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This Mythical Painting Still Puzzles Art Historians

Dare you enter this enigmatic scene?

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London,

A painting like this deserves to be looked at for more than just a few moments. It is at once a puzzle, a warning and work of eroticism.

At the centre of the image, a boyish youth clasps a woman’s breast whilst leaning forward to kiss her. They are, in fact, mother and son.

Several features about this painting are immediately striking. The way the boy — Cupid — sticks out his buttocks provocatively; the unadulterated smile on the lips of the woman; or what about the young girl in green behind, under whose dress it’s possible to see the scaly body of a lizard?

As for what the painting is trying to say, historians have long debated the exact meaning — and the conclusions are striking.

Mother and son kiss

The two central figures are both naked. They are supposed to be Venus and her son Cupid.

The two figures are locked in an embrace, with Venus coyly stealing one of Cupid’s arrows. Their kiss is pleasurable, their desire unrestrained.

It’s possible to recognise Venus, goddess of love and beauty, by the golden apple she is holding in her left hand, given to her by Paris when he judged her to be the most beautiful of all goddesses in a contest. A pair of doves — her traditional attribute — sit at the corner of the painting.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

Her son Cupid is shown as a winged child. His attributes are a bow, arrow and quiver. When Cupid fires his arrows, those who are hit become lovers — or occasionally, as romance can sometimes go, sworn enemies.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

This strange image is made even more curious by way that the two figures are posed, with each adopting a twisted, winding posture. It is most likely an influence of the Mannerist ideal of figura serpentinata, an idealised style of depicting figures that came into fashion in the late stages of the Renaissance. Originally formulated by the 16th century art theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, who compared the figura serpentinata to a burning flame, the serpentine shape was designed to emphasise bodily movement and potency.

One further detail in the foreground that catches our eye is a laughing child who is about to throw a bunch of rose petals over them — in celebration of their liaison.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London, UK

But look very closely and you’ll notice the laughing child is actually stepping on a twig of thorns and has pierced his foot. It is thought the child symbolises Foolish Pleasure or Folly — representing the lack of wisdom in the central characters.

And so, the meaning of this complex painting starts to become clear…

Love with a sting in the tail

It’s hard to look past the overt eroticism of this painting, most especially in the way Cupid grasps Venus’ breast and nipple. The painting was probably made at the request of the Florentine ruler Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. It is thought that he commissioned the artist, Bronzino, and had the painting sent on to King Francis I of France as a gift.

Notoriously lecherous in his appetites, the King of France would have taken pleasure in the conspicuous eroticism of the work, as well as the erudite puzzle it presented.

So, what is the deeper meaning?

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

It is thought that the whole painting is an allegory on the dangers of unbridled desire.

Take the girl in green with the scaly body hidden beneath her dress, for instance. She leans forward, proffering a sweet honeycomb in her right hand — whilst behind her back a long winding tail has a scorpion’s barb at its end. This dual-nature represents Deceit, or else the double-edged nature of love: pleasure and pain.

The other figures in the painting similarly emphasise the conflicts that might accompany unchaste romance.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

In the upper section, an old man who represents Father Time (notice the hourglass on his shoulder) sweeps a rich undulating blue fabric across the scene. It is thought that the gesture implies the fleeting nature of time and how things may come to an end at any moment.

This interpretation is given added meaning by the figure shown opposite Time, who has eyeless sockets and a mask-like face, who is thought to signify Oblivion — the eternal nothingness that may face us after death.

The subject of death seems even more present when we turn our attention to the figure below on the left side of the painting. This hell-raised woman has been painted with extraordinary vigour.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

It is believed she is a representation of Jealousy, or possibly Suffering with her expression of anguish. Alternatively, this tormented figure might represent the ravaging and sometimes deadly effects of syphilis — a disease that had reached epidemic levels during the 1500s, especially in France.

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

And so, when seen altogether, this claustrophobic painting begins to lose some of its salaciousness and take on a somewhat darker, chilling tone.

The unpleasant consequences of illicit or wanton lust are revealed like a riddle solved, encouraged by Folly and aided by Deceit.

Dare you enter this pleasure palace?

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Michelangelo’s David-Looking for the Sublime

The most famous statue in the world still has the power to inspire

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Marble. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

What tends to strike viewers when they first see Michelangelo’s David is its size: it stands at over 5 metres from top to bottom, so that when you’re standing beneath it, your only choice is to look upwards.

In this way, the statue looms. It rises like a column, dominating the environment of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence where it is currently housed.

Then, after a few more moments of looking, some people begin to sense that David’s proportions are a little off-kilter. For a heroic statue, his hips and legs are curiously narrow, whilst his neck and head are weighty and substantial.

The meddling of proportions was intentional. Michelangelo carved the statue to meet its original commission, to stand along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral alongside a series of other prophets. As such, the statue would have been seen from street level; Michelangelo’s solution was to follow classical methods by enlarging the proportions upwards so that from below everything would look correct.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that this is a sublime work from the hands of an exceptional artist. And it isn’t only art history that confers greatness on this marble sculpture: Michelangelo’s contemporaries thought it was far too good to place high on the roof of the cathedral and instead placed it in the busiest square of the city. In the Piazza della Signoria, where a copy still stands, it could hardly have been more prominent.

And then there is Giorgio Vasari’s famously gushing judgement: “Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead.” Praise indeed from the first historian of art…

The young hero

The statue depicts the youthful David, the future king of Israel. Over his left shoulder he holds a slingshot with which he has (or is about to) fling a rock at Goliath, the Philistine giant. The rock will hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead and Goliath will fall to the ground, whereupon David will cut off his head to finish the fight.

Despite the valiant narrative, Michelangelo has given David a decidedly brooding posture. His distant gaze, and the way his arm hangs impassively at his side, seem to tip the scales away from heroic vigour towards a more introspective poise.

What we are looking at, then, is David in a moment of contemplation. Most interpretations conclude that the sculpture shows David before his battle with Goliath, sizing up his opponent. The furrowed brow, the thick stare, and the veins bulging from his lowered right hand, make the case for a man calmly sizing up his enemy.

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Marble. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Yet I always found David to be a lonely figure. He appears somewhat companionless, an outsider even. I take this ambiguity as part of the statue’s meaning. For this is really a portrait of a noble figure, intended to represent the psychological balance of the whole man rather than a moment in a narrative drama. David the warrior is easy to glorify, but David the honourable, worthy, distinguished yet also real, vulnerable, contemplative, is a much more complex prospect. And works of art that aim at such complexity tend to last the test of time.

The hardest block of marble

The statue of David was also an opportunity for the young Michelangelo to display his unprecedented skills as a sculptor. He was 26 at the time of the work’s commission, having just returned to Florence in 1501 after a period working in Rome. Famously, the statue was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, a huge block of stone that had been rejected or abandoned by at least two other artists prior to Michelangelo’s undertaking.

The marble block had languished untouched for over a quarter of a century. Another Florentine sculptor by the name of Agostino di Duccio had been assigned the task originally. Beginning in 1464, Duccio wrestled with the massive piece of stone, getting as far as marking out the legs, feet and torso, perhaps even chiselling a hole between the legs. Ten years later another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was commissioned to take over from Agostino, who seems to have left the project midway. Rossellino didn’t last long either, and the unfinished sculpture remained untouched for the next 26 years.

The block that Michelangelo inherited was in rough condition. In September 1501, the church authorities settled on the 26-year-old as the next to try his hand at the imposing mass of marble. Michelangelo had recently proved his worth by carving the emotionally powerful Pietà, showing the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. By April 1504, the statue of David was complete.

Detail of ‘David’ (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

David’s languid pose

How does a person look when they are standing upright? In Egyptian sculpture, the answer to this question emphasised the natural symmetry of the human body. Egyptian sculpture was front-on, with level shoulders, symmetrical arms and hips.

These traits passed onto early Greek sculpture. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the development of sculpture in Greece was the inception of a new type of posture. Known since the Renaissance as contrapposto, this nuanced but fundamental invention offered a turning point in the course of naturalistic representation.

The contrapposto technique can be readily seen in this sculpture, the so-called “Spear Carrier” attributed to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos. The image shown below is a marble Roman copy made after the bronze original, which has been subsequently lost.

Doryphoros by Polykleitos (Spear Carrier), Roman copy after bronze original of c. 450 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Notice the distribution of weight, being borne on one leg whilst the other is relaxed. The deliberate asymmetry of the legs instigates movement throughout the rest of the body. The hips tilt, thereby causing the torso to squeeze on one side and open on the other. In this way, broader symmetry gives way to a more flexible pose overall; one arm is raised (holding the missing spear) whilst the other hangs down to one side. The head is turned as if gazing into the distance. The sculpture can be viewed from many angles — seen “in the round” — and still deliver its full impact.

During the Italian Renaissance, this classical pose was explicitly revived. Taking inspiration from Roman sculptures that were being unearthed across Italy at the time, Italian sculptors reawakened and expanded the method. Indeed, contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “counterpoise” and was coined in the time of the Renaissance.

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is probably the most famous statue that makes use of contrapposto. David’s left leg is emphatically relaxed, adding further weight onto the right leg. The important tilt of the hips is there; along with it the right arm hangs long, almost heavily, so that the entire torso and shoulders lean to one side. In all, the arrangement is asymmetrical yet harmonised, yielding a gentle S-shape in the body to give a sense of serene contemplation predicated on muscular strength.

A Florentine emblem

With its imposing naturalism and understated sense of self-confidence, the figure of David soon began to attract attention. A 30-strong committee gathered to reconsider its purpose — including venerable artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo. Given that the six-tonne statue was probably too heavy to lift to the roof of the cathedral, the committee considered several alternative locations, with the Piazza della Signoria — the political heart of Florence — eventually selected.

David in the Piazza della Signoria, with the leaf loin covering added by 16th-century city officials. Photo taken between 1860–1870 by John Brampton Philpot

First, the great statue had to be moved the half-mile from Michelangelo’s workshop behind Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral to the piazza. The event was captured in a diary entry from a local herbalist Luca Landucci:

“It was midnight, May 14th, and the Giant was taken out of the workshop. They even had to tear down the archway, so huge he was. Forty men were pushing the large wooden cart where David stood protected by ropes, sliding it through town on trunks. The Giant eventually got to Signoria Square on June 8th 1504, where it was installed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, replacing Donatello’s bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes”.

The statue soon became a symbol of the Republican ideals of Florence. Fearless, sovereign and self-sufficient, it seemed to say so much about the independent spirit of the city.

It remained in the Piazza della Signoria until 1873, when it was moved into the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect it from weathering. A replica was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1910.

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Repoussoir-To Push Back

Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?

A powerful trick that so many paintings employ

Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, United States.

It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.

On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.

The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?

Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna (c.1639) by Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.

Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…

Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.

The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.

So what’s happening in all of these paintings?

Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.

The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)

In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.

Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. Kunst Museum Winterthur.

Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.

The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.

(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.

Detail of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.

Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.

The Art of Painting (1666–1668) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.

In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.

Fundamentals of Fresco Painting

A difficult technique with unique artistic results

Detail from ‘Creation of Adam’ (c.1512) by Michelangelo. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he not only had to stand with his head craned backwards and his arm raised for hours at a time, but he also had to work in the technically challenging medium of fresco.

Fresco painting has two supreme qualities: the first is that it involves applying paint onto freshly laid plaster, meaning it is apt for large murals that cover entire walls — or in the case of the Sistine Chapel, an entire ceiling too.

Annunciation (1440–42) by Fra Angelico. Fresco. Museum of San Marco, Florence.

The second quality of fresco is that it must be made 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-sighted designs.

One of my personal favourite series of fresco paintings is at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where the artist Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s living quarters with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These paintings are fine examples of the power of fresco: uncluttered, compelling and immediate.

The reason for speed is because with fresco painting the pigment is applied to fresh plaster whilst it is still damp. The word fresco is Italian for “fresh”. The artist must therefore work quickly to complete the apportioned section of plaster before it dries. The pigments, which are made by grinding dry-powder colour in pure water, are painted whilst the plaster dries to become a permanent part of the wall.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424) by Masaccio. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

In order to achieve this, the artist must plan out the stages of the painting carefully, dividing the image into appropriate sections.

If you look at the image shown here, of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, you can see how the wider work would have been split into days.

With each day, a thin layer of wet plaster called the intonaco (Italian for “plaster”) is applied to the area to be painted. The artist must work within the plaster’s curing time — a day’s work, or a giornata in Italian.

If you look closely, you can see the dividing lines between each section of giornata. A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours, perhaps as much as nine or ten, giving the artist time to complete a single section in a day.

The fresco mural technique has its origins in antiquity, going back at least as far as the Minoan civilization, as seen at Knossos on Crete. It was also widely used by the ancient Romans as decoration for important rooms.

Over time, two alternative fresco techniques emerged. Up until the age of the Renaissance, the secco method tended to be more prominent. In this method, the paint is applied onto plaster that is already dry. Essentially, this is painting directly onto wall. Usually the pigment is mixed with a binding medium — either egg white or lime —to act as the glue. It is an easier method but has the drawback that the pigments are not completely absorbed by the plaster and may flake in time.

Cross-section of late-medieval fresco painting.

The second method is known in Italian as buon fresco or “true fresco” and results in a more durable finish. Many of the outstanding fresco works of the Renaissance were made using this technique.

In this method, a coat of rough plaster (arriccio) is applied to a stone or brick wall. Once dried, the artist makes a preliminary drawing onto the wall. This initial drawing is reinforced with red paint (sinopia) to give a more finished quality to the sketch.

The purpose of the sinopia underpainting is to flesh out the planned image before the final coat of plaster is applied. It makes it easier to plan for the various days to come, and also allows the commissioning patron a chance to see the work and give their approval.

A ‘sinopie’ for a fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco (1290–1341). Museum of Sinopie, Pisa.

Finally, a smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is applied to as much of the wall as will be painted in that session — at which point the artist gets to work.

Since the wetness of the plaster naturally changes over the course of the day, the artist must dilute their paint with water to keep the same tone across the giornata. Once dried, no more buon fresco can be painted on that area. If mistakes have been made, it is not unusual for the whole section of plaster to be removed and then repainted the following day. The alternative is to add finer details using the seccomethod.

Fresco paintings have a particular look and feel. As the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented with the plaster. The surface texture is dry and opaque, giving rise to an appealing chalky feel, since the paint is an integral part of the wall surface.

When put to best use, the fresco effect can be lively and expressive, with bold designs and well-defined figures. When a fresco occupies an entire wall space or sometimes the whole interior of a building — as in the decorations for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua by Giotto — then the results can be spectacular.

Scrovegni Chapel (1304–06) by Giotto. Fresco. Padua, Italy.

The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.

DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

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.

The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593, Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594. Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute, and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6, Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602, and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.

DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

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.

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.

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.

How Fresco Painting Works: Art Fundamentals

A difficult technique with unique artistic results

Detail from ‘Creation of Adam’ (c.1512) by Michelangelo. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he not only held his posture of standing with his head craned backwards, with his arm raised for hours at a time, but he also had to work in the technically challenging medium of fresco.

Fresco painting has two supreme qualities: the first is that it involves applying paint onto freshly laid plaster, meaning it is apt for large murals that cover entire walls — or in the case of The Sistine Chapel, an entire ceiling too.

Annunciation (1440–42) by Fra Angelico. Fresco. Museum of San Marco, Florence.

The second quality of fresco is that it must be made 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-sighted designs.

One of my personal favourite series of fresco paintings is at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where the artist Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s living quarters with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These paintings are fine examples of the power of fresco: uncluttered, compelling and immediate.

The reason for speed is because with fresco painting the pigment is applied to fresh plaster whilst it is still damp. The word fresco is Italian for “fresh”. The artist must therefore work quickly to complete the apportioned section of plaster before it dries. The pigments, which are made by grinding dry-powder colour in pure water, are painted whilst the plaster dries to become a permanent part of the wall.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424) by Masaccio. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

In order to achieve this, the artist must plan out the stages of the painting carefully, dividing the image into appropriate sections.

If you look at the image shown here, of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, you can see how the wider work would have been split into days.

With each day, a thin layer of wet plaster called the intonaco (Italian for ‘plaster’) is applied to the area to be painted. The artist must work within the plaster’s curing time — a day’s work, or a giornata in Italian.

If you look closely, you can see the dividing lines between each section of giornata. A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours, perhaps as much as nine or ten, giving the artist time to complete a single section in a day.

The fresco mural technique has its origins in antiquity, going back at least as far as the Minoan civilization, as seen at Knossos on Crete. It was also widely used by the ancient Romans as decoration for important rooms.

Over time, two alternative fresco techniques emerged. Up until the age of the Renaissance, the secco method tended to be more prominent. In this method, the paint is applied onto plaster that is already dry. Essentially, this is painting directly onto wall. Usually the pigment is mixed with a binding medium — either egg white or lime —to act as the glue. It is an easier method but has the drawback that the pigments are not completely absorbed by the plaster and may flake in time.

Cross-section of late-medieval fresco painting. Image by author.

The second method is known in Italian as buon fresco or “true fresco” and results in a more durable finish. Many of the outstanding fresco works of the Renaissance were made using this technique.

In this method, a coat of rough plaster (arriccio) is applied to a stone or brick wall. Once dried, the artist makes a preliminary drawing onto the wall. This initial drawing is reinforced with red paint (sinopia) to give a more finished quality to the sketch.

The purpose of the sinopia underpainting is to flesh out the planned image before the final coat of plaster is applied. It makes it easier to plan for the various days to come, and also allows the commissioning patron a chance to see the work and give their approval.

A ‘sinopie’ for a fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco (1290–1341). Museum of Sinopie, Pisa.

Finally, a smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is applied to as much of the wall as will be painted in that session — at which point the artist gets to work.

Since the wetness of the plaster naturally changes over the course of the day, the artist must dilute their paint with water to keep the same tone across the giornata. Once dried, no more buon fresco can be painted on that area. If mistakes have been made, it is not unusual for the whole section of plaster to be removed and then repainted the following day. The alternative is to add finer details using the secco method.

Fresco paintings have a particular look and feel. As the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented with the plaster. The surface texture is dry and opaque, giving rise to an appealing chalky feel, since the paint is an integral part of the wall surface.

When put to best use, the fresco effect can be lively and expressive, with bold designs and well-defined figures. When a fresco occupies an entire wall space or sometimes the whole interior of a building — as in the decorations for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua by Giotto — then the results can be spectacular.

Scrovegni Chapel (1304–06) by Giotto. Fresco. Padua, Italy.

Ann Treboux