How a Little Man Changed the World: St. Francis of Assisi
Whenever I am standing in front of Giotto’s Madonna and Child (1310 CE) in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy and discussing the naturalistic innovations introduced by the artist, I ask my students why it took so long for Medieval painters to reacquire the ability to depict subject matter in a realistic manner. The logical answer that I usually get is that artists were afraid of being punished by the church. That depicting Christian subjects as mundane and human might somehow be seen as blasphemous in a still-very-Byzantine world where Madonna’s usually looked like aliens and Baby Jesus regularly appeared with a receding hairline and five o’clock shadow.
As clear-cut an explanation as this may seem, I remind everyone that by the time we see changes take place in art, it usually means that they have already taken place in society. That the socio-philosophical game-changer of the medieval world was not an artist, but a spoiled-rich-kid from Assisi named Giovanni di Piero Bernardone, who had been nicknamed “Francesco” by his dad in honor of the lucrative business dealings he had had with textile merchants from France, known as the franceschi. After living the first have of his life in the proverbial “Fastlane” – fast cars, fast women – this second-most-penitent of penitent saints (see Mary Magdalene) had a life-altering conversion involving a talking crucifix (i.e. Jesus) in a dilapidated chapel outside of Assisi that told him to “rebuild his house which had fallen into ruin”. From that point on, Francis, the Catholic Church and the world would never be the same.
In addition to establishing one of the most important Catholic orders in history for both frati (brothers) and soure (sisters), upon whom he imposed the same vow of poverty he himself had taken; actively and passionately preaching the message of the gospels throughout the world; succoring the poor, hungry and sick – particularly lepers (see Jesus); and inventing the Christian tradition of the Christmas creche, Francis also managed to change the world. The greatest revolutionary in Western civilization since Jesus Christ (as I like to call him) suddenly began to offer an alternative existential reality to Medieval Christians – one in which the natural world was a direct reflection of the goodness of God. Since the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE), the Catholic (or Latin Christian as it was called) Church had preached and enforced a transcendental world view. One in which anything that was not God – or otherworldly – was evil. This included the natural world around us that was considered material and therefore nothing more than distraction and temptation luring souls off the path of righteousness and salvation.
Francis instead claimed that the natural world was given to us as a gift from God, and was therefore not only good, but imbued with God himself. Nature should not be shunned and ignored, but celebrated and revered. And moreover, human beings were not here to dominate and control nature (see Genesis 1:26), but to live with it in harmony. Man was no more important than the ant and no less than the elephant. Francis did not use the word “ecosystem”, but had the word existed in the 13th century, he would have. And even as malaria and tuberculosis caught up with him late in his life and robbed him of his sight, Francis began to ecstatically sing the praises of nature in verse in his famous “Canticle of the Sun”. The sun and fire became his brothers, the moon and water his sisters (see 1960’s commune…). Diving into frozen lakes and rolling around in thorn bushes brought not pain, but instead pleasure afforded by nature, according to Francis (see “either you’re holy or you’re crazy…).
Not surprisingly, within a half century of his death in 1226, artists like Cimabue, Dante and Giotto appeared, and each reflected the little giant’s philosophy in his respective art. Cimabue, the first artist to begin to attempt to break from the abstraction of Byzantine art, painted what is still today the earliest-known portrait of the saint in the lower basilica of Assisi (see above). Dante, who was the first author to publish in the vernacular (see The Divine Comedy), described St. Francis as rising like the sun out of Assisi, in a world that was otherwise black and gloomy, in Canto XI of his Paradiso. And, of course Giotto, who was a lay member of the Franciscan Order, who best embraced the saint’s message in what I like to call his “visual vernacular” style of painting, where saints look and act a hell of a lot like regular people and their world looks pretty much like our own. And even a much more contemporary saint has kept Francis’ legacy alive when Saint JPII made St. Francis of Assisi the Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979 (see “climate change doesn’t exist…”, help us St. Francis!!!)
…But I digress… so if it wasn’t fear of punishment by the church, why did it take so long for artists to figure out how to make things look like they do in the natural world?
Stay tuned for my next blog and find out!!!
I’m sure the suspense is killing you…
Loving Michelangelo to Death
I think few people today remember how radically different the Sistine Chapel ceiling looked before its restoration in the 1980s. I do. I remember seeing the dark, grimy pre-restoration ceiling when I was about 8 years old, and then the chromatically-miraculous cleaned ceiling in 1993. In fact, I try to make it a point to remind those who I bring to the chapel how lucky they are to be able to see the ceiling the same way Michelangelo did before his death in 1564 and the first application of varnish was applied to the ceiling shortly thereafter. But I also point out that as obfuscating as that dark varnish was, it encapsulated the ceiling and protected it from centuries of candle soot and pollution. Now that that varnish is gone, what is left to protect Michelangelo’s sublime frescoes?
In 2010, the then director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, ominously warned that there were too many visitors to the Sistine Chapel. Four years later, he went on to “hope” that the annual number of visitors to the chapel would not exceed 6 million, which is what he described as the “sold out” parameter for the logistical capacity of the museums. But then, in 2016, there were, in fact, more than 6 million visitors; while in 2017, under the direction of the first-ever-female director of the museums Barbara Jatta, an average of 27,000 people per day visited the chapel during peak tourist season, which, in the case of the Sistine Chapel, seems to be all year round. It is kind of alarming though when the director of a museum claims that there are too many people visiting his/her museum, but then does nothing about it. The reason, one would imagine, is the revenue created by such staggering numbers when the cost of admission to the museums (including reservation fee) is EUR 21,00/person.
So, who cares how many people enter the Sistine Chapel? Well, we all should, and a lot! What most people don’t realize is that we ourselves are the biggest threat to works of art. A single person produces 17ml of moisture and 350,00 Joules of body heat per hour (roughly the same amount of heat as a 100W light bulb). Now multiply those figures by the 27k people walking through the Sistine Chapel daily, and what you have is an enormous microclimate bomb that stresses and deteriorates the very plaster frescoes that make the chapel so famous. Not to mention the fact that we are also carrying atmospheric pollutants, pollens, and other harmful substances on our clothing, skin and hair, which we then release into the chapel and which also contribute to the degeneration of the paintings. I am not a restorer, but I do know enough of them to know that with the present volume of visitors, there might not be anything left to visit in a not too distant future.
The Vatican has taken some important conservatory steps. In 2014, the Sistine Chapel received a new LED lighting and climate control system. Yet, these are a far cry from the precautions taken elsewhere for important works in relatively small buildings. In Milan, no more than 25 visitors every 15 minutes pass through a series of hermetically sealed doors that maintain constant temperature and humidity in order to view Leonardo’s Last Supper. In Padua, visitors to the climate-controlled Scrovegni Chapel are limited to 25 every 20 minutes and watch a video in a large deionization chamber while walking on a special carpet that cleans their shoes as they pass through sealed doors that finally lead them into the chapel. Such precautions might seem extreme but may very well become the norm in world where we are literally loving our art to death!
Florence Cathedral and the Beauty of Boredom
The cathedral of Florence (1296-1468CE) is not only the defining architectural monument of the city, it is also one of the few that has free admission. Combined with the breathtaking quantity of white, green and pink marble decorations on the exterior of the church, it is not surprising that each day long lines form to visit the interior of this great building. But upon finally entering the church, most visitors are disappointed. The rather austere brown and white interior, although enormous in scale, contrasts strikingly with the highly decorative exterior. Expressions such as “That’s it…”, or adjectives such as “somber”, “sober”, “sparse” or even “boring” are those most often used to describe the ascetic interior. Often times, people even ask “Is it finished?”, hoping to find some rationalization for their disillusionment. Yet, if a visitor was to look deeper and beyond simple superficial ornamentation, he/she would discover that boredom can be both beautiful and profound.
More than an unsuccessful Gothic-style church, Santa Maria del Fiore (which is the cathedral’s proper name) should be described as a proto-Renaissance church as regards its interior design. In Florence cathedral, architecture is both function and decoration. Francesco Talenti, who was the architect of the cathedral interior, was, what we call in the business, “an architect’s architect”. He believed that if the interior walls were covered with painting or sculpture decoration, that one would no longer admire the “dignity of the wall”, but what is on that wall instead. Not only does this resulting bi-chrome brownstone/stucco pattern foreshadow Brunelleschi’s grey stone/stucco interiors at his great basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, but so too does Florence cathedral’s use of a proportional scheme. The central nave bays of the cathedral are perfect squares with 17.15m sides, while the side-aisle bays are rectangles, which areas are half of the nave squares. While technically pointed – and therefore Gothic in style – the nave arches have such wide bases that they seem to be tending towards semi-circular – and therefore Renaissance – in shape. Such un-acute arches defeat any structural advantage inherent in pointed arches. What’s the point of building pointed arches with such large bases? In other words, it’s pointless to build pointed arches in such a way (bad puns intended!)
Moreover, the general lack of decoration in the nave allows the visitor to move unhindered and undistracted – a sort of architectural metaphor for the terrestrial journey of life – towards the great octagonal crossing space below Brunelleschi’s majestic dome. Upon arriving, the visitor has entered into the main liturgical space of the church, with the high altar located at the very center of the crossing space and surrounded by an octagonal marble choir. And if the nave of the church symbolizes the journey of life, then the crossing space represents the spiritual destination – heaven/chi/nirvana/bliss – however one wishes to define it. This heaven is represented not only architecturally in the form of the dome, but pictorially in the great amount of decoration below it. From Della Robbia’s glazed terracotta reliefs above the sacristy doors, to the celebrity-designed stained-glass windows by the likes of Uccello, Donatello, and Ghiberti, and culminating in Vasari and Zuccari’s nearly 35,000ft2 of fresco decoration representing the “Last Judgement” that adorns the interior surface of the dome, one nearly forgets that the space that led them to this point was almost entirely void of decoration, and that sometimes, “boring” can be beautiful…
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Met
If you have not had a chance to visit the exhibit on Michelangelo’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum Fifth Avenue, New York, I would highly recommend doing so before the show’s closing on February 12, 2018. Over eight years, the curator of the exhibit, Carmen Bambach, has achieved the impossible in bringing together 133 of Michelangelo’s drawings. The opportunity to view and enjoy so many drawings in a single venue is perhaps more rare than most celestial phenomenon. Moreover, the chronological arrangement of the drawings allows the visitor to explore the great artist’s personal and professional life in a unique way.
From his early days as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio, to his learning from and self-measuring against the great masters of the early Renaissance such as Giotto and Masaccio, to his artistic apotheosis with works such as the St. Peter’s Pietà, the David, and the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the drawings are not only beautiful, but also biographical. Moreover, those drawings displayed in the exhibit associated with specific works of art allow us a “behind-the-scenes” look into the conceptual process of artistic creation. In the case of certain preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel, it literally feels like you are looking over the Michelangelo’s shoulder as he dreamed up his majestic compositions.
I not only had the great privilege of visiting the show several times on my own, but also the honor of receiving permission to lecture on the exhibit to several of our academic tour groups. (For more information and upcoming events in the US, see https://rockyruggiero.com/events/)
Although a majority of the drawings in the exhibit come from the collections of the Uffizi Gallery and the Casa Buonarroti Museum in Florence, Italy, they are very rarely displayed in their native city. Only the Casa Buonarroti consistently displays Michelangelo’s drawings, albeit only six at a time, and in constant rotation for reasons of conservation. While scholars such as myself are granted special permission to view drawings in these collections upon request, they are generally kept out of the public eye due to the damage caused to the delicate and often fragile drawings by continual exposure to light. So while students and tourists can enjoy the paintings, sculptures and buildings of the Renaissance in Italy, Renaissance drawings remain a forbidden fruit.
This Italian reality only adds to the special importance of the drawings exhibition at the Met. That such a great quantity of extraordinarily high-quality drawings by an artist of the caliber of the “Divine Michelangelo” is on display for an exceptional three-month period is perhaps a nearly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
See them now, because you may never see them again…
When the Light of the World Went Out
Most of modern Western culture derives from ancient Greco-Roman civilization. From our political structure, judicial system, language, philosophy, art, architecture and even sports, Western society is very much a product of the ancient Greek and – because the Romans imported most of their culture from Greece – Roman world.
Well, that world ended in the 5th century CE. Whether because the Roman Empire imploded because it dared to control too much of the world; or because, in history, as in nature, all things eventually run their course, by 476CE the Western Roman world was no more. The effects of this catastrophe were devastating. The first global infrastructure disappeared in the Western world, and with it just about everything that defines a civilization – politics, society, culture, economics, communications, religion and art. According to St. Gerome, when the city of Rome was sacked in 410CE, “The light of the world has gone out.”
Whenever a power structure collapses, a power vacuum is created. This very simply means that no one is in charge. No direction means no organization, and no organization means chaos. A chaos made worse by the fact that displaced barbarian hoards (see the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns) that had participated in no small way in Rome’s collapse saw the opportunity to very simply rape, pillage, and plunder the Roman world without restraint. Their attention was focused mainly on Roman cities, where a majority of the material wealth was concentrated. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of these cities abandoned urban centers and sought safety in the relative isolation of the countryside.
Soon these barbarians became the rulers of the western world, and although they adopted the customs and religion (which by that time was Christianity) of their Roman predecessors, tribal feuding made any kind of political or economic stability impossible. And so Western Europe entered into what historians once called the “Dark Ages” (today known as the “Early Middle Ages”). But on Christmas day, 800 CE, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Romans” and the first seeds of the Renaissance were planted. Charlemagne began to reestablish political and economic stability for much of Western Europe. An aristocratic political structure would now control European lands and rid them of the brigands, thieves and pirates that plagued them. Suddenly, it was safe to travel again, and therefore, also to trade again.
Around 1000CE, a sort of “Commercial Revolution” began in Europe (mainly in Italy) as a new merchant class was born. To facilitate commerce, these merchants began to migrate back into abandoned urban centers, and the city was reborn. Merchants were empowered by their own economic success, and, much as socially well-established Americans do today with services such as ancestry.com, they began to look into their past in order to better define their present reality. It was the 14th-century poet Francesco Petrarca (better known as Petrarch) who first began to write about and celebrate the marvels of the ancient Roman world whose ruins still testify to the jaw-dropping ability of the Romans to build on scale commensurate with their greatness. By the late Middle Ages, as Italians began to realize the grandeur of their ancestors, they began to whisper, “Once we were Romans.” During the Renaissance, that whisper would become a resounding cry.
What does Michelangelo have to do with me?
Let’s be honest, in the eyes of most people, art history is a rather trivial subject. There is little need for it in our everyday lives and modern culture. The traditional method of teaching art history (dark room with an asthmatic slide projector, never-quite-clear-enough slides, and a monotone monologue by an unseen lecturer with an over-inflated vocabulary) has only perpetuated this belief, as it relegates both the subject and the importance of art to the past – dead men, therefore dead art. But if this were the case, how can we explain the fact that more than 25,000 people per day crane their necks to catch a view of the Sistine Ceiling in Rome, Italy; or that more than 5,000 per day stand with mouth agape in front the statue of David in Florence, Italy. These numbers tell us that “Michelangelo has a lot to do with me,” as millions of people spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours in order to travel to places such as these, which have become our modern sanctuaries and cultural idols. Secular tourism in a way has replaced religious pilgrimage.
But why? Did all these people study art history? Do they all want to harvest the fruits of their studies by finally standing in the shadow of Michelangelo’s genius? The answer is instead that they really don’t know why they traveled all that way. Someone or something told them “you just have to see it!” That “someone or something” is our collective consciousness, which is very much aware of what “we” – as a collective species – are capable of achieving. There is a little bit of all of us in that ceiling. That 17ft.-tall nude guy with the slingshot is a reflection of all of us – of what we all can be.
There is a little Michelangelo in all of us, and there is a lot of us in Michelangelo. Michelangelo was not 100ft. tall. He could not fly. He did not have any cool super powers or electronic gizmos. Michelangelo ate, drank (little and badly), laughed, cried and made a hell of a lot of money during his career. Michelangelo di Ludovico di Buonarroto Simoni (better known as Michelangelo) was a human being just like you and me. Who knows, maybe even a little less human, as he wasn’t the nicest guy to ever wear a codpiece, you know.
So why am I picking on Michelangelo? (I guess I am a little bit). Because I am using Michelangelo as a symbol of art history, mainly because he is probably the most famous artist to have ever walked the earth. My “hero assassination” is simply an attempt to emphasize his imperfect humanity. And even though Michelangelo is dead, humanity is not. Therefore neither is art. Art is everywhere in our world. From the most mundane objects such as cereal boxes, to the super chic runways of the fashion world, to the big screens of Hollywood, art dictates the aesthetic. Art is beauty, even when it’s ugly. From the clothes we wear, to the car we drive, to the house we live in, the look of it all is the result of centuries of men and women who were put on this earth to create beauty. Styles change, but beauty is eternal.
Art is a gift to all of us. A tremendous gift that few of us can express, and that fortunately the rest of us can enjoy. To ignore or dismiss this gift would be nothing less than tragic.
Venice, la Serenissima
The traditional foundation date of Venice is March 25, 421CE, 11 years after the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth, and 55 years before the last western Roman emperor, ironically named Romulus Augustus, was deposed. In 452CE, a second barbarian invasion led by Attila the Hun caused a mass migration of refugees onto the islands of the Venetian lagoon in search of safety. These islands offered refuge to the seafaring Italic people since the landlocked central-Asian barbarian invaders had little practicality with seamanship. The salt flats of the lagoon also offered a lucrative economic potential, as salt was a vital commodity for preserving food. And so the two most fundamental aspects of Venetian society were established – sea power and commerce. Through the 6th and 7th centuries, further barbarian invasions caused additional influxes of refugees onto the lagoon islands. Collectively, these islands formed a loose association of communities with no clear socio-political nucleus. Evidence of this is found in the Latin name of Venice, which is a plural noun – Venetiae.
As early as 526CE, Venice had submitted itself to the rule of the Byzantine Empire in exchange for protection and exclusive trading rights throughout imperial territory. In the 8th century, this ideal marriage ended in a rather messy divorce. The radical imperial decree of “Iconoclasm” that was issued in 726CE by Byzantine Emperor Leo III, which essentially ordered the destruction of all icons and holy images in his domain, marking the definitive separation between Latin (today Roman Catholic) and Greek Christianity. Under the encouragement of Pope Gregory II, the imperial provinces of Italy rebelled. The Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna was assassinated, his provincial governors put to flight, and local communities began to choose their own leaders. The islands of Venice chose Orso from Heraclea, who was given the title of Dux (duke). In Venetian dialect, the term would become “Doge”, and the office would continue unbroken through 117 successors and for 1000 years.
As independent Venice grew in importance and began to understand its prominent role in the geopolitics of the time, as liaison between east and west, it needed one last bit of legitimacy; something that would symbolize its divine destiny as the Christian successor to the Roman Empire. That something was an important holy relic. According to Venetian legend, at the end of the 1st century CE, while St. Mark was traveling from Aquileia to Rome, his ship momentarily set ashore on the then uninhabited islands of the Rialto. An angel then appeared to Mark and spoke the now famous words, “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus, Hic requiescet corpus tuam.” (“Peace to you Mark, my evangelist. Here will your body rest.”) This legend would be the pretext for one of the most famous incidents of grave robbery in Christian history. In 829CE, Venetian merchants in Alexandria stole the body of St. Mark and smuggled it back to Venice in a crate full of pork products in order to dissuade suspicious Muslim guards whose curiosity was aroused by the sanctimonious odor permeating from Mark’s body. In 832CE, the first basilica of St. Mark was begun in order to house the relic. Mark was not Peter (who is buried in Rome), but the body of an actual evangelist would more than suffice, and his symbol – the winged lion – marked all Venetian endeavors and is ubiquitously displayed throughout the city.
In 870CE, the Venetians turned to reforming their political structure. The doge would no longer be appointed, but instead elected by a senate, which, in turn, was in part elected by a Great Council. Venetian government was considered to be the perfect constitutional balance of monarchy (doge), oligarchy (senate) and democracy (Great Council). So perfect in fact, that the Venetian constitution was considered to be a gift from God. This first Christian republic would become the longest-lasting republic in history, surpassing even the ancient republics of Greece and Rome (not to mention our own meager 241 years of US history), enduring for nearly a millennium. In Venetian history, there were no great men like Pericles or Caesar, or traumatic political crises that formed its historical memory. It was, as it still calls itself today, La Serenissima – “the most serene republic”.
Florence, Italy In A Nutshell
From a historical perspective, Florence is a city that is relatively easy to digest. As opposed to a city like Rome whose history spans more than two millennia, Florence’s critical history can be approximated to the two centuries that fall between the years 1300 and 1500CE. Nearly all of the city’s “rock-star”, celebrity artists were active during these two centuries. From Medieval artists such as Cimabue, Dante, Giotto, Boccaccio, and Petrarch active in the fourteenth century, through the Renaissance giants Donatello, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and climaxing with Leonardo and Michelangelo in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the level of artistic production in Florence during these two centuries is unprecedented and unparalleled in history.
Beyond its artistic importance, Florence’s political reality was also exceptional, as it was also one of Europe’s few medieval republics. A quick survey of Christian Europe’s political regimes in the fourteenth century – England/king, France/king, Germany/Holy Roman Emperor, what little Christian Spain remained/king, Central Italy/pope, southern Italy and major Italian islands/king – reveals that monarchical government was the norm, and democracy the exception. In fact, the medieval republics of Europe could be counted upon one hand, and they were all in Italy – Florence, Siena, Lucca, Genoa and the longest-lasting republic of all time, Venice. As opposed to the European monarchies where a majority of artistic production was directed towards glorifying individual rulers and their families, much of the art and architecture of these republics was communal, that is, created and paid for by the people. And although few have ever “willingly” paid taxes, it was ennobling to see public funds employed in order to celebrate the populace. In Florence alone, late thirteenth-century buildings such as the Basilica of Santa Croce, which is the world’s largest Franciscan church; Florence cathedral, which for two centuries was the world’s largest church (presently the third largest); Palazzo Vecchio (or della Signoria as it was originally called) the imposing seminal political structure that has served as Florence’s town hall for the past seven centuries; and the church and convent of Santa Maria Novella, which is one of the world’s largest Dominican complexes, were all constructed with communal funding.
Where did the money come from? By 1300AD, Florence was home to Europe’s second wealthiest economy after Venice. The medieval Venetian economy was based strictly on trade, as the maritime republic enjoyed exclusive trading rights throughout the Byzantine Empire. This privileged role, which was the equivalent of country today having exclusive trading rights with China, made Venice immeasurably wealthy. Florence instead accumulated its significant wealth through both a trade and manufacturing economy. A nearly Silicon-Valley-like phenomenon occurred in Florence in the thirteenth century with the development of a wool textile production and distribution industry. Raw wool was imported from all over Europe in order to be refined in the city, and then sold through a distribution network that encompassed most of the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, Florentine wool was the best that money could buy.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, business was booming in Florence. One of the many spin-offs of the wool industry was banking. Florentine banks were known as the “fifth element.” Wherever one could find the other four – earth, water, fire and air – one could find a Florentine bank. Much like American Express offices in the twentieth century, Florentine banks offered international merchants the security of not traveling with cash. With the immense capital acquired by these banks through exchange commissions, they could also then lend money on an average interest rate of 25%. Although such rates would be considered usury today, the returns on investments in the medieval world could be as high as 100%.
This wealth brought with it a demographic boom. By 1300, Florence was the fourth largest city in Europe after Paris, Venice, and Milan, with a population of between 100,000 and 120,000 people. As early as the eleventh century, both noble and peasant inhabitants of the contado (as the countryside around cities was known) were migrating to urban centers in order to claim a stake in what has been dubbed the “commercial revolution” of the Middle Ages. This economic and demographic explosion laid fertile ground for the rebirth of classical culture and civilization, or, as we call it today – the Renaissance.
Milan, Italy ?
When you get off the train in Milano Centrale train station and find yourself covered by the massive cast iron and glass canopy, you wonder if you are still in Italy. Your doubts are further inflated by the hectic pace of the people around. Unlike the languid strollers in most other Italian cities, these people actually seem in a hurry to get somewhere. Once you get to the taxi stands outside the train station, you are surprised to find people actually waiting their turn in a proper line; not to mention the efficiency of the taxis in loading passengers and quick departures. And you wonder again… am I still in Italy?
Milan, or Milano, is the capital city of the northern Italian region of Lombardy and the second largest city in Italy after Rome, with a greater metropolitan population of about 3 million people. It is also Italy’s capital of industry, finance and fashion. The modern urbanism of the city (including skyscrapers), convenient metro system, and fast-paced lifestyle reflect its unique role as a thriving European metropolis. So it might be surprising to find some of the greatest artistic treasures of the Renaissance scattered within this “bright lights, big city” atmosphere.
Milan’s 14th-century cathedral is one of the few successful Italian expressions of Gothic architecture. Its dizzying array of spires, rose windows, decorative sculpture, and stone tracery is as impressive as any of the great gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. But Milan’s defining artistic moment was the arrival of the 29 year-old Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci in 1481. Hired by the then Duke of Milan, Ludovico “the Moor” Sforza, as his court artist, Leonardo not only brought his own singular genius to the northern city, but also the artistic, scientific, and philosophical trends of his native Renaissance Florence. Over the 18 years that he lived in Milan, Leonardo produced some of his most important works such the Virgin of the Rocks (now in the Louvre, Paris), the Lady with the Ermine (now in the National Gallery in Cracow, Poland), the drawing of the Vitruvian Man (now in the Accademia Gallery, Venice) and the Last Supper (still in sitù in the Dominican refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan).
And although Michelangelo never went to or worked in Milan, the city acquired one of his sculptures in 1952. Known as the Rondanini Pietà (after the name of the Roman palace where it was previously located), it was Michelangelo’s last sculpture and intended as his own funerary monument. The great artist worked on the piece up until 6 days before he died at nearly 89 years of age. Tragic and frail, the sculpture is often interpreted as reflecting the fragile state of mind of an extraordinary artist in the twilight of his life.
Milan is also home to my second favorite museum in Italy (after the Borghese Gallery in Rome) – the Brera Gallery. This 19th-century museum houses extraordinary works by Renaissance artists such as Mantegna, Bellini, Tintoretto, Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio (although I have my doubts regarding the authenticity of the last). But the museum also houses an impressive collection of modern art by artists of the caliber of Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, De Chirico, Boccioni and Morandi.
And if all this art makes you hungry, make sure to try the famous saffron-rich Risotto Milanese or the breaded veal cutlet known as the Cotoletta alla Milanese.
Come enjoy the treasures of Milan with us during our Spring Northern Italy program from May 21-25, 2018.
Mantua, Italy – Rigoletto, Romeo and Romano
In Canto I of the Inferno, Virgil, the ancient Roman author of the epic poem the Aeneid presents himself to Dante with the following words, “Mantua me genuit” – “Mantua made me”. Well, not only did Mantua, or “Mantova” as the city is called in Italian, produce the great classical poet, but also some of the greatest art treasures of the Renaissance. The ruling family of Mantua, the Gonzaga, employed artists such as Andrea Mantegna, Leon Battista Alberti, and Giulio Romano in order to transform their remote Lombard city into a thriving center for the arts.
Although the Gonzaga family usurped control of Mantua from another family as earlier as 1328, it was not until the reign of Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga (1414-1478) in the fifteenth century that the city gained artistic importance. Serving as a condottiere, or “mercenary warlord” for Cosimo “the Elder” de’Medici, Ludovico was exposed to the artistic explosion that was occurring in the Medici city of Florence. Eager to create the same cultural atmosphere in his own city of Mantua, Ludovico began courting great Renaissance artists, offering them both honor and significant wealth.
Andrea Mantegna (originally from Padua) was one of the first princely painters of the Renaissance and went to Mantua 1459, where he served as official court painter for the family for nearly 50 years. Amongst other duties, Mantegna was also asked to fresco the formal reception room of the ducal palace. This room, known today as the Camera degli Sposi, is one of the 500 rooms contained within a 350,000ft.2 royal palace. In his fresco, Mantegna transports the viewer back in time by vividly portraying the Gonzaga family at court in their contemporary dress, actions and settings – all the way down to the Marquis’ favorite dog “Rubino” who sits under his throne!
After securing the services of Mantegna, Ludovico then hired the great Florentine architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti to design the new Basilica of Sant’Andrea. This church houses the second most important relic in Christendom – the blood of Jesus Christ, allegedly brought to Mantua by the very Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with his lance, St. Longinus.
In the 16th century, Ludovico’s grandson Federico II Gonzaga, was elevated in rank from “Marquis” to “Duke”. Federico II had spent several years in Rome as a youth and was exposed to the great works of the Roman Renaissance such the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Raphael rooms in the Vatican. Hoping to recreate his grandfather’s special relationship with Mantegna, Federico brought Raphael’s prize pupil, Giulio Romano, to Mantua in order to design and decorate his sumptuous pleasure palace known as the Palazzo del Te. Some of Romano’s beautiful frescoes in the palace border on debauchery, reflecting the rather hedonistic activities that occurred therein. But the most breathtaking work of the Palazzo is the so-called “Room of the Giants”, where Romano painted colossal titans being crushed by the Olympian gods in a sort of 16th -century virtual reality.
If all this is not enough, Mantua was also home (albeit temporarily in the first case) to two of the world’s most famous fictional characters – Romeo and Rigoletto! After killing Tybalt in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo flees to Mantua to live in exile. In Giuseppe Verdi’s great 19th century opera Rigoletto, the homonymous hunch-backed court jester loses his beloved daughter Gilda at the Gonzaga court. There is even a Rigoletto museum in Mantua today! Not really sure why since he didn’t exist… but tourists love it.
And when you’re in Mantua, you have to try the pumpkin-filled tortelli! A little on the sweet side for me as the pumpkin filling is spiked with amaretto liquor, they are nonetheless a culinary treasure. Wash them down with some local fizzy Lambrusco wine, and finish the meal with the local caloric bomb of a dessert called “sbrisolona”.
Come explore Mantua with us on our upcoming Northern Italy program from Oct. 16-20, 2017.