Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Return To Uffizi

9:00AM February 2
Groundhog’s day without groundhogs: I hear we’ve got a longer winter coming.

Saturday morning Adam, John, Jaimie and I returned to Uffizi with Alex and Kate around 1:25. We waited outside the museum, meeting up with a few other musicians whom Antonio had informed of the tour through email. As always, Antonio popped up out of seemingly nowhere, a large grin across his face and his eyes glowing with excitement, eager to share his appreciation of the art with us. The previous day, Antonio had told us to stop by the galleries near the exit to Uffizi which house one of museum’s prized pieces: a shield depicting the freshly severed head of Medusa, blood gushing from her neck, painted by Caravaggio (above). At the time, executions were a daily event, but they always put bonds over the victims’ eyes because superstition had it that whom ever they looked at in that moment between life and death would also be stricken to hell. Medusa’s eyes were open in this painting though, and the sight is a bit terrifying. It was this piece, and the legend of Medusa, which inspired the exhibition Antonio was going to give us a tour of.

Outside of the Uffizi he explained to us his particular interest with Medusa and how she was not always a monster. As some stories tell, she was one of three beautiful mortal daughters of Phorcys, the old man of the sea, one of the old gods who was himself a son of Gaia. She was the aspiration of many suitors and a priestess in Athena’s temple, where she made love to Poseidon. Athena was so enraged by this that she cursed Medusa with a head of snakes and a face so terrible in appearance that all who beheld it would be turned to stone. With this preface, giving Medusa the benefit of our sympathy, we entered the museum.

The exhibit was held in a relatively small hall underneath the western wing of the Uffizi galleries. It began with a short dark hallway. There were a few paintings on each wall. The first one Antonio drew our attention to was a famous prize of Uffizi: Piero di Cosimo’s Perseus Frees Andromeda (above). It has been at Uffizi since 1589 (painted in 1513 after the Medici’s return to power.) The painting shows Perseus slaying the sea monster that held Andromeda, his later wife, captive. He placed Medusa’s head, which he had carried with him to give to Athena, on the shore, and the very contact brought the coral underneath the sea to life, hence creating the Red Sea.

At the end of this hallway we came to a painting that I knew of before, depicting Medusa’s freshly severed head on the ground (below). Her mouth is open in despair as she realizes her last breathes. The colors in this painting are all quite dark, but around her we see life—in the form or rats, frogs, and bats—drawn to her. Plants are sprouting beneath her head as new life begins in her death. It was magnificent to behold in person but did not seem to fit in with the other pieces of the renaissance collection at Uffizi. It was originally thought to be by Da Vinci, but it has since been found to have come from an anonymous Flemish painter.

As we entered the main part of the gallery, we found that the small hallway was built as a temporary entranceway into an open two-story room. Around the sides of the room were various artifacts—vases, dishes, armor, paintings—and in the closed window frames of the second story were video projections of objects which they could not bring to the hall for varying reasons. This was Antonio’s contribution to the exhibition. On one side we followed a series of pictures taken of the details in the Caravaggio shield. Antonio had weaved the images together to tell a story about the life and death of Medusa which he relayed to us as we watched. On the other side we saw a series of close-ups on a shield at another gallery which had Medusa’s awe-inspiring face molded into the metal.

Afterwards we headed back into the rest of the Uffizi galleries to re-view the Caravaggio shield in person. Antonio then described to us how this piece was commissioned to complete an impressive suit of armor for a horse and knight given to the Medici family by the Persians. The shield sat on the left arm of the soldier and looked down upon all who passed it. Neither was ever intended for battle use but as a statement of art. Today it sits tilted slight upwards in a case for preservation purposes, but in its original position, Medusa’s gruesome head would have been a scary sight. I can’t say I thought much of this piece when I first viewed it, but following Antonio’s stories, the piece meant much more to me.

Antonio then left us to our own, and we decided to go back and view the galleries we’d skipped the previous day. We mostly saw uninspiring renaissance paintings depicting nobility and various biblical figures, but I did quite enjoy the Niobe room, devoted to the mythical Greek family. The statues and paintings in the room were not my favorite, but the room itself had so much art built into its’ façade, including an image of the three graces from Boticelli’s Primavera tucked into a small ceiling panel. Apparently this was the room most damaged by a 1993 car bombing, but I could not see any sign of harm done to the art. It seems they did a fabulous job in restoring it.

We then went back to make dinner. John stepped up and took on lasagna. I made a little amus bouche before the meal, slow roasting some peppers and garlic, which we then ate on some grilled bruschette. It was all a bit improvised, but it came out better than I’d imagined. Everyone else really enjoyed it as well. The lasagna wasn’t quite big enough for everybody, so I got to try some of the leftover risotto I’d missed out on the day before, and then some of the girls made a crepe dessert with nutella and bananas. Everything was really tasty.

On Sunday, Jaimie, Adam, and I went to the Academia Galleria to see Michelangelo’s David. I wasn’t in love with the mostly biblical paintings that the gallery specializes in, but there was a great three-panel piece which stood out to me for its morbid depiction of saints in a dark color scheme. On either side of a crucified Jesus, John the Baptist and Saint Mary Magdelene looked up in sorrow. The middle panel depicting Jesus was burned by the German owner of the work at the end of the war in 1945, but the two figures on either side really stood out to me.

I then spent a long time with the unfinished Michelangelo statues conceived for the tomb of then-pope Julius II. He died earlier than expected though, and the fund to furnish the tomb soon dried up. Michelangelo abandoned his grand plans for the project, and the four “slave” figures he began to adorn the walls were left unfinished. They currently sit as blocks of sandstone with unrefined figures eschewing from their midst. In a way, they can be seen as complete in this manner: slaves, bound to the blocks they so desperately want to escape for all eternity. My 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Mastriano, told me about these pieces many times, and I know she always enjoyed Atlas (one of the slaves, above) more than David. My favorite was St. Matthew (below), which is not part of the collection of slaves, but sits among them—as it is similar in scale and material—unfinished.

The David was indeed awe-inspiring, and even more so because of the other unfinished statues around it. These unfinished works reveal Michelangelo’s process of creation, and then to see it executed on such a grand scale is truly awesome. I must have spent ten minutes or more walking around and enjoying David from all sides: a true masterpiece.

That night Adam, John, and I dined on our own. We had yet to make cream sauce amongst all of the pasta we’d eaten, so I went about making tortellini in a basil-tinged alfredo sauce. It’s surprising though, the grocery stores do not have a large variety of tortellini fillings: almost all are prosciutto, except for the rare pack I found of spinach and ricotta, so that is what I used. I went a bit overboard on the flour, so it was a little thicker than I normally would have preferred, but it all tasted quite good: another successful meal. Then, for dessert, Adam made an attempt at tiramisu. The texture was really all there, but he didn’t add any sugar to the mascarpone, so the whole tasted quite bland except in the bites where we added extra chocolate. He seems determined to perfect it though, and I’m sure we’ll be eating a delicious dessert in no time. I know I’m always willing to be a test subject.

After dinner, the three of us, provoked by something I heard Adam say at dinner, listened to old recordings I have of Bill Cosby standup routines for over an hour. Initially I just wanted to play Adam the piece that he had triggered me to think about, but we all enjoyed it so much that we kept on going until my computer ran out of battery life. It was actually a great entertainment at the end of the weekend, and it was nice that everybody was interested enough to sit down and listen. I know it would be hard for me to get many people to simply listen to anybody speak without accompanying visuals. Overall, it was quite a weekend, spent here in our host city, and I’m happy to be heading into the next one healthy.

(Uffizi from across the Arno. Ed. note: all pictures can be enlarged when clicked on.)

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