Tag Archives: Italy

John Singer Sargent: Watercolours of the Gardens of Villa di Marlia in Tuscany

3 Jul

It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time.

John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca – A Fountain, 1910

American painter John Singer Sargent was one of the many American and British artists who was seduced by the spirit of Italy. The Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats, and Victorian era writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning all marvelled in the charms of Italy. Still, Sargent, having been born in Florence, had a special connection to Italy; the romance of Ancient ruins, the beauty of Renaissance palaces, the majestic paintings by Titian and Tintoretto, the lush splendour of gardens and parks, the warm sunlight and golden air woven with dreams and nostalgia, were things that Sargent was familiar with but that also excited him and inspired him.

It was the mixture of age and cultivated Beauty which made the landscape of Italy so enchanting and alluring: “The artists’ love affair with Italy had this need for an understanding not possible in the raw New World Story had found prosaic. It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time. Time, in Italy, must have seemed universal and mythic. After a sufficient number of histories, after Etruria, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, time underwent a curious compression which was also an infinite extension.” (Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture – American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875) Even though Sargent is mostly known for his glorious oil on canvas portraits, he was also immensely prolific in watercolours, having painted more than two thousand of them. The watercolours capture a wide range of motives, from the alligators of Florida, gondolas of Venice, to the beautiful gardens of Italian villas.

Watercolour “Villa di Marlia Lucca – Fountain” is one such work which beautifully captures the fragment of a carefully cultivated garden of the Renaissance villa di Marlia in Lucca in Tuscany where Sargent stayed at the time these watercolours were created. Sargent chose to portray the old parts of the garden which were not renovated but rather showed the true spirit of the times in which they were created. In this watercolour you can almost hear and feel the water of the fountain refreshing the garden, the scent of lemons and thyme colouring the air, the patches of muted yellow on the balustrade are the moss that speaks of the longevity and tradition of the garden; it wouldn’t be there if it was freshly built. The two sculptures in the fountain are the river gods representing the rivers Arno and Serchio. Sargent beautifully captures the play of lights on the water and the lush scenery in the background. The scene is also skillfully cropped, almost like a photographs; the horizontal line of the balustrade in the foreground beautifully frames the painting. Another lyrical watercolour that pays tribute to the past shows the statue of Daphne in the garden of the Villa Varramista. With her hands reaching towards the sky, Daphne looks vivid and almost alive.

John Singer Sargent’s Villa di Marlia, Lucca – The Balustrade, 1910

John Singer Sargent – Villa di Marlia, Lucca, 1910

John Singer Sargent, Daphne, 1910

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

12 May

Love led us straight to sudden death together.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855, watercolour

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an English poet, painter, illustrator, translator and most importantly the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was born on this day in 1828 in London so let us use the opportunity and remember the fascinating and charismatic artist on his birthday. Rossetti had artistic aspirations from an early age and his siblings shared those aspirations as well. His maternal uncle was John William Polidori; the friend of Lord Byron and the author of the short story “The Vampyre” (1819). He died seven years before Rossetti was born, but it shows what kind of family ancestry Rossetti had and why it was perfectly natural for him to aspire to become a poet and an artist. Half-Italian and half-mad, Rossetti idealised and glorified the Italian past, especially the Medieval era and the writings of Dante Alighieri; a hero whom he worshipped. In 1848 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with William Holman Hunt whose painting “The Eve of St. Agnes” Rossetti had seen on an exhibition and loved, and the young prodigy John Everett Millais. Their aim was to paint again like the old masters did; with honesty and convinction, using vibrant colours and abundance of details, and most of all; to paint from the heart.

In 1850, two very important things happened in Rossetti’s life; he met Elizabeth Siddal; a moody and melancholy redhaired damsel who was to become the main object of his adoration in decade to come, his pupil, his lover and muse; and, he focused on painting watercolours. In the 1850s Rossetti’s head wasn’t all in the clouds of love, no half of it was in the rose-tinted clouds of the past, his main artistic inspirations being the Arthurian legends and Dante.

His watercolour “Paolo and Francesca da Rimini” from 1855 is a synthesis of these two inspirations; his love Lizzy Siddal and Dante. The watercolour is a tryptich (read from left to right) in intense, rich colours portraying the tale of doomed lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini who was the wife of his brother. Paolo and Francesca were real-life historical figures, but Rossetti’s inspirations stems from Dante’s Inferno, specifically from the Canto V where Dante and Virgil, portraid in the central panel of the tryptich, enter the part of Hell where the souls of passionate and sinful lovers remain for eternity. The first tryptich shows Paolo and Francesca in a kiss. A secret, guilty, and forbidden kiss and yet Rossetti’s scene only shows a tender and passionate moment between lovers, their hands clasped together, Paolo pulling her closer. Francesca’s long red hair and face resemble the hair and face of Elizabeth Siddal, and the figure of Paolo was based on Rossetti himself. It is as if he knew that his love would be as doomed, though in a different way, just like that of Paolo and Francesca.

The interior is simple and allows the focus to be on the couple and their secret kiss. A plucked rose on the floor, an opened book with glistening illuminations is on Francesca’s lap shows the activity that bonded the pair and made the kiss inevitable, from Dante’s Inferno, Canto V:

Dante asks Francesca:

But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighing

how, and by what signs, did love allow you

to recognize your dubious desires?”

And she responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater pain

than to remember, in our present grief,

past happiness (as well your teacher knows)!

But if your great desire is to learn

the very root of such a love as ours,

I shall tell you, but in words of flowing tears.

One day we read, to pass the time away,

of Lancelot, how he had fa llen in love;

we were alone, innocent of suspicion.

Time and again our eyes were brought together

by the book we read; our fa ces flushed and paled.

To the moment of one line alone we yielded:

it was when we read about those longed-for lips

now being kissed by such a famous lover,

that this one (who shall never leave my side)

then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.

When I gaze at this left panel of the tryptich, a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s song “The River” comes more and more to my mind, I wonder does the memory of the kiss come back to haunt Paolo and Francesca in hell:

“Pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry…”

When finally I spoke, I sighed, “Alas,

what sweet thoughts, and oh, how much desiring

brought these two down into this agony.”

(Dante, Inferno, Canto V)

The central part of the tryptich, as I’ve said, shows Dante and Virgil. The third or the right wing of the tryptich shows the afterlife of the doomed lovers in Hell. Just like the sould of other unfortunate and lustful lovers, Paolo and Francesca are shown being carried by the wind of passion that swept them away in their living life on earth too, in each other’s arms for eternity. Are they being mercilessly carried by the wind, or have they overpowerd it and are riding it blissfully? All around them flames of hell dance like shooting stars. Quite romantic actually, I don’t see where the punishment part comes myself. Still, there is a message and the tale of doomed lovers in hell shows how a single moment and a single step is enough to commit a sin; the kiss was the act of weakness and passion. That single moment of weakness endangered forever their possibility of eternal glory.

Unlike other artists before him who have portrayed the story of Paolo and Francesca, Rossetti convinently avoids portraying the bloody and gruesome moment when the lovers are caught by Paolo’s brother Gianciotto who is also Francesca’s husband and murders them both. I really like that Rossetti painted a tryptich whose theme isn’t religious but profane, though some, like John Keats – another Rossetti’s hero – argue that love is sacred. After all, a tryptich is just an artwork divided into three panels, telling a story, kind of like a modern comic book so there is really no need for it to be restricted to religious topics. We can view this watercolour then as a Tryptich of the Religion of Love. And to end, here is a quote from Keats’ letter to Fanny Brawne, from 13 October 1819:

“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.”

Calcedonio Reina – Love and Death

25 Feb

Calcedonio Reina, Love and Death (Amore e morte), 1881

A couple locked in a kiss and a background of mummified corpses behind them; this strange combination of motifs of love and death is what makes this painting so eerie and so unforgettable. This painting is full of contrasts of mood and colour; love and death, passion and transience, life and decay, white and black; that is, the man is dressed in dark clothes, the woman in a splendid white gown. Calcedonio Reina was both a painter and a poet and he seems to have been a strange, melancholy individual. He was born in Sicily in 1842 and the plaque on the house in which he lived and died states that he was “a poet in painting, and painter in poetry.” In 1864, at the age of twenty-two, his artistic career took him to Naples and later to Florence.

Still, his native Sicily seems to have lingered in his mind because the macabre background of the painting “Love and Death” shows the Catacombs of Cappuccini in Palermo, Sicily. The last friar to be interred in the catacombs was Brother Ricardo in 1871, and the catacombs were closed for the public in 1880 but nonetheless tourists still continued visiting it. The loving couple in Reina’s painting seems to have been such a touristy couple and I imagine them walking around, arm in arm, a mere glance at the creepy corpses fill the lady with horror, the long sleeves of her silk gown hiding the goosebumps of horror, and her smile hiding the fear she feels. Ah, how the warmth of her lover’s arms contrasts with the cold, stale air of the catacomb! And perhaps, whilst strolling down the corridor filled with the odour of death, this loving pair felt the ache of their own mortality and the short-lasting nature of everything in life and – when faced with transience – their clung to life and love even more, their lips meeting in a kiss, her arms wrapped around his neck seeking a safe haven from the claws of death ever so gently clutching at her silk white dress.

The painting was Reina’s response, or rather, a comment on the more famous painting “The Kiss” (1859) by a fellow Italian painter Francesco Hayez. It can be seen as a slight mockery as well because Hayez’s painting is devastatingly romantic, and there is a very thin line between romantical and sentimental. His loving couple looks like a pair of actors on stage, their kiss theatrical, the space behind them perfectly clean of any unnecessary details and clutter. All focus is on them. Their clothes appears archaic; the lady’s dress is blue as the bluest sky and the man is wearing a pair of red tights like some Renaissance hero. It’s a beautiful painting, but maybe too much perfection and sugary sweetness is making it seem a bit over the top. In contrast, Reina’s painting has a completely different mood and his choice of the catacombs for a setting and corpses for the background give the painting more than a tinge of the Symbolist macabre mood. By comparing these two examples of the same motif of a kissing couple we can see the huge role the background plays in conveying the mood of the painting.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859

Giandomenico Tiepolo – Pulcinella in Love

14 Feb

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Pulcinella in love, 1797

As the eighteenth century drew to an end so did the life of the Venetian painter Giandomenico Tiepolo who died in 1804. In those last years, both of his life and of that wonderful century, he was obsessed with the figure of Pulcinella; the stock character of commedia dell’Arte who is an ugly clown dressed in baggy clothes with a big nose. Giandomenico was born in an artistic family, not only was his father the famous painter Giambattista Tiepolo but also his mother was the sister of the vedute painter Francesco Guardi. For the most of his life Giandomenico was in the shadow of his father, learning to paint from him and serving as his most faithful assistant and that is why is it especially interesting to see what themes Giandomenico was truly interested him. These frescoes you see here, originally painted for his summer villa Zianigo, taken off the walls in 1906 in order to be sold abroad, but in 1936 they were bought by the town of Venice and transferred to Ca’Rezzonico.

The frescoes were painted over a long stretch of time, from 1759 to 1797; the latter year was especially dark in the history of the Venetian Republic, and another interesting thing is that they were painted by the painter for the painter’s own interior and his own pleasure so we can safely assume that the style and motifs Giandomenico painted were completely what his heart desired. That makes it all the more interesting, to ponder on why he loved the grotesque clowns so much and why he portrayed them in so many different scenarios; in the fresco above we have the Pulcinella in love where the cheerful party of four figures is seen dancing their way through the landscapes, one step more and they would have stepped out from the fresco. A little dog is barking at them, but they aren’t the least bit concerned. A lady in a simple white gown is wearing the same masque with a big nose that the Pulcinella is wearing, and the figure behind him is holding a big bottle of wine. Pulcinella’s hand is unashamedly on the lady’s breast and no one seems to care about reality or propriety, life is to be lived and enjoyed, and who has time to be serious and contrite when there is so much fun to be had? The background shows a sky painted in soft blue and grey shades; the eternally sunny baby blue sky of the Rococo world where it never rains and the party never stops. These frescoes are not only the crown of Giandomenico’s career as an individual artist in his own right but also the crown of the Rococo spirit, painted at the dusk of the wonderful century. The vivacious, playful spirit makes these frescoes so alluring even today.

In another fresco we see Pulcinella departing for a trip and here it’s interesting that Giandomenico painted him with his back turned to us, showing off his hunch, that way the viewer is more curious because it seems the character in the fresco doesn’t care too much about him. The fresco bellow shows the acrobats in contorted poses and we can just imagine them doing their crazy show, we can almost hear the laughter of the audience and their sighs of wonder and joy, the lady in white tights holding a fan is a pretty sights and the Pulcinella looks especially grotesque, as he should look.

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Il casotto dei saltimbanchi, 1770

Giandomenico Tiepolo, The departure of Pulcinella, 1797

Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Pulcinella Swing, 1783

Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Triumph of Pulcinella, 1760-70

Sepulchral Cover of Joy Division’s Closer (1980)

18 May

Ian Curtis, the singer, songwriter and the front man of British post-punk band Joy Division took his life on the 18th May 1980, two months shy of his twenty-forth birthday. The second and last album of Joy Division, conveniently named “Closer” because it truly brought a sense of closure, an ending, was released on 18 July 1980; three days after Ian Curtis would have usually celebrate his birthday. In a way, for Curtis at least (other band members were still alive), this album was release posthumously. Since today is the 40th anniversary of Curtis’ death, I decided the explore the art behind the album cover of “Closer”.

Joy Division, Closer, 1980, album cover designed by Peter Saville (Factory Records)

Existence well what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can
The past is now part of my future,
The present is well out of hand
The present is well out of hand…

(Heart and Soul)

Life goes on, music scene goes on, even the other band members went on with their music and formed a new band, New Order, but for Joy Division the “Closer” marks an ending and the album cover is eerily appropriate. The black and white design of the album features the title “Closer” and under it there’s a sombre and gloomy photograph of a tomb. The photograph of the tomb used for the album cover was taken in 1978 by Bernard Pierre Wolff. The tomb was sculpted by Demetrio Paernio in 1910 for the Appiani family tomb in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa, Italy. Paernio (1851-1914) was an Italian sculptor who designed and carved a plethora of tombs for the Staglieno cemetery, but the Appiani family tomb seems especially eerie and gloomy, and therefore fitting for the album of “Closer”.

The tomb shows a man lying on a catafalque, surrounded by his grieving family members. The gestures of the figures presented truly bring the mood of melancholy and anguish; one woman has thrown herself on the ground, from agony and pain of the loss, while the other two are kneeling down, the one in the middle covered her face in her hand, unable to face sad reality of the situation. Looking at the actual, less-artistic photograph of the tomb bellow, it seems to me that the person deceased could be Giovanni who died in 1907. The tomb was designed in 1910, but I am sure that the artist’s commission takes time, especially if it’s a sculpture which requires time and effort. Paernio beautifully depicted the tragedy of the grieving family through the gestures and poses, but also through the clothes; the creases and fluid lines of their robes appear so vivid and alive. This is definitely not a stiff looking tomb, it’s full of emotions, tragedy and passion. I can imagine how morbidly beautiful and magical it would look surrounded by candles and flowers, in autumnal dusk when distant sky is a greyish with a tinge of pink.

Appiani family tomb. Picture found here.

This is a crisis I knew had to come,
Destroying the balance I’d kept.
Doubting, unsettling and turning around,
Wondering what will come next.
Is this the role that you wanted to live?
I was foolish to ask for so much.
Without the protection and infancy’s guard,
It all falls apart at first touch.

(Passover)

This is what the designer Peter Saville had to say about the process of choosing a picture for the cover: “(Saville) revealed that the photos came from a very trendy art magazine called Zoom that had been lying around his studio in London. He later told Mojo magazine: “Bernard Pierre Wolff had done a series of photographs in a cemetery in Italy. I don’t know to this day whether they were real or not – some of them you thought, he’s set that up – that’s just models, covered in dust.” Well, the image wasn’t staged, it was in fact a beautifully carved tombstone, situated in the Staglieno cemetery in Genova, Northern Italy. The tomb belongs to the Appiani family and the incredible marble work was created by sculptor Demetrio Paernio in 1910. Saville explained that Joy Division manager Rob Gretton brought the band to see him to discuss the artwork while they were making the LP: “I hadn’t heard anything they’d recorded so I said ‘I’ll show you what I’ve seen recently that has thrilled me’.” He then showed the band the spread of photos by Wolff that covered several pages in the magazine: “I thought the band would laugh, but they were enthralled. They said ‘We’ – that’s ‘we’ – ‘like that one’.” (quote found here)

All in all, I think the choice of the black and white photograph of this beautiful Appiani tomb was perfect for the album cover, sepulchral, melancholy and Gothic it fits the mood of the music, the lyrics and the overall mood surrounding the band, not to mention the coincidence that the front man of the band also committed suicide two months after the album was recorded and two months prior to its release. It’s almost like the veil of death and gloom lay over the making of “Closer”, like the fingers from another world, the ghostly world, participated in its making. Bernard Sumner, the guitarist of Joy Division and later New Order, spoke in October 2007 about the mindset of Ian Curtis during the recording sessions for “Closer”: “While we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange, because he felt that all his words were writing themselves. He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.

So this is permanent, love’s shattered pride.
What once was innocence, turned on its side.
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move,
Deep in the memory, of what once was love.
Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away…
(Twenty Four Hours)

Pietro Longhi – Scenes from Everyday Life

12 Jan

Pietro Longhi is a wonderful Venetian eighteenth century painter who, unlike some of his contemporaries in Venice, devoted himself to portraying the simple beauties of everyday life. These days I enjoy gazing at his genre scenes and let’s take a look at a few interesting ones.

Pietro Longhi, The Painter in His Studio, 1741, oil on canvas, 41 × 53.3 cm (16 1/8 × 21 in)

A painting is a finished work, but in Longhi’s painting “The Painter in His Studio” we see the hidden, mysterious aspect of art and portrait painting; we see what happens behind the curtains, a sweet secret that only the artist, the sitter or the model know. In this work, a painter is painting an oval portrait of a Venetian noblewoman. Her clothes speak of her wealth and importance. I deserve to be captured for eternity on canvas, her gaze seems to say. Her hair is powdered and short, her stays laced, and a little dog is peeking under her lace sleeve. Considering how wide her sumptuous dress is, perhaps there is another dog hiding in there. Their carnivals and their masques, one never knows with these Venetians, what are they hiding, what is real and what a mirage. The man beside her; is he her husband, her brother, a father or a friend, we don’t know. But he also has a Venetian masque on his face, moved to the side though. Maybe he is telling the painter something really important. And look, his hand is about to pull something out of his inner pocket, what is it, a dagger? In case he is displeased with the painter’s work. Or some gold coins, if he thinks the likeness of the two faces, the one on canvas and the one in reality, is astounding. On the left of the painter, we see his painting equipment. The background is painted in muted brownish tones and is empty of details and ornamentation, we don’t see the continuation of rooms or space, which makes these three characters seem like actors on the stage, but then again, aren’t we all?

Pietro Longhi, Fainting, 1744, 50×61.8 cm (19 11/16 × 24 5/16 in)

From a calmness of a portrait sitting painting we are moving on to a more dramatic scene, painted around the same time, 1744, when Longhi was about forty-two years old; it is unsure whether he was born in 1701 or 1702. A lady dressed in a pastel pink gown, deadly pale and weak, is just opening her eyes. Quick, quick, someone call the doctor! The lady had fainted. Oh, she is opening her eyes slowly now. Her one hand is on her breast, the other is hanging limp. A soft pillow was brought so she can lay her head on it, and smelling salts are offered to her delicate nostrils. Do not let this pastel pink sweetness fool you, for this scene is not as innocent as it may seems at first.

The evidence of the crime lays open to our eyes in the bottom left corner; an overthrown little table with a notably Rococo playful and flamboyant chinoserie pattern, cards and a little velvet purse full of coins are scattered on the floor. People have gathered sympathetically around her, but this lady has a card or two up her sleeve. The reason she fainted is not the lack of fresh air, or the stays laced too tight, but rather the fact that she was loosing in the game. What else can she do but stage this silly little incident. Ha, but the man dressed in a long blue cloak and a long dark grey wig on the right doesn’t seem to believe her. His hand is stretched towards her as if he’s asking for the money. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s portrayal of truth on his canvases, portrayal of the real world around them, and the painting “Fainting” most likely inspired Goldoni’s comedy “La finta ammalata or “The Fake Patient Woman” (1750–1751); there’s a scene in which the main character Rosaura had just fainted and she is surrounded by her friend, her suitor, her father and her doctor.

Pietro Longhi, The Game of the Cooking Pot, 1744, 49.8 × 61.8 cm (19 5/8 × 24 5/16 in)

Another charming and slightly confusing scene is presented in the painting “The Game of the Cooking Pot”. The lady in the gorgeous white gown is a sight to behold; her delicate pale face, her tiny pearl earring, a subtle pink flower in her powdered hair, her little white shoe peeking under the dress, all so dainty and doll-like in the typical Rococo way. But then there’s a guy on the right, holding a stick, his eyes tied with a handkerchief so he cannot see, and he is about to hit … the pot? The Game of pentola or The Game of the Pot is yet another one of strange Rococo games played by adults and not children which includes a person who has to strike the pot and smash it in order to find a pleasant surprise underneath. In a fancy Rococo interior carefree and pretty young people are indulging in lighthearted fun, and why would they not? Life is to be enjoyed. In the background, on the left, there’s some wine in jugs and some biscuits, little details that Longhi painted to add his scenes some warmth and domesticity.

What were the Venetians up to in the 1740s. This is sort of like an Instagram of their day and age; everything is smooth and perfect, there’s no smallpox, pimples, sadness or a bad hair day. Everyone is “caught” on the canvas having so much fun, like in a group selfie, a big smile everyone! And of course they are having much more fun than you are. Pietro Longhi’s focus on painting genre scenes led the art critics to compare his work to that of his English contemporary, the famous brutally satiric William Hogarth. This comparison isn’t true at all. They both placed their focus on the everyday life on their age and area, but Hogarth’s work tends to be harsh, his wittiness turns to sarcasm, whereas Longhi’s world is delicate and dainty, and figures in his paintings look like actors on stage, their face expressions and movements carefully devised to tell the tale. Pastel colours, fine brushstrokes, Longhi shows both the refined and frivolous past times of Venetians around him; gambling, playing games, sitting for portraits, reading letters, dancing, taking music lessons, receiving visitors. Every canvas is a scene from life. Also, the notable small size of these interior scenes is another thing which connects Longhi’s art with that of Vermeer and other seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed daily life, though with more modesty, mystery and coldness, they are after all people from the dark, rainy, and gloomy North.

Pietro Longhi, The Letter, 1746, oil on canvas, 61 x 49.5 cm (24 x 19 1/2 in)

In this painting I love the detail or a washing line with the white garments painted in such loose, feathery soft, almost ghostly strokes, it just looks so delicate, and adds to the aura of gentleness which matches the pale pretty girl’s pastel pink gown and a sweet round face.

Pietro Longhi, The Music Lesson, 1760, oil on copper, 44.6 x 57.6 x 0.2 cm (17 9/16 x 22 11/16 in)

Since when is holding hands crucial for learning the notes? Hmmm…. The music teacher’s profile alone, with the wide wicked smile and those eyebrows indicates a lecherous Faun-like nature. And look at the way the little dog is observing it all, with his paw in the air.

Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

Paolo and Francesca: The Passion of Lovers is for Death

15 Nov

“The passion of lovers is for death said she
Licked her lips
And turned to feather”

(Bauhaus, The Passion of Lovers)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, 1819

Kisses

It is easy to envelop the distant, mythical past in many veils of dreams and poetry. Romantics loved romanticising and the subject of doomed thirteen century lovers which charmingly unites the themes of love and death, was a perfect fuel for the artists’ fantasies from Ingres all up to now probably. Even the embraced couple, carved in splendid white marble, in Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” shows Paolo and Francesco, though the title of the work wouldn’t reveal it instantly. Different artists chose to portray different moment in Paolo and Francesca’s doomed love life; some portrayed them as innocent love bird sharing a coy kiss or two, others painted them in the moment of their deaths, and some focused on their buzzing afterlife in Inferno.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered a Classicist and still elements of Romanticism, both stylistically and thematically, often pop up in his work; from the vibrant exoticism of his harem ladies and dark archaic touch of the Northern art in some of his portraits, to his portrayal of Medieval lovers caught in their forbidden earthly love. In his painting from 1819, he presented the two lovers enjoying each others company in a small elongated chamber the walls of which are covered in wood panels which makes the room resemble a box, perhaps suggesting the oppressive environment of their household. Francesca is painted in archaic robes and resembles a character from a painting of Northern Renaissance. Paolo, in his tights and a sword, is kissing her cheek as she turns her oval face away from him. As the old saying goes: “Two is a company, three is none”; the seeming peace of their love is interrupted by a figure in the background. It’s Giovanni, slowly drawing the curtain away only to see a shocking sight. The scene all together resembles a theatre scene and the narrative aspect is very strong, Ingres is leading us thought the story with little details and gestures. The very moment Giovanni is about to raise his sword, Francesca’s book is caught in its fall to the ground.

William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini, 1837

Francesca was born in 1255 in Ravenna, her father was the lord of Ravenna; an Italian town on the Adriatic coast with a strong Byzantine influence, and the last place to be the centre of Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Around the age of twenty she married Giovanni Malatesta, the wealthy yet crippled lord of Rimini, sometimes also known as “Gianciotto” or “Giovanni the Lame”. Similarly to the story of Tristan and Isolde, Francesca wasn’t in love with Giovanni, it was just an arranged marriage after all, but her eyes soon took notice of Giovanni dashing younger brother Paolo. Gaze turned into a conversation, and words into kisses and caresses… Paolo was also married, and yet the two managed to keep their love a secret for ten years. William Dyce portrayed the couple as sitting on a balcony; Francesca is reading a book while Paolo is rushing to kiss her. Behind them is a serene verdant landscape, the moon shines in the right corner, and next to Francesca’s feet is an instrument, I am guessing, a lute which might add a sensuous touch to the scene. The scene is all together a bit too sentimental. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, hailing from Italy himself and an ardent admirer of Dante’s poetry and his life, envisaged the scene differently. In his watercolour, he portrays the couple as sitting in a chamber; pink roses are blooming, fresh air is coming in through the window, and, distracted from whatever they were reading, the couple share a passionate kiss. The book, half on his lap and half on hers, is about to fall down on the thorns of some more pink roses.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1867, watercolour

Death

The secret kisses turned out to be not so secret after all, for one day, around 1285, Giovanni caught them off guard, in Francesca’s bedroom. His blood fueled from rage and jealousy, and without much thinking Giovanni yielded the sword and deprived them both of life. Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t so dramatic in reality. What really happened was that Giovanni had heard some rumours about his wife cheating on him, and he rushed to her chamber. Francesca let him in because she was certain that Paolo had managed to escape through the window, but what she didn’t know was the he got stuck. Giovanni then tried to kill his brother, but Francesca tried to defend him, and was killed instead. Giovanni then proceeded to kill Paolo as well. Later they were buried in a single tomb; how devastatingly romantic is that!?

Alexandre Cabanel, The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870

Alexandre Cabanel was a French Academic painter and the way he envisaged the scene of Paolo and Francesca’s death is very theatrical. They are both dressed in splendid clothes, their pale faces are full of pathos, their gestures tell a story of their agony. Francesca is lying on something which looks more like a sarcophagus than a bed, and the ornamental marble floor further emphases the mood of coldness and death. Meanwhile, Giovanni is checking behind the curtain one more time to be sure they are indeed dead. Previati portrayed the scene of their death in a very dramatic way, using an elongated canvas and focusing on the figures themselves and not so much on the interior. Our eyes are focused on the bodies and the agony and pain of their sudden death. The painting is striking; there is still a sword in Paolo’s back, and his arm is limp, and Francesca’s hand is on her chest while her mouth are still slightly open as if she’s still catching her breath.

Gaetano Previati, Paolo e Francesca, ca. 1887

Wind of Passion

Death is no the end, as Nick Cave says in one of his songs. Almost a thousand years had passed from their deaths, but Paolo and Francesca are still embraced and carried away by the wind of passion. It is almost hard to imagine that before their eternity of damnation they were of mortal flesh just as we are now. Dante shows both disapproval of their life choices and a sympathy when he finally meets them in Inferno. I am thinking: wow, what a way to spend eternity! Being carried by the wind, safe in the arms of the one you love. Sounds like heaven, not hell.

George Frederic Watts, Paolo et Francesca, 1872-75

When Dante met Paolo and Francesca in Hell, this is what he said:

And I began: “Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?”

And Francesca responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

William Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

Pietro Longhi – Clara the Rhinoceros

15 Oct

Many famous and refined beauties lived in the eighteenth century, but none possessed a beauty so striking and none kept the entire Europe fascinated as much as Clara, the rhinoceros. Her exotic beauty and chiseled features caught the eye of many artists of the day, Pietro Longhi and Jean-Baptiste Oudry to name a few. Clara loved being a part of the art world, but she never allowed the fame to get to her head and stayed humble to the end.

Pietro Longhi, Clara, the rhinoceros in Venice, 1751, oil on canvas, 62×50 cm

Clara (1738-1758) was an absolute Rococo sensation; orphaned at a very young age after her parents were allegedly killed by Indian hunters she was brought to Europe, in Rotterdam, and afterwards continued traveling the continent and bringing delight wherever she went. She had the life of a rock star two centuries before the rock stars; common folk admired her and talked about her, authors wrote about her in the encyclopedia, and painters painted her. In January 1751, she found herself in Venice right in the carnival time and she caused quite a sensation in the ever so inquisitive Venetian society. This was about time when Longhi painted her. In his painting, a small crown of eight figures has gathered to see Clara. The composition is very interesting; the wooden fence visually divides the canvas in two parts; the foreground where Clara is languidly eating hay, and the foreground where the figures of the observers are. Some of the curious Venetians are wearing masks, it was the carnival time after all, and why not.

Some men in the first row are wearing white masks which are called “bauta”. The female figures behind them are dressed in shining silks, woman in the blue gown is wearing a black “moretta mask” which is held by the teeth and the wearer is prohibited to speak while wearing it, but this also enable the silent language of seduction to develop; a bat of the eyelashes, a wink, a nod suddenly got intense meanings. The woman in green silk cloak is holding the same mask in her hand, but showing her pale oval face. The man on the far left, the arrogant laughing chap without the mask, is holding Clara’s horn which she had either rubbed off while in Rome, or it was cut off, but anyhow a new one later grew. Longhi’s painting is, common for his work, rather small. French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry, on the other hand, had painted her two years prior to Longhi, in 1749, in full size. How monumental and regal she looks, big and shining against the landscape, one can really imagine her wearing a red velvet cloak and a crown with rubies.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Clara the Rhinoceros, 1749, oil on canvas, 310×456 cm

Pietro Longhi is renown for his intimate portrayals of the Venetian society in the mid eighteenth century or the settecento. While Antonio Canaletto focused on grandiose vedute, and Givanni Battista Tiepolo on dramatic religious paintings; Pietro Longhi offered a glimpse of what goes on “behind the closed doors”, literally and figuratively because he not only painted the witty interior scenes, but also gave us an insight in the frivolous and decadent Venetian society just before its final fall at the end of the eighteenth century.

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!