Brought to Life

Art as Theatre and Theatre as Art.

300px-Sick_young_Bacchus_by_CaravaggioCoincidence is a strange beast.  Just the other day I was looking at some photos of patriotic tableaux vivants from the 1920s and musing, yes dear reader I have been known to muse, as to whither people still engage in this innocent form of entertainment.  At one time it was as popular on the Broadway stage as it was in town halls and in home parlours but seems to have disappeared. Then doesn’t my friend Cathy send me a link to this video of a performance September past in Sutri an ancient town about 50 kms north of Rome.


I often observed after visiting a church, museum or gallery in Italy that you would walk out into the street and see the same faces that Caravaggio, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo et al captured in their works.  This is living proof of that observation.

Paintings staged:
1. The entombment of Christ
2. Mary Magdalen in ecstasy
3. Crucifixion of Saint Peter
4. Beheading of John the Baptist
5. Judith beheading Holofernes
6. Flagellation of Christ
7. The martyrdom of Saint Matthew
8. The Annunciation
9. Rest on the flight into Egypt
10. Narcissus
11. The raising of Lazarus
12. Saint Francis of Assisi in ecstasy
13. Bacchus

Directed by Ludovica Rambelli
Video: Simone Calcagni

On this day in 1689: General Piccolomini of Austria burns down Skopje to prevent the spread of cholera. He died of cholera himself soon after.

Milano – A Rain Day – Part I

“You brought the sunshine with you from Roma,” beamed the always welcoming Vittoria as I checked in a week ago Monday at the Hotel Star in Milano.  And indeed after several days of continuous rain it seemed that the sun had returned to warm the Piazza Duomo and it was a glorious day for strolling through Centro.  However my gift was short-lived: the next morning Vittoria suggested that an umbrella and a sweater would be more appropriate than SF15 to the day.

Peck is a food lover’s paradise however the stern warning tells you – No dogs! No Photos!  And some of the staff give a new dimension to Milan attitude – except for Bruno behind the prepared food counter who is charm incarnate. Though at those prices everyone should be.

Fortunately even in the rain Milano has much to offer – it means spending a bit of extra time studying the marvellous shop windows in the Galleria, popping into that church that I’ve always meant to have a look at, stopping off to have the senses of taste, smell and sight stimulated at Peck (and maybe even picking up one of their jars of tiny artichokes in olive oil – after having taken out the suitable bank loan to pay for it), seeking the shelter of the 14th century Mercato building to listen to a jazz band and wandering down to the Museo Diocesano in the San Lorenzo area to take a look at an exhibition with the rather intriguing title of Gli occhi di Caravaggio.

Now poor Michelangelo Merisi was largely ignored for a few centuries but has suddenly become all the rage. Just last year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of his rather mysterious death with a “Notte di Caravaggio” here in Roma – a decidedly festive all night celebration of a less than festive event – which had been preceded by the blockbuster exhibition at the Scuderie. And it would appear that his name on a poster draws the crowds in, no matter how tenuous the connection. In this case the exhibition was dedicated to painters and city-states in Northern Italy that may well have influenced the work of a home-town boy whose become a household name down South.  Though he was born in Milano most of Caravaggio’s productive years were spent in Roma, Napoli and Sicilia.  And the poster and the title may have created the (misleading) impression that we would be seeing some of his more famous works only one was on display – his powerful The Flagellation of Christ.  But what was displayed were some very fine pieces by other artists who may well have influenced him: Giorgione, Moretto da Brescia, G.B. Moroni, Tiziano, Vincenzo e Antonio Campi, Simone Peterzano, Tintoretto, Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino.  So though the draw may have been the bad boy of Renaissance art there was some splendid examples of many of the great artists of the period that made the exhibition a must see.  That and the Museo Diocesano itself.

Hidden of in a rather dreary section of the city – even drearier on a rain-soaked morning – the entrance to the Museo is not particularly inviting but once inside!!!!  The collection chiefly traces the history of Christian art in Milan and the surrounding areas of Lombardy and Veneto but is wide ranging for all that.  Many of the works come from parish churches in the region that are no longer used for worship or have given works to the Museo for safe keeping and restoration.   The three collections that intrigued me most where the 41 gold backed paintings on wood that make up the Crespi Fondi Oro, the Diocesan Collection of works from parish churches and items from the now defunct Museo Ambrogio.

Three wood and gilt statutes from the Diocesan Gallery of the Museo Diocesano in Milano.

One of my pet bugaboos is  people who take photos when it is expressly forbidden and I am proud to say I have never taken a “forbidden” picture.  If there is any doubt in my mind I always ask.  None of the normal signs were posted in the Museo so ask I did in each gallery – and got three different responses.  In the Diocesan Gallery the mature lady, head buried in a musical score and singing softly to herself, raised her head and an eyebrow and murmured “One would be okay, but only one!”  So one I took of three beautiful statues in wood and gilt that once graced the church of Sant’Agnese in Sommo Lombardo in the Varese district of Lombardy.  They are by a craftsman named Rolando Botta who was active in the area during the second half of the 15th century.

Santa Barbara
Santa Maria Maddalena

I find these three statues have a serenity and grace that makes me curious as to the rest of this artist’s work. Unfortunately a search revealed very little concerning him.

The Ambrogio Gallery contains older pieces from early incarnations of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. The Patron Saint of Milano – and I am ashamed to say that the only reason I know that is because it is the opening night of the opera season at La Scala – Ambrogio is credited with building four churches in the city. He is also credited – it would appear erroneously – with the creation of the Ambrosian rite that is celebrated in much of Lombardy. Again it was three carved wood pieces that caught my attention. These walnut choir stall dossals were the work of a team of artists for the Basilica between 1469-1471. Lorenzeo da Origgio, Giacomo da torre and Giacomo del Maino worked in carving, inlay, paint and lacquer to create these three beautiful panels. When I asked the guard if it was okay if I took a photo he shrugged and said, “Take as many as you like.”



I mentioned last week that I was reading Aesop’s Fables on my iPhone and for some reason these carvings reminded me of early wood cuts I’d seen of the old morality messages. Could they have been the inspiration for these three artists?

There was one other piece from the Visconti collection that took my breath away – a massive carved, painted and gilt redoes from Antwerp that filled one wall at the top of a staircase.  Unfortunately when I approached the guard this time I was sternly admonished that no photos were allowed anywhere in the Museum. Now I know better than to argue with someone in their own little domain so I held my peace. Though I was sorely tempted once his back was turned I didn’t break my own rule.   I was sure there would be a post card or even a pamphlet about such a major piece – sometimes I should stop being so damned Anglo-Saxon and take the bloody photos!

14 giugno – San Eliseo – profeta

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Great Artist – Bad Citizen

Not so long ago his paintings could be had for a song – and a dance too I would think – but now Caravaggio is among the hottest painters in the world.   It seems every time I turn around in Rome there’s another poster advertising another Caravaggio Exhibition.  Last year we had the big blockbuster at the Scuderie del Quirinale – people were lining up for 4 to 5 hours in the hot sun to get in – you’ll notice there was no first person in the statement.   Then we had La Notte di Caravaggio on July 18 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death – notice the use of the first person for that event.  Yes I did the rounds of two of the three churches that boast Caravaggios and lined up for three hours to get into the Villa Borghese then tromped home at four in the morning which for the Master, if tales that are currently being told are true, would have been early.

Now the Archivo di Stato di Roma (Archives of the City of Rome) have mounted an exhibition that reveal some of the dire and dirty deeds surrounding Michel(I’m no Angelo) da Caravaggio.  Deeds  that heretofore had only been whispered about in dark alleyways and smokey taverns.  Documents from the archives detail a criminal dossier that would make lesser men blush.  Here’s the short list of his police file:

  • May 4 1598: Arrested at 2- 3am near Piazza Navona, for carrying a sword without a permit
  • November 19 1600: Sued for beating a man with a stick and tearing his cape with a sword at 3am on Via della Scrofa
  • October 2 1601: A man accuses Caravaggio and friends of insulting him and attacking him with a sword near the Piazza Campo Marzio
  • April 24 1604: Waiter complains of assault after serving artichokes at an inn on the Via Maddalena
  • October 19 1604: Arrested for throwing stones at policemen near Via dei Greci and Via del Babuino
  • May 28 1605: Arrested for carrying a sword and dagger without a permit on Via del Corso
  • July 29 1605: Vatican notary accuses Caravaggio of striking him from behind with a weapon
  • May 28 1606: Caravaggio kills a man during a pitched battle in the Campo Marzio area

The good people over at the BBC have a great inter-active article on a few of the police files and documents on display at Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza.  He really was the bad boy of Renaissance art. 

18 febbraio – Santi Massimo, Claudio, Prepedigna, Alessandro e Cuzia