A Site for Sore Eyes (Pt II)

The second location from the UNESCO seven that I want to write about didn’t move me to tears, but probably only because it followed so soon after the Cathedral of Monreale.  All the same it is an absolutely astonishing space.  I use the word space because it’s part of a building rather than the structure itself,  and I’ve already introduced you to the Palazzo dei Normanni.  Palermo’s royal palace naturally has a private chapel where the kings, viceroys and their families could worship.

Roger II of Sicily commissioned the construction two years after he became the island’s first king (I know, the name is confusing in that respect).  Eight years later in 1140 the structure was complete, though the mosaics that decorate it weren’t finished for a number of year after that.  Hardly surprising when you see the complexity and beauty of some of  the designs (those completed in the later decades of the project were probably local rather than Byzantine in their construction and are poorer quality).

Here though it wasn’t the mosaic artistry that caused my astonishment.  Like Monreale there are a number of architectural styles at play here; the doorway is typically Norman  and there are other Romanesque features to be seen.  The Byzantine influence is seen not just in the exquisite mosaics and the dominant image of Christ Pantocrator.  

The archways in the aisles are Arabic but rest on classical columns.

The feature that I found so fascinating was purely Arab.  The Muqarnas.

No, I didn’t know either, but it refers to a type of vaulting, though that hardly does justice to a work of wizardry in mathematics, art and architecture.   Known to some as “honeycomb vaulting” or “stalactite vaulting” the muqarnas is a method of transitioning different levels of a building’s ceiling, by encrusting them in a three-dimensional pattern that in some ways works like the jumbled patterns of a “dazzle ship”.   The style originated in the Middle East a couple of centuries before the chapel was built, though sadly one of the earliest and best stone examples is believed to have been destroyed by ISIS.   In an ingenious blending mosaic 8-pointed stars, that are Muslim in design, are grouped in sets of four to create a Christian cross.

Again I was hampered by low light and the difficulties of trying to capture images with a zoom lens but no tripod, but I was determined to see more of the detailed script and illustrations that adorned the ceiling.   Michelangelo is famed for the decoration of a chapel ceiling in Rome.  Sadly the artists responsible for the Palatine Chapel in Palermo did not achieve such fame, though in my book they would have been worthy.

As our world seems to grow ever more intolerant we see that almost 1000 years ago things were very different.  A commemorative plaque just outside the chapel records in Greek, Arabic and Latin the building of a clock in 1142.  Collaboration beats conflict any time.

So look closely at the muqarnas where Christian figures are surrounded by Arabic script, and hope that that spirit can be rediscovered.

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The Art Tardis

This isn’t my first blog about Staithes, the tiny village on the Yorkshire coast that was once home to Captain Cook, and given that it combines a built-in beauty with a shoreline location it doubtless won’t be the last.  Why this time?  Because since 2012 there has been an annual arts festival and this was my first visit.

With a number of creatives living there the town’s art gallery is always worth a visit, but as a space it’s never going to be able handle lots of visitors, and even taking into account the church hall and no less than three former Methodist chapels that would still make for a small-scale affair, albeit one that many villages would be happy with.  Not so Staithes.

The overflow car park!

To draw so much interest over 100 of the cottages in the little town are given over to pop up galleries for a couple of days, and even then the event is oversubscribed with painters, sculptors, silversmiths, potters and more.  There was even a female blacksmith taking part this year (Katie Ventress).

My motivation to be there wasn’t to buy; my walls have plenty of imagery on them already, though a monochrome watercolour by Suzanne McQuade tempted me all the same.  Instead I was there for a bit of inspiration and conversation; after all I’d spent my working week recommending that people who wanted to develop their creativity should associate with other creative people.  Suzanne’s other watercolours were of many of the same coastal scenes that have attracted me in recent years.

In contrast Rob Shaw‘s work in oils or acrylics is robust and dramatic, despite being of many of the same subjects.  His seas are grey and stormy, but in contrast his paintings of Staithes itself are bright and vibrant.

This highlights one of the areas where the artist has an advantage over the photographer; their ability to paint a scene as they would like it to be, unconstrained by the reality of obstructions, light or weather conditions.  I was shooting a lot of black and white this weekend given the flat, overcast day.

Another thing that surprised me was something I’ve long been familiar with as a photographer; duplication of images.  I’m always reluctant to take the “cliché” shot, the image that everyone already has in their portfolio, unless there is some technical challenge involved for me.  Why would I want to produce something that was already in existence?  Given the individual aspects of style I didn’t expect that the same would be a problem for the painter, and yet saw similarly sized images of the same scene, with similar colouring and composition in the galleries of Keith Blessed (in pastels) and Kate Smith (in oils), assuming my memory hasn’t deceived me!

In contrast there was one area where my camera gave me an advantage over the artist.  Portraits.  Shirley Hudson told me how long her works might take and the liberties she might take with colour (with the sitter’s agreement).  I walked out of her display and within minutes had captured multiple personalities.

And if you’re expecting to see examples of the art itself then you’re going to be disappointed.  Pictures of pictures aren’t my thing (unless by Renaissance masters!) and the spaces are often too tiny and packed with people to make this feasible.

There are of course works to see in town that are permanent features, and permanent features that have value in my eyes so I still shot plenty of images that were interesting to this artist’s eye, and to these can be added the wire and willow sculptures of Emma Stothard.

For me of course even the rocks of the breakwater have potential!

Revisiting the Past

The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.

Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).

There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).

Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me.  That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).

The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch.   Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe.  The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.

Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”

All of which just left me time to lap up the baroque elements, jump on my return metro and kill time before leaving the city on some other notable steps when I left the station.

In Piazza di Spagna.

 

Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me.  Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less.  A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history.  Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604.  Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself.  Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.

The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!

Perhaps you’re looking in the wrong place? (Musei Vaticani Pt II)

In my last post I hinted that the Sistine Chapel is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end for many of the Vatican Museums visitors, much as the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, or the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. It is spectacular in composition, colour and scope, and I’d happily bypass it.

There are two reasons for this. One is that photography is not permitted; not just flash photography, where the light may fade the pigments, any photography, but worse still you can’t really look at it. Even in December the number of visitors vastly exceeds the number of seats around the perimeter of the chapel, and woe betide anyone who seeks to sit on the floor or steps to be able to spend the time required to take in Michelangelo’s masterwork. The stewards elsewhere within the museum are gentle and scholarly. Here they are young, muscular and assertive as they actively patrol the room. Even if you find a seat, it will only afford a view of some of the room and there’ll be a long wait for one opposite!

But no matter. Accept that it will be an anti-climax. That way you can enjoy some of the other pleasures of this palace of excessive power and influence.

Some of them are obvious; Pomodoro’s Sfera con Sfera (one of a number of these golden globes around the world), the ceiling of the Gallery of the Maps, the great head of Augustus and the Momo Staircase, so often incorrectly referred to as the Bramante Staircase even though it wasn’t built until 400 years after the death of Donatello Bramante, the architect whose work elsewhere inspired both this structure and indeed Michelangelo’s dome of St Peter’s.

But look more closely and there is artistry everywhere; in the carvings on doorways and window shutters, in the marbles of the flooring and yet more spectacular ceilings created over centuries.

There are also some of the individual works from antiquity to modern day, by artists notorious and long forgotten.

And if you’re really looking for superstar artistry, where you can take as long as you like to enjoy the details, and so long as you don’t use flash take as many pictures as you like, then you can’t go wrong with the Stanze di Raffaelo, a series of rooms clothed in frescoes by another Renaissance great.  When Sir Kenneth Clark published his book to accompany the TV series 50 years ago, Civilisation did not feature the Sistine Chapel on its front cover.  Instead it featured a detail from one of these rooms and the image known as The School of Athens in which Euclid explains a geometrical theorem to a group of students.  Of course Raphael had no idea what Euclid looked like so he turned to someone he did know to supply the face of the mathematician.  Donatello Bramante.

The School of Athens, Raphael, Musei Vaticani  (Euclid in red, bottom right)

Voce del Popolo

In the current climate where #metoo and #blacklivesmatter seem to be heralding real change there are some interesting debates about historic artworks; either because they represent people or events that are now seen as offensive or because the behaviour of their creators has been equally unacceptable.  Consequently we have seen calls for Confederate statues to be removed or destroyed (watch out Mt Rushmore), a memorial to a conscientious objector taken down, complaints about paedophilia to the Met in NY, a Manchester gallery see-sawing over whether to display a painting of naked nymphs, a some sexually active buildings planned to neighbour the Louvre given a firm “non” in Paris.  Acclaimed work by Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey is now viewed very differently, but should we be able to separate the artist from their work; or see historic events as milestones in our journey to who and where we are?

Perhaps the greatest concern with this and so many debates today is that the clamour for change is stoked by social media where arguments snowball as a result of knee jerk outrage rather than any considered judgement.

One of the largest open spaces in Rome, is the Piazza del Popolo, and though it was originally named after the poplar trees around the area in modern Italian it means People’s Square, and now that it has been pedestrianised it would be the ideal place for public gatherings, or in the current climate would that run the risk of becoming a mob?  This was until the 19th century the site of public executions.  Italy has recently begun to suffer from populist politics too with racial attacks in a country that has long been more tolerant than many European neighbours.

Most people who visit the Piazza notice the twin churches that flank the opening of Via del Corso, the Rameses II obelisk and Egyptian styled fountains at the heart, and the steps that lead to the house and gardens of the Villa Borghese.  The city gateway at the north of the space, the Porta del Popolo is quite anonymous by comparison, but even this has more impact than the church that adjoins it.  I wonder what proportion of the popolo venture through the door?  They should.

There are a multitude of reasons to do so; a chapel designed by Raphael, a scattering of Bernini sculptures, and a macabre moment or two, but for this photographer there is one draw that will always overshadow the others.

The altar in the Cerasi Chapel features a work by Carracci, a promising painter of his day but it is rendered invisible by the pieces on either side by another up and comer; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.   Caravaggio’s realism and use of light and shade were surely precursors for every dramatic photograph.
His work here demonstrates another aspect of his character; both works proffer a backside to his rival.  This is relatively subtle in The Crucifixion of St Peter, and the saint’s legs and feet are the attention grabbers; old, dirty and anything but idealised.

Turn to the Conversion of St Paul and there’s no doubt that he’s showing the horse’s arse to his rival.  So Caravaggio was irrepressibly cheeky (excuse the pun), but his disregard for authority went much further.  Gambling, fighting, an illegitimate child and eventually murder featured on his charge sheet.

Time to take down and destroy the Caravaggio’s?  How do we then differ from the monument destroyers of ISIS?

 

 

Scarlet Women…

Time to conclude my look at some of the Palazzi of Via Garibaldi (Strada Nuova) which means Palazzo Rosso, the Red Palace. 

Maria de Brignole-Sale, Duchess of Galliera

This again was owned by the Brignole-Sale family, though the matriarch in my last Italian post, and who is represented here, bequeathed the palace to the city in 1874 a few years before her death.  Built in the 17th century, this is the most sumptuous of the three, and features an array of artwork including some Brignole portraits by Van Dyck which must have accompanied them from one of the other palazzi that they owned.  Here you will also find Veronese, Dürer and more.  One of the rooms from her residential area in the palace is the header to this piece.

There was one painting that stopped me in my tracks however, for no other reason than that I thought I recognised it from a programme I’d seen looking into the provenance of UK artworks, yet here was the same image in Genoa.  The attendant in the gallery spoke no English so I was unable to confirm that the BBC had been here, and my subsequent online searches linking it to art historian Bendor Grosvenor proved fruitless, and yet I knew I was familiar with this work by Jan Wildens.  That bum hanging over the frozen water is unmistakable!Leaving the artworks to one side, this is a remarkable building.  Frescos, stucco, gilded statues, trompe l’oeil…  In bequeathing the building to the city the Duchess said she was leaving “artistic splendour”.  She might have added opulence.  Even the floors which were only recently discovered after the removal of worn out carpeting are spectacular.

There’s another woman who plays an important part in the history of the palazzo. Until her death in 1976, Caterina Marcenaro was one of Italy’s leading art historians, and she supervised the restoration of the Palazzo Rosso, removing many of the 18th and 19th century features to reveal the glorious baroque excesses below.  She moved into the building and commissioned rationalist architect Franco Albini to design an apartment for her in the loft space.  This open plan living space might have been considered stark and minimal, but the addition of a few items from the museum’s collection has transformed it.  The private staircase which Albini installed for her has become a major exhibit in itself.

Now if the title of this piece led you into expecting something salacious, perhaps I should tell the tale of another Brignole who lived here.  This is Via Garibaldi, a name that either means biscuits to you, or the Royal Family of Monaco.  Maria Caterina Brignole was no baker and was once referred to as “the most beautiful woman in France”.  Though she wed Prince Honoré III of Monaco, that relationship didn’t get off to a good start when on her arrival there he didn’t come to meet her, launching a stand-off where each party refused to go to the other due to their respective levels of nobility.  An affair with a French prince ensured (Louis Joseph Prince of Condé).  Following the French Revolution she escaped with Condé to London where they married in secret.  She died in Wimbledon.

But I digress.  Back to the Palazzo Rosso and that staircase…