My wife sleeps late. Even without jet lag and the hard work of shuttling from city to city on a book tour in Italy, she enjoys what sleep she can bribe from Morpheus with offerings of Ambien. Last October, as she slumbered, I drove our rental car along the western shore of Lake Como to Ossuccio, a tiny hill town known for its Sacro Monte, or sacred mountain, where 14 pilgrimage buildings are inhabited by life-sized wood-and-plaster figures re-creating events in Christ’s life. I had become interested in these Sacri Monti scattered throughout pre-Alpine Italy after reading an essay by the 19th-century British novelist Samuel Butler, who championed them as a neglected alternative to the art we think of as quintessentially Italian: that of Florence, Venice, Rome. The roads were less congested in early morning, but it was still a relief to leave the garish tourist excrescences near the lake and navigate the narrow switchbacks up and back into time. I parked the car near the base of the hill and hoofed it, like generations of pilgrims before me.
The steep climb is the whole idea: to work for one’s salvation, not stroll down a garden path. Being oblivious, or American, I did it wrong. A tiny tractor pulling rocks pointed the way, and I set off up the cobbled path, deciding I would peek into the enclosed dioramas on the way back down. This meant I distorted the design, but not being Catholic, or even Christian, perhaps I was just feeling rebellious. Passing a church doubtless intended as the culmination of the pilgrimage, I kept going, and the climb became really steep, in places about a 40-degree slope. Try doing that, even in a tractor. I assumed that more small shrine buildings lay ahead deep in the beautiful forest. Sheepishly, I turned back only when I came across a cardboard sign reading Vendesi tacked to a tree, realizing anything “For Sale” couldn’t be that holy.
But it was one of those mornings when everything was bathed in metaphor, so the idea of a child of the transcendentalists leaving the prescribed trajectory to keep climbing up and into nature felt apt, as did that For Sale sign as my reward. On the way down I saw the shrines in reverse, ending up in the cradle rather than in resurrected glory. The weathered 17th-century figures, open to the air but guarded by metal grilles, were set against nearly ruined frescoes stacked on an almost inaccessible hill. Many of them were being restored. Their hands and heads were wrapped in plastic to protect them from the elements, and scaffolds held up angels born to fly. Perfect. Somehow, the repairs added to the figures’ poignancy and made what was already a grand cycle of installation art wonderfully accessible.
To have adventures like these is why we leave our own shores. A student of mine, on hearing my description of another experience like it, said, “Not everyone gets to go to Europe.” True, and given the trajectory of the dollar, many may never get the privilege. This same student had been told by one of my colleagues that art students should only look at art created since 1950 and avoid Europe as the home of used-up and irrelevant brown paintings. I have different ideas about Europe, especially Italy, although today Michelangelo would scarcely recognize his native Florence, infected by traffic and surrounded by rampant growth. I complained to a friend that the Assisi of 40 years ago had seemed like a ship in a sea of pasture land, whereas it now feels like a fort surrounded by a besieging army of tire stores. “You should have been there in 1956,” he said. Eighteen fifty-six would have been even better. Or 1756. That was when wealthy northern aristocrats all took the Grand Tour through Italy. Artists flocked there to study their patrimony; some, like Nicolas Poussin in the 17th century, traveled to Rome and stayed.
What can today’s young artists get from such a Grand Tour? Can they see through Berlusconi’s Italy to that of the Medici? What can they learn (or steal) from Italian art?
That visit to Assisi was on my first trip, in 1971. Broke, hitchhiking with a former girlfriend, fresh out of college, where I had majored in rioting, I was not sure what to do with my life. Historian? Actor? We visited a nameless church in Venice (nameless to us—it was San Zaccaria), put one of our few coins in the luminoso, and my life changed, or so it seems to me now. A sumptuous altarpiece flashed in front of me like a conversion experience, and when the light went out I would have robbed the mendicant at the church door of her coins to see Giovanni Bellini’s gorgeous visual feast again. The revelation led to graduate art school back in the States, then two years of teaching, as I, all the while, champed at the bit to get back to Italy. Next time, I stayed for four bittersweet months, during which I saw things so profound that they made the Western tradition in art feel utterly daunting to a young artist.
I had studied with artists immersed in the history of their craft, engaged in rethinking figurative art in the late 20th century. But what do you do in the face of Italy’s sheer, self-evident, overpowering genius? You cower and do your best. You study not the look of great works but their underlying metaphoric structure, how their sophisticated feel for form becomes their content. The Annunciation as an article of faith means little to me, but in a painting of it I observe two figures, structured as simply as AB: one earthbound, feminine, passive; the other an alternate way of being, some embodiment of mystery. Where in the painting’s space are the figures, near or far, and what happens to the space in between? Compositional inventions, pictorial intelligence, spatial subtlety: all become an autodidact’s treasure trove. In the hundreds of paintings of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, who can’t relate to the tragedy of their loss? Again we can see an AB structure, with A as a dream of perfection and B as harsh reality. Representations of the Three Graces introduce lessons in organizing groups of figures, then crowds. Giotto and Masaccio introduce a world of gravity, of human responsibility and consequence. We don’t need to paint images of Christ to see a Fra Angelico, a Piero della Francesca, or a Caravaggio as an example of a quality we can aspire to, even knowing the odds are against us. We engage in a conversation with people whose visual thinking we can comprehend.
On an ideal Grand Tour, we would set out to see Italian art in its temporal sequence. Start with Greek art, from the archaic to the Hellenistic, which served as the model for most art of the Roman Empire. Follow Roman art’s trajectory from sophistication to blocky simplification to bug-eyed crudity as the empire fell. See how Nicola and Giovanni Pisano in sculpture and Giotto and Duccio in painting resuscitate the tradition in the 1300s. Put yourself in their shoes. We tend to read art backward, as if the choices made at any given moment are determinist necessities, but, over the centuries, each time Italian art has lost its power, artists have had to cut some Gordian knot. Giovanni Pisano looked carefully at Roman sarcophagi. But what did Giotto look at? Leaving aside the power of individual genius, we can simplify our options down to those of culture and nature. Dig up your ancestral precedents, sometimes quite literally: you can see what Michelangelo learned from the excavated Belvedere Torso, now in the Vatican Museum. Rethink the lessons of our inheritance, our culture. Turn to nature and look more carefully, finding orders previously neglected. Draw from life. The first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, felt that his hero Michelangelo had perfected art, outperformed the past, and conquered nature. This view prevailed for roughly half a century before artists began to question Vasari’s assumptions. We could benefit from a similar scrutiny of today’s art world’s beliefs.
Continuing our Grand Tour, we would eventually come across the Carracci brothers and their cousin from Bologna. These three provincials believed the way out of art’s cul-de-sac involved searching their tradition for art free of the mannered conventions of their day, and in so doing, they helped reinvigorate Italian art. If their solution called for an immersion in culture, Caravaggio turned once again to the very careful study of nature. Such bursts of wonder seem inevitably bracketed by slumps: time and again, artists have found themselves in a barren field wondering how to revivify art. Moments of great fertility alternate with drought. Bursts of energy are followed by exhaustion. As our tour continues, the Baroque itself becomes conventionalized, and we wander disconsolate through acres of 18th- and 19th-century Italian art. Yes, little seeds can be found in the chaff, and occasionally even full-blown glories like Tiepolo. But rather than considering the tradition monolithic, we might imagine it as composed of the work of talented individuals. Artists can add to this vast collection. Auguste Rodin cut his own Gordian knot, the moribund Beaux Arts naturalism of his time, by rethinking Michelangelo’s emotional distortions of form. A multinational generation followed with rebellions of their own, from Romania’s Brancusi to Italy’s Marino Marini.
The tradition’s sequence is carried in the serious artist’s head. Interested in figurative sculpture? Go to Munich’s Glyptotech, Athens’s Acropolis museum, Rome’s Termini. Draw Bernini’s angels in Rome, study Giambologna’s spiral Sabine women in Florence, or spend time there in the Marino Marini museum. That’s essentially what Marini himself did, and if your ambition is to add to this vast corpus, consider doing the same, weak dollar or no.
On our recent trip, my wife and I dropped friends off at Malpensa airport in Milan and rocketed north to Castiglione Olona, home to an intimate but fabulous room of frescoes painted by Masolino in 1435. I had always wanted to see them, but by the time I screeched to a halt—abandoning my long-suffering spouse and running uphill yet again—the doors were closing for that day and the next. I begged breathlessly in broken Italian to be let in. I was, if only for a few minutes, which proved hardly sufficient for me to take in all the art but saved me from despair. Then it was time to find a hotel. The autostrada in the Po Valley seemed interchangeable with the New Jersey Turnpike west of New York City, and as we searched for accommodations, we grew more and more depressed by the drabness of the landscape.
We ended up in Varese, where the next morning, as my wife slept, I decided to squeeze in another Sacro Monte. The path, 10 times wider than the one at Ossuccio, was built to accommodate the carriages of Italian nobility. The houses thinned as I drove on, once again gaining altitude and venturing back in time. On this trip I peered into the 14 chapels in order. Here I found sophisticated terra-cotta figures instead of gesso and wood, and well-preserved frescoes were integrated as backdrops, though the glass behind the iron grilles made them feel less immediate. This was a different experience from Ossuccio, and my response was more thoughtful than emotional.
What some have called the theatrical in visual art fell into disfavor in the 1960s, when critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried called for self-sufficient, freestanding art objects, a variation on art for art’s sake. Viewed from their perspective, a good deal of world art became suspect, even such triumphantly emotional works as Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Rome’s Cornaro Chapel, where we watch the saint’s ecstasy along with marble observers, as if at a small theater.
Italy’s Sacri Monti would have given Greenberg a coronary. They leak over into life rather than standing aloof as pure form. He believed that art should aspire to the purest distillation of its material nature, so that painting needed to assert its flatness and sculpture had to be self-contained, calling attention to its materials as, say, bronze, clay, or steel. The Sacri Monti installations would be, for Greenberg, a sentimental mishmash straining the very definition of art. I, too, am drawn to sculpture in the round that defines its own space, musically stating and varying its own internal rhythms. Michelangelo himself believed that a good sculpture should retain its essential character even after being rolled down a hill. In the past, having unknowingly absorbed Greenberg’s prejudices, I might have disdained these Sacri Monti, but in Varese I was moved and intrigued. The sculptors weren’t Michelangelo or Bernini (who is?), but they believed passionately in their local way of doing things. They wanted us to feel present at the Crucifixion, implicating us morally as we mingle with the crowd mocking or mourning Christ. The Sacri Monti embrace theatricality, purposely blurring the border between art and life, immersing us as participants in the work rather than treating us as appreciative spectators. They reject the kind of subtle homogenization that threatens today’s world art (it seems to me that galleries and contemporary art museums everywhere are filled to bursting with sameness). The Sacri Monti remind us of difference, specificity, and contextual thinking. That may be, for me, the best reason to look for the needle in the haystack.
In 1977 I was lucky enough to find such a needle in Tuscany when I visited Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century Madonna del Parto in its original location in a tiny cemetery in Monterchi. I had to bribe the caretaker, who pulled aside the gates to reveal a reassuring image of maternal care melded with geometric certainty. I felt like a Quattrocento pilgrim having a private communion in a near state of nature, surrounded by the gravestones of other mendicants. On a subsequent visit, however, I was disappointed to learn that the Madonna had been moved and imprisoned in the white walls of a museum.
It takes time and even work to glean the wheat from the chaff, but what else makes life rich? At my age, depleted by the massive effort of travel, it makes me want to go home and create something I can believe in. Something that reminds me of the truly great, if sadly rare, things I have seen: things that become less physically accessible but live in my memory as a goal and an inspiration.
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