Posted in Cimabue, City Views, Drawings by Bonnie Hull, Duccio, Florence, Gentile da Fabriano, Giotto, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uffizi Gallery, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on May 21, 2011 by rphull

On Day 8 of our tour, we shift our base of operations from Cortona on the hill to Florence in the valley of the Arno River, which flows through the city:

Thomas Cole, in his painting of 1837, seems to show just two bridges spanning the Arno, but now there are several more.  The most famous is an old one, the Ponte Vecchio, which is lined with shops selling silver, gold, and jewelry.

Florence is a remarkable city rich in art and history, an Italian crown jewel, and I am pleased that this year’s version of the AHI Tuscany program has us spending three nights in this stylish cultural center, with its centerpiece being  Brunelleschi’s monumental dome of Florence Cathedral:

On the hillside, probably not quite in view in the photo above, is the town of Fiesole, like Cortona originally an Etruscan settlement.  As we arrive, we will have lunch in Fiesole, which offers spectacular views down over Florence:

As Leon Battista Alberti pointed out in the 15th century, that dome really carries.

We will stay at the Grand Hotel Baglioni, once the palace of the Baglioni family, located near the center of Florence:

Here it is by day.  As you can see, it is just a few piazzas from the Cathedral:

(In the lower right hand corner of this photo is the whitish facade of what I believe is the Hotel Universo, where the Florence Program that Adele Birnbaum and I used to lead was headquartered in later years.  The Grand Baglioni is, well, grander . . . .)

From another Florence Program hotel, Bonnie drew this view of the city and we used it for years on the cover of our course readings:

We check into the Grand Baglioni at 2:00, and at 3:00 we split into two groups and head in different directions (the next day, the two groups will exchange itineraries).  One group will go with a guide to the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David and his so-called Prisoners, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II but left unfinished (or ARE they unfinished?  There’s debate about that: to modern eyes they seem powerfully expressive in their current state):

It’s the David that truly astonishes, though: He’s HUGE and, of course, grandly nude:

When Michelangelo carved this noble guy, the sculpture was intended for a buttress high up on Florence Cathedral, from where David would oversee and protect the city.  By popular demand, the work was placed instead in the Piazza della Signoria where people could get a better look at him.  He resided in the piazza for generations before being moved into the Accademia in the 19th century (there’s a copy is in the piazza now).

While one group is visiting the Accademia and additional sites, the other group will visit the Uffizi Gallery with me.  For Italian Renaissance painting, the Uffizi is THE world’s greatest museum.  The magnificent collection was assembled by several generations of the Medici family; in addition, over time, important altarpieces located in churches were moved to the Uffizi for protection.

We will walk to the Uffizi, probably passing through Piazza della Signoria . . .

. . . where you can see the copy of David to the left, and a portion of the Uffizi Gallery through the arch of the loggia (now a sort of open air sculpture court).

The Uffizi is a long U-shaped building, designed by the painter, architect, and “first art historian,” Giorgio Vasari, in the 16th century:

This view has us in the U, looking back toward the Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria.  That green silhouette figure is more or less blocking our view of the David copy.  Behind us is the River Arno.

The main galleries are on the top floor of the building, in this arrangement:

The tan section is a marbled hallway with windows overlooking the “piazzale” that the building forms; the green sections are the gallery rooms.  From point D, you can look out on the Arno; G is a roof-top cafe, where a recuperative cappuccino may be required.

Some months ago, I sent you all a link to a Google site of a virtual tour of the Uffizi.  Here’s the link again:

If you fiddle around a little bit with this site, you can “enter” all the galleries and view all the works.   Believe me, we will not have the place to ourselves, as the Google photographer apparently did.  We will be amid throngs of art lovers.  BUT–we will be equipped with our “Whispers,” our earphones that will allow you to hear my commentary on selected works (or turn off my commentary if Madonna Fatigue should happen to set in).

We will take the steps or the elevator (both are available) to the top floor.  As we move into the first gallery, we will come face to face with Giotto’s grandly solemn All Saints Madonna (1305-1310):

I will always remember the first time I came upon this work, during Bonnie’s and my first trip to Florence in 1972.  The painting is so big, luminous, and clear in its forms that it really makes an impression, especially since it’s the very first work we encounter.

And Giotto’s madonna is not alone in the room.  She is flanked on the left by the Rucellai Madonna (1280-1285) by the Sienese painter Duccio:

And to the right of the Giotto is another big Madonna panel (1285-1290), painted by Cimabue when he returned to Florence from Assisi (where he did the fresco of the Madonna and Saint Francis):

All three of these Madonnas once resided in Florentine Churches: the Giotto in the Church of Ognisanti (All Saints), the Duccio in the church of  Santa Maria Novella, and the Cimbue in the church of Santa Trinita.  They presided over their own holy spaces.  Gathered together in one room of the Uffizi, they form a kind of summit of grandly monumental women.  They gaze at us solemnly and unflinchingly.  They are serious beings.

We will talk about these impressive figures for a few minutes, before moving on to other delights, including Gentile da Fabriano’s ornate altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi (the adoration of the kings who traveled far to visit Mary and the new-born baby Jesus).  On the first Florence Program, in 1979  (as seen in this photo by our friend Linnea Patrick) Professor Jim Hand and I discussed the piece while the Willamette student Leslie Kinyon took a look at it as well:

It’s mighty clear that people change significantly in the course of thirty years, but art (cared for properly) endures.  When we visit the Uffizi, I will look different but the painting will not.  As the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates stated: Ars longa, vita brevis (usually translated as:  “Art is long, life is short”).  Gentile’s altarpiece (1423) is truly gorgeous, and we will linger over it for a few minutes–while we can!

OK, Travelers: This might be the last post on ITALIANHOURS before departure.  Maybe there will be one more, but in any event Bonnie and I look forward to meeting up with you all in Cortona in just a little over a week.  And don’t forget. Italy is the land of many things, including:




Siena and Florence

Posted in Art, City Views, Florence, Gordon Moran, Palazzo Publico, Siena, Simone Martini, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on May 19, 2011 by rphull

A couple of dangling Siena matters:

First of all, I provided the wrong name for our excellent Siena guide in 2008.  Her real name is Dontatella Grilli:

I was informed of this by the art historian Gordon Moran, who knows Siena well and happened to come upon our last ITALIANHOURS post.  At the end of his message, he wrote:  “PS.  In one of your photos, you describe a Sienese guide as Gabriella.  At the same time, she looks very much like Dontatella Grilli.”  We are talking diplomacy and tact in phrasing here, and I appreciate the corrected information very much.

Gordon Moran is a central figure in the debate over the traditional attribution of the equestrian painting of Guido Riccio da Fogliano to Simone Martini.  Here is an image of that painting, as a reminder of which one it is.  The painting is a fresco on the end wall of the council chamber in the Palazzo Publico in Siena.

And here is a closer view of the military man himself:

Mr. Moran is firmly of the belief that this is not a work by Simone Martini, despite what all the textbooks say, and he kindly sent us the link to an English translation of a recent essay that explores some of the reasons why he thinks it isn’t:

Here is the link to another essay, this one by Moran himself and a colleague, on the matter:

I think you will find it interesting to read over one or both of these pieces, as they reflect the nature of art history as a scholarly discipline.  Our approach is much more general, of course, but it is important to realize that the “truths” of art history are the result of debate and reassessment and that some works of art may attain their status on the basis of misunderstanding and misinformation.

By way of review, the equestrian painting, at one end of a long room, faces Simone Martini’s Maesta on the opposite wall:

About this quite glorious painting, there seems to be no doubt that it is a work genuinely by Martini.

Both paintings are in the Siena city hall, the Palazzo Publico, seen here from a different angle than we saw before.  Walking in Siena, one has the impression that there are no cars around, but as you can see, there are a few tucked in here and there.

The major form on the Siena skyline is the tower of the Palazzo Publico . . .

. . . whereas in Florence, the dominant skyline shape is the dome of Florence Cathedral:

It’s on to Florence that we go on the eighth day of our trip, leaving behind the lovely hill towns and moving to a city that occupies both banks of a river, the famous Arno, flowing through a valley.

The English-born American painter Thomas Cole documented Florence in this tranquil, somewhat elegaic painting of 1837.  He shows the same buildings on the horizon that we see today:

On the left is the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (counterpart to Siena’s Palazzo Publico).  The smaller red dome at center is part of the Church of San Lorenzo.  The tall white tower is the campanile or bell tower of Florence Cathedral, and the big dome is on the Cathedral itself.  This dome is the engineering feat of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who oversaw its construction in the 1420s.  It’s like a great inflated balloon floating over the city, visible from miles around.

As the Humanist Leon Battista Alberti wrote some years later:  “Who could ever be hard or envious enough to fail to praise [Brunelleschi] the architect on seeing here such a large structure, rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people . . . .” (Prologue, On Painting).

More on our Florence visit in two upcoming posts.  I’ll have to hurry, though, as departure day is imminent!


Siena: The Palazzo Publico

Posted in Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Art, City Views, Duccio's Maesta, Siena, Simone Martini, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on May 2, 2011 by rphull

In the last post, we took a look at Duccio’s Maesta (1308-1311), his enormous altarpiece of many panels that, in its original form, was an elaborately framed, two-sided work–perhaps the most glorious single artwork of the late medieval period.  It honored the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven . . .

. . . and was located inside Siena Cathedral.  Thanks to political links between the City State of Siena and France, the Maesta and the cathedral show a strong French Gothic inflection.  The altarpiece with its pinnacles and upward thrusting momentum has a lot in common with the French Gothic facade of the cathedral in which it was located:

Over the years, the frame was removed and lost and the altarpiece itself dismembered, with some panels making their way into distant collections.  Most of the parts remain in Siena, though, and as noted earlier we’ll be taking a look at them (now in the cathedral’s museum) on the first part of our visit to this elegant and opulent Tuscan city.

Later that day, we’ll visit the city hall, the Palazzo Publico, erected in the late 1200s as the governmental headquarters the city.  Here’s a general view of this imposing edifice,

which provides the backdrop for the Piazza del Campo, site of the festival Palio della Contrade, which features the racing of the horses each August.  Might worth a return trip.  Looks dangerous, though.

The piazza will likely be a little calmer the day we gather there to get ready to enter the Palazzo Publico to see works by the Sienese artists Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

In the council chambers where the city leaders met to deliberate are two famous frescoes by Simone Martini.  At one end of the council chamber, filling the entire wall, is Martini’s version of the Maesta, the subject that Duccio had originated.  Here’s how Martini treated the subject of Mary as a royal figure presenting the princeling Jesus:

So–two Maestas, one by Duccio and one by Martini.  Martini had been Duccio’s student and follows his master’s lead by painting the subject with slender, elongated figures and strong French Gothic overtones (Martini’s virgin wears a robe decorated with the fleur-de-lis).  But Duccio painted an altarpiece made up of panel paintings, while Martini painted a fresco filling an enormous wall.  Duccio painted for the cathedral, while Martini painted his Maesta for a secular setting, the site of governmental deliberation.  Martini’s Mary oversees the deliberations of the council, urging the members toward righteous decisions.

At the other end of the council chamber is another big fresco, traditionally attributed to Martini (some current scholarship questions the attribution, but let’s go with the traditional assumption that the painter was Martini):

This is Martini’s fresco depicting the military man Guidoriccio da Fogliagno, hired by Siena to lead troops to protect the city and bring neighboring villages under Siense influence.  Here’s another view of Guidoriccio and his horse, who wear matching outfits:

Consider the irony, or perhaps the common sense, of the placement of Simone’s two frescoes.  Mary, enthroned as queen of heaven and implicitly queen of Siena, sits in majesty at one end of the room, while at the other end the soldier Guidoriccio patrols the perimeter of the city.  I guess this is a case of covering all bases, of taking out different types of insurance (spiritual, military) just to be sure of comprehensive coverage.

In an adjacent room, the Sala della Pace (Hall of Peace), we’ll see a remarkable set of frescoes by another Sienese master, Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  His paintings fill the upper walls of the room and deal with the Effects of Good and Bad Government (always timely subjects).  Here’s a general view of the Sala della Pace, showing on the right Lorenzetti’s masterpiece, The Effects of Good Government in the City and Country:

That’s the Siena city wall dividing the composition in two.  Within the city, bustling prosperity prevails:

Up among the rooftops just to the right of center, laborers work a construction site.  In the foreground, shops do a brisk business and prosperous citizens stroll to and fro.  The city, under good government, is so pleasant a place that young women dance in the street:

Reminds us of the woman celebrating more recently in the streets of Cortona:

Meanwhile, in the Siena countryside, conditions are flourishing, as well:

Aristocrats head out for a day in the country, while peasants come to town with their produce and products.  Vineyards are bountiful, villas dot the land.  Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government projects an ideal, to be sure: this is civic propaganda of a sort, but the vision is of community we all hope for–prosperous, safe, beautiful in its built and natural environments.  Lorenzetti completed this painting in 1339.  The hope for such an idyllic place was dashed by the onset of the Black Death, the Great Plague of 1348.

On the other side of the room, behind us from this view, is Lorenzetti’s depiction of the Effects of Bad Government:

Goodness.  The buildings are dilapidated, a corpse lies in the street.  Ironically, the work itself is in a state of disrepair.  Those splotches are where the plaster has fallen off over the generations.  Clearly, it’s in the city of happily dancing girls, the city of prosperity and good government, that we want to be:

Look at these great gowns.  One features a very nifty dragonfly design.  To this day, Italy is a place of fashionable dress, exemplified by Gabriella, our guide in Siena in 2008:

A final word:  The Sienese artists of the early 14th century were leaders in making art relevant to secular life: daily life in the city and country, government, politics.  Martini’s image of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and Lorenzetti’s of Siena and its environs address life beyond the church, life in the civic and communal realm.  The Sienese artists of this era began to create art about modern life.

That’s all for now.  Ciao!


Siena: Duccio’s Maesta

Posted in Art, City Views, Duccio's Maesta, Siena, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on April 24, 2011 by rphull

On Monday morning, June 6, we’re off to Siena, the artistic and cultural rival of Florence prior to the the Black Death, the great plague of 1348 that affected much of Europe and decimated Siena.  But the first half of the fourteenth century was Siena’s golden age, and we will be viewing a number of major paintings that set the stage for Renaissance art even though they were created prior to 1348.

Here’s a photograph looking down on the Piazza del Campo in the center of old Siena, with the bell tower of the Palazzo Publico, or town hall, rising up over the Tuscan countryside.  We’ll be visiting this building, and the intrepid among us might climb the tower to take the view.

But my post this week is devoted to a painting that we will see earlier in the afternoon at the museum of Siena Cathedral.  Here, we will view the masterwork of the Sienese artist Duccio di Bouninsegna–his Maesta, painted in 1308-11 for the cathedral:

Duccio’s assistants carried this magnificent work through the streets of Siena from the artist’s studio to the church amid cheering throngs of Sienese citizens on a sunny day in June 1311.  Seven hundred years later, almost to the day, we’ll be there.  The Maesta was an object of both religious veneration and civic pride–for where else had such a magnificent work of art been created?

Indeed, it was the largest altarpiece ever painted at the time (I don’t believe it has been surpassed in scale and sumptuousness), and apparently it was the first example of a Maesta–an image of the Virgin Mary enthroned “in majesty” surrounded by not only angels but also a full court of prophets and prophetesses, with Mary and Jesus being venerated as heavenly royalty.

A note on medium: the Maesta is a panel painting, egg tempera and gold leaf on panels of wood.  In contrast, the works at the Church of Saint Francis at Assisi are frescoes–painted directly into wet plaster on the walls of the church.  Fresco and panel were the two major modes of painting in Tuscany in the late medieval period and during the Renaissance.

Duccio’s Maesta is the first work known to have had a predella (the row of small scenes at the bottom of the main scene of an altarpiece).  In the case, the predella scenes deal with Christ’s birth and infancy.

This altarpiece was additionally spectacular because it had painted scenes on the back as well as the front.  In the Cathedral, it stood in open space that that on holy occasions worshippers could pass around it and view it from both sides.  Here’s a diagram reconstructing what the arrangement was probably like:

Duccio’s Maesta was long ago removed from the Cathedral itself and, over time, was dismembered.  The framing we see in the pictures above is conjectural.  Most of the individual paintings are presented in a special gallery of the Cathedral Museum.  The parts have not been reassembled, so we will be viewing the work in a state of desconstruction, as components that we can make whole only in our imagination.

Here are the two major pieces as they exist today, front and back:

The back side depicts the final days of Christ’s earthly life.  The story begins in the lower left corner with the Entry into Jerusalem:

This is the “Palm Sunday” scene, with throngs meeting Jesus and his disciples at the city gate and laying down palm fronds.  Sienese painting is known for its emphasis on architectural spaces, and this work is a prime example of that, with the open door leading into a mysterious dark space in the lower right and the tunnel of the arched city gate.

And here are two other well-known scenes from the back:

From the middle of the bottom row comes this scene of the Agony in the Garden, depicting the moment when Christ tells his disciples to keep watch while he enters the garden of Gethsemane to pray.  The narrative unfolds from the center, where Christ speaks to the disciples.  From there, the story proceeds outward to the right and left: Christ is seen praying at the right, the disciples have failed their duties by falling asleep at the left.  Christ ascends, the disciples descend.

Just above Agony in the Garden is this scene . . .

. . . depicting the Kiss of Judas, the moment when Judas betrays his master by identifying him, by means of the kiss, to the soldiers.  There is a lot going on here:  Judas delivers the kiss, the soldiers close in, Peter (in the greenish robe) acts to protect his master by wielding his knife and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers (but Jesus sees to it that the ear is immediately healed).  To the right, Jesus’ other disciples flee the scene–swept out of the composition by the wave-like rock formation.  Consider the gorgeous colors in this piece–the sherbet-like citrus and lime tones, and consider the elegance of the figures–slender, twisting this way and that, with the gold edge of Christ’s robe serving as an abstract diagram of all the curves and counter-curves of the composition.  This is what golden age Sienese  painting is known for: elegance, grace, and delicate beauty despite, in this case, the somber subject.

It’s somewhat inadvertent that I’m making this post on Easter day, but since I am, Happy Easter to you all!  I’ll be back before long with glimpses of several other major paintings that we will be seeing in the course of our day in lovely Siena.

For now, ciao ciao.


Pienza and Montepulciano

Posted in Art, City Views, Montepulciano, Pienza, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Willamette University Tuscany Program on April 15, 2011 by rphull

Mid-way through our Italian hours and days, we’ll be visiting two towns that, in their different ways, are among the most lovely of Tuscan places: Pienza and Montepulciano.  I make this claim even though I have visited neither town.  I do so on good authority, though: UNESCO has declared Pienza a World Heritage Site and the surrounding Val d’Orcia a World Cultural Landscape.  As for Montepulciano, Bonnie visited in 2008 and reports that it has charm galore.

Here’s a view of Pienza from the Val d’Orcia:

This old hill town was originally named Corsignano, but in the fifteenth century it was renamed and a portion of it rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance city square.  This was done at the behest of the town’s most famous son, the diplomat and humanist poet Eneo Silvio Piccolomini (1405-64), who as Pope Pius II envisioned a site of architectural perfection that would be the center of religious and civic life.  He renamed the town Pienza, or “Pius,” and commissioned the Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino to design a complex of  buildings, which comprise the first example of Renaissance town planning.

Here’s the plan, with the cathedral forming the central axis and centerpiece of the composition, and palaces flanking it at graceful angles to either side.

Even the well drawn on the plan remains in place, and as the Michelin Guide remarks, its asymmetrical placement amidst all the formality enhances the overall plan.

Here’s a wide-angle view of the complex, which I show even though it is distorted because it so clearly relates Rossellino’s set of buildings to the ideal city . . .

. . . as envisioned by the Humanist architect Leonbattista Alberti:


Entitled The Ideal City (c. 1470), this painting is in the collection of National Gallery of the Marche at Urbino.  That’s a long way from Tuscany, but I show it here because it embodies the same ideas of symmetry, order, and balanced architectural forms that the pope envisioned for Pienza.  The painting may actually be by Alberti (attribution is uncertain); whoever painted it was closely following Alberti’s ideas about the ideal Renaissance city–rationally designed with spacious plazas between buildings.  The jumbled, irregular architecture of medieval towns should be replaced by a new sense of clarity and organization, Alberti argued.  Pope Pius II apparently agreed, and he hired Alberti’s pupil, Rossellino, to design a new center for the town he called “Pius.”

After lunch, we head on to Montepulciano . . .

. . . famous for its wine, food, architectural heritage, and shops.  In 2008, Bonnie was particularly taken by the store decorated with painted shoes:

Will these still be there?  Hard to know, but Italy does have a flair for stylishly accenting its historic infrastructure with contemporary touches.

From 1390, Montepulciano was a loyal ally (and later possession) of Florence, with the result that the Florentine architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder designed a number of buildings there.  One of them is the Palazzo Communale . . . ,

which echoes the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

We will be exploring Montepulciano on our own, without a guide, for a couple of hours, and then are scheduled to visit another structure designed by Sangallo, the Temple of San Biagio on the outskirts of town:

A website says this about it:  “The travertine church of San Biagio, outside the city, in the countryside, is characterized by a beautiful dome.  It is one of the most significance Renaissance works and masterpiece of Antonio da Sangallo the Elder.”  It does look lovely–a central-plan church of beautifully proportioned shapes.  Here’s another view of San Biagio, which was built in the period 1518-1545:


Though it stands by itself amid trees, its contained geometry and compact forms would allow it to fit in nicely with other structures in Alberti’s Ideal City.

With Sangallo’s lovely structure in mind, we’ll cruise back to Cortona for a nice dinner at our Hotel San Luca.  Yes, I’m beginning to dream about Italian cuisine and vino!




Posted in Art, Assisi, Church of San Francesco, City Views, Perugia, Saint Francis, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on April 6, 2011 by rphull

In further anticipation of our aventura italiana, here’s the third of several posts I’m sending your way prior to our departure:

As you know, on our second full day in Tuscany we will take a road trip into the adjoining territory of Umbria–the only region of Italy that does not border the sea.  Umbria is the inner core of the peninsula, il cuore verde dell’Italia (Italy’s green heart).  Our destinations that day will include Assisi, the hill town made famous by Saint Francis.

Saint Francis is remembered for his compassionate character, his empathy for Mary and Jesus (Francis so completely identified with the sufferings of Jesus that he experienced the Stigmata, a replication of the wounds suffered by Christ at the Crucifixion), and his love of nature, which he saw as God’s creation.  In 1228, just two years after the death of Saint Francis, his followers began to construct the enormous Church of San Francesco, sited on the flank of a hill overlooking the Umbrian countryside.  Beginning in the 1280s, the new church was a magnet for prominent mural painters from Florence, Siena, and elsewhere.

The church is built on two levels, the so-called Lower and Upper Churches, both decorated with beautiful examples of late Medieval frescoes that lay the groundwork for Renaissance painting.  The Church of San Francesco and some of the frescoes inside will be the primary focus of our visit to Assisi.

Here’s an aerial view of the Church of San Francesco with full view of the Upper Church facade.  Umbria, the green heart, spreads out and beyond.

Here, we’re viewing the Church of San Francesco from the lower plaza.  The entrance of the Lower Church is to the left, with a bit of the entrance to the Upper Church just visible in the upper right corner of the photo (portal is under the round Rose window).  I think that might be me trudging up the shallow steps.

We’ll be entering by way of the Lower Church, the more intimate and sequestered of the two levels.  Its low vaults and arches are decorated with ornamental patterns, and paintings of Biblical figures cover the walls.  Here’s the interior of the Lower Church; the steps on either side lead into side chapels.

It’s a rich interior, and in 1995 Bonnie took a sampling of some of the patterns:

Down the sanctuary and around the corner to the right we will come upon this major fresco by the famous Florentine painter Cimabue . . .

. . . considered to be the grandfather of Renaissance painting in Italy.  He spent the years 1280-1285 in Assisi, painting scenes in Saint Francis’s church.  This is his fresco of the Madonna and Child with angels and Saint Francis.  Never mind that Mary and Jesus lived 1200 years before Saint Francis did.  This is art.

Saint Francis stands to the right in his characteristic plain cloth robe with rope belt.  He shows us the results of his Stigmata–the wounds in his hands, feet, and side.  Viewers over the centuries have delighted in the gentle tenderness of the Madonna and Child and the subtlety of the lights and shadows bathing the face of Mary.  It’s this emphasis on the delicacy of human form and beauty and the tenderness with which Mary tickles Jesus’s foot that helps qualify Cimabue as the forefather of the humanism of Renaissance painting.

A word about fresco painting: This is the medium that involves painting pigments directly into the wet plaster as it dries on the wall.  You have to work fairly fast, to keep ahead of the drying plaster.  It’s an ancient medium, but Cimabue of Florence was one of the first to revive its use in his era, and his early experiments were here at Assisi.  Frescoes by nature are permanently affixed to the wall on which they were painted: Cimabue was right here, right where we will be standing, when he painted this.  All the paintings we’ll see at the Church of San Francesco are frescoes.  (Another category of painting is panel–paintings on wood panels that, in theory, can be moved from one place to another; we’ll see our share of panel paintings on this trip, as well.)

Here’s another famous fresco at San Francesco, also featuring Mary, Jesus, and Saint Francis:

This one is by the Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti.  It’s his Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and Saint John the Evangelist (1320s), also in the Lower Church.  This is sometimes called the “Sunset Madonna” because it is positioned so that it catches the light of the setting sun each day.  Mary attempts to get Jesus to say hello to Saint Francis but to no avail: Jesus only has eyes for this mother.  (That’s Saint John the Evangelist on the right, with the red tunic.)

Then, we’ll climb some fairly steep stairs to the Upper Church, a more spacious and formal space (the ceremonial, public portion):

Down the sanctuary and to the left, in the left transept, is another remarkable Cimabue fresco:

It’s his Crucifixion of Christ, also painted during the period 1280-1285.  This stands as one of the great monuments of late Medieval painting in Italy.  Cimabue renders the scene in highly emotional terms, in keeping with Francis’s own intense response to the suffering of Christ.  The body of Christ sags on the cross into an extreme S-curve of pain and suffering, the angels careen hysterically in the sky around the cross, and at the base of the cross huddles Saint Francis, who imagined this event so intensely that he is present at it.  Fresco, though and old medium, was just being rediscovered in Central Italy when Cimabue painted this work; he did not fully understand the chemical properties of the medium, with the result that over time the lights and darks have reversed themselves, so that this enormous mural takes on the qualities of a huge photographic negative.

Leaving the transept, we step back into the main section of the Upper Church:

This part of the church is also decorated with frescoes, the row beneath the windows said to be by the Florentine painter Giotto, who with the somewhat older Cimabue laid the groundwork for Renaissance painting.  There is scholarly debate as to whether these really are by Giotto, but prominent experts assert that they are.  The scenes describe the life of Saint Francis from his youth as a wealthy young Assisi gentleman, to his vow of poverty and founding of the Franciscan brotherhood.   At the far end, to the right of the doors, is one of the most famous of this set:

This is the scene of Saint Francis preaching to the birds, an incident that confirms his love of and respect for nature.  The case for Giotto as the creator of this work is given credibility by the sensitive interpretation of human behavior: notice how Saint Francis’s companion responds with surprise if not incredulity as his master takes on the project of explaining a few matters to the birds.  The companion is dubious, but the birds seem pretty attentive.

Saint Francis’s teachings about the humanity of Mary and Jesus and his reverence for nature as the creation of God did much to shift Christian experience from abstract doctrine to life lived here and now.  The frescoes painted in the Church of Saint Francis by Cimabue, Giotto, and others were among the first to lead art into increasingly humanistic interpretations of Christian narratives.

The fresco of Saint Francis with the birds is located just inside the front door of the Upper Church, so that you can view the Saint’s embrace of nature just as you are about to leave the church and re-enter nature yourself.  It’s no wonder that Saint Francis loved nature, for there is none more beautiful than that around Assisi!

We’ll have a bit of free time to stroll Assisi, maybe locating a recuperative cappuccino:

And then it’s lunch at a local restaurant.

BUT–Assisi is just one of our stops on this busy day.  After lunch, it is on to Perugia for an afternoon of sight-seeing:

Of Perugia, our late friend and colleague Adele Birnbaum, who studied Italian at the Universita per Stranieri in the early 1990s, had this to say:  “From the very beginning, I could see that finding my way around in the medieval hill town of Perugia would be a matter of luck.  For one thing, the city was vertical in most places and horizontal in a few others, and the map didn’t show this” (“Tales of Perugia,” Willamette Journal of the Liberal Arts, Spring 1994).  How right she was.  And that is why in Perugia and in all other locations we will have the services of excellent guides.

In 2008, Estella was our guide in both Assisi and Perugia.  Here, she’s telling us about one of the flatter areas of Perugia, a piazza with a church where a wedding was occurring, the musicians waiting to herald the happy couple:

On a fountain nearby, relief sculptures are reminders of the story of a much earlier couple:

Be all that as it may, on we stroll . . .

. . . back to the coach for the return to Cortona.  The Assisi-Perugia day is long, exciting, and strenuous.  As Adele and I used to tell our Florence Program tour groups, “Pluck, Scholars!  Summon your pluck!”  This may be a day when a little of that is needed.

But then, back at the Hotel San Luca, we can rest a little while before going to the dining room for dinner and leisurely conversation about a day well spent.

Ciao for now.  I’ll be back in touch before long.


Inside Cortona

Posted in Art, City Views, Cortona, Gino Severini, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Willamette University Tuscany Program on March 31, 2011 by rphull

The Futurist painter Gino Severini (1883-1966), who hailed from Cortona, had this to say about the place:  “Cortona is a small Tuscan town of Etruscan origin built on a hillside near the Umbrian border.  It is characterized by steep, narrow, roughly paved lanes.  There are two beautiful, spacious town squares and a single wide and level main street that, in my day, was called the ‘Rugapiana’ or ‘flat wrinkle.’  There are also a number of convents.  The inhabitants are notoriously rugged, fiercely proud, and independent.  Among Cortona’s most illustrious natives are Luca Signorelli [the painter], Pietro da Cortona [the architect], and Saint Margaret [the patron saint of childbirth, among other things].”  Source: Gino Severini, The Life of a Painter.

Here’s that aerial view from last time, demonstrating beyond doubt that Cortona is a hill town:

And here again is the entry into town–quite a narrow street (the wide “flat wrinkle” that Severini mentions must be somewhere else; we’ll inquire).  Having left our hotel a few yards to the left, let’s head into town . . .

. . . in whatever manner you prefer:

These members of our tour in 2008 were in search of cappucino, and they found some not far away.  Here’s the one that Bonnie documented before sipping:

The narrow entry street opens into one of the spacious plazas that Severini mentions, and a major building there is the beautiful arched Teatro:

A little further on is the Diocesan Museum, which contains a variety of treasures, including the famous Cortona Annunciation (1430s), painted by Fra Angelico:

Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk as well as a famous painter, was from Florence but spent several years in Cortona.  His most famous work done there is this lovely altarpiece depicting the angel Gabriel interrupting Mary’s reading to tell her that she will be the mother of Jesus.  Her book nearly slips from her lap.  When we visit the Diocesan Museum, we’ll pause to remark on this painting.  It demonstrates a quality for which Fra Angelico’s works are known: the quality of “devoto”–a word originally used to describe a type of rhetoric that is calm, meditative, simple, avoiding excessive ornament, plain-spoken, the rhetoric of a persuasive preacher delivering a heartfelt sermon.  Fra Angelico adapts this mode of rhetoric to painting.  His visual “sermon” concerns the purity of Mary and  her humble yet joyful response to the angel Gabriel’s message from God.

When Bonnie first saw this painting in 2001, she made this study sketch to help her remember it:

Above the drawing, she wrote: “clear and stunning–much gold–intricate beautiful faces–garden exquisite–predella to die for.”  Predella?  That’s the row of little paintings across the bottom, depicting in this case the life of Mary before and after the big event in the main scene.

Most of the art we will see in Cortona is Renaissance Christian painting or ancient Etruscan bronzes, such as these cheerful little personages, as sketched by Bonnie:

But twentieth-century art by Gino Severini, Cortona’s native son, is there as well.  On a wall not far from out hotel, in fact, is Severini’s big mosaic of Saint Mark:

Cortona buildings are depicted in the background, as the evangelist Mark gives us an eye message, as does his mascot the lion.  I love the way the Biblical subject is given 1950s modern art treatment in the form of abstract patterns and streamlined effects of the sort, as a Futurist, Severini introduced into European art in the early years of the century.

The Saint Mark mosaic is located near the foot of a long, steep walkway lined with smaller mosaics by Severini depicting the Stations of the Cross.  When Bonnie and I visited Cortona in 2005, we heard about these, searched them out, and took a look at every one of them, making our way up an extremely steep street leading to a hilltop church.  We were mighty breathless when we reached the summit, where, thankfully, there is not only the church but also a snack bar.

Here’s a guy I got off Google who is pausing in front of one of the mosaics, which are set into shrines:

This trek is a free-time option for the sturdy among us.  The mosaics are lovely though sometimes hard to see because of the protective sheets of plexiglass that cover them.  Taking this walk is a good way to remind yourself that Cortona is indeed “characterized by steep, narrow, roughly paved lanes,” as Severini warned.

So–a taste of Cortona, a lovely place to have at the center of our touring.

In the next post, we will head into Umbria to see about Assisi, hometown to Saint Francis.


Buon giorno!

Posted in Art, City Views, Cortona, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on March 24, 2011 by rphull

Welcome to ITALIANHOURS, a blog for all interested readers but specifically written for the group of Willamette University alumni and friends who will be touring Tuscany and Umbria during the first week of June 2011.  The blog title is adapted from the book of travel writings by Henry James, who published his Italian Hours in 1909.

I am Roger Hull, professor of art history emeritus at Willamette and a guest speaker on our AHI Travel tour.  I’ll be posting blog entries periodically in April and May, anticipating our visits to Cortona, Assisi, Perugia, Montepulciano, Siena, and Florence.  Please use the blog as you wish–to get a quick glimpse of things to come or as the basis of further reading on particular artists or sites.

During our Italian hours we will immerse ourselves in discussions of art and culture, enjoy and learn about regional wine and cuisine, and rendezvous with old friends and meet new ones during a rich program of walking tours, coach excursions, museum visits, and free time for individual exploration and contemplation.

Our home base for the first six days of the tour will be the beautiful hill town of Cortona, located on the edge of Tuscany near the border with Umbria.  From our hilltop perch, with its lovely views out over the countryside, we will head out most days to tour the region by coach.

Here are some views of Cortona and surrounding territory:

The view just above is from our hotel, the Hotel San Luca.  This is a modern (mid-20th century) structure located on the brow of the hill just a few yards from the Cortona city gate.  The view is down over the Tuscan landscape.  In the evening, the view is quite magical:

As we ride up into Cortona, we pass the beautiful little domed church in the midground, and arrive in a small park at the edge of the town.

The hotel is just through the trees to the right.  If that arrow on the pavement were turned just a little bit to the right, it would point straight to the entrance of the hotel, which is just a few yards from the narrow main street of Cortona:

In the next post, we’ll head down this street and take a look around.

But–Ciao for now.