How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part III

Imagine yourself a teenager of 13 years, who finds himself in the company of three of the greatest artists of your time. What would you learn from them? What would become of you?


As we progressed on our tour of the San Zeno Basilica of Verona (Part I and Part II), I promised to take you to Andrea Mantegna’s masterpiece of 1456, but to appreciate it we need to step back in time for another 200 years.

Our first stop is 1222, when a group of students and teachers of the oldest European university in Bologna decided to plot their own path in science and art, and set off to Padua, where they established a new campus. They valued freedom of expression above anything else, and Bologna had proven to be a place too stuffy for their liking.

Freedom of thought shaped their new motto, which in English would be “Liberty of Padua, universally and for all”.

The new university became the boiling pot of ideas and innovation, with the alumni including Copernicus (the father of astronomy), Andreas Vesalius (the father of anatomy), and Casanova (the father of adultery). Galileo Galilei held the chair of math there for almost 20 years.

Giotto came to Padua in less than a hundred years and frescoed the Scrovegni Chapel (the iconic Kiss of Judas is there).

So in two hundred years before the year that we are interested in (1444) the uni had become a catalyst of innovation for the whole of Northern Italy, with Padua at the centre. Much of that innovation depended on… excavation, for the leading trend then was a theory that the more the antique past was understood, the more the present would be able to reveal about the future.

Not surprisingly, the leading art studio in 1444 belonged to a 50-year old collector of antique statues, and manuscripts. The workshop had 137 students, who were endlessly copying Roman designs (and especially heavy fruit garlands) when not labouring on client orders. The boss was a rich businessman, but a poor artist, so to maintain his artistic ego he had to have an eye for talent. He loved passing the work of his gifted students for his own.

That was how he found Andrea Mantegna, and even adopted him as his son (not to pay for Andrea’s work, of course). I wonder if Damien Hirst has entertained this idea.

Andrea Mantegna was 13 at the time.

1444 was the year when three most prominent masters of the time came to Padua. First, they were interested in Paduan collections of excavated classical past, and second, Padua encouraged experimentation and what today is called “the sacred right of freedom of expression”.

The three gurus were Uccello, Donatello, and Jacopo Bellini:

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Donatello and Uccello were friends since apprenticeship times with Lorenzo Ghiberti (he made the gates of Florentine Baptisterium and had seriously pissed off Brunelleschi by winning the pitch), and when a local cathedral landed a massive order to Donatello, he convinced his friend to come over too.

Jacopo Bellini was the single most prominent artist from Venice, rich, flamboyant, with a large household that he moved 30 miles away from the far more comfortable Venice, to Padua, because it was still a part of the Venetian republic, but had good schools, universities, and cheaper rents. Kids have always been changing priorities of their parents. haven’t they?

Uccello innovated foreshortening, introduced new angles, and invented almost cinematographic dynamism in a perfectly still painting. He had studied perspective with a mathematical genius who was also the biographer of Brunelleschi, but he was not interested in perspective itself. He was interested in how he could twist perspective to accommodate a bigger world in his paintings.

Bellini worked together with Leon Battista Alberti for a few years before he came to Padua. Alberti wrote the first book on perspective for artists, and published it nine years before the events I am describing. As you can see from the drawing accompanying Bellini’s name and age, Alberti’s knowledge rubbed off: Jacopo got deeply interested in complex perspective compositions. Similarly to Uccello, Bellini was more interested in how new colour combinations that he was using could mix up with perspective solutions, than in the perspective itself.

And, certainly, there was an exchange of ideas going on between the artists:

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Donatello was a genius in everything, including perspective, and instead of talking, I will show you the difference, easily illustrated by the bas-reliefs in Siena’s Baptisterium on which Donatello worked together with his former teacher, Ghiberti, and one other artist.

Click on page 2 at the bottom to see it, and to have the story continued.

Butt Plug and English-French Cross-Cultural Differences

It is a modern maxim that the fastest lane to success is exhibiting a provocative art work in such a way that it becomes a Chupa-Chups candy for the mass media to lick into a scandal.

Provocative art can be harming, like Pussy Riot‘s act that harmed the Church’s sham of being merciful and got the girls boxed in a nice Russian prison; harmful, like Pavlensky‘s nailing his scrotum to the Red Square; and harmless, like Paul McCarthy‘s inflatable sculptures with sexual connotations.

If the harming and harmful types pinch the nerve of a society in ways the society starts wriggling in agony, exposing its deep sores and chronic illnesses, the harmless kind allows the media to blow innocuous issues out of proportion, at a profit. It is safe, guarantees high ratings, and represents a great photo opportunity. This is the most recent case.

'Tree' By Paul McCarthy - Monumental Artwork At Place Vendome In Paris

Paul McCarthy’s Tree sculpture on the Place Vendôme. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

According to The Guardian, it is “McCarthy’s controversial sculpture, Tree,” that has provoked a right-wing backlash after it was installed in Place Vendome instead of the usual Christmas decoration.

You may wonder what can be controversial about a giant sex toy? An artwork that tests tolerance limits of the Religion of Peace (also known as Islam), would  be controversial. A sex toy is just a sex toy, even if it is a Hulk’s accessory.

Yet, there is controversy in the media coverage of this sculptural summit of human intelligence. Jonathan Jones, Guardian’s leading art critic, asks his audience with a good measure of condescension in his voice, “Why are Parisians being so prudish?”

He is proud the English have shown McCarthy’s phallic Pinocchio in front of Tate Modern without a whiff of public protest.

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Paul McCarthy’s Blockhead, outside of the Tate Modern. Photograph: Alamy/Alamy

Jonathan Jones believes the English are such an elevated and sublime nation that they didn’t see the phallic meaning, and even if they saw it, they interpreted it as a dialogue with Walt Disney who might have added the long nose to Pinocchio’s face as a subconscious reference to the penis. He says, “…if you don’t see the phallus in the film, you won’t see it in the statue. The London crowds didn’t.” 

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Dear Mr Jones, a more plausible explanation would have to address the possibility of the Global Warming driving Londoners massively blind (the effect previously attributed to intemperate masturbation). I can easily imagine how the English, in the usual English custom, take this setback in good humour, pretend nothing has happened, but sometimes tend to miss the point if it is visual.

The French sabotaged Paul McCarthy’s butt-plug “Tree” the other day, and now they are labelled myopic, bigoted and intolerant retards, far, I assume, inferior to the English, who according to Jonathan Jones, possess inordinate quantities of “…the underlying puritanism…, that stopped us noticing how filthy McCarthy’s Tate Modern sculpture really was”.

Paul McCarthy’s Tree after it was vandalised. Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

Perhaps, the French see “the naked Emperor” for what it is, and have no fear to say it out loud, unlike the English, for whom maintaining the decorum of decency is more important than the truth?

Is it also the reason for the French to be much more willing to openly criticise poor service in, say, a restaurant, than the English, who are more likely to withdraw into the poker face state of I-am-halving-the-tips? Or is it just a cultural cliche?

If someone is so sublime that he takes a giant butt plug for Christmas tree, it is called visual agnosia, as in the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It is a dangerous disorder requiring professional help: imagine the likely reversal, taking a Christmas tree for a sex toy. Santa Claus who shoots down the chimney and discovers the consequences of this mistake risks losing his sanity, along with tossing his milk and cookies.

I never support censorship, or public pressure on artists, but today I find myself on the vandals’ side. It is my firm belief this butt-plug art is as productive for human development as anal sex is conductive to making children.

If a French or English reader happens to stumble upon this post, I’d love to hear your opinion on each other. Is it just a cultural English snob who loves being seen in opposition to the French or something ancient that runs dark and deep?

If you are not French or English, just tell me if you play for the vandals or against them.

Send the link to your friends, let’s see which side they are on!

How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part II

A smiling saint?
A graffiti on a 13th century fresco, left by one of your ancestors?
A fashion idea from the 14th century?

This is what awaits us inside the Basilica of San Zeno. We spent some quality time outside it, now is time to enter.

Oh, if you have a toddler, you MUST come in, for San Zeno, among other things, is also a patron saint for kids who are learning to walk, speak, and use the pot rather than a pamper’s.

The Basilica seems larger on the inside than from the outside, just like VW Golf, at least according to their advertising, in which a lady driver (how sexist) can’t squeeze her relatively small VW into a comparatively huge space between two parked cars.

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Most people rush to see the masterpiece altar painting by Mantegna, but we’d first go and see Saint Zenon. It is his church, so we must pay respect to the patron saint.

This is his 13th century statue, created by an unknown Picasso who lived some 700 years before the Picasso. To appreciate it, we must learn something of the saint first.

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Saint Zenon lived in the 4th century, came to Verona from northern Africa, and was brown. That was confirmed a few years ago when scientists ran tests on his remains, kept in the crypt of this church, and went as far as reconstructing his face. He left a volume of well-written sermons, in which he made a strong point against the Aryan Heresy (Aryans’ didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity: they could not rational out the concept of the Son of God being the same as God the Father). The Trinity concept is a complex one, but Zenon offered a metaphor that more or less summed it up: “the Son and the Father are like two seas connected by a strait of the Holy Spirit”.

Common folk fondly remembered Zenon’s habit of fishing in the local river (he is also a patron of freshwater fishermen now), him being very nice with kids, and his successes at mass baptism. In fact he was an all round nice chap, the sort you could introduce to your mother without any fear of scorn.

His pastoral hobby of fishing naturally has led to him being portrayed holding a rod with a fish:

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…a kind smiling face (standing out against the backdrop of stern faces of other saints):

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… and a HUGE blessing hand with hyperbolised fingers. Note how the right hand is visibly larger than the left.

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This is exactly what slightly maniacal Picasso did to fingers, noses, and some less appropriate parts of people he portrayed when he tried to show their inner character.

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Picasso, 1960. Reclining woman reading

There is a bit of horror in this statue as well. Click on Page 2 at the bottom to see it!

Dreamy country

Italy dreams about its glorious past, hoping for a better future, while living in the carefree present*. A few dreamy shots from the last trip. There’s logic in the captions.

Part II on how NOT to get bored by Renaissance art is coming!

* I know the present is not, actually, carefree, but what matters is the attitude to hardship.

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Fate cuts it short

What do you do when you are stressed out? Storm outside, lit a cig, down a shot, hit a wall, murmur nasty things about people responsible for your being tensed? Medieval monks would step out to the cloister of their monastery: a peaceful courtyard used for contemplation and murmuring, usually surrounded by a columned gallery around the perimeter.

Visual arts (sculpture) at the time was meant to make them realise the stress they’d brought out to the cloister was insignificant in the general scheme of things.

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Fate can have your head on a plate in the most awkward manner at the most inconvenient of times. What petty stress can compare to that? A 10-minute meditation, and – done! Cured of stress free and better than a shrink could do in an hour.

For those who read my previous post about medieval sculpture, this is the cloister of San Zeno Basilic, through which we would enter the Cathedral in the next post.

How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part I.

In a recent comment, one of my readers said, “some Renaissance art can really bore a person to tears”. This is true, but it can make a person smile too, as well as trigger reflection, and spark inspiration. To prove my point, I’ll take you on an adventure many await with dread as tourist buses squeeze through cobbled viales in search of a suitable place to disgorge their sweating contents. Yes, it is visiting an “average” cathedral in a “half-a-day-worth-of-staying” Italian town.

I personally believe there’s no such thing as an Italian town worth staying for half a day only. While I can’t promise I won’t run away from a hill-top medieval citadel in a month, I can guarantee at least a week-long satisfaction, given the town is located inside a wine-making region.

Our bus has just parked outside the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona.

Nothing out of the extraordinary. A Romanesque church with a rosary window, huge gates, a bell tower, and marble bas-reliefs on the facade.

This square is the best place to think of European history and culture. Not because it is pretty, but because of WHO had a hand in the Basilica construction.

It was initially a small church on top of Saint Zenon’s grave, set up by Theodoric (5th century AD), the guy who killed Odoacer. I’d love to strangle Odoacer too, for he was a Goth chieftain who introduced us to the Dark Middle Ages by deposing the last Roman Emperor. Odoacer got his one-way ticket during a reconciliation dinner with Theodoric, and it was a sword blow that cut the former almost in half. Odoacer’s wife was stoned to death, and his brother was killed by archers. All Odoacer’s troops were killed too. If you are a GoT fan, you’d find a connection to the series’ most gruesome scene.

Having wiped his sword on Odoacer’s tunic, Theodoric became the King of Italy, married a Byzantine princess, developed an interest in arts, and started sponsoring philosophers working on Aristotle and Plato translations. Were it not for the Great T, we might have a delayed Renaissance.

The small Theodoric’s church was replaced in the 9th century by a cathedral, sponsored by King of Italy Pepin, a son of Charlemagne, and brother to Pepin the Hunchback, immortalised in the musical Pippin, wildly inaccurate historically, but warmly received by the public. Pepin [the Normal Back] made Verona his capital and the epicentre of the Carolingian Renaissance which set the standard of lavishly illustrated books and pushed visual arts in new directions. Look at the pink sky against the blue landscape in this manuscript:

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Without those books, the “real” Renaissance would also have been delayed.

Finally, in the 10th century the Cathedral took its more or less current shape with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who launched the Ottonian Renaissance (again, mainly in book illustration, but with the valuable addition of ivory miniatures).

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and The Doubting Thomas.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and The Doubting Thomas.

Thus, we are standing in a square that has seen three kings from the Dark Ages (two Germans and one French), who promoted progress and innovation, and thus sped up the Italian Renaissance, and, ultimately, the modern world as we know it today. 

Now the boring part is over; and we are at the bas-reliefs. Click on Page 2 at the bottom of the post.

Fashion revolution begins now

Mannequins come in a variety of fashions: cheerful, sexy, haughty, and even thoughtful. Some don’t have faces to make their clothes stand out, while others are missing limbs: if you don’t sell shoes, feet are irrelevant. We may remember statues, but our mind never safekeeps human-form hangers: they are less important than the clothes they were given to wear.

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Revolution begins here, in the cliff-hanging medieval town of Orvieto.

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I took this photo from the neighbouring hill, where I lived in a 12th century monastery.

It starts from a boutique window on its shop-packed high street, which is the main conduit for visitors trudging to Orvieto’s main cathedral:

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