A Director’s tour of Florence’s new Duomo Museum

The opening of the Museo del Duomo in 2015. Photo: Andrea Paoletti

The opening of the Museo del Duomo in 2015. Photo: Andrea Paoletti

The reviews for Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo highly anticipated reopening in 2015 after an expansion and extensive renovation were enthusiastic. The Florentines were thrilled about finally having a truly 21st century museum in their city center. But when I made my first visit that November, my reaction was very different. I was stunned by the many unaesthetic choices made by its designers, left cold by its grand gestures, and particularly disturbed about how it had intentionally eliminated the possibility of intimate contact with so many of its iconic works – like Donatello’s Magdalene – something that was a hallmark of the old museum. This past summer I returned again, hoping that my initial reaction was simply shock at seeing big changes in an old favorite museum. Yet the second visit only reinforced my disappointment and frustration.

This Fall, however, I had an extraordinary opportunity to understand the philosophy behind the changes to the Museo dell’Opera by joining a tour given to Museum Studies students. The leader of the tour was none other than its Director, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, who, I came to learn, was behind all of the design decisions for the new museum. If anyone could convince me of the wisdom of these changes – this was the man.

Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Timothy Verdon has had an extraordinary career. While originally from New Jersey, he has lived and worked in Florence for more than half a century. An expert on sacred art, with a PhD in Art History from Yale University, he has curated important exhibits and written many books on the subject. Today, besides being Director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, he teaches at Stanford University’s Florence campus and is the Canon of the Florence Cathedral complex, which includes the Baptistry, Giotto’s Campanile (or Bell Tower), and the Duomo.

Our group met the Director in the lobby, which remains at the old entrance to the Museum. Msgr. Verdon greeted us with a sweet and friendly smile, acknowledging his enthusiastic introduction by a faculty member with endearing modesty. He began the tour by explaining the goals of the renovation.  His words revealed the central role he had played in developing its new vision. “My vision” was to re-connect the museum with the historical sites of the Cathedral piazza. He pointed out that the Duomo museum is unlike a typical museum, since almost all of its art is from one place – the buildings of the Piazza del Duomo — the same place where it is shown. Thus, unlike almost any other major world museum, it provides a unique opportunity to talk about the place itself and to have what Verdon called a ‘narrative.’

Yet the museum also faces some special challenges. Located in the midst of one of the world’s most popular cultural sites, it is visited by about 300,000 visitors per year. In an age of global mass tourism, no director can assume that these visitors have an understanding of Christian iconography or even the Judeo-Christian heritage. How can a museum make its story intelligible to visitors from all the world’s cultures and all levels of interest?

Expansion and opportunity

Originally founded in 1891 to house the large statues of the Cathedral complex, as the years passed the old Museo del Duomo museum grew organically “with no logic” as works became available. By 1998, when an old theater next door came up for sale, the collection had long outgrown its exhibition space. Normally in Florence, this would have been an opportunity with many problems. A historic theater usually would be a protected space, requiring careful restoration and condemning the Museum’s architects to years of permit applications for every change. In this case, ‘luckily’ the old theater had been stripped of most of its decoration back in the 19th century and was now being used as a parking garage. By acquiring it, the Opera del Duomo Museum not only doubled its square footage, but gained the possibility of “big spaces” and a complete re-imagining of how to display its collection.

Verdon and his team were facing “a fantastic opportunity.” Each object, its placement, context, accompanying texts, along with the flow of visitors between displays, could now be rethought. Art that had long been in storage could now be shown. Out of the old, a new museum would be born.

The Director’s goal for the new Opera del Duomo Museum was to display its art whenever possible in a way that was “analogous to its original setting.” In other words, if a Renaissance sculpture had been designed to be seen 20 meters above the heads of visitors and in the midst of many others, it would be exhibited, whenever possible, as its maker originally intended.

The tour

florence-baptistery-and-duomo-museum-tour-in-florence-330448We entered the new museum through what had once been a carriage entrance. This narrow passage was now a “Hall of Fame” whose wall listed seven centuries of artists who had created works for the Opera del Duomo and the buildings of the Cathedral complex. Familiar names like Donatello mixed with lesser known ones like Giovanni del Balduccio.

In the first room, visitors are greeted by a video that explains the history of the original façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly known as the Duomo. Because Florence wanted its entrance to surpass the fabulous one of the Cathedral in Siena, in 1296, it commissioned Arnolfo di Cambio, who had previously worked on Siena’s Cathedral, to design both the church and the finest façade in Tuscany. The early 14th century was about to become a great period of building in Florence and all of Tuscany. The model the Florentines had in mind was the ‘modern’ Gothic churches of France, like Notre Dame Cathedral, grand cathedrals whose entrances were decorated with ‘living stones’ depicting Biblical figures.

A special feature of the new Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence is its full-scale recreation of Arnolfo di Cambio’s unfinished original façade for the Duomo from the 1300s.

A special feature of the new Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence is its full-scale recreation of Arnolfo di Cambio’s unfinished original façade for the Duomo from the 1300s.

While Florence’s Duomo façade was never completed and ultimately demolished in 1587, for nearly 300 years it was the dominant feature of the religious center of Florence. This was the façade of the Florentine Renaissance, the one that Lorenzo de’Medici and Michelangelo knew. The Duomo’s entrance, even unfinished, was surrounded by the largest collection of monumental sculpture in Italy.This is what Ghiberti had to visually compete with when he designed the famous Baptistry doors. His doors were not meant for a museum but to live in the Piazza del Duomo – “a great urban space unlike anywhere in Europe.”

Salone del ParadisoFor Monsignor Verdon, the addition of the old theater’s space to the Duomo Museum would be an extraordinary opportunity to restore “a dialog” between the Baptistry doors and the old façade. Thus much of the new space in the Museum is taken up by a three story “colossal model” of the original façade with figures placed at their original heights (some are originals, others copies). Across a mini-piazza are the original Baptistry doors, freshly restored, and encased in gigantic, climate-controlled glass vaults. Called the “Hall of Paradise,” it is the grand moment of the new museum – a spectacular space, filled with light.

Beyond the grand entrance

As they exit the huge, brightly lit space, visitors can see the few remaining fragments of the mosaics that were once over the central door. Archaeology has revealed that the original façade was not simple white marble as portrayed today, but richly decorated with glittery mosaics. According to Verdon, they must have glowed at sunset, a vision of “the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (around 1455). Photo: Antonio Quattrone, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (around 1455). Photo: Antonio Quattrone, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

From there, visitors enter a series of darker spaces, much like the darkness they’d be plunged into when entering the Cathedral or Baptistry from outdoors. Lit with intimate light, we first encounter Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, a thin, haunted soul, clothed only in hair and fur. Once out in the open for viewing, now this painted and gilded wood carving is inexplicably encased in a long, rectangular glass tomb that keeps viewers four feet away when directly facing her. You can only examine her closely when you pass along her from the side.

The glass case’s peculiar shape, according to Verdon, was designed to maintain the flow of tour groups, to (I assume) discourage them from lingering, and direct them to the next room.  There another iconic work of the museum awaits – the Deposition or Florentine Pietà by Michelangelo.

Unlike most of the Museum’s collection, this unfinished Pietà was not made for the Opera del Duomo but carved by Michelangelo in Rome for his own tomb. In the old museum, it was located at the top of a flight of stairs, so visitors would approach it slowly like pilgrims and pass around it in an intimate space with beautiful wood walls. Today, it is isolated from the rest of the museum in an enormous modern space, surrounded by walls of flat, gray stone. Placed at an altar’s height with a minimalistic stone bench in front, Verdon said its placement had two goals. The first was to evoke a “sacred space.” The second was to provide large tour groups with a location to gather and exit the museum quickly.

Michelangelo's Florentine Pietà, 1547 - 1555.

Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà, 1547 – 1555.

When planning the new museum’s design, he simply could not ignore the fact that Florence today is a city of mass tourism. For most visitors, his museum is just one stop in a one day tour of the city. To accommodate this sad truth, he had to design an interesting and simple path with grand effects that would facilitate movement and the interests of the majority of visitors who visit for only a half hour. So not far from the bench in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta is the gift shop and the exit. What does the Museum offer to those on a short visit who know little about Art History beyond the name Michelangelo — “We offer the spectacle!”  Like a real estate ad – “drop dead views.”

The plan of the second floor is for more interested visitors. It has more text on the walls and many of the original sculptures that those who loved the old Museum remember. For example, in The Bell Tower Gallery one can see the 14th century decorations by Pisano and others of the many trades and skilled workers of Florence.

Msgr. Verdon expects only a limited number of visitors with specialized interests to venture up to the third floor. There they will find the many Princely gifts from the Florentine rulers. Most impressive are the collection of large wooden models – proposed designs for a new façade for the Duomo from three centuries of competitions that did not conclude until the late 1800s with the façade we know today. Truly dedicated art lovers are finally rewarded with something that any tourist would wish for — an uncrowded outdoor patio that provides an extraordinarily close view of Brunelleschi’s dome (and nearly empty restrooms).

The overall impact of the new museum’s design

So now that I know the factors that drove Timothy Verdon’s plan for a new Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and understand the pressures he faced, do I appreciate his museum more? I suppose I do, but I still mourn the losses that resulted from bowing to the realities of global tourism.

Donatello's Zuccone and other decorations.

Donatello’s Zuccone and other decorations.

The new Museum certainly handles crowds better and offers some truly wow moments. But, overall, it remains a colder experience compared to the old museum. I have always loved the intimate encounters with extraordinary art that only museums can provide. To have to strain my neck to study Donatello’s Zuccone at its original height, distracted by cut-out spaces around the statue that open down to the spectacular new façade below, with its crowd noises, is a painful loss. To have to peer in a dark room through thick glass across a flat podium to see his Magdalene, when once she was out in the open and at arms length – these are losses that are not compensated for having ample room to back up or quieter spaces upstairs.

crowds in FlorenceThe Museum’s organization makes it depressing clear that, even in Florence, dedicated art lovers are a minority. It acknowledges that we live in a materialistic world, where governments keep cutting their budgets that support the arts, forcing museums to depend on tourism for funding and their survival. As in the Renaissance, it is a world that serves the wealthy (who never have lacked for intimate encounters with art if they so desired since they can buy it).

But weren’t Museums the one place that we could go to get beyond that? A place where anyone could see art like a prince and dwell in a higher realm?

So, I wish the new Museo dell’Opera del Duomo well. Yet, I can’t help worrying about those of us who love art. If more Museums follow its example, as understandable as that may be, where will we go?

Update on the Missing Botticelli

Botticelli St Augustine restored bannerIt was a stormy afternoon (not night), when I nervously entered Florence’s Ognissanti Church to check if Botticelli’s St. Augustine had finally returned. My last meeting had run late and I was out of breath. Tomorrow my flight was leaving at sunrise, so this would be my last chance. I walked at top speed nearly the whole way, because it was close to closing time. There was no time to take more than a few irresistible last looks at the city (Santa Maria Novella, the Arno).  Luckily, a thunderstorm had just ended, thinning the crowds of tourists, but the stone pavement was slippery in spots along the way.

For the past three years, I had made this pilgrimage, only to experience disappointment. Ognissanti, one of the important neighborhood parish churches of Florence, has quite a few treasures, like its beautifully restored, spectacular 15 foot tall crucifix by Giotto. It is also the final resting place of Sandro Botticelli, his tomb near the feet of his unrequited love, Simonetta Vespucci, the model for The Birth of Venus and other masterpieces. Visitors from around the world leave love notes addressed to the artist there.

But one of my favorite Botticelli frescoes, St. Augustine in his Study (1480), has been missing for years, its place taken by a mounted, fading color photocopy. Just across the aisle hangs a fresco designed to be the other half of a pair — Domenico Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome in his Study (1480).  St. Jerome appears to be looking across at St. Augustine. Leaning his head in his hand, he seemed to, while trying to be philosophical, share my frustration looking across at the poor copy.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study (1480)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study,  1480

When I arrived, I was relieved that the door could still be pushed open. Ognissanti was not yet closed. The late afternoon sunset had been in my eyes the whole way, so it took some time to adjust to the dark church’s lighting. Only a few visitors were inside. The guardian monk who I had talked to in February sat sleepily in the corner on the other side of the doors.

I made my way quickly to the spot – halfway up the nave on the right. I tried to focus my eyes, because something had changed. I moved in closer to check and then looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. The monk in the corner seemed uninterested.

Sandro Botticelli, St. Augustine in his Study, 1480

Sandro Botticelli, St. Augustine in his Study, 1480

St. Augustine was back and looked wonderful. The fresco had been cleaned while it was away and the colors seemed remarkably fresh, its lines sharp and clear. The year-long restoration was handled by the Opificio, the famous national labs in Florence. Since then, it was in an exhibition of Renaissance art in Brazil for a year, and then finally toured Japan over the past year (as I learned from one of our readers). The Japanese tour ended in early April and two weeks before I arrived in mid-May, St. Augustine had finally returned to his home.

Sandro Botticelli, St. Augustine in his Study, 1480, detail

Sandro Botticelli, St. Augustine in his Study, 1480, detail

After I spent a long time soaking in St. Augustine’s new clarity, I made my way over to the Franciscan monk I had met in February, to see how he felt. I reminded him of our conversation and then asked in my rough Italian, “And you are happy, yes?” His look was a mix of a smile and skepticism.

“Yes, I’m happy but…well, next they want to take St. Jerome to Korea.” So, the other half of the pair, by Ghirlandaio, was next on the Italian Ministry of Culture’s hit list. The monk then leaned in to me and whispered, “and they are threatening to take Giotto’s Crucifix to Russia.”

He then shrugged his shoulders Italian-style and wearily walked to the altar as part of his preparations to close Ognissanti for the evening. While he did, I returned to take another look at Botticelli’s St. Augustine and what I hoped was not a last look at Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome.


Vigée Le Brun’s unfortunate marriage

Lebrun,_Self-portraitThe odds were stacked against Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, yet she became one of the most successful court portrait painters in France during the reign of Louis XVI. Many troubles would come her way during her life. But the worst may not have been the French Revolution, it may have been her husband.

Born in Paris in 1755, Élisabeth Vigée demonstrated great artistic promise as as a young girl. Her father, a pastel artist himself, told her, “You will be a painter, my child, if ever there was one.” Still, her application to train at the painter’s guild was denied because she was a female (even though her father was a member). Forced to learn at home, she set herself on a course that mirrored academic training by copying plaster casts and engravings. While her father helped with lessons, her mother took her to exhibitions and acted as her chaperon when the young Élisabeth visited homes to work on portraits.

By the age of 19, she already had a successful career. Too successful — she attracted the attention of the local authorities, who closed her studio down because she was not a member of the artist’s guild. To make matters worse, after her father’s untimely death when she was 12, her mother had married a wealthy jeweler who collected the young artist’s fees and was not eager to share them with her.

Young Self-Portrait

Young Self-Portrait, c. 1782?

Vigée managed to gain admission to the painter’s guild after they unsuspectingly exhibited her paintings at their annual exhibition in 1774. By then, the daughter (whom her mother once thought homely) had become a beautiful young woman who attracted not only commissions but the attentions of many important people, including Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, the most successful art dealer in Paris. Le Brun was one of the first dealers to sell artworks as investments and was an innovator in making art a much more international trade.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), Self-Portrait, Salon of 1795

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), Self-Portrait, Salon of 1795

According to Vigée, Le Brun invited her often to his mansion, which was filled with art. “I was enchanted at an opportunity of first hand acquaintance with…works of the great masters. M. Lebrun was so obliging as to lend me, for the purposes of copying some of his handsomest and most valuable paintings.”

To her surprise, in 1776, Le Brun asked her to marry him. Already a favorite portrait artist of Paris’s aristocratic women, she wondered if it was wise to give up the name by which she had become well known. But her home-life was becoming miserable. Her stepfather had retired, was becoming increasingly ill-tempered, and was hoarding her earnings.

Friends warned her against the match. A countess told her, “for heaven’s sake on no account marry M. Le Brun! You will be miserable if you do!” The court jeweler was blunter. “It would be better for you to tie a stone to your neck and jump in the river than to marry Le Brun.”

Unbeknownst to her friends, to escape her evil stepfather and with the encouragement of her mother, she was already secretly married. Le Brun showed her work in his shop and because of his excellent contacts, sales were good. Now as Madame Vigée Le Brun, the twenty-one year old was “showered” with commissions.Unfortunately, as she reported in her memoirs, “M. Le Brun soon got into the habit of pocketing my fees.” But greater fame lay ahead.

Detail of Marie Antoinette, 1778

Detail of Marie Antoinette, 1778

In 1778, Queen Marie-Antoinette, who had heard of the young woman’s talents, invited Vigée Le Brun to the palace to paint her portrait. This would be the first of more than thirty. Of the same age as Marie-Antoinette and an excellent conversationalist, Vigée Lebrun became a favorite of the Queen and her circle. While the Queen’s reputation has forever been stained by the statement “let them eat cake” [despite there being no record of her ever saying this],  Vigée Le Brun knew a very different woman. At one painting session while she was pregnant, the painter nervously dropped her brushes on the floor. The Queen stooped to the ground in full costume and insisted on picking them up herself. In 1783, Marie-Antoinette convinced her husband, Louis XVI, to sponsor Vigée Le Brun’s entrance to the Royal Academy. Élisabeth became one of only 14 women in the 550 person Academy. Even more significantly, she would later become the first woman Painter to the King in the history of France.

At Marie-Antoinette’s private chateau at Versailles, the Petit Trianon, the court women let down their hair, dropped their corsets and abandoned formal attire. For her first Salon (the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy), Vigée Le Brun, with the Queen’s enthusiastic consent, broke tradition by posing Her Majesty in comfortable, casual clothing. The daring painting scandalized the leaders of the Academy, who demanded she remove it. She complied with their ruling and, in only four weeks, it had been replaced with a formal portrait of her patroness.

Vigée Le Brun became the most popular painter of the Court’s women, only occasionally painting men. For the next six years, her studio poured out portraits of baronesses, countesses and their children. She lived “without anxiety as to the future, as she…earned a great deal of money.” But unbeknownst to her, her husband had a “furious passion for gambling [which] was at the bottom of the ruin of his fortune and my own.”

Madame Grand, 1783

Madame Grand, 1783

When the Revolution began in 1789, Vigée Le Brun fled Paris with her daughter, leaving her husband behind. She was able to make the trip with some funds she earned from a portrait of one of the King’s courtiers. What happened to the fortune she had earned? “By the time I quitted France, I had not an income of twenty francs, although I had earned millions.” Her husband had “squandered it all.”

Self-portrait with Her Daughter, 1789

Self-portrait with Her Daughter, 1789

She would not return to France for 13 years. With her daughter, she shuttled between the Royal Courts of Europe, from Italy to Vienna to Saint Petersburg (via Prague, Dresden, and Berlin). Because of her great reputation and the family connections of the French aristocracy, Vigée Le Brun was able to continue her career in exile.

Stanislaw August Poniatowski, former King of Poland, 1797

Stanislaw August Poniatowski, former King of Poland, 1797

In 1802, she finally returned and bought a country home not far from Versailles. As for M. Lebrun, he had stayed in Paris during the Revolution and later played a role (with the help of his friend Jacques Louis David) in the plan to convert the Palace into the new Musée Nationale, later the Musée du Napoleon, and what we know now as the Louvre. He wrote scholarly books on art and his research led to the rediscovery of the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer in the early19th century.

VigeeLeBrunSelfPortrait late

Self Portrait, c. 1809

But he lost his wife. In 1793, the revolutionary authorities insisted he divorce the traitorous favorite artist of the recently executed Queen. When Vigée Le Brun returned to France after years of supporting herself, she had no interest in reuniting with her ex-husband. She never married again and lived comfortably on her own to the age of 87.



The Monk and the Missing Botticelli: A Florence Story

botticelli closeup

One of the treasures of the Ognissanti Church in Florence has been missing for years. Ognissanti, known for being the burial place of Sandro Botticelli and Amerigo Vespucci, and for its huge and recently restored Giotto crucifix, is a pilgrimage site for art lovers and romantics. In 1480, the Vespucci family commissioned a pair of frescos that face each other across the main nave:on the left, Saint Jerome at his desk, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio; on the right, Saint Augustine in his study by Botticelli.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study, 1480.

Sandro Botticelli, Saint Augustine in his Study

Sandro Botticelli, Saint Augustine in his Study, 1480.

Sadly, the Botticelli  is no longer there. In its place is a photograph of the fresco. For years now, whenever I visit Florence, I go to Ognissanti hoping to see the original fresco has returned, only to be disappointed. The print at this point is fading badly, its colors turning a pale blue like an old family Kodachrome.

While I always assumed the fresco was only temporarily removed for restoration, about a month ago I decided to investigate. On a cold February morning, I approached a monk who was huddled in a corner near the entrance, wrapped in his robes, a stocking cap under his hood. I recognized him from my previous visits as the guardian of the church. He appears to be Asian, possibly from the Philippines. Even though we have never talked, I had a fond feeling for him because I believed he was responsible for the lovely recorded religious music that fills the church.

I asked in my weak Italian, “the Botticelli fresco, is it being restored?” The question seemed to rouse him. Over the next ten minutes, I would get an earful from the monk in a mix of Italian and English.

“In restauro? (restoration?) That’s what they said. Two years ago! But it is not being restored at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is on tour of Japan to earn money for the state.”

Continue reading

The truly Old Masters, Modern edition

matisse at workVolume 2 of our series “Truly Old Masters” focuses on Modern and Contemporary artists who lived long and fruitful lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (except Americans, who will be the subject of Volume 3). Since medical care improved considerably after 1900, it has become more and more common for artists to live to a ripe old age. That’s why for this volume we’ve raised the bar from 75 to 80 years old. Still, the list is long, even though it covers not much more than a century.

While there are plenty of artists who worry about aging, many celebrate it as an opportunity to do more and better work. To congratulate the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman on reaching his 70th birthday, the 77 year old film-maker Akira Kurosawa wrote to him about an artist who “bloomed when he reached eighty.” Kurosawa, who lived to 88 and continued to write films almost to the end, told Bergman that he realized his own work “was only beginning” and that artists are “not really capable of creating really good works until [they] reach the age of 80.”


Louise Bourgeois in 2009

Recent studies are debunking the old theories that great artists (and scientists, for that matter) do their best work by the time they are thirty. The sculptor Louise Bourgeois who lived nearly to 100, described herself as a ‘long distance runner.’ When she was 84, she was asked whether she could have made a recent work when she was younger. She replied, “Absolutely not.” When asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Old age is not without its hazards, but even they can be inspiring. Henri Matisse suffered from a near fatal illness in his seventies.  After he survived a dangerous surgery, he said,

“My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me. I had so completely prepared for my exit from life that it seems to me that I am in a second life.”

Despite being mostly bedridden, his ‘second life’ led to the exuberant, colorful paper cut-outs that occupied him for the rest of his life.

Below is a gallery of portraits and works by twentieth century artists who did not die young but lived long enough to truly become old masters. [Click on an image to begin slide show.] Continue reading

Triumph and Travesty in Florence: Baptistry cleaned and Museum reopens

Baptistry before and during cleaning

Baptistry before and during cleaning

This fall, there is good news and bad news from Florence. Lovers of the city rejoiced during the last week of October when, just before the visit of Pope Francis, the scaffolding and giant canvas tarps around the Baptistry finally came down. Since February 2014, the nearly thousand year old Florence Baptistry has been wrapped and blocked from view while its walls were given their first top to bottom cleaning in seventy years. Like a giant gift box finally opened, all can finally see what has been missing from the heart of the city for almost two years.

The cleaned walls of the Florence Baptistry

The newly cleaned walls of the Florence Baptistry

The $2 million restoration was a huge undertaking not just because of the size of the building or its age, but also due to the variety of marble found on the Baptistry’s exterior. According to the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, which manages all the historic buildings in the piazza, its cladding ranges “…from Apuan [Carrara] marble to the oldest marble recycled from ancient Roman buildings and tombs.” Most difficult to handle of all is the green serpentine of Prato, a very fragile stone. Depending on the material, conservators used chemical softeners, sponges, scalpels and lasers along the eight sided building.


Roman relief sculpture in Baptistry wall

Roman relief sculpture in Baptistry wall

Yet I am happy to report from a visit earlier this month that the results are simply spectacular. The white marble looks bright and fresh. It contrasts beautifully with the black and green marble, which now appear deep and resonant. The Baptistry’s designs seem crisper and more abstract than before – almost modern.  In comparison, the nearby 19th century facade of the Duomo’s entrance, cleaned not so long ago, seems not just overly complicated, but also tired and grimy.

Detail of Baptistry wall

Detail of Baptistry wall

Perhaps most shocking is the change in the Baptistry’s roof. In the past, it had a gray metallic color with what looked like some random splashes of whitewash.  Now, one can see that it is not made of lead at all but stark white marble.

Marble roof of the Baptistry

Marble roof of the Baptistry

The success of the restoration is good news to art and architecture lovers. Unfortunately, the news is not so good concerning the long awaited expansion and reopening of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. The two and a half year renovation tripled the exhibition space of the museum and allowed for a complete reconsideration of its exhibits. It now has a great hall, the largest exhibition space in Florence, which features a life-size reconstruction of the original Medieval façade of the Duomo and the newly cleaned Baptistry doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, “the Gates of Paradise”. Continue reading

The truly Old Masters, Volume 1

van-gogh-picassoThe story of a great artist whose life is tragically cut short, like Raphael, Van Gogh, or Caravaggio, is one of the most popular themes in art history. But what about the artist who lived a rich, full life? There are far more great artists who lived to be 75 or older than those who never reached 40. In fact, there are so many that we will need more than one installment to highlight them all. ‘Volume 1’ of The truly Old Masters features artists who lived all or most of their lives before the twentieth century and were not Americans.

The popular idea that the greatest work of any artist is already done by the age of thirty, flies in the face of countless examples of mature works of genius. Why should anyone be surprised that a talented artist will benefit from longer study of any art form? The colorful paper cut-outs in Matisse’s Jazz and Michelangelo’s Dome of St. Peters are just two examples of a tour-de-force by truly old masters.

Hokusai (1760-1849) [89], Self-portrait at the age of 80

Hokusai (1760-1849) [89], Self-portrait at the age of 80

The maxim of Hippocrates, Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long, life is short), is both a blessing and a curse for artists. That’s because so many, like the great Edo era artist Hokusai, are never satisfied with their past works and count on reaching a ripe old age to finally become successful. He explained,

“From the age of 6, I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50, I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

While Hokusai only lived to be 89, he somehow managed to create over 30,000 works before his death. Among them are some of the most famous Japanese woodcuts, like the iconic “The Great Wave.” He also invented a revolutionary genre of sketchbooks called manga, whose influence continues to today.

But still Hokusai wished to live longer to make even better works. He would have understood completely what Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have said as he lay dying in the arms of the King of France at the age of 67 — “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”

Below is a gallery with later work by artists who may have thought life is too short but lived long enough to truly become old masters. [Click on an image to begin slide show.] Continue reading

Florence: Great Art Without the Crowds

Gozzoli-LProcession-BR800Everyone knows that there is great art in Florence, Italy.  What the Taj Mahal is to India, Big Ben to London, and the Eiffel Tower to Paris, the Uffizi, Accademia, and Duomo are to this Tuscan city.  Here throngs of tight-packed tourists from all over the world follow in the wake of their multilingual guides, anxious for a chance to finally see the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Michelangelo’s David, and Brunelleschi’s Dome.  Unfortunately, the Birth of Venus is hidden by a pane of glass and so badly lit that it looks better in reproductions; the David is magnificent but the space around it usually packed with other viewers.  The dome of the Duomo is indeed fabulous outside and in, but disappointingly located in a cathedral from which most of the original decoration has been removed to a museum, now closed for renovation.

Yet Florence offers other treasures, less famous and far less crowded, but equally rewarding. In fact, although these works of art are not among those featured on 72-hour tours, they are easier to spend time viewing.  In particular, we recommend three under appreciated places to enjoy art in Florence: the Orsanmichele, the Magi Chapel of the Medici-Riccardi Palace, and the Bargello.  In all three, without reservations or long lines (without even an entry fee at Orsanmichele), you can spend the time it really takes to study and enjoy artwork in a peaceful setting.  The three little-known artists we highlight here are Orcagna (Andrea di Cione, c.1308-1368), Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421-1497), and Desiderio da Settignano (c.1428-1464).


Orsanmichele, Florence

Orsanmichele, Florence

Florence’s Orsanmichele is a common tourist stop, but most groups come only for a look at the famous statues on the outside by Donatello, Verrocchio, and Giambologna (ironically, all copies).  Originally constructed as a place to store and sell grain, the ground floor was converted into a church in the 14th century.  Here Orcagna (the leading painter, sculptor, and architect of Florence at the time) was commissioned to create a tabernacle to house a sacred image of the Madonna and Child by Bernardo Daddi.  This painting replaced a fading fresco by an unknown artist, a picture of Orsanmichele,_interno,_tabernacolo_dell'orcagna_03the Virgin which had attracted its own following through miraculous powers. Not accidentally, Daddi’s masterpiece, known as the “Madonna della Grazie,” was completed in 1347, a year after the Black Death struck Florence.  It is a masterpiece of Italian Gothic painting, yet not as unique as the ornate structure that frames it.

The preservation and restoration of this tabernacle is so amazing that it seems to have been built in the Gothic revival style of the 19th century, not in the actual medieval period more than 650 years ago.  The marble glows, the inlays of glass and lapis lazuli sparkle, the gold accents glint, reflecting the gold leaf of the halos and throne on the painting it houses.  The Madonna seems to be enclosed in a tiny chapel of her own, a church within a church.  Intricate yet harmonious, the carvings intersperse religious scenes and figures with decorative patterns.  Orsanmichele,_interno,_tabernacolo_dell'orcagna_07.detail

The interior of the Orsanmichele is perfect for the quiet contemplation and appreciation of a Gothic masterpiece.  Perhaps because Florence is primarily known for Renaissance art, Orcagna’s tabernacle (and Daddi’s Madonna) remain overlooked gems.

Our next stop, however, takes us into the Renaissance and even into the palazzo of the patrons most associated with Renaissance Florence, the Medici.  The palace known today as the Medici-Riccardi, conceals within its massive walls — so typical of Florentine architecture — another uncrowded surprise.

Medici-Riccardi Palace

Medici-Riccardi Palace, Florence

Benozzo Gozzoli is far from a household name in the United States, even for art aficionados.  Yet this Medici palazzo owes its appeal to a single room decorated with his frescoes.  The walls of the “Chapel of the Magi” (1459-61) create a magical space where the three Wise Men — here interpreted as elderly, mature, and youthful kings — their courtly followers, horses, servants, and pet animals (including a cheetah) wend their leisurely way toward Bethlehem.  Dressed for display in the sumptuous brocades that made Florence wealthy, they pose attractively amidst a landscape of rocks, where a long cavalcade of of travelers climb and descend among picturesque hills and valleys.  In fact, with their handsome mounts and weapons, they seem more like nobles on their way to a hunt or a joust than the mystic scholars of the bible story.

In fact, Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico and an assistant to Ghiberti, incorporated several portraits in this scene which stretches around three walls of the small chapel.  Art historians don’t completely agree on the identifications, but it seems that the figure in black (below) is Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), founder of the dynasty and patron of this work, on a modest donkey. The figure next to him, on the white horse, is his son Piero, father of Lorenzo di Medici.

Cosimo I (in black)

Cosimo I (in black)

Other identifications are less certain.  The young king has often been called an idealized portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was only a boy at the time.  Another boy in the cavalcade has been called Guiliano, his younger brother who was later killed in the Pazzi Conspiracy.

The fresco even includes portraits of the artist — Gozzoli himself — one wearing a red hat, and another holding up his hand as if to say he made this work.

The Bargello, Florence

The Bargello, Florence

The third site we recommend for art appreciation is the Bargello, Florence’s museum of sculpture.  The Bargello is to Florentine sculpture what the Uffizi is to Florence’s painting. In fact, many of its works were formerly part of the Uffizi Collection. Here you may recognize well-known masterpieces of the Renaissance by Donatello, Verrochio, and Michelangelo.  We recommend that you widen the scope of your discoveries to include the work of Desiderio da Settignano.

Settignano-Marietta-StrozziA Renaissance sculptor who attained popularity at about the same time that Gozzoli was painting the Chapel of the Magi, Desiderio is known for particularly graceful and sensitive portraits and relief sculptures.  At the Bargello, you will see his portrait of Maria Strozzi, a head of John the Baptist, and a beautiful Madonna and child — among other notable works.    Once you recognize his style, you will be able to identify other sculptures as well.














Of the three artists we have focused on here, Desiderio is best represented in collections outside of Italy – for instance, you can find his work in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C.

Great art is everywhere in Florence; these are only a few examples of where to find it “off the beaten track.”  If you prefer to enjoy your art without crowds of tourists more intent on selfies than the masterpieces in front of them, we recommend venturing to one of these locations and immersing yourself in more relaxing art appreciation.


The Horse from the Battle of Little Big Horn

D17 Horse Effigy

Joseph No Two Horns, He Nupa Wanica (Hunkpapa Lakota), Horse Effigy, c. 1880. Wood (possibly cottonwood), pigment, commercial and native-tanned leather, rawhide, horsehair, brass, iron, bird quill. Length: 38 1/2 in. South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre.

Joseph No Two Horns‘s Horse Effigy is not only a powerful sculpture, but a portrait of a beloved horse ridden to victory in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In a recent exhibition of Plains Indian art with hundreds of objects at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it regularly drew the biggest crowds. His horse’s death in that battle haunted the artist for the rest of his life.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939.  Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939. Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

In 1876, No Two Horns or He Nupa Wanica, was a 24 year old Hunkpapa Lakota warrior following his chief and cousin, Sitting Bull, when he fought in the most famous battle of the Great Sioux War. Popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, it is called The Battle of Greasy Grass by the Lakota. On June 25th, General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were scouring the Montana territory looking for about 800 “hostiles” as reported by his scouts. Custer expected to easily drive them back into their reservations. Instead, when the Seventh Cavalry attacked what they thought was a small village, Custer and his men found themselves facing the combined forces of thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.

Drawing by Joseph No Two Horns. c. 1876.

Joseph No Two Horns, Death of Blue Roan Horse. c. 1876. Drawing on paper, 8 x 10 “. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In the battle, No Two Horns’s blue roan suffered seven bullet wounds before collapsing, but not before carrying No Two Horns to victory over the army of General George Custer.  For the rest of his life, until his death in 1942, he portrayed this event in colorful drawings and paintings, as well as sculptures.

horse close-upThis wooden sculpture from 1880 shows his galloping horse is in the midst of battle. It stretches and strains, fighting to keep moving as death nears. His eyes are brass tacks, his leather ears are pulled back. Bullet wounds across his body run red. His mouth is covered in blood and red dyed horse hair dangles to represent blood running from his mouth.  Like a skilled animator, No Two Horns pulls the horse’s torso into the long line of its motion path.

The love of horses is an important part of Plains culture and one of the many atrocities of General Custer’s Seventh Army was their systematic slaughter of Plains Indian ponies. The Lakotas were a warrior society and these effigies or Dance Sticks were used in ceremonies and dances to prepare for battle or celebrate victories. This is, however, the only existing Dance Stick that shows the entire body of a horse.

hs_logoNo Two Horns remains one of the most famous artists of the Plains Indians and his effigies the model for many other Plains artists. Today, his Horse Effigy is not only the most prized object in the collection of the South Dakota State Historical Society but their symbol.

While a veteran of more than forty battles, Joseph No Two Horns did not brag about his exploits. In 1926, No Two Horns participated in the ceremonies honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  He said he danced for the ‘soldiers who were so brave and foolish.’

[Thanks to Danyelle Means for corrections to this story.]


Guess What? How the teacup got its fur


Méret Oppenheim, Object (Luncheon in Fur), 1936. Fur covered cup, saucer, and spoon

The concept for Méret Oppenheim‘s most famous sculpture, Object (Luncheon in Fur), was born in a conversation with Pablo Picasso at a Paris café.

As Rebecca Mead tells it in the March 23rd issue of The New Yorker:

In 1936, Meret Oppenheim, the Swiss Surrealist artist, had tea with Pablo Picasso at the Café de Flore, in Paris. Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet, of her own design, that was clad in ocelot fur. Picasso admired it, noting that one could cover anything with fur. Soon afterward, Oppenheim produced her most famous work: a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with the creamy-tan fur of a Chinese gazelle. The piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and is celebrated for its suggestive conjunction of the domestic and the erotic.

After Picasso’s casual observation, Oppenheim, who was just finishing her tea, reportedly joked “even this cup and saucer.” As the idea took hold, she turned and called out, to the amusement of all, “Waiter, a little more fur!”

Object is rich in sexual connotations, its back story in art world connections.  Also seated at the table during the conversation was the photographer, Dora Maar — she and Picasso were then lovers. Maar posed for some of the most intense paintings Picasso ever made. Oppenheim herself had posed for their friend, the photographer Man Ray.

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

The unforgettable sculpture came to life when André Breton, the leader of the French Surrealists, asked Oppenheim to exhibit something in their next exhibition in Paris. Oppenheim went to a local department store to purchase the cup and saucer and the marriage of fur and teacup was consummated. It was Breton who came up with the name “Luncheon in Fur” (Déjeuner en fourrure), as a reference to Édouard Manet’s famously scandalous painting of 1863. The imaginative bracelet that caught Picasso’s eye was later bought from the struggling, young artist for a few Swiss francs by the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Object was later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which purchased it in 1946. Its fame has only grown since then.

If all the talk of the eroticism of Object eludes you, simply imagine drinking hot liquid from the furry cup.