Thirty minutes by train to Padua and a half hour walk from the Mussolini-era station up Via del Popolo brings us to the Scrovegni Chapel. Sacred soil in art history, this. Giotto’s frescoes from 1303-5 mark the visual revolution. Vasari said it in his Lives of the Artists, here was the break with the Byzantine and the start of rounded, three dimensional figures taken from nature.
Again, Catholic theology triumphs: this is a moving account of the life of the Virgin that goes way beyond anything in the Bible even down to her being immaculately conceived (correct me if I have got this wrong).
The city has another Renaissance monument: Donatello’s 1453 statue of the condotierre, the Gattamelata – a symbol of humanist confidence and the first equestrian statue since antiquity. It stands in front of the Church of St Anthony, another awe-inspiring Gothic space. And separate from this ensemble is the fresco art in the baptistery of the cathedral, another church, dating from the 1300s.
Padua also has the best restaurant in the world, well, the best in Italy. And as we no longer drink it became less extravagant to have our Christmas lunch here. Care to guess? Anyone heard of it? For the first time I think I understand the notion of gastronomy.
And on the way to Rome…
Ferrara which I have wanted to see since the movie, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. First, at its art museum an exhibition on Paris painting of the 1920s emphasizing the role of foreign artists in “the moveable feast”: Chagall, Calder, Modigliani through to those of Dada and Surrealism. Hey, after Renoir and Monet were any of them French? This is something I had not previously considered. And the overwhelming leadership of Paris in art: there was nothing in London, of course. Which makes the emergence of New York in art leadership after the war and the demise of Paris all the more revolutionary. Other themes of this exhibition: the way Cubism reinvented its idiom in this decade, the leeching of some creativity from Paris to the Cote d Azure (Picasso and Matisse) Surrealism pointing to the disasters of fascism and war, the delightful sarcasm of Dadaism and confirmation of the sinister charm of de Chirico.
Then the towering 1385 castle of the Este, ruling much of north Italy from here with support of Emperor and Pope. Wasn’t modern diplomacy refined in Renaissance Italy? Their rule ended in 1597 after it had distinguished itself by creating the notion of a courtly utopia, the court as a piece of propaganda for a family, even raising the banquet as a work of art. The interpretation of the castle is not, however, well translated. I couldn’t locate the cabinet where the Duke had displayed the three paintings by Titian and one by Bellini (now in Washington, London, Madrid) on the theme of the world of Bacchus. They are among my favorites and I would have imagined a focus of the interpretation of this space. The exterior of the Ferrara cathedral is an unusual mix of Romanesque and Gothic. The streets of the old part of town, within the wall remains, retain their Medieval dimension.
On to Ravenna for the mosaics…
We are in St Apollinare, a basilica (the Roman nomenclature is perfectly apt – this red brick construction is right out of the Roman world ) which had been consecrated in 549 under Justinian. The mosaics cannot be described. I just express my surprise that the Metamorphosis or the Transfiguration is expressed by abstraction – a great cross studded by gems – not by a figure.
And to Rome where today we see one of those comprehensive, didactic, every-thing-you-may-want-to-know exhibitions. It is devoted to painting in Rome in the 30 years after 1600. We are set up in the first room with Carraci’s and Caravaggio’s paintings of the Madonna of Loreto, the first, all classicism and Raphael, the second worldly, domestic and realist (you may be familiar with it from its home in the church of St Agostino in Rome).The exhibition traces these two lines of painting, reflected in public and private commissions in an era that celebrated the church’s recovery from the inroads of the Reformation. My favorite room was number nine, genre paintings of a definitely realist and dramatic nature, illuminated night scenes, in fact, having become a sub-genre in tribute to Caravaggio. Simon Vouet’s The Fortune Teller, for example. My favorite painting of the scores in this sweeping collection: Jusepe de Ribera, The Beggar, 1611-12 from The Borghese. In darkness, a filthy beggar, a dwarf perhaps, his face barely discernible, the portrait waist high. We see his big dirty hands clutching an up-turned cap asking for money.
Enough of the saints, repetitively presented once-more-with-feeling. An artist has given us an image of the poor and down-trodden, a starveling not likely to benefit from Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s art patronage, one of those rarest of images of the this tradition of painting: one of the common people.
If I return to this exhibition, Roma Al Tempo DI Caravaggio 1600-1630, it will be because of this room. At the Palazzo Venezia till February 5.