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narrativa e di portafoglio

narrative and portfolio of Ian Siegel

I’ve decided to enter my favorite photo from this summer in a photography contest held by AIA St. Louis.

The photograph was taken on Ponte Vecchio in Florence, looking west up the Arno River, with my Canon PowerShot SX210 point-and-shoot camera. What I’m really excited about, though, is that tonight I finally decided on a title for the photo: “strizzata di Vecchio.”

It’s a pun on “strizzata d’occhio,” one of the two Italian ways to say the word “wink,” which translates literally to squeeze (or squint) of the eye. For a while I had been kicking around the idea of naming the photo after something like a wink; lighting flashes are in many ways similar to a wink. Both happen so quickly that by the time you notice it, it’s over — yet the power of the gesture outlives the moment of its execution. Both can be exhilarating, both can be beautiful, both can be menacing.

This photo was almost titled “Wink of God,” because of the juxtaposition of a man-built, artificial environment that has survived for centuries alongside a natural entity that embodies a brute enough force to bring a city to its knees.

I didn’t title the photo “Wink of God” because it would equate this image (as well as the image of God) to a scheming Hollywood villain’s menacing wink right into the camera at the audience, just as he begins to carry out his evil plan. I prefer not to think of God as a scheming Hollywood villain.

Replacing “occhio” (eye) with Vecchio, which means “old” (Ponte Vecchio translates to Old Bridge), the meaning of the phrase becomes “wrung out of the old.”

“strizzata di Vecchio (wrung from the Old)” – a title that shifts focus off of the lightning and onto the city, onto the architecture. The energy of a lightning flash is temporal. It happens so quickly that by the time you notice it, it’s over. But the energy of a space, or the energy of a series of spaces organized into building, or the energy of many buildings that have aggregated into a city: at the time you notice it, it’s a beginning. As years turn to centuries this energy charged and accumulated slowly, patiently waiting for an engaged mind to walk these historic streets and explore its spaces firsthand, waiting to be wrung out of the old and released all at once like a flash of lightning – this kind of discovery is an energy that this image only begins to capture.

How much more perfectly appropriate could this photo’s location be, of all places in the world to capture such an image than in the heart of Florence, the jewel of the Renaissance? Was this coincidence? Perhaps this is, after all, a wink of God?

This photo was previously published in Make No Small Plans II: A Different City Every Night, a narrative of my travels through five Italian cities in one weekend.

Link to Gruppo Satellite’s final project Yarn Theory

This time I visited Florence alone, with intent to see the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia Museum. These museums appealed to me because of their collections of Renaissance art.

I’d be lying if I stated that I wanted to visit the Uffizi Gallery for any reason beyond a gander at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which I remembered being a big deal when we talked about it when I took an art history class as a senior in high school. While I sat on the bus that morning at 7am (I have no idea how I gathered the energy to wake up early enough to get into Florence at the museum’s opening) I did some reading on other Renaissance paintings in the collection and was surprised to recall several other works I studied in the same class four years ago.

Overall, the museum’s painting collection spanned the entire Renaissance, and the works are displayed roughly chronologically which make tracking the progress of techniques like perspective extremely easy for the viewer. I could write another novel-length post just on that, but I suppose I’ll save you the trouble…

Birth of Venus blew my mind.

Now that I knew a little bit of the kind of patience it takes to do watercolor paintings (and it takes a LOT), I had a new respect for the art form, and oil painting is that much more difficult time consuming. There was something beautifully lifelike about Birth of Venus; the cool, calm, and purely innocent expression of her face, the gentle, supple gradients of her skin and the curls in her hair, the lightness of the suspension of the flowers and leaves in midair. I think I fell in love.

Fun fact (and hopefully this isn’t most of the reason I wanted to see the painting in the first place): Some of the earlier versions of Adobe Illustrator feature a vector image of a close-up of Venus’ face and curly hair on the software’s splash screen. Adobe used Botticelli’s painting as a sort of test subject and publicity image because of the potential in the painting for Illustrator’s gradient capabilities. Click for a history of Adobe Illustrator splash screens.

The next stop on my morning visit was the Accademia Museum, the holding place for my homeboy Michelangelo’s David. Apparently, no visit to Florence is complete without a visit to David. It was definitely worth seeing; you turn a corner as soon as you enter the museum to see him standing under a dome at the end of a long hallway with a vaulted ceiling. The experience of seeing just that was really something spectacular, but even more intriguing to me were the halfway-finished sculptures of Michelangelo’s that lined the hallway (called Prisoners, because of the way that their unfinished state makes them look trapped inside the block of marble out of which they will forever be in the process of emerging).

What I liked so much about Prisoners was that you could see the process of the carving—all the other marble Renaissance sculptures are so beautifully polished and finished that you marvel at the statue and wonder how a person could make something so beautiful out of something like stone. While gazing upon the Prisoners series, I could see the rough process of creating the smooth, lifelike figures like the one that stood at the end of the hall. I don’t think it makes sense for me to get into describing it—it needs to be experienced. But here are some photos, anyway.

To be honest, the rest of Accademia bored me. The rest of their collection was mostly Medieval paintings like the few I saw in the Uffizi Gallery earlier that morning. So after maybe forty-five minutes I left for Siena again. A third day in Florence—I love this city.

Effects of Good Government on the City and Countryside

The primary effect of good government is economic prosperity–industry is thriving and there is work to be done. Technology is advancing and affordable. Culture, too, is flourishing; there is production of art and music and an audience is present to appreciate it (notice the image captioned “génération,” which I selected to encompass art and technology). While not everybody can afford some of the luxuries depicted, those who have less still find time for recreation and happiness; the happiness of the people is not determined by their possessions, but an overall feeling of security and the freedom to LIVE.

I paid special attention to the layout and juxtaposition of certain images, particularly the images in the lower left corner. In order to emphasize a difference between ascetic life and luxurious life (la vita dolce) in the city, yet show how each can be “prosperous” in their way under good government, half of the transition between the images is achieved by tearing the magazine paper, while the other half is carefully cut around the figure of the woman on her rooftop golden chaise lounge. An effort to introduce prosperity in the countryside is introduced above the nuns playing volleyball with a woman gazing into what should be a pool, but I turn her gaze to the spartan lifestyle of the nuns in the city and align the corner of the pool with the corner of the buildings in the nuns’ image.

Effects of Bad Government on the City and Countryside

As far as content goes, I looked for images that represented themes of a corrupt or distant government–absent (mother and child in wartime ruins), pompous (man in front of villa, walking on blindfolded girl’s head), excessive in surveillance (Alexis comic), indifferent (middle finger), cut-throat (I’ll let you pick out which image represents that), and the effects of such a government are especially evident in the symbolic thunderstorm graphic, desolation (desert parking lot), and the obvious “End of the World” text graphic.

Again, care is taken in the arrangement of certain images, in this case special attention is given to the pompous-looking man in front of his expensive countryside villa (in the magazine, though, he was made out to be a scholar and quite a gentleman. He just had a look to him that could be twisted into a corrupt-government-official vibe). I place him on an angle, walking on top of the head of the black-and-white image of a blindfolded, scared-looking girl, as if his prosperity comes at the unjust expense of people like her. On the opposite side of her head, to the bottom-left, was an image of three shirtless men making clowns of themselves; a contrasting image to the dressed-up man opposite the girl, but whose position is meant to give them an equal sort of pertinence to her life. Their picture is framed by a torn image of a pestilence-plagued rose garden, symbolizing the kind of damage done by clowns in office.

Piazzetta Santa Maria della Selva, named after the Selva (rhinoceros) contrada, whose church stands at the head of the piazza.

The challenge: build a folded model of this piazza using one A3 (11×17) sheet of watercolor paper such that the model can unfold back into a single flat sheet.

Our class visit in Florence began with a trip to the top of Brunelleschi’s life work, the dome atop the Florence Cathedral. Neil and I caught a bus with NJIT critics Dan Kopec and Darius Sollohub leaving Siena at 6:50 to arrive in Florence at 8:10. Access to the cupola opened at 8:30.

Two major reasons to climb the dome: you can see Brunelleschi’s dome-within-a-dome construction techniques, which is similar to that of the dome on St. Peter’s (Michelangelo modeled its design after Brunelleschi’s dome), but the structure is more exposed in Brunelleschi’s, which architecture minds like ourselves tend to enjoy. Reason number two is, of course, to enjoy the scenic Florentine panorama.

Our route through Florence was strikingly similar to the route we took during our fly-through at the beginning of our epic weekend (I guess our route really was the most direct way to see all the big sights in the city) but we spent a little less time drooling over the Duomo and more time at spots that fewer tourists know how to visit.

We spent a little bit of sketching time at Santa Maria Novella this time:

Santa Maria Novella and its utilization of the golden ratio

A new stop along the way was the Laurentian Library, a private book collection and reading room of the Medici, for which Michelangelo designed the grand entry stair hall.

Although it is extremely subtle, probably even unnoticed to the visitor uneducated in architectural history, the genius behind the room’s design is in the proportions of the ornamental classical forms on and in the walls. How deep can a column be set into a wall before it reads like a pilaster? And how thin can a pilaster get before it is no longer a pilaster and just part of the wall? Michelangelo pushes these parameters far beyond the proportional limits that came with Classicism. Distorted proportions are also evident In the room’s oversized decorative scrolls, keystones, and a slightly awkward stair riser-to-tread ratio on the stair itself.

Plan sketch -- the outer stairs did not have railings on the outside. Interesting choice, Michelangelo.

Half of an elevation -- I didn't get to finish the sketch, but the point of the drawing is there.

My assessment of the space Michelangelo is my homeboy, so it’s always a good time standing in one of his spaces or being in the presence of one of his works. I remembered when we looked at the Laurentian Library in history of architecture that the play with proportions was intended to create a visually heavy aesthetic that forcefully imply a slower pace of travel between the Library’s entrance in the San Lorenzo cathedral cloister and the reading room itself, but to be honest, I didn’t read it that way. If anything, I would agree that the proportions’ heavy aesthetic do create a minor sense of discomfort, even a subtle claustrophobia. But for the architecture student, it was neat to see the same architectural elements repeated one above the other—the windows, pediments, columns and pilasters are repeated on both the ground and upper levels of the space—but with change in level came change in proportion. The ground level elements were bulkier, heavier, and had a solid girth to them, while the upper level elements were visually lighter and almost merely wall treatment instead of their own entities. The lightness on the upper level seemed to make the space seem taller, and made me want to ascend the stairs to get away from the heaviness surrounding me on the ground level; in a sense I was being seduced into climbing up the stairs into the reading room…Good call, Michelangelo.

Along the way we also saw an early Brunelleschi design, the Cappella Pazzi, part of Santa Croce cathedral. We were intrigued that Brunelleschi didn’t know how to get a pilaster to turn the corner…

Highlight number two of the day was after our large group dispersed; now I was walking around Florence with Neil, Brad, and Adam L. The last leg of our smaller-group wanderings led us across the Arno River to the Michelangelo Piazza (offering a great panoramic view of Florence), Palazzo Pitti (the private residence of the good old Medici family who economically fueled most of the Renaissance work that left me breathless countless number of times during this study abroad experience), and my personal favorite, another church whose design Brunelleschi had a hand in, Santo Spirito. This façade sparked a heated debate between Neil, Adam, and myself:


Neil and Adam hated this thing. Notice in the photo that Adam is pointing backward him at the strikingly bare basilica entrance wall—and he’s not using his pointer finger.

Their argument was that the church, probably built during the Renaissance or the Baroque, was plain for its time. Unornamented. Where was all the white marble? The sculptures? The stained glass and the spires? There’s nothing to look at! How can people possibly approach this door and be inspired to worship a God?

While I see where they are coming from, I find great beauty in its simplicity. As awesome as St. Peter’s and the Duomos of Florence, Siena, and Milan are, the detail of their craftwork seeks to overwhelm worshippers and visitors.

Taking a look for a moment at Alberti’s design for the façade of Santa Maria Novella, also in Florence—Alberti spent most of his architectural career trying to find a “pure” way to decorate the basilica shape using forms from Classicism. The problem is essentially one of graphic design; how should the shape that already exists architecturally be decorated using Classical, ideal proportions? S.M. Novella is one of his latest, most developed attempts at this endeavor, where he explores the possibility of using the shape of an ancient Greek temple front as a doorstep to the church (the Greek temple form is also utilized in Basilica di Sant’Andrea, which some historians will argue is the ultimate successful answer to the problem, so Alberti, good call to you too).

Rather than trying to be some ideal masterpiece of Classical perfection, this church smoothes over the graphic design problem and just tries to be what it is, a church, not a canvas. The architecture exists without the help of over-the-top decoration. It is an amazingly 20th century modern solution to a 14th century problem.

And if I must go on, compare this façade to that of San Lorenzo.

San Lorenzo has no façade. And in fact, neither did the Florentine Duomo, until Florence became the capital city in 1865, when the city received a face-lift to suit its new political status. The façade of this church wasn’t ignored at all; it was finished with plaster. This façade was more designed than most churches of its time.

After standing outside and arguing over the building, we called it quits and, over some gelato during the walk back to the bus to Siena, we agreed to disagree.

Elevation including palimpsests and "pigeon holes"

Site Plan

Section through wall showing city and countryside

Fontebranda, the fountain from which Porta Fontebranda gets its name

Street-scale plan showing Fontebranda in relation to the wall

Analytique layout

Final watercolored analytique

...and the test page.