Something New (and a quest): Italy, Day 3 (Rome)

Welcome to the third episode of my journal of my recent trip to Italy, covering day 3. Here’s day one, in which we looked at Roman frescos, mosaics, and statuary at the wonderful Palazzo Massimo. And here’s day two, a walking tour of Rome and a visit to monuments ancient, Baroque, and modern.

Think of sightseeing like eating. Pizza is great, but you wouldn’t want to eat it every day and Italian cuisine has so much more to offer. In Italy, it would be easy to head from church to museum to palazzo and view artworks from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. There are differences between these eras, but for the purpose of our metaphor, they’re all still pizza. A trip that simply went from church to church viewing the great art on display would be easy but also a bit much. My parents, from whom I inherited my travel bug, derided some tours as ABC, “another bloody church.” In Italy, the obvious contrast is Roman ruins (of which I cannot get my fill). But it’s important to mix things up and see very different things as well. Also, I have a bit of an agenda – a quest even.

So we took the Metro, and a long uphill walk, to the Galleria Nazionale Arte de Moderna (GNAM) to view some modern art, both as a sort of palate cleanser before heading to the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque wonders of Florence – and so I could see and learn about Giorgio de Chirico.

My Quest

Many years ago, probably at the Museum of Modern Art (but possibly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) I encountered paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and was entranced. Eerie urban spaces, classical references, surrealist juxtapositions, and bright Mediterranean colors – de Chirico paintings hit my sweet spot.

Wherever I go, I seek out museums that may have some of his paintings (or paintings by affiliated painters.) I even have a vague idea of writing a book about him and his work. Traveling to Italy was an opportunity to encounter his work, the places he worked, and the work that inspired him. But there’s more than that. De Chirico’s Metaphysical painting of 1910 to 1920 inspired the surrealists (and is generally considered his best work). But he took a sharp turn away from the surrealists and turned to classical and Baroque style painting (this is only one of many mysteries around the work of de Chirico). In a fascinating discussion on de Chirico’s later work, sponsored by the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) and published in The Brooklyn Rail, Lisa Yuskavage (a leading contemporary painter) theorizes that this was because De Chirico was at his core an Italian. Yuskavage explains that the intellectual path that starts with surrealism leads to abstract expressionism, and that’s where the cutting-edge modern artists in Paris were headed. Yuskavage explains:

…but the Surrealists were not Italian and they were coming from someplace other than de Chirico, so they continued in their own direction. They didn’t understand where he was coming from, nor care to understand, and therefore they couldn’t imagine his trajectory.

I’m new to understanding art. I need a better understanding of what all of this means. So first, I just need to know more about art. Second, I need to know about specific works that influenced De Chirico (more on that later). GNAM has paintings by the big stars of modern art, we encountered, among others, Mondrian, Klimt, and Monet. The museum’s core mission is to present the evolution of modern art in Italy and that too is something I need to better understand. Also, I really just like going to museums and looking at stuff!

The Story of Modern Art in Italy: By Theme

The first and most striking things about GNAM is that (and this is very Italian), the rooms are organized by theme, not genre or era. This entry gallery to one wing featured a monumental sculpture of Hercules and Lichas by the great Italian neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova from the late 18th century. To the sides you can see a pair of wonderful white modern pieces. On the floor is Pino Pascali’s 1967 work, Approximately 32 m² of sea. Not visible is a Mondrian. Most intriguing, behind the Canova (and in the pic below) is Guiseppe Penone’s 2002 Gold Skin on Acacia Thorns – Mouth. On this enormous canvas, acacia thorns are used to create the image. Somehow these disparate pieces fit together.

Another room was clearly about boobs: sorry, no pics, this is a family site. But there was a sculpture of a topless Cleopatra, an elegant impressionist nude from the late 19th century, and a mid-20th century gritty depiction of a prostitute in her salon.

In another example, Guiseppe Pellizza de Volpedo’s 1904 Il Sole (left) and Adrian Paci’s 2006 Per speculum (right) sit next to each other.

Overall the museum tells the story of modern art in Italy, from realistic paintings of the late 1800s to more abstract and experimental works of mid-century and beyond. Also, leopards.

Davide Rivalta, Ghepardo (2014)
Ugo Rondinone, N. 53 Siebzehnjanuarneunzehnhundertvierundneunzig (1993-4)

So what about de Chirico?

“Look, did you see that de Chirico?” my wife asked.

Carlo Carra, L’ovale delle apparizioni (The Oval of Apparition) (1918)

Actually, this wasn’t de Chirico, although with the mannequins, the strange landscape, and incongruous objects it looked like his work. It was by Carlo Carra, who de Chirico spent time with in Ferrara in 1917. They collaborated on metaphysical painting, but later fell out in a dispute about who was the true originator of the idea. Carra, along with many other prominent Italian artists, fell in with Mussolini – de Chirico was sensible enough to steer clear.

I don’t really know Carra’s work, but this painting doesn’t have quite the same air of mystery bordering om menace of de Chirico’s paintings. Also, de Chirico used brighter colors, which were somehow oppressive – adding to the air of mystery. See below.

In the room devoted to De Chirico, paintings were from the 1920s and 1930s. This was not his peak period, although they were updated takes on his classics. That’s another interesting thing about de Chirico, he reissued his paintings. This contributed to his being one of the most forged artists of the 20th century and he spent a great deal of time and energy on legal disputes arising from this (yet another reason I’m intrigued by him!) His updated versions were usually slightly different, including in these cases more specific features like window shutters which reduce the eeriness of the original versions.

Piazza d’Italia (con statua) (1937)

Throughout his career, De Chirico painted numerous scenes of strange squares with a sculpture of Ariadne sleeping. The square itself is odd and strange, I remember being fascinated as a child by similar depictions in Dr. Seuss books. But the sculpture of Ariadne sleeping adds layers. Ariadne provided Theseus the golden thread to find his way through the labyrinth. Theseus then takes her with him on his ship. They stop at an island where she takes a nap and Theseus sails off. She’s ok, later marrying Dionysus (or is she? I mean he’s a drunk!) This sculpture captures her as she’s sleeping, not knowing Theseus has sailed off. Symbolism much? But it’s a sculpture, not a painting of Ariadne. And the sculpture is in this strange square, with a train and factory smokestacks in the background. The painting is a story within a story, within a story. The factory towers and train symbolize modernity, but de Chirico’s father (who died when he was young) was also an engineer who built railroads. Trains have a special place in de Chirico paintings. BTW, when I was little my dad was an engineer who worked for a railroad (although, to my disappointment he didn’t drive trains – anyway, later my dad went to law school.)

De Chirico also painted mysterious towers. He monkeys with perspective so that your eye doesn’t quite know where to rest, this is particularly noticeable in his paintings of towers. More about the towers later. Although not part of his peak era, his paintings of mannequins with insides of ruins are wonderful, about how the inheritance of antiquity, of what came before, lives in a jumble within us.

La torre del silenzio (1932)
Gli archeologi (1927)

De Chirico holds a high place in the canon of Italian modern art: possibly because he was the best, possibly because of his long career (he lived to be 90), and possibly because unlike many of his contemporaries he never embraced Fascism. Regardless, there is a room devoted to his work (and a pair of his other paintings elsewhere – and one by his brother Alberto Savino.) But the room devoted to de Chirico is not his alone. It features Mario Sironi’s Solitudine (1925-6). As with the other rooms that have a theme, it is easy to imagine Sironi’s lonely figure inside one of the buildings looking out on de Chirico’s melancholy cityscapes.

There were innumerable other wonderful things to see at GNAM, and we only saw part of its extensive collection. But we had a train to catch.

Quick note: Admission to GNAM comes with an admission to MAXXI: the National Museum of 21st century art. Besides its exhibits the building itself, designed by Zaha Hadid is stunning. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it this trip.

On to Florence

At the train station we grabbed a quick pizza and caught the high-speed rail to Florence. I’ve heard that in living memory, this trip could take many, many hours. Now, it’s a pretty tight hour and a half. I scheduled it during the day, so we could look out the window at the fabled Tuscan landscape, and it did not disappoint.

In Florence, we walked with our bags to the apartment. My poor directional sense and Florence’s crowded narrow streets and sidewalks, did not make this easy. It is a medieval city, so the buildings are tall and close in, making seeing anything beyond your street very difficult. With some doing, we found Pergola35, a very comfortable efficiency with an affable and attentive host. After we settled and had an espresso, we went looking for dinner. I had chosen the place because it was close to Florence’s Great Synagogue, I thought we might try and attend services. A few minutes of walking and we found ourselves by the city’s two kosher restaurants. We went to Ruth’s Kosher and were waited on by the very sweet proprietor Simcha. We had a fine dairy meal and a good bottle of kosher white wine (for only 14 euros.) This was particularly important to me, since we’d been in Italy for 72 hours and I hadn’t had any wine yet. We also got instructions on attending services (email beforehand, unfortunately security concerns require this) and ordered a challah for Shabbat. Around the corner was a supermarket that carried some kosher items and we stocked up for Shabbat (and also breakfast.)

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