Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Il Beato Angelico

Saint Peter of Verona was a Dominican friar and evangelist who traveled throughout Italy in the first half of the 13th century, denouncing heresy and railing against people who professed to be Catholics but who did not live up to their faith in their daily lives. He was killed by an assassin who split his head in two with a large sharp object (an ax or a sword; pictorial representations differ) but St. Peter had enough time to write out "Credo in unum Deum" with the blood streaming from his wound before he went to his final reward. He was canonized less than a year later, in 1253.

Almost two hundred years afterwards, the Dominican monks from nearby Fiesole came down from the hills and took over the 12th-century monastery now known as the Museo di San Marco, where they stayed and prayed (Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem, factorem caeli et terræ, visibílium ómnium et invisibílium) and worked until the 19th century. Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici, the first Grand Duke of the Medici rule of Florence, refurbished the convent for the monks, including a cell where he would go on regular personal retreats (as they say at Breitenbush). He was also a patron of the arts, and sponsored the architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, who did much of the reconstruction of the monastery of San Marco; the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed the tall dome of the Duomo that can be seen from nearly every part of Florence; Donatello, some of whose work we saw at the Bargello Museum; Fra Filippo Lippi, for whom I have voted in the Infinite Art Tournament; and Guido di Pietro, the Blessed Angelic One, better known as Fra Angelico, who lived at the monastery between 1436 and 1445, and whose paintings decorate Cosimo's cell and those of the other monks, on the upper floor of the building.

On the lower floor there are frescoes in the courtyard to look at, and rooms to wander through where the monks ate and studied, and a long hallway full of bits of marble and carved stone that was excavated from the area around San Marco, remnants from the city's long history. The buildings have been restored and renovated over the years, but there are still signs of the earlier construction, like this painted wooden ceiling in one of the rooms.

In the lower rooms and around the public courtyard there are frescoes on many of the walls. In the large receiving room, which now holds a small bookshop with souvenirs, there's a full-scale rendering of the Last Supper done by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the late 15th century. Eleven of the disciples (looking bored, interested, argumentative, and even falling asleep) have halos and are on the far side of the table with Jesus, and Judas - sans halo - is on the near side, his back to the viewer. Behind him there's a large grey cat whose expression has been lost to time and flaking plaster. Apparently cats were evil, back in the Renaissance.

The frescoes in the courtyard were painted by Bernardino Poccetti in the early 17th century, and depict the life of Saint Antoninus of Florence, who was the archbishop there when the monastery was first established. Antonius was focused on inequality of wealth, and lived an austere life himself, while encouraging the government to care for the poor. He also said that ethics needs to be an integral part of commerce and capitalism. Perhaps today's politicians should be sent some of St. Antoninus' writings on the subject, which include support for a living wage, not forcing a person to accept jobs at low wages simply "because [he] is poor and has to settle for much less than would be needed to provide for [his] family."

One of the miracles of St. Antoninus' life seems to be connected to finding a key inside a fish, but what the key was to (his cell at San Marco?) I never asked. And I can't find any clarifying documentation on line, though Google says some of the search results aren't being displayed due to European data privacy issues. If you know the answer, drop me a line and I'll update this post (I'm looking at you, Michael5000). "[Ovinto] the time reported by his cook [havendola] found in the bowels of a fish donated to the saint," or so the online translation machine renders the not-very-explanatory text below the fresco.

There are paintings in part of the building as well, some by Fra Angelico, others by artists I'd never heard of, like Giovanni Sogliani and Francesco Morandini and Francesco Curradi and Fra Bartolomeo and Jacopo da Empoli. I didn't make a note of whoever it was who painted the scary cherubs but they appeared in several different works, including some of Fra Angelico's frescoes upstairs, just heads with wings, either two or four.

I pittori non guastano mai: quando non possono fare un angelo, fanno un diavolo.
- Italian proverb

Sogliani (1492 - 1544) painted "St. Elizabeth of Hungary," who I have been pleased to also find in Saumur and Paris and Budapest, of course.

Elisabetta!
La furibonda Elisabetta! io volli
Per la pietà del sesso mio salvarla.
Tu non sai; l’empia mi spregiò; negommi
Il titol di regina, e orrende cose
Mi profetò. L’abbandonai.
- Silvio Pellico, "Tommaso Moro" Act I, Scene II (1834)

A few of the paintings were just underpaintings, the sketches in sepia and black that show how the artist was thinking about lines and forms, and I liked those a lot. There was an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum a few years ago that featured works from the Crocker Art Museum, the "master drawings" from Michelangelo and many others showing the bones of future painted works and the ideas taking shape in the artists' heads and hands. At about this time I was starting to stop paying attention to artists' names, especially since I didn't recognize most of the names anyway, and the mostly-religious themes were starting to blur together. However, once we went up the stairs to the former living quarters of the monks, I woke up again.

Because that's where I saw this lovely work, the famous "Annunciation" of Fra Angelico, covering the wall space right at the top of the staircase. It was truly amazing to be standing there in person in front of this image, and I kept coming back to it. I could have stayed there longer, but there were other people in line, and more frescoes to see in the individual monks' cells, all painted by Fra Angelico, Il Beato Angelico, the Blessed Angelic One. Cosimo I commissioned him to paint these and other frescoes scattered around the monastery and church buildings, which took him five years to complete (1438 to 1443). The cells are small, dominated on one wall each by a window-shaped fresco giving that particular monk something to contemplate during his prayers.

In mense autem sexto, missus est Angelus Gabriel a Deo in civitatem Galilaeae, cui nomen Nazareth, ad Virginem desponsatam viro, cui nomen erat Ioseph, de domo David, et nomen virginis Maria. Et ingressus Angelus ad eam dixit: Ave gratia plena: Dominus tecum: Benedicta tu in mulieribus. Quæ cum audisset, turbata est in sermone eius, et cogitabat qualis esset ista salutatio. Et ait Angelus ei: Ne timeas Maria, invenisti enim gratiam apud Deum.
- Luke 1:26-30

I recognized another work of Fra Angelico's that I didn't vote for in the Infinite Art Tournament (he lost to Albrecht Altdorfer, at least in my opinion) but I was happy to see "jazz hands" Jesus in one cell, and an even jazzy-handier fresco in another cell that I had never seen before.

After looking at and commenting on the frescoes along two walls, we walked into the restored scriptorium and library that once held hundreds of huge leather-bound parchment-paged books, and the benches and desks and tools with all of the equipment to do the lettering and ornamentation in those illuminated manuscripts. The exhibit at the end of the long room shows some of those tools, including glue made from fish and rabbit skins, and bowls with piles of ground powder in bright colors: cinnabar, azurite, lapis lazuli, malachite, white lead, manganese, charcoal, saffron. All of the manuscripts on exhibit show not only words and illustrations, but also musical notations for psalms and antiphons and graduals and other liturgical chants.

Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! Concupiscit, et deficit anima mea in atria Domini; cor meum et caro mea exsultaverunt in Deum vivum. Etenim passer invenit sibi domum, et turtur nidum sibi, ubi ponat pullos suos: altaria tua, Domine virtutum, rex meus, et Deus meus. Beati qui habitant in domo tua, Domine; in saecula saeculorum laudabunt te. Beatus vir cujus est auxilium abs te: ascensiones in corde suo disposuit, in valle lacrimarum, in loco quem posuit. Etenim benedictionem dabit legislator; ibunt de virtute in virtutem: videbitur Deus deorum in Sion. Domine Deus virtutum, exaudi orationem meam; auribus percipe, Deus Jacob. Protector noster, aspice, Deus, et respice in faciem christi tui. Quia melior est dies una in atriis tuis super millia; elegi abjectus esse in domo Dei mei magis quam habitare in tabernaculis peccatorum. Quia misericordiam et veritatem diligit Deus: gratiam et gloriam dabit Dominus. Non privabit bonis eos qui ambulant in innocentia: Domine virtutum, beatus homo qui sperat in te.
- Psalm 83

If you go to Florence, be sure to visit the Museo di San Marco (Piazza San Marco, 3, 50121 Florence), and take your time. There's a lot to see, and it's all beautiful, inside and out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Vespers At The Abbazia San Miniato Al Monte

On the same side of the River Arno where the Boboli Gardens climb greenly up a hill, there's another hill less than a kilometer away as the corvo flies, or about two kilometers by foot, down a narrow winding one-way road to the Piazzetta di San Miniato and then up the staircase of the Viale Galileo, past the Giardino delle Rose, past the people selling sunglasses and scarves and souvenirs, and up again on the Viale Galileo (the road this time) to the Abbey of Saint Minias on the Mountain, where monks have been singing vespers in the evening since the beginning of the 13th century. The Benedictine Order of Our Lady of Mount Olivet has been living at the top of this hill for more than 600 years, though this particular religious group has been in Florence for well over a millennium. We arrived at the top of the hill at 5:30pm or so, and had an hour to walk around the basilica and admire the mosaic floors (the original 13th-century stone) and the fading frescoes before going down into the crypt where the services are generally held, except on Sundays, possibly; there's a large altar and there are pews in the main part of the basilica, but the service going on when we arrived was down below. After walking around for hours in the hot Tuscan sun it was nice to sit on the cold marble risers for half an hour, waiting for the monks to come back and sing the Gregorian chants of the vespers service.

The vespers service is one of many that they conduct throughout the day, starting after their wake-up call at 4:30am and their last devotionals at 9:00pm, with long periods of silence for reflection and work. The previous service was just ending as we walked quietly down the steps to the crypt, and the two or three monks that were in that service puttered about putting away things behind the altar, which we couldn't see well because it's behind a floor-to-ceiling iron grate. All but one monk left, a very old and bent monk who seemed to be bowed in prayer whether sitting or standing, and who stayed in his seat until a larger group of young monks came back in for the vespers service. Actually, he still stayed in his seat, for the most part; getting up and down seemed to be difficult for him. I wondered whether he arrived for the first service and then just stayed there for twelve hours in constant reflection and devotion, or if he left at any point. After the service he got up and retrieved a cane from the corner of the crypt, and slowly, slowly walked to a private staircase, helped up the steps by his younger colleagues. Did he join as an older man? Had he been there since his teens? What would it be like to devote your life to praying for the salvation of the world? A quiet life, at least. It was lovely to share that devotion, and that silence, before emerging from the coolness of the crypt into a golden evening above the city of Florence.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Il Meraviglioso Giardino di Boboli

If you live in Florence, you can get in to the Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti with just your identity card, but if you're a tourist, you'll have to buy a ticket. The Pitti Palace is on the south side of the city, between the River Arno and the Porta Romana, the 14th century gate that is all that's left of the old city walls on that side. Behind the palace the hill is topped with tree-lined walkways and wide lawns, interspersed with statues and ponds and alleys twisted through shrubby woodland. We didn't go into the palace itself, or into most of the museums, but we did wander around the gardens for a while, down to the large greenhouses where the lemon trees spend the winter, and up to the top of the lawns where we could look out over the city, and across to the hills on either side of the river.

At the very top of the hill there's a garden full of roses and peonies, and a small museum with porcelain and glass, dish sets belonging to noble families and delicate statues those families enjoyed looking at, but which their servants probably didn't enjoy dusting all of the time. If you have a ticket to the gardens, you can go into this museum for free. From the rose garden you can look out over a small olive grove, and the houses and villas on the surrounding hills.

Just below the garden there's a sloping lawn whose three sides go down to a small pond, and we sat there for a bit in the shade of a tree, drinking water and eating fresh strawberries we'd bought down by the river. There were other picnickers on the lawn, and people resting their feet after a day of sightseeing. You could tell the locals as much by their lack of cameras as by their language, and I think the couple indulging in long slow kisses was Italian, or at least that's how I'll remember them. A heron landed on the statue in the middle of the pond, and Mom thought she saw a fish jump in the green water. The breeze felt good after walking up and down the slopes in the sun.

The Forte di Belvedere was built to house the soldiers that protected Grand Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici, and it stands slightly higher than the top level of the Boboli Gardens. There are no soldiers there now, but there is (or was, when we were there) an exhibit called "Human" by British sculptor Antony Gormley. There are figures scattered about the fort singly and in groups, in contorted poses or natural looking ones, and some that seem to be doing yoga. There's not much else to see in the fort itself, but the view is good in all directions, as it would have to be for an effective fortress, I suppose.

Da chi mi fido, mi guardi Dio, da chi non mi fido, mi guarderò io.
- Italian proverb

We looked to the north, across the Arno, and admired the red roofs of the city. We looked to the south, over the rolling green hills and olive gardens. And we looked to the east, towards the abbey on top of the next hill over, and walked down a steep and winding road, then up another steep and winding staircase to the Piazzale Michelangelo, the setting for another photo-rich and word-poor post.

Painting In Stone

The Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage has set up a small museum documenting the history of stone mosaic and inlay from the time of the Medicis until about the mid-19th century in Florence. It's about four blocks away from the much larger Galleria dell'Accademia, where you can see - though we did not - Michelangelo's famous sculpture of David. The original anyway; there are copies scattered about the city, and other places to see sculptures by Michelangelo without waiting in long lines. We did not tour the Uffizi Gallery either, the other famous large museum in Florence. Both are full of beautiful art to be sure, but in the few days we were in the city, even the three or four small museums we visited were enough to overwhelm us. We didn't want to do a museum-on-the-run tour like we did at the Louvre two years ago. The best way to go through the exhibits in these places is to make frequent small visits, but as that would require staying in Florence and/or Paris for a few weeks to months, this more thoughtful and relaxed way of taking in the history of art in Europe was not on the agenda then or now. It's nice to think about being able to do it that way, however.

Even though this is a small museum - just one large room divided into little mini-galleries on the bottom floor, topped by a long room with tools and rock samples and explanations of how these intricate creations are made - we spent at least two hours there, I think. The delicacy and shading of the inlay work is incredible, truly painting in stone.

Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Via degli Alfani, 78, Firenze

In the space above the exhibits on the ground floor, there are old tools and foot-powered saws for cutting stone into the thinnest of slabs. On the wall are hundreds of samples of the different types of stones the artists used to make the mosaics, the agates and breccia and marbles whose natural shading and veins they skillfully chose and placed to mimic feathers, fur, petals, water, clouds. According to the guide at the museum, "Collecting highly prized stones to be used by the workshop was promoted by the first [Medici] Grand Dukes and continued by their successors on such a scale that, despite their use for centuries, the Opificio still possesses enormous reserves of stone materials."

The workshop was established in 1588 by Ferdinando I de' Medici, whose micro-mosaic portrait is below. There is no inlay work going on here any more, though the workshops have been located on Via Alfani since the end of the 18th century. The artists are trained to do the cutting and carving and shaping of the stone, but their focus is on restoration instead of the creation of original works.

Gli scarparelli la pietra la gli sciupa, la pietra la gli asciuga.
- Tuscan proverb

I think we spent the most time staring at the floral stone paintings, because they were so amazingly lifelike. The shading of the petals in a rosebud just opening. The spiral blush of a full bloom of peony. The turn of a leaf from dark to light green. The sparkle across the top curve of each grape in a new-picked bunch, still coated with dew. It was malachite and agate and amethyst and mother-of-pearl and actual pearls cut in half, and who knows what other stones and gems from the far corners of the Italian trade empire, but transformed into organic beauty. I'd go back just to marvel at the mosaics again.