23.02.2015
09:40

Michelin starred Paris

Top Paris food critic, Meg Zimbeck of parisbymouth.com, spent €7,000 of her own money to bring you uncompromised reviews of EVERY Michelin 3-starred restaurant in Paris, world centre of haute cuisine.  And not only the nine 3-stars but also five 2-stars and one not yet rated.  Read the Special Report (or just drool over the pictures) here »

Paris by Mouth Food and Wine Tours

11.02.2015
13:11

A Michelangelo discovery?

What a difference an attribution makes. I saw these two muscular nudes astride a pair of panthers in the Royal Academy exhibition Bronze in 2012 but remember other exhibits much more vividly. Now, however, they are the centre of attention in an exhibition in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, basking in glory following their recent attribution to Michelangelo.

 

Or is it recent? They were attributed to Michelangelo when they were exhibited in Paris in 1878. Perhaps some distant tradition clung to them when they were transferred from an aristocratic collection (possibly that of the Farnese family) to Baron Adolphe de Rothschild in the 1860s. The attribution was doubted at the time and the booklet A Michelangelo Discovery, which accompanies the Fitzwilliam exhibition, shows how difficult it is to date bronze. Since their first public appearance in 1878 experts have confidently put forward dates across the breadth of the 16th century and have linked them to specific artists. The curator of the 2012 exhibition placed them as only ‘within the circle of Michelangelo’, in the middle of the century, when of course Michelangelo was still active.

 

Then Paul Joannides, Professor in the History of Art at Cambridge, noted a copy of some lost drawings of Michelangelo in the Musée Faure in Montpellier, dated c. 1508, and there was a man astride a panther in very much the same pose as that of the bronzes. This clue to their origins—by Michelangelo himself but perhaps much earlier than thought—focused the research in new directions.

 

When one sees the bronzes they are larger than the photographs suggest, both just over 90cm, and then it is noted how one, the panther carrying the younger, clean-shaven man, is much more roughly cast than the panther carrying his bearded companion. Casting was always a demanding business, as readers of Cellini’s account of the casting of his Perseus in his Autobiography will know, and here some of the crispness of the modeling has been lost. There are signs that this bronze was hammered to remedy its deficiencies, a common practice when a complete recasting would have been unfeasible. There is a clue to the date in the casting itself. While the Classical sculptors had mastered the art of thin casts, the long-forgotten techniques and skills were only revived in the 16th century. These bronzes have thick walls, more typical of the early than the later 16th century.

 

Michelangelo is not normally associated with bronze and this may account for the hesitancy with which these casts were attributed to him. Yet there is ample documentary evidence that he used the medium, and lost bronzes of David and the papa terrible, Julius II, are known, both dating from the first decade of the 16th century. What confirms the attribution is the drawings of nudes, many of them in poses similar to those of the men on the panthers. An anatomical study of the relationship between the bodies and Michelangelo’s drawings, by Professor Peter Abrahams, notes the many congruences. Even the public hair of the bronzes. luxuriant for this period, closely matches that on Michelangelo’s great marble David in Florence.

 

The size of the bronzes is unusual. Life-size bronzes from this period include equestrian statues and Cellini’s Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. More common are statuettes of both religious and mythical subjects and it is fitting that the Michelangelo bronzes help highlight the Fitzwilliam’s own fine collection of Renaissance bronzes. The size of the Rothschild bronzes falls between the two. Panthers are always associated with Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus, god of wine and disorder. A fine pair of panthers feature in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London), its date 1520–3, only a few years later than the proposed date for these bronzes. The nudes would therefore be bacchantes, Bacchus’ raucous companions. While they look far too healthy, perhaps even too well-ordered, for a life of dissolution, the authors note how the late 15th and early 16th centuries was an age of ‘serene, if short-lived classicizing culture. . .with its accent on refinement and dolcesse’, and this may explain their idealised forms. They appear to have been designed to be part of a larger display of a Bacchic celebration, perhaps in a frescoed palace interior or beside an antique statue of Bacchus himself.

 

First you have one pair of Renaissance bronzes and then you get another four. As I was writing this it was confirmed that the Victoria & Albert Museum had raised the £5 million needed to buy the four bronze angels that had originally been destined for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey. Appropriated by Henry VIII for his own tomb when Wolsey fell, they were never put in place and their rediscovery, two of them on the gateposts of a golf club, was exciting. Wolsey commissioned  them in 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano who, in an intriguing coincidence, was the very man who finished the lost bronze David of Michelangelo noted above.

 

The well-illustrated A Michelangelo Discovery is a model text for those who want to know how an attribution is made. In fact if I was a professor of History of Art interviewing prospective students I would make them read it for discussion at interview. A fuller study will follow a conference on the bronzes to be held in Cambridge this summer, but so far everything—the manner of casting, the supporting pictorial evidence, the anatomical details, the cultural background—fits to confirm the attribution. This is a good time for aficionados of early Renaissance bronzes.

 

A Michelangelo Discovery: The Rothschild bronzes and the case for their proposed attribution, by Victoria Avery and Paul Joannides and other contributors, is published by the Fitzwilliam Museum. The (privately-owned) bronzes are on exhibition until 9th August and entry to see them in the Italian galleries is free.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Freeman’s own book on four famous sculpted animals, not of bronze but gilded copper, The Horses of St Mark’s, is published by Overlook.

Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation

Pallas Athene, London, 2014.

 

The first time I found myself searching around in Carpaccio’s paintings was when I was writing my book on the Horses of St Mark’s. Had the Venetian Carpaccio ever used the horses as a model? An early match I got was the horse in the centre of his gruesome Martyrdom of the 10,000 at Ararat (Accademia, Venice), a depiction of the massacre of a Christian army by the Persians. The horse there faces forwards, has lifted his left front leg and turns his head in much the same way as the fine gilded copper steeds which were then overlooking the Piazza San Marco from the loggia of St Mark’s. Jan Morris goes further. She notes how actual horses had become rare in the city in Carpaccio’s day(he was active between 1490 and 1520).  Sumptuary laws forbade extravagant harnessing; horses were banned from the Piazza and the new stepped bridges were difficult to negotiate. In compensation, Morris sees the St Mark’s horses everywhere in Carpaccio’s work, ‘all fine, every one of them, perhaps Carpaccio had modelled them all, if only subconsciously’ on the originals on the loggia.

 

Ciao Carpaccio is a delightful work of serendipity, ‘a self-indulgent caprice’ as the author puts it. Jan Morris does not claim to be a serious art historian but her eye is a lot more sensitive than many professionals and certainly, unlike some, she has the capacity to enthuse. Her book is all the better for revelling in what she sees and enjoys in Carpaccio’s paintings. And there is, of course, so much to see: the sumptuous clothing of his subjects, the intricacies of Venetian architecture and above all the meticulously observed details from everyday life. Too little is known about Carpaccio but he must have been fun to be with. He always has an eye for what’s going on at the edges of the formalities. Everywhere there are asides, vignettes of birds, playful children or beautifully-painted ships moored alongside some distant quay. Often Carpaccio’s love of display ensures that the subject of the painting is pushed completely to one side. So when the relic of the True Cross, encased then (as it still is) in the recently restored gold reliquary in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, draws forth the demon from a demented man, you can hardly see him high up on his loggia whereas below are the bustle of well-dressed crowds and some wonderful swaggering gondoliers in front of the early wooden Rialto bridge.

 

Carpaccio loves a parade. It is time for everyone to show off in extravagant hats, with plenty of music from trumpeters to add to the mood of excitement. He cannot avoid display, so that his Holy Family on the flight to Egypt would have been seen by any pursuer many miles off thanks to the typically Carpaccio bright red of Joseph’s cloak—and how did the Virgin manage to get hold of such a magnificent brocaded cloak for herself?

 

Yet Carpaccio is also a master of domesticity, as with Ursula’s well-ordered bedroom or the scholar’s study where Augustine works. Both, typically for Carpaccio, have dogs, a lapdog for Ursula and Morris’ ‘Carpaccio dog, a tough urchin mongrel, cocky, feisty and fun’ squirrelling around in Augustine’s study as our border terrier, Dipity, does in mine. And then on a shelf, among other antique curiosities of Augustine’s imagined 5th-century interior, is a small bronze horse, surely a copy of one from St Mark’s? All these works are beautifully reproduced, the illustrations taking up as much room as the text, so that Ciao Carpaccio makes a splendid small present for someone special.

 

Carpaccio was influenced by a popular text, the Golden Legend by Jacobo de Voragine, the must-have book for all those painting scenes from the lives of saints (Carpaccio drew from it for his magnificent sequence from the life of St Ursula, now in the Accademia). Ursula is destined for martyrdom along with the 11,000 virgins who accompany her, but it is almost as if menace is beyond Carpaccio. The Hun who is due to martyr her after she and her companions have disembarked at Cologne simply sits around looking bored. He certainly does not look as if he has it in him to massacre virgins. In another famous sequence, in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Carpaccio gently mocks the monks who are fleeing the friendly and somewhat mystified lion that arrives at their monastery with Jerome.

 

The paintings in this Scuola shows another influence on Carpaccio, the Orient, always in the minds of the venturesome Venetians but with added impact after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans some fifty years before. Many of his subjects—Jerome in Bethlehem, the proto-martyr Stephen in Jerusalem, St George triumphing over the dragon in Libya—are set in the East, and Carpaccio does his best to make this clear, using woodcuts of Jerusalem or an actual gateway in Cairo to provide a backing. There is even an obelisk in one of his depictions of St George.

 

Jan Morris concludes with a study of Carpaccio’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, now in the Brera in Milan. (Titian’s version is still in Venice, in the Accademia.) It is inspired by another ancient text, the Protoevangelium of James, that tells of the early life of Mary and how she was taken in to the Temple in the years before her betrothal to Joseph. The little girl kneels humbly on the steps while her parents stand proudly ‘like parents seeing off their child to summer camp or boarding school,’ as Morris engagingly puts it. But there is another child, a little boy shown with an antelope on a lead and a rabbit chatting to a priest leaning on the balcony of the temple. For Morris, this lad encapsulates the essence of Carpaccio, his quality of kindness. Perhaps it is because his sense of fun, a tenderness to his subjects and an unabashed love of colour for its own sake predominate that he is never numbered among the greats in art; but Jan Morris reminds us just how much pleasure he gives us, as he surely does for her.

See Ciao Carpaccio on amazon.com. See it on amazon.co.uk. For a more formal and wide-ranging treatment of Carpaccio's work, see Patricia Fortini-Brown’s Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio, Yale, 1988.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Charles wrote the historical introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello

by Alta Macadam (author of Blue Guide Florence)

 

The wide streets around San Lorenzo, the great Medici church close to their family palace, which in effect form a piazza, have recently been cleared of market stalls so that the exterior of the building has regained its dignity. Inside visitors have been provided with a wonderful opportunity to come face to face with one of Donatello's pulpits in the nave, now restored. An ingenious scaffold and lighting system has been set up so and if you put one euro into a little machine you can then climb up to the level of the pulpit and examine the details of the gilded reliefs. This is an occasion not to be missed, since the pulpits have always been very difficult to see, being raised up on columns. The pulpit in question is the one on the right, from which the Epistle was read, and the three reliefs at the height of the walkway are the Resurrection, the Ascension (or Christ Appearing to the Apostles) and the Descent into Limbo. Although Christ takes on a quite different appearance in each of the scenes, they were all cast together and they have a more or less continuous background. They date from the very end of Donatello's long life, around 1460.

 

In the Resurrection Donatello famously portrays Christ as an anguished, elderly, infirm figure, hooded and still in his grave cloth, supported by his banner. In contrast (and following the familiar iconography of this scene), the soldiers in the foreground are depicted as genial innocents, most of them fast asleep but all in different attitudes, and with their feet carefully modelled. There is one seen from behind who seems to be hanging onto the edge of the tomb in astonishment, having just awakened; and if one looks even closer, there are two more in the far background on the other side of the sarcophagus: it is difficult to make out whether the scene includes six or seven soldiers. The frieze at the top of the pulpit has little playful putti and centaurs in relief around the central signature 'Opus Donatelli Flo' (the great sculptor was always touchingly proud of his birthplace), and at the corners are 'classical' horsemen, standing holding their horses’ bridles in a manner reminiscent of the Dioscuri.

 

In the Descent into Limbo Christ is still an elderly man but a much less dramatic figure: it is the scene itself which is particularly harrowing. On the extreme right stands the emaciated Baptist holding out his hand to Christ. All around, some half hidden, are the Saints who await liberation. But the crowd also includes figures without haloes: the head of Eve appears in the doorway and in front of her is Adam, with his arms stretched towards Christ. Two small grotesque devils, one entwined with a snake, and both with webbed feet, are also present. It has been suggested that the iconography of this panel may have been inspired by a miniature Byzantine mosaic which Donatello would have seen in the Baptistery (and which is today preserved in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.

 

In the Ascension (or Christ Appearing to the Apostles) scholars have detected the intervention of Donatello's assistants. Here a more genial Christ is shown in the act of blessing as cherubs help him on his slightly awkward upward journey, leaving behind the crowd of kneeling Apostles and the Virgin. They are seen behind a 'fence' which has ramblers on it and there are more roses and ferns on the ground at their feet.

 

The two end panels cannot be seen at such close range, but they are visible from the steps and are also wonderful works: the Marys at the Tomb and Pentecost. The Tomb scene is very dramatic, taking place as it does in a dark, underground burial crypt with a row of columns which partly obscure the sarcophagus, and one of which gives support to one of the Marys in her astonishment at seeing an angel blocking her way. Another Mary descends the steps but her face is totally hidden from view. A few trees can be seen outside in the background, above the roof. The Pentecost scene, although designed by Donatello, was executed in its final stages by pupils. The elderly Madonna is surrounded by the Apostles who have thrown their Crosses on the ground.

 

The other long side (which you can still only see from below, but which is now well illuminated) has two panels which are old replacements in wood, but the third is a very fine Martyrdom of St Lawrence, with smaller figures in a room portrayed in deep perspective. It is thought that Donatello worked on this panel before those on the other side, just after his return to Florence from Padua.

 

The pulpit opposite is still being restored and the idea is to move the scaffolding across to it also once the restoration is completed (probably in around a year's time).

It is almost certain that the panels were not originally intended for pulpits but were made for a funerary monument or an altar in the church. One wonders if it might be thought legitimate to dismantle them once restoration is completed and display them in a way that they can be seen with ease.

 

The extraordinary genius of Donatello, so idiosyncratic in his iconography, can also be seen a few metres away in the Old Sacristy, beautifully kept and wonderfully illuminated. Donatello decorated this lovely little domed chapel (designed by Brunelleschi) some decades before he worked on the pulpits. And here on a cupboard is a terracotta bust of the young St Lawrence (or St Leonard?) one of the most charming Renaissance portraits which still mystifies art historians and which in situ is simply attributed to an unknown sculptor. One day perhaps it will join the catalogue of works by Donatello.

 

It is always somehow surprising that we cannot be sure of certain attributions, and that works which have been known about for centuries can sometimes be convincingly found to be by a master's hand. This has happened recently to a terracotta relief of a Madonna and Child which belongs to the church of Santa Trinita and which in the early 19th century was moved by the Vallombrosan monks outside onto the campanile (presumably as 'protection' for the church). In 2004 it was brought back inside again (and replaced outside by a copy) and since it had been much ruined by the elements was sent to the restoration laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. It revealed itself to be a very beautiful relief and is now attributed to Donatello himself (there are great similarities between it and a terracotta relief in Florida which is a recognised work of the master). At the same time an oval empty space (flanked by two painted angels) has been noticed inside the church in the niche above the tomb of Giuliano Davanzati and it has been agreed that the relief will be placed there when it returns to the church, in the belief that it must originally have been made for this position.

 

All this shows how work never ceases to protect and study the works of art in Florence and that restoration projects are carried on apace with all the skill and expertise we have come to expect from the state restoration laboratory here.

Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan

When you next order a Turkish coffee, have look at the glass of water that normally comes with it. If you are lucky, it will have an elegant sweep of curvy gold lines on it. You will easily recognise it: this is a tuğra, a sultan’s cipher and now a symbol of Ottoman Turkey. Putting it on glasses is just a fashion. A trip to the bazaar may enable you to come home with a tea set in the tulip shape or just a few plain, elegant water glasses, all emblazoned with tuğras. But what is the origin of the artwork? Opinions are deeply divided though there is a fair chance that the original design goes back well before the Ottomans who brought it to perfection.

 

There are basically three main parts to a tuğra. The stand, that is the base, contains the name of the sultan, his filiation and the title 'ever victorious' (el muzaffer daima), all in Arabic script; to the left two concentric ellipses  (the eggs) run in parallel lines to the margin of the paper to the right (the arms). Finally three vertical strokes with or without curvy pennants occupy the centre. The vertical strokes seem to hold the key. They may represent the handprint of the sultan or indeed the mark of his three fingers dipped in ink and trailed on the document. Unconfirmed reports speak of one such example in the archives of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), from the hand of Murat I in the mid-14th century. But some think one should look further back, to the time when the people of central Asia were roaming the steppes with their flocks. Branding or any other way of telling the animals apart, would have been a necessity. According to Raşid-al-Din's historical compilation, the Turkish and the Mongol people used a mark (tamga) both to stamp their decrees and brand their flocks and herds. Each of the 24 Oğuz tribes, the founding fathers  of the Turkish nation, had its own logo, a combination of vertical and other strokes. That's where the arrows come in. Arrows play an important part in early Turkish history as an expression of power. Archery was an important factor in their military success. Oğuz Turks traditionally belonged either to the 'Great Arrow' (Bozok) or to the 'Three Arrows' (Üç Ok); in addition, the election of the early Seljuk sultans apparently included a ritual based on arrows.

 

With the Ottomans the tuğra (which probably existed at the time of the Seljuks though there are no concrete examples, only text references) became codified as a symbol of power, the sultan's signature. He did not draw it himself: a dedicated school of calligraphers was in charge. As the firmans (the sultan's official decrees) multiplied, the artwork was simplified and standardised while at the same time embellished with the application of gold and colour. With time the sultan's mark made its way onto coins, flags, stamps, passports, official monuments, buildings and warships.

 

Beyond the Ottoman Empire, tuğras are known in Iran, with the Great Seljuk; in India at the time of the Mongols; and in Egypt with the Mamluks. A unique example not connected to the Turkish community has been traced in the Crimea. In 1836 the governor issued a passport to a Polish doctor on his way to work in Istanbul. It bore the tuğra of Czar Nicholas I, probably modelled after a coin, and was intended to add authority to the document and ensure that Ottoman officialdom would supply the three horses and the necessary assistance to enable doctor Radzionski to reach his destination as soon as possible.

 

by Paola Pugsley. Paola is currently working on a guide to Cappadocia and central Anatolia. For her other Turkish titles, published digitally by Blue Guides, see here.

Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass

Medieval stained glass is relatively rare in English country churches because so much was destroyed by zealots during the Reformation in the 16th century and under Cromwell in the 17th. Fragments of old glass exist and have been pieced together in many windows across the country, but entire windows are scarcer. The two shown here are from c. 1350. They are the north and south chancel windows of the church of St Andrew in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, just at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. Light was poor in the church when I was there and these are the best images I could get: photographs taken with my telephone. The window on the left (the north window) shows two bishops, with crosier and processional cross. Above them, in the quatrefoil, is a depiction of one of the Seven Acts of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry. The window on the right (the south window) shows St Lawrence and St Alban and another of the Seven Acts, Clothing the Naked: a man in yellow (St Martin) is seen giving a green garment to a naked man. (The other Acts of Mercy are Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Sheltering the Homeless, Nursing the Sick, Visiting those in Prison and Burying the Dead. Caravaggio manages to depict all seven of them in a single canvas in a famous painting in Naples. Perhaps at one time all seven were shown in the windows of this little church, too.

02.01.2015
08:44

Which? ranks Blue Guides #2

In their January 2015 issue and describing it as a "surprise hit", leading consumer magazine Which? ranked Blue Guides second overall (after Dorling Kindersley) in its global guide books ranking, based on 3,044 reader experiences.

Needless to say, our authors and editors, who spend thousands of hours researching and writing the Blue Guides, were less surprised ...

Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film

Portrait of Leopardi c. 1820.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam

Il Giovane favoloso, a film released in Italy this autumn, describes the life of the country's greatest Romantic poet (in fact its greatest poet, together with Dante and Petrarch). This undertaking, by director Mario Martone, was highly ambitious: Elio Germano as Leopardi re-enacts the life of this great literary figure and philosopher, born in the Marche in east Italy in 1798 and who died at just 38. Germano succeeds superbly in the role, reciting the some of Leopardi's most famous poems, and letters to his close friend and mentor Pietro Giordani. The film was given its première at the Venice Film Festival in September and was also shown at the London Film Festival in October (hopefully it will soon be on general release in the UK and US). The locations include the poet’s home town of Recanati, as well as Florence, Rome and Naples (where he died during a cholera outbreak), and will be greatly appreciated by all who love Italy. The music, by Sascha Ring, is very beautiful.

 

The Zibaldone, Leopardi’s notebook and diary full of philosophical observations, which was first published many decades after his death, has now been published in an English edition (Penguin Classics, 2013, eds Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino). It is the first complete translation into English of this fundamental work.

 

Despite his fame, Leopardi is difficult to define: fluent in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he was a Classical scholar as well as a philosopher and in many ways anticipated 20th-century thinking, being critical of the belief in progress and close to existential theories. In some ways he can be compared to Wordsworth, although the English poet is much more joyful in spirit. Leopardi was intensely religious as a boy though his views grew more unorthodox and critical as the years went by: interestingly, the only disparaging review in the Italian press so far has been in the Vatican newspaper, the Osservatore Romano (25th October).

 

The film takes almost all its dialogue straight from original documents or letters, and Elio Germano's capacity to immerse himself totally in the role has been much remarked on. In Recanati the film was shot in Leopardi's family home, where the actor also lived for many months, even learning to write with a quill pen. The Neapolitan director has worked much in theatre (and in fact he recently staged Leopardi's Operette morali, an allegorical dialogue) and this is evident throughout the film. It was daring to decide to let Germano recite some of the poems as if he was composing them, but these passages of the film are some of the most moving. Very little artistic licence has been taken, although the scene in the brothel in Naples is invented and is perhaps one of the few disappointing moments in the narrative. All in all the film is an honest reconstruction of Leopardi's life which avoids clichés and shows up his more lively side and underlines his quick ironic humour, managing to get away from the label of 'pessimist' which is all too often attached to him and which has perhaps tended to limit appreciation of his deep character.

 

This is the first time that Leopardi’s poetry has been recited on the big screen and the film ends in a villa on the slopes of Vesuvius during an eruption, while Leopardi composes his last poem, La Ginestra.

 

The supporting roles are very well played, from his close friend Ranieri (Michele Riondino), who represents the poet’s fragile attachment to the real world, to Leopardi’s father Monaldo (Massimo Popolizio, until now mainly known as a stage actor), whose human side is successfully portrayed alongside his determined ambition to bring up his children imbued with literature. He would have approved, perhaps, of the fact that classes of Italian schoolchildren are being taken to see this film.

 

Where to find Leopardi in the Blue Guides:

Leopardi's home town of Recanati is covered in detail in Ellen Grady's Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino, the new, fully-revised 2nd edition of which is fresh off the press. His former home is now a museum and much of the early part of the film was shot in and around it. The ball game known as pallone al bracciale, re-enacted in the film with Leopardi as a spectator, is described in the same Blue Guide (and also in Blue Guide Central Italy). The poet's relationship to the English colony in Pisa, where he stayed for a year in 1827, is recorded in Alta Macadam's Blue Guide Tuscany, available in print and digital. You will find Leopardi’s grave site in Naples in Paul Blanchard's Blue Guide Southern Italy, also available in print and digital.

Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic

"The name Sassoferrato derives from the Latin saxum ferratum, ‘stone encircled by iron’; it stands on a rocky crest, in an area rich in iron ore. Close by, at the confluence of the Sentino and Marena rivers, stood the Roman city of Sentinum, where in 295 BC the Romans achieved a momentous victory at the Battle of Sentinum, or Battle of the Nations, over the Gauls, Etruscans and Samnites; later (in 41 BC) it was destroyed on behalf of Octavian by Salvidienus Rufus and, when Octavian became Caesar Augustus, rebuilt for his veterans. Sentinum was probably abandoned in the early Middle Ages, when the survivors of enemy attacks, pestilences and poverty built a new settlement on the top of the mountain, recorded from the 11th century, and the lower town in the 13th century. Control of the town passed from one liege lord to another. The last of these aristocratic tyrants, Luigi degli Atti, was killed in 1460, and after that Sassoferrato became a free commune under the aegis of the Papal States, with its own statutes and coat of arms: a stone encircled by an iron band. The economy, based on potteries, stone quarries, bell-casting and the manufacture of nails, flourished. Nowadays the main activities besides farming are footwear, leather, clothing and bathroom fittings."

 

The above extract from Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino makes Sassoferrato sound a likeable sort of place, perhaps not with any particular claim to fame or attention. But read on. Roman Sentinum yielded to the world one of the most beautiful and enigmatic mosaics ever found: the Aion Mosaic, which was sold to Ludwig of Bavaria in 1828 and is now in Munich.

 

Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786–1868) was an interesting monarch in many ways. The behaviour of his scandalous mistress Lola Montez, the Munich Beer Riots and his abdication in the face of open revolt in 1848 have given tongues more to talk about perhaps than his love of the Greek and Roman world and his desire to recreate them in some measure in Munich. He built the grandiose complex of the Königsplatz, wth its monumental gateway, the Propylaion, and its twin Neoclassical museum buildings: the Antikensammlungen and the Glyptothek. Behind them is the abbey church of St Bonifaz, where he lies buried, the church exterior modelled on San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome. The entire ensemble is extraordinary. And while the architecture is one thing, the portable objects that the buildings contain are quite another. One of these is a mosaic from Roman Sentinum, dated c. AD 200 and showing Aion, god of Unbounded Time and Eternity, standing naked within a hoop of the Zodiac. At his feet reclines Tellus the earth goddess, surrounded by her offspring, the Four Seasons. King Ludwig acquired the work in 1828. It is beautifully preserved (as his agent, Johann Martin von Wagner remarked: damaged only in two small places) and unique in the arrangement of its subject matter. Close inspection reveals that the signs of the Zodiac appear in the wrong order. Aion has his hand on Pisces, the sign that coincides with the spring equinox and the beginning of the year, but Aries and Sagittarius are in the wrong place. Why might this be? Did the mosaicists follow their pattern-book incorrectly when they made it up? Has it been wrongly restored? Or is the “mistake” a deliberate one? It is, if we believe Filippo Venturi, who ascribes to the work a complicated symbolism, not only esoteric and eschatalogical but also connected to imperial propaganda. His thesis (in Italian) can be read here. The villa at Sentinum, he believes, can only have belonged to someone not only learned but supremely well-connected, perhaps to a relative of the imperial household itself.

Detail of the Aion Mosaic showing the order of the zodiacal signs as Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo. Aries is missing.
The right-hand side of the Zodiac loop showing the irregular order: Aries, Sagittarius, Libra and Scorpio.

Text and images © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

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