Do You Duomo? Crowdfunding a Cathedral

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting the city of Milan, let alone seeing its famous Gothic Cathedral (called a “duomo” in Italian) of Santa Maria Nascente in person.  Yet I was impressed to read that the Archdiocese is taking advantage of social media for something which Europeans, and particularly the Church, often lag behind on when it comes to the digital age, and that is turning to crowdfunding to achieve a fundraising goal.  In this case, a charitable organization called The International Patrons of the Duomo di Milano is mounting an effort to restore the Cathedral, and part of that effort has a special significance for Americans.

The Milanese Duomo has been compared to many things, with its masses of spires pointing up into the sky, but perhaps one of the most apt descriptions is that it looks rather like an ornate wedding cake, full of spun sugar confectionery decorations.  Because the church took over 600 years to complete, the range of saints depicted in its exterior ornamental statuary is quite vast, covering centuries of Church history.  One of the saints featured is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), who played an important part in the establishment of the education system of this country, and is the first American citizen to be canonized a saint.

Born in Lombardy, the region of Italy dominated by Milan, Mother Cabrini arrived in New York in 1889 as a missionary.  She spent the rest of her life founding schools, orphanages, and hospitals across the country, and became an American citizen in 1909.  As a result, she is not only popular with many Italian-Americans, whom she and her sisters ministered to when they began arriving in huge waves of immigration at Ellis Island and elsewhere, but also back in her native Italy, where her devotion to her fellow Italians who had to leave for America due to extreme poverty is well-remembered.  It made sense then, that the largest cathedral in her native region of Lombardy would honor her with a statue on its facade.

The gourmet Italian food purveyors Eataly have come on board with the effort to restore the Duomo, and have just opened an exhibit at their New York flagship store featuring actual architectural elements from the Duomo itself, including gargoyles, statues, and other carvings.  Those of my readers in the New York area should take advantage of the opportunity to drop in and see these works, since many of them are placed so high on the Cathedral that normally they are only for the eyes of birds – and God, of course.  The exhibition is free, and will remain open until May 2015.

In the case of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini spire of the Duomo, the hope is to raise the $188,000 restoration cost by December 22nd, the anniversary of her death.  So many Italian-Americans owe their very lives to the fact that Mother Cabrini and her sisters took care of their ancestors when they arrived in this country a century or more ago, I hope that those among my readers of Italian heritage will consider contributing to this effort, and sharing it with those whom you think might be interested.

Moreover, even if you are neither Italian nor Catholic, but happen to love great art and architecture, the Duomo di Milano is simply one of the finest buildings in the world.  It is not only the symbol of the city of Milan, it is a stunning example of the flowering of Gothic architecture and, I would argue, the most sumptuous, important Gothic building in all of Italy.  The effort to preserve and restore this ornate and glorious building for future generations is something that anyone who appreciates history and Western culture can surely appreciate.

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Duomo, Milan

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
Duomo, Milan

 

Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York

That’s Amore: The Inelegant Joy of Real Pizza

Last evening in most convivial company I ate pizza at Il Canale, an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood.  My choice was the Napoli, consisting of tomato sauce, basil, black olives, anchovies, and buffalo mozzarella, on a superb crust having just the right textural combination of chew and crunch.  I probably inhaled my pizza in about five minutes, because it was so outstanding. On the other hand, it may also have been because my parents always called me “the vacuum cleaner”, due to my ability to suck up enormous quantities of food – a trait which, fortunately, is combined with a rather fast metabolism.

Il Canale has become a favorite among residents of the village, and it’s not hard to understand why.  This is not American-style pizza, doughy, perfectly symmetrical, and teeming with processed who knows what.  Rather this is the way pizza is generally prepared in Europe, employing long-established guidelines regulated by the Italian government.  This means that among other things, the bread is not a chemically based afterthought, virtually tasteless and designed merely to hold the toppings, which are themselves overly processed and lacking in genuine flavor.

Pizza did not yet exist during the time of the Italian Renaissance man among men Count Baldassare Castiglione, the patron of and inspiration for this blog, so we do not know what he might have thought of it as a food.  However based on his writings we can assume that he would have found it a rather problematic dish to consume. In his “Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione recounts a dinner party at the home of Federico Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, where one of the guests picked up his nearly-empty soup bowl, said to his host, “Pardon me, my Lord Marquess”, and proceeded to gulp down the remaining broth. “Ask pardon rather of the swine,” replied Gonzaga, “for you do me no harm at all.”

Still, pizza is ultimately a peasant food, and treating it as though it were pheasant under glass when it was meant to be eaten directly with the hands would be a bit precious.  This is an inelegant dish, but part of the joy comes in figuring out how best to eat it.  I usually attack a whole pie such as this one, by eating the first slice with a fork and knife, in order to make access to the rest of the pizza easier, while simultaneously allowing the often molten-hot cheese to cool slightly.  I then follow by picking up each remaining slice in turn and folding it in half, sometimes folding in the point first and then folding the entire slice in half, so that the sauce and toppings have less chance of escaping down the front of my shirt.

Even if you can’t make it to Il Canale, it’s worth seeking out places that do pizza this way, particularly for those of us accustomed to delivery pizza and “discs emerging from the microwave”, as a friend puts it. Yes, pizza is still messy to eat, no matter how fancy it is.  What is quite different, in this instance, and very, very enjoyable indeed, is to be able to taste a combination of natural flavors when enjoying one of these types of pies.  That, at least, one suspects Castiglione would approve of.

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown