Thursday, 19 March 2015

“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

E M Forster 'A Room with a View'

Renowned redhead seen gazing enigmatically in Florentine art gallery... 

 Erm, well yes, but over the course of four days this March she was not the only redhead to be seen in Florence’s art galleries! Unlike Botticelli’s Venus I arrived (thankfully for all) fully clothed and rather modestly by plane/bus from Pisa on Wednesday 11th before checking in to my dangerously ironic hotel room with a view of Santa Maria Maggiore. Within my first few Florentine minutes I was out heading towards the main cathedral, Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore before being enticed on the way into a local bookshop (how blissfully predictable). 

View of al Duomo from the Campanile a mere 414 steps high!
It was a great start though as Florence is particularly known for its abundance in culture in particular its supreme collections of renaissance painting, churches, frescos, marble statues and altarpieces by some the greatest masters of all time. All of which, if I may confess weren’t necessarily things I would have ever expected myself being the slightest bit interested in, despite being aware of their profound importance on the history of art amongst other things. Seeing images of Renaissance paintings in slides and books always tended to bore me; their perceived flatness, dull colours and religious imagery had no comparison with what I considered the excitement of modern and contemporary art with its variety, unpredictability and ‘anything goes’ mentality. A surprising decision then to choose to visit such a place so entrenched with the art history but one I made because I wanted to be proved wrong and see it with my own eyes. I wanted to gain understanding of how this work existed in the context of its own time and yet could still be relevant today. The following is my thoughts, reflections and recommendations of my Florence visit 2015.

Florentine School, Grotesque Decoration (Second Corridor) 1581 -Fresco
Starting with the Uffizi, (most notably home to Boticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Spring’) which hosts the largest collection of Renaissance art in the world including work by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giotto, Piero Della Francesca and many more! Aside from seeing such iconic works of art in person, the lavish, opulence of the interior building of the Uffizi itself and its own history is equally outstanding.  From what info I gleaned it has been open since the 1500’s making it one of the oldest ‘museums’ (in the sense as we know them today) and features grotesque (named after the Roman grottoes in which the style decorations allegedly first appeared) decorations aka Frescos that overlook the vast stretch of corridor. Photographed (badly) above is one example which nearly gave me neck ache (be warned most of your time art viewing in Florence will be looking up) as I got lost in the detail of hundreds of species of birds and flora painted so jewel-like,  delicately yet accurately in a trellis-like wheel. Having recently played what can only be described as too many games of bird bingo with my niece this particular fresco really ‘struck a chord’ and like most paintings in the Uffizi it was genuinely frightening to comprehend just how skilfully it had been executed, with colours that were so bright and clear they were very much the opposite to the lifeless brown faded paintings I’d previously judged based on what I’d seen pictured in art history books. What also surprised me is that when you are faced with so much of this Renaissance work in one place you do also begin to appreciate the differences in style that distinguish a Piero Della Francesca from a Botticelli or a Leonardo; they all have a different way of drawing people, colour palette, composing an image despite working around the same time and with similar subject matter. In fact the Botticelli’s almost begin to look really stylised and incredibly modern when viewed alongside work by other artists of its era. As I left the Uffizi already I was beginning to make connections between the work I’d seen and modern day artists like the Pre-Raphaelites. The links were there if only I began to look...

'Annunciation' Beato Angelico 1442ca -Fresco in San Marco

Again, prior to this trip you could fill what I knew about frescos on the back of a very small postcard and whilst I am still a novice when it comes to who painted what, why and when I have certainly seen quite a few now and feel as though I could make some informed observations. Broadly speaking a fresco is traditionally a wall-based image created by painting into wet plaster so that the colours become fixed as the plaster dries. When you see your first fresco in Florence it is a real sense of discovery and awe which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the religious imagery it depicts but more a quiet sense of appreciation that comes from the significance of these images to those who painted and viewed them in the time of their original creation in the 13th/14th century. The importance that sharing, telling and depicting stories through art as a means of communication and the search for meaning/spiritual enlightenment  are things which are surely identifiable to all people regardless of faith/religion. The medium and the message of what we are telling may have drastically changed in some ways but the need to be connected to others through shared images/stories and in search of meaning remains the same. It made me wonder if anyone has yet written a book on ‘the evolution of walls as a communication tool from stone age, to frescos, to street art and the now digitised Facebook wall’. Essentially there is a thread that runs through it all, though some historians may be horrified at the thought of likening a fresco to street art and vice versa there are parallels to do with intention behind making the work, i.e why do people feel compelled to paint on walls/in public places, that are similar; it’s just that we have replaced our churches for our urban/natural landscapes, but the basic human-need is still there.

 Going back to Florence however, I have absolutely no knowledge and relatively little interest in the religious scene being depicted in these works but I am interested in how they have a spiritual connection to the need to ‘create images’ and ‘tell stories’. The 15th century convent of San Marco is a particularly good place to start as it features over thirty frescos by Fra Angelico amongst others each in different rooms occupied by the monks within the monastery. It is a fitting example of how the practice of art and image making is so synonymous with a sense of spiritual devotion and awareness that is still as relevant today as the day they were created (or at the very least I don’t think we should forget that it is).

Masaccio 'The Explusion from the Garden of Eden' and Masolino 'The Temptation of Adam and Eve' in the Cappella Brancacci
Despite being over 500 years old it is quite uncanny just how fresh and vivid these frescos are upon seeing them in real life. Their soft, warm pastel hues seem to glow against the cold white contrasting surface of the plaster walls. The more I saw, the more I came to appreciate them as paintings both in skill and for their formal qualities. The sense of perspective, architecture and precise, harmonious compositions in which every limb/body gesture, figure, structure is placed in concordance to the overall image is nothing short of mind boggling when one thinks about just how difficult, how skilful an artist would have to be in order to achieve such a feat. They read as paintings compositionally, there is a clarity, a crispness, accuracy and flatness that is highly organised but they are also very painterly; the colours and shapes, illusions of fabric materials, patterns and texture, it’s all there! Somewhat out on its own geographically in the city centre lies the fresco ‘jewel in the crown’, the Cappella Branacci chapel (part of Santa Maria del Carmine). Inside are a series of frescos by Massacio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi depicting the stories of St Peter and are reputed as being on par with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. High praise indeed, but I think there are aspects to the Massacio frescos particularly that are really quite enjoyably different, for example the figures of Adam and Eve in ‘The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ (pictured above) are depicted quite stylised, their faces exaggeratedly drawn, anguished more recently reminiscent in my mind of a Kathy Kollwitz or Francis Bacon. The use of light and dark to create the illusion of shadows and depth was also incredibly sophisticated for its time especially in the way it has been used to create added drama and intensity to the scenes depicted. The more I looked it seemed that so many of the principles that makeup our current visual language were being tested and invented all these years before.  

Decorated marble enclosure of the high choir (13th Century) in San Minato al Monte

Inlaid floor Zodiac (13th Century) in San Minato al Monte

Of all the many churches in Florence San Minato al Monte has a lot going for it that sets it apart from the rest. Firstly its views situated atop of Monte alle Croci it is one of the highest vantage points for views out over the city and secondly it has several unique features which are quite quirky and make it so refreshingly unlike the other churches in Florence. With its colourful green and white marble on the outside and painted wooden beams in the interior roof there’s a lot of detail that has gone into this church in particular the marble zodiac floor decoration (pictured above) which is so different to anything I have ever seen in a church, connecting more with the spiritual in the broad sense of the word, astronomy and constellations than necessarily that of ‘religion’. Even more unusual are the strange scenes of creatures or allegorical animals depicted in marble around the choir enclosure (also pictured).  There are also frescos here too of course depicting the life of St Benedict of which almost scene by scene his story unfolds like a film storyboard or comic. There was a LOT to look at here!

'Prisoner (Atlas)' Michelangelo

Without deliberately setting out to state too many of the obvious sights it would be almost impossible to neglect mentioning Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and series of marble sculptures collectively known as ‘The Slaves’ which occupy their own designated wing of the Accademia. As with everything else I had already seen whilst in Florence the reality of seeing the size, scale and amount of craftsmanship involved in producing many of the works couldn’t be more apparent than in this room. Risking possible innuendo, it was all a lot bigger than I had expected and was easier to imagine just how it really did take two previous artists attempts and then Michelangelo two years to complete the marble giant that is ‘David’. Not to be overshadowed though are ‘The Slaves’ a series of unfinished equally sizable marble sculptures whereby the true extent of the process undergone to create finished works like ‘David’ are revealed. You get a much better understanding for the density and solidity of the stone in seeing the variety of marks made from the chisel as it must have meticulously and painstakingly chipped away. Amongst the marks figures start to emerge blurred between resisting the stone that encapsulates them and being trapped within the weight of rock from which they are made. It is a dynamic battle that says a lot more of the process and relationship between material and human hand than the finished marble of ‘David’ which we see as almost this fully-formed vision so perfect in its execution that it is almost impossible to comprehend that it came from such toil from making and natural rawness that is the stone from the earth. The Slaves sort of ground you back to that realisation of the intensity required of creativity and the effort spent working with a very natural material required in order to make these figures surface. All ideas of which are still very relevant today.

...And after all of that if you don’t fancy a little drink of prosecco or two then you’ve not done enough! Head to the Mercato Centrale for the best (and cheapest) bar in town! Ha.

Florence is a serene place. A place of much reflection,  of quietly but magnificent heritage, of dusky yet vivid colours, of hot sun and cold marble; it is both incredibly old but still ringing with the vitality of times past and those who still make the journey to see and engage with it today. I suppose the best way to describe it, for me would be, if there was ever a doubt of where the ‘fine’ in fine art came from then this would probably be it. It has given images I thought I knew well new understanding and ones I thought dull and uninteresting full of life.  

As E M Forster in 'A Room with a view' writes, “One doesn't come to Italy for niceness, one comes for life!” 

No comments:

Post a Comment