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Renaissance Italian Masters and the Art of Alan Pascuzzi

by Ken Scambray

Accenti Feature : Renaissance Italian Masters and the Art of Alan Pascuzzi by Ken Scambray
Not only does Alan Pascuzzi live in Florence, he gets paid for doing his life's abiding passion: teaching art, painting, and sculpting. Beginning in September 2001, he found permanent residence as professor of art history and studio arts at the Institute of Fine and Liberal Arts located in the restored, fifteenth-century Palazzo Rucellai in Florence.


Like the great painters and sculptors that preceded him in Renaissance Florence, he is both an artist and a teacher, creating his own original works of art while educating students in the techniques and styles of the old masters. On my most recent visit with him in his studio at the Rucellai, I was impressed by both his formidable skills as an artist and his knowledge of his craft, which he is passing on to another generation of aspiring young artists. Though abstraction has dominated western art for more than a century, Pascuzzi is unique in his steadfast commitment to the Renaissance realistic tradition.


Pascuzzi's maternal and paternal grandparents came from Campania and Calabria. Born in Rochester in 1969, Pascuzzi grew up in nearby Webster on Lake Ontario. His parents spoke Italian at home, but it was in college that Pascuzzi discovered what would become his life-long love affair with Italy.


But passion is never enough for any artistic endeavor. Behind the artistry evident in Pascuzzi's sculptures, frescoes, and oil paintings is an artist who has spent years of concentrated study. In 1991 he received a B.A. in art history and studio arts from Nazareth College in Rochester. In 1993 he completed an M.A. from Syracuse University's Masters Program in Florence, and in 1999 he received a Ph.D. from Washington University with a dissertation on Michelangelo's early drawings. In 1995 he won a prestigious Fulbright Award to Florence.


Among his most influential teachers, Pascuzzi counts Sister Magdalen LaRow, his art history and studio art professor at Nazareth College. Her enthusiasm for art inspired Pascuzzi to pursue a career as a painter and sculptor. But she also taught him that the well-spring of creativity is based on a thorough understanding of the masters, a lesson that is the basis of his success as a Florentine artist and master teacher today. At the Palazzo, Pascuzzi teaches fresco painting and a Renaissance apprentice workshop. When they complete their courses under Pascuzzi, the Rucellai students have a firm grasp of the techniques used by all of the great Renaissance painters.


Using the same mineral and vegetal materials the masters used in their workshops centuries ago, his students make all their pigment. The materials the students use are based on the fourteenth century text, Il libro dell'arte by Cennino Cennini. Using replicated fifteenth century natural fibre paper, his students draw with vine charcoal, silverpoint, natural red chalk, pen and ink, and natural black chalk. For silverpoint drawings, the students must prepare their drawing surface with an emulsion made of crushed bird bone, gum Arabic, and hot water, which they then spread on their paper and let dry before drawing on it with a silver stylus. The students also make their own goose quill pens and use the same red ink once used by Leonardo and Michelangelo.


In his fresco painting seminar, the students use natural lime paste and sand to prepare the surface of the wall, and mix the same formulas used by Renaissance masters to create mineral and vegetal-based colours. As Pascuzzi explained to me, "I do not allow anything modern. Fresco painting has been around for centuries - from before the Etruscans to the Romans up to the Renaissance where it really flourished. Artists like Giotto and Masaccio and Michelangelo all used fresco for their greatest works."


At the Rucellai, standing in Pascuzzi's studio amid the sand, plaster, trowels, brushes, and pigments, I saw stunning examples of his students' frescoes. Pascuzzi is both artisan and artist. Like his Renaissance predecessors, he knows his craft and art from the brick and mortar to the pigment and brush. Each semester, Pascuzzi roughs up the studio wall with a hammer and chisel and applies a thick layer of lime paste, coarse river sand, crushed brick, and water. The wall is then ready for his students to fresco in the style of the great masters. When they are done, the students use the "strappo method," which allows them to remove their frescoes.


He says that when he first read Cennini's work, "The spirit of the book moved me, and I remember when I finished it I realized that I had to follow it to become one of THEM." To be a great painter, Cennini wrote, the artist must choose a master and "'bind himself to him' by copying all of his works." Pascuzzi took Cennini's "advice to heart and chose a master-Michelangelo." During his years as a student, Pascuzzi travelled to the British Museum, the Oxford Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the Accademia, the Medici Chapel, the Bargello and many other museums where he painstakingly copied Michelangelo's drawings and frescoes. In Florence, he succeeded in gaining the confidence of a custodian of a local museum who allowed him the rare opportunity to copy from the original drawings of Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, and many others.


During his Fulbright in Florence in 1995, he rented a small shed where he prepared the walls himself and covered them with large images from Michelangelo's frescoes. He says humbly, "I do not dare say I draw like Michelangelo, but my development was tied to his drawings."


Pascuzzi's dedication has paid dividends. However, finding commissions in Florence is not easy. In the beginning, he faced lean days and discouraging words. On one occasion, he approached the priest at the Duomo in Florence for work. The priest kindly told him, "I cannot help you with anything, but if you die of hunger, I will say your funeral mass for you." At the moment, the priest's wry humour was lost upon the struggling, young artist.


Not discouraged, Pascuzzi persevered and finally landed his first commission, the "Resurrection of Christ," the Via Ghibellina fresco in Florence. Since then, he has done many original works throughout Italy in churches and public spaces, including those in Sant'Egidio, Santa Croce, and Palagio di Parte Guelfa in Florence, a fresco near Cortona, and a Pietà for a church in Ari, Abbruzzo, as well as frescoes for one of Florence's best restaurants, Birreria Centrale. He recently completed a commissioned work, the 4 X 8 foot, "Elizah and the Angel from the Old Testament." Faithful to the Renaissance tradition, Pascuzzi created first the cartoon of his subject, which, when I visited his studio, he was preparing to transfer to his meticulously prepared canvas. He had already invested countless hours in drawing the cartoon and preparing the canvas according to Renaissance standards.


Pascuzzi is aware of his unique place in the development of western art. He says that the "contemporary concept of art and artists revolves around originality and the uniqueness of style. Since I do religious art, the guiding philosophy is my own personal faith." An observant Catholic, Pascuzzi says that his deep-seated passion for his art is based in the values of his Italian American family. He points out that Michelangelo said only a true believer can make authentic religious art. "I have taken that to heart," Pascuzzi explained. "I believe in the images that I create, just like the Renaissance masters. I am trying to re-establish that connection between personal faith, artistic knowledge, technical skill, craftsmanship, and clarity of expression so that people can look at an image, read it easily, and be moved by it."


His dedication to his craft over his years of work and study has made him both a successful Florentine artist and an effective master teacher. But there is a personal dimension to Pascuzzi's life in Florence that goes beyond his professional accomplishments. In his work, he has integrated both his identity as an Italian American and the Renaissance tradition that his art and teaching represent in contemporary Florence. "It may sound odd," Pascuzzi explained, "but I am proud to be an American and proud to be Italian. I live my Italian American heritage every day I am here."



Ken Scambray is professor of English at the University of La Verne,



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