23 November 2014

The Beauty of Austerity

Renaissance courtyard featuring arches supported by classical pietra serena columns
Many of you know me as a "more is more" kind of gal,  but I can assure you, I do admire minimalism, and respect the clean, empty space of purpose when I see it.  The lovely courtyard above is found behind the (magnificent) AquaFlor perfume shop, in the Palazzo Serristori Corsini Antinori in Florence (circa 1520.)
All around Florence are beautiful examples of simple, austere architecture, a good many of them designed by Brunelleschi such as the Ospedale degli Innocenti, and the churches Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo. The look is created with simple plaster walls supported by columns and mouldings of pietra serena, the native sandstone, and of course, excellent proportions.

San Felicita- a Baroque remodel still retains the calm
Despite being crammed with colorful art (generally added later) most of the Renaissance interiors in Florence retain a calm environment and a cool serenity that begs you to listen, wait, breathe.  It's a formula that works as well in later architecture, and I think it's the defining architectural style of Florence, even today.

The most notable example of this austere architecture I can find is the Pazzi Chapel, (if not designed then certainly influenced) by Brunelleschi, completed in 1460 in the first cloister of the Basilica of Santa Croce.  It is simply the most composed, serene, purest example of Renaissance architecture in Florence. It speaks directly to the desire for simplicity, and peace, and all sorts of ideals about geometry, order, and being bigger than the sum of one's parts. 

Interior dome of the Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce
I was floored by this breathtaking space the first time I set foot in it (in 1980, under the guidance of my mentor Dr. Otto Mower) and regularly return when in Florence for a dose of mind-clearing symmetry.

Altar, Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce.  Where's that light coming from?
These last two photos were taken in February while I hovered in and around Sta Croce during a lighting storm, awaiting word of my father's condition after he had emergency surgery thousands of miles away. I could think of no better place to keep it together.  I got the message, don't go to pieces, it's not all up to you.
OK so I was finished with this post, and then I heard about THIS:
Opera di Santa Croce Firenze, the non-profit institution that operates and maintains the Franciscan church has announced a crowd-funding campaign to restore the loggia that forms the entrance to the Pazzi Chapel.

The ornamented loggia of the Pazzi Chapel - photo Marco Badiani
This 15th century loggia is an important document in Florence's architectural history, a sampler of every Renaissance feature you can shake a stick at:  a cupoletta by Luca della Robbia; lacunaria with carved rosettes; a terra cotta frieze border of cherubs; classic columns; borders of dentils, guilloche, acanthus, egg and dart, and basically the whole nine yards.   Austere? Serene?  Non c'è modo!  More of a celebration of everything going on at the time.  More is more!  
These details are now literally falling apart and require immediate attention.  

  • Read more about the Pazzi Chapel and the restoration efforts at the fabulous ArtTrav blog.

  • Donate to the only Kickstarter campaign ever to be launched by a 720 year old church!!! 

  • Join the TwitterChat and share your thoughts:  Monday, November 24, 2014  at 10pm CET | 4pm EST | 1 pm PST

  • spread the word on social media  #CrazyforPazzi

  • photos in this post by Lynne Rutter unless otherwise noted

    Many of these architectural terms are in the Glossary!

    14 September 2014

    La Bottega dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

    La bottega dell'opera di Santa Maria del Fiore
    Just behind the Duomo, on the narrow street Via dello Studio,  is a noticeably short building at no. 33,  with a wide glass window and doorway.  Look inside at La Bottega dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the light-filled workshop where features of the Duomo and Baptistry are maintained and restored: an old statue being reproduced, mosaic borders and tracery windows being repaired. 

    A few steps away at no 19 is the wonderful art supply shop Zecchi.

    Firenze, March 2014

    02 August 2014

    Pseudo-Kufic: A Secret Ornamental Language

    Giotto Madonna and Child (detail) 1320 National Gallery, Washington DC
    Have you ever noticed decorative borders in certain Byzantine or Renaissance paintings that don't seem to make any sense? Beautiful, calligraphic, gibberish... ?

    Unknown Spanish Artist, The Resurrection,  1420, Legion of Honor, San Francisco
    G. dal Ponte: Madonna and Child with Angels, 1430

    Last week I was visiting the Legion of Honor with my good friend and fellow decorative artist, Bruce Thalman, and I was studying some embossed, gilt halos in Medieval and Early Renaissance paintings, as I am wont to do, when I noticed something in the border of a cloak worn by the figure of Jesus in an anonymous panel from the 15th century.   "Pseudo-Kufic"  I said.
    "Gesundheit" Bruce replied.

    A great number of paintings of the late Byzantine and Early Renaissance era used a similar design device: arabesque lettering, painted as the embroidered decoration in the hems of garments or edges of carpets.  This script is known as Pseudo-Kufic.

    Giovanni dal Ponte: Madonna and Child with Angels (detail) 1430 Legion of Honor, San Francisco
    Influenced by exotic artifacts brought back from the Middle East through both conflict and trade with the Ottoman Empire,   Early Renaissance painters embellished their work with complicated patterns and eastern-style scripts in an effort to create an "oriental" atmosphere, especially with regard to persons or scenes from the Holy Land.   Eastern Kufic script was a particularly ornamental style of calligraphy dating from the 11th century, whose design lent itself well to borders.

    Fragment of a 13th Century Qur'an in Persian Naskh and Eastern Kufi scripts, Library of Congress
    Giotto Madonna and Child, 1320 National Gallery, Washington DC
    There are many famous examples by Giotto, Massaccio, Gentile di Fabriano, and others who used Psuedo-Kufic, faux Arabic, Phags-pa Mongol script, and even faux Hebrew lettering in gold, to emphasize the rich, exotic impression of the Eastern world. (I find it this an extremely attractive era in art history.)  It may have been a statement about the cultural universality of the Christian faith; a reverence for history in general; or possibly the ambitions of the church at that time.    

    Gentile da Fabriano:  Adoration of the Magi (detail) 1423 Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Psuedo-Arabic lettering and Mamluk patterns in the halo of the Virgin
    I recall an afternoon at the Accademia in Florence where I spent about 20 minutes discussing this decorative lettering with Erling, who has an interest in languages as well as cyphers. It's not like I can read Arabic or Hebrew myself, but I could tell this wasn't a real language somehow.  Nevertheless I was trying to figure out if there was a pattern, and wondering if Giotto had invented his own alphabet, or whether each artist had a code worked into their own singular version of this calligraphy.  And if so, could I decipher it?  The following day, several hours in Hall 2 of the Uffizi, turned this into a minor obsession.
    I still notice it all over the place.

    Paolo Veneziano:  Virgin and Child (detail) 1354, Louvre Museum. Psuedo-Kufic hem embellishes a rich, oriental fabric.
    Lorenzo di Niccolo: St Paul (detail) c. 1400 Legion of Honor, San Francisco 
    decorative Pseudo-Kufic script on the sleeve of the Apostle
    By the 16th century, orientalism in religious artwork all but disappeared, as the Italian churches wanted to emphasize a more Roman context to their history.
    And now... ?

    more about:
    Pseudo-Kufic  at Wikipedia
    and at  Res Obscura

    26 July 2014

    The Putti of the Palazzo Albizi

    A putto with a galero and Santo Stephano cross, on a ceiling in the Palazzo Albizzi, Florence
    Along the Borgo degl'Albizi in Florence, fortress-like palazzi form deep canyons of stone facades, though which flows a river of pedestrian traffic.   At the center of this strada is the Palazzo Albizi.  Like most of these palaces the former home of the once-powerful Albizzi family is now divided into many shops, offices, and apartments, but is especially notable for reclaimed rooms on the street level, now the flagship store of "Maestri di Fabbrica." 

    Maestri di Fabbrica, located in the former Palazzo Albizi
    a telemon painted into a column

    I am told that the frescoes were painted by Bernardino Poccetti or one of his pupils in the late 16th century.   In some areas the restoration of them is a bit ham-fisted but the overall design makes clever use of the space and there are plenty of thrilling details.

    These trompe l'oeil murals now form a spectacular backdrop for the handcrafted work of a number of Tuscan artisans; displays of natural cosmetics and candles; a very nice buffet serving local specialties; and a boutique dedicated to fine local wines and olive oil. It wasn't until Theresa Cheek visited us in Florence that I discovered there was also a small back room with a surfeit of decorative art books at only €10 each.

    putto with a river anchor and the Maltese cross of the Knights Hospitaller
    One room in the shop was formerly a chapel; its ceiling populated with putti carrying symbolic items such as a fish hook-styled anchor, a cardinal's galero, and "Maltese" crosses, one a symbol of the Knights Hospitaller, a medieval religious military order, another a reference to the "Holy Military Order of St. Stephen Pope and Martyr" founded by Cosimo de' Medici in 1561.

    Also, some pretty good putti painted into these ceilings. If you are like me and you are always looking for good putti. 

    16th century trompe l'oeil murals in the former Palazzo Albizi

    Maestri di Fabricci is located at Borgo degl'Albizi, 68, Firenze

    all photos in this post by Lynne Rutter, Florence, February, 2014
    click on images to view larger

    *The English spell the name Albizzi. I have no idea why.


    15 July 2014

    Doors of Florence

    convenient hatch
    While in Florence I started collecting photos of old doors.  I tend to do that when I travel.  So many of the great doors in the historic center of the city are covered in studs. Florentine palazzi were built like fortresses, with their imposing entrance gates opening into central courtyards.
    No.129 covered in studs
    I noticed even the smaller doors were covered in studs.  Nothing says "come on in" like a door riddled with  nails.

    Entrance to the Palazzo Antellesi, with a spectacular auricular crest. Also it was paper recycling night when I took this shot. It's not normally so littered on the Piazza Sta. Croce.
    OK to be fair, not all of them are covered in studs. Many of them are only partially covered in studs.

    stones and wood and studs at No. 11
    a rare example of a painted door at No. 13
    partially studded door at No. 14
    Centuries of political upheaval and the astonishing wealth of the Florentine families created an architecture that from the outside looks foreboding, closed, cold, while inside they were splendid and open. Much like the Florentine people themselves-  reserved or even off-putting at first, after a few meetings they become warm and amiable.  

    As a giant fortress-like palazzo became unnecessary, and over time, infeasible; most of these urban castles were divided up to make apartments, offices, etc., while sharing the original entrance; a phalanx of doorbells illustrating the division of space.
    No.4 still has its buchette del vino
    Many of the old palaces have a small buchette del vino near the entrance. This was a mini-portal through which noble families could sell wine and olive oil from their country estates without letting the riff-raff into the palazzo.  (There is a great collection of photos of these traditional Florentine niches on facebook.)

    No.28 with an unfortunate mail slot
    The doors in the historic center are, with rare exception, varnished wood. Painted doors are quite rare.  Unlike Paris, where the wood is usually a cleverly painted faux bois, these doors are simply varnished. I even watched several of them being refinished and was amazed and the thickness (and age) of the wood, and of course wondered what kind of varnish they were using. 

    No. 11 with its lovely carved doors
    Single entrances stand out for their relatively modest scale.

    A single family home with a painted facade and simple doors
    And then there are all the clever additional doors, created to make entrances in odd places, as space became more and more valuable.

    Even the wee entrance to No.33 is of course fortified with studs
    Many of these doors require stooping to pass through. This is especially true of those doors inside large old courtyards, but I found plenty built under windows or stairways all over the old city.

    No 1 under the stairs, and it's accessible!
    entrance doors hidden under a window, disguised to look like the stone walls
    an interior courtyard door, only 5 feet tall and beautifully varnished.

    More photos of Florentine doors on my Flickr page

    All photos in this post by Lynne Rutter, 
    Florence February-April, 2014
    click on images to view larger


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