Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Italians and the English, an affection running deep.

Ever since the 1340s, when Edward III sunk the Florentine economy while not being able to repay his debts to the Peruzzi and Bardi banking families who were financing the Hundred Years' War, causing a rather strong financial crisis, the English have more than made up for that little muddle with this peninsula. Indeed, our relationship is perhaps one of the best in Europe; yes, we were at war in WW2, though many Italians weren't really up for standing against their old allies of many conflicts, including the Great War, we are much more thankful for the Anglo-American liberation of Italy, and how not to appreciate those wonderful, romantic films such as Room with a View or Tea with Mussolini - the stories of Medieval and Renaissance clergymen and noblemen residing here are infinite, the Stuart monarchs even had Italian blood in them, since the 18th century cities such as Rome and Florence developed huge expat communities ever since the Grand Tour, with churches, tea rooms and much more, while taking the arts, literature and architecture of Rome back to Britain, where geniuses such as Christopher Wren reinvented them. So what do we owe Britain? You know what? What is it that unites us? Might it actually be the French? Despite my deep affection for the Bourbonic cause of the French monarchy and a possible restoration. I believe it is definitely the French that unite us. How?

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was born to nobleman Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino in Ajaccio, Corsica, a year before the island was transferred to France from Genoa. Considering that the Italian unification didn’t fully occur until 1870 and that he himself considered himself a Frenchman and a child of the much misunderstood but very bloody first French revolution, there is no reason to think of him as an Italian, moreover as he invaded and occupied Italy for several years in what can be considered an early form of military dictatorship. He wanted to be French but as a classical heir of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance. Now, what he did do during his time in Italy?

Let’s debunk a myth first; the famous Mona Lisa by Leonardo at the Louvre, was the only Italian work among those of the great masters to not have been taken into France, as this wonderful portrait of a Florentine noblewoman was taken and completed by Da Vinci in Paris in 1516, and there it was bought by King Francis I of France, an avid art collector. The list ends here!

Now that my conscience has been cleared, I shall go on. Yes, not only Napoleon was an occupier of lands, he was also the first art looter of modern history. His quest for obtaining the best masterpieces of Europe can be resumed into one of his quotes: We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples. His intent was that of shaming the Italian states: Italy owes art its great fame and wealth, but it’s come the time to move everything to France, the land of the free. Of course, he also “took possession” of several works throughout Europe, many of the religious art he seized from churches, monasteries and cathedrals now forms the backbone of the French national galleries, a comprehensive list would be unnecessarily long, needless to say, it would comprise works of the caliber of Rubens and Rembrandt, his systematic appropriation of art can only be compared to that of Nazi Germany over a century later. Of all the works stolen in Italy (thousands), less than half returned after the Battles of Waterloo (1805) and Trafalgar (1815) because of pressure by the British to return them to their rightful owners who sent art experts to Paris to retake possession of the looted masterpieces, among those that remained are magnificent works by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, Perugino, Piero di Cosimo and Guido Reni. Ancient Roman statues or masterpieces such as Raphael’s Transfiguration thankfully returned, but these were exceptions. Indeed, a complete list can’t be included here - I will therefore mention one example dear to me.

In 1803, Napoleon’s sister, Paolina Bonaparte, married the extrovert art collector and Roman Prince Camillo Borghese who was born into one of the oldest and richest papal families of the Eternal City, a passionate and good looking man of his time who sadly ended up depressed, as Paolina lived an extravagant life at his expenses, with over 30 known lovers and extravagances such as being carried naked into her bath by her African slaves, knowing well that her husband couldn’t protest much when her brother was occupying Rome - of course, it is far from the historian in me to make any kind of judgement. The situation was quite tragic for the poor Borghese, but at least he had his large art collection to console him, a number of masterpieces accumulated by his family and also new ones he was adding up, such as an erotic naked statue of him by Antonio Canova. What remains of his majestic collection can still be seen in the beautiful Borghese Gallery in Rome. But why did I say what remains? You may wonder. Well, that is because Napoleon, during one of his visits to Rome, the self-proclaimed emperor, bullied the prince and husband of his sister, at the time a highly dishonouring move, into giving France 344 of his best artworks; they included 154 statues, 160 busts, 170 bad-reliefs, 30 columns and vases - they also included some of the most renowned masterpieces of antiquity such as the Ares Borghese, the Antinous Mondragone, the Borghese Hermaphroditus and the Borghese Vase. They were never given back. Now, multiply this with the equation of others not being his sister’s husbands and apply it to the whole of Italy, and to palaces, churches or galleries such as the Horses of San Marco the symbol of Venice, the sensual Apollo of Belvedere from the Vatican Museums or the Portrait of Leo X at the Uffizi and with them, thousands of others. See?

It is true that the French were not the first to take art works, hell, we Romans did it first, but as I like to remember, the English were quite polite and purchased them instead, for example, or at least took the effort to actually discover and preserve them. Do I think they should be returned? Let’s not be silly. Why would I go to Paris for then! Just one thing to say. Good job Admiral Nelson! (No wonder my cat is named after you). This is my favorite example of why we Italians return the favour of this special relationship. As I like to think Italy is an ageing Roman matron but England is her still flourishing young daughter, as Eleanor Lavish put it in Room with a View, quite eloquently: A young girl, transfigured by Italy! And why shouldn't she be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Charles I and Charles II: two monarchs, two exhibitions.

If you happen to be in London at any point before the first half of April, you might want to visit a pair of two superb exhibitions: Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy of Art (27 January - 15 April 2018) and Charles II: Art & Power at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace (8 December 2017 - 13 May 2018). Focusing on some of the most controversial monarchs of British history, these two events are absolutely complementary and truly allow us to see the man behind the Stuart king.

The first exhibition on Charles I spaces over several rooms and it gives us a perspective on the superb sense of taste of that king, very much in line with continental standards. Perhaps the most misunderstood monarch Britain ever had, has, throughout the years, and because of small-minded historians, received a very bad reputation; that of a monarch who tried to overthrow parliament and not of the monarch who tried to prevent England from becoming the brutal theocratic and military dictatorship it was under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, not the monarch who tried to save the historical apostolicity of the moderate and by then Baroque, high Church of England of Archbishop William Laud; a monarch but also a martyr of temperate convictions whom Anglicans still regard as a martyr. The exhibition focuses on the hidden side of King Charles, an immense taste for art but also a deep understanding of how art was a symbol of power. The monarch's taste ranged from the highest forms of humanist Renaissance and Mannerist art, both Italian and Netherlandish/Flemish but also to the then contemporary Baroque style which expressed both emotion and power equally in dramatic ways. The glorious cycle of the Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna truly shows the political intention behind acquiring such works; others such as Titian's Last Supper, Rubens' Peace and War or the astonishing Mortlake Tapestries after Raphael, show the monarch's knowledge of the great names of his times as shown in actually owning some of those masters' most impressive works and also the relative broad taste of the king of what was essentially still a turbulent post-Reformation country. Indeed, King Charles I's court master was none other than Anthony van Dyck, perhaps the greatest portrait painter of the 17th century and throughout the exhibit his depictions of Charles I in all poses from the Charles I in Three Positions to the impressive Equestrian Portrait of his are absolutely exceptional. Indeed, the former was in fact made for sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who kept it for years in his Roman palazzo, before sending the king a bust on behalf of Pope Urban VIII Barberini as a sign of friendship and respect, a work also displayed in this show. A Stuart monarchy was a stable and respectable form of government for the English and a nation to be respected and admired throughout the continent. The show just proves this throughout its many rooms. But in 1649 the King's collection was scattered throughout Europe, following his shameful beheading at the hands of the Puritans, it was divided mainly between the Prado in Madrid and others - finally this event reunites such glory here in London. He was the first modern art collector and commissioner among Britain's monarchs. His last words were: I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.

The second exhibition on Charles II takes on the story following the quick demise of the Puritan Commonwealth that Charles died trying to prevent from taking power; it all starts with a poignant portrait of Charles I on the day of his trial, only a shadow of his former past glories. Following those dark years of iconoclasm, strict societal rules, and during which the royal collections were sold - Britain boomed into its Baroque renaissance with the Restoration. Not only, Charles II was the son of Charles I but he also managed to inherit his father's taste in art and managed to reimagine it in accordance with the return of the monarchy. The Puritans destroyed all the necessary regalia for the Coronation, including the spectacular Mass-set and Charles had them all recommissioned in a grander way for Westminster Abbey, a wonderful gilded set that is on display at the exhibition. After over a decade of republican rule, all ritual and courtly life were reinstated, art patronage resumed - art that seems to be rejoicing in the glory of the Restoration: the Monarchy is back! Indeed, the English people realised republicanism was a bad idea and many remained loyalist, the exhibition begins with objects used during the Commonwealth as symbols of loyalty to the Crown: these include devotional books with prints of Charles I, the martyr King, or plates that were hung in homes with portraits of Charles II. There are several pamphlets and prints showing the horrors and violence of the Commonwealth and the contrasting decency of monarchical rule. And suddenly it truly begins, a series of prints and portraits showing the return of the king, either enthroned, on a horse or other significant poses, and not a random king, but Charles II, who commissioned some impressive paintings and portraits himsef, enlarging the Royal Collection with spectacular works, such as Peter Brughel the Elder's Massacre of the Innocents or Orazio Gentileschi's Sibyl - not to mention the precious jewellery, the beautiful prayer books and Bibles or the stunning drawings by Leonardo or Italian Mannerist masters such as Polidoro da Caravaggio or Parmigianino - some of the greatest Italian artists of the time. Charles II not only followed his father in appreciating beautiful humanist continental Renaissance or Baroque art but he also used it as a mean of power and propaganda as well. In the exhibition are two of his royal portraits: one is by an Italian master, Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, and it represents the monarch as a classical god emerging from an intricate pattern of beautiful human and animal bodies emerging from the seas in a scene of true eccentric and Baroque triumph; the second being a more conservative portrait by John Michael Wright which sees the monarch loosely sat on a throne surrounded by draperies held by Italian-looking-like spectators, King Charles II stares into the public's eyes, holding the sceptre and orb, symbols of religious and temporal power, slightly smiling and spreading the legs of that richly decorated, sacred body which seems to communally claim, with a certain pleasure, that we are back, we are here to stay.

This exhibition is not only a wonderful example of a show on the grandeur of the British monarchy, but it represents that grandeur itself through a clever act of refined propaganda. Why? The show takes place in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, in both exhibitions most works were given by HM Queen Elizabeth II. It all continues... God save the Crown! I highly suggest you to see the two complementary exhibitions and experience the troubled history of these two great monarchs through some of the highest forms of beauty ever produced by mankind and that these two kings could indeed see and appreciate.