Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Girl and A Man with a Pearl Earring

Art lover and bon vivant Rita Kungel accompanied your Beautiful Florence blogger to nearby Bologna (1/2 hour from Florence by train) to visit Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.  The signature work of this Dutch artist, who lived during the 1600s and lived only to the age of 43, is on loan in Emilia Romagna through May 25 from the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague,
currently closed for restoration. 

During our adventure, which continued in Florence, we found three more period paintings featuring subjects -- both female and male -- wearing earrings, and some little-known facts about their iconic forerunner, the original, luminous Girl.

At the press conference, curators told the audience that "99% sure" that the Girl was a figment of Vermeer's imagination.  After all, he and his wife had at least a dozen children, and apart
from earning a living as an artist,
 perhaps Vermeer needed to go off and paint as a respite from the cares of daily life.
Who knows?  Art historians hold, however, that the Girl with a Pearl Earring is an example of the
"tronie" genre diffuse in Holland during this period.  A "tronie" is defined as a painted head or bust of an imaginary figure often wearing exotic costume."

The exhibition in Bologna also displays pieces by Vermeer's contemporaries, including Rembrandt, who is represented by another "tronie," a painted head of an imaginary sitter, also wearing an earring.

The ornament in Rembrandt's depiction is identified as a horn-shaped earring.
Notice Rembrandt's masterly use of light and shadow.
In the title of this post, I did promise the gentle reader a man with a pearl earring.
I did find one, but once back in Florence.
But before Rita and I left the press preview, we came across yet another
woman with a pearl earring exhibited at the Bologna show.
She is the subject of "Woman Writing a Letter," by another of Vermeer's fellow artists,
Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681).  The catalogue explains that during this period Holland was the most literate society in Europe and because the woman is young and attractive, it is supposed that she is writing a love letter (with a quill pen!)

Another fact that was revealed to journalists is that pearls during this era were freshwater, and that large pearls were often made of Venetian glass and painted.  Whether this was the case with the Girl
and "Woman Writing a Letter," I personally like to believe it was not -- and that the pearl is real.
After all, thanks to Vemeer's timeless poetic realism, one would almost expect the Vermeer's Girl to
step out of the canvas and draw a breath...

Though her rarely left his home in Delft, Vermeer's masterful style, even during his lifetime, proved to be far-reaching, down to Italy, influencing the Florentine Baroque artist
 Alessandro Rosi (1627-1707).

How did we find Florence's male counterpart to the Girl with a Pearl Earring?
Sipping an espresso in a café close to the office one day, I perused a local paper and found an article on an acquisition by the renowned, local antique dealer Giovanni Pratesi.

I have known Sig. Pratesi for many years, since he became the head of
Florence's prestigious Antiques Biennale.
I originally met him in 2001 when I wrote about a Michelangelo drawing belonging to a collection in England on display and on sale at the Antiques Biennale for the International Herald Tribune
(now the New York Times International).
.  Sig. Pratesi has a propitious, time-honored custom of purchasing a work for New Year's, as recorded below by Beautiful Florence faithful 
blog photographer Kori Endo.  This year he went to Padua to identify and buy Rosi's
Man with a Pearl Earring. 
Yes, it is pearl earring he is wearing, but he is not an imaginary figure.
Thanks to his fancy dress, the young man is believed to be the paramour of
Antonio de' Medici, a married man and father.
 Antonio, who lived in the shadow of his own powerful father, was the son of Florence's ruler
Francesco de' Medici and his second wife, Bianca Cappello, but born before their marriage.
Francesco and Bianca came to a bad end at the Medici villa Poggio a Caiano, both poisoned by his son  by his first marriage, who succeeded him.

When I asked Sig. Pratesi why he bought the painting, he responded:
 "la bellezza era un motivo valido"
(its beauty was reason enough).  He told me that a pearl was at that time identified with aristocracy in Florence, hence the Medici connection.

The young man's pearl, however, is as dark as his story--that of a love slave--
The Man with a Pearl Earring, was, and even now, is for sale.

A marked contrast to the idealized and light-filled Girl and her Pearl.
She just is.

Even now, during her Italian sojourn,
she currently attracts 3,000 paying visitors a day--5,000 on Sunday.
reporting on assignment from Beautiful Florence
                                                                                                    -- Rosanna

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