Coinciding with the many events commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the Metropolitan Museum is displaying one of his most extraordinary works, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. The painting is on loan from the Vatican Museums. This unfinished work, which was started around 1483, brings to mind other paintings by Leonardo because of its background landscape and tones of ochre and green. But what draws one in is mostly the face and posture of the saint which strongly evoke his devotion and at the same time his torment. It seems almost trite to say it but Leonardo’s psychological understanding and artistic genius are on full view in this painting. See it.
The Frick Collection is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Luigi Valadier, subtitled “Splendor in Eighteenth Century Rome.” To me, the name Valadier evoked only the Casina Valadier, a building on the Pincio, in Villa Borghese, where I would meet friends for coffee. (It has now been refurbished and is also a restaurant and event space.) It turns out that the neoclassical Casina was built by the architect Giuseppe Valadier who was the son of the Luigi of the Frick show. Luigi (1726 – 1785) was a master draftsman and designer and a silver- and goldsmith. His parents had moved from France to Rome and his father too was a silversmith – Luigi’s career began in his father’s workshop. Luigi and his assistants produced objects, both religious and secular, for the pope, for noble families and for the tourists (foreign aristocrats) for whom Rome was an important destination on the Grand Tour. Although Valadier’s workshop produced hundreds of objects, most of the silverware and gold was pillaged and melted down during the Napoleonic wars so relatively few works survive today.
The Frick show is divided into three sections. One focuses on religious works, including the complete set of silver and gilt bronze statues from the altar of a cathedral in Monreale. Another is dedicated to secular objects – my favorite is a silver coffee pot with a wooden handle. The third part revolves around what I would call more whimsical works of art that use and include a remarkable range of materials. For the pope, Valadier mounted spectacular antique cameos in a frame that includes other cameos and antique gems. They are rather astounding. Yet the highlight of this section is a “deser” or large table centerpiece comprised of small recreations of ancient temples, arches and obelisks made of an incredible array of stones, marbles and metals. It’s an intricate and stunning masterpiece. All in all, I was glad to learn about this artist who amazed me where I didn’t expect to be amazed.
In December most households in Italy set up their presepe, or nativity scene. The basic parts are the stable or manger, with figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the donkey and the ox. Many people expand the scene with depictions of village life, the shepherds and the three wise men. Traditionally the presepe is set up on December 8th and taken down after the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The first recreations of nativity scenes date back to early medieval times with the “father” of the presepe commonly considered St. Francis of Assisi who set up such a nativity scene in 1223 in order to represent the Christmas story visually for the great majority of people who could not read. There are many carved nativity scenes that are famous in art history such as the one by Arnolfo da Cambio (1289) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The city often associated with the presepe is Naples where artists and artisans have a history dating to Baroque times of creating detailed and fantastical carved representations of the nativity. Some examples of Neapolitan nativity figures can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum until January 7th.
There are still a few weeks left to see the Met Breuer’s retrospective of Marisa Merz. Merz, who was born in 1926, is the only female member of the Turin-based Arte Povera movement and spent much of her career in the shadows of well-known men, including that of Mario Merz, her husband. This exhibit brings her into the forefront and her works are revelatory, both intimate and grand. Arte Povera’s distinctive trait was the use of cheap or discarded materials to create works of art that are often on a monumental scale. Marisa Merz arranged her works in her house, rather than in a gallery, and they seem to have arisen from her home life and base regardless of their size. There are about 100 pieces in this show and it is strange, moving and beautiful, worthy of its name: “The Sky Is A Great Space.”