Inferno of Etna

And this was what Enta looked like just a few hours later from the balcony of my Air BnB room in Catania. I’d woken up around 12:20 and thought to look out and this is what I saw. It’s a bit misleading. I took this picture with a 300 mm telephoto. I’m many miles away from the lava.

Scrovegni and Usury

The Tuscan painter Giotto was hired by a Paduan banker by the name of Enrico Scrovegni to paint the walls of a chapel in Padua (see post below). Giotto completed the works by around 1305, with dozens of scenes. It’s one of the great works of European art. Sometimes the chapel is called the ‘Arena Chapel’ because it was built partly on top of the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, sections of which are still visible today. Enrico Scrovegni was a banker, as his father Reginaldo had been. His father had been accused of the sin of usury as this was still a time when for a Christian to lend money was still a moral problem. Through the Middle Ages Jews had been assigned this socioeconomic role. Dante assigned Reginaldo a place in the Inferno. Enrico’s patronage of the chapel, a magnificent building dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was the son’s attempt to expiate the sin of usury from the family name. This is the last scene one sees as one leaves the chapel, of Scrovegni offering the chapel to the Virgin Mary, on a wall the subject of which is the Last Judgement. Clearly, Scrovegni was begging for leniency. The depiction of Scrovegni is brilliant. The donor kneels as he offers the church. His mouth is slightly open as he tentatively reaches out to touch the Virgin’s accepting hand. Giotto has depicted Scrovegni and penitent and humble, his humility gauged by the temerity with which he raises his hand, as if he can barely believe that the Mother of God has accepted his votive gift. When doing fresco, one paints on wet plaster, and it takes only a day for plaster to dry, so painters only put down on the wall a section of plaster that they could realistically paint in one day. These sections were called giornata after the Italian word for day, giorno. If all you were doing was a simple background the giornata might be very large, but if you were doing, say, a face, the giornata might be small. Note that time has revealed the seam of the giornata around Scrovegni’s hand. So important was this hand gesture to the meaning of the work, Giotto knew he had to spend an entire day getting it right; the hesitancy, the humility, and the pathos of Scrovegni’s devotion.

Giotto’s Joy

When in Venice a great day trip is to Padua, merely half an hour away by train. There one finds one of the great masterpieces of European art: the Scrovegni Chapel, with frescoes by Giotto. I was so happy to go there last week and find that they’d rescinded their earlier prohibition against photography in the chapel. Here’s a detail from the scene of the Miracle at Cana, where Christ has turned water into wine. The Virgin Mary is also attending the wedding feast. I love this scene because whenever there’s a big party there’s always party-crashers, and here are two striding into view from the right. You can see the Virgin Mary in the middle (in blue) and almost can hear her say: “Who the heck are these guys? They weren’t invited”.  They’re hilariously typical. The leader is a big fellow who has already grabbed a cup and started drinking, while his sidekick holds on to his sleeve, not quite as confident. I like to think of the big guy as ‘Guido’. His swelling belly echoes the curves of the full containers of wine just below him. Giotto really had a sense of humor. Mary’s blue robe is flaking because that particular colour blue was not water soluble, so could not be used in buon fresco or true fresco (that is, pigments painted on wet plaster), but had to be applied after the plaster dried, al secco (dry). Thus the paint could not securely bind with the wall. Similarly, the party-crasher’s cup is black, but it was quite possibly silver leaf originally. It must’ve been impressive when new, but the silver eventually oxidized to leave a black stain.

Palladio’s Pantheon

Andrea Palladio inherited the mantle of Venice’s premier architect from Jacopo Sansovino, and went on to design two magnificent churches, Il Redentore and, pictured here, San Giorgio Maggiore. From the facade it’s easy to see the Roman influences. Palladio’s favorite ancient structure was the Pantheon in Rome, and the architect borrowed freely from it, yet making his own original designs from the borrowed parts. As the sun begins to go down in the west, one of the great sights in Venice is the white stone facade of San Giorgio picking up the tones of the waning light.

Ancient Spoils

At the Bacino waterfront, the entrance to Venice, there stand two enormous columns of granite. On one is a statue, made from parts of various statues, of St Theodore, who had been the patron saint of Venice before St Mark showed up (see post below) and superseded him. On the other column is a winged lion, the symbol of the evangelist Mark. Yet this statue, too, is a collage. Originally it was likely a Hellenistic sculpture, dating from around 300 BCE, from Asia Minor. Eventually, it made its way to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and when the Venetian sacked the city in the Fourth Crusade in 1204 they brought this bronze lion back and welded wings on it to make it the animal symbol of St Mark.

Resting Place

This is a detail of the mosaic in the semi-dome of the portal of San Alipio on the facade of St Marks in Venice. It’s the last survivor of five such mosaics which once graced the famous church. The detail shows the whole reason for the church’s existence, the arrival of the body of St Mark. The story goes that in the 9th century Venetian merchants were in Alexandria–where Mark had been martyred over seven centuries before–and heard of the Sultan’s plan to destroy the cemetery where St Mark’s body was thought to reside. The merchants stole the body, packed it in pork to dissuade diligence on the part of the Muslim customs inspectors, and smuggled the body back to Venice. There, instead of giving the relic to the bishop of the city, they presented it to the Doge, the secular, political leader of the city. Thus St Marks became a sort of extension of the state. Here we see the coffin of St Mark being carried in through the doors of the church. It almost seems like his head is up and taking a look at his new home.

Domes of St Marks

The spiritual heart of Venice is the church of St Mark, one of the world’s most famous and recognizable buildings. Fewer people know what the inside looks like, however, and today they push people through it by the thousands. It’s not very conducive to contemplation. So here’s a picture to ponder. St Marks was modeled on a famous church in Constantinople, the church of the Holy Apostles, which was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1461. A mosque was built in its place. What wonders of art were destroyed with it one can only guess. San Marco gives us a sense, however derivative, of the former church’s splendor.

Two Tintoretto

This is a detail of the mourning figures at the foot of the cross in Tintoretto’s Crucifixion scene in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice (see also post below). San Rocco, or St Roch, was a French plague saint, which meant he protected people, and the city, from the Black Death. Since the plague was a constant threat, especially for seafaring Venetians, San Rocco was a particularly popular saint. He’s often shown as a pilgrim. He contracted the plague, and in his depictions he shows the characteristic festering wound on his thigh. Through his faith, however, he survives and becomes a saintly model. In this detail of Tintoretto’s painting in the Scuola, a pyramid of despair piles up at the foot of the cross, with St John and the two Marys as well as other figures. The women, especially, slump into a heap, inviting the viewers to share their grief.

Tintoretto at San Rocco

One of the great sights in Venice is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, not only in terms of its monumental and classicizing facade but for the dozens of paintings by Tintoretto that decorate the interior, especially the upper room or sala del capitolo. The most impressive of all, and the largest, is the crucifixion scene. This figure, who pulls on a rope to help raise the cross of the good thief (who is being crucified alongside Christ), is the most dynamic in a field teeming with energetic figures. Tintoretto liked him too, giving him a brighter colour and spotlighting him so he stands out. His pose is complex and dramatic. It feels as if, if the rope were to break, he’d fall right into our space.

San Zaccaria

There are a lot of Venetian altarpieces in museums, and there were a lot of medieval ones broken up into component parts and sold off bit by bit. Both instances take the altarpiece out of the context that is was made for. This past week I finally made it into the church of San Zaccaria in Venice. I’d seen the outside before but had never dropped by when it was open. So I finally got to see Giovanni Bellini’s 1505 San Zaccaria altarpiece in its proper location with its original frame against the walls of the church. San Zaccaria was the most important nunnery in Venice in the renaissance, and they exercised a lot of discretion in their patronage of both art and architecture.

Gold on Gondola

The gondola is perhaps Venice’s most recognizable icon, and the gondoliers take great pride in their individual crafts, even though it may seem at first that they are all the same. In the details they vary greatly. These golden additions caught my eye as their gondola bounced in the wake of a vaporetto near the Bacino waterfront.

Milan Mosaic

As anyone who frequents my blog knows, my favorite medium is mosaic, and there isn’t anywhere I won’t go to find some great ones. This is a detail of a semi-dome in the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. In the mosaic Christ is flanked by his apostles, four of whom are shown here looking up to their divine boss with appropriate admiration. The 5th century CE artist has used orange tesserae (that’s what the bits of a mosaic are called; sing. tessera) to indicate light shining from heaven. A brilliant technique.

Magnificent Mall

The Galleria of Vittorio Emanuele II  in Milan might be the world’s first shopping mall (though in truth the Romans had them), built by the architect Mengoni and finished in 1877. It’s still magnificent almost a century and a half later and takes it’s place among the iron matrix wonders of the 19th century, of which the Eiffel Tower is the most famous, though it was finished a decade after the Galleria. Frescoes in the corners of the huge dome at the intersection of the barrel vaults show allegorical figures of the four continents as they were then understood: Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Even though it’s so old, even today it looks like an architecture of the future.

Line of Ladies

This is a detail of a painting by Gentile Bellini called The Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, which dates from 1500. The painting was commissioned by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, a Venetian lay brotherhood that owned and venerated a fragment of the True Cross. They commissioned a series of paintings by a number of artists to show the history of the relic and the miracles performed by it, especially those in the many processions it was carried in. In this painting the relic has jumped into the canal, and only a virtuous member of the scuola, Andrea Vendramin, can catch it, demonstrating his and his family’s virtue. Witnesses to this miraculous event line the shores of the canal, here, a cortege of noble women, all dressed to the nines and reacting appropriately to the event unfolding before their eyes.

Tintoretto’s Touch

This is a detail, an even closer one, from the painting in the posting below: Tintoretto’s St Mark Saving the Slave of 1548. I wanted to get a shot that showed the painter’s brushwork, how he created a convincing sense of shiny fabric crimping on a bending elbow. It’s a complex series of white and shades of blue all done in a quick zig-zag, and yet from just a few feet it’s entirely convincing and evokes a strong sense of the fabric’s sheen, weight, colour, and texture. Note, too, the foreshortened faces. In this painting almost every figure is either completely or partially foreshortened in some way. The ‘Little Dyer’, Jacopo Comin (Tintoretto’s real name; he was the son of a dyer) showing off.