The Nativity Scene in Italian Art – 2

Neapolitan Nativity Scene
Neapolitan Nativity Scene

In Naples, where the most elaborate creations eventually took place, we have a record of a Presepe given by Queen Sancia to the Poor Clares in 1370.  Development was subsequently rapid, with artists such as Giovanni and Pietro Alemanno and Giovanni da Nola.  The Presepe became mobile, based on wooden sculptures crafted to scale.  Artisans became ever more skilled in creating the “pastori”, eventually adding articulated limbs, wigs, glass eyes, lifelike bare skin.  At the same time the background was developing, the setting became important.  Perspective and special illumination were used, decorative elements were added, attention was paid to colors and the use of reflective surfaces.  In effect the Presepe outstripped its original function of representing  the bare Nativity, and became an artistic ideal in its own right, becoming more and more secularized in the process.  The scope of the representation also expanded: it was now not just the shepherds  and the Magi who came to worship the newborn Christ, but people from all walks of life, the baker, the butcher, the candle-maker…, all in the typical dress of their day and trade.

The Nativity scene is of course represented in very many countries all over the world, and it is fascinating to see how native cultural elements are incorporated into the Diversorium.  The pastori exhibit local physiognomies and local dress, architectural elements echo the architecture of the country, vegetation and other decorative elements are modeled after local examples.  The fidelity that is lost in giving up the attempt to represent the Palestinian landscape of 2000 years ago is more than made up for by the ecumenical union of all believers and by the implicit declaration that the event represented transcends any local characterization and holds a message for all mankind.

In Naples, particularly, we find that unique blend of classicism and religious art that had swept the Peninsula since the Quattrocento.  Thus, a Neapolitan Presepe may depict the grotto of the Nativity next to Roman columns, with the Vesuvio in the background and perhaps even the sea, Naples’ sea, somewhere in the scene.  Today the most spectacular collection of Presepi is found at the Museo di San Martino in Naples.  In these examples, rich in baroque detail and symbolism, some of the figures may be arrayed in valuable cloth and may be wearing real jewels.

The artistic/religious theme began to wane in the 19th century, and the Presepe became a commercial commodity, within reach of most families who wanted to recreate the Nativity scene, in a more or less simplified form, in their own homes.  Today one can buy most representational elements in a wide variety of sizes and assemble them at home – typically a joyous activity that involves the whole family.  A famous street in Naples, San Gregorio Armeno, houses most Neapolitan Presepe artisans, and the neighborhood comes alive every Christmas as hordes of Neapolitans and tourists alike prowl the shops in search of pastori, I Re Magi, il Bue e l’Asinello, the Angels, il Bebe’, and perhaps the Tavern-Keeper and the Shoe Maker.

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The birth of modern art in Italy – Giotto and Cimabue

How Modern Italian Art Was Born

Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple
Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple

Slowly and painfully, over several centuries, Western Europe began to pick herself up from the ruins of the Roman Empire in the 10th century. During this period the Eastern half of the Empire was still relatively intact, and it was culturally and artistically far advanced over the West. What little art originated in Italy and in the rest of Europe followed slavishly the Byzantine paradigm. This paradigm consisted of an abstract aesthetic which, though traceable to Roman and Hellenic antecedents, had abandoned the representational rendition of the natural world for a more formalized and non-naturalistic approach meant to stimulate in the viewer feelings of spirituality and piety, as was perhaps fitting in a society which was pervasively dominated by two institutions, the Empire and the Church. Visually then, Byzantine art was characterized by stylized figures of a supernatural monumentality and abstraction. Its purpose was to express man’s aspiration to the divine – the figures are absolutely bidimensional and stereotypical, and only in the faces one notes feeble attempts at some sort of realism. There is no spatial perspective, all figures are in the same plane.

Giotto appeared on the Italian artistic scene in the second half of the 13th century. It is said of him that, as an unschooled young boy, he was discovered by Cimabue in the act of drawing the outlines of the sheep he was tending on a stone slab with a pointed rock. Giotto’s drawings so much impressed Cimabue that he at once talked to the boy’s father and asked to have the boy come and live with him and be his apprentice. Permission being granted, Giotto was launched on a career which would eventually make him into a symbol of artistic virtuosity and innovation, a cultural myth in his own time, accorded a stature and a reputation which has continually grown over the centuries. The master, Cimabue, was no mean artist himself, and had already begun the process of freeing Italian painting from the stylistic strictures of Byzantine art. But the pupil, Giotto, eclipsed the master in very short order, and spread his art and his methods all over Italy. In the service of the ruling lords of the times, Giotto produced works in Florence, Rome, Naples, Rimini, Padova, Bologna, Milan, etc. Much of his work has been lost, victim to the ravages of time and those destructive acts attendant to wars, invasions and ignorance, and one must rely on chroniclers such as Vasari. And controversies still abound in artistic circles regarding the authorship of some of the works that are attributed to him. Nevertheless, there is unanimous consensus on the importance of this larger-than-life Italian artist who gave a new impetus and a new direction to Italian art, and, consequently, to the art of the entire Western world.

In brief, what Giotto did was to redefine the entire artistic paradigm of the time. The purpose of painting and its attendant aesthetic changed under the brush of Giotto. Art became realistic and representational; no longer stylized and abstract, it was now a representation of human emotions and passions. Humanity was its proper province, humanity was worthy of being represented and preserved for posterity, and this was ennobling and empowering. In the quest for salvation human values were no longer to be suppressed for an abstract, cold and unattainable spirituality; they were also precious and important. The physical world also changed: space was readmitted and redimensioned, the sense of volume was captured, colors were themselves elevated. Some time would still have to pass before the full flowering of the Italian Renaissance and the perspective of Brunelleschi, but the first step, solid and sure, belonged to Giotto in the waning years of the 13th century.

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The Path To Happiness Should Include Italian Art

Today’s hectic world could use a little Italian spice

Italian Wine Shadow PaintingThere are so many stresses and pressures people are under nowadays that it is a wonder more people haven’t discovered the healing and calming effects that Italian Art can give you. For some people doing everything right is just not enough to break out of the slump that difficulties in life can produce. There is a psychological phenomenon that most people are completely unaware of.

Color has a strong influence on your outlook on life

Ever looked at a cluttered desk or table and felt a feeling of frustration? Ever been in a bad mood because your home or office is just filled with too much stuff?  You are not alone.  Millions of people suffer the same problem. Clutter is an example of how visual shapes and colors can cause your subconscious mind to be overburdened with calculations. The same problem with clutter is magnified when it comes to more pervasive things, like wall color, curtains, and other large features of your home.

Color can effect your subconscious mind

It seems to be common knowledge that certain colors make you feel one way or another.  The exaggerated example is the saying “I was so mad that I was seeing red.” Bull fighters for instance have been irritating bulls for centuries with the color red.  Using red in your home can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your personality.

Behavioral controls that use color

Hospitals and government institutions have been using color as a behavior modification technique for decades. Ever wonder why large facilities have well coordinated color schemes?  Many institutions use shades of blue, green, and earthy tones in order to create a calming atmosphere especially in places where patrons are in a stressful situation and may be easily irritated.  Many doctors and health officials believe that environmental conditions can increase the rate of recovery after injury or surgery and color plays a major role in that process.

Why Italian Art can bring you more satisfaction in life

There is no question that Italian artists have know how to inspire joy and feelings of well being through their masterful use of color. You won’t often find Italian art that is full of nonsensical clashing of colors. The eye wants to make sense of the world and too many clashing color combinations repel most viewers.  And Italian painters have the art of mood enhancement using colors down to a science.  It is no wonder that people are willing to pay top dollar to have this wonderful type of mood enhancing art in their homes.

Recent Art From This Author For Sale

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