A review of Anita Mathias’ children’s book, Francesco, Artist of Florence: The Man Who Gave Too Much
I seem to have taken a little writing break without even planning it. All across the internet big time bloggers are burned out and announcing dramatic online sabbaticals and somewhere along the way I just petered out …
On Wednesday Anita Matthias published, How can a Christian Blogger keep Fresh and Green Without Burnout? and I remembered my unfinished blogging project: a review of her newest children’s book, all partly written, in fragments, unfinished.
On Saturday I took myself off to the museum. Up the stairs and across the landing, marching myself through four centuries of beautiful art, hardly looking up at the walls, because I wanted to be in the room with the moss green walls, sitting on the little bench in front of the copy of the Mona Lisa, with my note book and pen. I wanted to be amongst the fragments of rescued altar screens and the panels from triptychs and diptychs painted in red and green and gold. I wanted to study the skin tone of the cherub faces and the folds in the skirts of the weeping mother of Christ. I wanted to consider the stature of the men who took the Christ form the cross and held his ragged body in their disappointed arms and to see the marks on the surface of the painting where the brush of the artist had once been.
So there I sat with the room all to myself, for quite some time, thinking, resting and writing … until the Saturday afternoon children’s art class arrived, with their noisy clip boards and enthusiastic teacher.
Though I am committed to the idea of children in galleries, I quickly escaped to the adjacent room, Late Renaissance Italy, which is where I saw something I have never noticed before, a marble and pietre dure table, similar I guess, to one of the pieces described in Anita’s story, the one I have intend to review. Pietre dure is an inlay technique created using highly polished coloured stones to create images and patterns. The stone is sliced thinly and cut into intricate shapes that fit together like a jig-saw puzzle. Anita’s story is illustrated with fine photos of the most exquisite work; precious stone, laid like wooden pieces in a marquetry picture, birds and flowers, scrolls, fruit, and carefully arranged tessellating shapes. Though the Liverpool Walker’s example is beautiful it is nothing compared to the examples that Anita has chosen for the book: such fine colours laid against shining black marble, I notice how the natural grain of the stone is married to the shadow and contours of a fruit or the wing of a bird, the stems of the flowers are impossibly fine and the veins in the wings of a butterfly executed with a precision and symmetry that seem impossible.
And this is how I come to finally pull together the pieces of this book review. Exiled to the Late Renaissance room of the Walker gallery on a rainy Saturday afternoon I sat myself beside the pietre dure table and made myself a new set of notes. I am reminded of all the times I have sat in the museum with my notebook and spun a story of an artist or the people and places he had painted. A non-fiction of my own. A retelling of the story behind the artistry that helps me understand the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’ of a piece of art or an artefact. I scroll back through the photos on my phone where their are murals from the ancient worlds, armour from the Orient, Anglo-Saxon jewels, tapestries and African masks. These are good starting points for stories.
Francesco, Artist of Florence: The Man Who Gave Too Much, is a brave children’s book: brave in subject and brave in human sentiment and spirituality. The starting point for this story is a sixteenth century artist who work in pietre dure. In a culture where almost all the most popular children’s fiction occupies a relatively small range of possible worlds, Anita has ventured into a rare time and place, a foreign cities, lost treasures and the exceptional yet ordinary people who made them. Not content to stop there she ventures into the emotional tensions of an artist’s life: an artist who must believe in himself and his gifting even when he receives no recognition or reward for his work.
Francesco is a artist who loves his work, bestowing upon it an almost sacred significance, creating flowers that will never fade and birds that will never die. With every selection of stone, the colours and the grain, its sympathy to the final picture, he is creating beauty that will never die, and “painting for eternity”. Yet Francesco is troubled, a victim of the astute bargaining skills of his customers and his over ambitious ideal that every eager customer should own something of beauty for their own home. He is not a business man. Francesco must live with the pressure of his failure to make enough money and the wrath of his disappointed wife who constantly reminds him he has not provided for the family as he should. In church, under the gaze of Masaccio’s La Trinita, Francesco brings his weaknesses and failures to God. He must forgive the friends and associates who have taken advantage of his kindly nature and robbed him of the reward that is due for the art, but most of all he must forgive himself. He must show himself mercy, he has not fulfilled responsibilities for the un-paid bills and the much needed savings. Towards the end of the story he says to himself, (or maybe to his God),
“I look forward to the latter day of eternal beauty, which shall be for all creation.
I look forwards to the day of eternal lowers, and the everlasting bouquet when the hard nosed shall sit with the soft hearted, when it will be safe for the lamb to be gentle as he sits down with the lion, for the lion will now be gentle too.”
Anita Mathias blogs at anitamathias.com
The pietre dure table I found was in the Walker Gallery Liverpool.
If you are a teacher or interested in sharing the themes of the story with your own children, I can recommend this review from Adrianna at Classical Quest. It includes informative links and great craft ideas. Don’t miss the video from the V and A that shows a pietre dure artist at work.
The book would make a great present for primary age children who are familiar with museums and galleries and it would be a great illustrated read for older independent readers.