Tag Archives: Italy

Milan the Magnificent – from da Vinci to Armani – a virtual guide by Dr Nick Gordon

Milan’s Piazza del Duomo with its iconic buildings

Years ago, when visiting Milan with a friend, on our train journey across the top of Italy to Bergamo, Lake Garda, Sirmione and Venice, we only set aside a brief time to explore Milan’s historic centre visiting its statue-spired, gothic duomo and its chic, 19th-century, double-barrelled-glass-arcaded Galleria Vittorio Emanuele 11, joining Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Scala. We later sat high in the gods at La Scala, one of the world’s greatest opera houses, to watch Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mozart’s, Don Giovanni.

We sat in the gods of La Scala

We also naively sidled up to the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s, The Last Supper, only to be admonished for not booking six months prior. No amount of Aussie pleading gave way to a viewing.

But I have recently viewed and have come to understand this revolutionary renaissance artwork through the artistic and academic eyes of Dr Nick Gordon, during his recent limelight-arts-travel online lecture, Magnificent Milan.

Nick detailed the revolutionary aspect of The Last Supper in its ‘treatment of space and communication, the treatment of psychology through gesture amongst the apostles, the treatment of light and reflection, grouping and balance.’  I saw the parts of Leonardo’s masterpiece that created the whole. Adding to the importance of this work, we zoomers to this lecture, saw how close the world had come to losing this masterpiece when the area was bombed during WW11 (the nearby railway yard being the target).

From the screen of Dr Nick Gordon (Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy)

There may be Roman columns in the middle of Milan exclaiming its importance as the 4th century capital of the Roman Empire, but as Nick showed, the concentric circles of medieval Milan have rippled outwards leading to innovative art, architecture and the creative reimagining and repurposing of its industrial fringe. It’s a visual timeline where antiquity meets medieval meets renaissance meets baroque meets … it’s where ‘artists, architects and town planners try and create a coherent set of structures.’

Leonardo … painter, scientist, sculptor, musician, engineer and architect was sent as a ‘gift’ to Milan by Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ Medici

With the advent of the industrial era, by way of water-driven electricity and iron sources from the Alps, Pirelli soon emerges on the scene, as do Alfa Romeo and the textile company, Prada. Milan became the capital of manufacturing along with the art movement – Futurism, which was to be quashed during WW1.

Among the 20th-century artworks housed in Milan’s Museo del Novecento in Piazza del Duomo, some of its focus is on the anti-Fascist group of artists called Corrente. In 1948 they became the basis of Nuova Fronte (the New Front); its members defending ‘modern’ art when the Nazi campaign against degenerate art was spreading to Italy.

Museo del Novecento – Museum of 20th-century art

Milan hailed in the Swinging Sixties by edging out the fashion capitals of Rome and Florence as Versace and Armani set up their textile companies and fashion houses. In 2009, Milan garnered the title, Fashion Capital of the World.

Now, on Milan’s rippling outskirts, a new CBD is emerging. The early 20th-century locomotive factory with its giant hangars has been repurposed as an art museum called Pirelli HangarBicocca. MUDEC (the Museum of Culture) is a sleek museum also borne from an industrial plant. Armani has its Armani Silos – as Giorgio Armani says, ‘I decided to call it Silos because this building used to store food, which is, of course, essential for life. For me, just as much as food, clothes are also a part of life.’

From the screen of Dr Nick Gordon – the concentric circles of Milan and its artistically-repurposed industrial fringes

Porto Nuova – the old railyard and industrial area has been transformed into Milan’s most futuristic district which, along with other sleek towers, showcases Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), two residential towers vertically planted with 800 trees, 5000 shrubs and 1500 perennial plants. How’s that for attracting bird and insects to the city, along with moderating temperatures, stifling noise and dust pollution, let alone creating an aesthetic balm for the soul.

The Bosco Verticale towers with the Library of Trees Park creating a web of paths, fields & forests for the people of Milan

Whether it’s travel of the mind or travel of the being, you may wish to check out limelight-arts-travel for its newsletter, its upcoming lecture series or expert-led cultural trips.

Women Composers and Performers in Renaissance and Baroque Italy – a virtual guide by Kate Bolton-Porciatti

This time in the limelight-arts-travel series I take the sliding door into the world of female musicians. So much of the limelight has gone to male composers over the eons that it’s a delight to slip into the feminine realm. Guided by Kate Bolton-Porciatti, live from Florence, we Zoomers stepped into the medieval cities of Ferrara, Florence and Venice.

Ferrara, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, was a European capital of culture. The female singing group, Concerto delle Donne (consort of women), was founded there. These ultra-talented musicians and singers were given annual salaries, board and lodging. One virtuoso, Laura Peverara, was paid a salary of 300 scudi – as a comparison, a young (not-yet-famous) Caravaggio was paid 1 1/2 scudi for his painting ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ and 8 scudi for his painting, ‘Fortune Teller’.

Tarquinia Molza, the Concerto delle Donne’s coach was a singer, poet, conductor, composer, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. This extraordinary woman was perhaps the first singer (male or female) to have a published biography of her life. But, after being widowed, a clandestine love affair saw her banished to Modena until the whole business had blown over. So much like Romeo being banished to Mantua after killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

This virtuosic group came to an end when soprano and lutenist Anna Guarini was murdered by her husband on his suspicion of her adultery.

While on my travels I collect postcards. This is from the Basilica dei Frari in Venice

Beyond the courts were chapels, convents and nun musicians. A musical ensemble of 23 nuns played cornets, trombones, lutes, double harps, violins, viols, bagpipes, recorders and harpsichords. One can only imagine the extraordinary performances, adding in the nun-singers – female tenors and a singular astonishing female bass.

This reminded me of the renaissance novel, Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Quote: By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched – for a much lesser price – into convents. It is estimated that in the great towns and city states of Italy, up to half of all noble women became nuns. Not all of them went willingly … the story takes place in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, in 1570 in the Convent of Santa Caterina …

Florence, in the mid 1500s, was home to Maddalena Casulana: composer, lutenist and singer. She was the first female composer to have a whole book of secular music (madrigals) published in the history of western music. This quote below, on one of Kate Bolton-Porciatti’s slides, shows the strength and fortitude of Maddalena.

Meanwhile, Francesca Caccini, wrote some or all of the music for at least 16 staged works. She is widely regarded as the first female to write an opera (although that term wasn’t used at the time). She even wrote music for Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (grand nephew of the famous sculptor). She went on to write 16 works for the Medici court.

Venice, la Serenissima, along with its significant trade & cultural attributes, it was also a city of 20,000 voluptuous courtesans who seduced men with their voices like sirens along with their ‘other’ charms. Many became famous for their literary and musical endeavours … Venus turned into a woman of letters.

Women played stringed instruments as wind instruments were regarded as erotic. Having said that, while I was in Lithgow at Ironfest, the largest historical & cultural arts festival to take place yearly in NSW’s Central West, in the Renaissance area of the festival, one damsel was hand-cranking a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval stringed instrument with a similar sound to that of bagpipes. As she played it on her lap she told me it was popular during the Renaissance as it protected women’s modesty. ‘Raising your arms while playing another stringed instrument sent men into a state of lustful frenzy’.

I shall leave you with that thought.

If you are interested in a complimentary lecture in December to shepherd you towards Christmas, book a zoom spot here. 13th December: The Chapel of the Magi in Florence given by Dr Kathleen Olive.



A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Florence as enlightened by Professor Emerita Nerida Newbigin

The second lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series is a time-travel through Nerida Newbigin’s expertise into the Renaissance world of Florence where mystery and miracle plays, and processions, were de rigueur.

One of my first acquaintances with Florence came so many years ago when reading one of my now favourite books, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.

Set in England’s Edwardian era in the wake of The Grand Tour, Miss Lucy Honeychurch travels to Florence for cultural enlightenment where she meets the gorgeous, but lower-class George Emerson, who is searching for life’s hope and meaning.

At one point George says, ‘… you are NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me … we shall simply drift.’ And further into their drifting exploration, ‘The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things.’

Founded in 59BC as a settlement for Julius Caesar’s former soldiers, the city name was Colonia Florentia, meaning flowering colony. How apt was that to become when during the Renaissance creative experimentation was flourishing.

One of my own hand-painted cards bought while in Florence

Even after my own explorations of Florence and the nearby hill town of Fiesole, where during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci used its slopes as a launching pad for his flying machines, I was enriched by the layering of Nerida Newbigin’s lecture.

Florence at the time was the city of creatives: the Medici family, Petrarch, Giotto, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli et al. It was the centre of drama where performance spaces included barges on the river Arno, churches, piazzas and cloisters.

Nerida Newbigin enlightening us about Machiavelli

Public and private performances were everywhere. Many of the paintings and frescoes seen today reflect these experiences.

Florence was the epicentre of the Renaissance: the blossoming of the arts, humanism, technology and scientific discoveries. All of which melded into the performance space.

Weddings were celebrated with liveried musicians where trumpeters were hired or poached from visiting princes. Professional poets – canterini – accompanying themselves on violas would sing of saints and battles.

Feast days (like today in Italy) were scenes of great entertainment for the people. Churches had extensive ‘stage’ equipment built into their domes where Christ or the Virgin Mary would ascend into the heavens. Children from the orphanages dressed as angels and boy sopranos were given red stockings as payment for singing.  They can be seen in many of the church’s paintings.

From Nerida Newbigin’s slide show showing the hoist used for the Feast of the Annunciation

Haloes on the performers were packed with gunpowder – a dove was attached to a line with a light that would fly along the row of halos igniting them to represent the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. What a spectacle! That is until a fire in Santo Spirito burnt it to the ground.

It was a time of processions and horse racing and betting as part of the celebrations, as were processions of drummers and flag throwers – much like I saw recently in Siena.

Flag throwers and drummers in Siena

Art and pageantry evolved into performing troupes travelling from city to city in the form of the Commedia dell’arte.

My own collected postcards of Commedia dell’arte performers

This and so much more was gleaned through Nerida Newbigin’s extensive and richly-sourced lecture; a renaissance of its own in offering an awakening to those on the other side of the zoom screen.

And to once again look at Florence through the eyes of George Emerson in A Room with a View … ‘Italy … it gave her light, and – which he held more precious – it gave her shadow.’

  • This was the 2nd in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series. Look out for archaeology; women composers and utopias.
  • https://www.limelight-arts-travel.com.au/lectures

Italy: Hanging about in Siena

Tuscany is like a Renaissance painting; its beauty and mystique enthral those who step inside its frame. Take your pick, each city has its own story: Florence, Pisa, Pienza, Lucca, Siena. And that’s where this story lays its roots, in Siena, the bejewelled brooch that clasps the tapestry of Tuscany.

Siena rooftops

Siena rooftops

There are many things to love about Siena. Further down the palio track I’ll write more about its medieval charisma, but for this story, Siena’s black humour is my focus.

Had I been squeamish, I might have continued walking through the gloomy Vicolo del Bargello and into the bustle of Siena’s enchanting campo to enjoy a coffee in the sunlight. But the combination of the medieval laneway, the meaning of bargello (a zigzag stitch resembling flames) and the macabre blurb on the poster outside the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) “these instruments show just how much human fantasy knew no limits …” reels me in, hook, line and tongue cutter.

a highwayman's coffin

a highwayman’s coffin

A skeletal hand reaches out from the Highwayman’s Coffin and points to the museum’s first dark chamber. This weathered wretch has been hanging around in his iron cage for centuries. He’s been swaying in the breeze outside town halls, ducal palaces and cathedrals, through winter winds and summer storms until his bones have fallen apart.

Not too far inside the first cold stone and brick cavern, reality sobers me to the horrors of human cruelty. It puzzles me to think of the hours of creativity that went into designing and decorating these devices of humiliation, oppression and torture. Take the iron sandals with the bell at the toe that was fitted to clumsy servants. Every time the bell rang, the master tightened the heel.

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

There are many gruesome original and reproduced items on display that reflect the time in history where public hangings and punishments were seen as entertainment. Behind a glass panel I examine a beheader’s sword. It looks like an oversized butter knife. It took a long apprenticeship to become professional beheader. With each victim, the apprentice had three goes to get the decapitation right. Who was going to worry about the occasional severed shoulder, arm or brainpan?

No detail is spared of how each instrument worked, which orifice the device was meant for, which limb was dislocated and who was the usual customer.  Women were particularly well represented with breast rippers, shrew fiddles, scold bridles, chastity belts and the ornately designed Pear of Anguish, a disturbing device inserted and expanded in the offensive orifice.

a prickly medieval occupation

a prickly medieval occupation

Rioting prisoners would have been well ventilated, as the wardens in those poxy medieval dungeons wore leather jackets pierced with iron spikes in Hannibal Lecter fashion.

The wry comment on the Inquisitor’s Chair bridges the gap of centuries. “Often a brazier of hot coals was used to heat the spikes before the victim was placed inside. Today, updated versions are used, improved by electricity to minimise tell-tale marks.”

I’ve spent about an hour examining racks, iron maidens and head crushers that inflicted pain and death on heretics, blasphemers and the promiscuous. You may think that the idea of a visiting a torture museum is no better than attending the public spectacle of torture in the past. Yet, it’s the professional display and insightful (often tongue-in-cheek) explanations that make me question how civilised we are meant to be today.

Buonanotte bella Siena

Buonanotte bella Siena