Bernini’s Passionate Affair

Regular visitors to Florence’s Bargello, home to its great sculpture collection, know well the frustration of finding rooms, sometimes the whole second floor, closed. Imagine my shock in June to discover that not only was the second floor open but galleries I had never seen before. In one, amidst display cases with coins, was a treasure I didn’t know existed, but learned later was quite famous and considered perhaps Gianlorenzo Bernini’s finest portrait sculpture – his bust of Costanza Bonarelli. According to the label,

This celebrated bust is the most famous of Bernini’s portraits. It is a very ‘private’ image that he perhaps made for himself and kept in his home for a long time…

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Portrait of Costanza Bonarelli, marble, 1637-1638. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

Costanza was the wife of one of Bernini’s assistants, when the artist was in his late thirties and working in Rome. He fell passionately in love with her and carried on an illicit affair.

Sensuality is a hallmark of Bernini’s work. The passion in his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is well-known to every art history student. Gazing at his much more direct portrait of Costanza, it is not hard to share the feelings of the sculptor for this young woman. She seems to be portrayed just after a liaison. Her hair is disheveled, her dressing gown is wrinkled, unbuttoned, and hangs loosely across her breasts. One can easily imagine that her make-up is long gone. Costanza looks out with parted, sensual lips and seems a bit dazed.

Bonarelli was no servant girl, but a member of the noble Piccolomini family of Siena, whose members included two popes, the dukes of Amalfi, and the patron of Galileo. However, by the 1600s the fortunes of her family line had tumbled and, before she married, the young Costanza had received money from to religious fraternities to keep her from a life on the streets. Her husband, Matteo, began working for Bernini about two years before this sculpture was made in 1637 or 1638. At the time, Costanza was about 24 years old and had been married for five years.

The affair ended in violence, but not between Bernini and Matteo (who continued to work for the sculptor for the rest of his life). Not long after the sculpture was completed, Bernini heard rumors that Costanza had begun another affair. He hid outside her house one evening and was shocked to see his brother and most valuable assistant, Luigi Bernini, sneaking out, his clothes disheveled.

Enraged, Gianlorenzo ran after and attacked his brother with a metal crowbar, breaking two of his ribs. Then he chased him back to the family home with a sword. Luigi made it inside first and their mother bolted the door. Overcome by rage, Bernini broke the door down and chased his brother out into the streets. Luigi made it into the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore before his brother. Those doors proved too strong for Bernini.

To make matters worse, the greatest sculptor of the Baroque period then sent one of his servants to Costanza to take revenge. Under orders by Bernini, he slashed her cheek with a razor. As a final act, Bernini, who had painted a picture of himself and his mistress, went home and cut her face out of the painting.

Word of this scandalous affair did not take long to reach Bernini’s patron, Pope Urban VIII. By this time, the wounded Luigi had already fled Rome. Unwilling to lose the services of so talented an artist, the pope delivered an ultimatum to Gianlorenzo Bernini — marry or else!  Which he did, in what turned out to be a happy marriage to Caterina Tezio that lasted 34 years with 11 children. [There was apparently a mutual understanding. Bernini agreed to treat his wife ‘exquisitely if she will prove capable of tolerating his nature, which is neither easy nor ordinary.’] A fine was imposed – ironically the amount was approximately the value of a portrait bust – but later waived by the Pope. The servant who disfigured Costanza was sent to prison.

Costanza remained married to Matteo until his death in 1654. They became sufficiently well off to provide a handsome dowry for their daughter and even own an art collection. After she was widowed, she donated a painting by Poussin to the Louvre. She died in 1662.

Luigi would later return to the family business and work on important commissions with his brother. He did not stay out of trouble, however. He was jailed for brutally raping a young boy and breaking several of his bones. Bernini paid off fines to the boy’s family and the Church and even got the Queen of Sweden to testify in his brother’s defense (claiming that sodomy was common in Rome and among Florentines like Bernini’s family).

Gianlorenzo Bernini, who died in 1680, is buried along with his large family inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his brother Luigi finally escaped him. Over the years, the passionate young man became more and more religious. The sculptor who created the flamboyant tomb of his patron Pope Urban VIII in Saint Peter’s, asked for only a modest marker that most people never notice — a step on the way to the main altar.

The Journey of Mario’s Legendary Father

Ancient burial caves of the Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima, JapanAround 1960, a small boy who liked to explore nature without a map was wandering in the forest near his village. He was frightened when he accidentally discovered the entrance to a cave in the woods. Later, he got up the courage to return alone from his house with a lantern. His decision to explore the cave’s passageways would take on greater meaning in the years to come.

The boy was Shigeru Miyamoto and he grew up to be one of the founding fathers of electronic game design. As a young man, he wanted to be a manga artist and went to college for art and design. After graduation, his father got him an interview at an old Japanese company that specialized in playing cards, but had begun to expand its offerings into electronic toys – Nintendo. Miyamoto brought children’s clothes hangers in the shape of animals that he had designed and convinced the company to hire its first artist.

A couple of years later, motivated by the huge success of video arcades, Nintendo built their own version of Space Invaders that failed dismally. Stuck with two thousand unsold arcade units, they turned to their artist and asked if he could come up with a better game. At this time, video arcades games, while popular, were little more than shapes shooting and attacking other shapes. But in 1982 that all changed when Nintendo released Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong was the first arcade game with a story and characters – a gorilla, the girl he kidnapped but loved, and a hero – a carpenter known in this game as “Mr. Video,” later “Jumpman,” and finally, “Mario” (named for the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse in Seattle, Washington). Continue reading

Diary of an Affair: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse

As the sun set in Paris, on January 8, 1927, Pablo Picasso was walking past a fashionable department store when his eyes fell upon a young shopper. Immediately infatuated, the artist (then unhappily married and in his mid-forties) took Marie-Thérèse Walter by the arm and said, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together!” She was confused by the man and unaware of who he might be. Picasso introduced himself by dragging her into a bookshop and showing her a book filled with reproductions of his paintings. Thus began a passionate affair and an enormously productive period for Picasso. Continue reading

Florence News: New Botticelli rooms open in Uffizi

The long awaited new Botticelli rooms at the Uffizi opened in mid-October after being closed for fifteen months. The heavy dark planked ceiling is gone and the Early Renaissance master’s works are now spread across three rooms with white walls and brighter lighting. While most paintings are still covered in glass, it is less obtrusive. Glare has been minimized.The most famous works, the Birth of Venus and Primavera, are given generous space and recessed into gallery walls.

In the new layout, all Botticelli’s works have been restored and given more space. There is a fresh feeling like a newly constructed home compared to the old dark and crowded spaces. While you can’t actually smell the new paint, you can still see the marks of the suction cups used to place the glass in front of the Birth of Venus.

Continue reading

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.’

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.”

2009-louise-bourgeois

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.

Florence-Duomo-4

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