Giuliano da Sangallo

Piero di Cosimo's portrait of Giuliano, shown with the tools of his trade.

The current exhibition (on until 20th August) of drawings by Giuliano da Sangallo and his circle at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe (the Prints and Drawings Collection) on the first floor of the Uffizi provides an interesting and peaceful interlude if you are planning to visit Florence in this over-crowded season. The exhibition is free: if you state your destination to one of the staff members organizing the queues outside, you will be let straight in.

Giuliano (Giuliano Giamberti, c. 1445–1516) was an architect who worked for the Medici as well as the Papacy, designing palaces, villas, churches and military fortifications. All the drawings on show, except for two from the Albertina in Vienna, are from the Uffizi collection itself.

In the small room opening onto the stair landing is Giuliano’s wooden model of Palazzo Strozzi, a remarkable survival (and usually on display in the palace itself). For this exhibition it has been taken apart so that the rooms inside all three floors can be seen. A fascinating 15th-century ‘doll’s house’, it would have been available to the builders as they laid stone after stone of this great Renaissance palace. An excellent black-and-white video on the wall here illustrates the buildings Giuliano was responsible for in Florence and Tuscany. Also here are two drawings by Francesco da Sangallo (Francesco Giamberti, 1494–1576), Giuliano’s son, one for the convent of the Cestello (now Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi), and a drawing on parchment of the Baths of Diocletian, this once magnificent ancient building (still very conspicuous near Rome’s main railway station), signed and dated 1518.

The main exhibition room has some works produced jointly by the two brothers Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo the Elder (Antonio Giamberti; c. 1455–1534) and studies of buildings of ancient Rome including the ground plan of a temple found on the Quirinal hill by Francesco da Sangallo, and an elevation of the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian and a ground plan of the entire area of the baths by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. The Libro dei Disegni owned by the Uffizi, which contains more studies of the Antique by Giuliano and Antonio the Elder’s nephew, known as Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (Antonio Cordini, 1484–1546), is also on display.

Giuliano’s famous contemporary Bramante (Donato di Angelo di Pascuccio, 1444–1514) is present in the exhibition with another plan of the Baths of Diocletian furnished with meticulous measurements, and his first thoughts on the architecture of St Peter’s, sketched in red chalk, clearly showing his uncertainty. On one of these sheets there is a bold drawing on the verso by Giuliano da Sangallo demonstrating how closely the two architects were at work during one stage in the long building saga of the great basilica. A larger, more finished parchment drawing shows Bramante’s idea for part of the east end of St Peter’s, and there is a project for the same church by Fra’ Giocondo (Giovanni Giocondo da Verona; before 1434–1515), whom we know was also called in to suggest a possible Latin-cross design.

Some of the most interesting drawings by Giuliano include a fanciful design for embellishing the Borgia tower in the Vatican, complete with flower pots on its balustrade; and one of a church façade which includes numerous reliefs (all carefully drawn), statues in niches and free-standing figures above.

His project for the Florentine church of San Lorenzo, celebrating Leo X, is crowned by a statue of St Peter above the tympanum with its pair of Florentine lions. Giuliano also envisaged free-standing statues for this façade, but was clearly uncertain how many there should be. But the over-all design is extremely harmonious, which cannot be said for the project displayed next to it, drawn by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, which has a pair of bell-towers rising to twice the height of the façade.

A section devoted to Giuliano’s very fine figure studies for the story of Judith and Holofernes has two sheets drawn on the verso as well as the recto. Antonio da Sangallo the Elder made copies of the saints on Donatello’s bronze doors of the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo (represented here by two more drawings) and he also copied a detail of Giovanna Tornabuoni in a painting by Botticelli (now in the Louvre). Only one painting is present in the exhibition, a tondo of the Madonna and Child attributed to the workshop of Botticelli, which has been lent by the National Gallery of London since it appears to have been owned by Giuliano.

The two codices which contain the most precious drawings by Giuliano outside the Uffizi, the Taccuino senese (still in Siena) and the Libro dei Disegni in the Vatican library, can be consulted at the exhibition in digital format (although the video was not working on my second visit).

The arrangement of the drawings, it must be said, is not always easy to follow and it is a pity that no dates, even if conjectural, were added to the labels. Also, the complicated relationship between the various artists that share the name Sangallo (apparently derived from the district of Florence near the Porta Sangallo, where some of the family lived) is nowhere fully explained. Notwithstanding all this, the exhibition provides us with a visual conception of how the various designs produced in the 15th century for St Peter’s would have looked, and it illustrates the concerted efforts to provide Florence’s San Lorenzo with a façade before Michelangelo won the competition in 1516 (only to have Leo X cancel the commission when the great artist was already at work on it, to his great chagrin; the story is told in full, and illustrated, in the new edition of Blue Guide Florence. The architects represented in this exhibition all appear frequently in the Florence, Rome and Central Italy Blue Guides so this has also provided us with a chance to check their dates and the latest attributions.

by Alta Macadam.

03.05.2017
15:40

The Black Fields of Kula

East of Sardis, the black fields of Kula extend for some 1800 square kilometres, roughly south of the Gediz Valley to the towns of Katakekaume (today's Kula) to the east, and Alaşehir, the ancient Philadelphia, to the south. They were praised in antiquity for their fertility: the wine, the Katakekaumenites caught Strabo's attention (13.4.11). These days there are still vineyards, but the wine is strictly for export. Geology is the raison d’être of the place today and is what hopefully will put Kula on the tourist map.

 

The black fields are the result of comparatively recent volcanic episodes (roughly 10,000–15,000 years ago). Turkey is not short of volcanoes: think of the Erciyes overlooking Kayseri or of the Nemrut and the Suphan on the west edge of Lake Van. Here, however, everything is small, almost miniature, lending itself to the creation of a geopark. The Kula Volcanic Geopark, complete with UNESCO blessing, covers a number of sites dotted over an area of 300 square kilometres, where one can observe at first hand textbook examples of phenomena related to volcanism.

 

An infrastructure of trails, walkways, shelters and explanatory panels has been set up to guide people around; tour guides are being trained. On offer are extensive lava fields, barren, black and forbidding, in places several kilometres deep, now eroded into strange shapes and overlooked by cinder cones complete with craters. Lava caves and lava tubes are another feature of interest: they are formed when the lava flow develops a hard exterior crust while inside the hot stream is still flowing. In other places the lava cooled rapidly, forming basalt columns. The area's bedrock is limestone. The flow of the hot lava has resulted in a modification of its chemistry in the contact area; it is in this way that marble is formed. Spectacular dykes show where the lava found its way into fissures: black snakes into white limestone. Erosion played its part here as well, creating a nursery of hoodoos (fairy chimneys) where one can see how they form and eventually topple over. The list is long; there are even fossilised human footprints in the cooling ash.

 

Back in town, the unusual geology of the black fields is apparent in the 18th-century Ottoman houses, all built in stones of a bewildering variety. A number have been lovingly restored and are open to the public. One is a guesthouse (Anemon Otel). A well-appointed museum in the main square rounds up the visit with hands-on exhibits, explanatory panels and maps.

 

One can only wish plenty of luck to such an ambitious project. It might prove an uphill struggle to entice tourists to see 'just stones' (to quote a disappointed visitor). But for anyone interested in the ground on which monuments stand this is a must. At the moment the site is little advertised. Anyone arriving in Kula would be hard put to to find it. The solution is very simple. This writer went to the police and found the trail with a police escort via a sequence of secondary unmade roads while a guide was summoned. The trails are ready but not the roads. Anyone wishing to visit without a police escort should ring Ali Karataş on 05432 177 581. He is the head of the guides and he will give you a guided tour in English.

 

by Paola Pugsley. Paola is the author of four Blue Guides ebooks on Turkey. She is currently working on a volume covering the coastal area between Troy and Bodrum.

Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored

The "Adoration of the Magi" before restoration.

One of the Uffizi’s masterpieces, the unfinished Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, has been absent from the gallery since 2011 undergoing a meticulous but complicated restoration in Florence’s famous state restoration laboratory. It has just been returned and is currently on view in a special exhibition on the first floor (it will remain there until 24th Sept, when it will once again take its place in the gallery, but in a new room specially designed for it). Centuries of surface dirt have been removed as well as the varnishes added over the years, and a microscopic restoration of the paint has been completed. The result is outstanding: the work is now thought to be as Leonardo left it, an unfinished painting, with some areas more complete and others just sketched, some with paint, others with charcoal.

 

The room which leads into the exhibition has been newly arranged with just two works superbly lit: the famous Annunciation by Leonardo, and his master Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, on which it is known that Leonardo worked (it is traditionally thought he painted the angel in profile, and it is now suggested he intervened also on the figure of Christ himself, and part of the landscape). We know that the Annunciation was painted while Leonardo was still in Verrocchio’s workshop but strangely we know nothing about who commissioned it or where it was to be placed. It is a truly wonderful painting, with every detail highly finished, from the landscape to the flowery meadow, from the classical sarcophagus to the transparent white veil of the Madonna. So it is all the more fascinating to be confronted in the next room with the Adoration of the Magi where one feels one can experience Leonardo’s moods and whims as he experiments with placing a horse here or there; inserting a strange classical building under construction (with its architect observing the work); deciding whether to include a camel, an elephant, a group of dogs; inserting some dark trees in certain places, as the entire scene begins to take shape.

The Madonna herself seems isolated in the middle of all this action, in her beautiful calm serenity, even though her cloak seems to have been caught up in a bizarre fold beneath her thigh. And the Child (with some of his curls still to be completed by the artist) has been given a superior air as he blesses the genuflecting king before him, but amusingly decides to ‘receive’ his gift by playfully just taking off its lid and leaving the heavy vessel in the old man’s hands. (One wonders if that is why Joseph in the background is seen holding just the lid of one of the other king’s gifts and why Leonardo decided to alter this detail from the drawing in which the Child takes the entire vessel from the king, resulting in the Virgin having to hold on tight to him because of its weight). The Three Kings are interpreted by Leonardo as rather terrifying old men, and the thoughtful figure conspicuous on the extreme left, painted in shades of dark brown, remains a mysterious onlooker (just one of the many enigmatic figures present). The numerous horses, one shown perfectly head-on to us and others only just taking form, are amongst the most fascinating details. Leonardo left the work at this stage since he was called away to Milan in 1482.

 

The exhibition also includes photographic reproductions of two of Leonardo’s drawings (one from the Louvre and one from the Uffizi’s prints and drawings collection) related to the Adoration, blown up so that one can see the various details. The former is interesting above all to show not how it relates to the ‘finished’ work but how it differs from it, and also shows just where Leonardo thought at first to place the kings, which he left sketched in the nude. Seeing these one does feel this would have been the occasion to have shown the originals of some of the other preparatory drawings by Leonardo (if only from the Uffizi’s own collection).

 

The exhibition also includes Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi because it was the work that the Augstinians commissioned in 1496 for their church, San Donato a Scopeto, outside the city walls (destroyed a few years later in the 1529 siege of Florence) when it became clear to them that Leonardo would never return from Milan to complete the Adoration they had originally commissioned. Filippino’s Adoration (which is exhibited beside three very mediocre panels of its predella, two now in the North Carolina Art Museum and one from a private collection) comes as a shock after Leonardo’s work as it is in such a completely different world, with an atmosphere totally diverse. The decision to include it here, to illustrate the history of the commission, was correct but this work, although Filippino was one of the great artists of his time, simply cannot be appreciated next to the Leonardo.

 

We now know that Leonardo’s work was never consigned to the monks of San Donato. According to Vasari it remained in the house of Amerigo Benci so was probably seen there by other artists of the time. By 1670 it had entered the Medici collection.

 

In the last room there is a reproduction of Leonardo’s work to scale which, using reflectography, revealed that there was a “faint, freehand drawing beneath the brushwork”. The other details of the restoration are well documented in a film. At one stage the carabinieri were called in to prove that certain marks found on the surface were indeed the fingerprints of the master, as well as, in one area, the impression of the palm of his hand.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, where this masterpiece is described on p. 134 of the new edition, just out.

09.04.2017
18:01

Venice before Easter

Photo: Wikicommons.

Easter always marks the moment in the year in Italy when there are the most visitors: from then the crowds will remain a fixture until midsummer. So a visit to Venice in these first spring days can be all the more rewarding.

But at any time of year there are campi which always remain truly Venetian, and one of these is the large Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio which almost entirely circles the church of the same name in the sestiere of Santa Croce, not far from the railway station. It is a place where the locals sit and talk on the benches scattered here and there under the few trees, and the children come to run about and play games. Indeed on sunny afternoons, when you enter one of the several doors into the church, you will often find a child playing hide-and-seek in the porch or hear the crash of a football against the exterior, and the sound of the fun taking place outside is always present. But this only makes the church an even more delightful place to explore, and there are plenty of reminders that you are in the House of God, especially in Lent when some of the works of art are shrouded in purple cloth, a tradition once found in the churches all over Italy. Perhaps the church’s greatest treasure, the Crucifix by Paolo Veneziano (1324), with its painted terminals intact, cannot, therefore, be seen in this period: it still hangs in the apse but is a dramatic sight totally hidden from view by a drape which will only be pulled off on Easter morning.

There is an extraordinary variety of beautiful sculptures, paintings, and architectural features preserved in every nook and cranny of the church. Statues of the Madonna abound: a Byzantine statuette shows her holding a spindle, having just risen from her chair; there is a very ruined little Virgin orans in a niche; she carries a (now headless) Child in another little carving which has echoes of French medieval works; and there is a large painted wood statue of her from a few centuries later. The main altarpiece on the apse wall is a Madonna Enthroned with Saints, a typically eccentric work by the great painter Lorenzo Lotto. Also in the sanctuary, set in to the walls, are two marble inlaid Crosses, particularly unusual for their large dimensions. The painter whose works can be seen in almost every church in Venice, Palma Giovane, can be particularly appreciated here, from his large horizontal canvases in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, and those, even larger, in the aisle chapels (including the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence), to his cycle of paintings made to decorate the entire Sacrestia Vecchia in 1581. In the same year Palma Giovane’s much more famous contemporary Paolo Veronese painted the altarpiece in a chapel close by, of three saints, which features a lovely little putto above flying down towards them bringing their martyr’s palms. The Sacrestia Nuova (which has a ceiling painting by Paolo Veronese) is a veritable little museum of paintings, one of which, by Francesco Bassano, includes portraits of the painter’s family as well as Titian sporting a red hat, all of them in the crowd listening to St John the Baptist preaching.

The architecture of the church is also noteworthy, from the typically tall detached campanile dating from the 13th century to its wonderful wooden ship’s keel roof, installed in the following century. There is a rare shiny green marble column traditionally thought to have come from Solomon’s palace, but in any case dated to the 6th century, and a delightful Greek cipollino marble font (probably very ancient) by the west door provided with a little marble ledge for a child to sit and recover after its total immersion. The paintings by artists from the Veneto across the centuries include one of the best works of Giovanni Buonconsiglio (Three Saints, 1498), and, from the 17th century, works by Giulio del Moro, Padovanino, and Schiavone. A painting of the Madonna and Saints is a typical work by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, dated 1764.

I always try to come back to San Giacomo dell’Orio whenever I visit Venice, even though it never needs ‘up-dating’ for the Blue Guide Venice (the 9th edition came out in 2014). The church stays open all day (7.30am to 7pm) and the two sacristies are shown on request by volunteers from 8.30 to 4.30 pm (unless they leave a note on the door that they have slipped out for a quick lunch or a coffee).

by Alta Macadam

Selectivity at the Uffizi

Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was about to go back to the Uffizi with a grandchild and would be showing him just five paintings there. A method of ensuring not only his full attention but also his appreciation. I can only imagine what a memorable occasion that will be for the child.

 

Returning myself to the gallery the other day, I took the lift up to the first floor, and on the stair landing, outside the entrance to the Prints and Drawings Room, a little room exhibits just one work owned by the Uffizi, (and it will be kept there until 30th April). This is a large triptych signed and dated 1461 by Nicolas Froment, a little-known artist from Picardy, much influenced by the Flemish school. It came to Italy because it was commissioned by Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni, probably while he was in Flanders. Born in Prato, Coppini had a distinguished early career as a lawyer and diplomat, and Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his De Iure to him in 1437. He was sent to northern Europe by Pope Pius II and when in England, as papal legate, he attempted to interfere in the War of the Roses. When he sided with Edward of York, who was crowned king in 1461, against the House of Lancaster, the pope promptly disowned him and he was defrocked when he returned to Rome.

 

Meanwhile the painting seems to have reached Pisa by 1465, but just what happened to it afterwards is not known: we next have news of it in the Franciscan monastery of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello (apparently a gift from a Medici). When the monastery was suppressed by Napoleon it came to Florence, joining the Uffizi collection in the early 19th century, attributed to an anonymous German painter. It is only since 1878 that Froment has been identified as the French master of this triptych as well as that of the Burning Bush painted for René of Anjou in 1478 (and now in the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence).

 

Today it has been wonderfully restored and is especially interesting for its subject matter, since it shows not just the central Raising of Lazarus, but also, on the left, the scene before the miracle, when Martha informs the Saviour that her brother is dead (the figure of Martha is the most memorable of all the figure studies in the painting) and, on the right, the Saviour seated at table after performing the miracle, having his feet anointed by Mary Magdalene. Lazarus (still with his beard and moustache, but now looking much better, dressed in blue) is sharing the meal. In this panel the fascinating details include a formal garden outside the window, and, on the table, a succulent roast chicken flavoured with herbs, a segment of pear with a fly settled on it, and a salt cellar. Judas (with a little fluffy dog at his feet) is the ugly disciple pointing at Mary, and Peter is the one cutting a slice from a loaf of bread by holding it and drawing his sharp knife towards himself (a gesture still sometimes to be seen at an Italian picnic). The central panel, with its lovely Gothic gilded fretwork, includes a self-portrait of the artist looking at us, and an amusing ‘courtier’ elaborately dressed trying to survive the stench coming from the decomposing body of Lazarus (who certainly looks as if he has indeed ‘returned from the dead’).

 

The triptych of three oak panels was made so that it could be closed, and on the panels of the door Coppini kneels before the Virgin.

 

On the wall of the room, a video illustrates details from the under-drawing, which was found through reflectography during restoration, and shows where the artist had second thoughts and altered his original design. The presentation is accompanied by an excellent little catalogue in Italian and English.

 

To learn about a painting’s history, and the technique used in producing it, apart from the name of the author and the subject matter, adds so much to its interest and increases one’s appreciation. It seems a very good idea to provide visitors with an in-depth study of one painting in this way, and hopefully it will encourage people to become more selective in what they choose to see among so many masterpieces in the gallery.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

10.03.2017
11:22

Guide to the Via Francigena

The Via Francigena in Northern Lazio. Map and guide in English from the Touring Club Italiano, Itineraries on Foot series.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman

 

The Via Francigena, the road of the Franks towards Rome, has been known for over a thousand years since Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to travel to Rome for his formal investiture by pope John XV. The record of his journey in AD 990 lists each stopping place, 79 in all, and allows us to trace the route in detail. Sigeric crossed the Alps through the Great St Bernard’s Pass down into Aosta and then through what is now Piedmont into central Italy. As the flow of pilgrims increased and the route became used for trade and travel, cities such as Siena, hardly known in Roman times, grew rich on the proceeds.

 

The Touring Club Italiano has been working hard with Lazio Regional Council to open up the last 200km of the route. Much of the original, following the ancient Via Cassia, is now busy motorway and their recommended route is based on smaller roads and cart tracks that avoid noise and congestion but include all the original medieval sights that pilgrims will have seen. After a long first day from Radicofani to Acquapendente (30km) there are eight stretches of some 20km with hostels provided at each.

 

The guide is wonderfully thorough, with detailed maps of each leg of the route and blank pages for notes on each. The author, Alberto Conte, is sensitive to the beauties of the varied landscapes. If I ever take the route I shall be glad to know where there is a swimming pool close to the path and that the owner of the fruit stall in San Lorenzo Nuovo gives passing pilgrims a free piece of fruit. Original paved stretches of the Via Cassia appear from time to time. Thanks are still due to pope Gregory XIII who provided a bridge over the River Paglia in 1578, at a spot where sudden torrents had led to many pilgrims being drowned. There are tips on local wines and traditional dishes of the region alongside boxed sections on each of the major towns. It is useful to know that in September one cannot gather hazelnuts in the Torri d’Orlando as the farmers deliberately leave them on the ground before they are collected. It is tempting, as they are reputed to have the finest flavour in the world!

 

Yet it is the remnants of the churches, shrines and sanctuaries that grew up along the path that are probably most of interest. At Bolsena, in the 11th-century church of Santa Cristina, the footprints of the 4th-century martyr left on a rock can still be seen but it is the blood of Christ, spilling from a host onto the floor in 1263 after a priest doubted the miracle of Transubstantiation, that is the main attraction. The cathedral of Santa Margarita at Montefiascone, the city favoured as a residence by medieval popes, has the third largest dome in Italy after those of St Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Florence. In Viterbo the quarter of San Pellegrino, ‘the Holy Pilgrim’, still unchanged from medieval times, shows off the wealth accumulated from the flocks of pilgrims. Capranica, goat country, was a favourite haunt of the humanist Petrarch. One also passes close to the Etruscan city of Veii, of some nostalgia to me as I worked reassembling some of its domestic pottery at the British School in Rome back in 1966. And so finally into Rome, where the route ends in front of St Peter’s.

 

There were extensions of the Via Francigena south of Rome for those pilgrims who wished to continue to the East. These are shown on a large pull-out map in the pocket of the guide although the routes are not yet signposted on the ground. Overall this is a beautifully presented and thoughtful guide that will do much to open up forgotten treasures of Lazio. I have got as far as noting its checklist of what to take and wear on the road.

 

I am grateful to my old pupil, now Professore Simone Quilici, who is heavily involved in such projects, for giving me a copy of the guide when I last met him in Rome.

01.03.2017
13:34

What Ariosto could see

Mantegna's 'Expulsion of the Vices from the Garden of Virtue' (1502). The Vices have transformed the garden into a bog. Into the enclosure irrupts Minerva, armed for battle, preceded by two divine assistants. In the centre, Venus is being carried off by a lascivious centaur. On the far left, Daphne looks on powerless, trapped by her metamorphosis into a laurel tree.

 

'What Ariosto could see with his eyes shut' was the intriguing title of a fascinating exhibition held last year in Ferrara. There were long queues outside Palazzo dei Diamanti to see it, a show which was timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Ariosto’s publication, at his own expense, of 1,300 copies of his long epic poem Orlando Furioso. The finest copy of this first edition to have survived is held in the British Library.

 

But who was Ariosto? His poem, which was to have a profound influence on the literature of the Renaissance, was inspired by (and is in many ways a sequel to) Orlando Innamorato by Boiardo, which had been published in Ferrara some 30 years earlier. Both epics deal with literal and moral crossroads forcing a choice between two paths, with wild woods representing labyrinths.

 

Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533) was born in Reggio Emilia, to the commander of the castle there, although he always considered himself a Ferrarese. He was a studious boy but his dreams of a scholarly life were brought to an end after the death of his father, when he had to take up a public career. It was then that he entered the service of the Este family, taking up a post under Cardinal Ippolito. Nevertheless, he found time for his studies and for writing, devoting himself to the epic work that was to make his name. In essence it is derived from the courtly romances of the medieval period. The plot turns on the exploits of Charlemagne and his paladin Roland (Orlando) and to set the scene, the curators of the exhibition had chosen art and artefacts representing battles, knights from Arthurian legends and the cult of jousting. Among them were superb drawings and engravings by Ercole de’ Roberti, Antonio del Pollaiolo (his battle of ten nude figures, c. 1465, the first ever signed graphic work, it is now in the Marucelliana library in Florence), Mantegna (three war-like divinities), Marco Zoppo (a lady warrior, lent by the British Museum) and Leonardo da Vinci (a tiny red drawing from the collection of HM the Queen of a stormy encounter between elephants, horses and a giant). Among the artefacts was a perfectly-preserved leather saddle with bone and wood decorations made for Ercole I d’Este (father of Cardinal Ippolito) and a tapestry depicting the legendary battle of Roncesvalles in 778, probably made in Tournai in the late 15th century.

 

But Ariosto’s work moves well beyond the confines and conventions of courtly medievalism, exploring ideas and themes which were to inform Renaissance inquiry. One of the characters in the epic is the English knight Astolfo, who is conveyed by St John to the moon (described as a metallic sphere) to recover the lost wits of Orlando (Ariosto believed that the only difference between the earth and the moon was the fact that the latter was entirely free of madness). There is a charming little painting by the Ferrarese painter Cosmè Tura illustrating the episode, showing of St John on Patmos sitting with his eagle in a moonscape, apparently waiting for Astolfo. Another artist inspired by the work was Dosso Dossi. In fact his portrait of the sorceress Melissa (now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome) is thought to be the first time a character from Orlando Furioso was chosen as the subject of a painting.

 

Self-published though he might have been, Ariosto did not lack public admirers. His masters, the Este, were highly cultivated. In 1507 Cardinal Ippolito’s sister Isabella d’Este wrote from Mantua to her brother, mentioning that she had had a very pleasant visit from Ariosto and had heard directly from him that he was at work on the poem. When Ariosto was in Mantua, he would certainly have seen Mantegna’s beautiful Expulsion of the Vices from the Garden of Virtue by Minerva, which was commissioned for Isabella’s private study (it is now in the Louvre). It has a superb sky over a great rocky cliff, which towers above Minerva and creatures symbolising the Vices, each depicted in detail. The work is entirely in the Renaissance spirit, filled with characters from Classical mythology (goddesses, a centaur, satyrs), yet presided over by three of the Cardinal Virtues of Christianity, looking on from within a heavenly cloud.

 

Alfonso I d’Este (brother of Ippolito and Isabella and husband of Lucrezia Borgia) was Ariosto’s enthusiastic patron and admirer. Just after the poem’s publication, Machiavelli wrote to a friend praising it. Tommaso Inghirami, the noted Churchman and humanist, was a personal friend of Ariosto (he is best known to us from a portrait by Raphael, also a friend of his, uncompromisingly showing his squint, which now hangs in Palazzo Pitti in Florence). Inghirami is named in the last canto of the poem.

 

Orlando Furioso was a commercial success. On the strength of it, Ariosto was able to build a house for himself in Ferrara (it still stands and can be visited). In fact, successive editions of the poem, revised by the author, continued to appear until 1532, and its fame was such that some three centuries later the romantic epic was recalled by Bryon when he dubbed Walter Scott the ‘Ariosto of the North’.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Emilia Romagna.

News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte

There is a very interesting small exhibition (on until 12 March) at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence dedicated to the little-known painter Giovanni dal Ponte (or Giovanni di Marco di Giovanni, 1385–1437/8). It is introduced with a stunning triptych by him of the Coronation of the Virgin (illustrated above), which belongs to the Accademia Gallery and has been restored for the occasion. The white mantle of the Virgin is memorable, and St Ivo, in his pink robes and red beret (he was the protector of judges and lawyers), makes a rare appearance together with three other saints. Numerous other works by dal Ponte have been collected together here from churches in Florence and Tuscany as well as from the Prado, the National Gallery of London, the Fogg Art Museum and private collections in Hartford, Connecticut and Philadelphia.

Giovanni’s place amongst the Florentine artists of ‘late Gothic Humanism’ is explored and illustrated with some of the best works produced by his immediate predecessors and illustrious contemporaries: a triptych from Würzburg by Gherardo Starnina; an exquisite Madonna and Child with two angels, one of Fra’ Angelico’s earliest works from Rotterdam; and the little gilded bronze door of a tabernacle with Christ Blessing by Lorenzo Ghiberti. This is also the occasion to see together two small works painted around 1426 by Masolino and Masaccio, both of saints holding swords: Masolino’s St Julian in different tones of red comes from the closed Museo Diocesano in Florence, and Masaccio’s St Paul from the Museo di San Matteo in Pisa. Despite their dimension and subject matter, they both illustrate the extraordinary skills of these two masters.

The predella and cusps from Giovanni dal Ponte’s triptych of St John the Evangelist, purchased by the National Gallery of London in 1857, is particularly interesting for the scene of two disciples distributing alms before being converted and baptised by the elderly St John the Evangelist. The disciples are seen taking their clothes off as they wait at the well. In the central predella panel of St John at Patmos, four angels are struggling with lions while he is stretched out asleep on a rock, and a dragon blows fire in a starry sky.

In the last room there is a marriage chest (cassone) with suitable painted scenes in a ‘Garden of Love’, of particular interest as this has remained intact as a piece of furniture (almost all other cassoni were broken up in later centuries when their principal painted panel was removed to be sold). It is preserved in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. Also here are the surviving panels from Giovanni’s Polyptych of St Peter: Four Saints from the Museo Bandini in Fiesole and its predella from the Uffizi, here reunited for the first time.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, complete with index.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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