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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Holy Week, Fra Angelico and The Convent of San Marco

As we solemnly enter into this most sacred of weeks of our liturgical calendar, I am reminded that this is not only one of the most holy of times for Christians, but with the observance of Passover beginning at sundown this evening, I am aware of the significance that this week has for many of us throughout the world.

As an art teacher and as a person who has spent a great deal of time looking at the relationship that art, in particular painting, has with the surrounding world, I suppose it just makes sense that I should spend this week, this most solemn of weeks, Holy week, looking through that same lens—the lens of art.

I’ve made mention before, in my little “about me” section, that I have a love of Renaissance art, with the emphasis being on the early end of the Renaissance spectrum. Whereas the works of the great masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli—–the larger than life Italian masters I love so much— are indeed beautiful to behold with their use of dark and light– chiaroscuro, the use of extreme perspective in relationship to foreshortening, the beautiful depiction of the human body with emphasis on tone and muscle mass, the beautiful layering and translucent application of color—striking and stunning to those of us who view their works today–for me, however, it is the Medieval works of the Middle Ages that best captures my appreciation as well as imagination.

I don’t know if it is because of the strikingly simplistic style, the often austere subject matter or the mere fact that these artists and artisans were doing the best they knew how to do with the limited knowledge of building, perspective, science, travel and medicine of their day. From the precision of the illuminated manuscript to the muraled frescos of a monastery’s wall, my attention is most captivated by this most mysterious time of our human history.

We are discovering that the Dark Ages, as this time is most often referred, is not so dark after all. I think our oh so modern minds feel compelled to consider those who went before us always as “less than.” They are “less than” in their overall wealth of knowledge. We must not be so arrogant in our thinking as it will be, at some unknown point in the future, that another generation will look upon us and our limited knowledge as just that, “less than.” Therefore categorizing us as lacking, limited, ignorant and simple.

There is beauty in the simple as well as in the complex. It is just a matter of how one chooses to “see” what it is one is viewing. If one chooses arrogance for the manner in which to view previous generations, using the current world as the be all to end all gauge, then anything and everything other than the immediate will be “less than. That is unfortunate. The current generation is what it is, in large part, due to the myriad of previous generations. The building of knowledge is scaffolding and layering of first learned, with next learned, continuing on to a continuum of learning.

We have a tendency of looking back on previous generations and their accomplishments with a prejudice based on our current knowledge. That is often a shame as it prevents one from a deep appreciation for the wonders discovered and practiced in such public forums. What appears flat, static and “immature” to us, the modern viewer, was once considered new, vibrant and complicated. It’s all a matter of one’s perspective. It is my hope that as we take this limited look back, and it is important that we do look back, that we will empty our thoughts of our prejudices based on our current knowledge and allow the due appreciation and joy these early builders, painters, sculptors—artists and artisans deserve.

When studying art history most of us have a very small and limited exposure to the actual art we are exploring. So often our exposure is limited to a picture in a textbook, a reproduced poster, a pixilated digital image on a tablet, computer screen, smart board, or television screen. These are basically two-dimensional images of a two dimensional subject. The connection between viewer and, in this case, the artwork, is seemingly one-dimensional—meaning limited. It is all flat and most often the emotion involved is flat.

Every once in a while it is a picture that we view, usually as a child or impressionable learner, which captures the imagination. Perhaps it was an illustration by N.C. Wyeth from the story Treasure Island that drove us on a lifelong quest to one day seek out a tropical beach or to explore the wooden ships of days gone by. Perhaps it was the illustrations of Gustave Doré in Dante’s Inferno, which gave us our most tangible view of Heaven and Hell. For the most part, however, we do not make the emotional connection when viewing a piece of art in such a limited capacity such as that of a book or screen.

I think one of the regrets I have for the way in which we live, often isolated and too busy to know or care otherwise, is that so many of us never have the opportunity of seeing “famous” art work face to face. I can remember standing outside of the Uffizi in Florence just wishing I could have all of my students with me. I thought that if they could just be here, seeing this in real life, it would make a difference. It would affect them, they would be the better for it, it would all make sense, it would move them and they would now understand. They would be the better for it all just as I was for standing there myself—

Art, real art, good art, historical art—it is this which gives us our humanity. Now I know some of you are about to jump in, arguing about art—art for art’s sake, what makes good art good?? This is not that debate—there is no debate here, this is a precursor to looking back. And that is through the eyes of one of the most prolific times of creating art.

And so this was my mindset when I was visiting Florence.

Fienze, as it is known in Italian, is the seat of modern thinking and doing.
Of course some may argue that would actually be Rome, but I’ll argue any day that it is Florence. The birth of the great time period known simply as the Renaissance seems to have sprung forth from the very volcanic ground of the Italian peninsula, which birthed the snakelike Apennine mountains range, the Italian backbone, as well as the headwaters of the Arno River. The irregular and non-navigational Arno, which flows through this enlightened city with its very own fickled Italian ways and its own buried secrets. From the business and banking magnates of the de’ Medici dynasty which helped to create an economically rich location drawing people to this fast growing powerhouse of cities, to the religious and political reformer Girolama Savonarola and his bon fires of the vanities, Florence’s history is a rich as it’s gifts.

And so it was on my 2nd trip to Florence when I was enveloped in just a small thread of the rich tapestry that is known as Florence. There is a small Museum that sits on the northern end of the city. This museum is within walking distance of the famed Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s massive and beautiful David, as well as the Uffizi– albeit a bit of a haul down to this most famous of Florence’s museum located near the Piazza della Signoria. However it is this particular small and unassuming museum which was first a convent/ monastery, home to a group of Dominican monks, that draws my attention. The Museum of San Marco.

It’s setting is still that of a monastery/convent—two interchangeable words for a cloistered religious group of either monks or nuns—San Marco is quiet and lacking the throngs of tourists that flood the more well known museums in this city of museums. There is a peace that prevails the grounds of this once holy site. The area in front of the museum is semi-park like with benches and shade trees. Upon entering the simple, unadorned museum/monastery, if it is summer, one is greeted with a sudden change in temperature. There is a welcomed coolness in the air. Florence, in the summer months can be a humid sauna where just the mere act of breathing becomes difficult. Couple that with the influx of thousands of tourists, jostling for space and air, a place like San Marco is a required respite.

There is a reverence felt within San Marco. I suppose that is because when entering you are suddenly transported to the time when this was a cloistered convent. The monks entered and most likely never left the grounds until their death. I don’t think much has changed to this cloistered edifice since it first became a Dominican convent in 1438. My understanding is that there have been some structural changes and modifications over the years—the opening of ceilings and windows, but over all, it remains as a simple and honest claim to its inception.

The “Glory” which brings one to visit San Marco is not it’s historical presence in this historical city. It is not the simplistic beauty, which calls one to come detoxify from the drowning seas of tourists or the sweltering heat. It is, however, the beauty of what enriches the otherwise barren walls of this convent, which draws the curious, art patron and pilgrim a like.

When I travel, I like to consider myself more of a pilgrim rather than a tourist. I travel seeking the reasons for the beginnings, the reasons of importance, always with an eye gleaned toward the sacred and the holy to wherever it is I may be wandering. I travel with a sense of purpose—to understand, to appreciate. I hope to be made better by the journey. I still may take pictures, head to the big sites, eat the good food, but it is the hidden that I constantly seek. I have never lived my life on the mere surface. I sink down. There comes responsibility and a heavy graveness to living so deeply—it can be burdensome and overwhelming, at times depressing, but it is a life worth living as it provides glimpses of the Divine in an otherwise overt secular world.

Upon entering the “museum” there is a small enclosed garden. Guests will see a small chapel area on their left with the first of what visitors come to see—the frescoed paintings of Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico translates to “angelic brother.” This is a name that he was given most likely after his death as an honor to the type of life he lived. He is also known as Beato Angelico or “blessed angel.” He has long been called Blessed but it was in 1984 when Pope John Paul II officially recognized Angelico as “Blessed”—meaning he could be venerated or recognized as truly virtuous. The name he chose, however, when he took his vows and was consecrated to his order and to his faith was Giovanni.

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Fra Angelico was born, in what historians believe to be, 1390 in an area north of Florence. His given name was Guido di Pietro. He was an artist but also a Dominican friar. He most likely began his artist endeavors as a young apprentice working along side his brother, also an artist and monk.

Vasari, a renowned artist in his own right, but best known for his biographies of the Italian Renaissance Artists, wrote that Fra Angelico was “a simple but most holy man.” He stated that it was Fra Angelico’s belief that one could not paint Christ unless the artist was, himself, Christ like. Before beginning each painting, Fra Angelico would devote himself to prayer.

Visitors to San Marco’s enter the main building where the “cells” of the individual monks are located as well as the sacristy, dinning hall, and library. There is a small area also dedicated to illuminated manuscripts, which are on display under protective glass.

As I climbed the steps up to the 2nd level, where the monk’s cells are located, I was immediately reminded that it was the middle of summer in Florence, Italy. The air was almost stagnant. Suddenly I stop climbing the stairs as I see something that I have seen numerous times before. It is large, larger than I imagined, the colors are soft yet very strong. A sheet of glass protects it. Her body is that of a shy demure girl. The angel who stands before her, Gods’ messenger, kneels before who he knows to be that of the future mother of God.

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The Painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico greets all those who climb the stairs to the 2nd floor just as it did hundreds of years ago when the monks would climb these same stairs in order to retire to their individual cells. Mary and the angel, Gabriel, are positioned in a garden and logia–an area that looks strangely familiar. It is the grounds of San Marco.

As I make my way around the hall there are approximately 45 cells—some cells are along the exterior walls and the others make up the interior wall. The cells are small rooms; some have windows, the cells along the inside wall do not. I can only imagine the bitter winter cold, as the summer heat is proving unbearable. It is however what is painted on a single wall within each cell that draws the visitor to imagine a monk’s time spent in the lonely spartan cell.

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There are paintings of the Crucifixion, the mocking of Christ, the Deposition, the Resurrection, as well as the Nativity, along with the Baptism of Jesus. Various saints, such as Saints Augustine, and Dominic are depicted in many of the paintings. Mary the Magdalene, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Martha are also present in many of the frescos. The frescos were to provide a focus of meditation and reflection, as well as for a bit of comfort, for each monk. The often windowless “cell”, with most likely only a small mat for sleeping, has no other distraction or comfort. A monk’s primary task is that of prayer, contemplation and reflection of the Divine.

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Fra Angelico did eventually venture out from this monastery, painting other significant works with one of those being located within the cavernous Vatican. In the small private chapel for Pope Nicholas V, frescos of the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, adorn the walls. Whereas the message is a bit different from those frescos found on the walls at San Marco, there is no denying the quiet beauty and style of the mystical artist Fra Angelico.

I wish that it was possible for all of us to travel, at will, visiting the places scattered throughout the world where the treasures and masterpieces, as well as the forgotten or the private, pieces of art lurk and dwell. To behold an altarpiece, a painting, a fresco, a statue face to face, eyeball to eyeball, verses a mere printed image in a book or elsewhere—is, for some, life changing, for others, inspirational—only leading to even greater visions.

On this particular day, in a place a world away from my own life, I am confronted with a historical moment captured in time, on a wall, in a convent that was originally intended as a reminder for a simple monk. It is on this day that I become that simple monk, as I am reminded of a brief encounter that would change the world and would also change me, forever.

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