Lorenzo Maitani (1275-1330) was the medieval architect and sculptor responsible for the most beautiful church in Italy: the Orvieto cathedral. Around 1310, the same year that Giotto was painting the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Maitani sculpted his magnum opus, the reliefs at Orvieto. They are marvels of the period and, to my mind, the most extraordinary works of sculpture of their age. Here, a scene from Genesis, the Creation of Eve. God draws Eve from the rib of Adam as angels with magnificent wings watch on the right.
The classic view of Florence is from the Piazza Michelangelo, from a low hill on the east side of the Arno River. I was there yesterday morning and it was, as always, spectacular. But the clouds and the sky were competing with the famous skyline, so I thought to take a picture like some of the Dutch landscape painters who included mostly sky and just a sliver of land. At the far left you can see the famous Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, the only pre-World War II bridge to survive. Further right is the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio or Palazzo della Signoria, then the campanile of the cathedral and its famous dome by Brunelleschi, then on the right the bell tower of Santa Croce. In the distance the hills of Fiesole.
The renaissance painter Raphael only lived for 37 years, and yet his influence and fame was great. I took this picture, his golden signature, from the famous painting of the Deposition of Christ in the Palazzo Borghese Museum in Rome. He put his name, Raphael Urbinas, ‘Raphael of Urbino’, and the date MDVII (1507); he was merely 24 years old when he painted that brilliant work. This almost invisible fragment, the artist’s signature in golden letters in Roman-style lettering, was in a dark corner of the canvas.
The initials SPQR are found on many ancient Roman monuments, standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus. The ‘que’ means ‘and’, thus ‘The Senate and People of Rome’. It’s kind of cool to see that the manhole covers of Rome still sport these initials, giving a marvelous sort of continuity to the history of this great city.
By popular demand: all of Pauline Borghese.
Pauline Borghese (1780-1825) was a Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon. She married into the Roman noble family of the Borghese and it was while in Rome that the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova did a reclining, semi-nude statue of her. Commissioned by her husband, no less. Pauline was rumored to be a bit promiscuous, and the sculpture didn’t help quell the gossip. I took this picture from behind her and like imagining that she was turning her head as she became aware of me taking her photograph (see post below).
Here is a detail of the sculpture of Pauline Borghese (see post above). She holds an apple. She is posed as Venus Victrix, or ‘Venus the Victor’. What she has won is a golden apple (made by Vulcan/Hephaestus; in some versions, at the request of Eris, the goddess of discord), who produced it to sow discontent at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, a wedding to which she, Eris, was not invited. She contrived to set this spectacular apple in the midst of the banquet table around which sat the gods and goddesses of Olympia. Three goddesses immediately claimed it, as it had inscribed on it ‘To the Fairest’. Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite (Venus) all reached at once. The male gods knew not to get involved in that judgement, so it was suggested that the earth’s most handsome and eligible bachelor should decide. This happened to be a prince of Troy named Paris. Thus the ‘Judgement of Paris’; the apple went to Venus, since she took him aside and bribed him by promising him the world’s most beautiful woman. Alas, that woman was already married to a Greek king named Menelaus, brother of king Agamemnon of Mycenae. Her name was Helen. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1598-1680) most famous sculptures is the group depicting the ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Saint Teresa of Avila was a very new saint at the time; she’d died only in 1582, just a few years before Bernini was born. She was a mystic, and in her writings she described an intense religious experience: “Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form… He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire… In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times … and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God”. In Bernini’s statue, which takes inspiration from this quotation, the woman swoons with a passion partaking of both the religious and the erotic: a total commitment. I took over a hundred pictures of this statue the other day, and I couldn’t quite get one that encapsulated its complexity. This was as close as I could get. The angel’s hand is visible on the left, delicately opening Teresa’s blouse to reveal the soft breast into which he will plunge his arrow. She submits with complete abandon.
The famous Colosseum in Rome. One of the world’s most famous buildings. More properly called the Flavian amphitheater, it was built by the emperor Vespasian over what had been a personal lake built by the emperor Nero as part of his vast ‘Golden House’. From private pool to public monument. After the Roman Empire was Christianized, few had a use for the structure, gladiatorial games having gone out of fashion for obvious reasons: Christians had oft been victims in the bloody sports. The giant building became a stone quarry for the next 1200 years. The holes in the sides are from looters who dug between the stone seams to dig out metal. The Colosseum is pocked with such holes. It’s a wonder there’s something there for us to see today.
Leaving Rome’s famous Colosseum today I noticed this hole carved into one of its corners. It struck me as a reminder of the building’s uses through its 2000 years. Someone had dug out that hole (in what century who can tell?) so that they could tie their donkey or horse. They did it so many times that the stone (travertine; a limestone) was worn to a glassy smoothness. Perhaps the stone merchants, who for a thousand years quarried stone from the building, roped one of their pack animals here as they loaded the marble slabs from the seats of the giant structure.
To remember the Jewish citizens of Rome who were the victims of Fascism, the city has discretely placed bronze plaques, the same size as Rome’s famous black cobblestones, in the streets outside of where those people once lived. They are eloquent reminders; understated fragments of Rome’s history that one can come upon by chance, just as one comes across pieces of the city’s ancient past.
Of the many masterpieces in Venice, and one of the many masterworks of the painter Tintoretto, is his Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, of which this picture is a detail. It’s in the Accademia Museum in Venice and was painted between 1534 and 1538. What Tintoretto gets, in an almost uncanny way, is the luminescence of the young girl. He paints rays of light that really do seem to emanate from her. She wears a powder blue dress, but she also seems like an ordinary pretty little girl dressed for church/temple in her Sunday/Friday best. The painting was done originally for the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carita, which the Accademia Museum now occupies.
From medieval times the neighborhoods of Siena have been divided into contrade. Even today, Sienese people are born both into a country, a city, and a contrade, such as the contrade of the Selva (forest), or Civetta (little owl) or Istrice (porcupine; can you see the quills?). There is intense competition between the contrade, which reaches its height on July 2nd and August 16th when there are horse races, the famous palio of Siena. The race takes place around a course in the well-known square of the city, the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo. Each contrade has its banner or flag; this is a picture of a display of them. The winning contrade received another banner, literally a palio (from Latin pallium), which gives the race its name.
Porto Venere, the ‘Port of Venus’, is on the Ligurian Coast of Italy, and I took this picture after arriving there on a small, wave-tossed boat on a stormy day. The coast here is rugged and rocky, and these are a few of the cliffs in a picture taken from near the port’s narrow entrance. A dramatic day, a tempest, and then the sky cleared.