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).
Women were permitted to paint female figures from the Bible. Judith was popular, as was the penitent Magdalen.
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).
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?
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.
Here’s a view of the Piazza Duomo from the Museo del Novecento next door.
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.
(*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.
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.
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.
Readers of a certain age may find this painting of not-quite-flying nuns posed next to seagulls astonishingly prescient.
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.
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.