In a week we will be taking a much-awaited trip to London. I have been looking forward to it for months and, of course, getting slowly overwhelmed by how many things I want to see. If it wasn’t obvious already, I have a bit of an obsession with Italy and Italian Renaissance art. So of course, I am going to England, but everything I want to see is Italian. I know, I know. But it’s just one of those ridiculous things (I blame 19th century art dealers) that in going to London, I will get to see some of the most important works of art from Renaissance Florence. So, instead of fighting it, I thought it would be fun to try and recreate Florence in London: what to see, where to eat, and where to sleep to make me feel at home, away from home.
What To See:
Without question, the item I am the most excited to see again is the Burlington House Cartoon. Just look at it. It’s stunning.
The Burlington House Cartoon, Leonardo da Vinci, 1500Title: The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (aka “The Burlington House Cartoon”)
By: Leonardo da Vinci
Material: Charcoal and white chalk on paper
Size: 141.5 x 104.6 cm (4.64 feet x 3.43 feet)
Where to see it: The National Gallery
Scenes of the Virgin sitting on her mother’s lap, while she in turn supports the Christ child, were popular in middle ages. Medieval artists had little issue showing Mary (and hence also Christ) unusually small so as to allow her to realistically sit on her mother’s lap. However, in the Renaissance, this was no longer suitable and so the once popular image posed a significant challenge. How do you show an adult woman on the lap of her adult mother without it looking a bit awkward? It was a design issue Leonardo struggled with frequently. The Burlington house Cartoon was one of his solutions to this problem.
Rather than sitting directly on her mother, the Virgin Mary is positioned on just one half of Saint Anne’s lap. The potentially awkward pose and space between the two figures is united and unified by the horizontal figure of the Christ Child, who is focused on the act of blessing his cousin, Saint John the Baptist. No longer are the figures piled like Russian dolls, but rather, they are gracefully united in a pyramidal form that appears natural and compositionally strong.
Centrally placed, and difficult to miss, is the simple outline of Saint Anne’s hand, which points towards heaven. This distinctive gesture appears frequently in da Vinci’s work. Here it would appear to allude to Christ’s destined end, as the same gesture by Saint John the Baptist foretold of the future of Christ’s coming – both events ordained by heaven.
Perhaps most striking of all when seeing the work (technically a cartoon or preparatory sketch) is its size. At over 4 and half a feet, you’re looking at two nearly life size figures. Typically cartoons were used to transfer designs and usually showed clear signs of this. Our drawing, however, is untouched. For whatever reason, it appears to have been viewed as a finished work, or at least worthy of being preserved regardless of its state of completion. And in fact, we know that another drawing of the same subject was actually exhibited in Florence in 1501 and drew enormous crowds.
For students in Florence learning about Leonardo’s working technique, the unfinished Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi provides a useful window into the master’s initial preparatory methods. However, when discussing his drawing style, his tones, highlights, and use of chiaro scuro we could not ask for better than this cartoon. The figures go from outline to three-dimensional forms before our eyes. It is truly astounding.
The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-86 and 1506-08Title: The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (aka “The Virgin of the Rocks”)
By: Leonardo da Vinci
Dates: 1491-9 and 1506-8
Where to see it: The National Gallery
This particular piece is part of a complicated story (what isn’t complicated with Leo?) that involves an earlier painting of the same subject but of a very different style now hanging in the Louvre in Paris. That earlier version may have been painted in Florence, but this later version, we know, was painted in Milan. Why it was painted (to replace or to copy the earlier version) is still debated. Time to use your eyes and decide for yourself.
Basic story: A confraternity in Milan, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, commissioned an altarpiece from Leonardo who was to be assisted by two local artists (Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis). At some point the earlier version was purchased by, and sent to, the King of France Louis XII (how do you say no to a king, right?). It is believed by some that this painting was the one that had been painted for the confraternity and that subsequently a second one, the one that now hangs in the NG in London, was made to replace it. However, other scholars believe it may have simply been made to look similar, as there are no comments in the documents about it being made to “replace” anything. These documents, however, do complain about the protracted length of time it took to finish the second painting. If it was the only one commissioned for the confraternity it was commissioned in 1483 and only saw finishing touches added in 1508.
For some National Gallery fun, see these interesting looks at the under drawings of this painting here and here.
Venus and Mars, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485 Title: Venus and Mars
By: Sandro Botticelli
Date: Around 1485
Where to see it: The National Gallery
This painting has always struck me: its curious shape, atypical scene, and the humor of its characters. The idea is not unusual: love conquers war – the alert Venus, goddess of love, looks out over her sleeping lover, Mars, the god of war. It is rather how Botticelli depicts this concept that is most amusing. Mars is not just sleeping, he is, well, passed out. He has been unarmed (by Love) and he doesn’t appear to hear the ruckus going on around him; some little satyrs have stolen his weapons and are playing with them. One is either about to or is currently blowing a conch shell in his ear, and yet, the God is unmoved. War is out for the count, as it were.
The figures display a typical Botticelli corporeal exaggeration. Venus has unusually long arms and Botticelli’s standard sloping shoulders, while Mars’ legs seem a bit too thin. The nature around them, while varied, is rather uninteresting and the perspective is off. Yet Venus is still enchanting, wearing an ethereal gauze gown with a prominently places gem and braids that are either part of her hair or part of the dress. She is graceful and lovely. It was an ideal work for its intended setting in a home, perhaps even as part of the furniture in the bedroom.
Taddei Tondo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1504–1506Title: The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John (aka Taddei Tondo)
By: Michelangelo Buonarroti
Where to see it: The Royal academy of Arts
This little beauty is the only Michelangelo sculpture in the UK. It was begun in Florence, just after the David, for a Florentine wool merchant by the name of Taddeo Taddei right as Michelangelo’s fame was beginning its never-ending upswing. Before the artist could finish it, he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II to begin a project some 20 times larger and more complex. (Can’t say no to the pope, right? Are we seeing a pattern?) Taddei, in a somewhat unprecedented move, accepted the unfinished work.
Michelangelo made two sculpted tondi (aka round works) during this time. Both the Taddei Tondo and the Tondo Pitti show very feminine versions of the Madonna, something Michelangelo would all but abandon after his move to Rome. Unlike the Tondo Pitti, the Taddei Tondo shows a wonderful sense of play and intimacy between mother and child. The entire scene hinges around Saint John, patron saint of Florence, who holds out a goldfinch, symbol of Christ’s passion. The Virgin seems to reach out to caress Saint John’s cheek while Christ observes the bird intently while sprawled across his mother’s lap.
Need some more incentive to see this, here’s a great piece on the work.
The Raphael Cartoons, Raphael, 1515-16The Raphael Cartoons
Title 1: St Paul Preaching in Athens
Title 2: Healing of the Lame Man
Material: Tempera on paper, mounted on canvas
Where to see them: The V&A
The most expensive works of art ever made for the Sistine Chapel were a set of tapestries designed by Raphael, woven in Brusssel, and hung on the lower wall underneath the frescoes by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Perugino, and the other greats of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Made with silk and gold thread, each piece cost the exorbitant sum of 15,000 ducats. For a point of reference the Medici, the richest individuals in Europe in 1453, had wealth of 200,000 ducats.
The set was commissioned by Medici Pope Leo X in 1515 and depict the Acts of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. To carry out the production of these luxurious items, Raphael did a series of full size cartoons, seven of which are displayed in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The figures depicted are over life size. Conscious of the ultimate medium, Raphael kept his compositions simple and free of unnecessary details. This made them also ideal for reproduction in print. The cartoons, usually returned to the artist, remained in England and were eventually acquired by King Charles I. Thanks to the later popularity of Raphael in the 18th and early 19th centuries, these cartoons became some of the most widely imitated images in the world.
Frizzante, LondonWhat To Eat:
What’s a day of art without good food? In London you have every possible cuisine to choose from, but should you be craving Italian delicacies there is only one place to go: Frizzante
Frizzante, has three locations. I had the pleasure of dining at Hackney City Farm, the original location. The restaurant concept is based on an Italian agriturismo and hence much of the farm produce, including wine, olive oil, and food that is on your plate is also for sale. As if this amazing food was not enough, it is served in an amazing setting that feels just like an Italian farm, right in the center of London.
If you need to practice your Italian, the owners are available for conversation. I will never forget the grilled peach and goat cheese salad or the enormous merengue stuffed with strawberries and cream that I ate there. It was enough sugar to fuel two full days of museums. Bless them.
Where to Stay:
Staying in London is always a bit tricky. Prices are high and location is key. I have had my go at the hotels here and there and they are basically what you would expect. I don’t always find that the more you pay, the better they get until you break through about 300 pounds a night. I also think its silly to spend too much if you’re there for a short time and planning on using it only as a place to rest your feet after site seeing. I think B&Bs are the most cozy and have the most potential for meeting locals who know where to go, what to see, and where to eat. However, for long-term stays, there is really only one way to go and that is a residence. That is becoming more and more popular in Italy as well. One residence with several locations in London called Urbanest (clever, no?) caught my attention as it is exactly what I wish we could find for our students here in Florence. Instead of the hotel, you stay in clean, comfortable student housing with public spaces for hanging out, quiet study zones, wifi throughout the building, little kitchenettes, and apparently even heated floors! Not so helpful for our summer program, but still, pretty fancy. In the summer you can stay for a short as 4 weeks. For anyone coming to do research, it seems like a great option.