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23 March 2010

oh my, now that was italian!

art is one of the few good things left in this country. in ancient rome, italy was a centre for art and architecture. there were many italian artists during the gothic and medieval periods, and the arts flourished during the italian renaissance. later styles included mannerism, baroque, rococo, the macchiaioli and the futurism, wich developed in the 20th century.

all this determined immense contributions to the cultural and historical heritage of europe. italy is home to the greatest number of UNESCO world heritage sites, and is believed to contain over 70% of the world's art and architecture. the state invests a lot to preserve this heritage, which is good, but it thinks about culture in terms of antiques and focuses on the past only, without sustaining current artists with enough museums, pubblic support and recognition. thus, italian contemporary art scene is creaky.

i'm not pennig another post about my discontent of living in italy. no. those of you who follow me regularly know this blog is a honest insight into the belpaese and i'm positive over the art  subject. things are starting to change. it took the culture ministry bureaucrats a lot of years to approve it, but a state modern's art museum in rome (maxxi) is a building under construction and it's opening on may 30th this year. so finally italian contemporary artists won't be appreciated abroad only from now on. 

so i'm not going to ruin that something of italian spirit and zest for life that appeals to foreigners this time. i know that italy is perceived to have significantly beautiful scenery (art, style, great food) and i can confirm it's true.  food is sacred, there's sense of style and cypress trees are like flames on ridgelines in tuscany. we're wordly, educated, stylish, but also disorganized, chaotic. and mafia is real. but intellectual vivacity marks our society, so art has always invested our energy and our esthetic impulse. 

what we have is wonderful and extremely well conserved and it still provokes that 'instant where in that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which italian physiologist luigi galvani called the enchantment of the heart' (extract from my book 'portrait of the artist as a young man' by james joyce).

our art is recognized worldwide and causes what joseph campbell expressed so well. 'the aesthetic experience is a simple neholding of the object ... you experience a radiance. you are held in aesthetic arrest'. think about the stendhal syndrome, the dizzying disorientation some tourists experience when they encounter masterpieces of the italian renaissance in florence and feel overwhlemed by the city's intensely rich legacy of art and history. it's what happened to french novelist stendhal when he visited florence in 1817 and the syndrome name comes from him. our politics may be geriatric, we may be corrupt and creaky, but, i told you, our art is great.

the magnetism of museums is irresistible here. experts have even compiled a hit parade of italian museums, listing the institutions in order of their ability to provoke confusion. and awaken eros! eroticism and love of art are perfectly compatible, after all. art has always activated an intenesely erotic mechanism. this beautiful video shows how sensuality and erotism permeate italian art.

sensuality started to infuse our art during renaissance. after the cultural decline and stagnation of the middle age, where individualism was suppressed in favour of a prostration before the idols of the church, there was this gradual explosion of a more intimate link between man and nature. this brought a new morality and new concepts.

giotto marked the transition; he was the first to break with the medieval restraint. he still dealt with religious subjects, but his realism gave these subjects an earthly, full-bodied life and force. each character was unique, because they expressed their feelings.

lamentation by giotto, one of the frescoes in the arena chapel in padua

gradually, pictures became symbolically connected with the religious feeling of the people, so human bodies became noble and worthy of studies. there was a re-birth, a renewed interest of classical art, because it gave a better understandment of the nudes, with a new sense of depth, perspective and proportion.

also, the classical myths became popular. mythology of the admired greeks and romans represented superior wisdom, containing some profound and mysterious truth. the object then became to show devotional feeling and respect for the sacred legends wit the most beauty and delineation.

the classical goddess of love and beauty brought to life by botticelli is an example of sensual beauty after so much christian theme. she proclaims the beauty of the world, the good sides of life and the strength of love with an innocent intimacy, far from being shocking like the artists who followed botticelli.  

birth of venus by botticelli

that's because the church was the major patron of the arts and the moral content of the paintings must be virtue, always winning over senuality. giorgione goes a bit further, being the first one to put a nude in the landscape. his venus is the first reclining nude of euroepan painting and one of the first works in which the female figure is the principal and only subject of the picture. still she's unaccesible because she's sleeping, evocating an idyllic remotless.

sleeping venus by giorgione

this venus has still nothing to do with the freedom of opinion, laxity of moral which gave scandals and went far from faith and morals. the venus portayed by titian, for instance, is more explicit. she displays none of the attributes of the goddess she is supposed to represent: she is not idealized but a flesh-and-blood beauty. more importantly, she awake, fully aware of the viewer's presence and totally unconcenrened with her nudity.

venus of urbino by titian

titian was an explosion of colors and sensuality. for those rooted in the traditional themes, the new style he started to represent must have apperead shocking. the artists were fresh boys with all senses alerted to capture the beauty of the world. they weres tick to the 'not what man knows but what man feels, all else is science' motto, a comcept spread byt the humanist philosophy that placed the man at the center of things. they were still connected with their religious feelings, but in a symbolical way and ready to worship god with their spirit. in this way, a new world of fancy, divinely charming humanes was revelaed.

many artists embraced this new style and mastered it well, also supported by a vivid private life. according to giorgio vasari's 'life of artists', raphael seems to have been a great womanizer at the point that his boundless appetites delayed his art. benvenuto cellini records sexual escapades with both guys and women. this lead to an explosion of dynamis and sensuous exuberance in their works, in a florence that became an eden for libertarian sensuality. 

la fornarina (baker's daughter) by raphael

extreme realism imposed with this new style. caravaggio demonstrated realism to such an extent that patrons would often disregard hiw work for being too naturalistic and indecent at the time. also, he used live models opposed to working from sketches and inspiration. in his painting 'the death of the virgin' he used a well known prostitute as a model for virgin mary.

moreover, his contemporaries were prejudged by his irregular moral conduct. he was a quick-temered bohemian, who was often jailed for brawlig and was forced to flee from the law by escaping. and his homosexuality dind't seem to be a problem for him at all.

the only one struggling to reconcile his erotic longings with his love of god was michelangelo. though there're no records about his homosexuality in vasari's biography, his obsession with physical beauty and the nude male make guess so. his creations are a mixture of heroic grandeur and sensuality. the master sculptor who glorified the catholic church, etching its ideals into sculpture that defined religion for the masses, left traces of his personal srtuggle in many works.  

detail of creation of adam by michelangelo

during the renaissance, art exercised a controlling influence and was a constant source of inspiration for artists worldwide. like rubens, who spent most of his 20's in italy, where he was formed by studying classical art and renaissance masterpieces.  he moved here in 1600 and lived among mantua, genoa and rome under his protector.

the influence of italy on rubens was great, he was a prolific artist and italy had become his spiritual home. by studying titian, caravaggio and other controversial italian artists, he absorbed so much of of that painting baroque vitatlity. by the time he got back to antwerp 8 years later, his art had been richly churned into a sunthesis of flemish and italian art, a fusion of the traditions of realism with the classical tendencies of italian reinassance.

two satyrs by rubens

no painter ever gave the world more flesh. rubens' women are painted in their natural breauty, with  heavy waist, ample bodies, feminine fat and voluptuousness.

it is after this master that researchers have identified another syndrome, the rubens syndrome, for which a beautiful and sensual painting or sculpture provoke sexual feelings, so that you go out and act on them. there's only one italian genius that doesn't think this way. leonardo da vinci said that 'intellectual passion drives out sensuality'. maybe he got it wrong for once!

references: frieze, artnews, uchicago, figurative painting, glbtq, northstargallery, renaissance-art.suite101, eighthsquare

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