Death and Humidity, Italian Style

Current news reports are that the Galleria at the Villa Borghese in Rome has been without air conditioning for two months now, and if you know anything about art, then you know this is a bad, bad thing.  The Borghese is filled with priceless works of art, from painters like Caravaggio and Titian, to masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture.  Bernini’s iconic “Apollo and Daphne” for example, in which Daphne is starting to metamorphose into a tree just as the young god Apollo catches up with her, is one of the prizes of the collection.

Another of the very great treasures in the Borghese’s now-threatened collection is a painting by Raphael dating from around 1507, “The Deposition of Christ”.  In it, the painter shows the dead body of Jesus being taken from Golgotha to the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by several figures, including the Blessed Virgin, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene, and others. What the viewer may not know however, is that the young man with the long, wavy hair standing in the center foreground of the picture and helping to carry the body of Christ on a linen shroud, is the reason this altarpiece was painted in the first place.

Grifonetto Baglioni was a member of a wealthy and powerful clan in Perugia, the region of Italy which Raphael hailed from.  Grifonetto and some other members of the family decided to try to murder four of their senior relatives on the night of July 3, 1500, as they arrived for a family wedding the next day, in order to try to take control of the family for themselves.  No doubt Don Corleone or Tony Soprano would have understood the impulse.

In the midst of the slaughter, the head of the Baglioni managed to escape, and thereafter targeted Grifonetto for revenge.  The young man fled to the home of his mother Atalanta, asking her to hide him, but she refused.  Feeling remorse about this, she later went after him, only to see him cut down by assassins in the middle of the town’s piazza.  She managed to persuade him to repent of what he had done and to forgive his attackers before he died.  In guilt and grief, she commissioned this altarpiece from Raphael to hang over her son’s tomb in the church of San Francesco al Prato, using her son as the model for one of the two young men helping to hold the body of Jesus.

A friend asked yesterday, when news of the Borghese air conditioner fiasco was making the rounds on social media, how paintings like this managed to survive so long without air conditioning.  The answer is, largely: pure luck.  Altarpieces like this were never to be hung on thin plaster and lathe walls or be exposed to the outside air.  Rather, they were designed for churches, whose super-thick walls and permanently shut windows allowing in minimal direct sunlight would have limited light exposure, maintaining a fairly cool, constant temperature.  Once such paintings are no longer in situ, i.e. the place they were designed to be, and they are exposed to greater fluctuations in the levels of light, temperature, and humidity, they often start to develop problems such as cracking, fading, flaking, mold, and so on.  That is now what the “Deposition” may be facing, unless it is given a reprieve very soon.

Raphael’s “Deposition” is not only a great painting, and an important one for understanding his career as an artist.  It is also a powerful image of suffering, on the part of Christ, His Mother, and the Disciples, as well as on the part of the family who commissioned it.  Let us hope the Borghese receives the funding it needs to repair its air conditioners soon, so that future generations will be able to admire, reflect upon, and learn from this glorious piece of Italian art.

Detail of Graffinito from "The Deposition of Christ" by Raphael (1510)  Galleria Borghese, Rome

Detail of Grifonetto Baglioni from “The Deposition of Christ” by Raphael (c. 1507)
Galleria Borghese, Rome


That’s About the Size of It

Often we are told that in order to truly appreciate something, we need to physically go and look at it.  We understand a foreign culture better, or can marvel at the wonders of the natural world more readily, if we take these things in for ourselves.  Yet while oftentimes people think nothing of trekking off to an insalubrious part of the world to experience a completely foreign culture, I wonder how often they take the time to explore the genius of human creativity in their own culture, when given the opportunity to do so.

No doubt looking at the Himalayas in person tells us a great deal more about them than simply watching a documentary on television.  Yet so too in art, we learn far more from actually examining the historical treasures of Western civilization than we do from flipping through a book or clicking on images.  The benefit of going to see such things can truly change our perceptions of the subject matter, and increase our admiration for the level of skill and achievement which these artists were able to reach.

Seeing something in person fundamentally changes one’s perceptions, there can be no question.  I was at a Christmas party at a rather swank Washington hotel a couple of years ago, when two very well-known reporters from CNN showed up.  Both were of far, far shorter of stature than I had imagined them to be, which made them less imposing than I had imagined, and more approachable.  This is a common occurrence, for when we see someone on-screen or in print on a reasonably regular basis, we develop an idea in our heads as to their size, which sometimes bears no resemblance to reality.

The same holds true when it comes to works of art, for good reason. A book or a computer screen displaying a photograph of a famous painting is not necessarily displaying that painting at its true size. Rather, the image is blown up or shrunk down to accommodate the limitations of the display space. This is why although one can learn a great deal from books, in the end it is the experience of actually seeing the art that brings its full impact and increases our understanding.

Take for example the sculpture I chose yesterday for my Lenten Facebook wallpaper, before logging off. “The Merciful Christ” by Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), a realistic portrayal of Jesus on the cross, probably completed sometime between 1603 and 1605. Someone dropping by my Facebook page may look at the photograph of the sculpture, and associate the image with the type of wall crucifix that one often sees in Catholic institutions, such as schools and hospitals.   In fact, “The Merciful Christ” is almost life-size, as one can see in the photograph accompanying this post.  This is not a wall crucifix for most people, unless you happen to have the acres of wall space necessary to be able to accommodate something this large hanging over your desk or bed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lady or a gentleman’s education was not considered complete until they had made a tour of several countries in Europe.  Part of their education was to see famous paintings, sculptures, buildings, gardens, and so on.  The value of this practice was viewed primarily as being educational: they or their families thought that it was important to get a sense of Western heritage, of taste, of history, and shared values, which they would be able to employ in order to help lead their communities back home.

Visiting great works of art does not necessarily have to involve trans-oceanic travel, of course.  There are many fine museums in the United States where one can go and understand better why we are fortunate to live in our present society, whatever its myriad of faults.  And the objects contained in the galleries of these places are physical expressions of why we have the ideals, values, and freedoms we do have in the Western tradition.

A great painting or sculpture is something made by human hands, however many centuries ago.  Someone individually crafted an expression of their own human experiences – faith, love, sorrow, joy, hope, loss, etc. – which chances are you yourself have experienced and thought about.  The artist expresses that which they value, by using the creative talents they were given by their Creator.  So by going along to see their work, and hopefully recognizing that mutual bond you share, you will realize how much good and beauty our civilization has achieved and is still capable of achieving, as well as how much we need to remember and celebrate those good things we have managed to create, as much as we do natural wonders or exotic cultures.

Carmelite admiring the "Christ of Mercy" at an exhibition in London

Carmelite admiring the “Merciful Christ” at an exhibition in London

The Man Who Captured President Taft

When you can paint a picture of U.S. President William Howard Taft that gives the sense of a powerful man without drawing undue attention to his enormous girth, clearly you know what you are doing.  Today he may not be a household name to many, but Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was a major painter at the turn of the previous century.  He produced stunning portraits of kings and presidents, heiresses and robber barons, and famous figures of the Gilded Age both in America and in Europe, so that his waiting list of potential clients read like a who’s who of society around 1900.

Now in a major retrospective of his work at the National Academy in Manhattan, contemporary audiences will have the chance to explore the work of this great portraitist, as well as his lush landscapes, images of everyday people engaged in daily activities, and fetching nudes of beautiful women.  Although he loved his native Sweden and returned to it again and again for inspiration, Zorn was a truly international painter, in an age when travel had become comparatively easier, but still involved major time commitments.  Nevertheless, he managed to set up his easel in New York, Istanbul, Paris, or Madrid with as much work waiting for him in those cities as he would have had at home in Stockholm.

One of my favorite gifts this past Christmas, as it happens, was a catalogue of Zorn’s work.  Page after page of reproductions shows how much he loved and returned to certain themes throughout his life as an artist.  He enjoyed trying to capture the inner drive of powerful men in an appealing way, even if the subjects themselves were never going to win any beauty prizes.  He appreciated the female body, and did not try to over-idealize his nudes, but he also showed how drapery can enhance a woman’s appearance, rather than concealing it.  And his paintings of his wife, children, and self-portraits show a man who as time went on, became increasingly confident with his technique, establishing moods and expressions, lights and shadows, with a rapidity that hovered somewhere between Old Masters of the 17th century and the Impressionists.

Zorn’s wife Emma was, in many ways, the impetus for her husband’s success.  The two met one evening in 1881 when Emma was babysitting one of her nephews, whose portrait Zorn had been commissioned to paint.  They both later claimed that they knew that evening that this was “it”, but they had to wait several years for Zorn to convince Emma’s parents that he would be a stable provider for their daughter.  Emma came from a wealthy Jewish merchant family in Stockholm, and once they married she introduced the illegitimate farm boy from rural Sweden to the glamour of international travel, literature, and the arts in such a way that he took to the world of cafe society like a fish to water.  At the same time, he encouraged her philanthropic efforts to help the poor and uneducated back in their native Sweden.

Beyond his beautiful portrait and figural work however, Zorn is an artist worth discovering for his love of the natural world: particularly water, forests, and the presence of human effort to try to tame or at least make better access to the landscape.  He was particularly adept at evoking that sense of cool stillness one associates even with modern Swedish art and design, which is never frigid but never overheated, either. There is the sense of an intellect at work in his painting, be the scenery in Italy, Spain, or North Africa, along with that deep connection to nature that one associates with the Swedish temprament.

“Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter” is at the National Academy in New York from February 27th through May 18th, and features an accompanying exhibit of some of Zorn’s American contemporaries and rivals, including John Singer Sargent, Augustus St. Gaudens, and others.

"Self-Portrait" by Anders Zorn (c. 1889) The Athenaeum, Boston

“Self-Portrait” by Anders Zorn (c. 1889)
The Athenaeum, Boston