Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Cocktails with a Curator: Bellini's 'St. Francis in the Desert'

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(soft piano music)

- Good evening, I am Xavier Salomon.

I am the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator

at the Frick Collection.

And welcome to this first episode of

Cocktails with a Curator.

Now, every Friday evening, for the next few weeks,

I decided to speak from my own apartment, in New York,

about some of the great masterpieces

at the Frick Collection.

We're all at home in this time of difficulty and crisis.

And I would like to look

at some of the great masterpieces of the Frick,

thinking about some of the issues

we're thinking about these days.

Issues to do with life, love, travel,

searching for meaning in life, and ultimately, death.

And many of the works of art at the Frick,

such powerful and wonderful masterpieces,

bring some of these ideas to the fore.

And so, we'll look at them

thinking about some of these issues.

Each Friday, this will be accompanied by a cocktail.

And we will send you the recipe in advance,

so that you can make you own cocktail,

and hopefully, drink that same cocktail

while looking at this brief film.

The cocktail I chose tonight is a Manhattan.

This is not only because a Manhattan is

one of my favorite drinks,

but also to celebrate the island of Manhattan

and the city of New York.

And at this incredible time of difficulty,

celebrate the heroic struggles of so many people here

fighting against the virus

and the difficulty of the situation.

So, I would like to raise a glass to that.

And I hope you will all enjoy your Manhattan

and think of this incredible city as I talk about

one of its great treasures.

Tonight, I will talk about what is arguably

the most famous painting at the Frick Collection,

Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert,

which has hung on the same wall

since Henry Clay Frick acquired it in 1915

from a private collection in England.

It sits at the heart of the Frick Collection

in the living hall, surrounded by two portraits by Titian.

And it has hung on that wall since 1915, as I say,

for more than 100 years.

It is an extraordinary work of art.

It is also, in many ways, a rather mysterious work of art.

We don't know who it was painted for, and why precisely.

We don't know the exact date of it.

We don't know what it represents exactly.

And lots of theories have been put forward.

But we have a sense of a few of these questions.

And I will talk a little bit about its history

before talking, more generally,

about its wider significance as a great work of art.

The painting first appeared in 1525.

A man called Marcantonio Michiel wrote a list of paintings

in various private collections in Venice.

And in the house of Taddeo Contarini,

an aristocrat from the time, in his palace,

which is close to the church of Santa Fosca,

he first described the St. Francis in the Desert

in one of the rooms of that house.

But Michiel also tells us that originally the painting

had not been painted for Contarini,

but for a man called Zuan Michiel,

who was a citizen of Venice, of whom we know quite little.

And we don't know why Zuan Michiel ordered the painting.

Is this a private devotional work?

Or, is this an altar piece

for a private chapel or for a church in Venice?

One of the most interesting theories

that has been put forward is

that Michiel may have originally intended the painting

for the monastery of San Francesco del Deserto,

which is a Franciscan monastery on a small island

in the lagoon outside of Venice.

Still to this day a very secluded place.

And of course, this painting showing St. Francis

in a deserted desert type landscape

would have been particularly appropriate for a church

like San Francesco del Deserto.

But of course, if it was destined for that church

it didn't stay there for long.

Because, as I said already, in 1525, the picture had moved

to a private collection in Venice,

the collection of Taddeo Contarini.

Bellini prominently signed the picture

in the lower left corner of the painting, of the panel.

This is a small piece of paper painted in templari

as if it was a real piece of paper

on these two branches of a bush.

This in Italian is called a cartellino,

a small piece of paper.

And on it, Bellini proudly signs this work,

which he painted, probably, in the mid-1470s.

The painting focuses on the religious figure

of St. Francis of Assisi, a Christian Catholic saint

who lived in the Middle Ages in central Italy.

He was born in 1182 in the town of Assisi.

And he died there, in the same town, in 1226.

Francis, in Italian, Francesco,

was the son of a prominent merchant from Assisi

who had a lot of business with France.

Hence, his name, Francesco, which refers

to the name of France, the word France in Italian, Francia.

Francis grew up as a spoiled, rich kid.

But as a young man, he decided to give all of that up.

And after a miraculous vision,

in the church of San Damiano in Assisi,

he decided to renounce his wealth

and follow a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

He created his own religious order,

which was approved by the Pope during his lifetime,

and took the name of Franciscan Order,

which exists, of course, to this day.

The key event in Francis's life,

however, took place in 1224.

At that time, Francis had taken refuge in a desolated

place in the mountains, the Apennines,

outside of the city of Arezzo, in Tuscany.

This is a place called Mount La Verna,

this sort of rocky outcrop in the Appenine.

And while meditating and praying there,

Francis received a vision.

And that vision bestowed on him the wounds of Christ,

the wounds that Christ had received during his passion

at the time of the crucifixion.

So, coming back from Mount La Verna

Francis had the stigmatas, the wounds in the hands,

the feet, and the chest that Christ had received.

And this made him a new Christ, a new figure

who was sharing with Christ the suffering of Jesus Christ.

This is a very commonly represented scene

in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

And here, you see one of the frescoes

from the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi,

the church where Francis was eventually buried

after his death.

But Bellini chooses to represent this

in a very different way.

Here is Francis's hands open, arms open,

standing in this rocky area,

which reminds the viewer of La Verna.

And in many ways, the rocky outcrop

is very much like La Verna.

And you can see to the right,

the cave in which Francis presumably lives,

with some symbols of his inhabiting that space.

A lectern, a skull, a cross.

But then, of course, to the left, this opens up

to a beautiful landscape, very different from

the rugged landscape of La Verna.

And the vision that Francis is experiencing

is very much in Francis's own mind.

You see this divine light coming through the laurel tree

at the top left.

But apart from that, we don't see and we don't experience

what Francis is experiencing.

This is a painting that is very much

about the power of light.

But at the same time, it is about the role of man in nature.

You see to the right some of the details of Francis

inhabiting this area.

He's left his clogs to the side,

next to this beautiful detail of a small fig tree

that is sort of sprouting from the ground,

and some small blue flowers.

And of course, everything about this painting

is about spring.

Is about the time of year we're living in right now.

It's about the flowering and the budding of trees.

And you also see some human inhabitation.

So, in the background there is a town,

very much a world medieval town

of the type that would have been seen

by Bellini and his contemporaries,

and still can be seen to this day in the Veneto.

Above that, is a fortress up in the mountains.

And with a sort of beautiful sky,

where you almost feel the wind

and the rustling through the trees.

These trees that are coming back to life

after the harsh winter.

There are signs of human life, very few.

There is a shepherd bringing his flock along a river

next to the city, far away from Francis.

But the really beautiful details are the animals

that you see here.

The donkey, standing alone in a meadow.

And the gray heron, which was looking into the distance

from this rocky outcrop.

And there are some other details.

The more you look at this painting,

the more you realize the beauty of some of these

wonderful sketches that Bellini gives us

into the natural world, these views.

To the side of Francis, just under his right arm,

is a rabbit coming out of a crevice in the rocks.

A favorite detail which is actually quite hard to make out

is in the left hand corner.

You see a sprout of water, and under it

a little kingfish drinking, probably the water,

or looking up to that water.

And it's very hard to make out in the painting,

but you can look at it closely in detail.

Francis is at the center of this.

And Francis was a saint, a thinker, a philosopher,

who really thought of nature as a creation of God.

And I think in many ways, Francis, to this day,

is one of the great heroes of the natural world,

of the world we live in.

And someone who talked and wrote extensively

about the world that surround us.

We are now living in this situation.

We are locked at home, most of us,

because of a natural occurrence, an epidemic, a virus,

is part of nature.

And we understand nature in a very different way.

We often forget about nature.

But by doing this, by stopping what we're doing,

a lot of nature is coming back.

Animals are coming back into the cities.

There's been descriptions of various types of animals

and plants coming back to life as we don't travel as much,

as we stay stationary within our homes.

And one of the great meditations of St. Francis

is precisely this role of the human being within nature.

St. Francis wrote the Canticle of Creatures,

which is a poem, a prayer, a very beautiful meditation

on this issue.

And I think the painting, in many ways,

reflects the Canticle of Creatures.

Now, this is not necessarily about religion.

You can be a non-religious person, as I myself am,

to understand that this is a text about broader issues.

And so, I would like to share

that text with you this evening,

and look at this painting while I read the text.

Thinking about the elements that Francis writes about,

and how Bellini beautifully, poignantly captures them

in this painting.

Now, the Canticle of Creatures

is very much a poem about nature,

and about the human role within nature.

Francis writes, "Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,

all praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong.

No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through all You have made.

And first, my Lord, Brother Sun, who brings the day,

and through whom You give us light.

How beautiful he is, how radiant in all his splendor.

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

All praise be Yours, my Lord,

through Sister Moon and the stars.

In the heavens You have made them bright

and precious and fair.

All praise be Yours, my Lord,

through Brothers Wind and Air.

And fair and stormy all the weather's moods,

by which You cherish all that You have made.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,

so useful, humble, precious, and pure.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,

through whom You brighten up the night.

How beautiful is he, how cheerful,

full of power and strength.

All praise be Yours, my Lord,

through our Sister Mother Earth,

who sustains us and governs us,

and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

All praise be Yours, my Lord,

through those who grant pardon for love of You,

through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy are those who endure it in peace.

By You, Most High, they will be crowned.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,

from whose embrace no mortal can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.

Happy those she finds doing Your will.

The second death can do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks,

and serve Him with great humility."

Now, in this poem,

Francis is talking about his Christian beliefs, of course,

but he's talking about the sun, the moon, the stars,

the air, the water, the various components of the earth,

the flowers, the animals.

He's talking about life and death,

and he's talking about our central role within this planet,

within the earth.

And that, I think, it's a role

that we're reconsidering right now.

From our homes, we're all thinking about that.

We're thinking about the nature that surrounds us.

The beauty of nature in these gorgeous spring days,

but also the danger of nature,

through the virus we're all trying to escape.

We are surrounded, at the moment,

by the rebirth of life through spring,

but also by terrible death and pain all around the globe.

And I think this is a painting that does many things,

but one of the things it does is

make us meditate about that.

It makes us think about who we are,

why we inhabit the planet we inhabit,

and hopefully, it can teach all of us

about how to take better care of the world around us.

The plants, the animals, the earth

that gives us shelter and hosts us,

even though, at times, that may seem harsh and difficult.

So, with this painting, and I think with many more

in the next few weeks, I think it will be good

to meditate and think about some of these issues.

And with this, I wish you all goodnight.

And I hope you're all enjoying your cocktails.

And see you next week.

Thank you.

The Description of Cocktails with a Curator: Bellini's 'St. Francis in the Desert'