Narcissus—Caravaggio

The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.

‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.

One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.

Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.

The myth

In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.

As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.

He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.

At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.

The painting

Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.

When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.

We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.

Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.

The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.

This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.

It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.

This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.

If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.

Detail of ‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by CaravaggioYear. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Image source Wikipedia

Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.

Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.

Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.

Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Sibyl Went from Sketch to Finished Painting

A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored

Detail of ‘Studies for The Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.

The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.

Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.

Sistine Chapel ceiling (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo’s commission

Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.

The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.

Studies for The Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US

The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.

For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.

The ceiling

The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.

Sistine Chapel ceiling with The Libyan Sibyl highlighted (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.

The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.

Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.

One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.

This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.

The Libyan Sibyl

Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.

The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.

Left: Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US. Image source The Met. Right: The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.

The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.

The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.

Detail from ‘Studies for the Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”

The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.

The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.

Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

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Une Breve Histoire de la Republique de Venise, ou “Les Croates de la Serenissime”

En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche

Venise est entrée au contact de nombreux peuples au cours de son histoire. Tandis que la République sérénissime étendait sa domination et déployait ses talents militaires et marchands, elle se faisait d’abord admirer par ses nouveaux sujets, auxquels elle accordait sa protection. 
Elle était toujours prête à combattre l’injustice et l’oppression dans la mesure où n’étaient pas desservis ses intérêts hégémoniques. Mais, cela commença plutôt mal…

Au Xe siècle, pour s’assurer l’accès des bouches du Pô en même temps que le monopole du sel, le doge Pietro II fit mettre à sac Comacchio et déporter les populations vivant dans ces marécages. 
En l’an mil commencèrent les expéditions sur le littoral dalmate, afin d’obtenir le contrôle de l’Adriatique tout entière. Zara, Ossero, Vaglia et bien d’autres villes furent conquises. Les forces vénitiennes avaient à lutter à la fois contre les Croates et contre les Slaves, qui avaient envahi les Balkans. 
Au fleuve Narenta, les habitants de la ville romaine de Narona pratiquaient la piraterie et le trafic d’esclaves. Les Vénitiens étaient leurs meilleurs clients. À leur contact, les pillards découvrirent que le commerce était tout de même plus avantageux. Vers la fin du XIe siècle, après la conquête des îles de Curzola et de Lagosta, les côtes dalmates étaient entièrement sous la protection de Venise.

La percée vers l’Orient

Vers cette époque, les Vénitiens eurent à lutter contre les seigneurs normands qui s’étaient installés en Méditerranée. Ils s’allièrent donc avec les Byzantins, leurs rivaux, pour libérer l’île de Corfou et de Durazzo (Duras). Venise obtint alors de pouvoir commercer librement sur tous les territoires contrôlés par Byzance. 
En 1122–1124, les Vénitiens soumirent la ville de Tyr et les comptoirs byzantins de l’Égée et de l’Adriatique. Vers le milieu du siècle, ils renforcèrent leurs liens avec les peuples de l’Istrie. Pola, Parenzo, Rovigno furent contraintes d’accepter une protection militaire et maritime contre les débordements des Hongrois. Cette protection obligatoire se transforma rapidement en soumission des terres environnantes et, finalement, le doge fut reconnu comme le seul maître.

La colonisation de la Crète

Vis-à-vis des Grecs, Venise pratiquait un double jeu, maniant tour à tour les pressions diplomatiques et les actes de piraterie. En 1204, la ville du lion de Saint-Marc profita de la quatrième croisade pour enlever Zara aux Hongrois. Les forces chrétiennes détournées de leur but prirent Constantinople cette année-là. De ses prestations de service, la République maritime reçut pour salaire deux îles de la mer Egée, la Morée et l’Eubée puis, en 1207, l’île de Crète. Elle s’assurait ainsi les routes de l’Asie mineure.

Cependant, une chose était d’occuper Candie, et une autre de tenir la Crète tout entière. La grandeur de l’île dépassait sans doute les possibilités militaires de Venise. Durant l’occupation, soulèvements et guerillas se succédèrent. Ce fut la première fois — l’intérêt territorial prévalant sur l’aspect stratégique — que la Sérénissime entreprit une véritable « vénitisation » d’une colonie.

Le gouvernement et l’administration de la Crète étaient aux mains de grandes familles vénitiennes exclusivement. Dispersés, les colons ne parvinrent jamais à trouver un terrain d’entente avec les colonisés. Sauf peut-être contre Venise elle-même, dans la révolte de 1363, fomentée par un chef de village crétois et appuyée par les colons : les Venier, les Gradenigo, les Molin… Confiée à un Pisani (Vettero), la répression fut terrible. Les Crétois furent écrasés par Pietro Morosini.

Par les célèbres voyages de Marco Polo et de sa famille, les Vénitiens entrèrent en contact avec les nations d’Extrême-Orient. Ils développèrent des échanges diplomatiques et commerciaux avec les Persans, comme avec les Mongols et les Chinois.

Les guerres avec Gênes

À partir de 1308, et de la guerre contre Ferrare, on note un durcissement des rapports entre Venise et ses voisines : Padoue, Vérone et surtout Gênes. C’est l’époque où Trévise souhaite et obtient le protectorat de la République. La guerre contre Gênes fut sanglante et très coûteuse. Elle fut à l’origine de la peste (1347–1348) qui décima la population vénitienne. Une situation désastreuse s’instaura. Pour survivre, Venise dut s’allier avec d’autres peuples, comme les Catalans, et faire appel à ses sujets dalmates, grecs ou albanais pour renforcer ses armées.

Au cours de la troisième guerre contre les Génois, la coalition vénéto-catalane remporta une victoire navale dans les eaux d’Alghero (1353), bientôt suivie d’une cuisante défaite à Porto Longo (1354). 
La menace la plus précise survint en 1379. Les Padouans, sous les ordres de Carraresi, apportèrent leur soutien aux Génois et attaquèrent Chioggia, à proximité de Venise. Jamais la Sérénissime n’avait été aussi menacée. 
L’offensive fut cependant stoppée, grâce à la cohésion des habitants de la cité, groupés autour du doge Andrea Contarini. Les Vénitiens parvinrent à séparer les armées de Gênes et de Padoue et, par mer, portèrent la dévastation dans les comptoirs génois de la mer Égée. Ils allèrent jusqu’à Beyrouth. En 1381, Gênes signa la paix grâce aux bons offices du comte de Savoie.

La dernière décennie du XIVe siècle et les deux premières du XVe furent marquées par une expansion de Venise en direction de la terre ferme. Corfou fut acquise des Angevins de Naples en 1386. Venise fut en relation marchande avec la plupart des peuples du nord de l’Europe : Flamands, Français, Allemands… Cependant, l’expansion territoriale du début du XVe siècle finit par inquiéter les principales puissances : France, Espagne, Empire germanique, Papauté… Contre Venise se noua la ligue de Cambrai, dont Venise vint à bout par son habileté diplomatique (1508).

La menace turque et la victoire de Lépante

En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Cependant, le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche

Aux XVe et XVIe siècles, les Turcs ne cessèrent d’être une terrible menace. Pour les arrêter, Venise n’eut pas d’autre recours que de s’allier avec les Hongrois — ses ennemis “héréditaires”, pourtant. Une campagne commune en Dalmatie donna le Frioul aux Vénitiens. La Sérénissime favorisait la constitution d’un État vénitien de la terre ferme. Un peu partout, dans son empire, Venise était au contact des Ottomans. De 1424 (prise de Salonique) à 1571 (bataille de Lépante), les deux mondes semblèrent s’équilibrer.

Bien qu’elle fut, au premier chef, victorieuse de la grande bataille navale de Lépante, Venise commença dès lors à décliner. C’est que le pouvoir ottoman, pour faire rentrer ses lourds impôts, favorisait les initiatives commerciales de ses “sujets”. 
La concurrence des marchands grecs, turcs, renégats chrétiens, arméniens, arabes, barbaresques, ragusiens ou juifs était extrêmemet dure et les Vénitiens en pâtirent très vite. Pour les peuples levantins, l’arrivée de la protection ottomane était une sorte de revanche. Le sultan les vengeait de l’arrogance proverbiale des marchands de Venise.

De la mer à la terre : une ville et ses communautés

La puissance maritime perdue, Venise devint une nation terrienne. L’arrogance se tourna désormais contre les paysans de la terre ferme. Dans la cité, depuis des siècles, un modus vivendiavait fixé les rapports entre les diverses communautés. La plus nombreuse était celle des Grecs, composée de marins et de savants exilés. Ceux-ci avaient apporté à Venise leurs connaissances et leur culture. Les “intellectuels” du patriciat vénitien (ou du clergé) n’ignoraient rien de la langue d’Homère ou de la philosophie de Platon. De nombreux ouvrages étaient ainsi conservés dans les plus fameuses bibliothèques — c’est ainsi qu’ils furent sauvés.

Les Turcs eurent leur quartier — le “Fondaco dei Turchi” –, ainsi que les Allemands, les “Tedeschi”. C’est par ces derniers, émigrés de Mayence après la dispersion des ateliers, que Venise découvrit l’imprimerie.

Les Esclavons, orignaires de Slavonie, donnèrent leur nom au quai devant la place Saint-Marc. Ils vivaient de trafics divers et du métier de soldat.

On trouvait aussi à Venise des Arméniens et des Juifs du Levant, qui donnèrent son nom à l’île de la Judecca. Les Juifs eurent un grand rôle dans les domaines de la philosophie, de la théologie et de la médecine, toutes sciences enseignées à l’université. Le premier livre en hébreu fut imprimé non loin du cœur de Venise…

De la création du ghetto au bannissement des Juifs

Au XVIe siècle, Venise eut une attitude des plus ambiguës envers les communautés qui vivaient dans la cité. Il s’agissait pour elle de contrôler tout en protégeant… Un bon exemple de l’expression de cette double volonté est la conduite adoptée vis-à-vis des Juifs. Les autorités de Venise distinguaient trois sortes de Juifs : les “Allemands”, les Levantins et les Ponantins. Les Levantins, originaires de Constantinople, de “Romanie” ou de Crète, bénéficiaient des droits réservés aux étrangers — en particulier le droit de pratiquer le commerce international.

Pour les “Allemands” et les “Italiens” — réfugiés originaires d’autres régions de la péninsule –, le traitement était très dur. C’est à leur intention que fut créé le “ghetto”. Il leur était interdit de prendre part au commerce international. Les seules activités tolérées étaient l’usure… et le métier de chiffonnier.

La nuit et à l’occasion des fêtes, les portes du ghetto étaient fermées. Rares, cependant, furent les violences physiques. Les réactions antisémites survinrent avec l’arrivée des marranes d’Espagne et du Portugal. 
Leur rôle dans les villes d’Alexandrie, de Raguse, d’Ancône ou à Ferrare, quand ils disputèrent, grâce aux Turcs, la suprématie commerciale aux marchands de Venise, fut à l’origine de leur bannissement vers la fin du XVIe siècle. L’un d’entre ces marranes, Joseph Nassi, était même devenu le grand argentier du sultan. On l’accusa d’être l’instigateur de l’occupation de Chypre par les Ottomans.

Le XVIIIe, siècle du crépuscule

Une nouvelle menace se faisait jour par le nord-est : l’Autriche. Venise devait la combattre en 1617, durant la guerre de Gradisca, quand les Habsbourg armèrent les Uscocchi (les peuples de Bosnie et de Dalmatie) qui, après la signature de la paix, préférèrent la protection de Vienne à celle de Venise.

Au tout début du XVIIIe siècle, Venise fut définitivement chassée de la mer Égée : la Crète fut perdue en 1669 et le Péloponèse (la Morée) en 1718.

En 1797, Bonaparte met un point final aux mille ans d’indépendance de Venise et, en 1866, la cité rejoint le tout nouveau royaume d’Italie.

The Allure of Evil in Art

The victim, the witness and the perpetrator

Evil and art have a long history. For almost as long as we have existed, we have externalised the things we fear most. The Ancient Egyptians made reliefs of Apophis, the snake god of chaos and darkness continually trying to consume Ra, the Sun god. The Aztecs evoked the feared Tezcatlipoca, the ‘smoking mirror’ in their art. Christians for millennia have depicted the devil haunting the margins of numerous books and manuscripts.

Over the centuries though, the relationship between art and evil has remained in constant flux. Far from being a simple visceral reminder of our greatest fears, evil in art is often used to say more about the observer than the art itself, as I shall go on to demonstrate. I’ve broken evil down into three categories, which I believe broadly cover evil in art, the role it plays and its relation to the viewer.

We, as observers and consumers of art, are either its victims, witnesses, or perpetrators.

Victim

I’ll start with what I think is the rarest form of evil in art — that which makes the viewer the victim of evil. It takes a special confronting kind of art to achieve this effect. We must not only be addressed by the piece but overcome by it. For me, there is no greater example of this than Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619.

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619

The first thing we are drawn to in the painting is the eyes. The satyr is staring directly at us, cheeks flushed, with a wicked grin. Presumably, he has been drinking like his fellow satyr in the background. Satyrs are half-men, half-beast in Greek and Roman mythology and are the attendants of Bacchus (Dionysus). They are distinct from similar creatures like fauns and centaurs and their primary focus is to entertain Bacchus and drink with their wild, indulgent god. They also have a reputation for debauchery, particularly sexual depravity, and are sometimes represented as being permanently erect. Combined with their wild lust, they make for an uncomfortable figure in mythology.

Rubens achieves something disturbing in this painting. Then as now, the context behind the art is important. Understanding this painting means understanding the nature of satyrs. To have one staring at you, grinning, with lust in his eyes is chilling to the core. We are victimised by the evil at play here, our own vulnerability seemingly reflected at us in the satyr’s ever-widening grin.

Witness

To be a witness to evil is to be a part of it. We are affected by the things we see and moved to action. Artists for millennia have played on our need to act and encouraged us to judge the subjects of their work. It’s no wonder then that being a witness to evil in art is the most common expression of the relationship between evil and art.

A great deal of religious art revolves around this premise. We are encouraged to judge the crucifiers and sympathise with Christ. It is a simple and sometimes passive relationship, meant to inspire contemplation of the suffering. But a huge amount of art play with us as witnesses on a different level.

A masterful example of this is William Bouguereau’s, ‘Dante and Virgil’, 1850. Deep in the bowels of Inferno, in a region known as the Malebolge (Rottenpockets), Dante, Virgil and a demon witness two men fighting with one another. Capocchio, a heretic, is bitten by the fraudster Gianni Schicchi. The violence here is visceral and shocking. To the bottom right a man lays crippled in pain and emerging from a glowing pit behind him are several other groups battling one another. Dante and Virgil are clearly sickened by what they see, but the demon revels in it. He is a creature of evil that delights in evil.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850

Bouguereau has given us an interesting dynamic here, offering us two different choices. We know that these two men have been condemned to Hell for their crimes. We are not asked to judge whether they are guilty because we already know they are. What Bouguereau is subtly implying here has more to do with us as viewers of the art than the figures in it.

Put simply, he asks whether you are horrified by the animal barbarity of the men’s fate, or revel in it as the demon does. Bouguereau seems to suggest that you’re doing the latter. Of all the characters in the painting, the demon is the only one really looking out at you. His smile is almost conspiratorial, and his horrific features invite us to contemplate our own inner thoughts on how punishment and retribution must be exacted.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1599

This kind of intimate relationship between subject and witness is different from what we find in many other paintings where we witness evil acts. For example, Caravaggio’s, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, 1558–1602, is powerful and shocking, but the focus is mostly on Judith. The brilliant light, her determined face and firm grip of the blade all seem to me to suggest a commitment and reassure the viewer that although this is a horrific, ‘evil’ act, it is right.

Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, 1937, offers a different relationship too. We see the trauma of Nazi and Fascist Italy’s bombing campaign on the town of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalists. Surrealism here offers us nothing less than a world falling apart. Buildings burn, swords are broken, and men and animals lie in pieces. This is a painting of war on an industrial scale and Picasso overwhelms us with it. We are still witnesses here, but Picasso suggests that our judgement is meaningless. Our voices are drowned out by the falling of Fascist bombs, the lick of flames and the screams of the dying.

Perpetrator

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, we can be perpetrators of evil in art. This is where the true ‘allure of evil’ comes in. While Bouguereau’s demon asks us to think about ourselves, art where we take part in the evil, however subtly, asks no such thing of us.

In Europe, this type of art most commonly depicts Satan. The change from monstrous abomination to the complicated anti-hero Satan has become today is mostly the result of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton depicts a rebellious bad boy fighting against the establishment. His Satan is a far cry from the epitome of evil in we find in Christianity. Artists are quickly drawn to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of the devil/Satan/Lucifer should be considered in pre and post-Milton terms, especially where art is concerned.

William Blake, Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels, 1808

William Blake’s, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, 1808 is a testament to this. Here Satan is powerful and beautiful, a moving figure giving a rousing speech. We are encouraged to sympathise with him. Likewise, Thomas Stothard’s, ‘Satan Summoning His Legions,’ (c. 1790), presents us with a gilled figure, summoning an army. He appears almost imperial, a worthy challenger to the Almighty. We know that the figure in these paintings is meant to be emblematic of evil, and yet he is seductive and alluring. He seems passionate, a revolutionary and rebel, someone we could follow. The artists’ triumph here is to make us forget that evil is evil and draw us closer to darkness than we would ever have dared go ourselves.

These are the first steps toward where we are today with TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural, where the devil is charming, and his diabolical nature extends no further than his wicked grinEvil is no longer evil. It is sexy, passionate and inviting. Our crime is being tempted by it. We are co-conspirators and would-be rebels. Our inner minds betray us as we feel the pull to figures like Satan.

Conclusion

As art continues to evolve so will our relationship with evil. New mediums, materials and artists will revolutionise the field, but their goals will remain the same. To bring forth the things that torment our nightmares and to reflect back at us those parts of ourselves we would rather remain hidden.

Caravaggio’s Paintings In the Churches of Rome

Where to see the Baroque artist’s masterpieces in their original locations

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Not all art was made to be bought and sold. Some works of art were made for specific locations, where they were designed to live for decades and centuries. Such artworks are especially interesting because they occupy a very real space, and therefore, can be read within an architectural and social setting.

One such case is the art of Caravaggio, who made some of his best work for several churches in Rome, works that still hang in their original locations.

Caravaggio had an important relationship with the city of Rome: he moved there from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years, established his considerable reputation with a number of prominent commissions. These works were on public view and were made to communicate directly with church-goers of the 17th century.

It is worth remembering that the electric lighting that now illuminates these paintings creates a different sort of scene than in Caravaggio’s day. In the early 17th century, the minimal natural light from the church windows and doorways would have been supplemented by the flickering light of oil lamps and candle flame.

San Luigi dei Francesi

One of the first major commissions Caravaggio received was in 1599, to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church not far from the Piazza Navona. The chapel was dedicated to St Matthew, and Caravaggio initially painted two scenes from the saint’s life: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, both completed in around 1600.

There was also a third painting, commissioned after Caravaggio had completed the first pair and the patron was happy. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, and subsequently removed from the church — it was later destroyed during WWII — but the second version was accepted. Otherwise known as The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, the painting still hangs in the church today, and is for me one of the great paintings of the Baroque period.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The image of St Matthew gives us the apostle in the act of writing. Matthew is the traditional author of the first gospel, and so paintings often show him in a study or at a writing desk. As one of the evangelists, he is usually accompanied by his traditional attribute, a winged figure resembling an angel.

Detail of ’The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’ (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Caravaggio’s painting follows this model: the angel can be seen dictating or providing inspiration as Matthew writes.

Caravaggio also does a great deal more with the subject. He provides a setting that is both abstract and ambiguous (set against a dark background) whilst at the same time building up a scene full of real textures, fabrics and expressions. Despite having no definite setting, there is nothing other-worldly about the image; rather, it is close-at-hand and tangible.

Matthew and the angel are in an intimate exchange. And the gentle curve that moves through composition of the painting, from the sweeping lines of the angel’s robes through Matthews body and his outstretched leg, gives the work a perfect internal unity.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

S. Maria del Popolo

At around the same time, Caravaggio was asked to work on paintings for the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church on the northern side of Piazza del Popolo.

Two works can be found in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica: The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is an especially arresting painting. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and one of the closest to Christ. He was the brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. After Christ’s crucifixion, Peter led the apostles in spreading the word of the gospel, and in Rome established one of the first Christian communities.

His own crucifixion came at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in A.D. 64. At Peter’s request, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t believe he was worthy enough to be killed in the same manner as Jesus.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio’s depiction is notable for several reasons. The physicality of the moment is remarkably vivid: one need only examine the three workers who are raising the cross, each of them occupied by a different task, to understand that this is no idealised account, but a cruel act of real men on another human being. One man hoists a rope; another bears the weight of the wooden structure in his hand; the third stoops to press his back into the cross to help raise it, also holding a shovel in his hand to dig the hole for the stake.

All three workers are are shown with the marks of toil and industry. Their feet are blackened with dust and their hands and arms pulse with raised veins.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Peter himself is shown in a state of distress combined with disbelief, as he his hoisted backwards on the cross. The very moment depicted emphasises his vulnerability: he is an old man in a loin cloth, frightened by the prospect of his last few moments alive. It was Caravaggio’s ability to bring out the psychological drama of a scene, and to make it so graphically present, that won him many admirers — and critics too.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio, in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Basilica di Sant’Agostino

Caravaggio’s realistic style draw criticism because he was so willing to forgo idealisation, even when the scenes were traditional subjects of veneration.

There is no better example of this than the Madonna di Loreto (Pilgrim’s Madonna), completed around 1605 for the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, a Renaissance church near Piazza Navona. The painting is located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church and shows the the Madonna and Child being visited by two pilgrims, who kneel in prayer before them.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome

Caravaggio has painted Mary in a naturalistic pose, that of a mother bearing the weight of her child on her hip. It is a much less glorified posture — clearly drawn from real life — than the Renaissance tradition had previously established, with Mary tending to hold the child as he were weightless.

Mary is stood in a simple doorway on a stone step; the wall beside her is cracked and flaking. All of the figures have bear feet. The only suggestion that this is a sacred scene is the faint elliptical halo above Mary’s head.

Later critics would claim that Caravaggio made a disrespectful and indecent treatment of the subject. And yet, it remained a popular image for the church-goers, perhaps because the rustic details gives the painting something of a pastoral quality, raising the act of faith as displayed by the destitute pilgrims to the level of pure devotion.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome

Why the Vatican Censored Michelangelo’s David

Sin, sex and censorship

Notre Dame’s Front Entrance. Depiction of the Fall of Man

Have you been to Notre Dame? A medieval cathedral in Paris, completed mostly in the 13th century.

At the front entrance to Notre Dame, there is a depiction of ‘the fall of man’. The dramatic moment at the garden of Eden where Eve eats the forbidden fruit and shares the fruit with Adam. Ashamed of their nakedness, both are expelled from the Garden of Eden.

We reach the climax of curiosity when we see their private parts are covered with a “plaster cast of fig leaves”.

According to Genesis 3:7 —

“And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.”

As soon as Christianity seeped into the European land in the 1st century AD, this doctrine was literally adopted by the artisans and sculptures and etched on the stone. As we entered the medieval period, Catholic churches started viewing nudity as “obscene and a sin.”

St. Augustine, the famous theologian and one of the Latin fathers of the Church believed that since eating the forbidden fruit, man lost control of his genitals and unwanted erection was apparently a sign of disobedience.

Thus, a fig leaf became synonymous with sin, sex, and censorship.

Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history

Michelangelo’s David

The Renisaance period led to the age of awareness.

There came a genius artist and sculptor who defied Christian beliefs and rekindled the birth of the ancient nude — Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. A nude proudly standing tall in the public place of Palazzo Vecchio.

Michelangelo portrayed David as a virtuous man and tried to show his inner beauty through his outer beauty. He took care of the tiniest of details and as we slide down, you might notice David’s small penis. Yes, there is a reason for his small penis. Michelangelo tried to imitate the classical statues.

An art historian explains how the small phalluses shown in Greek statues were seen as a symbol of restraint and control.

Soon Michelangelo’s virtuosity reached the Vatican and he was invited by Pope Julius II to design the Sistine Chapel.

Yet again, Michelangelo challenged the Catholic Church and painted the way he wanted.

Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, vociferated the fresco paintings to be suitable for ‘public baths and taverns’ and not a chapel.

Michelangelo was charged with blasphemy and crossing his limits.

These criticisms instigated the Catholic priests and in turn pressurized Pope Julius II to take action against Michelangelo’s nude sculptures. A campaign was launched to camouflage the private parts of these sculptures in Italy.

Thus began the Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history.

Why a fig leaf as a coverup choice?

Fig Leaf

The coverup choice was a fig leaf and not a birch leaf or chestnut or mighty oak. Why?

Because the Garden of Eden had abundant fig trees. Scholars believe that the Garden of Eden was set in modern-day Iran.

Artworks that fell victim to this campaign

Christ The Redemer and David

Michelangelo’s David is the most popular sculpture to be censored for nudity as per the church’s propaganda.

Michelangelo’s Christ The Redemer in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome also came under the papal authority and a permanent bronze girdle was placed which could never be removed. This was done after the statue became a victim of vandalization.

In some cases, the plaster and marble phalluses were even chiseled off.

Art historian Leo Steinberg pointed out in his 1983 book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion that many beautiful antique statues were castrated in Rome by the order of Pope Paul IV.

The campaign didn’t spare paintings, either. Areas of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement deemed unethical were painted over twice in the 1500s, and then again in the 1700s, with little swaddles and loincloths added.

A Mannerist artist named Daniele da Volterra was charged with modifying Michelangelo’s frescos, which won him the derogatory nickname of “The Breeches Maker”.

Masaccio The Explusion. Before and after restoration

The trend took in radar Masaccio’s paintings too. In the 1600s, an unknown artist covered his fresco The Expulsion with fig leaves.

And in between 1758 and 1759, Pope Clement XIII swathed even more sculptures in the Vatican’s collection with fig leaves.

The fig leaf phenomenon spread beyond Italy’s borders, too.

When the Grand Duke of Tuscany gifted a cast of Michelangelo’s David to Queen Victoria in 1857, a large leaf was promptly sculpted to censor nudity, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

Fortunately, a detachable fig leaf was created so that it could hang over the figure without damaging it. Today, the sculpture stands completely nude in the V&A, while a small vitrine next to it houses the large fig leaf.

Bernini’s ingenious twist to the fig leaf campaign

Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina

As we traverse 17th-century art, painters like Lorenzo Bernini gave an ingenious and eroticized twist to the fig leaf. Bernini understood that the more we cover things up, the more we want to know what’s underneath.

So, he dexterously created the famous marble sculpture — The Rape of Proserpina. The sculpture portrays “no nudity” and exudes a slipping drape effect conveying the message of the abduction of Proserpina who was seized and taken to the underworld by Pluto.

Final thoughts

Achilles in Hyde Park is covered with a fig leaf

In 19th century art, the 18ft statue of Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War was unveiled at the Hyde Park Corner on 18th June 1822.

The statue was made by Sir Richard Westmacott using 33 tonnes of bronze from cannons captured in Wellington’s campaigns in France. Originally, the statue was completely nude. But soon it caused outrage and so a small fig leaf had to be added soon after it was installed.

Over the last 40 years, a few of the paintings have been restored but still, nudity is considered taboo in the Catholic Church.

The fig leaves linger on at unexpected places.

Unarguably, the fig leaf campaign is the biggest coverup in history to censor art and nudity.

Michelangelo’s Women-Men’s Breasts

So in the first part of this post, I’ve argued that Michelangelo’s women had access to female models, and that his use of male models for female figures wasn’t unusual. The other thing that is often mentioned in class is that Michelangelo was gay and thus somehow had an inbuilt distaste, or even inability, to portray women’s bodies accurately. Now, without getting too closely into the fluidity of sexual identities in the Renaissance/early modern period (if you’re interested, a great starting point is the essays in Judith Brown and Robert Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy), I don’t think it’s possible in this period that a person’s sexuality can be taken as a straightforward explanation for his or her artistic choices. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t explain why this type of image should be popular with a broader audience.

There are two easier explanations:
1)  androgynous bodies were thought to be beautiful in the Renaissance,
2) artistic nudes weren’t meant to be realistic.

The boundaries between male and female were conceived differently in renaissance culture than they are today.  Thomas Laqueur has argued in relation to renaissance anatomical practice that at this time there was “only one canonical body and that body was male”. Although people have objected to what Laqueur has called the “one-sex model”, it seems to have been a highly influential way of understanding sexual difference in the renaissance. The idea was that the normative human body was male, and that women’s bodies were simply imperfect versions of men’s. For this reason, in  early anatomical books, the bodies used to demonstrate human physiology are always male unless the female reproductive system is specifically being studied

Women, after all, were related to Eve who was created from Adam’s rib. Leone Ebreo in his Dialogues of Love (written from the 1490s but first published in 1535) explains that when God created Adam, he was a complete human, containing both male and female parts; Eve was created from his rib whilst he was sleeping, as women represent the imperfect, passive and corporeal aspect of men – who are representative of the intellectual and spiritual tendencies of humans.

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist, 1513-16, Paris, Louvre

No wonder then, that for some in the renaissance, the most beautiful women were those who looked the most like that perfect original form. Like is attracted to like, Marsilio Ficino explained: “Women truly easily capture men, and even more those women who bear a masculine character. And even more easily, men catch men, as they are more like men than are women”. Ficino’s follower, Mario Equicola, claimed in 1525 that “the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect”. This was shown to comic effect in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, where he tells a story of a dinner party where he brought his young and beautiful model, Diego, dressed up as a woman, and Diego was declared the most beautiful of all the ladies. There are plenty of images of feminine-looking young men in the Renaissance that show the interest in male androgyny too – many of Leonardo da Vinci’s male figures look feminine (hence the non-controversy about John the Evangelist “really” being Mary Magdalen that Dan Brown talked about in the Da Vinci code).

There are good reasons, therefore, beyond convenience, why renaissance artists might study a male r model as the basis for their female figures. What we need to do when looking at this type of renaissance nude is to disassociate ourselves from expectations of naturalism and to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful.

Finding Italy’s Oldest Pharmacy

Hiding in the centre of Florence

It took me two days to find the Profumo — Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Admittedly, I was jet-lagged, and the search was confounded by the fact four places on the one street have the same address — little wonder I gave up that first day.

In true existential fashion, however, I found the place next morning by heading off to find somewhere else completely different.

It was worth the effort. The oldest pharmacy in Italy, and possibly the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world, the place was stunningly beautiful from the moment I pushed open the hard-to-find door to be bathed in perfumed air. (The third oldest pharmacy in Europe is the Franciscan Pharmacy in Dubrovnik; I’ve no idea where the second oldest pharmacy is. If anyone knows I would love to be enlightened.)

Typical for a medieval pharmacy, the Profumo — Farmaceutica di Santa Maria began life in a monastery, the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Marble floors stretch through a series of rooms, with high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and fading frescos covering the walls and ceilings. One room displays old apothecary equipment; another has a section dedicated to treatments for our four-legged friends.

The Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella began the pharmacy in 1212. On arriving in Florence, they converted the church (known then as the Santa Maria Delle Vigne) into a monastery, and some fifty years later commissioned the Basilica. They became famous for the lotions and salves made from the herbs, spices, and flowers growing in their medicinal garden and used in their infirmary, but it was not until nearly 400 years later that a shop for the public was opened, in 1612.

In between these times came the Black Death, when an estimated 70% of the population of Florence died. The monks made a rosewater distillate for ridding homes of the dreaded disease — the Acqua di Rose is still for sale as a perfume and a skin toner. They also distributed the Aceto dei Sette Ladri — the Vinegar of the Seven Thieves (sold as smelling salts). The name is derived from a group of seven men who doused themselves in vinegar before robbing corpses, believing the strong vinegar would protect them from the miasma thought to spread the plague.

More fame arose when the monks created a special perfume for Catherine de Medici to commemorate her marriage to Henry II. The result was Acqua Della Regina (Water of the Queen) — for the first time alcohol, and not vinegar or olive oil, was used as the base for the perfume.

What I loved most were the rows of jars and bottles, many filled with lotions of different colours. There is one called Alkermes which is bright scarlet in colour — courtesy of dried and crushed ladybugs. Once given to new mothers to help recover from labour pains (possibly aided by the alcohol content) it is now used as natural food colourant, especially for deserts such as Zuppa Inglese.

Another potion is a delicate golden colour — the Elisir di China — used to treat malaria, once the scourge of Italy. (The liqueur contains quinine.) Now it doubles as a post-dinner digestif.

Today, the Profumo — Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella retains an international fame and customer base which began with Catherine de Medici in the seventeenth century. It is no longer under the control of the monks, for in 1886 the Italian State confiscated church property. It passed to the nephew of the last Dominican who ran the farmaceutica, and remains within the family to this day.

Just keep an eye out for the door. The Profumo — Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is at Via Della Scala, 16, near the Basilica. Three other doors along the street bear the same number, but there is a small sign (which proved of no help!) My advice — just keep walking. You’ll find it eventually, along with many other places along the way.

Recent Restoration

What no one explains to the Artist

In very plain words:

The artist connects (mostly unknowingly) to other realms, other eras, other timeframes. The artist peers into the future, the artist repurposes the past; the artist walks with the greats, past, present and future, and learns from.

And for all her pains, for all that the artist brings back from these exotic escapades, very rarely does the artist get recognition. Very rarely does she get success. Very rarely does she get fame.

But this is not what no one tells the artist. She will come to find that out on her own. If she’s lucky. And even if she doesn’t, the real pain in her life will come from an entirely different source.

What no one really tells the artist is who she really is.

What no one really tells the artist is where all her creations really come from.

What no one really tells the artist is what her art is meant for.

And so the artist assumes. And pays a steep price for it. What began as elation and motivation soon becomes a burden when it is not understood.

What once a source of living soon turns into a prison of isolation and misunderstanding.

What once could be relied on as a source of inspiration soon becomes a horror channel of surreal information and nightmarish suggestions.

All because no one ever told the artist.

But if no one tells the artist, can the artist at least ask?

Sure. Of course. That is one of the things I can encourage. And I am not one to encourage anything.

One of the reasons I don’t this is because with the encouragement I have above, I expect a follow up question like the one below:

Who does the artist ask?

I submit that this is not a very useful question; there are few people you will meet in your life capable of answering such questions.

A better question would be, ‘what does the artist ask?’

Very good. Now we are getting somewhere if you are asking this question. You have some direction you can explore.

And, if you asked the question, you likely consider yourself an artist.

An artist is a person who creates. The field of creation doesn’t matter. What she creates doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the world is aware of the creation or not.

This is not meant to be an answer. It is not a definition. It is a direction to explore if you wish.

Here is one more.

An artist creates but she is not the creator.

The Architect & the Egg

Inspired by natural form, Brunelleschi’s famous Florentine dome remains the biggest of its kind ever built…

A church, of some sort, had stood at the site of Florence Cathedral since the fourth-century. Not surprisingly, by the thirteenth-century, it was no longer in a good state of repair and in dire need of an overhaul. The building of the ‘new’ cathedral began in 1296 and was not completed until 1436. That’s 140 years under construction.

‘Il Duomo’ at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, viewed from Michelangelo Hill

The original designs for ‘Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’ were laid-out by the the architect and sculptor, Arnolfo di Cambio, and were startlingly different from the medieval fashion of the time. Seeking inspiration from classical buildings, he’d avoided towers, high arches, and flying buttresses. Thus, the building of Florence Cathedral signalled the decline of the Gothic and ushered in the Renaissance.

Hoping to recreate the grandeur of Rome’s Pantheon, he’d left room for a massive dome with a span of around 150 feet, but the secrets of such monumental scale construction had been long lost, as had the formula for the Roman structural concrete used in the dome of the Pantheon. When Arnolfo di Cambio died in 1302, he’d neglected to share any plans for that part…

Work on the Cathedral slowed and the local parishioners continued to use the smaller medieval church, still standing within the larger, incomplete structure being built around it. Construction resumed in earnest some thirty year later when Giotto di Bondone was placed in charge of the project. He managed to avoid working on the dome, instead concentrating on adding his impressive and aesthetically pleasing campanile tower.

After Giotto’s death in 1337, his collaborator Andrea Pisano stepped-up to oversee the continued construction for the next decade, until he succumbed to the Black Death in 1348. Thereafter, work on the cathedral was sporadic, directed by a series of architects who didn’t deviate significantly from the original vision of Arnolfo di Cambio. The ancient basilica within was finally demolished and the Cathedral’s nave was then completed by 1380.

There was just the one problem… A huge hole remained in the roof that needed to be covered with a vast dome! Not one in the succession of chief architects had managed to come up with a suitable solution and the cathedral remained open to the elements.

Among several artists to advise on the design and décor was Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze who was also working on frescoes for the Chapter House of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella — another prominent Florentine church. One of his panels there, Allegory of the Militant and Triumphant Church, was intended to glorify the achievements of the Church in general and the Dominican order in particular.

‘Allegory of the Militant and Triumphant Church’ (c.1366) a fresco painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze

Problem was, that Andrea di Bonaiuto had imagined the Cathedral topped with its impressively voluminous dome. The patrons liked his ‘concept art’ and anything less would now imply the church was not quite as triumphant as the fresco proclaimed… Of course, painting an imagined dome wasn’t the same as building a real one!

The patrons really needed to find an exceptional architect, capable of overseeing the construction of an ostentatious dome like no other. They attached an attractive fee of 200 florins to the commission yet no architect they asked thought it was possible to build such a dome.

So, they cast around outside the field and were intrigued when Filippo Brunelleschi, a local goldsmith with no prior building commissions, claimed he was the man they were looking for.

How did Brunelleschi convince the patrons to take a gamble on him when many of his contemporaries were also competing for such a prestigious job? Reputedly, it was all down to something he did with an egg…

The story goes that when he gave his pitch for the project, he had no plans to show! Instead, he presented the panel with an egg and set them a seemingly impossible challenge: He asked them to balance the egg on end.

After each of the patrons and masons had passed the egg round and failed his challenge, Brunelleschi took back the egg and with a decisive gesture brought it down onto the table top with just enough force to impact the shell at the blunt end, effectively flattening the small air space within the shell so that the egg stood stable and upright. No mess.

successful recreation, by the author, of Brunelleschi’s egg action and ‘Il Duomo’ as it is today, viewed from Giotto’s Campanile

The panel dismissed his little trick, claiming that any one of them could’ve done that! Brunelleschi pointed out that, nevertheless, not one of them had. He knew that they were reluctant to entrust such grand work to a ‘newbie’ with no formal training but argued that if he explained his plans to build the great dome, then any architect could do that, too. They were impressed enough with this upstart’s audacity that they decided to take a chance.

It seems things did not go quite as smoothly as this oft-told tale suggests as there are also accounts of Brunelleschi, “a buffoon and a babbler,” being forcibly ejected from the assemblies on more than one occasion! Although they did finally award him the commission, his main competitor, Lorenzo Ghiberti, was appointed as his ‘supervisor’ on equal pay.

Also, once the contracts were drawn up, Brunelleschi did explain, in detail, the ingenious and highly original construction techniques he was to employ. He did this using scale models made out of precisely carved wooden blocks and would also carve explanatory maquettes out of wax and, on occasions, vegetables…

He had sought the solution not in the work of predecessors but in the study of nature — something that marks him as ‘a Renaissance man’. If grasped in a fist, it takes huge effort to crack a humble hen’s egg and the mechanical strength of such a fragile material had impressed him. He’d discovered how parabolic curves distribute force tangentially, giving such forms incredible load-bearing properties.

The religious significance of eggs would’ve also been an influence on his thinking. The oval had long been an alchemical symbol for the fifth element of spirit and the egg had become a Christian metaphor of the everlasting Holy Spirit. This association may date back 60,000 years to decorated ostrich eggs in prehistoric African culture. Eggs, often made from precious metals, were placed in the tombs of kings in ancient Egypt as a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. Hence the traditional exchange of Easter eggs as gifts to commemorate the Resurrection. Originally, they represented Christ’s tomb and the potential of new life, sealed within.

decorated wooden Easter egg in traditional Greek Orthodox style and modern diagram of the Dome’s structure *

Brunelleschi devised a way to build without the use of internal scaffolding, for which there wasn’t enough available timber anyway, thus enabling use of the church to continue uninterrupted. He employed an array of processes combined in unprecedented ways to build the dome that has survived to this day.

It is, in fact, two domes, one inside the other. The lower sections are built of stone, laid out in a series of smaller, overlapping curves. Each layer is stabilised by the weight of the one above and so forth. He solved the problem of lifting the masonry without using a traditional scaffold by ‘scaling-up’ his goldsmith’s experience of working with clock mechanisms. He invented a new, ox-driven pulley system that used an ingenious clutch and gear system with giant ropes that had to be specially made by shipwrights.

The inner ‘shell’ was strengthened by hoops of wood and metal that act like the restraining bands around a barrel. This prevented the load-bearing parabolic curves from distorting and was a new way of countering the spreading tendency without the use of hefty buttresses. The outer dome is stabilised with concealed chains attached to the inner.

The inner dome was built to be seen from the cathedral’s interior below, its concave surface suitable for decoration, whilst the outer dome was intended to be viewed from outside. Its convex surface was finished with brick, partially for aesthetic reasons, and because it was a much lighter material than stone.

The dome was completed by March 1436 though the finishing touch of the ‘lantern’ at its top was not added until 1461, posthumously created according to Brunelleschi’s design by his associate, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi.

The frescoes for the interior would be designed a century later by Giorgio Vasari who began the decoration in 1568. They were completed in 1579 by Federico Zuccari. However, the cathedral’s outer façade was not entirely finished until the nineteenth-century.

Brunelleschi had carried his egg theme right through from initial inspiration to final product. Not only has the shape provided an enduring structural integrity, it also works to visually compensate for foreshortening. When viewed from the streets below, the subtly elongated oval appears domed, rather than looking ‘flattened’ as a true hemisphere would. The completed structure was, and still is, the biggest masonry dome ever built.

‘La Divina Commedia di Dante’ / ‘Dante and His Poem, the Divine Comedy’ (1465) a painting by Domenico di Michelino depicting Dante Alighieri presenting his epic, with Brunelleschi’s completed dome in the background and the dome’s interior decoration later

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s First Masterpiece-The Rape of Proserpina

The sculpture that brings stone to life

The Rape of Proserpina (1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The story of Proserpine — or Proserpina in Latin — is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Proserpine is the daughter of the corn-goddess Ceres, who whilst out gathering flowers in the Vale of Nysa was seen by the powerful god Pluto, King of the Underworld.

According to Ovid, Pluto was struck by an arrow from Cupid and was suddenly enraptured by Proserpine. He gathered her up and swept her away on his chariot, taking her down to the Underworld and forcing her to become his bride.

This sculpture, carved in marble by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini was finished in 1622, and captures the tension-filled moment of Proserpine’s abduction.

With their twisted poses, the two figures come alive through Bernini’s captivating attention to detail. It is all the more remarkable when one thinks that Bernini’s was just 23 years old when he made this sculpture.

How Bernini became an artist

Bernini’s own journey began in Naples, where he was born in 1598. Son of the sculptor Pietro Bernini, the young artist was quickly recognised for his creative abilities, even attracting the attention of Pope Paul V, who is recorded as saying, “This child will be the Michelangelo of his age”.

When the family moved to Rome after Bernini’s father received a notable papal commission, Bernini began a personal study of antique Greek and Roman marbles at the Vatican.

His first patron came in the form of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a member of the reigning papal family and a leading patron of the arts of the early 17th century. Under his sponsorship, Bernini carved his first important life-size sculptural groups, which included The Rape of Proserpina.

The drama

The first thing to notice is how Proserpine appears to clamber upwards as she attempts to wriggle free of Pluto’s grasp. As each figure strains in opposite directions, the effect acts as a brilliant device for suggesting where Pluto is actually dragging her to: downward into the Underworld.

Detail of ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ (1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Despite Bernini’s young age, the work displays an incredible awareness of the surface textures of skin and hair. Look at the section where the fingers of Pluto’s hand grip Proserpine’s leg, for instance. See how his hand wraps around and compresses the skin, holding the thigh and kneading the flesh like fingers into dough.

The fingers of the other hand press and sink in a similar way around Proserpine’s torso, almost enveloping the fingernails in the folds of her skin.

Detail of ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ (1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The carving is so artful that it almost conceals the very materials of its making. In these sections, it becomes close to impossible to see the underlying stone material. Bernini has managed to portray fingers, muscle, tendons, veins and flesh through peerless handling of marble.

The cumulative effect of these details, which recur throughout the sculpture, from Pluto’s muscular legs to Proserpine’s straining neck, is to supply a palpable sense of drama. Bernini’s technical versatility in manipulating marble meant that he could imbue the cold stone with a level of energy hardly seen before in Italian sculpture.

The Rape of Proserpina (1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble. Galleria Borghese, Rome

Bernini’s inspiration

Bernini’s work was not without precedents. The Rape of Proserpina was most likely influenced by another sculptor by the name of Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor who based himself in Italy.

Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, which stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, is designed with a reminiscent upward movement and also provides a model for the way the Roman’s hand sinks into the hip of the Sabine woman (see below right).

Front (left) and rear (right) of ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ (1581–83) by Giambologna. Marble. Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence.

Made in around 1581–83, Giambologna’s works exemplifies the emerging interest in sinuous lines, graceful curves and exaggerated poses that would come to characterise the late Mannerist and early Baroque periods.

Responses to The Rape of Proserpina

One of Bernini’s strengths as a sculptor was his ability to inject great drama into his work. His treatment of the story of Proserpine and Pluto is charged with vivid passages of spectacle, not least in the three-headed dog Cerberus which guards the entrance to the Underworld.

Detail of ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ (1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble. Galleria Borghese, Rome

As we look at the sculpture, one has the sense that Proserpine’s feet are flinching before the open mouth of the growling hound — almost as if it’s happening right before our eyes. The violence of the abduction becomes evermore apparent the more closely the viewer looks.

The Rape of Proserpina (1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Marble. Galleria Borghese, Rome

In this regard, nothing is spared in Bernini’s sculpture. Proserpine’s intrepid fight against Pluto’s grip is bound to be futile.

At this point, we may want to ask: how do we respond when we look upon this subject of forceful abduction?

I think one response is to treat the sculpture as if it were a piece of theatre: that is, as a depiction of a dramatic scene. And just as we might applaud the performances of the actors and actresses in a play, so we can respond to this sculpture as an achievement of artistic dexterity.

In fact, Bernini was a man with a strong interest in the theatre: through his career he wrote, directed and acted in plays for which he designed stage sets and theatrical machinery.

Looked at in this way, the 225cm tall piece carved from Carrara marble is the epitome of hair-raising action. Bernini has captured texture, emotion and movement in a solid piece of stone.

For the remainder of his life he worked in Rome, becoming one of the great sculptors and architects of his time — and rivalling Michelangelo in his eminence. Later artists would draw much inspiration from Bernini, including the Victorian sculptor Lord Frederic Leighton.

Symbolism Found in this Italian Masterpiece

Decoding The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

There are many symbols in this ornate painting that capture its story. A ray of light bubbles up from the clouds in the sky and bursts forth into the street of an Italian town. It cuts through an aperture in a building and eventually touches the head of a woman in prayer.

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, outside, two figures kneel in the street. One is an angel who has feathered wings on his back and holds a lily flower in his hand; beside him is another man who appears to balance a miniature model town on his knee.

Around the image, various birds perch: a peacock sits on a first-floor loggia whilst numerous doves populate the town. At the front of the painting, an apple and a cucumber lie on the ground. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, and even overhang the edge of the image as if they’re not quite part of the painting.

And then there is the overall strangeness of the composition, the radical perspective and the vivid selection of colours, of terracotta, gold and grey-blue.

It must have been more than ten years ago when I first saw this work of art, The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. The very first impression it made on me — as my eyes tried to become accustomed to the scene — was one of disorientation.

It can feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a labyrinth and asked to find your own way out again. So what’s going on and how do we find our way in this remarkable painting?

A miraculous moment

As the title of the work indicates, this is a scene of The Annunciation. The woman praying is the Virgin Mary. The event marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and the Son of God became Mary’s child.

The Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would become the mother of Christ. Mary adopts a posture of humility as the news is delivered to her, with her arms crossed in diffidence.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Virgin Mary. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Mary is dressed in fashionable 15th century clothing, with an embroidered bodice and puffs emerging from her slashed sleeves. Notably, her head is uncovered: since only unmarried girls and royalty wore their hair uncovered, it is a reminder that she is both a virgin and Queen of Heaven.

Crivelli followed the established tradition by painting rays of golden light descending from heaven and blessing Mary on the head. Arriving on the rays of light is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God as spiritually active in the world. The motif is from the words of John the Baptist: “I saw the spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting upon him” (John 1:32).

An unusual setting

What makes this painting unusual — and what I didn’t understand when I first saw it — is the urban setting of the angel’s appearance, who brings his message forth directly into the street. Traditionally, paintings of the Annunciation show Mary in some sort of walled garden, a reference to her purity as well as the idea that the incarnation of Christ took place in springtime. (The lily carried by Gabriel is Mary’s traditional attribute, a sign of her virtue.)

But in this work, the setting is very much in a town, with brick walls and paved streets. And what’s just as unusual is the bearing of the angel Gabriel, who appears more concerned with the man kneeling next to him than with the Virgin Mary.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. The work was first made by the artist Carlo Crivelli for the town of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region of Italy. It was painted in celebration, since the citizens of the town had just been granted limited self-government by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1482.

The news reached the town on 25 March, the traditional date of the Feast of the Annunciation, and every year after 1482 a procession was held through the streets of the town to celebrate the political and religious events in one. As in the painting, oriental carpets would be draped over the balconies as part of the celebrations. At the bottom of the painting is the inscription LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, which was the title of the papal edict granting the city its freedom.

This would explain the municipal feel of the painting, which, the more you look at it, is brimming with townsfolk going about their business.

It goes without saying that nobody is there by chance. The man kneeling kneeling beside Gabriel is the local patron Saint Emidius, who holds in his hands a model of the town. On the bridge behind them, a man is given a letter to read by a messenger, referring to the Papal edict.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

In this detail, one sees the thematic cross-over, with two messages being delivered at the same time, one from the Papal messenger and the other from Gabriel.

A feast of symbols

The overall detailing in the painting is extraordinary. Every stone and brick is individually painted, along with the ornamental carvings of the pillars and archway. Textures — marble, wood, fabric — are all faithfully represented.

In one area of the painting, a peacock stands with its tail feathers showing resplendently — a symbol of immortality and Christ’s Resurrection, as according to ancient belief, it was thought a peacock’s flesh never decayed. Even the small wooden cage, which if you look closely contains a goldfinch, is meaningful. Often an attribute of Christ as a child, who in other works of art holds a goldfinch in his hand, the bird signifies the soul of man that flew away at his death.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Peacock, oriental rug and a caged goldfinch. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice sometime around 1430. As this painting demonstrates, he was a fine technical painter, and was especially skilled at simulating marble architecture and other illusionistic effects: festoons of fruit and parchment cartellini. (A cartellino was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, as though attached to a wall, often with a nail or pin.)

Illusionistic fruit and veg. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

The apple and cucumber towards the bottom of the painting were Crivelli’s demonstration of his skills as a painter, how he could make objects seem as if they were coming out of the painting. They also carry symbolism: the apple represents the forbidden fruit and associated fall of man. The cucumber — an unusual symbol in Christian art — is thought to refer to the promise of redemption through Christ’s resurrection.

Crivelli died in 1495 in Ascoli Piceno, the town for which he painted this picture. After his death, his reputation fell on hard-times, yet in the 19th century his paintings were seen afresh and admired, especially by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, several of whom praised his work for its remarkable detailed naturalism.

This painting hangs in the National Gallery, London.

What is Renaissance Architecture Symmetric Style?

It had an emphasis on symmetry.

Chateau de Chambord (1519-1547)

Symmetry is economy.
Symmetry is simplicity.

“The architecture of our brains was born from the same trial and error, the same energy principles, the same pure mathematics that happen in flowers and jellyfish and Higgs particles.” — Alan Lightman.

The Piazza del Campidoglio.

This style has an emphasis on symmetry, proportion, geometry, and the regularity of parts, as demonstrated in the architecture of classical antiquity.

Renaissance architecture is the European architecture of the period between the early 14th and early 16th centuries in different regions.

Renaissance architecture followed Gothic architecture and was succeeded by Baroque architecture.

Developed first in Florence, with Filippo Brunelleschi as one of its innovators, the Renaissance style quickly spread to other Italian cities.

Filippo Brunelleschi.

Italian, also known as Pippo 1377–15 April 1446 is considered to be the founding of Renaissance architecture.

He was an Italian architect, designer, and sculptor, and is the first modern engineer, planner, and sole construction supervisor.

The style was used in Spain, France, Germany, England, Russia, and other parts of Europe at different dates and with varying degrees of impact.

Renaissance style places emphasis on symmetry…

It was demonstrated in the architecture of classical antiquity and in particular ancient Roman architecture.

Systematic display of columns, pilasters, and lintels, as well as the use of semicircular arches, hemispherical domes…

Plan of Bramante’s Tempietto in Montorio.

Plan of Bramante’s Tempietto in Montorio.

Raphael’s unused plan for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Raphael’s unused plan for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Brunelleschi’s plan of Santo Spirito.

Brunelleschi’s plan of Santo Spirito.

Michelangelo’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1546), superimposed on the earlier plan by Bramante.

Michelangelo’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1546), superimposed on the earlier plan by Bramante.

“But why are we attracted to symmetry?

Why do we human beings delight in seeing perfectly round planets through the lens of a telescope and six-sided snowflakes on a cold winter day?

The answer must be partly psychological.

I would claim that symmetry represents order, and we crave order in this strange universe we find ourselves in.

The search for symmetry, and the emotional pleasure we derive when we find it, must help us make sense of the seasons and the reliability of friendships.

Symmetry is also economy.
Symmetry is simplicity.”
― Alan Lightman

The emphasis on symmetry is very much noted on all construction from that time.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi by Michelozzo. Florence, 1444.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi by Michelozzo. Florence, 1444.

Symmetry is also economy.

Symmetry is simplicity.

Symmetry is repetition.

Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli

An allegory of Love overcoming War… and much else besides

Venus and Mars

What does the painting show? A woman and a man lying in a grassy glade, surrounded by trees and shrubbery. She is sat up with her elbow cushioned by a red pillow; he has fallen asleep with his head outstretched in deep slumber. Behind them, a group of baby satyrs — half-human and half-goat creatures — are playing with the man’s weapons.

She is Venus, the goddess of love and fertility. He is Mars, the god of war. When read as an allegory, the message is of Love conquering Strife. His brutal and aggressive nature is subdued by Love’s grace. To further prove his disarmament, his weapons laid aside are being carried away by the impish satyrs.

Detail of ‘Venus and Mars’ (c 1485) by Sandro Botticelli.

What I like about this painting is the very directness of the scene. The artist, Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), has managed to fill an extraordinary amount of detail into the composition without stifling the aesthetic balance. This has the effect of bringing the scene close-up to the viewer whilst maintaining a sense of clarity. The colour tones are light and simple, and each figure is painted with a degree of vividness that seems to illuminate their very presence.

The unusual rectangular shape of the painting suggests it was made as part of the decoration for a room in a Florentine townhouse, possibly for the backboard of a bench or a chest. As such, it is likely that Botticelli was commissioned to make the work for a client.

Detail of ‘Venus and Mars’ (c 1485) by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera and oil on poplar panel

Close attention to Mars’s head reveals he has several wasps buzzing around him. The wasps are possibly a symbol that love is often accompanied by pain; another explanation is that they represent the Vespucci family of Florence who may have commissioned the painting. Their name means “little wasps” in Italian and their coat of arms included wasps in its symbolism.

The allegory of Love conquering War was a popular subject in Renaissance times. It was often used in commemorations of a betrothal (sometimes the two figures of Venus and Mars were portrayed in the likeness of the engaged couple). The moral message reflected the code of chivalry of the Renaissance courtier, whose best values were thought to combine manly courage with honourable romance.

There is, of course, more going on in this painting than a moral allegory, and the clue is in the very intimacy of the setting: we should under no doubt deny that the two figures have just slept together.

Both Homer and Ovid tell of the two gods becoming lovers. Botticelli’s painting focuses on the psychological moment of intimacy and post-coital reflection. Many historians agree that the painting draws on a famous classical work by the artist Echion. This painting, now lost, was described by the Greek poet Lucian: as showing the wedding ceremony of Alexander the Great and Roxana, adapting the iconography of Venus and Mars to the historical Alexander and his bride. Lucian’s description mentions amoretti or putti (chubby male children) playing with Alexander’s armour during the ceremony, two carrying his lance and one who has crawled inside his breastplate. Botticelli’s painting follows this pattern almost exactly.

So the painting offers a representation of sensual pleasure, with the male of the species having fallen asleep afterwards. This is a joke as old as the hills, and was no less popular in the context of weddings in Renaissance Italy as it is today.

Still, one can’t help but feel that Botticelli has given the final word to Venus, whose expression has a quiet indignant quality as she overlooks the sleeping Mars. He is deep in his dreams, and now she has time to consider him. Her thoughts are perhaps poised between satisfaction and frustration, or curiosity and indifference.

Detail of ‘Venus and Mars’ (c 1485) by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera and oil on poplar panel

Tellingly, the fingers of her left hand toy suggestively with her gown, which folds in translucent layers and is edged by an elaborate golden hem. He is worn through; she is still wide awake. In fact, he is so deep in his slumber that he does not wake even when a conch shell is blown like a horn into his ear. His militant virility has turned dulcet; he is just a boy after all, once his armour — the costume of his barbarism — has been spirited away.

Botticelli, an artist who was keen to draw on the classical themes explored by Humanist scholars, has also produced an image of lucid psychological subtlety.

Venus and Mars (c 1485) by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera and oil on poplar panel

Botticelli’s Primavera-The Enigma

An art piece that encapsulates mythology, nature, love, and beauty

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli.

Sandro Botticelli’s  is one of the most magnificent and popular paintings in western art. Apart from its grandeur visual appeal and intricate detailing, it is also famous for its unfathomable symbolism that has attracted art historians time and again.

Primavera means ‘spring’ in English. This painting encapsulates a mythological illustration of the Greco-Roman deities, an allegory of the arrival of spring, and a symbolic depiction of the neo-Platonic ideas about the nature of love.

Giorgio Vasari saw this painting after 70 years and named it Primavera. This painting is housed in the  in Florence, Italy.

In this article, we’ll walk-through the painting’s composition, the allegorical representation of spring, and the symbolic depiction of Primavera.

Composition of Primavera

Mercury, clothed in red (Left) and The Three Graces (dancing figures) (Right)

Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, chasing the nymph Cloris (Left) and Venus and blindfolded Cupid (Right)

The painting was created around the 1470s and supposedly commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, a wealthy Italian statesman and enthusiastic art patron, probably for the marriage of his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. Primavera portrays nine mythological figures positioned around an orange grove that might reflect the family tree of the Medici family.

  • To the far left of the painting is Mercury, clothed in red, wearing winged shoes and the caduceus he uses to dissipate the clouds.
  • Next to Mercury, are the Three Graces (dancing figures), adorned in a translucent white and represent beauty and purity.
  • The center of the composition is the Roman goddess, Venus, a red-draped woman.
  • In the air, above Venus, is cupid who is blindfolded and aims his arrow to The Three Graces.
  • To the extreme right of the painting is Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, chasing the nymph Cloris.
  • Botticelli shows the spilling of flowers from Cloris’s mouth who transforms into Flora, the goddess of spring.

The allegory of spring and depiction of aromatic symbols

Tiny blue myositis adoring Flora’s hair
Flora’s dress is embroidered with carnations

The bottom part of the painting with iris flowers (symbol of Florence)

Venus is surrounded by myrtle, a very well-known plant in ancient Greece and Rome. Flora’s hair and the dress have tiny blue myositis also known as forget-me-nots that have a strong fragrance and her dress is embroidered with carnations.

The bottom half of the painting consists of an amalgam of flowers including iris (symbol of Florence), jasmine, and grape hyacinth that are used in perfumery for thousands of years.

The symbolic depiction of Primavera

, an American-Italian art critic, defines Primavera with neo-Platonic ideas about love discussed in the humanist circles surrounding Botticelli.

, one of the most influential humanist philosophers in the early Italian Renaissance described love —

There are two kinds of love, the terrestrial and the divine. Love cements the union between mortals as well as between a man and God. Love originates from God, and all humans tend to return to God when they are inflamed with love. The lower kind of love, which is common to humans as well as beasts and plants, is responsible for the continuation of the species through the generative act. This lower type of love, in turn, induces man to seek the higher kind of love, which links man with God.

The two kinds of love illustrated in the painting are from right to left. While Zephyrus’s love is “terrestrial” who is abducting Cloris, Mercury embodies the idea of “divine love” who turns his back on other figures.

We could expand the idea further using Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil opening lines: Supposing truth is a woman — what then?

Supposing the truth of the Primavera is a woman — what does the painting itself tell us about this woman, and man’s (i.e. the interpreter’s) attempt to acquire it? On the one hand, there is Zephyrus, violently penetrating the horrified virginal truth embodied by Chloris — could this not be compared to the rigid relationship of identity, which does not take into account the fragile and nebulous nature of visual truth? On the other hand, does the disinterested, noble stature of Mercury, the disperser of clouds, not resemble the seeker of metaphorical relationships, a stoic figure intent on unveiling the complexities of the semantic knots tying the Primavera to a multiplicity of discourses?

Last thoughts

Primavera as a painting is one big open window that is literally radiating the season of spring and metaphorically is open to human interpretations.

The Gods Are Flawed-As Are Humans

Exploring Titian’s ‘poesie’ collection — an interplay of greed, lust, anger, arrogance, and power

Danaë.

Titian was a prolific artist and an excellent storyteller. In addition to his remarkable artistic skills, he knew how to please his patrons. He commissioned paintings for Europe’s most powerful and wealthy patrons — the Medici, Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III.

Titian’s versatility is reflected in a wide range of subjects he covered in his long career. Portraiture, nudes, anatomy, classical, or religious images — you name it and Titian painted it.

When a portrait of a 21-year-old Prince Philip, son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King of Spain, became a success, Prince Philip was added to Titian’s list of royal patrons.

Titian’s most ambitious project in his career was the “poesie” collection commissioned by Prince Philip. He created 6 mythological paintings in a span of ten years from about 1551 to 1562. The term poesie was used because he considered the paintings as “visual translations of poetry.”

Like poetry, the paintings touch our emotions and imagination through their rhythm of color, the language of symbols, and expressive subjects.

These paintings were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical works. Prince Philip gave Titian the creative freedom to compose, interpret and innovate.

1. Danaë — greed and seduction

Danaë

This is the first painting in the poesie series. Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos who was an heirless king. She was locked by her father to prevent her from ever having a son.

This was done because he believed in the prophecy by a fortune teller, Oracle, that his daughter’s son could be his successor. The only caveat was the newborn would kill his grandfather.

Eventually, Jupiter descended from Mount Olympus and seduced Danaë by showering rain of gold. Danaë was enticed and became pregnant. They had their child, Perseus, who is featured in another painting of the poesie series.

2. Venus and Adonis — unrequited love

Venus and Adonis

Titian painted Venus who tried to physically restrain Adonis, the beautiful hunter, to not go hunting. However, his fate was irrevocable. He was gored to death by a wild boar.

3. Diana and Actaeon — anger

Diana and Actaeon

This depicted the moment when Actaeon, the hunter, accidentally encountered Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, a princess wearing a crown with a crescent moon became infuriated and turned Actaeon into a stag. Unfortunately, Actaeon was torn to death by his own hounds.

4. Diana and Callisto — power and disguise

Diana and Callisto

In this painting too, Titian depicted the wrath of Diana. As soon as Diana knew about her hunting companion and nymph, Callisto’s pregnancy, she asked other nymphs to strip her and reveal her pregnancy.

Diana wanted to kill Callisto after knowing her rape by Jupiter (who changed Callisto into a bear). Jupiter immortalized Callisto by transforming her into the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear).

5. Perseus and Andromeda — revenge

Perseus and Andromeda

Andromeda was the beautiful daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia believed that their daughter is more beautiful than the sea nymphs. This claim offended Neptune, god of the sea and he sent a monster to destroy Cepheus’s kingdom. The monster tried to abduct Andromeda and she was chained to rocks.

The hero Perseus came to rescue her. He killed the monster and later married Andromeda.

6. Rape of Europa — abduction and rape

Rape of Europa

Jupiter disguised himself as a bull. Europa approached the bull and tried to tame her by putting flowers around its horns and jumping on the back. The bull (aka Jupiter) took her into the sea and carried her off.

Europa desperately gazed at her companions on the beach.

Conclusion

Titian’s handpicked stories in the poesie series exuded dramatic and intense moments; seduction, greed, lust, anger, arrogance, and power.

But the bigger question is — why did the Greek and Roman mythology let their Gods have flaws?

Because they didn’t see their Gods as all-powerful beings. Their concept of celestial beings was based on the fact that their Gods and Goddesses were similar to humans, the only distinguishable characteristics were that they were immortal, and they were infinitely more powerful.

The Jungian writer, Robert Johnson, believes that “When we dismantled Mount Olympus (home of the Greek Gods) we turned the gods into symptoms.” This is why it is interesting to see the Gods from this viewpoint — what do we have too much of and what are we missing? The Gods may provide a metaphorical clue….

Amor Vincit Omnia

On February 14th, we celebrate Valentine’s Day to honor Saint Valentine; or the Feast of Saint Valentine. Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love in many regions around the world. 

Sip some champagne and share some chocolates with your favorite sweetie. Book a romantic dinner filled with Love Potions and Aphrodisiacs.

The Saint that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome; to differentiate him from so many other Valentines on the list.  “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular moniker between the second and eighth centuries A.D., so several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name.

Image result for Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

You can find Valentine’s skull in Rome.
The flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome (pictured above). In the early 1800s, the excavation of a catacomb near Rome yielded skeletal remains and other relics now associated with St. Valentine.

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Saint Valentine’s Day is the most popular day for couples to get engaged.

Image result for Saint Valentine of Rome

Saint Valentine of Rome was a priest who was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. He was martyred in 269 and was added to the calendar of saints by Pope Galesius in 496 and was buried on the Via Flaminia.

Relic of Saint Valentine

The relics of Saint Valentine were kept in the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome, which “remained an important pilgrim site throughout the Middle Ages until the relics of St. Valentine were transferred to the church of Santa Prassededuring the pontificate of Nicholas IV“. Today, the flower-crowned skull of Saint Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

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Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection.

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Sir Peter Paul Rubens painting of Venus, Mars and Cupid from the 1600s

He is often portrayed as the son of the love goddess Venus and the war god Mars. He is also known in Latin as Amor (“Love”).

Cupid is winged, allegedly because lovers are flighty and likely to change their minds, and boyish because love is irrational. His symbols are the arrow and torch, “because love wounds and inflames the heart.” The image above is a blindfolded, armed Cupid (1452/66) by Piero della Francesca.

Cupid sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled

Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590s)

My favorite cupid is Caravaggio’s Victorious Love, also known as Love Conquers All (Amor Vincit Omnia), in which a brazenly naked Cupid tramples on emblems of culture and erudition representing music, architecture, warfare, and scholarship.

The motto comes from the Augustan poet Vergil, writing in the late 1st century BC.

Omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori.
Love conquers all, and so let us surrender ourselves to Love.

Caravaggio’s Gay Jesus

The Italian painter gave Christianity a real messiah

Ottavio Leoni, chalk portrait of Caravaggio, c.1621

When I was growing up Christian, nobody told me the religion took its key images of Jesus from queer painters.

How ironic, I’d realize later, for a religion that hated the dreaded “gays” to love Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc. Christians loved the movie The Passion of the Christ. The director, Mel Gibson, spoke of his inspiration:

“I think his work is beautiful. I mean it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it. And it’s so real looking.”

The Italian painter Caravaggio had shown Christians how to see Jesus as a physical man. It took a homosexual to do that?

Caravaggio, “Christ at the Column” (1607); Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

I’m learning only now about Caravaggio’s influence on Christianity.

He was born—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—in Milan in 1571. Not a lot is known about him. A recent biography, by Peter Robb, begins with a warning that the evidence is mostly:

“…lies to the police, reticence in court, extorted confessions, forced denunciations, revengeful memoirs, self-justifying hindsight, unquestioned hearsay, diplomatic urbanities, theocratic diktat, reported gossip, threat and propaganda, angry outburst — hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest.”

In a world that Christianity had made, in other words, there were mostly lies and shaded truths. As Caravaggio began an art project which struck his contemporaries as astonishing, and horrifying.

He would paint actual people.

There were no halos or heavenly visions.

There were no deities hovering above the earth, with odd smiles. He painted Bible scenes as if they had occurred on earth.

“He preferred nature as his best — and only — teacher,” notes the scholar Joseph Ostenson. “It was an approach to mysticism grounded in the physical — the real—realm.”

To read Christian history about this time, one is given details about the “Counter-Reformation” and ongoing wars of Catholics and Protestants—each calling the other “sodomites” as the worst insult they knew.

Meanwhile, Caravaggio was thinking about real people.

Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalene” (c.1595)

The subject of Caravaggio’s sexuality has been a difficult one for Christianity.

Little about him was known until the 1950s, when art historians began to assemble the pieces. Many would note, as the scholar John Champagne writes, that Caravaggio’s male figures “present eroticized male bodies.”

The women — not so much. He never painted a female nude. He never married. The Italian public has tended to reject talk of the matter. An 2012 Italian newspaper declares: “Caravaggio Was Not Gay, He Was Normal.”

But there seems to be a coherent narrative of a male partner. Caravaggio seems to have met Francesco Boneri as a 12-year-old. Born around 1588, ‘Cecco’ may have been sent to him as an apprentice.

After awhile, Caravaggio is painting him — over and over — in works that Robb notes are “most remarkable and deeply felt and radically intimate paintings,” works full of “joyeous and untrammelled sexual energy.”

Cecco becomes an angel, and John the Baptist.

Years later, an English writer met Cecco, who was working as a painter, and recorded that he’d been Caravaggio’s “owne boy or servant that laid with him.”

Cecco had by then taken the name ‘Cecco del Caravaggio’.

Caravaggio, ”Amor Vincit Omnia” (c.1602); “John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)” (1602)

This boy becomes a means of staging a discussion of predatory male sexuality.

Over and over, Cesso is cast in the most difficult dramas. He is Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham—with that rather phallic-looking knife.

But Cesso is also a divine force. As X-rays of the painting revealed, the angel who tells Abraham not to do it was originally Cecco as well.

In David with the Head of Goliath, Cecco re-appears as the young David — as Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of the giant.

The drama of the older and younger man replays over and over — as the younger man prevails, and brings a new consciousness into the world.

Caravaggio, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1602); “David with the Head of Goliath” (c.1610)

Scholars too can resist an effort to describe Caravaggio as ‘homosexual’.

A 2005 paper by Luiz Fernando Viotti Fernandes, “The Sexuality of Caravaggio and His Artistic Identity,” goes through some evidence, and purports to find it inconclusive—on the evidence that no one from the past can be called, by current standards, ‘homosexual’, and the “sex lives of Renaissance artists were probably often bisexual.”

John Champagne is a little more convinced. He reads many Caravaggio paintings as full of queer signs and suggestions. Look at Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, he notes. Isn’t there an odd emphasis on the muscular buttock of one of the soldiers?—lit dramatically and wearing only a contrasting red and gold fabric.

The viewer is prompted to look at—the ass of a Roman soldier?

Seemingly in control, the soldier is himself sexually vulnerable.

Caravaggio, “The Taking of Christ” (c.1602)

All of Caravaggio’s paintings seem to have a certain queer subtext.

He had done a previous painting of the Old Testament scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The scholar Graham L. Hammill reads it in a 2000 study, Sexuality and Form.

The bodies of the man and the boy, he notes, are positioned to suggest sex is about to happen—“which the angel of God attempts to terminate.”

The angel and the boy seem to have the same face—one lit in divine light, one in shadow. But where Isaac is held down, an object for sexual use, the angel as a divinity forces Abraham to look at him.

The message is: you need to see me as a person.

Caravaggio, “Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1598)

I take Caravaggio to suggest that all male interactions have a whiff of homoerotic energy. It was a world, certainly, where the sexual use of boys was considered ordinary.

Even if he had done this himself, he wants it to stop. This dehumanization, the use of others, must stop, the angel says—even if done in the name of “religion.”

Caravaggio’s paintings suggest a new kind of sexuality.

In a world that saw sex as an “act” to be done—with little concern for the partner—he shows real people as illuminated, bodies that are spiritually charged.

They are penetrable, but the body being entered is divine. We see this, for example, when Jesus guides Thomas’ hands to touching his body — an intimate moment of physical exploration.

The scholar Erin Benay writes of the painting:

“Caravaggio’s depiction of the wound and Thomas’s probing finger is particularly explicit: Thomas inserts a finger deep inside the cut, unlike many earlier Italian versions of the subject in which this contact is less invasive.”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601)

Allow a real person to be divine, might be the suggestion?

Caravaggio’s Jesus can be curiously sexy — certainly not the weird, withered, emaciated form that many paintings had offered.

As in The Flagellation of Christ, this messiah is nearly a male stripper.

We look as well at the men in shadow who are being so mean — even as they’re just being ‘men’.

The new message: being ordinary — isn’t good.

“Madonna and Child with St. Anne” (1605); “The Flagellation of Christ” (1607)

After Caravaggio died, Cecco continued his own career as a painter.

He frequently did works on Biblical subjects—often with odd positioning of muscular male bodies.

I find myself wondering if his own Penitent Magdalene—a portrait of the fallen women—could be a self-portrait as a woman.

Cecco del Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalen” (before 1620)

His greatest work would appear to be The Resurrection, supposedly about the Second Coming, though a critic notes the imagery “seems more concerned with muscular legs and coy glances than any action involving the return of Christ from the dead.”

It seems to me that both angels—these strange, floating, voguing, half-naked men—might also be inflected with his self-portrait.

A man, a woman, an angel—a Cecco who is a divine everything.

“Resurrection” by Cecco del Caravaggio (c.1620)

Where would Christianity have been without its queer artists?

Thinking of a religion without Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, or Cecco del Caravaggio—I’m left musing about an alternate world that would be, really, a wasteland of ordinary people.

But thankfully, they got a little help from their friends. 🔶

Mona Lisa’s Pozzetto Chair

For centuries, our attention has largely been focused elsewhere in the small (77 x 53cm/30 x 21in) oil-on-poplar panel, which Da Vinci never fully finished and is thought to have continued to tinker with obsessively until his death in 1519 – as if the painting’s endless emergence were the work itself. A preoccupation principally with Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile is almost as old as the painting, and dates back at least to the reaction of the legendary Renaissance writer and historian Giorgio Vasari, who was born a few years after Da Vinci began work on the likeness. “The mouth with its opening and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face,” Vasari observed in his celebrated Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, “seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse.” He concluded: “In this work of Leonardo, there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvellous, in that it was not other than alive.”

Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa's smile (Credit: Alamy)

Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile (Credit: Alamy)

The mesmerising mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile and how Leonardo magically leveraged it into creating “a thing more divine than human” and yet “not other than alive” would prove too intense for many to bear. The 19th-Century French art critic Alfred Dumesnil confessed to finding the painting’s paradox utterly paralysing. In 1854 he asserted that the subject’s “smile is full of attraction, but it is the treacherous attraction of a sick soul that renders sickness. This so soft a look, but avid like the sea, devours”. If legend is to be believed, the “treacherous attraction” of Mona Lisa’s irresolvable smirk consumed too the soul of an aspiring French artist by the name of Luc Maspero. According to popular myth, Maspero, who allegedly ended his days by leaping from the window of his Paris hotel room, was driven to destructive distraction by the mute whispers of Mona Lisa’s engrossingly gladsome lips. “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile,” he is said to have written in the note he left behind. “I prefer to die.”

Walter Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface

Not everyone, however, has been content to locate the centre of Mona Lisa’s magnetising mystique in her enigmatic grin. The Victorian writer Walter Pater believed it was the “delicacy” with which her hands and eyelids are rendered that transfix and hypnotise us into believing that the work possesses preternatural power. “We all know the face and hands of the figure,” he observed in an article on Da Vinci in 1869, “in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”. Pater proceeds to meditate on the Mona Lisa in such a singularly intense way that in 1936 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats found himself compelled to seize a sentence from Pater’s description, break it up into free-verse lines, and install them as the opening poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which Yeats was then compiling. The passage that Yeats couldn’t help co-opting begins: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes.” The portrait “lives”, Pater concludes, “only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands”.

Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa's hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)

Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa’s hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)

Pater’s description still astounds. Unlike Dumesnil and the doomed Maspero before him, Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface. Contending that the painting depicts a figure suspended in ceaseless shuttle between the here-and-now and some otherworldly realm that lies beyond, Pater pinpoints the mystical essence of the panel’s perennial appeal: its surreal sense of eternal flux. Like Vasari, Pater bears witness to a breathing and pulsing presence – “changing lineaments” – that transcends the inert materiality of the portrait’s making. Key to the force of Pater’s language is an insistence on aquatic imagery that reinforces the fluidity of the sitter’s elusive self (“faint light under the sea”, “a diver in deep seas”, and “trafficked… with Eastern merchants”), as if Mona Lisa were an ever-flowing fountain of living water – an interminable ripple in the endless eddies of time.

Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time

Perhaps she is. There is reason to think that such a reading, which sees the sitter as a shape-shifting spring of eternal resurgence, is precisely what Leonardo intended. Flanked on either side by bodies of flowing water that the artist has ingeniously positioned in such a way as to suggest that they are aspects of his sitter’s very being, Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time. Pivoting her stare slightly to her left to meet ours, Mona Lisa is poised upon not just any old bench or stool, but a deep-seated perch known popularly as a pozzetto chair. Meaning “little well”, the pozzettointroduces a subtle symbolism into the narrative that is as revealing as it is unexpected.

By placing Mona Lisa on a 'little well', surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)

By placing Mona Lisa on a ‘little well’, surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)

Suddenly, the waters we see meandering with a mazy motion behind Mona Lisa (whether belonging to an actual landscape, such as the valley of the Italian River Arno, as some historians believe, or entirely imaginary, as others contend) are no longer distant and disconnected from the sitter, but are an essential resource that sustain her existence. They literally flow into her. By situating Mona Lisa inside a “little well”, Da Vinci transforms her into an ever-fluctuating dimension of the physical universe she occupies. Art historian and leading Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp has likewise detected a fundamental connection between Mona Lisa’s depiction and the geology of the world she inhabits. “The artist was not literally portraying the prehistoric or future Arno,” Kemp asserts in his study Leonardo: 100 Milestones (2019), “but was shaping Lisa’s landscape on the basis of what he had learned about change in the ‘body of the Earth’, to stand alongside the implicit transformations in the body of the woman as a ‘lesser world’ or microcosm.” Mona Lisa isn’t sitting before a landscape. She is the landscape.

Drawing from a well

As with all visual symbols employed by Leonardo, the pozzetto chair is multivalent and serves more than merely to link Mona Lisa with the artist’s well-known fascination with the hydrological forces that shape the Earth. The subtle insinuation of a “little well” in the painting as the very channel through which Mona Lisa emerges into consciousness repositions the painting entirely in cultural discourse. No longer is this a straightforwardly secular portrait but something spiritually more complex. Portrayals of women “at the well” are a staple throughout Western art history. Old Testament stories of Eliezar meeting Rebekah at a well and of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well went on to become especially popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, as everyone from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to William Holman Hunt tried their hand at one or other of the narratives.

There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)

There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)

Moreover apocryphal depictions of the New Testament Annunciation (the moment when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Christ) as occurring at the site of a spring were a mainstay among Medieval manuscript illustrators, and may even have inspired the oldest surviving visual portrayal of Mary. An endlessly elastic emblem, as Walter Pater intimated, Mona Lisa is doubtless capable of absorbing all such reflected resonances and many more besides. There is no one she isn’t.

But perhaps the most pertinent parallel between Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and pictorial precursors is one that can be drawn with the many representations of a biblical episode in which Jesus finds himself at a well, engaged in cryptic conversation with a woman from Samaria. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a distinction between the water that can be drawn from the natural spring – water which will inevitably leave one “thirsty” – and the “living water” that he can provide. Where water from a well can only sustain a perishable body, ‘living water’ is capable of quenching the eternal spirit. Notable depictions of the scene by the Medieval Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna and by the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder tend to seat Jesus directly on the wall of the well, suggesting his dominion over the fleeting elements of this world. By placing his female sitter notionally inside the well, however, Da Vinci confounds the tradition, and suggests instead a merging of material and spiritual realms – a blurring of the here and hereafter – into a shared plane of eternal emergence. In Da Vinci’s enthralling narrative, Mona Lisa is herself a miraculous surge of “living water”, serenely content in the knowledge of her own raging infinitude

La Soffietta al Palazzo Vecchio

Sei mai stato nella Sala dei Cinquecento e hai alzato lo sguardo? Se questo è il caso, avresti assistito al magnifico soffitto della stanza. Tuttavia, potresti non essere consapevole che ciò che è sopra il soffitto è ancora più affascinante. Nel suo romanzo Inferno, Dan Brown descrive le travi di legno che sostengono il soffitto della Sala dei Cinquecento come tronchi d’albero interi tagliati e disposti orizzontalmente e che si estendono per 22 metri da una parete all’altra. Oggi, un ascensore riservato a dipendenti e collaboratori si trova all’ultimo piano dietro una porta blindata a protezione di una delle zone più incredibili e delicate dell’edificio. La porta si apre in uno spazio poco illuminato, rendendo l’atmosfera ancora più misteriosa. Ci sono bulloni, chiodi, gigantesche travi di abete e quercia, giunti, passerelle e odore di legno. Quest’area, situata tra il tetto di Palazzo Vecchio e il soffitto della Sala dei Cinquecento, è comunemente indicata come la soffitta. La soffitta della Sala dei Cinquecento è davvero suggestiva, si può assaporare l’odore del legno vecchio e si ha l’impressione di trovarsi in una foresta artificiale di alberi giganti, pur trovandosi sopra una delle più belle sale del mondo. Nel sottotetto sono presenti due tipi di travi di copertura: grandi capriate di tipo tradizionale, chiaramente deputate a sostenere il tetto, e quelle di disegno insolito, poste ad un livello inferiore rispetto alla prima tipologia, a sostegno evidente del soffitto che reggono. Giorgio Vasari fu certamente l’artefice (con documentati consigli di Michelangelo) dell’allestimento generale della mostra, coprendo grandi capriate di tipo tradizionale, in particolare il soffitto a cassettoni, che egli stesso dipinse durante la sua costruzione a partire dal 1563. La costruzione di una grande sala, voluta dal domenicano fra Girolamo Savonarola, che doveva ospitare le riunioni del Maggior Consiglio (organo supremo della città), iniziò nel 1495, con atto del 15 luglio. La paternità del primo progetto di il sottotetto della sala è attribuito dal Vasari a Simone del Pollaiolo detto il Cronaca nelle sue Vite. Circa settant’anni dopo, sotto la direzione del Vasari, nell’ambito del più vasto programma di ristrutturazione di Palazzo Vecchio avviato dal Granduca Cosimo I de’ Medici, si ebbe lo smantellamento della copertura da parte del Cronaca, l’innalzamento delle mura della grande androne e il rifacimento più in alto della copertura e del soffitto a cassettoni. I lavori condotti da Vasari si estendono sia agli aspetti strutturali che decorativi. Conosciamo i dettagli di queste opere grazie ad antichi documenti: Bernardo, nato da Antonio e Mona Mattea, muratore, e Baptista Botticelli, falegname, furono incaricati di alzare le pareti della sala, sollevare le capriate, murarle, ferrarle, armateli e saliteci sopra il tetto. Hanno anche accuratamente smontato il palco esistente per poter recuperare il legname, chiodi e altra ferramenta, e realizzare il palco con legno secco e stagionato, a seconda del modello e del disegno realizzato da Giorgio Vasari. I lavori sono stati eseguiti in meno di tre anni. Ritratto di Giorgio Vasari Le strutture sono oggi visibili sopra la Sala dei Cinquecento; non sono però tutte del Vasari: importanti lavori di manutenzione a sostegno del sottotetto furono intrapresi nel 1853. I fiorentini credono che nella soffitta si aggiri un fantasma: quello di Baldaccio d’Anghiari. Fu prima al servizio di Firenze, poi tentò di conquistare Piombino per creare uno stato indipendente. Temendo la sua ascesa, Cosimo I de’ Medici ordinò che il suo omicidio fosse eseguito in Palazzo Vecchio, poi ne fece gettare il corpo in Piazza della Signoria (1441).

Mystery of Anghiari Battle by Leonardo da Vinci “Cerca Trova-Who Seeks Find” War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of the Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Fresco – Water Pigments (7.60 x 13 metres) 1568-1571 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
On the eastern wall of the Hall of the Five Cents, the third fresco of the Siena War depicts the decisive battle of Marciano, also known as the Battle of Scannagallo in Val di Chiana. 

This battle saw the scathing defeat of the Sienese commanded by a rebel Florentine nobleman, Piero Strozzi, on August 2, 1554. 

Strozzi was the head of an army composed of French, Grisons and Florentine political refugees. 

Shortly before noon, the Imperial Florentine cavalry attacked the French cavalry, whose rout can be seen in the left part of the fresco. 

The French infantry then attempted a counter-attack which was valiantly repelled by that of the Florentines who crushed the French and Grisons, as seen in the ballet of flags at the top of the painting. 

The Sienese casualties were terrible for the French and Grisons: 4,000 dead and as many injured. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”

Of the 130 enemy banners, the troops of Duke Cosimo I of Medici took over 103 of them, who were then exposed for several days in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
The fresco of this battle of Marciano also became famous because of the inscription that can be seen on one of the enemy banners, “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”. 

Many saw a hidden message from Giorgio Vasari indicating that behind the wall of his fresco was a second wall with the famous Battle of Anghiari painted by Leonardo da Vinci. 

A hypothesis that acquired great fame because of the author Dan Brown and his book “Inferno”. 

Dan Brown staged his hero Robert Langdon in the Hall of the Five Hundred of Palazzo Vecchio to decode Vasari’s secret message. 

In 2012, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, even allowed a team of researchers to drill small holes through Vasari’s fresco in an attempt to find behind it the remains of Leonardo da Vinci’s. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
But the endoscopic micro-cameras used found nothing to confirm the presence of this work by Leonardo da Vinci. 

In October 2020, the hypothesis of a battle of Anghiari hidden under the fresco of Vasari was definitely ruled out by expert Cecilia Frosinini, director of the Painting Restoration Department of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. 

After years of studies and research carried out collectively with experts and academics, she published a book that definitively concludes the debate: “The Great Hall of Palazzo Vecchio and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci. From architectural configuration to decorative device” Olschki editions, 2019 — 596 pages. 

The conclusion of Cecilia Frosinini and the group of experts with whom she collaborated is that Leonardo da Vinci never painted, even partially, the Battle of Anghiari on the wall of the Hall of the Five Hundred. 

Only preparatory sketches, cartons, would have been made by de Vinci. 

How to explain the presence of this “Cerca Trova” “Who Seeks Find” on the flag of the Florentine exiles?

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
For this, we must recall the verses of one of Florence’s most famous exiles, Dante Alighieri, who wrote in the “Purgatory” of the Divine Comedy (I 70-72): 

“Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta”

“He seeks the freedom that is so dear, as knows who, for her, refused life.” 

The refusal of life is an allusion by Dante to the suicide of Caton, who preferred the immortality of a free soul. For Dante, political freedom is spiritual and ethical freedom. 

If tyranny deprives us of the exercise of free will, of our soul, death must be preferred to a sworn existence. 

Thus, the warrior who lets himself be killed in a crowd of enemies rather than surrender to mercy is violence suffered by the righteous and wise man. 

It is for this reason that the king of France who supported the Florentine rebels had offered them about twenty green banners carrying this verse of Dante: “Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara”. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
The “Cerca trova” seen on the green banner of the Florentine rebels in Vasari’s fresco therefore corresponds well to Dante’s verses. 

On the other hand, Vasari diverted its meaning sarcastically to the benefit of the glory of Duke Cosimo I of Medici. 

The word freedom no longer appears, and for a good reason, since for Vasari it can only be on the side of Florence and in fact his “Cerca trova” can be summed up to “who seeks me finds me! or developed to “Who seeks false freedom while fighting Florence finds punishment!” 

Vasari’s frescoes in the Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio had no other purpose but to affirm the greatness of Duke Cosimo I, and for this reason, the inscription “Cerca Trova” can only be seen in this context as an element of political propaganda, without hidden mystery. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Promenade en Gondole