D. E. Steward
Giotto’s Almond Eyes
Mantova on its lagoon set as an ancient Chinese water city

The dead-calm evening mirrors of Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore that spread and open like that Lombardian city’s cobbled Piazza Sordello

Mantova la Gloriosa

In the Palazzo Ducale, the Reggia dei Gonzaga, the sun seems inside and within the Camera degli Sposi with its vaulted ceiling and Andrea Mantegna’s trompe l’oeil of a fluffy cumulus in a brilliantly blue sky

Maybe second only to Mantova’s lacustrine serenity are Mantegna’s frescos (1465-1474) of the Gonzaga Court there in the Camera degli Sposi

The intense dignity of the Gonzaga family and courtiers conversing, all obviously involved with one another as on a sunny day four hundred years ago

They perceive and react before us

In a common mien, proud, indulgent and seemingly without piety

In that thrust of the Renaissance verity

Mantegna’s era surely encouraged a vastly different awareness than either the pre-Giotto 1200s world or that of our world now

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), the grande dame of the Renaissance, born in Ferrara, was a baby when Mantegna painted the frescos

Down a long corridor from the Camera degli Sposi are her Appartamento and her Studiolo where she commissioned further paintings from Mantegna, and from Correggio and Perugino

Not only that, Virgil was born in Mantova in 70 BC

One third of the way back to him came Mantegna and what he left with us

Awe and amazement at what has gone on there

Gonzagas all

The Duomo in Florence, the Forbidden City, the Damascus Gate, Quito’s Plaza de San Francisco, rubble on an obscure hill in the Gobi, Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, a sanded-in caravan stop in the central Sahara, an atoll awash in the Tuamotus, anywhere we have been is among our world culture’s germinal cells

Florence’s BLUE GUIDE sixth edition concludes with a ten-page list, small type in double columns, of the artists and architects mentioned in the book’s text

Those bafflingly assertive Tuscan trecento and quattrocento urban towers were of the same germ as the pyrite Trumpismo one at 721 Fifth

Permanent erection ego

San Gimignano had altogether seventy-two of them, fourteen still stand, many were never used militarily and remained completely empty like giant chimneys

“…counter love, original response” (Robert Frost, “The Most of It”)

Louis Sullivan didn’t have tower ego even though he had steel and glass, he was somewhere else

With the Italian city-states at nearly perpetual war with each another, it was sword and lance early on for the boys

With the odds for each being soon to lose a kill-or-be-killed encounter with another

To die then and there or to convalesce having lost an extremity, an eye, your agility and balance, your nerve, penchant for violence

Now younglings with the taste join ISIS or the Marines

“The primary purpose of the walls around city-states may have been to keep people [like slaves] in, not to keep the barbarians [free, unorganized people] out.” (Steven Mithen)

Siena’s wall secured the steep Y-shaped valley which it occupies

Probably no other urban locale to equal Siena’s great slope-slanted Piazza del Campo

Herring-bone brick surface and faces, all the ostentatious marble, the travertine and the others, the beveled sanpietrini paving

The permanence of it

And for nearly a thousand years the mix and complexity of material within the Campo’s open sightlines and spaces refined and nuanced

The Torre del Mangia over the Palazzo Pubblico topped at a hundred and two meters with a monumental white marble belfry and lantern

Only from there can you see any green out beyond the stone and bricks of the Piazza del Campo’s magnificence

So perfectly organized and commingled to exquisite Tuscan taste

Eliminating nature

The original deep Etruscan valley perfectly sheathed and filled in with Roman stone, bricks and ingenuity

So dramatic is the sophisticated urbanity that the purest Renaissance’s achievements seem almost natural

Sit across the Campo from the Palazzo Pubblico and stare

“Light’s semi-tones of shadow” (John Kinsella)

The stone’s quietly beautiful yellow-browns

Across, within the Palazzo, Simone Martini and Ambroglio Lorenzetti left murals from their parallel Sienese lives

Simone had an intensely accurate manner of painting human eyes alive, there they are real, moist, vivid in his mural,

Ambroglio Lorenzetti’s famed tableaux mural of the ideal Campo eight hundred years ago leaves us there within it today, L'allegoria e gli effetti del governo buono e cattivo

A mural cycle that might be the first explicit graphic definition of human society

The brother pair of artists, Pietro Lorenzetti’s passion and humanity in attenuating the mystery of Giotto’s almond eyes

All three had gone on from Duccio in those fast-becoming-ancient times

Simone Martini died serving the Pope in 1344 in Avignon, Ambroglio Lorenzetti in June 1348 in Siena, and Pietro Lorenzetti the same year in Siena possibly of the Plague

The gist of Sienna’s magic is its Duomo’s white marble

Inlaid with black

Banded in the steps, the walls, the columns, the inlaid black outlines in the white of the church’s pavement

Tuscan Gothic’s individuality defies the blatant, the crass, and the Baroque

Quintessential manifestations of Italy’s transcendence of what had gone before

The humbling size of Florence’s and Siena’s great churches stuns, we have to be deeply aware of them, warily when nearby

Their bigness seem to have come there from another realm past the limits of human scale

To the west of Siena, direction San Gimignano, the high road to Volterra where in golden late September the 2017 Giro della Toscana finished

In the Volterra’s Piazza dei Priori, directly below the most ancient building in Tuscany

Sunday afternoon center of the complex glide-and-sprint panoply of a major modern bicycle race

Hero riders, more support and velobureaucrat cars than racers

The peloton poured into Volterra’s Etruscan square from days out in the Tuscan hills

Finishing with their last climb up to Volterra’a magnificent precipitous ridge, an austere medieval walled successor to an Etruscan city of much grander extent once there

“There must have been huge oaks and pine, cedars / maybe madrone / in Tuscany and Umbria long ago” (Gary Snyder)

That forcing-bed culture of pre-Roman Italy having slipped away behind

As did the Iroquois Confederacy villages with their milpa corn-beans-squash fields, flint banks and river weirs

Here the alabaster and copper Etruscans of the region followed and built in stone, not the bent willow and hanging bark panels of the Six Nations

And in massive blocks there is the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci high on Volterra’s flank near their Parco Archeologico

“Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” (T. S. Eliot quoted by Cyril Connolly in The Unquiet Grave)

As are dead cultures

Etruscans carved alabaster gracefully, we construct our lives way out ahead in microchips

Lustering as meat puppets in the world of enhanced life and electronic existence, toying with new cults of Dadaism/AI, are perplexed and confused

But still with ristras of green chilis hanging on sunny walls to dry