Labor of love

Eight Florentine women revive painting method of the ancients

Jennifer Sgro
February 26, 2009

Amidst all the hype about post-everythingness in the art world, from cooking up Carvaggio's with spaghetti to Leonardo's with chocolate syrup, a rinascimento of all'antica method and iconography could be just what cyber-age skeptics need to revive faith in painting. Call it traditional, even old school, but eight Florentine women, the self-proclaimed Association Tabula Picta, in cooperation with the Sant'Ambrogio Parish, are doing just that in a week-long exhibition, Mostra d'Arte Sacra, in Palazzo di Parte Guelfa, in the historical center of Florence, February 28 to March 5th.


At this exhibit you will find a reworking of the art of painting with tempera, a technique renowned among the ancients, preserved by monastic orders during the early Middle Ages until its revival in the thirteenth century, reinvented throughout the Renaissance,L but dismissed in the sixteenth century. Recently, preservationists have begun offering tempera method workshops in keeping with the monastic traditions.


For Tabula Picta, working in tempera is a labor of love. The ancient method is not easy. The term tempera refers to the material used to paint wooden panels or the like. Making it involves an arduous layering process of egg and translucent pigment and is repeated frequently in small batches because of the egg's quick-drying properties. The egg yolk is a binding agent for the minerals that provide the color.


The tempera is applied in countless minute brushstrokes in a cross-hatching technique that is, once complete, coated in varnish that intensifies the colors into jewel-like tones. The ancients used earth and stone materials to create color, while Renaissance artists became more inventive, using even blood. One must think only of Caravaggio (not the spaghetti version) to understand the potentially violent extent of color experimentation.  


The eight women in Tabula Picta first joined forces during a tempera course they took together 10 years ago. After the course, the women resolved to start a painting group. Giovanna Pieri, retired art teacher and member of Tabula Picta, who has been photographing, drawing portraits, and painting with oil for as long as she can remember (a path  that lead her to the Liceo Artistico di Firenze, thought scandalous for women to attend in the 1950s), recalls when the group first decided to get together. ‘We did not want to give up our newly found craft so we decided to get together to paint,' she recounts.


Since 1997, they have created countless pieces and mounted several exhibits. The group, now sponsored by Florence culture superintendent Eugenio Giani, focuses on religious iconography, making copies of historical works such as Botticelli's Madonna and Child as well as modern interpretations of Biblical episodes, such as Cain's murder of Abel.


Whether seeking religious inspiration, local artistic talent, or even your very own new-but-seemingly-old panel of a Madonna and Child or the Archangel Michael, discover the Association of Tabula Picta at the Mostra d'Arte Sacra.




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