Florence To Tourists: Become A Criminal, Will Train

In the beauty contest of stupid ideas, this one has to be a contender for Miss Universe.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which oversees a number of major tourist attractions in the Tuscan capital, has launched an app called Autography, which allows visitors to leave virtual graffiti on some of the city’s most iconic monuments. The idea came about as a way to combat real-life graffiti, which the non-profit has to spend considerable time and money scrubbing clean. Users will be able to scribble their names, messages, and so on onto virtual images of Florence’s Cathedral, Baptistery, and other buildings using a program called Autography, which promises to store their scrawls in a permanent database that will be accessible to other visitors. The graffiti, it is noted, will be screened – i.e. curated – for anything in the way of “insults, unauthorized material or judged inappropriate.”

The reader will need to bear with me, because this is a truly radical concept, but surely such graffiti is, by its very nature, insulting, unauthorized, and inappropriate, regardless of its content.

Here in the Nation’s Capital, we don’t seem to suffer from the same degree of loutishness in our public spaces, at least not yet. The notion that one would go down to the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and find all of the pillars tagged, is practically unimaginable. When such acts do occur, they are appropriately dealt with.

Yet if you have visited Europe in recent years, it seems as though the battle between weak authorities and brazen criminals was conceded to the latter long ago. Practically every church door is covered with graffiti, and shop owners now go to the trouble of paying miscreants to come and spray-paint their roll-down doors, so as to try to reduce the level of cleanup they will have to do later. It reminds me of how the later, more decadent Roman emperors would bribe barbarian tribes, in order to keep them from sacking Rome.

Part of the ill-informed philosophy behind efforts such as Autography, of course, stems from the artistic establishment’s lionization of guerilla graffiti artists such as Bansky, whose appeal I have never understood. Creating art by spray-painting a photoshopped image from a template onto public or private property is hardly the work of genius. The tolerance or in some cases active encouragement of this practice has led to a kind of mutually assured destruction by government and the arts, in which common decency, historic preservation, and the rule of law are forced to take a back seat to expressions of personal selfishness.

Will the Opera’s plan work? Logic would dictate that those who are most of a mind to place graffiti on a cathedral bell tower are highly unlikely to say to themselves and their cohort, “Hey, let’s go check out that new app where we can pretend to draw our names on a wall.” Moreover, the risk here is that those who would never normally engage in such behavior will now try it, and find the experience so intoxicating that they will subsequently want to try it out in real life. Virtual reality, after all, is no substitute for experience.

Most of us do not view defacing public or private property as a laudable activity. It is a behavior which demonstrates a fundamental lack of charity toward others, which is particularly ironic in a house of Christian worship. For while ultimately the fault for this galactically stupid idea lies with the Opera, the Archdiocese of Florence should be of ashamed of itself for even consenting to be a part of such an ill-conceived plan, in which the walls of its sacred buildings are to become the proving ground for future antisocial nonsense.

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Graffiti inside the lantern of the Duomo, Florence

Restoration of an Italian Renaissance Jewel

How’s this for a bit of elbow grease?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a special new exhibition to open January 15th entitled “A Renaissance Masterpiece Revealed: Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child”, which will run through April. The centerpiece of the show is Filippino Lippi’s Madonna of circa 1485, which was painted for the powerful Strozzi family in Florence. The panel has undergone a truly miraculous restoration, removing years of overpainting, grime, dirt and brown varnish, which had completely changed the look of the picture. However, these layers of muck in fact preserved the original, bright blues, pinks, and yellows underneath, as you will see in the comparison below.

Lippi’s family background is nothing if not interesting. His father was the great Florentine painter Fra Filippo Lippi, who started out as a Carmelite friar. When he proved to be a better doodler than a contemplative, the prior encouraged him to study painting, at which he excelled. In 1458, Lippi Senior was commissioned to paint an image of the Madonna and Child at a convent outside of Florence where one of the novices, the beautiful Lucrezia Buti, sat as his model for the Madonna.

The painter and the model fell in love, and ran away together. Filippo refused to surrender to the authorities, and Lucrezia refused to return to her parents or the convent. She then became pregnant with Filippino, whom she gave birth to later that year.

No doubt some of my readers will see this as an unfortunate turn of events from a moral perspective, and they would be right. However, what is done is done, and one does not get to obviate the consequences of one’s choices. Of course, had Lucrezia been living in the present day, no doubt she would have had her arm twisted by Planned Parenthood and so on to abort the child – being an unwed, underage mother facing arrest and prosecution or worse. Had the world’s greatest practitioners of infanticide been around at the time, we would have lost one of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance period.

In any case, eventually the two lovers were released from their vows and allowed to marry, and the couple subsequently had a daughter as well. Filippino was initially trained by his father, who continued to work as a painter, and later was apprenticed to Sandro Botticelli, who himself had trained under Filippino’s father. Filippino eventually went on to surpass his father in terms of artistic achievements, in the eyes of many art historians.

Because of his tutelage under Botticelli, many of his Filippino Lippi’s earlier works are difficult to distinguish from those of his master, similar to the way in which works by Perugino and the young Raphael can often be hard to tell apart. However Lippi’s own style continued to develop and mature, and garner the respect of his fellow artists and artisans. This extended to the point where, upon his death in 1504, Lippi was so highly regarded by his contemporaries that all of the artists’ workshops in Florence closed on the day of his funeral so that the painters, sculptors, etc. and their assistants could attend the funeral mass.

In any case, here we see the “before” version of the Strozzi Madonna and Child, now at the Metropolitan, with everything having a yellowish-brownish hue from the years of dirt and varnish:

And here is the cleaned painting, demonstrating the crystalline, jewel tones that Lippi is known for (in pieces such as his “Tobias and the Angel” here in the National Gallery), including lapis lazuli, berry red, and pale yellow:

>A Royal Academy Show Actually Worth Seeing

>Gentle Reader: A reminder that you have until Wednesday August 25th to submit your entry for The Blog of the Courtier’s Birthday Contest! Details and a link where to email your entry may be found here.

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Should the reader find himself in London this autumn, a visit to the Royal Academy is in order, for the purpose of viewing something other the soiled bed linen and perverse pottery that have previously been displayed during their summer exhibitions. The new exhibition, “Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele”, features paintings and drawings from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Hungarian National Gallery. The show runs from September 25 through December 12th, and tickets may be obtained at the Royal Academy’s website.

One of the highlights of the exhibition – for The Courtier anyway – is Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna of 1508. Named for the princely Hungarian family that eventually acquired it in the 18th century, it is an unfinished jewel of a painting from one of the important periods in Raphael’s lifelong development of the image of the Madonna and Child. Stylistically, it is related to his other Madonnas set in sunny, Tuscan landscapes, from the period he spent in Florence absorbing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, among others.

For example, take a look at the Madonna of the Goldfinch of 1505, in the Uffizi; his Madonna of the Meadow painted the same year, now in Vienna; and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre, painted in 1507. All of these are cousins, if you will, of the Esterházy Madonna. They all show full-length figures of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, spending time outdoors in an idealized landscape setting of the Tuscan countryside.

It is worth pointing out however, that the figures shown in the Esterházy Madonna seem to be more complicated than those in these other pictures. Raphael would sometimes paint half-length figures, as in a portrait, such as his Small Cowper Madonna of 1505, now in the National Gallery here in D.C. In these half-length images there is some movement, but usually in the form of one or both figures leaning or reaching for something. Similarly, in his full-length Madonnas such as the aforementioned, the Virgin Mary is usually shown to be seated and fairly restrained in her movements.

By contrast, the Virgin Mary in the Budapest picture is twisting and turning from a kneeling position. She seems to be holding back the Christ Child from slipping off the rock upon which He is seated, as He tries to grab for the scroll which has drawn the enrapt attention of St. John the Baptist, who himself is shown in a half-kneeling, half-crouched position next to her. There is a sense of twisting movement among the three figures individually, as they twist in concert around the pyramidal core established by their forms.

We know that Raphael moved from Florence to Rome in late 1508, and that there he began to come under the spell of Michelangelo.The Courtier not being enough of an expert on the subject to know precisely when the Esterházy Madonna was painted along the timeline of Raphael’s development, it is interesting to wonder whether Raphael was working on this piece when he moved to Rome and began to look at Michelangelo’s work – which is full of wriggling, writhing figures – or whether this shows that he had absorbed all he could of the tranquility of Florentine painting and was already prepared for the more robust work he was to find in Rome. Is this why he left the piece unfinished?

Admittedly, this is all pure armchair speculation, but it is an interesting piece to consider, particularly if you, gentle reader, like The Courtier, enjoy the wide variety of images of the Madonna and Child which Raphael produced during his short lifetime.

The Esterházy Madonna by Raphael, c. 1508
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest