A Ducal Palace Press Conference for Bagni di Lucca’s 2014 Arts Festival

“Conto alla rovescia” is an often-recurring Italian expression. It simply means “count-down” and it’s definitely count-down time for the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival which officially opens on July 4th at 6.30 pm with a grand and entertaining evening of jugglers, circus and music for everyone.

Yesterday we were in Lucca’s sumptuous ducal palace in Piazza Napoleone to attend the Arts Festival press release conference. Introducing was the festival’s seminal figure, Jaqueline Varela, with her fluent and persuasive style, in the centre of the table was Mayor Massimo Betti of Bagni di Lucca and to his left was Jake, Jaqueline’s other half.

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The progress this Bagni-di-Lucca shaking event has made since its incredibly successful debut last year could be seen in the choice of location and the presence of our commune’s first citizen. Few places can match the opulence of the magnificent state rooms of Lucca’s biggest palace and it is significant that the festival now has strengthened the official imprimatur of the commune’s administration.

Incidentally, the superlative frescoes in the ducal palace are not there to glorify the reign of Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, over Lucca. Quite the opposite: Luigi Ademollo painted them in 1820 by command of her successor, Maria Luisa di Borbona to affirm the virtues of the restoration and condemn the vices of the former empire. Such is the power of art!

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Among the audience were representatives of all the major Italian and English language newspapers and magazines of the province and region. Questions were asked and were all satisfactorily answered. Would there be any differences in year two of the Arts festival as distinct from year one? The winning formula would be pursued of course – a balance between formal and flexible organisation. There would, however, be an effort to involve Bagni di Lucca Villa more in the event. After all, Villa does have more than its share of empty shops – I am particularly thinking of that delightful venue which used to be at the Piazzetta and, of course, the precarious future of the circolo dei forestieri.

Further venues at Ponte would be opened, including the Casino, and greater emphasis would be paid to involving all sectors of the public at all degrees of artistic interest or involvement by introducing more art and sculpture courses.

We know now that after the “strepitoso” success” of last year’s “first edition”, the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival can only grow from strength to strength. The energy is vibrant, the enthusiasm is strong and the creativity is flowering.

Concentrating on the primal instinct of artistry which lies in every sentient being we can now build the festival into something which will continue to form a major part of Bagni di Lucca’s identity and its already very attractive calendar of events.

For further information about the festival and its events do click on its web site at:

http://artfestivalbagnidilucca.org/?page_id=1781

 

Seventy Years Ago in Padua

I would have added a fifth “must-see” set of frescoes in Italy on my list in my last post but on Saturday 11th of March 1944 at 11.45 AM, during the fourth allied bombing raid on Padua, Mantegna’s fresco cycle dedicated to saints James and Christopher in the Ovetari chapel in the Eremitani churchjust next to Giotto’s Scrovegni chapel, was irreparably destroyed.

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Why here? Perhaps because just north of the church is Padua’s main railway station. I wonder if that building was greatly put out of action by the Anglo-American imprecision bombing. Actually, it seems that the Allies wanted to hit the German command at Arcella, but the wind and a very approximate tracking system caused ​​the bomb to fall on the Ovetari chapel instead, destroying the frescoes.

This raid was thus not just a humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of casualties, but also an artistic one. One hundred and eleven “flying fortresses” dropped more than three hundred tons of bombs over Padua. Mantegna’s frescoes were not the only victims. Other frescoes by notable Venetian painters like Vivarini were also destroyed, and many of the city’s buildings and areas were demolished including the civil hospital, Altichiero, Ponte di Brenta, Vigonza, Noventa and Arcella among other centres.

The restoration of the Ovetari chapel began immediately, with the recovery of fragments of the Mantegna’s frescoes. Too many pieces, however, were never found. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, people have tried to rebuild that masterpiece with the latest restoration techniques, most recently in 2006 when computer technology was used to piece together fragments from one hundred and thirteen cases housing the remains. Much was never able to be reconstituted but in 2011 someone left on the altar of the Eremitani church a box with four missing pieces from Mantegna’s fresco cycle.

I’ve also discovered that immediately after the Eremitani disaster the Allied command set up a task force with the best American and British art experts to map all the artistic sites considered sensitive, and therefore to be protected. They were called the” Angels of Venus” and came to the Eremitani a few days after the bombing to safeguard the area. But it was too late: because of previous poor security, some vandals had already taken home the larger fresco fragments. So the appeal for further fragments to be returned goes on. Reasonably, there will be no penalties inflicted on those who return the precious remains.

After the wonders of the Scrovegni chapel we visited the Eremitani church and sadly saw what’s left of the Mantegna frescoes, the fragments of which have now been pieced over a “virtual reality” image. At least I got some idea of what the cycle would have been like and why it is important in art history. Mantegna was bridging the gap between the post –medievalism of his master Vivarini and the renaissance-inspired example of his own art filled with extreme perspective points, tightly flowing robes, highly defined faces and fragments of ancient roman architecture.

The chapel is also important because it contains early work by Mantegna done between 1448 and 1457, well before he began working for the Gonzaga in Mantua and painting the Triumphs of Caesar, his masterpiece, now at Hampton Court Palace in the UK.

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The terrible loss of the frescoes, commissioned by the notary Ovetari for his family chapel, in  the history of western art was commemorated by an exhibition in the nearby fine arts museum housed in the Palazzo Zuckermann (11 April to 25 May). I didn’t know about this exhibition, which also extended into a bar where we bought a much needed cappuccino. The photographs (mainly black and white) of the chapel before 1944 were particularly poignant and, for me, gave a much better idea of the lost wonder of this early Mantegna work than any “virtual” reconstruction.

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 There was also a model illustrating the terrible damage perpetrated by the bombing of the Eremitani church.

Great art can be destroyed in three main ways: I am just referring to Mantegna’s oeuvre:

  1. War damage – as in the Ovetari frescoes mentioned above
  2. Planned downright ignorance – In 1488 Mantegna was called by Pope Innocent VIII to paint frescos in a Vatican chapel. This series of frescos, including a Baptism of Christ, was destroyed by Pius VI in 1780 because he didn’t like them!
  3. Neglect – a Gonzaga stately house near the church of San Sebastiano in Mantua was once adorned with many paintings by Mantegna. Although the house still stands, the pictures have perished through damp and negligence.

The visitors’ book to the exhibition was filled with many heart-felt comments. I could only add this quote from that great poet Wifrid Owen:

“The pity of war”

What a miracle that the Scrovegni chapel, only a hundred yards away, did not suffer the same fate! Was the hand of God somewhere here I wonder?

 

Why don’t all Bankers Behave like this?

Italy is the home of fresco painting. Among its many cycles of frescoes, both in churches and secular building there are (for me) four that stand out immensely:

  1. The Giotto frescoes in the capella Scrovegni in Padua (1303-5)
  2. The Masaccio frescoes in the capella Brancacci in the chiesa del Carmine Florence (1420-30)
  3. The Piero della Francesca frescoes in St Francis Basilica, Arezzo (1452-66)
  4. The Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine chapel (1508-12 and 1536-41).

If you haven’t seen these fabulous four frescoes then plan the rest of your life to include them as an immediate priority: they are works which have changed the history of western art in ways that no other creative works have done – they will also change your life and the way you look at it.

I’d last seen the Capella Scrovegni more years ago than I care to remember. A friend of mine had visited it more recently and told me how one must book ahead and then wait in an “acclimatization” centre before entering the hallowed place. He also added that it was worth every effort to try to see it. The time when I could casually enter the chapel with another hitch-hiking college undergraduate was, alas, long past. Now I had to book on-line for our Easter highlight, and unmissable appointment, with the chapel. If we were even five minutes late we would have to start again: the chapel allows just twenty-five people at any one time for fifteen minutes only: last year alone there were almost half a million visitors to it.

Despite the cataclysmic storm which was shaking and flooding the entire city, indeed region, of Padua we made it, soaked even to our socks, into the park which also contains the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, (arena – which gives an alternative name to the chapel), watched an introductory film and visited the interesting museum which has been installed in the restored cloisters of the adjoining Eremitani church. We then walked across to the chapel where we saw another film, while waiting to be “acclimatised”, before entering the full glory of this building, almost entirely frescoed by one of the greatest painters the world has ever seen and painted within the first ten years of the fourteenth century.

I‘m not going to give a description of the splendour that spread all around me except to say that Giotto laid out the frescoes starting out from the top into four cycles in a generally anticlockwise direction.

The first band illustrates the story of Joachim and Anne,

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 (Joachim meets Anne at the Golden Gate)

the second, the life of the Virgin,

the third the life of Jesus

and the lowest the vices and virtues.

Looking at the great Last Judgement, painted on the end wall opposite the altar with hell on the right and heaven on the left, the vices follow the side of hell and the virtues the side of heaven, making it clear that resisting everything except temptation is not an option!

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Above the altar is an Annunciation.

The scenes don’t all derive from the authorised version of the Bible. Secondary sources are also used which include the apocryphal gospels of pseudo-Matthew and Nicodemus, Varazze’s Golden Legend, and the Meditations on the life of Jesus by the pseudo-Bonaventura.

It’s important, therefore, to have a good look at a well-illustrated book about the frescoes before visiting them so, at the very least, one can make out the sense of each scene more clearly. Then, with those preciously few fifteen minutes at one’s disposal in this most wonderful of interiors one can then concentrate on the blazing colours (don’t forget Padua was part of the Venetian republic which had access to the most valuable pigments and best artists’ materials from the east: cobalts and carmines included), the majestic and moving expressions, never surpassed by any of the art that followed, and the intense and dramatic flow of the masterpiece, built as a mausoleum for the remains of Enrico Scrovegni who wished in every way to atone for his life as a rich banker, which included such (then) sinful practises as usury.

I’m sure that Scrovegni, by getting the best painter around, and giving him full rein in expressing the over-riding theme of Salvation permeating this artistic icon, has superbly released himself from any condemnation to that circle of hell Dante (whose literary influence also enters into these frescoes) would have allotted to such humans.

I only wish that bankers today would reflect more carefully about how future generations will think about them and realise that it’s only by giving generously to the arts, and by commissioning on a Scrovegni-type scale, that they’ll escape the censure of the public who have now, by sad experience, allocated the banker’s profession to the lowest of scales in the continuing economic crisis still afflicting too much of the world today.

 

PS The photos which I include are public property since no photography is allowed in the chapel. I also wish that no talking were allowed too. I found some of the other visitors to this heaven on earth rather noisy!