Thursday, April 26, 2012

'The Triumph of Fame' desco da parto (commemorative birth tray) by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi [called Scheggia], 1406-1486 / in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchased in memory of Sir John Pope-Hennessy.

Do you know about Slow Art Day?  Founded in 2009, it's one of the coolest ideas ever: one day every year (in 2012 it's this Sunday the 28th!), people all over the world go to museums and galleries to look at a (very) small number of pre-selected works for five to ten minutes each, then they meet over lunch and talk about what they saw and experienced.  I am in love with this idea, which you might have guessed if you've read the Introduction to my Tuscany and Umbria book, in which I mention the Stendhal Syndrome.  The Syndrome is the name given for French novelist Stendhal, who felt physically sick after he visited Santa Croce, and refers to being completely overwhelmed by your surroundings (my translation: seeing and doing way too much).  Visitors to Florence who arrive with too long a list of must-sees are prime candidates for the syndrome, and author and Italian expert Fred Plotkin counsels against falling into this trap in his foreword to Claudio Gatti's Florence in Detail by advising, "Like it or not, one must adopt a policy of 'Poco, ma buono' (loosely translated as 'Do less, but do it really well') to experience what Florence has to offer.  A mad dash through a gallery will leave you with only fleeting impressions.  Spend ten minutes in front of one painting and you will see remarkable things that a two-minute look could not reveal; spend an hour in front of that same painting and your life will be changed.  To really pause and reflect, whether in front of a sculpture or a dish of gelato, is to find the presence of art and genius in all things."

So, naturally, Slow Art Day is hugely appealing to me!  Though there are venues that are officially participating in this celebration as I've described above, this doesn't mean you can't go to any venue you prefer and look at a work of art for as long as you want.  I have decided that I'm going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the beautiful desco da parto above.  I haven't been to see it in a few years, and if you have a copy of my first Tuscany and Umbria book (this was actually entitled Central Italy: Tuscany and Umbria) you may recall that I wrote about this in the introduction to the article 'Lorenzo the Magnificent' by Derek Wilson (originally appearing in ItalyItaly magazine, February/March 1998).

Giovanni di Ser Giovanni was the younger brother of Masaccio (whose frescoes adorn the Carmine chapel in the Oltrarno neighborhood of Florence) and the tradition of birth trays is derived from the custom of presenting sweetmeats to new mothers.  The image on the front of the tray (above) is, according to the Met's website, taken from Boccaccio's L'Amorosa visione (book six, 1342)  but this narrative was repeated by Francesco Petrarch in his Trionfi, and the motif is more commonly associated with Petrarch's name.  Again according to the Met, this subject was unusual for a birth tray as the most common themes were birth scenes or the marriage of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  "The birth of Lorenzo was viewed as an event of signal importance and the birth tray was plainly conceived as an augury of his future accomplishments," states the Met, and this stunning tray is an object of unique historical importance: Lorenzo kept it in his private quarters in the Medici palace in Florence, and it is believed to be the largest and most opulent birth tray known to survive with its original engaged molding.

The reverse side of the tray features the coats of arms of the Medici and Tornabuoni families (Piero de' Medici married Lucrezia Tornabuoni in 1444, and Lorenzo was their first son, born in 1449).

When I first saw this tray, I was truly in awe, for its beauty, but also because the imagery suggests such a promising life for a little boy who would indeed fulfill such enormous expectations. 

According to one study, published in the Empirical Studies of the Arts, museumgoers spend an average of 17 seconds looking at an individual painting.  I hope you'll use Slow Art Day as an excuse to spend longer than that in front of any work of art you choose, whether it's this Sunday or any other day. Remember, to borrow a phrase from this movement, "Slow down, you look too fast" and another from Henry David Thoreau, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."               

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