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Got Wood? Italian art in the middle ages… it’s not all painting.

One of the least explicable aspects of Italian art culture that I have come across here is the way that painting and sculpture seem to be the only media that get any real respect.

While admittedly great* and astonishing** painters and sculptors were apparently tripping all over each other*** in Italy between 1050-1700 AD**** at the same time, vastly more difficult works of art were being made in staggering profusion, and then just stuck on the backs of chairs, or left in a corner somewhere. Most of these don’t get a mention in the guidebooks, or so much as a note on the wall in the museums where you’ll find them.

[Italy is making me incoherent: that paragraph was ridiculous before I cut out all the parentheses and made them footnotes.]

I’m talking about intarsia, marquetry, call it what you will. Pictures in wood. Like in this choir stall, from the Museo Civico, Siena:

Just a small sample. In this chapel in the Museo Civico, every stall has unique inlay and carving.
Just a small sample. In this chapel in the Museo Civico, every stall has unique inlay and carving.

And these are everywhere. Unremarked in the side benches in the cathedral at Pisa, or unnoticed in the profusion of other, in my view less impressive, artworks in just about every old building I’ve been in here in Italy.

Sure, when it’s done in stone, on the floor, it gets some attention. Roman mosaics get some credit. Medieval mosaics get more, especially if Niccola or his son Giovanni Pisano had a hand in it, like this fabulous treatment of the Massacre of the Innocents on the floor in the Duomo of Siena (a building so fabulous that I will not even try to describe it. You wouldn’t believe me).

From the Massacre of the Innocents, Siena Duomo floor.
From the Massacre of the Innocents, Siena Duomo floor.


Or this unicorn on the floor:

A Unicorn. In mosaic. Just because.
A Unicorn. In mosaic. Just because.

(You can see better pictures on the wikipedia page here, but I took this for my younger daughter, because we are making up a series of stories about a unicorn called Olivia, and a fox called Lucy. I digress.) Take a look at the shades of colour that give the figures depth. That’s all done with iddy-biddy-liddle stones of different shades, like building a picture pixel by pixel.

And the unnamed artisans working on the marquetry were doing this in a much, much more difficult medium, because wood is way more sensitive to moisture, but has to be glued down with a water-based glue.

I’ve done stuff like this, so I know. Well, that’s like identifying with William effing Shakespeare because you once wrote a skit for a school play. Trust me, this is craftsmanship, and artistry, of the very highest order. I am in awe.

But you get my point, I hope, which is that the art and culture of Italy in the 1300s (from which Fiore came: aha! A sword-related point at last!) was of a depth of skill and craftsmanship and sophistication so profound that work that in any other context would be hailed as world-class masterpieces (like for example Grinling Gibbons’ choir stalls in St. Paul’s, London; which again must be seen to be believed) are here left completely unremarked, while yet another rather tedious Madonna and Child gets all the attention.

Just in case you think I don’t appreciate the paintings, I will be writing a bit on the Allegories of Good and Bad Government (and what a timely piece that will be, what with the ghastly shitty TTIP nonsense, and so forth), and maybe something on the books of the period too. Because these extraordinary people were not content with turning art, architecture, sculpture and music on its head; they were also doing it with literature. And, I would say, with swordsmanship.

Watch this space….

*and I mean great, as in Great Wall of China, or Alexander the Great, colossi of the art world striding across the cultural landscape like Ents, Balrogs or even dare I say Giants?

**and I mean that literally too: “to fill with sudden and overpowering surprise or wonder”

***I’ll leave you to wonder whether I mean that literally, figuratively, or even allegorically.

****I don’t give a fig for most Italian art after about 1700. That overrated clothes-horse Louis XIV, and the sexually inadequate Napoleon and the rest of the goddamn French (modern French chaps, lovely people, but what the hell were they up to between 1650 and 1900?) ruined everything.

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