In Padua today there were many great works of art and architecture to see. But the fall colours in the parks and along the Brenta River were stunning. I don’t get to see autumn colours much, I realized, and appreciated them a lot as I walked about. This picture was taken in the middle of the city, an unlikely place for this old rowboat sitting peacefully in the slow, still waters of the Brenta. Yellow leaves were falling upon it in the breeze.
In the late 1440s and early 1450s Donatello was working in Padua. Today I went to the site of one of his most famous works, the equestrian statue of the condottiere (mercenary soldier) Erasmo di Narni, who was nicknamed ‘Gattamelata’ (the ‘Honey Cat’). The poor statue is in a rough state, and the pigeons who roost on it throughout the days and nights–and consequently crap on it day and night–are taking their toll. It’s time to restore it and move it into a museum, as was done with the similar, though much older, equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, or, for that matter, the four horses of San Marco in Venice. Erasmo stoically waits his turn, probably wondering why that cute little David, also by Donatello, gets such a cozy home in the Bargello. Erasmo is only one of many endangered bronzes throughout Italy. And I had to wait too, to take my pictures of him without pigeons on his head, which I felt robbed him of his dignity–or Donatello’s dignity. They alighted so fast, when I found the statue momentarily bird-less, I took the picture immediately, catching one of the pigeons in flight.
It’s been ten days since I was in Rome, but it’s a difficult place to forget, even if you’re visiting lots of other wonderful cities. It’s not easy to come up with a novel photograph of the Pantheon’s spectacular interior without using distorting lenses. So I’ll just go with the classic view. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is go up on the roof and look into the building from the edge of the oculus. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to do that.
Religious lay confraternities in Venice were called scuole. They weren’t ‘schools’, but brotherhoods of men–sometimes organized professionally, sometimes nationally, sometimes because of a particular devotion to a relic or saint–that gathered in meeting houses. The wealthiest of these scuole commissioned paintings for their meeting houses, some of which, like the Scuola of San Rocco, were sumptuously decorated. At the end of the 15th century the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, which had a famous relic of the True Cross, had a team of painters do images that showed the relic’s history and miraculous intercessions. This is a detail of one of the paintings, The Miracle at St Lido, by Mansueti. In all the paintings portraits of the scuola members appear, preternaturally realistic and individualized, such as these ones here.
I have a few days off now, and although I’ll be taking lots of new pictures in the days to come there’s others I’ve been going through from the past week. Of the many highlights Siena is certainly among them. It had been years since I’d seen Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s frescoes of Good and Bad Government in the Palazzo Pubblico. Here’s a detail of ‘Good Government’, with ‘Pax’ (Peace) in her white robe relaxing with her olive branch, and beside her to the right ‘Fortitude’, with her armor and soldiers below.
Most visitors to Venice throughout the centuries have been captivated, but not usually in the way one poor fellow was when he visited in the early 14th century. His name was, if I’m reading the inscription correctly, Cesar(e) C(G)orcella, and he was put in prison long enough to carve this profile portrait of a bearded gentleman he labeled ‘Francesco Sforsa’ (who could not have been Francesco Sforza I of Milan if the date is correct). Cesare seems to have been a very good artist, if the relief he carved is any indication, with its elegant, curving vine. Who knows what fate Cesar met after he crossed the Bridge of Sighs and found himself in this medieval Venetian dungeon? He likely died there, yet millions of tourists a year see and appreciate his little carving, seven hundred years after he passed his time in his cell with a little piece of metal he was able to sharpen. And through photography and the internet, tens of millions more can see what is likely the only work he did that survives: his most modest and his last.
This was my last picture of the day, the final day of a wonderful Smithsonian Journeys tour of the ‘Highlights of Italy’. The end of the light was also the best of the light, and after a full day of sightseeing here in Venice it was good to go down to the Bacino waterfront and get a look over the water as the sun began to set. Tomorrow morning it’s off to Padua for ten days, but I’ll be making day trips back here to Venice and also to Ravenna, Verona, and Mantua. Keep posted!
Of the many newly-cleaned and wonderfully presented works of art in the new Museo Opera del Duomo in Florence are the hexagonal reliefs for the cathedral campanile (bell tower) done by the sculptor Andrea Pisano in the 1330s. This one depicts the profession of the pharmacist or apothecary. The apothecary sits on his high chair, while his assistant helps customers. There are three women lined up, from youngest on the right, to middle-aged in the middle, and very old on the left, as if they represent three ages of life. All, apparently, are in need of the cures of the apothecary, who reaches for one of his jars filled with herbs, oils, unguents, or other concoctions. Ironically, it is the eldest woman whose facial features have survived the seven centuries best, while the poor apothecary’s face has eroded away through time, ever lost to our view.
The towers of San Gimignano are spectacular, and one of the tallest ones is open to the public for climbing. The ticket isn’t cheap, but the panoramas are million-dollar. This is a view down into the central square of the town, but the tower offers views for twenty miles in all directions. San Gimignano was once an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Rome and there are myriad glories from its medieval past, making it a popular tourist destination today. Thankfully, now in the off-season, it was a pretty peaceful day.
The hilltop village of Lecchi (pronounced Leh-key), is between Siena and San Gimignano. I was staying at the wonderful hotel, the Villa Lecchi, which gives guests the most authentic Tuscan experience possible. The views from the villa are breathtaking and nearby are olive groves. I took this picture along one of the paths leading to the groves. The colours were beautiful, but somehow the picture wanted to be black and white. Or I was feeling nostalgic. The morning sun was shining, the birds singing; it was a very peaceful walk.
One of the great sculptures of the early Renaissance is Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene, a wooded sculpture that shows Mary Magdalene late in her life, wearing only her own long hair about her body; toothless, disheveled, wrinkled, emaciated, she still praises god and casts her sunken eyes to heaven to pray for forgiveness. To see this in its new setting is a powerful experience.
Another highlight of Florence was the newly reopened Museo Opera del Duomo, the museum of the cathedral of Florence. It is in a word stupendous. In a city of great museums this one now challenges the great Uffizi. It’s one of the best museums in the world now. There are stunning works of art, including Donatello’s powerful wooden sculpture of the penitent Mary Magdalene and Michelangelo’s unfinished final Pieta, pictured above in a detail, with Christ’s body cruelly twisted and in pitiful torsion. If you go to Florence, you must see it.
It had been quite some time since I’d spent an appreciable amount of time in Florence, so even one day was fantastic, though there was so much more that I wanted to see. Michelangelo’s David never fails to elicit awe. It’s often crowded in the Accademia, where the world’s most famous statue resides, but somehow it doesn’t matter. I had my telephoto lens with me and took a great series of details. This winter when I’m teaching my Italian Renaissance survey class at UCSC, my students will get the best pictures possible.
I spent two days in Rome; it was a bit of a whirlwind but still fantastic. Today I got to see the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s. It had been a while, so I was happy. Here’s a picture in St Peter’s, with Bernini’s towering bronze baldacchino over the altar with the dome above. Tomorrow off to Orvieto.