If you tried to guess the meaning behind the painting by local artist Marc Mannheimer that hangs at Northern Essex Community College, you likely wouldn’t stand a chance.
It’s a scene from 2000 of the train bridge over the Merrimack River, with smoke billowing from the stack of the old Paperboard company in the distance.
If you guessed Mannheimer was inspired to do the painting because of his love of Haverhill or interest in the river or bridge, you’re wrong.
Would you believe he painted the scene because it somehow reminded him of the burning at-the-stake of Girolamo Savonarola for heresy in 1498 in Florence, Italy?
”When I’ve shown it in the past, people asked me about it and I explained it,’’ Mannheimer said. “As a college professor, I want people to learn about Savoranola. It is historically interesting.”
Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Florence and known for his prophecies of civic glory and calls for Christian renewal. He was condemned, hanged and burned in the main square of Florence for heresy.
The 144-by-24-inch oil painting titled “The Death of Savonarola” was painted by Mannheimer, a professor of art and design at NECC. iT was recently put on display in the Harold Bentley Library on the college’s Haverhill campus.
”I wanted the work to be seen and our library is a logical location as the work is of Haverhill,” Mannheimer said. “It has only previously been seen in gallery shows of my work.”
Mannheimer said he was inspired to do the painting while walking across Haverhill’s Comeau Bridge in 2000, before the bridge was demolished and replaced with a new bridge. He had recently returned from a trip to Florence, Italy. While walking across the Comeau Bridge, he took a few moments to look at the train bridge farther down river and the smokestack in the distance.
“This work captures the railroad bridge from Bradford to Haverhill over the Merrimack River at slack tide, around 6 a.m.,” he said. “As I was walking across the old bridge to Haverhill, I looked across at the railroad bridge and, when seeing the distant smoke from the Paperboard factory, thought of the burning at-the-stake of Savonarola for heresy in 1498. This took place in Piazza Vecchio in Florence, the spot of which is still designated by a large, bronze plaque.”
Mannheimer said it’s not unusual for artists to title paintings from a personal standpoint.
”I could have just as well titled it ‘Haverhill Railroad Trestle,’ but that never occurred to me,” he said. “Oftentimes, you’ll go to a museum or gallery and see a title that makes no sense, like still life with grapes but there may not be any grapes. Titles can be misleading, but sometimes they can be direct.”
Mannheimer incorporated both sides of the river in his painting.
”I wanted to do it large, so I did it large,” he said. “It’s actually two pieces of canvas connected as one. When I store it I can take it apart and store it as two canvases.”
Mannheimer had displayed his painting in area galleries in the past, and was looking to put in on display again. He recently brought a print of the piece to Linda Shea, director of the NECC Bentley Library, to ask if she was interested in hanging it on a wall.
”We worked together to find a suitable space in the library to display it,” he said. “It’s rare that I get a chance to display it, as it’s so large.”
Mannheimer sees his painting as a kind of historical record, a moment in time captured in oil on canvas.
”The old Haverhill Paperboard factory has since been razed and the downtown has changed,” he said. “If you were on the same spot on the bridge, you’ll see there are new buildings that weren’t there (at the time the painting was done).”
Limited edition, signed and numbered prints, (10 by 41 inches) of the painting are available from Mannheimer at email@example.com.