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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A quick (cinephile) visit to Milan’s Pinacotheca Brera

A quick cinephile visit to Milan’s Pinacotheca Brera involves making some judicious links. There is first, probably the best known painting in the collection, Mantegna’s     “Body of Christ”. Situated in a darkened area at the end of Gallery Six, the painting is fixed to wall low down, somewhere between waist and knee level. It’s behind glass. The effect is intended, I assume, to emphasise the foreshortening that Mantegna has attempted to convey by his choice of angle. Whether he captures it, masters it is problematic but the effect is still stunning and the choice was revolutionary in its day and beyond. That beyond stretches all the way to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone  which frames the Accattone (Franco Citti) character in ways which reference the painting. I looked all over the net for a picture to compare but came up blank.
Mantegna's The Death of Christ

The one Caravaggio in the Brera, a masterly work, “Christ’s Dinner at Emaus”, doesn’t link to anything more than the movies devoted to the painter over quite some time.

La Fiumana
But then there is Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s “La Fiumana”, the painting which sits behind, and is slowly revealed during,  the credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento (1976). Bertolucci’s film, deemed by some to be a grandiose potboiler whipped up to support the Italian Communist Party in what was thought might be the Party’s forthcoming crucial first electoral victory in Western Europe. It was not to be and the film was sent around the world shredded, something like the CP’s hopes. Only when later released on DVD in a version that seems to have slipped past the censors notwithstanding some quite daring sexual elements did the full four hour show, which many do now deem one of Bertolucci’s great works, get back before the public.

Finally a surprise. I first saw the paintings of Vittore Carpaccio at Venice’s Accademia Gallery maybe a decade or so ago. Painting around the beginning of the sixteenth century, he was a master in representing the lives of his fellow Venetians. In Venice today, as well as the paintings in the Accademia there is one building where nine of Carpaccio’s works can still be seen. Forgive a quick dip into Wikipedia at this point: From 1502-1507 Carpaccio executed another notable series of panels for the primarily immigrant Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, (Schiavoni meaning "Slavs" in Venetian dialect). Unlike the slightly old-fashioned use of a continuous narrative sequence found in the St. Ursula series, wherein the main characters appear multiple times within each canvas, each work in the Schiavoni series concentrates on a single episode in the lives of the Dalmatian's three patron Saints: St. Jerome, St. George and St. Trifon. These works are thought of as "orientalist" because they offer evidence of a new fascination with the Levant: a distinctly middle-eastern looking landscape takes an increasing role in the images as the backdrop to the religious scenes. Moreover, several of the scenes deal directly with cross-cultural issues, such as translation and conversion.
At the Brera there are two more Carpaccios and one of them contains a surprise. The figure of a bald white haired and bearded man on the left side of the picture is a dead ringer for John Flaus! See for yourself insofar as a tiny reproduction allows. Believe me, in the flesh it’s an uncanny resemblance. Flaus however is just not that old, I think.
Vittore Carpaccio's The Presentation of the Virgin. John Flaus at left


Now, to complete the circle. One other thing is clear, whomever did the design work on MGM’s Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney, USA, 1953) had clearly seen and henceforth drew much inspiration from Carpaccio’s Venetian paintings. The film has been restored and new 3-D copies are now circulating including one that filled up the small cinemas at the Cineteca. You can get it on DVD and Blu-ray as well to see just how good Hollywood was at borrowing from the masters.

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