Most rare in marble portraits

The above title is a quote from Giorgio Vasari. They are the words he used, in his famous Lives of the Artists, to describe Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608), a man who became one of the greatest Italian sculptors of his age.

Vittoria was born in Trento, a city in the far north of Italy, on the border of the Italian and German-speaking worlds. In the mid-16th century, when Vittoria was a young man, it played host to the famous eccelsiastical council convoked to discuss the threats posed by the growth of Protestantism and to agree a response. A portrait of Vittoria exists from this time, painted by another north Italian, Giovanni Battista Moroni, from Bergamo. Moroni, like many other artists, had gone to Trento, attracted by the opportunities presented by the prominent Council delegates, many of whom wished to have their likenesses taken. In Moroni’s portrait (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), Vittoria appears as a confident young man holding a small marble torso. The musculature of this torso is rather peculiar: either Vittoria was very young at the time and not yet very skilled, or else Moroni had never studied anatomy, but nevertheless it serves as an emblem of the kind of sculpture that would make Vittoria famous. He developed a prodigious skill at sculpting portraits in the style of ancient Roman busts, a genre he effectively re-invented and re-popularised, and he became sought-after by numerous patrons. In Vittoria’s native Trento today, there is a square that bears his name with an early 20th-century statue in it showing a middle-aged man holding a sculptor’s chisel, dressed in a frock coat and looking like a dapper Edwardian official from some municipal board of works. He is nothing at all like the confident and self-aware young man that Moroni depicted and which hangs in Vienna. One suspects that the young Vittoria was very confident indeed.

Portrait of Alessandro Vittoria by Giovanni Battista Moroni. Kunsthistorisches Musem, Vienna.

Vittoria was also skilled in plasterwork. When he first went to Venice, he was taken on by the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, with whom he worked on the steep barrel-vaulted entrance staircase to the Biblioteca Marciana, a space overwhelmingly encrusted with painted stucco. If Vittoria had stuck to this kind of thing, it is unlikely that today we would know his name. The skill is very great, but the overall effect is too much. It is perhaps lucky for posterity that he quarrelled with Sansovino and found a different outlet for his talents. He went on to sculpt bust after bust of well-fed statesman and administrators, and today they provide a fascinating window on an age. In his native Trento, in the magnificent Castello di Buonconsiglio, there are two characteristic portrait busts of Venetian notables. But by far the best place to admire Vittoria’s work is Venice: in Ca’ d’Oro, in the Frari, the Museo Correr, the Doge’s Palace.

Two examples of Vittoria’s portrait busts of dignitaries of his day. In Castello di Buonconsiglio, Trento (top) and in Ca’ D’Oro, Venice (bottom).

Vittoria was a contemporary of Tintoretto and Veronese, and with them he helped Venice in her project of self-glamorisation in an era when her best days were already beginning to be behind her. We know where Vittoria lived in Venice: his house was just off the Riva degli Schiavoni behind the church of the Pietà. A hotel stands on the site of the building today. Here he had a beautiful garden and a fine collection of works of art, including a marvellous self-portrait by Parmagianino, shown reflected in a convex mirror (also now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum). When he died, he was buried in the nearby church of San Zaccaria: his tomb slab is very simple, a black flagstone laid in the floor of the sanctuary. On the wall next to it, however, is an elaborate monument designed by himself with a portrait bust in the antique style and mourning figures of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture.

Monument to Alessandro Vittoria in San Zaccaria, Venice. The Latin description praises him as someone ‘who when alive drew out from marble the faces of the living’. (The sculptures of Architecture and Painting appear to have been miscaptioned.)

Annabel Barber

See here for details of our relevant titles: Blue Guide Venice and Blue Guide Trentino & the South Tyrol.

Tour of the Seven Churches on Turkey’s Aegean coast

The Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, is traditionally held to have been written by St John (variously the apostle, the divine, the evangelist) while exiled to the island of Patmos from Ephesus on the mainland. It is prefaced by letters to seven churches* on the mainland. The classical remains, Christian assocations and pleasures of being in Turkey make the sites of these churches a great focus for a visit.

And indeed various tours are offered. For example with the Reverend James Buxton, chaplain of the Anglican church in Smyrna, with Tutku Tours (details here»).

* Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea

map from Tutku, the tour organizer

James tells us:

“During this tour we will travel through beautiful Aegean landscapes and visit spectacular ancient cities.  Our focus will be the ‘Seven Churches’ to which St John wrote letters at the beginning of the Book of Revelation.  These are not seven church buildings, but seven cities in which there were early Christian communities.  Five of these cities (Ephesus, Pergamon, Sardis, Laodicea and Smyrna (Izmir) have magnificent ruins in evocative locations.  We will also visit other sites, such as Hierapolis, a glorious ancient city which stands at the top of the snow-white travertine terraces of Pammukale (which we will walk upon).  Ephesus of course is famous and remains one of the most sensational ancient cities in the entire Mediterranean region.  The final day of the trip (Sunday 29 May) we will attend the morning service at St John’s Church (my church), and visit other sites around the city, such as the Agora, the Citadel (Kadifekale) and the charming Anglican chapel at Bornova, where we will be entertained to an al fresco supper in the grounds of one of the great Levantine mansions.  We will be accompanied by  an excellent Turkish guide, and by me!  May is a lovely month to travel in the Aegean region.  The weather is warm and sunny, and the hillsides and ancient sites are ablaze with spring flowers.”   

Lying in state

Paola Pugsley explores the history of this now established custom

When faced with a crisis like the death of a much beloved sovereign, human beings tend to seek comfort in ritual. One of these is the tradition of the lying in state, when the deceased is laid in his or her coffin and mourners are invited to file past to pay their respects. One might think that this was a custom hallowed by the centuries. The truth is rather different.

The procedure refers to the placing of the body in an open or closed casket and displaying this in an opulent or solemn setting, as happened in Westminster Hall in the case of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The coffin stood on a raised plinth, covered by the royal standard and topped by a wreath, with the imperial crown, the golden orb and the sceptre on a purple cushion and huge candle stands all around. A selected contingent kept the vigil, dressed in elaborate unifoms, and a steady stream of mourners, some of whom had been queuing for hours, filed slowly past in complete silence. Only the shuffling of feet was heard.

But just how old is this custom? An early mention of the term ‘lying in state’, in the London Gazette in 1705, refers to Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, Queen Consort of Prussia, who died of pneumonia in that year. But there is no suggestion of crowds of commoners filing past to pay their respects. Her death remained a private matter.

That does not mean that the demise of a powerful leader was always kept private. Far from it. Monumental tombs, intended to endure forever, were a good way to announce the fact indelibly to everyone. One need only think of the pyramids. The populace did not visit them to pay their respects, as such, but they would certainly have stood before them in awe. Another, perhaps more subtle way of manipulating public perception was the use of conspicuous consumption. The target in this case was not so much the ordinary people but rival clans and power centres, who could be led to believe, seeing so much money lavished on a monument, that if so much disposable income was available, then there must surely be plenty more where it came from. This conspicuous consumption could take the shape of immense banquets, or the burial of vast riches with the deceased, as happened in the so-called Midas Tomb in Gordion ,Turkey. The procedure was one involving priests, relatives and officialdom. The populace played its role later, as tomb robbers.

Human sacrifice is also recorded. A man’s entire retinue of household servants might be bludgeoned to death and summarily embalmed, according to the latest research, to join their deceased master and ensure faithful, eternal service in the afterlife (mid-3rd millennium in Ur, Mesopotamia). But this system seems not to have endured. The Egyptians made do with moulded models, and the famous terracotta army was made of clay, not of people. For a long time the death of a ruler remained an affair between the surviving relatives and the religious authorities, but prestige might be lent by the architect of a monument. In Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent had a simple tomb in San Lorenzo, but it was designed by Michelangelo.

The lying in state of a person of authority for the benefit not only of relatives and members of the apparatus of state but also of the common people, seems to have developed in the US, starting in 1852 with Henry Clay, a senator with a long and distinguished political career. In 1865 Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state. The place of choice was the Capitol in Washington, DC. While we know when, however, it is not clear why it came about. Certainly the dramatic circumstances of Lincoln’s death played a part; moreover, as a young country looking for a common identity, the shared moment of grief acquired a momentum of its own in the United States and needed an outlet. The first statesman to be awarded the honour in the UK was Gladstone, in 1898, and from then on the practice spread and has now become routine. The first member of the British royal family to lie in state was Edward VII in 1910.

Abraham Lincoln lying in state in 1865. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Another possible explanation for the custom of placing a body in an open casket is the fear of mistaken death. This encouraged people to delay burial for a few days to make sure that the departed was truly no more. The corpse would be kept in the house while well-wishers would come to pay their respects and comfort the family. While the medically accepted phenomenon of autoresuscitation (or Lazarus syndrome) is rare, the fear of being buried alive was and is very real. One can find all sort of examples on the web, including the case of a person who came back to life during his own autopsy.

Paola Pugsley is the author of Blue Guides to Crete and Turkey

Eleanor of Toledo, Duchess of Florence

Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino (detail), in the Uffizi

The colour always favoured by Eleanor was red, and the entrance to this exhibition devoted to her life and patronage, which has just closed at Palazzo Pitti, was hung with a sumptuous crimson curtain. Beyond it, the visitor was at once confronted by what at first glance seemed to be the most famous portrait of Eleanor and her son, by Bronzino, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a good replica made some 40 years later by a pupil, the little-known painter Lorenze Vaiani, or Lo Sciorina. He replaced the portrait of Eleanor’s son Giovanni with another son, Garzia. The significance of giving this work pride of place as an introduction to the exhibition is that it demonstrates how Eleanor’s image was often replicated to perpetuate her importance as a member of the Medici court.

Two Utens lunettes, from his famous series of paintings of the Medici villas around Florence, depict Poggio a Caiano (with its garden and extensive estate) where Eleanor was received on her arrival in the city, and which remained her favourite residence, as well as the place where she chose to rest before the birth of each of her eleven children. The lunette of the Boboli behind the Pitti reminds us of how much Eleanor did to create that famous garden, ten years after she had married Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1539. It was her immense wealth that enabled her to purchase Palazzo Pitti and the park behind it.

Eleanor’s family background was Spanish: on loan from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich came an imposing portrait of her father, Don Pedro de Toledo, Viceroy of Naples. Holding a long pilgrim’s staff, symbol of the Spanish military order of the Knights of Santiago, the portrait has been attributed to Titian. The beautiful marble statue of a young river god, by Pierino da Vinci (now in the Louvre), was a gift from Eleanor to her father. Many ancient Roman statues, often reworked or restored by 16th-century sculptors, were chosen to adorn the Boboli gardens. Alongisde these, there were a number of much less pretentious ones, recording ordinary farmers about their work. These were a particular feature of the gardens which were largely created by Eleanor, and a genre sculpture of a peasant emptying a small barrel (designed as a fountain), which was part of the exhibition and is now replaced in the gardens by a copy, is known to have been specially commissioned by her from Baccio Bandinelli (his was the design but not the execution). The peasant, dressed in his work clothes, has a very expressive face and he introduced an entirely new type of sculpture to populate Italian gardens, a type which was to remain a feature of all subsequent formal gardens of this kind.

In quite a different spirit, Bandinelli was also responsible for the pair of small bronze busts, very refined portraits of Eleanor and Cosimo. The couple are also depicted, with five of their children, in a precious little agate cameo made by Giovanni Antonio de’ Rossi (displayed beside a drawing of it by Vasari from Christ Church, Oxford).

The most magnificent portraits of Eleanor and her husband, however, are those by Bronzino, and it is he who was inevitably the star of the show. His portraits are all still in Florence, including some very small portraits of the children, in oil on tin. He also possessed extraordinary skill as a draughtsman, producing studies for the chapel in Palazzo Vecchio which he painted for Eleanor.

It is known that Eleanor kept two weavers at her court and some very fine 16th-century tapestries survive.

Also part of the show were Eleanor’s exquisite little Book of Hours (now in the V&A in London) and a very small Deposition by Gérard David (1515–20), which is in the Uffizi but not normally on view and is thought to have been owned by Eleanor’s mother. Some of the most precious pieces of jewellery were fashioned by setting engraved Roman gems in gold mounts worked by Florentine jewellers. Two rings found in Eleonora’s tomb (opened in 1947) are Roman but refashioned by a Florentine craftsman, and almost certainly commissioned by Eleanor herself.

Also found in Eleanor’s tomb was a corset and pair of knitted stockings, both in her favourite red, apparently worn in her lifetime to keep her warm and taken with her to the tomb for the same purpose (she died of malaria in 1562). Displayed close by was an alarming steel corset which we are told she also wore on occasion.

The closing images were a pair of oval portraits of Eleanor and Cosimo, carved in maroon and green porphyry, an exceptionally hard rock occasionally used for imperial portraits in ancient Rome: these are certain to perpetuate for all time the couples’ remarkable lives.  

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

Perugino: Italy’s best maestro

Pietro Vannucci, the artist always known as Perugino, after Perugia, the chief city of his native Umbria, was born c. 1450. A superb new exhibition, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of his death in 1523, is currently on show at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria.

It was probably in Umbria that Perugino’s apprenticeship began and the exhibition begins with that background, with works by Benedetto Bonfigli (d. 1496) and Bartolomeo Caporali (d. before 1505), then considered the best artists of the Umbrian school. However, it was in Florence that Perugino reached his artistic maturity, in the workshop of Verrocchio—whose members included Botticelli and Leonardo. Looking at examples of the art of Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio and the Florentines, of which this show has several examples, it is clear how Perugino’s pictorial imagination was shaped. Altarpiece after altarpiece is populated with colourfully clad characters of somewhat ambiguous gender, standing in sinuous contrapposto, eyes rolling almost epileptically heavenwards.

Detail of Perugino’s ‘Scarani altarpiece’ (c. 1500), now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. Image: Blue Guides.

Perugino’s reputation was made when, together with a group of Florentine painters, he was called to Rome in 1481 to produce works for St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel. As a result, some of the finest connoisseurs of the age, among them Lorenzo the Magnificent and Isabella d’Este, sought his services. He was described as “Italy’s finest maestro”; the colours of his palette were acknowledged to possess a special “sweetness”—a quality he is thought to have learned to convey from time spent in the lagoon light of Venice in the mid-1490s. The quality of his palette seems to suggest an everlasting sunny springtime.

Perugino, in his heyday, was formidable and prolific and maintained a large workshop. His self-portraits reveal a man of stocky, thickset appearance, probably capable of driving a hard bargain. He had no interest whatsoever in God, Vasari tells us, and an obsessive compulsion to make money. The star exhibit in this show is his Marriage of the Virgin, painted for the cathedral of Perugia in 1504. It hung there, in the Chapel of the Holy Ring, until 1797 when it was stolen by Napoleon. It is still in France, in Caen, but has returned to Umbria for this show. It contains many of the elements for which Perugino is distinctive: the serene and idealised backdrop; the rolling eyeballs; the outlandish headdresses; the rich colour blocks provided by the protagonists’ robes; the acute portrait studies in some of the faces.

Detail of Perugino’s ‘Marriage of the Virgin’ (1504), painted for the cathedral of Perugia and now in Caen. Image: Blue Guides.

But Perugino often overstretched himself. “Pietro always had so much to do,” Vasari tells us, “that he frequently repeated himself, and his theory of art led him so far that all his figures have the same air.” It is true. There are undeniable similarities between his Holy Ring and the Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter, which he had painted for the Sistine Chapel in 1481–2. The Renaissance building in the centre, the enigmatic figures in the middle ground, the crowd at the front, the mountainous backdrop, the heavily stylised trees, the mixture of idealised, androgynous faces and contemporary portraits from life. It was the formula which had made him famous and he saw no reason to diverge from the tried and tested path. All of its elements can be found again in his Marriage of the Virgin.

‘Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter’ (1481–2), in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Here Perugino introduces the device of people pointing at each other, which Ruskin later noticed in the work of Perugino’s pupil Raphael and which greatly irritated him. “Of Raphael I found I could make nothing whatever,” Ruskin wrote. “The only thing clearly manifest to me in his compositions was, that everybody seemed to be pointing at everybody else, and that nobody, to my notion, was worth pointing at.” Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Perugino, at his height, was very influential. The Marriage of the Virgin painted in the same year by Raphael is nothing short of a downright copy (though Raphael places his signature very prominently on the central building).

‘Marriage of the Virgin’ by Raphael (1504). Now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Raphael—Perugino’s greatest pupil— went on to far surpass his master, even though he predeceased him. Perugino, on the other hand, remained a painter of the 15th century, and as the 16th century wore on and revolutionary younger artists began to break the old moulds, he found that he could no longer get away with recycling past successes. Vasari tells a story about an altarpiece for the Annunziata in Florence, completed by Perugino after the death of Filippino Lippi. “But when this work was uncovered it was severely criticised by all the new artists, chiefly because Pietro had employed figures of which he had already made use. Even his friends declared but he had not taken pains, but had abandoned the good method of working, either from avarice or in order to save time. Pietro answered, ‘I have done the figures which you have formerly praised and which have given you great pleasure. If you are now dissatisfied and do not praise them, how can I help it?’” This was 1507, four years after Leonardo had painted his Mona Lisa and three since Michelangelo had sculpted his David. Perugino could not cling on forever to his spot at the top of Fortune’s wheel.

Perugino’s Self-portrait (1495–7). Uffizi, Florence. Image: Blue Guides.

This show is clever, though, in that it ends on a high note. One skill that Perugino had that perhaps neither Michelangelo nor Raphael could ever equal was his gift at taking a keen and vivid likeness. In one of the last rooms of the exhibition are displayed a number of his portraits, many of them from the Uffizi. His own self-portrait is among them and there is something about the face that is instantly knowable. You feel you’ve seen this man. He might be the municipal carpark attendant or the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket. The waiter at the corner café. The man who came to fix the boiler. Back in Renaissance central Italy, he was the painter of softly serene altarpieces who didn’t believe in God.

Italy’s Best Maestro: Perugino and his Day, curated by Marco Pierini and Veruska Picchiarelli, runs until 11th June at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia.