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Etruscan Epiphanies- Amsterdam Arias in the Arts

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

This April and May Linda and I were very fortunate indeed to return to Amsterdam to revel in the arts of the Dutch Golden Age- with the Vermeer show being the main draw, an exhilarating experience, to say the least. I previously viewed a major Vermeer show at the NGA in DC many years ago, but one can never really get enough of the "The Sphinx of Delft" as Vermeer is sometimes called. We also fit in a visit to Haarlem to view the Frans Hals museum, which is a sojourn that all portrait painters should do if possible. Hals is the master of the bravura technique and the wielder of the fast brush, and Hals is a portraitist that inspires many artists. His deft and masterful dashes of the brush and calligraphic descriptions carve out the forms and seem to say as much or more in a couple of strokes of color as some artists would do after laboring for hours. The "less is more" adage is delivered with Hals. His expressive and laughing models also suggest the immediate impression, as we know how fleeting smiles are and how they alter the face.

We were indeed lucky with Jupiter shining some greater benefic energy our way. While I was painting in the front of the Riksmuseum a woman from America informed me that we could indeed get tickets impromptu as they always have cancellations. I had almost given up on the idea that we were going to get in this show. So, by getting general admission the next day we also obtained our special tickets to the Vermeer show. It was indeed packed with visitors, even though we arrived right at opening time. It was worth it. Marveling and sketching from the originals was a wonderful experience. Contemplating his characters situated in superbly organizing compositions with delicate light is to immerse oneself in a masterful moment. Organized just so well with attention to nuance of modeling, delicate cool light filtering through leaded glass and virtuosic perspective is all part of the enigmatic qualities. Why so enigmatic? Well, the paintings are open-ended and evocative while suggesting but not defining meanings too literally. And the dearth of biographical written documentation only furthers the intrigue. These paintings all seem to embody a calm but the Vermeer household was full of children, ten by some accounts. So the interiors offer perhaps a respite from the actual life. As I had just painted a Vermeer-inspired interior, I felt that I had done my homework. Viewing the Vermeers - all beautifully hung was an aesthetic immersion not to be overstated, albeit a humbling one, but at once an inspiring experience to come face to face with the actual canvases and not just a computer screen version or a book reproduction.

The one notable omission from the show of Vermeer's work was his incredible self portrait, called "Tbe Art of Painting." It vies for the honor of my absolute favorite painting. Showing him from behind in an interior painting a model, it a masterful essay in paint. I incorporated the arrangement of this figurative ensemble into a composition of my own a few years back, but set this work outside in a Umbriran landscape.

Drawing from Vermeer's "The Wine Glass" in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

To view a video of the above sketch being created-

The trip also included a two-week visit to Tuscany, which I refer to here in the title by the ancient name of Etruria. I've been visiting Italy off and on for 31 years now and never seem to tire of the many offerings; artistic, musical, historical, culinary and the pure joy of beholding the sublime landscapes. This trip concluded with a five-day gypsy guitar workshop with world-famous Yaakov Hotter of Israel and assisted by Michael Isabel of Denver. This was the gold standard of a learning intensive with eight other guitar enthusiasts from Europe and the states.

"Tuscan May Morning with Rain- Cortona" An 18" x 18" oil on linen painted plein air.

To view a video of this painting (above) being created in Cortona in Tuscany-

I painted while in both Amsterdam and Italy- taking my new light weight Soltec easel and some nice linen panels of a modest size- 12" x 12" and a few 18" x 18" panels. I was painting on the streets in Florence and Amsterdam, setting up on bustling streets with cafes and historic edifices like the campanile of Santa Croce in the background. Speaking of this last one, the Piazza di Madonna Degli Aldobrandini, near the Medici Chapel, was where I set up with my pastels in 1992 to sketch the afternoon light on that famous chapel. It is called a chapel, but by our standards it is a huge domed structure which seems much more like a magnificent cathedral than the name chapel would imply. Linda and I went in this time to marvel at the beautiful geometry and the unusual green and purple marble in muted hues. The Michelangelo marble statues of reclining nudes are in an adjacent room. These are the ones that include a female nude with breasts carved as plastered on appendages. These treatments of female anatomy are favorites of critics to deride, but the truth is that- this was a compliment as it was considered enobling for women to be compared to men. By today's standards, it seems a little disjointed but worth considering the context and motivations at the time of creation.

We returned to the village of Poppi, north of Arezzo in Tuscany in part to glean information and first-hand experience of the locales where Dante was exiled. I've had an historical novel in mind for some time, so I wanted to do specific research there at the Castle where he was exiled for a short time. I was not disappointed. Inside the castle's upper floors I could imagine Dante there in the early 1300's. We also visited the nearby Castle Romena situated about 10 miles northwest of Poppi in the hills above the town of Pratovecchio. I painted here in a field next to the basilica of the same name. As I sat there marveling at the beauty of the Casentino Valley and hills, I imagined Dante walking or riding a donkey between the two towns. Perhaps he was composing his Divine Comedy while gazing at this incredible beauty and dwelling on retribution for the Guelph party that booted him and his family out of Florence and destroyed his home there too. Not like today's politics where one party comes in more or less following an election, albeit while being fraught with election accusations of dubious merit - as with our own transfer of power here in the US.

Painting a plein air painting at Montepulciano in Tuscany.

To view a video of the above painting being created click on this link-

There were some unexpected delights too. At the very end of our trip, on the last night in a hotel near Santa Croce in Florence we were led, so it seemed, right to the door of the Badia, or abbey. After all these years, I've never been inside this stone beauty going back to the 10th century in origin. It was bustling outside with a crush of tourists on a Friday night. But inside there was only one tall monk in robe ambling about and a solitary worshiper in the back. The characteristic pietra serena or grey stone used for the columns and floor seemed to underscore the supreme quiet here. On the left wall hung a magnificent painting by Fillipino Lippi that I had also never seen. We had toured the Uffizi a few days earlier too, but seeing this painting by the younger Lippi, (his father also a famous Renaissance artist) in situ was indeed special. After that, being led by the fading golden light, we went back to Santa Croce to view the golden light illuminating the façade of the church as it went up- leaving the bottom in soft shadow. And as if on cue, a double rainbow appeared over the rooftops. From a certain angle the rainbow descended right to Dante's head on the statue next to the church. We had just seen a statue of Dante in the Badia holding a foreboding depiction of the entangled dark wood which he found himself lost in at the begining of his poem. So perhaps the rainbow was somehow heaven sent to offer him a blessing in the after life.

In the department of amazing concurrences- our hotel was near the middle of an oval-shaped section of Florence that is apparent mostly from above (aerial views only.) This oval ring of buildings was where medieval buildings were constructed over the remains of an ancient Roman amphitheater. This was the equivalent of a smaller-scale coliseum. Many Italian towns have these vestiges, like nearby Luca, Cortona and Arezzo. These Italian cities are indeed architectural palimpsests - where layer up layer of cultures and history continue to influence and be seen in the current towns.

Above- "After a Rain- Santa Croce, Florence" This 12" x 16" oil of a street in Florence that leads up to the famous church is referred to in the above paragraph.

For my novel, I also wanted to find where Verrochio's studio was located. I was thwarted in this desire. No one seemed to know- but we did get one tip from the concierge at our hotel. We followed her advice to some streets north of Santa Croce but found not even an historical marker. But we did visit the Bargello museum which culminated in the top floor where the Verrochio room is located. There I sketched from Verrochio's statue of the woman with a bouquet of flowers. The epiphany for me, was noticing how the treatment of fingers - elongating them, was similar to how his student Leonardo Da Vinci painted women's fingers in numerous works.

Part of our tour was to take in portions of the Piero Trail, which refers to the area of Tuscany and Umbria that have the paintings of Piero della Francesca. For my protagonist, I am envisioning him being born in 1453 in Poppi, then apprenticing with Piero with his frescoes in the basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. We lucked out here too, entering on a Friday night with few people there. I sketched inside the altar. And while there we encountered a voluble art historian from Essex, Vermont. We shared our ideas and thoughts on the frescos that ascended all the way to the top of the apse.

Indeed, this sojourn for art and music seemed providential and well worth the effort- seeking inspirations and the delights of Tuscany and Amsterdam did not disappoint.

"Montechiello May Evening Clouds" Oil on linen panel 18" x 18" - This oil painted en plein air from this Tuscan hilltown .

To view a video of the above oil painting being created on loacation in Tuscany- click on this link:

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