December 17, 2012

Celebrating Southern Italian Art at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's 
Annual Angel Tree and Neapolitan crèche installation 
(Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

With the bulk of my Christmas shopping already done, I took the opportunity to enjoy some free time by visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As always, I wanted to see the museum's Annual Angel Tree and Neapolitan Crèche installation. It is without a doubt one of my favorite holiday pastimes.
A detail of the presepio
Prominently displayed in the Medieval Sculpture Hall (Gallery 305), before the wrought-iron choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid, the towering blue spruce is adorned with over 50 angels dating from the 18th century. Circling the base is an elaborate Nativity scene featuring an array of realistic and diverse characters by some of Naples' finest Baroque sculptors, including Giuseppe Sanmartino, Salvatore di Franco and Giuseppe Gori. I was happy to learn that pictures of the tree and crèche are finally allowed.
Ivory Oliphants 
Not far from the tree, in the Medieval Europe Gallery (304), is a small collection of ivories and stone sculpture fragments from Southern Italy. Gallery highlights include two 12th century oliphants and an ivory writing box with copper alloy mounts from Amalfi.
Ivory writing box
Beneath the showcase stands an amazing stone relief panel with lion family from Campania. The slab is believed to have been part of a Roman sarcophagus and recarved in the early Middle Ages (ca. 800-1000). What really makes this piece so interesting is the lioness and nursing cub. During this period, lions were often used to symbolize Christ so it's extraordinary to find one depicted with a family.
Relief panel with lion family
Before moving on to the Bernini: Sculpting in Clay exhibit (Galleries 964-965), I stopped by the Robert Lehman Atrium to see the Renaissance maiolica (Gallery 950). The museum has a fantastic selection of apothecary jars and vases from Naples and Castelli, a small town in Abruzzo famous for its painted ceramics. I especially liked the 15th century pharmacy vase from Castelli depicting Apollo and Daphne in period garb.
15th century maiolica vase with Apollo and Daphne
Earlier this year I discovered two Southern Italian paintings I was unfamiliar with in Lehman galleries: The Adoration of the Magi attributed to the Neapolitan School and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene by Roberto d'Oderisio. To my surprise I stumbled upon another. While admiring Botticelli's Annunciation I glanced to my right and noticed The Virgin Annunciate by Andrea Delitio (active ca. 1440-80), one of Abruzzo's great Renaissance painters. My photo does this exquisite piece no justice.
The Virgin Annunciate by Andrea Delitio
(Tempera on wood with gold ground)
After a lite lunch, I decided to visit the Arms and Armor Department, which is currently celebrating its centennial. Normally I like to look at the Medieval and Renaissance armor and weapons, but this day I spent most of my time in the European Hunting and Sporting Weapons Gallery (375).
A pair of flintlock pistols made for Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and Sicily
While looking at the impressive assortment of ornate firearms I was excited to see a pair of flintlock pistols made for King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Sicily. Produced in the Royal Arms Manufactory at Torre Annunziata, the pistols are believed to commemorate the royal wedding with Maria Carolina of Austria in 1768. Emanuel Esteva and Michele Battista, two leading gun makers from Spain working at the factory, made the weapons.
Close-up of the pistol shows portrait of King Ferdinand IV
Making my way through the various galleries of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department, I stopped by the Italian Eighteenth-Century Decorative Arts Gallery (508) to see the Museum's superb collection of porcelain. Among my favorites was a hard-paste porcelain sculpture of Hercules Resting from His Labors. Produced at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Capodimonte, Naples, ca. 1765-70, the work shows an exhausted hero relaxing against his club. I find it amusing that such a rough and powerful character is portrayed in such a delicate medium.
Hercules Resting from His Labors
An assortment of works related to Southern Italy can be found in the Italian Baroque Sculpture and Decorative Arts Gallery (550). On display are clay model statues of Saints Peter and Andrew by Giuseppe Picano and Saint Vincent Ferrer by Giuseppe Sanmartino. There are also small silver statuettes of Saint Felicity and The Blessed Catherine after originals by the preeminent Palermitan stuccoist Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732) and a silver statue of Saint Michael from Naples, probably by Gaetano Fumo (active 1737-59). However, what really caught my eye was an elegant gilt bronze and silver statue of Virgin of the Immaculate Conception after a model by the celebrated Neapolitan sculptor Lorenzo Vaccaro (1653-1706).
(L-R) Saint Michael by Gaetano Fumo; statuettes of Saint Felicity and The Blessed Catherine after Giacomo Serpotta; and Virgin of the Immaculate Conception after model by Lorenzo Vaccaro
Whenever I visit the Met I make it a point to explore the museum's famed collection of European paintings on the second floor. I always discover something new and this time was no different. The recently acquired painting of Medea Rejuvenating Aeson by Corrado Giaquinto is now on view in Gallery 822. Inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, the painting depicts the enchantress Medea rejuvenating her ailing father-in-law, Aeson. Pluto, "the shadowy king," and his "stolen bride," Proserpina, look on as Medea performs her sacrificial rite to appease Hecate and Youth.
Medea Rejuvenating Aeson by Corrado Giaquinto
An inscription on the back of the canvas identifies this fascinating painting as a model for a tapestry. In 1753 Giaquinto was appointed First Painter and head of the Royal tapestry factory, Real Fábrica de Tapices de Santa Bárbara, in Madrid by King Ferdinand VI of Spain. He served until 1762, when he returned to Naples. Unfortunately, the tapestry was never produced.

Needless to say, my day at the Met was very rewarding and full of some wonderful surprises. I never tire of seeing so many magnificent works of art. For me these folk-oriented excursions (along with lectures, concerts, Feasts, etc.) serve to pass on our traditions. For those of us concerned with maintaining and developing our heritage it's our duty to support these invaluable institutions.

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The incredible Bernini: Sculpting in Clay exhibit (Galleries 964-965) will run through January 6, 2013.