Monday, May 20, 2013

Houghton Hall Exhibition

We plan to visit Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England to see an incredible art exhibition. I say incredible not only because of the quality of the art that will be on display in the ancestral hall of famed eighteenth century English politician Robert Walpole, but also because of the circumstances of the exhibition itself.

Houghton Hall, Norfolk

Sir Robert Walpole, later 1st Earl of Orford, was the most important politician in Great Britain from roughly 1714 to 1740. He played an indispensible role in cementing the rule of George I and the Hanoverian dynasty. He was also an avid art collector. After his death his heirs squandered his wealth and eventually his magnificent collection of Old Masters had to be sold to Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

 The collection wound up in the Hermitage where it survived even the Russian revolution. Incredibly, the Hermitage has agreed this year to lend not just a painting or two to an English exhibition but the whole Walpole collection that will be displayed not in a museum but at Houghton Hall. It promises to be the highlight of the British art year.

After Houghton we will train back to London for a brief stay where in addition to a visit to the National Gallery we hope to visit Strawberry Hill, the home of Sir Robert’s youngest son, Horace Walpole, who in his own way was just as illustrious as his father. Strawberry Hill is a monument to Walpole’s eclectic interests and it represents in its architecture and furnishings almost the start of the Gothic revival in England. Walpole’s little novel, The Castle of Otranto, is regarded as the first Gothic novel.

Strawberry Hill

But Horace Walpole is also the greatest letter-writer in the English language. His correspondence to his numerous friends spans a period of almost 60 years and along with his memoirs and other writings provides a veritable chronicle of the eighteenth century. Over 50 years ago I had to read and study most of Walpole’s correspondence and memoirs in my doctoral research on the political career of Henry Seymour Conway, a British general and politician.

Conway was Horace Walpole’s cousin and closest friend. Their lives and careers were always intertwined from their schoolboy days at Eton. Conway is not as well known as Walpole but he played a very important role in British politics during the era of the American War. As Secretary of State during the short-lived Rockingham administration he moved the repeal of the odious Stamp Act in the House of Commons. Afterwards, he opposed the disastrous measures that led to the war with America and eventually brought an end to the war with his motion in the House of Commons in 1782 to cease all offensive military action.

General Henry Seymour Conway
Lewis collection
Farmington, CT

The study of Conway’s life was valuable in itself but having to read his cousin’s marvelous letters and memoirs constituted a life-changing education in many ways. Now 50 years later I am looking forward with great anticipation to our visits to Houghton and Strawberry Hill. Click on this link or see the video below for a brief look at the Houghton Hall exhibition.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Masterpiece: Giorgione, "The Tempest"

This week I inaugurate a "Masterpiece" column on the "Weekly Bystander" with an article on Giorgione's Tempest, one of the most famous and mysterious paintings in the history of Western art. this essay first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 13, 2006 entitled, “A Renaissance Mystery Solved?” A longer and more comprehensive version can be found at my website.

Giorgione: The Tempest (1509-10)

"Giorgione "La Tempesta": A Renaissance Mystery Solved?"

No great work of art has mystified art historians and critics more than Giorgione’s “Tempesta,” one of a handful of paintings definitively attributed to the Venetian Renaissance master. After his untimely death in 1510 of the plague at about the age of 30, most of his paintings were either lost or completed by others, especially his colleague, Titian.

Although little is known of his life, Giorgione was apparently apprenticed to the great Giovanni Bellini at the outset of his career, and certainly was a major influence on Titian. In June the National Gallery in Washington will be hosting a Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition.

While the “Tempesta” is universally admired as a pioneering work of landscape art because of its dramatic use of color and shadow, art historians have not been able to agree on the subject matter of this masterpiece of the High Renaissance. More than the painting itself, it was the mystery about its subject matter that first attracted me to it, and which prompted a trip to Venice last year.

This relatively small painting (82x73cm.) currently hangs in the Accademia in Venice. Over a hundred years ago my favorite travel author, Edward Hutton, described it as “a delicious landscape of green and shady valley, of stream and ruin and towering country town.” The town is visible in the background and above it, clouds and a flash of lightning indicate that a storm is raging. In the middle distance, separated from the town by a bridge, are overgrown ruins and two broken columns. In a glade in the foreground, a nude woman nursing an infant sits on the right, while on the left, a young man dressed in contemporary Venetian clothing holds a long staff.

Although never named by Giorgione himself, the painting is usually called “La Tempesta” because of the storm. Sometimes it is called “The Soldier and the Gypsy,” even though critics have pointed out that the man is not a soldier and the nude woman is not a gypsy.

One tends to accept works of art at face value, particularly when they are as famous as this one. But one question struck me: Why is the woman nude? Other than a white cloth draped around her shoulder, there is no sign of any clothing. After all, it isn’t necessary for a woman to completely undress to nurse a baby. I believe that if the nursing woman were clothed, the subject would be immediately recognizable for what it is: a “Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.”

The “Flight” is a common subject in the history of art. It illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph, escaping from the deadly designs of King Herod, find an idyllic rest stop upon arrival in Egypt. Giorgione’s painting has all the elements common to a “Flight” image: Mary holding or nursing the baby Jesus; Joseph standing off to the side or in the background; a town in the distance; and ruins.

Why ruins? Emile Male, the great French art historian, pointed out that it was common for medieval artists to draw on the legend of the “Fall of Idols” when painting the “Flight.” According to it, when the infant Jesus entered Egypt, all the idols crumbled. Artists commonly used broken columns to represent this episode.

Giorgione was a master of artistic narrative. In this painting the Holy Family has left Judea and its dangers, symbolized by the storm, behind. They have crossed the bridge and stream representing the border between Judea and Egypt. They have entered Egypt and the idols, symbolized by the broken columns, lie broken behind them. We notice that the tempest is raging in the distance. The glade in which they rest is serene. Now they rest in safety.

It is only the depiction of the man and the woman that has deterred experts from recognizing this painting as the ”Flight into Egypt.” Joseph is usually portrayed as an old man by Medieval artists. Nevertheless, in the 15th century he began to be depicted as a young, virile carpenter. In Raphael’s depiction of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, the ”Sposalizio,” Joseph appears to be about the same age as Giorgione’s man. Italians especially found it unseemly to show Mary being married to an old man.

But why the nude Madonna? The explanation lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine of which every Venetian would have been aware. Simply put it was the belief that Mary from the first moment of her existence had been created free from the stain of original sin which every other descendant of Adam and Eve had inherited.

The concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception had been vigorously debated by theologians during the previous 250 years. The great advocates of the doctrine were the Franciscans; whose center in Venice, the “Frari” became a virtual shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Special impetus to the belief had been given by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, in 1476 when he added the feast of the Conception to the liturgy of the entire Western Church.

Theologians called Mary the new or second Eve. Artists had difficulty in expressing this increasingly popular doctrine. By Giorgione’s time they had not yet come up with the now familiar image of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun” from the Book of Revelation. Giorgione had the unprecedented audacity to portray a nude Madonna as Eve would have appeared in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Nothing is in Giorgione’s painting by accident. The white cloth on which the Madonna sits is a symbol of the winding sheet or burial cloth of Christ. Franciscans regarded Mary as the altar on which the Eucharist rested. The altar was always covered with a white cloth.

Finally, in front of the Madonna a scraggly bush rises out of bare rock. Artists frequently used plants or flowers symbolically to identify characters. From the way it is growing, the plant could be a member of the nightshade family, a common plant found in Italy at the time. The most well known form of nightshade is the aptly named “belladonna.” This plant is associated with witchcraft and the Devil. Is that why the plant below the heel of the Woman has withered and died?

In the months to come I hope to use this Masterpiece column to examine a number of findings that have resulted from my original interpretation of the Tempest more than seven years ago.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Immigration Reform and the Golden Door

The recent bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon is bound to inflame the immigration debate that has been going on in the country for years and that might be coming to a head as a compromise bill works its way through Congress. Opponents of immigration will see the bombing as another argument for limiting immigration, but even supporters of immigration will join in attempts to keep out undesirables.

The Wall St. Journal, for example, never tires of saying that we should open our doors but only to highly skilled workers, like physicists and engineers. Just recently Marco Rubio, a popular Florida senator who is himself the son of immigrants from Cuba, penned an op-ed in the Journal outlining the features of the proposed legislation. Among other things he stressed that the legislation was designed to encourage highly skilled immigrants to come to America.   Despite his own humble origins, Senator Rubio also wants to keep out the poor and uneducated.

But who is undesireable? I am a descendant of Italians who migrated to America over 100 years ago. Most of the immigrants who came in that great wave were poor and uneducated. Most of the Italian immigrants came from the south of Italy, the poorest and most backward region of that new country. Few had even a grade school education.

Although lacking in formal education they were intelligent and hard working. Significantly, most had a strong family and religious background that provided them with a sense of community in their new country. It’s true that the good, the bad, and the ugly can be found in any group of immigrants.  Like immigrants before and after Italians had their share of gangsters and criminals whose activities tainted the great majority who were hard working and law abiding.

For example, the activities of Italian anarchists or terrorists were well known at the time of the Great Migration. In the last decade of the nineteenth century Italian anarchists were responsible for the murders of the President of France, the Prime Minister of Spain, the Empress of Austria, and even King Umberto of Italy.

Nevertheless, the great majority prospered and their children quickly became assimilated. Today, their descendants play an integral role in the affairs of this country. Two descendants of these illiterate Italian immigrants now sit on our Supreme Court. Many others can be found in other high offices both public and private.

It is true that they were legal immigrants. They had to make their way through Ellis Island just like the Irish, the Germans, the Jews, the Poles, the Slovaks, and all the others who came through the so-called “Golden Door.” However, if these legal immigrants had come to this country after 1920 the great majority of them would have been illegal. What happened? Why did a country that had always kept its doors open to immigrants suddenly close them?

After the First World War a wave of prejudice and bigotry swept over this country that led politicians to severely restrict the flow of immigration. In addition to their poverty and lack of learning, most of the Italian immigrants were Catholic, and they were regarded as ignorant and superstitious. They were called wops and guineas and their crowded streets were believed to be breeding grounds of crime and depravity.

In the 1920’s racists and advocates of ethnic purity decided to stem the flow of immigration into this country. They wanted no more undesirables, especially if they practiced alien religions like Catholicism and Judaism. New immigration laws made during the 1920s made a mockery of the Statue of Liberty and the famous poem written by Emma Lazarus.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she 
With silent lips.  "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Why do commentators believe that the Mexicans who have crossed the borders of our country in order to find a better life for themselves and their families, will be different from their own ancestors? 

If the law was different all of these immigrants could have entered the country peacefully without danger to life and limb and without employing criminals to guide them. I’m not saying we should be stupid or impractical. They should have to apply for citizenship and meet certain criteria. They should not immediately enjoy all the benefits of citizenship, for citizenship in this country should still be regarded as a great privilege.

Opening up our doors again will provide great benefits. It is not just a question of who will cut our lawns, remove our garbage, or paint our homes, but how will we compete with China’s huge population with only 300 million people? Who will buy up our unused housing if our population continues to decline? Don’t immigrants now rent American apartments, drive American cars, and buy American products in American stores?

Finally, the pressure on those states that now bear the brunt of illegal immigration will be alleviated. The millions of dollars now spent on controlling the Mexican border can be allocated to other purposes.

See the link to the video tof the trailer for the 2006 film, "The Golden Door" by Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese. It is a wonderful and moving depiction of the passage of one family from the Old World to the New.  Or, just click on the video below.