May 20, 2011

Sacred Art From Abruzzo at the Cloisters

Kneeling Virgin (detail) by Paolo Aquilano

While reading Lucia Arbace's very informative essay, "Values and Symbols Dreamed in Clay," in the commemorative La Madonna di Pietranico compendium, I was curious to learn that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Renaissance statue from the Abruzzo in their collection. A frequent guest at the museum, I thought it was a bit strange that I was unfamiliar with the work. Thanks to the Internet, I soon discovered that the statue is housed in The Cloisters, a branch of the MET "devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe," located in beautiful Fort Tryon Park in Northern Manhattan.

As you can imagine, after seeing the recently restored Madonna di Pietranico at the Italian American Museum I was very excited with the prospect of viewing another devotional statue from the Abruzzo. So I packed my camera and headed to The Cloisters.

Located in the Late Gothic Hall, among an incredible array of European religious statuary from the Middle Ages, is the Kneeling Virgin (ca. 1475), attributed to Paolo Aquilano. The polychromed wood sculpture, carved in willow, stands almost 47 inches tall and, some believe, may have been part of a presepio (Nativity) ensemble. The elegant figure, with "Ave Maria" inscribed in gold along the neckline, represents the Virgin Mary adoring the (now lost) Christ Child. Her hands, probably clasped in prayer, are also missing.

Kneeling Virgin by Paolo Aquilano

The statue's striking resemblance to the enthroned Madonna and Child (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) and the fictile Levapene Madonna and Child from Civitaquana (Museo Nazionale Abruzzese, Aquila) has been remarked upon by scholars and is the primary reason for its attribution to Aquilano.

It has also been suggested that the Kneeling Virgin's crèche may have influenced the Fontecchio presepio (Museo Nazionale Abruzzese), loosely attributed to the prestigious painter-sculptor Saturnino Gatti (L'Aquila 1463–1518 L'Aquila). Gatti is generally considered to be one of the finest Renaissance sculptors from the Abruzzo. Also a painter, Gatti's wonderful painting, The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto (ca. 1510), can be seen at Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto by Saturnino Gatti

Making my way through the galleries, admiring the collection, I stumbled across a tall, heavily damaged statue of Saint Nicholas of Bari from the parish church of San Nicola di Bari in Monticchio, L'Aquila. Carved from poplar, the Blessing Bishop stands 73 1/2 inches tall and is a rare example of Gothic wood sculpture from Italy. Prominently displayed, the idol dominates the Early Gothic Hall. An employee explained to me that it was recently moved to its current location so patrons can get a better view of its hollow backside. Artist unknown, the statue dates from the late fourteenth Century and originates from the Abruzzo or nearby Umbria.

Blessing Bishop (Saint Nicholas of Bari)

Among the late twelfth- and thirteenth-century sculptures on display in the cloister from Saint-Guilhem-le-Déésert, is a wonderful limestone relief from the pulpit of the Church of San Michele Archangelo at San Vittorino, Abruzzo. Dedicated to Saint Luke, a winged ox (the saint's symbol), framed with an elaborately carved border, holds a book with an inscription from the Gospel. A second epigraph makes reference to the otherwise unknown sculptor, Master Stephanus and his atelier.

Relief from the Pulpit with the Symbol of Saint Luke

Another item in the Cloisters collection that may be of special interest to our readers is an exquisite ivory Liturgical Comb from Southern Italy. Dating from the late eleventh- to early twelfth-century, the double sided comb was used for ritual preparation by priests before Mass. Measuring 3 3/4 x 4 1/2 x 11/16 inches, the delicate carvings on the spine show two sparring warriors riding fantastic creatures from Greek mythology. For more on ivory carvings from Southern Italy, the MET has several magnificent examples on display, including an ornately carved casket and oliphants (hunting horns).

Liturgical Comb

In addition to the museum's renowned gardens and cloisters, other highlights include the Gothic Chapel, the incredible Unicorn Tapestries and, of course, the famous Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) in the Campin Room. The institution's enviable collection boasts plenty of examples of sacred Medieval and Byzantine painting, sculpture, stained glass and much, much more.

If you haven't done so already, time is running out to see La Madonna di Pietranico at the Italian American Museum. The exhibit ends on June 2, 2011. Afterward the statue will be returned to the Chiesa di San Michele e Santa Giusta in Pietranico, Abruzzo.

La Madonna di Pietranico
Photos by New York Scugnizzo


• "Three Madonnas in Search of an Author" by Carmen Gómez-Moreno, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, June 1967 [I was amused at the title's allusion to Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.]

• "Values and Symbols Dreamed in Clay" by Lucia Arbace, La Madonna di Pietranico, Edizioni ZiP, 2011

May 17, 2011

An Evening of Cantu With Michela Musolino

[I apologize for not posting this review sooner, but my busy schedule would not allow it.]

Michela Musolino

It's hard not being impressed by Michela Musolino. As I sat listening to her sing at Recoup Lounge last Thursday night (May 12, 2011), I couldn't help but be overcome by a feeling of serenity as her hauntingly melodic voice filled the small, but intimate venue. She is truly a gifted singer deserving of great praise, not just for keeping our folk traditions alive, but because she presents them in a positive and attractive manner that can only inspire others to do the same. More than one person in the audience commented they could not believe such a talented singer was not more famous.

Billed as a "Sicilian Roots Concert," the artist's oeuvre consisted of an impressive medley of traditional and contemporary folk music influenced by the island's long, complex history. Her repertoire includes songs about love, lamentation and emigration. It also included topics more specific to Sicily, like Bonagia, a heart-rending dirge about the abduction of loved ones by Saracen pirates.

Michela Musolino and Gabriel Hermida

Musolino, also an accomplished percussionist, was accompanied by the fantastic Argentine guitarist, Gabriel Hermida. Together they formed an impressive synergy, brilliantly complementing one another and breathing new life into the music. The musicians needed no gimmicks or stunts to captivate their audience, just one guitar, one tamburello, her incredible voice and lots of passion and soul.

The musical journey began with a masterful rendition of Vinutu Sugnu, a slow, morose prison song in the cantu di sdegnu (songs of scorn) style. In it a lovelorn prisoner proclaims that he would have been better off dead than having fallen in love. The regret and heartache were captured perfectly.

She then performed the beautiful lullaby, La Vò, in honor of her friends (Matt and Desiree) who are expecting a child.

Sicily's rich musical tradition also includes passionate work-songs evoking the hardships of peasant life, so naturally they were featured in the set as well. The heartfelt Tira Murrieddu (Pull Little Mule), a carter’s serenade about enticing his love, was a perfect example of the genre. All that was missing was the beating of a mule's hooves on the ancient cobblestone.

The duo also included the modern classic, La Mafia Nun Esiste (The mafia don't exist), a sardonic anti-Mafia tune, which mocks apologists who deny the existence of la Cosa Nostra even in the wake of bombings and assassinations.

In all, they played about ten songs, ending the show with one of my all-time-favorites, Mi Votu e Mi Rivotu, a stirring ballad about agonizing love:
"Mi votu e mi rivotu sosspirannu, passu li notti'nteri senza sonnu...Lu sai quannu ca jù t' av'a lassari, quannu la vita mia finisci e mori."

[I toss and I turn, sighing; I pass the whole night without sleep...You know I'll only leave you when I die.] *
It was a wonderful performance; one I am glad I did not miss.

Speaking to Ms. Musolino after the show, I learned she would be performing again on June 1st at 8 PM at the Shrine World Music Venue at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., NYC. Joining her on stage for a couple of songs will be the very talented Laura Campisi from Palermo. Mark the date!

Photos by New York Scugnizzo

(*) Quoted from Michela Musolino's Songs of Trinacria featuring Wilson Montuori on guitar.

May 10, 2011

The Crocodile of Castelnuovo

Sewer Alligator by Tom Otterness
By Giovanni di Napoli

While on my way to Metrotech Center today I came across a quirky little statue of a crocodile dragging a man down a manhole. It appears to be a spoof of the popular urban legend about a predatory reptile stalking New York City's serpentine sewer system.

Peaking my interest, I discovered that the work is called Sewer Alligator. It was crafted by Tom Otterness as part of his Life Underground installation, a series of sculptures designed for public display in the NYC subway system. I'm not sure what the bag of money is in reference to, but I like to think it represents the fat cat globalists who sacrifice traditional cultures for the global economy.

Anyway, the statue reminded me of my visit to the Maschio Angioino (also called Castel Nuovo, or New Castle) in Naples, where I first heard the ancient folk tale about the Coccodrillo di Castelnuovo.

Maschio Angioino
Legend has it that a crocodile mysteriously made its way from the Nile delta to the bowels of the Castel Nuovo. Through a hidden hole in the castle's moat the ravenous reptile would prey on helpless captives, dragging their mangled corpses back to its lair. Concerned about the number of prisoners "escaping," the guards tried to figure out how they were getting away in order to better secure the dungeon, a former granary beneath the Palatine Chapel called the Mile Pit.

One day, to their surprise, they discovered the creature feeding on one of its victims. Instead of getting rid of the crocodile, the jailers decided to put the animal to good use. "From that day on," wrote Benedetto Croce in his Storie e leggende napoletane, "the crocodile...was used as a means and executor of justice; prisoners sentenced to death were sent down to the moats and were regularly swallowed by the crocodile." *

Other versions of the story include the notorious Queen Joan II of Naples (1371-1435), who, it's said, delighted in feeding her spent lovers alive to the beast. The insatiable Queen allegedly discarded her playthings, one after another, into the creature's gaping maw. Her reputation, it is said, was so bad that no infamy was beyond her, including (unfounded) rumors that she had sex with a horse. Such accusations were not unknown against female monarchs. I remember reading nearly identical propaganda promoted by the enemies of Catherine the Great.

Coccodrillo di Castelnuovo by unknown artist 
Courtesy of Comune di Napoli
Eventually the crocodile was killed; a horse leg was used as bait. Its body was stuffed and mounted over the castle's gateway as a warning. The legend doesn't state which stallion the murderess used to snare her prey; one can only guess.

Construction of the Maschio Angioino began in 1279 under Charles I of Anjou. It was used as a royal residency when he moved the capital of the Regno from Palermo to Naples. Despite its age, the castle is still called "new" because the city's other imposing fortresses, Castel dell'Ovo and Castel Capuano, are much older. The Aragonese triumphal arch and cenotaph, added in the fifteenth century by Alfonso I, is considered one of the great architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance. In 1503 the kingdom was annexed to Spain and the castle was used to garrison its forces. Today the landmark houses the Museo Civico and is a popular tourist destination.

Castle highlights include:

The Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory
The Portal of the Palatine Chapel by Andrea dell'Aquila
Bronze doors (1474-75) by Guglielmo Lo Monaco
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
(*) Quoted from Legends and ghost stories in Naples between two centuries: Matilde Serao, Roberto Bracco and Benedetto Croce by Armando Rotondi.

May 7, 2011

Announcing Campania In-Felix (Unhappy Country)

Film Synopsis

For nearly two decades, Campania, the southern region of Italy where Naples is located, has witnessed an ongoing practice of illegal toxic material dumping in rural and inhabited areas. The management of waste material in the region has been in the hands of the Camorra – a mafia organization with vast economic and political power. This practice has taken place mostly in the provinces of Naples and Caserta and in particular in an area nicknamed “The Triangle of Death.” This area includes the towns of Acerra, Nola and Marigliano, located about 20 miles northeast of Naples, Italy. The material that is illegally deposited in this region comes mostly from industries in Northern Italy. The waste material, including aluminum salts, ammonium salts, lead, acid sludge, contaminated oil, rubber from tires, and asbestos, is unlawfully incinerated. As a result, high levels of dioxin are released in the atmosphere. The types of cancer reported, ranging from stomach, breast, and colon to lung cancer, are connected to highly contaminated environments. In the region, a total of 5,200 illegal trash sites have been found.

The film documents the personal stories of Mario Cannavacciuolo and his son Alessandro, and Bruna Gambardella – all of them living in the Triangle of Death. Mario has experienced the loss of his sheep herd – 3,000 sheep that died due to exposure to toxic substances.

His son Alessandro, the youngest child in the family, has witnessed the collapse of the family business and the loss of a family member who suddenly died of lung cancer. Bruna had recently developed several health issues. In particular, she was diagnosed with endometriosis and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Her body contains a high amount of polychlorinated biphenyls – the same toxic substances that were found in the soil near where she lives. The journey through this once fertile territory continues as Gennaro Esposito, a medical doctor and environmental activist, leads us to several areas that have suffered from the illegal activities of the Camorra. The scars to the environment become obvious at the sight of piles of trash left abandoned or sometimes burned in the countryside.

Campania In-Felix (Unhappy Country) is not just a story about environmental issues that relate to just a specific geographical area in Southern Italy. Through the personal stories of Mario, Alessandro and Bruna, this documentary reveals the broken emotional and cultural balance between the people from the Campania region and their land. The film holds a universal message about the way humans interact with their environment and why this connection is so important today as the social and cultural paradigms are shifting.

Repinted from

May 3, 2011

A Piece of Abruzzo in NYC

Italian American Museum showcases the Madonna di Pietranico
Recently, I had the great privilege of viewing La Madonna di Pietranico at the Italian American Museum (IAM) in New York City. The fictile statue, dating from the 15th century, had been seriously damaged in the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila and has gone under extensive restoration following its recovery from the devastated Museo Nazionale d'Abruzzo. The reconstruction was made possible by the hard work and generosity of the IAM, which helped raise $110,000 for the victims. In gratitude for its munificence the people of the Abruzzo have loaned the beloved statue to the museum.

According to Lucia Arbace, the Superintendent for Artistic and Cultural Heritage in Abruzzo, what makes the Madonna so special is not who the sculptor was (the artist is unknown) or how precious the materials used to make her were (its made from simple terracotta), but rather her religious and historical significance. This devotional piece represents the collective identity and historical memories of the Abruzzese people, whose rich legacy of Medieval and Renaissance art remains unjustly understated.

"The Madonna di Pietranico," says Arbace "is also a testament to our capacity to communicate faith in Mary, our great Mother, who, deeply rooted in the territory of Abruzzo, assumed a new face mid-way through the fifteenth century to transmit an intensely spiritual message to the faithful." (1) She is depicted on a throne, in prayer, cradling the Christ Child on her lap.

In all, twenty-four fragments were recovered from the ruins. The nose and left hand were completely destroyed. A metal bar, some wire and plaster incorporated during an earlier restoration in the 1930's added to the difficulties. The Christ Child was lost prior to 1934.

Highly trained specialists were brought in for the complex restoration project. Using state of the art technology and techniques like computerized laser-scanning and digital 3D-modeling, the team, over the course of the year began to repair the damaged icon and return it to its former glory.

The back of the statue's head remains unfinished so viewers can see the restoration process and the extent of the damage for themselves. The repairs will be completed upon its return to the Abruzzo where it will be reinstalled, after an 80 year hiatus, to its rightful home, the Chiesa di San Michele e Santa Giusta in Pietranico.

The Madonna di Pietranico, along with a fifteen-minute documentary film about the restoration work, will be on view at the Italian American Museum until June 2, 2011.

Photos by New York Scugnizzo

(1) Quoted from La Madonna di Pietranico: The reconstruction, restoration and history of a work of art in terracotta, Edizioni ZIP, 2011, p. 22

May 1, 2011

Announcing "Close to Paradise"

Close to Paradise: The Gardens of Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast by Robert I.C. Fisher

Available September 13, 2011
Hardcover 208 pages

From the publisher:

About the book

Ravishingly photographed, romantic beyond reason, this book devoted to the most celebrated gardens of southern Italy captures the inexhaustible lure of one of the most beautiful places on earth: Campania, the sun-kissed region that is home to Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

Erstwhile pleasure dome to the Roman emperors, and still Italy's most glamorous seaside getaway, this province has been a top destination for garden appassionati for decades. Bewitched by the natural splendours of the region, author and photographer Robert I.C. Fisher has created a 200-page celebration of twenty-four of southern Italy's finest gardens.

In Ravello, the rampageous roses of Villa Cimbrone once warmed the famously chilly heart of Greta Garbo, while off the coast of Positano the private Li Galli islands were the last home of Rudolf Nureyev. In Sorrento, Lord Astor's garden is a monument to English exoticism and on Capri Graham Greene discovered his legendary retreat. Understanding that the potent allure of gardens is not only about plants and species, Fisher also tells the stories of some of the fascinating people who dedicated their lives to creating and nurturing these treasures.

The gardens' special magic is captured in lush, mouth-watering photographs, whether it be of turn-of-the-century Sorrento, picture-perfect Positano, medieval Amalfi or island-in-the-sky Ravello. Prepare for enchantment as, through these bougainvillea-bright pages, you visit the garden Shangri-La that is Campania.


Villa Rufolo, Ravello

Step on to the upper terrace of the Villa Rufolo and before you is a vista that defines the colour blue once and for all. A veil of celestial hue extends as far as the eye can see. Its pearly transparency clarifies and defines a panorama of the Bay of Salerno to a fare-thee-well, from the reach-out-and-touch cupolas of Santissima Annunziata to the distant shores of ancient Paestum. The vista almost upstages one of the most magnificent gardens in Italy: several garden terraces which, hanging upon a spur of Monte Cerreto as if meditating a plunge into the sea 1,400 feet/425 metres below, amphitheatrically encompass this breathtaking panorama where sky and sea seem to merge. With all paradise seemingly spread out before you - the infinitude of hues has often been called 'the bluest view in the world' - drifts of cloud seem to be your only link to the great cosmos. Even in a region where such moments are commonplace, this vision of beauty takes everyone's breath away.

It is little mystery, then, why Lorenzo Rufolo - whom Boccaccio used as the basis for a tale about one of Italy's richest men in his Decameron - chose this eagle's nest for his thirteenth-century Scheherazadian extravaganza. With its Arab-Norman tower, Moorish cloisters and gardens fit for a pope (His Eminence Pope Hadrian IV, to be precise, who, legend has it, planted some of the old rose gardens), the Villa Rufolo beguiles all who visit it.

The gardens found immortality in the spring of 1880, with the unexpected arrival of Richard Wagner, the music world's wundermeister. 'Klingsor's magical garden is found once again!' he crowed at the sight of voluptuous wisteria vines. He stayed the evening at the villa, banging out the second act of Parsifal on an untuned piano, accompanied only by his giant ego and a fierce thunderstorm. After he had played the piano all night long, the music fittingly accented with the lightning bolts of a tempesta, the townspeople crowded in and proclaimed the great composer pazzo. They do not call him crazy any longer, though. For the past eighty years, the Villa Rufolo has been the setting for one of Italy's most successful music fêtes, the annual Festivale Musicale di Ravello. Today, the villa's Hall of the Knights often echoes to the sound of Bach, while the Wagner Terrace regularly hosts grand orchestral homages to the composer.

(Reprinted from Frances Lincoln Publishers)