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Collectors in Florence

An exhibition at Palazzo Pitti (Leopoldo de’ Medici, Principe dei Collezionisti, on until 28th January) displays a selection of the exquisite objects from the famous collection of Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, youngest son of Grand Duke Cosimo II and Maria Magdalena of Austria. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this exhibition is that this is the first time the subject has been tackled, even though it has always been well known how deeply the cardinal’s scholarly taste affected the quality of the Medici collections. The exhibition was conceived by Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi and Pitti gallieries, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Leopoldo’s birth.

The scope of the artworks on display (in five rooms of the ground-floor state apartments) immediately reveals how widely the cardinal’s interests ranged: antique Roman marble statues and busts, drawings, cameos, paintings, arms, 17th-century ivories, Egyptian statuettes, gems, Etruscan terracottas, astrolabes and all kinds of scientific instruments, small bronzes, Chinese jade, reliquary urns, artefacts in semi-precious stones, Della Robbian enamelled terracottas, artists’ self-portraits, miniatures, still-lifes from the Netherlands, medals and coins, even a tiny Sardinian Nuragic bronze statue. Leopoldo had a wide network of agents who sought out precious art for him (in Rome, for example, he trusted the taste of Bernini and Pietro da Cortona to tell him what he should buy).

The exhibition includes works almost exclusively from the Florentine collections. The cardinal had a memorably ugly face and the visitor is confronted with Giovan Battista Foggini’s marble statue of him, which was commissioned by Cosimo III in memory of his uncle. Other portraits of Leopoldo include him as a baby (tucked up in golden brocade) by Iacopo Ligozzi and the well-known portrait (with no pretence to flattery) from the Uffizi of him as a cardinal, commissioned from Baciccia by his sister Margherita de’ Medici, Duchess of Parma. But the most extraordinary portrait is a large painting by the Medici court artist Sustermans, from the castle of Konopištĕ in the Czech Republic. Leopoldo’s aunt married the King of Poland and she evidently had fun dressing up her nephew in grand style and sitting him upon a grey horse, whose mane flows down over his nose and is draped below his belly reaching all the way to his haunches, where it is tied up by a little red bow. We are told that after the horse’s death its mane was preserved in the Medici armoury. This delightful and amusing portrait (illustrated at the top of this article) was chosen by the curators for the cover of the catalogue.

Another very surprising piece on exhibition is a giant phallus supported by lion’s paws, which was immediately acquired by the cardinal when it was unearthed in Rome beneath the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (of all places—it is famous now for its early Christian catacombs). It is presumed to have come from a temple of Priapus on the site. Although belonging to Florence’s archaeological museum it is usually kept locked away (it was much enjoyed by the Marquis de Sade in 1738).

Leopoldo’s passionate interest in the sciences is also recorded, with some of the most precious possessions from Florence’s Museo Galileo. We know that when he became titular cardinal in 1667, Leopoldo openly defended Galileo and attempted to clear his name and get his works published. Curios include a transparent green travertine mask from Mexico, complete with its set of teeth, dating from around the 6th century and one of the first Teotihuacan pieces to reach Europe; a lacquer-work and mother-of-pearl box made in Japan in the cardinal’s lifetime and probably where he kept his cardinal’s hat; a 17th-century Indonesian kris (dagger); and a ‘night clock’ which the cardinal had beautifully painted by Borgognone (the copper cover ensured that he was not disturbed in the night by its ticking).

Examples chosen to illustrate Leopoldo’s taste in painting (and his particular interest in the Venetian school), include Titian’s wonderful portrait of the erudite Bishop Ludovico Beccadelli (a touch of white indicating part of his collar gives light to his genial face). The cardinal also owned Veronese’s Holy Family, memorable for the depiction of the Christ Child fast asleep, exhausted by so much attention. The small Portrait Head of a Man was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in the cardinal’s day but was later recognised as the work of Lorenzo Lotto.

The cardinal is also fondly remembered for starting a collection of artists’ self-portraits. He commissioned some of them from the artists themselves, including Guercino and Pietro da Cortona (others are by Rembrandt, Luca Giordano, Federico Barocci and Ciro Ferri). Tucked away in a corner of the last of the four main rooms is a painting of a musician by Leopoldo himself and three sheets of paper from the Archivio di Stato in Florence with drawings by him illustrating some of his poems.

On the other side of the entrance hall (easy to miss), some of the vast collection of the cardinal’s drawings are displayed. Highlights are a parchment with flowers drawn in black chalk and polychrome pigments by Giovanna Garzoni, one of very few female artists of the time, whom the cardinal promoted and who also painted a miniature portrait of him (on show in the exhibition). This is a splendid exhibition commemorating a great Florentine. The notices and labels (also in English) are excellent.

Before leaving the exhibition it is worth looking into the little Sala della Grotticina where (since the publication of the lastest Blue Guide Florence this year) you can now admire (after its restoration) a wooden trophy exquisitely carved by Grinling Gibbons for Charles II, who sent this by sea to Florence as a gift for Cosimo III. It represents an allegory of the friendship between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and England (made explicit by a kiss between two turtle doves).

Another exhibition (on until 6th January) at the Biblioteca Marucelliana in tVia Cavour records a collection (much less famous than that of Cardinal Leopoldo) of Italian drawings from the 17th and 18th centuries formed by the Marucelli family. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Marco Chiarini, who died in 2015. He was the much admired director of Palazzo Pitti from 1967 to 2000 and also spent many years examining the drawings in the Marucelliana. A catalogue of his studies has come out in conjunction with the exhibition, edited by his collaborators. A selection of the drawings is displayed in the tiny exhibition room at the end of the magnificent Reading Room, first opened to the public in 1752 and still much frequented. The drawings, fascinating for their variety, include fine works by Ottavio Leoni (a portrait of Galileo), Jacques Callot, Sebastiano Conca, Jacopo Vignali, Volterrano and Aureliano Milani. Filippo Napolitano, an artist particularly admired by Chiarini, is also well represented. Chiarini left a drawing from his small but choice collection to each of the institutions he had been most closely associated with in Florence,; he is sadly missed by numerous friends and scholars. Also dedicated to his memory (and to that of his wife Françoise, who predeceased him by a year) is the 11th edition of the Blue Guide Florence, which came out early this year.

by Alta Macadam

A people who changed history

Silver belt ornament with twin horse heads (7th century)

The exhibition currently running in Pavia near Milan (Longobardi. Un popolo che cambia la storia) has been given a good amount of publicity in Italy since it is the first time artefacts produced in the period when the Lombards dominated the Italian peninsula have been collected together from many different institutions. More than 300 works have been lent by upwards of 80 museums and institutions, and some of the artefacts are displayed for the first time. You can see the exhibition in Pavia, in the Castello Visconteo, until 3rd December; then it travels to Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 21st Dec–25th March); then to the Hermitage (spring 2018). The show is spectacular, featuring Lombard gold jewellery found in tombs and the bas- reliefs sculpted for early Christian churches, beautifully displayed in the vaults of the huge castle which was built in 1360 by Galeazzo II  Visconti. Pavia was the capital of the Goths under Theodoric but is particularly famous for the subsequent period, when for two centuries from 572 it was capital of the kingdom of the Lombards. The kings established their residence in a palace here from 626 onwards and the reign of Liutprando (712–44) has been recognised as the most important period for the arts.

The sub-title of the exhibition, ‘a people who changed history’ underlines the result of recent scholarship which gives greater importance to the few centuries following the conquest of Italy by the ‘bearded barbarians’ known as the Lombards in 568. They adopted the Arian faith in the 7th century and by the 8th century they had occupied some two thirds of Italian territory. Their presence in Italy was subsequently marked by the spread of Catholicism.

Although there are no labels in English, the videos, multimedia supports and touchscreens which accompany the display are sufficient to explain the complicated history of this former nomadic tribe from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. For some 50 years they settled in the former Roman province of Pannonia (present-day Hungary). The Lombard period in Italy saw a fragmentation of power into various dukedoms. Apart from Pavia, the most powerful were Spoleto (in Umbria), Cividale (in Friuli) and Benevento (in Campania). When Charlemagne arrived with the Franks and crowned himself King of the Lombards in Pavia in 774, the peninsula and the powers around the Mediterranean began to lose their importance while the Holy Roman Empire (only formally brought to an end in 1806 by Napoleon) became established north of the Alps.

Left-hand leaf of the 10th-century 'Rambona Diptych', showing the Crucifixion and the She-wolf of Rome nursing Romulus and Remus.

Amongst the most memorable exhibits are the gold jewellery, some worked with filigree, and especially the exquisite pieces from the Museo di Antichità in Turin, the Museo Civica in Tortona, and the Museo  Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. There are also two exceptional pieces, one in rock crystal and the other in light and porous sepiolite, known as ‘sea foam’. Larger jewels showing Byzantine influence, today preserved in museums as far apart as Cagliari and Potenza, are also displayed. There are two coloured-glass horns, one of which, in blue glass of the 6th or 7th century, was found in Ascoli Piceno (Marche) and is perfectly preserved. Finds from a rich 7th-century tomb unearthed beneath the church of Santa Giulia in Lucca include a shield with appliqués of Christian symbols (Daniel and his lions, and peacocks). Bronzes which once decorated horses’ bridles come from Molise; and a fascinating little bronze figure of a warrior (proudly displayed on its own) comes from Pavia’s own Museo Civico. The finest of the many Christian bas-reliefs are those from a church in Milan dating from the 7th century showing two lambs adoring a jewelled Cross, and one of a peacock made in the following century found in the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia (and lent by the Museo della Città there). Among the later works is an exquisite 10th-century ivory diptych found in Macerata and commissioned by the first abbot of the monastery of Rambona (lent by the Vatican Museums): the scenes include a Crucifixion with the personifications of the sun and moon and the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus.

A last room (on the ground floor) proudly records the history of Pavia itself and how the town developed under the Lombards, and how this period of glory was remembered in succeeding centuries.

Visitors are then directed to a part of the Castello Visconteo that has recently been renovated to preserve the treasures from the Lombard period. Here one of the most memorable exhibits is a ‘camp’ saddle found in the bed of the Ticino river. Delicately made in bronze (with a restored leather seat) it could easily be folded up or erected in a hurry as the situation required—a unique find from the period.

The Musei Civici in the castello also include a large picture gallery with paintings from all periods and including some masterpieces by Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Hugo van der Goes and many others.

Pavia, with its lovely paved and cobbled streets, is a delightful place to wander and its churches well worth visiting (and three of their crypts dating from the Lombard period are open specially during the exhibition period). If you stay the night, local trains every half hour from the station take you to Pavia’s most famous building, the Certosa di Pavia. Delicious pastries are to be had at Vigoni (Strada Nuova 110).

by Alta Macadam

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

Ferragamo's Return

Ferragamo the Cobbler: from Naples to Hollywood and the return to Italy in 1927

 

Florence is determined to keep its place as a centre of fashion (despite fierce competition from Milan). Of the famous “Pitti” fashion shows, which are held throughout the year, the most prestigious remains “Pitti Uomo”, which takes place for a week in June. This year Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, allowed fashion shows to take place in the Pitti Palace ballroom, thus reintroducing a tradition which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. He has also renamed the Pitti’s Galleria del Costume. Now known as the Museo della Moda e del Costume, it makes clear its role in documenting the history of fashion.

 

Another exhibition centred on fashion, entitled “1927: The Return to Italy”, runs at the Museo Ferragamo, the company’s elegant flagship store at the end of Via Tornabuoni, until May 2018. Curated by the much-respected art historian Carlo Sisi, it provides a fascinating history of Italy in the 1920s. The setting cleverly evokes an ocean liner: in 1914 the 17-year-old Salvatore Ferragamo sailed from Naples for America as a third-class passenger. Just 13 years later he returned as a highly successful businessman, with a first-class cabin on the huge ocean liner R oma (she had made her maiden voyage the previous year and a film made at the time shows life aboard). Born in Irpinia in the south of Italy, where he had set up a business selling handmade shoes when aged only 11 (six older boys worked for him), Ferragamo decided to emigrate to the land of opportunities, and by 1923 was an American citizen and had opened a shoe store in Hollywood. All the famous movie stars soon became his devoted clients. His decision to return to Italy in 1927 was prompted by a desire to find skilled Italian artisans to increase production and it was only in Florence that he found the quality he was looking for. He settled in the city, founded a shoe factory, and by 1938 was able to purchase the huge medieval Palazzo Feroni on the Arno, which still houses the company’s main store. On show, beside the shoes he crafted, are numerous examples of the decorative arts made in Florence in the 1920s (including lovely woven fabrics). One of the most moving exhibits is the ‘home movie’ Ferragamo made of the wonders of Florence when he first arrived there from Naples with his sisters.

 

After the First World War hemlines had risen, exposing women’s legs and ankles, and thus the shoe became far more conspicuous. Ferragamo experimented with all kind of materials, including kid and antelope skins, and even ‘sea leather’ from fish. His sandals, boots and hand-painted shoes were renowned. He studied closely the anatomy of the foot and issues of posture in order to create models that were comfortable as well as stylish. Hundreds of these shoes are on show, as well as his archive of patented designs.

 

But the exhibition has also provided the opportunity to study the role of women at this time (just before Fascism took hold) and the influence of the emancipated American flapper in Europe. The importance of sport and dance in liberating the female figure (if only from corsets!) is underlined by contemporary films, and many fascinating of posters are included. Amongst the sculptures and paintings, all rigorously confined within this one decade, the 1920s, some of the most interesting are by the brothers RAM and Thayaht (Ruggero Alfredo and Ernesto Michahelles), little-known outside Tuscany, who were particularly interested in fashion. They were at work in Florence producing remarkable paintings, graphics and sculpture (some of them using an amalgam of aluminium and silver which Thayaht invented and named “taiattite”, after himself). A painting (owned by the Ferragamo Foundation) by Giovanni Colacicchi shows Palazzo Feroni itself in Piazza Santa Trinita at this period.

 

This is a delightful exhibition and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue. It clearly demonstrates that the fashion house of Ferragamo, even though now a global brand, can still contribute to the life of the city of Florence.

 

by Alta Macadam


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?

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.

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.

Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Abstract Expressionism, on show at the Royal Academy, London, until 2nd January 2017.

Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s in the United States and remained a predominantly American phenomenon. Its main characteristic, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art, is the “desire to convey powerful emotions through the sensuous qualities of paint, often on canvases of huge size.” The Baroque movement of the 20th century, then? A Counter-Reformation against intellectual, social- and community-minded –isms, with all their rules and strictures, and a headlong, self-conscious race into the arms of feeling.

 

The genesis of the movement is well illustrated in the first room. Two early figurative works by Mark Rothko are hung on the right. Both date from 1936. One is his Self-portrait: the fat, red twisted lips and dark blind circles of eyes hidden by dark glasses strike a disreputable and sinister note. The other work is Interior, where a pair of ghostly white and faintly grotesque classicist sculptures flank a dark doorway populated by a huddle of brown-clad, white-faced, stricken-looking people. Normality and the conventional are shown distorted and turning ghoulish.

 

There is a scene in the film Funny Face where the character played by Audrey Hepburn, feeling angry and put upon by the character played by Fred Astaire, says: “Isn't it time you realised that dancing is nothing more than a form of expression or release? There's no need to be formal or cute about it. As a matter of fact, I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use a release.” And then she dances. Wonderfully well. It is the only really good scene in the film.

 

Abstract Expressionism is like that. An emotional response to an external trigger. Dark times (world war, economic depression) cannot be argued away by reason, logic or objectivity. Objects turn ugly. What we can use is colour and gesture.

 

The exhibition rooms are crowded with visitors. The air hums with their whispered reactions. There is talk of “creative revelation” and of “traumatic experience”. These are personal responses. The artworks themselves are personal responses. Here we are as an audience, being called on to respond personally to a series of personal responses. This is art as me-journalism. And when the artist’s response succeeds in triggering a response of our own, either in reaction or in sympathy, the result is extraordinarily powerful. This is the ideal time to be looking again at these works, in an age so politically polarised that we can scarcely even sit at the same table as people who don’t agree with us. We need Abstract Expressionism to save us from fetishes and propaganda.

 

But is self-expression anything more than simple self-indulgence? Yes, if the self-expresser is equipped with the vocabulary to interpret his or her feelings productively. All (or almost all) of the artists represented in this show are very well equipped, and their eloquence elicits a productive response. The solemn, Beaux Arts neoclassicism of the exhibition rooms is a perfect foil for this art.

 

The problem, though, is that too many feelings are being expressed. And too few walls are available to harbour all the wealth of feeling that is outpoured. The result is a clamorous hubbub. And there are very few places to sit down. But perhaps this is a quibble. You need to give yourself time. This is not a show to see in a hurry.

 

The work of Arshile Gorky had a formative influence on the AbEx movement and an entire room is dedicated to him. He does not use the medium of abstraction to express emotions or ideas; he is rooted in Surrealism and his paintings send audiences scrabbling for figurative interpretations. The exhibition points out Gorky’s “knack for camouflaging forms so that their identities hover between the recognisable and the cryptic.” This means that we are perpetually trying to see forms in all his works, forms that will provide the meaning and the interpretation, like looking for recognisable shapes in clouds. We do this with The Orators, which the wall text tells us is an “artfully obscured scene of figures around the funeral bier of Gorky’s father.” The figures are either obscured too artfully or not obscured enough. We spend too long intellectualising, trying to make them take comprehensible shape. If we aren't careful, we can talk a lot of rubbish about art like this. Fortunately AbEx didn't linger there.

 

For a while perhaps it looked as if it was going to. Willem de Kooning, in his figurative phase, makes us sit and watch while he wrestles with the age-old male dilemma: Women. Do you worship them or make fun of them? Thankfully he emerges from it to give us his best work (and the finest two pieces in the room dedicated to him): Villa Borghese (1960) and Untitled (1961), generous patches of lemon yellow, blue, green and pastel pink, which evoke sunshine and tranquillity. Franz Kline’s violent black slashes across white backgrounds evoke cast-iron bridges, steelyards and gantries. They are like photography gone backwards into painting. One enjoys them in silence, they are all about atmosphere. So is Milton Resnick’s beautiful, wintry Octave, which strikes the viewer like a grey day at Giverny.

 

Monet is not the only artist echoed and challenged by these painters. Picasso also looms large. And Jackson Pollock’s Summertime 9A looks like a Mondrian pulled so tight that the black lines have stretched and buckled: released, they spring back into a knotted, rhythmic tangle, clotted with the yellow, red and blue areas of infill.

 

Age-old scriptural and mythological figures are abstractly explored by Barnett Newman: Adam, Eve, and Ulysses (1952). Tempting as it is in Ulysses to interpret the strongly divided planes of blue as representations of sea and sky, Newman has chosen to make his axis a vertical one. So we are left more with a mood and a feeling than an idea, and the result is restful. Vast landscapes are evoked by Clyfford Still. Ad Reinhardt puts a frame around black nothing to turn it into something, a thing to go on a wall, like a sort of anti-mirror, sucking all reflections in, giving nothing back.

 

And what about Rothko, who famously hoped to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch” who dined in the room where his Seagram murals were to hang? If they had ever been hung there, I doubt he would have succeeded. His Self-portrait or Interior would have appalled the sons of bitches. De Kooning’s Woman II would have had them running for the door. Rothko’s colour-field rectangles such as No. 4 (Untitled) couldn’t possibly. Here is an artist who set out with such aggressive intent, aiming to “defeat” the walls with the plenitude of his art. Yet the result is tremendously relaxing and satisfying. It is daring but it is not terrible. The whole gamut of human emotion is there, but there is no dissonance. Each tableau speaks like a still small voice of calm. Expressionism, when it is figural, is grotesque. When it is abstract, it is not, however belligerent or morbid the emotions that engendered it. The Rothko paintings, in the central octagon, are as gorgeous and uplifting as any juxtaposition of tragedy and ecstasy in a Baroque canvas of sacred apotheosis. Where they triumph (and where other Abstract Expressionist artists fail) is that they leave you with nothing to say. You can only feel.

 

The scale of these works, in terms of the value of their content, is in almost every case equal to their size. The “sensuous qualities of paint” are also important. What strikes one forcibly is how old-fashioned the works are. There is no dilettantish daubing at play here. We are dealing with a masterly handling of the medium. What people are responding to is not just the call on their emotions but also the sheer skill of the artists. No one would ever look at one of these works and say, “I could paint that.”

 

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, London, until 2nd January.

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