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.

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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.’

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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

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).

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

Cold? Rembrandt’s studio was probably colder.

Rembrandt Artist in his studio MFAIn Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, there is a small Rembrandt of an artist at work in his studio that symbolizes the difficulty of making art. The dark, large canvas on the easel seems huge and forbidding.  With thick, spread legs, it dominates the picture and looms over the artist, who appears to have backed away from it, perhaps in fear.

However, this painting has taken on a whole new meaning for me because of this frigid winter in the Northern U.S.  While I never gave it a thought in the past, the artist (who resembles Rembrandt) is clearly unnaturally bundled up in heavy clothing even though he is inside.

Artist in his studio detailWhat is going on? Is the studio cold because the artist lacks the money to heat it? Or is it something else?

Painted around 1628, when Rembrandt was in his early twenties, the studio’s bareness could simply depict a struggling, young artist and the tools of his trade.  We can see his palettes hanging behind him, brushes and a maul stick in his hands.  To the right, is a large grinding stone where he makes his paints. To the left, is a table probably with jugs of oil and solvent.Rembrandthuis: grinding stone and materials

If you visit Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam – Rembrandthuis — you can see many of the same things and even witness a demonstration of how he ground his dry pigments into a paste by mixing them with oil. This stone looks nearly identical to the one there.

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Hendrick Avercamp, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, c. 1608–1609, oil on panel, The National Gallery, London

But his clothing is a clue to something else.  In 1628, Europe was in the midst of what is known as “the Little Ice Age.”  By the time of the painting, global cooling had been underway for more than a century.  In winter, the canals of Holland would freeze over and not thaw again until late in the spring. Growing glaciers had crushed small villages in Switzerland. The importance of the North American trade in beaver pelts was a direct result of climate change. Rembrandt’s artist is probably wearing a felt hat quite popular in this era and made from those pelts. [The phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the dangerous effects of the chemicals used to treat beaver fur.]

At the time of this painting, Amsterdam was rapidly growing and had become the most important port and economic center of Europe.  Homes were heated by burning peat harvested from bogs. Because of the rapid growth of Holland’s population, however, the peat bogs had nearly been exhausted and peat’s cost skyrocketed.

The combination of expensive fuel and the peaking of The Little Ice Age made for a poor time for a young artist to start his career. No wonder he is bundled up and fearful. It was really a cold world out there. I hope he sold the painting.

 

A visit to Matisse’s ‘crowning achievement’

For the conclusion of his 2010 BBC documentary, Modern Masters: Matisse, the British critic Alastair Sooke visited Matisse’s Vence Chapel in the south of France for the first time. In this segment, Sooke is overwhelmed by emotion, while he contemplates how the old, frail artist managed to have a final burst of creative energy at the very end of his life.

Designing the Chapel began in the late 1940s. Matisse, already in his late seventies, was recovering from surgery for intestinal cancer and had nearly died.  His nurse was a former model, Monique Bourgeois, now a novice Dominican nun, Sister Jacques Marie.

The project confused his friends like Picasso, who knew Matisse was an atheist. Yet Matisse called the Chapel his ‘crowning achievement.’

Matisse in bed working on Vence Chapel c. 1950

Matisse drawing a head for the decoration of Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (The Matisse Chapel) in his studio/room in the Hotel Regina, in Nice-Cimiez, 1950. Photo by Walter Carone/Paris Match.

To celebrate the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, The Cut-Outs, which opened this month, the Café presents Sooke’s moving tour of the the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France.  Or as most of the world knows it — Matisse’s Chapel.

Florence: Mother of the Renaissance and Instagram

Instagram of Florence from jen.baxter.com

Instagram of Florence from jen.baxter.com

Florence, Italy is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, but it also is where the Instagram app was born.  Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, was a Stanford junior studying abroad in Florence and, like many before him, the lovely city changed the way he saw the world. While taking a photography course, his teacher took away his expensive SLR camera and insisted he use a cheap plastic one instead. Systrom fell in love with the camera’s square format, the soft focus,“the beauty of vintage photography and also the beauty of imperfection.”

Systrom told Time Magazine the story in April 2012:

When I studied abroad my teacher set what I do know in motion by saying, “Give me that camera of yours.” He took my camera away and gave me a little, plastic camera. I was studying in Florence at the time and he told me that I wasn’t allowed to use my camera for the rest of the class. I had to use this plastic camera with a terrible lens. He said I was too focused on sharpness and “I feel like you’re more artsy than that.” He said, “I want you to use this Holga,” this plastic camera with a plastic lens that had this cult following in the ’80s and ’90. I was blown away by what it could do to photos. My photography teacher was totally right. I was too focused on being meticulous with these really beautiful, complex architectural shots. It helps to see the world through a different lens and that’s what we wanted to do with Instagram. We wanted to give everyone the same feeling of discovering the world around you through a different lens.

The Florence experience also may have saved Systrom from taking the wrong direction later in his career.  In 2006, he chose to work the espresso machine at Palo Alto’s Caffé del Doge instead of taking a job offer by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg wanted Systrom to build a photo app for the new social media website, which would certainly have earned him millions of dollars in stock options. Only someone infected with the love of Florence would choose perfecting cappuccinos over riches. [He also turned down a high paying position at Microsoft and later quit a job at Google.]

Living in a cheap beach house in Baja California, he began to write the software that would recreate the effects of his cheap camera.  It was Instagram’s first filter. Many more would follow.  In 2010, Instagram was launched as an Apple app and 25,000 people downloaded it in the first 24 hours. Today, it is estimated that more than 100 million people are using it. In April 2012, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook returned and bought Systrom’s company for $1 billion in cash and stock.

The Clark’s New Clothes: “We’re so confused.”

The new museum wing and reflecting pool. Photo: Tucker Blair

The Clark Institute’s new museum wing and reflecting pool.
Photo: Tucker Blair

On July 4th, the long awaited $145 million addition and renovation of the Clark Art Institute opened. A beloved museum in the Berkshires, the Clark has been for decades everyone’s secret discovery. Planning began in 2001 and all signs (including a recent review in the New York Times) pointed to an extraordinary success.

Sadly, it is far from that.  Like the Brooklyn Museum’s new entrance unveiled in 2004, the addition is an unfriendly imposition that ignores the spirit of the original architecture and is at odds with the collection it houses.  Designed by Tadao Ando, the extension and landscaping dishonors its founders with an anonymous space that could be any museum in the world, not one of the crown jewels of New England. It seems far too meaningful that the Styrofoam backed panels on “The Clark Story” and the portraits of the founders, are now relegated to the basement (sorry, Lower Lobby) —  with the rest rooms.

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