Hope for Modern Art

2 Exhibits in Rome Bring Beauty to Defend the Faith

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 20, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Older generations tend to lament, "They just don't make 'em like they used to." I, for one, have been known to express the same sentiment when it comes to modern art. Two exhibitions in Rome, however, featuring two artists and separated by a half mile and a half millennium, show that there are still a few artists keeping up the grand tradition in art.

The former stables of the Quirinal palace are hosting a monographic exhibit on Jacopo Robusti, better known as Tintoretto, one of the most famous painters of the Venetian Renaissance. At the same time, the University of Santa Croce, nestled by Piazza Navona, is displaying the work of Romano Cosci, a sculptor and painter from the northern Italian town of Lucca.

The craftsmanship, vibrancy and religious vision of both men unite them across the many centuries that divide them.

Born to a wealthy dyer in 1518, Tintoretto's privileged circumstances allowed him to pursue studies in painting and to aggressively break into the art scene by underbidding other painters or even offering his works for free.

He painted constantly and quickly and was soon given the nickname "Il Furioso." The intensity of character can be seen in his brushstroke, visible on his canvasses, which zig zag across the surface like lightning bolts. His self-portrait painted as a young and bold artist can be found in the first room of the show.

The exhibit opens with a show stopper: Tintoretto's prestigious 1548 work for the Scuola Grande of San Marco, St Mark Freeing a Christian Slave. Tintoretto won this commission away from many other more experienced artists and was subsequently given several other commissions for the same Scuola.

The Miracle of the Slave shows a story from the Golden Legend where St Mark the Evangelist intervenes from heaven to save a slave condemned to death for his veneration of a saint. The large canvas (164" x 214") startles for its size, lighting, and especially the draughtsmanship.

Despite the broad expanse of the work, with figures swelling along the sides, the main axis of the scene is vertical. The slave, painted in breathtaking foreshortening, lies nude on the ground, humiliated, overcome and awaiting his death. St Mark descends from above, spiraling downwards in a vortex of movement that parts the bystanders. The rich reds and glistening whites enhance an already charged scene -- in this work Tintoretto confronts the viewer with the moment when heaven overturns the human course of events.

Written on the wall of Tintoretto's studio was the phrase: "the drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian." In his St Mark series (the exhibit also has the canvas of St Mark's Body brought to Venice,) Tintoretto makes it clear that he has command of the Florentine dramatic figures and has also mastered the emotional intensity of Venetian color.

The overwhelming majority of Tintoretto's works were religious. He painted only a few commissions of mythological love stories for aristocratic clients, these are displayed on the second floor of the exhibit. Even when tackling tales of the loves of Venus, Tintoretto keeps himself aloof, raising an amused eyebrow at the antics of the gods.

Tintoretto lived during the volatile years of the Counter Reformation, when the essential tenets of the Catholic faith were often disputed or denied. As a gifted artist, and in the words of contemporary Giorgio Vasari, "the most fearsome brain the world has ever known," Tintoretto was drawn into the service of defending the faith through art.

The Last Supper, the Institution of the Eucharist, became one of the most popular subjects for paintings, a reminder of the Real Presence of Christ in the host. Tintoretto painted 10 such subjects for religious confraternities over the years of 1547-1592. Where once the Last Supper was generally confined to the refectories of religious orders, these images were for all people of all status and education so as to impress on them the significance of the Eucharist.

Two of Tintoretto's Last Suppers are in the exhibit; in the San Trovaso version, Tintoretto shows the moment of accusation where the apostles recoil dramatically at the news that there is a traitor among them. The second, from San Polo, is enhanced with astonishing foreshortening, showing Christ giving communion to St Peter. Christ's arms are splayed across the canvas in anticipation of His crucifixion the next day.

Tintoretto's works are powerful, dramatic and lyrical. He pioneered the use of dramatic chiaroscuro that would be so successfully mastered by Caravaggio. Tintoretto painted his canvases black and then chose where to add the luminous touch of a halo or light emanating from God in the painting of Creation.

Some of the works are simply delightful to look at such as Susanna and the Elders from the Louvre or St George and the Dragon from the National Gallery in London, while others are deeply meditative.

Tintoretto's own Sistine Chapel was the Scuola of San Rocco, where the painter worked on and off for most of his life producing 52 paintings for the space before he died. While many are grand scale stories from the Life of Christ, two unusual panels have been brought to the show, The Virgin Mary Reading and the Virgin Mary in Meditation. Removed their overwhelming context of Tintoretto's tour de force, they take on greater strength. Mary sits in a isolated landscape; flashes of white brushstrokes animate the stream, the trees and the hillside. She reads and meditates peacefully, a beautifully contemplative vision of the Virgin.

The exhibit also contains a preparatory sketch for Tintoretto's last major work, an enormous canvas depicting Paradise, destined for the Ducal Palace. At 74 feet by 30 feet, it was the most ambitious project he ever undertook, and consumed his final years. Tintoretto had prayed for this commission, hoping that "in painting Heaven he might one day be able to see it." His prayers seem to have been answered, he died shortly after completing the work in 1592.

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Tintoretto's work combined great craftsmanship, lyrical vision and an intense love of his art, visible in the passionate brushstrokes and streaks of light. Many of these qualities can be seen in the art of Romano Cosci, a Tuscan sculptor and painter, who has also dedicated his life to sacred imagery.

Born in 1939, Cosci lives and works in Pietrasanta near the marble quarries that produced the stone for Michelangelo's Pietà. His art, whether in clay, stone or fresco infuses the inert medium with vivacity and action, or exploits the heaviness of the stone to convey the gravitas of his sacred figures.

Cosci's career began in Northern Italy where he worked in Tuscany and Lombardy, but it was his encounter with Opus Dei that catapulted his career into Rome. In 2002, Cosci carved the statue of St Josemaria Escrivà, the founder of Opus Dei, that would decorate one of the niches of St Peter's Basilica. It took the artist two years to carve and the many sketches and preparatory models are in the exhibit. A particularly lovely piece focuses on the hands of St Jose Maria, as he prays the Rosary. Leonardo da Vinci once claimed that the hands tell as much about the sitter as the face; Cosci proves Leonardo's point.

Like Tintoretto, Cosci uses a signature stroke to add his own lyrical vision to his works as well as infusing energy into the matter. There are several little bronze groups alongside a few clay sketches all recounting Biblical stories. The works are profoundly moving; small, yet charged with narrative power. Peter recoils as Christ goes to wash his feet, Jesus sits alone with the crown of thorns, and Cain strikes a fatal blow at Abel, committing the first murder. Cosci's treatment of the bronze with deep slashes to reflect light are reminiscent of Tintoretto's zigzag brush stroke.

Like Michelangelo before him, Cosci's talents are not limited to sculpture. He has executed many fresco works, and several large scale drawings lead visitors into the show. The chalk drawings beautifully model light and shadow and present the Holy Stories with great immediacy. In the Prodigal Son, the two figures converge in a powerful triangle emphasizing reconciliation. Another presents a stately Christ walking with two apostles that turn toward him, hanging on His every word on the road to Emmaus. But these images of journeys culminate in the splendid drawing of the Ascension of Christ, who rises upward, the ultimate goal of all our journeys.

Appropriately titled "On the Road with Christ" the art of Romano Coci illustrates the path of salvation traced by Christ: from his many Annunciations, to his bronze Stations of the Cross, to the witness of a St Josemaria who paved his unique road to Christ, making his own life a work of art.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. Her new book, "The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici" was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org