Tuesday, October 31, 2006

89% of 90% =

"Ninety percent of all the great art in the world is in Italy. And eighty-nine percent of that is in Florence." we were told by Laura, our Art Historian lecturer, on the first night of our Elderhostel in that city.

No one asked what percentage of the art currently in Florence fell into this category, and Laura didn't volunteer that information. But to my non-expert eye pretty much everything looked like it did - the Renaissance is after all, THE RENAISSANCE! . And it seemed to be present on very inch of every wall in every museum and every church that we went to every morning and every afternoon.

For several days I felt like I was walking inside the complete and definitive anthology of art history published as a life-sized pop-up book. Unfortunately there was so much of it that at times it merged into one enormous throbbing montage of biblical, mythological, and early Christian luminaries crushed together like a crowd of Maurice Sendak's child-grabbing monsters - all intertwined and pushing and shoving each other for position, and the viewer's attention. My art sensibilities needed some outside air.

So naturally when I spotted a piece of sculpture standing quietly by itself I was curious.

"What is this called?", I asked Laura as we walked at the head of our group across the Piazza Repubblica on our way to The Accademia and our appointment with Michelangelo's David.

"This" was a piece of apparently modern sculpture - four white abstract organic shapes on a black base. We had walked past it at least four other times on our excursions to and from the museums and churches of this city but up until today it hadn't really jumped out at me as being an objet d'art worthy of attention. It was the first, and to that point only, piece of clearly contemporary artwork that I had seen on our study-tour.

There was a statue of what appeared to be large animals fighting in the small square in front of the Weston Hotel near the Arno River that probably was also "modern", but its overall look was renaissance muscularity - something that in another time and place I would have rushed over to see and photograph. But not here and not now.

Today however the white, nonrepresentational piece definitely attracted my interest - much more than it would have in the real world. Maybe my aesthetic sense was becoming more eclectic. Or maybe I just was suffering from ROPMDD or Renaissance Overload Post Modern Deficit Disorder.

"I don't really know what this one is called." she answered. "They put them out for the tourists. What is this now, October? They'll be putting them away next month until around next May when the tourist season starts up again. I actually kind of like them - the juxtapositions...excuse me Jim, we need to cross the street here."

There is outdoor art in Florence - but you do kind of have to look for it. And compared to the indoor museum and church presentation the outside ones are mostly differences of degree rather than of kind.

In the nearby Piazza della Signoria, Florence's main civic square and home of the Palazzo Vecchio or town hall, in a small area known as Loggia dei Lanziis there are bronze statues of Perseus holding Medusa's severed head by Benvenuto Cellini, and Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Woman. In the center of the piazza is the equestrian statue of Cosimo I, next to Neptune's fountain.

In that same Piazza, in front of the town hall, is the copy of Michelangelo's David that replaced the original when it became apparent that the damaging effects of the alfresco environment outweighed the benefits of public accessibility. Apparently in an effort to prevent some of the same fate befalling the faux slayer of Goliath, electric wires were placed on the statue with the intention of shocking the pigeons off of the the artwork - presumably without scaring anything out of them. (Ken-Tuscan Fried Chicken?).

(photos of Living Statue and Sidewalk Art by Mars)
Next door to the piazza, in front of the adjacent Uffize Galleries, there were also several "living statues" posing for Euros - but from what I saw that was just about it in that immediate area. I actually like the sentient statuary - especially when you catch them on a smoke-break, or during the touching up of their makeup. They add a creepy humanity to the world of public art that somehow makes it both more accessible and more disturbing at the same time.

There certainly were other nonliving statues throughout the city (e.g. Dante Alighieri at Santa Croce) as well as a few of what Evelyn, our Architecture lecturer called "tabernacles" (small religious themed bas-relief looking pieces usually up above door level on the sides of buildings). And we did come across a couple of sidewalk chalk artworks in the process of being created.


But even these alfresco artifacts couldn't clear the renascence racket in my brain. So on our last day of the trip, in spite of the rainy weather, Mars, Sandy and I decided to go the the Boboli Gardens (click to see photos), a short walk across the Arno River and just up the street from the Ponte Vecchio and its statue of Cellini, in search of a place where the both the artworks and the viewers had a little more room to breathe.

On a cool, rainy day Boboli Gardens was all of that .

Created by Niccolo Pericoli (a.k.a Tribolo) under the auspices of the Medici family and completed in 1558 these gardens became the design model for virtually all of the great royal gardens of Europe, including Versailles. Due to the inclement weather the site was pretty much deserted. And perhaps because of the regimentation of the previous days, to which we willingly and gratefully submitted ourselves, the three of us decided to wander semi-aimlessly along the paths and trails and ultimately found ourselves at one side of a football field sized area with a couple of large sculptures along the sidelines.

Across from our entry point to the rectangular area was an incomplete human head, fifteen to twenty feet tall, with a surface that appeared to be dry, cracked clay. From our position it was impossible to tell if the object was solid or simply the facial portion of the head.

I was preparing to walk across the grass to take a closer look when from my right and on the same side as the head I spotted a man and woman in their twenties - she, long blonde haired and white booted, holding onto his arm and rocking playfully as she walked; he looking straight ahead with his multi-lensed camera poised for action in his right arm. His stance, even though he was moving and fully clothed, was almost identical to that of Michelangleo's David - eyes focused on the target, posture balanced and ready for action, and hands positioned for the task at hand and accordingly tense. (Clearly I am still at least somewhat still looking at the world through Renaissance eyes.)

Without any apparent conversation or signal the young woman broke away from her partner and ran towards the statue. Hesitating only to assess the situation she jumped up to place her hands on the base, lifted herself up onto the flat pedestal, and struck several lighthearted, girlish, supermodel poses while he, and I, pointed and clicked.


Suddenly the rain became heavier. And in her haste to remove herself from the puddle of water in which she now found herself standing, the object of our photo-attention accidentally touched one of the pigeon-preventing electrodes, thus completing the circuit and...

Just kidding!

Actually she placed herself in a couple more mock-mannequin positions and jumped back down. Then she and her boyfriend waved and bounced off into another part of the gardens.

Not surprisingly the city that contains, by my calculations, eighty percent of the planet's most outstanding pieces of art understands that in spite of their blatantly obvious sex appeal even the greatest sculptural works can still end up as pigeon perches, whereas other (shall we say) more cerebral ones just make really good chick magnets.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Real Dirt on Florence

 terra cotta (Italian: "baked earth")...a kind of object-e.g., vessel, figure, or structural form-made from fairly coarse, porous clay that when fired assumes a colour ranging from dull ochre to red and usually is left unglazed

adobe a heavy clay soil used to make sun-dried bricks. The term, Spanish-Moorish in origin, also denotes the bricks themselves.

Northern New Mexico is easily our very favorite place on earth and Mars was reminded of that area while we were standing in Florence Italy's Piazza Reppublica listening to our Elderhostel Art Historian tell us about the original "Bonfire of the Vanities".

Initiated by the newly self-empowered Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola to purge Florentines of all the "evil practices" that drew their hearts away from God, hundreds of works of art and books that were offensive to the Supreme Being (or at least to Savonarola) were burned and destroyed in a series of public conflagrations on February 7, 1497.

"At about the same time they were building the Taos Pueblo." Mars leaned towards me and whispered. Oddly enough something in Florence had me also thinking about northern New Mexico. In Mars' case it was the differences between the development patterns of the two cultures. For me it was the way they used their dirt.

As a gardener I like dirt a lot. And spend as much time in it as I can. And as an avocational potter I have some degree of understanding of what it feels like to transform that most basic of earth's substances into something generally considered higher on the aesthetic scale.

In the 1200's the municipality of Florence passed a law requiring all roofs to be made of terra cotta in order to reduce the spread of fires within the city. Apparently the Florentines are a very law abiding people because almost eight hundred years later whether you are looking up from a piazza at the dome of a church, or down from your room with a view at the housetops in your neighborhood, what you see is the same brownish-red earthenware - local mud on local roofs - possibly even the original 13th Century tiles.

As Mars had mentioned to me, at about the same historical time in northern New Mexico the Tiwa Indians were using their own sun-dried bricks of earth, water and straw to construct the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

The gringos of that area were obviously as taken with the "pueblo" architectural style as the Florentines were with Terra Cotta for they have replicated it, carefully updated it, and (in Santa Fe for example) also legislated conformity with it - although for aesthetic rather than combustible reasons. Mars and I feel totally at home in the high desert geography, climate, and (maybe because this earth-based building material is so literally connected to the land) the housing.

Florence on the other hand, which we were visiting for a single purpose (Renaissance Art) and a short finite time (six days) was feeling a little more like a display case than a living, breathing place.

The churches and museums can be - no, make that ARE - intimidating in both their vastness and the sheer volume of masterpiece-level works of art within them. I felt a little like a visitor from Bangladesh whom we hosted several years ago and took to our local museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Mr. Das was in his forties and had, we came to learn, a textbook familiarity with the artists on display even though the fundamentalist government of his country had destroyed and banned such works several years before. "These are copies?" he asked. "No", we told him, "they are originals." Mr. Das then literally ran through the museum trying to get as close as possible to as many works as possible in the short time that he knew he had.

Maybe because unlike the citizens of Florence in 1497 and Mr. Das I didn't have the experience of losing great art, my reaction to seeing Giotto's "Madonna and Child Enthroned", or Botticelli's "Birth of Venus", or Caravaggio's "Head of Medusa", or Michelangelo's "David" was closer to extreme confusion followed by relieved awe. In most instances I just didn't know where to look next because there was just so much to see. Thankfully our Art Historian or another lecturer guided us through the overwhelming maze of canvases, frescoes, and statuary without any serious injuries to our art-appreciating psyches.

Which didn't leave much time for the city of Florence itself - other than as the stage on which all this "stuff" was created and where it is exhibited today.

Except for the terra cotta roofs - which, like the adobe bricks of New Mexico, documented the intimate connection of the manmade edifices to their local natural infrastructure, and the repetitive acts of day-to-day human behavior that make life, and therefore art, possible.

And, at least for me, helped to bring this city on the Arno River down to earth.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Art and Sole of Florence

The art of a city...

...is not just on the walls of its museums...

...but also in the style of its citizens.

Mars and I went to Florence Italy on an Elderhostel to study Renaissance Art - Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Fra Lippi, et al. We saw their magnificant creations but were not allowed to photograph them. So, since I had a new digital camera with a full gig's worth of empty picture space and a proven inability to appreciate what I'm seeing unless I'm looking through a camera's viewfinder, I also decided to learn about the other major aesthetic product of the Florentine culture (and something more easily photographable) - the works of that city's modern masters, Rangoni, Ugolini and (of course) Ferragamo - the shoes of Florence.

I hadn't even thought about my new pursuit until somewhere during the first full day of the trip when I noticed the footwear of our Art Historian Lecturer and Group Leader, Laura. The literature that we received about this Elderhostel had cautioned us about the considerable amount of walking on uneven surfaces, and everything else we read and everyone we talked also told us that we should wear comfortable shoes. So we did - acceptably styled walking shoes that had carried us pleasantly pain free and reasonably fashionable through our previous Elderhostels to Barcelona and Budapest. Laura had reminded us again of the walking requirements at our welcome meeting the night before and told us she herself would be wearing some of her most comfortable ones.

Which apparently she did - although in comparison to the leather that adorned the rest of our group's feet it looked, at least to me, to be downright stilletto-ish. So, without much more thought than that, I took the picture.

And semi-subconciously I began to glance at the walking utensils of the more native-looking walkers. (The ones walking individually or in pairs, rather than shuffling along en masse behind an umbrella hoisting leader. The ones without cameras dangling from their necks. The ones that were looking straight ahead as they walked - rather than up, up and away. The ones that clearly knew where they were going. Laura had told us, "You won't fit in." We didn't.) And what I saw on the feet of the women striding rapidly across the bumpy potholed pavers, or fearlessly peddling bicycles through both vehicular and human traffic, or balancing motor scooters at stop lights were designer creations that came close to making Laura's minimalist mules look as sturdy as the ankle-high boots of the most hard-core hiker.

So while the others in our group continued to look up as we strolled along the narrow streets and across the piazzas of Florence, I surreptitiously snuck some glances downward. And digitally recorded what I saw.

Now Laura did tell us that the shoe designer Salvatore Farragamo studied the architecture of feet and footwear at the University of California before launching his career. And that supposedly his shoes are so comfortable that once you put on a pair.... She also said that the newest styles are immediately available only here in the Florence area, and do not appear in other places until the next fashion season when they are then immediatly consigned to the lowly status of last year's big thing.

Things we learned in Florence:
  • For some people, e.g. Florentine Fashionistas, comfort is about a lot more than, well, just comfort.
  • Nowadays there is a lot more to being a Renaissance Man or Woman than just the Renaissance.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Gypsy and The Monk

Mars and I just returned from an Elderhostel in Florence, Italy. As usual we took a lot of pictures, about three hundred in total, on our two digital cameras. Over the next couple of weeks we will be weeding through them and culling out the better ones for publication on our blogs (here and at www.viewmars.blogspot.com).

While we were waiting at Charles DeGaulle Airport on our return trip I reviewed my collection by holding down the "next image" button in playback mode and letting the snapshots cycle by at about one second intervals. That night as I tried to sleep off my long day's exhaustion my mind kept repeating these same pictures and other images from our vacation.

And I periodically thought about one photo that I failed to get - that of the Gypsy and the Franciscan monk.

We had been forewarned about the gypsies by our Art Historian lecturer/coordinator Laura - the same cautions that we had heard on our visit to Barcelona several years ago. And from the old Cher recording. In both cities we saw only the women. They were dressed in bandanas, peasant blouses, long flowing multilayered skirts, horizontally striped tights and ballet-like slippers - sometimes with brightly clashing colors, normally in black and white.

They were always, in some manner, begging for money. However the real danger, we were told, was in their ability to suddenly turn an apparent act of individual charity into a collective opportunity for pick-pocketing and purse-grabbing. We were warned to keep these Romany rovers at a safe distance.

We also knew quite a bit about The Franciscans, not of course as potential threats, but rather as a religious order of mendicant monks founded by Saint Francis of Assisi who called himself "God's beggar" and relied totally on the kindness of strangers for all of his minimal worldly needs.

In Florence their principal church is the Basilica of Santa Croce. This building is the home of several of the city's best and most famous works of art, but perhaps is better known as the city's Pantheon - the burial place of Florence's most illustrious citizens, among them the classical composer Rossini, the scientist Galileo Galilei (yeah, the same guy that was excommunicated from the church while he was being entombed here), the philosopher Machiavelli, and most famously Michelangelo.

We were told that this confluence of post-mortem greatness in one place was an incidental result of the habitation of all these individuals in the neighborhood serviced by this church - apparently a section of town that was as prestigious to live in as the basilica was to lay in perpetual rest at.

So we were walking as a group towards one of our museum or church visits and I was at the front of the line with Laura - a position that I like because it allows me to quickly stop and take photos without holding up the parade - when I spotted two sock-less, sandaled feet walking briskly along, with the hem of a gray robe bobbing in step. Then out of the other side of my peripheral vision I saw some black ballet slippers and green and white striped tights approaching towards the first pair of shoes. The two figures were just a little too far away from me for an in-place image, so I began to move towards them just as they separated without ever really getting together.

I grumbled to myself and complained to Laura that I had just missed what could have been the best of my vacation pictures. She seemed to agree. We walked a little further and I came upon the unlikely couple again - still too far out of range. I tried creeping up on them and just as I was about to raise my camera the monk raised his hands in a dismissive manner and the gypsy woman spun quickly away. This time she spotted me, reached out her hands (one of which I think held a begging cup), and moved quickly in my direction. I turned and retreated to the safety of the group.

But THAT would have been the picture - the Franciscan monk with his neatly trimmed beard and nicely cleaned and pressed robe shooing away the wild haired, ill-clad vagabond. Even better with the outer walls of the Basilica of Santa Croce in the background.

The image would have been perfect in so many ways - not the least of which is that, like so many other perfect images, it proves to the viewer (or photographer) that, whatever his beliefs about the subject matter are, they are absolutely, irrevocably, one-hundred percent correct.