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, 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






05 July 2014

And soonest our best men with thee doe goe

A chapel in the Santissima Annunziata, Firenze.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
John Donne, 1610

Light breaks through the enfilade between chapels inside Santissima Annunziata
  

Until I can create a fitting tribute for my father, I can but offer John Donne, and a black chapel in Florence.


.
photos in this post © 2014 by Lynne Rutter
click on images to view larger
Crucifix carved by Antonio and Guiliano da Sangallo, 1483

  


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16 May 2014

"Diverging paths of Mannerism"

Pontormo Visitation 1516 (restored 2014) Pieve di San Michele Arcangelo, Carmignano.
During my recent sabbatical in Firenze this winter, posters for the exhibit “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, diverging paths of Mannerism" began appearing in every street; the glorious image of Pontormo's Visitation (newly restored!) brightening up damp stone walls all over the old city.
In March the show opened in the Palazzo Strozzi, I ran over to see it, and it is one of the most thrilling exhibitions I have seen in a long time.  If you are in Florence anytime between now and 20 July, go see this show! 
Beautifully curated by Carlo Falciani and Antonio Nataliell- the show has a clear purpose, to illustrate the real differences between two painters normally lumped together under the label of "Mannerism."   This may seem, from afar, like a bit of hair splitting, but the exhibit carefully illustrates the routes each artist took to arrive at their own unique styles.  I have to say it was very exciting for me to get to know these painters better; the work is fantastic and the presentation is enlightening.

Rosso Fiorentino, Spedalingo Altarpiece 1518 (unfinished)  Galleria degli Uffizi
Nurture vs Nature
Jacopo Carucci, called Pontormo and Giovanni Battista di Jacopo , called Rosso Fiorentino were both born in the same year, 1494, and received early training together in the studio of Andrea del Sarto.  Pontormo found favor with the Medici and developed a luxe, exaggerated, and colorful style of painting, producing highly stylized and finished work, much of it in Florence.  Rosso had difficulty securing patronage there, owing to his political leanings, and painted a lot of hurried, unfinished pieces, moved to Rome, experimented (and found success) with printmaking, eventually moving to France where he became one of the leading artists the first School of Fontainebleau.
The exhibit starts with a room full of the stunning work Sarto's atelier, and goes on to feature some of the most famous and the weirdest examples of Rosso Fiorentino's earlier work, contrasting this with the colorful paintings Pontormo was producing at the same time.  

Andrea del Sarto Madonna of the Harpies 1517,  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.   Watch and learn, people.
The show did feel a bit like a competition between Rosso and Pontormo, which I felt a bit unfair.  The choices of work on display certainly make Rosso's work look a bit weird, with many examples chosen, from what is available in Florence, being simply unfinished paintings.  Rosso's work is often called anachronistic and indeed his portraits of unidentified patrons look old-fashioned, but as an artist he took some great risks with his work, and he went on to become a superb designer. 

Rosso Fiorentino, Portrait of a Man oil on panel 1522, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti) Florence.
This modestly dressed and now-unknown man was obviously not a Medici supporter.  
Without patronage and a secure, supportive environment it is really difficult to produce such masterpieces as Pontormo was able to do.   Everything in Pontormo's work from the subject to the choice of (expensive) pigments points to large budgets and generous, supportive patrons. 

Pontormo  Deposition, oil on panel 1528, Capella Capponi, Santa Felicita, Florence:   Painted site-specific for this chapel - those colors nearly glow in the dark.  [photo: Lynne Rutter]
Three Muralists Commented:
I went to see the show a further three times, twice with fellow mural artists, Steve Shriver from Los Angeles, and Pascal Amblard from France.  We painters all mentioned this one issue: an artist designing an altarpiece or other large panel is generally doing so site-specific... so the setting is a part of the design.  When I look at a larger painting I immediately think of the problems the artist had to solve and the decisions that needed to be made: how high off the ground will this be, from what angle or distance will the viewer see it, how  much light is in the space and how strong do facial features need to be to communicate given these variables?  Take those altarpieces down and put them in a gallery with a spotlight on them and you are basically removing those variables and possibly judging the work in an unfair light.

Fortunately  in Florence, you can see a lot of wonderful work in situ, from all three of these artists; the most marvelous example I can point to is the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicita, for which Pontormo painted the stunning Deposition as well as the glowing and ethereal Annunciation.  

Pontormo  Annunciation  fresco, Cappella Capponi, Santa Felicita, Florence.  Yes, there is a large thing separating the figures.  And that's awesome.  [photo: Lynne Rutter]
I came away from this exhibit with a much better appreciation of Rosso Fiorentino's work, in particular his work in the newfangled field of printmaking, but also as a daring and skilled decorative artist.  Pontormo comes off as an especially fantastic draughtsman, a great painter with an exuberant sense of color.  But more than anything, this show renewed my interest in the work of Andrea del Sarto.
So then--- I made the trek out to the Vallombrosan convent of San Salvi to see Sarto's Cenacolo.  This is a splendid mural and well worth the visit.
Andrea del Sarto Cenacolo, fresco, 1511-27, San Salvi, Florence  [image via Wikipedia]

Andrea del Sarto Cenacolo, detail, fresco, 1511-27, San Salvi, Florence  
[photo by Lynne Rutter]

I spent a good couple of hours with this one.  Just bowled over.

ArtTrav, a fascinating blog written by an art historian living in Florence,  has a nice article on the restoration of the Visitation by Pontormo.  Also, have a look at this post on how to make a nice morning of a visit to the Cenacolo at San Salvi.

I would also suggest a visit to the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, where there are many site-specific works by Sarto, Pontormo, and Rosso Fiorentino, among others.



"Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, diverging paths of Mannerism" at Palazzo Strozzi  through July 20, 2014.  Allow at least one hour to see the show.

The show is accompanied by a gorgeous catalogue, also available at amazon.com


Tip:  Palazzo Strozzi is open until 11 PM on Thursdays for after- dinner art viewing.





 click on any image to view larger.












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