Some artists are irremediably linked to a painting, maybe two, and sometimes even three. They are communicating vessels, a flash in mind in the form of an image evoked every time we hear their names.
It happens to El Bosco and his The Garden of Earthly Delights. Something similar happens with Girl with a Pearl Earring and its author, Johannes Vermeer. These two cases illustrate how intimately linked author and work are in the collective imagination, that popular wisdom that makes us know a little of everything and that, when it comes to painting, creates these particular associations.
It also happens to Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon we are talking about. Two works come to mind when someone hears his name: La Giocondaand The Last Supper. They are two paintings that the entertainment world has used for countless products (from movies to novels of all kinds), increasing the preponderance of these two works when relating them to their artist even more.
However, Da Vinci is more than those two paintings. For example, the one we have below, known as Le Belle Ferronière, undoubtedly passes as one of his best works despite not enjoying the same fame as the other two.
In this portrait, we can observe a woman placed in a three-quarter position whose face is frontal and establishes eye contact with the artist and, therefore, with the viewer who watches the painting. It can be guessed that she has her hands folded, a classic pose in this type of Renaissance portrait. In addition, in his gesture, we can see a certain innocence but also attention to the person he is observing.
We can see that on her forehead, she wears a small jewel, like a necklace, around her head, which gives personality to the young woman. She undoubtedly belongs to the wealthy class of Milanese society (the picture was painted during Da Vinci’s stay in the Italian city of Milan).
There are small details that explain what was going through Da Vinci’s mind at that time. For example, his interest in optics and in how light worked on objects. If we look at the model’s left cheek, which is the exposed one, we can see slight echoes of red in the curve of the jaw.
It is a reflection of the dress of the same color, an effect that occurs when an intense light falls directly on a colored surface, creating reflections that can permeate nearby objects or, in this case, the face of the young woman.
That dress is another crucial point of the painting. We can observe some bows and gray strips of a vaporous texture. Although it does not reach the virtuosity that Flemish artists would display, Da Vinci’s work with the red cloth is more than remarkable, and its richness in craft is a clear indication of the high social status of the person being portrayed. Also, the necklace, a tailored ribbon, is another added value that reflects his place in the social hierarchy.
Da Vinci’s mastery of using shadows allows La Belle Ferronière to show much more pronounced modeling, thanks to the contrast of the luminous face with a dark background in which nothing is visible. The absence of a landscape or anything behind the model places one hundred percent of the viewer’s attention on the young woman portrayed.
There is an obvious parallel, or echo, between La Gioconda and Lady with an Ermine. However, in the case of this painting, the absence of the technique of sfumato (something that Da Vinci had not begun to explore, or at least to capture in his works) has caused that today the portrait is below in terms of popularity.
The unexpected discovery of one of the most famous statues in history
The Venus de Milo has the incongruous distinction of being one of the most well-known objects in art and yet it remains an enigma.
The story of the statue’s discovery is shrouded in romantic mystique, and historians can only speculate on how she might have looked in her original form.
And yet the Venus de Milo continues to engross those who spend time looking at her. Carved in marble, partially nude, and wearing an inscrutable expression on her face — perhaps one of confidence — her story is a remarkable one.
An unexpected discovery
Sometimes known also as Aphrodite of Milos, the Venus de Milo was carved in marble sometime between 150 and 125 BC. The circumstance of the sculpture’s original creation is a mystery, but it is known that at some point it found itself interred in a small cavern or niche on the Greek island of Milos and left for hundreds of years.
Then, in the spring of 1820, a farmer by the name of Yorgos Kentrotas was roaming the rugged countryside in search of stones to use as building materials, when he stumbled upon a sealed chamber in a wall. Removing some of the stones, he found this antique treasure within its depths.
The statue was considerably damaged: split into several parts with its arms missing and a fractured plinth. Moreover, unbeknownst to those who first saw her, she had lost her original decorative colouration — since the sculpture was probably painted in vivid colours and adorned with jewellery as was the custom at the time.
For many years, it was believed to have been created by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. But as the years passed, more evidence was uncovered, namely an inscription found on a fragment of the plinth giving the name of Alexandros of Antioch — which was lost shortly after its arrival at the Louvre in 1821.
Its journey to the museum in Paris began when a French naval officer named Olivier Voutier anchored his ship in the harbour at Milos. Going ashore to hunt for antiquities near an old theatre, he noticed the local farmer Kentrotas had found something interesting.
The Frenchman felt certain that the sculpture was important and convinced his local vice-consul to buy it. They paid a good price for it. The statue came to France in 1821 and was given to King Louis XVIII, who gave it to the Louvre Museum, and there it remains today.
An extreme posture
Two distinct features of the Venus de Milo give the sculpture its memorable and inimitable charge.
The first is the extreme contrapposto posture, which describes the way the figure’s weight is shifted onto one standing leg. This is what gives the whole statue its natural “S-curve”.
In the case of the Venus de Milo, the twist of the hips and the kink in the left leg are unusually pronounced. Look again at the statue and let your eyes explore the shape of the form suggested by the beautifully modelled drapery of her robe.
The second aspect is the low waistline of the robe, which appears to be almost slipping off her hips, giving the sculpture more than a hint of eroticism.
It is this eroticism that provides the basis for the most likely identification of the statue as Venus, the goddess of Love — the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite.
How she might have looked
The Venus de Milo was originally found in several pieces, making her exact original form a matter of conjecture. The three main pieces that were recovered from Milos — the nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and a section of the right hip — seemed to fit together without controversy.
The fact of her missing arms prompted the local Milos farmer to continue to dig. He later found a hand holding an apple, two herms — square stone pillars with a carved head on top — and a further fragment of an upper arm.
Various artists and historians proposed how these parts might be assembled to form the complete statue, with some debate as to whether the stone pillars with heads on top were connected with the Venus statue.
In the latter years of the 19th century, the German archaeologist and art historian Adolf Furtwängler sketched out what might be the most convincing configuration, in which the figure’s left arm is resting on an unadorned pillar, with her hand resting on the pillar holding an apple.
The hand holding the apple, carved from the same Parian marble as the figure, seemed to confirm the identity of Aphrodite or Venus. In the Classical beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris, Paris gave the prize of the golden apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, who in return promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby triggering the Trojan War.
Furtwängler rejected the idea that the herms were part of the original form, arguing that the aesthetic effect of such an arrangement would be “distinctly unpleasing”.
Given the inability of historians to agree upon the sculpture’s original form, the Louvre made the decision to show the Venus de Milo without its arms or an adjacent pillar. Two centuries later, standing alone yet somehow indomitable, the sculpture continues to be an all-important part of the museum’s collection.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
The most famous statue in the world still has the power to inspire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.