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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

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June 21, 2009

Divine Comedies (muses on art and commerce)

In Florence, I like to remind myself that Dante was once a supervisor of street construction here. I try to imagine a street designed by Dante a heaven, hell, and purgatory all wrapped up into one, a divine comedy of a street. It's reassuring also to think that in his greatest book Dante too was a tourist.

Like all visitors, I begin at the Piazza della Signoria, for it's here that Florence announces itself. One historian even goes so far as to say that "every great event in the history of Florence has taken place in this piazza". It's one of the most civilized pleasures in the world to idle in a cafe here and feel the reverberations of Florence's past.

The statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi suggest that the Florentines of old had a taste for turbulence. As Mary McCarthy pointed out in The Stones of Florence, they are "writhing, twisting, stabbing, falling, dying on their stately pedestals. " Rape and decapitation are popular themes, for Italian sculptors like to see the body exercised. Michelangelo's David is an exception. Superbly poised in his contrapposto, he is an athlete not of movement but of sheer being. As Conrad said of Lord Jim, he has "a gorgeous virility. " While some writers see David as tensed to attack Goliath, he strikes me as too pleased with his pose ever to give it up. Kenneth Clark said that his head is turned "in a movement toward epiphany," but I think he has already reached it.

"The cruel tower of Palazzo Vecchio pierces the sky like a hypodermic needle"; this is Mary McCarthy again, breathing a little heavily, reaching into her shopping bag of metaphors. But she's right: the piazza has an almost lethal grandeur. As if the setting drove him to it, one of E. M. Forster's characters stabbed a friend here in A Room with a View.

A medallion set in the pavement of the Piazza della Signoria commemorates one of the more brutal ironies of Florentine history. It was on this spot that the fifteenth- century monk Savonarola presided over the Bonfire of Vanities, a huge funeral pyre of "masquerading costumes and masks, false hair and rouge pots, musical instruments and dice-boxes, books of Latin and Italian poets, priceless parchments and illuminated manuscripts, works of art and paintings, especially such as represented female beauty."

The bonfire was a tribute to the power of Savonarola's incendiary preaching. Fulminating against what he saw as a loss of religious faith and a revival of paganism disguised as humanism, he terrified Florence for a while. But then, as if he too were a vanity, as if his religious passion constituted a kind of inverted pornography, the Florentines burned Savonarola himself on the same spot just a year later. It was a classic case of the moth and the flame.

Savonarola's followers were called Piagnones, or weepers, and even Botticelli was said to have been one. But it was a mistake to make Florentines weep, because they are not a penitential people. Their churches, for example, have none of the austerity of the French. A French church or cathedral like Chartres strains at sublimity, at a divine understatement, while for all its beauty the Duomo in Florence is as busy as a market, more manic than depressive. Its striped exterior suggests silk as much as stone. God is dressed here by the ancestors of Armani.

The first dinner in a foreign city is the most important. It's a visceral encounter, a meeting of two chemistries. It answers the question, Is this country for me? and temporarily silences the voice that never leaves the traveler, the voice that asks, What am I doing here? A satisfying dinner restores one's strength after the initial shock of so much otherness.

I had a list of restaurants from an acquaintance who lived in Florence. Though I like to experiment, it's nice to have a few places to fall back on when you're feeling vulnerable. I'm always amused by people who say you can't get a bad meal in France, or in Italy. I've had a number of them. It's partly our fault, because I use eccentric criteria in choosing restaurants. Not being intense about food, I eat atmosphere. My approach is as much anthropological as gastronomic. I don't mean that I am indifferent to food, but that I see the act of dining out as something like theater.

In Paris, I ate in two places that had terrific ambience and terrible food. I managed to do this twice in Florence, too, though one of the places had compensations. It was an outdoor restaurant in the Piazza Santo Spirito, a slightly shabby square that seems to be a hangout. While waiting for dinner, I saw all sorts of mysterious exchanges between resolutely deadpan young people. They seemed to be playing a depressed game of tag or hide-and-seek.

This particular restaurant was jammed and turning people away. It's just like New York City-bad food discourages very few diners. The service was surrealistically slow, and the owner explained that her regular waiter had broken his leg on his motorbike. She had pressed into service an old friend who was a dentist-a whimsical fellow who had once visited Chicago and fancied himself a comedian. The confusion in the place served as a sort of hors d'oeuvre, and the customers' gestures of impatience came straight out of Renaissance sculpture.

Most of the time in Florence I have appetizing, pleasant, reasonable meals. Italians are not as grim as the French about eating, and I felt invited into the bosom of the scene. The noise level is usually jolly, sometimes more than that.

My favorite restaurant was not far from the Ponte Vecchio. Yet it was half empty. When I asked the owner about this, he said that most of his customers were Americans and that there were few of these in Florence now because of the recession.

Walking is my favorite pastime in a foreign city, but because of Florence's narrow sidewalks and unremitting traffic, which force you to go in single file, it's hard to carry on a conversation. The person walking in front tosses throwaway lines over his shoulder while the one in back casts thoughts up and out the way you cast with a fishing rod.

Though most French writers wept over Haussmann's boulevards in Paris, claiming they destroyed the picturesqueness or medieval coziness of the city, boulevards do make it possible to flaner, to stroll or browse. In Florence, the piazzas serve as parenthetical boulevards in the absence of real ones. They're like pockets in time: you don't feel the present rushing through the past there as you do in the streets. For serious walking in Florence you must go to the Boboli Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace. As Robert Harbison said in his Eccentric Spaces, the gardens are "conducive to erroneous wandering"-just what you need after a morning of strenuous concentration.

What shall you do during Florence's three-hour siesta, from one to four in the afternoon? I found a perfect answer on the terrace of my room. With a beer or a split of Champagne in my hand, I gazed down at the city and reviewed it through what Ruskin called "the pathos of distance." Seeing it from above, one is able to separate its strands, to sort out and achieve some perspective on all those perspectives. Afterward, I took a nap and let the unconscious do its work; I dreamed of Florence, which is itself a dream.

Later, I wanted to see the people of Florence relaxing, taking their ease outdoors. The Piazza delIa Signoria is too self-conscious, too charged with visitors for this, and the Piazza della Repubblica is unwelcoming; for all its great size, it is mere willed space, a piece of city planning. But the Piazza Santa Croce, a homely, slightly run-down square, is just right, and I sat there for a couple of hours and observed the neighborhood life.

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte (remember this from one of our favorite movies?)

As I watched them talking, walking, sitting, laughing, playing with their children and dogs, I thought about how different Italians are from us. While Parisians remind me of New Yorkers in their nervous, never-resting alertness, their incessant consciousness, Florentines seem as remote as South Sea Islanders. Though they're celebrated for their politeness, I wondered whether this was not, at least partly, a result of their lack of curiosity. While the probing, judging eyes of the French tend to isolate and confirm you in your Americanness, the Italian attitude leaves you feeling rather irrelevant. And this has the further effect of making you feel irresponsible, which may not be a bad thing for a traveler.

Even with minimum of Americans, the Uffizi was crowded. But while it's customary to complain about this, I think a case can be made for crowded viewing. With people talking and pushing all around you, wearing every kind of costume, including bathing trunks, you see the pictures in medias res, competing with life itself. Instead of a pure soul-to-soul confrontation, the situation has saving elements of irony and vulgarity, which help you to keep your balance.

I enjoy the individual comedies, the competition in art appreciation, people jostling for a view, their faces darkening when someone comes between them and the thing on the wall. Some visitors are shy in the presence of great art and look at it sideways; others walk right up and pick its nose. If you think about what art is and what it can do, there's some-thing shocking in a mass of people in a room all responding in one degree or another. There's a religious vibration, as well as a suggestion of orgy. You can also feel a sad awareness of the failure of art-because it does fail for many.

A tour guide was discoursing, in heavily accented English, on Leonardo's Annunciation. "The angel," he was saying, "is telling this young girl that God has planted a miracle in her body. She is innocent, a virgin, she knows nothing of these things. . . . " He paused to let that sink in. Then he said, "Feelthy! Dairty!" and a surge of dismay rippled through his audience. But he was referring to the fact that the painting had not been cleaned and its true colors could only be guessed at.
Florence must have hundreds of Annunciations, and painters differ dramatically in imagining this controversial episode. It's curious that the chamber in which the Virgin sits reading a book almost always includes what might be called a Freudian profusion of architectural columns. While the attitude of the angel varies only in the degree to which he seems to be dancing, the Virgin's reaction to the miracle is a study in medieval psychology. Sometimes she hugs the idea of her pregnancy to her bosom together with her book, and her face is full of blind inward satisfaction. In other versions she is electrified by what is, in effect, a metaphysical rape. In Simone Martini's wonderful fourteenth-century Annunciation, the Virgin winces away from the angel, and her eyes narrow as if she were undergoing the actual pain of defloration. She looks as if she was grief-stricken at the loss of her innocence and already filled with nostalgia for it.

One of the things you become aware of in working your way through the Uffizi is the evolution of the human face. While you see here mostly idealized faces, they reflect a psychological progress all the same. In the earlier works, piety often erases humanity from the face and imposes a blank or rapt expression, an immobile and abstracted listening to a remote and incomprehensible God who moves in mysterious ways. The human face generally appears rather stupid when its personality is suspended, although occasionally a pious person may look like the cat who swallowed the canary, or like someone sucking on a lozenge. Occasionally, there's a suggestion that a person has just removed his glasses and his eyes have not yet adjusted. All too often, a pious expression looks like a stare that, finding nothing to fix on, rebounds back on itself and becomes a stare staring, like the sound of one hand clapping.

After so many otherworldly faces, it's a relief to arrive at Botticelli's women in the Primavera. Here's the prototypically modern face, evolution's latest shimmering product, as ambiguous as the human condition. These are the faces of fallen angels, fashion models, divorcees and adulterers, readers of modern fiction and poetry. We are suddenly in the heart of the Renaissance; everything vibrates with expectation, nervousness, and conceit. Humanity is just beginning to realize how interesting it is, and how profanely beautiful.

Because so much of Florence's art is religious, the secular works take on an unnatural emphasis-at least for me. In front of Michelangelo's Dawn, a larger-than-life female nude in the Medici Chapels, I felt some of the self-consciousness of a person watching a pornographic movie.

Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo- the three men who produced the most radically beautiful images of women in the Renaissance-were not sexually attracted to them. Like fashion designers and choreographers, they were free of the kind of lust that conventionalizes the way we see women. There was nothing to keep them from speculating. In Dawn, and to a lesser extent in Night, Michelangelo expresses, almost against his will, the muscular power of female passivity. Dawn suggests not an awakening from sleep but a recovery from sexual extravagance. Nobody sleeps that voluptuously.

Michelangelo's women have been criticized for their "masculinity," their powerful biceps and small, widely separated breasts, which seem pinned on like afterthoughts. Yet the attitudes of these figures are exquisitely feminine-even more so than some of Michelangelo's squirming men. And no one has ever depicted a more seductive belly, pubic mound, or pair of thighs than he has in Dawn. He seems to have anticipated by four hundred years the muscle-conscious women of today.

Just as we Americans eat too much in Paris, we gorge on art in Florence. You can't get away from art, and it may begin to oppress you. The responsibility of responding is like a judgment on your education and your taste. When the king of France moved out of the Louvre, he said that he couldn't live with all those great paintings and sculptures, and I know how he felt. After a while, I find myself hungering for the ordinary, and that's when it's time to go shopping. This may even be one of the reasons people shop so furiously in Europe-it's a way of escaping the high demands of art and reasserting the self. Art makes us anxious in the best sense, and shopping buys peace.

Supported by their history, Italians have taken a possessive attitude toward the idea of beauty. In the sixteenth century a writer named Agnolo Firenzuola published a book that defined beauty down to the smallest detail, such as the precise turn or tint of the whorls of the ear. Proportion, one of the governing principles of beauty, was an obsession with Leonardo, and he worked out a theory of cosmic harmony in which everything partook of a universal rhythm or measure.

Eager to outfit ourselves with cosmically harmonious clothes, I browsed the Via de Tornabuoni, the Madison Avenue of Florence, with a guilty thrill of greed and abandon. But I was disappointed. This year's fashions struck me as rhetorical. That's the only way I can describe them, for while they seem to be making a statement of some kind, it was a forced one, without charm. The colors were hard and electric, and there were too many white or scarlet leather jackets. Of course, it's possible that Italian designers had taken such a quantum leap that they outdistanced our understanding. We're always ready to doubt our own sophistication: that's how fashion works.

The city of Dante, Michelangelo, and Leonardo is equally famous for its handbags. There must be enough handbags here to outfit every woman in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. What happens to handbags that don't sel!'? Can they be altered or restyled? Taken apart and recombined? Or are they plowed under, like farm surplus, to protect prices? I imagined a handbag dump on the outskirts of town, smelling so powerfully of leather that it dizzied the rats and crows.

Clive (drowning in honey)

June 9, 2009

Balthus at the Villa Medici

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Founded in 1666 under Louis, XIV, the Academy of France in Rome is the oldest and most important institution of its kind in Italy. After having occupied several sites, it was established in 1803 under Napoleon in the marvelous setting that is still its headquarters and contributes so much to its renown: the Villa Medici. To the art lover privileged to live in it for several years while undertaking the responsibilities of its direction, nothing is more agreeable than to show its beauties on the spot to visitors, but nothing is more difficult than to evoke these same beauties in a few lines for faraway readers. The photographs taken are deliberately concentrated on some of the rather discreet aspects of the interior to the exclusion of the highly decorated apartments, but they reveal even better the charm and the purity of its ambience.

The Villa Medici forms with its annexes and protected gardens an exceptional historic ensemble inseparable from its site. It rises in fact on the Pincian Hill, a favorite promenade from which one discovers the best views of Rome and which in ancient times was called the hill of gardens. The most famous gardens then were those of Lucullus, who brought back from his Asian campaigns a feeling for luxury and refinement. His villa had its back to the hill right in the space between the Villa Medici and the neighboring convent of Trinita dei Monti. Excavations have uncovered vestiges of it and clarified its layout.

After a long period of abandon linked to the decline of Rome the hill of gardens came to life again at the end of the fifteenth century with the installation of monasteries for the religious orders and rustic houses or casinos for dignitaries of the Church. With its severe palace facade overhanging Rome, its airy orchestration above the gardens, its silhouette inscribed in the panorama of the hills, the Villa Medici is a major example of the Italian villas of humanist conception devoted to entertainment, to aesthetic enjoyment, to meditation. Itself a vast cabinet d'amateur, it also had its studiolo, its chapel, its library, its secret enclosures, its pavilions to dream in, where today are scattered the ateliers of the fellows, winners of the Grand Prix de Rome. The garden with its two paths of approach invites the kind of contemplative promenade inspired by a place of pilgrimage, with pauses to look carefully at the various loggias, two of which were painted by Velazquez in views of Rome now in the Prado. Velazquez is one among the illustrious guests popes, sovereigns, princes and dignitaries, scholars and poets, artists and musicians who haunt these grounds overflowing with history and legend.

The Villa Medici has kept together practically all of its primary structures, but they were progressively altered during a century and a half by administrative undertakings, several military occupations, and the ostentation of bourgeois taste. In 1961 Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, had named as director his friend the painter Balthus, who fulfilled his mission over the course of sixteen years with singular prestige and with results that cannot be too much appreciated. His complete restoration of the villa (and later of the gardens), which has served as a model for other Roman buildings, notably the Farnese Palace, is in itself one of his most perfect works and has had a significant and positive effect on both him and on his art. The success is owing to the sureness of his artistic gifts, to his profound knowledge of Italy, where in adolescence he learned to paint in front of the sanctuaries of Florence, Siena, and Arezzo; to his infallible sensitivity, of which he has given other proofs, toward high places and their particular genius. He knew how to restore to each room its proportions and harmony, and with the aid of old Italian artisans still skilled in the secrets of their trade, to achieve the appropriate colors for the walls, in a manner that is at once matte and vibrant, simple and strong, polished on the last coat by rubbing with bottle shards. If these walls with their monastic bareness resemble the backgrounds of Balthus's paintings, it is because the latter come from the same source and are directed toward the same anonymous grandeur.

All the paving of the ground floor was remade in terra-cotta tiles according to ancient practice. The former carriage rooms were cleaned out and transformed into magnificent halls that regularly welcome exhibits of the fellows' work at the end of their residence, and, twice a year, ex positions of various types, conceived according to places with an Italian resonance, which are attended like important events and followed by a large public.

The reform of 1971 has modified the recruiting conditions and the statutes of the Villa Medici, which is no longer a dependency of the Institute de France but of an administrative council under the direction of the Ministry of Culture. Prix de Rome candidates are no longer admitted by academic competition but chosen by a double jury on the basis of aptitude. To the traditional disciplines-painting, sculpture, engraving, architecture, musical composition have been added literature, movies, photography, as well as a section of art history and of restoration of works of art. All the activities corresponding to these diverse domains have been amplified, and music has notably undergone considerable expansion. A succession of important concerts retransmitted to France and Italy have been produced in the Villa Medici gardens. These exceptional manifestations enhance without betraying it the peace of a privileged place for reflection and creation, out of the tumult of cities and the pressures of fashion, looking down on the blazing domes of Rome and their universal glory.

June 6, 2009

The Vatican gardens & Piranesi’s Secret Domain

St. Peter’s Basilica is at the pulsing heart of Rome, its soaring dome dominating the skyline of the ancient city. You are embraced first by the welcoming arms of Bernini’s baroque colonnade, then enfolded in the magnificent church itself. But behind this fa├žade is a world few know and still fewer can enter. Here, set into a maze of buildings, are the offices and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. And behind them lies an astonishing place of peace and respite, the Vatican gardens. Among the world’s important gardens, the Vatican’s are unique. They lack both the formal unity of those at Versailles and the ordered vision of nature that distinguishes the great eighteenth-century gardens of England. The Vatican gardens are complicated and intricate –as complex as the papacy itself. The plan they follow is not a true plan but the reflection of the Vatican’s long history of pragmatism.

one of many unexpected delights,
a mosaic niche in an old building

Near the Vatican radio station, just a few minute’s walk away, is a nice, homey touch; raised vegetable beds, fertilized organically. This small garden supplies the papal table, direct.

The great dome of St. Peter’s can be seen from nearly every point in the gardens, including the papal veggie patch.

At the foot of the bosco, shaded by pines, is the Villa Pia. Known also as the Casina of Pius IV, it’s the first example of an Italian garden house, a type of retreat that would proliferate through Europe.

the courtyard of the Casina (built 1558-62) of Pius IV

There are gardens within gardens; long vistas that run into ancient buildings; fountains that appear, like God’s grace, in the unlikeliest places. The feeling here is of serenity. In antiquity, this was the site of Nero’s summer villa and gardens, well placed to catch every cooling breeze.

The Italian Garden,
the last classic Renaissance “room” in the Vatican gardens.

Water was not always plentiful. In the Middle Ages, drought prevailed. The Renaissance pope Paul V reactivated an ancient Roman Aqueduct, Aqua Paola, to bring water to the Vatican. This water still feeds all the fountains. Propelled by gravity, descending from fountain to fountain, the water ends up in the twin fountains in St. Peter’s Square before flowing into the Tiber.

Twenty gardeners mind the
sixty-five-acre park

It is easy to imagine the gold and red papal carriage rolling down the secluded allees to an outdoor meeting.

The great gardens, with all their nooks and crannies, tend to be empty these days-though his Holiness walks in the park for exercise when his busy schedule permits. The stillness, while slightly surreal, lends the gardens an air of immanence. One is conscious, too, of history, of foibles, of the constant decisions and revisions that in the end seem not compromises but the very definition of human wisdom.

Since the second century B.C. gardens have flourished on the slopes of the Seven Hills of Rome.
With the advent of aqueducts, the peculiarly Roman mixture of plants, water, and perspective evolved into a distinctive art that harmoniously integrated villas with the surrounding landscape. The structure these gardens acquired in antiquity and in the Renaissance changed little until the nineteenth century, when the fashion for English informality swept away many a formal design. One survivor is the jewel of a garden on the Aventine surrounded by structures that Piranesi designed in the 1760’s for the Knight of Malta.

Properly called Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, the Knights of Malta belong to a Roman Catholic order of laymen and monks that still enjoy nearly complete sovereignty. Like the Vatican, the order has extraterritorial rights, its own passports, and courts of law. Initially the Knights maintained an eleventh-century pilgrims’ hospital in the Holy Land, but after the Crusades the order retreated to Cyprus, then conquered Rhodes and eventually was given Malta, which Napoleon seized in 1798. Today rich and influential, they provide funds for hospitals and the needy throughout the world from their headquarters in Rome.

many tourists know the entrance to the Knights’ garden
because of its singular view through the keyhole to Saint Peter’s
one and three- quarter miles away.

In the sunken garden box hedges in the shape of crosses frame beds of roses, marigolds and salvia. At right is the 17th –century Kaffeehaus. Known in Rome by the German name, such pavilions were cool retreats for coffee and literary conversations.

Atop the niche for an antique bust are smaller versions of the cannonball finials and flaming urns that crown Priranesi’s monumental screen facing the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta.

A pool reflects the walled enclosure, that Edith Wharton called a “real ’secret garden’, full of sunny cloistered stillness, in restful contrast to the wide prospect below the terrace.”

Piranesi’s opportunity to built anything significant came when one of the pope’s nephews, Cardinal Giambattista Rezzonico, became grand prior of the Knights of Malta in Rome and hired Piranesi to restore the order’s church, Santa Maria del Priorato.

Thanks to an account book compiled from the daily worksheets of the contractor (now in the Avery Architectural Library of Columbia University), we can follow the work from November 1764, when the crumbling foundations first received attention, to October 1766, when the pope inspected the completed work and expressed his family’s satisfaction by making Piranesi a Knight of the Golden Spur. Soon after, the artist began to sign his work Cavaliere.