Sunday, September 30, 2012

Siena and San Gimignano

28 Settembre

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
After a somewhat bumpy ride south on the Firenze-Siena autostrada through some attractive Chianti wine country, we arrive in Siena, or Sienna if you will. A walk through a pleasant park located next to  a wall of the Fortezza Medicea took us to the Piazza San  Dominico where we met our guide, who took us, first of all, inside the basilica of St. Dominic to  view some sacred relics: the head and a finger of St. Catherine. Along the walls surrounding the nave were the flags of the seventeen districts, or contrade, which make up the town. Our guide appeared to be a little bereft of historical fact, asserting that the town of Siena was founded in 1200, wheras  we knew that the Etruscans were here  at least as early as 400 BCE, and  Roman statuary can still be found around the city. After a visit to the birthplace of St. Catherine, we began to suspect our guide was somewhat hipped on the subject and we decided to make our way on our own to the Duomo. Siena is a hilly town, and I wonder how they manage when it snows or has a hard frost,  We worked our way up to the Piazza Independenza, thence to a osteria smack in front of the Bapistry where we paused for a cappucino and a good up-front look at this building.
The Bapistry is attached to the Duomo, located underneath the choir of the cathedral, and due to time constraints, we were not able to see the sculptures of Ghiberti and Donatello it contains.
Photo: Meredith Taylor
As you can see from the photo on the right, one can reach the main entrance to the Duomo by climbing a set of stairs alongside the Bapistry; we elected to go around to the front door.

Photo: Sandra C. Haynes
The place was packed, not surprisingly,  and required a 20 minute wait for a ticket. I wondered about somewhat cryptic logo 'OPA' which was to be seen in many places near the ticket office, and later discovered stands for "opera della metropolitana" the cathedral works committee which oversees the restoration of  the cathedral's works. Finally we were admitted, and it was worth the wait.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The interior was a lot more crowded than when this shot was taken, and the floor tiles have been roped off to preserve them so it is difficult to approach some of the works, notably the one we were most interested in: the pulpit carved by Nicola Pisano in 1255-60.It was one of a series of four monumental pulpits he created with his son Giovanni, two in Pisa and another in Pistoia. There are seven carved panels at the top depicting scenes from the life of Christ, and what I liked best a series of lions at the base upon whose backs some of the pillars are resting. The momma lions are nursing their cubs, and the males are feasting, no doubt on heretical pigs that have escaped the Dominican's canes, but this, and other details, are difficult to see unless you can view this piece up close and in the round. As the  photo shows, you are kept at some distance from the work because of the efforts to protect the floor tiles, but at least it is possible to walk around and view it as a whole, by dodging ropes and other tourists.
So much more to see: the Chapel of St. John, containing a remarkable sculpture by Donatello, who is rapidly becoming one of our favorites of the Renaissance, works by Cimabue and Duccio in the Museo which we didn't have time to enter...definately another trip here is in order.
On leaving the Duomo, we discovered a car show was being assembled at the entrance.  Shades of La Dolce Vita!

Here I am fending off the curious next to a 356
 Porsche 1600 similar to one I once owned.

San Guimignano?  Maybe next post. These trips through medieval catherals are exhausting.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Palazzo Vecchio

19 Settembre
A tour of the "secret rooms" in the Palazzo Vecchio with our guide, Marcello Massimo.

Photo courtesy Meredith Taylor
To begin, he led us outside the museum and through a narrow door in the wall up a dark, narrow winding staircase and into a small room that had once been a bath. On the wall was a picture of the room purporting to show how it once looked, with a fireplace and four poster bed.  Our guide said there had never been a fireplace in the room and that when the room was constructed fireplaces were restricted to exterior rooms for safety. We then passed through a door at the back and into the most marvellous room I have seen to date in Italy, the Studiolo of Francesco I. My better half has already mentioned the portrait of the Grand Duchess Eleonora da Toledo high on one wall of this room.
What I noticed was the absence of Christian iconography. How refreshing after all those Madonnas and Crucifixes to see a room decorated with nymphs and other classical figures of pagan Greece and Rome. The portraits on the walls were in heavy frames which swung open to reveal shelves for books or treasure or, in one case, another narrow staircase.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons 
On a balcony on the third floor we were close to the ceiling of the great reception hall, the Salone dei Cinquicento.
Duke Cosimo had Vasari raise the ceiling of this room, presumably to make it more impressive to visiting dignitaries, and I wondered how such a large space could be constructed without resorting to the arches and flying buttresses found in cathedals. Our guide led us up a final flight of stairs to what I'd call the attic where we found the answer: wooden trusses which support the ceiling and "float" on the walls of the building.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Quick look at the Uffizi

21 Settembre
Using our AIFS-provided passes, we cruised through the box office of the Uffizi and up to the top floor for a first look at this famous museum. The Uffizi is U-shaped, or, more precisely, a long rectangular box with one side missing. From the ascensore we traversed roughly half the length of one side of one floor of the box in the hour and a half before closing. This quick look, nevertheless, led us to a group of rooms that are the focus of our Renaissance art course,
  • The Sala di Giotto e del Duecento

  • Containing the Cimabue Santa Trinita Madonna already noted in a previous post, Giotto's Mother and Child Enthroned Among Angels, and the Duccio work of the same title. These are what are referred to by my better half as the "Madonna Hat Trick".
  • The Sala di Trecento

  • Consisting of two rooms, one for Siennese and one for Florentine artists.
    In Room 3, the Siennese room, is this Madonna and Child by Tagliacci which was painted around 1334. Although her nose is tilted at the requisite 30 degrees, the features are beginning to look more lifelike than the execrable "Greek" style that Vasari so abhors. Nevertheless, although the baby's right foot seems about the right size for an infant's, the length of his body would suggest a growth spurt that might be more likely at age six or eight. Clearly this artist felt no necessity for painting from life models.

  • The sala di Gotico, and the Sala del Gotico Internazionale

  • Containing works from the ongoing exhibition of the international gothic style, to which I plan to devote an entire entry in this journal at a later date.
  • The Early Renaissance

  • Which holds this rather strange work, a collaboration between Masolino and Masaccio, the Madonna and child with St. Anne.  St. Anne, with a very dark face, towers over the composition. While most of the work is attributed to Masaccio, it is interesting to compare the rather gothic cherub at upper left which is said to be by Masolino with the more realistic one on the right by Masaccio. The mother and child, while not "pretty" in a mannerist sense, appear recognisably human, and not merely iconic symbols.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A visit to Santa Croce

15 Settembre
 After a week in Florence, finally visited the church and museum of Santa Croce (the Franciscan church). A somewhat odd collection of tombs and monuments to illustrious Italians inside the cappella maggiore of the basilica, including Marconi, Machiavelli, Dante, Giotto, and others. I suppose the Prince could have used radio to good effect had it been invented then. Also in the nave, near a door opening on the courtyard, is the Annunciation by Donatello, created around 1435.
This architectural wall sculpture was used as an altarpiece in the Cavalcanti family chapel. In the 16th century, Vasari renovated the whole church and this chapel was destroyed, but Donatello’s piece was saved and placed elsewhere. The Annunciation is made of pietra serena, a dark stone typical to Florence and more commonly used for architectural elements such as columns, and gold leaf impressed in the stone.

  But our main objective was to view the large wooden crucifix of Cimabue, prominently displayed in the museum section of the complex. What a shock to see it in such poor condition, so unlike this old reproduction, with much of the face and body obliterated. I understand this was a result of the terrible flood Florence suffered in 1966, but why has no restoration work been done on this important work?