Anything Good in the Good Old Days?; Honoring Japan

Longing for Past Has Two Possible Endings

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 7, 2011 ( When times get tough, it’s always tempting to long for the good old days. Days perhaps never even experienced, where one imagines a more noble population, with greater gravitas.

And so it happened in the mid-19th century, when Europe was caught up in industry and torn by wars, unrest and revolutions. Artists began to look to Medieval Italy as a time of simple serenity, careful craftsmanship and relative peace (somehow they overlooked the bubonic plague). They portrayed an idyllic but illusory world, much like some who retreat into the bright pages of comic books to elude the perceived dullness of their everyday life.

In 1848, British artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones formed the brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites. This movement searched for purity in art, inspired by the artists who preceded the monumental complexity of High Renaissance art. They looked to the predecessors of Michelangelo and Raphael for purity, peace and the perfect practice of painting.

A new exhibit at Rome’s Modern Art Museum on the Viale delle Belli Arti in the Borghese gardens, unfolds the history of these artists’ fascination with Italy and their attempt to evoke an ideal world by depicting a mythological past.

Their knowledge of Italy came not from firsthand experience like the Grand Tourists, but from the hundreds of prints and drawings that poured into England during the 19th century. William Ottley’s engravings recreated the collections of Italy in the British Museum while the Arundel Society produced hundreds of chromolithographs (multicolored prints), bringing Perugino’s “Crucifixion,” Masaccio’s “Brancacci Chapel” and the golden light of Bellini’s painting all over Europe. The process for producing these prints, however, simplified the lines and colors of the works so that the Pre-Raphaelite perceived a straightforwardness not necessarily present in the originals. This supposed purity of line and color became a guideline in their works.

The inspiring lectures of John Ruskin, the most sensitive art critic of his age, lent purpose to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Ruskin, a master draftsman himself, sought “Truth” in art, the presence of faith animating these aged canvasses. In his thought, the Florentines embodied Christian asceticism while the Venetians reveled in human sentiment and sensuality. At the same time John M.W. Turner, the British painting sensation, brought back from his travels to Venice, Florence and Rome an appreciation for Italian landscape and the unique sunlight that bathes the variegated terrain.

In Ruskin’s words, “Pre-Raphaelitism has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” Every landscape was painted in the open air and every visage was an actual portrait.

Among the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti captured the pure lines of the Italian primitives (as artists like Giotto were called), while Edward Burne-Jones captured the dream-like atmosphere of an idyllic world. For his part, William Morris reproduced the meticulous craftsmanship and decorative spirit that marked the early Renaissance workshop.

They depicted Marian scenes or wistful themes from mythology, and most frequently, tragic heroines from Dante, Shakespeare and chivalric novels. Their heroines (and the occasional hero) gaze thoughtfully into the distance as destiny unfolds around them.

Ruskin grew close to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the leaders of the movement. Rossetti’s early works of the Annunciation triptych (in the exhibit) and the Ecce Ancilla Domini, evoke a powerful mood of wonder. Evelyn Waugh would eventually write a biography of this remarkable artist, whose artistic output also included literature.

It was Edward Burne-Jones however, who Ruskin accompanied to Italy. From that experience, Burne-Jones produced serene scenes illuminated in golden light such as “Pilgrim in the Garden of Leisure” and the “Dance of the Virtues.”

Their works would have wide-ranging influence on many artists and writers including J.R.R. Tolkien, but the false world they created would soon crumble.

The exhibit features a special cubicle dedicated to Rossetti, an enclosed space where one enters into the dream and decline of the painter. Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and Rossetti muse, is portrayed as Pandora, Persephone, Pia de’Tolomei and Lucrezia. Her rich red hair frames her pensive gaze in muted colors until the Venus Verticordia, where she stares out from emerald greens, rose pinks and his signature copper red. It was this painting however, with its erotic overtones, that caused Ruskin to break with Rossetti for having succumbed to sensuality.

Edward Burne-Jones took another route. His visit to Italy introduced him to the monumentality and dynamism of Michelangelo, and soon he abandoned his dreamy fantasies for heroic action. The painter of “Perseus and the Gorgons” is no longer a Pre-Raphaelite, but a Michelangelo.

A stroll though this exhibit reveals that although a longing for an idyllic past may be pleasurable for a moment, it either leads to decadence or spurs to action.

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Marian comfort

The Church has long understood how art enhances the spiritual life. Whether a devotional image or a liturgical space, art can inspire awe or produce somber reflection. On April 20, the Wednesday of Holy Week, the solace of music will be united to the power of prayer in the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major.

The oldest church in the West dedicated to the Blessed Virgin will host a special concert in honor of the people of Japan, in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated the country and claimed the lives of 10,000 people.

The Cappella Musicale Ludovicea and the Orchestra of Trinità dei Monti will perform the Requiem of Gabriel Faurè (1845-1924) and the Stabat Mater by Venetian Antonio Caldara (1670-1736). Faurè’s Requiem, is a choral and orchestral composition that was played at his own funeral. It is gentler than the customary Mass for the Dead, omitting the apocalyptic “Dies Irae” and alluding to the Last Judgment only in the “Libera Me.” This gentle accompaniment for the dead, described by Faurè as “an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience,” was selected in remembrance of those who died in these tragic disasters.

The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century hymn to the sorrowful Mary standing before the crucified Christ. As the Christian world prepares for its most solemn period of the liturgical year, Caldara’s music evokes the image of the Church at the foot of the cross, helpless before Christ’s suffering but certain of God’s great plan for man’s salvation. This part is dedicated to those who bear the weight of grief and trepidation in the aftermath of the disaster.

The Basilica of St. Mary Major houses one of Rome’s most beloved icons, the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, or Mary, Health of the Roman People. For 1,500 years, she has watched over the Romans through earthquakes, floods and plagues. On April 20, the Romans will pray for her to spread her mantle of protection and comfort over the afflicted people of Japan.

Joining the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Bernard Law, at this event will be Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican office responsible for humanitarian relief operations. His Excellency Hidekazu Yamaguchi, the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See will also be a guest of honor.

The concert starts at 8:30 p.m. and all are invited to attend and offer solidarity and prayer for the people of Japan in this difficult hour.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St.
Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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