Tag Archives: Italy

Tortured Babies and Chained Black Slaves

Now that we have explored the ground floor of the Giovanni Fattori museum and haven’t yet seen anything from Giovanni Fattori himself, we need to get one floor up, to finally get to know the painter.

And what a staircase is it to climb! On my scale of gaudy, it stands a notch behind Jeff Koons.


Yes, ceramic banisters of traditional Tuscany design are interspersed by putti.

As you climb the first flight of stairs they face you, the next flight presents you with a spectacular view of their very un-childish bottoms:

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They are far from being happy, what with the iron rods stabbed in their heads! If you bend down to get to know them better, you get a feeling that something creepy must have been happening in this luxuriant and opulent villa when its owners were alive.

Once you’ve mastered the stairs, catching an unhealthy dose of putti suffering along the way, you get to a spacious hall with a lot of people on the ceiling.


It is an interesting moment in the history of Livorno, and art history, in general.

It is the unveiling of an addition to a monument to Ferdinand I de Medici in 1624. The statue itself was erected in 1601 to celebrate naval victories of Ferdinand over Moorish Corsairs. The statue was made by Bandinelli, an admirer and rival of Michelangelo but without any talent for large forms. I wrote about the guy here, and if you have been to Florence, you must know his major work that stands next to David.

More than 20 years later after Ferdinand the Victorious was erected, it was decided to add captive Moors, who – coming from North Africa – were usually dark-skinned or black. Painted bronze was seen as a fitting material, and Pietro Tacca, a former pupil of Giambologna, was commissioned to make four figures of defeated pirates.

It’s not often that one can see a sculpture which accessory part is better sculpted and more expressive than the main one.


An observer cares more about the Moors than the dude who defeated them.


Everything about them is spectacular: their twisted bodies, their faces, of which some are rebellious, and some quite resigned.

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There is a legend that Tacca used two real slaves as models for his sculptures who were set free when the work was completed. One of them settled in Florence, but would take his family to Livorno whenever possible to boast of the likeness of his face to one of the bronze Moors.

Of course the Moors don’t look as black today as in the ceiling fresco, but someone who doesn’t know the real history behind this sculpture may see the whole composition as an offensive symbol of racial superiority. And, believe me, in the presence of black people selling fake bags nearby with white tourists taking pictures of the monument with their uber-expensive Leicas, Canons, and Nikons, this modern interpretation of a historic sculpture does not seem all that irrelevant.

Enough of the creepy stuff. Our next stop is at Italian art of the 19th century.


The Yin and Yan of Italy, and tortured babies

What I love about Italy is that it is a patchwork of different epochs, styles, and cultures, which are often quite opposing and contradictory but peacefully co-existing. The symbol of Yin & Yan should have been invented in Italy.

Take Forte dei Marmi, a paradise spot for millionaires, their kids, nannies, fitness instructors, and cocaine suppliers. It is white (no black people except peddlers of fake LV bags), posh, and clean as the bottom of a cat with obsessive compulsive disorder centered on the cleanness of its bottom. I know some people believe cats are normally born with it, so imagine it to be double the norm.

Its boutiques stay open until midnight absorbing the apre-dinner crowd wearing a relaxed mix of casual attire and expensive diamonds. If you cringe at “expensive diamonds”, trust me, it is not a tautology in Forte. There are diamonds, and there are expensive diamonds; and the latter are noticeably different to the former in size and quantity. It’s the kind of diamonds that make you murmur, “It must be a fake” when you see them except that they are not. Don’t worry, though, Forte is a safe place. Of course, once a year a Rolex gets forced off the manicured hand of its wearer or a villa is robbed while its residents are put to sleep by some soporific gas, but given the number of Swiss watches and luxury homes in the area, it’s a small price the rich have to pay for being open-minded about the inclusion of the more unstable East European countries into the EU. Ultimately, the Forte’s rich would either earn their money back off those nations or steal it from their own. Fair’s fair. And yes, the word “earn” in Forte has a very different meaning to the same verb in, say, neigbouring Livorno.

In Livorno, the opposite of Forte, you don’t wear an expensive watch, because Livorno’s large immigrant community keeps a close watch on you at all times. A non-prejudiced tourist may take those stares for a sincere wish to help with city navigation, but the inner genius of intuition whispers that it is better to stay inconspicuous. Show off is never welcomed by socialists, and there are many of them in Livorno, for it is a place that has been holding socialist ideas close and dear to its heart ever since the communist party was founded there almost a hundred years ago.

Not that Livorno’s infatuation with communism has done anything good for the city. It is not a prosperous community, not very clean, and you won’t be able to pop into a Hermes store after your mid-night MacDonald’s dinner. While activists are busy leaving communist graffiti on the walls of public buildings, its churches crumble, its businesses twinkle out of existence, its palaces decay and peel off as if cursed by their capitalist ex-owners, with the net effect of activists’ leaving even more communist graffiti.

There is still a lot of charm in this fading star of a town, bombed flat during the WWII, and rebuilt by post-war architects who will not be celebrated in any foreseeable future for the beauty of their creations:

Do I like Livorno? Well, you might have already guessed that I hate Forte dei Marmi, the modern vanity fair for corrupt politicians, oligarchs (mostly Russian and the former ex-USSR, of course) and their menials. Forte is not a place where money creates anything good or anything at all. I am allergic to it so much I never take pictures there, and leave the town as soon as the annual obligatory dinner with friends who happen to like Forte is over. But, if you are interested, here are some good links 1, 2.

My dislike for Forte (let’s say it is Yin) doesn’t make me a big fan of Livorno (which is Yan), though. I am a firm believer that socialism is bad for you. If you contract socialism, you need to be isolated at the first signs of the disease . If you happen to be a socialist, please don’t even think about dissuading me: I’ve lived a half of my life under this “just” social order. Very few things make me happier than hitting a communist on the head with a tome of Das Kapital by Karl Marx.

Yet, Livorno is Italy, and Forte is not. It can be easily proven by arts and culture. In Forte, art galleries are outlets for gaudy po(o)p art that discredits the country’s culture and heritage. In Livorno, good art can still be found, and to see it we’ll go to Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori.

It is housed in a building that doesn’t strike you as a museum (Yan). It looks abandoned, like a homeless person slumped against the wall, when you are not sure if he is asleep temporarily or eternally.

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As you enter it, you are hit by the past glory of the prosperous capitalistic Livorno (Yin) mixed with the scent of imaginary mothballs (there are no real mothballs there, but you still can feel the smell).


Putting contemporary art in a historic setting is one of the oldest curatorial tricks to show that creative life is still pretty much alive and kicking, and it is also a kind of Yin&Yan.


Yet, when I was there, I had a feeling Livorno’s contemporary art has lost the vitality required to make something beyond eye-pleasing decorative pieces. Perhaps, it was just too hot outside, and I missed the breakthrough kind of art.

Fortunately, there are a few great artworks well worth a detour, as they say in tourist guides.

This painting by Neri di Bicci is a good example of the decorative branch of the Renaissance that ultimately peaked out at Botticelli (as opposed to the humanistic chapter of Masaccio and Michelangelo).

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Neri di Bicci, Crucifixion, second half of the 15th c. Florence

If you have been to the Medici Palace in Florence, and visited the Magi chapel frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli, you’d understand what I mean.

Why is it an interesting piece of Renaissance art?

It is a multi-figure composition where everyone is visible and has a role. Bicci shows a broad range of emotional states: sorrow, contrition, disinterest, curiosity, disapproval, approval, etc. You can play a game of mapping emotions against each character or group of characters in this painting and see if you and your friends are good at recognising emotions.

I will focus at a few elements in this painting, but before that notice how this representation of Christ’s last passion is soaked in passionate red. It was an expensive colour at the time, by the way.

bicci1. The land


It is a very narrow strip of land that is painted in such a way that it creates the feeling of a flat on which the whole composition is built, and takes you inside the painting, without directing you to anything particular at all. Clever.

2. The mourners


The beauty here is not in the suffering of collapsing Mary (that was not an innovation even then), but the attitude of the saintly ladies who support her. They don’t have time to cry or agonise over the Crucifixion, which has already happened; they have a more immediate and pressing task at hand. They don’t look up at Christ: that can wait. They care about his mother. And that is very true, much more so than the scenes painted with greater mastery by Rogier van der Weyden about the same time, or by Rubens much later.

Two fragments from Weyden's and Rubens' Crucifixions

Two fragments from Weyden’s and Rubens’ Crucifixions

When an old woman collapses one has to look down to support her, and even if the old woman doesn’t collapse (but you know she’s suffering a lot) you don’t lean on her while walking at the same time.

3. Gamblers

This is an important scene to which attention is drawn specifically by the hand and finger of a mounted man above them. Roman soldiers are drawing straws for Christ’s possessions.gamblers

They stand next to the group of mourners but seem oblivious of the dramatic events taking place around them. They are fully engrossed in their get-rich-quick game. Of course it was meant to be a moral lesson (with the point driven even further by having the three ages of man in this group), but… yeah, men are like that. The whole world would be collapsing around them, and they’d keep thumping through news on their iPads.

4. St.John


Yes! Women tend women, men think of bigger issues. One man looks up, St.John looks down, and the observer looks up and down, thinking of Christ’s sacrifice and his own future lifestyle choices. St.John didn’t come out well on my camera, but the strained concentration on his face can still be seen, that together with his clasped hands tell you a lot about the inner pain inside the man.

5. Torturer


This man is the most ugly character of all the Roman soldiers. He enjoys inflicting unnecessary pain on a powerless condemned brigand as a cruel boy pinching wings off a fly to see how it’d wriggle, unable to take off. His helmet is splashed with blood that he doesn’t seem to notice: the suffering of the crucified man is holding his undivided attention.

You probably won’t shake the man’s hand if you met him socially, but…look inside your own mind and remember if you have ever inflicted unnecessary pain on someone. The point is not to brand the man as a horrible brute.

This Crucifixion is an interesting piece, but we have to keep going, and climb an amazing staircase to the first floor with 19th century paintings by Giovanni Fattori there.

And that’s when the tortured babies come into play, the total Yan to Neri di Bicci’s Yin.

Stay tuned for the horror, I’ll post it soon.

People travel from other countries to see these doors

A realistically painted landscape is often compared to a window, once it is put on the wall, except that no fresh air is coming through. Expressionists say they’ve solved the problem by pumping their “emotional airs” into your room with bold combinations of pure colours.

Abstractionists say they are not about providing a window at all. They open a door for you through which you can exit into a universe of new ideas. Indeed, the famous Black Square is not a window to the night sky, it is a portal into an art history discussion club. Continue reading

No one knows what Virgin Mary looked like

…but everyone knows what she had to go through. A perfect portrait opportunity, isn’t it? No limits to imagination with very few restrictions, like a small mouth and big eyes (for it is the mouth that lets sin inside our bodies, and thanks to the eyes we can check just how sinful is that chocolate cake that we are about to put into our mouth).

Many cultures in the Christian world have their own relationship with the Blessed Virgin.

In Russia, the most famous icon is the Vladimir Virgin, believed to be a copy from the original painted by St.Luke himself. It is often used a symbol of Russian culture, even though it was made in Constantinople by a Greek artist.


In the 12th century, a Russian prince stole it from a nunnery. The icon had developed a habit of giving him assignments, and he obeyed all its commands unconditionally. Today, the prince would be locked up as a schizophrenic patient, but the Church raised him to sainthood.

The icon is a great work of art, convincingly showing the sorrow of a mother who knows her son is destined to sacrifice his life.

She’s not looking at the observer, she stares at nothing and everything. Today, this inward-directed look gives away an experienced yoga practitioner in the thickest of crowds.

It has become a symbol of the humble acceptance of the necessary evil for a greater good  (which Russians, who call the whole affair “sacrifice”, are so famous for). A fragment of the icon is also the logo of Icon Productions, a Mel Gibson company that gave the world the Braveheart, What Women Want, and the Passions of Christ, heavily criticised by the Church and banned in orthodox countries.

In Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe is at the foundation of national identity.


It appeared as a print on the robe of a peasant which the said peasant used to collect roses from the place where the Virgin’s apparition wanted a church to be built.

The peasant had effectively become an errand boy between the Virgin and the local bishop, until the bishop got convinced the peasant was not a fraud. Why the Virgin could not appear directly in front of the bishop and command him to build the church is beyond me.

The cathedral where the robe is shown behind a bullet-proof glass is the largest and most visited church on earth. The peasant was promoted to sainthood, of course, even though it is dubious he’s ever existed.

As a work of art, it is said to be a good example of the 15th-century colonial style.

Having learned the story of this painting, I can appreciate the Mexican infatuation with soap operas titled “Sugarcane Field of Passions” or “Don Darveio’s Secret” (though not the telenovelas themselves).

I am sure that the moment I started writing about the Virgin’s representation, most readers thought of Italy, and Raphael. Da Vinci is more known for his real women than Madonnas, and Lippi with his pupil Botticelli were more about representing women they loved than the celestial ideal, so…yes, it’s Raphael who comes up first on all google searches.

Do his Madonnas represent the Italian view? Does such a thing as the Italian view on the Virgin exist at all?

That may well be debatable, but there’s one Italian Madonna I fell in love with this summer.

It is a board painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1324-25, and rarely seen outside of the chambers of the Archbishop palace in Siena, and – by the shape of it – possibly a part of a larger altarpiece.

Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_Madonna_del_LatteIt’s an incredibly revolutionary image for the 14th century. Its graphical and colour solution is very modern. The Virgin is set off centre to show the heaviness of the child: a very real burden, as the position of her right hand indicates. Her clothes are rendered by flat areas of colour – it is the child that’s rendered in a more 3D manner, implying volume, and mass.

I’d say it again, the colour solution is just unbelievable. Look at the way the boy stands out against his mother via the contrasts of colours used to show his skin, the Virgin’s clothes, and his own pink diaper cloth. He stands out, but remains united with his mother at the same time. The unity is achieved compositionally via this circle:


Look at the dark lower part of the painting. The darkness is created by the Virgin’s cloak, but it also creates the impression that she is holding her son above an abyss.

The boy holds on to his mum’s tit as if he would be holding on to dear life, and look at the white scarf painted in such a way that it becomes more than just a symbol of purity. It’s pure milk, flowing from the Mother to the Child.

The compositional circle above makes this painting so much more than a representation of the Virgin. It is a clever essay on life and love, and all the things the latter entails and brings about.

Do you have your own favourite Madonna? Tell me!

Animals are bad for you

Animals bring a lot of suffering into our lives.

Driving a county road can be hell.


Uncountable couches have been ruined by animal secret agents, aka “pets”.


Expensive equipment is known to have been stolen and otherwise damaged.


That’s the price we pay for being carnivorous, so fair’s fair (This also explains why vegan activists are often aggressive towards meat-eaters: vegans can’t square up to cows and bears)

Animals can’t be blamed for misdemeanor though. They are neither kind nor cruel: they didn’t get to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge to know good from evil. They don’t feel sorry for you. They don’t empathically smile back when they witness your happiness (*)

When animals want something, they go and get it. You happen to stand in the way? It’s your problem, not their fault.

Instead of addressing the controversy of human-animal relationship, visual arts have been mostly kind to animals, showing them as harmless toys or even friends of people. And where has it led us? The Cute Cat pix epidemic!

Yet, history knows a few artists who were courageous enough to show the truth.

We have Filippo Palizzi with us today, an Italian artist of the 19th century, who braved  making small-size “genre” paintings about animal being insensitive to people.

His paintings may seem simple, or even simplistic, at first glance.

Filippo Palizzi, Agnelli e pecore alla fonte, 1957

Filippo Palizzi, Agnelli e pecore alla fonte, 1957

Indeed, this painting is simple, but in a clever way.

The left side of the painting is peaceful and ordely. The bleating river of sheep flows down the road to a communal spring. The front-row sheep stop as soon as they reach water. Other sheep pile up behind them in a humble queue. The shepherd dog comes first, exercising his “right-of-passage” privilege.

The right side, with the road becoming a perilous affair of shattered steps, is filled with drama.

The girl (what’s her age, 6 to 9?) gets knocked over by a young and rule-breaking representative of the otherwise humble herd (not surprisingly, a flock of sheep is also a mob). That proverbial “black sheep” (there are a few of them, it seems) decided to cut in front, skip the line, be the smartass. With the shepherd being at the back, and his law-enforcement agent being busy watering itself, there’s no one to discipline it there.

And no one, absolutely no one cares about the girl weeping over her broken jug.

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It feels like in a modern traffic jam, when a compact Fiat trying to change lanes gets rammed by an aggressive BMW (in Italy, replace “BMW” with “a compact Fiat” and the original “compact Fiat” with “any other car”). While the street becomes dense with fumes, verbal abuse, and middle-finger duels, traffic officers are watering themselves somewhere else.

If you happen to live in a god-fearing country of polite driving and law-abiding citizens, you won’t understand (**)


Bottom Notes

(*) Unless, of course, they know they’re in for a treat when you’re happy. Then, there’s that problem with apes: it has been proven experimentally that they show empathy towards other apes. Perhaps an ape picked up the core of Adam’s apple? I expect the next Conclave to figure it out.

(**) Happen to know a god-fearing country of polite driving and law-abiding citizens which is not Switzerland? Gimme the name!

Guest blogger who never speaks: stoned since birth

I am delighted to introduce Signor Facepalmo from Siena, Italy. He agreed to share his observations about people and art, even though it is sitting and not speaking in front of large audiences that is his forte. Over to him!

Kids call me the Super FacepalMan.


I have not always been like this.

You know my cousin, The Thinker, don’t you?

rodin-thinkerI was more like him, with my fist supporting my head, deep in thought. That is, until some ten years ago. Oh, the happy days… Thinking in sync with the Thinker, not caring about humans watching us as long as they didn’t invade our personal space.

Yes, we also want to have a safety bubble around us.

More specifically:

The genitals!

It is the worst. I hate it when a good-for-nothing chic or yob wows how cold my marble pebbles are. I can say “cold dick” in 50 different languages, like a friggin’ 3PO* and I don’t even know which nations speak the damn languages!

Sorry, I don’t usually swear.

My cousin is better off: he’s perched on a high pedestal, outdoors. There’s the predicament of pigeons, rain, and even snow sometimes, but that’s an expected occupational hazard for someone who’s bronze.

We were made to inspire contemplation. We were the proverbial “look before you leap” and “haste makes waste”.

It was a fine concept! It had worked perfectly well before the Internet.

The Web made everything instantaneous, and anything that’s instantaneous became fashionable. Dash off, rush in, speed up, jump, dive! It does not matter anymore if the pool has been filled up with water. You get to be a bigger hero if it was not, provided there’s a friend who uploads your cry of surprise to YouTube the moment you hit the tiled floor.

Have people become faster and cleverer than their ancestors? If the growing number of visitors who attempt to familiarise themselves with my private parts is any indicator, the answer’s no.

Artists are especially depressing.

To sculpt me, my creator had to study for 5 years, and then practice for some 15 years more to get the commission. It still took him full three months to chisel me out, you know.

Artists today are instantaneous. Snap, swoosh, wow, twit. Next, please! Dab, slap, blot, twit. Next!

Modern artists behave as if they are going to live forever and die next minute – both at the same time. Crazy. Art is not about snapping out artworks, it is about working out a masterpiece. One is enough, ask Bobby McFerrin! It takes time to think up, to learn, and to reflect to create a masterpiece. No, they say, we live in the fast lane! We have uploaded ten thousand new photos on Instagram while you were grumbling. Like us! LIke us on Facebook too!

If Shakespeare lived today, he could come up with a modern version of “Loves Labours Lost”:

“Shall I command thy Like? I may: shall I enforce
thy Like? I could: shall I entreat thy Like? I will.”

Thank God he’d died before the Like Generation took over.

The Thinker once told me Modern art was no longer about skill, but about the ability to create a universe of possible meanings in the mind of the observer, and that it required mental skill on the side of the artist rather than the prosaic abilities to paint or sculpt. In short, a modern artist is not sending across a message to make the observer reflect upon it. A modern, truly modern artist provides observers with a stimulus that helps them create their own idiosyncratic ideas.

I blame the doves. With so much shit flying around no one could keep thinking straight, even the Thinker.

In all professions, one has to study for years to make something that has a molecule of value. How come art is different? Isn’t it why there are so many young people today who want to “study art”? They just hate studying, that’s why. They hope to find a critic who would discover that “universe of meanings” in their “snap-dab-splash-twit” work.

And when they don’t find one, they come to me and point fingers, and touch the private parts.

There’s one kind of people I hate more than artists, and that’s executives.

You know an executive when you see one: boardroom haircut, face of a smiling shark, commanding his kids to keep moving on, because they have 30 minutes for Palazzo Publico (that’s where I happen to reside). They are focused, fit for anything that may come their way, and they always know how many tourist attractions in which order they are going to see in how much time.

Guys, if you’ve got a body of steel, a precise action plan, and a clear objective, chances are you are an intercontinental ballistic missile. And the best thing to do is to push the self-destruct button.

There may be no salvation for executives, but artists can still find their way to it. Except that it won’t be the fast lane they say they live in.

Don’t disappoint me.

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*) 3PO is a robot that can translate a million different languages into the Standard Galactic. If you don’t know him, sing hallelujah: it means you are immune to the Star Wars mania (or have been stranded on an uninhabited island for the last 40 years).

Editor’s note:

I don’t agree with everything Signor Facepalmo said in his guest appearance, but I have to admit much of what he rumbles about resonates with my views. What about you?