Friday, June 28, 2019

Is it by Leonardo? The Bare Breasted Magdalene at the Ugo & Olga Levi Foundation in Venice

Maddalena Discinta by Leonardo & Assistant
(Venice, Italy) There is an astonishing painting at Palazzo Giustinian Lolin on the Grand Canal in Venice, home to Fondazione Ugo e Olga Levi. Part of the exhibition Leonardo and his Outstanding Circle, the Maddalena Discinta -- the Bare-Breasted Magdalene -- is claimed to be by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci himself and one of his assistants.

We are all fascinated by the mysterious Leonardo and his life. Is he sending us secret messages embedded in his paintings from 500 years ago? Why did he use "mirror writing" from left to right in his notebooks? As part of the world-wide celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of his death, curator Nicola Barbatelli and other national scholars have gathered together 24 works from some of the painters in Leonardo's workshop, all of which come from private collections.

If you are in the Leonardo loop, you will know that the record-breaking $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi, which sold at a Christie's auction in November 2017, has disappeared. It was supposed to be part of the 500th anniversary celebrations at the Paris Louvre, but there are whispers that it is not an authentic Leonardo at all, but by the hand of one of his assistants in his workshop.

Which makes the claim that the Bare-Breasted Magdalene here in Venice is a collaboration by the master himself and one of his pupils all the more incredible.

There are a couple of things that give weight to the claim. First, there is a quote from Leonardo in Chapter 25 of his book, A Treatise on Painting, which were writings gathered together from his notebooks:

"And I once happened to make a painting representing a divine thing, which was bought by its lover who then wanted to have the representation of the divine attributes removed in order to be able to kiss it without misgivings, but finally his conscience won over his libidinous sighs, and he was forced to have it removed from his house."

Now, of course, a passage like that would make everyone want to see that luscious painting, but there were no known Leonardo works that fit such a description, so it was assumed that it referred to a lost work.

Enter Carlo Pedretti, an expert on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci who  died last year on January 5, one day shy of his 90th birthday. Born in Bologna in 1928, Pedretti was so obsessed with Leonardo that he taught himself to write left-handed and read backwards like the great maestro when he was just thirteen-years-old. He published his first articles about Leonardo at age sixteen, and went on to become a professor of art history and the Armand Hammer Chair in Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 2004, apparently Pedretti had the opportunity to examine the painting he had been hunting. How this happened is not clear. But here was his reaction:

"I am not the one to say that it is Leonardo's painting, it is the painting itself that compels me to do so! It is stunning! It feels as if it is the painter's intention to imitate the ancient. And Magdalene seems to come from another temporal dimension, indefinite. It is obvious that there is something more here than just the usual pupil."

Pedretti thought that the enormous red mantle that cloaks Magdalene's shoulders did not make sense, and could have been added at a later time to conceal something, perhaps the jar with the ointment that she used to anoint the feet of Christ.

"Then, there is that landscape in the background made with tricks of light and shadows, more evocative than literal, as if lying halfway between incantation and dream. So close to that of the Mona Lisa."

Pedretti proposed that the pupil who collaborated with Leonardo was Giampietrino. Now, years after Pedretti's initial attribution, the painting has been more thoroughly and professionally analyzed, and it is thought that the assistant is more likely Marco d'Oggiono.

After seeing the painting up close myself, I, too, think that Leonardo had a major hand in painting it. I am certainly no expert, but am going on the same feelings that the Bare-Breasted Magdalene evoked in me as soon as I saw her: I wanted to kiss her, too! Really! Get that painting out of here before I am compelled to do something unholy!

What I am still waiting to learn is: where has the painting been for the past 500 years? And if it really is by the hand of Leonardo himself, with the collaboration of one of his "outstanding circle," why do we not hear more about this earth-shattering news from the international art world, especially after all the fuss about Salvator Mundi?

Marta & Maria Maddalena by Bernardino Luini - Photo: Cat Bauer
Go over to Palazzzo Giustinian Lolin and have a look for yourself, and decide what you think. Leonardo surrounded himself with a workshop of talented young assistants known as "Leonardeschi" some of whose works are also on show. How much of a hand, if any, did the master have in the paintings of his helpers?

Leonardo and His Outstanding Circle will be at the Ugo and Olga Levi Foundation until August 25, 2019, after which it is going on an international tour. First stop will be China, opening at the Art Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFAM) in Bejing on September 15, and then on to Shanghai and Shezhen.

Just remember to look and not touch!

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Contemporary Art Galvanizes the Historic Villa Barbaro in the Veneto

Red Line by Doron Gazit - Photo: Cat Bauer 
(with thanks to photographer Manfredi Bellati for designing the composition)
(Venice, Italy) Until September, the first thing you will see when you approach Villa Barbaro is a shocking red tube splashed across the front of the meadow, woven through the branches of dead trees. It is the work of environmental artist Doron Gazit, who draws red lines, not with a pencil, but with long red tubes.

In November 2018, Northern Italy was ravaged by storms and winds that razed 14 million trees -- trees that once provided the lumber to build the ships of the Republic of Venice. It was a devastating blow to the ecosystem. As a long-term Californian and Israeli, Gazit is on the leading edge of the struggle against environmental degradation, and uses his works as bright exclamation points. "It is the blood of the trees that died."

The installation is the eye-catching intro to Casa di Vita - Armonia del tempo, the first contemporary art show at Villa Barbaro, the historic Palladian masterpiece in Maser designed by Andrea Palladio with frescoes by Paolo Vernonese and sculptures by Alessandro Vittoria, each man working at the top of his game. Part of the ArtLife for the World project, and curated by Simonetta Gorreri Casini in collaboration with Giovanna Poggi Marchesi and Villa di Maser, the contemporary exhibition is a dynamic interaction between past and present

Ancient & Contemporary art meet at Villa Barbaro - Photo: Cat Bauer
The ongoing project of ArtLife for the World is to install great works of environmental art in historical venues throughout the Veneto. The works of 20 different contemporary Italian and international artists are sprinkled throughout the spacious grounds and the interior of the first floor of the 16th-century Villa, truly transforming it into a "Home of Life."

The Nature of the Present by Chicco Margaroli - Photo: Cat Bauer
Leaves that fell last year from the walnut trees behind Villa Barbaro
in transparent treasure chests of protein jelly
The inauguration was uplifting and filled with warmhearted energy -- especially moving as the vibrant heiress of Villa di Maser, Diamante Luling Boschetti, had passed away in April of last year -- you could feel her smiling from the heavens. Diamante was the granddaughter of the wealthy industrialist Count Giuseppe Volpi, who had bought the neglected Villa in 1934 for his daughter, Marina, and restored it to its Renaissance splendor.

Vittorio Dalle Ore & real-life "Little Dog" - Photo: Cat Bauer
Diamante and her husband, Vittorio Dalle Ore, continued the tradition, lovingly caring for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is also an agricultural estate with its own vineyards and award-winning wines. Vittorio hosted the inauguration followed faithfully by his small pack of Kooikerhondje Spaniels, the famous Veronese "Little Dog" brought to life.

Palladio's Tempietto at Villa Barbaro - Photo: Cat Bauer
In April 2016, I wrote a post entitled Villa Barbaro - Paradise on Earth - Palladio & Veronese in the Veneto after my first visit to Villa Barbaro. Here is an excerpt:

Tradition says that Palladio died in Maser in 1580 while working on the building of the Tempietto, the last structure he designed (along with the Teatro Olimpico, a Renaissance theatre in Vicenza), and the first religious structure to be attached to a Palladian villa. Designing the Tempietto was a dream come true for Palladio, allowing him to combine a circle and a Greek cross, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. The Temple served the Villa Barbaro, and was also the church of Maser, located at the foot of the hill where the villa stands.
Interior of Palladio's Tempietto at Villa Barbaro - Photo: Cat Bauer
On Saturday, I had the rare privilege to enter Palladio's vision, together with a small private group. It was a great honor to witness the sacred structure from the inside and gaze upon the sculptures by Alessandro Vittoria. Palladio and Marcantonio Barbaro both believed that the design was the epitome of the perfect religious building, even though it reflected the Pantheon, a pagan Roman structure. Constructing the Tempietto was the fulfillment of their long-held dream, and seeing it with my own eyes was a deeply emotional experience; I felt as if I were in the presence of divine energy harnessed by humankind.

Contemporary art in ancient Nymphaeum at Villa Barbero - Photo: Cat Bauer
A visit to Villa di Maser should also include a stop at the farmhouse next to the Villa where you can sample the wine and try the tasting menus that feature the best local food from the region. Casa di Vita - Armonia del tempo runs through September 15, 2019. Go to Villa di Maser for more information.

UPDATE: Casa di Vita exhibition has been extended through October 13, 2019.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog