The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

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.

 

 

Under a Tuscan Sky: AHA alum Anna Fothergill reviews Tuscany’s lesser know treasures.

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.

 

View from San Gimignano - Own photo

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.

 

Sam Gimignano

 

Frescos in San Gimignano Duomo

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.

Primi Piatti - Own photo

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.

La Foce

Sunset over La Foce -own photo

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.

Firenze -own photograph

 

As we approach Easter, Richard Stemp enjoys a minor Passion

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.

 

Giotto The Scrovegni Chapel Padua (c. 1305)

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.

St Leonhard’s Chapel, Landschlacht, Switzerland (11th-12th Century)

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.

Unknown Constance Master The Flagellation and Crowning with Thorns

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.

 

Unknown Constance Master The Way to Calvary and Crucifixion

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.

Unknown Constance Master The Crucifixion and Deposition

 

Why a Gap Year? AHA alum and Berkeley student Lucy Sundelson on what the experience meant for her

On the day I left for my gap year trip with Art History Abroad, I felt terrified.  I cried while I sat in the terminal, waiting to board my flight.  I was on my way to Italy, and for the first time in my life, I was on my own.

I had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the spring semester, rather than the fall, when my sister and all my friends would be starting.   Gap years are common in Europe, but not many American students take one.  I was worried.  What would I be missing?  Would I feel left behind?

As soon as I arrived in Italy, however, I knew that my time there would give me just as much as a semester of college, if not more.  My gap year course was my first chance to see the world as an adult.  It would teach me to make friends with people from across the world, to take care of myself, and to discover new passions. Every day felt like an adventure, as we ate, laughed, and learned our way through a dozen Italian cities, and I felt more independent and excited than I ever did in high school. I learned how to take risks: to get lost in the alleys of Venice, to dance in a nightclub, to sit in front of a monument or a sculpture and try to sketch it, despite the belief that I had absolutely no artistic ability.

I think it’s exciting that more American students are now taking gap years. College has been challenging and exhilarating, but I know that my experience with AHA is the reason I’m getting so much out of it. On the trip, I began to discover a new, independent identity—an identity I continue to explore in college. When I started at Berkeley, I already knew how to take care of myself and how to challenge myself with new experiences. My Italian journey is the reason I’ve been able to make so many friends in college, and it’s the reason I’m studying Urban Design. I’ve found the perfect niche in a place I never expected to feel so comfortable. I’ll remember my trip as not only one of the most exciting experiences of my life, but as one that helped me learn who I am and what I can do.

For more thoughts on taking a Gap Year and its benefits, see this article by founder of the AGA (American Gap Association) Ethan Knight.

http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11231428.htm

 

Coppola-coloured: is there really so much difference between film and painting? AHA alum Julia Turner explores

If Sofia Coppola were a Renaissance painter, she would be Titian. Or maybe Tintoretto:  two painters whose mastery of colour and light were crucial to their artistic output. Their approach to painting represented the Venetian school’s insistence that colorito (colour), rather than Florentine disegno (drawing), was the key to recreating the essence of nature. Impossible though it may be, therefore, I think that if the two men were to watch Coppola’s Marie Antoinette over a bowl of pop-corn, they would nod in approval at her pistachio greens, duck egg blues, and accents of deep crimson and plum.

Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-1559

 

Tintoretto, St Mark Working Many Miracles, 1562-1566

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, 2006

Coppola’s debut feature film, The Virgin Suicides, paid equal attention to production design and light in creating a sense of theatricality, not dissimilar to Tim Walker’s fantastical photographs.

Tim Walker, Lily Cole, for Vogue UK, 2010

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, 1999

Another director who I love for his use of colour is Wes Anderson. His use of paint-box colours make his works instantly recognisable. In fact, Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style inspired artist Beth Matthews to produce her own work, the Wes Anderson Film Colour Palette, in which she pulled together the colour treatments used across six of his feature films.

Poster Image for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

That said, Coppola’s films, also capture design or ‘disegno’. Since directors are able to use a camera to capture nature directly, they arguably have the ‘design’ box automatically checked before they even begin. What’s more, the photographic aspect of cinema can provide an opportunity for directors to focus especially on the composition of their frames. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles used monochrome to create kaleidoscopic, architectural shots that could stand alone as striking photographs.

Still from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

On the other hand, through his symmetrical compositions Anderson’s use of colour becomes most evident and most efficient in balancing his frames. Similarly, both colour and design are put to work in Somewhere, Coppola’s meandering portrait of a famous actor living in the Chateau Marmont, whose life happens to him rather than the other way around. Curved and straight lines, repeating patterns, and clean-fishbowl-hues build up a considered portrayal of a place that almost feels like the set of a movie itself: somewhere with lots of charm but no personality.

Still from Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited, 2007
Still from Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, 2006

I suppose in this way, film could resolve another Renaissance debate: whether painting or sculpture is the better art form. Michelangelo was able to master both and this is one of the reasons he was so celebrated. Not only can film offer both colour and a three-dimensional perspective on the figures, but it can go one step further, by introducing soundtrack and dialogue to flesh out the characters and add texture and tone to the piece such as with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony capturing the sweeping majesty of Tadzio’s beauty and von Aschenbach’s loneliness in Visconti’s Death in Venice or French rock band Phoenix’s cool nonchalance pervading Coppola’s Somewhere.

Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Visconti's Death in Venice, 1971

So really, the medium that is most associated with modernity – the moving image of the Nineteenth Century, the talkies of the 1930s, and the music videos and blockbusters that dominate youtube and facebook feeds today – are actually involved in fulfilling a very traditional aim:

to capture the spirit, the sense, the essence of a thought, a feeling or a truth.

 

An Exploration of Material Culture by AHA alum Julia Turner

For many, an interest in material culture grows from an aesthetic perspective. It was with the simple aim of spending as much time as possible staring at Botticellis and Berninis that I chose a paper on Early Modern Material Culture as part of my history undergraduate degree.

Botticelli's Angels

On studying the course, it soon dawned on me that I was still expected to consider wider structural and political issues, and Botticelli’s angels were probably far too busy drinking too much nectar to whisper the answers in my ear. Yet by considering the content and context of works of art as part of a wider catalogue of objects and buildings, and by exploring how their value and meaning are subject to their function as much as their form, the study of material culture can be as viable a form of historical study as the more traditional focus on written documents.

Federico da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo by Pedro Berruguete (c.1475)

It was on the basis of early modern inventories revealing a widening range of social groups buying non-essential goods that German social-historian Werner Sombart argued that the birth of capitalism took place in the fifteenth century. In turn, the elaboration of goods reflected the proliferation of wealth through society, as more people could afford luxury items. Already by the late fifteenth century, nobleman Federico da Montefeltro felt compelled to surround himself with references to his higher status in his portrait, including polished armour, a weighty book and an exotic shell.

Indeed, the content of material culture can bear powerful political messages: the radical sans-culottes of the French Revolution refused to wear the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries. In contrast, the nineteenth-century jeunesse d’oree wore seventeen buttons in their jackets in reference to the deposed Louis XVII and even sported wigs reputedly made with the hair of guillotine victims.

Le Stratageme Amoureux, ou la Toilette a la Mode, Anon. (1770s): A Frenchwoman is kissed by her elderly husband , while a procession of cupids climb a ladder along her ridiculously tall hair arrangement to deliver letters to her young lover above.

At the same time, material objects can reveal wider cultural trends, as well as contributing themselves to cultural norms and practices. The increasing criticism of the formal fashions of the French court as ‘feminine’ in the later seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries formed part of a shift of political power away from the court, as well as perpetuating the patriarchal gendering of political virtue as male. Similarly, the layout of cities reflected the interwoven nature of religious and secular life in the early modern period. For example, large, central and elaborate baptisteries, such as that adjacent to the Duomo in Florence, reflected not only their role in welcoming people into the Christian Church but also into the civic community.

Need a view? Florence has plenty…

Having been lucky enough to do a good amount of travelling in the last year one thing I have learnt is that it is great to get an impression for the place before you go.  How? Lonely Planet, Baedaker (those of you who have read the book in question, do you get this?!) Certainly, these are some good sources for knowing where to go/ what to see etc.


Yet, what about literature? I have found that novels often give a far more evocative insight into a particular place.


 

 

In addition, saying you have read some amazing novel makes you sound incredibly intelligent/ sophisticated/ cultured… and we all like to give off that pretence!!


For Italy, here is my first recommendation: ‘A Room with a View’ by E.M. Forster.


I read this after I had been to Florence but the beautiful descriptions took me right back. Regardless of its early 20th century setting, the Forster’s descriptions of Florence still apply; a perfect example of the enduring beauty of the city. This will get you more excited about Florence than anything you could read in a guidebook.


And for the girls reading this, it conjures up a sense that you are about to commence on an exciting and romantic journey, just like the novel’s protagonist!


You have a bit of Santa Croce in there…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machiavelli’s tomb makes an appearance in the novel.



 

My FAVOURITE LOCATION IN ALL OF ITALY: the Church of SAN MINIATO <3.




Check out this view from the Church:


 

WOWWWEEEEE



Also, the vital part for anyone in the process of travelling/ finding themselves/ enjoying zero responsibility: it’s an easy-peasy read. Ahhh yeah.

 




 


Enjoy!

N.B. All these photos were taken by me on my course with AHA.