All entries for Monday 06 November 2006

November 06, 2006


Monday 30th October: Travel Week
Every year week 5 of the Venice course is devoted to going travelling in Italy to see places we’ve read about and the art. Especially as half our course is on Florence, we are encouraged to go there. So on Monday I travelled to Mestre (Venice’s port neighbour, where everyone who is young/can’t afford Venetian house prices lives) to catch a train to Florence. Having found the place where I was staying in the south of the town, or Oltrano, (a palazzo owned by the Waldensian church) I went off to sightsee. I visited the Palazzo Veccio, which was, and still is, the town hall, and has an imposing tower. The original fortress section was enlarged and decorated by Cosimo I de’ Medici in the sixteenth century, with Vasari’s fresco scheme being a visual panegyric of the Medici family, but there are also some earlier paintings in existence. One of the most interesting rooms is the Salle delle Carte, which is decorated with maps showing the known world as it existed in 1563. Each part, including the larger European countries, has its own map. The map of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was most interesting. It had Coventry, and Camarthen, but no Birmingham-then a village. Thanet was depicted as a peninsula However, it did have several of the Cinque Ports, including Hythe, but the most interesting thing was ‘Crimbrt’ which judging by its position was probably Cranbrook, now a small town just down the road from my house, but then an important cloth town. Outside the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michelangeo’s David, which once stood inside the building.
I then walked to Santa Croce, which is the pantheon church of Florence. It has nineteenth century cenotaphs to Dante and Alberti (a humanist), whilst perhaps the most famous monuments are those to Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, who was probably hidden in the church by the Franciscans until it was safe to bury him publicly in 1737. Having just been writing about him, I also enjoyed seeing the tomb of Bruni. Santa Croce also has two chapels in the south transept frescoed by Giotto, an early Renaissance artist. One shows SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the other, which has a large altarpiece on the same subject, shows scenes from the life of Saint Francis. Unfortunately the museum was closed for building work so I couldn’t see the original Cimabue crucifix, which was badly damaged in the 4th November 1966 flood. Walking back to my hostel I passed Orsanichele to see the statues erected by the merchant guilds on the façade, including Donatello’s St George. In the evening I met up with my friends who were also now in town for a drink.

Today we went to the market, which principally sells leather and silk products, and did some shopping. Afterwards, we visited the church of San Lorenzo, the oldest church in Florence, although the current building dates from the 1420s. Unfortunately the façade was never completed, but it contains several works by Donatello, including the pulpits. Unfortunately the library, with its eccentric entrance staircase, was shut. In the afternoon we climbed the 463 steps to the cupola of the Duomo or cathedral. The route up goes via the gallery under the dome, giving a close up view of the last judgement fresco and the stained glass windows. It then winds around the dome itself, in a narrow passageway, before a steep set of steps over the very top of the curve (coming down this was the worst bit.) The views from the top are incredible, especially as it was a clear day.
Once we had descended, after a reviving drink we went in the Baptistry, which dates from the sixth or seventh century. It is clad in marble, with a thirteenth century mosaic roof, and contains the tomb of John XXIII, a schismatic pope. However the most famous element of the building are the entrance doors: the south set are by Pisano from 1336, but the north set are by Ghiberti, as are the east ones, known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’ made of gold, and a wonderful example of Renaissance art. (They are also normally surrounded by tour groups.)
We then went inside the Dumo itself. On the north wall there are two fresco momuments to famous condottiere or mercenary soldiers, one of whom is Sir John Hawkwood. There is also a fresco of Dante explaining the Divina Comedia. In the evening we went out for drinks as the bars all seemed to have Halloween offers, possibly because the next day is a public holiday.

Wednesday 1st November
In the morning first thing we went to the Accademia art gallery. This has several lovely religious paintings, but the highlight is Michelangelo’s David. This is approached through a gallery containing unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, the Slaves which are very interesting for their display of the process of carving marble. David himself was carved from a flawed block of marble, but was the first large freestanding marble nude since antiquity (one of the art historians gave us an explanation) and the first sculpture to show David both as a grown man rather than a boy, and before killing Goliath. Up close one can see the veins in his hands and the detail of the muscles.
Afterwards I visited the Museo di San Marco, housed in an old monastic cloister and famous as the home of the monk-artist Fra Angelico. Savonarola was prior from 1491, but the 1430s expansion was funded by Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici. In the Ospizio dei Pelligrini (Pilgrim’s hospice) one can see various works by Fra Angelico brought from other churches, and upstairs the frescos that he and his assistants painted in each cell as a devotional aid. However the most famous painting, and my favourite work in Florence, is the Annunciation at the top of the stairs.
After lunch we went to the Uffizi gallery, the main art gallery in Florence. This contains early Renaissance artists such as Giotto and Cimabue, Pierro della Francesa, and Fra’ Fillipo Lippi. It also has an entire room, apart from the Portenari Triptych, devoted to Botticelli: personally I prefer the Primavera to The Birth of Venus, and some of his religious works even more. There are also collections of the Northern Renaissance artists, the Mannerists, the Venetian painters, Titian and Raphael. It also has some later works, including Rubens and Van Dyke. After returning to the restaurant for pudding, I visited Orsanmichele to see inside the church, which contains a huge carved altar dedicated to the Virgin, and some frescos showing the patron saints of the lesser Florentine Guilds. On my way home I then went to Santa Trinitá, whose interior is mainly Gothic, with a side chapel frescoed by Ghirlandaio to show the Life of Saint Francis, which is also a portrayal of contemporary Florence.

Thursday 2nd November
In the morning I visited Santa Maria Novella, near the train station. Unfortunately the façade is under scaffolding, so I couldn’t see it, but the church inside is beautiful. The church was built as a home for the Dominicans, and contains several interesting works of art. Massacio’s Trinity was one of the first pictures to rigourously use classical proportion and perspective, whilst the fourteenth century frescoes in the Cappella Strozzi include a vision of hell and purgatory based on Dante. The most interesting chapel is that in the Tornabuoni chapel behind the high altar. This was painted by Ghirlandaio, depicting episodes from the life of the Virgin and St John the Baptist, and featuring cameos of several members of the family, as well as displays of contemporary costume. The cloister features images from Genesis, whilst the Cappellone degli Spagnuoli, once the convent chapterhouse, later the chapel for Eleanor of Toledo’s retinue, has extensive frescos depicting the triumph of the Dominican order, and through it the Catholic Church.

In the afternoon we took a train to Sienna. The countryside of the Chianti region was lovely, and we even saw a hill town with its many towers. Sienna is also a beautiful place, with a medieval Duomo built from bands of white and black marble, giving it a distinctive appearance. The Duomo also has an extensive pavement with designs in sgraffito marble. It also has a lovely carved pulpit, and some fantastic frescos, showing the life of Pius II, and old manuscripts in the Libreria Piccolomini. Unfortunately as it is now winter, most of the museums shut very early, but we had a walk round the town and some delicious (and very thick) hot chocolate. In the evening we had a ride on the carousel in Florence’s Piazza Reppublica.

In the morning I visited the Bargello gallery, which houses the Florentine museum of sculpture and applied art. It is however an undervisited museum in comparison with the Accademia and Uffizi. The Paazzo del Bargello was once the seat of the Podestà or chief magistrate, and even Machiavelli was brought here under arrest. The courtyard contains coats of arms of many of the Podestà, who had to be knights from outside Florence, and some sculptures that once graced a fountain. The Renaissance sculpture room contains Michelangelo’s Bacchus and Pitti Tondi, as well as a bust of Brutus, created as a coded celebration of the assassination of a tyrannical Medici duke. There are some other wonderful pieces, including an allegory of Florence (a young woman) defeating Pisa (an old man). Upstairs there are a series of bronze birds that once graced the gardens of the Medici villa at Castello, and a collection of pieces by Donatello, including his David in bronze (the first freestanding male nude since antiquity), and St George from Orsanmichele. There are also the Brunelleschi and Ghilberti plaques submitted in the competition to design the Baptistery doors. There are also fantastic collections of medieval carved ivory, and glazed terracotta pots and bowls, a medium also used in the extensive collection of devotional scenes by the della Robbia family. On the top floor there is also a collection of small bronzes, some of which are copied from famous sculptures.
Following this I visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which includes many items removed from the Cathedral façade, some for redecoration, and more recently some for conservation reasons (including the original panels of the East Baptistery doors), Other items come from design projects that were never completed, including Michelangelo’s Pietà, featuring his self-portrait as Nicodemus. Amongst the collection of statues one can find two carved marble choir lofts and a collection of silverware from the Cathedral.
After lunch I went to the Medici palace. In the ground floor exhibition rooms there was a display about a Roman copy (c. 50-40 BC) of a classical Greek statue (c. 360 BC) of an athlete discovered in the sea off Croatia, and on loan as a thank you to Florence for the assistance given by one of the city’s conservation laboratories in restoring it. It is quite a stunning piece. Upstairs one can visit the small but luxuriously frescoed chapel, painted by Giordano to show the Medici and their allies in the Procession of the Magi, with angels on either side of an altar with an image of the Madonna and Child. Further upstairs one can find the Sala di Luca Giordano, a hall with ornate gold decoration and painted mirrors. Lastly I walked across the Arno to Piazzale Michelangelo, a terrace with fantastic views of the city. En route I passed through the Piazza della Signoria to find the stone marking the spot where Savonarola was executed. As the following day was the 40th anniversary of the Arno flood that wreaked havoc with many rare books and important art works, there was also a display of vintage fire vehicles in the square. Finally I paid a quick visit to San Miniato al Monte, a lovely Romanesque church dedicated to San Minias, an early Florentine Christian and martyr. It has an eleventh-century raised choir, and fresco decoration, although it was hard to see in the fading light.

Saturday 4th November
I returned to Venice and in the afternoon went church visiting in the San Marco area. However first I went and admired the external staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which looks like a snail shell.
Santo Stefano has had a colourful history, needing to be reconsecrated half a dozen times, but is now a fine church with a wonderful ship’s keel ceiling, and frescoed walls in the same brickwork pattern as the Doge’s Palace. The apse end is actually built on a bridge over a nearby canal. The sacristy includes some nice works of art, including some late Tintoretto’s.
Santa Maria del Giglio, or Santa Maria Zobenigo, has a façade that celebrates the military and diplomatic achievements of the five Barbaro brothers who financed the 1678 rebuilding. It is filled with an extensive collection of art, including the Stations of the Cross by various eighteenth century artists.
San Moisè (St Moses) is near the Piazza San Marco, and acknowledged as the ugliest church in the city, with an elaborate Baroque facade. Inside the altarpiece is a giant carving of Moses on Mount Siani receiving the tablets.
En route through the Piazza I stopped off to have a brief look at a collection of pictures of the 1966 flood, like Florence, forty years ago today. It was interesting and awe-inspiring to see places I know under such deep water. I was also lucky that I was walking through the Piazza at dusk as there was a beautiful sunset, reflected in the gold mosaics of San Marco.
Finally I went to the Scuola di San Giorgio dgeli Schiavoni. This was the meeting place of the city’s Slav confraternity, and is decorated by Carpaccio. The paintings relate to the Dalamtian patron saints SS George, Jerome, and Tryphone, and are full of interesting details, showing a Flemish influence (although the remains of the dragon’s victims are a little gruesome. Upstairs there are a series of votive paintings showing religious images and seventeenth-century brothers of the Scuola.

Venice II

The weather definitely went down hill in the third week-it rained Thursday night-Saturday.

Monday 16th October I paid a visit to the church of San Giobbe near the train station, it has a striking Renaissance majolica ceiling in one of the side chapels, although most of its best artworks are in the Accademia, courtesy of removal by Napoleon.

Tuesday evening we had an after hours trip to San Marco, which was amazing. We were allowed in the Baptistry, which is normally reserved for prayer, and the Capella Zen which is never open as its permanently under restoration because it’s flooded a lot. It has a ceiling showing various episodes from the life of St Mark, and is filled by the bronze bier of the Cardinal Zen, which faces a Sacra Conversazione in slightly larger than life size. Bronze is the most expensive of the sculptural materials then in existence, so it shows the wealth which allowed the Cardinal to be buried in what was once part of the narthex of St Marks, the church itself being reserved for the Doges. We then walked back into the nave, which was in darkness, and watched as they brought the lights up, as they do at Easter. The mosaics look wonderful in the half light. The Pala D’Oro, or altarpiece was facing us, then they rotated it to show the ferial side which is painted, and normally on display. Then we walked round behind the Pala D’Oro to see all the beautiful enamel minatures, some of which were stolen from Byzantium, in close up. We also admired the Sacristy door, which is composed of many bronze plaques. Then we went down into the crypt, which spent most of the time under water until about seven years ago. You can see that some of the brickwork has suffered as a result, but the frescos over the altar have survived remarkably well. One can also see the original tomb of St Mark, with steps up to it so that pilgrims could touch the coffin.

Wednesday evening I visited San Francesco della Vigna, a large Franciscan church in Castello, which also has a Bellini picture of the Virgin and Child with Donor, and a Veronese Holy Family with Saints, the church is a very large classical structure, although the lighting is not very good.

On the Thursday evening we had a book launch at the Palazzo, which entailed some very long speeches, but there were drinks and very nice traditional sandwiches afterwards. Later it started raining, though fortunately the worst of it was overnight

Friday 20th October, which was a very foggy day, we went to the northern Lagoon islands. Torcello was settled by people from Altinum (now the site of Marco Polo airport), fleeing the barbarian invasions of Italy, and became the site of the first cathedral in the Lagoon, Santa Maria dell’Assunta. The Basilica contains a large 12th Century Byzantine mosaic of the Last Judgement, influenced by those at Ravenna. Additionally there are some beautiful opus sectile floors, and a fine rood screen which combines paintings of the Virgin and Apostles with beautiful carved marble panels showing Byzantine designs exectuted by local craftsmen. However, it declined from the fourteenth century onwards as it became swampy and malarial. Today there are only about 30 people living on the island.
We then hopped back across to Burano for lunch. This is another island that was originally settled by refugees from the mainland, and is now famous for its lace and painted houses, which are said to have been brightly decorated originally as an aid to returning fishermen. The lace museum is housed in the Scuola dei Merletti, founded in the late nineteenth century to ensure the craft did not die out: there were some old ladies there demonstrating the stitches, and some fine examples of large pieces of antique lace. It is possible to find hand made lace in the shops there still, but there are also a lot of imported pieces. Burano point lace involves a very fine net background, whilst Venetian point lace has thicker bars between the decorative work. After lunch we went to Murano, centre of the Venetian glass industry since 1291 when the Venetian government moved the glass makers here for safety reasons, and to ensure that their secrets did not escape. Over the years Murano has developed some beautiful techniques, being the first place to create crystal glass, and later creating beautiful and slender pieces of filigree patterned, ‘ice’, and metallic based glass. For many years Murano was also the only place in Europe to make glass mirrors.The Museo Vetriano has some specimens from the fifteenth century onwards, including the beautiful Barovier marriage cup, which is delicately painted. There are also some ‘interesting’ nineteenth century specimens, and the courtyard contains marble fragments found on the island. After this we walked to the Dominican church of San Pietro Martire, which houses a lovely Bellini painting of the Madonna and Child with St Mark, St Augustine, and Doge Barbarigo. This combines the Venetian forms of Sacra Conversazione and votive paintings: St Augustine is the Doge’s name saint, whilst St Mark is presenting him to the Virgin in his role as patron of Venice. The painting, which is quite large, ended up on Murano because the Doge left it in his will to the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where two daughters were nuns. Finally we visited the church of Santi Maria e Donato. This was founded in the seventh century, but the current building is a beautiful Veneto-Byzantine structure from the twelth century. The double dedication dates from 1125 when the bones of St Donatus were brought there, along with bones from a dragon that he killed. It also features a lovely 1141 mosaic floor, one of the images in which is two roosters carrying off a fox, symbolising the victory of Christianity over paganism.

On my way back home I stopped off to visit the Ospedaletto or Santa Maria dei Derelitti near the hospital as it is only open Thursday to Saturday afternoons. It has a series of eighteenth-century paintings inside, some of which can be very hard to make out properly, one of which is an early work by Tiepolo. Finally I went to San Giovanni in Brágora, which is actually dedicated to St John the Baptist, and is just around the corner from my house. No one is quite sure how the suffix originated, it may be an area from whence relics of the saint were once brought, a comment on the state of the area as a muddy backwater, or from the Greek for a main public square (agora), as this part of Venice was once home to a Greek community.

Saturday was rather wet, but I went to the Scuola Grande dei Carmini. This was the home of the Carmelite confraternity in Venice, and was decorated by Giambattista Tiepolo. I then walked down to the waterfront past the squero di San Trovaso, where they still make Venetian gondolas-they look very different out of the water, and one can see their asymmetric lines quite well, The squero itself looks Alpine in building style: the original gondola builders came from the Dolomites. I then visited the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, which has a nice painted ceiling, and the Gesuati, or Santa Maria del Rosario (there is an over-size wooden rosary decorating the façade.) When the Gesuati order was suppressed, the Dominicans took over, and built the church, in a style that partly reflects Il Redentore on the other side of the Giudecca canal. The paintings inside are mainly by Tiepolo, portraying a variety of Dominican saints. After this I went to the Guggenheim museum with some other students from Warwick-this is a modern art collection assembled by Peggy Guggenheim, in a white palace on the Grand Canal that never got further than the first storey. There are some very interesting works of art inside. Finally on my way home I went to La Salute, one of the two large plague churches in Venice, built as part of a vow to the Virgin Mary. The Festa della Madonna della Salute is the 21st November, when there will be a bridge across the Grand Canal so that Venetians can go and pray for good health. The church is built on an octagonal plan, and has a good collection of paintings in the Sacristy, mainly by Titian, with a large Marriage at Cana by Tintoreto taking up one wall.

On the Sunday, as there was no morning communion at St George’s I went and heard Mass at San Marco. It was nice to hear a choir again, although they’re hidden in the gallery on the north side of the altar. I was sitting under the dome showing the Pentecost, so I was able to admire the frescos at the west end during the sermon. There had been water in the Piazza before the service, but it was a lot higher afterwards, so the only way to walk around in the dry was the duckboards. In the evening I went to Holy Communion at St George’s, and was asked to read the Epistle.

Monday 23rd to Sunday 29th October
I spent this week busy working as we had an essay deadline looming just after our return from Travel Week. The subject of my essay was “Assess the contribution of Leonardo Bruni to the development of Renaissance humanism.” I concluded that humanism owed more to its intellectual than its political context: there is a thesis that Bruni et al developed a type of ‘civic humanism’ that was distinctly Florentine, encouraging active involvement in Florentine government as a way of developing individual virtue, and that Bruni was important, especially in writing history and translating texts, but that there were lots of other humanists working in lots of other cities, so we shouldn’t concentrate on him alone. Saturday afternoon I went to the station to buy my train ticket, and admired the palaces on the Grand Canal en route.

November 2006

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