Category Archives: Russians about Italy

Svetlana Konegen: Nome, Cose, Citta

I recently went to the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, and one of the exhibitions currently on display is a show of photographs made with an iPhone by a renowned Russian TV broadcaster, Svetlana Konegen, Nome, Cose, Citta. Born and bred in Saint Petersburg, Svetlana eventually moved to Moscow where she landed a spot on TV with her own programme. I gather that she must now be dividing her time between Moscow and Italy, the latter being the native country of her husband.

Franco Moroni, Antonio Geusa, Svetlana Konegen (image: RDH)

The exhibition by Svetlana Konegen Nome. Cose. Citta (Names. Things. Cities) follows several Italian towns where Svetlana travelled. She wonders as to exactly what attracts Russians to Italy, concluding that this is a kind of Paradise Regained, especially as far as the artists are concerned. Nikolai Gogol spent years in Rome, Alexander Ivanov travelled throughout Italy, Joseph Brodsky is buried in Venice. It is possible, Svetlana says, that in the process of exploring this country the object and subject constantly swap places: a Russian is constructed by Italy in the same way – and probably at the same time – as Italy is constructed by a Russian. Yet, as far as art is concerned, thanks to modern day technology it has become a truly intergral part of life, so just as David Hockney paints with his iPhone, Svetlana, a classical linguist, has used the same gadget to compose an illustrated diary of fleeting memories, images, and experiences that imbue the Epicurean, Senecan, Renaissance, and 1960s themes. The exhibition is curated by Antonio Geusa and is on display until February 26, 2012.

The photo that captivated me the most was the one to which I couldn’t possibly fail to respond. Having been trained in Medieval and Early Modern History, I first noticed the Latin words. It never registered with me before that Svetlana studied Classical Philology, so at the museum I was simply “impressed”. Later when I realised it was not particularly strange I still marvelled at the fact that there was a place for a Latin dictionary in Svetlana’s life (we obviously have to assume that it was Svetlana, not her husband or somebody else, who was reading this dictionary). What is more peculiar, however, is that this must be a 19th c. Russian edition, or its 20th c. reprint, to judge by the typeface and the Russian language style that was in use before the Revolution.

Frankly, out of all photographs this is probably the most telling and prompting to be contemplated. With a state-of-the-art iPhone in her hand, a 21st century woman is touring through Italy with a 19th c. Russian edition of Latin dictionary. It is as if she is trying to revive the journey of the 19th c. Russians to pay an hommage to the birthplace of the Western imperial culture, the Western law, and much of the art and philosophy. The photo is somehow in sync with the recent years’ fascination with the Russian 19th c., Dostoyevsky, nobility, monarchy, and so on. Whereas the English Grand Tour was mostly about visiting Italy, Russians seem to have always been slightly more attracted to Germany, primarily due to the Universities, so the Russian Grand Tour had its modifications. Yet Italy fascinated the Russians, even though not all were particularly impressed, say, Alexander Blok.

And the page with the words on it is also strangely telling, once you start thinking about it. The words are “consectatio” (pursuit), “consectatrix” (a pursuing female), “consectio” (dismembering), “consector” (to continuously pursue), “consecutio” (consequence), “consenesco” (to grow old). While both Russia and Italy age, Russians are still pursuing Italy as the epitome of Paradise on Earth. Some brave the Venetian vapours, others the Milanese rains, still others bask in the Napolitan sun or chill out in the chic environment of Sardinia, all for the chance to have the glory and luxury of the former Empire to rub off on them.

Et in consectatione eius consenescent?

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: The Bay of Naples

Alexander Ivanov, The Bay of Naples near Castellmare (1846)

 

Alexander Ivanov, On the Shore of the Bay of Naples (1850s)

The Bay of Naples has traditionally been a favourite with painters. Peter Breugel the Elder’s view was rather “flat”, but in the 19th c. artists showed the Bay from many angles and in many weathers. The Russian painters particularly liked it, especially Alexander Ivanov. The Bay of Naples, as seen in Ivanov’s works, is an epitome of serenity and the heat of Southern Italy, even when Vesuvius lurks in the background. Another artist of Armenian origin, who became a well-known Russian marine painter, Ivan Aivazovsky, shows this area in the moonlight, when it acquires a purely Romanticist feel.

Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Bay of Naples (1556)

 

Alexander Ivanov, Torre del Greco near Pompeii and Naples (1846)
Alexander Ivanov, View of Naples from the Road in Pozilippe

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Bay of Naples by Moonlight (1842)

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Alexander Ivanov – Via Appia at Sunset (1845)

Alexander Ivanov, the contemporary of Nikolai Gogol and Karl Brullov, spent a large part of his life in Italy where he also did many sketches for his masterpiece, The Appearance of Christ to the People. Via Appia at Sunset shows the oldest road in Campagna leading towards the barely seen St Peter’s Cathedral; along the road are the tombs of the first Christians. Ivanov called this landscape “historic” in the proper sense of the word.

Alexander Herzen wrote about this part of Italy: “always sad and gloomy, Campagna only once becomes magnificent, and that at sunset, when the land challenges the sea… Who never visited Italy does not know what the colour or light is… This sad Campagna is forever bound to the Roman ruins; they complement each other. Indeed, there is some incredible grandeur in all these stones. It is for a reason that every generation from every corner of the cultured world comes to pay them a homage” (translated from Russian).

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Alexey Tyranov – A Portrait of an Italian Lady

Alexey Tyranov was born in 1801. Prior to going to the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg he worked alongside his brother as an icon painter. At the Academy he studied under Alexey Venetsianov, and from 1836 he studied under Karl Brullov.

A Portrait of an Italian Lady gently combines the Russian modesty and the sensuality of the Italian Renaissance, e.g. Titian’s Flora. The woman is pictured either before or after having a bath.

 

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva – Venice

Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva lived all her life in St Petersburg where she was born in 1871. She was born into a family of a high official who eventually became a senator, and later married a renowned Russian chemist, hence her double surname. She studied Fine Arts at the Academy of Arts under Ilya Repin and then in Paris, in the studio of the American painter James Whistler. She found success as a part of The World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) group headed by Leon Bakst, under whose tutorship she also perfected her skills in watercolour painting.

Ostroumova-Lebedeva is credited with a revival of the techniques of engraving and woodcut in Russia. Her many works are images of St Petersburg and its environs, as well as those of foreign cities. On the engraving here, dated 1911, we see a rather atypical image of Venice: a canal flows along the dull, unadorned walls of the houses, and just about the only decorative detail is that of the rails of the bridge. A barely noticeable, lone spectator is caught in a moment of contemplation, while a bulky gondola passes under the bridge.

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Grigory Gagarin – The Gondola Races in Venice

Prince Grigory Gagarin was born in St Petersburg in 1811. Having spent his youth with his parents in Paris and Rome where his father served as an ambassador, Gagarin went on to study in Siena, at the collegium Tolomei. He received no formal training in painting, but instead took lessons with Karl Brullov, the younger brother of Alexander.

The gay and colourful “Gondola Races on the Grand Canal in Venice” was painted in 1830s. We see the Renaissance Venice, as Gagarin carefully recreated the puff sleeves and handpieces. In the view is also the magnificent Ponte Rialto. And in the video you can see the historic Regatta as it happens these days.

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Alexander Brullov – The Italian Ruins

Alexander Brullov was born on November 29, 1798 in St Petersburg in the family of Pavel Brullo, a sculptor and ornamental artist of French origin. With his brother, Karl, Alexander received a special pension from the Academy of Arts to travel to Italy to study the plastic arts. He spent 8 years travelling in Italy and France, and between 1824 and 1826 took part in restoring the Pompeii thermal baths. This latter work catapulted the young artist to fame: he was appointed the Chief Architect to the Emperor of Russia, and became a corresponding member and a member of the French Institute of Architects and the Royal Society of Architects of Britain, respectively. He also became a member of the Academies of Arts in St Petersburg (Russia) and Milan (Italy).

The watercolour The Italian Ruins was painted between 1822 and 1826. Bryullov manages to bring to the canvas all that could interest him as a painter and architect, starting with a bucolic scene featuring Italian peasants, through the attention to detail in the decor of the archs, and to the perspective that stretches up to the hill in the distance. The “ruins” seem to be scattered all over the place, as indeed befits Italy. As in Greece, these are as natural part of landscape as the mountains and sun, and the picture is literally sun-filled.