Amedeo Modigliani. Part 1 – The birth of an artist

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 - 1920)
Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)

The artist I am featuring today has a connection with my last few blogs as, whilst he was living in Paris, he befriended Suzanne Valadon’s son, Maurice Utrillo, and became one of his drinking companions.  Today and in my next blog I want to look at the life of the Italian figurative painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born into a Jewish family in the Italian sea port of Livorno, on the Ligurian Sea on the western coast of Tuscany.  Livorno at the time had a thriving Jewish community, as like many others, Modigliani’s Jewish forefathers had settled in the Italian city to escape religious persecution.  In the early 17th century Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had enacted an edict of tolerance for Jews and their right to practice their religion and the Tuscan seaport became a safe haven for the Spanish Jews who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholic Spanish rulers.  In return the Jewish community played a major part in creating the mercantile wealth of the city. 

Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo
Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo

Amedeo Modigliani’s mother was Eugénie Garsin whose family came from Marseille.  Her parents were elite and wealthy Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had established themselves along the Mediterranean coast.  The Garsins belonged to the great tradition of Jewish scholars.  Her parents had been involved in finance and real estate.  Eugénie was well educated and a highly intelligent and resourceful woman.   Amedeo’s father was Flaminio Modigliani, whose family came from Rome and the Roman Campagna region and who had descended from a family of business people, bankers and entrepreneurs.  Flaminio Modigliani moved from Rome to Livorno in 1849.  

Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia
Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia

Flaminio’s father, Emanuele and his grandfather, Abramvita had purchased an estate on the outskirts of Cagliari, Sardinia and owned swathes of Sardinian land, about thirty thousand acres in all, around Grugua were they built a beautiful and opulent residence.  Their wealth came from the fertile farmland, timber from their forests and, around the end of 1863, zinc ore and coal deposits were discovered on their land close to the small town of Iglesia. 

Flaminio Modigliani was a talented mining engineer and forestry manager, who, along with his brothers, Abramo and Alberto, had become wealthy with their involvement in their mineral mining venture and forestry work on their estate in Sardinia.    Flaminio and Eugénie Garsin married in Livorno in 1872.  Amedeo was their fourth child, having two elder brothers, Giuseppe Emmanuel (Mene), who became a senior union leader and Socialist Deputy, Umberto, who would become a mining engineer, and an elder sister, Margherita, who became a primary school teacher.  The family lived in a two storey mansion at No.38 Via Roma in Livorno.  They had an opulent lifestyle with a household full of servants. 

Amedeo, who was affectionately known as “Dedo”, was born on July 12th 1884 at their Via Roma home in Livorno.  It was a very traumatic time for the Modigliani family for their fortunes had suddenly changed for the worse.  There had been an economic decline in Europe and with it came a sudden drop in the price of metals which resulted in Flaminio Modigliani’s business empire crashing and he was made bankrupt.  The only thing which prevented the family losing all their wealth was an ancient Italian statute which stated that creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or as in the case of Eugénie, a mother about to give birth and so, the story goes, that on the day of Amedeo’s birth, the family quickly collected all the household and family valuables and put them on the bed in which Eugénie lay, giving birth to her son.   When the bailiffs arrived to take away all the family possessions they found that the most valuable of them had been piled high on top of Eugénie as she lay in bed and therefore they could not be confiscated!   Modigliani is quoted as saying later in life that he was born under the auspices of the ruin. 

Amedeo with his nurse
Amedeo with his nurse

In 1886, the family move to a smaller less luxurious home.  Amedeo’s father was away from home for long periods of time searching for business opportunities and so Amedeo lived with and was brought up by his mother Eugénie, her two sisters Eve Laure and Gabrielle, his maternal grandmother and his maternal grandfather, Isaac Garsin.  In her diary Eugénie wrote about her two year old son Amedeo, describing him as being: 

“…a little spoiled, a bit temperamental but as pretty as a heart…” 

With his father absent for long periods Amedeo formed a close bond with his grandfather, Isaac, an extremely learned man.  During his early childhood Isaac, who was now the only adult male in the household, would spend hours talking to his grandson about art, travel and Jewish history.   Amedeo’s mother, Eugénie, an ever practical and capable person, realised that the family needed an inflow of income and with the help of family friends set up a school in their house on via delle Ville, where she and her sister Laure taught local children. She also received paid work translating the poetry of the Italian poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio and was a book reviewer.

Amedeo was schooled at home up to the age of ten by his mother but throughout his early childhood he had many health problems.  In 1895, aged just eleven, he was struck down with pleurisy.   His mother recalled the time in her diary:

“… Dedo had a very severe pleurisy and I did yet recovered from the terrible fear that made ​​me . The character of the child is not yet formed enough that I can say my opinion here . His manners are those of a spoiled child who does not lack intelligence. We will see later what’s in this chrysalis. Perhaps an artist ?… “.


At the age of ten Amedeo was devastated by the death of his grandfather, Isaac, who had spent so much time with him.  It was also the year in which his elder brothers had left home to study at the University of Pisa.    Amadeo’ health deteriorated further in his teenage years and he contracted typhoid fever when he was thirteen years old but most serious of all when he was sixteen years of age he developed tuberculosis, which twenty years later would kill him.  In August 1898, when he was fourteen years old and still attending his local school, Amedeo had his first artistic tuition when, as the youngest pupil, he attended drawing lessons at the workshop of the Livorno-born artist, Guglielmo Micheli, who had, on the ground floor of Villa Baiocchi, set up and directed a school of design, which many local students attended.  The following year he finished attending the local school for health reasons and all his efforts were now concentrated on art and the tuition given to him by Micheli.  At the school he studied all genres of art – landscape painting, portraiture, still life but his favourite was the painting of the nude and he attended a life-drawing class in Gino Romiti’s Livorno studio.  It was at Micheli’s art school that he was befriended by a fellow student and aspiring artist Oscar Ghilia who would become one of Modigliani’s closest friends.  Unfortunately his artistic studies were cut short in September 1900 when he developed pleurisy and tuberculosis.   In December, his mother decided to take him away from the cold damp climate of Livorno and move to the warmer climate of southern Italy and the two of them travelled to Naples, Capri, and Amalfi and spent the winter of 1901 in Rome.  It was here that he also first developed a love for sculpture.  During his travels he visited the major museums making copies of the paintings by the Italian Masters.   Modigliani fell in love with Rome and in one of his many letters to his friend Oscar Ghiglia he wrote:

“…As I speak to you, Rome is not outside but inside me, like a terriblejewel set upon its seven hills as upon seven imperious ideas.  Rome is the orchestration which girds me, the circumscribed arena in which I isolate myself and concentrate my thoughts.  Her feverish sweetness, her tragic countryside , her own beauty and harmony, all these are mine, for my thought and my work…”

On May 7th 1902, having arrived in Florence, Amedeo enrolled at the Scuola Libera del Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which would be the beginning of life drawing and his love of painting nudes.  His friend Oscar Ghilia was already studying in Florence and he and Amedeo shared the same lodgings. 

The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)
The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)
The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after settling in Paris in 1906. It was purchased by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Although wearing a composed expression, the stark whiteness of the sitter’s face contrasts harshly with her dark apparel, giving the composition and inner tension and suggesting strong emotions lying beneath the surface. The painting’s melancholic overtones have invited comparison with the work of Picasso’s Blue Period. The painting is also one of the few Jewish-themed works by Modigliani, who was of Sephardic Jewish descent and publically embraced his Jewish identity. – See more at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-modigliani-amedeo.htm#sthash.3ddvm6uN.dpuf

The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after he moved to in Paris in 1906. It was bought by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Contrasting her calm and self-possessed expression, is the stark whiteness of the her face against her dark clothes which in some ways gives the picture a strong emotional feel. The painting’s melancholic overtones have often been compared to Picasso’s works during his Blue Period.   Although Modigliani was Jewish by birth, this was on of the few Jewish-themed works by him.

In 1903 after another bout of illness Amedeo moved to Venice where that May, he enrolled at the Instituto di Belle Arti di Venezia and lived in lodgings in Campielle Centopiere. All this travelling and studying costs money but fortunately for Amedeo he was being financed by his maternal uncle, Amadeus Garsin.  It is whilst in Venice that Amedeo develops a taste for the seedier side of life.  Bouts of heavy drinking, taking of the drug hashish and his association with prostitutes were to him all part of an exciting and stimulating bohemian lifestyle.  He now began to make plans to move to Paris, which was the centre of avant-garde art and where he believed his favoured bohemian lifestyle would fit in well with the artists of Montmartre.  However his high-spending lifestyle and plans to move the French capital came to an abrupt end in 1905 when his uncle, Amadeus, died and the source of his income dried up.  His mother comes to his rescue in December, whether because she was worried about his health or whether it was because she wanted to separate her son from the excesses of Venice, one will never know, but she gave him the money to make the journey to Paris and in January 1906 Amedeo Modigliani descended upon Montmartre. 

After a number of short stays in various hotels, Modigliani went to live in Le Bateau-Lavoir, in Montmartre, a dark and dingy building which was home to many impoverished artists.  Unlike some of the bedraggled and tramp-like characters who lived there, Modigliani, still having some of the money left that his mother had given him, strutted the streets in a quite well-dressed manner and hired himself a studio for himself in Rue Caulaincourt.  It was during those early days that he met artists such as Picasso, Andre Derrain and Diego Rivera and it was then that he concentrated his art work on small-scale portraiture and at the end of 1906 he had three of his works exhibited at the Paris Art gallery of Laura Wylde’s Paris art gallery on the corner of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.   He enrolled in the life drawing classes at the Académie Colarossi.  An artist by day and despite his poor health a reveler by night, during which time he and his fellow artists would drink copious amounts of alcohol in the form of cheap wine or absinthe, take drugs and spend their nights in various women’s beds.   His was a debauched lifestyle which could have done little for his health. He was soon accepted by all the Montmartre artists, who nicknamed him “Modi”.    Ludwig Meidner, the German artist, summed up Modigliani when he said of him:

“…Our Modi was a character and, at the same time, highly talented representative of Bohemian Montmartre; he was probably even its last true Bohemian…”.

Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)
Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)

It was around about this time that Amedeo Modigliani first met Suzanne’s son, Maurice Utrillo and her husband André Utter.  However more importantly he became acquainted with a young doctor, about his own age, Paul Alexandre, who loved Modigliani’s work and bought some of his paintings and sketches and soon became his first patron arranging portraiture commissions for him. 

Doctor Paul Alexandre
Doctor Paul Alexandre

Paul and his brother Jean were so pleased to be part of the Montmartre art scene that they set up a free house in Rue Delta for the artists to work in and stay.   The house was then known as “Delta”.  In a book entitled The Unknown Modigliani by Paul Alexandre’s son Noel, he recounts the tale of how his father and Amedeo first met:

“…It was not entirely by chance that I met Modigliani. From the time I first had a little independence after leaving college I began to associate with artists. It was Doucet who first brought him to the Delta. I think it was in November or December 1907. Doucet had met him in the rue Saint Vincent at Frédéric’s ‘Lapin Agile’ which in those days was only frequented by poor people, poets and artists. Modigliani told Doucet that he had been thrown out of the small studio he had occupied in Place Jean-Baptiste Clement and that he did not know where to go. This was shortly after his arrival in Paris. He was earning nothing, he had exhausted the few resources he had brought from Italy and found himself penniless. Doucet offered to bring him to the Delta where he could stay, if he wanted, and where he could keep his belongings. This was how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was twenty-six years old, Modigliani was twenty three…”

                                                             ……………………….to be continued

 

 

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)
Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)

When you walk around an art gallery I wonder how long you spend in front of each painting.  I suppose it depends on the type of painting and whether it is part of a crowded special exhibition when you are jostled from one painting to the next by a crowded sea of viewers.  I suppose it also depends on your time management as if you are coming to the end of your allotted time you tend to jump from one picture to the next in a desperate attempt to not miss a single one, although in a way your hurried state probably means that the last few painting remain just a blur in your mind.   So why do I ask this question about time management and carefully appreciating the paintings before us?   The answer is that during a recent visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid I had left the room, which housed the fifteenth century art collection till last and I was constantly aware that my time at the museum was running out.   I found myself flitting from one painting to another and I have to admit by doing so I failed to take in the beauty of the works in that section of the gallery.   That was until I came across two stunning works which I could hardly drag myself away from.  They were just such beautiful paintings.  Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for me they were truly exquisite.   I stood before them, totally mesmerised by their intrinsic charm and so I am dedicating my next two blogs to those two 15th century works. 

The Wdding Medalion
The Wdding Medalion

Today I want to offer you a beautifully crafted portrait by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio entitled Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni which he completed in 1490 and which is now part of the permanent collection at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.   Giovanna was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni who came from the wealthy Florentine banking family and whose father, Giovanni was Domenico Ghirlandaio’s patron.  We know this is the image of Giovanna as at the time of her marriage to Lorenzo a series of bronze portrait medals with her image were made to commemorate the event and the likeness of the figure on the medal and in the painting is undeniable.   Lorenzo and Giovanna married in June 1486 but sadly she died giving birth to her second son in 1488, at just twenty years of age.  As the portrait was completed after she died, it is thought that it could be looked upon as a kind of remembrance painting.   The painting hung in her husband’s private rooms in the Tornabuoni Palace.

We see Giovanna before us, half-length, in a somewhat rigid profile.  In her hands she clasps a handkerchief.  Giovanna is dressed in the most sumptuous way.  She wears a giornea which is an open-sided over-gown, which is brocaded.  The design on the brocade features the letter “L” and a diamond.   The “L” is her husband, Lorenzo’s initial and the diamond was the Tornabuoni family emblem.  There is no doubt that she is one of Florence’s élite by the way she wears her hair in the very latest Florentine fashion.  The jewels she wears around her neck comprise of two rings and pendant which were given to her by Lorenzo’s family as a wedding gift.  If you look closely at the pendant she wears you will also notice a matching brooch designed in the shape of a dragon which lies on a shelf behind her.   The jewel with its dragon, two pearls and a ruby formed a set with the pendant hanging from a silk cord around her neck.   Behind her, on the shelf, is a prayer book which is thought to be the libriccino da donna (little ladies’ book).  Above the book hangs a string of coral beads which have been identified as a rosary.   Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of this prayer book and the rosary in the painting was testament to Giovanna’s religious beliefs and her piety. 

What did Ghirlandaio think of his sitter?  Will we ever know?  Actually the answer lies within the painting itself because just behind Giovanna’s neck we can see attached to the shelf a cartellino.   A cartellino (Italian for small piece of paper) was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting.  On the cartellino added by Ghirlandaio in this painting are the words:

ARS UTINAM MORES

ANIMUMQUE QUE EFFINGERE

POSSES PULCHRIOR IN TERRIS NULLA TABELLA FORET

 

which translates to:

 

“…Would that you, Art, could portray her character and spirit ;  for then there would be no fairer painting in the world..”.

At the bottom there is the date:

“MCCCCLXXXVIII”. (1488)

By these words there is no doubt Ghirlandaio is excusing himself to Giovanna for his belief that he has not been able to show her real inner beauty.  These are fine words from our artist but in fact they were not quite his own as they are a slight variation on the words of an epigram (a short and concise poem) of the Latin poet Marcus Galerius Martial, whose works were all the rage with the Florentine aristocracy of the day.

My featured artist today was born Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi.  The name was derived in part from his father’s surname Curadi and the surname of his grandfather Bigordi.  He was born in Florence in 1449, the eldest child of Tommaso Bigordi and Antonia di ser Paolo Paoli.  His father was a goldsmith and was well-known for creating metallic garland-like necklaces which were worn by the ladies of Florence, and it was for that reason that Domenico was given the nickname Il Ghirlandaio (garland-maker).   Domenico worked in his father’s jewellery shop and it was during his time there that he started sketching portraits of customers and passers-by.   According to the famous biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico’s father decided to afford his son some formal artistic training and had him apprenticed to the Florentine painters, Alesso Baldovinetti and later Andrea del Verrocchio.

Domenico will always be remembered for his exquisite detailed narrative frescos in which he would incorporate portraits of the local aristocracy resplendent in their finery.  Many of his frescos appeared in local Florentine churches.  In 1482, he also completed a Vatican commission for Pope Sixtus IV – a fresco in the Sistine Chapel entitled Calling of the First Apostles.  The frescos he will probably be best remembered for were two major fresco cycles, which he completed with the help of his brothers, Davide and Benedetto along with his brother-in-law, Bastiano Mainardi, who was one of Domenico’s pupils.

 

The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Girlandaio
The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Ghirlandaio

The first of these frescos was for the Sassetti Chapel in the church of St Trinita in Florence.  It had been commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, a rich and powerful banker who worked for the Medici family.  This cycle of frescos was in six parts and depicted the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, who was Sassetti’s patron saint. Seen within the frescos were a number of portraits of members of the Sassetti family along with some of the leading figures from the Medici family.  To look at the two families within the frescos one would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Sassettis and the Medicis were very close, which of course was precisely the allusion Francesco Sassetti had wished to convey.  Alas for him, the close bond between the two families was all in his mind!

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The second fresco cycle, Ghirlandaio’s last, and many art historians believe was his greatest, was commissioned to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence by another banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni, who was related by marriage to the Medicis.   There was a connection between the two fresco cycles as Sassetti had the rights to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church and he had wanted to have the frescos in the church depict the life of St Francis.   However the church was in trust to the Dominican order and they refused to allow such a design, so it was then that Sassetti decided to have the St Francis frescos painted instead in the Sassetti Chapel of the St Trinita Church in Florence and he sold the rite to decorating the Capella Maggiore to Giovanni Tornabuoni

 Ghirlandaio had not even completed the Sassetti fresco cycle when he was given this second large scale commission and he had to bring in most of the workers from his large Florentine studio to help him in this four-year project which was finally completed in 1490.  

The reason for talking about this fresco cycle is that I want you look closely at Ghirlandaio’s fresco, the part entitled Visitation.  Look at the third woman from the right.  Do you recognise her?   It is a full length portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni who was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni whose father, Giovanni was the commissioner of the fresco work and who was also my subject of today’s featured work.

The painting had a number of owners but in 1907 the American millionaire financier and philanthropist and founder of the J.P. Morgan bank,  J. Pierpont Morgan bought it in 1907.  It is believed that he adored the painting as it reminded him of his first wife, Amelia Sturgis, who like Giovanna had died very young.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, just four months after she and J.P. had married.   It entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection from the Morgan Library, New York, in 1935.

Whereas J.P. Morgan had his painting on view in his home to remind him of his wife I have a print of it on my breakfast room wall to remind me of Giovanna’s beauty as I serve guests with their breakfasts.

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)
Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)

“…One must embrace all forms of art…”

With those words from the lecturer who gives us weekly Art History talks still ringing in my ears when I dared query the relevance of Surrealism, Abstract and Performance Art, I will, for his sake, attempt to seduce you with a modicum of Pittura Metafisica and talk about the life of its founder and main proponent and leave you to decide whether you can embrace my tutor’s concept.

Pittura Metafisica or Metaphysical Art was a movement formed by the Italian painter, writer and theatre designer, Giorgio de Chirico and is a term applied to his work in the early twentieth century and to the work of his friend Carlo Carrà.  So in a few words, what is Metaphysical Art?   It is a depiction of dream-like things with sharp contrasts of light and shadow which sometimes gives the impression of being slightly threatening and has a mysterious quality. There is often a feeling of neoclassicism about the works and in many instances there is a mood of depressing purposelessness and a scary-type remoteness of a world alienated from man and, by the way the artist has arranged completely unrelated objects in the work, has somehow created a secret, often magical meaning to the work with their recognizable iconography and their illusory depictions with their subverted one-point perspective.  Often within the paintings, regularly of types of architecture found in Mediterranean cities, one would see classical statues or what look like tailor’s mannequins or expressionless human beings.  To this was often added inanimate objects such as coloured toys, geometrical instruments, fruit and small realistic paintings.

Giorgio de Chirico was the elder son, born in Vólos, Greece in 1888, of Italian parents.  His mother was Gemma Cervetto,  a noblewoman of Genoese origin and his father, Evaristo, was from Sicily.  He had a brother Andrea, who was two years his junior, and the two would remain close friends and confidants until the death of their mother in 1936 at which time, they started to drift apart.  The parents had moved from Tuscany and were living in Greece as his father was an engineer who was involved in the overseeing of the construction of the Greek railway system in Thessaly.  Giorgio and his brother  had early parental encouragement to take an interest in art and in the stories from Greek mythology and this latter was probably made somewhat easier by the fact that de Chirico’s home town of Vólos was built on the area which was once the site of the ancient port of Ioclos, which was were Jason boarded his ship Argo accompanied by the Argonauts as they set sail in their quest to find the Golden Fleece.  De Chirico’s childhood health was not good and it is recorded that he suffered from numerous bouts of stomach disorders which could well be the reason for his ever increasing bouts of melancholy which would, in later life, turn towards a more serious form of depression and lead him to having a fairly jaundiced view of life.  His initial artistic training came at the age of seven when his father arranged for him to have drawing lessons from a Swiss painter, Emile Gilleron, who taught his young charge the fundamentals of drawing.  De Chirico completed and signed his first work, a depiction of a galloping horse, at the age of seven, which was acquired by the Austrian-Hungarian Consulate General in Vólos.  In 1899, his father moved the family from Vólos to Athens.

In 1903, at the age of fifteen, Giorgio attended the Athens Polytechnic, which at the time was both an engineering school and the Academy of Fine Art. Here he studied drawing and painting and received tuition from, amongst others, Georgios Roilos and Konstantinos Bolonakis, who were the most important and influential Greek painters of the late 19th-early 20th century.  De Chirico’s father died in 1905 and this event is thought to have been a contributing factor to Giorgio’s failure in his final Academy exams that same year.   In the autumn of the following year, the family left Greece and went to live in Munich where Giorgio enrolled at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.    It was during de Chirico’s eighteen month tenure at the Academy that he came across and was influenced by the artistic works of the Swiss Symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin and the bizarre works of the German Symbolist painter and sculptor, Max Klinger.   It is thought that their art was one of the reasons why de Chirico began to reject naturalism and instead concentrate on more illusionary and imaginary subjects for his paintings.   He was also influenced by the literary works of the German philosophers, Schopenhauer, Weininger and Frederick Nietzsche.  It was Nietzsche who tried to persuade artists of the time to “refute reality”.

In March 1910, de Chirico left Germany and travelled to Milan to rejoin his mother.  He stayed there for six months before moving on to Florence the following year.  Whilst staying in the Tuscan city he studied the works of the great thirteenth century Florentine painter and architect Giotto de Bordone.   It was whilst in Florence that de Chirico began a series of works known as his Metaphysical Town Square paintings, which depicted deserted public squares with sombre monolithic arches which cast giant dark shadows.  The first painting in the series which he completed in 1910 was entitled The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and the idea came to him after he spent an afternoon wandering around the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.  He recalled that time and what he experienced on that day and explained his painting by saying:

“…One clear autumn afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square…The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent…Then I had the strange impression I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at that painting I see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable…”

In July 1911 he and his mother left Florence and headed for Paris where his brother Andrea was living but on his way they stopped off for a few days at Turin.  De Chirico liked Turin and was intensely stimulated by what he saw in that city and often referred to the city’s architecture, with all its archways and piazzas, as the ‘metaphysical aspect’ of Turin, something which would shape his art in the future.  De Chirico arrived in the French capital that same month, joining his brother Andrea and it was through him that Giorgio de Chirico was introduced to Pierre Laprade who held the powerful position as one of the jurists at the Salon d’Automne.  De Chirico managed to get three of his works exhibited at that 1912 Salon and in 1913 exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, one of which he sold.  Soon his works became popular and he was introduced to the Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume with whom he signed a contract to produce more works for sale.  At the time, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was looked upon as the apostle of modern art, noticed de Chirico’s canvases and the two met at one of Apollinaire’s soirées.  Apollinaire was the first person to coin the term metaphysical to de Chirico’s art in an article he wrote for the left-wing French newspaper,  L’Intransigeant.  It was also through Apollinaire that Giorgio de Chirico and his brother, Andrea met Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist painter, André Derain.  Apollinaire showed great interest in the Giorgio’s work and soon became a great supporter of the artist introducing his work to the late Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio Morandi, and René Magritte.  The Surrealists were influenced by his paintings but de Chirico had a love-hate relationship with them and when his style changed he was criticised by the Surrealists and he turned on them referring to them as “the leaders of modernistic imbecility.”

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, de Chirico decided to leave Paris and return to Florence.  In June 1915, de Chirico and his brother were conscripted into the Italian army and sent to join their regiment in Ferrara.  In 1917, he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the town’s military hospital.  It was whilst at the hospital that he met the artist Carlo Carrà and together they decided to launch the art movement la scuola metafisica (Metaphysical Painting movement).  When the war ended in 1918, the two artists set out the basic theories of the Pittura Metafisica and de Chirico published their ideas in the form of articles for the magazine Valori Plastici, a newly founded Rome-based magazine which focused on the aesthetic ideals and metaphysical artwork. The articles focused on his belief that there should be a return to traditional methods and iconography.  Although their Metaphysical Painting movement and ideas influenced the Surrealist painters of the time, the movement was short-lived and ended shortly after the two founders, de Chirico and Carrà fell out in 1919.

 From 1918 de Chirico’s work was exhibited extensively in Europe.  He returned to Paris in November 1924 but he no longer had the support from his friend Apollinaire who had died six years earlier.  This time during his stay in the French capital he became friends with the surrealist painters Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí. In 1929, Giorgio de Chirico married the Russian ballet dancer Raissa Gurievich Kroll and he worked with the Russian Ballet company of Sergei Diaghlev and during the next six months designed scenery and costumes for them. His first marriage ended in 1930 and he remarried that same year to another Russian émigré Isabella Pakswer.  This second marriage lasted for the rest of his life. In that year he also published an autobiographic novel Hebdomeros, Le peintre et son génie chez l’ecrivain.  In August 1935 he moved to New York, buoyed by the success of his earlier exhibitions in the city.  He remained there until January 1938 and then headed back to Italy eventually settling down in Rome.  Giorgio de Chirico died in Rome in 1978, aged 90.

The featured painting by de Chirico I am featuring today is entitled Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure), which he completed in 1914 just before he left France for Italy.  It is a classical example of his early work.  The setting for the work is the Paris station Gare Montparnasse and we see the long shadows and deep colors of early evening.  It is a dream-like, somewhat nightmarish depiction and some art historians believe that the subject of the painting coincided with a period of acute homesickness experienced by de Chirico whose overwhelming and all-consuming thought was to leave Paris, board a train and return to Italy.  One can only conjecture on some items he has included in the work and one can only ask questions which remain unanswered about other objects.  In many of de Chirico’s works, including this one, a steam train is featured and this could well be due to his early memories of his father, the railway engineer, and his fascination with rail transportation.  The painting is strange in many ways.  Look at how the smoke from the steam train rises vertically and yet the flags on the clock tower and the building to the left flutter furiously in a wind coming from right to left.  Was there a reason for this inconsistency?   There is absolutely no perspective in the way the artist has depicted the yellow road on which we see two figures and yet to the left of the road there is a structure which visibly recedes into the distance.  So why apply the laws of perspective to one element of the painting and not the other?  The strangest part of this painting is the inclusion of a large bunch of bananas in the right foreground of the painting.  This is not the first time such an object has been incorporated into his paintings, but what is the significance of this fruit with a French railway station?  I am sure art historians have had a field day postulating on the meaning!

I will leave you to decide whether you can take on board my art lecturer’s advice to “embrace all forms of art”.  For me his advice is a little hard to swallow!

Philosophy, a Self Portrait by Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, a Self-portrait by Salvator Rosa (c.1645)
Philosophy, a Self-portrait by Salvator Rosa (c.1645)

Today’s featured work is another self-portrait, this time by the 17th century Italian Baroque painter, poet and printmaker, Salvator Rosa.  Salvator Rosa was a man of many talents and possibly one of the most daring and inventive artists of the Italian 17th century.   Although in Britain, he is often best remembered for his unparalleled wild landscapes and mountain scenery, and it was just those scenes which Horace Walpole, the English art historian, antiquarian and politician so memorably wrote that what he witnessed during his 1739 journey crossing the Alps into Italy, some fifty years after Rosa’s death was so like the landscape works of the late artist:

“…Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings – Salvator Rosa…

But Rosa was not simply a landscape painter.  It was Rosa who invented a series of new types of painting – novel allegorical pictures, which were characterised by poignant and melancholy poetry; whimsical portraits of romantic and mysterious figures; grisly and shocking subjects, which demonstrated the more sinister side of 17th-century triumphalism. Many believe that no other artist has managed to create windswept landscapes of such expressive and emotional power, or figures of such brooding intensity as those depicted in the artwork of Salvator Rosa.

Salvator Rosa was born in 1615 in Arenella, a hill-top suburb of Naples.  His father, a land surveyor, Vito Antonio de Rosa, believed that his son would be well-served if he became a priest or a lawyer and with this in mind enrolled him into the convent run by the Somascan Fathers.  Although his father had mapped out his future life, young Salvator had his own ideas for his future and had shown a liking and a propensity for the arts and a love of sketching and painting.  His first formal artistic tuition was given to him by Francesco Francanzano, the artist who had married Salvator’s sister and then he studied at the Naples studio of the Baroque painter Aniello Falcone.  Falcone although having painted numerous religious works and frescos for Neapolitan churches, will be primarily remembered as the first specialist of battle paintings.  It was this painting genre that won him an international acclaim and he was dubbed L’ Oracolo delle Battaglie.  It was also this genre that inspired Salvator Rosa. Falcone’s battle paintings generally depicted war as a disorderly struggle between unknown soldiers, and by so doing, created a depiction which was described as ‘the battle scene without a hero’.

In 1632 when Salvator was seventeen years of age is father died and his mother and five siblings, without their husband and father’s financial support, became destitute.  Salvator continued to work for and be mentored by Falcone and helped him with his battle paintings.  It is believed that the Rome-based painter Giovanni Lanfranco saw some of Rosa’s work and suggested that he would be best served artistically if he moved to and based himself in the Italian capital.  Rosa took Lanfranco’s advice and moved to Rome in 1634 and stayed there for two years.  In 1636 Rosa returned to Naples and concentrated on landscape painting.  There was a romantic and haunting element to his landscape work, often populated by shepherds, soldiers, brigands, and mythological characters. In general his landscapes avoided the idyllic and pastoral calm countrysides depicted by the likes of Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill and the contrast between his work and theirs was often commented on.     Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill created brooding, melancholic fantasies, awash in ruins and brigands. By the eighteenth century, the contrasts between Rosa and artists such as Claude was much remarked upon.   The 18th century Scottish poet and playwright wrote about such differences in his 1748 poem, The Castle of Indolence.  He wrote:

“…Whate’er Lorraine light touched with softening hue

Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew…”

I featured one of Salvator Rosa’s landscape painting, River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl in My Daily Art Display of May 10th 2012.

At the age of twenty-three Salvator returned to Rome and worked on commissions including an altarpiece for the bishop of Viterbo, a town to the north of the capital.  The bishop treated him as his protégé and Rosa received many commissions from the Catholic Church.  It was during his stay in Rome that Rosa further developed his multi-talented skills, not just as an artist but as a musician, a writer and a comic actor.  Rosa founded a company of actors in which he regularly participated. He wrote and would often take part in his own satirical plays.  The plays were often political in nature and often lampooned the wealthy and powerful, and it was his devilish satire which gained him the reputation of a rebel, pitting himself against these influential people. However these acidic satires made him some powerful enemies including Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous and powerful architect and who was at that time, the most powerful artist in Rome.   He, like Rosa, was also an amateur playwright and it was during the Carnival in 1639 that Rosa ridiculed Bernini’s plays and his stature as a playwright.  Eventually Rosa had made too many enemies in the Italian capital and decided it was just too dangerous to remain in the city.

He left Rome and travelled to Florence, where he remained  for the next eight years.  One of his most influential Florentine patrons was Cardinal Giancarlo de’ Medici, who was a great lover and supporter of the Arts.  Rosa worked for the Cardinal at his palace but was still allowed the freedom to spend time on his own landscape paintings and he would go off and spend the summers in the Tuscan countryside around Monterufoli and Barbiano.   It was whilst living in Florence that Rosa did some work for Giovanni Battista Ricciardi who was at the centre of the literary and theatrical life of Florence and Salvator soon became part of Carlo’s circle of friends. Rosa used his own house as a meeting place for local writers, musicians and artists and it became known as the Accademia dei Percossi, or Academy of the Stricken.

He left Florence in 1646 being unhappy with the ever increasing restrictions put on him and his artistic and literary work by the Medici court.  Initially, he went back to Naples where he remained for three years before returning to Rome once again in 1649 for it was here that he believed his writings and paintings would win him even greater fame.  However, one of Salvator Rosa’s problems was himself for he often had a tempestuous relationship with his patrons, frequently ignoring their demands. Another of his quirks was that he refused to paint on commission or to agree a price beforehand.  He frequently rejected interference from his patrons in his choice of subject.  In a book by Francis Haskell, a twentieth century art historian,  entitled, Patrons and Painters: Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, Haskell quotes from a letter Rosa wrote to one of his patrons, Antonio Ruffo, explaining his thoughts on his art and commissions:

“…I do not paint to enrich myself but purely for my own satisfaction. I must allow myself to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt…”

The 17th century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci could not believe Rosa’s attitude to his patrons and wrote:

“…I can find few, in fact, I cannot find any, artists either before or after him or among his contemporaries, who can be said to have maintained the status of art as high as he did… No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: he could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum but, when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgment to take them or leave them….”

In his later years Rosa spent much time on satirical portraiture, history paintings and works of art featuring tales from mythology.   In 1672 he contracted dropsy and died six months later.  Whilst lying on his deathbed he married Lucrezia, his mistress of thirty years, who had borne him two sons. He died in March 1673 just a few months short of his fifty-eighth birthday.   From the absolute poverty he endured on the death of his father he had managed to accumulate a moderate fortune by the time of his death.

My featured painting today is a self-portrait by Salvator Rosa which he completed around 1645 whilst he was in Florence.  Rosa stands before us wearing a cap and gown symbolising a man of learning.  His giant-like figure is silhouetted against a turbulent sky, dark with the threat of a storm.  Rosa looks at us, tight-lipped.  His distinctive swarthy looks are easily recognisable from his other self-portraits.  His face is gaunt and yet animated.  He is brooding and like the weather depicted in the background, he looks as though a storm is also brewing within him. He looks somewhat angry.  His demeanour is challenging and rather scornful.   His dark hair is matted and his face is depicted with unshaven stubble.  The artist had obviously decided to portray himself as an “angry young man” intensely proud of his unshaven image.  His posture could possibly be likened to one of anti-establishment and could be compared to present day photographs we see of angry and sullen rock stars

His right hand rests on a stone tablet on which has been carved a Latin epigram:

“…Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio..”

Which when translated reads:

“…Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence…”

This epigram comes from the Ancient Greek historian and teacher, Dionysius of Halcarnassus.

The painting can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)
Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)

Let me introduce you to a female artist, whom I am ashamed to admit, I had never heard of, but whom Giorgio Vasari, the Italian biographer of artists, made the following comment:

“…[She] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings…”

My featured artist today is the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Her christian name came from a strong family connection to ancient Carthaginian history and her parents named their first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure who lived and committed suicide during the Second Punic War.  Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, a city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, around 1532.  Her father was Amilcare Anguissola and her mother was Bianca Ponzone.  Both parents came from affluent and noble families and they lived a privileged and affluent lifestyle.  Sofonisba was the oldest of seven children.  She had one brother, Asdrubale and five sisters, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria.   All of her sisters except Minerva became artists.

Having come from such an advantaged family background was somewhat unusual for women artists of the sixteenth century, as any of note, tended to be daughters of impoverished artists.  The family wealth coupled with the father’s belief that all females should be educated ensured that Sofonisba received an all-round and extensive education, including studying drawing and fine art.   The fact that she came from a wealthy and privileged background did not however avoid the restrictions imposed by the Italian art establishment, such as forbidding female artists from studying anatomy or attending life drawing classes as it was deemed inappropriate for a female to view a naked model, which consequently meant a female could not study the human anatomy to the same extent as a male artist could and because of this she was unable to carry out the complex multi-figure compositions which were at the heart of the popular large-scale religious and historical works.  With those obstacles in mind, Anguissola decided to concentrate on portraiture using female models, which were accessible to her, and instead of historic settings she concentrated on having her sitters shown in homely and unceremonious settings.  Self-portraits and portraits of family members were her most frequent subjects and it was not until much later in life that she turned to paintings incorporating religious themes.

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)
Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)

At the age of fourteen Sofonisba and her sister Elena attended the studio of Bernardino Campi, the Italian Renaissance religious painter and portraitist who was based in Cremona.  She pictorially recorded the time she was with Campi in her double portrait depicting her mentor painting a portrait of her.  The work, entitled Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, was completed by her during her last year as his pupil in 1550, when she was just eighteen years old.   After Campi, Sofonisba studied under the Italian artist Bernardino Gatti, often known as il Sojaro, and continued being tutored by him for three years, eventually leaving him when she was twenty-one years of age.

In 1554, Anguissola journeyed to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people. The highlight of her stay in the Italian capital was when she was introduced to the great Master himself, Michelangelo Buonarotti.   We know the two met as in the Buonarrotti Archives held in Florence there is a letter, dated May 1557, from Sofonisba’s father Amilcare to Michelangelo in which he writes thanking him for spending time with his daughter:

“…honourable and thoughtful affection that you have shown to Sofonisba, my daughter,

to whom you introduced to practice the most honourable art of painting…”

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)
Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)

Intrigued by her artistic talent Michelangelo asked her to sketch him a picture of a weeping boy and the result was her sketch entitled Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish.  Sofonisba rose to the challenge and sketched her young brother, Asdrubale, being bitten and being comforted by one of his sisters.  Michelangelo was so impressed with the drawing that he gave her some sketches from his notebook and asked her to copy them in her own style.  She complied with his request and the results of her efforts again astounded the Master and because he recognised how artistically talented she was, for the next two years, he agreed to mentor her.  Again we have been made aware of the high regard in which Michelangelo held Sofonisba’s work as in a letter dated May 1558, (held in the Buonarrotti Archives) her father wrote to Michelangelo thanking him for praising his daughter’s artwork:

“…[you were] kind enough to examine, judge, and praise the paintings done by my

daughter Sofonisba…”

In 1558, aged twenty-six, Sofonisba Anguissola left Rome and went to Milan and it was here she received a commission to paint a portrait of Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba.  The sitter was so pleased with the resulting painting that he recommended her to Philip II, the King of Spain.  Court officials invited Sofonisba to come to Madrid and be part of the Spanish court.  This fact alone is clear evidence of Sofonisba’s artistic talent and her success, as it would have been unheard of that such a powerful leader as Philip II would countenance an insignificant artist being invited to join and live at the Spanish court and paint for his new Queen.

Late in December 1559 she arrived in the Spanish capital and took up her role at the Spanish court as a court painter as well as being one of the attendants to the Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Infanta Isabella, and later as a lady-in-waiting to her mother, Philip’s new queen, his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois (the Queen consort, Isabel of Spain) who was an accomplished amateur portrait painter.  This shared love of art between Sofonisba and Elisabeth flourished and Sofonisba would often offer artistic advice and give the queen some artistic tuition.   Sofonisba soon received many official commissions to paint portraits of the king and queen’s family and courtiers.  These were very different to her earlier portraiture work which were very informal as Philip and his wife wanted the portraits he had commissioned Sofonisba to paint to show the wealth and power of the sitters by paying attention to background and peripheral objects such as fine and sumptuous clothing, jewelled adornments and priceless furnishings.  This type of portraiture took time and skill but the finished products were always well received by the sitters.

Her artistic talents were also recognised by another powerful leader, Pope Pius IV who asked Sofonisba to paint a portrait of the Queen consort, Isabel, and have it sent to him.  Giogio Vasari in his book, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) quotes a letter the pontiff sent Sofonisba thanking her for the painting and praising her work.  In the letter he wrote:

“… Pius Papa IV. Dilecto in Christo filia.

 We have received the portrait of our dear daughter, the Queen of Spain, which you have

sent… We thank you and assure you that we shall treasure it among our choicest possessions,

and commend your marvellous talent which is least among your numerous qualities

 Rome, 15 October 1561…”

In 1571 Sofonisba married Don Francisco de Moncada, who was the son of the Prince of Paterno, Viceroy of Sicily.  King Philip II facilitated the marriage, and paid her dowry of twelve thousand pounds.  She remained at the Spanish court for a further seven years after which time, and with Philip’s permission, she and her husband left Madrid and travelled to Palermo, Sicily. They arrived in Palermo in 1578 but sadly her husband died the following year.  The year following her husband’s death, Sofonisba decided to visit her family back in Cremona and embarked on a sea passage from Palermo to Genoa.   She never made it back home as she fell in love with the young captain of the ship and the couple married shortly after, in January 1580, in Pisa.  Sofonisba was forty-seven years of age and was much older than her seafaring husband.  The couple settled down at the seaport of Genoa and with her husband’s money, along with a pension from Philip of Spain, the pair had a comfortable lifestyle and Sofonisba had her own quarters including an art studio within her husband’s family’s large house.  Her reputation as an accomplished artist spread throughout Europe and she received many visits from young aspiring painters.  The couple moved to Palermo and were visited in 1624 by the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who at the time was twenty-five years old and travelling around the island of Sicily recording his travels in words and sketches in his diary.  At the time, Sofonisba was ninety-two years old and van Dyck sketched Sofonisba sitting in a chair.   All around the sketch he wrote notes in Italian, a rough translation of which is:

“…portrait of the painter Signora Sofonisba, done from life in Palermo in the year 1624, on 12 July: her age being 96 years, still with her memory and brain most quick, and most kind, and although she has lost her sight because of her old age, she enjoyed to have paintings put in front of her, and with great effort by placing her nose close to the picture, she could make out a little of it…”

It is interesting to note that according to van Dyck, Sofonisba was 96 years old in 1624 and this of course would make her birth date 1528 which is some four years earlier than the date given in a number of reference books.

Page from van Dyck's sketchbook
Page from van Dyck’s sketchbook

Van Dyck recorded in his diaries that her eyesight was weakened (it is thought she suffered from cataracts) but for a lady of 92 (or 96!) she was still mentally alert.  She had completed her last work in 1620 and had become a patron of the arts.  On November 16th 1625, Sofonisba died in Palermo aged 93.

On her birth centenary seven years later, her husband had a plaque placed on her tomb which read:
“…To Sofonisba, my wife…who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man…

Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman…”

Sofonisba was not only appreciated in her own lifetime but continues to be appreciated in modern society albeit I had to admit her name was new to me, which gives you some idea as to my artistic knowledge!

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is an early self portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola which she completed in 1556 and is entitled Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel.  It is housed at the Museum-Zamek in the town of Lancut in south-east Poland.

This is one of many self portraits by the artist, which she sent as gifts to prospective patrons as she could not respectably enter into competition with male artists for paid commissions.   Around this time, there was a highly respected author, Baldassare Castiglione, the count of Casatico, an Italian courtier and diplomat, who held great sway with the public with regards manners at the court and how one should behave if of noble birth.  The book, which had a widely circulated publication in 1528, was entitled The Courtier.  In a way it was also a torch-bearer for women’s equality as it advocated the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men and one can only presume that Sofonisba’s father had read the book and agreed with its conclusions as he made sure that his daughters were not only educated in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also that they were schooled in the courtly arts, such as music, writing, drawing, and painting.  Castiglione had written in his book about how aristocratic women of the court should dress.  He wrote:

“…she should always dress herself correctly and wear clothes that do not seem vain and frivolous…”

We can see by the way Sofonisba has depicted herself in this self portrait, wearing a modest black gown, lace collar and cuffs, the absence of jewellery and a simple hairstyle, which precluded any hint of easy virtue, that she had taken on board the advice given by Castiglione in his book.

Sofonisba looks out at us, brush in hand.  She is in the act of painting and is simultaneously the subject and object, the painter and the model of the painting.  Her painting is a re-working of the legend of St Luke the Evangelist, who it was believed, was the first to have painted a portrait of the Virgin but in this painting she has taken on the role of St Luke  and we see her painting of the Virgin and Child resting on the easel.

I love this self portrait.  There is nothing fancy about Sofonisba’s portrayal of herself.  It is an understated depiction.  It is a somewhat discreet portrait of a virtuous noblewoman and its beauty and exquisite artwork challenged the belief in those days that women artists lacked artistic skills.

La Fornarina by Raphael Sanzio

La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)
La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)

My Daily Art Display today features an Italian lady, Margarita Luti.  She became known as La Fornarina which in Italian means “the baker’s daughter”.  She was the daughter of Francesco Luti, a local baker from Siena who worked in the Roman district of Santa Dorotea.  The reason she became famous was not because of her father’s occupation but because she modelled for and was the mistress of the great Italian High Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio.  It was well documented that Raphael Sanzio was a very passionate man and had many mistresses in his time.  In the book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, the biographer described the artist and how his love of women affected his work:

“…Raphael was a very amorous man who was fond of women and he was always quick to serve them. This was the reason why, as he continued to pursue his carnal delights, he was treated with too much consideration and acquiescence by his friends. When his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raphael could not really put his mind to his work because of his love for one of his mistresses; Agostino became so desperate over this that, through his own efforts and with the assistance of others, he worked things out in such a way that he finally managed to bring this woman of Raphael’s to come and stay with him on a constant basis in the section of the house where Raphael was working, and that was the reason why the work came to be finished…”

Although Margarita Luti is not actually named by Vasari her name does appear in scribbled notes on the original pages of the manuscript which would become his second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.  The painting entitled La Fornarina, by Raphael hangs in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a further copy can be found in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome.  The work was completed around 1520 when Raphael was thirty seven years of age.  This was also the year in which on Good Friday, April 6th he died. Before us is a portrait of a beautiful young woman who is almost nude.  Her skin is flawless as alabaster. Her cheeks are flushed and pink, She stares out to her left and smiles, presumably at the artist as he works on her portrait.

Venus Pudica
Venus Pudica

She is pictured with an oriental style hat on which is attached a large jewel Her breasts are bare. Her right arm crosses her body and her right hand pulls a diaphanous veil over her stomach and abdomen in a gesture which mirrors the posture of women as seen in classical sculptures such as the Venus pudica, apose that became the custom for the nude Aphrodite figures in the Late Classical period.   It is a very suggestive pose and I am not sure whether she is attempting to cover her breast or in fact she is turning it slightly towards us and her lover, Raphael.  Or could it be that her right hand is pressed against her heart as she looks at Raphael as a gesture of her love for him?  Her left hand rests between her thighs, the fingers splayed out and outlined by the deep, bloody-red of her discarded gown.  On her left arm there is a narrow leather band on which is the name of the artist – RAPHAEL URBINAS.  On the third finger of her left hand she appears to be wearing a ruby wedding band.   The presence of a ring was only discovered in the early part of the twenty-first century when the painting underwent some X-Ray analysis during restoration and cleaning work.

The fact that Raphael painted her with a wedding ring would have been very controversial at the time for six years earlier, in 1514; he had become engaged to marry.   He had been pressured by Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s to marry one of his nieces, a lady named Maria Bibbiena.   Raphael did not want to refuse the Cardinal, but managed to postpone the matter, saying that he would prefer to wait three or four years before entering into marriage.  However after stringing along the cardinal and his niece for four years, Raphael had to agree to the marriage, but managed to keep putting off the date for the big occasion with a string of excuses.   So why had this engagement lasted six years without it ever ending in marriage?  There are a number of theories.  One is that Raphael had already married Margarita Luti in secret years earlier and therefore could not marry Maria Bibbiena.  Another possible reason is that his engagement to Maria had brought him additional status.  He was made a “Groom of the Chamber”, a papal valet, which in itself afforded him status at court and more importantly an additional income.  He would not want to jeopardise that.  He was also made a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur, an honour which was also bestowed on the artists Titian and Vasari.   All such honours would have been lost if he had had to admit to being already married.  So why was the ring on the sitter’s finger not discovered immediately?  It was not just the ring, which was painted out, as the restoration work also uncovered that the myrtle branches we see filling the background of the painting and which are thought to be symbolic of love and marriage were not always there.  The X-Ray analysis of the painting show that originally there had been a landscape background, similar to that seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
The reason for the over-painting is that it is thought that the work which was found in Raphael’s studio when he died had “finishing touches,” added, including a cover-up of the Margarita Luti’s ring finger by his student, Giulio Romano, who then went on to sell the painting.

Raphael Sanzio died in April 1520 possibly even on April 6th, the day of his 37th birthday.  There are numerous speculative explanations as to the cause of his death.  Probably the most bizarre was put forward by Vasari when he postulated that Raphael died on his 37th birthday after a wild night of celebratory sex with Margarita causing him to lapse into a fever and when a doctor arrived Raphael was too embarrassed to admit to what had brought on this feverish state and then had been given the wrong medicine by the doctor which went on to kill him.  Other historians, who also disagree of the date of his death, have put his demise down to working too closely with arsenic and lead based paints or overwork or heart failure.

And so I leave you with one of the world’s greatest artists and his portrait of the love of his life, but is it?  Is this a portrait of the little baker’s girl who became Raphael’s lover?  Some would disagree.  Some art historians, including Doctor Claudio Strinati, superintendent of the National Museums of Rome, now believe that the way in which Raphael’s has depicted the lady is too refined to have been just done for his own pleasure and in fact, due to the quality of the work, was a commission for a wealthy and influential patron and that patron could have been his friend Agostino Chigi.  According to this theory, the woman in the painting was not Margarita Luti but Chigi’s long-time mistress, and later his wife, Francesca Ardeasca.  We know that Chigi had commissioned Raphael to work at his new “palace”, the Villa Farnesina, and the two had become friends so much so that when the lovelorn Raphael’s mind was so distracted having been parted from his beloved Margarita whilst working on the commission, Chigi had supplied a room in his palace for Margarita so that he could better focus on the work in hand.

So is this enchanting portrait of the dark-eyed woman we see before us today Raphael’s paramour or his patron’s wife?  Is this a painting carried out for love or for money?  We will probably never know for sure as there are no other portraits of Chigi’s wife, Francesca, and therefore no possibility to compare likenesses.  Maybe this doubt adds to the mystification of the portrait and I will let you make up your own minds.

Having extolled the beauty of some other women in featured paintings in early blogs I look at this lady and question her purported beauty but as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” I will again allow you to decide and leave you with the comments made by French writer, Gustave Flaubert who wrote about La Fornarina in his satirical work entitled Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas):

“…Fornarina.  C’était une belle femme; inutile d’en savoir plus long…”

(Fornarina. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know)

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c.1468)

For today’s blog I am staying with Italian Renaissance art and looking at a work by, some say, the greatest Early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.  This is the second time I have featured this artist in one of my blogs.  The first being The Flagellation of Christ (My Daily Art Display, September 29th 2011).   Today I want to look at his beautiful fresco entitled The Resurrection which he completed around 1468.

Piero della Francesca or as he was known in his day, Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was born around 1415 in the Tuscan market town of Borgo San Sepolcro, which is now known as Sansepolcro,  a small town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley in the southeast of Tuscany, bordering Umbria and The Marches.  His family were merchants dealing in leather and wool and his father, Benedetto di Franceschi, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  With that in mind, Piero was sent to school to learn arithmetic and the ability to calculate weights and measures, assess the volumes of barrels and bales, and most importantly, learn how to keep accounts.  Piero was academically gifted and became well known as a mathematician and in fact after his death he was revered not so much as a painter but for his mathematical knowledge.

Piero’s initial artistic training came as an apprentice to Antonio di Giovanni, a local painter, who was based in Anghiari, a town across the Tiber Valley from Borgo San Sepolcro.  From being Antonio di Giovanni’s apprentice, he soon became his assistant and during the 1430’s the two of them worked jointly on commissions around Borgo San Sepolcro.  Piero went to Florence for the chance to gain more work and he worked on commissions as an assistant alongside another young artist, Domenico Veneziano.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

In 1442, Piero returned to Sansepolcro and three years later, in 1445, Piero received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych, Polyptych of the Misericordia: Madonna of Mercy, as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia.  The confraternity had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.   Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero moved around the country a good deal during his life, living in Ferrara and Rimini before arriving in Rome in 1455.  Here he painted frescoes in the Vatican for Nicholas V and continued to work in the Vatican Palace for Pius II. Sadly his works were destroyed to make room for paintings by Raphael.

Piero’s birthplace, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro which literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre” derives its name from the story of its founding back in the tenth century.   The story of its coming into being would have us believe that two saints, Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land bearing some wood shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been buried, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement – Borgo San Sepolcro.   These sacred relics have been preserved in the local Benedictine abbey and so when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was renovated and extended in the late 1450s, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. This room was set aside for the use of the Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors.  Before holding their councils, these four appointed guardians of the town would solemnly kneel before Piero’s image, to pray for the grace of God to descend upon them during their deliberations. The room is now the civic museum.

My featured painting today is a fresco which exudes an air of peace and tranquillity.   In the painting, the risen Christ can be seen in the centre of the composition.  He is portrayed at the moment of his resurrection, as we see him with his left foot on the parapet as he climbs purposefully out of his marble tomb clutching the banner in his right hand, as if he is declaring his victory over death.   He looks formidable as he stands tall.   We don’t see the lid of the tomb but look to the bottom right of the painting and we can see Piero has depicted a large rock which probably harks back to the biblical tale which told of a rock being rolled away from the entrance of Christ’s tomb.   In most resurrection paintings we are used to seeing Christ dressed in white burial clothes and yet Piero has depicted him in red robes, which was probably done to infer royalty and signify that this resurrected person is Christ the King.  Piero has portrayed the pale body of the risen Christ as almost blemish-free with the exception of the wound to his side and the wound in the back of both his hands made by the crucifixion nails.   In his depiction of Christ he has not let us forget that this central figure is both man and God, for if you look closely at the stomach of Christ we notice that the artist has given it an almost human appearance.  It has a slightly wrinkled appearance caused by the folds of the skin happening as he raises his leg to exit the tomb.

The sleeping guards

The alertness of the risen Christ in the painting contrasts starkly with the four soldiers who instead of keeping guard on the tomb, lie asleep.  The Renaissance painter and biographer of artists, Vasari, would have us believe that Piero included his own self-portrait in this fresco.

Piero della Francesca

It is the face of the second soldier from the left, and Vasari postulates that Piero did this as a sign of his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. It is also interesting to note the contrast in the way Piero has depicted the risen Christ and the four soldiers.  Christ is shown in a solid vertical stance looking straight out at us, whereas the sleeping soldiers are depicted in diagonal poses and viewed at various oblique angles.  The way the artist has portrayed Christ almost gives one the feeling that he is about to step out of the painting to join us, the viewer.  In some ways the expression on the face of Christ is disturbing.  It is a penetrating glance and one art critic commented that it was if he was looking into the soul of the viewer.

The landscape is bathed in the new cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn.  Look carefully at the trees on the right of the painting and those on the left side.  Do you spot the difference?   The ones on the right are depicted as flourishing specimens adorned with leaves and healthy green shoots whereas the trees on the left of the painting are grey in colour and bare as if on the point of dying.   This contrast almost certainly alludes to the renewal of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ

It is likely that Piero painted his striking image of the risen Christ stepping resolutely, banner in hand, from the tomb, to represent not only the resurrection of Jesus but also the resurgence of the town of Sansepolcro.  After a few years under the rule of Florence from 1441, Sansepolcro regained its identity and dignity in 1456 when the Florentines returned the use of the Palazzo to the Conservatori. The church Council which the young Piero had witnessed in Florence had thus had unforeseen consequences for Sansepolcro. The Pope, his treasury depleted by his lavish Council, defrayed some of the costs by ceding Sansepolcro to Florence which was later returned by Florentine authorities to the citizens of Sansepolcro on February 1st 1459, as a sign of the restoration of some measure of autonomy to the Borgo.

One interesting end note to the tale of this painting comes from a BBC article which tells the story of how a British artillery officer, Tony Clarke, during World War II, defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town of Sansepolcro and his decision is believed to have saved this beautiful fresco.   To read the full story click on:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16306893

The Transfiguration by Raphael

The Transfiguration by Raphael (1520)

In my last blog I looked at The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo and talked about how this and a painting by Raphael, entitled Transfiguration, had been commissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici as a high end altarpiece for the French Cathedral of S. Giusto Narbonne.  Raphael was, at the time, busy on other commissions.  He had been summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to paint frescoes on the rooms of his private Vatican apartment, the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza di Eliodor and at the same time he was busy working on portraits and altarpieces as well as working alongside Sebastiano del Piombo on frescoes for Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina.   It is thought that Giulio de Medici was so concerned with the time it was taking Raphael to complete The Transfiguration altarpiece that he commissioned Sebastiano di Piombo to paint the Raising of Lazarus for the cathedral in an effort to stimulate Raphael to work faster on his commission.

Today I am featuring Raphael’s work, The Transfiguration, which was considered the last painting by the Italian High Renaissance master.  Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Italian painter, writer, historian, and who is famous today for his biographies of Renaissance artists, called Raphael a mortal God and of today’s painting, he described it as:

“…the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine…”

Although Raphael Sanzio was only thirty-four years of age when he was given the commission, bad health prevented him from finishing it. It was left unfinished by Raphael, and is believed to have been completed by his pupils, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni, shortly after his death on Good Friday 1520.

If we look closely at this work of art we can see two things going on simultaneously both of which are described in successive episodes of the Gospel of Matthew.   In the upper part of the painting we have the Transfiguration, which is described in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 17: 1-7):

“…After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.   Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”    While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”   When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid…”

We see the transfigured Christ floating aloft, bathed in a blue/white aura of light and clouds.  To his left and right are the figures of the prophets, Moses and Elijah.  Below Christ we see the three disciples on the mountain top shielding their eyes from the radiance and maybe because of their own fear of what is happening above them.   The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be the martyrs Saint Felicissimus and Saint Agapitus of Palestrina.

 In the lower part of the painting we have a depiction by Raphael of the Apostles trying, with little success, to liberate the possessed boy from his demonic possession. The Apostles fail in their attempts to save the ailing child until the recently-transfigured Christ arrives and performs a miracle.  Matthew’s Gospel (Mathew 17:14-21) recounts the happening:

“…When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.  “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.  I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”    “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?  Bring the boy here to me.”   Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.   Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you…”

Observe this lower scene.  The young boy, with arms outstretched and distorted in a combination of fear and pain, is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit.   He is being led forward by his elders towards Christ who is about to descend from the mountain.   The boy is crying and rolling his eyes heavenwards.   His body is contorted as he is unable to control his movement.   The old man behind the boy struggles to control him.  The old man, with his wrinkled brow has his eyes wide open in fear as to what is happening to his young charge.  He looks directly at the Apostles, visually pleading with them to help the young boy.    See how Raphael has depicted the boy’s naked upper body.  We can see the pain the boy is enduring in the way the artist has portrayed the pale colour of his flesh, and his veins, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures.   The raised arms of the people below pointing to Christ, who is descending, links the two stories within the painting.  A woman in the central foreground of the painting kneels before the Apostles.  She points to the boy in desperation, pleading with them to help alleviate his suffering.

Contrapposto

The contorted poses of some of the figures at the bottom of the painting along with the torsion of the woman in what Vasari calls a contrapposto pose were in some way precursors to the Mannerist style that would follow after Raphael’s death.   Vasari believed that this woman was the focal point of the painting.     She has her back to us.  She kneels in a twisted contrapposto pose. Her right knee is thrust forward whilst she thrusts her right shoulder back.   Her left knee is positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward.  Thus her arms are directed to the right whilst her face and gaze are turned to the left.  Raphael gives her skin and drapery much cooler tones than those he uses for the figures in heavy chiaroscuro in the lower scene and by doing so illuminates her pink garment.  The way he paints her garment puts emphasis on her pose.  She and her clothes are brilliantly illuminated so that they almost shine as bright as the robes of the transfigured Christ and the two Old Testament Prophets who accompany him.   There is an element about her depiction which seems to isolate from the others in the crowd at the lower part of the painting and this makes her stand out more.

The unfinished painting was hung over the couch in Raphael’s studio in the Borgo district of Rome for a couple of days while he was lying in state, and when his body was taken for its burial, the picture was carried by its side.   Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici kept the painting for himself, rather than send it to Narbonne and it was placed above Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon.   In 1523, three years after the death of Raphael, the cardinal donated the painting to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. In 1797, following the end of the war in which Napoleon’s Revolutionary French defeated the Papal States; a Treaty of Tolentino was signed.    By the terms of this treaty, a number of artistic treasures, including Raphael’s Transfiguration, were confiscated from the Vatican by the victorious French.   Over a hundred paintings and other works of art were moved to the Louvre in Paris.   The French commissioners reserved the right to enter any building, public, religious or private, to make their choice and assessment of what was to be taken back to France. This part of the treaty was extended to apply to all of Italy in 1798 by treaties with other Italian states.   It was not until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, that the painting was returned to Rome. It then became part of the Pinacoteca Vaticana of Pius VII where it remains today.

Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati by Agnolo Bronzino

Portrait of Laura Battiferri by Agnolo Bronzino (c.1560)

My featured painting bears a strange resemblance to the painting I looked at in my last blog although they were painted about thirty years apart by two different Italian artists.  It is not unusual to see paintings featuring the same sitter or views of certain buildings or particular landscapes painted by different artists but it is somewhat unusual to look upon two portraits of two different women featuring a similar gesture towards a certain object which has been included in both of the works of art.  Sounds a little confusing?  Ok let me say that if you have just stumbled on to this page without looking at my previous blog (June 25th  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch by Andrea del Sarto) then go to that one first and read about that particular painting before you read more about today’s offering.

I am sure having now looked at the two paintings you can see the unusual similarity – the book and the pointing fingers.   My featured work of art today is a portrait completed by Agnolo Bronzino around 1560 and is entitled Ritratto di Laura Battiferri, moglie dello scultore Bartolomeo Ammannati  (Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati) and is housed in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  It is part of the Loeser Bequest of Palazzo Vecchio which comprises of over thirty works of art that the American collector Charles Alexander Loeser bequeathed to the Florence City Council on his death in 1928.  The idea behind his bequest was that he felt it would play a part in the enhancement and reconstruction of the ancient atmosphere of Palazzo Vecchio, which the Florentine Council was carrying out at that time.   One of the conditions Loeser made was that he laid down procedures for the layout of his bequest, which was to be displayed in several rooms in Palazzo Vecchio, and that they were to be kept united in perpetuity, in an arrangement that would give the area not the habitual appearance of a museum but as he put it, it would  make each room appear “simply beautiful for the repose and enjoyment of the visitor”.

Before we look at the painting in detail I suppose the first question one asks when we look at this work of art is, who was Laura Battiferri and why would the great Italain Mannerist painter, Bronzino,  depict her in the portrait pointing at a book?  To find the answer to those questions one needs to look at the life of both the artist and his sitter.

Bronzino, whose real name was Agnolo di Cosimo, but was was probably given the nickname Il Bronzino (the little bronze) because of his relatively dark skin.  He was born in 1503 in Monticelli, a suburb of Florence.  His first artistic training was under the tutorship of the Florentine painter, Raffellino del Garbo and this lasted several years before he became an apprentice at the studio of Jacopo Carrucci, better known as, Pontormo, named as such after the Tuscan town where he was born.  Pontormo is now recognised as one of the founder of Florentine Mannerism.  Despite Pontormo being nine years older than Bronzino they became great friends and artistic collaborators and in some ways Pontormo acted as a father-figure for the young Bronzino.

In 1522 the plague struck Florence and Pontormo and Bronzino left the Tuscan city and headed for the Certosa del Galluzzo which is prominently situated on a hillside just south of Florence.  Here Pontormo, with Bronzino as his apprentice, worked together on a commission to paint a series of frescoes.   This was a very important time for Bronzino as he began to gain a reputation for the beauty of his work.   Bronzino returned to Florence in 1532 and worked on his frescos, as well as a number of portraits.    Seven years later in 1539, Bronzino had a major breakthrough with his artistic career when he received the patronage of the Medicis and was commissioned to carry out the elaborate decorations for the wedding of Cosimo I de’ Medici to Eleonora di Toledo who was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples.   From that moment in time he became the official court painter to the Medici court and over time would paint a large number of portraits of the Medici clan and members of the royal court.  His portraits of the royal couple, Cosimo and Eleonora, and other figures of the Duke’s court, revealed a delicate coldness, almost an aloofness.  This was to define Bronzino’s portraiture style.  It was a portraiture technique which showed no emotion whilst always remaining stylish. The works were well received by the sitters and Bronzino’s portraiture style went on to influence a century of European court portraiture.

It is now we have our first connection between Bronzino and the sitter in today’s painting, Laura Battiferri, because she was a close friend of Eleanora di Toledo, Cosimo’s di Medici’s wife and there is no doubt that the artist and sitter met at the Medici court.  Another thing the artist and sitter had in common was poetry.   Although we are well aware that Bronzino was an artist he was also, like Laura Battiferri, an accomplished poet. Besides the portraits of members of the Medici family and some of the favoured royal courtiers he would paint portraits of his fellow poets, one of which was Laura Battiferri.   Laura Battiferri  came from Urbino.  She was born illegitimately to a pre-Reformation churchman Giovanni Battiferri, and his concubine. Her wealthy father, a Vatican cleric, provided her with a humanist education. As a well regarded and well respected poet she mixed with the most distinguished poets and artists of her day and lived all her life in court circles. She was the wife of the renowned architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was a close confidant and adviser to Cosimo di Medici.

And so to the painting.    I would ask you to look at today’s work in conjunction with Andrea del Sarto’s  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch which I featured in my last blog (June 24th).  Both are female portraits but Bronzino has unusually reverted to the type of female portraiture of the Quattrocento (the art of 15th century Italy).   In those days, in female portraiture, the sitter was seen in profile view.  These works were traditionally painted by male artists for male patrons.  Graham Smith commented on why female portraits in those days were painted in profile view in his 1996 book Bronzino’s Portrait of Laura Battiferri.  He wrote:

 “…the profile portrait allowed the suitor to explore his lover’s face ardently, while simultaneously attesting to the woman’s chastity and female virtue…”

As we look at the portrait of Laura are we immediately struck by her beauty?  I think not.  There is a remoteness about this lady as she looks straight ahead avoiding our eyes.  It is if she has turned away from us showing her disdain for us.   Or could it be that she is exhibiting a sense of modesty, and it is this which makes her avert her eyes?   Whatever the reason, it has in some way, added a majestic aura to her character.   There is a sense that she is untouchable and unattainable which of course would please her husband who is thought to have commissioned the work.  Laura was also recorded by historians as being a devout Catholic and a very pious person.  It is known that she was a great supporter of the Jesuitical Counter-Reformation also known as the Catholic Reformation which was the period of  Catholic revival beginning with the Council of Trent (1545-63)and which historians now look upon as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Therefore Bronzino’s portrayal of her is a very fitting one and it could well be that the artist wanted to indicate this piety in the way he depicted her.

Laura Battiferri

Look at her closely.  Her neck and fingers have been elongated in a Mannerist style.  The upper part of her body is now completely out of proportion in relation to her small head and the way in which Bronzino has depicted her forehead in some ways draws attention to her long and slightly hooked nose.  She is wearing a transparent veil, which hangs down from the shell-shaped, calotte-style bonnet covering her tightly combed-back hair onto her goffered shawl and puffed sleeves.  Her one and only gesture, as she ignores us, is to point to a page in an open book which she is holding.  Her elongated thin fingers frame a certain passage of the prose.  It is a book of sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch.  Compare this with Andrea del Sarto’s woman who is also pointing to a book of his sonnets.  So similar and yet so different.  The woman in del Sarto’s portrait connects with us.  We have eye contact with her.  We can almost know what she is thinking but with Laura Battiferri she is an enigma.  With no eye contact, her thoughts remain her own.

The passage in the book

In both portraits we see the women pointing to a passage in Petrarch’s book in which the central theme is the poet’s love for a woman he met when he was in his early twenties. Her name was Laura de Noves.   In this painting, Laura Battiferri points to a passage in the book where Petrarch talks about “his Laura” and maybe Battiferri identifies herself with Petrarch’s Laura and empathizes with the poet’s words as he describes the love of his life:

“….she is an unapproachable, unattainable beauty… as chaste as the adored mistress of a troubadour, as modest and devout as a ‘Stilnovismo Beatrice'”. “Laura’s personality is even more elusive than her external appearance. She remains the incarnation of chaste and noble beauty.”

Bronzino had already painted a number of portraits which featured the sitter pointing to pages in a book.  Around 1540 he completed his portrait entitled Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi in which the young lady points to a page in a book which rests on her knee.   Eight years earlier he painted a portrait entitled Lorenzo Lenzi, in which the young son of a prominent Florentine family holds an open book inscribed with sonnets by Petrarch and so when he completed his portrait of Laura Battiferri around 1560 showing the sitter pointing at pages in a book it was not a unique depiction and of course as we know Andrea del Sarto’s painting was completed about thirty years earlier.

I end with a question to any females reading this blog.  If you were to commission an artist to paint your portrait would you go for the Bronzino-profile style in which the artist would probably depict you as modest and unattainable or would you choose the del Sarto-style in which you look out at the us, the viewer and from your facial expression maybe we are able to read your thoughts?

Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch by Andrea del Sarto

Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Perarch
by Andrea del Sarto (c.1528)

My blog today centres around three women, an artist and a poet.  The artist in question, and the painter of today’s featured painting, is the Italian artist, Andrea del Sarto.

Andrea del Sarto was born in Florence in 1486 and was one of four children.  His real name was Andrea d’Agnolo di Francesco but the epithet “del Sarto” means “of the tailor” and that was the profession of his father, Agnolo.  At the age of eight, his parents took him out of his normal school where he had been learning to read and write and arranged for him to become an apprentice to a local goldsmith but he didn’t like the work although he did spend time at this early age drawing from his master’s models.  A local Florentine painter and woodcarver, Gian Barile, noticed his drawings and took him under his wing and gave him his first artistic lessons.  Andrea was now doing something he enjoyed and in a very short time had become quite a talented artist for someone his age.  At the age of twelve, Barile realising Andrea would, with the correct training, become a great artist had words with the great Florentine artist of the time Piero di Cosimo and persuaded him to take Andrea on as an apprentice.  Soon Piero di Cosimo realised that despite his age Andrea del Sarto was a greater draughtsman and painter than most of the other aspiring artists in Florence.

Andrea del Sarto remained with Piero di Cosimo for four years.  In 1505 he became great friends with another young Italian painter, Franciabigio, who was four years his senior and apprenticed to the Italian painter, Mariotto Albertinelli.  A year later in 1506, Andrea wanted to move on from his apprenticeship with Piero di Cosimo and because Franciabigio  apprenticeship had ended with Albertinelli, Andrea del Sarto persuaded him to embark on a shared venture with him and open up a joint workshop in Piazza del Grano.  It was here that they worked and lived and where they worked jointly on painting commissions.  One of their collaborations was for frescos for the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata di Firenze, (Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation). The work they produced was highly regarded by the Church’s patrons, The Brotherhood of the Servites Order, who referred to Andrea del Sarto, as Andrea senza errori, or Andrea the perfect. From 1509 to 1514, he went on to complete many more frescos for the church.  One of the unfortunate aspects of these commissions was that due to the connivance of patrons, Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio were from being working partners pitted against each other on some of the later commissions.  This eventually led to the breakup of the partnership of the two artists.

These works enhanced Andre del Sarto’s reputation and soon he became one of the leading Florentine painters.  Aged twenty-three, Andre del Sarto was regarded as the best fresco painter of central Italy, barely rivalled by Rafaello Sanzio di Urbino (Raphael), who was four years older.  It should also be remembered that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes were at this time, only in a preliminary stage.

During the time of the friendship between del Sarto and Franciabigio and before they split up, they would often go out socialising and it was on one of these occasions that Andre came across Lucrezia del Fede, who, at the time, was the wife of the hatter, Carlo Recanati.  It was love at first sight.    When her husband died at the end of 1512, Andrea married Lucrezia.  Andrea was besotted by this beautiful woman and would paint her portraits on many occasions and often portraits he did of other women had the hint of Lucrezia in them.  This liaison between man and wife was to have an effect on the course of his life.

In 1516 two of his paintings were sent to the court of the French king, Francois I.  He was very impressed with del Sarto’s work and in 1518 invited the artist to visit him in Paris.  In June that year, Andrea del Sarto, without his beloved wife, went to the French capital, along with his apprentice, Andrea Sguazzella.  He worked at the court and received sizeable remunerations for his time.  At last he was earning a good wage for his work and so everything was perfect.  Actually no, it was not,  as there was one major problem – his wife, whom he had abandoned in Florence.  She became more and more discontented and demanded her husband’s return.  Reluctantly Andrea approached the king and asked if he could return to Florence on a brief visit to see his wife.  King Francois reluctantly agreed on condition that Andreas’ visit home was only for a short period.  Maybe to ensure Andrea del Sarto’s return, he gave the artist some money in order to buy and bring back some Italian works of art.

Andrea took the money but instead of purchasing paintings and probably to placate his wife, used it to buy himself a house in Florence.  His love for his wife and Florence, his birthplace, had too much of a hold on him and he decided not to keep to his part of the bargain he had with the French king.  This act of betrayal meant that he could never return to France and in some ways tarnished his reputation.  For the next ten years he remained in Florence and continued with his art.  In October 1529 the city of Florence came under siege from a large Imperial and Spanish army which had surrounded the city.  The siege lasted for ten months before it was captured and Alessandro de’ Medici was proclaimed the new ruler of the captured city.

Andrea del Sarto had remained in the city during the siege but the following year he died at age 43 during a pandemic of Bubonic Plague which it is thought could have been brought to the city by the invading armies. He was buried in the church of the Servites.  The great biographer of Italian artists, Giorgio Vasari, claimed Andrea received no attention at all from his wife during his terminal illness but one should remember how contagious the Plague was and maybe she was simply scared in case she too contracted the often-fatal disease.   Vasari did not have a kind word for Lucrezia.  According to him, she was faithless, jealous, overbearing and vixenish with her husband’s apprentices. Lucrezia del Fede survived her husband by 40 years.

My featured oil on wood painting today by Andrea del Sarto is entitled Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch and was completed by him around 1528 and is now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.   The woman in the painting is thought to be Maria del Berrettaio, who was born in 1513, and was Andrea del Sarto’s stepdaughter, the daughter from his wife, Lucrezia’s first marriage.  This early sixteenth century portrait is an interesting mix of the High Renaissance and the idealization of Mannerism.   Portraiture was very popular with the middle classes going back a hundred years from the time of this painting.  In those early days,  portraits of women would normally show the sitter in profile.  In those earlier portraits the sitter would look straight ahead with no eye contact with the viewer which in the majority of cases would be a person of the opposite sex.  The averting of the sitter’s eyes from us, the viewer,  enabled the female sitter to retain her modesty.  However by the end of the fifteenth century things began to change and artists would show women in three-quarter or even full face and by doing so would be able to capture the full beauty of the woman and highlight her facial qualities.   To retain a modicum of modesty however, the female sitter would often avert her eyes or look downwards.

Andrea del Sarto’s portrait is different.  What can we make of his sitter from this portrait?    The fact that the artist has chosen a very dark and plain background accentuates the facial expression of the young woman.  She is seated in a semi-circular chair.  Her clothes are somewhat plain and lack the opulence we see in other female portraits who wish to convey their wealth of that of their family.  Her blouse with its high neck has a chaste feeling to it.  Her blue over garment is heavy and full enough to hide the contours of her body.  The only fashionable aspect to her clothing is the popular slashed sleeves of her dress.  Her hair is long, simply fashioned and kept in place with a simple clasp.  The girl looks directly out at us.  She smiles weakly.   It is a demure and shy smile.   This is not an idealized portrait of a woman.  Andrea del Sarto has not shown any inclination to “beautify” his sitter.  She has an olive skin and not the fair skin of an idealized beauty of the time.  Her face is plump and does not have the delicate bone structure of contemporary beauties.  In those days beauty in a woman was fair skin, long neck, and bright oval shaped eyes.  Our sitter has none of these attributes.

At the beginning of this blog I said the painting today was all about an artist, a poet and three women.  I have given you the artist, Andrea del Sarto, talked about his wife Lucrezia and now we have identified his sitter, Maria del Berrettaio but where do the poet and the third woman come into the story?  The answer lies in the portrait itself and the title of the painting.  Our sitter has hold of a book which she has presumably been reading and she is pointing her Mannerist-styled fingers towards a point in the text.  The book she is holding is the Petrarchino and at the time was a popular work of the fourteenth century Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, who was known in English simply as Petrarch.  Petrarch is often referred to as the “Father of Humanism”.

The Petrarchino was part of a book of sonnets, entitled Il Canzoniere, whose central theme was Petrarch’s love for a woman he met when he was in his early twenties.  Her name was Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade.   She was six years younger than Petrarch having been born in Avignon in 1310.  The story goes that Petrarch first saw her on Good Friday 1327 at Easter mass in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon.  In current terminology we may look upon Pertrarch as a stalker as for the next three years whilst living in Avignon he haunted Laura in church and on her walks.   He eventually moved away from Avignon but returns ten years later and it was then that he began to write numerous sonnets in her praise.

The sitter in today’s featured painting points to a page of the book of sonnets which has been recognised as sonnets number 153 and 154.  So what is she coyly pointing to on this page ?  What are the words of the two sonnets?  All will be revealed in this English translation…………

ENGLISH

Sonnet 153

Go, warm sighs, to her frozen   heart,
shatter the ice that chokes her pity,
and if mortal prayers rise to heaven,
let death or mercy end my sorrow.

Go, sweet thoughts, and speak to her
of what her lovely gaze does not include:
so if her harshness or my stars still hurt me,
I shall be free of hope and free of error.

Through you it can be said, perhaps not fully,
how troubled and gloomy is my state,
as hers is both peaceful and serene.

Go safely now that Love goes with you:
and you may lead fortune smiling here,
if I can read the weather by my sun.

Sonnet 154

The stars, the sky, the   elements employed
all their art, and all their deepest care,

 to set in place this living light, where Nature
is mirrored, and a Sun without compare.

The work, so noble, graceful and rare
is such that mortal gaze cannot grasp it:
such is the measure of beauty in her eyes
that Love rains down in grace and sweetness.

The air struck by those sweet rays
is inflamed with virtue, and becomes
such as to conquer all our speech and thought.

There no unworthy desire can be felt,
but honour and virtue: now where
was ill will ever so quenched by noble beauty?

So there you have it – a story about a poet, an artist and three women.