Posted on September 1, 2015
Ask a friend heading off to Rome what they’re going to see and the Sistine Chapel will be on the short list. When they come home, they’ll tell you that the Sistine Chapel was so magnificent. And that they got a sore neck just looking up so very long. True. But no one tells you how much bother can be involved with the Sistine experience — or how to make it hassle free.
Because if you decide to do the Sistine the old style way, you’ll be in the ticket line for an hour or more. And once you’re in that famous little Chapel, you’ll find there’s way too many people pushing against you to be completely charming.
Many smart travelers avoid the line by doing a Sistine Chapel tour. Sign up for it online, show up at the meeting spot, the ticket line is avoided. Plus there are some excellent Vatican tour guides out there.
But… But regardless of whether you take that tour or go solo, once you get in, it’s still gonna be crowded in the little chapel.
So on this trip, I tried a different tactic, the early (8 am) tour. Several tour companies provide this early entrance tour. It costs $10 or $15 more but you eliminate the crowds for that entire first hour — and see stuff you might not find otherwise. You’re not alone, several tour groups offer the early morning variation. But you avoid the real crowds.
I signed up for one the WalksOfItaly.com tours, “Pristine Sistine.” And it was great. Our guide has been doing that tour for years. He gave just the right amount of detail going from one sight to the next. Artistic, historical, biographical info that an academic would know — shared in a way that was fun and observant.
But my favorite part was him showing us to the Raphael Rooms before anyone else arrived. Sweet.
The Raphael Rooms began life in the early 1500s as a private waiting area, the place the Pope put his important visitors before the formal meeting:
The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) form a suite of reception rooms in the place, the public part of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican. They are famous for their frescoes, painted by Raphael and his workshop. Together with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, they are the grand fresco sequences that mark the High Renaissance in Rome. [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
But let’s step back and put Raphael into his time. Rafael Sanzio, 8 years younger than Michelangelo, had taken a far different route than from the older painter. (Michelangelo had phenomenal luck in getting in with the Medici so young.) Raphael’s father had been a court painter, so painting was his cultural DNA. He apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, one of the best painters of the time. The young teen apprentice would have started off as studio boy who handled basic art prep and every other chore he was given.
According to Vasari, the great biographer of that age, Perugino instantly saw Raphael’s talent and soon the young man was intimately involved with the master’s painting projects:
… while Raphael studied Pietro’s style, he imitated it so exactly and in all its details that his portraits could not be distinguished from his master’s originals. [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Artists].
Raphael was a fast learner and by the time he had finished his stint as apprentice he was on the road to Florence, the town in Italy where the art form was being reinvented. Florence was like the way San Francisco was to the Counter Culture; like how New York still is to many dancers and artists. Florence was the Renaissance.
Raphael wanders into this scene at its height. Leonardo hadn’t gone up to France yet and he enjoyed the young kid with the flowing talent. Michelangelo is already down in Rome hard at work on the Sistine. Florence in 1500 wasn’t much larger than Santa Fe is. But the entire city state was aware that something new was in the air. The Renaissance explosion was something shared by artists, writers, thinkers, architects, and the Medici themselves.
Raphael spent the next 4 years on and off in Florence, connecting with some of the best artists and thinkers of the age, mastering the fine points of Renaissance painting:
[When] This exceptional painter … saw the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, they made him apply himself with great intensity to his studies, and, as a result, make extraordinary improvements in his art and style. [Vasari]
Then, like Michelangelo, Raphael realized that Rome was the source of the best commissions — and that he wouldn’t have trouble getting commissions. Raphael’s friend Bramante (also from Urbino) had been working for Pope Julius II and convinced the pope to give Raphael a commission. So at 25, Raphael made the journey. That commission was the first of the Raphael Rooms.
Note: By 1500, The Catholic Church was supporting the arts at a level we can’t imagine — because in an age when congregations can’t read, art becomes the tool for communication. A painting could suggest the devotion of Mary, the journey up to Calvary or the sacrifice of the saints. That’s why the church fathers were hiring. And that’s why we have all these amazing works of art. Then as now, money drives the arts.
Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508 and was hired almost immediately to paint the first of what would become the Raphael Rooms. But in that universe, artists weren’t the free agents they are now. Painters relied almost exclusively on paid commissions and were expected to please the patron. So when Pope Julius II hired the 25 year old, he made it clear what he expected.
The first room Raphael worked on, called Stanza della Segnatura, tells us what the Pope was after. It has a fresco on each of the four walls and the ceiling. But two particular wall-sized frescos tell the story — once you deconstruct the visuals. The “School of Athens” and “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” are both important paintings. And both tell us why art was such a major part of the Church’s budget.
The first of these paintings shows the great philosopher/scientists of ancient Athens. This wise and harmonious group of men have Plato and his student, Aristotle, at the center. The painting is a good example of how educated Italians viewed their intellectual predecessors. And clearly, these scientists and philosophers were held in great regard. [Click on the image to give a closer look.]
But why did the pope choose to have this painting in his main reception area? As we’ll see, the pope was merely using this painting as an example of the old (i.e. pre-Catholic) approach to knowledge. So for this picture, Pope Julius just needed Raphael to invoke the idea of a gathering of Greek wise men.
Raphael wanted this fresco to be something far more. He was going to show off his chops to the money guys. So Raphael handled the pope’s requirements in a way that’s uniquely his own.
Remember, Raphael has been hanging with the top folks in Florence for the last 4 years. And to the Florence thinkers, the ancients are the cornerstone of the Renaissance. All the old philosophers were being rediscovered in Florence — and giving the Renaissance thinkers a confirmation that they were on the right track. So a painting like this was sending the thought leaders of Florence a message:
The picture has long been seen as “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
This painting, one of Raphael’s most thoughtful, evokes the inner harmony of those ancient thinkers. This formal composition, set in some idealized temple of thought, is what the Renaissance means to Raphael.
The two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward … into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane … initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms, and for Aristotle, his empiricist views. [Wikipedia, School of Athens]
Renaissance though includes both those philosophical impulses. And notice that for each major figure, the subject’s psyche is expressed through their physicality — a key Renaissance art principle.
Raphael also shows his personal feelings by using friends and associates as models for many of the famous Greeks. Raphael seems to have had Leonardo in mind when he painted Plato. The philosopher Heraclitus, leaning on the stone block, is a likeness of Michelangelo. And the young guy looking into the camera on the far right, that’s Raphael.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament
On the opposite wall, the painter gives us the real vision of truth that his boss, Pope Julius II, was trying to promote:
Here we have an idealized landscape with two main structural elements, a golden Heavenly Realm and below a gathering of Church elders. If you look at this picture with the eyes of a Renaissance Catholic, you can start to decode it’s deep meaning. Each of the subjects in this scene was based on a character in the Roman Catholic universe:
In the painting, Raphael has created a scene spanning both heaven and earth. Above, Christ is surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and various biblical figures such as Adam, Jacob and Moses. God the Father sits above Jesus, depicted reigning over the golden light of heaven, and below Christ’s feet is the Holy Spirit . [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
Below this heavenly realm, we see the great thinkers of the Church from the past and present — including the pope that hired Raphael. Putting one’s patron into a Jesus or Mary painting was fairly common. But here Raphael is telling us more, that yes, our own living, breathing Pope Julius is part of the sacred grace and wisdom that flows down from on high.
Each painting stands on its own. But remember, in this room, two frescos with the same basic theme are facing each other. And that implied comparison signifies that the two visions of wisdom and greatness are a kind of before and after. This is how the wise Greeks did it. And they were the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. But, with “Disputation,” the pope is telling us that the Christian model of Truth goes even beyond the reality of Plato and Aristotle. Because our church’s understanding of truth stretches from priest to church elders and the pope all the way up to the Holy Trinity. That’s the not-so-secret message of this room.
But of course, Raphael isn’t a painter of platitudes. The kid took a basic commission and turned it into one of the masterpieces of the High Renaissance. And he was able to give both paintings a level of thoughtful grace that transcends technique and message:
The compositions, though very carefully conceived in drawings, achieve “sprezzatura”, a term invented by his [Raphael’s] friend Castiglione, who defined it as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless …” [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Each painting evokes a specific aspect of human thought, each character manifests their humanity in their physicality and character. And together the paintings give us an intriguing insight into the Italian thought of the time.
Other Paintings – Deliverance of St. Peter
“Disputation of the Sacrament” and the “School of Athens” give Pope Julius’ basic paradigm. But the other paintings in these private chambers expand on that basic paradigm.
The Deliverance of St. Peter, painted around a window bay in the Stanza di Eliodoro, shows the story of Saint Peter being liberated by an angel for Herod‘s prison. The painting is in three parts — kinda like a comic that’s been drawn to scale. In the left panel, the guards (in Renaissance armor) are awakened to see a strange light emanating from Peter’s cell. Top center shows us the angel freeing Peter from chains. And the right panel shows them walking past the slumbering guards.
The whole thing is a wonderfully dramatic retelling of an incident in Acts 12. The painting reminds the viewer that the Church has harnessed a higher power works in ways beyond our human understanding. Peter was the foundation on which the Church was built and this image brings the power of that relationship home.
The painting is also infused with Rafael’s special magic. The angel is managing the prison guards like a Jedi knight. The escape is handled with the simplicity of parable and the transcendent elegance that Raphael embodies.
Expulsion of Heliodorus
The other major work in this room is called, “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple”:
It illustrates the biblical episode from 2 Maccabees (3:21-28). Heliodorus is ordered by Seleucus IV Philopator, the king of Syria, to seize the treasure preserved in the Temple in Jerusalem…. But the money had been reserved for widows and orphans and God sent down a horseman to drive him [Heliodorus] from the temple. [Wikipedia]
Notice that among the poor widows and orphans is a bearded man on a raised litter — who looks just like Pope Julius II. But the more important part of the message from our sponsors is don’t steal from the church or else.
There’s also an interesting stylistic issue associated with this fresco. Notice the intense physical dynamism in this painting, especially on the right side. Angels flying through the air, a horse rears up, Heliodorus is punished. This is not the overly balanced composition we’ve seen in Raphael’s earlier work. At this point in his life, Raphael’s starting to stretch his craft in new directions.
The fresco was painted between 1511 and 1512. And we know that Raphael studied Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel even before it was completed in 1512. Raphael’s friend, Bramante, gave him access to the Sistine Chapel without Michelangelo’s approval. And, according to Vasari, Michelangelo was fiercely angry about that.
The Sistine Chapel paintings were a watershed moment in the Renaissance, a formal effort by Michelangelo to inject physical dynamism and immediacy into what was then a fairly static medium. The Expulsion of Heliodorus shows Raphael’s experimentation. But Raphael’s women don’t have the broad-shouldered muscularity you see in the Sistine Chapel women. And his color palette has it’s usual subtlety. As always, Raphael integrated new ideas in a way that was uniquely his own.
After The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Raphael continued his explorations far beyond the Raphael Rooms — especially in terms of his ability to explore human experience through the medium. Earlier, when he studied Leonardo’s work in Florence, Raphael didn’t have the life experience. He couldn’t touch the level of portraiture we see in Mona Lisa. But Raphael’s later work is moving in that direction.
By 1520, Raphael was dead; dead at 37. Renaissance painters mostly followed the lead of Michelangelo towards Mannerism. The balance and harmony of Raphael wasn’t punchy and it was just too hard for most painters to pull off. Eventually Mannerism got more over-the-top and ornate and… Baroque.
But Raphael continued to be studied by leading painters well into the 19th Century. The great Joshua Reynolds summed up the importance of Raphael from the mid-1700s perspective:
The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature, the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Posted on August 21, 2015
Naples is not for everyone. If the Italian cities were a family, Milan would be the aloof business woman. Florence, the elegant aunt; Rome the smart Mamma. And Naples would be the aunt who comes to Christmas dinner in hot pants and an old sweater and asks Aunt Florence’s boyfriend if he’d like a quick tumble.
The place has some great assets, a world-class archeological museum, Herculaneum, Castel Nuovo, Santa Chiara, and pizza. But you wonder what could be done if there was less graffiti and more money. This is urban Italy with all the heart of the south and all the crazy.
We spent an afternoon wandering around the historical center of the city, the area just up the hill from the cruise ship dock. Here are some of the images I got.
I’m not sure what we’re protesting here but whatever it is, it’s eclectic.
We wandered past the Piazza del Gesu and found an outdoor cafe that was OK. But our lukewarm feeling might be partly because we were ordering blind — neither the menu or the wait person knew English. One thing we discovered though was that they have sardine pizza and it’s intense. The interior of the cafe was a classic — straight out of a 1950s Italian movie including pictures of the old movie stars:
Further on, we discovered that the Sant’ Angelo church was closed but the high school kids on the steps were definitely open.
And a street performer:
Naples is the starting point when you’re going to Sorrento, Capri or the Amalfi Coast. And it’s worth a day if you have time. Naples is definitely the real Italy.
Posted on August 19, 2015
Here, I’m adding a few shot sequences from that set for the blog. The idea being that for a picture to actually be worth a thousand words requires a bit of context. The context or story can be about Mesa Arch at dawn or two Algerian boys looking at you from across a Paris square. But in both, the image is never fully abstract/formally artistic. The social context helps drive the Paris shot. The desert location and our experience of that is the context for a sunrise shot in Canyonlands. That image works on our imagination and feelings because it is a container for human experience.
A lot of photo coffee table books will have an introductory essay that gives context. Some of those can be excellent. But they aren’t generally written by the photographer. They are by a friend or hired writer — because most photographers really don’t want to be writers. I need to be doing both.
I need to write about something to fully explore the experience. Somehow, putting the context into language — how I saw the shot, what that place represents, becomes my springboard for deeper exploration. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Naples and the Herculaneum tour
Naples was the final stop on our Eastern Mediterranean cruise before we got to Civitavecchia, the harbor city that feeds Rome. I didn’t expect too much from Naples. It has a rep of been dirty and a little dangerous and most folks who visit leave with some version of that perspective. But some travelers see the jewel in the mud, the fallen woman with a heart of gold. And both perspectives have some truth.
We only had a day in Naples. In cruise ship speak that means we’re dropping you off at 9 and if you’re not back by 6, find you way to the next stop. So we decided on the Herculaneum tour — which would leave us enough time to explore a bit of the city.
Herculaneum is closer to the city than Pompeii, way closer. It’s part of the greater Naples metro area. Herculaneum is different from Pompeii in other ways as well. When the eruption of Vesuvius hit in 79 AD, Pompeii was directly downwind and was covered in volcanic ash and debris almost instantly. Herculaneum was buried hours later by a thick slop of mud and lava and ash that was harder to penetrate and far deeper, 20 meters under ground.
That’s why the town was discovered so late, in the 1730s. At that time, there were some great discoveries made but the work was never handled like a serious excavation until the 20th Century. The thick, muddy covering made excavation harder but it also meant that more was preserved:
Unlike Pompeii, the pyroclastic material at Herculaneum which covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, doors, food and even some 300 skeletons [Wiki].
Only a small part has been fully excavated, 6 or 8 blocks. And here you can see the eastern edge of the revealed area. Just a bit past this wall, you run into the modern metropolitan area, 3 and 4 story apartment complexes. You can see some of that in the top left of the shot.
The picture (below) of the statues shows the excavation background — and illustrates the fact that this entire town is below ground level.
The general and the two kids are all on top of platforms higher than the visitor’s head. I tried to get a shot of these sculptures from below at first. But the images were too much like a one dimensional scrapbook entry. Then I noticed a stairway that leads to a higher level of the town, further away from the Herculaneum port. And from this higher angle, I could create a relationship between the visual elements.
The town was a fairly exclusive Roman settlement and you can look anywhere in a building for art. Most walls seem to have had frescos like the one above.
This beautiful piece could be in the British Museum (they must wish they could grab it). And if it wasn’t built into the wall, it would probably be at the National Archeological Museum in Naples with most of the other loose sculpture and household pieces found at Herculaneum.
Here’s a room with theater masks on the walls. There’s enough stucco and mosaic stone on top of the brick substrate to see the level of decorative complexity:
Here’s the mosaic in a public bathhouse:
Herculaneum gives you a far more immersive view of the old Roman towns than Pompeii — even though that town is many times larger. The frescos at this site are better preserved, the workmanship is often better and the building structures are more intact.
It is disappointing that most of the good art is at the museum. But then, the town is totally open the the elements and the touch of the tourist and Italy doesn’t seem to want to spend money on security. A bigger disappointment is that the city (or Italy itself) hasn’t excavated more than a fraction of the old town.
According to our guide, the city authorities tried to convince the residents in the apartments that surround the site to move so they can excavate further. Everyone said no. The archeologists have zero clout, they don’t vote. So what could be the most complete example of Roman daily life is still buried under the weight of pyroclastic material.
There’s still a lot of excavation going on in the parts that have been put aside for the public trust. But even with so little of the building complex excavated, this is a great place to visit.
Posted on July 30, 2015
I talk to lots of folks that visited Venice and don’t think it was worth it. And the reason is mostly due to the fact that the city is awash with tourists. No question. General tourists, cruise boat passengers, lots of bodies. Go to St. Mark’s Square between 10 am and 7 pm and it’s like Grand Central Station. Add in the guys trying to sell you selfie sticks and knockoff handbags and you can see why people get turned off.
Here’s what I mean:
But there are a few tricks that you can use to make a visit to Venice rewarding. First, most tourists focus on the area from St Mark’s to the Rialto Bridge. These two locations and the connecting streets are the magnet. Many of the marquee tourist locations, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Clock Tower, Campanile, and cafes, they’re all on the Square. And the streets leading to the Rialto are where you’ll find most of the popular shops and restaurants.
So if you stay away from the 20-30 blocks in that area, you won’t have the crush of tourists. And guess what, the same canals run through the quiet parts of town. Some of the more charming sights and churches are off the beaten track.
So what I tend to do is wander around the 80% of Venice that isn’t a crush of tourists. And when I want to visit the busy parts, I do it at selected times. And this brings us to the trick of this post, timing your visit to St Mark’s.
Come Early or Stay Late
For a photographer, the crush of people makes getting a good shot difficult unless you’re just doing closeups. There’s nothing wrong with having people in your shot. On the contrary, often having a few people in a picture can tell a great story and gives the human dimension to a place.
But the key to visiting St. Mark’s Square if you want good shots (and not to tour the Doge’s Palace) is get there early. For example:
Isn’t that nice. Early morning light, the shadow of the Campanile bell tower and a solitary figure breathing it all in. St. Mark’s Basilica is in the distance. Here’s another example from the same part of the square:
Both of these images were taken between 7:30 and 8 am. And in both these photographs, I’ve consciously chosen to include a person or two to establish the mood. Click on the two images to see the shot blown up and the relationship between person and place becomes even more obvious.
Now, you might point out how lucky I am to have found these two nuns wandering by and placed so nicely into my composition. That’s true. And I didn’t even pay them! But I also took a pile of St. Mark’s Square shots: with these folks, other folks and no folks. And these two shots were the only ones I really liked.
Here’s another early morning shot, this time of the section of the square that is close to the Grand Canal and the two Venice columns:
Same time of day, no people. That’s not by chance. I took about 30 shots of this corridor. And having early morning workers in the corridor would have detracted from the formality.
But most of the shots happened because it took a while to get the shot to work. I started taking pics of this corridor about 40 yards farther back. And from back there, the columns and shafts of light worked best. But from there, the column with the Venetian lion was tiny. Once I realized that element would add something, I moved closer and closer till I got to this.
Every photographer knows that the light is better from dawn until mid-morning. But this rule is also worth remembering if you want to capture the beauty of a popular tourist spot. And of course, none of these shots was taken at dawn. Even a lazy photographer should be able to roll out of bed by 7:30. The rewards are worth it.
And if you want to get up just a bit earlier, there are other good shots as well.
Posted on July 28, 2015
Here we are, the end of July. Summer days here in SoCal still going till 8 PM with temperatures in the low 80s. And I’m starting to plant myself more deeply into the work now that I’m back from a month and a half of travel.
By now, most friends have heard the elevator speech I give when they ask, What did you do in 1 ½ months of travel: We started with the idea of a Greek islands cruise. The ship was leaving from Venice so we spent a week there in the city. The cruise took us to most of the usual Greek cruise stops: Santorini, Mykonos, Athens (Acropolis), Kusadasi, Turkey (ancient Ephasus), Nafplion, Naples (Herculaneum), and then Rome where we disembarked. We stay there for a week. Marina, out of vacation time, had to head back to work and I spent a week up in Florence and one in Paris.
It was a great trip. I took several thousand pictures all in Raw format. In fact, my laptop ran out of disk space a couple of times. The idea was to spend longer in Europe but save money by staying in AirBnB places. It takes a while to do photos and research at a place if you’re doing a book. You have to achieve a higher level of understanding than someone who jets in and only hits the marquee locations. So the 1 1/2 months was barely enough time to start work on a travel/photo book for each of these spots.
And now it’s time to plant myself and get serious about the new career. The first book, on photographing the Utah parks (now on Amazon), was done while I was still working at Cars.com and finished when we were planning the Euro trip. But now the transition seems fairly complete, now I’m really ready to settle in.
And in the two weeks since I’ve been home, I’ve been defining the shape of my days and the approach to each book — the fact of being a full time writer, photographer and traveler. (It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.)
For those who don’t know my history, my professional career has been on the writing side of things — business writing, marketing and product management for high-tech companies like IBM, Lexus, Cars.com, etc. The travel and photography have been long term passions (with pro photo projects mixed in). And now I’m getting back to my creative roots with writing and photography focused on travel and culture.
Luckily I know much of Europe, the literature, arts, culture. I’m not an expert on any of these places, far from it. But I’ve explored these issues more deeply than any of the travel guidebooks. And I know that no travel or photography books get to the core of a place in the way I’d like to see.
So after all the months of getting ready and then traveling, I’m trying to put it all together. And that’s with this blog is all about, a scratch sheet for the full length books.
Hopefully I can continue to share pieces of my travel notes and experiences into these pages and get feedback from people. And of course, just posting new blog pages, there for all to see, gives me a fuller understanding of what will work in a book, what will grab people, what tiger I’ve got by the tail. Because I’m trying to do something different with my work and that takes a bit of exploration.
So in the next weeks and months I’ll be adding more photographs and notes about travel to these pages starting with my shots and notes on Venice, our first stop.
Posted on July 18, 2015
I love coming across street artists when I travel. They are often working close to one of the big art museums. This guy, doing his version of the famous Vermeer, was just outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Right next to him was an artist doing da Vinci.
The guy doing the Mona Lisa seems to be a bit out of his league here. But hey, his canvas is a sidewalk. And at least he’s imitating one of Florence’s famous progeny. Vermeer was from Delft and never set foot in Italy.
Walking in the Master’s Footsteps
As a photographer, I like these kinds of art for two reasons. First, this on-the-ground art work reminds me of the training an artist gets from imitating one of the great masters. During the time of Michelangelo and da Vinci, that’s how artists learned their craft–and it was considered a craft back then, a job similar to a woodworker or silversmith.
The young boy went to live with a master painter or sculptor and his family. And he started by doing the grunt work, housework, prepping the canvas. Then, he would do sketches and have lessons from the master during down time.
After a few years, the apprentice would do the less important parts of a master’s painting, the folds of a dress, the sky; maybe paint a lesser character in the painting. The master would do the work that required subtlety — the face of Christ or Mary. And you can sometimes see a painting by Titian or Bellini and spot sections that are not at the level of the master, sometimes not even getting their style.
So when I see a painter copying one of the master works in an art class or on the street, it reminds me of the value of following in the footsteps, of making the same brushstrokes an old master must have chosen to create a work of art. That’s part of the learning process.
Capturing the Levels of Reality
Looking at sidewalk art also gives me of the sense of several layers of reality coexisting: the art work has it’s own internal space, it’s on a sidewalk that is in use, and the artist is there — as ferryman between these two different realms. So capturing the sense of these various realities is an interesting challenge.
Capturing the layers of artistic reality can be done in a photo is lots of different ways.
Here, the two realities, a happy family and a dark vision of the human persona, coexist in an uneasy way (made more so by my intensifying the sculpture in Lightroom).
Here we get the layers of reality by looking over the painter’s shoulder.
I was able to shoot this late at night. And that intensifies the focus in the photograph on the three layers: painter, subject, art work. If I had shot the same location at mid-day, the tourists and visual noise would have been too in-your-face, the magic would have been lost.
Here’s a variation on the theme:
Same painter but with an observer looking over his shoulder; the street flow a dark blur in the background.
And finally, exhausted tourists sitting in front of the Florence sculpture garden at Piazza della Signoria.
Posted on July 17, 2015
Beggar that I am, I am poor even in thanks. Hamlet
When we went to Italy this June, I was struck by one image that kept repeating, of old women begging. Now obviously, living Southern California, there are no end of homeless folk who ask for donations.
Here in So Cal, we have a relatively predictable relationship with the homeless; so for me, the beggars of Italy were a dark revelation. And no, I don’t use the word “beggar” jokingly or as attack. No, it’s a harsh word for a harsh existence. And the particular homeless women that I’m writing about fit this old, harsh name better than any homeless I can think of.
Several of these homeless women of Italy yanked me around psychologically in a way the Santa Monica homeless never could. Sure, the general Italian homeless ask for money with the same mix of need and strategy as their homeless cousins in the US of A. But now I’m talking about the supplicant beggar-women.
When I encounter anyone asking for money, I naturally evoke standard mental screening, “Shields at 50 percent, Captain.” And I walk by without batting an eye.
But for the beggar woman, the shadow slips into a dark corner of my psyche while I’m looking away. She reminds me of how things were in the time of Christ, of the fact that he knew them fully. But as you walk by them, the only sense of Self is an abject quality I’ve never seen before.
For example, one day in Rome we were heading over to the Vatican. Ahead, a woman wrapped in black, sitting just off the sidewalk. Damage leg, twisted, splayed out in front of her, a wound she needed you to see. And as I passed, I was acutely aware of the intimate challenges she must face on a daily basis, dragging herself here and there. And my inner voice hears her saying, “If you can go to the Vatican and not give me something for my suffering, then how do you look yourself in the mirror.”
All the Supplicant women carry some of that power.
A Street in Florence
They maintain this kneeling down posture, head to the earth, donation bowl before them, asking for alms. They give you nothing of who they are. You judge them purely on what you see, dark, bent figure in the doorway, submitting to the harsh fates. No ego is shown, nothing you can use to judge. Some of these women never even voice their need.
It’s fairly easy for me to justify walking past an American homeless person. That’s what we all do, right? We decide not to give money to this specific person for a reason. The reason could be fair-minded and ultimately helpful to them, it could be mean spirited. But I can read America’s homeless just a bit — where they might have come from, how they’ve fallen behind, what that pressure is behind the eyes. I can’t read the Italian supplicant ones.
And I guess what challenges me are all the resonances that she evokes in my psyche. The Jungian Shadow seems to cloak her. Beggar is a character steeped in an eon of subconscious conditioning, clothed in our worst fear — no, not death, but of being crushed by life so totally that you are totally dependent on the kindness of those who are afraid to look you in the face.
The Italians are used to it. They tell you, “Oh don’t give them any money, they are gypsies.” And maybe they are. I did witness a moment that made me wonder about the authenticity of the beggar-woman.
She was kneeling just outside the door of the church, in her pose of surrender. And then her daughter came up with a pack and pulled out her lunch. And the two sat together and chatted and ate lunch.
And after the daughter left, she resumed her position. And I have no way of judging whether it’s all a scam or whether this person really is living hand to mouth. But it is a cultural phenomenon and a different approach to life on the street than what we have in America. And somehow these deeper concerns made their way through my cultural filters.
Posted on July 14, 2015
While I was in Florence I did a couple of tours with Walks of Italy: their day long tour of the city and its museums and the day trip out to Siena, San Gimignano and a gaggle of Tuscan wineries. That trip had several photo locations that are worth mentioning.
The trip, like everything Walks of Italy does, was nicely organized. We all met at the Piazza della Repubblica and got to know each other. This was a 2 van group, so there were about 15 of us. All of the participants were interesting and no one who was a total wack job.
Our first stop was in Florence, the Piazzale Michelangelo. This site is on the far side of the Arno River at the top of the hill. It has a great view of the city and river. Not quite as high a view as you get at the top of the Duomo, but with the river stretching out into the distance, this overlook is better laid out for photographing.
A couple of the younger tour folks knew I was a photographer and told me I should come back to the overlook at sunset. They had been there the night before — along with 300 of their closest friends. I ended up taking their advice. And it’s definitely a better sunset shot than a morning one. But even the 10 AM shot isn’t bad.
After that, it was on to Siena. Siena is about an hour south of Florence by bus. The two had been rival city-states in the Middle Ages before Florence conquered it. But that may have been blessing for modern visitors because the city center hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years.
Siena still has a ginormous center square surrounded by a clock tower, ancient 5 and 6 story buildings and restaurants. The town was two days away from the big event of the year, a no-holds-barred horse race they do around the square. But the place still has a classic Medieval look — in you have a wide enough lens to capture it all.
Our first stop in Siena was a church dedicated to Saint Catherine. The church isn’t much to look at on a good day. But the insides were filled with scaffolding when we were there. As a result, the only real thing of interest photographically was the place they keep the head of Catherine. Yes, they keep this saint’s head in the church. I guess worshiping body parts of holy people confers some sort of spiritual power. Yup, it’s kinda creepy – but fun.
But equally weird to me, the rest of her body is in a church somewhere in Rome. Deciding who would get what body parts must have caused some hard feelings back when.
After the Saint Catherine church and town square it was onto the main event, the Siena Duomo. The Duomo is the city’s primary church and the name relates to it’s importance as well as to the fact that it has a huge dome.
The place was built between 1220-1340. (Yes, they had cost overruns in the Middle Ages as well.) An additional section of the church was started but never finished because of the Black Plague. But even as is, the place is amazing. It’s not as large as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome but in my estimation this church is more interesting for a photographer than either St. Peters or the Florence Duomo. It just has so many design elements a good photographer can work with.
When I find a church as interesting as this one, I approach it with the same compositional thinking I would a great landscape. There’s a vastness to the place that’s similar to what you find at a great landscape. And you can shoot the location from dozens of differing angles to pull in different foreground and background elements. — The place has a ton of great paintings and sculptures to use for this and an architecture that can set them off.
The final design element of churches, the one I find most intriguing, is how the building shapes the light. These early church architects were quite brilliant in how they funneled light into a space. Their idea was to use light to suggest the vastness of the spiritual universe and the precious nature of the teaching — and encourage a deeper sense of reverence in the community.
So light from the stained glass colors the light in the area behind the alter. The light coming through the dome windows filters down from above and lights the gold leaf on fire. And of course, each of the side alcoves and arms of the church has its own unique lighting environment you can play off of.
For a photographer who like working with light, this church has lots of design surprises. But to me, the key principle is using the design elements and the light to take the viewer on a journey into this sacred space.
With this shot I was consciously using the columns and statues to lead the eye to the obvious goal, just as the architects planned. I also did some Lightroom adjustments to give the gold lit dome a different texture from the stuff below. I also needed to pull back some of the blown out color in the dome’s skylight.
Here I zoomed in to capture one of the more unusual design touches. Busts of every single pope (there’s over 200) line a row along the top section of the interior. I used their faces to contrast with the blue and gold of “Heaven” that can be seen behind the arch leading the eye into the church’s left side corridor.
And again, having so many superb design elements to choose from makes this church a must see. Plus, unlike St. Peter’s, I don’t believe this church has a single cherub. That’s an art atrocity that got popular during the Baroque and one I just don’t get.
After Siena, we drove higher into the Tuscan hills for a lunch and wine tasting. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was a perfect choice for sampling Tuscan cuisine. After the obligatory tour of the wine cellar (that included a tasting of seriously aged balsamic vinegar), we sat down to eat.
These folks put out an amazing spread: cheeses, breads, their own olive oil and honey products plus a steady flow of reds and whites to taste. I’m not a wine guy so I can’t remember any of the names — except there were several that they called “Super Tuscan.” No, I’m not sure what the superhero reference means.
The main course was my favorite. They served a lasagna that was to die for. Generally the problem with lasagna is that the pasta itself is so thick, it dominates the other flavors. But these guys made their own lasagna and it was about half the thickness of the stuff we’re all used to — tender with a subtle flavor. That was the best I’ve ever had.
After lunch (and some major wine purchases by most of the tour), we headed further into the Tuscan hills to a quaint Medieval town called San Gimignano. The place is even more fairy tale Medieval than Siena. The old town is on top of the hill with gates and a high wall. The place is mostly one main and a few side streets that wrap around the steep location.
The most interesting element in the town are these high towers. The town has over a dozen of them. They go up 3 or 4 stories above the rest of the town buildings and are clearly used for fortification.
The story is that between 1200-1400 the town had some intense fighting between different families. And the families that could afford it, built these high towers so they couldn’t be attacked by rivals. Originally there were over 70 of these structures. Six hundred years later, there’s still enough left to make the place a World Heritage site.
I spent quite a long time at this location trying to get a good composition. But the square was so overrun with other tourists that this is as good as it got. This is the kind of place that gets inundated with tour buses from about 10-5 every day. So the only way to capture the mood is before or after that time. Here’s a classic San Gimignano shot:
After regrouping and leaving San Gimignano, we had one more wine tasting just down the hill. The second winery tour was overkill as far as I was concerned. How about a cheese tasting for a change or a chocolate tasting, even a pesto tasting would have been more fun.
But the vineyard did have a nice view of the town — if you had a good enough zoom. We were too far away for a camera phone to be effective. I finally got a shot of the old town with the sun drenching the high towers in late afternoon light.
All in all a great way to get a taste of Tuscany away from the crowds and heat of Florence. And the tour also fulfilled my deeper purpose, to get an idea of what parts of Tuscany to come back to later without the tour buses.
Posted on July 1, 2015
You can’t go to Venice without noticing the abundance of mask shops. A lot are touristy and feature knockoffs from China, several shops do elegant work. But regardless, the mask is an intriguing part of the Venice experience and a tradition that goes back centuries. In fact one of Venice’s not-so-favorite sons, Casanova, is known to have used masks in his seductions.
Masks are part of the Carnevale tradition, celebrated in the spring. Masks were also part of the Commedia del Arte theatre tradition practiced by the Venetian writer/director, Goldoni.
In all these traditions, the mask is a representation of identity, personality. It’s a false identity in Carnevale, one that evokes mystery. And in theatre, the mask becomes a trigger to the character’s personality. The actor puts on the Doctor or Harlequin mask and takes on the character and physicality embodied in that mask.
The best way to appreciate the power of masks is to take a class.
Mask making workshops are most popular with families, especially with kids in the 7-14 age range. And often the parents support the kid from the sideline rather than get in there and risk looking like an idiot.
That’s too bad because this kind of workshop can be an intriguing experience for couples. Adults know more than a little about the social masks we all wear and some of that aspect of personality emerges while creating one.
Marina and I decided to work with Ca’ Macana, one of the most respected mask making companies in Venice. The company made several of the masks used in the Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut, and the masks become a powerful metaphor for illusion and personality.
We went to the Ca’ Macana workshop location, just a couple of blocks from one of their main stores in the Dorsodoro section of town. This is also where their factory is so you get to see them working on their standard masks as you do your own thing.
The Class Process
They start off by giving you a choice of blank mask form. They have a pile of white paper mache masks: Commedia del Arte character masks, animals, and what the theatre world would call “neutral masks,” those with a blank persona.
I’ve always had a fascination with the neutral mask because it allows the actor to show more of a range of characters than the more exaggerated choices. So that’s what I chose. Marina chose a female neutral mask.
Then they have you choose two (generally) base colors. They have some visual guides to help with this selection. Marina chose a deep/light blue combo. I wanted to stay with my more neutral approach so I went with a cream colored mask base and then used black and gold for my accent colors.
You lay down your base colors first and if, like Marina, you are doing a two-tone, they show you how to stipple and blend the two color choices.
I started looking at their choices of design elements, masks with diamonds, tear drops, delicate filigree work, they have everything. I started off thinking I would have some cool curves in the top of the mask that would migrate to the other side of the face about half way down.
After about 5 minutes tracing out the shape I realized that my drawing ability hasn’t grown past the stick figure level and no amount of design and photo work has changed that. I simply cannot sustain a steady brush stroke.
So I radically simplified my design. I had laid down a black forehead shape that looked vaguely like a widows peak hairline. That wasn’t too hard to make work.
Then I remembered the Vision character from the latest Marvel Avengers movie. So I extended the black down towards the bridge of the nose like the Vision. That part shouldn’t be hard but I almost lost control a couple of times.
I saw that the designs all had some coloring around the eyes and lips and figured that wasn’t too hard, hey, the mask form gives you those facial shapes already. Again, it looked a bit like a disaster but I pulled it together.
There was still something missing. And my drafting chops were no match for the spirals and shapes that seem so cool and so easy on the sample drawing they give you.
Our instructors weren’t going to clean up my work. They want you to do it all. Luckily my wife has done makeup work at Macys and she realized early on that painting a mask is really just a step away from putting on makeup. She had no trouble at all with doing all the advance stuff.
So she took pity on me and added some dark mysterioso lines and a teardrop to what I had already. I know it’s cheating, but I didn’t care. And after her touch up, my mask looked like it was all done on purpose.
Then we used an industrial blow dryer to set the colors. Once the colors were fast, they give you some brownish varnish to spread on the mask. It’s a bit like laying on shoe polish and then buffing it off. But it gives the mask a finished look and keeps the paper mache from getting damaged.
Then you get a ribbon for each side of the mask for wearing it or hanging on your wall. And you’re done. Ta Da.
The Mask in Performance
I remembered the instructions I got when I worked with masks in an acting class in grad school. Before you put the mask on, you’re supposed to study it, take its features in. Then you put the mask on with the realization that this façade is shaping how your audience sees you. So the more you explore with the mask on, the more you pick up the character you’re wearing.
Certain character choices even seem to get magnified. But do something that isn’t in that character’s personality and the mask doesn’t work for you as well. It’s kinda like a more controlled version of what happened with the Jim Carrey character in The Mask.
So with my finished mask, I began to explore how I would walk, look around, interact with others. Just a bit of physical movement seems to make the mask’s persona come alive. I tried that in the store for a while and the kids there were totally glued to what I was doing, maybe even a bit scared. They hadn’t expected to see some guy in a class turn into a strange character. But that’s the magic of it.
And that’s the power that gets harnessed in Carnevale or with Goldoni’s actors. So when you create your own mask, you are recreating that mystery but with a totally new character.
There’s lot of possibilities in a mask making class.
Posted on June 27, 2015
Got into Siena earlier this evening. At 11 am, I saw Marina off on her way back to LA and headed to catch my train north. The Termini train station in Rome was a mess, you couldn’t get straight answers about the train or the platform from the normal channels without waiting in line for 30+ minutes.
As a result there are lots of pretend helpers giving wrong info in broken English so they can get a couple of Euros off you. One young lady was going to send me off on the entirely wrong train and got offended that I didn’t tip her enough. Luckily I found a person working for the train company who knew the real answers to my questions about rail connections.
In typical Italian style, the square becomes a place to meet and talk in the evening. And the Siena square, probably the largest in Italy, is famous for it’s playful mood. Thankfully, there are none of the aggressive sellers of selfie-sticks and fake brand name handbags you find at squares in Rome and Venice.
I’m at Trattoria Papei in this phone pic at a campo just behind the main square, watching the other diners eat as I toil over my phone keyboard. I just finished a lovely peasant veggie stew, fantastico! Next course, pheasant with raisins and pine nuts. It had a dark flavor — almost like venison — and was so thickly dense, it was hard to tell where the bird ended and the sauce began. Tuscan cooking at its best.
But then Siena is the gateway drug for Tuscany. More earthy style than Milan, as much history in its twisted streets as Florence. And none of the noise and grit of Rome. This is the real Italy. And you almost don’t feel like a sweaty tourist. Almost. It’s like, yeah, I could buy a little Tuscan villa, maybe a fixer upper, hang out with beautiful Italians and no one would notice that I’m not George Clooney. Naw.