Saturday, May 29, 2010

Italy: pictures on the walls

So many beautiful old pictures in this old country are firmly, almost irrevocably part of the walls.

All over Italy, we are seeing the records of the middle ages and the renaissance in fresco : that difficult mode of painting that involved drawing on the wall in sepia chalk, then marking off just enough of the drawing that you could paint in a day, mixing fresh plaster, putting it over the drawing, and then remembering the drawing while you put your paints onto the wet plaster. When it dried, it was there for as long as the wall lasted. 

Mostly, these frescoes are in churches (see the previous post). But some aren't. Since we have been going to a lot of the courts of the Renaissance princes, many of the frescoes we've seen have been part of the palaces these dukes built or renovated out of old fortresses.

In room after room -- banquet halls, ducal reception rooms, private quarters (as private as a 16th century duke could be) -- the ceilings and the upper parts of walls are filled with frescoes. These bring into these often vast rooms a vivid sense of color and light. And a kind of human record: the rooms are often bare of furniture -- it's been sold off or stolen long ago -- but here, way above our heads, are strange reflections of the life these princes thought they wanted to lead.

Myths dominate in these palaces: the life of the gods, leisurely and naked.

Sometimes we actually see the owners of the places themselves, fixed in this plaster. (This is the Gonzaga family, who ruled Mantua).
Whatever is on these walls pretty much stays there. Maybe the water drips in from the roof and ruins it, but otherwise it's part of the decor. What happens with a new owner?

Sometimes when tastes change, one fresco is plastered over, the new on top of the old, like this fresco in a church that changed its mind about what people needed to see.

In times when they actually believed in these images, only one image would have shown at one time. But we in our historical, archaeological age -- having no particular beliefs -- pry out the sequence of layers and show as much of the interweaving of periods as we can.

We saw in one set of frescoes, handy at shoulder height and a little removed from the eyes of the sacristan, vistors' names carved in to the plaster -- some from the 20th century, some (here) from the 15th! The fresco stays on the wall, mutilated or not.

In the museums in Italy, you see an incredible number of painted canvases, oils of saints and crucifixions and martyrdoms, that have been lifted off the walls of the churches they were painted for. They end up on these strange walls  --  strange, because museums are so out of context for what these paintings meant in the first place.

Wonderfully, you can't do that with frescoes, or only with great difficulty. Where they are is where they were meant to be, whatever happens to those spaces.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Italy: a monastery chapel

"Infinite riches in a little room," wrote poet John Donne at about the turn of the 17th century. Many meanings -- primarily, in the poem he wrote, about the beauty of his mistress and how it filled the bedroom they were in together. But with his sensibility about how all things work together ("no man is an island"), he had in mind other ways of packing experience into a single room, a place where we might not expect it.

We walk through Ferrara on a sunny morning, through lanes of old, old houses, brick and stone and tile roofs. Some are inside watching TV (we catch snatches through the shuttered windows next to the sidewalk -- if there is one); many must be off at work or doing the shopping. It's a very quiet morning. Only an occasional bike, and a very occasional car rumbles along these one-lane cobbled streets.

Then a gate near the edge of town, and a small garden of grass and an old tree and some red rose bushes growing the way I'd love to have mine grow at home-- tall and full of blooms. An old portico, and some monuments, and a door that creaks open, opened by a small woman in a nun's habit. She's a Benedictine nun, we know, only because we have read the guidebook about the Monasterio di San Antonio. In Italian, without a pause, she greets us and starts in: we're here to visit, yes? to see the frescoes? follow me.

We walk through a hallway into a chapel. It's not a large room by Italian church standards, and simple. The main ornament are some plaster elements suspended from the ceiling. But there's none of the baroque curlicues, stucco decorations, enormous crucifixion paintings we're used to by now. Mainly white walls, bare floor, and some wooden stalls where the nuns worship. And a dulcimer: one of the nuns must be into new age Catholic music.

The frescoes are in three chapels at the east end of the chapel. The nun shows them to us, narrating them in a quiet voice, almost like a prayer. She tells us of Jesus on the cross, and Saints Benedict and Catherine watching; of the flight to Egypt, with Joseph carrying the baby on his shoulders, and Jesus reaching back to his mother who rides on the donkey; of martyrdoms, St. Stephen patiently being stoned to death, and of the innocents in Bethlehem silently massacred by two fierce Herodian thugs. And with just a little inflection in her almost unwavering recitation, she proudly shows us the wonderful crucifixion where Jesus climbs brave and strong up the ladder set on the cross, a hero rather than a victim.

All I think about convents is overturned here, in this room. This quiet nun, away from the world, is also part of the world. The place itself, unadorned in so many ways, functional for these religious women who pray for the world, is also part of the world. The frescoes make it so: a brutal, tragic, difficult life for people like Joseph, Stephen, Mary, Jesus, exists here too. It is so humanely rendered -- with little touches of humanity and ordinariness -- that the heroism of these stories is more accessible in these small and unassuming chapels than in the grand cathedrals.

I think for a moment of Shakespeare's great play about life in and out of a cloister -- Measure for Measure -- with its intrusion of hypocrisy, lust, and betrayal on a novice who at the start of the play just wants to leave the world behind. (Here in William Holman Hunt's 19th-century painting of Isabella, the novice, with her brother, whose imminent execution is what pulls her out of her isolation). This being (in a strange way) a comedy, it turns out to be a good thing for her that she abandons  her incipient vows and moves towards an apparently richer life (she marries the duke). But we know all the way through the play, that in the convent, too, is infinite beauty in a little room.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Italy: Bergamo and the layers of history

I like how geography -- so baffling when you first arrive in a place as a stranger -- yields up ideas after a few hours of your putting yourself into it.

We stopped in Bergamo, in the foothills below the Italian lakes. It's a medieval town on a hill, still surrounded by its original walls. It is preserved because the modern town developed on the flat land below and basically left the old town intact. By the 18th century, there wasn't much defensive potential to being up on a hill behind medieval curtain walls, so the point of settling uncomfortably up there was gone. Modern towns needed roads, canals, railways, and room to grow.

The old town is criss-crossed by little streets, no more than alleys, tight canyons of masonry faced by unrevealing little windows and well-locked doors. But then you turn a corner and you're in a piazza; space opens up, maybe just a little; and the buildings open up, too.

You realize, walking these old alleys, why piazzas were so important for the Italians. In the streets, you can't really communicate with more than a couple of others; in the piazza you have room for a crowd. You can throw a party.

The Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo is fairly big, and very communal. On the north are the porticos of the public library; on the west, the entrance to the old university (Bergamo struck us as a pretty studious and serious town). On the east are cafés; we ate lunch at the Caffé del Tasso, "since 1476" (what would they have served then? not espresso, for sure).

On the south, the piazza is bordered by an interesting building, the municipal hall, or Palazzo del Ragion. Above, this is essentially one large room, an amazingly wide and high room with complicated medieval trusses, apparently the place for town debates, policy meetings, banquets, etc. Underneath, at piazza level, is an open portico. Thus you can look right through the building to a smaller piazza beyond. The piazza is both enclosed and permeable at the same time.

What you reach by going through the portico is the religious center of town -- the Piazza del Duomo, with its cathedral as well as a very large Romanesque church of Sta. Maria Maggiore, baroque-ified inside to beat the band. Literally next to this is a third church, a chapel that holds the tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a Bergamasque mercenary mostly working in the pay of Venice. ("Bergamasque" is the adjective form of Bergamo, and became used for a famous Renaissance dance.)

So beyond the portico lie two big forms of organized power - church and army. But back in the big piazza, power seems much more diffused: library, university, commerce, city government with its traditional neighborly squabbles.

In the portico itself, where the city council used to hold hearings, there's a nice reminder of how history changes. In the late 18th-century, some scientifically inclined citizen created a complicated sundial (an "analemma") on the floor, in inlaid pieces of marble. It doesn't tell the time, but the days of the year. Each sunny day at real-time midday (not noon, but apparently 12:21), the sun streams past the cathedral to shine through a hole at the top of one of the arches, and hits a long line in the pavement at some point that tells you what date it is. Aside from being a useful check on the less-than-reliable calendars of the day, it's a visual reminder of the tilting of the earth: in summer, close into the front since the noon sun is high in the sky; in winter, a ray stretching some hundred feet into the portico, since the sun's down near the horizon even at noon.

History layers itself: Medieval (a town walling itself in for its own life in a fierce environment of marauders); Renaissance (Colleoni putting his energy and guts -- sprezzatura, he'd have said -- up for sale to the Venetian Republic); Enlightenment: a rationalist creates a visual emblem of the predictability of Galilean planetary motion.