Friday, July 5, 2013

Back from Break, First Stop: The Renaissance

I've been taking a break from Blogger for more than five weeks, trying to use Google Plus as a substitute. But now that I am in Florence, Italy, and feeling the desire to talk about my first impressions of things I've seen here, I find that a blog is still the best format to say those things, and to control where the pictures go inside the text. So I'm back!

The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, mid 1400s
After several days getting used to the time difference here in Florence, buying a few things for the apartment, doing preliminary meetings with our host college, welcoming the students arriving from the USA, I finally had my first transcendent experience with the art of the Renaissance today. 

Starting with the early Renaissance, I went to the Monastery of San Marco, which was only a short walk from where the last meeting was, to see the frescoes by Fra Angelico. Let me preface all this by saying that I am talking about art that I have waited more than thirty years to see, a long time since my first exposure to these works as a teenage art and art history student. My experience is a little like seeing images of New York City, and reading about the place for years in advance, and having the strange duality of being overwhelmed at the first true sight of the skyscrapers, at the same time as you are simultaneously aware of everything you already think you know about them.

I'm just going to go with some quick impressions:
  • Fra Angelico is completely interested in faces, almost certainly drawn from life or memory of looking at his contemporaries.
  • Noses: they are all different, and uniquely identify things like status, age, gender, etc.
  • Hands, except for Christ's and a few others', are somewhat boneless and cartoonish. He's not like painters of the High renaissance, where even the hands are painted by observing every sinew, cord, tendon, etc.
  • His drawing is clean, smooth, direct, no rococo flourishes. 
  • The chiaroscuro realism of shade and light on the faces is extraordinary, and moving. Moving because of the moment of recognition you feel when you see them: the stories of Christ's last hours are conventional enough, and the attitudes and stances of the figures fall into patterns that we know from preceding centuries of tradition, except that the faces have a realism is revolutionary in the context of their time. They look like they have stepped off the street and into the picture, or perhaps from the picture and into our street-space. 
  • Perhaps they've been restored, because they look like they were painted yesterday.
  • The wings on the angel in The Annunciation have pieces of some material that actually glitter. This does not come across in photos, and it took my completely by surprise.
  • Things like areas of grass in the Annunciation fresco, or the stations of the cross frescoes, are painted flat, slightly out of perspective, like you would see  in earlier, icon-like painting, but they are also painted within these sharply delineated areas of the picture with great attention to pattern and detail.
  • The blood dripping from Christ's feet to the ground below the cross looks as solid as strips of ribbon, or icing." I have kissed your mouth, John the Baptist, and it tasted of blood, it tasted of love" - (Oscar Wilde, Salome).
  • Gestures, body positions, also look like they must have been done from observation, eg, the apostle writhing to escape the centurion who is cutting off his ear in the garden of Gethsemane.

Just down the street is the Accademia, where Michelangelo's David is housed. With our museum pass, we were able to walk right past the crowds and into the room housing the statue within minutes. The first sight of David, towering over the crowds and lit from a domed skylight directly above, is moving beyond words, my friends. Dumbfounding. Astonishing. The size of the statue, the simplicity of it (believe it or not), the solidity of the parts are unmatched by anything I have read or heard about it. I had my sketchbook with me, but I could hardly even draw it at first, I was so intimidated by the presence of it, and my awareness of my whole artistic history beginning with life drawing, and drawing from copies of Michelangelo's statues, and studying the life and poetry of Michelangelo. Honestly, I felt like the starstruck fan of a movie goddess who was meeting the object of his adoration for the first time. With roses in his hand. And planning to ask her out on a date. While realising that he had just spilled tomato sauce all over his clothes. Metaphorically speaking.

So for the first little while I just drew the crowds looking at the David, only including glimpses of his feet. (One thing I noticed about those feet: the marble is so smooth in the rest of the statue to convey the sensation of skin and flesh, but parts of the toes look as if they are rough, unpolished marble, to give the impression of callouses on these bare feet). Eventually I plucked up the courage to draw the legs from the side, and then the right hand. 

Maybe when I go back I will be able to tackle the entire figure, or build up a picture by drawing it in parts. And I will go back, to both locations.

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