Thursday, 10 November 2011

Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks: the real conspiracy

What is the mystery behind the two paintings that are the central works of the exhibition  "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the court of Milan" which has opened at the National Gallery London, until 5th February 2012?  The exhibition was inspired by the recent restoration of the National Gallery's Leonardo, "The Virgin of the Rocks".   The Louvre Museum has lent, among other works, its version of "The Virgin of the Rocks".  The two paintings of the same subject will be displayed together for the first time. 

detail of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks

On the 25th April 1483, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo da Vinci and two assistants to provide the paintings for an altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The commission was for a central image showing the Virgin adoring the Christ Child and several smaller panels.  Leonardo responded with a composition showing the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and an angel set in a landscape of rugged rocks.

The mystery 
How there happens to be two versions of the same painting and which is the earlier of the two are questions the answers to which are unknown and have been subject to much speculation.  

What is known beyond doubt is that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the Louvre was in France by 1625 and that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the National Gallery London was sold by the successors of the Confraternity to Gavin Hamilton in 1785. 

The conspiracy
The two paintings are very similar but very different.  They are almost the same in form, and in composition. They differ in colour, in details, in symbolism and in the way the paint is handled. 

For some curious reason, although the Virgin of the Rocks which is now in London can be identified as the one that came from Milan, where you would expect the Confraternity's painting to be, and the version in the Louvre has apparently always been in France,  it is considered by art historians that the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is the earlier of the two and constitutes Leonardo's original inspiration.  In order to support this theory, an elaborate hypothesis has been formed involving Leonardo removing the Confraternity's painting, selling it to a private client and painting the London version as a substitute. 

None of this is supported by documentary evidence.   In fact, all the evidence points clearly to the  London painting being the earlier by ten years, and the Louvre painting having been created for a very special client.  This is supported by the documentary evidence, the stylistic evidence, by basic mechanics and simple logic.   It is also supported by the clues that Leonardo left within the paintings.

Why do art historians keep supporting the substitution hypothesis?   Why do they go on dating the Louvre painting at 1483 and the London painting many (up to twenty) years later when the evidence of their eyes contradicts it?  

The real da Vinci code 
Leonardo was known to embed symbols within his paintings.  He put a juniper bush behind the head of Ginevra de' Benci because her name means "juniper".  (Gin is flavoured with juniper berries.)  He put a smile on the face of the Mona Lisa, not because she was pregnant, but because she was married to a man whose name meant "the jovial one".  It has even been suggested lately that Leonardo wrote his initials in the pupils of her eyes, so tiny that so far only one person has ever been able to read them.   

So what about the symbols in the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks?   The symbolism in the London painting is there for the Confraternity.  Very few people would ever notice it or read it correctly.  It has evaded the eyes of art historians for five hundred years.  The symbolism in the Louvre painting is so clear and so very obvious that anyone with a little knowledge can decipher it.  There is no mystery whatsoever about who the client for this artwork was.  

Why have art historians chosen for so long to put aside evidence that almost jumps out of the painting in its eagerness to be discovered? 

Perhaps it's a conspiracy! 

 Find out more about the signs and symbols at my blog:

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Rucellai Madonna, the Madonna of Santa Trinita and the Madonna of Ognissanti

Detail of the Rucellai Madonna
by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Back in the mid sixteenth century a "Renaissance Man'' by the name of Giorgio Vasari wrote a book called "The Lives of the Great Painters, Sculptors and Architects".   The book is sufficiently famous so as to be known as "Vasari's Lives".  Vasari was indeed a "Renaissance Man" being a competent painter, a good architect and an excellent writer.

"Vasari's Lives" is regarded as the first serious art history.  But as the art historian John White points out*, Vasari has a good deal to answer for, in the way in which he guided both sixteenth century artistic taste, and that of later generations.  Vasari told us in the most definite terms that almost all worthwhile painting began with Giotto and had Michelangelo as its benchmark.  Moreover, Florence was the home of art, and if it did exist anywhere else, then it was hardly worthy of a mention.

The art that went before the great painter Giotto, whose life spanned seven decades around 1300, was what Vasari called "the old Greek style",  stiff, formalised, stylised and unconcerned with realism.   Vasari's biographies mention a number of individuals, notably Cimabue who was Giotto's teacher, and the man who was regarded as Cimabue's rival,  Duccio, the leading painter of the nearest large city, Siena.  Vasari had heard that Duccio was a very great painter, but since he could not find either of his reputed masterpieces, it was hard to speak with authority on the subject.

There were two reasons why Vasari failed to find these paintings, even when they were right under his nose.  One of the paintings was right there in Florence, hanging above an altar in the transept of the large Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella, which had been still under construction at the time that the painting was commissioned.  Amazingly, although the documents for the commission have lasted all these centuries, the identity of the artist was lost to Vasari, and he presumed it to be the work of the Florentine, Cimabue, who painted another very big altarpiece, for the church of the Holy Trinity.  The other major work by Duccio that Vasari failed to find, the Maesta in Siena Cathedral, had its surface so covered with gold and silver crowns, stars, necklaces and votive trinkets, that it was barely recognizable to someone who really didn't know what he was looking for. *
Duccio's Maesta, painted for Siena Cathedral.
This double-sided altarpiece had small panels depicting the Life of Christ on the back.  It is now in the Duomo Museo

Duccio's Rucellai Madonna and Cimabue's Trinita Madonna have survived the centuries remarkably well and are now together in the same room in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence  The subject, in both cases, is the Madonna and Christ Child, seated on a throne, in majesty, and adored by brightly robed and winged angels.  In both cases the background was of gold leaf, and the robes of the Madonna decorated with gold.  The paintings have the style of the Byzantine icons which are a very important religious tradition and art form in all Orthodox countries.  However there is one major difference between these two paintings and the familiar Orthodox icons.   Duccio's painting was was 4.5 metres (15 feet) high, the largest such painting to have survived, and Cimabue's was not much less.

According to White, only about 600 paintings survived from this period.*   Those works include two huge altarpieces by Duccio, and two by Cimabue.  Half a dozen small works by Duccio have survived, and perhaps two or three by Cimabue.  Almost all are now in museums.

Cimabue's surviving works have suffered badly.  A large Crucifix was ruined in the floods in 1966.  The two huge frescos of the Crucifixion and Deposition that he painted in the Upper Church at Assisi were ruined by fire.  Of his frescos at Assisi, only the exquisite Madonna and Child with angels and St Francis remains intact.  Because of Cimabue's age, it is possible that his likeness of St Francis is based upon his personal memory of the man.

Madonna and Child in Majesty with St Francis of Assisi,
Fresco by Cimabue in the Lower Church of Sy Francis at Assisi

Cimabue and Duccio represent the culmination of the Byzantine style in Tuscany, and the heralding of a new era.  While both, in the context of their great altarpieces, adhere to forms that had developed in the preceding century and had their roots in the very long tradition of icon painting, both artists abandoned the formalised faces and expressions with which the Madonna and Christ Child were traditionally depicted in favour of greater naturalism.

In the case of Duccio, his new style proved so popular in Siena that magnificent works by his more conservative contemporaries had their faces scraped off and overpainted in Duccio's softer style, sometimes to the great detriment of the artwork.

As for Cimabue, the story goes that he was walking one day in the hills north of Florence when he came across a merry little shepherd boy who was scratching the portrait of one of his sheep onto a rock.  Cimabue went to the child's home and begged to apprentice him.  Little Giotto soon broke from the old traditions, inspired perhaps by a growing movement towards naturalism that was occurring in contemporary sculpture.

Giotto's great Ogni Santi Madonna, painted for All Saint's Church, is now in the same room as that of his older contemporaries, demonstrating a break with Byzantine tradition and style that was to lead to the Renaissance emphasis upon realism, solidity of form and naturalism of expression.   Vasari greatly praised Giotto as the harbinger of the Renaissance.   And, after Giotto, the beauty of the so-called "Greek style" was ignored and neglected for about six hundred years.

The Trinita Madonna  
Madonna della Santa Trinita
by Cimabue
Of the three Maestas that are displayed together in the Uffizi, Cimabue's is the most formal, and in some way the most arresting.  The throne upon which the Virgin is seated is front-on and rises in three elaborate tiers like a gilded wedding cake.  Its decoration is chiefly its elaborately-turned colonnettes, but whether they are pale wood or  ancient ivory like the 6th century throne preserved at Ravenna, it is impossible to say.  Like the throne, the angels that surround it are perfectly symmetrical, in position, in gesture and in colour.  Only the four prophets beneath the throne have individual identities.  The perspective of the throne smacks of Escher. It is impossible to tell whether the base of the throne curves inward or arches upward in order to make room for the prophets.  What works perfectly well on the two-dimensional picture plane makes no three-dimensional sense whatsoever.

On the throne and set high in the picture so that her head rises into the gable of the frame, sits the Madonna in Majesty.  Her position, like the throne, is almost frontal, with just the level of one foot and the angle of her head balanced to left and right.  With a direct gaze through eyes that have been strongly defined by the painter, she commands the viewer to adore her son. Her hand gestures towards him, and simultaneously lies between her belly and her heart.  The Christ Child has little sense of babyhood about him; he is an imperial ruler,  his law clasped in one hand while he gestures his divine benediction with the other, fixing the viewer with his eternal gaze.  Within this world of symbolism the red of his dress prefigures his death and the pink of his robe, his resurrection.

The quality of the painting is magnificence itself.  The arrangement of the folded robes with their warm subtle tones, the pattern of gilding on the uncompromising dark blue, and the luminescent gradation of vermilion and grey on the angels' wings all combine to make this one of the most magnificent works of Medieval period, the painterly equivalent of the greatest stained glass window of Chartres.

The Rucellai Madonna 
In Duccio's huge painting he respects many of the formal Byzantine conventions.  His throne is set at the angle found in smaller icons and manuscript illuminations.  The Madonna is conventionally positioned against the beautifully draped and decorated curtain, and the Christ Child gestures his benediction to an unseen penitent. The angels kneel around the throne on nothingness.

Madonna Rucellai 
by Duccio
Yet Duccio's painting is in its own way revolutionary.   The style of painting the face of the Madonna, in the late 13th century, was so formalised that every line followed a set and seemingly unchangeable pattern.  A U-shape was inscribed in white between her eyebrows,  the lines around and under her eyes were numbered and painted at set angles.  Every detail was dependent on some historic model of the past, meaning that over the centuries of repetition faces became increasingly stylised and geometric in appearance.  

To Duccio's contemporaries, the thing that set his paintings apart was the sweetness and naturalism of the faces of his Madonna and Christ Child.  Duccio carried this naturalism into the painting of the child's body. This is a baby that sits on its mother's knee with something of feel of a real baby.

 The naturalism extended to the angels, who unlike Cimabue's angels, have real bodily form, despite their ability to kneel on air. They are differentiated partly by their positions, which are not exact mirror images of each other, but mostly by their robes which fall in patterns that are similar, but all different.  Duccio uses these softly flowing garments to demonstrate his skill as a colourist.  The balance of pink, blue, mauve, pale red, apple green and olive green is one of the delights of this painting.

Another delight is Duccio's use of gold.  Gold leaf was obligatory to any altarpiece.  It reflected the candlelight and looked wonderful in the church,  It was written into the contract and often provided by the  commissioning patron.  But Duccio has chosen his method of using it.  He has fully decorated the shawl that drapes the Christ Child, as Cimabue decorated the robe of the Madonna in his Maesta.  But here, unlike Cimabue, Duccio has left the Madonna's robe a deep and intense midnight blue, forming a powerful tonality against which all the brighter elements are thrown into relief.  He then accentuates the form of this robe and the body of the Virgin by the skilful placing of six little vermilion accents, her dress, which is only visible at the neck, sleeve and hem, along with two little piece of red cushion that precisely define the angle of her knee and hip.

Her robe is edged with gold.  The line of it starts above the Christ Child's raised hand and curves delicately upward to frame his mother's face.  It then angles downward from below his hand to the unseen top of her left knee. It meanders playfully to describe the angle of her legs before falling in delicious loops and curls above her feet. The journey of this single line and its tributary which loops around the Virgins arm link and define the most important structural elements of the figure composition, against the dark blue background of the robe.

The Ognissanti Madonna 
Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna is something else.   It is possible that Giotto went with Cimabue to Rome, where he met a painter called Pietro Cavallini and other artists of the Roman school whose works, in general, were more naturalistic than those of the painters of Tuscany.  For whatever reason, Giotto abandoned formalised painting and began to paint directly from observation.   He was the master of the human form, master of movement and most of all, master of human expression.  He was the story-teller par excellence.  
Madonna di Ognissanti
by Giotto Bordone

Much of this is not apparent in this particular work, which is, after all, a conventional altarpiece and would have been commissioned with very rigid stipulations.   But within the constraints, Giotto has created a highly original work.

As with the other Great Maestas, the painting is dominated by the figure of the Virgin, conventionally seated on a throne, surrounded by angels and with her importance indicated by her scale which is much larger than the other figures around her.   The throne, for the first time, is real.  It is architecturally Gothic, is three-dimensional and is constructed of marble set with decorative polychrome inlays such as are still produced in Florence.

The Madonna herself and the figures who stand around are as three dimensional and tangible as the marble throne, despite the discrepancies of size.  The Christ Child is chubby.  The faces of the Madonna and Child appear to respect the trend begun by Duccio in that they have not quite broken away from the expected formality, but have none of the traditional mandatory linear features.  They are taking on the character of a real mother and son.

It is the bodily form and the posture of the Virgin which more than anything else, are a radical departure from the past.  This figure is that of a real woman whose large solid body is seated on a cushion on a throne, with her feet firmly planted, her knees apart and is tilted slightly forward and at an angle that balances the weight of the child.  Unlike Duccio and Cimabue, who have relied on the gold to create the flow of cloth over and around the body, Giotto has succeeded in introducing tonality into that huge unmanageable chunk of blue paint, defining the form of the jutting knees and heavy drapes as if daylight was falling across them.

The gold borders are minimised, and perfectly placed to visually accentuate the weight and balance of the figures.  The tiny touches of vermilion surround and emphasise the Child in his little pink dress. The angels and saints stand or kneel like real people, and their dinner-plate haloes overlap each other's faces, possibly causing the same frustration as large hats at a wedding.

Another feature of this painting is Giotto's use of white.  He has chosen to robe the two angels at the very front of the composition in simple white garments, in contrast to the midnight blue of the Virgin's robe and the dark green of the other angels.  The white garments of the angels reflect the colour and tonality of the dress of the Virgin, possibly symbolising her purity, but unusual at a date when her dress was usually painted red.  The effect is stunning. It forms a large triangle with the face of the Virgin making its apex.  This triangular format, consciously demonstrated here,  was to become the basis of later Florentine altarpieces, when the formalities of the Medieval style had been completely abandoned.

* Reference: John White, "Duccio, Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop", Thames and Hudson (1979)

Friday, 14 October 2011

Ghosts of Italy: Saint Clement and his House Church

Italy is full of ghosts..........

San Clemente 

One of Rome's most significant churches is San Clemente.  It is one of the most user-friendly churches to those who don’t speak Italian.  This is because it has been run by Irish clergy, ever since 1667 when the English, with a remarkable display of Christian Charity, expelled the entire clergy of the Roman Catholic Church from Ireland.

The present church of San Clemente dates from the late 11th century and has retained its delightful atrium (courtyard) with an odd assortment of salvaged Roman columns all around it, which is the perfect place for wedding and Christening photos.   The church has been redecorated over the centuries and has an elaborate ceiling of carved and gilded wood, but still retains its ancient marble fittings including a canopy over the altar. 

The greatest artistic treasure is an ancient mosaic in the apse, showing the Crucifixion at the centre, with a vine sprouting from beneath it and spreading curling green tendrils across the golden background.  

(Click pictures to enlarge)
The Tree of Life
There are also some wonderful frescos by Masolino, who together with Masaccio painted the Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence in the early 1400s. 

The present church was built directly over a church dating from the 4th century.  This church had been burnt out by the Normans in 1084. It was partially restored while the new church was under construction.  The interior of the 4th century church has remained almost intact, but buried. You might wonder how a city like Rome could have its ground level change so dramatically.  The reason is that at certain times of year, the winds dump Sahara Desert onto Rome.  I saw it happen.  Just within one heavy rainstorm, everything became coated with a layer of fine dust several millimetres thick.  

The Annunciation by Masolino, early 1400s
The 4th century church is kinda gloomy and has dark corners because there are big piers supporting the upper church. The whole place seems to have ghosts lurking everywhere despite the life that goes on in the church above, which is always full of people. 

In the mid 19th century, a certain Father Joseph Mullooly who had an interest in archaeology, realized that there was more to the lower church than met the eye.  He began to excavate. 

The atrium, with recycled columns
What he discovered was that the nave of the lower church was actually the upper level of the central courtyard of a large Ancient Roman mansion, while the two side aisles were the remains of rooms on the first floor.  Father Mullooly's excavating discovered that the courtyard and rooms at the basement level had remained intact, but had been filled with rubble as a foundation for the 4th century church.  

At this lower level Mullooly found that an insula or apartment building abutted the mansion.  And while the lower rooms of the mansion proved to be simply rooms, the basement of the apartment contained a Mithraic Temple, part of which was located directly below the sanctuary of the later church. 

The Mithraeum 

A staircase goes down to a lower level, and there one is confronted by the Mithraic Temple.  It is built like a cave, as they always were, and at the centre is this thing like a sarcophagus, with a relief sculpture of Mithras at one end.  

The cult of Mithras was very popular in the first century AD, as is evidenced by the numerous remains of such temples.  But the cult was so secret in nature that almost nothing was written about it.  The central figure is the hero Mithras who is depicted in three types of scenes. He is sometimes shown naked, apparently being born out of a rock.  But on the other hand, it is just possible that it represents him being dumped in the River Tiber in a pair of cement boots.  The Romans have always been good at making cement, and also good at finding practical uses for it.  The second type of iconography shows him sharing a banquet with Sol, who is identified as the sun by the rays around his head.  

The third, most common and most interesting depiction shows Mithras slaying a bull.  He is always depicted in the same manner, clothed, with a short cloak and a distinctive cap called a Phrygian cap.  He suppresses the bull by grabbing it by the nose and putting his knee in the centre of its back, while stabbing it in the neck.  Mithras is generally accompanied in this scene by two torch-bearers, one who holds the torch up, and the other who points it downwards.  And there are always in the scene a dog, a crow, a scorpion and a snake. 

There has been a lot of argument over the years as to what it depicts.   It seems certain that it is associated with the sky, the night sky in particular, as Mithraeums are always located in a domed cavern-like space, a bit like a modern planetarium.  It seems fairly straight forward that it represents a group of constellations, although not necessarily with the stars overlaid with the same set of imaginary connections that have brought about the identifying names that are currently in use.

If one puts aside the way in which the constellation of Orion is usually interpreted as a figure, and turns it on its side, then one has an entirely different figure, one with a triangular cloak blowing behind it, a bright star forming the top of its cap and a curved knee placed on the back of the constellation of Taurus, the bull. 

The House Church

St Clement as Bishop of Rome.  An 11th century
fresco from the lower church
Leading off from the stairs is a passage which is actually a narrow Roman street, now completely buried.  Apparently it runs through to the Colosseum.  There are doorways leading into rooms, some of which are excavated, but still all underground.  I walked in through a doorway, and found myself greeted by a ghost, who I could not see, but whose presence I could feel so strongly that I knew I was not alone.  It was a man who greeted me.  I can't say that I heard the words aloud, but I heard them clearly nonetheless.  The man said, "Welcome Christian! Come and join us at the table and worship with us!"  I realised immediately that I had walked into an Early Christian house church.  

It wasn't until about twenty years later, when I acquired a book on the history of the papacy that I realised that the ghost that had greeted me was, in all probability, Clement himself.  He was of a wealthy family, and the mansion of which the upper floor had become the lower church had belonged to him.  He became Bishop of Rome towards the end of the first century AD and so is regarded by the Catholic Church as being the second Pope, but accounts differ, and he may have been the third or fourth Bishop of the church of Rome.  A letter that he wrote to the Corinthian church is still read by them once a year.   

The body of St Clement is returned to his titular church
with much rejoicing.  St Cyril and his brother Methodius
 are on the left.
As with so many saints, the facts of his ministry to the congregation who gathered at his house towards the end of the first century have been almost smothered in the legend that came to surround him.  The acts of St Clement date from around the same time as the building of the first church in the 4th century.  It was said that the Emperor Trajan had exiled him, sending him to work at stone quarries in the Crimea.  One day when the prisoners at the quarry were suffering from heat and thirst, Clement had a vision of a lamb.  Going to where the lamb had stood, he struck the ground with his pickaxe and a spring of water gushed forth.  Many people were converted as a result of this miracle.  As punishment, Clement was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea by the Emperor Trajan.  The anchor and some bones were miraculously recovered in the 9th century by Saint Cyril and brought back to Rome where they were enshrined at San Clemente. 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Santa Fina and the violets

This blog relates to the poem "Santa Fina", one of an Italian Suite published on the blog "Vagaries, auguries and encounters".

Domenico Ghirlandaio
In 1485 Domenico Ghirlandaio was thirty five, and well on the way to becoming the most respected artist in Florence.  He was the exact contemporary of Botticelli and Perugino, and with them, had been part of the massive commission to paint the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses on the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where his famous pupil Michelangelo was later to paint the ceiling.  The workshop of Domenico and his brothers Benedetto and Davide turned out small panel portraits and charming Madonnas, but Domenico's real skill lay in the painting of frescos.

The Tornabuoni family witness the Visitation
Domenico had everything that was needed to make a successful fresco painter in the highly materialistic society of late fifteenth century Florence.  He had taken on the new science of linear perspective, which meant that he could paint a townscape that gave the impression of a view through a window.  He was superb at capturing a likeness, which meant that when commissioned to paint a religious scene, he could skilfully work in portraits of the commissioning family and their associates.  The portrayals in his pictures have dignity and gravitas.  He knew how to make bankers look benevolent and pudgy-faced fourteen-year-olds look like desirable brides.

Domenico's important commission of 1485 was again out of Florence.   He was to work in the medieval hilltown of San Gimignano, in the province of Siena, painting two frescos depicting the life of a girl who was locally regarded as a saint.

The illustrated Bible of la Collegiata 
Italy is the home of the fresco.  While the great Gothic churches of France, England and Germany were decorated with stone carvings and stained glass, the main way of depicting Biblical narratives in Italy has always been fresco, except in damp and mouldy Venice where the mosaic prevailed.  The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano has a truly remarkable collection of frescos, forming a veritable "Poor Man's Bible".  It is one of the very few churches in Italy to have survived the centuries of war and ground movement with its ancient frescos substantially intact.

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano
On approaching the church, one is greeted by a wide flight of steps and an undecorated stone facade which at some point in its history has been extended in the upwards direction in brick.  Oddly, it doesn't have a central door, just two side doors into the aisles.   In France, one would expect to see a massive central doorway with the figure of Christ in Majesty on the Day of Judgement carved in splendour on the arched tympanum over the door.   San Gimignano has a Last Judgement, but because it is fresco on the inner wall, you tend not to notice it when you walk in.  The section over the left aisle, a terrifying scene which includes people suffering ghastly torments for the sins of their lifetimes, is the last thing you see as you leave the church.   It was painted around 1400 by Taddeo di Bartolo.

The church, as is typical with large churches, is divided into three by two rows of stout columns supporting arches, which in this case are of radiating stripes of alternating black and white marble.  The vault overhead is sky blue, and sprinkled with little stars.   And the walls of the two aisles are decorated with two fresco cycles, which despite the demolition of one entire bay for the insertion of the organ, another for the creation of a chapel and a rather clumsy 17th century restoration, have remained otherwise intact.

A bay of the wall depicting scenes from
the Life of Christ: Barna of Siena, 1350s 
The left wall of the church, painted by Bartolo di Fredi, a follower of the famous Sienese painter Simone Martini, is probably the later of the two, but depicts the earlier narrative, the Old Testament.   It is shown in three levels, with the Creation and Fall exquisitely depicted in the arched spaces between the vaults. The brilliantly realised stories of the other level include Noah and the Ark, Abraham and his descendants, Joseph the Dreamer and Moses. The last story is that of Job.

The other side of the church was decorated a little earlier and probably completed around 1360. The 16th century biographer, Vasari, says that the artist, Barna of Siena died by falling off the scaffolding so the work was completed by his pupil Giovanni di Ascanio. While many of the upper frescos, including the Nativity narratives, have been badly damaged by damp and poorly restored, most of the frescos of the two lower levels are in good condition and reveal a great expressive drama in the telling of the events of the life of Jesus. The Crucifixion, which takes up the space of four smaller pictures, is particularly impressive as it seeks to contain the entire narrative of the event, including the interaction with John, the traditional image of the fainting Virgin, the dice players and the centurion's proclamation all within a single image.  The later scenes of Deposition, Resurrection and Ascension have been destroyed.

St Sebastian by Benozo Gozzoli, 1465
The adornment of the church did not cease with the completion of the Last Judgement.  In the 1420s the church had acquired a pair of statues by Jacopo della Quercia, representing with simplicity and elegance, the Blessed Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel.  These were later painted in brilliant colours  but were possibly intended to be monochrome.  Benozzo Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, came to paint a large fresco of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian below the Last Judgement on the western wall.  Saint Sebastian,  having been wounded with many arrows, was invoked in times of plague.   An outbreak in 1464 caused the townsfolk to  commission two such paintings from Benozzo, one at the Collegiata, and the other in the large church of Sant'Agostino, at the opposite end of the town.

The Chapel of Santa Fina
It was into this Late Medieval environment came Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1485, to decorate a small chapel that had been built in 1468 as an extension to the Collegiate church.  San Gimignano, high on the hilltop, with its steep narrow streets, and beetling towers, walled in and accessible only by narrow gates, must have seemed very provincial compared with the civilised life of Florence on its level ground by the River Arno, with its many spacious airy churches, its modern architecture, its town squares and the narrow medieval houses making way for the wider facades of palazzi built by the bankers and cloth merchants.  

The whole chapel is to this day acclaimed as San Gimignano's greatest masterpiece of art, and indeed, at the time of the completion of its decoration, its Renaissance style must have seemed to overshadow all the wonderful Late Gothic treasures.  In 1468, this chapel was ultra-modern, having been designed by Giuliano da Maiano in the Classical style of architecture that had been introduced to Florence by Brunelleschi, after his archaeological expedition to Rome.  The altar with rich carvings and architectural details in gilded marble was by Giuliano's highly-accomplished brother Benedetto.  Corinthian columns, cornices, classical niches and cherubs had suddenly become part of the oeuvre of San Gimignano, and it was up to Domenico to respond to it in a way that paid homage to the subject, the city and the structure of the new chapel.

One might ask why Ghirlandaio was called in, to fill this important but relatively small fresco commission, when the town had an established relationship with Benozzo Gozzoli, who was a highly competent painter, and had created, as well as the two Saint Sebastians, an impressive fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo in the chancel of the church of Sant'Agostino.  The reason is probably that the aging Benozzo had a massive commission to fulfil at Pisa Cathedral, which he was never able to complete.  Although he lived until 1497, there is no known painting by him after 1485, the year that Ghirlandaio painted the Saint Fina frescos.

Saint Fina and her nurses witness the apparition of St Gregory the Great

The story of Santa Fina
Saint Serafina, to give her her full name, is neither the patron saint of the city, nor even a saint.   The patron of the city is, unsurprisingly, the saint after whom the town is named, Saint Geminianus who was Bishop of Modena in the late 4th century.   But whether she has ever been officially recognised by the Vatican or not,  Santa Fina remains the home-grown saint of San Gimignano, celebrated in legend, in art and in veneration.

According to her legend, Serafina, who was born around 1238, was a bright, happy little girl, devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  At the age of ten she was struck down by illness which may have been poliomyelitis.  She was left paralysed and unable to walk.  From that time her preferred bed was on a wooden pallet, possibly so that she could be easily transported.  Within a short time both her parents died, leaving her in poverty.  A gruesome detail of her reported suffering is that rats came and nibbled on her flesh.  However, her endurance, her patience and good humour brought her a stream of visitors.

Fina was nursed by two women, Beldia and Bonaventura, and lived to the age of fifteen.  On the 4th March, 1253 there appeared in her room a vision of Saint Gregory the Great who informed her that she would die on 12th March.   The prediction proved correct, and on her death, all the bells of all the towers of San Gimignano peeled spontaneously, and large pale-coloured violets grew on the pallet on which she rested and burst into bloom.

On the day of her funeral,  as her nurse Beldia bade her farewell, the hand of the dead girl raised suddenly and touched that of the nurse, healing her of a paralysis that had resulted from many long hours spent supporting her patient's head.   A blind choirboy was also cured by touching her.  Subsequently people came forward and told the stories of many miraculous deeds, some of them described as taking place before her illness.

The funeral of Saint Fina

Ghirlandaio's paintings 
Ghirlandaio was required to paint the  two most miraculous incidents associated with Fina, the vision of Saint Gregory and the healing of her nurse.   The two scenes were to occupy the walls of the chapel, and were to be the same size, set into broad arches.  However, one of the scenes was to depict a public occasion, her funeral, which was attended by many people, and the other was to depict a private event, in a domestic interior, with only Fina and her nurses there to see the miraculous appearance of the 6th century pope.  It was necessary that each picture gave an appropriate sense of space, in one case intimate and the other expansive.

Ghirlandaio handles this cleverly by simply reducing the amount of space dedicated to the narrative, in the vision of St Gregory.  He frames a stark domestic interior with two wide decorated Classical piers supporting a low architrave.  Although the perspective within the room thus created is steeply receding, its actual depth is defined by the coffered ceiling, which indicate that the stage set on which the action takes place is quite shallow.  Light streaks across the floor from an open door and from within the actual chapel,  with Ghirlandaio's painted pier casting a painted shadow.  Santa Fina, her head supported by Beldia, raises her hands in prayer to receive the papal blessing.  Through the open door a garden is glimpsed, and out the window, bathed in clear white light, is a city on a mountain, symbolising the goal of the pilgrim soul.  In the spandrel that Ghirlandaio created with his painted architectonics two angels bear Fina's soul up to heaven in a glorious rainbow.

The second painting does not have the framing devices, and is made to appear far more expansive, just by the arrangement of the figures which stand around the bier of Santa Fina in two arcs, with the figures at the sides being of larger proportion than those at the back.  The arcs made by the figures are echoed in a corresponding arc created by a chancel surrounding a small altar. This chancel is boldly constructed in the classical style, with its jutting painted cornice rising up and beyond the arch that encloses the painting.  Ghirlandaio has set the curve of the chancel wall with three marble veneers in different colours, blue, red and yellow, with the blue falling on the shaded side, the red centrally placed behind the Crucifix, and the yellow catching the light and adding a golden haze to St Fina.  Beyond the chancel a vista opens up, as if the walls of the church had dissolved. On either side are the famous towers of San Gimignano, with the bells being rung by an angel.

The faces of the people who attend the funeral are undoubtedly those of 15th century San Gimignano, but they could be those of the 20th century.  The choirboys are variously distracted. The artist himself stares directly at us from the back row.  A young suitor wistfully removes the ring from his hand.  Other details of both paintings enhance the narrative.  One of the broader towers has a nest of storks.  The simple bunches of violets that grow from the pallet in the domestic scene have become a rich blue and gold brocade at the funeral.  A large platter forms a link between the vision of Pope Gregory and the halo of the little saint.  And skulking under the bench, is a solitary rat, to remind the viewer of the less pleasant aspects of the story.

Domenico Ghirlandaio,
second from the right
The large pale-coloured violets of Santa Fina still grow in crevices between the stones of San Gimignano.  Her feast day has been celebrated on 12th March since 1481.

Ghirlandaio went back to Florence where he painted a fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi in the family chapel of  the Sassettis at Church of la Trinita.  Francesco Sassetti was the Manager of the Medici Bank at Genoa.  His successor, Giovanni Tornabuoni commissioned another cycle of frescos, for his family chapel at The Church of Santa Maria Novella.  The two fresco cycles are a "whose who" of  Florence, containing not only portraits of the banking fraternity and their families, but also philosophers, poets and painters.  Ghirlandaio, the great capturer of likenesses, painted himself in the crowd, looking pensive, one hand pointing to himself, and wrapped nonchalantly in a red cloak.

Friday, 7 October 2011

"Tea with Mussolini"

I'm prompted to write about this today as I have just posted, at "Vagaries, Augeries and Encounters", a poem about the Italian hilltown, San Gimignano.  It is a fascinating town, not far from Siena and is featured in the movie "Tea with Mussolini".

I went there first in the 1980s with a tour from the Fine Arts Department at Sydney University, to look at the Early Renaissance frescos.  I returned ten years later with my then husband, John, as described in the poem. Ten years after that, my little son Martin was learning Italian at school.  He loved his Italian teacher and did a great project on Roman aqueducts, but, other things considered, he was having a really beastly time and becoming increasingly depressed.

One evening we watched "Tea with Mussolini" together.  It is a loosely biographical story by the great director Franco Zeffirelli telling how, as the illegitimate son of his father, he was placed in the care of an elderly English teacher, and then sent away to Germany to school, shortly before the outbreak of war.  The story follows the lives of a group of ex-patriot English and American women through the course of World War II.  The women are played by Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin and Cher.  After various adventures they find themselves "interned" in San Gimignano, which they strive to protect from the ravages of war.  It is a beautiful and entertaining movie.

Martin was intrigued by the city which has tower-houses, enormously tall houses which were thought to have been built by their owners in competition with each other.  In fact, they probably served the useful purpose of suspending bolts of newly-dyed cloth for drying.  Saffron has always been a major product of the area, and is used in both cooking and as a dye.

So Martin and I went to Italy, specifically to cheer him up!  In Rome he drank from an aqueduct called the Aqua Marcia.  In Florence he was allowed to wave the banner of the city, in a procession outside the cathedral.   In Venice he rode on the public gondola with a dog and a baby in a pram and an old man with two sticks.  And in San Gimignano he was allowed into the little side-chapel where he saw the beautiful fresco of Saint Fina that Judi Dench's character had sand-bagged in the movie.