For decades, perhaps centuries — nobody is sure — one of the the most striking medieval buildings in Barga Vecchia was abandoned to rubble and firewood storage. Its original function and name lost to memory, the enormous structure facing the Teatro dei Differenti across narrow Vicolo del Duomo was a vacant, anonymous tribute to the grand vertical arches and monumental stonework of pre-Renaissance Tuscany.
Michael and Jane Richardson, the building’s owners since 2017, have devoted five years to filling that void. In partnership with Barga architect Massimiliano Lanciani and mason Moussa Younsi, they’ve elegantly restored it and provided a simple but evocative name: “Quattro Archi.” Their goal is to endow this long-neglected masterpiece with a significant role in Barga’s formidable community of artists and musicians.
On Friday, July 15, Quattro Archi’s new life opened with an extraordinary exhibition of works by painters Mick and Jeni Brown of Anglesey, Wales. They are the first beneficiaries of an artist-in-residence program aimed at picturing and repicturing Barga — its daily and seasonal tempo, cultural legacy and stunning landscape — from diverse perspectives. The Browns spent three months living and working here, bringing their own very distinctive creative visions to the experience.
The exhibition space, breathtakingly transformed by Lanciani and Younsi into an articulate passage through soaring three-story halls, elevated corridors and studios, linked over three levels by iron-wrought staircases, is awash with natural light pouring through the building’s four vast arches. Previously open to the harsh Apennine winters, they are now covered in glass reinforced with metal braces in subtle geometric patterns.
In huge canvasses that echo the power and eloquence of their setting, Mick Brown has filled the inner walls with bold studies of color and composition that recall the pioneering abstract expressionism of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. But he has deftly annotated them with immediately recognizable allusions to Barga.
In one painting, a complex tide of yellow brush strokes surges toward the crenelated belltower of the Duomo. In the lower corner of another, a ghostly shadow of the town’s patron, the iconic wooden statue of San Cristoforo, presides over ranks of arched doorways shrouded in vibrant swaths of green. Like Nick Swietlan Kraczyna’s celebrated depiction of Barga, it is a dazzling portrait of the interplay between the town’s architectural core and verdant backdrop.
Each canvas employs a single predominant color as the matrix for reflections on local phenomena as varied as the chestnut trees that were central to shelter and food alike for thousands of years in the mountain hamlets of the Serchio Valley, and the ancient Garfagnana agricultural tools known as “pennati” that were the subjects of a remarkable 2019 exhibition by the Barga painter Keane.
The boisterous exclamations of Mick Brown’s canvases are counterpointed, in brilliant understatement, by Jeni Brown’s work. A young woman caresses the strings of a cello in the warm glow of a rose sunset. A contemplative table set for two awaits its diners. Trees blush softly into extravagant bloom. Her paintings are sublimely quiet, even meditative, in their mood and suggestion.
The effect is a dialogue within a dialogue, both artists in conversation with each other and with Barga at the same time. “You look out a window and there are stories everywhere,” says Mick.
She was captivated by “the generosity, the warmth, the music,” adds Jeni. “I’d always felt I had a northern soul before I came here.”
article by Frank Viviano
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