The Atlantic Ocean is shrinking. More and more, Americans are hopping over to Europe on casual jaunts. Even when they stay home, they go to foreign films wearing the latest French or Italian fashions, and sit in sidewalk cafes, sipping cappuccini and nibbling croissants.
Now, a European has come to us, convinced that there are Americans out there who are ready - even eager - for a stronger dose of European sensibilities than passing fads can provide. In June he brought us a monthly art magazine, FMR, which may just send us on a more adventurous esthetic voyage than any package tour we have yet to take.
FMR stands for Franco Maria Ricci, scion of a centuries-old family from Parma , Italy, and so quintessentially the European aristocrat that you feel Henry James might have invented him. Marchese Ricci, who grew up surrounded by the very palpable presence of centuries of history and art, has chosen to trade in the commodities he loves best - beautiful books, beautiful typefaces - and to unveil beautiful art and objects to the world.
Like its Italian original, the US edition of FMR is beautiful to look at and luxurious to handle. It is heavy and shiny, with lots of black and gold and jewel-like colors exquisitely printed on 75-pound matte coated paper. What's more, it is sewn together - a rare thing in books nowadays, let alone in magazines. To pay for all this luxury, it costs $48 for a year's subscription of 10 issues, or $8 per issue if bought on a newsstand.
FMR is a bit like Connoisseur, Realites, or the marvelous hardcover Horizon of the '50s and '60s. When FMR features an artistic work, however, it does so from a perspective of close familiarity, and with the unabashed flamboyance and rich detail of a film by Franco Zeffirelli or Luchino Visconti.
In a recent interview, Ricci discussed his criteria for selecting art subjects to cover. ''We don't want to publish obvious things, such as Picasso, Manet, Raphael. There are books and books and books on them. ... I prefer to discover the more unusual and subtle art. ... You can't understand the Enlightenment in France if you just see Watteau - if you don't put Watteau, Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, Greuze, together, and those in power, Louis XV and Pompadour. In FMR we find often unknown artists, some with modest talents, but we also fin$ the great monuments seen with different eyes.''
FMR will often choose a work that has escaped mass recognition for centuries, an item well off the beaten tourist track, such as the Parmigianino frescoes in Paola Gonzaga's castle of Fontanellato, or l'Argenta's Theatro Farnese in Parma, both in the June issue. Then it covers the subject at greater length than the other magazines do, with more photographs and text. And every article on a work of art is coupled with a literary essay from another source, related obliquely to the subject, but contrasting with the art criticism piece. For example, in the June issue there were 14 pages of the 19th-century Swiss painter Zotl's renditions of animals, four pages of art criticism by Giovanni Mariotti, and a highly amusing and offbeat essay on eccentric animal behavior by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar.
In addition to its reaching what he calls ''normal people,'' Ricci expects his magazine to be collected by art historians and libraries as a catalog, a photographic record of works of art that may never have been reproduced in such detail before. One such work of art is Trajan's monumental column in Rome, whose spiraling frieze, according to Ricci, has never been photographed before - in close-up, as it were. He sees the upcoming article on the column as ''a master for every museum, a textbook.''
The accumulated glories of centuries of European art have produced an opulence bordering on the decadent, and FMR reflects that decadence, both in its visual style and in the subjects it features. If you riffle through the pages, the predominant color is a dense, rich black, against which the reproductions stand out like jewels on velvet. And the subject matter, such as the July story on Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio's villa/lair/mausoleum, is sometimes almost over-rich.
But Ricci's artistic sensibilities aren't wholly rooted in the past: He finds that modern technology is grist for his aesthetic mill as well. When asked what examples of modern art he most admires, his reply was ''the control panel of the Concorde.'' In this vein, the cover story of the August issue displays a weird and wonderful array of Hollywood-inspired sunglasses, while an article in September focuses on Alfa Romeo cars. That issue also contains a feature on the paintings of American Indians by 19th-century Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, and a look at one of Titian's last works, ''The Flaying of Marsyas.'' Something for everyone, though maybe a little too much for some.
Yet FMR is also genuinely informative. One of its most enjoyable features is the section on current exhibitions. In August the calendar of exhibits in eight countries ran for eight pages, with four whole pages devoted to the United States.
Ricci insists, too, that there will be features on American art, which he looks forward to introducing to readers of his European editions, thus narrowing the Atlantic from the other direction.