ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Sweeter unpossessed, have I said of her my sweetest?
Not while she sleeps: while she sleeps the jasmine breathes…
Art can be said to be about an innate and essentially human ability. I don’t suppose the work of such, or any genius, can be necessarily specifically evaluated or, by the lapse of time, even always distinctly remembered. Despite this, they remain buried in the cupboard of our subconscious, half in, and half out of our memory; that faculty of recall triggered by some almost forgotten recollection.
In the words of a mentor, and in this context, the sharp words he uttered ''If you cannot do it, you can at least admire it'', had a distinct point. At the time we were talking about the abandoned hulk of a ‘J class’ racing yacht hauled out of the mud by Camper and Nicholson, which I professed at the time to be a complete waste of money. They of course could ‘do it’, and I have no doubt, held its original masters in the highest esteem, for it assisted them in reproducing a legend of symmetrical perfection. The result of this conversation convinced me that ‘art’ is a profoundly human skill, from the smallest miniature painting to the tallest cathedral; from the purity of a track bicycle to the sophistication of a wristwatch. The Latin word artificium denotes a profession or trade, and art as a human skill rather than of nature, which quite happily covers most of mankind’s virtuosity. The dissertation I wrote for my degree had been entitled ‘The Art of the Machine’; a discourse I now realize was something of a misconception. The machine has no art, has no originality, though in the future I suppose they may be capable of invention, but the artefact they create will certainly have no anima. The beauty of an object created by the human hand acting on internal desires will always be a personal triumph, conveying emotional thoughts and feelings that remain unperceived long years after having confronted it, patiently waiting for that spark of remembrance. So let me suggest one that I have in mind, as an example, to help qualify my argument.
The tomb monument of Ilaria del Carretto del Marchesi di Savona, found in Lucca’s small, but interesting Cathedral, provides an example of the sort of genius that is capable of engaging our senses and inciting our emotions. We admire the skill of the creator, but we also experience a deep empathy with the creation.
Here I must add a caveat.
I will not pretend it’s the same as being confronted by the exquisite cream and chocolate Gurney Nutting 3.5 litre Bentley I once came across, because it isn’t. Beautiful as they both are, there is a particular difference, a bifurcation that creates a polysemy out of the word art. One is about the quality of a team of engineers, and sundry nameless technicians, a purely intellectual and mechanical accomplishment by a group of people. Its origin may have been inspirational, but its fashioning is methodical. Theirs, in the strict sense of the word, is an art, but once it was done they could do another, and another, ad infinitum, and so the very attribute of human art is lost. They are immaculate and exquisite copies, whereas, a truly great work of art cannot be copied, even by its originator. It is a demonstration of inherent conceptual skill created by an individual’s imagination, and the dream in their soul at a single point in time. Any change during its creation is merely a search for truth. No mark they make will ever be the same again.
That being so, this is not for the motoring aficionado’s, unless they have a penchant for fourteenth century sculptors – indeed, for one who was something more than the greatest sculptor of his age.
Jacopo della Quercia was just over thirty years of age when Paolo Guinigi, so called Tyrant of Lucca, gave him the commission for his dead wife’s tomb. The word ‘Tyrant’ is an expression describing an individual prevalent in many Italian cities during the Middle Ages, where Lords were made with the sword, and retained until displaced by the same. Paolo Guinigi was such a man, ruling the city of Lucca from 1400 to 1430, a very long period in such dangerous times. The sculptor had been active in Lucca for a number of years working for the cathedral architect, and so it is not only possible, but extremely likely, that work executed by him during this period was seen and admired by Guinigi, and inclined him to enquire about the sculptor.
Ilaria del Carretto married Paolo in 1403 when she was 24 years old. Two years later, in 1405, at the age of 26, she was dead. For women in the thirteenth century, and for most of known history, childbirth remained a hazardous undertaking, and her fatal moment was the birth of a daughter named after the mother, a second Ilaria. In time honoured fashion she was endowed with an enormous dowry by her father, and married the brother of the Doge of Genoa. A fact quite outside the remit of this story, but; nevertheless, of some significance. Fifteen or so months later the tomb was completed, finished prior to Paolo’s third marriage in April 1407 as, at that time, the monument was recorded as being located in the Duomo’s right transept. It represented the greatest masterpiece of the early Renaissance, yet destined to enjoy a disturbed existence.
A native of Siena, the sculptor even in his youth was regarded as being extraordinarily talented. It was a period of powerful Trade Guilds, and any aspiring craftsman had to adhere to the onerous rules of their trade. Apprentice; Journeyman; Master, was the only possible route to employment. Della Quertia first came to public notice when he was nineteen, and still serving his apprenticeship. From all accounts he was content with the progress of his life, being employed by the cathedral of Siena, possibly through, or with his father, Maestro Piero di Filippo. (Some experts say d’Angelo, and that he was a silversmith.) However, these were not happy times in Siena, constantly disturbed by public disorder and famine. The opportunity of employment in Lucca, and having served his articled time, saw him quit the city and venture north. It was a very peripatetic existence, as later he was to work in Florence, Bologna, and perhaps Ferrara, though he subsequently repeated his journey in reverse, to Lucca, and finally back to Siena where he produced the famous Fonte Gaia in the Piazza del Campo.
Whether the monumental tomb in Lucca was intended to receive Ilaria del Carretto has not been discovered. Probably not, as the Guinigi family chapel, where she would have been buried, is in the cloisters of San Francesco, along the via Della Quarquonia, some distance away.
In 1430 Guinigi was overthrown, and the rumour surfaced doubting that the woman represented was Ilaria, but may have been Maria Caterina degli Antelminelli, descendant of Castruccio Castracani, Paolo’s first wife. Hence the reason why it had been placed, not in San Francesco over Ilaria’s grave, but in the Cathedral of San Martino. This argument seems quite spurious, apparently based on supposition and conjecture, given the documented factual existence of the daughter Ilaria, and the quartered coat of arms of the Guinigi-Del Carretto families on the monumental tomb in the cathedral. It appears that one of the great problems for modern medieval sleuths is the lack of hard evidence, and the vast gaps between the known facts, also sometimes dubious, that lead them to a very bald, and imaginative story. While of course it is true that the base is separated from the figure, there is no evidence to suggest that the composite unit is not as intended. To muddy the waters still further, often only a small fraction of an artists work is documented, and some that has, long vanished in the fog of history, making it impossible to reach a just account of their place and influence.
Whether, historically, the cathedral took umbrage at such a rumour is not recorded, but the monument was dismantled and moved about within its precincts. In 1568 Vasari noted that the tomb was next to the entrance door to the sacristy, and by 1760 it was recorded that it was in a small annexe outside the cathedral. In 1842 it was returned to the left transept, pushed up against the wall to hide the fact of two missing sections. The Uffizi had puchased one, or perhaps even two, of these missing pieces in 1829, and it was not until 1911 that they seem to have been returned. At this point the tomb was reassembled and able to be viewed ‘in the round’. In 1995, due to repairs being carried out in the transept it was moved into the sacristy where you will find it today.
Della Quertia’s development as an artist seems to have been an internal struggle to escape the rigid formality of the medieval traditions he had inherited, searching instead for accuracy and visual truth - the perfection of reality. Despite the opinion of some early scholars, perhaps influenced by the realism of the Tomb of Ilaria, and the French mode of her costume, little credence can be suggested of an affinity with the Burgundian School. Della Quertia probably created her image from personal experience, having been resident in the city when she was unquestionably the most important woman in Lucca. This was how he might have seen her, and this was how, perhaps, he chose to create her final image. Later, on his return to Lucca from Bologna, he created for San Freiano an altar table in marble where in the predella the figures diminish gradually in a receding plane, demonstrating he was aware of perspective, and their relative position and magnitude. It was an example of the new realism he’d pioneered on Ilaria’s tomb.
He was one of the great masters in the history of sculpture, and his influence on the Renaissance was considerable. As the first exponent of realism in sculpture it has been cogently argued that he was the direct descendent of Michelangelo rather than Signorelli.
The Tomb of Ilaria demonstrates for the first time the transition from the old Gothic style to that of the Renaissance. The long sarcophagus, fashioned in marble, has a highly compressed unity with the massive weight of the plinth beneath, festooned with classical putti not seen in any work since the fall of the Roman Empire a thousand years previously. This dualism seemingly allows the figure of Ilaria to float. Standing next to the tomb you can’t see this effect but if you stand against the wall and squat, or sit on a chair, bringing your eyes level with the monument, you can imagine what I describe. This leads one to suppose that the tomb wasn’t intended to be seen in such a small space, but the sculptor envisaged an environment; as in the wide-open nave of the Duomo. It is understandable that the church authorities would not want so charismatic a symbol dominating a holy environment, but at the same time cognisant of its religious and human value. The sacristy is, I suppose, a reasonable compromise. The balance of the two parts of the monument enhances the three-dimensional effects the sculptor was aiming for. One has only to compare it to the massive elements of tomb sculpture in English Gothic cathedrals, such as that of William Longespee (d.1226), in Salisbury, to see the radical change being brought about. The historical concept is the same, even to the faithful little hound at her feet, but the heavy, dull weight of the figures, poorly delineated, has gone. The body of Ilaria is draped in the fashionable ‘pellanda’, the normal court attire of the period, its folds traced by the sculptors chisel into perfect natural rhythms. The sleeves falling away in long drapes from her folded hands are perfectly balanced alongside her shoulders and hips, the high belt elegantly taut at her waist. If you saw a movement in her breasts, as though she breathed, you might not be surprised, so realistic is the work. Even the hair under a simple roll headdress, seen from the back, is exquisitely fashioned into neat undulating waves. The whole concept is a complex harmonization of the medieval style into a unique classical form.
Once having seen Ilaria you’re not likely to forget her. To those reflective idealists and romantics, Della Quertia has created a real person in our imagination, one of flesh and blood freed from its prison of stone. Ilaria lives and breathes in her sleep, a breath of jasmine that will forever find a small place in your memory.
Since the use of flashlight is forbidden in the cathedral it is difficult to do justice to this monumental tomb. There are some items on You Tube that provide further coverage.