Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vermeer in Rome

Girl in a red hat, Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

It’s officially exhibit season in Rome! Are you as excited as I am? Yesterday I wrote about the fabulous Italy as seen from the world exhibit at the Ara Pacis, but today even more thrilling things are in store! But first, a disclaimer:

As I've mentioned more than once on this blog, a little trick curators here in Rome often indulge in is the creative naming of their exhibits. They come up with fabulous names, but they are often misleading, dropping in big names like Caravaggio and Botticelli to sell more tickets. I don't mean to disappoint you, dear bloglings, but this is one of those exhibits.

Now, let me start off by saying, the exhibit is indeed excellent. The Scuderie knows how to put on a show. Just don't get your hopes up that you are about to fulfill your lifelong dream of seeing dozens of Vermeer masterworks in one go.

However, this should not reflect poorly on the exhibit’s organizers (just on the ones who chose the name). Vermeer paintings are frustratingly difficult to scrape together, and even harder to move from place to place. Only 34 paintings can absolutely be attributed to him and of these, only 26, conserved in 15 different collections, can be moved. Not a single one belongs to an Italian collection. In fact, this is only the fifth exhibit in a century, and the first in Italy, to reunite more than four of Vermeer’s masterpieces.

All things considered, 8 works is quite impressive, although I would have chosen a more honest name for the exhibit, such as A handful of paintings by Vermeer and about 50 others by his contemporaries which you might not be that interested in seeing. Hm, that’s a little long. How about Vermeer, de Hooch, Metsu and the Golden Century of Dutch Art. Perfect.

Lute Player, Johannes Vermeer,1662/3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This is probably my favorite work in the exhibit. While at first glance, it appears to be a girl playing a lute, she is actually tuning it. Her left hand on a tuning peg, her right plucking a string, her ear lowered over the instrument and her gaze unfocused as she concentrates on her task. An exquisite moment captured brilliantly.

Young woman seated at a virginal, Johannes Vermeer, 1670-72, private collection

As I have never had any shame in admitting, I know next to nothing about any work of art not painted by an Italian. But next to nothing is not nothing, and I am a quick learner, so I was a happy coincidence when I bumped into* one of the world’s leading experts on Vermeer, Arthur K. Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He illuminated me on some of the finer points of Vermeer's genius and career. What luck! These kind of serendipitous meetings always seem to happen whenever I go to an exhibit! And a good thing too, because otherwise I’d have to do my own research, and you know what a bother that can be!

*he was giving an interview and I was listening in

Young woman standing at a virginal, Johannes Vermeer, 1670-73, National Gallery, London
But seriously.

Vermeer's innate ability to capture the elegance and richness of everyday moments is what he is most remembered for. A glimpse into the quotidian life of the artist, his home, his family his friends, ordinary people in ordinary situations. For me art, as with opera, is more meaningful when I can relate to it. The Triumphal March of Aida is mesmerizing and overwhelming, but the four artist friends trying to get out of paying their rent, or the young couple trying to decide whether to break up or stay together (Bohème, of course) is so much truer and more beautiful to me, because I can relate to it. And so with Vermeer.

Those simple yet profound moments, pockets of time that can go unnoticed if you're not paying attention: those are the moments where the real beauty and eloquence can be found. Like when you are fastening a necklace as you look out the window, distracted, bemused, and suddenly you realize that in that one moment at least, life is perfect and beautiful. Vermeer found art in the everyday, the bourgeois, the unremarkable, and that is why his work is so universally loved.

Saint Praxedes, Johannes Vermeer (disputed), 1655, The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection Foundation

This is one of Vermeer's earliest masterpieces. So different from the scenes he created during the height of his career, I doubt I would have recognized it as such. It was displayed alongside an almost identical work of the same subject by Felice Ficherelli (also called Il Riposo).

Woman reading a letter, Gabriel Metsu, 1664-66, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
This was one of my favorite non-Vermeer works in the exhibit. The women have the same simple elegance and easy grace of Vermeer's subjects, but the work lacks the brilliant use of diffused light and richness of color that set Vermeer above his contemporaries.

Young woman with a glass of wine, Johannes Vermeer, 1659-60, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museu, Braunschweig
I imagine you are positively itching to get to this exhibit. Try to wait at least one more week, as the above painting has not yet arrived. It should be on display by 4 October. For practical info on visiting, check out my exhibits calendar.

All images provided courtesy of Azienda Speciale Palaexpo and MondoMostre.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The charmed life of a foreign correspondent in Italy

Is there a journalist alive who doesn’t—at least in some small way—envy Gregory Peck’s dashing character in Roman Holiday? And it’s not just about spending 24 hours with a classy, beautiful brunette like Audrey Hepburn. What would it be like to live on Via Margutta, zip around late-1950s Rome on a Vespa, spend your evenings playing poker with the international crowd, and dash off the odd article to your paper back home?

Ah, the life of a foreign correspondent.

Well, a foreign correspondent in Italy, that is. I imagine the life of a foreign correspondent in, say, Libya or Iran (at least these days) might be slightly more dangerous and slightly less picturesque. But in Italy, can you think of a more fantastic lifestyle? Ok, ok, I’m sure it involves a good deal of work, but, oh, the payoff...

...well, you get the idea.

100 years ago, 14 foreign journalists living and working in Rome, got together in their usual haunt, Gran Caffè Faraglia in Piazza Venezia, and decided it was high time they had an official association to represent them. The Foreign Press Association was born. Today its members are numbered at 443, and hail from over 50 different countries around the world. American correspondents are outnumbered only by their German counterparts, and include one of my very favorite expat bloggers, Patricia Thomas, (Rome’s own Mozzarella Mamma herself!)

Italy as seen by the world, a new exhibit at the Ara Pacis opened last week, celebrating this important 100-year milestone. It was thrilling to see snippets of articles, headlines and magazine covers from around the world, all with the same subject: il belpaese. Some articles dated back nearly a century; others covered news stories I can well remember since my own arrival here eight years ago. 100 years of top news stories, archeological discoveries, culinary culture, destination pieces, social commentary: it’s all covered in this fascinating exhibit, the first big opening of the season.

Here are a few images from the exhibition:

Historic Archive of the first headquarters of the association
Association members in an audience with Pope John XXIII

Hitler and Mussolini, Newsweek, 1936
Il Conchiglione (The Big Shell) in the conference hall of the Foreign Press Association © Chris Warde-Jones

An article on terrorism in Italy, Der Spiegel, 1977

The death of Pope John Paul II, Paris Match, 2005

President and Mrs. Obama in an audience with Pope Benedict XVI (my photo of a photo)

I imagine it’s fascinating for Italians to witness how their country and culture is portrayed to the world at large by the pen-armed foreigners who’ve made their home here, but who nevertheless bring along their own perspective, culture and experiences. As an expat I have learned so much about my own country, simply by getting an outside look at it. This is not always pleasant. In fact, I was surprised that the inauguration was packed with Italians. I would have expected the majority of those in attendance to be the very same foreign correspondents being celebrated in the exhibit, but I rarely picked up on a foreign language or accent, although there were a few international journalistic legends (whom I would never have recognized had the Maritino not pointed them out to me).

Mayor Gianni Alemanno, Ara Pacis, © Tiffany Parks

The mayor himself was also in attendance, and I don’t mean to be mean, but this was the first time I had ever seen him live and I couldn’t stop myself humming that line from Annie (the Broadway musical, eh, NOT the film!), “What other town has the Empire State and a mayor five-foot-two?” Now, I didn’t get out my tape measure, but even standing up on the podium of the Ara Pacis, he didn’t look a hair taller than me. Rome may not have the Empire State Building, but a Fiorello Laguardia-look-alike we do have!

I learned during the press conference that the "extras" in the last scene of Roman Holiday were the actual members of Italy's Foreign Press Association in 1959! (A shocking dearth of women...) This exhibit is on for less than a month, so don’t miss it! Check out my exhibits calendar for times and dates.
PS After months of sporatic posting, I'm aiming to go two-for-two with a post about the new Vermeer exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale tomorrow, so stop by!

Photo sources: 1, 2
3-8 courtesy of Zetema Ufficio Stampa
9-10 by author, 

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