Iconoclysms: Shattered in Venice, Rome and Barcelona

The portrait above, Saint Dominic of Silos Enshrined as a Bishop, was painted by a Spaniard named Bertolome Bermejo in the 1470s. It was just two decades before Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the Christian victory in Granada, the Moors’ last foothold in the Iberian Peninsula. 

My friend Tim Harris and I were studying in Spain in 1975-76, the year Franco died. We had an art history class that took us to the Prado once a week. Few visitors to the Prado paid much attention to the Gothic art of Bermejo. The masses were upstairs, crowded around the later masterpieces by Velazquez, El Greco and Goya. We’d eventually get there, of course. Everything in history is chonological, and we were still in the late middle ages. Still, it felt special to be exploring the museum’s hidden corners.

Tim and his wife, Tara Key, have turned the hidden corners of art and art history into a model for travel. While others have their bucket lists, and make sure they cross off all the must-sees, whether the Mona Lisa or Anghor Wat, Tim and Tara return to the same handful of cities again and again. They do research. They hunt for meaning.

Which brings me to Tim and Tara’s book, Iconoclysms. It’s a memoir, but also an exploration, of three artists and three cities. A pivotal moment occurs on an early trip to Venice, where they walk into a small museum and are startled to see a damaged painting by Antonello da Messina, a Renaissance master. It’s a Pieta, but it looks like Christ’s face, and those of the angels surrounding him, have been wiped with Clorox, or maybe battery acid.

This opens a mystery. This appears to be a badly botched restoration. When did it happen? Were they happy with the result? Could they be? Did they try to fix it, perhaps making things worse? What exactly happens when you come very close to destroying a masterpiece?

Tim and Tara dig through old books and question experts. Questions arise. If it were possible to restore the faces, should it be done? Or is the painting, instead, what it has become? If you look at the emptiness where the faces used to be, it forces you to imagine them. In that sense, the painting has aged into modernism.

Pieta (detail), by Antonello da Messina 

Comparing the St. Dominic painting from Spain, and then the Pieta by Antonello, you can see that at least the part of Spain depicted by Bartolome Bermejo was still hewing to the Gothic model of medieval Europe, while some 1,000 miles away, Antonello was a force of the Renaissance. He’d even traveled to the Low Countries, and he may have been the one who introduced oil painting to the Italians. 

Later in the book, Tim and Tara are in Catalonia, learning everything they can about Josep Jujols, and artist/architect who collaborated with the more famous Antoni Gaudi. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), anti-clerical forces torched the interior of a church he had built, Sagrat Cor de Jesus. Looking at it afterwards, Jujols said that the fire had given it a tonality that would have taken centuries to develop.

Tim (Tara takes the photos) weaves this exploration into the time of their lives. They have loved ones dying. They’re living in Manhattan and 9/11 happens. They go to Venice, and later Roma and Barcelona, to take refuge, find something about the world and themselves, to find beauty, peel back our history, and to celebrate the chance we have to do these things.

It’s a model not just for traveling, but for learning and living.

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