by Robert Rubyan

 Landing on the flight from Algiers to Rome I returned to a beautiful country.  The most artistic and biggest art museum in the human creative cosmos. I took the train to Sienna, and on the way discovered by the suave inhabitants that Italy was the most welcoming, pro American country in Western Europe.

The northern Italy landscape triggered memories of California where I spent the happiest years of my childhood, with forested heights, thriving vineyards, groves of ancient stately olive trees, & immaculately planted fields of produce, including royal purple acres of flowering artichokes. (1)        

The villages in Tuscany sometimes began in Etruscan times & were repositories of medieval church architecture and sturdy stone dwellings where generations of residents traced their occupation in centuries and millennia. Italians  seemed pleased to see a me, a youth who radiated confidence and a sincere interest in the local culture, especially the Art History. There were even elements here that peripherally related to my family origins, to whit, superb Urartian jewelry found in Etruscan tombs (on which I later wrote my Master’s Thesis), and San Lazzaro Isle near Venice, where my father perused illuminated manuscripts in the Library of Armenian Roman Catholic monastery which was founded there in the 17th-18th century.   (2,3)

The first art icon I made a pilgrimage to see was Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture Perseus with the head of Medusa in Florence.  The cover illustration on the cover of Mythology by Edith Hamilton, which my father bought me in ’55 from the bookstore of the Kennedy School of Missions in Hartford, Connecticut for 50 cents, was the aforementioned work, becoming the visual symbol of my burgeoning interest in Greek Mythology & the Italian Renaissance art (3).)

I learned more 2 years later, when I got my 1st adult card at the Fowler, California library at the age of 11. One of the first books checked out was John Symonds 1946 translation, published by Doubleday, of the Autobiography (brilliantly illustrated by Salvador Dali)(4),

Spannochia, the family estate of the Cinellis , was the location the Wayne State University Study Abroad Program in Field Archaeology, I was enrolled as a graduate student majoring in Art History.

The tuition & boarding fee was $300 in ‘70s $. A beautiful setting in the heart of the Etruscan region of Tuscany, with vineyards producing excellent Chianti, olive groves producing premium oil,

Italy Etruscan Art History

forests with wild boars to hunt then produce fine prosciutto hams in the smoke house, cypresses, warm western Europeans who were pro American. There was an 11th century church excavation (with medieval coins excavated under the former altar,  WW1 concentration camp full of buried skeletons).

Alfonz Lengyel was Art History professor.  He escaped communist Hungary during the revolution of ’56 by swimming across an icy canal to Austria. Found his way to Paris, France where he got his PhD from the  Sorbonne. Excavated in Italy & Roman Carthage in Tunisia. Originally told me to drop his first class, annoyed by my brash behavior, after Spannocchia took me out to lunch to tell me I was his best (and favorite) student. He concluded our happy meal by informing me to “get a day job” as it would be doubtful if I would ever make a living as an art historian. In spite of this slightly discouraging advice, I became Curatorial Assistant for Pre-Columbian Art to the Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, shortly thereafter when I got my M.A., & years later in NYC, taught Art History at Manhattan Community College/CUNY for 12 years.

Ferdinando Cinelli was a very successful Detroit businessman whose family emigrated from northern Italy in the early 20th century, descendant of a famous writer who became affluent & bought the then dilapidated estate.  He founded the Etruscan Institute.

A genuinely very friendly person, he seemed to like me immediately upon our first encounter. He took me on several custom field trips in his VW bus:

Etruscan Tomb of the Wrestlers. We go to an Etruscan hill town & he used the heavy antique bronze lion door knocker on an impressive portal of rivet studded oak. After an interval  it creaked open. There was a brief exchange in Italian with the senior citizen who blinked in the bright sun. Money passed & was smoothly pocketed. A large flashlight from inside was retrieved along with a rusty ring with a single large iron key. Across the street was unlocked another ancient door which led, down stairs carved from the tufa, to a painted Etruscan tomb! A dim 40 watt bulb was turned on revealing wonderful painted frescoes!

After a few minutes it was turned off to preserve the art from fading, but the memory still remained. I also took a couple of shots handheld @ f1.4, .125 seconds.

Mr. Cinelli drove me to the Archaelogy Museum in Florence, introduced me to the Conservator as a very promising art history student from America. Subsequently I was allowed into conservation studio where I was allowed to check out shelf after shelf of newly restored ancient Greek vases.

I also checked out the finest Etruscan bronze sculpture from 400BC the Chimera of Arrezzo

This marvelous piece gave its name to a whole category of hybrid creatures, my favorite is Pegasus the winged horse (son of Poseidon & Medusa) who was in on the former’s demise, the instant of which is wonderfully memorialized in metal. The other famous museum in Florence is the Uffizi, designed by the great Vasari, who also wrote the first & my fave art history book The Lives of the Artists in 1551. The 3 paintings that were my faves were Boticelli’s Birth of Venus. Primavera and the Madonna With the Long Neck by Parmigianino.

We also met a member of the elite, a tall blonde Florentine, about 10 years older than me who lived in a Renaissance palace, drove a red Ferrari. Inside was gorgeous architecture, rare oriental rugs, collections of ancient Greek coins & ceramics, & most interesting, a series of hand signed black & white photos in sterling silver frames of his late uncle with various Popes through the years. It seems uncle was a Cardinal who was the rep from Tuscany to the Vatican. Included with this plush domicile, a gorgeous gardern & a mosaic swimming pool where members of my class were invited later for a barbecue.

Dr. & Mrs. Arlen Lynn came to visit daughter Carrie who was a fellow student in the class. Told me about meeting M.C. Escher, & buying prints. Many years later while perusing a show of outstanding prints, at the DIA I noticed the tag for “The Puddle” (an Escher) woodcut on display lists them as donors. –

Later in the year, after returning from my travels, Nando invited me, Bill Bostick (the VP of the Detroit institute of Arts, and his son, a fellow student at Spannocchia), to lunch at his beautiful home.