‘As in nature, so in art, so in grace – it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones their luster’ Thomas Gurthie
There is a popular English proverb saying ‘Travelling broadens the mind’. Frankly, I don’t think there is anybody who could disagree with this statement. The more you travel – the more you start to appreciate and understand the astonishing colors of the world, all the different cultures, customs, architecture and languages.
Last but not least – you get to learn a lot about yourself, since while travelling – you face situations and meet people that you would otherwise, meet only in your dreams.
But then, on the other hand – there is another saying ‘The absence makes the heart grow fonder’ .
The people, the surroundings that we are attached to, have the unique ability to makes us feel homesick, ‘miss’, causing some kind of nostalgia and melancholy that does not necessarily have to be negative.
I must admit – my voyages are an integral, invaluable part of my life – as they enable me to leave ‘the old, well known world’ behind, so I can open my mind for the blessings of ‘terra incognita’. If you are into discovering new places l the same way I do – you couldn’t possibly get demotivated by delayed flights or long queues at the airports.
The truth is that once you reach your travel destination, ‘safe and sound’ – the uncomfortable moments become irrelevant. All that matters are the things that are waiting for you ‘on the new territory’.
I guess many of you will agree with me that there are places on this earth that you have for sure never seen before, but when you visit them – they cause a ‘strangely familiar’ feeling. Some kind of ‘de ja vu’. They leave in your heart ‘a sweet sentiment’ – and make you want to visit them again and again.
Last month, when I’ve been to London for Business, I couldn’t stop myself from visiting some art galleries with antiques based on South Audley Street. According to my online research I could find there the most magnificent collections of paintings, ceramics, furniture, lightenig, clocks and silver and ivory jewelry available for sale in Europe. Without hesitating much – I entered the London Tube and with excitement got off on Bond Street.
When I entered the MayFair Gallery I was surprised with its actual size – as from the outside it did not seem very specious. But once I was surrounded by all splendid pieces of art there was one thing that stroke me loud and clear. Namely that the artworks of the gallery were arranged in a way that they seemed to be a decoration of some luxury, private apartment owned by 19th century English Duke or a Prince. Quite transcendent experience indeed.
As my gaze was moving slowly from one artwork to another, suddenly I stopped and held my breath. It was because of the a nude portrait by Italian artist Natale Schiavioni that presented ‘an ultimate catch’; a dazzling, dark-haired and dark eyed young woman, reclining comfortably – ‘offering herself’ and looking at me as if she was trying to tell me something.
That painting made me think of Francisco Goyas “Nude Maya”. However there was one big difference. The gaze of the sitter I looked at was not only straightforward and unashamed like the one by renowned Maya – but also sweet, coquettish and self-confident. Additionally – there was something captivating about her eyes. Nowadays, similar ‘spark ‘ could be found on the photography of famous celebrities – actresses such as Audrey Tatou, Penelope Cruz or Monica Belucci.
Standing with the portrait ‘face to face’ offered me an explanation why ages ago the kings or princes could fall in love in a woman they’ve known only from an artwork. Things of such high artistic acumen have got an unique ability to put spell on the onlooker. The magic happens before you get to count to three.
Natale Schiavioni, ‘Portrait of Fenny Elssler’, ca. 1839, MayFair Gallery
As I learned later from the conversation with the gallery manager Jamie Sinai – this particular painting turned out to be one of the ‘most significant gallery treasures’. It needs to be emphasized that the artwork that I found so overwhelming presented the famous, 19th century ‘international idol’. To be more specific – a celebrated Austrian dancer called Fanny Elssler.
As I learned later that lady was an unattainable object of desire of thousands and millions of admirers of her time.
When I returned to my hotel that day, still in awe of all that I’ve seen – I could not wait to read more about the Venetian master and see his other works.
Natale Schiavioni, ca. 1820, The Sleeper
It did not come as a surprise when I’ve found out that Natale, throughout his lifetime was closely connected to royal families that commissioned many of his artworks. In 1816 the artists has been invited by Austrian emperor to become the official portraitist of the court. All because of his distinguishing talent and specific preferences – as his paintings presented the stunning beauties modeled on the Renaissance ideals which was in high demand in 19th century, especially among royals.
Natale Schiavioni ‘Three Maidens’
The essence of Schiovani’s art was beautifully encapsulated by Pietro Selvatico: ‘In coloring, highly skillful, but in shading, inimitably supreme.’
Another important feature of Natale portraits was his interest in the personality and character of his sitters. He wasn’t clearly satisfied with presenting pretty mannequins without a soul. To him, beauty alone, wasn’t enough. He aimed to intrigue the onlooker with his art. When I contemplated on the paintings such as ‘Jealousy’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Portrait of A Lady’ or ‘Melancholy’, I had no doubt that the Venezian painter was not only a connoisseur of classical beauty, but also a rare expert of the souls and hidden corners of female psyche.
Natale Schiavioni, ‘Jelousy’, Private Collection
Natale Schiavioni , Portrait of a Lady, Private Collection
Natale Schavioni, ‘Sadness’
When I fell asleep that night, I had no idea that next thing I’ll see after waking up would be the interior of Palazzo Giustanani, a place where Natale Schiavioni led the life of a painter prince. Everything happened before there was time to think about it. I examined quickly the atelier and the new situation and I knew that since I am transferred into the 19th century Italy, I will most probably have to allow the painter to carry on his artistic process.
-So, belissima – said the artists, with his big brown eyes fixed on mine– have you already made up your mind of how are we going to proceed with the painting?
-Pardon? – I asked quite shocked, both by the tone in which Schiavioni was speaking to me, as well as by the vocabulary he used. First of all, I wasn’t his belissima, and secondly, I had no idea what did he actually want from me.
-We have been through this before – he answered clearly impatient – would you allow me to paint you without this silly cloth covering your body?
– Excuse my vocabulary sir, but I don’t understand your intention. What’s the point? Would you show all your cards to the players before the game was even started?
Dancer Fanny Elssler performing fandango dance step, Engraving, Historisches Museum Der Stadt Wien.
It was hard for me to persuade the artist that there was nothing to be gained from trying to talk me into his idea.
-Allright, allright. I won’t ask you anymore, let it be – answered Natale, seemingly disappointed with my answer – ‘But you should consider yourself lucky. Most of the women would give anything to make sure I’ll paint them.’
As Myrtha, Colored Lithograph, Engr. by J.Bouvier, 1843
– ‘Lucky’ – I thought to myself – as if it had all fallen to my lap. Fame, international recognition, shows all over the world. In fact I wasn’t the first the best ballerina or another jumped-up noble he got to host in his fancy palace. The truth was that I could charm anyone, if necessary, I had my network, my connections and people who stood behind me.
When I assumed we were finished – Natale added looking me straight into the eye – You think I haven’t heard the rumors?
What never ceased to amaze me was how much those supposedly clever, worldly men underestimated women like me. Of course I knew very well where was he coming from.
-What rumors? – I asked the artists with the curiosity that only a skilled actress could express the way I did.
-I have heard about you and diplomat Mr Friedrich von Gentz, a man that maight as well be your grandfather . I suppose he is more than just another friend of yours?
– Well, first of all sir – my private matters are none of your business. I do have my reasons to feel grateful to Sir Friedrich for his faith in me, his generous support, introducing me to the people who knew how should I develop my talents..
– Yes indeed, I have no doubt you are a lady of many talents. But how would you explain me this – said Natale taking a beautifully decorated envelope from the inside of a book laying on the floor in his ateleier and begun reading the letter that started with a poem by St. Therese of Lisieux :
‘“To live of love, it is to know no fear. No memory of past faults can I recall. No imprint of my sins remaineth here. The fire of love divine effaces all. O sacred flames! O furnace of delight! I sing my safe sweet happiness to prove, in these mild fires I dwell by day, by night. I live of love!”
You, Natale you are the artist – so you should know better what is that my soul is looking for. I need to you to paint my Fanny as mysterious goddess of worldly pleasures, capture her beauty. I want an artwork that will allow me to read that touching the skin of my marvelous jewel is like skimming a fingertip over warm milk. I don’t want a portrait. I want a promise, a declaration of love that will tease, mesmerize my senses with the endless beauty.’
I looked at Natale with big eyes like somebody who did not understand a word. All I knew was that, regardless of the circumstances, I should act gracious, delighted and kind. The portrait that was supposed to be a birthday present for Friedrich and who was the only person who truly cared about me in the most difficult moments of my career.
– He who excuses himself, accuses himself – I said after a while of uncomfortable silence- Having this said –I continued without a blink- you need to understand kind sir, that I have my reasons to want my dear friend and patron to look favorably on me. From what I can see now, there is a lot you could learn from him. For example how a real gentlemen should deal with a sure-footed and sleek women who knows their worth.
– ‘You are indeed something else, Fanny’ – said Schiavioni smiling and scratching his chin in amusement, like he was contemplating on some sort of miracle – You’re not only smart and sophisticated but you’re also brave to speak your mind. I have never met anyone like you. – he added- What can I say my gracious angel – it seems that it is true that fortune favors the brave.
-Fortune is a fickle, dear Natale, you should never forget that – I smiled back at the “Il pittore delle grazie’’ having the last word, quite relieved that the artist was no longer upset and shall carry on the work on the portrait that I expected to be beautiful and alluring. It is not only the people, the actors and dancers that act on stage. There are certain paintings that have an important role to play as well and Schiavioni knew it now better than anyone else.
When he painted me in silence, in my head I recalled the words of Scottish philanthropist Thomas Guthrie ‘As in nature, so in art, so in grace – it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones their luster’.