Welcome to the final installment of my 3-part blog on the history of Italy as seen through my pictorial map. In my two earlier posts I covered the prominent art themes of my illustration, namely architecture and mosaics. The remaining subjects are a mix of elements that serve to highlight the rich artistic history of the peninsula.
Let’s begin in Florence and take a look at the the beautiful fiorino d’oro, the gold Florentine coin in use from 13th to 16th centuries. The Florin features an image of the fleur de lis, the symbol of Florence and certainly an important icon of France and England as well. This delicately designed disk of gold was the dominant trade coin throughout western Europe at the time, securing Florence’s position as the hub of commerce with great financial clout. Established by Julius Caesar, Florence, meaning ‘flowering’ or ‘in bloom’ was well named. A center for art and design during the Middle Ages and Renaissance as well as a living museum today, Florence continues to flourish as a city with deeply historic cultural and artistic roots.
While we’re in the neighborhood, I’d like to talk about the decorative patterns that are shown in my map of Italy. The four corner elements and central rosette are based on a fabric pattern that appears in a Renaissance painting by Bronzino titled Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo and Her Son. Created in Florence in 1545, Eleonora is depicted wearing an elaborate gown with an intricate design. Based on the image of a pomegranate and symbolizing abundance, this pattern and others like it appear in the historic textiles of several European countries.
Originating in the Middle East, the pomegranate motif is a stylized and symmetrical design. Here it is surrounded by vines, tendrils and fleur de lis, perfectly suited to adorn the attire of a woman who was a great influence on Florentine society during her life. As the wife of Cosimo de’ Medici, Eleonora was a leading patron of artists and instrumental in charitable endeavors as well. The pomegranate design lives on today, most notably appearing on fabric created by Mariano Fortuny, the master artist, fashion and textile designer of early 20th century Venice. Recently, the Philadelphia Museum of Art paid homage to the pomegranate pattern with their exhibit titled “An Enduring Motif: The Pomegranate in Textiles”.
Heading northwest to Milano, we enter the Palazzo Brera to discover a curious bronze sculpture in the middle of the central courtyard. Standing almost twelve feet high, plus its ample base, the monumental figure, titled “Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker” stands tall indeed, an over-the-top heroic figure of god-like stature. Striding forward with commanding purpose, the image of Napoleon is not without a certain humor. The original sculpture, in white marble, was created by Antonio Canova and now resides in England. Apparently, Napoleon did not think highly of the nude representation of himself and forbade it to be shown in public during his lifetime. This bronze copy in Milano was cast in 1811. What appeals to me is Napoleon’s outstretched arm which cradles a gilded winged Nike perched atop a golden globe. So reminiscent of Hollywood award statuettes today. And the winner is…
Moving southward toward the western coast of central Italy we arrive at the ancient town of Tarquinia. An important region during Etruscan times, the tombs of Tarquinia are filled with lively frescoes depicting dancers, musicians, and all manner of flora and fauna. In the Tomb of the Leopards a flutist playing two pipes moves among the revelers, the folds of his colorful robe billowing out as he walks past.
Not much is known of the Etruscans. Possibly they arrived from Asia Minor, but their culture developed in central Italy around 800 B.C. Talented bronze and gold artisans, many Etruscan works of metal art were eventually melted down by the increasingly powerful Romans leaving terracotta sculptures and tomb frescoes as the main surviving links to this mysterious civilization.
In the three postings about my illustrated map of Italy we’ve covered a fair amount of art-related topics: from architecture and mosaics to sculpture, textile design and fresco. And then there is the artistry of wine.
The Italian peninsula is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world. Early on, the Greeks made wine in Sicily, and the Etruscans cultivated vineyards in central Italy. Later, in the 2nd century B.C., the Romans advanced the art and culture of wine making by developing barrels for storage and creating glass bottles specifically designed to hold wine. The use of trellises and improvements to the Greek wine press can also be attributed to them.
But of course, after all the hard work it takes to create the wine, it all comes down to the simple pleasures of enjoying it, and the art of fine wine continues even after the bottle is opened. From bistecca alla Fiorentina to gnocchi al pesto, there is a tremendous array of fine Italian wines to complement any dish. Most wine drinkers are familiar with the well known Italian grapes such as Barolo, Barbera and Pinot Grigio. However there are hundreds of Italian varieties including the spicy Negroamaro from Puglia and the rare Sagrantino from Umbria. I have a small painted plate that was given to my parents by our relatives in Udine. Written on the plate, in the Friulian dialect of the region, is a toast “Viva il vin e la compagnie”…meaning “Here’s to the wine and the company”. Indeed.
LETTERS FROM HOME
My grandfather, Edoardo Steccati, enjoyed collecting stamps. An immigrant from northern Italy in the early 1900s, Edoardo corresponded throughout his life in the United States with family who remained in Italy. Whenever a relative vacationed in foreign country, they would send Edoardo postcards from their travels as well.
He kept his collection in an old wooden box from Italy. Shaped to look like a book with a spine, its cover is decorated with an incised design illustrating a peasant couple wearing traditional Italian clothing. The inside is filled with small identical matchboxes, and each carries a handwritten label in my grandfather’s script: Bavaria, Union of South Africa, Italia, 25 little matchboxes in all, each filled with old canceled postage. The stamps that resonate with me are those from Italy that were created after WWII.
The 1948 airmail stamp showing the bell tower of Trieste really speaks to Italy’s effort to rebuild the country which had experienced such intense destruction and hardship during the war. Issued by the Free Territory of Trieste, it features a teal green background with symbolic leaves and fruit of the olive tree in the foreground as a white plane rises over the city.
The Sibilla Eritrea stamp from 1961 is part of a set of Michelangelo-themed stamps, although this 30 Lire postage is the only one of the series in Edoardo’s collection. Printed in a deep purple and depicting an image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, this beautiful engraving reveals Italy’s own appreciation of its wealth of great art and its willingness to use history as inspiration in the modern world.
As I continue to create new illustrated maps I look forward to sharing them with you. Arrivederci.