An interview with… Helen Oakden
Helen studied history of art at Manchester University and at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she was awarded her Masters in the architectural history of Rome. Her previous positions include teaching at the Whitworth Museum in Manchester, Somerset House in London, and across Italy with Art History Abroad. She was an editor of the Burlington Magazine and now teaches history of art A-Level at St Mary’s School in Ascot. Helen accompanied the specialist art tour Italy: Florence in Focus by Cox & Kings.
How and why did you become interested in the places your tour visits?
I first visited Florence when I was 17 and was impressed with how untouched the city was since the 15th century. The buildings, the streets, the sculptures: the atmosphere of the Renaissance is amazingly preserved for the modern visitor, making it easy to fall back into history and study the glorious art of Florence. Walking through the Palazzo Medici and seeing the chapel where Cosimo il Vecchio would have spent his last years and looking at the same Gozzoli frescoes that he would have looked at, made learning about this remarkable family all the more special and meaningful. It’s all very well reading and studying Brunelleschi, but it’s not until you walk into Santo Spirito, feeling the rush of cool air from the pietra serena, that you realise you’ve been shushed to a whisper simply because of the architecture. Florence really is a place that you have to walk through, seeing the spaces unfold around you, and soaking in the Renaissance magic.
What do you enjoy most about leading a specialist tour such as this?
Studying such a focused city and period of history allows you to explore art in great depth. Looking so carefully at the history and society of the Florentine Quattrocento provides you with a chance to understand the environment that was making these great works of art. We will look at the literature, the religion, the personalities, the fashion, the politics – we explore all – and you must explore all if you are to really understand the city and its art.
What do you most enjoy about visiting the places on your tour?
I love Florence for many reasons – one of which is the food. Florentines excel at steak, as well as wonderful truffle dishes. But food aside, the art in Florence is so rich. We have Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici to thank for that – her ‘Family Pact’ – a clause in her will that was executed in 1743, insisted that the Medici’s vast collection of painting, sculpture, jewels, prints and so forth, were given to Florence and never to be removed. What has grown from this jolly clever bequest is a city bursting full of treasures. Visiting any number of art galleries becomes a visual feast, even more reason to venture to the city’s restaurants afterwards to feast some more. My favourite museum of all is the Uffizi – introducing people to the likes of Gentile da Fabriano, Piero della Francesca, Parmigianino and Fra Filippo Lippi is an honour.
My aim is to make people fall in love with paintings that they don’t know, although it’s great fun looking at the stunned expressions of those that walk into the ‘Botticelli Room’ for the first time. And just wait until you stand in front of Michelangelo’s David, or in front of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity – jaws will drop.
What visit on the tour are you most looking forward to (and why)?
The Monastery of San Marco is a haven of pure, delicate and peaceful art. Fra Angelico’s paintings are sometimes mistaken as naïve depictions of biblical scenes – but judge only after you have walked into one of the monks’ cells. And trust me on this (although it sounds crazy), his Annunciation sparkles in real life, you have to see it in the flesh to believe it!
If you could only recommend one book to read before departure, what would it be?
There are so many books to choose from – and so many jolly good ones too – I’m unable to recommend just one. My favourite art historical writer, Vincent Cronin, perfectly illustrates in great depth the personalities and politics of the Florentine Quattrocento in The Florentine Renaissance. If it’s the art you want to read up on you’ll find Richard Turner’s Renaissance in Florence a very simple but thoughtful guide. However, my favourite, and one that really soaks up the romantic atmosphere of the city is David Leavitt’s Florence, A Delicate Case (The Writer and the City). And the very last thing on my list, and one really aimed for the English tourist, is A Room with a View. EM Forster’s descriptions of the Edwardian visitors to Florence and their dealings with passionate red-blooded Italians are glorious.