Raphael: Renaissance Rock Star

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Nov 2, 2020

Raffaello Sanzio, better known simply as Raphael, enjoyed a meteoric career. Handsome and the consummate gentleman, Raphael was famous both for his artistic skill and his charismatic personality. From his beginnings as a local painter in Urbino and later Florence, Raphael skyrocketed to “stardom” in Rome, ultimately becoming the city’s most sought-after artist. Raphael’s untimely death at the age of 37 while at the height of his powers only solidified the legend of his extraordinary talent. 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of his death. A majestic retrospective of his work took place in Rome this summer to commemorate his extraordinary body of work which you can view on YouTube.

Best known for his exquisite madonnas, Raphael was an artist whose range spanned  from paintings of all sizes and drawings in chalk and ink, to elaborate fresco cycles, tapestry designs, and architecture. He was also a designer, taste-maker, entrepreneur, team builder (supervising a workshop of over 50 artists), and visionary. His work is notable for its elegance, grace and ingenuity. How does one paint the concept of philosophy or divine grace?

Raphael did such things with sprezzatura (the appearance of effortless genius), a concept popularized by his close friend, Baldassare Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier.

The world’s first art historian (also, a bit of a gossip), Giorgio Vasari attributed Raphael’s death, on Good Friday 1520, to an excess of amorous activities  . . . he was quite the lady’s man. The shock of his death reverberated throughout Rome. Raphael’s body lay in state in his studio under his final finished work, the Transfiguration, before being interred in no less an exalted site than the Pantheon.

Sardinia’s Talking Walls

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Aug 2, 2020

Sardinia, a land of contrasts, intense colors, and bold flavors proudly boasts its own special artistry and priceless cultural heritage. In ancient Rome is was called graffiti; today we call it street art or murals. A unique pleasure of exploring this stunningly beautiful island is to discover captivating and varied murals, even in some of the tiniest villages. These are true open-air masterpieces gifted to us by talented local and international artists, some famous and some completely unknown.

Whatever name we use for them, and whatever the technique used by the artist to decorate a public space, Sardinia’s murales serve as something of a collective memory for the community and a way of expressing the personalities and character of these quiet yet warm and hospitable people.

In surprising and colorful vignettes—often depicting historic scenes of village life 100 years ago, featuring the men’s hard work in the fields, the women’s domestic pursuits, and a menagerie of farm animals—the essence of daily life and the connection the Sards share with their beautiful land, their customs and traditions are all touchingly conveyed.

You will also discover murales with subjects that are more whimsical (even cartoony), riffs of famous paintings, or more serious depictions of political events … which is how the tradition of mural painting first began on the island: as a form of political speech in 1969 and the early 1970’s. Artistic styles vary from community to community—Naive, Realism, Impressionism, trompe l’oeil (e.g., windows, verandahs; lines of wash). Some works depict childhood paintings as well as more contemporary and abstract subjects.

Top mural towns include: Serramanna, San Sperate, Villamar, Tinnaura, Bosa, and the town where it all began, Orgosolo, which I have yet to visit. And even if you miss some of these, be sure to look around closely in any the small towns you visit … more often than not, you’ll discover lots of interesting, individualistic artistic treasures.

La Festa Dei Ceri . . . or the Running of the Saints

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May 24, 2020

The beautiful Umbrian fortress town of Gubbio, which seems caught in a pre-Renaissance time warp, normally celebrates La Festa dei Ceri in mid-May – we look forward to next year! It’s a dizzying fusion of gaiety and religious devotion, and an unusual race with a preordained outcome.

The ceri or “candlesticks” are three gigantic wooden structures over twenty feet tall and weigh about 900 pounds, built out of octagonal sections so that they look almost like chess pieces. Each is crowned with carvings of saints Ubaldo, Giorgio, and Antonio who, respectively, protect masons, merchants, and farmers. Costumed throngs of locals — garbed in the dedicated color for each of the saints (yellow for Ubaldo, blue for Giorgio, and black for Antonio) — party in the narrow streets and piazzas in anticipation of the ritual afternoon race of the saints.

With a roar from the multitude, the ceri are hoisted up by teams of local young men who haul the giant pedestals along the Corsa dei Ceri at running speed to the top of Mount Ingino. Though always exciting, the ritual race is not one you want to bet on: St. Ubaldo, the town’s patron, wins every time. This heralds a year of good fortune for the town.

The festival inspires such passion among people of the region and their descendants that homesick Italian soldiers enacted it within the bloody landscape of World War II. And in the United States, Jessup, Pennsylvania, just outside of Scranton, performs a nearly identical “Running of the Saints” to celebrate St. Ubaldo’s Day on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend (also postponed until 2021).

Photos courtesy of Frank Yantorno, artist, photographer and Ciclismo Classico guide who lives outside of Bolzano.