I’m starting my trek through Europe from Warsaw—the epicenter of Poland’s support for the waves of Ukrainian refugees. Close to 2.5 million of them have crossed Polish borders, either on their way to destinations all over Europe or to be hosted by families inside Poland. The refugees are mainly assisted by an army of volunteers estimated at two million people. Ordinary citizens and a slew of charitable organizations, social foundations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and especially communities, city councils, and local governments have been providing assistance for weeks now. Some of the help is in the form of temporary housing in people’s homes or hotels; sometimes it is providing transportation or directing new arrivals to various forms of assistance—health care, education, and child care. Close to a million Ukrainian children have come through the Polish border, and about 400,000 of those who stayed in Poland have already been given social security numbers that allow them the same free education, preschools, and health services that are available to all Polish residents.
If you walk in the streets of Warsaw, you can see symbols of moral support. All over the city, landscaping services have started planting yellow and blue pansies at bus stops and local squares. Individual businesses and homes are decorating in blue and yellow, and flags or murals declaring solidarity are literally everywhere—private balconies, metro stations, freeway billboards, buses, and ad screens. No matter to whom you speak—doctors, taxi drivers, students, company CEOs, or janitors—almost everybody here has been helping somehow, donating food, clothes, time, money, housing, car rides, SIM cards, trips to the dentist, or job opportunities. This is a spring of solidarity that is visible in all aspects of daily life here.
Spring in Italy
Donna Leon observes in The Jewels of Paradise: “What would the world be if we subtracted Italy from the sum of all world culture?“
I’m following all the school kids and family groups on their spring break visiting various Italian tourist spots. In Florence, the center of town is totally overrun by Easter break vacationers, but I still found a less crowded spot to enjoy the Florentine Renaissance. The Basilica Santissima Annunziata is famous for its Baroque interior, but the exterior cloisters are decorated with frescoes painted during the Renaissance.
Between 1460 and 1517, several generations of Florentine artists—from Andrea del Sarto to his pupil Jacopo da Pontormo—painted various religious scenes here (e.g., healing of the lepers, the marriage of the Virgin, miracle of St. Philip Benizi). My favorite fresco is by del Sarto, and it depicts a very dramatic scene. The Punishment of the Gamblers is meant to be a cautionary tale for potential sinners, and it is painted as a vivid action scene. A divine thunderbolt has already struck down three people and a tree—the trunk is still burning. Panicked travelers are scattering in all directions. A trio of pious men (monks or pilgrims, most likely) stands gawking. They are safe from God’s wrath, so they can just point to the destruction and calmly talk among themselves. They are just witnesses but not the participants in this quite violent scene. The landscape of converging roads and far-away mountains behind is really beautifully done—with delicate shades of green and lilac. By the way, these frescoes, once grimed beyond recognition, were recently restored as a major art project; they have not looked so vibrant and subtle since the 1500s when they were created.
Pompeii and Herculaneum
As far as ancient ruins go, Herculaneum and Pompeii are still an unbeatable sightseeing must, perennially popular from 1738 onward when the first ruins were accidentally discovered by builders digging foundations for a summer palace for the king of Naples. Pompeii’s first buildings were dug out in 1748. The ancient Herculaneum was a port and a commercial town, while Pompeii was a summer resort full of country villas, taverns, and…brothels. Frescoes, stone and bronze sculptures, silverware, glass bowls, jewelry, and other artifacts from those sites can now be seen inside the Archeological Museum of Naples. On the actual sites, you can wander among the remains of astounding Roman engineering—multistory houses, intricate brickwork, floor and wall heating, a sewage system, and stucco and marble cladding 10 inches thick and still in place despite earthquakes and the catastrophic volcanic eruption almost 2000 years ago.
And then there is art…. One of the best-preserved houses on the Pompeii site is a large structure built in the 2nd century BC, called the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri). The original villa was a luxury summer house with surrounding gardens, but after some earthquake damage in 62 AD, it became a wine-producing farm. Like the rest of the town, the villa was completely covered with ash during the eruption, and it was not excavated until 1909. The fame of this beautiful structure comes from its frescoes, exceptionally preserved in situ.
The walls of one of the rooms are decorated with scenes from an initiation into a Dionysian cult, painted on a background of vivid crimson. Restorations in the 1930s that used a mixture of petroleum and wax changed the red hue and the painting’s sheen; however, a 2015 restoration has revived the original artwork—these days, preservation methods include lasers to remove the wax and antibiotics for bacteria. The fresco above is considered perhaps one of the most famous in Pompeii thanks to the life-size figures and their complex interaction in a long composition along all the walls.
Although almost all the frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures of both towns are now displayed in museum conditions, there is one Herculaneum house where the mosaic still gives us the feel of an antique courtyard. So-called House Number 22 is decorated with sea-themed mosaics that are as striking and beautiful as they would have been two millennia ago. Sea gods are standing proudly against a colorful background, surrounding by a charming frame of seashells—just as we would decorate a fountain in a contemporary garden.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (PGC) in Venice is one of my most favorite museums in the world. It has a fascinating history, it houses the best version of Magritte’s The Empire of Light, and it is located in a famous unfinished palazzo in the most picturesque part of the Grand Canal. Today, this modern art museum is busier than ever, not only full of school groups and tourists but also packed with art professionals who descended on Venice for the Biennale. An additional draw is an ambitious and well-researched exhibition entitled “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity” (April 9–Sept. 26, 2022). The exhibition includes paintings by Dalì and Max Ernst in the PGC collection, but it also brings out some lesser known works by women surrealists. There are paintings by Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo—two of the most unusual surrealist artists ever—whose works are dispersed and rarely included in shows. Many of these come from private collections, and I had never seen them. If you manage to get to Venice this summer, this is an unmissable show….
Padua…It is said that Enrico degli Scrovegni, a wealthy 13th-century banker, commissioned from Giotto di Bondone a decoration of his chapel as an atonement for his father’s sin of usury. To ensure his release from the circles of hell, he hired the Florentine artist in 1303 to paint scenes from the life of Jesus and images of Virtues, as well as the central fresco of the Last Judgement. Giotto and his 40 assistants spent two years creating a wonder of wonders—beautifully painted panels, a starry ceiling, and ornamental borders.
There are countless frescoed walls in Italian churches and palaces, but few as artistically accomplished as these. Giotto was an inspiration for all the Renaissance artists who came about a hundred years after him. He moved visual rendition beyond the one-dimensional, flat-bodied figures of medieval art toward rounded, shaded bodies and faces in highly individualized portraits. He would show people expressing emotions, engaged in realistic action, experiencing pain or surprise. Giotto’s people are people, not just religious symbols.
I have wanted to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua for years. Today, I finally had a chance to see the Halley’s comet which so famously features in Giotto’s nativity panel as the Star of Bethlehem. Giotto broke with a thousand-year tradition of conventions in religious decoration, choosing realism instead. He painted the folds of robes over the feet of kneeling saints, the stripes on a typical country blanket, the puffed cheeks of angels playing trumpets; in Lamentation, he painted the agonized face of Mary, and in the fresco of Marriage at Cana, an unapologetic fat monk drinking wine. These are wonderful paintings, as worthy of an artistic pilgrimage as the Sistine Chapel.
Venice is a big city like no other—most of the city is completely deprived of car traffic. Everything within the lagoon moves on water or on foot.
One thing that Venice water traffic does not have to deal with anymore is the movement of those giant cruise ships that would loom in the Grand Canal, destroying views, polluting the city, and ruining the city’s fragile ecology. They have finally been banned. Check out the National Geographic documentary on Venice’s sinking.
The traffic is intense, however. Here are some views of Venice’s water traffic
People move daily around the city either on foot, or via water buses called vaporettos:
Those who are in a hurry catch a water taxi:
Those who are really in a hurry and have the means to do so use personal boats:
Tourists also move about on various small cruise boats:
Or, if they want to spend the equivalent of 10 times the cost of a vaporetto ride, they can hire a romantic gondola:
Deliveries of goods, mail, online shipping, etc. are also done by boat:
Even a vegetable stand is water-based:
After Venice had lost its primate in global trade from about mid-16th c. onwards, the Republic had pivoted to sell … itself. Venice had done a fabulous job at this re-branding. The world started flocking to this legendary city for entertainment (carnevale!), culture (Grand Tours!), art (paintings! sculptures!), views (Grand Canal at sunset!) and picturesque contrasts (laundry lines next to palazzos!). And, centuries later, we still keep coming for the same things, and after the pandemic hiatus Venice is as crowded as before. The city is still unbeatable as a magnet for art lovers, both for what it offers inside the museums and what can be seen outside at local churches, picturesque squares and, once every two years, at the Venice Biennale art show that has been going on since 1895.
I spent most of the day at L’Accademia – the museum that holds 500 years’ worth of Venetian art, including Tintoretto, Carriera, Carpaccio, Giorgione and Veronese, and every other artist who worked in this city. If you had visited L’Accademia before 2015, you would not recognize it now – it was transformed from red-walled, cracked-stucco rooms with a jumble of paintings into a modern space with pale, well-lit surfaces against which paintings are finally arranged according to thematic or biographical logic. It’s a delight to visit this thoroughly renovated temple to Venetian masters.
On occasion of the Biennale, L’Accademia is also hosting a side show of Anish Kapoor who makes a maximum use of the nano-black paint that he (somewhat selfishly) patented. He also has a powerful show of red and black abstraction paintings and large installations of red silicone chunks that look like a giant abattoir or a scene of a mass murder. Perhaps he is commenting on never-ending war atrocities and media’s focus on crime stories. Even if this is not obvious at the first glance, it somehow seems to connect to the painting in the Accademia by a Venetian old master Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1525).
Between 1496-98 Carpaccio painted a cycle of 9 large scenes depicting the legend of St. Ursula who was a mythic princess and a 4th century Christian martyr. The artist placed Ursula, a princess from Brittany, in Venice — room interiors, building, clothing, décor are all in style of Venetian Rennaissance. These images are teeming with theatrical splendor, like the scene of Ursula’s bethrothal to the pagan prince or a view of “ambassadors’ visit,” with street people crowding all around the dignitaries.
When John Ruskin saw this cycle in 1878, he declared “I went crazy for St. Ursula.” I went crazy too — there are so many delightful details to discover in those huge canvases.
Since the cycle tells a story of a fairy tale princess whose high birth and royal standing did not prevent her from suffering, one of the canvases depicts Ursula’s grisly end (she was assassinated together with 10,000 virgins), and it is portrayed with realistic violence. This particular scene of a mass killing is as much a comment on violence as Kapoor’s modern take, even if his ideas are expressed through an abstract style and in red-blood silicone. Carpaccio’s cycle has undergone a restoration between 2013-19 and, like the remodeled Accademia itself, it is a delight to see it so vibrant.
Cats of Florence
I’m visiting our family cat called Calypso. She is currently living in Florence, and she is, therefore, an inspiration for this story about paintings that can be found in Florentine museums that feature some beautifully painted felines.
Jan van der Straet, also known in Italy as Giovanni Stradano, was a Flemish genre painter who settled in Florence, decorating palazzos as well as designing tapestries and prints. In 1570, he painted An Alchemist’s Laboratory. Alchemy was the passion of Francesco I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany who had a little laboratory set up inside the Palazzo Vecchio. His studiolo, decorated with mythological scenes, was a smallish room into which he retreated away from a wife he detested. One of the studiolo paintings is van der Straet’s portrait of the Grand Duke at his favorite occupation. He is portrayed as an alchemist stirring the cauldron while the bespectacled botanist Giuseppe Benincasa stands next to him. The very center of this painting is taken up by a blond boy holding an alembic (an alchemical still). A russet-colored cat is lurking just behind the boy. In a painting about a magical process, this cat is possibly a symbol of night and hidden forces; on the other hand, van der Straet tended to put a lot of cats in his paintings, so perhaps he just wanted to include one of his pets.
Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper fresco is a superb example of Renaissance imagery on this theme, especially given that da Vinci’s masterpiece in Milan was not able to survive intact for more than a few years after being painted. Da Vinci famously experimented with tempera and oil mixture that was unsuited to fresco techniques, and the paint flaked away. Ghirlandaio’s composition is the traditional one where Judas is sitting apart on the other side of the table. A grey cat next to him may have been a symbolic indication of Judas’s dark intentions. The cat looks, therefore, a bit generic, but it is anatomically correct, unlike many cats in medieval and Renaissance paintings where the animals often would hardly resemble their real-life models. Here is a detail from the fresco, so that you can better see this cat looking back at you:
You can play a “spot-the-cat“ game with Pontormo’s Supper at Emmaus at the Uffizi Gallery.
There are actually two cats in this painting, but both of them are lurking discreetly behind legs, so they are less obvious than the dog in the foreground. The symbolism here is not very complimentary to felines, since the dog represents faithfulness while the cats embody something more sinister (dark instincts or maybe even the devil). I choose to ignore the old superstitions and just view them as house kitties participating in an important event. The artist was sheltering from the epidemic of the plague at a monks’ charterhouse when he painted this picture, so perhaps there were a lot of cats simply hanging around on the monastery grounds. This Pontormo painting is also quite famous for its mystical “eye of god” image on top of the composition, but here, I’m only looking at the lurking tabbies. Here is a detail of one of the cats:
The oldest palace decoration inside the Palazzo Pitti, the Medici palace in Florence, is in an area called loggetta that was decorated in 1588 by Alessandro Allori in rooms originally intended for ladies’ apartments and then assigned for “foreign princes and cardinals,” i.e., guests. The loggetta is currently undergoing restorations, so I could only visit it online.
The decorations were commissioned by Francesco I de’ Medici (the same alchemy fan as above), so there is a Medici coat of arms in the center (a shield with red cannonballs). A simple clothesline with drying clothes surrounds the oval of the painting to bring up the more prosaic theme of housework. Around the edges, there are scenes of servant women doing laundry, washing their hair, and. . . washing a little dog. A russet and white cat is looking at this scene with some disdain—he is not going to be washed, thank you very much.
Tintoretto spent most of his life in his native Venice, but his Leda and the Swan can be found at the Uffizi collection in Florence, thanks to a 19th-century donation by a collector. Tintoretto’s treatment of this mythological tale focuses on Leda and her avian suitor, but it also includes a side action of a servant girl holding a crate with a duck and a curious cat trying to get to the bird, perhaps with culinary intentions.
There are many more images of cats in Florentine paintings, but I did not have access to online images to share with you. For example, the painter Federico Barocci included many cat images in his art, most notably in two Madonna paintings. One is at the National Gallery in London and is actually known as Madonna of the Cat:
Barocci also painted another Madonna of the Cat for Cardinal della Rovere. It’s a charming portrait of the Holy Family, where the center of the image is taken by a mother cat and her kittens—a symbol of happy and devoted motherhood. Artistically, this is a more accomplished painting, less sugary and more focused on creating a family scene (this is a moment of St. Elizabeth visiting her daughter and grandchild), with an imposing view of the Urbino landscape behind. This painting is held at the Palatine Gallery of the Palazzo Pitti, but it is not on display, or at least I could not spot it there. Barocci was a cat person—there is a wonderful collection of his drawings of cats at the Uffizi’s Cabinetto Disegni e Stampe.
I will leave you with a decoration from the room ornamented for Eleonora di Toledo by Giorgio Vasari. He had about 20 assistants to help him with the work, and one of them was none other than the aforementioned Jan van der Straet, who was just starting out in Florence. A string of putti (cherubs) includes one playful cat. See if you can spot it.
A good friend took me to visit Fondation Maeght – a museum located on a pine forest hill above Sant-Paul-de-Vence. Little historic towns around the French Riviera such as Biot, Vence, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Antibes and many others, bracketed on the east by Nice and in the west by Arles, are famed for their local art museums.
They are either villas of artists (like the Renoir museum in Cagnes-sur- Mer where he spent the last 20 years of his life) or galleries celebrating an artist who lived nearby (e.g. the Picasso museum in Antibes and the Matisse museum in Nice). Some are devoted to some style associated with the south of France like Impressionism or Abstractionism, others house collections of a single artist like the famous Museum Léger in Biot. Fondation Maeght is devoted to 20th c. abstract art, thanks to the relations its founders, Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, had with artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque and Alberto Giacometti.
Aimé Maeght (1906-1981) started out as a lithographer who met artists through his printing work. By late 1930’s he would become a friend, a marchand and a collaborator of Bonnard, Matisse, Fernand Léger and many other mid-century artists. He became an exclusive dealer for many modern artists with whom he had lasting friendships. Following a personal tragedy (death of his younger son) he poured his energy into a project of building a modern art museum that would house numerous contributions of his clients and friends. The modern structure was designed by the Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert and when the place opened in 1964, it featured sculptures by Miró and Giacometti, a pool and stained glass window by Braque, paintings by Legèr and Chagall, and a large stabile by Alexander Calder. The foundation was visited over the years by jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, housed French and European writers and artists, and it presented to the public hundreds of modern art exhibitions.
This is an oasis of peace and beauty in a land that is already more picturesque than most places on earth. Not only inside you can find some outstanding canvases – notably Chagall’s Life and Bonnard’s Summer 1917 (both artists were lifelong friends of Aimé), but the sculpture garden is filled with art specially created and installed by artists. Miró’s labyrinth is a winding space filled with his fanciful sculptures, a reflection pool is laid out with a George Braque’s mosaic, and there is a Giacometti court where his elongated figures seem to be rushing across the brick patio.
After this charming place that pulsates with art at every nook and cranny, my trip to check out museums of Nice was a disappointment. I could not get into Chagall and Matisse museums (closed in preparation for future exhibitions). I headed instead to MAMAC – the Museum of Modern and Contemporary art – only to be underwhelmed.
The structure is modern (lots of concrete and glass and lots of exhibition halls with badly designed flow of traffic) with hardly any art worth checking out. The best part are the collages and papier maché sculptures by mid-century artist Niki de Sant Phalle. She was a pop artist, quite underappreciated until recently, who would create colorful, mosaic-covered garden sculptures and totems that grace many parks and public spaces in Europe.
Above is an example of her sculpture in Germany. Her style is easy to recognize – mirror and multi-colored tiles adorn her sculptures of “nanas” (bulky female figures, sometimes pregnant, sometimes black, always whimsical – created in 1970s’ when portraying such figures was a revolutionary feminist protest art) or “totems” or “tarot symbols.” Her art had inspired countless objects of decorative art. St. Phalle bequeathed dozens of her works to this museum. Unfortunately, other than St. Phalle’s creations and some Yves Klein paintings (another mid-century French artist famed for his intense dark blue color he invented), there isn’t anything outstanding in this museum. If you crave modern art in the south of France, the refined Fondation Maeght delivers much more than the big museum in Nice.