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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.

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