Monday, July 1, 2013

The Duke and Duchess of North Caldwell

With the untimely passing of James Gandolfini, I was reminded of being "one degree of separation" from Mr. Gandolfini. The six degrees of separation is the notion that everyone on earth can be introduced to everyone else on earth via "friends of friends" with each introduction encompassing all the people your friend knows, and then to all the people those people know, etc. Modestly, let us consider "friend" as someone you know even if on Facebook, perhaps had a meal with, or at least "someone who will return your phone call".

Several years ago when I was working on the new Our Savior Catholic Center for the Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Southern California, we put out a national call for artists in the process of selecting the nation's best talent for traditional, figurative sacred art. One artist I particularly wanted to bring to the artist selection committee for consideration was Federico Castellucccio, an Italian-born American classical figurative painter who is steeped in the Renaissance tradition, and whose works frequently allude to the great 15th, 16th, and 17th century Netherlandish and Italian masters -- Titian, Petrus Christus,Cranach, Correggio, Memling and Caravaggio. His work is often whimsical, especially when he masterfully plays with trompe l-oeil, such as his "Torn Titian Taped", "Cranach, Crackers, and Cardboard", or the delightful "Eggplant Parmigianino."

Torn Titian Taped (2004)

Oil on poplar panel
10” x 8“
Permanent Collection of Kresge Art Museum 
(c) Federico Castelluccio

Cranach, Crackers and Cardboard (2004)

Oil on wood
14” x 11”
Private Collection, New York 
(c) Federico Castelluccio 

Yet Mr. Castelluccio's work, even when humorous, is very serious. He obviously approaches form, technique, composition, and attention to detail with great sobriety, and his work suggests a calm and contemplative method. A comparison of Mr. Castelluccio's "Eggplant Parmigianino" (below right) to the original self portrait of the artist, Girolamo Mazzola (below left), with the wonderful still life in the shadowbox, shows nothing hurried, impetuous, or capricious, but rather a focused and purposeful approach to his subject.

(left) Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, by Girolamo Mazzola; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (1524)
(right) Eggplant Parmigianino, (2004) (c) Federico Castelluccio

Even the wonderful burl pattern on the frame is an homage to the sort of attention to materiality that one finds in the 15th and 16th century masters: anyone who has spent anytime before Van Eyck's "Madonna and Child with the Canon van der Paele" at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges can be swept away in awe of the mastery of materiality looking at the golden embroidery on the cope of St. Donatian, the Virgin's velvety red robes trimmed with precious jewels, or the mirrored gleam of St. George's metal armor. Such attention to materiality is typical of Mr. Castelluccio's work. It is practically a signature feature that is not mere showmanship or artistic bravado, but seems to be integral to his striving to capture the material accidents presented to the eye which his art requires be communicated to the viewer. This is indeed serious work, the most serious work of an artist, since it is about the communication of being itself.

Detail of Armor from The Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele, by Jan van Eyck, 1436-1436.
A few years before the USC project, I had contacted and spoken with Federico about another commission I was interested to discuss with him: the enormous reredos mural painting at Saints Anne and Joachim Catholic Church in Fargo ND. Federico's calendar was too busy to accommodate such a massive project, and the project was successfully completed by the very talented group at Evergreene Studios. 

Sts. Anne and Joachim, Fargo, ND. Reredos Mural, by Evergreene Studio New York.
When I brought his portfolio to the liturgical arts committee at the USC Catholic Center, the committee was very favorably disposed to his work.  His evident talent captured the eyes of the committee, and even his Hollywood familiarity presented a serious challenge to those who were predetermined to limit the call-for-artists to Los Angeles basin artists, and preferably USC alums, but the various painting commissions went to other excellent talent. Someday, perhaps, I'll finally get the opportunity to work with Mr. Castelluccio on a commission for a work of sacred art when the time, opportunity, subject, subject, and budget all align. In the meantime, let's go back to the beginning of this essay, the untimely death of Mr. Gandolfini, who is forever embedded in the American landscape as Tony Soprano. One of Mr. Castelluccio's seriously witty works, and perhaps his most important commission which is iconic of American culture in the early 21st century, is his "Duke and Duchess of North Caldwell", depicting Tony and Carmella Soprano in the guise of Piero della Francesca's famous "Duke and Duchess of Urbino".

Duke and Duchess of North Caldwell

Oil poplar panel two panels
16” x 11”
Private Collection, Toronto, Canada 
(c) Federico Castelluccio 

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Piero della Francesca
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
The poetry of the subject is delightful in the parallels between the historical Federico da Montefeltro and Tony Soprano. Montefeltro was a condottiero -- a "contractor" -- actually a mercenary who would fight and lead his army for hire into battle to win lands for his employers. He was man of violence and intrigue, commanding a small army in a modest backwater town of Urbino against much larger opponents such as Sigismondo Malatesta, the lord of Rimini (parenthetically, for whom Alberti designed the famous Tempio Malatestiano as the new Cathedral for Rimini), much in the way that the Soprano crew would be outnumbered and outgunned in Newark by the New York families.

Montefeltro may well have been part of the plot to assassinate his half-brother Oddantonio, who had been made Duke of Urbino by Pope Eugene IV, though his involvement in the conspiracy has not been proved, yet Federico seized control of the city after the murder. Montefeltro thereafter fought for the powerful Sforza family, the Dukes of Milan, and later for Alfonso V, the King of Naples, in their various battles. He later rose under the patronage of Pope Pius II to become a Gonfaloniere of the Holy Roman Church, and won many battles for the Pope, but then took up arms against the Papal armies and vanquished them to retain control of Rimini and Urbino. Whether fighting for or against the Papal States, or for or against the Florentines, Federico da Montefeltro had an uncanny ability to always promote his own position with strategy, violence, conspiracies, the unwavering loyalty of his troops, and political acumen in an age that was far more dangerous and politically complicated than David Chase's Sopranos could ever hope to emulate.

These were not just turf wars for the union contracts to build docks or collect trash or run numbers, but wars and battles for whole regions of the Italian peninsula. Conflicts that involved the great families: not the petty Newark  DiMeo crime family or new York-based Lupertazzi family, but the Gonzagas and the Sforzas and the Borgias and the Delle Rovere who were fighting for the papacy and control of the city states. Such was Federico da Montefeltro's prestige in the Renaissance that he was an inspiration for Machiavelli's The Prince.

Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

As it turned out, the Duke of Urbino turned into one of the most important patrons of the Renaissance. He used his great wealth to turn Urbino into an important cultural center, with and ducal elegant palace that was a training ground for the children of nobility and a vast library that employed dozens of scribes, and he supported artists and architects such as Raphael, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, and of course Piero della Francesca who painted the famous portrait.

Unlike da Montefeltro, Tony Soprano never became legit, but he earned a place in the American fictional landscape as well known as the Duke of Urbino held in the geo-political landscape of the 15th century Italian Renaissance. The Mafia families seem to have remained in the brutal, violent, and avaricious world of medieval and early modern Italy, but where they operate outside the law, the great ruling families that fought for control in the 15th century were the law. They answered to no one, even daring to defy the Church and endure excommunication, yet ready to pay the necessary tribute to the Pope in order to avoid the pains of eternal damnation. The violence and intrigues, conspiracies and extortions, assassinations and payoffs, hired enforcers and demands of loyalty to death, and the need to be both politically astute and ruthless when required in order to survive, show marked similarities between the two figures.

It seems therefore entirely fitting that Tony was painted into the role of the Duke of North Caldwell by one of his own soldiers, Furio Guinta, the very talented painter Federico Castelluccio.

The late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano (left) being driven by his artistically sensitive enforcer Furio Guinta, played by Federico Castelluccio. 
May the soul of James Gandolfini, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. Fun article, thanks! The Soprano's was an interesting creative entertainment on many levels. I mostly enjoyed how the writers employed multiple ideas from Classical and Postmodern philosophy for the storyline.