Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Two of a Kind

Michelangelo Buonarroti,
1635, Jacopino del Conte
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Self-portrait, 1635
There are two ways of studying art and artists of the past. One is to isolate a single artist of renown for in-depth study (indeed, often just a single work). The second is to study an artist in the context of his peers from the same era or broader period. For example, we can study Picasso and his 92 years of output, or we can study Picasso as compared to Matisse and the period in art history in which both men lived and worked. Often it's difficult to align an outstanding artist with a peer from the same era simply because that artist literally had no equal (as the term "peer" would suggest). That would, for instance, be the case with Michelangelo Buonarroti. There were painters who matched his skill, architects who were his equal, even sculptors who perhaps came close, but no man who combined all these skills into a single body of work. Thus it's necessary to go shopping for such an artistic genius in neighboring eras. In Michelangelo's case we must skip the troubled wasteland of the Mannerist era following the Renaissance to the much richer vein of Baroque art starting around 1600 and in particular that of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Madonna of the Stairs,
1491, Michelangelo
Rondanini Pieta,
1564, Michelangelo
Michelangelo died in 1564. Bernini wasn't born until 1598, a whole generation later. Times change. Art changed. The liberal humanism of the Renaissance gave way to the tight-laced conservatism of the Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo endured the early years of this movement. Bernini was shaped entirely by the later years. Thus the comparison is not perfect. However Bernini stands up well against the Renaissance demi-god of sculpture who obviously influence him, and whom he perhaps idolized. From his teenaged Madonna of the Stairs (above, left) to his touching (and unfinished) Rondanini Pieta (above, right), which he worked on the last twelve years of his life, Michelangelo sculpted some forty-three pieces. Bernini created around sixty over a lifetime that was some seven years shorter (at 82) than Michelangelo's (89 years). Bernini's architectural works also far outnumber those of Michelangelo. However, though Bernini could knock out a "dead-on" portrait in oils (or marble), he in no way approached Michelangelo's legendary painting skills. Michelangelo insisted, but later inadvertently disproved, painting was "not his art." Bernini would have undoubtedly made the same claim.
Bernini's David in action, 1623-24
The Ecstasy of St. Theresa
(detail) 1647-52
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini's early years were much more stable than Michelangelo's. Bernini largely apprenticed under the watchful eyes of his father. Michelangelo drifted between two or three masters before ending up in the de' Medici circle. Michelangelo's art was born of a Roman classicism. For Bernini, Michelangelo's classicism was simply a point of departure into an expressionistic realism that left his peers, his clients, and his entire art world in awe of not just his stone carving skills but his insights. Michelangelo depicted ideals. Bernini depicted dramatic moments--David launching his deadly stone (above), the moment Apollo first touches Daphne (below, triggering her metamorphosis), the moment of St. Theresa's ecstasy (right). In pictorial terms, Michelangelo was a "still photographer"; Bernini was a movie maker.

For a lengthy video of Bernini's work, click here.

Apollo and Daphne (detail), 1622-25, Gian Lorenzo Bernini


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rooms Full of Amateurs

Don't just sit there, design something!
Several times recently I've discussed the designer as an artist. I've talked about jewelry design, auto design, hair design, food design, fashion design, and of course, architecture. In one such area, virtually all of us are designers. If you've ever rearranged the living room furniture, that makes you an interior designer...albeit, an amateur one. Of course, there are talented amateurs and those who are simply...well, furniture movers. But even at that, as mundane as it sounds, arranging furniture is one of the most important functions of an interior designer, far more important that choosing among paint chips, curtain fabrics or lamp shades. More than anything else an interior designer does, he or she organizes the human environment, and furniture has always been the major tool wielded by an interior designer in doing so.

Less is more--my sister's taste in living rooms.
I'm not talking here about interior decorating. I've discussed that before (11-6-11). I consider interior design to be the most important (and most common) artistic design activity the average person engages in over the course of their lifetime. That's certainly true of women, perhaps less so of men, who very often simply "go with the flow" of whatever the wife wants, with perhaps some degree of veto power. I could lament this, but as husbands become more and more domesticated in recent generations, perhaps this gender stereotype may be fading. Today's so-called "man cave" (bottom) may be an example. Being an artist, in my own household, the domestic roles mentioned above have always been somewhat reversed. My wife has difficulty making major decisions (like what to order at a restaurant). In every single room in our house, I've chosen most of the décor elements. And though she maintains, in theory, the right to say "no" she seldom does.
Don't overwhelm a room with color. Allow the accessories to speak.
Whites and neutrals are always a safe bet if you can keep them clean.
Second only to furniture arrangement in importance, is a room's color scheme. Color "flavors" a room. Unfortunately, it's often the most underestimated element in the "design" of a room. It's also the area in which amateur designers make the most mistakes (too much of a good thing). The third most important element in interior design is lighting. All too often that is thought to mean simply table lamps picked up at garage sales. There's a lot to be said for pursuing garage sales for room accessories, but frequently, such shopping centers on price, rather than color or appearance. The important thing to remember is that not all light comes from lamps. This is where window dressing (the correct modern-day term) comes into play. The next key element in interior design is the floor. First came dirt (still a common floor covering despite the invention of the vacuum cleaner), then stone, sometimes covered with woven fabrics, then various hardwoods, ceramic tile, vinyl, and today's all too ubiquitous wall-to-wall carpeting. The best advice is to vary "floor coverings" (learn the jargon) from room to room.
Even professionals do it. Yes, this room was done by a professional designer
--eclectic (to a fault) and over accessorized to the extreme.
And finally, the greatest "sin" of most amateurs involves accessories and the tendency to "over accessorize" (more jargon). For over a century the leading design mantra has been "less is more." It would be nice to think of an interior design as a work of art to be rendered then admired from a distance. Unfortunately, we all have this habit of living in our interior works of art; and worse, collecting various items which we proudly display to impress visitors. There's nothing wrong with a room having an uncluttered "lived in" look--it humanizes the environment. But if you collect, and who among us doesn't, select two or three of your best pieces to display in your living area (rotate them periodically if you like) then box up the rest or create a "museum" room for no other purpose than to display your collecting mania. Here I'm reminded of the fact that my mother's whole house was like an Avon bottle museum. I used to shudder every time I went back home. I was always afraid of knocking one over, breaking it, and spilling the fragrant contents all over her museum's hardwood floor.
Note: This has been an overview of the subject of interior design. Expect more detailed items on the subject in the future.

The macho man cave, sporty, techie, rich in color, and all too often "over the top."


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Same Sex Art

St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1596, Caravaggio
Inasmuch as same sex marriage seems to be a hot topic at the moment, I've decided to delve into what I call "same sex art." In doing so, I'll not get into speculating as to whether various individual artists down through history were or were not gay. Such evidence is usually circumstantial, anecdotal, and uncertain, at best. Likewise, through the clouds of the centuries, it's largely inconsequential. And before you start covering your eyes or salivating, I'm not into displaying contemporary art dealing with this subject either. Such work runs the gamut from gay to gag (and I don't mean funny). In any case, we stand too close to it historically to judge it fairly.

Shah Abbas and Wine Boy,
1627, Muhammad Qassin
Homosexuality has always had a constant presence in the art of virtually every culture and every art era. Likewise, a surprising number of important painters and sculptors have dealt with the topic, sometimes quite subtly, sometimes not. Ancient Kama Sutra illustrations from India are often quite graphic. The Persians (left) were more subtle. Chinese, Japanese, even native Americans cultures all have gay art. The love relationships between two men or two women is rife in classical mythology. The Greeks seem to dote on it, in fact. The Romans were more straight-laced, seeming to have an "under the counter" fascination with the subject. In medieval times, the Knights Templar have been depicted in thinly veiled gayety.

Departing of David and Jonathan, 1642
Rembrandt van Rijn
During the Renaissance, artists searched for and found biblical scenes to depict, usually of David and Jonathan, such as Rembrandt's touching, David Departing Jonathan (right). Caravaggio could well be in a class of his own, given his fondness for painting pretty boys such as his nude Cupid (1601), also his Ecstasy of St. Francis (top, 1596). During the Classical era in French art history, painters fell back on sanitized versions of Greek mythology as an opportunity to explore multiple nude (usually) male figures. Gerome's The Snake Charmer (below) and Jean Broc's The Death of Hyacinth (below, left) come to mind. In England, William Blake chose Apollo as his doorway to such art.

The Snake Charmer, 1870, Jean-Leone Gerome
The Death of Hyacinth, 1801,
Jean Broc
In sculpture, the Greeks devoted inordinate attention to man-to-man art, usually Apollo or Hercules, but also including Narcissus as well as Pan and Daphnis (below, left). Francois Rude, in his high relief sculpture La Marseillaise (below, right, 1833) on the side of the Arc du Triomphe depicted a male comradery having homosexual overtones. Picasso chose female same-sex images numerous times in his work, such as Women Running on the Beach (bottom, 1927) and Girls before a Mirror.

La Marseillaise, 1833,
Francois Rude

Pan Teaching Daphnis,
100 BC
Girls Running on the Beach, 1922, Pablo Picasso

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Alexander Stirling Calder

The Swann Fountain, 1924, Philadelphia, Alexander Stirling Calder

Alexander Stirling Calder. No, the work is
not titled "Cure for a Really Bad Headache."
Mobiles, stabiles, bent wire sculptures...who comes to mind? Alexander Calder, of course. The problem bedeviling those studying art, and American sculpture in particular, is that there were no less than three Alexander Calders. Art runs in families. First there was Alexander Milne Calder who is best known for creating the bronze full-length figure of William Penn atop the Philadelphia city hall dome in 1875. He was born in 1845 in Scotland, the son of a tombstone carver. His son, was Alexander Stirling Calder (right), famous for his Swann Fountain (top) in Philadelphia. And finally, he was the father of the most famous of the three, Alexander "Sandy" Calder, born in 1898, the guy who made all the mobiles. (See the posting for 11-18-10 for more on him.)

Seated Nude, Stirling Calder.
Even sculptors must learn to draw.
Now, just to keep things straight, Alexander Stirling Calder (the middle one) was born in 1870. He died in 1945. If it helps any, this Calder is often referred to as A. Stirling Calder. I won't get involved in name and dates for the Scottish progenitor of the clan, things are complicated enough as it is. Suffice to say stone cutting runs deep in this family's tree, even though "Sandy" Calder worked mostly in welded metals. One might refer to them as the Peale family of sculpture, after Philadelphia's most famous art family.

The Gross Clinic, 1875,
Thomas Eakiins

Young Stirling Calder started his art training (apart from that which he undoubtedly received at home) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of none other than the great American painter, Thomas Eakins. He was sixteen at the time. In 1890, the young man moved on to Paris to study at the Academy Julien and from there to the granddaddy of them all, the École des Beaux-arts. In other words, he had the best art education money could buy.


Dr. Samuel Gross, 1897,
A. Stirling Calder

Back in Philadelphia, Stirling Calder's first major effort came in winning the competition for a sculpture of Dr. Samuel Gross, the same Samuel Gross depicted in Thomas Eakins' famous painting, The Gross Clinic (above). In fact, Calder largely copied the pose from his former teacher's work. Next came a series of twelve larger-than life statues of Presbyterian ministers for Philadelphia's Witherspoon Building. This was during a time when every major new architectural edifice just had to be adorned with at least life-sized effigies of famous men or classical figures devoid of decent apparel. During his career, Stirling Calder often taught classes at his alma mater as well as at the National Academy Design and the Art Students League in New York.

The Depew Memorial Fountain, 1919, Indianapolis, Karl Bitter and Stirling Calder
Lief Eriksson Monument, 1929,
Stirling Calder
During the early 1900s, Calder came down with tuberculosis, causing him to move to Arizona for his health, which caused him to be in the right place at the right time to serve as co-chief of sculpture (along with Karl Bitter) for the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair. When Bitter died suddenly that same year, Calder was chosen to complete work on Bitter's Depew Fountain (Fountain of Energy) in Indianapolis, which featured a robust ring of scantily clad teenaged bronze figures dancing around a central fount, enjoying a refreshing drenching on a hot summer day. Several other public monuments in New York and Philadelphia followed, including his most famous work, the Swann Memorial Fountain (top) in his hometown and the monumental statue of Lief Eriksson (1929) standing before the Lutheran Cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland, about as far away from his hometown as he ever got.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Herbert E. Abrams

An honor few artists attain, a portrait in the White House--Herbert Abrams' portrait of
President Jimmy Carter in the central hallway.

Today I'm starting a series on "artists you've never heard of...but should have." This won't be an every day encounter (even I could not stomach weeks and weeks of little-known artists). However, it may be an endless series. There certainly are plenty of artists who fit into this category. The key element in this exploration is the last three words, "...but should have." Over the years, nothing has given me more pleasure than to stumble upon excellent painters and other artist whom I've never heard of before, then to expose them and their work, hoping to lift them somewhat to the level of fame they should rightfully occupy.
President Jimmy Carter, 1982,
Herbert E. Abrams
In starting this series, I've chosen Herbert E. Abrams. You've never heard of him, right? If you were a retiring President of the United States in the latter part of the 20th century, you would have. Herbert Abrams was a portrait painter, born in 1921. He died in 2003. He painted not one, but two White House presidential portraits, President Jimmy Carter (left) and President George, H.W. Bush. (He also painted Barbara Bush, below, right, though it was not an "official" White House portrait.) In addition, he landed several late-twentieth century legislative leaders including the venerable Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, and Senator Howard Baker (bottom). His list of notable models also includes General William Westmoreland, General Creighton Abrams, Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, former Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, and famed playwright Arthur Miller.
President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, 1994, Herbert Abrams
Abrams was a WW II veteran, pilot, and flight instructor who also has the distinction of having redesigned the U.S. Air Force flight insignia, adding the red, white, and blue side tabs to the previous white star on a circular blue field. After the war Abrams graduated from the Pratt Institute of Art and then studied at New York's Art Students' League. During the 1950s and 60s he struggled to make a living as an artist in New York City at a time when his art was anything but the popular, cutting edge Abstract Expressionism. He moonlighted teaching classes at the Army's West Point. It was though that connection he landed his first important commission, his portrait of Westmoreland done in 1961.

The generals--William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams.
After the Westmoreland portrait there came army generals (including General Creighton Abrams--no relation), politicians, astronauts, and Johns Hopkins Medical personages, all building toward the Carter commission in 1982 and the Bushes in '94. Herbert Abrams joined a select group of presidential portrait painters including Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, P.A. Healy, John Singer Sargent, Aaron Shikler, and others you've never heard of...but should have. As with any profession, the old saying goes, "It's not what you know but who you know." A portrait artist might add to that, "...and who you paint."

The Senators--Robert C. Byrd and Howard Baker


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List

The girl in the red coat, played by Oliwia Dabrowska (three years old at the time).
Almost a year ago now (06-17-12) I created my own list of the top ten movies ever made. They ran the gamut from the musical, West Side Story (number 10) to Spielberg's Schindler's List, which I deemed to be number one. I don't often quote other writers, but the late film critic, Roger Ebert put it best:
"What is most amazing about this film is how completely Spielberg serves his story. The movie is brilliantly acted, written, directed and seen. Individual scenes are masterpieces of art direction, cinematography, special effects, crowd control. Yet Spielberg, the stylist whose films often have gloried in shots we are intended to notice and remember, disappears into his work. Neeson, Kingsley and the other actors are devoid of acting flourishes. There is a single-mindedness to the enterprise that is awesome."--Roger Ebert, 1993
The cast, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley,
Spielberg, and Liam Neeson
It goes without saying that this is Spielberg's best film (even after Saving Private Ryan). It's more difficult to claim it as the best film ever made. A year ago, when I made up my own list (Lane's List?), I proposed nine other films, most of which could reasonably be argued as number one. Of that number, four others dealt with historic events, all of them more massive, having a more profound effect upon the world we know today than the 1,100 names on Oskar Schindler's list. In judging a movie, relevancy and historical impact are not major factors. In any work of art, content is important. Message is important. But of prime importance (especially in a film) is the way the artist pulls together all the creative "juices," his own and others, to create a package the viewer can assimilate. Spielberg is not the only great moviemaker in the world today who does this superbly, but this film, and others too numerous to mention, have placed him at the top.

Liam Neeson (Schindler)and Ben Kiingsley (Itzhak Stern), typing Shindler's List.
We can glorify Steven Spielberg endlessly, forgetting his only major flop (1941), to dig deep into his Jewish background, psyche, and emotional attachment to the Holocaust. But no discussion of the greatness of Shindler's List would be adequate without also delving into Oskar Schindler himself. No fully rounded film hero (male or female) is without flaws. Often the flaws are more interesting than the heroic traits. As numerous as his personal sins might have been, that's definitely not the case with Schindler, a Nazi womanizer, greedy entrepreneur, and selfish playboy who exploited Jewish laborers as shrewdly as he did the war and Hitler's minions. Spielberg doesn't try to explain how and why Schindler changed. Perhaps Schindler, himself, could not do that. Instead he explores the factors causing that change and how those changes effected the man and those around him.

Heavily laden with graphic violence, mass murder, and nudity,
Schindler's List is not for the squeamish.

Schindler's list.
Schindler's List is not entertainment. Filmed mostly in black and white, it's not pretty (arty perhaps with its dab of red, top) nor is it an easy film to watch. Most of it, even taken in context, is quite ugly. Spielberg doesn't preach, but tries to allow the viewer to experience the Holocaust personally. Of course, no artist could hope to succeed completely in any such effort. Picasso tried with his Guernica. David O Selznick did the same with GWTW. Gericault tried this tact with his Raft of the Medusa. All failed miserably. Spielberg does not fail. He may not have succeeded to the degree he, himself, would have liked (artists seldom do) but he came closer than any other artist in history in transporting those viewing his art into the artwork itself. In effect, we become that little girl in the red coat.
The final scene, with descendants of list survivors passing by Shindler's
grave in Israel, segregated from Spielberg's story by its color,
may be the most emotionally powerful film ending ever made.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Renaissance Cities--London

The legendary Tower of London today.
When we think of the great city of London England any number of mental images pop up from Big Ben (now the Elizabeth Tower), Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Palace (where the British Parliament meets) and several more. But when we talk about London during the Renaissance, we have to forget all that. None of those landmarks existed at the time. But London is a very old city, dating back to around 40 AD when the Romans settled on a spot along the Thames where the river was narrow enough to build a bridge (yes, the original London Bridge, built of wood) and yet deep enough for seagoing vessels to dock. That's the narrow premise upon which this great city was founded. There, a thousand years later, William the Conqueror built one of the few ancient London landmarks still in existence, the legendary Tower of London. Renaissance London stretched along the Thames from there (Tower Hill) to Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London, where had been built, several hundred years earlier (600 AD), the original St. Paul's Cathedral.
Renaissance London--more small town than city.
Most of present day iconic London including Hyde Park, the theater district, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Regent's Park, Westminster, all of that would have been farm land or forest during the Renaissance. The area around St. Paul's Cathedral and along what was then called Watling Street leading from there down to London Bridge (the one and only, at the time) was the central "business" district of the city. And, like many 16th century European cities, it would not have been a pleasant place to even visit much less live there. Worse, it only got worse during the next couple centuries to follow. It was little wonder Henry VIII decamped for Windsor Castle for most the 38 years of his reign.
London in the 1500s. St. Paul's Cathedral is in the upper left corner of Anthony van der Wyngaerde's map drawing. The Tower of London is just to the right of the bridge terminus.
When we talk about Renaissance London we must, by necessity, encounter Henry Tudor, the victor over Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Fields in 1485, roughly around the time the High Renaissance began in Italy. To the victor went the spoils, including the crown of England and the title Henry VII. The real star of the Renaissance era in England, however, centers of his son Henry VIII, who came to the throne following his father's death in 1509. He was eighteen years old. Though times had been tumultuous in England for generations before (the War of the Roses, for instance) most of the turmoil revolving around this Renaissance monarch centered on one inescapable problem--he needed a male heir. Moreover, all six of his wives were prone to delivering girls (if they bore children at all). The break with Pope Clement VI, the establishment of the Church of England with Henry as its head, and the incredible bloodshed that followed, all derived from this one dilemma. Only Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, bore him a legitimate male heir, his son Edward, destined to succeed him as Edward VI nine years later. Jayne Seymour died just twelve days after her son's birth. Her son's reign as king was likewise short. He died at the age of 15.
The Family of Henry VIII, ca. 1545, by an unknown artist. Edward is on the left, Jane Seymour on the right.
Against this whole backdrop, the Protestant Reformation came to England. Edward's half-sister, Mary (Queen of Scots), was Catholic; his other half-sister, Elizabeth was, like Edward, Protestant. In case you don't know how that bloody little family feud came out, Mary lost her head after only five years on the throne and Elizabeth presided with great wisdom over what's come to be called the "Elizabethan Era" from 1558 to 1603, a reign that might normally be considered after the Renaissance, but for England, where artistic enlightenment had to await religious enlightenment, it brought such writers and artists as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir Anthony van Dyck. Meanwhile, the Renaissance city of London had to await the advent of architects, Indigo Jones, Christopher Wren, William and Robert Adam a century later for similar urban embellishments.

Westminster Abbey with a Procession of the Knights of Bath, 1749, Canaletto.
Begun in 1517, completed in 1540, the church has become a symbol of
Renaissance London.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold

The Scream, 1895, Edvard Munch.
Actually, it's not a painting in oils, but done in pastels.
It happened just two days ago, Wednesday, May 21, 2013 at Sotheby's in New York. The bidding started at $40-million. It took all of twelve tense minutes The most expensive painting in the world sold at auction for $119,992,500. Who was the artist? Well, it wasn't Leonardo, not Monet, not Rembrandt, not Cezanne, not Picasso, not...well, a lot of other artists you might expect. Quite possibly it's an artist you've never heard of--the Norwegian painter named Edvard Munch. Ironically, the work wasn't even a one-of-a-kind, but one of four versions the artist painted of The Scream (above) in 1895. This one was the last one still in private hands. The other three are safely lodged in Norwegian art museums.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932,
Pablo Picasso, the second most
expensive painting ever.
The buyer is, not surprisingly, anonymous. When you have that kind of money hanging on your living room wall, you don't go around broadcasting it. In fact, two other versions of The Scream have previously been stolen, in 1994 and 2006. The seller was a Norwegian businessman named Petter Olsen, whose father had been a friend of the painter. The previous record price for a work of art was $106.5 million for Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (right).

What is it about Munch and his screaming image that so resonates with art buyers and art thieves alike? I've previously written on Munch (12-23-10) so there's no need to go into a long dissertation as to his lifetime and career. Suffice to say the man was no stranger to death and various emotional disorders. Today's critics cite the paintings as icons of our modern day, high-anxiety, high-stress human existence. Be that as it may, they certainly are icons, probably one of the most satirized works of art today, right up there with the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. (Why do we pick on Leonardo so much?)

The Scream, 1895, Edvard Munch.
The other three versions. Compare them with the one at top.
Why are there four of them? If your paintings were selling for almost $120-million apiece, how many would YOU paint? Seriously, Munch's paintings were hardly selling at all in 1895. Much more likely, the artist found an image that fascinated him and was experimenting. Perhaps each was a separate emotional statement, perhaps they were a series of trial works leading up to a final version (the exact order in which they were done is unknown). If critics today love (or at least, respect) Munch's screaming images so much, the critics in Munch's time hated them. Of course they hated most Postimpressionist works so there's no hint there as to why the painting seems to have such a grip on our art psyches. The colors are garish (appropriately so, I guess). The face is (or used to be, anyway) horrifying. Despite the fact The Scream, in all four of its permutations, has become trite, hackneyed, and kitsch, there is a primeval emotional identification with the image Munch heaves at us that is such a hard-wired part of all our human existence as to be universally understood and feared. We've all had days when we just want to SCREAM!!


Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Uffizi, Florence, Italy

The Piazzale degli Uffizi, designed by Giorgio Vasari
If you trek halfway around the world to visit the Uffizi, don't go on a Monday. They're closed on Mondays, also the Galleria dell'Academia, the second best (and much smaller) art museum in Florence, Italy. Unfortunately, I speak from sad experience. I can understand the need to close up one of the greatest art museums in the world one day a week (everyone, even Michelangelo's David, needs to stand down and rest a little). But to close both museums on the same day...I was, I think, justifiably outraged. However inasmuch as I hadn't bought my entry ticket in advance, I also missed waiting in line up to five hours to get in. I did get to see Palazzo Vecchio (and the David copy outside) as well as the marble sculptures under the Loggia dei Lanzi (those not boarded up for restoration).
Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-78, Johann Zoffany--more art than art museum.
The Uffizi (pronounce U-feet-zee) is one of the oldest art museums in Europe (older than the Louvre). Officially called the Galleria degli Uffizi, the museum was opened to the public in 1765, which makes it older than the United States. The building itself is a couple hundred years older than that, designed by the painter, architect, and art historian, Giorgio Vasari in 1560. It was originally an office building (Uffizi means office in Italian) for Cosimo de'Medici and his Florentine magistrates. Completed in 1581, though technically an office building, it has always served somewhat as an art repository, first for the de'Medici family and their burgeoning stash, and then, after they were booted out, for Florentine art in general, which gradually crowded out all the desks, chairs and file cabinets.

The Vasari corridor, a (very long) artists' hall of fame.
Today the Uffizi lines both sides of the street leading from the Arno River to the Piazza della Signoria, the town square (one of several, actually). The street is really the very elongated courtyard of the museum, which rises more than five stories straight up on each side. On the river end of this street Vasari created an architectural "screen" which effectively terminates the narrow vista without actually blocking it. High above is what may be Vasari's most unique creation, known today as the Vasari corridor. One might call it the first "skywalk", a passage approximately fifteen feet wide and about one kilometer in length which snakes from the Palazzo Vecchio, across the upper level of the Uffizi, then up the river to the Ponte Vecchio, crossing the river, then over and around the Florentine skyline to the Pitti Palace where Cosimo had taken up residence as ruler of the city. He wanted avoid traffic as he rode his horse to work each day. The area of the corridor passing over the Uffizi is now used to display portraits of the world's greatest artists (separate ticket required).

The Arno flows placidly by Vasari's south portal of the Uffizi.
As might be expected with any museum more than two hundred years old, the Uffizi has had its ups and downs. It was damaged by bombs during WW II, a devastating flash flood in 1966, and a car bomb in 1993 (probably the Sicilian mafia) which effected the Arno front of the building, destroying several frescoes inside. The flood brought water as high as seven feet in much of Florence, though fortunately, Vasari did not build the Uffizi at street level so the museum escaped that disaster with far less damage than many other Florentine antiquities.

In 1966, the Arno did not just flow by, but lingered inside the Uffizi for some 24 hours,
 while giving all of Florence a Venetian look. (Compare this photo to the one above.)
This is not the place to go if you don't like crowds. If you're familiar already with the art the museum houses, it's satisfying to know you've "been there, done that" in having seen them first hand, though in most cases, actually getting close enough to study the works, of even linger long enough to do so, is beyond realistic. And though it's a very big museum, it's not the Louvre or the Hermitage or the Met. It does not overwhelm with sheer size and content. It begins with Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna from around 1310 and ends with two or three Rembrandt self-portraits some 350 years later. Basically it's everything you'd ever want to know and see from the Italian Renaissance with a smattering of pieces from the North.

The Birth of Venus, 1485, Sandro Botticelli
The Uffizi is where you'd go to see Botticelli's Birth of Venus (above), Michelangelo's Doni Tondo, Titian's Venus of Urbino, Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, Durer's Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo's Annunciation, as well as works by Uccello, Duccio, Cimabue, and Artemesia Gentileschi (if you've got a strong stomach). Although you'll see a few pieces of sculpture within the walls of the Uffizi, most of what the de'Medici once possessed has been moved across town to the Bargello. Likewise, you'll have to check out the Academia to see Michelangelo's original David. Tickets to see all this at the Uffizi are (full price) twenty-one Euros (about $29) per person with discounts for children and senior citizens. Just don't go on Mondays.

The Uffizi's gallery of artists' self-portraits, circa 1890
--not the place for the nearsighted or those with a stiff neck.