Tag Archives: Travel

Portrait of mountain

I spent the last weekend in the mountains, in the Chamonix area in France, where I took a million pictures while doing my first hiking tour ever. A very good friend of mine, madly in love with mountains, glaciers, and art came up with an idea that painting a mountain is very much like painting a portrait. It is impossible to paint a mountain properly if the artist who embarks on the painting is not aware of the mountain’s origin, history, the way it has been maturing, etc. Getting to know a mountain is also about learning of its behaviour in different light, and weather. Mountains can have a very different view of humans depending on the time of year or the season.

Of course, it is always possible to trace a photograph onto a canvas, but what’s the point in in painting then?

As people generally love watching mountains, taking pictures of mountains, and remembering mountains, there is a horde of artists who churn out mountain images and even tell you about their secrets on YouTube. Do they add anything to the understanding of mountains, human infatuation with the huge rocky things, or the human character with all its strengths and weaknesses that manifest themselves when Man meets a Mountain? Erm. No.

Turner was one of the greatest explorers of human character against the backdrop of a mountain ridge. Roerich established a spiritual link to Tibet via his shapes, colours, and mad beliefs in the Mother Earth (or something similarly crazy).

Raise your hand if you know someone else! I’d love to know more “mountain names”.

In the meantime, here are a few views that impressed me so much I got interested in finding more mountain portraiture painters!

UPDATEBoryana, a good friend of mine and an amazing artist suggested Cezanne and his 60 paintings of the mountain Sainte-Victoire as an “mountain artist name”. Of course! Especially in view of his own testimony: he wrote that needed to know the geology, and specifically the geology of Sainte-Victoire because it moved and improved him. I can’t stop wondering how Cezanne’s ideas resonate with those of the friend of mine who compared painting mountains to portraiture!

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

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? 


For thousands of years men have prided themselves on being stronger, smarter, and generally better than women, created as a necessity for the reproduction of men by a man with a big gray beard whose difference from other men was his ability to make men without the help of a woman.

Don’t re-read this sentence. You can’t find logic in the deeds of someone who’s officially inscrutable. The same gray-bearded guy made men’s life expectancy shorter than women’s, so that women would realise, posthumously, how valuable men were in their lives, and pass the revelation on to other women.

Fair or not, it had worked perfectly until the 1970s, when something went wrong.

We failed God’s design, again.

And again, the feminist kind of women were to blame!

Just like the very first time, when Eve decided to act without talking to Adam first.

A Renaissance artist of the 15th century from Siena can provide us with illustrative material of this Grand Descent.


It was Eve who offered the forbidden fruit to Adam. Look at Adam’s private parts resembling an innocent bird. A German artist a couple of decades earlier made an even more seductive version * :

Lucas Cranach

* I explain how apples and breasts are related here (Pure fun, and lots of apples)

And, of course, the man with the big gray beard couldn’t fail to notice that Adam’s “innocent bird” took to flight, so to say. I mean, other animals must have picked up the general idea of the pleasures of sex pretty fast. One doesn’t have to be omnipresent to become aware of a half of Paradise’s population struggling with erection.

We all know that on this Earth the speed of sound leaves much to be desired. Your mom tells you something when you’re 9, and it finally reaches you when you’re 35 and it’s too late. God loves you in a different way: his love is faster, and messages more direct. Once an errand angel lovingly kicks your bottom, you start descending.

The important revelation is provided by the same Renaissance sculptor (the author of the bas-relief above). Adam’s first reaction was to shift blame onto Eve. Look at his accusing finger. It screams, “It was her! She’s to blame!”


But if there’s one thing you can’t do, it is fooling God.

So, as Masaccio rightly showed some 50 years before the sculptor made this panel, Adam and Eve had to descend from the Garden of Eden, in equally shared shame:


What can it teach the modern Man?

That his instinctive, and inherent inclination to shift blame to women is intolerably shameful for someone who deems himself bigger, stronger, and smarter.

Adam showed himself as an infantile teenager incapable of taking responsibility.

Has anything changed since the Descent? Or, at least, since the Renaissance artist exposed Adam’s immaturity?

You tell me.