Giulia Calvanese

Secret Glances Today and Leonardo

Simone Ferrari (Milan, 1969)
Associate Professor in History of Modern Art,
University of Parma.

The anniversary of the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death and the assiduous contact with Milanese localities carrying the stamp of his genius, have prompted many changing and multidirectional stimuli in Giulia Calvanese’s work. The comparison with the incomparable painter (Leonardo) is, obviously, not shaped by competitiveness or imitation. They are poetical and evocative. The dialogue, at far remove from the inventor of the modern tradition, creates autobiographical affinities, discontinuities, recurrences and trespasses, allusions and reflections.

The artist’s point of departure springs from the meeting of the actions of the soul; the need to depict the feeling and emotions of the characters expressed according to a new model, artistic and epistemological. This concept—fundamental for Leonardo—represents one of the threads of Giulia’s study. It is developed in oblique terms involving a wide range of moods. In the images of personal psychological situations, we see the definition of her own emotional condition which alternates, in other images, with moments of deep introspection where empathy almost becomes disorientation, the fleeting nostalgic reference to poignant events reported by others but not lived personally. The comparison with the works of the great master is at times more open, at other a mere suggestion, an iconic and ideal value; a stimulus to a personal reflection effected through technique, iconography and symbolism. In the folds of the painted visage are gathered memories of Leonardo’s Scapigliata (Lady of Disheveled Hair) of Parma; Dama con l’ Ermellino (Lady with an Ermine); the lost Leda (Leda and the Swan, q.v.), its remains are drawings and derivations; of Ritratto di profilo (Portrait in Profile), requested by Isabella D’Este, alas, only the preliminary drawing remain in the Louvre. Nevertheless, beyond the possible and verifiable similarities, what emerges is the comparison with certain paradigms of the times and world of Leonardo; particularly: the concept of atmosphere, the significance of shading, the definition of the uses of light and shade, the symbolic value of colors and the relationship with the worlds of ideas and mathematics.

Shading, a tool invented by Leonardo to effect the mutable and variegated manifestations of nature, corresponds to Giulia’s poetics. They do not aim at a precise display of exact forms or at the canon of resemblance, but at the exaltation of an interior world that is in twilight and thus not always clearly definable. She looks for a dimension that, beginning with emotion, joins that of the spirit in a constantly rising journey which corresponds to an unstoppable yearning of the human soul. Into a subtle dialectic between sensory knowledge and spiritual tension, a particular chromatic choice inserts itself. It presents an articulation deliberately reduced and simplified to a few fundamental elements: the earthy Burnt Sienna (brown) and Roman Ocher (gold). These two colors, opposites, symbolize the tension between the immanent, sensory and material component and the immaterial, intangible and transcendent component. Precisely because of the intentional absence of the individualizing element (yet despite her choice, Giulia’s paintings do not trespass into the self-referential symbolism that leads to abstraction and the non-figurative) the existential, spiritual and ideal component takes on a decisive and authorial role in the paintings on exhibition. Beginning from Leonardo’s models, Giulia develops a conceptual and eloquent plot, a thoughtful narration (metaphorically, the chiaroscuro of the artist’s thought) that welcomes mandatory references, as in the golden section and the reference to the platonic world of the super-celestial.

The constant movement from the sensory to the transcendent allows Giulia to recover a much-debated aspect in the world of Leonardo—his ties to the Neoplatonic culture of Marsilio Ficino—a very pervasive theme in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent. According to Vasari, the most illustrious and authoritative source of the age, Leonardo, with his sublime mind, created artistic concepts and ideas so powerful and profound that only narrowly was he able to achieve and demonstrate them through his work. This striking articulation is once again evident in the paintings exhibited here; especially in the image which depicts an evocative meeting between ideas—understood in their eternal, perfect and immutable nature— metaphorically represented through the use of regular geometric forms and the use of gold—symbol par excellence for the spiritual and divine dimension in Christian art throughout millennia. The key values of the Renaissance are developed in original and unpredictable ways. Beginning with the “portrait in profile”— little loved by Leonardo because it was thought to mortify the coveted psychological and sentimental development— Giulia reaches an unexpected but not banal link to the golden ratio, a prevailing topic in that era and one which Leonardo will revive during his first Milanese period thanks to his well-documented friendship with Friar Luca Pacioli, the most famous and creative mathematician of the age.

Translation by Gennaro Cibelli,Dayton, Maryland, U.S.A.