Known as Quarrelsome, or the 40th day, in Italian, Lent is the word Catholics use to describe the fast before Easter. Of course, one of the more well-known traditions during Lent are Meatless Fridays, on which Catholics refrain from eating meat. This Lenten fasting really begins on Ash Wednesday (Mercoledì delle Ceneri) and every Friday until Easter arrives.
Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, and is chiefly observed by Catholics, although many other Christians observe it too. Ash Wednesday is the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday or Martedì Grasso in Italian), the last day to party--essentially the end of the Carnivale season in Italy.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead, he speaks the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Even though Italy is a strictly Catholic country--where most Catholic holidays are also National holidays--self-denial during Lent it is no longer a strict requirement but a matter of personal principle. In modern times, fasting during Lent in practice doesn't mean starving oneself, but professing a Lenten Promise, such as giving up foods that are seen as excesses... typically, dolce and chocolate. But giving up meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent is still a popular notion, with fish becoming the main protein during this period.
When I lived in Paris years ago, one of the most unexpected pleasures was when I visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Often, people regard this unusual site as a place of pilgrimage, to pay homage to the likes of Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde or even rock legend Jim Morrison (his grave littered with graffiti and drug paraphernalia was distasteful to me). But I went for a different reason... the art. Admittedly, wealthy families could possibly afford to commission a granite temple, travertine pyramid or marble sculptures to honor a lost beloved member--and truth be told, perhaps the effort is really a monument to perpetuate the myth of their family's importance for the ones still living and yet to come.
In any case, I didn't visit to pay homage to any heroes of mine. I went for the art itself. In Italy, it's also possible to do the same as a number of cemeteries contain some amazing monumental art.
Most modern Italian cemeteries sit on the outskirts of their towns and consist of a mix of traditional graves and headstones and multi-level rows of vaults, a method used by the both the ancient Etruscans and early Christians. The vaults are simple affairs, sealed with a marble stone, names and dates with a small medallion containing a photo of the individual as they appeared in life.
However, over the years, many wealthier families commissioned architects and artists to create chapels, tombs and sculptures resulting in many Italian cemeteries becoming open-air museums of funerary art, known as Cimiteri Monumentali (Monumental Cemeteries). I've put together a collection for you to enjoy...
Cemeteries Worth Visiting
Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno
One of the largest cemeteries in Europe, the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa covers nearly a square mile on the hilltop district known as Staglieno. It was opened in 1844 at a time when Genoa was home to affluent bourgeoisie businessmen, politicians and artists. To honor their accomplishments, realistic sculptures were commissioned for their tombs. This is without doubt, one of the most visited monumental cemeteries in Europe.
San Michele Cemetery, "Island of the Dead", Venice
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Napoleon prohibited any burials in town centers and in Venice, this meant that a new walled cemetery was commissioned on the island of San Michele, within reach of gondolas from the Venice waterfront. The island is landscaped with tall cypress trees, a 15th Century church and cloister. The shallow graves are occupied a dozen years and afterwards are exhumed with the bones interred into mausoleum niches or dumped into a communal ossuary.
You'll find graves of 19th and 20th Century foreigners, including celebrities like Ezra Pound, Serge Diaghilev (whose grave normally is decorated with a ballet slipper), and Igor Stravinsky.
Cimitero Monumentale di Torino
The Monumental Cemetery of Turin was commissioned in 1827 to replace the small and ancient cemetery of St. Peter in Chains. It contains numerous historical tombs and 6 miles of porticoes adorned with sculptures of artistic interest.
Cimitero Monumentale di Milano
One of two large cemeteries in Milan (Cimitero Maggiore is the other), Milan Monumental Cemetery was designed by architect Carlo Maciachini and contains a multitude of sculptures by renowned artists: Giò Ponti, Arturo Martini, Lucio Fontana, Medardo Rosso, Giacomo Manzù, Floriano Bodini, and Giò Pomodoro.
Visitors enter through an impressive Medieval style building of marble and stone that contains the tombs of the country's most honored citizens. Besides having mostly Catholic graves, there are also sections for Jews and other non-C Catholics. The cemetery contains the tombs of composers Corelli, Verdi and Toscanini.
Cimitero Monumentale di Messina
The Monumental Cemetery of Messina, in Sicily, is one the best for funerary art. In 1854, it was designed as a urban park and gardens as well as a cemetery. The cemetery is divided into the Jewish cemetery, the Catholic cemetery, and a monument to the victims of the First World War. The art in this cemetery is second only to Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa.
Click on the photo above to see a high resolution image
The whole world has heard of the "newly discovered" or "recently accredited" painting called Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) becoming the highest price ever paid for a painting in history... $450 million. Wait. Let me put all those zeros back in for effect. That's $450,000,000. Nearly half a billion dollars! And of course, the main reason is that art experts claim the painting was created by the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci himself. But is this a fact, or merely the opinion of a bunch of art historians and experts hired by the 20 person American consortium that owned the painting?
To add more drama to the transition from muddled, awkward, damaged painting to one touted with little doubt as one touched by the Master's Hand (and to trump up its predicted value at auction), Christie's auction house put together the following time-lapse video of the "transformation". (Yes, they actually tend to use the word "transformation", not "restoration"). Check out this video...
Even though the consortium of Americans, led by Robert Simon of Robert Simon Fine Art (in the business of marketing Old Masters paintings), who raked in $450 million (less the 30% fee for Christie's) are very happy about the sale, many others still have doubts about the painting. At this point, no one is certain who bought it, but you can be sure we will see it again, marketed like crazy by some big name museum, with a full compliment of T-shirts, books, posters, pillows, mugs to bolster profits.
Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was quoted recently that, while the sales price was “eye-popping, it should come as no surprise in a market where speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value” and that the price alone would "guarantee notoriety” even if their were ongoing doubts about its authenticity. He continued, “Someone is gambling that this painting will attract audiences in the way that the Mona Lisa draws crowds at the Louvre.”
For the last several decades it seems that art "experts"--especially those associated or hired by fine art auction houses--hype and pump up prices as their main raison d'être. Even if the art is unworthy of attention, if they can draw attention to a work, its auction price will climb ever higher. Hucksters have invaded the fine art world, for sure.
Many other experts aren't so sure this is in fact a painting by Da Vinci himself. In fact, until the last time it was sold at auction in 1958 for a mere £45, its authorship was unclear. It was previously attributed to the hand of Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a student in Da Vinci's studio and a Master in his own right. Compare the beauty and quality of his work below. Pay close attention to the hand, eyes, nose and curls of hair...
Let's get into some of the "evidence" about why these experts think the Salvator Mundi is "the" Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci...
Some claimed that the wood panel is similar to the panel in size and type that the Mona Lisa is painted on. They aren't.
Next, consider that Leonardo Da Vinci was left-handed. There is evidence in the Salvator Mundi that it was painted by a right-handed artist, as illustrated below...
Then there is the orb that Jesus holds in his left hand. Most consider this to be a solid crystal orb rather than a hollow, blown glass sphere, as many other artists' versions of the Salvador Mundi illustrated. The artist painted bubbles trapped in the orb, as a solid quartz crystal would have. But many doubt that Da Vinci, who was as much a scientist as artist, would make a mistake about how the light would react when looking through such an orb. As anyone who studies optics knows, the orb would essentially become a lens, inverting the image seen through it, as Da Vinci himself illustrates in his notebooks...
Here are side-by-side images. One of the Salvator Mundi as it shows the orb, and one that I retouched in Photoshop to show how DaVinci might have properly shown the optical effect of the orb. Not how even the drape in the garment is inverted...
And as you can see from the un-retouched photo of a solid crystal orb above, the hand would not show through, as the Salvator Mundi showed Jesus' hand in the orb. Da Vinci would have known this.
I also find it curious, that there is no major film documenting the step by step restoration of the Salvator Mundi--at least, not that I can find. Typically a find of this magnitude would have an episode of PBS' NOVA documenting the science behind the discovery, analysis and restoration process. The person doing the restoration, Dianna Dwyer Modestini, is a fine artist in her own right, capable of restoration--or mimicking--the style of Da Vinci, or any other Old Master, for that matter. She worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art until she and her husband went into the business of restoring paintings for major museums along with many private galleries. The question is, did her restoration go too far, or just far enough?
The attribute the name of Da Vinci to such a work requires lots of science and trust. In this case, who do we trust? The consortium whose interest was motivated by the potential profits? The restoration expert who has been in the business of restoring paintings for private galleries to increase their appeal--and value? The museums who will surely put together huge exhibitions based on the Mundi and sell millions of dollars in ticket fees and gift shop products?
Perhaps we'll never know for sure. For me at least, I won't be buying a T-shirt until I'm convinced...
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