/amp/Cattedrale-di-Santa-Maria-Assunta-a-Pisa/
Mondrian: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/piet-mondrian-1651
De Stijl café: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/264727284317842292/
Early Mondrian: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/143392523

 

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BASILICA DEI FIESCHI

Sori, 6 March 2017

It was a grey day in Liguria, with the threat of rain, so my wife and I decided not to go for our usual walk in the hills. We opted instead to go to Lavagna. Non-Italian readers might well ask where on earth that is, and indeed Lavagna doesn’t make it into most guide books on Italy, or only slips in as a footnote. As for Italians, if they know it at all it’s because blackboards used to be called “lavagna” in honor of the fact that the first blackboards were made of slate and since time immemorial Lavagna has been a major source of good quality slate.

Alternatively, Italians could know it as one of the many seaside places in southern Liguria.

But we were going there neither for the slate nor for the sea and sand. We were going for a church.

A bit of background is in order here. Lavagna sits at the mouth of the Entella river, whose valley was the principal fiefdom of the Fieschi, a powerful family in Genoa in its heyday as a Maritime Republic (they lost out to another powerful Genoese family, the Doria, in a failed coup in 1547, and dropped out of History; but that is another story). As befitted any powerful Italian family in the pre-Reformation days, they maneuvered to have one of their own elevated to the papacy. Their efforts were rewarded in 1243 when Sinibaldo de’ Fieschi, younger son of Ugo de’ Fieschi count of Lavagna, became Pope Innocent IV.

(The Fieschi hit the papal jackpot again in July 1276, when a nephew of Innocent’s, Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, became Pope with the name Adrian V; alas, he died very shortly thereafter, in August – but that is another story.)

As often happened, Pope Innocent IV decided immediately to embellish the lands of his family with a great church. It was to be a Basilica, no less, and was to be constructed on a little knoll several kilometers north of Lavagna. It must have been constructed very fast, because in 1245 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II swept through the Fieschi fiefdom laying waste to all, including the Basilica.

Innocent IV promptly excommunicated Frederic II. All this had to do with the eternal squabbles between Popes and Emperors, Guelphs and Ghibellines, but that is definitely another story. Suffice to say that the Pope ordered the Basilica to be rebuilt, which his nephew, as Adrian V, managed to consecrate in 1276 as the Basilica di San Salvatore dei Fieschi before his untimely death.

We can leave History now, for the Basilica which my wife and I visited was essentially the one consecrated by Adrian V. By some miracle, there had been little fiddling with it in the centuries that followed its consecration. After getting off the bus and walking along some fairly nondescript suburban streets, we finally got our first full glimpse of the church, from the back, across a vineyard.


As befits a church built in a valley where slate is king, shades of grey predominated, no doubt enhanced by the greyness of the day.

We walked around the vineyard and entered a lane that led us through the small historical nucleus of houses clustered around the church

and into a delightful little pebbled piazza which sloped gently down to the entry door of the church.

It was as if a grey cloak had been flung on the ground in front of the church – no artificial leveling of the ground, just pebbles set in the earth.

The facade was a sober affair, grey slate with simple bands of white marble in the upper storeys.

There was little decoration, just a much faded fresco above the door and some simple but lovely little carvings along the edge of the roof.

The interior was equally severe and spare, with hardly any decoration.

This was more, I suspect, fruit of the latest restoration efforts which sought to rid the church of later additions than a reflection of what it actually looked like in 1276; I have to believe that the walls and columns were all frescoed back then.

The church was not entirely without decorations, however. Tucked away in a corner of the two little chapels flanking the main altar were an admirable crucifix carved from a cleft branch

and a lovely pietà made instead from a single branch

with the faces of Mary and Jesus barely breaking the wood’s surface.

Also giving onto the piazza was a smaller church.

Its creation actually predates the Basilica but its Baroque facade is the visual symbol of the original church’s complete restructuring over the ages. Beside it stands a palazzo of the Fieschi family built in 1196 and badly in need of restoration. With its white bands, its facade admirably echoes that of the church.

The piazza once had similar buildings all around it, but later constructions have taken their place.

We left the piazza by another lane. Looking back, we had one last glimpse of the Basilica.

As we turned away, we found ourselves in front of a door above which was a carved marble lintel.

It proclaimed:
HUC ADES
NON TIBI SUNT TRISTES CURAE NEC LUCTUS AMICE
SED VARII FLORES

With a lot of help from Google, we managed to translate this as:
“Come hither, friend,
Sad cares and grief are not for you,
But rather flowers of many hues.”

And indeed along the road back to the bus stop, flowers of many hues were beginning to appear, signs of the coming Spring.

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Photos: all ours except:
Slate mine: http://www.ardesiamangini.com/azienda.asp
Lavagna beach: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/57630010
Innocent IV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Innocent_IV
Frederick II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor
Church interior: http://artigullio.scuolaeformazioneliguria.it/3_beni%20architettonici/architetture%20religiose/Cogorno%20S.Salvatore.htm
Botticelli, Spring: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/

A WALK ALONG A VIA CRUCIS

Sori, 3 March 2017

We are down at the sea again and yesterday, in what is becoming a good habit, we went for a walk in the surrounding hills. Our starting point was San Rocco, subject of a previous post, but this time, rather than heading down towards Punta Chiappa, we turned left and headed up towards the summit of Monte Portofino. As I’ve noted in a previous post, trails up hills in Italy often become Vie Crucis, Ways of the Cross, with the fourteen Stations of the Cross set up along the trail. In the not-so old days – in my youth it was still common – local parish priests would periodically lead pious parishioners up such trails to “do the Stations of the Cross”. Given the subject matter, the death of Jesus on the Cross, Lent was a popular time. The group would move from station to station, stopping to pray at each one.
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With the precipitous decline in Christian worship in Europe, I doubt many people do this any more.

In any event, the Via Crucis which we were following as we slowly rose past houses and started passing through olive groves
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was not a standard Stations of the Cross, because it was enfolded in the story of Mary and was compressed to but a few of the standard fourteen stations. It started with the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and announcing to her that she would bear Jesus.
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It moved on to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, this visit being the source of that wonderful prayer, the Magnificat.
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It ended the cycle of Jesus’s birth with the picture – much beloved in Italy – of the baby Jesus in the manger.
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Jesus’s youth was then summarized in one station, showing him as young boy in the Temple, discussing sapiently with the wise old men there.
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Jesus’s years of mission were skipped over and we were fast-forwarded to his agony in the garden of Gesthemane.

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Then it lingered over two scenes of Jesus’s condemnation to death by crucifixion, his flogging

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and his crowning with the crown of thorns.
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It finally started into the stations of the cross proper, but squeezed the standard fourteen down to two. It showed Jesus carrying the cross
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and him dying on that cross.
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It moved on to the transcendent moment for Christians, Jesus rising from the dead
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and went on to his ascension into heaven.
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The stations finally returned to Mary, with her ascension into heaven at her death
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to finish with her being crowned by her son in heaven.
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By this time, the trail had reached the outer edges of the olive grows. After a pause to catch our breath and admire the view, we went on and up, into the woods proper.
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I like this rural religious art. I like its simplicity, its roughness, its genuineness. This art will never be sold at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. But I also like it because it means something to me beyond the art. Brought up as I was in a Catholic family, all the stations along that walk represented scenes that are deeply familiar to me. All those hours – and hours – of gospel readings fifty years ago meant that when I saw those scenes of Jesus or Mary I went “Ah yes, that story!” And of course I have the same reaction in most Italian museums, stuffed as they are with religious paintings made by talented artists for Italy’s Renaissance city slickers. Thus it was at the Uffizi, which my wife and I visited very recently.

Fresh from that visit, I decided I wanted to re-propose to the readers the thirteen stations of the Via Crucis that my wife and I had just walked along, this time using paintings from the Italian Renaissance and especially paintings by Botticelli – when I saw the first station, the Annunciation, his wonderful painting on this theme in the Uffizi immediately came to my mind. I have pretty well managed in my intention, straying only once into late Gothic and once into early Baroque. Here they are. Enjoy!

The Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli
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The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio
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The Nativity, Sandro Botticelli
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Christ among the Doctors, Duccio di Buoninsegna
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The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli
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The Flagellation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli
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Crowning with Thorns, Caravaggio
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Christ Carrying the Cross, Sandro Botticelli
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The Crucifixion, Andrea Mantegna
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The Resurrection, Sandro Botticelli
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The Ascension, Pietro Perugino
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The Assumption of the Virgin, Andrea del Sarto
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Incoronation of the Virgin, Fra’ Angelico

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Stations of the Cross in Domodossala: https://allevents.in/domodossola/via-crucis-per-le-domeniche-di-quaresima/179152335896297
Pictures along the trail: ours
Botticelli, Annunciation, Uffizi, Florence: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Ghirlandaio, Visitation, Louvre: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visitation_(Ghirlandaio)
Botticelli, Nativity, Columbia Museum of Art: https://www.google.com/amp/s/eclecticlight.co/2015/12/24/botticellis-unique-nativity/amp/
Duccio, Christ among the Doctors, Museum del Opera del Duomo, Siena: http://www.arts.magic-nation.co.uk/doctors1.htm
Botticelli, Agony in the Garden, Capilla Real de Granada: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-agony-in-the-garden
Botticelli, the Flagellation of Christ, Uffizi, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-flagellation
Caravaggio, Crowning with Thorns, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: http://www.jesus-story.net/painting_passion_christ.htm
Botticelli, Christ carrying the Cross, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandro_Botticelli_-_Christ_Carrying_the_Cross._1490-1.jpg
Mantegna, Crucifixion, Louvre: http://www.oilpaintingfactory.com/english/oil-painting-105710.htm
Botticelli, the Resurrection, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: http://christianityinview.com/jesuschrist.html
Perugino, Ascension, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_of_Jesus_in_Christian_art#/media/File%3APietro_Perugino_cat48c.jpg
Andrea del Sarto, Assumption of the Virgin, Palazzo Pitti, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/andrea-del-sarto/assumption-of-the-virgin-1
Fra Angelico, Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Uffizi, Florence: http://www.marysrosaries.com/collaboration/index.php?title=File:Coronation_Of-the_Blessed_Virgin_Mary_-_Fra_Angelico_081.jpg

I’LL NEVER SPORT A BEARD

Milan, 1 March 2017

My wife and I went to see a small exhibition a few days ago, on cartoons drawn during the First World War. They were from Italian, Austrian, German, and French magazines and newspapers and of course all showed the other side as stupid, nasty, brutish or all three (there were also cartoons against profiteers, censorship, international capital, and other sundry topics of interest to countries at war). All in all, they were interesting and sometimes really amusing – the short, rather stupid looking Italian king, Victor Emanuel III, was the butt of many a hilarious cartoon.
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This being an Italian exhibition, many of the cartoons focused on the Italo-Austrian front, but some of the German/Austrian cartoons also lampooned the enemy on their eastern front, the Russians. As might be expected, Tsar Nicholas II came in for his share of ribbing. The jokes about him were good, but what struck me looking at the cartoons of him was the thing that always strikes me when I see pictures of him, namely his beard.
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Such a great beard! The man may have been a dolt but he was well-whiskered, no doubt about it. Beards such as these were definitely in vogue at the time, as this portrait of his British cousin George V shows.
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If the hirsute young fellows I see about me on the streets are any guide, beards this luxuriant are back in fashion, as attested by this photo which I recently took of an ad in the Milan subway.
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Sad to relate, I cannot be part of this renewed fashion trend. My genes work against me. Were I to attempt to grow a beard, I would simply look like a mangy dog. My problem is that I have a significant number of places on my cheeks where nothing grows. I can’t even adopt that other novelty of male facial hair, an attractive stubble, like Ryan Gosling’s for instance.
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After several days of not shaving, I simply look like a homeless person.

I know I could manage to grow a mustache, having had one luxuriate for a year or so on my upper lip some thirty years ago. I thought I looked a little like Clark Gable.
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(My wife clearly disagreed and finally told me it was time for it to go.) I think I could also manage a goatee. So I sometimes daydream that maybe I could manage to look like my French great-granfather, a photo of whom lorded it over my grandmother’s living room. In it, he looked just like Napoleon III, who was Emperor at the time the photo was taken.
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Alas, a few years later, France’s armies were thrashed by the Prussian-led German armies and Napoleon went off into exile and death. For his part, my great-grandfather changed his look, as documented in another photo which lorded it over my grandmother’s living room. He adopted the short back-and-sides and soberer mustache of the enemy, looking very much like Kaiser Wilhelm II.
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I’m sure many Frenchmen changed their look at this time. Out with the foppish Napoleon look! The French needed to stiffen themselves with some Prussian iron to beat the hated enemy the next time round!

But coming back to my possible goatee, I think realistically the best I could manage would be something like this.
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Which is really pretty sad. Maybe I should just resign myself to being clean shaven for the rest of my life.

My wife would certainly agree.

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Cartoon Victor Emanuel III: http://milano.corriere.it/notizie/cronaca/17_febbraio_19/caricature-vignette-d64e1cca-f601-11e6-a891-35892eecc6d0.shtml
Tsar Nicholas II: http://pixelrz.com/lists/keywords/tsar-nicholas-ii-quotes/
George V: http://hotmonarchy.com/gallery/monarchs/qf_v1/
Ryan Gosling: http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/67828132/Whats-happened-to-Ryan-Goslings-beautiful-head-of-hair
Clark Gable: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Gable
Napoleon III: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Napoleon_III_cph.3c31393.jpg
Kaiser Wilhelm II: http://erhj.blogspot.it/2014_07_01_archive.html?m=1
Pathetic goatee: http://jefffsbeardboard.yuku.com/reply/159820/Re-21-yo-Am-I-just-screwed-Might-CP-Serum-help