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Posts tagged ‘Fresco’

Magnificent Milano (Part 2): Da Vinci’s fading masterpiece

Despite its bustling, cosmopolitan centre, its soaring modern skyline and fashion boutiques paving the way of global style, Milan is a city with a rich historical heritage equal to any other city in Italy, and with an artistic treasure to rival the very best. Far less accessible than the Botticelli’s and the Michelangelo’s it may be, but Milan’s offering is considered by many to be one of the most significant and symbolically loaded works in all the history of art: I am of course talking about The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci.

Yet this work, renowned though it is, has had a troubled past. Fated to bad fortune from the outset when Da Vinci experimented unsuccessfully with a fresco technique which started to deteriorate away from the surface of the wall within years of its completion, the fresco has fallen swift victim to both the ravages of time, and the additional disasters of war, including a near miss bombing and exposure to the elements when the buildings around the fresco found themselves in the direct path of the same air raid.

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All this means that a visit to see Da Vinci’s fresco is a unique experience. First of all, getting your hands on a strictly time-controlled ticket is almost like seeking out the very same holy grail which author Dan Brown will tell you the painting is subliminally intended to represent. With ticket in hand, you and a small group of other ticket holders will then be taken through a series of air-controlled vacuum chambers, each set of doors opening successively upon another, incrementally purifying the elements to which the crumbling fresco is exposed. Finally, you enter the main refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie, where the first sight of Da Vinci’s Last Supper feels all the more surreal by virtue of the effort required to get there.

The visitor controls ultimately make the 15 minutes you get to spend with the painting a pleasurable experience, just because the numbers allowed into the refectory at any one time are small indeed. This makes for an intimate encounter with one of the world’s most recognisable images. Yet no matter how familiar the subject, little can prepare you for the impact which the full scale image will have, nor the shocking state that the fresco betrays upon closer inspection.

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What we see today really is a mere shadow of what once was. The fresco appears so badly flaked that a gust of wind could shake half of it away like fallen leaves in a first gust of autumn. In places, nothing but a mere outline of what was remain. In others, the retention of more detail, such as on the folds of the tablecloth, offer a tantilising glimpse of the wealth of colour and composition that the work would have once boasted.

For me, the fresco feels like an allegorical narrative of something beyond the simple depiction of the last supper. The reactions of the protagonists feel stilted, almost mannerist in their exaggerated expression, suggesting that Da Vinci has attempted to go beyond the simple story of the last supper and is hinting at meanings beyond the surface. Yet beyond this surface there is very little to behold but a crumbling wall, as we are forced to see one of art history’s most significant masterpieces slowly deteriorate to dust. It’s why this painting should be a must-see for any art history buff, and prioritised before its condition worsens yet further.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2011-2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Florence, Land of the Medici (Part 3): The Gozzoli Chapel

Attempting to highlight one work of art in the vast collection amassed by Italy’s most famous Renaissance patrons, the Medici dynasty, is rather like choosing one golden bean from a bag of thousands. The Medici family brought together such a hoard of masterpieces that one could choose a different highlight for each day of the year, and never run out during the course of an entire lifetime. But certainly one of the most enchanting of the works commissioned by the family is one which says Medici like none other, a masterpiece of colour and figuration which is unapologetic in its glorification of the entire Medici clan. I am, of course, talking about the fresco series painted by one Benozzo Gozzoli and depicting the journey of the Magi in all its magical splendour.

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Entirely covering the walls of the private chapel of the Palazzo Medici, close to Florence’s Duomo, the Gozzoli fresco must surely be one of the most magnificent examples of Renaissance decoration ever conceived. Its location deep within the mammoth fortress-like pietra-forte walls of the Medici’s palace makes the chapel conceivably missable by those unaware of its existence (I am lucky enough to enjoy the highly refined recommendations of my dear friend Charlotte, whose suggestions for art historical treasures always hit the spot), but has also been the source of its superb condition, protecting the inherently delicate surface of the fresco from the elements. Only structural changes to the chapel when a new owner, the Riccardi family, took over the palace in the 18th century, caused damage to the fresco when an entire corner was moved inwards to make way for a staircase, spoiling the perfect symmetry conceived for the original cycle. However, what remains today is nonetheless a feast for the eyes, and frankly my photos don’t do it justice.

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Gozzoli’s fresco is both a perfectly festive narrative of the Three Kings’ journey to visit the newly born Jesus, but also a wonderfully characterful portrait of the Medici family and their magnificent entourage. There you can find an idealised cherub-like portrait of what was, in reality, a rather ugly Lorenzo the Magnificent. The original father of the Medici tribe, Cosimo the Elder is also in the crowd, together with Pietro the Gouty and Lorenzo’s assassinated brother, Giuliano. Quite asides from the portraits, I adore the colours – unapologetic homage is paid to cadium reds and ultramarine blues, verdant green landscapes and cool grey rocky outcrops. The fresco is filled with little details – deer chased in a hunt, a pond surrounded by ducks and delicate birds, and hillsides rolling across valleys and peppered with trees of every shape and size.

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Moving across all four walls of the chapel, Gozzoli artfully steers the viewer along the course of the mountain road, encouraging your eye to follow the route of the Magi and so feel immersed in their same magical journey. The result is the sensation of being not in a tiny chapel, but out in the open air enjoying the Tuscan countryside with these magnificent looking Medieval monarchs, filled with the excitement of the birth of this new Messiah.

How many relics from the 1460s have such a transformative effect and contemporary feel? So often the age and condition of Renaissance works predicates against total engagement of the kind intended by the artist at that time. It’s too easy to be distracted by the signs of age, by the cracks and the mildew. But like the perfectly conceived David, Gozzoli’s work is another example of the immediacy and wonderful accessibility of Renaissance art when unimpeded by the deterioration of the years. It is a true gem of the Medici collection and an undisputed treasure perfectly preserved of the age. I can only thank Charlotte for recommending it, and suggest that all visitors to Florence make it an equal priority of their trip.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2011-2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.