On the Road Again (Part II): Milan

Women Painters

We went to Milan to see a special exhibit of Italian women painters in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The exhibit was especially well put together, including not only a wide selection of artists but also interesting biographical information about their lives.

Women of that era did not have a wide range of occupations available to them. Women who became typically were either daughters of noblemen or daughters of practicing artists who supported their decision. Some entered religious orders (often at convents endowed by their noble fathers), some married other artists, and some (very few) remained defiantly single.

Even as practicing artists, women were restricted in their choice of subjects. They could not use unrelated male models, so most of their paintings were of women or children. In addition to formal portraits or religious commissions, these women also did paintings of women in more casual situations, like this wonderful painting of three young girls playing chess by Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625).

Sofonisba Anguissola – The Chess Game – 1555

Women were permitted to paint female figures from the Bible. Judith was popular, as was the penitent Magdalen.

Lavinia Fontana – Giuditta e Ofoferne – 1595
Elisabetta Sirani – Maddelena penitente – 1663

Women painters also chose more secular female heroines, sometimes relatively obscure ones. In one painting, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) depicts a woman raped by one of Alexander’s generals, getting her revenge by pushing him into a well. In another, she paints Cleopatra about to win a bet with Marc Antony by dissolving her enormously expensive pearl earring in a glass of wine (thereby showing off the artist’s skill in painting transparent objects).

Women often excelled at details of clothing and jewelry, as in this painting by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614).

Women also painted still lives, which didn’t require the use of models. I was taken by this still life with a small puppy, by Giovanna Garzoni, a painter born in Ascoli Piceno (1600-1670).

Giovanna Garzoni – Canina con biscotti e una tazza cinese – 1648

Of course, some of the paintings didn’t fit any of the categories. I thought this drawing of the head of a young man, by Lavinia Fontana, was really good. This painting is normally in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome, a museum I have visited several times. How is it that I have never noticed this artist before?

Lavinia Fontana – Testa di giovane – 1606

Artemisia Gentileschi, the best known woman painter of the period, was represented by only two paintings – perhaps because she has been the subject of several recent exhibits and the curators of this exhibit wanted to highlight less familiar names. Gentileschi is well known for her depictions of Judith beheading Holofernes. But she was also able to paint quite tender Madonnas. The second painting, of a penitent Magdalen, was heavily damaged by an explosion at the port of Beirut – it will be restored in Italy.

After this exhibit, we saw a second, smaller exhibit billed as images of Russian women. This exhibit wasn’t as interesting – most were depictions of Russian women, not works by women artists. But I did enjoy this painting of a mother and child and a self-portrait, both by Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967).

Churches and Cathedrals

We’ve been to the Milan Duomo before, and we didn’t do a roof tour this time. But the general absence of crowds allowed us to spend more time viewing the magnificent stained glass windows.

I also enjoyed this sculpture of the young Virgin Mary being presented to the temple, looking decidedly unsaintly.

Milano Duomo

Here’s a view of the Piazza Duomo from the Museo del Novecento next door.

Duomo and Galleria from Museo di Novocento

The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, one of the oldest churches in Milan, has fine mosaics executed from the 4th to 8th centuries.

The builders of Sant’Ambrogio also found this wacky medieval* to hold up the pulpit. He’s doing a good job.

Sant’Ambrogio: Telamon on pulpit

(*I understand the official name for these supporters is “telamon”. But I started calling them wacky medievals years before I learned this. I like my name better.)

The chapel of Sant’Aquilino, in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, features this very unusual 4th C mosaic of a beardless Christ.

Capella di Sant’Aqulino – Basilica di San Lorenzo

The church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, built in the 15th C., features a “finta absida” or false apse. The space had to be truncated because of a road behind the church. The young architect Donato Bramante created a solution – a painted perspective which looks like a real apse from the church entryway but is revealed to be an illusion when you arrive at the front of the church. This is one of the first examples in European art of the use of painted perspective to fool the eye in this way – an optical illusion usually known by the French term “trompe l’oeil.”

The church was built in honor of Saint Satiro, the brother of Saint Ambrose, but I acknowledge that the opportunity for punning may be irresistible for some folks.

Contemporary Art

For a change of pace, we visited two museums with more contemporary art: The Museo del Novecento (art of the 1900s) and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM), which included art of the 1800s as well.

We’re still learning about this era of Italian art, but we found a lot to like in these museums.

These are from the Museo del Novecento: on the left, Il Bevitore (The Drinker) by Umberto Bocconi (1914), and on the right, Constellazioni del Genio by Giacomo Balla (1918).

This work, by Italian Impressionist Giuseppe de Nittis, in the GAM, depicts a summer afternoon meal in southern Italy. With the pink light, the placid sea and the seaside table, you can see dinner scenes much like this all over Italy today – although a modern restaurant would probably have piped in music rather than live guitarists.

Giuseppe de Nittis – Pranzo a Posilippo – 1879

Readers of a certain age may find this painting of not-quite-flying nuns posed next to seagulls astonishingly prescient.

Vincenzo Cabianca – Monachine in riva al mare – 1869

As I mentioned in my last post, during the lockdown, we attended a series of online lectures on various artists put on by the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. One of the artists features was Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), who as a result of his short life and limited geographical range is relatively unknown today. To me, his paintings are appealing because they evoke a lost world of country life in these rugged locations. The painting “Two Mothers”, featuring a mother nursing her baby in a barn with a nursing cow, is perhaps his most famous work. But I liked the woman returning to her cabin in the snow.

Did Somebody Say Food?

Milan has a large Asian population, so there are a lot of restaurants serving East Asian food.

Not far from our hotel in the Navigli district, we found a small place serving Chinese dim sum. The selection was somewhat smaller than you might see in a Chinese restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we used to live. But the food that was presented was quite good, and hand-made on-site.

Dim sum at Fratelli Ravioli (Porta Genova)

One night we ate a restaurant billed as “Chinese-Italian fusion.” I was skeptical – “fusion” food can be all over the map, in my experience. But this turned out to be a place run by two guys, both born in Milan but one of Singaporean heritage, who presented both Chinese and Italian food influenced by both food traditions of the other.concepts and execution were both excellent.

The most successful dish, in my opinion, was their version of chili crab, a Singaporean specialty re-imagined as a refined soup. (I always find dealing with crab in restaurants a bit challenging). It was served with wonderful home made rolls, and we were invited to “far la scarpetta” (literally, make the shoe) to soak up the sauce.

Another excellent dish were ossobuco reimagined as Chinese / Italian ravioli.

On our last night, we ate at a seafood restaurant where I did actually try to deal with crab. No pictures of me eating, thankfully.

That’s all for now.

Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio

On the Road Again (Part I): Rome

After many months of being stuck close to home because of the corona virus, the ban on interregional travel within Italy was finally lifted in late May. We couldn’t wait to get back on the road again.

The Aventine

We decided to spend a few days in Rome, which is only 3 hours away from here. At the recommendation of several friends, we stayed at a small hotel in the Aventino district.

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Aventino neighborhood

The Aventino is an ancient part of Rome (the Aventine is one of the famous “Seven Hills”) but for a variety of reasons the building of modern Rome has passed it by. Today, it is pleasant residential district, more reminiscent of a leafy suburb than a place less than 20 minutes walk from Piazza Venezia. It’s relatively small, and most of its interesting sights are only a short walk from each other.

Santa Sabina is one of the oldest churches in Rome. Its original 5th C doors feature one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ. Early Christians more commonly featured a lamb (symbolizing Christ) carrying a blank cross, sometimes with a red and white banner signifying the Resurrection. The representation of Christ’s death on the cross has, over the centuries, become dominant, and ever more elaborate. Note that this early Crucifixion scene already features the two thieves.

Not far from Santa Sabina are the headquarters of the Knights of Malta. People are lining up to look through the “Aventine Keyhole,” cleverly designed to allow a surprisingly good view of the dome of St. Peter’s.

Knights of Malta Gate – keyhole view of Vatican

The optical effect is not easily reproduced on a cellphone camera, but you can get a better view of it here.

The Parco Savello, features an orange garden near Santa Sabina offers fine views of Piazza Venezia and the Vatican.

Vatican from Giardino degli Aranci

A short distance further on is the Roseto Comunale, a public rose garden open free of charge, which features over 1,200 varieties of roses. We were lucky to see it because it is open only a few months a year.

The garden was formerly the site of the city’s Jewish graveyard (peremptorily moved by Mussolini). Today, a small cenotaph marks the site’s former use.

Capitoline Museum – Torlonia Marbles

The Capitoline Museum was a pleasant 20 minute walk from our hotel. You never have to walk far in Rome to see ancient structures – some in ruins, some repurposed for more modern uses.

The museum had a special exhibit of the “Torlonia Marbles,” a private collection of ancient Roman statues amassed between the 15th and 19th C, and out of public view for decades.

The portrait busts were particularly amazing, featuring an intense interest in facial expressions that wouldn’t be seen again in European art until the Renaissance. The old farmer, in particular, is someone you could run into today.

A lot of the statues featured heroic themes. But I was more drawn to those featuring more down-to-earth themes: a woman visiting a butcher shop, selecting from a variety of hanging animals, the vendor is also a woman. More sobering was the depiction of two soldiers preparing for hand-to-hand combat – an encounter only one of them was likely to survive.

Most of the statues were collected during a period in which a damaged statue would be “repaired” to make it look as much as possible as the imagined original. The modern preference is to leave the statues in whatever damaged state they are found in. Sometimes the results can be quite startling. This headless goat, whose cranium was replaced by the young Gianlorenzo Bernini, may be better than the original. And the addition of two heads allows you to appreciate an unusual depiction of an affectionate married couple.

Roman Churches

We spent much of the rest of our time in Rome visiting churches, which is where most of medieval and Renaissance art it.

The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli features 15th C frescoes by Pinturicchio.

The basilica of San Clemente features 13th Byzantine-style mosaics and 15th C frescoes by Masaccio. The current church, whose structure dates from the 12th C, is actually the second Christian church on the site. You can visit the remains of the 4th C church below, and below that, the remains of an even earlier pre-Christian temple of Mithra.

The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was not open any time we tried to visit (a frequent hazard of visiting Italian churches, which often have frustratingly short hours). But the elephant said hello.

Elephant at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria in Trastevere offers fine examples of late medieval mosaics. Although the flat perspective is in Byzantine style, some of the subjects (like the birth of Mary, complete with midwives) prefigure the focus on daily life that was to become one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. If you look carefully, you can see that Jesus has his arm draped affectionately around his mother’s shoulder – definitely not Byzantine. Something is happening here in the world of artistic expression.

The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has an astonishing Last Judgment by Pietro Cavallini. The subject is treated in a most unusual manner – along with Mary and John the Baptist, Christ is shown flanked by the 12 Apostles. Cavallini was dismissed by Vasari as a student of Giotto, but the modern view is that the two were independent artists who may have worked together in Assisi. Certainly the humanity and the individualized faces in the Cavallini fresco suggest that the Roman painter was familiar with Giotto’s work. Photos were completely forbidden in the small room where the frescoes now reside – the frescoes were covered over when the medieval church was renovated, and have only recently been rescued. But you can read about them here.

For something completely different, the church of San Ignazio offers a spectacular ceiling fresco in the Baroque style. There’s a lot of Baroque art in Rome, much of it over the top, but the best examples demonstrate a kind of exuberance that I quite enjoy.

San Ignazio

In the relatively unvisited Trastevere church of San Francesco in Ripa, you will find a stunning Bernini quite similar to the more famous Santa Teresa in Ecstasy in the church of Santa Maria di Vittoria. Although I’m sure he could profess piety, I do have to wonder about Bernini’s motivations in creating these masterpieces.

Bernini – San Francesco in Ripa

And of course, you can never get enough Caravaggio. With fewer people about, we were able to get a good shot of The Calling of Saint Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Caravaggio – The Calling of Saint Matthew

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

We did visit one museum in Rome – the museum of “modern art”, which in Rome means anything after about 1800.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Whoever decided how to display the collection had not only a good eye but an unusual sense of humor. I love the way, for example, they arranged 19th C sculptures in the classical style next to very modern pieces.

Ceres (ancient) and (cereal?) bowl (modern)

This statue by Rodin looks with at the painting by Klimt – whether with admiration or shocked surprise, that’s for you to decide.

This painting by Italian impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis offers a familiar theme – a day at the races. But perhaps because De Nittis was a man of southern Italy living in Paris, he remembered to include a depiction of the coal burning heater. Those people were cold!

Giuseppe de Nittis – Le Corse al Bois de Boulogne – 1881

This happy gardener is one of Van Gogh’s sunnier portraits.

Van Gogh – Il giardinere – 1889

We enjoyed these works by Renato Guttoso, a 20th C Sicilian painter.

During the lockdown, we followed a series of online lectures put together by the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. One of the programs featured Giovanni Segantini, a 19th C Italian painter known for Alpine landscapes. Segantini died young and is relatively unknown today. But his depictions of natural landscapes are quite extraordinary – more on him when we get to Milan (Part II).

Segantini – Alla stagna – 1886
Segantini up close

One of the best things about the museum is its location right outside the Villa Borghese, one or Rome’s large parks. After touring the museum, we walked through the park to the Pincio overlook – usually too crowded to get a picture, but not this week.

Baths of Caracalla

Not far from our hotel were the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, a public bath facility that when fully operational served 6000 people a day. In addition to the typical rooms offering hot or cold baths, there was an Olympic size (50 meter) pool for the Roman version of swimming. Although whether they were swimming laps or, more likely, hanging out with their friends is hard to know. But you can still see remnants of an ancient Roman board game, played with marbles, along one edge of the pool

The scale of the place was huge, as you can see from the photo.

Terme di Caracalla

Very little remains of the original decoration. You can see some of the original mosaic floor, and the occasional fresco. But the statuary was carted off by “collectors” over the centuries, including the Torlonias. I include the bust of the Emperor Caracalla from the Torlonia exhibit here so he can look over what still survives of his 1800 year old monument.

Torlonia Marbles – Emperor Caracalla

Did Somebody Say Food?

Of course, we remembered to eat. Here we are at our favorite restaurant in Trastevere, eating cacio e pepe (the bowl is edible cheese, although we didn’t eat it – or at least Linda didn’t).

Until next time!

Dinner at Roma Sparita