Art is a subjective medium. You might like an artwork because it connects with you visually. Or perhaps you engage at a deeper level; arousing an ocean of emotions. I humbly place myself in the latter category.
Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist at Carleton University, studied what makes art more appealing to individuals. He looked at why some art is easy to understand while others are more esoteric.
Davies explains: “We don’t like our art too simple. We like some kind of incongruity that activates a different part of our brain that drives curiosity. It’s not necessarily pleasurable, but it makes us compelled to learn more and want to see more.”
Before I started reading paintings, beauty and aesthetics were my only criteria to checkmark an art piece. But as I’m progressing towards learning more about art history, I love to decipher the creative process behind an artwork.
In this article, I’d list 4 artworks that speak to me, creating an array of emotions — happiness, sadness, giving me goosebumps, or might alter my state of mind. You know what they say — “a picture is a poem without words.”
1. Portrait of the Girl by Konstantin Makovsky
Can you take a quiet moment to appreciate the magical gaze reflected through this artwork? Or is it just me who feels that way?
The first time I saw this painting on Twitter, it caught my attention for a while. For me, this painting strikes a perfect balance of beauty and innocence. It strikes me in a gentle manner and melts my heart right away.
Konstantin Makovsky, an influential Russian painter of the 20th century has drawn many mesmerizing portraits but this painting stood out for me. If I’ll curate my dream wall in my home, which certainly I’d, this painting would be right there.
While I’d not jump into the war politics or advocate the right and wrong but the complex narrative raised a single question — what was the crime of the innocent civilians who died or had to forcefully displace from their own country and become refugees in other countries?
Dorman said that we see so much war in the media, and it’s very easy to become somewhat emotionally inured to it. We slightly blunted because of the familiarity.
We should never take our democracy for granted.
4. Sheela Na Gig
These stone carvings might be considered grotesque, frightful looking, and absurd but the truth is we have mostly read the distorted narrative. It’s time to change our perspective and rediscover the history behind these figurines.
Sheela Na Gigs were predominately found in the churches of Ireland. Baubo is an African Goddess and Lajja Gauri is a fertility Goddess in India.
Dr. Barbara Freitag, a former lecturer in intercultural studies at Dublin City University and author of the 2004 book Sheela Na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, was the first to place academic muscle behind the idea of the Sheela Na Gigs as a fertility goddess or talisman.
An Instagram page called Sheela Na Gig was started in Ireland that fights against misogyny and unabashedly promotes women’s reproductive freedom.
Susan Sontag has aptly summarized: Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty — as science is ‘about’ truth!
Don’t be disappointed. Don’t be tempted to stay hopeless.This time marks the end of the world we knew, but also the beginning of a new world full of opportunity.
The current health crisis has made clear how precarious our jobs can be, but most importantly how essential our vocation and our passion is to the world. Without art, no one can survive this lockdown; nor can any artist survive not being creative for such a long time.
As artists we live for the constant disruption and questioning of old ideas; we hold in our minds and bodies the privilege of Creation. That is our purpose: To Create. Even when we interpret, we create. These are perilous times but perhaps no more so than a blank page or a blank canvas. Artists don’t shy away from reinvention.
Through our bodies run the energy that transforms intellectual and emotional energy into being. We enable people to connect to that energy. We hold a mirror so they can confront themselves, reckoning with their own humanity and their place in the universe. We remind them that they’re alive and why life is worth living.
We embrace the power of imagination, bringing it forth; one step closer to existence through representation. We tell them stories that will happen in 20, 30, or hundreds of years. We do not just create an immediate reality, we also create the future and we give it meaning.
Throughout history, art has been used to create and heighten the true sense of spirituality, and give meaning to those experiences. How can we leverage that power to unveil the boundless connectivity between nature and ourselves, and also between each other?
Through art, we confront our harshest realities and push through with passionate resilience.
Art is a vehicle for empathy and for solace through the communion of our higher selves.
Empathy, kindness, and generosity are our biggest assets. These three reigning principles also constitute the solution to any problem. Any system, any technology, and any art that has not considered these principles is doomed to fail in its greater purpose: to acknowledge and protect the intrinsic value of everyone and everything that possesses even the most basic level of consciousness.
Empathy, kindness and generosity are not abstract concepts. They are human words, constituting natural and universal principles. Humanity has an outsized power to damage our planet but our potential to save it through cooperation and altruism is likewise unmatched by any other animal.
One could ask how applying these principles would change or mitigate the catastrophes we have lived through and created as humanity during our time on earth. Would have we become a force for social and ecological healing rather than a force for destruction and harm?
Catastrophes, natural or human-made, are events that fundamentally and traumatically change the way things are. This is why we must use this current crisis to create and implement frameworks that address the issues that got us here in the first place.
The French Revolution was entirely a human-caused catastrophe. It also was the catalyst that expanded human rights and liberty through the principles of Enlightenment. Hardly all-inclusive at the time, these principles of human dignity have grown around the world, but have not reached universal implementation.
That’s why we must resolve now that life will not continue to be business-as-usual. We have a choice during this time of transformation: take action in order to make the world we want to live in, or do nothing while others continue to act against our common interest.
The suffering we go through now might have been avoidable. I do not believe that every experience that we live through has meaning, but it is in our power to give it one. The writer Pico Iyer proclaims that “one of the graces of suffering is that it cuts through all ideologies”. It is a great equalizer and a great powerful trigger for cognitive and affective empathy. As an artist, I cannot think of a greater opportunity than to help people give meaning to a total collective experience.
We’ve been forced to pause, to appreciate the beauty of what the world would be if we could give her space to breathe. We’ve been forced to confront ourselves with the devastating sadness of the damage we’ve caused based on ideologies that benefit only the few.
Poverty, racism, gender inequality, and the destruction of our environments stem all from greed and ambition for power.We could solve all of these issues if we wanted to. To begin, we must create cultural shifts.
I see art as the creation of Culture with intent. It is in the change of the zeitgeist that as artists we can embrace the powerful tool of culture in order to bring the advent of those cultural shifts.
The worlds dreamed by Yuval Harari, Steven Pinker, Naomi Klein, Kate Raworth, Mathieu Riccard or Jane Goodall can come to pass if we as artists infiltrate society with representations of these realities. We must help people see that nurturing ecological and social environments is the right, kind, profitable, and revolutionary thing to do.
It is time to sharpen our gaze and our minds. It is the time to bring change to our consciousness, and for consciousness to change. We can focus on the problem by focusing on its solution. We can start by creating. We can also start by sitting in silence and taking it all in. Most of all, we can start by asking questions:
If our systems of production are not working how can we reinvent one that renders the old one obsolete? If we scale it down how can you implement sustainable processes in your practice?
Can we imagine a system that procures wellbeing rather than profit? Or, to start smaller: How can you procure the wellbeing of your colleagues and the people in your artistic community?
How can you foster compassion, empathy, and conflict resolution through your art, education, and processes of collaboration?
I propose we unite in creating positive narratives for the future that the world so direly needs: the beauty and the kindness that counter the suffering we are going through. Eventually a vaccine might solve our current health crisis. Active empathy — for one another and for the natural world — is the antidote for the crises to come.
Inaction is not an option. Empathic creation is our gift and our privilege
The invention of oil painting was an enormous turning point in the story of Western art. It enabled artists to represent the world around them with a level of detail never seen before. And because of the ability of oil paints to be layered in semi-transparent glazes, works of art became luminous in their depth and resonance of colour.
The important thing to remember about oil painting is that it really refers to the “medium” of the paint rather than to any special aspect of the pigments used to make the colours.
The “medium” is the liquid substance that holds the pigment and dilutes it. Before they are mixed with a medium, a paint pigment is usually in the form of a finely ground powder. Traditional sources of pigment were various: for instance, the colour known as ultramarine (a vivid blue) came from the ground-up rock lapis lazuli, whereas the colour vermilion (brilliant red) was originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.
More unusually, the colour Indian yellow was once produced by collecting the urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. In more recent times, natural pigments have given way to synthetically derived colours, but the principle remains the same.
From egg to oil as the carrier medium
Before the adoption of oil as the medium, artists used other liquids to play the role. Tempera was popular, where an emulsion of egg yolk and water was used to make the pigment usable as paint. Tempera was capable of producing very fine paintings, often onto wood, but had the drawback of drying quickly and with a matte, opaque finish.
When oil painting arrived, artists made immediate use of its slow drying nature, which meant they could work more patiently over the finer details of their work. They also utilised the fact that oil paint can be thinned and then applied in semi-transparent layers, otherwise known as “glazes”.
With glazes, paint can be built up with one colour overlaying another. When light penetrates the paint layers, it reflects back the full spectrum of layered paint, giving a more resonant and luminous feel.
For a long time, it was thought that oil painting was invented in Northern Europe in the 15th century, by the painter Jan van Eyck in particular. But in fact oil painting had been in use in Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan since at least 650AD, and in Europe since the Middle Ages.
Still, it was Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries from the Netherlands who, in the 1400s, took oil painting to new heights. Take a painting like Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus, painted in 1446. Christus was based in Bruges in present-day Belgium, and was active between 1444 and 1476 — the year he is thought to have died.
The extraordinary naturalistic detail of paintings like Portrait of a Carthusian was a profound innovation in European art.
To underline the realistic possibilities of his oil paints, Christus added a telling detail to his portrait. Look towards the bottom edge of the painting and notice a small fly perched on what appears to be the picture frame. This lower ledge, along with the inscription, is all painted invention.
From pigs’ bladders to tubes
Early artists mixed their own pigments with heat-bodied (gently-heated) linseed oil, derived from crushed flax seeds, sometimes adding beeswax to prevent the paint from darkening as it dried. They worked through a patient process of grinding the powdered pigments into the oil to achieve a smooth, honey-like consistency.
Up until the mid-1800s artists would typically transport their mixed paint in a pig’s bladder. Such was the case with the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who adopted an effective practice of travelling and painting outdoors during the summer months, making studies and sketches directly from nature.
Yet this was not an easy situation. Bladders didn’t travel well and frequently burst open. And to get at the paint, Corot would have to prick the bladder with a pin, after which the hole was difficult to completely plug.
In 1841, the portrait painter John Goffe Rand invented the metallic paint tube. Soon enough, manufacturers of oil paints began to offer paint in tubes with screw caps to preserve the paint.
This simple development allowed artists to more easily carry their paints with them, opening up the possibilities of painting on location for many more artists. The artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is quoted as saying: “Without paint in tubes there would have been… nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionists.”
Moreover, with paint in a more accessible form, artists began to enjoy a greater flexibility of brush marks, from thick impasto (thickly textured paint) to finer details. This dexterity of oil paint has left a permanent mark on the course of Western painting.
Artists as wide-ranging as Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning, utilising the versatility of modern tube-based paints, learned to use paint expressionistically. Their paintings forged an imprint of the very moment of creation, and with it, an indelible record of the artist’s response to the world.
Nothing is more unvaried than paintings without hidden meanings.
People are mostly drawn to paintings for two reasons. They are aesthetically pleasing, and it is hard to turn your eye away from these paintings without fully speculating and admiring them. Two, because of the meaning that they hold, the stories they tell, and the reasons behind why they were painted.
Although paintings are purely subjective and can be interpreted in several ways, here is a list of hidden meanings in 6 famous paintings that will definitely blow your mind.
1. The Old Fisherman by Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka — An Illusion Within The Painting
This painting, the Old Fisherman, was painted in 1902 by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka. At first glance, the painting seems like a pretty normal one. In fact, you’d even think that the painter was not good at drawing symmetrical figures because of how the old man’s face is shaped.
The right side of the painting is mirrored, you see an evil old man sitting in front of a very gloomy sky and a very stormy sea, adding a sinister touch. When the other side is mirrored, you see an old man clasping his hands as if he was praying, in front of a calm sea.
The artist purposely did this to portray how there are two sides to every person. He wanted to paint the bipolarity of human nature, how we all have both a good and a bad side to us. The right side of the painting portrays the good side and the left side portrays the left side.
2. Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait by Nelson Shanks — A Scandal Exposed Through Art
In 2001, American artist and painter, Nelson Shanks, was commissioned to paint the portrait of the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas).
The portrait features Bill Clinton leaning against a mantlepiece with a weird shadow visible nearby. The painting was proudly hung up in the National Portrait Gallery which led to many people asking what exactly was that shadow depicting. After a couple of years, Nelson Shanks revealed that the shadow depicted Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky was the president’s former mistress. It was Shank’s way of reminding people of Bill Clinton’s scandalous past.
Shanks said that it was hard for him to paint the president because he was a liar and a cheat. He wanted the portrait to depict that side of him.
3. Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Agnolo Bronzino — A Depiction of Chronic Bacterial Disease
Agnolo Bronzino painted the Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time in 1545. Many people believe that it is jealousy and lust that this painting depicts but taking a closer look at it says otherwise. The painting seems to be a warning about syphilis and sexually transmitted diseases.
Art theorists at the London National Gallery suggest that the rather ill-looking man at the bottom left side of the painting is not there to depict jealousy. Neither is he depicting the heartbreak and agony you feel after being deceived. In fact, he is suffering from a chronic bacterial disease. His fingers are clearly swollen and red. One of his fingernails is missing. His hair has clear signs of syphilitic alopecia. All of these symptoms hint towards syphilis. Also, his almost empty gums could be pointing towards mercury poisoning.
During the Renaissance period, the closest thing people had to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases was mercury. So, the missing teeth of the man could be because of the mercury treatment.
4. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger — An Eerie Skull Illusion
This particular painting was composed in 1533 by Hans Holbein The Younger. At first glance, the painting seems quite boring, just two very well-dressed gentlemen looking at you.
They’re wearing their dress attire and just standing there. However, if you look closely at the bottom middle of the painting, you can see a skull in anamorphic perspective. It seems odd when you look at it from the front. When you tilt the painting, the skull transforms its shape and looks like a proper skull.
It is said that The Ambassadors was hung up on a stairwell so that as people stepped up or down the stairs, they could see the skull. The skull serves as a reminder of mortality and portrays that death is looming over your head all the time, it is inevitable.
5. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti — Brain Anatomy Within Art
Michelangelo is perhaps one of the most well-known artists of the Renaissance period. A lot of his work is still applauded to this day! He is known as a brilliant artist but what a lot of people don’t know is that Michelangelo had a curious mind and was very much into human anatomy.
At the age of 17, he started dissecting corpses that he got from a church graveyard. He did this because he wanted to draw anatomical sketches. So, he was aware of human anatomy.
In 2010, two American neuroscientists found an image of the brain cleverly disguised in Michelangelo’s workThe Creation of Adam. It is not only the outer structure but the inner as well that is cleverly disguised in the representation of God’s neck and chin. Many art theorists believe that Michelangelo incorporated anatomical sketches in his paintings in an effort to attack the church’s contempt for science.
6. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck — The Painter Himself Hidden In The Art
The following portrait was composed by the artist Jan Van Eyck in 1434. It is believed to depict the Italian merchant, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini, and his wife in their home in Bruges.
Now, you might be wondering what is so unusual about this specific oil painting. If you were to take a closer look between the couple and pay attention to the mirror placed on the wall, you’d notice that there is something written above it.
The Latin inscription reads “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.” Also, in the mirror, you can notice two figures who seem to be spectators of this scene. One of the figures is Jon Van Eyck himself, waving his arm. Many believe that is why the merchant has his hand raised.
The painter wanted to show that he was being greeted by his subject, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini. Jon Van Eyck was known for entering secret and witty messages into his paintings and compositions.
How many of these hidden meanings were you able to spot when you first looked at these paintings?
I spy van Gogh’s depression, Bronzino’s syphilis, and way too many goiters
Medicine is an art. It’s why I have always believed the most talented physicians are also the keenest artists. And while diseases may cause death, the soul of art lives on. Or, as the father of medicine, Hippocrates, said, “Life is short, the art long.”
The following portraits have endured through the ages. Let’s play history detective and understand the people behind the disease.
Dr. Gachet’s mellow yellow
After van Gogh left the asylum at St-Rémy, he painted three paintings of his friend and physician, Dr. Gachet. Between Dr. Gachet’s dejected eyes, cadaverous skin, and the wilted plant in his hand, Dr. Gachet is clearly bummed out.
The plant in his hand is foxglove or digitalis. At the time, digitalis was used to treat psychiatric disorders, including delirium tremens, mania, and epilepsy. (Epilepsy was once believed to be a psychiatric problem.) Dr. Gachet suffered from depression (called melancholia) and treated van Gogh for the same condition.
Digitalis also had a rare but nasty side effect — a yellow discoloration of vision. Some medical researchers have hypothesized that van Gogh’s obsession with yellow in his paintings was due to taking digitalis, but there isn’t any proof he used the drug.
Venus and Cupid’s public service announcement
Poor Venus. She gets blamed for all the world’s sexual woes. There’s a reason why STDs are called “venereal diseases” and not marsereal diseases. The above painting may look innocent, but there is something more sinister going on between Venus and Cupid.
To start, the masks in the lower right-hand corner represent deception. The Cupid on the right holds flowers and wears bells around his leg to represent pleasure. Is Bronzino saying pleasure is deceptive? The scary, toothless screaming man may have the answer…
Most art historians believe this painting is not an allegory for desire but an allegory for disease. Or, more specifically, the sexually transmitted disease syphilis.
In Bronzino’s day, syphilis was far more agonizing than it is today. The last stage of syphilis — the tertiary phase — affects the heart, blood vessels, and nervous system. Symptoms include paralysis, blindness, seizures, headaches, and dementia. In this final stage, many would pull out their hair and pound at their head like the man above.
His other syphilitic symptoms include swelling on his fingers, patchy hair (alopecia), and toothless gums. (His bleeding gums may have also been caused by the mercury treatments used to treat syphilis.)
He is not the only one having a bad neurological day. The woman in the top left represents Oblivion, and she is missing half her brain — possibly a reference to how the disease ate away the brain.
The Cupid on the right is oblivious too. He is stepping on thorns with a beatific grin and no pain.
This is known as tabes dorsalis — an ongoing loss of pain sensation and paralysis in the tertiary phase of syphilis.
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is an erotic painting. Still, it comes with a warning often repeated amongst all the horny Renaissance kids —”A Night with Venus, a Lifetime with Mercury”…or a hell of a lot of screaming pain.
Angry man in a bridge pose
This man might look like he is contorting his body into a yoga pose, but he is in the throes of opisthotonus — spasms of the muscles that cause backward arching of the head, neck, and spine. Opisthotonus is often caused by severe tetanus. (This man most likely got tetanus after a bullet wound.)
Sir Charles Bell was both a doctor and an artist. Bell made careful recordings of many of his patients and is best remembered for the condition named after him — bells palsy. Bell’s palsy is unexplained facial paralysis due to damaged facial nerves.
Being both a doctor, artist, and teacher, Bell changed how art students portrayed facial expressions. Bell believed bodily gestures and facial expressions revealed the soul. And given that most communication is nonverbal, some physicians might want to heed his advice when speaking to patients.
Those guilt-ridden goiters
Artists of the past had a funny way of portraying humility. Penitence only came when you messed with your subject’s hormones. It’s why you will find a lot of crucifixion scenes showing whopping goiters.
A goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland due to iodine deficiency. In many parts of poorer communities in Europe, the condition was common where the soil and water lacked iodine.
Some of the goiters are pretty obvious, like the one found in this Caravaggio painting.
Others are more subtle.
You can also find a lot of Madonna and Child scenes with the bulge.
Unlike today, abject poverty was cool. For this reason, we do not know if artists were taking liberties with their subjects and adding goiters to show the subject’s impoverishment, or if the paintings were realistic and practically everyone had a thyroid problem. Either way, now you can play “spot the goiter” on your next museum visit.
The painting above depicts the moment Bacchus first lays eyes on Ariadne and falls helplessly in love. He is so smitten that his head is in the clouds. But while love can levitate you to the heavens, it also can cause your bowels to twist into a lurid hell.
Yep, that’s right. Bacchus is caught in a moment of unbridled gassiness.
Titian is clearly having a little scatological fun with this scene. The satyr offers a clue to just how much fun.
We know Bacchus is breaking wind by the white flower’s spread pistons beneath the satyr. The white flower is a caper flower. Doctors used it as a natural carminative to prevent flatulence.
Titian is saying that the lovestruck Bacchus has lost control of both his fervor and his flatulence. In other words, Ariadne is the wind beneath his sails, the toot in his horn, a blast of hot cheekiness… ok, I will stop.
Throughout history, artists’ materials were also found in a doctor’s medical bag. Precious saffron created vivid yellows, reds, and greens but was also used to treat asthma and whooping cough. Scarlet red was made from female scale insects, and traditional Chinese medicine used it to treat wounds. And mercury was used to create vermillion and treat syphilis.
One can always find the science in art and the art in science. Perhaps that is the lesson we can learn from studying art through the lens of medicine — both connect us to our humanity.
“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.”— Hippocrates
I spy Rembrandt’s wandering eye and Mona Lisa’s high cholesterol
In the above painting, one of the figures has a common congenital disability. Can you see it? I will give you some hints…
Anne Boleyn and Taye Diggs were rumored to have this condition.
Today, it is easily corrected with surgery, usually at birth.
It would make someone really good at piano or knitting.
Research even shows that this congenital disability gives someone augmented motor abilities.
Those cherubs at the bottom know the answer.
I will give you a minute.
Because I know you have nothing better to do.
Except maybe click on the next article, so…
Now, you can’t unsee it. Pope Sixtus has a sixth finger. The condition, called hexadactyly, means six digits. (Polydactyl refers to when the extra digit is a finger.)
Raphael seemed to add extra digits to many of his subjects. In The Engagement of the Virgin Mary, he is up to his old tricks. Can you spot the extra digit?
Some more hints…
Oddly, this one body part is unclothed.
The misses is in for some surprises on her wedding night.
The stick-breaking guy knows.
Do you see it?
I will give you another minute.
Because you love this game.
Unless your wrists and patience are worn out, so…
The man in the green robe either has a nasty bunion or an extra toe. Did Raphael suck at painting feet and hands or is he purposely adding extra digits again?
Obviously, Raphael was a master draftsman, so we can assume he knew how to draw hands and feet. One theory is that Raphael added a sixth finger to Pope Sixtus (first image) as a play on words. Another theory is that a sixth digit implied the subject had a sixth sense.
But during the Renaissance, artists typically portrayed subjects as realistically as possible. So it is doubtful Raphael was adding extra digits to be clever.
Some physicians have argued that Raphael was not giving his subjects extra digits but portraying a common Renaissance illness — gout. Gout commonly causes the skin to bulge. So the bump next to his baby toe could be a “gouty pouch.”
Everyone usually focuses on Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. But Vito Franco, a Sicilian professor of pathological anatomy, believes this painting holds another secret — “La Gioconda” suffered from high cholesterol.
He came to this diagnosis after noticing fatty acid buildups on her left eyelid — called xanthelasma. You will also notice that she has a small lipoma on her right hand. A lipoma is a benign fatty tissue tumor common in those with high cholesterol.
The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Matsys
The woman is so unfortunate looking that historians once believed she was a caricature. But since Matsys did not have much of a sense of humor, there’s something more nefarious going on. Sadly, this woman probably really looked like this.
The Duchess is suffering from the final stages of Paget’s disease. Paget disease is a chronic bone disorder that causes enlarged and misshapen bones.
Here we go…Raphael is at it again. But now he is painting lumpy knees. The person with the mangled knees is believed to be Raphael’s grumpy nemesis, Michelangelo.
Vito Franco believes that Michelangelo’s bulbous knees are a sign of kidney stones. Michelangelo complained about kidney stones or what he called “gravel in his urine” throughout his life. He was diagnosed at the age of 75 and was told to drink medicinal water to pass the stones.
Rheumatologist Sara E. Walker believes Michelangelo’s knobby knees were due to gout. Michelangelo was diagnosed with gout in 1555. And in one of his many letters, he complains of foot pain at the age of 80.
The Tête à Tête by William Hogarth
Before tabloid magazines and Twitter feeds, William Hogarth used his painting to poke fun at the elite. And as the middle class grew, wealthy merchants could purchase prints of his paintings and enjoy roasting aristocrats.
In The Tête à Tête (face to face), Hogarth is satirizing the venality of the marriage market. The painting tells the tale of the “Squanderfields” — an aristocratic family who must marry their entitled son to a wealthy merchant’s daughter because they have “squandered” all their wealth. The young Mr. Squanderfield (the man seated on the right) has come home after a night of wenching. (The dog is giving him away by pulling at a lady’s handkerchief in his pocket.)
But Mr. Squanderfield has worse problems than having to marry for money. Can you spot the deadly infectious disease Mr. Squanderfield suffers from?
Here’s a close-up. Is that a hole in his throat or a gigantic beauty mark?
He has the black mark at another point in the series — The Inspection.
This lass also has it.
Now you can play “spot the syphilis marks in eighteenth-century prints.” You’re welcome.
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth
It’s a painting that has bewildered art lovers. Why is Christina’s back to the viewer? Is the dilapidated farmhouse her home? And most puzzling, why is she awkwardly arranged on the ground, staring off into the distance?
The painting portrays Anna Christina Olson — a neighbor and favored muse of Wyeth. He painted her several times. (He used his twenty-six-year-old wife as a model for the girl’s head and torso.)
Christina is not just dreamily lying on the grass. She suffered from Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT) disease — a progressive nerve disease that causes weakness in the lower legs and feet. Sadly, Christina was paralyzed from the waist down and had to move across her farm by crawling. Wyeth said of the painting that he intended to depict someone “limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Perhaps that is why the painting has become so iconic.
Rembrandt’s wandering eye
In the above portrait, the right eye looks straight at the viewer, but the left eye looks off to the side. According to Margaret S. Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, Rembrandt may have had a wandering eye or strabismus. When Livingstone examined 24 of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, she found 23 had the same wandering eye.
Interestingly, Rembrandt’s strabismus may have given him an advantage as an artist. A wandering eye may make it harder to judge depth — called stereoblindness. But that condition also makes it easier to translate 3D objects into a 2D space. (This is also why art teachers tell students to close one eye when observing a subject.)
The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest by El Greco
El Greco’s work is always recognizable by the elongated limbs and dark palette. But some physicians believe that El Greco’s unique style comes from suffering from Marfan’s syndrome.
Marfan’s syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Sufferers are often slender because the disease causes limbs to lengthen. In the portrait above, the man’s face and fingers are longer than normal. El Greco consistently painted most of his subjects with these features.
While it’s true that artists often put a little of themselves into every portrait, I am a bit more incredulous with this one. El Greco also could have painted slender people because it appealed to him stylistically.
Today, physicians have so many diagnostic tools to determine illness that they may fail to use their most powerful tool — their eyes.
That is the power of art — it forces you to see. And see in a way that our fast-paced world seems to be losing.
But when we imagine Rembrandt with a wandering eye or Mona Lisa struggling with high cholesterol, the subjects also become more real. Their bodies suffered and aged just like people today, and those illnesses gave them humanity.
Perhaps that is the real power of art — to see the humane in others.
There are many symbols in this ornate painting that capture its story. A ray of light bubbles up from the clouds in the sky and bursts forth into the street of an Italian town. It cuts through an aperture in a building and eventually touches the head of a woman in prayer.
Meanwhile, outside, two figures kneel in the street. One is an angel who has feathered wings on his back and holds a lily flower in his hand; beside him is another man who appears to balance a miniature model town on his knee.
Around the image, various birds perch: a peacock sits on a first-floor loggia whilst numerous doves populate the town. At the front of the painting, an apple and a cucumber lie on the ground. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, and even overhang the edge of the image as if they’re not quite part of the painting.
And then there is the overall strangeness of the composition, the radical perspective and the vivid selection of colours, of terracotta, gold and grey-blue.
It must have been more than ten years ago when I first saw this work of art, The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. The very first impression it made on me — as my eyes tried to become accustomed to the scene — was one of disorientation.
It can feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a labyrinth and asked to find your own way out again. So what’s going on and how do we find our way in this remarkable painting?
A miraculous moment
As the title of the work indicates, this is a scene of The Annunciation. The woman praying is the Virgin Mary. The event marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and the Son of God became Mary’s child.
The Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would become the mother of Christ. Mary adopts a posture of humility as the news is delivered to her, with her arms crossed in diffidence.
Mary is dressed in fashionable 15th century clothing, with an embroidered bodice and puffs emerging from her slashed sleeves. Notably, her head is uncovered: since only unmarried girls and royalty wore their hair uncovered, it is a reminder that she is both a virgin and Queen of Heaven.
Crivelli followed the established tradition by painting rays of golden light descending from heaven and blessing Mary on the head. Arriving on the rays of light is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God as spiritually active in the world. The motif is from the words of John the Baptist: “I saw the spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting upon him” (John 1:32).
An unusual setting
What makes this painting unusual — and what I didn’t understand when I first saw it — is the urban setting of the angel’s appearance, who brings his message forth directly into the street. Traditionally, paintings of the Annunciation show Mary in some sort of walled garden, a reference to her purity as well as the idea that the incarnation of Christ took place in springtime. (The lily carried by Gabriel is Mary’s traditional attribute, a sign of her virtue.)
But in this work, the setting is very much in a town, with brick walls and paved streets. And what’s just as unusual is the bearing of the angel Gabriel, who appears more concerned with the man kneeling next to him than with the Virgin Mary.
To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. The work was first made by the artist Carlo Crivelli for the town of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region of Italy. It was painted in celebration, since the citizens of the town had just been granted limited self-government by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1482.
The news reached the town on 25 March, the traditional date of the Feast of the Annunciation, and every year after 1482 a procession was held through the streets of the town to celebrate the political and religious events in one. As in the painting, oriental carpets would be draped over the balconies as part of the celebrations. At the bottom of the painting is the inscription LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, which was the title of the papal edict granting the city its freedom.
This would explain the municipal feel of the painting, which, the more you look at it, is brimming with townsfolk going about their business.
It goes without saying that nobody is there by chance. The man kneeling kneeling beside Gabriel is the local patron Saint Emidius, who holds in his hands a model of the town. On the bridge behind them, a man is given a letter to read by a messenger, referring to the Papal edict.
In this detail, one sees the thematic cross-over, with two messages being delivered at the same time, one from the Papal messenger and the other from Gabriel.
A feast of symbols
The overall detailing in the painting is extraordinary. Every stone and brick is individually painted, along with the ornamental carvings of the pillars and archway. Textures — marble, wood, fabric — are all faithfully represented.
In one area of the painting, a peacock stands with its tail feathers showing resplendently — a symbol of immortality and Christ’s Resurrection, as according to ancient belief, it was thought a peacock’s flesh never decayed. Even the small wooden cage, which if you look closely contains a goldfinch, is meaningful. Often an attribute of Christ as a child, who in other works of art holds a goldfinch in his hand, the bird signifies the soul of man that flew away at his death.
Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice sometime around 1430. As this painting demonstrates, he was a fine technical painter, and was especially skilled at simulating marble architecture and other illusionistic effects: festoons of fruit and parchment cartellini. (A cartellino was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, as though attached to a wall, often with a nail or pin.)
The apple and cucumber towards the bottom of the painting were Crivelli’s demonstration of his skills as a painter, how he could make objects seem as if they were coming out of the painting. They also carry symbolism: the apple represents the forbidden fruit and associated fall of man. The cucumber — an unusual symbol in Christian art — is thought to refer to the promise of redemption through Christ’s resurrection.
Crivelli died in 1495 in Ascoli Piceno, the town for which he painted this picture. After his death, his reputation fell on hard-times, yet in the 19th century his paintings were seen afresh and admired, especially by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, several of whom praised his work for its remarkable detailed naturalism.
This painting hangs in the National Gallery, London.
He is, by far, one of the greatest and most influential artists in history ever known. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti was the best know Italian artist of his time. Michelangelo’s works were breathtaking, he was out of traditional poetic skills, an expert draftsman, and an incredibly skilled painter whose impact in the creative world knows no time boundaries.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Creation of Adam, c. 1508, Rome, Sistine Chapel
He has a long history of rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci which is well documented. He is known to have stormed out of the Sistine Chapel in anger, but despite some of his somewhat bad reputation, his artwork is so good, nothing could hold him down. To his contemporaries, he was known as II Divino, translated as the divine one. This was so because they deemed his handyworks unmatched among any merely mortal human.
Join me in this artistic journey today, give your eyes some of the rarest sights the world has ever known, get your brains challenged as we dive deep into the roots of creativity, to remember this great one through seven of the topmost incredible creative Michelangelo’s works. So, let’s get started, shall we?
1 – The Sistine Chapel: the most famous of Michelangelo’s works
When you think of Michelangelo, one of the first things that ring in your mind is Michelangelo’s incredible artwork that now remains painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Vatican City. He was commissioned to do this work by Pope Julus the second.
Michelangelo was not particularly interested in taking up this job because he was, after all, not a painter but a sculptor. He came up with what today remains one of the most sacred pieces of art in western history. It attracts an average of five million people annually who flock to the Sistine Chapel to admire his handy work.
It is a tale of the creation story. It shows God extending His finger toward a newly created man, Adam, about to shower him with life. To other viewers, the red color at the back of the drawing of God’s shape resembles the human brain, and to them, this means that God is about to give Adam the gift of life and infuse him with consciousness. Eve watches this event from the other side of God’s arm. In the same red cloud surrounding God are angels and cherubim. This is a rare tale of the creation story. Very few artists in all history have been able to bring out the Genesis creation narrative as dramatically as Michelangelo does in this show-stealing painting.
What makes this painting stand out from all others is that, unlike every others artist’s depiction of God as supreme and outrightly removed from any connection with man, Michelangelo brings out a whole different viewpoint. He paints God to be having an intimate relationship with man, a creation of his image. Even in today’s contemporary society, this painting has been monotonously used to tell the entire story of genesis. It has several times been cited and even borrowed and expanded on in other arts for its religious meaning.
2 – David: the most iconic of Michelangelo’s works
This is possibly the world’s most famous sculpture that came at the peak of Michelangelo’s career. This sculpture was created when Michelangelo was 26 years old, and it took him three years to bring it to completion. There have existed other statues of the biblical hero, David. However, these sculptures paint David as a victorious hero from his battles.
What makes this piece of Michelangelo art stand out is that David is brought out in a tense and alert manner before his famous Goliath battle. While others have painted David as a little man, Michelangelo chooses to portray him as a muscular man, well prepared for war and confident. The 14-foot sculpture was primarily positioned in Florence at the Pizza Della Signoria in 1504. It was then moved in 1873 to Galleria dell ‘Accademia, where it remains to this day. The sculptor has captured the attention and interests of renowned women like queen Victoria. During one of these visits, a detachable fig leaf from plaster was strategically added at the private parts’ top.
Michelangelo picked up this marble project from another sculptor who had given up on it to take upon another because the marble’s structure was compromised. This, however, did not stop him as he had to find a way to make it bring out the best of what he had in mind, a piece of art that was controversial and at the same time the same thing that elevated him to the top.
During the early renaissance,
Donatello had revoked Michelangelo’s nudity and had come up with his sculpture. However, Michelangelo’s work version remains the most iconic and continues to attract attention to this day. Some traveling exhibits of the statue have portrayed accurate resemblance to the original sculpture and are in favor of the many who cannot travel to Italy to view this masterpiece.
On a different occasion, however, when the municipality of Jerusalem was marking the 3000th anniversary of King David had conquered the city, religious groups in Jerusalem urged for the decline of David’s sculptor, claiming that it is pornographic due to its being nude.
3 – Bacchus: the most controversial of Michelangelo’s works
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Bacchus, c. 1496, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bergello
This was Michelangelo’s first-ever forays into large-scale sculpturing. This also marks one of the few works he has done that has no Christian background.
Completed in 1497, the statue portrays a Roman god, the God of wine, drunk, and lazy. The God is holding a goblet in one hand, posturing to bring it to the mouth to have a drink, and on his head, wears an intertwined ivy.
He carries a lion’s skin, the symbol of death borrowed from Hercules’ myth, in his other hand. At the back of his left leg is his demigod companion, which signifies Bacchu’s cult, which often symbolizes a lusty, drunken woodland being.
This piece of art also sprouted a lot of controversies. Cardinal Raffaele Rario initially commissioned it. The inspiration behind this sculpturing was a lost bronze description sculpture by Praxiteles, an ancient sculptor.
However, after Michelangelo finished his handy work, Cardinal Raffaele Rario rejected it because it was inappropriate to see the final product. At the start of the 16th century, the sculpture was sold and found a home in the Roman palace of Jacopo Galli, Michelangelo’s banker.
Even though the piece has a twisted past, it still holds the creative ingeniousness that Michelangelo held. One of the most famous descriptions that this sculpture gets is from Vasari, who says that the artwork keeps a young man’s slimness but the woman’s skin texture.
Michelangelo’s unique depiction of a Roman god in a socially unacceptable drunken and swaying state is a one-of-a-kind artwork that remains one of the benchmarks of creativity and originality.
Today, the sculpture resides in Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. It has been stored alongside other Michelangelo works like the incomplete sculpture called David Apollo and another complete Brutus bust.
4 – La Pietà: the most moving of Michelangelo’s works
Have you ever come across an image of Mary cradling Jesus when he was taken down from the cross? I bet you have at some point while browsing the internet, maybe in a scene in a movie, a picture painted on the wall somewhere, or maybe in a book?
Now that’s what is referred to as Pieta – La Pietà, in Italian. Together with his other work, David, the Pieta is considered one of Michelangelo’s best artworks and s without a doubt among the best known since its birth towards the end of the 15th century.
These sculptures were mainly known in the North of Europe and were a rare occurrence in Italy. Michelangelo saw this as an excellent opportunity to leave a mark that will forever. And true to that, the piece of art made people know him and talk about his artworks on a broader scope.
It was primarily created to be placed at the tomb of Jean de Bilheres, a French cardinal. After he was crucified, Mary’s image holding Jesus in her arms was a common funeral theme during Italy’s renaissance period.
The Pieta is one among the seven sorrows of Mary, contained in the Catholics’ devotional prayers, and it also brings to life what had been prophesized by prophet Simeon.
It was commissioned by Jean de Bilheres. Being that the sculpture’s commission emerged from France, Michelangelo had the opportunity to do something a little different and bend more on the French artistic styles than the usual Italian. While talking to Michelangelo, Jean said that he wanted to acquire the most beautiful artwork, made of marble. An artwork that no other artist in that time and the history of humanity could sculpt better. It took him two years to sculpt this masterpiece to completion using one block of marble.
Even though other Pieta sculptures emerged as religious monuments in the 1300s in Germany, the whole depiction had significant connotations in the Italian art Renaissance. Several artists attempted to translate the religious tales in a humanistic way by blurring divinity and humanity’s boundaries by humanizing the known biblical figures and freely exercising their freedom of expression. In most cases, Mary was used.
What draws clear lines between other artists’ works and what other sculptors made is that he portrayed Mary, not as a middle-aged woman but a rare youthful beauty. He at one point talking to his biographer that chaste women stay much fresher than the unchaste, hence his preference for the young beautiful virgin Mary.
Michelangelo also moved away from portraying Mary’s suffering, which was being shown in most of the time’s sculptures; he instead brought out the intimate sense of tenderness of a mother for her child. In the statue, too, Jesus’ hands have minor marks of the nails from his recent crucifixion, and so is the wound on his side. In this depiction, Jesus looks more like a sleeping child in the hands of his mother than being dead, which could be looked at as a symbol for his resurrection.
It should be noted that this is the only sculpture that contains Michelangelo’s sign. This was a response to a circulating rumor, claiming that the incredible artwork was created by one of his rivals, Cristoforo Solari. Michelangelo carved his name across and split it in two so that it read Michael Angelus. This can also be interpreted as a reference to another biblical figure, Angel Michael. This was a selfish act that he later came to regret and swore never to sign on any other of his artworks. This is why the Pieta is the only Michelangelo’s work signed.
Following its completion, the Pieta instantly acquired its fame and was a cornerstone to his fame. An attack in 1972 caused damage on the virgin Mary’s arm and face but was later restored. The sculpture continues to strike awe in the eyes of every one of goes to visit.
Michelangelo’s work includes other sculptures closely related to the Pietra. They include Rondanini Pieta, The Deposition and the Palestrina Pieta.
5 – Moses: the angriest of Michelangelo’s works
Moses was initially commissioned by Pope Julius the second in 1505 to be a part of his funeral monuments. This came after the fame that followed Michelangelo soon after the completion of his artwork, David. Pope Julius made this commission but was, however, not completed until he died in 1513. The 235cm high sculpture was completed later in 1542.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Moses, c. 1515, Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli
This sculpture captures a moment in the bible in the Exodus story of Moses. You recall the whole story of how Moses journeyed with the Israelites from the land of Egypt? I’ve got your back, listen in, let me give you a bit of history so we can be on the same page here.
In this sculpture, Michelangelo captures when Moses had witnessed his people turn against God and have begun to worship a pagan god, the golden bull. Remember that this was when Moses had just walked down from the mountain called Sinai to receive the ten commandments and carried the stone tablets written on them. The stone tablets were heavy, and the sight of Israel’s people worshiping a pagan god had greatly angered Moses. I’m sure we are now together on this little history lesson.
It is that exact moment that Michelangelo captures in this incredible artwork. He aims to portray the anger that was on Moses’ face at that precise moment. He skillfully carves out the emotional moment in this eight-foot sculpture of Moses in a seated position. Without a doubt, this is the angriest masterpiece of Michelangelo’s works.
Michelangelo captures this moment with Moses in the seated position, facing the left, while his beard shifts to the right, indicating a moment of movement. His left leg and hip are shifted to the left, and his built trunk faces the right, bringing in a moment of immense tension and great power.
The notable prophet’s sculpture is marked with great emotion behind it, but he also brings out fine details of the cloth Moses is wearing with great perfection and a final authentic look. See, this is a real-life moment brought out with a lot of emotion and perfection, all of which is captured in stone. Incredible.
This particular artwork has attracted a lot of analytical attention to the heights of it all, including Sigmund Freud. He purposely dedicated three weeks of his time in 1913 to study this sculpture’s emotional details. He later gave his opinion on the same, noting that it was a predominant sight of self-control. He was also aware that the statue cared more secular than religious meaning, symbolizing a man who stood for the inward passion searching for a higher cause.
A controversy was born from what appears to be horns protruding from Moses’ head. Some people interpreted it as a symbol of his anguish, while to others, it was a Latin misinterpretation of the bible so that instead of having bright rays of light shining on the great prophet, they have horns growing from his head. This could have stemmed from the Hebrew word; Keren, which is interpreted as illuminated light or had grown horns.
6 – The Last Judgement: the most emotional of Michelangelo’s works
Moving back to the Sistine Chapel, we meet another masterpiece of Michelangelo’s works, The Last Judgment.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgement, c. 1541, Rome, Sistine Chapel
It is located on the walls of the altar in the church. This outstanding piece of art was completed 25 years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco. This artwork is one of the final pieces commissioned by pope Clement the seventh when the great sculptor was 62 years old.
The masterpiece depicts the second coming of Jesus when he is delivering God’s last judgment to humankind. It took five years to complete the artwork, which comprises well over 300 human figures. It is one of the most complex pieces of artwork that portrays a violent scene body movement. Of the approximately 300 masculine human figures in the painting, some are mortals ascending to heaven. In contrast, others on their way down to hell, and others were immortal beings engaged in violent actions.
The intensity in this rare piece sparks out a lot of emotions in the viewers. Awe and fear are the dominant emotions brought out in the scene. At the core of the whole fresco is the image of Christ, with his hands exposing the wounds he suffered from being crucified. He gazes down on the humans as each takes on their judgments.
On the right-hand side of Jesus is the virgin Mary looking upon the saved souls ascending to heaven. On the opposite sides of Jesus stands John the Baptist and Peter with the keys to heaven’s gates in their hands. Most of the mage saints are identifiable by the distinguished marks they got as a sacrifice during their time on earth serving Christ. An excellent example of this is Bartholomew and whose face is said to be the portrait of Michelangelo. It also reveals seven angels who are blowing trumpets and can be interpreted in Revelations’ book, where it talks about the world’s end.
The artwork received a lot of controversy for the massive amount of nudity that it portrays. In 1654, the fresco was condemned by the Council of Trent and ordered the nude parts to be painted Daniele da Volterra. His depiction of Jesus being beardless was also unwelcome, as t was mainly identified with figures from Greek mythology.
7 – The Dying Slave: the less-known masterpiece
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Dying Slave, c. 1516, Paris, Louvre Museum
The dying slave was primarily meant to accompany another sculpture of a rebellious slave and, together with Moses, be a part of the sculptures at Pope Julius the second’s tomb. Michelangelo set out to the quarries of Carrara to handpick the perfect marble and begin working on the statue. On his return, however, pope Julius canceled his commission.
This is one of the less-known masterpieces of Michelangelo’s works.
The dying slave only counts as one among the six sculptures of slaves that Michelangelo created over many years for the Pope. These were all to make the perfect resting place for the Pope when he begins his journey to the afterlife. However, the project was never fully realized, which utterly disappointed Michelangelo, considering that he spent the whole year in a quarry to accomplish this project. What a waste!
It would have been one of Michelangelo’s showcases of perfection in the craftsmanship and the portrayal of his understanding of the human anatomy. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? The sculpture of the slave portrays a human figure frustrated by the circumstances in his surrounding, right? It could have been anything at the time. Come to think of it, this sculpture of the seemingly frustrated slave could as well be portraying Michelangelo’s situation when dealing with these projects for Pope Julius the second and his struggles to find the authentic materials to use.
Titus Livius (Livy) is a household name in the Classics canon. Born in 64 or 59 BC, Livy is famous for writing an impressively long history of Rome — from the mythical founding of the city in 753 BC up to his own day — called the Ab urbe condita (‘From the Founding of the City’). The text is a mainstay of the UK Classics curriculum whether in translation, as a set text, or as the basis of adapted Latin passages in textbooks such as Latin to GCSE and Latin Beyond GCSE.
So what’s the connection between the city of Florence and Livy’s Ab urbe condita? Florence was a key site of transmission and reception for classical texts throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Here are 4 ways in which the city, and some well-known Florentine citizens, played a role in the textual tradition and visual reception of Livy’s history.
1. Livy and Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was born in 1304, to parents who had been exiled from Florence. Petrarch was a poet, scholar and admirer of antiquity and it is largely thanks to him that we have Livy’s Ab urbe condita in its current form. In fact, Petrarch has been described as ‘the deciding factor in carrying the tradition of the Ab urbe condita from the Middle Ages over into the Renaissance.’¹
Petrarch sought out and compiled manuscripts containing Livy’s fragmented text into a collection that became the most complete of his time, totalling thirty books. It wasn’t until 1527 that five more books were discovered, taking us up to the number we have today. Petrarch wrote a letter to Livy, as if to a long-lost friend, telling him: ‘We know that you wrote one hundred and forty-two books on Roman affairs. With what fervour, with what unflagging zeal you must have laboured; and of that entire number there are now extant scarcely thirty.’²
How did so many of Livy’s books go missing?Firstly, due to its monumental size, it was condensed into summaries or ‘epitomes’ even during antiquity. As mentioned in an epigram by Martial: ‘Huge Livy has been slimmed down to a few volumes / My bookcase hasn’t room for all of him.’³ Post-antiquity, the Ab urbe conditajourneyed in multiple manuscripts via divergent channels through to the Middle Ages. Many parts were damaged, lost or forgotten along the way. The work that Petrarch did to assemble and critically annotate Livy’s surviving books influenced the way it was read by later scholars and paved the way for its entry into libraries and schools.⁴
2. Livy and Histories of Florence
Livy’s Ab urbe condita and certainly the first ten books (which had the clearest and most untroubled textual transmission) influenced the creation of histories or ‘chronicles’ of Florence. In particular, Florentine writers seized the opportunity to engage in similar myth-making for their own city, from its legendary origin up to their own times.
The earliest is the Nuova Cronica by Giovanni Villani in the 14th century. He was inspired by a personal pilgrimage to Rome and, in his own words, “[by] reading the stories and great doings of the Romans, written by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Titus Livius… and other masters of history.”⁵ Villani claimed that Julius Caesar ordered the building of Florence in 70 BC and that Fiesole was founded by the Trojans.
Later, Leonardo Bruni wrote an ‘official’ History of Florence in Latin (Historiarum Florentini populilibri XII) which was published by the governing Signoria in 1442. He rejected fables about Trojan foundations and instead argued that Florence was originally an Etruscan settlement and later a military colony under Sulla. Livy, Virgil and Pliny the Elder had all written about the Etruscans’ wars with Rome. Bruni used these sources to imply Etruscan (and therefore contemporary Tuscan) superiority within Italy.
3. Livy and Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, but he also wrote a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita. The text is known as the Discourses on Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) and was written and published in the 16th century.
Machiavelli explores the notion of Republicanism, which had enflamed earlier humanists and Florentine citizens with glorified ideas about tyrant-slayers. Informed by his own experiences in the Florentine political system and his reading of Livy’s history, Machiavelli maintains that the founder of a Republic must obtain absolute power if the regime is to last.
4. Livy and Renaissance Artists
But Livy’s text was not only known to educated men and women of the Renaissance. Stories from Livy also flourished in 15th century domestic artwork in Florence. This is suggested by the surviving evidence of cassoni (‘wedding chests’) and spalliere (‘decorated backing boards’) painted with scenes from Livy’s history about women such as Cloelia, Virginia, Tarpeia, Lucretia and the Sabine women. As well as those about men, such as Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge, Mucius Scaevola and Coriolanus.
These pieces were often commissioned for newly-wed couples and the subject-matter depended on the intellectual and moral interests of the patron(s). Domestic art not only reflected the popularity of stories from Livy in Florence, but also served as a method of its visual transmission. As Jillian Robbins notes, ‘Tuscan domestic painting was instrumental in making themes from the Ab urbe condita a familiar and almost ubiquitous presence.’⁶ It is only later, in the 16th century, that we begin to see stories from Livy’s Ab urbe condita depicted in large scale paintings, such as those by Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani.
 G. Billanovich, ‘Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 14, №3/4, 1951, p. 182.
 Petrarch, ‘To Titus Livy’ in Fam., XXIV, 8.
 Martial, 14.190.
 See Footnote 1, p. 176.
 D. R. Kelley, ‘Renaissance Retrospection’ in Faces of History, 1999, p. 137.
 J. C. Robbins, ‘The Art of History: Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and the Visual Arts of the Early Italian Renaissance.’, 2004, p. 113.
The incredible productivity of Paul Klee’s later years
Bythe time he died, in 1940 at the age of 60, Paul Klee was one of the most famous artists of his generation. He had worked at the Bauhaus and could count such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius as his colleagues and friends.
Despite his eventual accomplishments, Klee struggled to find commercial success as an artist. During his 20s and into his 30s, he sold only a handful of works, and when he exhibited the reviews were often unfavorable. The upkeep of the family home was the achievement of Paul Klee’s wife, Lily, who gave piano lessons whilst Paul made art and looked after their son, Felix.
And even when his his reputation was established, Klee’s final years were fraught with adversity. Not only was his health deteriorating as a result of scleroderma, but the wider cultural and political climates in Switzerland (where he was born and where he lived for the last years of his life) and Germany (where he built his career) were becoming ever more unstable.
And yet, the last years of Klee’s life would prove to be some of the most productive and inspired of his career.
Much of Klee’s enduring creativity was rooted in a two-week trip he took to Tunisia in 1914. He kept a dairy of his time there, and through these notes Klee’s growth as a painter can be mapped.
He painted as often as possible during his time in Tunisia, mostly watercolour sketches that could be made quickly and on-the-spot. It was during this trip that he noted his famous declaration: “Colour possesses me,” he wrote. “It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.”
The working-holiday would inspire Klee for many years afterwards, and as far ahead as the 1930s he continued to makes paintings that referenced his experiences in Tunisia.
Klee eventually established himself as one of the foremost artists of his generation, most especially in Germany. Yet the rise of the Nazi party forced him to leave the country and his teaching post at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, which had been smeared as a stronghold of Jewish artists.
Not Jewish himself, Klee was nonetheless singled out for attack: “Then that great fellow Klee comes onto the scene,” wrote one Nazi newspaper. “He tells everyone he’s a thoroughbred Arab, but he’s a typical Galician Jew.”
The consequences of the derogatory Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition held in Munich in 1937 were just as damaging, particularly to an artist who remained acutely self-conscious and self-critical. The exhibition, in which Klee had 17 works included, was an attempt by the Nazi Party to ridicule modern artists and purge them from German culture. Slogans painted on the walls of the gallery — such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul” and “Nature as seen by sick minds” — were intended to stir up further revulsion among the visitors.
With the diagnosis of his illness and the deterioration of conditions in Germany, Klee began to feel hopeless and exhausted. During 1936, at the height of his unrest, his output amounted to just 25 works.
But in the following few years, these numbers would rise remarkably.
Klee was an avid record-keeper of his own output. He carefully catalogued his paintings and drawings with a numbering system that monitored the volume and order of works as they were produced, year on year.
This catalogue was consistent with Klee’s working methods, which relied on a distinct aspect of order, a framework of regulatory practices that made innovation more forthcoming. According to his colleague Lyonel Feininger, Klee’s studio was a “carefully ordered confusion.” He preferred to work on several paintings at once, surrounded by earlier drawings that would offer guidance in a process of constant self-reflection — some from the Tunisia trip.
Klee’s innovation would survive his most difficult year because he had nurtured a process of perpetual growth. Some years before, due to a split in his teaching duties, Klee occupied two studio spaces in two separate cities. Felix recalled how his father “Traveled between Dessau and Düsseldorf, again spending alternate bi-weekly periods in each city, and since he had two magnificent work rooms in each city, he delighted in the half-finished ‘children’ that awaited him each time in whichever studio he was away from.”
In the last years of his life, Klee adapted to his illness by making works that were simpler and larger in design. He deepened his affinity with hieroglyphic-style motifs, producing paintings that left behind formal and spatial depth in favour of a more direct, ideographic gesture.
His paintings from this period remain some of the most vital and beguiling creations in modern art. I wonder, from where did he get his sense of ferment and hold on to it so urgently? How did he stay inspired?
In 1937, Klee created 264 works; in 1938 the number nearly doubled to 489; in the last full year of his life, 1939, he made more individual pieces than in any year previously, at 1,254.
He expressed his excitement to his son, Felix, at the time: “Productivity is accelerating in range and at a highly accelerated tempo. […] Twelve hundred items in 1939 is something of a record performance.”
Klee was always building on past achievements, often re-using sketches and half-finished compositions as the basis for new paintings. Inspiration of this kind is intimately related to growth. A person travels, sees, listens, learns, reads and endures. In Klee’s case, there was also an internal growth happening within the body of work. The process — a type of harvest — gathers material, but it also leaves material behind. To refine is to learn and in doing so, evolve one’s sensibility.
Paul Klee’s innovation stayed vibrant to the end. His creativity was unceasing because he never let the sense having arrived overtake him. Search and growth were essential aspects of his practice, one complimenting the other, neither of them fully complete — always half-finished.
The words on Klee’s tombstone ring the same truth, “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, For my dwelling place is as much among the dead, As the yet unborn, Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, But still not close enough.”