The Best Artistic Masterpieces in Northern Italy
Tintoretto's Scuola Grande di San Rocco (Venice): When the Scuola di San Rocco (a sort of gentlemen's club/lay fraternity) held an art competition in 1564, the Renaissance master Tintoretto pulled a fast one on his rivals. Instead of preparing a sketch for the judges like everyone else, he went ahead and finished a painting, secretly installing it in the ceiling of the Sala dell'Albergo off the second-floor hall. The judges were suitably impressed, and Tintoretto got the job. Over the next 23 years, the artist filled the scuola's two floors with dozens of works. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt on the ground floor is superb, but his masterpiece hangs in that tiny Sala dell'Albergo, a huge Crucifixion that wraps around the walls and ranks among the greatest and most moving works in the history of Venetian art. The San Rocco baroque orchestra holds excellent regular chamber concerts in this fantastic setting; for info, contact tel. 041-962-999 or www.musicinvenice.com.
Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi, Accademia (Venice): Paolo Veronese was a master of human detail, often peopling his large canvases with a rogues' gallery of characters. When Veronese unveiled his Last Supper, puritanical church bigwigs nearly had a conniption. They threatened him with charges of blasphemy for portraying this holiest of moments as a rousing, drunken banquet that more resembled paintings of Roman orgies than the Last Supper. Veronese quickly retitled the work Feast in the House of Levi, a less holy subject at which Jesus and the Apostles were also present, and the mollified censors let it pass.
Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel (Padua): Padua's biggest sight by far is one of the two towering fresco cycles created by Giotto (the other one is in Assisi), the artist who did more than any other to lift painting from its static Byzantine stupor and set it on the naturalistic, expressive, dynamic Gothic road toward the Renaissance. From 1303 to 1306, Giotto covered the walls of this private chapel with a range of emotion, using foreshortening, modeled figures, and saturated colors, revolutionizing the concept of art and kicking off the modern era in painting. The chapel, as a whole, is breathtaking, depicting scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus in 38 panels.
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan): This tempera fresco looks somehow more like a snapshot of a real dinner table than the staged holy event that Last Suppers usually appear to be -- instead of a hovering halo, Jesus' holy nimbus is suggested by the window behind his head. Leonardo was as much a scientist and inventor as he was painter, and unfortunately for us, he was wont to try new painting techniques directly on his major commissions rather than testing them fully first. When painting one fresco in Florence, he used wax in the pigments, but when it was drying too slowly, he put heaters along the wall, and the whole thing simply melted. Whatever chemistry he was experimenting with in Milan when Ludovico il Moro hired him to decorate the refectory (dining hall) of Santa Maria della Grazie with a Last Supper, it didn't work properly. The fresco began deteriorating almost as soon as he finished painting it, and it had to be touched up and painted over several times in the succeeding centuries. It also didn't help when Napoleon's troops moved in and used the wall for target practice, or when Allied World War II bombs tore the roof off the building, miraculously not damaging the fresco but still leaving it open to the elements for 3 years. A lengthy restoration has stripped away the centuries of grime and overpainting, so what we see now is more or less pure Leonardo, even if the result is extremely patchy and looks rather faded.
Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà, Castello Sforzesco (Milan): During a lifetime in which he became the foremost artist of his age, acknowledged as a genius in painting, fresco, architecture, and engineering, Michelangelo never lost his love for marble and chisel. At age 89, he was working yet again on one of his favorite subjects, this Pietà. It may be unfinished -- in fact, Michelangelo was in the midst of changing it wholesale, reordering the figures and twisting the composition around -- but this tall, languid representation of Mary and Nicodemus bearing the body of Christ remains one of Michelangelo's most remarkable works. At the end of his life, Michelangelo had grown so advanced in his thinking and artistic aesthetics that this remarkable, minimalist work (the sculptor had early on developed a rough style dubbed nonfinito, or "unfinished") looks eerily as if it were chiseled in the 1950s rather than the 1560s. Michelangelo was in his Roman studio chiseling away on the statue when, on February 12, 1564, he was struck with a fever and took to bed. He died 6 days later.
Mantegna's Dead Christ, Pinacoteca di Brera (Milan): This masterpiece of the Brera's collection displays not only Mantegna's skill at modeling and keen eye for texture and tone, but also his utter mastery of perspective and how he used it to create the illusion of depth. In this case, we look at Jesus laid out on a slab from his feet end, the entire body foreshortened to squeeze into a relatively narrow strip of canvas. Like many great geniuses in the arts, Mantegna actually warped reality and used his tools (in this case, perspective and foreshortening) in an odd way to create his image. Most art teachers would tell you that the rules of perspective would call for the bits at the "near end" (in this case, the feet) to be large and those at the far end (that is to say, the head) to be small to achieve the proper effect, but Mantegna turned it around. At first glance, the work seems wonderfully wrought and perfectly foreshortened. But after staring a few moments, you realize the head is grotesquely large and the feet tiny. Mantegna has given us perfect foreshortening by turning perspective on its end.
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