Sa­cred art, re­united with its re­li­gious con­text

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence hits on grand idea

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY NANCY NATHAN travel@wash­ Nathan is a writer based in the District.

Ever since pa­tri­cian English­men made Florence a stop on the Grand Tour in the 17th cen­tury, the city, a Re­nais­sance cru­cible of paint­ing and sculp­ture, has been a des­ti­na­tion for art wor­shipers.

And while some of the great mile­stones in art his­tory re­main in situ — to see Masac­cio’s ground­break­ing ex­per­i­ment in per­spec­tive with the “Holy Trin­ity” fresco, you go to the Do­mini­can Santa Maria Novella, for in­stance — a lot of oth­ers were re­moved from churches and monas­ter­ies over the cen­turies. Thanks to the col­lect­ing avarice of the Medici and of Napoleon Bonaparte, many of the masters’ re­li­gious pic­tures, though taken from the Floren­tine churches they were in­tended for, line the walls of pub­lic tem­ples — the Uf­fizi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Bargello Na­tional Mu­seum.

But now comes a re­cently ren­o­vated mu­seum in Florence, one that aims to in­spire art tourists to see mas­ter­pieces as re­li­gious works in a re-cre­ated re­li­gious set­ting. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which first opened in 1891 on the street that runs right be­hind the great cathe­dral’s apse, was cre­ated to house much of the sculp­ture and other works orig­i­nally cre­ated for the Duomo in the last part of the me­dieval era and through the Re­nais­sance.

Since its three-year ex­pan­sion, which cost 50 mil­lion eu­ros (about $56.7 mil­lion) was com­pleted, the Museo has more than quadru­pled its at­ten­dance. Most vis­i­tors spend about two hours ex­pe­ri­enc­ing its gal­leries, far longer than be­fore.

You en­ter a light-filled atrium that makes a state­ment right at the out­set. On one long wall fac­ing you is a tow­er­ing, ex­act resin model of the Duomo’s Gothic fa­cade, in­clud­ing many orig­i­nal stat­ues in the niches they were cre­ated for, as de­signed by Arnolfo di Cam­bio in the late 13th cen­tury and de­mol­ished by the Medici in the 16th cen­tury, when they wanted a Re­nais­sance front. Across the court­yard of this huge atrium are Lorenzo Ghib­erti’s fa­mous bronze bap­tis­tery doors that faced the Duomo, gleam­ingly re­stored.

The la­bel on the atrium wall gets right to the new mu­seum’s ef­fort to put the works of art into their orig­i­nal, re­li­gious con­text: “Chris­tians call the area be­tween a Bap­tis­tery and its re­lated church a Par­adiso, evok­ing the joy of those who, af­ter re­ceiv­ing bap­tism, cross that space to par­tic­i­pate in the Eucharist for the first time.”

That de­scrip­tion was writ­ten by a man with a mis­sion, the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor and vi­sion­ary, Mon­signor Ti­mothy Ver­don, a na­tive of Wee­hawken, N.J. Ver­don got a doc­tor­ate in art his­tory in 1975 at Yale, and be­came a priest in 1994. He has taught in the United States off and on for the last half-cen­tury, but has lived in Italy most of that time.

Ver­don in­creas­ingly felt out of step with his fel­low art his­to­ri­ans, he said in an in­ter­view. “For a long time,” he said, “art his­to­ri­ans thought you could only dis­cuss art val­ues and leave the re­li­gious mean­ing to the the­olo­gians. That’s false chastity!”

And the “no­to­ri­ous an­ti­cler­i­cal­ism” in Europe made it dif­fi­cult to talk about re­li­gious mes­sages by the great masters, Ver­don said.

But in 2011, his vi­sion for a new way to present the re­li­gious art de­signed for Florence’s cathe­dral was em­braced by the mu­seum’s board, and the ren­o­va­tion be­gan the next year.

“I was con­vinced that [the mu­seum’s dis­plays and texts] were the only way to let the works re­dis­cover their own voice and say what they meant to say,” Ver­don said. “In the 2,700 years of Western art, art made for tem­ples or churches, the artists were com­mu­ni­cat­ing to peo­ple for whom the mes­sage was ex­is­ten­tial, not in­tel­lec­tual. You have to find a way to let peo­ple to­day into the mes­sages in or­der to be fair to the artists.”

In ad­di­tion to the strik­ing atrium, an up­per floor is de­signed to mir­ror the feel­ing wor­shipers might have ex­pe­ri­enced in the sanc­tu­ary. Sa­cred mu­sic plays, and 15th-cen­tury fres­coes are pro­jected on the ceil­ing. Vest­ments, pre­cious li­tur­gi­cal ob­jects and the Duomo’s fa­mous carved choir lofts by Donatello and Luca della Rob­bia com­bine to mov­ing ef­fect even for the non­re­li­gious vis­i­tor.

Ver­don said he be­gan to per­ceive a re­li­gious mes­sage in art when he was in high school in New Jer­sey and played hooky in Man­hat­tan at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, where he “fell in love.”

“I can still re­mem­ber the fra­grance of the floor wax in the Ital­ian rooms and of the pig­ments of the restora­tion ma­te­ri­als,” he said.

In par­tic­u­lar, Ver­don re­mem­bers spend­ing many hours trans­fixed by the mes­sages con­tained in Vit­tore Carpac­cio’s early-16th-cen­tury paint­ing, “The Med­i­ta­tion on the Pas­sion.”

“This fas­ci­nated me,” he said. “It was the be­gin­ning of my life’s work. I re­al­ized th­ese works re­flect the artists’ lay­ered knowl­edge of scrip­ture and com­men­taries on scrip­ture, and emo­tional faith.”

The cathe­dral mu­seum’s two best­known sculp­tures are stun­ningly show­cased to­day. Donatello’s life-size wooden carv­ing of Mary Mag­da­lene stands in a seam­less glass case that is bril­liantly lit. In keep­ing with Ver­don’s goal to dis­play the well-known works in a new way, the Donatello is seen along­side paint­ings and reli­quar­ies that also “evoke the world of pri­vate piety,” as the wall text ex­plains.

And the most fa­mous of the sculp­tures that once stood in the Duomo is Michelan­gelo’s next-to-last work, a Pi­età that he orig­i­nally in­tended for his own tomb. He was so un­happy with flaws in the mar­ble that he de­stroyed some of the sculp­ture; Cosimo de Medici re­assem­bled it for the Medici fam­ily crypt in the San Lorenzo basil­ica, and it later was trans­ferred to the Duomo.

Ver­don wrote this for the new dis­play: “Carved in the first years of the Coun­cil of Trent, the Pi­età high­lights the fig­ure of Christ, un­der­lin­ing the Catholic con­vic­tion that in the Mass the Sav­ior’s body is made truly present; the Coun­cil re­it­er­ated this def­i­ni­tion of the Eucharist with a de­cree pub­lished in 1551, while Michelan­gelo was still at work on the group . . . Michelan­gelo’s love for Christ is clearly stated in son­nets he wrote in the same years, one of which is tran­scribed in this room.”

Ver­don fol­lows in an­cient foot­steps. The Bargello, a state sculp­ture mu­seum a few blocks from the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, oc­cu­pies a palace orig­i­nally built as the me­dieval po­lice head­quar­ters. Its walls are em­bed­ded with the coats of arms of hun­dreds of podestas, the out­siders hired by the peo­ple of Florence to ad­min­is­ter their city for terms of one year each, be­cause the Floren­tines wanted the city run by for­eign­ers they could trust to get it right.

Per­haps Ver­don is Florence’s out­sider who gets its art right.


CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: The dis­tinc­tive golden fa­cade of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence; the 15th-cen­tury choir lofts on the walls were carved by Luca della Rob­bia and Donatello; the real­ism of the wooden sculp­ture of Mary Mag­da­lene by Donatello was shock­ing in its day; this Pi­età by Michelan­gelo, his second-to­last work, orig­i­nally was in­tended for the artist’s tomb.


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