The Twilight Zone, Cortona and Luca Signorelli

As we continue forward with the events of Holy Week, culminating on Easter Sunday with the celebration and rejoicing of the Resurrection—Jesus’ victory over death, which, in turn is our victory as well, I wish to continue looking at this week through the lens of art.

In yesterday’s post I explained my fascination with Medieval art, as well as my love for the art of the Italian Renaissance. I shared with you a visit to the small museum of San Marco located in Florence, Italy. I recalled the beauty of the museum for both the fact that it has retained its charm as a once active Dominican convent dating back to the 14th century, as well as for the historic and yet simplistic beauty of the frescos that adorn the monastery and the cell walls of the monks who once called San Marco “home.”

Today I would like to share another visit to another small church turned museum. This time we travel a short distance south of Florence to Cortona, Italy—a small medieval hill-town in southern Tuscany.

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I will not recount the wonders of Cortona that I have previously noted in my post Feast and Fellowship. There I recall the good food found in this quaint town, as well as some wonderful local merchants, the tie to author Frances Mayes, as well as for the small Italian village hailing as the adopted home of the University of Georgia’s visual art students. I will however recount a bit of my visit to Cortona, as well as to the Museum of the Diocese of Cortona, featuring the works of hometown boy made good, Luca Singorelli.

When traveling I usually depend on trains as my main means of transport, whisking me from city to city, country to country. This is certainly where Europe has travel perfected to an art. The US can learn a thing or two about the efficient use of train travel but I digress…as usual…

On this particular trip, my aunt and I had taken the train, from Florence, south to Cortona. With the one glitch being that Cortona is a hill town, the train station is down in the valley—this makes access a bit tricky. For towns such as Assisi, Cortona, Montepluciano, etc. the train stations are usually down in the “valley” in a separate small town or municipality. Buses run from the station up to the main town.

This trip was to be no different—station, bus, town. The problem was that the conductor was not calling out Cortona as a place to disembark. He was calling out the town location of the station, of which was not on my map. Panic began setting in. Not speaking Italian made listening to the intercom a little troublesome. As the train nears Cortona, or what I think to be Cortona, I suddenly panic telling my aunt to grab her stuff and lets make our way to the door. The train doors open, we throw our bags off, hopping off ourselves, when I quickly tell my aunt to grab her bag and get back on—NOW! Seems this was the stop before Cortona’s stop.

We now came to the stop for Cortona.
A name I still didn’t recognize but hoped for the best. The train pulls into the station. The station however is so small that our train car stops well short of the buildng. The door opens and we find ourselves looking down at gravel. Not having much time at these small stops we hustle getting our luggage off the train, dumping it down out of our train car onto the gravel all before clamoring down the steps.

Here are now two women dragging their rolling luggage over gravel up to a now deserted tiny train station. I love Italians very much, but if you need some sort of help or assistance and it is the lunchtime hour, you can just forget it. . .as well as for the “siesta” hour following lunch.
The Italians do know how to live—but I digress, again.

The tiny station is closed up with nary a soul to offer directions or assistance. Panic sets in again as my aunt does have a tendency to panic a wee bit when things are not flowing smoothly as they should, especially in a country in which we do not speak the language. At least it was a sunny day.

We roll our luggage around to the front of the station to what appears to be a bus stop bench. I wander around a bit looking for some sort of sign. There are no taxis, no buses, no people—I’m starting to think of the Twilight Zone. I hated those wickedly twisted tales that I use to watch when I was young. They gave me the creeps and disturbed me. That’s why to this day I hate crap like that on TV—a good reason as to why children are not meant to see certain programs, but there I go digressing.
I was beginning to have those same uncomfortable feelings at this deserted train station…

Suddenly out of nowhere a young lady appears (see, Twilight Zone) and obviously notices two “out of towners” that must be lost, as we obviously look like two deer in headlights.
In quasi English/Italian, she lets me know that a bus will be by shortly.
I tell her we are going to Cortona, pointing upward.
She nods, telling us to wait.
A car pulls up out of no where, she gets in and departs.
We are alone, again (I’m telling you, Twilight zone).
A few more minutes pass and low n behold, a bus, more like a travel bus, like a greyhound, pulls up.
The door swings open and the driver looks at me announcing “Cortona.”

We pull (jerk) our luggage up the steps.
The air conditioning is a most welcomed relief, as we were really getting hot.
This was mid June— Italy + summer = misery.

We are the only riders on the bus…
are you now hearing the Twilight Zone theme playing in your head?
I am.
The bus wends its way up a narrow road of switchbacks eventually making its way to a “parking” lot area outside a massive and ancient stonewalled like fortress.
This is the old wall surrounding the town of Cortona.

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We practically throw our luggage off the bus, down on to the paved parking area.
The bus pulls off leaving us standing on a cobbled road leading into an arched entrance perched
between the large stonewall.
As we stare straight ahead at the archway, I muse how the bus is going to turn around in order to make its way back down to Twilightville.
Stepping forward, we our way into town on the cobbled stone road with our luggage loudly bumping behind us, announcing our arrival to all.
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There are groups of outdoor tables lining the sidewalks on either side of us full of patrons eating and drinking… making us feel a bit conspicuous with our clumping luggage.
As we begin seeking our hotel with our luggage trailing behind, we are grateful that Cortona’s main “strip” is as small as the town itself.
I have a map, the name of the street for our hotel…when bingo—our hotel…

The hotel, Hotel San Michele, is perched on a very steep side street. It is an actual old grand
palace / home converted into a hotel.
Our room was actually once the kitchen, complete with old large farm sink and ornate cooking hearth. It is a large and spacious room, well appointed and is truly one of the nicest and largest rooms we have ever had when traveling throughout Italy.

After getting checked in and situated, I decide I need to go to the Pharmacia I had noticed when we were bumping our way through town. If you’ve never been to a pharmacy in Italy, as well as throughout much of Europe, they are a treat in decorum and civility. The sales people wear white medical jackets. Much of the items you come to a pharmacy to purchase are behind the counter or in drawers that the sales people will help you with—none of the familiar shelves crammed full of “stuff” that we take for granted and grab like it’s going out of style. The sales folks/ pharmacy assistants are helpful and knowledgeable and can usually be most helpful to even the English speaker.

As we enter the store, we are warmly greeted. This particular Pharmacia is very nice and large. They even had a display of Dr. Scholl’s flip-flops—Ooooo. I’m always looking for shoes, especially when traveling, because the ones I would currently have on would most likely be giving me fits. Trust me, I do give much thought to what shoes I take on a trip, but with all of the walking, even tempurepedic shoes would hurt—but I digress….

As we look around the store, the sales lady makes for the door. She shuts the door and turns out the lights, putting her finger to her lips as to quiet all inside the store. We don’t know if the store is closing or if something bad is happening. She crosses herself and I start worrying that this “is it, the end.”
When I finally see what has her attention, I am most relived.
A hearse is driving past the store.
I think that is the only time I ever saw a car driving through Cortona, as it is primarily a pedestrian town.

As Cortona is a Medieval walled town the local cemetery is found well outside the city walls. I suppose the funeral is held in a local church, and then much like home, there is a procession to the graveside. It just happens that here the hearse is often the only vehicle; the mourners are often walking behind the hearse. As soon as the hearse and mourners pass, the sales assistant turns the lights back on and re-opens the door and it’s business as usual.
Interesting.

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There were many reasons I wanted to visit Cortona but one of the primary reasons was to catch a glimpse of one of Cortona’s homegrown stellar artists—it’s just that this particular hometown boy had been dead almost 500 years. He was a draftsman as well as a painter.

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Luca Signorelli was born in 1445 in Cortona. I first “met” Signorelli while I was studying art history at the University of Georgia. I was drawn immediately to his style and use of color. It is obvious that Michelangelo was influenced by the work of Signorelli. Both artists have a strong command of the human form. Signorelli also has a keen use of color. His paintings and frescos are just as vibrant today as they were the day he painted them. Thirty years after Signorelli’s Judgment, Michelangelo would go on to do the same themed painting for the Vatican.

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Signorelli executed works in the Vatican but is best known for his frescos, particularly those in the series of the Final/ Last Judgment located in Orvieto. I think it was the studying of these frescoes that had a tremendous effect on me. I don’t know why Signorelli’s Last Judgment would effect me more so than Michelangelo’s, which is on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, but it is Signorelli’s work that has stayed with me these many years and I wanted to see him up close and personal.

Like most people, I don’t like thinking about Hell. That whole fire and brimstone business, going south where the sun don’t shine, a place where there is no ice water… yet with all humor aside, I know that Hell is indeed a real place that I do not ever want to find myself. Hell is the total separation from God my father—–I can think of no worse fate.

Signorelli depicts demons and devils, taking those who are cast aside by Jesus and the Archangels at the final Day of Judgment, with vivid clarity. There is despondency and despair on the faces of the souls cast aside. There is an equal counter of an evil resonance of delight and glee from the demons. I am reminded of the verse in Matthew where Jesus separates the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. These were the haunting images that have stayed in my mind from the time I had first studied Signorelli’s works.

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Cortona is a small stop on the path form Florence to the more popular destination of Assisi and eventually Rome. From a tourist’s perspective there is not a great deal of draw to this small hill town.

There is not the haute couture shopping that is found in Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. There are not the stellar Michelin chefs entertaining guests in their lavish restaurants.
However there is the tomb of St Margaret of Cortona.

A fortress is perched atop the pinnacle of land that makes Cortona known as a “hill” town.
There is The University of Georgia’s Visual Arts Study Abroad campus. There is author Frances Mayes renovated Italian home (not a tourist destination as this is her private residence). There are stunning views of the surrounding valley and Lake Trasimeno.
There is peace and serenity.
And there are chimney swifts out the wahzoo.

The main piazza, Piazza dell Republica, is not as grand as one may find within, say, Florence.
It is a central gathering place nonetheless for both tourists and locals alike.
It is from here that one may find their way to the tiny Piazza del Duomo where The Museum of the Diocese of Cortona is located.
It sits besides the Church of Jesus—-an ancient medieval place of worship

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The Church leaders, having amassed, through donation and gift giving, a great deal of treasured artifacts, objects of religious veneration, and beautiful works of art throughout the centuries of church history, decided that a separate structure should be erected in order to house and allow the public the opportunity of viewing these hometown treasures. In 1945 the museum was officially dedicated and Cortona now proudly boasts a modern facility worthy of its rich Etruscan and Christian heritage.

If you are not careful, it may be difficult to spot the church, as well as the museum, as its exterior is very unassuming. My aunt and I wandered around a bit, almost in circles, certain we were in the correct location but without anything letting us know otherwise…
When we figured simply trying one of the many doors…and bingo!

As I’ve stated before, being able to see the actual works of an artist verses just pictures in a book makes a tremendous difference. An emotional connection is now allowed to take place as one stands before a huge painting, statue, fountain, or other piece of “art”…
There is a sense of being dwarfed by the mere size, or surprised by the smallness..
There is a feeling of being overtaken—overtaken by the sheer magnitude of what is commanding the attention of the viewer—be it large or small.
There is a physical presence to the artwork.
It comes to life so to speak.

I am always humbled by the obvious history behind a piece of art.
The distance of time which separates me, the current viewer, from the time of the works’ inception—
not to mention the myriad of viewers who also have stood before the very pieces of art that I now stand before.
From princes and popes, to queens and saints, to now, just me.
There is an intimate sharing that is taking place with all those who have gone before me, myself and those who are yet to come.
There is a tangible connection that is almost palpable.
There is a sense of the Divine.

Those who see art in a museum and just walk past, piece per piece, without giving thought or refection to what separates art and viewer is missing so very much.
There is living history, celebration and a serious story taking place.
It is there, free, for all to partake.

And so it was, when I saw the works of Signorelli, in this most intimate of settings.

Obviously the Orvieto frescos of the Final Judgment are not here.
As it so happens, it was here in Cortona that Signorelli suffered the grievous loss to two children on two separate occasions…
I often think that artists lose themselves, hiding from pain or sorrow within their art—–as the art provides an escape or an outlet for tremendous emotion.
This is most likely no different for Signorelli and his loss.
What then is there about his work, the emotion within each piece, that most likely hides his own torment and suffering?

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I will not attempt to play art critic, as that is not my job. My job, or rather my hope, is that by reading my recollections, you may be stirred within and moved by some unknown force prompting you to dig deeper and go further.
I hope you will want to look at the work yourself, either up close and personal, or through investigation in the world of art history. My dream is that we could all travel to see such treasures—but unfortunately that is not possible. It is therefore the responsibility of those of us who have seen various treasures throughout the world to share them with others.
As that is what art is about—sharing.

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Signorelli’s work is moving. Moving because of the subject matter, but equally moving because I also know of his sorrows. He is sharing his pain with me and countless other viewers.
Michelangelo shared…
Leonardo shared…
Caravaggio shared…
Not all share sorrow or pain…
For some it is frustration, for others, perhaps even joy…
Yet it must be known that all share a touch of genius.

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It is because of having read the accounts of others viewers and travelers that prompt me to often want to go myself, in person, to see and view such—whatever it may be. When that is not possible, which is much of the time, I find other means in which to glean a little bit more. I attempt digging deeper. Seeking to unearth my own piece of treasured information and emotion. May this be your little bit more, your little bit extra.

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2 comments on “The Twilight Zone, Cortona and Luca Signorelli

  1. Bryn Marlow says:

    Thank you for a fascinating invitation and welcome to make pilgrimage with you to these various sites. Your details of the getting there and back story of the artist brings the trip alive. Here’s wishing you joy in the journey, both the inner and outer one.

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