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Silence of the looms

Sadly the looms of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows (Blue Guide The Marche) in Potenza Picena no longer weave their wonderful damask.  Our author Ellen Grady investigates »

Grammar and Grace

St Martin altarpiece (1490, unknown provenance), Hungarian National Gallery.

This October it will be 500 years since Luther made public his famous 95 theses in Wittenberg. The anniversary is being celebrated on the web, by a pilgrimage and festival, with events in and around Wittenberg itself, as well as in print. In Budapest, the Hungarian National Museum has devoted an exhibition to the subject of the Reformation in Hungary: Ige-idők (Grammar and Grace), which runs until November 5th.

 

The displays open with a huge black and white reproduction of a Last Judgement scene, as an illustration of the late medieval mindset. The world is presented as a place beset by sin and temptation. When the final trumpet sounds, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished. Altarpieces of the northern European school reinforce the point--and make it clear that the only hope we have of navigating the journey successfully is by bargaining and mediation. God's Word is our guide, but it comes down to us in Latin, a language we do not speak, so His message has to be transcribed pictorially, through stories of Christ and the exemplary lives of the saints. We cannot communicate directly with God, so the saints intercede for us, helping us to achieve salvation. This will never be attained without the purifying fire of Purgatory; the tools for getting out quickly are faith and good works, but because these are notoriously unreliable currency, we are offered the chance to pay, through the purchase of indulgences.

 

This, in a nutshell, is the pre-Reformation Christian world. Mysterious, untransparent, trammelled by an unwieldy bureaucracy of saints, and, as an inevitable result, corrupt. The first room spends some time presenting Rome as the arch culprit. It is Rome that allows the system of indulgences. Rome also wilfully misleads her flock. This is illustrated by a woodcut of two feet. As a piece of evidence to support the curators’ point it is well chosen. The footprints are those that occur on a crude stone block preserved in the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Via Appia in Rome. They purport to be the imprints left by Christ's feet as he appeared to St Peter, who was fleeing the city in an attempt to avoid martyrdom. It’s a charming story but the footprints are a blatant fake, precisely the sort of hoaxing that the 16th-century Reformers aimed to root out.

 

Background information is presented through a series of wall banners. The texts are long and I would have appreciated somewhere to sit down while reading them. The exhibited objects themselves (some of them never exhibited before) are captioned erratically, sometimes with a translation (but more often not, so visitors with no Hungarian will struggle). These are quibbles, but it makes the information difficult to digest.

Anonymous 15th-century woodcut. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The English title of this exhibition, Grammar and Grace, has a good alliterative ring. But the Hungarian can also be translated as “The Age of the Word”; and it is really this that the exhibition is about, because it is through the Word (of God, transmitted to man in comprehensible form) that the Reformers sought to do their work. Whether salvation is achieved through faith or through works, or, as Luther had it, through grace alone (or only by grace), is a theological debate that the exhibition does not wrestle with. It concentrates on Protestantism's fixation with text and the way text replaced images.

 

Altarpieces cease to be the principal tool of communication and what we get instead are books. A number of early Bibles and prayer books are exhibited, for example the Greek and Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus (Basel, 1516), intended as a basis from which vernacular translations could be made, translations which would make the phalanx of intermediary saints redundant, as Holy Writ was rendered in the common language of men. Men speaking the common tongue quickly became the problem. In early 16th-century Hungary, ecclesiastical leadership was in crisis. Many prelates were also military commanders and most were wiped out at the Battle of Mohács, the great Ottoman victory of 1526. Into the void stepped itinerant preachers, spreading the ideas of Luther and Calvin.

 

A wall banner notes that none of the achievements of the Reformation could have been accomplished without zeal. The examples of early Bibles, though--however remarkable--cannot speak to us in the way the altarpieces do. Deprived of the personality of the preachers who used them, these tomes struggle to convey the quality of this zeal. Some of the preachers will have been ardent and inspirational, opening up whole new realms of spirituality for their hearers. Others will have been fanatics, banishing imagination, insisting on the literal.

 

Text comes not only in the form of devotional books, which after all were rare and expensive (the early, 16th-century Bibles were mainly for the use of the preacher; copies for individual study took another century to arrive). Instead, altarpieces were redeployed as vehicles for the Word. Suddenly they are awash with writing. The exhibition has found a brilliant example: a 1519 Crucifixion altarpiece from Sibiu (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben) in Transylvania, which was painted over in 1545 by the first Protestant minister. The entire lower section, which would have shown mourners at the foot of the Cross, has been overlaid with texts from St Matthew’s gospel and the book of Isaiah. Mary Magdalene's hands can still just be seen in the central strip, clutching the Cross.

Crucifixion altarpiece of 1519, overpainted with text in 1545.

Translation, however, had its drawbacks. Just as the Internet is today, so the invention of printing in the Reformation era was a disruptive technology. Suddenly, vernacular Bibles were everywhere, being used by individual preachers with their own individual interpretations of God's message. It was difficult to enforce an official line. In Reformation Hungary there were no burnings at the stake; instead different denominations co-existed. This seems to have been especially true because of the power vacuum created by the Ottomans, with their semi-tolerant approach and their appetite for tribute money. The town of Debrecen, for example, paid tribute in exchange for being left alone: it existed as a Christian republic, a ‘new Jerusalem’ on the Geneva model, referring to itself as Christianopolis (it remained self-governed in this way until the mid-1750s). That was the stronghold of Calvin. Both the Calvinist (Református) and Lutheran (Evangélikus) churches took root in historic Hungary. But the two reformers were very different temperamentally. The difference is nowhere better illustrated than by the pavement slabs in nearby Kálvin tér, close to the National Museum building. Here, underfoot, the flagstones are inscribed with quotations from Protestant theologians. “God in his mercy denies to his own what of his wrath he permits to unbelievers,” says Calvin stoically. Luther is more mischievous and less austere: “If I  believed that God had no sense of humour, I would not want to go to Heaven.” The fathers of the Reformation did not sing from the same hymn sheet (Calvin didn't sing, for a start).

 

Today we worry about fake news. During the Reformation people worried about free interpretations of scripture. In another 15th-century Sibiu altarpiece (here shown in an early 20th-century copy), Protestantised in 1650, Christ is shown behind bars at the bottom. St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible springs to mind (Lamentations 4:20), where his Latin translation makes mention of "Christ the Lord" a captive of our sins, something the original does not exactly say. If St Jerome could do it, what might a provincial pastor do? Inevitably there had to be a clampdown.

 

As surely as Catholicism ever did, Protestantism begins to use the tools of propaganda. The result is a kind of sententious, moralising religiosity, as exemplified by the Dutch-inspired 18th-century Vanitas still life by an unknown Hungarian painter. All the stock elements are there, to indicate the transience of this worldly existence: the skull, the snuffed candle, the soap bubbles, the dog-eared book, the fading flowers. Fickle fortune is indicated by the dice. False riches by the coins. The only thing that can save us is Christ and the Spirit, symbolised by the goldfinch.

Inevitably, as it becomes established, Protestantism also enters the realm of politics. In Hungary’s case this was particularly true in Transylvania, but after Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance (1781), it becomes true in general. Protestants also make significant contributions to science (understandably) and the arts. The vernacular Bible in Hungary was influential in shaping language and thus thought. But the Reformation as a lathe on which identity is shaped also brings with it identity politics. If a Reformation brings choice, then one has to self-identify. No longer can we talk of one people under the imperial aegis of a pope or a Habsburg monarch, but separate nations of denomination, each with its own belief systems. Public expressions of religion have elements in common with modern virtue-signalling. In the end, much comes down to personal preference and inclination. It is difficult not to return to the first room, as the one where the objects speak most freely to each beholder. There is a lovely panel showing St Martin (illustrated at the top of this article). The bishop saint, with a huge gold halo, stands before an altar raising the Host aloft as angels drape his naked arms (naked because he has charitably given half his cloak to a beggar). In the background, in a doorway, stands a man, observing the scene just as we do, but from the opposite side. It is a lovely and subtle work of art, linking God and Man. What better way to communicate mystery and transcendence?

 

Some of the early altarpieces in this exhibition now seem modern in a way that many of the later, once-revolutionary artefacts do not. Bibles, prayer books and orders of service, once translated, are in need of constant revision, as language, society and its values change. A little columbarium vitrine in the penultimate room contains quotes from modern authors. The one from Péter Esterházy sums it up: “The spectrum of language is not only spatial but temporal. Words have their time, or, to put it another way, time lies couched within words. Our time, the time of those who use the words, our history, our very selves.” A reformation which puts mysteries into words sets itself on a path of perpetual re-reform as the words date and lose their revelatory power.

 

That does not mean we should not reform. But how should reformations be conducted? How can we prevent them either from degenerating into riot or from fossilising into the very sclerotic structures they sought to sweep away? This exhibition poses all these questions. It is extremely thought-provoking. How far have we actually come in the half-millennium since Luther railed against Tetzel?

The Seuso Saga

Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

 

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.

 

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

 

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

 

Annabel Barber

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 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.

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