Last year, as Italy went into lockdown Luca and I realised our job as guides and the business we had been creating at Unlock Italy was going to be put on hold for much longer than any of us could have expected. Unable to bring you to art, we decided to bring Italian art to you in a series of photos in which we recreated Italian masterpieces using only what we had in the house during lockdown! When I starting posting them on instagram and facebook we thought we’d just do a couple but the positive response was so overwhelming that we kept going.
Unknown to us, another instagram account in the Netherlands (I think?) started doing the same thing at the same time and it soon blew up into an internationally followed phenomenon, repeated by the Getty Museum and others. While we never got a repost from them, we were proud to get mentioned in Forbes!
One year later, as we’re watching delays in the vaccine roll out in Europe and our business remains in limbo, Luca and I put our heads together again to create some more “living art” pictures. We’ll be “releasing” them on our Instagram and Facebook pages first and then I’ll be uploading them here but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy the pieces from our 2020 collection (plus a new one at the end!) that highlight some of our favourite Italian art and, more importantly, will make you smile.
Scroll to see how Luca and Lauren compare to the original and let us know what you think in the comments!
1. The Duke and Duchess of Urbino
Artist: Piero della Francesca (1475)
Where? Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Painted somewhere between 1465-1475 these portraits currently hanging in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery are some of the most famous examples of Italian Renaissance portraiture.
The question that has captivated viewers for centuries remains: who are these folks and why do they look so… well…odd.
The duke Federico da Montefeltro was a mercenary who used his wealth made with his armies as a hired soldier to enrich his court with artists and intellectuals in Urbino much like the Medici were doing in Florence. He may have had a good reason to request a profile portrait, not just to imitate Roman imperial coin portraiture but to hide the fact that he may have been missing his right eye. Ouch. Lost in a battle or a joust. The story goes that he performed a self-rhynoplasty, chopping off the top of his nose so his remaining eye could still get a good look over to his other side. That or when he was getting his eye gouged out his nose was also defomred. Then again, he could have been born that way, poor guy.
The Duchess Battista Sforza’s appearance would have been infinitely appropriate for a noble woman of her age. The patterned sleeve of her gown could have been removed for washing and replaced with other sleeves for a rather convenient outfit swap. The high forehead was very prized with hair either being tied back tightly or even plucked. There’s one fashion trend that thankfully didn’t come back around.
Her paleness also would have been a virtue.
Her paleness also would have been a virtue, indicating that she spent her time being rich and indoors and not getting a trashy tan while working in the fields, however she is indeed so intensely pale that art historians have attributed her level of paleness to her untimely death, brought about by childbirth in 1472. Either the painting was started before her death or was commissioned by the duke to remember is late wife. Piero dutifully finished the portrait giving poor Battista an otherworldly pallor.
The goal of portraits such as these was to be remembered and since we are still talking about them over 500 years later, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino have certainly achieved their goal with the help of artist Piero della Francesca. The next time you take a selfie, just make sure “your vast land holdings” are on display in the background, you look as bored and above-it-all as possible and as always, show them your “good” side. Immortality does require a bit of finesse after all.
How to become a Renaissance Duke and Duchess while in quarantine:
- Luca’s outfit: Towel stuffed in shirt for robustness. White t-shirt, red button up. Hat: Meditation cushion.
- Lauren’s outfit: black t-shirt worn over Forever 21 jacket.
- Lauren’s hair/jewelry: Choker: bikini strap with hanging earring and pearl necklace. Hair piece: Two white shoe-laces, round earring, sparkle headband, costume jewelry ring, paper napkin, roughly 800 bobby pins.
2. Allegory of Spring
Artist: Sandro Botticelli (1480)
Where? Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Let me introduce you to Flora, the Roman Goddess of spring and flowering who may have given her name to the city of Florence itself when it was founded in the first century b.c.. She appears here in one of Botticelli’s most famous (and famously confusing) works completed around 1480 in tempera on wood.
In the center of the painting is the goddess Venus presiding over a springtime scene of… what exactly? That’s the problem. Nobody really knows.
One hypothesis is that the painting reveals love in varying forms. On the right: lust personified by the cold wind Zephyr who is abducting the nymph Chloris. On the left: dreamy infatuation reigns where cupid is blindly shooting into the dancing Graces one of whom gazes wistfully at the man (maybe Mercury? Maybe a Medici?) who (naturally) doesn’t notice her one bit.
In this case one side of the painting depicts carnal love while the other a higher minded poetic love but both take place in the heady beauty and abundance of Springtime and with the guidance of the Goddess Venus… That OR Flora is the daughter born to Chloris after her abduction. OR Flora IS Chloris herself, transformed, soon to give birth. Yeah, we don’t know exactly.
The name “Primavera” isn’t even the original and was given to the painting nearly 100 years after its creation by Giorgio Vasari who did a lot of work naming and explaining things that may not have been totally accurate.
We don’t even know if it was a member of the Medici family who commissioned it or if they just bought it, however the fact that the figures are in an orange grove, a symbol of the Medici family, supports the theory that it was made at least with the Medici in mind.
One thing that seems certain is that it was a clever way to not only depict a deeply philosophical Neoplatonist theme combined with one of mankinds favorite things to have on the wall: hot babes. Who doesn’t dig chicks and philosophy?
How to become the goddess Flora while home in Lockdown
- Flowers picked from apartment courtyard and attached to branches cut from nearby tree.
- Brown tissue paper tied around forearms.
- Cushion in shirt to make you look pregnant.
- Climb into your flowery comforter cover from Zara Home and button yourself up.
- Drape said flowers over body and feel greatful your partner didn’t tell you about the earwig he flicked from your gown until it was all over.
- Crook that pinkie until your hand is about to fall off aaaaand: Goddess ready!
3. Martin Luther & Katharina von Bora
Artist: Lukas Cranach the Elder (1529)
Where? Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
May I present: “Sir Doctor” and “My Lord Katy.” Not the official name of this painting in the Uffizi but the pet names these famous people gave each other (which, more than anything, makes me wish I could skip back in time and meet them). The world knew them as Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the protestant reformation and his wife, Katharina von Bora.
The painting was done by Lukas Cranach the Elder in 1529 some years after their marriage.
I could tell you the story of how the priest Martin Luther, seeking to reform the incredibly powerful Catholic church, posted his 95 Theses on the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 and unleashed what was to become seismic shift in Europe known as The Protestant Reformation.
But I’m not going to tell that story now because it’s a little heavy and a little complicated and, to be honest, I’m swept up in the tale of how these two unusual people met and became a couple in a time when that never should have been possible.
Martin was a priest. Katy was a nun. That should have been the end of the story. But as we know Martin was getting a little peeved with the Catholic church (in particular with the necessity that priests remain celibate) and apparently Katy had issues of her own with the powers that be. She and some fellow nuns wrote to Luther, declaring their intention to secretly escape their nunnery. And they wanted his help.
Luther arranged for them to stow away aboard a wagon load of herrings (were they red, I wonder?). Post escape, when their families refused to take them back, Luther made sure they all found places to stay and Katy ended up living with the artist Cranach himself. Many men tried to marry her but she said she would have only Luther.
Luther concluded that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” In 1525 they were married (hopefully to much angel laughter) and Katy set about running the monastery where they lived, managing the care and sale of animals, running a brewery and essentially a BnB for all the students coming to visit Luther, and in times of need also organizing a hospital. She was essential to their finanacial stability. In the meantime she also found time to raise 10 children (6 of her own and 4 adopted orphans). Basically, this woman was a FORCE. And their marriage? An incredibly important step in establishing what could be expected from protestant priests and families.
Recreating Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora with only supplies we have in our house during lockdown.
- Luca: Rain jacket and bike seat as a hat
- Lauren: Button up, tube top, American Eagle Jacket, black shoe laces, paper and pen to make laces, snood recreated with a fishnet sock. More bobby pins.
4 Sick Bacchus
Artist: Michelangelo de Merisi known as Caravaggio (1594)
Where? Borghese Gallery, Rome
Today, we leave the art of Florence and virtually take you to Rome’s exquisite Borghese Gallery.
You can’t beat Caravaggio for drama and scandal, both in his art and in his personal life. He’s the original bad boy artist, creating shocking yet divine works of art by day and then getting into serious trouble by night as he swashbuckled his way around Rome. Much of what we know about him is in fact taken from police records as he was imprisoned on multiple occasions for threatening and even attacking people, libelling fellow artists and ultimately murdering (accidentally? We can’t know) a man during a type of tennis match that got him banished from the city.
Sick Bacchus was one of numerous paintings he did on the subject of the Roman God of wine and partying, something I take it he had a pretty good handle on. But Caravaggio’s Bacchuses never look like the Gods of antiquity but rather like someone threw an epic costume party and had a little too much fun. This pale, almost green Bacchus is conquered by his grapes, not master of them.
Recreating this piece put both Luca and I in an interesting position as we realized we were reliving not just the painting but a scenario that would have been tremendously familiar to Caravaggio himself. The artist was famous for arranging scenes with live models in his studio to paint directly onto the canvas (not sketching them beforehand as was considered the “right” way to paint). Thus, his artistic process was not only an intellectual positioning of forms and shapes but a quite literal posing of bodies, succulent fruits and soft drapery, slipping off a shoulder. His work, even of the most religious subjects, explodes with a captivating sensuality. For the first time, it felt like I was looking through the canvas, back in time to the man himself and understanding the obvious pleasure he must have taken arranging fig leaves in hair “just so” and saying to a friend (or lover), hold the grapes higher!
5. Musical Angel (Putto che suona)
Artist: Rosso Fiorentino (1521)
Where: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
For a few days we have Luca’s daughter Alessia with us and as soon as she saw what we’d been up to, she proved to be her father’s daughter with an immediate: “Anch’io!” Me too!
There was a joke during my tour guide certification course: that every tour guide of the Uffizi Gallery was compelled to learn about this little angel playing a lute because even though it was not important for the overall history of art, there was one group of people that were obsessed with it. Can you guess? The Americans! At the time there was much gentle, superior laughter about the silly Americans (I being the only one in the class) being swayed by mere cuteness before everyone kind of stopped and said… well… what’s wrong with cuteness? Don’t we live in the era of the cat video?? Originally part of a larger altarpiece, the painting was dismantled and the outlines of a building behind the little lute player were painted over in black along with the name of the artist (Luca appropriately blacked out the background of ours too too). Rosso Fiorentino (meaning literally The Red Florentine, due to his hair) and his contemporaries that worked in the years after what we call the High Renaissance were faced with a problem. How do you follow up the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci?
The answer: Mannerism. Mannerism took on an exaggerated, overly stylized and intellectual “look” as a response to the perfection and balance of Renaissance art at the time proving that it’s not just in the 21st century that we consistently crave the new and the different.
But the little lute player reminds us that sometimes art doesn’t have to be deep, meaningful, life changing and epic. It can also be sweet, gentle, comforting and simply beautiful. I think both Rosso and Alessia achieved exactly what they were going for here: cuteness.
6. Joseph and Potophar’s Wife
Artist: Guido Reni (around 1630)
Where: Getty Museum, LA
It’s a classic tale: She’s totally into it. He’s… wayyyy not into it. “He” is Joseph, the one in the Old Testament that’s thrown down a well by his jealous brothers who bring his blood-smeared coat of many colours back to their father to prove star brother Jo out of the picture. He’s sold into slavery and comes to be owned by Potipher, captain of the Pharoah’s guard.
Here’s where the temptress wife comes in. “Potipher’s wife” (who never gets a name of her own in the Bible) sets her sights on sexy slave Joseph, making continuous advances that he is totally NOT enthused about. Finally, she gets so pissed off that she falsely accuses Joseph of rape to get back at him (hey girl, not cool). Though it does work out well for Joseph whose subsequent imprisonment leads to his rise in the pharaoh’s household, fame and fortune. (That’s all I have room for here, go read the Bible for the rest!) So if you ever find yourself in front of a painting in a museum of a sexy lady and a cringing, panicked man, in most cases it will be this moralizing tale of avoiding the sin and temptation of the original femme fatale.
What do you think, are we convincing?
7. Beatrice Cenci
Artist: Guido Reni (1600)
Where: Palazzo Barberini Museum, Rome
Today’s offering is a portrait of the tragic Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido Reni (1600) located in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini.
It’s a story famous on tours of haunted Rome. The ghost of the young Beatrice reportedly stalks the bridge of Castel Sant’Angelo, her severed head held under her arm, after her execution for murdering her own father.
It was widely known that the man was evil. Abusive. Depraved. Her brothers, step mother and lover were in on the plot to free themselves from his tyranny after numerous appeals to the authorities for help. But the 16th century isn’t a time known to be sympathetic to young women and as he was a noble, he continually evaded any repercussions. They’d had to take matters into their own hands.
The plot was simple. Poison should do the trick. But the execution (so to speak) didn’t go exactly as planned. Evil daddy seemed to rouse from the poison, merely drugged, and they had to beat him to death and chuck him out the window, claiming faulty balcony construction for his death.
It was too suspicious. They were thrown into prison as the death was investigated and eventually they were all tried for murder despite protests from the people of Rome who knew the tales of Cenci’s monstrous deeds and who felt sympathy for the poor Beatrice, a victim of abuse.
It was to no avail. Beatrice was beheaded on September 11th, 1599 on the bridge in front of Castel Sant’Angelo along with the others. It’s even said the artist Caravaggio was among witnessing crowd (perhaps taking notes for the numerous beheadings in his paintings). The family lands and estates were handed over to the one who had signed their death warrant: the pope himself (Clement VIII). Reni’s portrait is said to be based on sketches he made of her in prison, the day before her death. Her white shroud and pleading gaze ask us if she deserves her fate.
8. The Annunciation
Artist: Antonello da Messina (1476)
Where? Galleria Regionale di palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily
This is one of those classic themes in Renaissance art: the Annunciation. It’s the moment the Angel Gabriel swoops down from heaven to give Mary the news: “Hello. Surprise. You’re going to be pregnant. And one more thing … it’s the son of God.” (Paraphrased.) Normally you can identify this subject in painting by its typical iconography – which any of you who have been on an Uffizi tour with me will hopefully remember. 😉 Mary is reading, wearing her primary colour, a deep blue often paired with red or pink. The angel is often pictured beside her in an enclosed garden, representative of her womb, while holding a white lily, a reminder of Mary’s purity and virginity. Lastly, a dove flies down toward her or sends down a beam of light: the holy spirit making the whole miracle possible. (The three pictures following Antonello’s Annunciation reveal these symbols. They are by Botticelli, Fra Angelico and Simone Martini respectively.) But almost all these things are missing from this version by Antonello da Messina. His Annunciation imagines an entirely new perspective – that of the angel. We see Mary just interrupted in her reading, her hand raised in surprise. Is she about to receive the news? Or has she just heard it? Does she see the angel or does she feel his message in her heart? I love that in this version the angel and the holy spirit are not visible to us. They are, after all, matters of faith. But we know they are there. Just by changing the angle and repositioning Mary, Antonello also repositions us.
In Italy we’ve all been cooped up for over 40 days of lockdown now, not allowed to go much further than the end of our block and things are starting to get pretty repetitive. But maybe that’s just because we need a change of perspective to see the same old story in a different light. 🕊
9. The Baptism of Christ
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci & Verrocchio (1478)
Where: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
I present: the detail of the two angels in the Baptism of Christ by Verrocchio and his apprentice Leonardo da Vinci (1478).
This painting in the Uffizi Gallery was completed by Verrocchio and his workshop where Leonardo was a student alongside Botticelli and Perugino (basically, the dream team of the Renaissance). The tale of the student surpassing the master is as old as time and there’s no knowing if Giorgio Vasari was telling the truth when he said that after Verrocchio saw how much Leonardo’s angel surpassed his own he snapped his paintbrush in half and said, “I will never paint again.”
It’s true that after this painting, Verrocchio didn’t complete any others. Leonardo’s angel is the one on the left (recreated by Luca’s daughter Alessia to perfection) who was depicted with translucent golden curls, rosy cheeks and quite the angelic expression while the one on the right (done by me) seems to be looking vacantly an unclear point in the distance.
Normally images of John baptising Christ don’t include angels accompanying the holy scene but Antonio Natali has a theory about why these two made it into Verrochio’s version. The angel on the left is clearly wearing higher calibre robes than the one on the right and also has sapphires on the shoulder, a sign of an archangel, most likely the Archangel Michael. The contract of this altarpiece was for the Vallambrosian Monastery of San Salvi where Verrocchio’s brother “Michele di Cione” or “Michael” was a monk. Thus, the plot thickens.
How to realize Renaissance angels during lockdown?
- Halos of golden pastry plates
- saphires of bottlecaps taped to a belt
- and some blue bathrobes and sheets … artfully draped.