Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Impressions of Italy

 If you've been following me on Instagram (@mollyelkind) or Facebook you have already seen a few posts about our recent trip to Italy.  If you are tired of hearing about it, feel free to skip this post!  However, as the saying goes, wait. . . there's more!  I've just uploaded the photos from my actual camera (not my phone), and I've had some more time to digest what we saw and did, so I thought I'd share some further thoughts.  

We spent four days in Florence, where we were fully immersed in late medieval and Renaissance art, as one is in Florence.  One theme that struck me almost right away was the varied depictions of women in art, so here's a few of those that I didn't share on social media.  It should come as no surprise that the depiction of women in art is varied to say the least, perhaps even more so than that of men (generally depicted as heroes of some kind).  Women are varied.  A woman can be the mother of God, or the personification of poetry, music, and art, or any number of allegorical virtues, or the victim of rape, or the avenger of rape.  She can be the redeemed prostitute (in an outmoded conception of Mary Magdalen) or an idealized goddess.  In Renaissance painting she is most often a symbol, rarely an individual (with the exception of portraits of duchesses and so on). 

Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate (detail), tempera on wood, c. 1487

Fra Angelico, Annunciation (detail), fresco, 15th c. 

Giorgio Vasari, allegorical personification of Art, Casa Vasari, fresco, 16th  c.

Botticelli, Fortitude, tempera on wood, 1470 

Titian, La Maddalena (the Magdalen), detail, 15th c. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (detail),  oil on canvas, 1620-21. 

After our time in Florence we joined a Road Scholar tour group on a tour of "hidden villages of Tuscany and Umbria."*  In those places the vibe was definitely medieval, if not Roman and Etruscan.  The tiny walled towns with their towers, castles, and steep narrow streets were incredibly picturesque and fun to explore.  But after having guided tours of Anghiari, Cortona, Arezzo, Gubbio, Spoleto, Perugia, and Orvieto, it became clear that these beautiful towns are the relics of a time of constant war, among competing tribes and dukedoms, the Pope(s) and foreign powers.  Hence the defensive walls, towers and castles.  

Wall in Anghiari 


The towns also contain awe-inspiring churches and cathedrals and stunning art. The art is entirely on religious and classical themes.  Even I, with my long-standing interest in depictions of the Virgin Mary, found my eyes glazing over after seeing so many Madonnas.  So I started noticing other things--the evocative fragmentary frescoes, the play of light through stained glass, the layers of patterns everywhere.  After a time I found that I enjoyed the austere, heavy Romanesque churches with limited decoration as a refreshing counterpoint to the lavish Gothic cathedrals.  

My thoughts turned to how we experience the sacred, specifically where, when and in whom (or in what) it is embodied for us, beyond theological doctrine.  Even more, how do we attempt to capture and hold on to that experience?  We make paintings, churches, cathedrals, and pilgrimage sites.  And we make our own small gestures of devotion in public places, even today.  We try to link the numinous sacred to the visible and tangible, so that we can touch that experience again and again.  Pilgrims at La Verna, a site sacred to St. Francis, used what was at hand to fashion crosses.

I don't think there will be any direct influence of what I saw in Italy on my own work, except perhaps to nudge me to explore again the impact of pattern.  The world has changed in 500 years, and what we expect art to be and do has changed with it.  My own work now is mostly about place and landscape, and that is virtually non-existent in Renaissance art.  But for me it was, in the end, inspiring and consoling to see that not only can we create works of art that embody our highest hopes for what humans can be and do, we continue to be moved by that art centuries later. 

Sunrise and fog over Anghiari

*If you hit this link to Road Scholar's site, you will find that the tour's title and itinerary have been tweaked slightly from the one we experienced.