I feel very lucky to have grown up in Chicago, though I take delight in ribbing my hometown for its spit and swagger. Chicago gave me many things: the knowledge that hot dogs are meant to be served with celery salt; the knowledge that even if your team hasn’t won the Super Bowl in over twenty years, they’re still better than the Packers; the knowledge that there is a difference between the temperature and the windchill factor, and you damned well better pay attention to the latter.
But the most important thing that Chicago gave me was a deep, broad, lasting knowledge of the arts. The Windy City may be gritty (or was when I grew up there…the past twenty years have transformed her into a jewel of pristine parks, reclaimed neighborhoods, and haute cuisine), but it is also home to some of the best architecture, music, dance, and literature of any American metropolis.
Not to mention art, of course.
Chicago’s Art Institute is a local landmark and is one of the largest and most important art museums in the world (it is second in size in the US only to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City). This is not why it was so influential in my life-long love of art, however. It was influential for these two reasons: 1) when I was a kid, it was free (kind of) and 2) the most important collection is also one of the most accessible to art newbies.
When I was a kid, entrance to the Art Institute was a “suggested donation”. So, you could pay the de facto ticket price or pretty much anything (or nothing) to get in. Which meant, of course, that when I was a penniless teenager, it was cheap option to pass a freezing Sunday afternoon. And pass, I did. I would throw my buck or two at the ticket counter and head right to the museum’s crown jewel collection: Impressionists. Which was fabulous, because Impressionism is the perfect gateway drug to an appreciation of other art periods and styles. It’s pretty, figurative, easy to decipher, and reproduced on handy posters to hang in your teen bedroom. It also, in my case and I think in many people’s, lit the flame of curiosity to explore what came before the Impressionists (which, in many cases, inspired their works) and what came after (which is, in many cases, inspired by Impressionism).
I am bored with that period now…I overdosed as a teen and when I find myself in the Museé d’Orsay spend more time looking at the fabulous architecture rather than the paintings. But I do know that if I hadn’t had that exposure at a time that I was becoming curious about art, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Guercino or Caravaggio or—and here I come to my point—Burri.
Alberto Burri, Italy’s pioneer Abstract Expressionist, produced art from the 1950s until his death in 1995 which is the antithesis of Impressionism. Decidedly unpretty (though often majestically gorgeous), unfigurative (though viewers are hard-pressed not to have organic forms jump out from his bold collages and torched canvases), impenetrable in meaning (Burri declared, “I see beauty and that is all” regarding how to interpret his works), and almost completely uncommercialized (this giant of modern art is little known abroad; even the Tate Modern owns only a single example of his work), Burri’s works at once fierce and violent yet lyrical and evocative.
It is perhaps for these very reasons that I found myself a late convert to Burri. He had a revival, as artists often do, upon his death in the mid-1990s, and out of curiosity I was drawn to the museum dedicated to his life and work in his hometown of Città di Castello in northern Umbria. The first portion of the museum is housed in a the 15th century Palazzo Albizzini and opened to the public in 1980; the dramatic annex completing the collection opened in 1990 in a restored mid-century tobacco drying house outside of town.
Here I found some of the most engrossing and captivating works of 20th century art in Italy. Burri’s early quirky “Sacks” collages—using materials from burlap sacking, tar, pumice, PVC glue, netting, and resin—segued into the “Hunchback” period of warped canvases and the charred works of his “Combustion” series that give his art a three-dimensional look, to end in his “Cracked” series, in which canvases were thickly covered in monochrome paste left to dry and crack like the parched fields of a plain in drought. He later went on to use plastic, metal, and the industrial insulation Celotex to create works that are at once abstract yet undeniably natural in form. His paintings (if one can call them that) invoke the natural beauty of his rural home region of Umbria, the bloodshed of WWII (during which he was held as a war prisoner for 18 months in Texas), and the energy of an industrializing post-War Italy.
His works were considered subversive when first shown, but to the contemporary eye they are simply powerfully dramatic, elegantly unconventional, and, considering their dates, surprisingly avant-garde. It seems that everyone and their brother is taking a blowtorch to their canvases these days, but Burri was the first to show how precise destruction can be the most beautiful of all forms of creation.
To visit the Burri Museum and his collection, check the Burri foundation’s website for opening times and information.
Never was a room painted happier than this Sol Lewitt work. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
Spoleto is a mecca for history buffs, the city a mash-up of architectural epochs from the Umbrii through the middle-ages. Strolling through town, you are as likely to have your eye caught by the austere Roman Arch of Drusus as the whimsical 17th century Mascherone Fountain.
But you know what? History, schmistory. Sometimes I get a hankering to see what’s coming next, not what came before, and Spoleto has a unique window into the future, as well. The excellent Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive contemporary art museum, completely renovated in 2010 (and, luckily, with a brand-new website, as the previous version was both graphically stunning and completely impenetrabile), is one of several collections of contemporary art in otherwise artistically stodgy Umbria, and perhaps its best.
Go on, blow on these Calders. You know you want to. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
The permanent collection (Museo Carandente) on the ground floor houses fifteen rooms of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, heavy on the Calder (I blew on a couple of mobile sculptures to see them spin and no alarms went off, so go right ahead. You didn’t hear it from me, though.), including scale models and period photographs of his monumental Teodolapio sculpture from 1962, which sits in front of the Spoleto train station, and the Sol Lewitt (I challenge you to stand in the Rainbow Room and not get a silly grin on your face. Try it.).
Unfortunately, the collection is light on explanatory notes; there are few posted in the individual gallery rooms and the map upon entering is a simple postcard with a floor plan. They would be doing themselves a service to invest in more complete descriptions (posted, printed, and in audioguides) so visitors would have a better historical and cultural context for the works. In the meantime, I can just talk at you like a normal person and tell you that it’s a lovely collection—the perfect size for a visit that doesn’t lead to art overdose and happily juxtaposed with the stately Renaissance palazzo with its original cotto floors and painted vaulted ceilings.
Leoncillo's massive ceramics are lovely and unsettling (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
I was especially charmed by Calder’s lighthearted tiny wire people twisted from champagne cork cages (Yes, I can hear you saying, “But I coulda done that!” Well, chump, you didn’t. Which is why you are now paying €6 to see those who did.) and the beautifully disturbing (or disturbingly beautiful) Leoncilla ceramic works.
The ornate piano nobile upstairs is used to house temporary exhibition–primarily through the summer months–for a real look into the future of art. And don’t miss the works in the courtyard, which are easy to overlook—though the crazy graffiti-art-on-existential-high Santiago Morilla mural is an eye-catcher.
Whoa. This Santiago Morilla will stop you in your tracks. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
From this maelstrom of color and forms, it’s a bit soothing to step back into the historic stone streets of Spoleto and drink in its past. But a quick, bubbly sip of the future can be had in this stately city, as well. So, drink up.
Looking for more contemporary art in Umbria? Here are some suggestions from Arttrav: Contemporary Art in Umbria
I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
There was a family who lived down the block from me when I was growing up that had a passel of kids. I don’t recall how many, but definitely in the low double-digits. We would play together, and they were always just slightly unkempt…mismatched socks, hair needing a trim, ratty toys. The predictable signs of harried parents short on time and money. That said, I also remember how loved those kids were. Despite there being so many of them, I never got the sense that they were any less treasured than those of us with just a sibling or two who always had clean pants and extra milk money in our pockets.
This is kind of how it is with art in Italy. There’s just so damn much of it here that there aren’t the time and resources to take painstaking care of it all. That said, you do get a sense that Italy loves its treasures—despite much-discussed cases of mismanagement and graft—no less than any other country, even if it presents them with much less pomp and circumstance.
The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside…
The lovely sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime right outside of the center of Trevi is a perfect example of this. I stopped by mostly by chance, drawn to the pretty 15<sup>th</sup> century facade and elaborately carved Renaissance portal (by Giovanni di Giampietro di Venezia, I later learned) looming over the winding road which leads from the valley below Trevi up through the sprawling olive groves which surround it.
I stepped into the silent church, its lone visitor, and quickly skimmed the historical information near the door, recounting how the sanctuary had been constructed on the spot where, in 1485, an image of the Virgin (now forming the altarpiece) miraculously shed tears.
A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.
As I circled the church to take a look at the chapels and artwork, my echoing footsteps suddenly stopped in front of a large Adoration of the Magi fresco. Wait one darn minute. Could that really be? Right here, in this empty church in the middle of an olive grove with not even a caretaker keeping a watchful eye?!?
No way! Yes way.
Yep, it was a magnificent Perugino, painted in 1521 and unmistakeable in its fairytale colors, Umbrian landscape background, and—most movingly—breathtakingly fine portraits. I stood for a minute in silent admiration until I was startled by the door of the church banging shut behind me. A slight woman in her eighties, weighed down by a number of shopping bags and a lethal-looking black handbag quickly shuffled past me, set down her load, and kneeled in front of the Perugino.
I backed quietly away, leaving this priceless treasure to those who love it best.
I love this silly picture of the Virgin’s foot. It’s rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.
Umbria is surprisingly dense with masterpieces of art and architecture, given its small size and relatively modest history (no Medici art patronage during the Renaissance here, as Umbria was part of the vast and stoic Papal State until the 1800s). It’s easy to spend a week or two criss-crossing this region taking in the churches, abbeys, monasteries, and civic museums without ever having to cross her borders to fill your days.
That said, the neighboring Le Marche has its own share of culture, much of it in quiet civic museums and echoing churches (though there are a few monumental exceptions). If you’re curious to head east during your stay in Umbria for the day and see what treasures this nearby region has to offer, take a look at this overview I wrote recently:
You can easily combine your day trip with a drive through the gorgeous Sibilline National Park, or a few hours at the beach along Le Marche’s Adriatic coast. But be sure to make it back to Umbria…we don’t want you to become too enthusiastic about our friendly neighbors!