It's April as I write from the Umbrian countryside, midway between Florence and Rome. We live in a tiny village in which nothing happens. The bells jingle on new lambs in the pasture up the rocky road from our house. Wild boar hide in nearby forests, as do truffles. The bees are out, and the silvery olive trees are growing fuller. The birdsong is absolutely operatic as I walk the 6km to and from the nearby village, looking for wild asparagus along the way. The view is spectacular coming up through worn paths overlooking rolling green hills and patchwork agrarian plots typical of this region. Walking here each day I'm sure Leonardo developed his sfumato technique from these smoky landscapes that soften edges and blend contrasts. Except for some hard winter months, it's been idyllic.
A visiting friend wants to go on the Piero tour (click here). I'm glad to oblige this pilgrimage for a local boy from a neighboring Tuscan village. Piero della Francesca is high on my list of Renaissance masters. His sense of serenely sculpted light, of physically solid yet beyond-real forms in space, of emotion perfectly contained yet dramatically expressive remains remarkable to me.
As for artistic tours, you could pick any of your favorite Italian Renaissance masters and plan an interesting tour of Italy just by following the trail of their displayed works. Following the trail of Perugino, for example, will take you to Perugia, home to delicious chocolates as well as equally sweet and highly decorative paintings by his associate, Pinturicchio. Like many ancient towns in Italy, there is so much to see and enjoy just by walking around and looking, and often there are festivals to add to the celebration.
Nearby in Orvieto are the muscular and fascinatingly original Last Judgment frescoes by Signorelli (from whom Michelangelo learned a thing or two). In the other direction there's Perugia (of the famed chocolates), where you can also savor paintings by Perugino, the town's namesake. And lovely painted ceramics in Deruta to take home with you. Go eastward and there's Le Marche, with Crivelli as its local wonder, whose paintings provide an odd mix of Renaissance perspective and Medieval decorativeness. The treasures continue, with fresco-lined chapels by the vigorously emotive Giotto (Padua and Assisi) and the sensitively ethereal FraAngelico (Florence, with some of the most personal on site, as they were painted, in the Convent of San Marco). Pick your favorite early to late Renaissance master: it seems they're all here.
What's especially impressive is when you see all these artists' works in the settings for which they were painted. Even Leonardo's crumbling Last Supper retains much of its gravitas in the actual chapel in Milan whose architecture it replicates! I especially enjoy scouting for treasures in relatively lesser-known places. But who'd want to ignore the big showplaces of art-filled Italy? Rome, where the ancient Colosseum nods to Renaissance feats like the Pantheon and Brunelleschi's dome derived from it, the dizzying treasure troves of the Vatican, and unsurpassed Florence. Art is everywhere in the architecture, statues, fountains, museums and public works of such cities.
Two duomos/cathedrals that I like especially are some distance apart. Milan's is staggering. Coming up from the metro station, it's a filigreed vision in honey-white marble that took nearly six centuries to build. It hardly seems real in its intricacy and apparent weightlessness. The best of it for me (sated by now on church interiors, no matter how magnificent) was walking outdoors on its huge, multi-tiered roof. It was stunning being surprised by gargoyles, fanciful architectural flourishes, statues standing on pillars in the air, and vistas across the city.
In contrast, Orvieto's duomo seems to me more humanly appealing in size, proportion, and narrative flourishes. Sitting outside on stone benches built into buildings lining the piazza, you watch as the sun glints on golden mosaics illuminating biblical narratives and assorted statues on its facade. Inside are the Signorelli frescoes I mentioned and, to top it off, in this piazza is the best gelato I've tasted.
Surprises and delights abound: just keep your eyes open and venture on!
Contemporary Art and Tradition
What I've noticed about recent contemporary art seen throughout my travels is that it's much the same everywhere. That is, trends seem global rather than regional, with influences like Twombly, Basquiat, and Richter variations everywhere, especially in abstract painting. Yet, major if not as well-celebrated modern Italian painters, like Morandi in still life and (my favorite) Burri in uniquely abstract works, have pushed new stylistic boundaries.
No longer apprenticed to guilds or schools, emerging artists now seem to gravitate towards their preferred international icons. Historically, however, Italian art has shown recognizable regional stylistic variations and "schools", like Perugino's in Perugia. Tradition remains important here where people live with centuries of art history at their doorstep. The great humanistic emphasis of the Italian Renaissance, especially, is a tradition that endures even in contemporary paintings. For example, look how many figurative works are included in Saatchi's recent online Focus on Italy.
Old Artists and the Avant Garde
Visiting the Sforza castle (Milan) and seeing Michelangelo's final and compelling Pietá emerge unfinished from stone, I thought about his spending his final decade on earth working, on and off, on this sculpture. I wondered why some master artists turn away from their attained mastery and refinements to produce, in their old age, something apparently more raw, unsettling, dramatically different, and far less popular with their contemporaries -- but seeding the future avant garde. True of Rembrandt, Turner too, and others, this development runs contrary to the too common clichés for old age.
Practical Matters: Art as a Way Not a Brand?
When I left Canada more than half a year ago I thought that, while I travelled and lived in Europe, I'd settle my continuing argument with my painterly self to move along one track instead of many and do what art-marketeers advise: develop a brand. I haven't. Instead, away from the marketplace, I've decided this isn't for me. Not for lack of self-discipline or indeterminacy in directions to take, Instead, it's a genuine preference for working and learning that is broad in scope. I don't think I'm alone in this struggle. But I've come to regard (and respect) this as a stylistic preference in how one chooses to explore, experiment, learn, and bring things together in order to create. Away from the usual influences at home, it seems clearer to find one's own creative direction.
Looking back over the art I've seen, the art I've done, and the life I've had here, I hope to have shared some enjoyable and useful facts and personal insights with you, whether you're en-route in similar or different ways. I see the artwork I've produced here (it's been plentiful and surprising to me), as fitting into several unpredictable "series" resulting from new ventures into fluid painting and mixed techniques (if interested, click Saatchi Online). A practical note: I tried to mail a sold painting to the US from Italy, but the duties on both sides were prohibitive.
It's been a remarkable journey, with a month remaining before returning home. This way of life has become 'home' now --- travelling from place, setting up one's life anew in each place for awhile, learning the necessary, exploring, making do. Never long enough to lay down roots ... or ruts. The only constant has been one's own sense of continuity and of change throughout this voyage. I haven't finished. I'm not ready to "go home." I want to find a way to take some of this way of living with me, even when returning to all the comforts of home, friends, and family.
This trip has been about lots of things, both external and internal. Learning to do without the familiar, reassessing priorities, decisions, needs, and desires. A bit of a juggle between making and making-do, keeping to a plan or letting the winds decide, moving on or staying safe. Living away from home provides opportunity to re-examine decisions and expectations, to re-align oneself without the supports, stimulation and constraints of family, friends, and the familiar buzz of art shows and fellow-artists wanting to get their work noticed. It's been an opportunity to expand, to break out of molds that need breaking, and move in ways that feel authentic and rewarding, whether or not they are applauded by anyone else.
My artwork has taken different directions, depending upon where I've been: inside and out. I've met with local artists, seen shows, visited sites, museums, and galleries in each town. Everywhere I've been I've keenly felt how art, whatever form it takes, is a vital part of living life. How this is personally vital for me is the lesson I'd like to take home with me ... plus a few gallons of gelato.
I hope, in reading these articles, you've shared in this sense of adventure, each of us being artists-en-route in our lives and in our work.
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