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In the world of art and architecture, Italy is the land of the giants


A towering achievement by Michelangelo: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the official residence of the pope, in Vatican City.

By Robert Damien Santagata

Works of fine art are, and have always been, hot commodities. The Greeks and Romans all respected, revered and hungered for beautiful, evocative artwork that filled their eyes, hearts, and souls with bliss. They spent vast sums of money commissioning and/or acquiring the greatest artworks from the past and present. In Renaissance Florence, one need only look to the powerful Medicis, arguably history’s greatest and most generous patrons, collectors and admirers of the arts.

Michelangelo’s career was “launched” by the Medicis; he even resided in their Florentine Palazzo for a time, studying the works of the ancients and knowing that someday he would surpass them all in brilliance. The Medicis were fabulously wealthy, and they, in turn, enriched the greatest artistic talent of all time. But that’s another article – all of the divine Michelangelo’s works are housed in museums and, in a sense, out of reach for even the wealthiest, most powerful collectors. They are not on the auction block, except perhaps a few of his sketches.

Most of the greatest Renaissance art, for that matter, works by Leonardo, Botticelli, Titian, Correggio, Raphael, and countless others, are safely housed in the world’s great museums and galleries. But there is still plenty of artwork to be acquired. Art from all corners of the globe – Europe, Asia, the United States, Africa, Latin America
– is peddled by the big auction houses: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Butterfield & Butterfield, etc. Collectors with deep pockets, lofty expectations, and high hopes descend like ravenous seagulls upon auctions that are held around the world with the hope of scoring a little masterwork. A Cezanne, perhaps … or a Van Gogh. A Warhol, Kandinsky, or De Chirico. The list is long and illustrious. The final bids are often beyond the average person’s ability to fathom.

The greatest producers and repositories of Western civilization’s art – Italy and France – have given the world so much to admire and enjoy, to feast our eyes upon in amazement at, for instance, a glorious Tintoretto, a dreamy Monet, a dramatic Caravaggio. Indeed, Italy alone holds 80 percent of Western civilization’s art and architectural treasures, and the movements and ideas of France have set the standard and dominated the art world for the better part of the past two centuries. Remarkable. Consider some of the greatest eras of art: the Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classicism, Impressionism. They were either born in or inspired by these two magnificent countries: cultural powerhouses, heavyweights, and, at times throughout history, artistic bullies.

But what is hot and sought after and selling at the auctions these days? And, for that matter, what talent is out there waiting to be tossed into the limelight for the world’s art lovers to fawn over?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – most of us have heard of him – is heavily sought after and sold. Besides being a master of the palette and brush, he was quite the capitalist, having once said to an art dealer: “I want to paint stunning pictures that you can sell for very high prices.” If he only knew what was to become of his many masterpieces… A contemporary of Monet and Degas, Renoir was so committed to grabbing and capturing light-filled colors of the open air that he literally stopped using blacks and grays in his paintings. Born in Limoge, France, in 1841, he may very well be the best loved of all the Impressionists, for his subjects – mostly beautiful women and children and flowers and scenery – are instantly and powerfully appealing. For this, he did not apologize – nor should he have – and once defended himself by saying, “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.” His work is undoubtedly impressionistic, but his perspective on life was absolutely realistic.

Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canale) is the most famous view painter the 18th century produced. Born in glorious, decadent Venice in 1697, he began his career as a painter of theatrical scenery, which was also the profession of his father. But a visit to the Eternal City (Rome) inspired him to turn his attention to topography. He concentrated his energies on capturing dramatic, picturesque images of his beloved Venetia, paintings that are marked by powerful contrasts of shade and light. His views of Venice are remarkably topographically accurate. Canaletto was a highly influential artist, and his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, carried his style to central Europe, where it was emulated and copied by countless artists. Owing to his renown with British travelers to Italy during the Grand Tour, most of his paintings are housed in museums in Great Britain.

The Italian, Amedeo Modigliani, one of the greatest outsiders among the emigres in Paris in the early 20th century, produced lush nudes and graceful portraits that the world still views, and pursues, with fascination and hunger. During his brief career – he died of tuberculosis and an excess of alcohol and drugs at the age of 35 – his gifts were known only to his contemporaries: Brancusi, Georges Rouault, and other luminaries in a city that, at the time, was a colossal magnet that pulled the greatest artistic talents into its hospitable bosom. He had a particular penchant for

African masks and primitive sculpture, which is apparent in many of his portraits. He is most famous these days for his nudes, but connoisseurs of art still deem his portraits to be sublimely beautiful and awe-inspiring. He once said: “You are not alive unless you know you are living.”

The greatest of the French romantic painters, Eugene Delacroix was inspired by a visit to Morocco in 1832, as well
as contemporary and historical events. His use of color was highly influential in the development of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. His paintings even influenced the great Picasso, whose works, by the way, remain the most sought after in the world. Born in 1798 in Charenton-St.-Maurice, France, Delacroix was mightily prolific, producing hundreds of paintings and great numbers of murals and sketches. He perceived the Moroccan culture as ancient, proud, exotic, and enthralling. He said of it: “I am quite overwhelmed by what I have seen.” This is the very sentiment one feels when viewing one of his many masterpieces. His works are spread across the globe with a sizeable number to be enjoyed in the United States. Baudelaire, the great French poet and critic, once said of him: “He is the last great artist of the Renaissance and the first modern.” Delacroix rediscovered the essence and spirit of Michelangelo, and once exclaimed, “Familiarity with the work of Michelangelo has exalted and elevated every subsequent generation of painters.” He also derived inspiration from the great Venetian masters who “perform miracles of color without any derogation of beauty.” His paintings are most deserving of a viewing by any lover of fine art, and, if you can afford it, there are many to be acquired in the auction houses. See for yourself.

There are countless works of sublime art – sculptures, paintings, sketches, etc. – both residing comfortably in museums around the world – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, London’s National Gallery of Art, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Prado Museum in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Vatican Museums, the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, to name but a few – and in private collections. Many of the great masters’ works are sought after in the auctions that are held primarily in the world’s large cultural centers – Paris, London, Milan, Rome, New York–and if you can scrounge up a small fortune in pounds, euros, or dollars, one of them might very well find itself a home above your fireplace. Good hunting.

The author of this series, Robert Damien Santagata, is a “rabid Italophile” and the author of the 2020 book “The Paradise of Exiles.” This series presents his vivid, evocative descriptions of his search for the soul of Italy – rapturous descriptions that the author attributes to Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which overexposure to any form of great beauty induces a state of euphoria that can include elation, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and even fainting.

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