The church and convent della Calza, with a Last Supper by Franciabigio

Just inside the ancient gate of Porta Romano, lies a simple church and attached convent (in Italy, convent can mean monastery or convent or both) dating to the 13th century. An almost unknown (relatively speaking, at least, to the hordes of tourists who descend on Florence every year) masterpiece of  Renaissance paintings is housed here: a beautiful cenacolo, or a painting of The Last Supper. Florence is so fortunately rich in these frescoed depictions of that fateful dinner.

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The church dedicated to San Giovanni Battista, in Piazza della Calza, was founded as a hospital in 1362.  There were once many oratories, hospitals and shelters for pilgrims and travelers along the present via Senese and via Romana. These were major roads leading to Florence.

At the end of the 14th century, the convent was established by the Gerosolimitan nuns. They commissioned Franciabigio to paint The Last Supper in 1514 in their refectory. Unfortunately, the sisters soon had to leave the hospital, during the 1529 siege of Florence.

The nuns were replaced in 1531 by Jesuati friars (not Jesuits) who changed the dedication of the church from Hospital of Saint John the Baptist  to San Giusto. They  used the hospital as a charity for children, an ecclesiastic boarding-house, and eventually as a seminary. The church and the convent became known by the name “della calza” (sock) which was a name derived from the long white hoods that the monks wore over their left shoulders. The hood was shaped like a sock and the name stuck.

The picture below is not authentically one of the della calza habits, but it shows the shape of the hood and how it was worn.

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From this nickname of “the sock” came the name of the church, the convent, and even the square.

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The true hidden gem kept inside is the Cenacolo by Franciabigio, still preserved in the ancient refectory.

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Mother Superior Antonia de’ Medici entrusted Francesco di Cristofano, called Franciabigio (1482-1525), to portray a specific scene, during the Last Supper, just after Christ says: “Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

Franciabigio thus knowing, deep sadness in the countenance of Christ. Judas, the only figure on the outer side of the table, reacts strongly to the words of Jesus: his sudden movement causes his wooden stool to tip over. All around the table, the expressions of the Apostles register various states of confusion.

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One can notice each reaction and recognize each Apostle because the artist added their names, painted along the strip which runs above their heads. The painter added here the date A(nno) S(alutis) MDXIIII (A.D. 1514) and his signature, through a twisted shortened monogram (FRAC).

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On the painted floor, you can even distinguish the name of the Mother Superior Antonia (SVORA AN), marked on the lower left side, under the table, between the second and third Apostle.

Franciabigio carefully fashioned magnificient details; along the fine linen tablecloth you see ceramic jugs, breadrolls, glasses with red wine, and sliced watermelon. Some of the jugs feature the typical Medici coat-of-arms (the one with the red spheres) referring to Mother Superior Antonia and the Red Cross of the Order of Knights of Malta to whom the nuns originally belonged.

Giorgio Vasari describes (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) how Franciabigio “was very keen on studies of perspective” and human anatomy. We see that throughout and especially in the accurate position of the wooden shutters painted along the wall.

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A fascinating contrast is given by the dark green wall and the light of the crystal clear sky in the background, where the painter depicted the old Florentine town walls (the destroyed gate of San Pier Gattolino).

For the Jubilee in 2000, the fresco was restored.

Just a quick word about the Church of San Giovanni Battista della Calza:

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My quick walk through the church introduced me to this arresting sculpture near the entrance to the small church.

I was alone in the church and had free rein to poke around.  In a small room off the church itself I noticed an amazing della Robbia fountain.  You never know what treasures you will happen upon in this fascinating city.

And, finally, I can’t leave this post without mentioning that, depict the austerity of this church, some major paintings were once a part of the church.  They are now in the Uffizi:

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Andrea del Sarto, Fresco cycle at the Chiostro dello Scalzo, Firenze; Part 1

Once upon a time in Florence, there was a small oratory (church) dedicated to the Compagnia dei Disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista (Confraternity of St. John the Baptist), a group founded in 1376.

The tiny facade of the Cloister of the Scalzo in Florence, on present day Via Cavour, was built as the entrance to that now-destroyed church. Buildings that served the Confraternity were called “dello Scalzo” because the cross-bearers in the Confraternity’s processions walked with bare feet as a sign of humility, and scalzo means barefoot.

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The brothers belonging to the Confraternita dressed in long, simple, black robes with a cowl. Their garb is depicted in the della Robbia style glazed-terracotta lunette above the entrance portal to the chiostro.

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The emblem of the confraternity is the bust of Saint John the Baptist wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. He is depicted with a halo and holds a golden cross. In the lunette over the entrance, the saint is in the center, with 2 brothers, one on either side. The saint was intentionally represented in a larger scale than the brothers, as a sign of of his relative importance.

The brotherhood lasted until 1786, when the property was sold. The small oratory was destroyed in the 19th century, to make way for the modern Via Cavour.

Fortunately for posterity and lovers of art in particular, the Chiostro was saved. The Accademia delle Belle Arti used it for a while, but it was opened to the public in 1891.

While the small cortile, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is a lovely little piece of Florentine Renaissance architecture in and of itself, with its harmonious proportions and lovely use of pietra serena, it is the fresco cycle on the four walls of the cloister that make it a must-see for any art lover.

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This fresco cycle was painted by Andrea Del Sarto (Andrea Vannucchi, 1486-1530), and shows episodes from the Life of St. John the Baptist. With the 12 main scenes presented in large, horizontal frames, subdivided by grotesque style motifs, the beautiful cycle is complete. Unlike the more famous places in Florence, such as the Uffizi and the Accademia, one can visit the chiostro in a quiet and relaxed manner, and often have the entire venue to yourself. I highly recommend a visit to this exquisite, almost secret, gem.

 

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Here, in all its quiet glory, is the cloister interior:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is believed that Andrea del Sarto painted the entire cycle, including the paintings in the decorative bands, with one exception which will be discussed below.

In addition to the large panels depicting the saint’s life, four tall, vertical paintings represent the Virtues on the sides of the 2 main axes: Charity (1513), Faith (1523), Justice (1525) and Hope (1523).

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The 12 distinct moments from life of Saint John include his birth,  the famous dance of Salomè, and the beheading of the saint. The scenes also include the baptism of Jesus and the preaching in the desert. Curiously, the sequence of the scenes is not presented in chronological order on the walls.

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We know that the paintings were created over a relatively long period, from 1509-26.  This is a bonus for the world of art history, for the stylistic evolution of Andrea del Sarto can be followed, starting with the Baptism of Christ, c. 1509-10. This painting bears the clear influence of the quattrocento Florentine masters.

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The later scenes, painted when he had achieved his maturity as an artist, reveal the  increasingly dynamic sculptural clarity of Andrea’s figures, which he borrowed from Michelangelo and which has the manneristic foreshadowings for which Andrea is noted. In The Capture of the Baptist painted in 1517, we see a more dynamic composition, probably inspired by the work of  the very popular Michelangelo and other peers like Andrea’s friend, Franciabigio.

The frescoes painted in the decade of 1520 were made during Andrea del Sarto’s maturity, and we notice the much more solemn and majestic figures. Their heroic proportions run parallel with the era’s then dominant michelangiolismo.

The Baptism of the Multitudes, painted in a sumptuous almost Mannerist style, is both harmonious and complex: it is full of moving figures, many nude, and filled with pictorial virtuosity. This would inspire the entire next generation of artists.

Interestingly enough, Andrea del Sarto himself was a member of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist and practiced a lifestyle based on the sober and spiritual edicts of the group. He was thus a direct messenger of the spiritual values of simplicity shared by his brothers, which is why, perhaps, this spartan approach of monochromatic frescoes were chosen. Certainly, these paintings were less expensive to paint than fresco decorations with gold leaf and precious color mineral pigments.  I don’t know why the chiaroscuro palette was chosen; perhaps it was a combination of the two influences.

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Not only was Andrea del Sarto a member of this confraternity, but he lived nearby of the current Via Gino Capponi and Via Giusti.  You can see his house pinned in red on the map below.  Note how close the Chiostro is, located on the upper left side of the map. They are about a 6 minute walk from each other.

 

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The plaque below marks the former home of Andrea Del Sarto.

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The coat-of-arms on the corner of the house in which Andrea lived tells us clearly that this section of town was part of Medici territory.  It makes sense, the house and Chiostro are very near San Marco.

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The photo below shows how close Andrea lived to the Duomo of Florence.  He lived, like so many Renaissance artists,  in its shadow.

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Andrea reached extraordinary stylistic and technical skill and is important, as well, because he played an important role in the complex artistic events of Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. He also played a critical role now recognized as fundamental to the development of Mannerism.

Two of the scenes, the Departure of John the Baptist for the Desert, and the Blessing of the  Baptist, were actually painted by the artist’s friend and collaborator, a man known as Franciabigio (Francesco di Cristofano, 1482-1525). Franciabigio was asked to paint these 2 panels because in 1518 Andrea was absent from Florence.

In fact, Andrea had been summoned by King François I to the French court at Fontainebleau. The king personally invited Andrea join the Fontainebleau school, for his fame of being the “faultless painter” (as Vasari would say) had gone beyond the borders of the Italian peninsula. The elegance and balance of Andrea’s figures were considered to have no match among any living painters.

However, Andrea returned to Florence a year or so later and finished the Cloister’s fresco cycle himself.

Admired by Michelangelo, Del Sarto was also teacher to Giorgio Vasari, who later became his biographer, describing him as the faultless painter or “painter without errors.” Del Sarto played an important role now acknowledged as fundamental to the development of Mannerism. Sarto’s style is marked throughout his career by an interest in the effects of color and atmosphere and by a sophisticated informality and natural expression of emotion.

Incidentally, the terracotta bust in the cloister represents bishop Saint Antonino Pierozzi who, as archbishop, sanctioned (in 1455) the birth of the Compagnia dello Scalzo. The Confraternity became increasingly more popular in Florence, as witnessed by an official document in 1631. The chronicles refer to a large community of brothers composed of a Governor, a council held by two elder brothers, an accountant, a copyist, six nurses, a dozen of specialized clerks, a priest, a doctor, and a servant.

The frescoes in the cloister were exposed to weather and thus deterioration for centuries. In the early 1960s, the frescoes were detached from the walls for restoration and were finally returned to the cloister to be reopened for public viewing in 2000.

Andrea del Sarto’s fresco cycle is certainly among the most important of Florentine painting of the early 16th century.  Many experts consider this cycle to be his masterpiece.

http://www.polomusealetoscana.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/183/chiostro-dello-scalzo-firenze

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Chiostro_dello_Scalzo

Brenta Canal, Part 3

Back onboard the Burchiello, my cruise continued toward Venice from Stra.  First we had to sail through the Dolo Locks.

Soon we were passing many amazing ville, visible on the left and right banks of the canal.  This area is around Mira, and has a high percentage of villas per square mile!  We also passed very beautiful sections of the canals, with willow trees skimming the water and many fisherman catching their Sunday lunch.

It was smooth sailing and I had one of the best seats on the boat.

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Next we passed through the Mira Locks.

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We stopped at Villa Widmann, said to be a typical 18th century residence (that is if you were a part of the aristocracy!).  It houses luscious frescoes and has lovely gardens.

 

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To be continued.

 

Villa Pisani: Cruising the Brenta Canal from Padua to Venice, part 2

I recently posted about this day-long cruise here (here, here and here) and now I pick up where I left off. Our first stop on the cruise after leaving Padua was in Stra at Villa Pisani.  This incredible villa is now a state museum and very much work a visit.  It was built by a very popular Venetian Doge.

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The facade of the Villa is decorated with enormous statues and the interior was painted by some of the greatest artists of the 18th century.

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Villa Pisani at Stra refers is a monumental, late-Baroque rural palace located along the Brenta Canal (Riviera del Brenta) at Via Doge Pisani 7 near the town of Stra, on the mainland of the Veneto, northern Italy. This villa is one of the largest examples of Villa Veneta located in the Riviera del Brenta, the canal linking Venice to Padua. It is to be noted that the patrician Pisani family of Venice commissioned a number of villas, also known as Villa Pisani across the Venetian mainland. The villa and gardens now operate as a national museum, and the site sponsors art exhibitions.

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Construction of this palace began in the early 18th century for Alvise Pisani, the most prominent member of the Pisani family, who was appointed doge in 1735.

The initial models of the palace by Paduan architect Girolamo Frigimelica still exist, but the design of the main building was ultimately completed by Francesco Maria Preti. When it was completed, the building had 114 rooms, in honor of its owner, the 114th Doge of Venice Alvise Pisani.

In 1807 it was bought by Napoleon from the Pisani Family, now in poverty due to great losses in gambling. In 1814 the building became the property of the House of Habsburg who transformed the villa into a place of vacation for the European aristocracy of that period. In 1934 it was partially restored to host the first meeting of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, after the riots in Austria.

 

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From the outside, the facade of the oversized palace appears to command the site, facing the Brenta River some 30 kilometers from Venice. The villa is of many villas along the canal, which the Venetian noble families and merchants started to build as early as the 15th century. The broad façade is topped with statuary, and presents an exuberantly decorated center entrance with monumental columns shouldered by caryatids. It shelters a large complex with two inner courts and acres of gardens, stables, and a garden maze.

The largest room is the ballroom, where the 18th-century painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo frescoed the two-story ceiling with a massive allegorical depiction of the Apotheosis or Glory of the Pisani family (painted 1760–1762).[2] Tiepolo’s son Gian Domenico Tiepolo, Crostato, Jacopo Guarana, Jacopo Amigoni, P.A. Novelli, and Gaspare Diziani also completed frescoes for various rooms in the villa. Another room of importance in the villa is now known as the “Napoleon Room” (after his occupant), furnished with pieces from the Napoleonic and Habsburg periods and others from when the house was lived by the Pisani.

The most riotously splendid Tiepolo ceiling would influence his later depiction of the Glory of Spain for the throne room of the Royal Palace of Madrid; however, the grandeur and bombastic ambitions of the ceiling echo now contrast with the mainly uninhabited shell of a palace. The remainder of its nearly 100 rooms are now empty. The Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni described the palace in its day as a place of great fun, served meals, dance and shows.

 

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Check out this sunken bathtub below:

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Bear with me: in the next few photos I am trying out all of the fancy settings on my new camera:

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To be continued.

Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, Florence and Pope Pius VII

I recently met a friend in front of the church in Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, near Santa Croce, in a spot that is the terminus for 3 streets : via de’ Pilastri, via di Mezzo, and Borgo la Croce e via Carducci.

While waiting, I noticed for the first time, although I’ve been in this piazza a hundred times before, something new.

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Looking a bit higher than I normally do, I saw a glazed terra-cotta tabernacle, in the style of the Della Robbia, of a figure that I assumed was a priest or even a pope, making a sign of blessing.

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I ventured nearer to photograph the inscription below, and was rewarded with this information:

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Loosely translated, the inscription reads: “Stop, you passers by, and read this. Know that 2 neighborhoods were passed by the immortal Pope Pius VII on 8 May, 1807, where he devotedly and humbly gave an apostolic blessing to the inhabitants.”

I seldom have occasion to discuss the Catholic Church, that foundational stone of Italian culture, in my blog, so let’s do a little something about that now.

Who was Pope Pius VII?

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Portrait of Pius VII painted by Jacques-Louis David

He was born in 1742 as Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti. He would rise all the way to head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 1800 until his death in 1823. Chiaramonti was also a monk of the Order of Saint Benedict in addition to being a well-known theologian and bishop throughout his life.

Chiaramonti was born in Cesena, about 30 miles south of Ravenna, in 1742, the youngest son of Count Scipione Chiaramonti (1698 – 1750) and Giovanna Coronata (d. 1777). His mother was the daughter of the Marquess Ghini; though his family was of noble status, they were not wealthy.

Like his brothers, he attended the Collegio dei Nobili in Ravenna but decided to join the Order of Saint Benedict at the age of 14 on 2 October 1756 as a novice at the Abbey of Santa Maria del Monte in Cesena. In 1758, he became a professed member and assumed the name of Gregorio. He taught at Benedictine colleges in Parma and Rome, and was ordained a priest on 21 September 1765.

In 1789, as the French Revolution took place, a series of anti-clerical governments came into power. During the French Revolutionary Wars, troops under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Rome and took Pope Pius VI as a prisoner. He was taken as prisoner to France, where he died in 1799. The following year, after a sede vacante period lasting approximately six months, Chiaramonti was elected to the papacy, and took as his pontifical name Pius VII, in honor of his immediate predecessor.

He was crowned on 21 March 1800 in a rather unusual ceremony, wearing a papier-mâché papal tiara as the French had seized the tiaras held by the Holy See when occupying Rome and forcing Pius VI into exile. Pius VII then left for Rome, sailing on a barely seaworthy Austrian ship, the Bellona. The twelve-day voyage ended at Pesaro and he proceeded to Rome.

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Pius at first attempted to take a cautious approach in dealing with Napoleon. He signed the Concordat of 1801, through which he succeeded in guaranteeing religious freedom for Catholics living in France, and presided over his coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804. Pius VII presided at the coronation of Napoleon I in 1804.

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Once again, in 1809, Napoleon invaded the Papal States during the Napoleonic Wars; this earned him ex-communication. Pius VII was taken prisoner and transported to France. He remained there until Napoleon abdicated in 1813 and Pius VII returned to Rome.  He was greeted warmly as a hero and defender of the faith and immediately revived the Inquisition and the Index of Condemned Books.

His works, some notable, some to be regretted:

Pius VII joined the declaration of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, represented by Cardinal Secretary of State Ercole Consalvi, and urged the suppression of the slave trade. This pertained particularly to places such as Spain and Portugal where slavery was economically important. The pope wrote a letter to King Louis XVIII of France dated 20 September 1814 and to the King John VI of Portugal in 1823 to urge the end of slavery. He condemned the slave trade and defined the sale of people as an injustice to the dignity of the human person. In his letter to the King of Portugal, he wrote: “the Pope regrets that this trade in blacks, that he believed having ceased, is still exercised in some regions and even more cruel way. He begs and begs the King of Portugal that it implement all its authority and wisdom to extirpate this unholy and abominable shame.”

Under Napoleonic rule, the Jewish Ghetto had been abolished and Jews were free to live and move where they would. Following the restoration of Papal rule, Pius VII re-instituted the confinement of Jews to the Ghetto, having the doors closed at nighttime.

Pius VII was a man of culture and attempted to reinvigorate Rome with archaeological excavations in Ostia which revealed ruins and icons from ancient times. He also had walls and other buildings rebuilt and restored the Arch of Constantine. He ordered the construction of fountains and piazzas and erected the obelisk at Monte Pincio.

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The pope also made sure Rome was a place for artists and the leading artists of the time like Antonio Canova and Peter von Cornelius. He also enriched the Vatican Library with numerous manuscripts and books.

 
The so-called “miracle” of Pius VII. On 15 August 1811 – the Feast of the Assumption – it is recorded that the pope celebrated Mass and was said to have entered a trance and began to levitate in a manner that drew him to the altar. This particular episode aroused great wonder and awe among attendants which included the French soldiers guarding him who were in disbelief of what had occurred.

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Relationship with the United States. On the United States’ undertaking of the First Barbary War to suppress the Muslim Barbary pirates along the southern Mediterranean coast, ending their kidnapping of Europeans for ransom and slavery, Pius VII declared that the United States “had done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages.”

For the United States, he established several new dioceses in 1808 for Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. In 1821, he also established the dioceses of Charleston, Richmond and Cincinnati.

Pius VII died in 1823 at the age of 81. He was later buried in a monument in Saint Peter’s Basilica by the leading sculptor of the day, the Danish Bertel Thorvaldsen.

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Celebrating women art patrons: Hürrem Sultan, a.k.a. Roxelana

Hürrem Sultan, a.k.a. Roxelana (1505–1558)
Empress of the Ottoman Empire

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Titian, La Sultana Rossa c. 1500. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Through her coquetry and mastery of palace intrigue, Roxelana (meaning “the maiden from Ruthenia,” a region in what is today Belarus and Ukraine) rose from sex slavery as a concubine in Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s harem, eventually becoming his first (or most preferred) wife. In the harem, Roxelana learned Turkish, the principles of Islam, and the art of seduction, and she earned a new name, Hürrem—“the joyful one.” Roxelana so enchanted the sultan that he broke with tradition and had multiple children with her. A few years later, he married her—an act that granted Roxelana her freedom.

At the side of one of the most powerful rulers in Ottoman history, Roxelana wielded extraordinary influence over the empire through her philanthropy and prominent public building projects. Her Haseki complex in Constantinople featured a mosque, school, hospital, and soup kitchen. When a fire partially destroyed Suleiman’s harem, Roxelana used the opportunity to move in with her husband at the Topkapi Palace—an unprecedented move among sultanic wives that ushered in an era called “the Reign of Women.” Instead of rebuilding the harem, she encouraged Suleiman to construct a mosque.

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The Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent still stands as a landmark in Istanbul today. In The Women Who Built the Ottoman World (2017), Muzaffer Özgüles suggests that Roxelana “reshaped the patronage of all Ottoman women builders who came after her.”

Liberty of London

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A fixture in the London shopping scene, Liberty is a department store in Great Marlborough Street, in the West End of London. It sells highly curated selections of women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, make-up and perfume, jewelry, accessories, furniture and furnishings, stationery and gifts. The firm is well known for its floral and graphic prints.

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I love any business with a great history and didactic information in a store window.  They could just as well be showing their product line for sale, but they choose to edify.  That’s my kinda store. Especially when it’s Liberty of London!

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While the exterior of this classic London stop has remained in its mock Tudor style best, the interior and the product lines have changed vastly, even in my lifetime.  While I prefer the way the store was when I first visited it with my mother in the 1980s, I have no doubt the management knows how to keep the store vital.  I always enjoy a visit to this lovely emporium on any trip to London.

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Before this summer, the last time I was at Liberty was in the early 2000s with my then 11-year-old red-headed son. At that time, Paula Pryke had a flower shop at the Liberty main entrance.  It was dynamic! Her shop is gone and the store still has a ghost of a flower shop at its front door.  But, I miss seeing Paula Pryke’s gorgeous arrangements there.  He was less interested in Liberty than in going in and out of tube stations and traveling by train.

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Liberty was created by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in 1843. His father was a draper and, beginning work at 16, he was apprenticed to a draper. Later, Liberty took a job at Farmer and Rogers, a women’s fashions specialist in Regent Street, rising quickly up the ranks.

He was employed by Messrs Farmer and Rogers  in 1862, the year of the International Exhibition. By 1874, inspired by his 10 years of service, he decided to start a business of his own, which he did the next year.

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With a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law, Liberty took the lease of half a shop at 218a Regent Street with three staff members. His shop opened in 1875 selling ornaments, fabric and objets d’art from Japan and the East.

Liberty hadn’t wanted to open just another store — he dreamed of an “Eastern Bazaar” in London that could fundamentally change homeware and fashion. Naming his new shop “East India House,” his collection of ornaments, fabrics and objects d’art from the Far East captured the attention of London, already in the crux of orientalist fervor.

It only took 18 months for Liberty to repay his loan, purchase the second half of the store, and begin to add neighbouring properties to his portfolio. From the beginning, the store also imported antiques, with the original V&A museum actually purchasing pieces of Eastern embroidery and rugs for its collection. As the business grew, neighboring properties were bought and added.

In 1884, he introduced the costume department, directed by Edward William Godwin (1833–86), a distinguished architect and a founding member of The Costume Society. Godwin and Liberty created in-house apparel to challenge the fashions of Paris.

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In 1885, 142–144 Regent Street was acquired and housed the ever-increasing demand for carpets and furniture. The basement was named the Eastern Bazaar, and it was the vending place for what was described as “decorative furnishing objects”.

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Liberty renamed the property “Chesham House,” after the place in which he grew up. The store became the most fashionable place to shop in London, and Liberty fabrics were used for both clothing and furnishings. Some of its clientele included famous Pre-Raphaelite artists.

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To show the kind of innovative approach Liberty had for his business, in November of 1885, he brought 42 villagers from India to stage a living village of Indian artisans.

Liberty’s specialised in Oriental goods, in particular imported Indian silks, and the aim of the display was to generate both publicity and sales for the store.

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During the 1890s, Liberty built strong relationships with many English designers. Some of these designers, including Archibald Knox, practiced the artistic styles we now call  Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau.  Liberty helped develop Art Nouveau in England through his encouragement of such designers. The company became associated with this new style, to the extent that even today in Italy, Art Nouveau became known as the Stile Liberty, after the London shop.

In 1882, author and playwright Oscar Wilde went on a tour of the United States, bringing with him a wardrobe full of clothes from Liberty, creating a demand for the store’s fashions with Americans. Wilde was obviously a huge fan of Liberty.

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The iconic Tudor revival building was built by Liberty so that business could continue while renovations were being completed on the other premises.  This great building was constructed in 1924 from the timbers of two ships: HMS Impregnable (formerly HMS Howe) and HMS Hindustan.

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HMS Impregnable (c.1900), one of the two ships used to build Liberty

The emporium was designed by Edwin Thomas Hall and his son, Edwin Stanley Hall. They designed the building at the height of the 1920s fashion for Tudor revival.

In 1922, the builders had been given a lump sum of £198,000 to construct it, which they did from the timbers of two ancient ‘three-decker’ battle ships. Records show more than 24,000 cubic feet of ships timbers were used including their decks now being the shop flooring: The HMS Impregnable – built from 3040 100-year-old oaks from the New Forest – and the HMS Hindustan, which measured the length and height of the famous Liberty building.

The ships were not Liberty’s only association with warfare. Carved memorials line the department store’s old staircase pay tribute to the Liberty staff who lost their lives fighting in WWII for a different kind of liberty – freedom from the regimes of the Axis powers.

One only need to look up to the roof , upon which stands a marvel of a gilded copper weathervane. Standing four feet tall and weighing 112 pounds, this golden ship recreates The Mayflower, the English vessel famous in American history for taking pilgrims to the new world in 1620.

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The interior of the shop was designed around three light wells that form the main focus es of the building. Each of these wells was surrounded by smaller rooms to create a cosy feeling. Many of the rooms had fireplaces and some of them still exist.

 

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Liberty of London was designed to feel like a home, with each atrium was surrounded by smaller rooms, complete with fireplaces and furnishings.

Ever the purveyor of craftsmanship, Arthur Liberty had a furniture workshop in Archway, London. Run by Lawrence Turner, the workshop produced Liberty Arts and Crafts furniture and the intricately carved panels and pillars found throughout the store. The craftsmen allowed his fantasy, ensuring every ornament was a one-off – paving the way for discovery.

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Sadly, Arthur died seven years before the building’s completion and so never saw his dream realised. But, his statue stands proudly at our Flower Shop entrance to welcome you warmly into his emporium of wonder.

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The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was very critical of the building’s architecture, saying: “The scale is wrong, the symmetry is wrong. The proximity to a classical façade put up by the same firm at the same time is wrong, and the goings-on of a store behind such a façade (and below those twisted Tudor chimneys) are wrongest of all”.

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During the 1950s, the store continued its tradition for fashionable and eclectic design. All departments in the shop had a collection of both contemporary and traditional designs. New designers were promoted and often included those still representing the Liberty tradition for handcrafted work.

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In 1955, Liberty began opening several regional stores in other UK cities; the first of these was in Manchester. Subsequent shops opened in Bath, Brighton, Chester, York, Exeter and Norwich.

During the 1960s, extravagant and Eastern influences once again became fashionable, as well as the Art Deco style, and Liberty adapted its furnishing designs from its archive.

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LIBERTY PRINT ‘CONSTANTIA,’ 1961

In 1996, Liberty announced the closure of all of its department stores outside London, and instead focused on small shops at airports.

Since 1988, Liberty has had a subsidiary in Japan which sells Liberty-branded products in major Japanese shops. It also sells Liberty fabrics to international and local fashion stores with bases in Japan.

Liberty’s London store was sold for £41.5 million and then leased back by the firm in 2009, to pay off debts ahead of a sale. Subsequently, in 2010, Liberty was taken over by private equity firm BlueGem Capital in a deal worth £32 million.

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In 2013, Liberty was the focus of a three-part hour-long episode TV documentary series titled Liberty of London, airing on Channel 4. The documentary follows Ed Burstell (Managing Director) and the department’s retail team in the busy lead up to Christmas 2013.

Channel 4 further commissioned a second series of the documentary on 28 October 2014. This series featured four, one hour-long episodes based on six months worth of unprecedented footage. Series two aired in 2014.

Liberty has a history of collaborative projects – from William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the nineteenth century to Yves Saint Laurent and Dame Vivienne Westwood in the twentieth.

Recent collaborations include brands such as Scott Henshall, Nike, Dr. Martens, Hello Kitty, Barbour, House of Hackney, Vans, Onia, Manolo Blahnik, Uniqlo, Superga, Drew Pritchard of Salvage Hunters and antique lighting specialist Fritz Fryer.

The website for Liberty also has these suggestions for you to watch for as you sally throughout the sprawling store:

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The clock on the Kingly Street entrance of the Liberty store has some words of wisdom for the shoppers who pass by. It says “No minute gone comes back again, take heed and see ye do nothing in vain.” Above the clock, the striking of the hour chime brings out figures of St. George and the Dragon, to recreate their legendary battle every sixty minutes. On each corner of the clock are the angels of the Four Winds: Uriel (south), Michael (east), Raphael (west), and Gabriel (north).