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Defining art history in Italy

by Archives November 18, 2008

October in Montreal is all transitions. Leaves change, the wind whistles and people start feeling the cold. It’s also a perfect time for students to travel before the winter scares us from the roads and we get too bogged down with exams. Or at least, this is how I convinced my friend from New York to come visit me.
I hadn’t seen her in four years. We were finally sitting down having coffee together. Maybe it wasn’t as good as Italian espressos, but they still passed. I asked her to remind me of some of our experiences we shared in Florence, Italy.
She laughed at me, as if it weren’t more obvious, “Not Florence! You convinced me to take a train with you all the way up to that little old town near Venice to see that one church where your ancestor had painted a fresco . . . what was the name again?” she asked.
“Mirano remember? And not Milano” I replied.
The adventure was about uncovering my Italian roots. I wanted to find out how my ancestor had been remembered as an artist, a more interesting option than reading about him in the two books I found in the Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze – stepping out and going to witness one of his works, with my own eyes.
Art, history and travel brought us together in Florence at Lorenzo de Medici University. While Cinzia was taking a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, I was taking art history. We both have Italian roots, so every weekend we traveled around Tuscany. The farthest we went was Mirano, the town were I discovered my ancestor Giovanni De Min had painted “The Last Judgement,” a 19th century fresco at the Parish of St. Michel.
Four years ago, it was around this time in October I had to do a research project for my art history class. When looking for topics to explore, I called my grandmother and asked her for ideas. “Why don’t you look more into De Min’s works?” she said.
I was 18. I was learning Italian. I was in the “Birthplace of Art.” There was no excuse.
I was going to one place, to see one painting by one of my ancestors.
“Travel in a way redefines our identities, uncovers our histories, and displaces our realities,” I told Cinzia. But I realized I had forgotten this passion.
Holding the paper now, it was hard to begin reading. Anger rushed through my mind. I wrote it on Nov. 23, 2004. That was four years ago, and I haven’t done anything but keep it safe with me.
Giovanni De Min (1786-1859). This is the one piece of information I took with me to the Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze. Two books written about him were given to me. Although my native Spanish makes Italian an easier language to understand, it was still a challenge to read in Italian, to digest the information and translate it into English for my investigation. For four months, this is what I concentrated on.
From Giovanni Paludetti’s book entitled Giovanni De Min published in 1959, a century passed after anything was written about him. My first question was: if he was a good artist, how come history has forgotten him?
In Giuliano Dal Mas’s book Giovanni De Min 1786-1859, published in 1992, the president of Belluno province said he was “a man and an artist to which finally, even if late, justice was paid.” Justice for me is writing about him.
My professor Lucia Giardino said in class the purpose of art history is to analyze artwork through its context, in order to better understand its significance. I wondered if art history can simply be defined as the history of artists written by historians.
Perhaps the answer is in History of my life 1966-1971, in which Casanova said, “Everything in the world that is famous and beautiful, if we rely on the descriptions and drawings of writers and artists, always loses when we go to see it and examine it up close.” This quote convinced me to go hunting and take a look at one of my ancestor’s works.
“Remember the guy that let us into the church?” Cinzia said. It was getting dark in the afternoon. The front doors were closed. In the Veneto Italian dialect, a man was trying to tell us the church was undergoing reparations. I replied I was related to Giovanni De Min and today was my only chance to see his only and main work in this church. He instantly understood how much this meant to me as he examined my mood through my eyes. He knew I was about to cry.
So he let us in.
To the right was the altar; to the left, the organ at the back. But when I looked up, there it was: the fresco. It covered the church’s entire ceiling, his “Giudizio Universale.”
The man passed beside me “Grazie, lo giuro, grazie mille,” I said. And he left with a smile, not knowing how much he changed my life by opening up those doors.
In my research paper, I wrote, “The work of an artist has a life of its own: it puts together the artist that’s creating with hands (GDM), and the artist that is creating meaning through the eyes (the viewer).” In other words, I wrote that “the beauty of art is not that it was created in the past, but that it is created in the present. That is why art is eternal.”
“So why don’t you publish your work now?” Cinzia said.
I never thought about that. After four years, all I want to do now is go back and see the man who opened the doors for me again. And with a better Italian, ask him for his name and start from there.

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