That’s Amore! Art with Italian Flair
Festa Italiana is taking center stage at the Maier Festival Park with food, music, and conversations with a lot of hand gestures. The artistic gifts of Italy are not to be overlooked as attested by the looming facsimile of Michelangelo’s David that greets visitors at the main gate. To enhance your appreciation of Italian-inspired art in Milwaukee this week, here are a couple of suggestions.
The first is another Michelangelo piece, currently housed in the Italian Conference Center (631 E. Chicago Street), which is located practically at the front gate of the Summerfest grounds. The Haggerty Museum of Art has long had in its collection a bronze copy of Michelangelo’s Pietà, the famous piece where Mary holds the body of the dead Christ on her lap. It’s his earliest masterpiece, and the only one he signed. The original is at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and the Milwaukee version is one of only a handful cast from molds of Michelangelo’s sculpture, making it about as close to the original as you can get without hopping a jet.
The Haggerty has loaned their Pietà to the Italian Conference Center, and it is on view in the Galleria in the east wing of the building. The ICC’s gallery especially celebrates the Italian Renaissance, and in particular, Il Divino (“the divine one”) as Michelangelo was known, with replicas of his figures from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
In an alcove is the Pietà. There is an impact in seeing it close up, but as it’s behind glass, the unavoidable glare of sunshine is a definite issue to contend with. Still, the details and expression are captivating. The subject of a Pietà, which mean “pity” in Italian, is one of mourning. But this sculpture doesn’t lay on sadness with a heavy hand; the youthful Mary is comparatively tranquil, even contemplative, as she looks down at the figure who seems more in deep sleep than in the rigor mortis of death. The famous wound in the right side of Christ could be mistaken for an unfortunate blemish rather than a purposeful stab. Keep looking, and the way that Mary is a massive, powerful figure becomes more and more apparent. The strength and power of her left hand, reaching into space, seems to carry a force and strength like the sculptor’s own.
For more Italian-flavored sight-seeing in Milwaukee, head up to a graceful neighborhood on the East Side and see the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum (2220 N. Terrace Avenue). The home, designed by architect David Adler, was built in 1923 and in 1968 was declared a city landmark.
Entering the courtyard in the front of the manse, the play of water and gleam of sunshine on the garden and pool, contrasting with the cool shade of the vaulted portico, is a momentary step into a languid Mediterranean day. The fountain is topped off by a proud statue of the messenger god, Hermes, his fleet-footedness apparent from his winged sandals. The majority of the sculpture is a 17th century Italian piece, but look more closely at the torso, and you’ll clearly see the earlier fragments he’s built around, which are from a 1st-century Roman sculpture.
The home, perched on the high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, offers beautiful views of the blue sky and water from most of the rooms. Wandering through combines a taste of living among old master paintings plus injections of contemporary art (current exhibitions include Strange Vegetation through July 24 [reviewed for TCD by Judith Ann Moriarty] and Objects for Objects: Work by Venetia Dale through September 18).
At the height of summer the gardens are in full bloom, and there are sculptural surprises to be found as well. In one corner of the garden is a figure based on the famous Weary Hercules, also known as the Farnese Hercules after the important familial collection that claims this prize. The proportions are a bit odd on this particular Hercules, but he’s entertaining nonetheless. He, and by pedigree the Farnese, are based on an original Greek sculpture by the famed creator, Lysippos.
As many know, Hercules was obligated to perform 12 impossible labors, and one of these was to retrieve the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. There are variations in the story about how he accomplishes this feat, but basically it involves Hercules holding up the sky for a while, in place of Atlas, who snags the apples for him. Our tuckered-out hero leans on his olive wood club draped with a lion’s skin, a trophy from his defeat of the fearsome Nemean lion. But behind his back we have our conclusion to the story — he holds the (now weathered) apples in his hand, exhausted, but fulfilled.
And exhausted but fulfilled is hopefully exactly how you will feel after indulging in the pleasures of Italian culture to be found in Milwaukee.