(click here to see this painting in very high resolution thanks to the Google Cultural Institute)
Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, was the supreme master of vedute, the painted or drawn views which reached the peak of their popularity in the eighteenth century. Born to a family of theatrical scene-painters, Canaletto depicted his native Venice as an atmospheric backdrop to a colourful cast of merchants, ambassadors and seafarers, and his portraits of the great city, La Serenissima, have evoked its charm for over two hundred years.
And if the barge looks familiar …
… that’s because we’re still using them. This one will start this year’s Lord Mayor’s Show by carrying the new Lord Mayor from Westminster to St Katherine’s dock.
Little is known of Canaletto’s early apprenticeship, although by 1720 he was entered as a member of the Venetian painter’s guild; and by this time he had already visited Rome. From the first documented commission, four views for Stefano Conti of Lucca, the artist’s pristine treatment of the architecture and detail and his strong contrasts of light and shade were in evidence. His work was especially prized by foreign visitors on the Grand Tour (the original, nothing to do with Jeremy Clarkson) – around the centres of classical and Renaissance civilization – who ordered paintings as souvenirs of their travels. Prominent among these patrons were member of the English aristocracy, and among others Canaletto collaborated with the enterprising Owen McSwiney, who secured the interest of the Duke of Richmond, and the collector and agent Joseph Smith.
Canaletto paid an extended visit to England between 1746 and 1756, where he produced compelling views of the Thames and its skyline, and capriccios or architectural fantasies. Surprisingly he found it difficult to secure an equivalent reputation in England, where it was even alleged that he was “not the veritable Canalleti (sic) of Venice”. For an unusual but fascinating view of his English period read this recent abstract “Canaletto’s Colours” from British Art Studies. To counter these accusations the artist invited doubters to inspect his painting of St. James’s Park for reassurance. Canaletto’s sojourn abroad eventually cast its influence on English topographical painters, and many private collection still hold examples of this work.
Canaletto’s paintings are a byword for clarity and realism, achieved in part by his occasional use of the camera obscura device, and in part by his brilliant shorthand delineation of figures. Sadly, when he died in 1768 he left almost nothing; twenty-eight unsold paintings, a single bed, two bed covers and, as the executor of his will described them, “some old cloths.” In contrast, the record price paid at auction for a Canaletto is £18.6 million for “View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto”, set at Sotheby’s in London in July 2005.
The timetable said we would “begin our exploration of Rome with an introductory walk and a Church crawl via the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.”
That doesn’t begin to describe our delight as we ventured out amongst the ochre-coloured buildings of various ages, over the Roman cobbles. And already the learning begins …
The cobbles are called “Sampietrini” which translates as “little St Peters”: they were mined from the surrounding volcanic hills by the ancient Romans, so some are 2,000 years old. I’m amazed when I see from some repair work that they are shaped like little teeth, the root going down into the earth.
Our hotel is in the charming and lively Campo Dei Fiori, the old flower market. It now holds the most tempting selection of food you can imagine from stripy aubergines to freshly chopped salads and huge, whole Parmigiano Reggianos. I can’t wait to buy our picnic lunch …
We are heading towards the Piazza Navona, when the tutor diverts us into an imposing courtyard and asks us to look up (a phrase we’ll hear a lot). Around the upper levels are niches filled with extraordinary statues which we are encouraged to explore with our eyes … is that a pair of dolphins at the feet of one figure … what does it all mean?
A “forced perspective”
We learn that this is the Palazzo Spada bought by the Cardinal Spada in 1632. The stucco work in the inner courtyard is full of symbolic devices: dolphins at the feet of a female figure signify Venus, who was carried ashore by them. Our tutor then points out an arch in the courtyard which goes through to another courtyard. We are all enjoying the lovely long vista to a distant statue, when someone in the other courtyard steps into the vista. Suddenly it feels all “Alice in Wonderland” – what’s going on?
It turns out that what we thought was a life size sculpture at the end of the vista is only 60 cm tall! Cardinal Spada commissioned Borromini to work on his palazzo and it was he who, with the help of a mathematician, created the forced perspective optical illusion in the arcaded courtyard (see title photograph).
In it, diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create the visual illusion of a gallery 37 metres long (it is 8 metres) with a lifesize sculpture at the end. We are amazed: to think that Borromini was working in the 1600’s, over 400 years ago with no engines and no electricity.
The “pièce de résistance” of the Piazza Navona
But the Palazzo Spada’s clever tricks are just an aside on our orientation: we push on to Piazza Navona.
Moving from the tight-knit street to the glorious Piazza gives a sense of space and freedom that delights. The sun gleams on the dome of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which we learn is the titular church of the Pamphilj (Pope Innocent X’s family).
Everyone is drawn to the central fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), built in 1651 by Bernini and topped by the Obelisk of Domitian. It is stunning. The water looks so clean and we’re told you can drink the water from all of Rome’s fountains … it’s delicious.
The sculpture on the huge fountain is impressive and amusing when you see that it drains through a fish’s mouth. Examining it in detail, it seems extraordinary that anyone could create it out of marble: it is truly monumental.
The square itself is humming with people, busy restaurants and the man selling helium balloons who has them on his fishing rod so they float high in the blue sky, advertising his wares. As we absorb the Italian background hum, we notice the different shades of ochre and pink that the surrounding buildings are painted, the false windows on the house opposite the Quattro Fiumi, and the evidence of past wealth, politics and a fascinating history over many centuries.
The Romans invented concrete …
Covering a few more “sampietrini” we come out into a square, Piazza della Rotonda, with an incredible building to one side. Another obelisk to mark the spot and what looks like a triple row of huge columns* announces the grandeur of the Pantheon.
Our tutor explains a little of its history but nothing prepares you for the immense, circular space behind the columns, the open hole at the top, the “oculus”, allowing light and weather into this ancient place. And then we’re told the roof was made of concrete … in 200 AD! The Romans invented it but the art of making it was lost when the Empire fell and not “re-discovered” until the 1800s. To hold the weight the wall is over 6m thick and it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Built on the site of an earlier building (like everything in Rome, it would seem) it was completed by the Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. He kept the inscription from the earlier building which reads “M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit” or “Marcus, Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time”.
We have learned so much in such a short time and already it is lunchtime. It’s not far to a restaurant where the owner greets our tutor by name and we know that we’ll be eating like the Romans do … with such a lot to discuss.
*It is actually 8 in the first row and two groups of 4 behind.
Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!
The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.
Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra
This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.
The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.
The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself. The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains. The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body. The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.
Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto
In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.
Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8
The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.
Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.
Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51
This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.
And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.
It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.
In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.
Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481
I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.
Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.
But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.
With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.
Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.
Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.
Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.
Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.
These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.
Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.
During my AHA experience, back when I was a young bright Gap Year student, drinking in the wonders of Italy (as well as the prosecco), the days we spent in Florence and Siena secured themselves a special place in my Italian Romance. And for so many others, the lure of Tuscany is undoubtedly present. This summer, I was fortunate enough to return to the land of pencil cedars, rhythmic hills and Medici fortunes. And I soon realised, that while Florence and Sienna might be the most famous gems of Tuscany, the surrounding region has ancient villages atop every hill, and endless landscapes to fill any camera.
So if you are drawn back to the heat and beauty of Tuscany, here are some places to consider visiting if you want a taste of real Italian life.
1) San Gimignano. A name which you may have heard, but know little about. I spent one gelato-meltingly hot day there, and was awestruck by the quiet beauty of it. Be warned that most of your time will be spent walking around looking skyward to the 14 remaining “power-towers”, which give San Gimignano it’s distinctive skyline. The town appeared to me like a 14th century Manhattan, with each stone skyscraper attempting to tower over its neighbour. There is a gelateria that claims to be the World Ice Cream Champion, and of course I sampled it to assure you all that it lives up to its title. If you wander into the Duomo, first being wrapped in Crete paper to protect your modesty, the church is illuminated with wall to wall frescos that for me were reminiscent of those in Giotto’s Area Chapel in their colour brilliance and animated expressions. The hellish portrayal of gluttony was particularly descriptive.
Should you leave San Gimignano in search of new adventures, a place for a true taste of local Tuscan life is Montepulciano, a town where they have their own version of the Palio…trading the horses for barrel rolling. The town has wide, movie set streets and bars resting on sloped paved roads, any number of which will serve for apperitvi, before you head to the viewpoint to take in the sweeping countryside. A highlight of this town for me was the atmospheric Ristorante sotto L’arche, a pizzeria which seated you under a canopy of a lighted arch, the owner greets you as his own family and live music accompanied every bite of the unforgettable pizza (the real Italian stuff, not your standard Dominoes). The meal was loud with laughter and music, the manger himself as concerned with performing an aria as he was dutiful to his customers. Definitely worth a visit.
For those who wish for rest and relaxation, an escape from the endless supply of cultural wonders, it can be found at the villas of La Foce. The massive estate has a fascinating history as well as breathtaking views. Built on the volcanic lands of Val del’Orcia, it has served as a farming estate, was taken over by Nazis, secretly fed artisans during WW2, and today one can tour the gardens, relax by the pool and even attend olive oil tastings – the golden syrup is grown right beside your villa. The whole complex radiates with the smell of cedars, lavender and olives. the coolness and calm of La Foce is an oasis in the dry Tuscan heat.
These are just a few of the things I was fortunate enough to discover in only a week. This is what amazed me about Tuscany. How there can be so much to do if you desire to do things, yet such an emphasis on Italian lifestyle. On enjoying eating and drinking, taking hours over meals, feeling no pressure to go to any 14th century town today because it will still be there tomorrow. If you are in Tuscany in the next year, know that you can see as much or as little as you want, and it will still be a wonderful Italian holiday. Of course, there is always Florence.
A level results. Less than a handful of letters that can make you go:
(*These weren’t my grades, I promise.)
You may have bagged your chosen grades and packed your bags- ready to roll straight out of school, on into university. Sorted. You may be staring at some unwanted, isolated letters, having loaded your school portal three hundred times on a dodgy Wi-Fi server, only to find out that the future you thought was yours, well, isn’t.
BUT DO NOT FRET. Here is why a gap year was one of the best decisions of my life:
GETTING AN INTERNSHIP/WORK EXPERIENCE
With an entire year, I was able to research internships that really interested me. I contacted several companies, and landed a 3-month placement at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence. Not only did it fill some space on the old CV, but it also allowed me to experience the business world of curating and marketing, giving me a clearer idea of things I’d perhaps like to do after university.
ABILITY TO SEE THE WORLD
Travelling is arguably one of the most significant reasons why one should consider taking a gap year. It’s a perfect time to see and do things you have never done before, and perhaps may never have the time to do again. I did the Art History Abroad Summer Course of 6 weeks. I joined the course not knowing anybody, but from day one I was fully immersed with the 19 other like- minded students and the fantastic tutors. Starting in Rome and ending in Venice, passing through places including Naples, Siena, Florence and Verona, we were able to skip queues of the Academia, eat where only locals would eat and continuously develop such an enthusiasm and appreciation for the profuse amount of art that Italy has to offer. And that’s only 6 weeks. As a musician, I toured around the UK and travelled to Paris, playing shows and building the foundations of an international fan-base. I was recently named MTV’s Unsigned Artist of 2014, and I look back on my gap year as a crucial turning point for my career.
PREP YOURSELF FOR UNIVERSITY
You can take your well earned break from exams and really research the course you want to do.
YES TO EVERYTHING
From climbing mount Vesuvius in Naples to playing one of the most magical shows of my life in Montmartre, Paris, one thing I learned was, on a gap year, you can say yes to everything.
EARN SOME MONEY
I got a job in a café, I ran my own music night – do what you want but you’ll be thankful for some dosh!
ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU WANT TO DO
For the first time in your life you can be totally selfish. I made a list of everything I wanted to achieve and just went and did them.
Forgive me for ending on a very cheesy one, as I try to avoid the ‘I found myself on my gap year’ cliché. But whatever you choose to do, your Gap Year can teach you a lot about yourself. You roll your eyes , but trust me, it’ll stand you in really good stead for the future years.
When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is mein the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.
What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.
For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.
Why is this?
I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Let me make a crude summary:
One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.
Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.
But, what has this got to do with selfies?
The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’
The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.
Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.
On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.
Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?
I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.
Instagram may seem unoriginal and spammed with selfies, but the tainted jewel of an app has the potential to inject some artistic colour into the palm of your hand. Instagram’s artistic stars are overrun with photographers and street artists, whose rapid style suit Instagram’s pop aesthetic; but the plethora of visual bites from around the world paints a creative description of day-to-day life…
Ai Weiwei(@aiww) – this Chinese artist is on nearly every channel of social media known to man. His feed is a mess of photographs, snaps of artistic process and excitable pictures of everyday life.
Sara Rahbar (@sara_rahbar_) – contemporary mixed media artist, born in Tehran, living in New York. Heavily political, her feed is littered with bullets, flags, limbs and relics of war. Confusing and brutal fusion of East and West.
Tanya Ling(@tanya_ling) – A fashion-illustrator-cross- Instragram-whiz, British Tanya Ling creates art in grid form to move and mesh with Instagram’s format. Using multiple snaps to build the bigger picture, look out for clever manipulation of the social media site and microscopic perspectives.
Gaia(@gaiastreetart) – This prolific street artist is known for his oversized, curious and creature-like concoctions on the street. Thrown in are energetic admirations from similar artists across the globe.
Patternity (@patternity)– Finding order out of chaos, Anna Murray and Grace Winteringham scour the streets and burst off them looking for natural repetitions that inspire materialistic motifs.
Sam Horine(@samhorine)– Photographer based in NYC who makes photographs ‘on the go’. Shoots the skyline to the sofa, showing New York in majestic, lit-up and downtown detail.
Borojaguchi (@borojaguchi)– Tokyo-based, globe-trotting web director, snaps the tourist-y to the kitsche in an endearing fashion. Follow to notice things you never knew were there.
National Geographic(@natgeo)– without a doubt the most stunning Instagram feed there is, National Geographic collates world observations from an army of adventurous, insane and genius photographers. Shows a side of humanity and the environment rarely seen or noticed, from the Amazon to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Hawkeye Huey (@hawkeyehuey) – 4-year-old analog photographer, depressingly (or unwittingly) talented. Account maintained by father and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, who started it all by noticing his son’s playful shots. Follow for the first-time discoveries and Polaroid perspectives of a child.
One of the great joys of teaching for Art History Abroad is the possibility to see some of the great masterpieces of world art on a regular basis. Given this ‘regularity’, students – both young and old – regularly ask which is my favourite city, and even which is my favourite artist. Finally, I can give you a definitive answer: I really don’t know. But in a balloon debate between the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo and others), the Brancacci Chapel (Massacio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi) and the Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto) I would definitely save the last. Not that you could get a whole chapel into a balloon. It has an astonishing cycle of paintings, entirely by Giotto, with the early, apocryphal life of Mary at the top, the Nativity and Mission of Jesus in the centre, and on the lowest level, closer to us because it is the most important, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It is an astonishing sequence of images, superb storytelling, and scans perfectly across the walls. Throughout there are links between adjacent images, from side to side and, perhaps more remarkable, from top to bottom. And there are resonances crossing the chapel, making the whole space ring with beauty and meaning. You need to be there to appreciate it fully, it takes time to see each image, let alone the whole, and it has been a real privilege to share this wonder with many of our gap-year students, and to learn from their fresh insights and vital enthusiasm.
The Passion Cycle, leading towards the altar on the ‘north’ (left) wall, is particularly moving. Of course the subject is one of the great staples of Roman Catholic art, and can be just as beautiful and moving even when not as well known or, for that matter, as well preserved. Approaching Easter, I was reminded of a small, incomplete cycle I saw in Switzerland when on a failed ‘pilgrimage’ to see a curious relic of St John, not far from the German lakeside city of Constance (see my earlier post, from 17 February). Located in the village of Landschlacht (population a mere 850, apparently), it was painted in the first quarter of the 14th Century. Stepping off the train, it is not immediately apparent that this tiny place could house a church, let alone a fresco cycle. The 11th – 12th Century chapel of St Leonhard is unprepossessing: without the little steeple it could easily be mistaken for a barn. Like many churches, the frescoes were whitewashed either during the Reformation (which, around Constance, didn’t last very long), or later – the 17th Century probably – for reasons of taste, which we now find hard to comprehend, or changing fashion, which often had an impact on pre-existing art. Whatever the reason, it explains why the surfaces are worn, and why not all of the cycle survives.
This very fragility of the material itself is one of the things that makes the paintings so moving, something which is all but impossible to reproduce photographically, the delicacy of the painted surface somehow contributing to the delicacy of Chirst’s damaged body. The first complete image is the Flagellation, conceived more pragmatically than later examples. Caravaggio’s painting, for example, glorious as it is, is designed to display a beautiful, physical form, but, despite its emotional depth, it is one of the few paintings in which he fails to communicate the physical reality of the act: Christ’s back is next to the column, how could they whip him? Here Christ’s arms are tied around the support, he all but hugs it, his back exposed to the lashes. The extreme tilt of the neck allows us to see his face whilst also communicating an overbearing agony, which continues through the extreme, but elegant, sagging of the hips, bend of the knees and splaying of the feet. By contrast, in the Crowning with Thorns, Jesus sits upright, regal, fully in control, blessing us, the onlookers, while the torturers use a metal bar to press the unmanageable thorns onto his head. Their calm concentration on the imposition of pain contrasts with his serene forbearance, and emphasizes how calculated their cruelty is.
The Virgin Mary assists on the Way to Calvary, her hands covered by her cloak just as a priest would hold the consecrated host: the cross is seen as a holy relic, even before it has performed its sacred function. She takes the same position – at the right hand of Christ – in three successive images. In the Crucifixion her heart is pierced with a sword – an illustration of the prophecy of the priest Simeon in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. In the Deposition she takes her son’s right arm in the same way she supported the right arm of the cross, hands covered, wary of defiling the body (Christ and the Cross are one). John the Evangelist, looking even more than usually effeminate, stands across from Mary in the Crucifixion at Christ’s left, as is traditional, and in the Deposition supports his left arm. The two images are further united by the continuation of the cross as a bold horizontal from one painting to the next, and despite the lowering of the body the knees remain equally bent – Christ buckles up in front of our eyes.
Other characters appear and disappear. In both scenes one of the other Maries stands just behind the Virgin, to the left. In the Crucifixion we see the Centurion, whose realization that, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God,’ would originally have been written on the scroll that curls behind John’s head. He is replaced in the Deposition by the figure of Mary Magdalene, who takes the foreground and kneels at the feet of Christ, and by Nicodemus, who gently, affectionately lowers the body, the yellow of his sleeve cutting a swathe across the lifeless torso.
Sadly, this is where the cycle breaks up – of the next scene we can just make out the edge of the tomb, and appearing above a bubble of paint loss, the top of one of the witnesses to the Entombment. We know the story, but it would be wonderful to see how this unknown, uncelebrated artist depicted the ending. And I suppose that is just one of the reasons I would save Giotto over Masaccio or Michelangelo: his story telling in the Scrovegni Chapel is so brilliant, so carefully timed, so beautifully and movingly depicted, and so complete. However, if you can make your way to Landschlacht you will not be disappointed. And unlike Padua, you won’t have to book in advance, pay, or wait. It’s just there, in an unassuming chapel in a small, country village, near a beautiful lake. And you’ll probably have it all to yourself.
What’s in a name? Call him Paolo Spezapreda, Paolo Bazaro or Paolo Caliari, Paolo Veronese will always be among the greats, and has finally been put into the spotlight at the National Gallery.
Paolo Veronese has his name because he was, quite simply, the best artist ever to come out of his hometown, Verona. Although he moved to Venice more-or-less full time at the age of 27 in 1555, and instantly entered the top ranks of the Venetian art élite, his work was grounded in his youth and formation in the mainland city.
Born in 1528 into family of stonecutters, Paolo may have initially trained in the family business with his father, but by the age of 13 he was already apprenticed to Antonio Badile, a competent but uninspiring artist. He also seems to have worked alongside Giovanni Battista Caroto, but not for long: he was established as an independent master in his own right by the age of 18. In 1553 he signed himself ‘Paolo Spezapreda’ – Paul the Stonecutter – but within two years he was calling himself ‘Paolo Caliari from Verona’. Caliari wasn’t even his father’s name. His father, Gabriele Bazaro, married a girl called Caterina, some six years his senior. And when you’re only 14 that’s a big difference. Maybe they married because she was already pregnant. But then her parents never married: her father was an aristocrat by the name of Caliari, and by choosing the name of his illegitimate mother’s father Paolo implied he was going up in the world, no longer a humble stonecutter, but an artist with a high-class background. Nevertheless, in Venice he must have stood out from the Venetian artists and became known, quite simply, as Paolo Veronese.
The earliest known paintings by him are both in the National Gallery’s splendid exhibition. Both are painted in oil on paper, later mounted on canvas, and both show his origins clearly. They are studies for two works which are lost – one completely, and one only practically, as the full-scale version of the Bevilacqua-Lazise altarpiece survives, but is highly damaged and badly over-painted. The little modello – probably painted so the clients could see what they were getting – is a better representation of what was intended. The architectural setting, with the Virgin and Child enthroned to the side of a marble altar, shows the influence of Titian – via Antonio Badile – but also the architectural style of Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect of Vicenza at the time. Paolo’s father probably worked for him. As a boy, Paolo may have done so too.
By the age of 20 he was apparently fully formed. What first strikes you about The Conversion of Mary Magdalene is the brilliance of its colours – chopping from sky blue to rose, emerald to primrose and a daring combination of white and vermillion, like a Bridget Riley inhabited by people. The story, probably derived from a life of Christ written by Pietro Aretino, shows Mary Magdalene falling to her knees with shame as she first beholds Jesus, and immediately removing her jewelry, the outward sign of her inner vice. Her sister Martha holds her hand and points the way, from the shadow into which she has subsided to the brilliant light of Christ. This is where we first see a compositional tendency which recurs throughout Veronese’s oeuvre: the protagonist is at the bottom, in the shade, and partly hidden by the other characters – and yet we always know who is important, as Veronese can always lead our eye in the right direction.
He excels at the depiction of religious subject matter, notably in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and The Martyrdom of St George in the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition respectively.Both are triumphs for the National Gallery. The former has never left Venice (painted for the Church of Santa Caterina, it now resides in the Accademia, the main art gallery there), while the latter has only left the church in Verona for which it was painted once before – when Napoleon stole it at the end of the 18th Century. Both are sublimely coloured and beautifully composed. St Catherine is arrayed in the finest of Venetians fabrics, a white, blue and gold brocade, and is about to be enveloped in a voluminous white cloth-of-gold cape by one of the attendant angels. A woman behind raised her arms high and gazes to heaven, her hands framing the faces of the Virgin and the Saint and bringing them together in a form of ecstatic union. In the next room of the exhibition, St George, brought low, accepts his immanent death while looking up at the figure of Hope, who looks to the Virgin and Child, pleading, with her companions Faith and Charity, on his behalf. The interlocking gazes and gestures of the celestial gathering lead our eye around the upper half of the painting, while the red flag of the Romans – inscribed with the letters SPQR (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) cuts like a knife from the top left corner and tears our eyes down to the brilliant vermillion of George’s hose.
If he excels with the religious, he excites with myth. The National Gallery’s own Allegories of Love look superb in what was their long-time setting, where they are reunited with a Mars and Venus that they haven’t seen forthree hundred years when they were all part of the collection of the Hapsburgs in Prague. A cheeky and delicate version of The Rape of Europa shows the heroine tentatively mounting a snow-white bull, not knowing it to be Jupiter in disguise. He tenderly nuzzles her sandalled feet, before carrying her off, in a background scene, across the lapping waves and far across the sea. A regretful heifer peers longingly into the distance, apparently regretting that she didn’t get in on the action.
If the mature paintings look as if they are bathed in sunlight, the last works have something of the night about them, they seem to be moonlit, and you get the feeling that without Veronese’s exploration of chiaroscuro Caravaggio’s career might not have been possible. The story of Lucretia is dark in every way. Raped, she kills herself rather than suffer the shame, and plunges a dagger into her breast through the cloth with which she is so desperately trying to maintain her dignity. Elsewhere in this final room a heroic Perseus plummets through the air, a secular angel rescuing a gymnastic Andromeda from the most energetic of sea monsters, while two late portraits, in tranquil mode, show that Veronese perfected his skills depicting character and surface like no other. The last painting in the exhibition is the last he ever painted, The Conversion of St Pantalon,commissioned for the high altar of eponymous Venetian church by the Parish Priest, Bartolomeo Borghi. No ideal palaces here, no soaring classical columns, but a seedy Venetian backstreet in which the Saint cures a boy bitten by a snake with the power of prayer alone. Borghi himself plays a minor role, supporting the body of the dead child before he is resuscitated. As so often in Veronese’s work the patron takes part in the religious drama: throughout the exhibition any slightly suspect characters photo-bombing the holy scene are probably portraits of the patrons.
This may be the last painting, but as you go, stop and contemplate The Agony in the Garden. Christ’s traditional vigil has worn him down, and while Peter, James and John sleep securely in the background, Jesus has collapsed in the arms of a consoling angel, who is left with the task of looking up to Heaven and pleading for forbearance. The light streaming from on high trickles like liquid gold down the angel’s violet robe, and Christ’s limbs hang heavy, forming a counterpoint with the angel’s legs and framed by the blue and red of his own robes, as if blood and water flow mingled down. It is an exquisite image: quiet, considered, contemplative, sublime.
The exhibition has 50 paintings by this great master, from the earliest known works, to the last one he painted. It’s the first exhibition devoted to him in Britain, and the size and scale of the paintings mean that the National Gallery has moved some of its permanent collection out of the way so that Veronese’s works can enjoy the space and natural daylight of the main floor. The colours shine gloriously, the dramatic compositions have space to breathe, and some of the paintings can be examined up close for the first time ever. It really is the exhibition you should be going to see – and if you can conspire to see it when the sun is shining, so much the better.