Tag Archives: Italy

Getting Away to Garda…Verona and Padua

8 Jul

Last week I escaped to Lake Garda for a week of sun, reading and relaxation.  Now, relaxation is rather an alien concept to me so, being in the Northern heart of Italy, I couldn’t resist squeezing in some cultural excursions alongside our fun-filled activities (which included me driving a motorboat and lots of wonderful meals).

Out on the lake. Own photograph.

One of the main reasons for the trip was to see Aida at the Verona Arena.  The Arena itself is housed in Verona’s Roman amphitheatre; completed around 30AD, it is the third largest in Italy and can seat 25,000 spectators.  This is the best preserved amphitheatre in Italy and it is this that helps to create an unrivalled experience and spectacle explaining why so many people (not necessarily opera-lovers) flock to watch the opera during the summer months.

Verona’s Arena. Own photograph.

Although I’m familiar with Verona, any excuse to wander round the marble paved streets is a welcome one.  All there was time for on this visit was a brief walking tour to reacquaint myself with the city.  Verona, like most Italian cities, is littered with Roman monuments and examples of stunning Italian architecture.  Of course, there’s also La Casa di Giulietta with a romantic balcony that Romeo is thought to have climbed to.  It is in fact a 13th century inn that was called Il Cappello which is how it sort of links to the Capulets.  This tenuous connection doesn’t stop tourists flocking to the courtyard off Via Capello and graffiti-ing their love messages on the walls.  There is also a bronze statue of Juliet and rubbing her left breast is thought to bring good luck in love.  Also of particular note are the Scaliger Tombs, a group of five exquisite Gothic monuments in celebration of the Scaliger family who ruled in Verona, found in the courtyard of the church of Santa Maria Antica.  The three major tombs show their occupants in dominating equestrian poses and reposing in death below them.

Detail of the Scaliger Tombs in Verona. Own photograph.

After a 2.30am finish (Aida is a long opera, made even lengthier by numerous intervals and curtain calls), I was up bright and early, in the scorching heat, to take a coach to Padova (Padua).  This was my first trip to Padua and we began on a guided walking tour of the city admiring the palazzos that appear on nearly every street.  With only a few hours and being forced to work around the lunchtime closures, I had to be selective with what interiors I saw.

Padua. Own photograph.

Padua is known for its university; founded in 1222 it is one of the earliest in the world.  I was lucky enough to be walking past on graduation day which is certainly a bit more frisky than any UK equivalent.  After formal photographs with a laurel wreath, giant posters are pinned up in the piazza.  They are made by the graduates’ friends and each poster shows a large caricature of the student in question and a multitude of stories about their time at the university.  They are taped to the university wall for all to see and read out by the graduating students in costume in the square.  And, there’s a local anthem to accompany this madness, “Dottore, dottore, dottore del buso del cul.  Vaffancul, vaffancul.”  I’ll let you translate that of your own accord if you’re interested but it’s very catchy and rather rude.

Caffè Pedrocchi in Padua. Own photograph.

The lewd songs started to give me the true feel of the city – vibrant, noisy and energetic.  Just across the piazza is Caffè Pedrocchi, built in 1831 and famous for never being able to close as it had no doors – glass doors are now incorporated into the design.  It is still a hub of intellectual and social discussion with very refreshing and special mint coffees.  The first floor also contains a museum that recounts local and national history.

Padua is famous for its Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel.  As our guide told us that visits to the chapel had to be pre-booked months in advance my heart sank.  I couldn’t come all the way to Padua and miss it so I decided to try my chances and, after much debating with the ticket desk in a mixture of Italian and English, they let me in.

The Scrovegni Chapel. Image via www.padovacultura.padovanet.it

The works are so delicate, that in order to protect the frescoes, there is a state of the art entrance system that controls a microclimate inside the chapel itself.  True to form, the Italians were running late with their supposedly regimented entry system but, finally, I went into the pre-room where we were shown a video – firstly a marketing tool about their other museums and then a look at the history of the chapel.  Considered to be the medieval equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, the building is a magnificent funeral chapel with a barrel vaulted ceiling showing a starry sky.   Divided into two, the back held the public while a smaller section at front was exclusively for the Scrovegni family.  A small door on north wall connected to the Palace, to avoid them having to mingle with the commoners.  While Giotto was responsible for all the paintings, Pisano was commissioned to execute the three altar pieces.   This is the most complete cycle of Giotto frescoes remaining, looking at the lives of Joachim and Anna, episodes from the Virgin Mary’s life and episodes from Christ’s life and death.  The lower walls depict allegories of the vices and virtues.

A detail of the Scrovegni Chapel. Image via www.walksofitaly.com

The architecture is thought to have been designed around the scheme for the painted fresco cycle.  The chamber is completely covered in paintings and there is no doubt that this is impressive but I had expected to be more overwhelmed, more in awe.  The colours would have been brighter and more intoxicating in their day but, for me, the chapel lacked something.

Although I was short of time I had a speedy scoot around the Museo Civico in the same complex.  This is an absolute goldmine and I was taken aback by the sheer range of their collections.

Museo Civico. Own photograph.

Scurrying over the cobbles, I headed to the Baptistery at the Duomo which houses a fresco cycle by Giusto de’Menabuoi – sadly the Duomo itself was shut for a long lunch.  The pictorial cycle here shows The Paradise, The Creation, The Crucifixion and the Descent of the Holy Ghost.  These frescoes have been relatively recently restored, emphasising and bringing out the natural colours and revealing the full wonder of the layout and iconography.  This imagery is so overwhelming that it is exhausting – in a good way.  For me, this building had the effect I had hoped for at the Giotto chapel.   With over 100 scenes you just don’t know where to look first.

Frescoes at the Baptistery. Image via http://therealchrisparkle.wordpress.com

I stopped in one of the main squares at an all-Italian (always a good sign) scruffy looking bar that served mainly sandwiches  and spritzes – lunch was divine and gave me the boost I needed to get back up in the 40 degree heat and continue my whirlwind tour.

Prato della Valle. Own photograph.

Next, I wandered through the largest and most impressive piazza in Padua, the Prato della Valle; surrounded by a moat it houses 79 statues of those associated with Padua’s prosperity.  Down one of the side streets is the Basilica Sant’Antonio, a building designed to house the Saint’s remains.  The Italians, as ever, have gone all out with a cluster of seven domes, a beautiful cupola, two campanili and two smaller minarets.  The treasury holds the tongue and larynx of Il Santo and queues form to see this – I have to say the architecture and Donatello’s altarpiece appealed more than someone’s old tongue.

Basilica Sant’Antonio. Own photograph.

It was time to sprint back to the coach although I wouldn’t have minded being left in Padua.  It’s a town that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists and still has an amazing truth to it.  We headed back to the lake via a tour and tasting at a Soave vineyard.  The dessert wine was divine and my trick of wrapping it in towels and packing two bottles in my case worked fine.  It wasn’t even overweight – I knew I should have got another bottle.  But now I’ve got an excuse to head back soon to stock up.  I’d better book some more opera tickets and flights!

La Cantina di Soave. Own photograph.

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Drenched in Devotion – the National Gallery

23 Aug

Anyone who had the pleasure of being in London today will know the weather was monsoon- monstrous.  The diagonal downpour rendered my umbrella useless.  The roads were flooding.  Thinking that my knee wasn’t strong enough to tackle slippery streets in stilettos, I made the foolish mistake of changing into a pair of ballerinas that I keep, in my bag for emergencies.  Oh what a fool I was, ‘what an addlepated fool’.  Within seconds, my pumps confirmed my earlier idea that I should have worn wellies.  I slowly squelched my way to the National Gallery.  The lady in front of me actually lost a shoe as hers were so wet so I suppose I should count myself lucky but really there is nothing worse than wet feet!

Now that hand driers are so high tech even my cunning plan of drying my feet in the loos was a failure. I was destined to remain uncomfortable so I headed to the exhibition leaving a trail of wet footprints behind me.  Unusually, for downstairs at the National Gallery, Devotion by Design is free of charge. Although the works are drawn mostly from the Gallery’s own collection, this does not dilute the exhibition especially as some are not normally on public view.

Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Baptism altarpiece, 1387. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition considers altarpieces in context, examining their structure and relationship to the surrounding architecture, following the formal, stylistic and typological developments across the period of concern.  It also looks at how they have been dismembered and displayed independently and out of context.  Until now, the Rogier van der Weyden work upstairs (from a 15th century Netherlandish altarpiece) was the best example of fragmentation of which I was aware.  We are fairly certain that this fragment, known as The Magdalen Reading, has come from the lower right-hand corner of an elaborate painting showing the Virgin and Child with Saints.  Scholars have ascertained that the Magdalen was cut down to its present shape before 1811 and then, between approximately 1845-1860, moved to its new mahogany support.  When the picture was cleaned in 1955, an area of brown overpaint, that covered the red drapery on the left-hand side, was removed and this revealed two feet that protrude from the drapery.  Two other fragments from the larger altarpiece survive and using this, and a 15th century drawing of the Virgin and Child, it is possible to show how the fragments would interlink.  In the National Gallery exhibition of 1999, the three fragments were brought together in an attempt to make modern reconstructions more easily understood.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading, before 1438. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

One of the fascinating things about altarpieces is the sheer variety of works that come under this category.  An altarpiece is an image-bearing structure placed upon or behind an altar in a Christian church.  Usually painted, it often forms the focus of devotion.  The size, construction, complexity and decoration will vary depending on the location and original commission.  Although this exhibition focuses solely on Italian altarpieces from the 13th-15th centuries the range is still immense.

The exhibition opens with a glossary of Christian worship and a plan of an Italian Church;  I was impressed by the wall labels and this continued throughout.   The paintings in the first room show altarpieces in context, for example van der Weyden’s The Exhumation of Saint Hubert where the altar is decorated with an altarpiece, a reliquary set and a tabernacle.

Rogier van der Weyden and workshop, The Exhumation of Saint Hunbert, late 1430s. Image via http://en.wikipedia.org

Perhaps the rain seemed to have encouraged more art ‘experts’ than usual and I could have been entertained for hours, listening to people’s comments in the gallery.  As I stood quietly taking notes, the guard came up and said to me ‘I am so pleased to have you in my room, it’s a great pleasure’. Sadly, I kid you not!

I had thought I’d pop in and out of the National today but this exhibition and these works demand respect, they were after all destined as objects of religious prayer.  In the second room, two altarpieces, constructed 70 years apart, are displayed together intentionally to be contrasted.  The works are free-standing so we can see both sides. The backs of the objects tell a story as well and the glossary that continues on the walls helps to explain these objects.  Through these two altarpieces, we are able to examine the formal changes undergone in the 15th century when a multi-panelled polyptych in a Gothic frame developed into a unified rectangular pala.  By being able to circumnavigate the structures, it’s possible to understand the different constructions.

Room two in Devotion by Design. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Crivelli’s La Madonna della Rondine, which remains in its original frame, from a side altar at San Francesco dei Zoccolanti in Matelica, looks exquisite in these dimly lit rooms.  This work was jointly commissioned and the interests of both patrons are represented with the left-hand side showing clerical interests and the right-hand side lay interests.

Carlo Crivelli, La Madonna della Rondine, after 1490. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.   

Interestingly, in the same room, the National Gallery have been able to include a reproduction of the contract for the Gozzoli altarpiece, designed for San Marco, a Dominican convent in Florence. It is amazing to see the detail and how every element has been considered and discussed.  It not only names each Saint for inclusion but also stipulates their positions.  The network of relationships involved in commissions, whether they were private or through a religious confraternity, is fascinating.  Altarpieces represent the will of patron rather than artist in many cases.

Room Four has been turned into a chapel, evoking the interior of a Tuscan church, c. 1500.  The positioning of the benches, the music and the dim lighting create a mystical atmosphere.  The high altar has two candlesticks and an altar cross for celebration of mass while, around the edges of room, different styles of altarpieces show how the progression of design has changed over time.  As the 15th century moved on, so did artists’ practices and ideas as perspective was introduced and new styles of altarpieces evolved.

Luca Signorelli, The Circumcision, c. 1490-91. Image via www.intofineart.com

As the exhibition progresses, it focuses more on dislocations.  This affords us the opportunity to study why these were they taken apart.  Historians and scientists are working to reconstruct these fragmentary pieces using incredible modern technology such as x-radiographs, infrared photographs, diagrams and virtual reconstructions.  As the final room shows, sometimes it is very hard to know if these fragments or large-scale paintings were, or were from, altarpieces at all. Without specific evidence of the original context we can only ever guess.  Altarpieces were commissions to express and aid Christian devotion and were not intended to be viewed individually.  Art historians will always be stuck in debate and will always have different opinions.

Fra Angelico, Blessing Redeemer, c. 1423.  Image via http://en.wikipedia.org

There is no denying that it is wonderful to be able to see an altarpiece in the location in which it was intended but the fragments shown throughout this exhibition illustrate that this is not always possible.  It is sometimes hard to imagine the magnificence and intricacy, the subtleties and complexities of the original altarpieces but the encounter created here by the National Gallery is the perfect substitute.

This exhibition is informative, educational and fascinating.  It considers these objects in their original context, as well as their new homes in galleries, following their lives and histories.  This exhibition makes use of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, showing the strength of research they have carried out.

I thought I knew these images well but they have been rediscovered and presented in a new light.  I hope this exhibition encourages people to look more closely at the altarpieces in the gallery upstairs as well.  Devotion by Design deserves more time than I had today and it is certainly an exhibition I will revisit.  I’d even forgotten my wet feet until I left and the spell of devotion was broken.

Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500 is at the National Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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