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Living with Leonardo

Martin Kemp, Living with Leonardo, Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond. Thames and Hudson, London 2018.

Some time ago I was sitting next to a retired surgeon at a dinner party. I asked him how he filled his time. He told me that he had discovered the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and was so astonished by their accuracy that he had taken to lecturing about them. Leonardo was a pioneer in relating thought to observation; in the words of the celebrated art historian Ernst Gombrich, quoted here by Kemp, establishing that ‘the correct representation of nature rests on intellectual understanding as much as on good eyesight’. It is not only the sheer quality of Leonardo’s art and drawing that impresses, it is the endlessly inventive nature of his mind: ‘no one covered the surface of pages with such an impetuous cascade of observations, visualized thoughts, brainstormed alternatives, theories, polemics and debates, covering virtually every branch of knowledge about the visible world known in his time’.

This last quotation is from Martin Kemp’s study of Leonardo’s drawings for an exhibition held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006. For fifty years he has been immersed in the works and the book under review is an account of the many adventures that have come his way in what is often a weird world of charlatans, code-breakers, ‘devious dealers and unctuous auctioneers’, as well as honest and committed scholars. As Kemp notes, Leonardo has never finished with him and as late as 2008 he was alerted to a new find, what turned out to be the Christ as Salvator Mundi, now accepted by many—if not all—experts as an original and sold for the Louvre Abu Dhabi for a staggering $450 million.

Kemp’s chapter on ‘The Saviour’ is one of the most absorbing, partly because the subject is so topical. Almost as soon as he had first seen it in the conservation studio of London’s National Gallery, Kemp knew it was special and that it showed many of the characteristics of Leonardo. Originally it was thought to be one of twenty known copies of an original recorded in the collection of Charles I, but once cleaned of accretions and restorations it emerged as clearly superior to its competitors. There were telltale signs such as a pentimento (an alteration made as the artist worked) in Christ’s fingers that was typical of the way Leonardo painted and would not have been found in a copy. Researches of the draperies in Leonardo’s drawings and studies of rock crystal, probably the mineral of the orb that Christ is holding, gradually consolidated the attribution, at least so far as Kemp and other acknowledged experts were concerned. Others disagreed, sometimes without even having examined the painting itself. In the end, solid scientific and archival research have to marry with instinctive reactions to reach a final judgement and Kemp stands firm on the ‘Saviour’s’ authenticity.

Kemp was first drawn to Leonardo when asked to advise on a study of the motion of fluids in his drawings. He gradually became aware of the principles that underpinned the depictions, with Leonardo relating the flow of water to the way that hair curls naturally. In fact, he was later to use this to confirm that the hair of Jesus in one of the versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (see below) was by Leonardo. From there he moved on to the anatomical drawings in the Windsor Castle collection, and he was hooked.

In Living with Leonardo, Kemp takes us through some of the great paintings. There is the famous Last Supper in Milan and the controversy over its restoration. He has been able to see the Mona Lisa ‘out of its prison’ twice, and recent technical work on the underpainting has provided a model for the way Leonardo worked, revising as he went along. This immediately shows up copies and Kemp is thus able to reject the so-called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’, which was heavily backed by its owners as the original of the Mona Lisa with a sumptuous volume of ‘research’, without even seeing it. Kemp adds to his appreciation of the Mona Lisa through becoming immersed in the literature of the period, especially the Renaissance idealisation of women, and by making use of discoveries in the Florentine archives to recognise a certain Caterina Lippi as Leonardo’s mother. Caterina married elsewhere soon afterwards but Leonardo’s father, a successful Florentine notary, took Leonardo into his household without shame.

There is a good chapter comparing the two versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, one the property of the Duke of Buccleugh, the other known as the ‘Lansdowne Madonna’. Both appear to be by Leonardo and the relationship between them is complex. The former was spectacularly stolen in 2003 from the ducal castle but Kemp is on hand to confirm its authenticity when it is recovered by police. Then we are on to La Bella Principessa, a haunting study of a girl in Renaissance dress, once believed to be a 19th-century German copy on vellum. Again, simply by looking at it, Kemp and others suspect it is something more than this and studies of the eye link it back to drawings by Leonardo. This is, of course, not enough to confirm an attribution, especially as it is unusual for Leonardo to paint on vellum. However, a breakthrough moment comes with the discovery of a missing page in a vellum book in the National Library in Warsaw. This was a presentation volume to Duke Ludovico of Milan to celebrate the marriage of his legitimised daughter Bianca Sforza in 1496. Leonardo was working for the Duke at the time and so his contribution is possible. It seems that the quality, if not the attribution, of the painting was recognised and the page was cut out in the 19th century. This chapter is notable for the abuse Kemp receives when he goes public that the Principessa is indeed a Leonardo likeness of Bianca Sforza.

As with the medieval Turin Shroud, Leonardo attracts cranks. In a final chapter, ‘Codes and Codswallop’, Kemp deals with Leonardo as a Master of the Priory of Sion, with supposedly heretical additions to the Louvre version of the Virgin of the Rocks, with hidden messages in landscapes, secret letters in the eyes of the Mona Lisa, divine proportions and so on. He appears amazingly generous to purveyors of such nonsense—or perhaps he is simply intrigued with the absurdities that Leonardo provokes. (I have to sympathise: during the course of my own studies of the undoubtedly medieval Shroud of Turin, I found that the more bizarre the arguments by Shroudies were, the more fascinating the Shroud became.)

Living with Leonardo is an excellent introduction to the cut-throat world of attributions and scholarship, here related to a formidable genius. The pressures to find a genuine Leonardo are immense. Yet in the end, it is the instinct that matters, and Kemp’s many years of study enable him to spot the lineaments of a Leonardo among the hundreds of hopefuls that reach him every year.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Fleming and Honour Remembered

Susanna Johnston, John Fleming and Hugh Honour Remembered. Gibson Square, London, 2017.

John Fleming and Hugh Honour’s A World History of Art (1982 and later editions, the 7th as recently as 2009) was one of those books one had to have on one’s shelves. My copy, now 30 years old, is still in place in my large art books section: its crumpled cover shows how much I have consulted it. By integrating non-Western art into the story, it represented a fresh perspective for students and soon became an unexpected bestseller. Possibly, however, Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice (1965) resonated more with me, as I carried it around on my first two or three visits to that city.

I knew nothing of the authors of A World History, certainly not that they lived happily together near Lucca for decades. The two had met in 1949, when Honour was studying English at Cambridge and Fleming, eight years his senior, was working as a solicitor. Deciding to put their lives together, they moved to the more tolerant atmosphere of Italy, where they made their permanent home. This is a charming memoir by a friend who was close to them throughout their lives there.

Susanna Johnston at 21 was certainly not untypical in having ‘no ambition other than a yearning to stay in Italy’. This required some kind of occupation, but it was a long shot when she was introduced to Percy Lubbock, widowed stepfather of Iris Origo, who was blind and grumpy but needed reading to. Johnston managed to win him over: she was able to take the place of the two young men who had kept him happy. They turned out to be Hugh Honour and John Fleming. They all became close friends before ‘the boys’ left for Asolo (Freya Stark provided a house for them) and then set up themselves up in an idyllic house, the Villa Marchio, near Lucca. This is a personal memoir and so there is little of their growing fame in the art world, something that surprised and sometimes irritated them both, especially when they had to be on show to receive prizes.

Johnston feared that she might offend them all by marrying and having babies but her husband, Nicky (the architect Nicholas Johnston), was already known to Hugh Honour and was accepted within the friendships. Eventually the Johnstons bought a house near Lucca and summers were spent in going to and fro between them. Johnston always had a shopping list to bring from London: ‘cigarettes, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, double-edged razor blades, marmite and gossip’. Honour and Fleming, a normally fastidious pair, rather relished the wild behaviour of the Johnstons’ teenage daughters, who add memoirs of their own to this book.

Hugh Honour was ‘stately, anxious and polite’, frugal with money, (probably as a result of his father having been a bankrupt) and he could drive—somewhat wildly, while John Fleming could not—and had a dashing side that he kept confned to James Bond cigarettes and good restaurants. John was more gregarious and tactile and predictably furious with incompetent professionals. The reticent Hugh resented Johnston’s cosy chats with him. Once, when Honour had gone off to research in the US, Fleming joined Johnston’s family for the Rocky Horror Show. He was found out and there was a brief reciprocal froideur. Honour and Fleming were destined to be together, even to merge into one. Neither of them ever used the personal pronoun ‘I’. It was always, ‘We didn’t sleep very well last night’ and, ‘Our dentist is very pleased with our teeth’.

‘The boys’ knew all the leading figures of the Italian art world. Rudolf Wittkower and Bernard Berenson, of course, in their early days in Italy; James Pope-Hennessy, Francis Haskell and the classicist Michael Grant; but they were cautious in their friendships. They laughed cattily at the snobbishnesses of the aesthetes—Harold Acton at La Pietra in Florence (‘Too many photographs of royalty. He’s become obsessed with them. It will lead to a very lonely old age’) and were annoyed by those who stayed too long, distracting them from their work. ‘I have been busy sweeping up the names he dropped on the terrace all afternoon’, was Hugh Honour’s comment on John Calmann, the erudite but loquacious publisher of their books, who was tragically murdered the day after he left them. Comments were often waspish. On Henry Moore: ‘We think he was greatly overrated and probably ruined as an artist by Kenneth Clark, who we did NOT care for.’

Their working life consisted of Honour, the more scholarly of the two, ensconced for the day in his study, only emerging to cook for Fleming and any staying guest. It was John Fleming who wrote the chapters on architecture and was the organiser of the final text, with pictures and notes fitted in. Editors found them easy to work with but as they grew more famous, ‘rich, culture-craving elderly ladies wanted to visit them.’ They had become ‘one of the prescribed Anglo-Tuscan sights’; but these unknown visitors, whose chauffeurs gamely negotiated the rough road up to the villa, annoyed the pair and were cruelly much mocked after they had left them back in peace.

And then disaster struck. Returning from Bologna one day, they found that their house had been burgled and stripped of everything of value. The loss haunted them. Johnston scoured the antique shops for replacements but failed to find much of equivalent quality. John Fleming was never the same again and they both resented having to leave someone living there when they were away. Gradually, the long friendship changed as Fleming and Honour grew older and their villa ever more decrepit. Fleming’s sight began to worsen and he was reduced to listening to audiobooks. Then bone cancer set in. He faded away with Hugh devotedly looking after him.

Hugh Honour struggled on. There was a silver lining. Their lives had been enriched by two young antique dealers from Lucca, Carl Kraag and Valter Fabiani, who had become so close that Valter was named the heir. He dutifully adopted the role of son to Hugh and arranged help for him as his legs weakened. A sensitive and capable Sri Lankan carer and his family took over for the last months as the house disintegrated, flashes of light spurting erratically from disconnected wires and plugs. Despite the loss of much of his movement, Hugh enjoyed his Charbonnel et Walker chocolates to the end.

This book is a delight to read. It is an affectionate tribute to a deep and loving friendship, with the backdrop of Italy, food and art to add to the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

What’s on in Florence

Goya: portrait of the Countess of Chinchón (c. 1801).
Gallerie degli Uffizi

Florence, in these weeks before the arrival of the Easter crowds, is cold but relatively empty and there are two exhibitions well worth seeing: 14th-century fabrics in the Galleria dell’Accademia, and 18th century paintings in Palazzo Pitti.

The first exhibition (Tessuto e ricchezza a Firenze nel trecento. Lana, seta, pittura; on until 15th April), devised and curated by the Galleria dell’Accademia director Cecilie Hollberg, is particularly enjoyable. You can book to see it, but at this time of year, particularly in the late afternoon, you can often just walk in and there will be no queue. The show links the fabric industry—which gave the medieval city its wealth—to the designs of the backcloths in gold-ground paintings, and later to the dresses worn by the figures depicted by some of the early masters of 14th-century Florentine painting.

The floor in the first room reproduces the intricate mosaic pavement of the church of San Miniato al Monte (the most beautiful of all Florence’s medieval churches), a subtle reference to the importance of pattern to the craftsmen of the time. The beautiful statute-books of the two ‘Arti’ or guilds which represented the cloth-workers, those who dealt with wool and those who (later) dealt with silk, are exhibited here. There are interesting documents, including some letters from the archives of Datini (the famous ‘Merchant of Prato’) with samples of wool pinned to them. The first exhibit, set to astonish us, is a child’s wool dress, only preserved because it comes from icy climes, lent by the National Museum of Denmark. Another survival is a piece of a woollen hood, alleged to have been worn in the 13th century by the nun St Umiltà and conserved as a holy relic in the monastery of Vallombrosa in the hills above Florence.

The first painting we see is a touching panel Madonna and Child (who reaches up to hug his mother) from the church of San Remigio. It dates from c. 1290 (and here given a new attribution). A rare occasion to see this masterpiece well-lit and at close range. Almost all the other paintings—carefully chosen to show how the precision with which fabrics were reproduced in paint—are from the Accademia itself (including some brought out of storage). An exception is Giovanni Baronzio’s Baptism of Christ, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington and chosen because of the beautifully patterned towel held up by angels (who are dressed in garments to match). Very few paintings are attributed to this artist from Rimini, and none are to be seen in Florence.

The pieces of fabric exhibited come from Lyon, Prague, Brussels and Berlin, as well as from Florence’s Bargello. The silks, in gorgeous colours, are very fine, many Islamic in origin. Since they are often fragmentary, the complete designs have been recreated on the wall behind them. It has been discovered that the large funeral shroud found in the tomb of Cangrande I, the most famous member of the Della Scala family, who died in Verona in 1329, was made in central Asia. A dalmatic from northern Germany is made up of five different fabrics, all from China. Two works of the 1370s by Jacopo di Cione are decorated with birds and tortoises with the Child dressed in gorgeous orange and gold swaddling clothes. An end room has a delightful video installation with ‘animated’ paintings: it takes as its subject the report of a magistrate who in the 14th century noted down the excesses he found in dress in order to damn the vice of ‘unseemly vanity’, vividly demonstrating how fabrics impinged also on the social life of the town. The ‘film’ is shown alternately in English and Italian (and the concise English labelling throughout the exhibition is excellent).

In the last room there is a very well-preserved silk jacket (made with the pourpoint technique), traditionally supposed to have been worn by Charles of Blois at his death in 1364: he was killed by his uncle (and rival for the Duchy of Brittany), John de Montfort, in the Hundred Years’ War. After the battle it was preserved as a relic of the saintly Charles until it was lost during the French Revolution. It only turned up again in 1924 when it was donated to the Musée des Tissus in Lyon who have lent it to the exhibition. The material comes from Iran or Iraq. This type of military jacket, with numerous buttons, had already become fashionable in Florence a few decades earlier and must have been particularly becoming when worn by a young knight.

One of the last exhibits is a bolt of vermillion-coloured velvet with a pattern of gold discs (lent by the Bargello), which seems to be the very same cloth as the one held up by the angels in the background of Starnina’s Coronation of the Virgin (1405–10), lent by the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Seeing the two side by side clearly shows how skilfully Starnina painted the folds and rucks in the large piece of cloth: we are now at the beginning of the Renaissance.
(The large catalogue is extremely scholarly, if expensive).

On the other side of town, Eike Schmidt, director of the united Uffizi and Pitti galleries), has put together a tiny exhibition (The Eighteenth century: A selection; on until April) in one of the rooms of Palazzo Pitti. This is a period less known for its artistic output in Florence. Schmidt has made a selection of just 17 paintings (from the 500 or so in the Gallery’s collection) of non-religious subjects to illustrate the variety of works produced at that time. He has also taken it is an opportunity to begin to dismantle the ‘Blue Rooms’ in the Uffizi, which previously were dedicated to foreign schools. Schmidt’s aim is to integrate the collections to show the Medici grand-dukes collected both Italian and foreign works, notably by Dutch and Spanish painters. Indeed the most beautiful of the works in this exhibition is Goya’s full-length portrait of the Countess of Chinchón, painted around 1801. Displayed between the academic portraits of Vittorio Alfieri and his mistress, the Countess of Albany, by Fabre, which date from only a few years earlier, it demonstrates the direction painting was to take by the end of the century. Townscapes of Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice (including a stunning view of the Grand Canal by Canaletto) show the very special interest in travel in this century. Thomas Patch is also represented, with a view of Ponte Santa Trinita, looking downstream. The fashion for exotic scenes and dress can be seen in a portrait by Etienne Liotard and in small Turkish genre panels. Another (very rare) genre scene is the little painting in oil on copper by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, which shows the painter himself twice over: in a self-portrait in the background, and in the foreground pulling his children along in a wooden contraption as his wife looks on, laughing. From the middle of the century come a pair of portraits by Chardin of a girl with a shuttlecock and racquet and a boy at a card table. An exemplary show, to remind us of a period often overlooked in Florence.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. For details of her Blue Guide Florence, see here.

Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'

Diana Athill, A Florence Diary. Granta, 2016.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman

This is an amuse-bouche of a book, just 40 pages from a notebook recording the author’s visit to Florence in the late summer of 1947. By sheer coincidence I found myself reading it on Diana Athill’s hundredth birthday, December 21st, 2017. Her lively introduction shows that her mind remains undiminished from 70 years ago.

 

Athill set off for Florence from Victoria Station with her cousin Pen. While Athill is well organised, her cases registered all the way through and her hand luggage consisting mainly of a hatbox and a shopping bag of food, her cousin comes loaded with many small items tied together with string, a straw hat and an easel that falls apart and gets in the way of everybody. Yet they are clearly a cheerful and attractive pair and well looked after on the journey south. Athill is cossetted by an Italian prince by the name of Alfonso, who even arranges flowers to be delivered to their pensione in Florence while he sweeps on to Rome, imploring the travellers to come after him.

 

Italy at the time was just recovering from the war and the bathwater was cold due to the lack of electricity. English visitors were gladly welcomed but had very little money. Athill and Pen had been given a tip over where to find the best rates of exchange and they survived happily, first in the Hotel Bonciani, and then in their pensione. After paying for their full board they have enough left over for patisserie and entrance fees. It is the patisserie that delights them: a wonderful array of exotic items that must have been a godsend after the dour food of a still-rationed England. Pen has come in uncomfortable shoes and sees some lovely sandals that she looks at every day, unable to decide whether to buy them (they enjoy yet more patisserie instead). Optimistically they decide that they will one day buy a villa in Fiesole. (This hope is frustrated, not least, Athill’s introduction tells us, because Pen went on to become a nun.)

 

Athill is more studious than Pen and makes sure she has visited everything in the guidebook. Pen has fewer inhibitions, even getting herself shown round Bernard Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, but missing out on the sumptuous Medici Chapel because she did not explore far enough into San Lorenzo. Athill’s response to art is intuitive and immediate. She delights in coming across a new treasure, a ‘dreamlike’ Botticelli or the light on the walls of Santa Croce that makes them ‘glow like ripe peaches’. She has an exuberance that falls just short of gushiness: the amphitheatre in the Boboli Gardens is ‘too lush and Renaissance for words’ and ‘the courtyard [of the Bargello], with a colonnade all round and a gallery on the first floor with great stairs coming down, is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen’. Images of the works of the great Florentine masters flit by.

 

This is a book to be read not so much for what it tells you about Florence but for the way it describes a society restoring itself after the trauma of a lost war. Athill’s are the reactions of a sensitive outsider to the city’s atmosphere and charms. There is a selection of contemporary photographs and an introduction in which Athill meditates from her great age on the power of place in her life. Short though this memoir is, I found much to enjoy.

 

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. He has written the historical introduction to the Florence volume.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Season’s Greetings

This Advent we’ve chosen twelve different depictions of the Nativity, which we have discovered in the course of Blue Guides research trips around Italy—plus one final one from our latest title in preparation.

1. The ox and the ass and the baby in the manger from an early Christian sarcophagus (4th century) on display in Palazzo Massimo in Rome.


Related title: Pilgrim’s Rome

2. Mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi (5th/6th century) in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The mosaics date from the reign of the Arian king Theodoric. Note the opulent dress and the Phrygian (eastern) caps of the Magi. The Madonna and Child are represented not in a stable but regally enthroned.


Related title: Blue Guide Emilia-Romagna

3. Sculpted relief of the Adoration of the Magi from the Lombard Altar of Ratchis (8th century) in the Museo Cristiano in Cividale. For a review of the current exhibition on the Lombards, running in Pavia, see here.


Related title: Blue Guide Friuli-Venezia Giulia

4. Mosaic of the Nativity, probably by Constantinopolitan craftsmen (12th century) from the cupola of La Martorana in Palermo. The bathing of the newborn infant is shown below right. Below left is Joseph, asleep and slightly apart from the others, as traditionally depicted in early renditions of this scene. Above him is a parallel scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.


Related title: Blue Guide Sicily

5. Fresco of the Nativity by an anonymous Lombard artist (14th century) in the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, Como. The washing of the infant is again shown as a separate scene, and once again, Joseph is withdrawn to one side. Note the friendly ass, licking the baby’s face.


Related title: Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Lakes (pub. date to be announced)

6. Nativity scene from the predella of the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (1423) in the Uffizi. Once again, Joseph is shown asleep, somewhat apart from the group. In a separate, parallel scene, the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in a brilliant glow from out of a sky spangled with lovely stars.


Related title: Blue Guide Florence

7. Fresco of the Nativity by Pinturicchio (late 15th century) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The red brick and the breeze blocks of the dilapidated stable are particularly well done and Pinturicchio’s love of a detailed background is given full reign here: on the rugged hilltop ledge on the left are the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Below them the Magi are seen coming round the mountain at full tilt. And just behind the Madonna’s head is a delightful scene of a crowd crossing a bridge.


Related title: Blue Guide Rome

8. Detail of an early 17th-century terracotta tableau of the Nativity from the Sacro Monte of Orta San Giulio, Lago d’Orta. The scene seems identical to any other Nativity, but there is a twist: the infant here is not Jesus but St Francis of Assisi (and if you look carefully at the entire tableau, in situ, you will notice that it is not an ox and an ass that shares the stable with the Holy Family, but an ass and a mule). The idea that Christ’s life and the life of St Francis shared more than 40 parallels was dreamt up by a Franciscan Friar of the Counter-Reformation.


Related title: Blue Guide Piedmont

9. Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi by Federico Zuccari (1564) in the Grimani Chapel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. The altarpiece is badly damaged (the head of one of the Magi is missing) but the colours are beautiful.


Related title: Blue Guide Venice

10 and 11. Not paintings, frescoes or sculptures, but live installations. The first is from Manarola in the Cinque Terre, where every year from 8th December the hillside above the village is covered with hundreds of illuminated figures, creating a sort of electric crib scene. The second is from Genga in the Marche, where every year from Boxing Day until Epiphany, people form a living crib in the Frasassi Caves.

Related titles: Blue Guide Liguria and Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino

12. The Three Kings by József Koszta (1906–7). Koszta was a member of the plein-air artists’ colony known as the Nagybánya School. This work, which belongs to the Hungarian National Gallery, is a superb example of the colony’s style: the use of light and shade, of texture and colour, and involving the transposition of grand themes to a Hungarian peasant setting.


Related title: Blue Guide Budapest

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

Return to 'A Room with a View'

This year Florence has celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Merchant Ivory film closely based on E.M. Forster’s famous novel, first published in 1908. This autumn a restored version was shown in the presence of James Ivory, members of the cast, and those who worked on its production. An excellent talk was given by Sarah Quill, who was the stills photographer for the film, at the British Institute in Florence, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

We know that Forster visited Italy in 1901 and 1902, when still in his early 20s, and wrote the first part of his novel set in Florence in the following year. As an older man he freely admitted that he had known very little about Italian life, but was attracted above all by the contrast that Italy, the land of ‘natural emotions’ offered to the ‘grey inhibited life that I knew only too well’ of the English suburbs.

But for all that, his description of the city in the novel is remarkable. The discerning details that Forster provides are always perfectly accurate: in Piazza Santissima Annunziata the heroine Lucy admires ‘in the living terra-cotta those divine babies whom no cheap reproduction can ever stale. There they stood, with their shining limbs bursting from the garments of charity, and their strong white arms extended against circlets of heaven.’

Forster must have been impressed by the number of visitors he found in Florence, since he describes Mr Eager as ‘a member of the residential colony who had made Florence their home…Living in delicate seclusion, some in…Renaissance villas on Fiesole’s slope, they read, wrote, studied and exchanged ideas, thus attaining to that intimate knowledge, or rather perception, of Florence which is denied to all who carry in their pockets the coupons of Cook.’ Later he tells Lucy ‘we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little—handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get “done” or “through” and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.’ The novel contains more amusing references to the Baedeker guidebook to Florence and one chapter is entitled ‘In Santa Croce with no Baedeker’, when Lucy finds she is lost in the barn-like church without it, since the irritating Miss Lavish has seized it from her (‘And no, you are not, not, not to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift…’). Blue Guides have always been proud to be heirs to the great 19th-century guide book tradition through their connection with this German series (the Muirhead brothers, founders of the series, were for many years the English-language editors) and with Murray’s handbooks. We also believe that visitors to Florence should very much be allowed to carry a guide book. Without one, you really are a-drift!

Ivory’s production crew stayed and filmed at the grand Villa di Maiano, owned by the Corsini, a well-known Florentine family. When the Englishman John Temple Leader first arrived in Florence in the mid-19th century, he restored it, adding the top floor, the neo-Gothic tower and the portico on the facade, and transforming the courtyard into a ballroom. He spent the summers there while work was in progress on rebuilding the nearby castle of Vincigliata, which became the most famous and most visited of his various properties and is recognised today as a particularly successful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Edward Hutton, in his book on walks outside Florence (published the same year as A Room with a View), discourages a visit as ‘there is but little of interest in the place, almost all the works of art are copies, like the castle itself.’ Henry James, when in town the following year, while recognising it as a ‘massive pastiche’, still admired it. Temple Leader is also remembered for protecting the landscape around Maiano, transforming the disused pietra serena quarries into cypress woods. The countryside remains much as it was in Forster’s day, and in the film the carriage drive was able to be filmed directly beneath the Villa di Maiano. In the novel Forster describes the route taken by the carriages along the upper road from Fiesole to Settignano via the castle of Vincigliata and back along the lower road via Maiano. Mr Eager suggests: ‘We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have a ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view from Fiesole.’ During the trip, ‘a hollow like a great amphitheatre, full of terraced steps and misty olives, now lay between them and the heights of Fiesole, and the road, still following its curve, was about to sweep on to a promontory which stood out into the plain….[with a] view of the Val d’Arno and distant Florence.’

Close to the Maiano crossroads a path still descends to Via del Palmerino, named after the villa where the English writer Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) lived most of her life. She drew inspiration from the countryside around her house, where she would often walk or ride, and her Genius Loci came out the same year as A Room with a View (it is perhaps interesting to note that Forster mentions the ‘presiding genius of places’ in his perfect description of Piazza della Signoria).

The novel, as well as the film, remain wonderful light-hearted descriptions of Florence and its English visitors, still very true today, and Forster perceptively suggests also that ‘…the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.’

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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


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