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Category: Italy

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

 

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

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.
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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
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Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi

SEA BEET

  • Milan, 11 February 2017

I’ve written much earlier about the culinary dowry which my wife brought to our marriage, a splendidly long list of Italian foods and dishes against which my contribution shriveled to nothingness. The columnn on my wife’s side of the kitchen ledger should have been even longer, though. I wrote that first post when we were living in Beijing and I drew up the list from memory. Now that we are back in Italy a good part of our time, I can closely scan the supermarket shelves to see what delights we have come back to. One of these is the vegetable known in Italian as coste, chard in English (often called Swiss chard, although there is absolutely nothing Swiss about the plant).
img_1857When I first tried coste all those decades ago, cooked by my mother-in-law, I was immediately struck by two certainties: the first, that I had stumbled across a culinary treasure; the second, that this treasure had never crossed my lips either in the UK or in France – neither of my grandmothers seemed to have been familiar with this worthiest of vegetables.

The wonderful thing is that the cooking method for chard which I prefer adheres strictly to my golden rule for all things in life, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Strip the stalks of the leaves. Boil each briefly in water. Then briefly fry each separately in butter (oil will also work). Serve. That’s it. Yes, you can add this and that, garlic for instance, but it’s really not necessary.
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The stems are by far the best. Cooking them gives them a delicate, slightly sweet taste that inexorably leads you to eagerly slip the next stalk into your mouth. They are addictive.

Readers looking on line will see that many recipes consider chard a side dish, to be eaten as a complement to something else. I disagree. They stand on their own, as a complete dish. If anything, the stalks can be the main dish, the leaves the side dish. Many other recipes mix it into soups or into quiche-like things or into pasta sauces. Forget it. Just eat them on their own.

I thought perhaps that with the broadening of the British culinary horizons over the last forty years I would now find chard commonly stocked in supermarkets. But no. I went on Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s websites to see what vegetables could be ordered online, and chard was nowhere to be found. I double-checked with a friend of mine in the UK and he confirmed that chard was not readily available in supermarkets (although he did note that his sister, who has a green thumb, grows them in her vegetable garden).

It’s funny, that, because the wild ancestor to chard is sea beet.
Papier beet
For reasons which will become clear in a minute, I also show it uprooted.
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Sea beet can be found along along the coasts of the UK more or less up to Scotland, so it is a plant that surely made its way into the British cooking pot very early on, when people ate whatever the local environment offered and when hunger was a constant companion. From a quick zip through web sites run by enthusiasts dedicated to recreating ancient recipes, chard was certainly eaten in Britain in Medieval and Tudor times (when it was called beet; Lord knows why the name changed). Take this entry from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball:
Beta alba. White Beets….the white Beete is a cold and moist pot-herbe…Being eaten when it is boyled, it quickly descendeth … especially being taken with the broth wherein it is sodden…
Beta rubra, Beta rubra Romana. Red Beets, Red Roman Beets …The great and beautiful Beet last described may be vsed in winter for a salad herbe, with vinegar, oyle, and salt, and is not onely pleasant to the taste, but also delightfull to the eye. The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad
.

(It seems that by 1597 farmers had already produced beets of varying colours – the earlier photo of uprooted sea beet shows that white was originally the only colour complementing the green.)

For some reason, chard seems to have fallen out of favour with the greater British public in later centuries. I’ve read that spinach, to which chard is often compared, could have been the culprit, displacing chard in the hearts of consumers. Naughty spinach …

The opposite fate has befallen another descendent of see beet, the beetroot.
beetroot isolated on white backgroundThe quote above from Gerard goes on:
But what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good.
From which we can gather that the root of the chard/beet was not eaten by Brits in 1597. But things changed somewhere along the way, for if the selection on offer from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s is at all a guide to general British preferences in vegetables, beetroot does now have a following in the UK. Perhaps the reason for this change of heart can be traced to the growth in the size of the root. Gerard’s illustration of the Red Roman Beet in his Herball shows it to have a pretty skinny root in his day, much like the root of the sea beet. Perhaps only when a myriad of farmers had patiently coaxed the beet’s root to grow mightily in girth did it become popular.

Not that the British have ever done anything very exciting with the beetroot. The best they have managed to do is to pickle it.
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That sweet-sour combination certainly seems to be a winning combination for the beetroot, and has been brought to a glorious culmination by “curious and cunning cookes” with the borschts of Eastern Europe. Every country from that part of the world has its own borscht tradition, but there is a commonality in all the recipes. Sauté a variety of vegetables including, of course, beetroots. Add stock. Simmer for a bit. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. The result looks something like this.
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Let’s not forget the leaves of the beetroot! Just as much as chard is edible so too are the leaves of the beetroot. Various Italian (and English) recipes show that they can be prepared exactly the same way as chard.
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And there is of course Gerard’s suggestion to eat them with “vinegar, oyle, and salt”.

This celebration of the sea beet and its offspring would not be complete without a mention of two more of its descendants, neither of which are normally eaten by humans: the splendidly named mangelwurzel, developed in Germany as fodder for cattle
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and the sugar beet, developed – also initially in Germany – from the sweetest of the mangelwurzels around at the time, as an alternative to sugar cane.
img_1866I’m not sure we should celebrate the sugar beet, since there is a growing consensus that sugar is a plague.
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Mangelwurzel, on the other hand, deserves to be given a big hand. We don’t eat it, but farm animals like to eat it very much
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(as do their wild cousins)
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and we like eating the farm animals. On top of this, mangelwurzel is used to make jack-o-lanterns in certain parts of the UK
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an art form that is surely worth celebrating.

____________
Chard: http://www.dimeoremo.it/pianta_da_orto.php?idorto=4
Cooked chard: http://blog.cookaround.com/peg930/bieta-a-coste-saltate-in-padella/
Sea beet: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/261719699_fig1_Wild-sea-beet-Beta-vulgaris-subsp-maritima-the-wild-ancestor-of-all-cultivated-beets
Sea beet uprooted: http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=142391
Beetroot: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/article/so-fresh-and-so-green
British pickled beetroot: http://m.tesco.com/h5/groceries/r/www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=272309421
Borscht: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#
Cooked beetroot leaves: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/allrecipes.it/ricetta/5137/foglie-di-barbabietole-saltate-in-padella.aspx/amp/
Mangelwurzel: http://www.naturganznah.com/shop/index.php?sid=x&shp=oxbaseshop&cl=details&anid=c7943302e125e3a84.49084479&tpl=&lang=1
Sugar beet: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/beets/sugar-beet-cultivation.htm
Book on sugar: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beat-Sugar-Addiction-Now-Cutting-Edge/dp/1592334156
Pigs eating mangelwurzel: https://hisandhershomesteading.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wild boar eating mangelwurzel: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/550643113-turnip-field-mangelwurzel-potato-field-pack
Mangelwurzel jack-o-lanterns: http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.it/2012/05/mangel-wurzel-confusing-vegetable.html?m=1

ART OVERLOAD

Milan, 2 February 2017

Whenever in my wanderings through the world’s art museums I come across pictures such as this one, a painting from the 1600s of the Austrian Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels
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I ask myself how on earth the viewer, in this case the Archduke, managed to really see any of the paintings he had put on the wall. I mean, when so crowded together like this the paintings just become wallpaper. I don’t fully comprehend the point of paying a multitude of dollars (or probably guilders in the case of the Archduke) for each of your paintings, to end up with an effect that you could no doubt get with a roll of wallpaper bought for a mere handful of dollars down at your local hardware store.

My wife and I had a very close-up example of this effect a few days ago, when we visited the Boschi Di Stefano collection in Milan. A little bit of background is in order. Mr. Boschi and Ms. Di Stefano got married in 1927. Two years later, they started collecting – and collecting – and collecting. Only after Ms. Di Stefano died in 1968 did the collecting peter out. The couple ended up with a collection of nigh on 2,000 works, all from contemporary, mostly Italian, artists. The problem is, they lived in a not terribly big apartment, cut up, as was the habit then, into a bunch of small rooms. No problem! They covered all the walls, everywhere, even in the bathroom, with paintings.

So my wife and I would step into these small rooms and have paintings pressing in on us from all sides.
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In my case at least, my eyes would dart from side to side and up and down, with my brain nervously asking “where do I start?” It took an effort of will to pick out one painting among the masses crying out for attention and just focus on that one for a few minutes, before repeating the process with the next one. Most exhausting.

It was worth the effort, though, for one thing that struck me as I waded through all the paintings was how atypical many of the pieces in the apartment were. Take Lucio Fontana. I’m sure everyone has in mind a “typical” Fontana: this one, for instance
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where he elegantly slits a blank canvas, or this one

where he perforates the canvas instead. The apartment had a number of these, but it also had this
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a type of abstraction which I personally had never seen in Fontana.

Or take Giorgio De Chirico. Again, a “typical” painting associated with De Chirico will look like this.

Melancholia
But the apartment instead had this painting by De Chirico. It depicts a gladiator school.
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Not a style I would have associated with De Chirico.

Or how about Giorgio Morandi who you would think, based on the examples you see in museums, just painted bottles like these ones, over and over again.
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The apartment, while also having a bottle painting by Morandi, had a couple of landscapes by him.
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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a landscape painted by Morandi.

I finish with Enrico Baj, a painter who frankly I dislike. His “typical” painting is something like this.
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This is his leitmotif: grotesque persons, repeated over and over again, as nauseam. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw this Baj in the apartment!
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More different than from his “normal” style you cannot get.

There were some other interesting pieces in the apartment. This piece, for instance, by one of the Italian Futurists (I forgot to note the name).
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Normally, I’m a little wary of the Futurists since they seem to all have been enthusiastic Fascists (and in fact this painting is dated the Fascist way, “IX”, the ninth year of the Fascist Era), but this painting charmed me.

The couple did not only collect paintings. They also collected sculpture. This piece particularly caught my attention.
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Happenstance has split the head in a most arresting manner. The label described it as 4th-5th Century AD, so presumably late Roman. Yet, looking at the cut of the eye and the shape of the nose, it didn’t look Roman. To my untrained eye, there seemed to be a stylistic resemblance to the Indo-Greek art which was produced in Ghandara, Afghanistan. Where did our collecting couple find this, I wonder?

The couple did not just collect, they also created. Ms. Di Stefano was an accomplished ceramicist in her own right, and the apartment holds a number of her pieces, among them these delightful little fish dishes
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as well as this horse and rider.
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Yes, it was all lovely, but really too overpowering. We staggered thankfully out of the apartment, walked down the stairs (themselves a nice example of 1930s architecture, as is the whole building)
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and repaired to the nearest bar for a well-earned drink.

_________________
David Deniers the Younger, The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery:

Room in the Boschi Di Stefano apartment: http://www.mondorosashokking.com/L’Arte-Di-Vista-Da/La-Casa-Museo-Boschi-Di-Stefano/
Room in Boschi Di Stefano apartment: http://www.nuok.it/milan/perle-nascoste-nel-centro-di-milano-le-case-museo-12/
Lucio Fontana, Musée d’art Contemporain: http://www.scoop.it/t/art-by-artpaintingparis/p/4030868868/2014/10/31/a-paul-klee-painting-in-paris-art-painting-paris
Lucio Fontana, perforations, Tate: https://www.pinterest.com/addison1235/lucio-fontana/
Lucio Fontana in apartment: my photo
Giorgio De Chirico: https://www.pinterest.com/emiliorossipapa/giorgio-de-chirico/
Giorgio de Chirico in apartment: my photo
Giorgio Morandi: https://www.pinterest.com/raulmihaiadd/giorgio-morandi/
Giorgio Morandi in apartment: my photo
Enrico Baj: https://alchetron.com/Enrico-Baj-760060-W
Enrico Baj in apartment: my photo
Futurist in apartment: my photo
Head in apartment: my photo
Ceramic pieces in apartment: my photos
Stairwell of building: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/milanostupenda.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/le-case-museo-di-milano-boschi-di-stefano/amp/

AMERICA MEETS ITALY

Milan, 31 January 2017

Over the weekend, my wife and I took a train up to Varese, to the north of Milan. The objective of our little trip was the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, situated on the hills of Biumo in what were once the outskirts of the city. Built originally in the 1750s and extended in the 1830s, the Villa is a nice example of Baroque with some Rococo thrown in.
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The gardens, formal in design but with a dash of English informality, are very pleasant to walk around, even at this time of the year.
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But what had drawn us here was not so much the Villa itself as its collection of American contemporary art. By one of those strange quirks of history which make life so interesting, its last owner, the most Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Buimo, had developed a passion for contemporary American art, collecting feverishly from the mid-1950s through to the early 2000s. Much of the collection is now dispersed in museums. Many American museums, for instance – notably the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York – either bought or were grateful recipients of important chunks of Count Panza’s vast collection.

So here we were, in this Baroque-Rococo setting, taking in pieces from the very latest waves of art. It made for an interesting clash of perspectives.
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But actually, the most interesting part of the Villa’s collection is housed in what were once the stables and carriage house, a building which has been stripped of any of its historical context: bare white walls and floors, nothing more. Works by Dan Flavin, famous for his installations made with fluorescent lights, predominate. Walking down the long corridor of this building, we found ourselves awash in the primary colors emanating from the many rooms leading off the corridor.
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Each room houses one piece, like this one.
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The colors are strong, almost blinding. My wife and I preferred by far this much quieter piece, housed in an almost black room.
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As we advanced down the corridor, there was this luminous half-moon at the end. Was it another Dan Flavin, I wondered?

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No, it was a piece by James Turrell, foremost exponent of the Light and Space movement. The artist had simply removed a piece of the external wall and what we were seeing was the blue winter sky. In a room off the corridor was another of his pieces, this time a square hole in the ceiling. We were gazing up at the winter sky, yet without any sensory clues such as clouds or trees it seemed to be an abstract painting
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one where the intensity of the blue varied as we moved around the room.
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It was a singularly beautiful experience.

Turrell has another piece in the Villa, an example of his earlier work exploring sensory deprivation. A small group of us stood in a room where corners had been eliminated and were bathed in light of varying colors, giving rise to optical illusions.
img_1774
By another of those quirks which make life so interesting, my wife, not knowing what awaited us at the Villa, had recently booked us a slot for a session in a similar installation by Turrell at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, when we go and visit our daughter next month. This will give us a chance to see the other pieces which Count Panza sold to the museum, like these Rothkos for instance.
img_1775
At the risk of being accused of frivolity, I feel I must report on another meeting of US and Italy which we experienced that same day. After the visit, we walked down the hill and repaired to a place called Hambù for lunch. This is a case of American fast food meets Italian design.
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Or, as Hambù’s web-site breathlessly puts it, “We are not talking about the usual meat patty between two pieces of bread and sauces, but rather of a gastronomic challenge: the radical revolution of the sandwich.”

One more example of the wonderful things that can happen when cultures meet and mix. The new American president and his acolytes should take note.

_______________
Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, exterior: http://www.shoppingandcharity.it/en/magazine/villa-panza-between-history-and-contemporary-art
Villa interior: http://www.latitudeslife.com/2010/06/dividere-il-vuoto-a-villa-panza-va/
Villa gardens: http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/villa-panza/
Villa interior with art: http://dogma-art.com/giuseppe-panza-collection/
Villa interior with art: http://www.flashartonline.it/article/giuseppe-panza-di-biumo/
Dan Flavin: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/gupansh.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/villapanza/amp/
Dan Flavin: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/gupansh.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/villapanza/amp/
Dan Flavin: http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/villa-panza/
James Turrell, half moon: my picture
James Turrell, sky painting: my picture
James Turrell, room: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/arts/design/panza-villa-exhibits-illusionary-works.html?_r=0&referer=https://www.google.co.uk/
LA MOCA, Rothko: http://www.panzadiscoveringinfinity.com/the-story/
Hambù: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/apostrofoio.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/hambu-di-varese/amp/
Hambù set table: https://www.tripadvisor.com.ph/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g194942-d7294471-i155563419-Hambu-Varese_Province_of_Varese_Lombardy.html

VILLAGES CLINGING TO THE MOUNTAINSIDE

Milan, 25 January 2017

We were down at the seaside a week ago and, as is our wont, we went for a walk. The walk we chose this time was one we had last taken thirty or more years ago. It’s the walk which links le Cinque Terre, the Five Lands, five coastal villages occupying a very rugged piece of the coast in southern Liguria. The Cinque Terre have become very famous in these intervening years and we were reading online that hordes of tourists descend on these five luckless villages during the summer. Luckily, the tourist flow has slowed to a trickle by the middle of January. We passed hardly anyone as we walked between the villages of Vernazza and Corniglia (the only part of the full walk we did this time). One or two youngsters galloped past us; otherwise, we met and walked for a while with a very nice couple from Chile, retirees like us, who were coming to the end of a long tour of Europe.

Vernazza

Vernazza

Corniglia

Corniglia

As readers can see, especially in the picture of Corniglia, the villages of the Cinque Terre are clinging on for dear life to rugged slopes that fall pretty much sheer into the sea. This is a photo of Manarola, the next village down
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and Riomaggiore, the furthest south of the five villages.
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I love villages like these that seem to spill down a slope. They always remind me of a tumbled pile of children’s blocks
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(or perhaps like this when the villagers in question get into adventurous architecture)
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Italy seems to have many such villages, but a quick surf around the net threw up a number of other examples. There’s this village, for instance, the village of Peillon in France’s Maritime Alps.
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There’s Oia, on the Greek island of Santorini.
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Even further afield, there’s the village of Al Hajjarah in Yemen.
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These villages are lovely to look at from a distance, but their real beauty is to be found close up. The steep terrain, the building of houses close together, means that these villages are full of winding alleys and stairways disappearing around a corner
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leading you on to discover quiet corners.
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And no cars! Cars, the cancer of our cities … I dream of the day when they are banned from cities, where all cities are like Venice
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where people own the roads rather than cower on pavements, keeping themselves and their children safe from these one-ton steel monsters hurtling down the streets, bringing death and destruction to anyone foolish enough to step off the pavement at the wrong moment.

There, I’ve had my little rant against cars. Feel much better.

__________________
Vernazza: https://www.incinqueterre.com/en/photo-galery
Corniglia: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/foto/corniglia-cinque-terre-italy-fotografie-stock/543796033
Manarola: http://robgreebon.photoshelter.com/gallery/Cinque-Terre-Images-Manarola-Riomaggiore-Vernazza-Corniglia-and-Monterosso-al-Mare/G0000Zi9yrR4QNtA/
Riomaggiore: http://hdr.name/cinque-terre-riomaggiore-manarola-monterosso-vernazza-corniglia/
Children’s blocks: https://www.walmart.com/search/?query=Wooden%20Childrens%20Blocks&oid=223073.1&wmlspartner=TQiP6m79tRs&sourceid=08842105053019505796&affillinktype=10&veh=aff&cat_id=0
Children’s blocks: http://affordableluxuryblog.com/2011/11/ten-wooden-toys-that-children-will-love-to-get/
Peillon: http://www.beyond.fr/villages/peillon.html
Oia, Santorini: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/santorinidave.com/santorini-photos-and-travel-info/amp
Al Hajjarah, Yemen: http://jobpakistanforfree.blogspot.it/2016/01/top-10-amazing-towns-on-cliff-tops.html?m=1
Lane in Greece: http://www.jackthedriver.com/services.asp
Alleyways in Positano: http://www.jackthedriver.com/services.asp
Lanes in Santorini: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/435582595180183853/
Venice street: http://www.charmingitaly.com/it/article/24-ore-a-venezia

PICASSO AND MY ADOPTED VILLAGE

Sori, 17 January 2017

In the little Ligurian village of Sori which we go to often, there is a charming steep lane which has the great advantage of being closed to cars.
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One house on this lane sports the following plaque.
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It reads (in translation): “In this house was born Tommaso Picasso, great-grandfather of the famous artist Pablo”.

Well! This is enough to make my breast swell with pride for my adopted village-by-the-sea! Admittedly, the connection is a bit remote; I mean, it’s only a great-grandfather of the great Pablo, and on top of that he left the village, no doubt as a sailor, some 200 years ago, eventually settling in Malaga in Spain. Nevertheless, the village can justly lay claim to a modest place in world history.

Although Picasso did research his family roots and knew that at least one part of his DNA came from this part of Italy (Picasso is a common name in Liguria), I’m almost certain that he never visited the village; it wasn’t until quite recently that a local historian dug out Tommaso’s birth certificate and nailed down the place of his birth. That being said, if Pablo Picasso had come here I’m sure he would have been proud of the village’s artistic talents.

For instance, I can well imagine that he would have had a tolerant smile for the parish church’s neo-baroque frescoes
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and paintings.
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This observation of mine might well surprise readers, since we know Picasso as a giant of cubism
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and surrealism.
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But he refused to be pigeonholed, and painted in many other styles during his long life. For a while, there was a strong strand of realism in his work, although he adopted more neoclassical conventions, in contrast to the Baroque froth we have in the village church. Here are a couple of pieces from this neoclassical period, his son Paul dressed as a harlequin
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and The Lovers.
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But his early Blue Period also has some lovely pieces of more traditional representational art, this Old Guitarist for instance.
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He also had a fascination for monumental women, like this Three Women at the Spring.
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I’m sure, too, that Picasso would have delighted in the trompe l’oeil decorations which are so common on the houses of Liguria and of which this is an example from that same lane where his great-grandfather was born.
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He was into this kind of fancifulness, as these few examples of his ceramics attest.
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Picasso no doubt would also have been well disposed to the clever villager who has decorated his parabolic dish with a nice marine scene.
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Although Picasso doesn’t seem to have painted on made objects like our friend has done, he did make a number of sculptures where he painted on formed metal and other materials. For instance, there is this lovely Head of a Woman, which is painted steel
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while this piece, Friendship, is a composite of various painted materials.
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As for marine scenes, as a man of the Mediterranean Picasso painted a number over the years. I throw in this one, Ulysses and the Sirens.
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What would Picasso have thought of these scenes painted by the children of the local artistic cultural association? They use the walls of the underpass at the village railway station as their canvas, and every year each new batch of students repaints the whole thing. This is a sampling of the current contribution.
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He might have approved. After all, he once pronounced, “All children are artists.” On the other hand, he might have been thinking of the art of younger children, like this picture drawn by my son when he was six-seven,
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art which has not yet been “contaminated” by formal art teaching. In the quote I cite above, Picasso goes on to say, “The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up.” He also once said, “At eight, I was Raphael. It took me a whole lifetime to paint like a child.” This Dance of Youth is a nice example of Picasso “painting like a child”.
img_1621 In fact, in front of pieces like this, my son whom I have mentioned above tends to mutter “I could do that” (to which my reply always is, “well, why don’t you? you might be able to make millions.”)

I’m not sure what Picasso would have thought of the graffiti art which some naughty boys have painted in dark and quiet corners of the village.
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Graffiti artists certainly think he would have approved
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and some have shamelessly copied his style – or rather, one of his many styles.
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Picasso was certainly very open-minded to artistic trends, so who knows, he might indeed have given graffiti artists his blessing.

The really naughty boys have also sprayed this type of graffiti in the darkest corners of the village (a graffiti found everywhere in Italy).
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I think Picasso would have laughed heartily; he drew some pretty naughty pictures himself, as attested by this drawing of Raphaël and his mistress la Fornarina in the throes of lovemaking, with the Pope looking on (one of a long series of drawings all obsessively on the same topic).
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Well, that was a nice tour of both the village and of Picasso. I will admit that it has sometimes been a strain to draw parallels between the art of the village and Picasso’s, but it’s been fun trying.

______________
All pictures mine, except as follows:
Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/cubism/
Picasso, On the Beach: http://www.pablopicasso.org/on-the-beach.jsp
Picasso, Paul en Arlequin: http://aragon.lehoulme.free.fr/spip.php?article528
Picasso: The Lovers: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46667.html
Picasso, Old Guitarist: http://xboxhut.com/monochromatic-painting-picasso-for-house/monochromatic-painting-picasso-transitional-compact/
Picasso, Three women at the spring: http://www.pablopicasso.org/three-women-at-the-spring.jsp
Picasso, decorated plate: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.1stdibs.com/amp/creators/pablo-picasso/furniture/wall-decorations/
Picasso, decorated vase-1: http://antiquesandartireland.com/2013/03/auction-ceramics-picasso-2/
Picasso, decorated vase-2: http://www.antique-collecting.co.uk/picasso-ceramics-at-sothebys/
Picasso, Head of a woman: https://richedwardsimagery.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/picasso-sculpture-exhibition-the-museum-of-modern-art-new-york-new-york-usa/
Picasso, Friendship: http://www.michaelallen.org/cubism-sculpture/
Picasso, Ulysses and the Sirens: http://www.arretetonchar.fr/ulysse-et-les-sirènes-pablo-picasso/
Picasso, Dance of Youth: http://www.leninimports.com/pablo_picasso_dance_youth_print_14a.html
“Picasso loves graffiti”: https://www.behance.net/gallery/5454681/Graffiti-State-of-Mind
Graffiti, Toronto: https://www.theconstantrambler.com/toronto-street-art-photo-tour/
Picasso, Raphaël et la Fornarina XI: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/pablo-picasso-raphael-et-la-fornarina-xi-5489080-details.aspx

AMBROGIO DA FOSSANO DETTO IL BERGOGNONE

Milan, 13 December 2016

A week or so ago, I had an appointment just off Milan’s corso Garibaldi, to discuss a possible presentation that I could make on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how companies could incorporate them into their CSR programmes. Since I had grossly overestimated the time it would take for me to walk there, I found myself at the meeting place with half an hour to spare. Looking around for some way to kill time, I spied a venerable-looking church across the road and decided to go and have a peek, to see what hidden treasures it might contain (every church in Italy beyond a certain age – 250 years, say – contains treasures to be discovered).

The church in question was the Basilica di San Simpliciano. As its title of basilica suggests, this is a very venerable church indeed. It was one of four basilicas wanted by the great Saint Ambrose, Doctor of the Church and bishop of Milan from 374 to his death in 397 AD.
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Ambrose planned to have one such basilica on each of the four main roads leading out of Roman Milan.

The church was completed by his successor, Saint Simpliciano, who also had himself buried here; his bones have been venerated ever since, lying under the main altar but now clothed and masked – a skeleton is not quite the thing anymore.

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Unfortunately, very little of this original church remains. I say unfortunately because I happen to be very fond of early Christian mosaics. I’m sure the church’s interior would have been covered in mosaics like the one whose photo I give above, itself a mosaic shard which has survived because tucked away in an obscure corner of an even more venerable Milanese church, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. Cluniac Benedictines took over San Simpliciano in the 800s, and by the 1200s they had completely renovated the church in the styles then all the rage, Romanesque with a little bit of early Gothic. These styles have stamped themselves on the church’s exterior appearance.
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Unfortunately, hardly anything remains of this period’s internal decorations. One imagines that the walls would all have been frescoed; all that is left is this hand raised in benediction, tucked away in some obscure corner of the church.
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Thereafter, with each passing artistic phase various alterations were made, in the process destroying the harmony of the whole. Here, for instance, a side chapel in the Baroque mode was added.

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To all this was added more obvious vandalism. The church and the adjoining cloisters were turned into barracks by the occupying troops of Revolutionary France; no doubt the church was turned into stables for the troops’ horses (a fate common to many churches, it would seem). I’m sure the French soldiers would have taken pleasure in destroying the church’s decorations, much as ISIS troops have taken pleasure in sledgehammering and dynamiting every non-Islamic work of art that has fallen under their control, and much as Mao’s Revolutionary Guards took pleasure in smashing anything they could lay their hands on from Old China. But bad as all this was, the nadir for San Simpliciano was the 1820s, when some artist who will remain unnamed stuccoed over everything and painted scenes of a painfully sucrose sentimentality – one side chapel in this style has been kept.
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After the Second World War, it was decided that there was nothing left to do but to strip more or less everything away, down to the brickwork. This has given the church a certain rough simplicity, very pleasing to the eye (to mine at least).
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We have to remember, though, that this is a very modern style. None of the original builders or later fiddlers would have dreamed of maintaining such a naked simplicity. Churches were built to demonstrate the glory of God, and naked brickwork definitely didn’t make the cut.

All this I learned from some posters tucked away in a corner (so tucked away that I nearly missed them). I knew none of this on entering the church. What immediately struck me instead was the fresco in the apse behind the main altar.

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Even though it was much obscured by the 1820s main altar (something that was already much criticized when the Artist who will Remain Unnamed installed it), its brilliant blues and reds amid all that raw brick jumped out at me and beckoned me to come closer. Which I did, threading a passage between the main altar and the outer walls of the church. The view was well worth the threading.
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It is a fresco (I later learned from the posters) from 1508 celebrating the Incoronation of the Virgin Mary, painted by il Bergognone (or, to give him his full name and title, Ambrogio da Fossano detto il Bergognone). We see Mary, meek and mild, being solemnly crowned by her son Jesus, God the Son, in a ceremony presided over by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, within a rainbowed arc of seraphims, cherubims and angels

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and with saints and others laypersons (no doubt donors and other Very Important Persons) looking on.

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Thank goodness it was placed high off the ground, otherwise those French revolutionary soldiers would no doubt have destroyed it. With my heart well warmed by its beauty, and my mind well primed by the posters, I hurried back to my meeting, arriving a little breathless but just on time.

I have to say, Bergognone is not a painter that I am at all familiar with. In writing this post, I have mugged up on him a little. He was active primarily in Lombardy, and although works of his have leaked out to many major museums in the western world the bulk of his output is still to be found in and around Milan. Since Saint Ambrose initiated my description of San Simpliciano, let me throw in here a painting Bergognone made of that saint

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which hangs in Pavia’s monastery complex, the Certosa.
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Bergognone was particularly active in the Certosa di Pavia. My wife tells me we have visited it, but I have no memory of doing so (a situation which is becoming alarmingly common). I think I will add it to my ever lengthening list of places around Milan which we will go and visit, once Spring beckons us forth like hibernating bears from the apartment.

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Photos: mine, except the following
Saint Ambrose mosaic: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant%27Ambrogio
San Simpliciano exterior: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano
San Simpliciano interior: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d1899819-i87445764-Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano-Milan_Lombardy.html
San Simpliciano Bergognone fresco overview: http://www.italiamedievale.org/sito_acim/contributi/simpliciano.html
Bergognone’s Sant’Ambrogio: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergognone
Certosa di Pavia: http://www.pavialcentro.it/monumentos/monastero-della-certosa-di-pavia