Saturday, April 27, 2013
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Michelangelo For Me
The Giant Among Giants -- 1475-1564
That's a self-portrait on our left of Signor Buonarotti -- Signor
Michelangelo Buronarotti -- a detail from his great monumental sculpture The
Florentine Pieta. Michelangelo portrayed himself as Nicodemus in the act of
lowering Christ from the cross, this Deposition begun before the year 1550. In
that same year, the French traveler Blaise de Vigenere saw the artist at work
and wrote: "He had passed his sixtieth year, and although he was not very
strong, yet in a quarter of an hour he caused more splinters to fall from a very
heavy block of marble than three young masons in twice or thrice the time. No
one can believe it who has not seen it with his own eyes. And he attacked the
work with such energy and fire that I thought it would fly into pieces. With one
blow he brought down fragments three or four fingers in breadth, and so exactly
at the point marked, that if only a tiny piece of marble more had fallen, he
would have been in danger of ruining the whole work." It is a quotation by a
contemporary which for me perhaps best expresses the passion I see behind all of
Though I've stood and studied, on many occasions, all of Michelangelo's four
Pietas -- the most famous one, and most known and loved by the public, at
St Peter's Basilica, Rome, executed when he was 24 years old; the Florentine
Pieta now at the Museo del Duomo, Forence; the Palestrina
Pieta, after 1555, in the Accademia di Belli Arti, Florence; and the
Pieta Rondanini, 1555-1564, at Milan's Castello Sforza -- my
favorite has always been the Florentine Pieta.
I first saw the Florentine Pieta in 1950 while living as a graduate
student in Firenze. The monthly subsistence check from the Veterans
Administration (under the GI Bill of Rights for World War II vets) did not go
very far, and during that time of La Miseria in Italy, most buildings,
including the impoverished pensione where I lived, were without heat. When not
at school, I did what the Italians did to keep warm -- went into the streets,
walked the city, lingered in sunny piazzas.
Most days, on return from these
long hikes, I stopped at the Duomo, that great Cathedral of Santa
Maria del Fiore, only two short blocks from my room in Via Ginori. I could
rest, delay return to the room (even colder than the Cathedral), and of course,
look again on the great treasures of art within that architectural marvel. For
me, the finest treasure was Michelangelo's Deposition or Pieta, at that
time standing in a dark side chapel. Visitors could not enter the chapel, the
light was very poor, but even restricted viewing revealed the strength and
sorrow of the masterful composition. Denied access to the chapel, I could not
study the marble from the side or back, but came to know every line, contour,
expression of its front. Some days, by tricks of light entering the chapel or
the reflection of candles, I detected golden rays moving over its surface. On
rare occasions, these rays would touch the face of the dead Christ, or of
Nicodemus lowering Him from the cross. Eventually, daily visits to the
Pieta became something I had to do -- even when Spring arrived and the
weather turned warm. If anything kept me from it, the day was somehow not
Firenze, of course, provided the finest opportunity for familiarity with
other Michelangelo works. The Accademia housed the great David and the
unfinished Prisoners (sometimes referred to as Slaves) struggling to free
themselves from the marble. In the same hall with the Prisoners was the
Palestrina Pieta, compelling, infinitely sad. During breaks from classes,
I could go to the Rotunda, look again on these marvels. Five minutes from my
pensione was the Medici Chapel with its magnificent sculptures of Lorenzo and
Giuliano de Medici, the Medicean Madonna and the great tomb groupings of Day and
Night, Dawn and Evening. My treks about the city took me to the Bargello,
where several of Michelangelo's youthful works -- the Faun's Mask, a smaller and
softer David, the imposing Head of Brutus, the bas-relief tondo Madonna
with Book, and a drunken Bacchus -- display the genius which Lorenzo de Medici
recognized while the artist was still a teenager. And there was Casa
Buonarotti, where Michelangelo once lived, and which still today shelters
his reliefs The Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna on the Steps. At the
Uffizi Gallery, one could study the only existing easel painting ever finished
by the master, his Holy Family.
Limited funds prohibited extensive travel during my year of graduate study in
Firenze, and I saw little of Italy other than the city and, occasionally, nearby
Tuscan towns. But subsequent visits to Italy have always led me, intentionally
or not, to more works of Michelangelo. Once in Bologna, visiting a friend at the
monastery of San Domenico, I was surprised to find in the chapel, statues of
Proculus and Petronius, and the Kneeling Angel with a Candlestick, previously
known only through reproductions in art books. I also "happened across" the four
statues of the Piccolomini altar, attributed to Michelangelo and assistants, in
the Siena Cathedral. At Castello Sforza in Milan, I saw the Rondanini
Pieta, unfinished, abstract, tortuous, a testament to the fact that he was
working on it in the days before his death during his 89th year. In Rome, I
sought out the Risten Christ in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva -- poorly
stationed and lit, but the strong and expressive face of the Savior was
luminescent in the darkness. And in Rome, of course, one goes again and again to
the Vatican, and -- despite the crowds -- always stops before that first and
most acclaimed, most loved of the four Pietas. I've seen strong men weep
in its presence.
The Sistine frescoes today -- after the long-term meticulous
cleaning, freed from centuries of dirt and grime -- are newly glowing glories,
even to those of us who've gazed on them countless times over half a century.
For me, more than ever, Michelangelo's figures and forms on ceiling and
altarpiece, though masterfully painted, are sculptural, endorsing his lifelong
insistence that he was not a painter but a sculptor.
In Paris, I went to the
Louvre to see as much as possible, in limited time, the famous masterpieces of
that renowned museum. But when I stumbled into the gallery containing
Michelangelo's The Dying Captive, I found it difficult to move on.
haven't seen it all yet, and particularly not one of the greatest works, the
Moses. On three different occasions on three different visits to Rome, I went to
the church of San Pietro in Vincoli determined to finally see this
celebrated marble. Each time, the church was closed. Photo reproductions
convince me it's a "must," I can't really claim knowledge of Michelangelo
without studying this monumental, significant work. If rationale is needed for
still another return to the Eternal City, that's one for me.
My love for the works of Michelangelo -- and of the man, because his works
are the man -- could be threatening to my appreciation of other painters and
sculptors, other genres of art. Could be, but isn't, as I continue to stand in
awe beore so much which other masters have given us. Perhaps another lesson from
Michelangelo, who's taught me so much. Afterall, wasn't he the first to exhalt
the work of Ghiberti, to name that artist's superb doors of the Baptistery in
Florence "The Gates of Paradise." Even so, enamored of all that's good in art, I
esteem Michelangelo above all others. My Giant of Giants.
Decades after I'd completed graduate work (sometime in the Seventies, I
think), I read that the Forentine Pieta had been moved from Santa
Maria del Fiore in Firenze to the Museo del Duomo, just behind the
cathedral, in the shadow of the great dome. Remembering my visits to the
cathedral to visit the sculpture, remembering mystical moments before it, I was
disappointed to learn of the move. But I've seen it many times in subsequent
years, and the new location is excellent. The Pieta stands on a spacious
staircase landing, brightly illuminated with natural light from an adjacent
window, imposing and arresting as you first view it from the bottom of the
staircase. And what a thrill to ascend the staircase, slowly approach that
wonder in marble. The landing is large enough to allow one to circle the
sculpture, view it closely from front, sides and back, observe the rough chisel
marks, that characteristic conclusion so often seen in his late work, the
insistence that once the form was as he wanted it, Michelangelo felt no need to
"finish," "polish" the work. And the dim golden glow I'd once observed in the
dark cathedral now floods the entire sculpture, as the stone itself is of that
Italians have told me
that Michelangelo carved this Pieta for his sacophagus. True or not, his
portrait in the figure of Nicodemus shows not only tender compassion for the
dead Christ but an intense yearning for oneness with God. I can't stand before
it without contemplating the words spoken by Michelangelo on his deathbed: "I
regret that I have not done enough for the salvation of my soul and that I am
dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession."
Saturday, January 5, 2013
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Not very successful at coping with the haunting of 9-11 on this 10th-year observance of the terror heralding the 21st century as our nation was so savagely ravaged. Managed the morning chores, went through the motions of daily routine. meeting most domestic -- and professional -- commitments, but was never free of indelible images of the carnage in lower Manhattan. Could not attribute that to the insistent drone of media replaying the ghastly video clips of yesteryear. No, the images have been with me since day one, sometimes recurring at most unlikely moments, often in the midst of a festive occasion. And with the images has always come pain, a gut-wrenching ache at seeing invasion of my country when for decades I'd believed I'd never see it.
I was not in New York on 9-11, but had been scheduled to fly from Albuquerque that morning on a flight terminating at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Flight cancelled, of course. But as an ex-resident of Greenwich Village, with a love of the city since childhood, the hours before televised horrors in its streets convinced me that I would never again be the man I was prior to 9-11. Profound change had entered our world, and my psyche. As artist and writer, I wondered if any subject other than the evil being witnessed would merit attention, work or effort in the future.
Ten years ago, and again today, I knew and know still, that my anguish -- so inconsequential to that of victims and their loved ones -- stems from convictions I held as a veteran of World War II. Along with comrades who'd looked on the bombed skeletal towns and cities of Europe, I believed we'd spared our country that -- that attacks hadn't happened in the US mainland, and never would. Belief sustained when we returned home, and after the gruesome cityscapes of a raped continent, gazed on the pristine brilliance of our unspoiled terrain. Admittedly now, a time of naive -- foolish? -- trust, perhaps even a Time of Innocence before its demise. But for long years, not I alone but other WWII veterans I talked with, relished that belief that we nor our loved ones would know attack on the homeland.
There are many days of bright turquoise skies in Santa Fe, where I live. And on 9-11, that September day in New York boasted a sky which rivaled ours. I remember thinking, as I watched those towers burn, that I'd have had a wonderfully clear bright day on arrival in the East if terror hadn't struck and canceled my flight. A sad bequest -- to too often in the years since, and likely for the rest of my life, look on turquoise skies remembering.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Early rising after a restless night, perhaps because I'd gone too early to bed. That decision was the result of feeling chilled, suspecting a cold might be coming on and wanting to avoid physical setbacks. Too many people I've associated with while in Sorrento -- Domenico, Antonino's son Michele, Tonino Mastellone, workers at city hall -- have, or are recovering from, influenza, and I don't want to join their ranks. Once unmindful of threats to health, the so-called golden years and vivid memories of two bouts with pneumonia during these years, have fostered caution.
Seems I chose well, restless night or no -- feeling somewhat better this morning. Have had a few cups of coffee, quite flavorful now that I've mastered an espresso pot which had me at sea for a few days. Stepped out to the terrace to check my laundry, all securely on the clothesline after yesterday's strong winds which downed signs and pennants in the market stalls. The terrace, small but private, fenced by lush foliage masking an adjacent yard, boasted muted pastel colors in the misted dawn but with definite promise of the brilliant hues soon to appear. Bells from one of the nearby churches tolled. And though I've never met anyone from the neighboring cortile -- have occasionally glimpsed movement beyond the perimeter of greenery -- I heard this morning the faint, barely audible, beauty of a female voice. Puccini's Il Sogno di Doretta.
In many ways, I feel this time in Italy is like coming full circle. Certainly not as severe or demanding as my first time as an impoverished student, 1950 during the post-war Tempo della Miseria. But definitely unlike the many times I returned with groups or tours which featured fine hotels, the best restaurants, door-to-door transportation with full handling of luggage. Now I'm on my own with modest and limited resources as in '50-'51. This small studio-apartment has no maid service, no cable TV, not even a telephone (though Antonino's loaned me a cell). With the free frequent-flyer plane tickets and most basic accommodations I could get, am keeping costs minimal by shopping for and taking most meals in my room. Haven't thus far had any desire to tour, though I'll probably -- depending on weather and how schedules go -- want to take the ferry to Capri for an hour on the water. Don't need to wander Capri, as I've seen it a number of times and under great circumstances -- painting with students from Maryland Institute, for example; riding the chairlift to the top of the island, entering the Blue Grotto. But I love the crossing of the Bay to is reach l'isola; and in that way am like the Sorrentini, who go for the beauty of the trip, not for the tourists traps once there. Admittedly, walking I'm no longer accustomed to -- though I try not to over do it -- can quickly tire me, and there've been a few occasions, in Rome as well as here, when leg cramps shattered me with pain. But those times have been overly compensated by the absence of labored breathing -- if Italy has not been as warm as I expected it to be for this time of year, being at sea level has meant release from the exhaustion which follows the least exertion at Santa Fe's 7,000 feet!
Not on tour, living in a modest apartment on the floor above shops at street level, meeting again so many of the people I've met through the years, I feel as I did in 1950 -- that I'm not a visitor amidst the Italians, but am living among and with them. Throughout the long years of returns to Italy, I've always had the sense of return home once I'm on her shores -- despite my youthful ignorance, as a fourth-generation Italo-Americano, of her traditions and culture; and of my citizenship and loyalty to native USA which I served in World War II. That sense of Return Home is stronger than ever this time around in advanced age.
Monday, August 15, 2011
City Hall was closed when I arrived at 9 this morning, but Giovanni (not sure I've ever heard his surname) was soon on deck, opened Antonino's office for me, and offered to check out internet access. The system he set up two days ago continues to let me web browse on the iPad, but won't handle email. I managed a bit of receiving and sending email on one of the desktop PCs which Giovanni made available to me.
I've known utmost consideration and help from countless people in Sorrento's City Hall over the years I've visited here, so shouldn't be surprised at Giovanni's obvious warmth in attempting to meet my every need or want. In addition to the numerous official civic duties which keep him running. Can it be that the five-year forfeiture of Penisola Sorrentina following the open-heart surgery diluted somewhat the cognizance of goodness I've long valued in its extraordinary people? If so, my return has opened floodgates of renewed recognition for the compassion they bring to human encounters.
Antonino phoned to say he'd be a half-hour late with his car to take me to Sant' Agnello for closing of paper work on the studio-apartment at Residence Tasso.
The half-hour stretched into more like one and a half hours, but I used it to do necessary web research for historical data I need pertaining to the neglected manuscript. When Antonino eventually showed, he was accompanied by 7-year old granddaughter Giovanna, on whom he lavishes much loving attention.
The business office for Areavacanze in Sant' Agnello was a mere half-block away from Grand Hotel Cocumella, the former monastery where I'd spent indelible summers -- 1992, 1993 -- with students from alma mater Maryland Institute College of Art. Gazing on its beautiful edifice with fond memories of its lushly expansive grounds and belvedere overlooking Il Golfo di Napoli, and of the young artists with whom I shared days of intensive work and study, I considered its contrast to my modest, spartan accommodations on this torna a surriento. But it's a long hike from the Cocumella in Sant' Agnello to Piazza Tasso in Sorrento (one I sometimes made roundtrip three times a day) and the need now is to be in centro, everything one needs or wants mere steps away.
Back in Sorrento, Antonino chose to stop at a bar on Corso Italia where he often takes granddaughter Giovanna for treats. Huge selection of coffees and pastries in a place obviously well-promoted at upscale hotels, as it was crowded with fashionably-clad turisti.
A day with sun coming and going, still on the chilly side but definitely an improvement over yesterday. I've not yet taken time to sit at an overlook and savor watching the sea, but plan to do so the minute O Sole Mio returns to stay a while.
Next stop was at Antonino's parents' apartment in the foothills above town. Domenico is a few months younger than I, his wife Giovanna a few years our junior. I was much aware of how the years have had their way since last we were together -- Giovanna's cane tapping along with mine, Domenico conceding that he now rarely leaves the house. A man who until even a year ago was seen daily hiking the streets, lanes and hills of Sorrento, portable easel and paint-box under arm to be set up at the numerous encounters with visions he couldn't resist translating to board or canvas. The town's most celebrated painter, his works are not only masterful expressions in form and color, but an historical record of the physical and cultural changes witnessed on the Penisola during the long decades of his productive life.
Espresso and cookies were served, and when Signora Giovanna asked about my family, I produced the iPad to show photos of wife, children and grandchildren (had anticipated such requests, downloaded the photos before I left the States). Son Rosario stopped by after having shopped for his parents. Granddaughter Giovanna commandeered a few of her Grandpa's paints and brushes, and produced a water-color for me. When Signora Giovanna suggested making more espresso, "or perhaps a snack," I declined, embarrassed at how active this mobility-limited elder was being on my behalf. "Ma tu sei famiglia nostra," she said. "Ben tornato a Surriento."
A brief visit, scarcely more than an hour. Before leaving, I went to one of the windows for the spectacular view overlooking the town and bay with a classic image of Vesuvius' contours etched above Napoli in the far distance. That beauty in front of me -- around and behind, surrounded by walls of Casa Fiorentino crowded from floors to ceiling with glowing canvases of one man's commitment and labor in the arts. When I turned to embrace Domenico in farewell, he was at a side table thumbing through small oils, colorful sketches on boards, a few of the huge collection with which he'd refused to part, generally resisting commercialism and sales of his works with the muttered defense "they're like my children."
A slab of sunlit yellow-ochre in one of the small paintings convinced me it was a glimpse of a side wall of Hotel Tramontano, the elegant and historic palazzo which boasts a magnificent front facade and gardens. I mentioned that my wife Ellen had stayed there in 1950 on her tour of Europe following graduation from college. Immediately, Signora Giovanna was at our side saying Ellen should have the painting, reaching for wrapping paper. Domenico -- always reluctant to release his works -- surprised me by suggesting that perhaps something more typical, less ambiguously abstract, would please Ellen more. And handed Giovanna a brightly colored small oil of a horse-drawn carriage in Piazza Tasso. Both were placed in a string-bag Giovanna produced; along with large packets of cookies and candies which I was ordered to supplement meals she was convinced were inadequate. These gifts, the brief but precious time with Famiglia Fiorentini, have me tonight, back in Residence Tasso, pondering what they know and what I've never learned about the human condition.
When Antonino and I exited their apartment, Domencio and Giovanna, though both walk with difficulty, followed us from their rooms to the lobby with the Ascensore which would take us down to the parking lot. "Un abbraccio di piu," Domenico said, embracing me once more. Giovanna, too, came to my arms. "Is it any wonder," I told them, "that l'anima mia resta in italia -- that my soul remains in Italy."