Narcissus—Caravaggio

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

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

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

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

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

The myth

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

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

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

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

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

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

The painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the Vatican Censored Michelangelo’s David

Sin, sex and censorship

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

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

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

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

According to Genesis 3:7 —

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

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

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

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

Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history

Michelangelo’s David

The Renisaance period led to the age of awareness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelangelo was charged with blasphemy and crossing his limits.

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

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

Why a fig leaf as a coverup choice?

Fig Leaf

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

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

Artworks that fell victim to this campaign

Christ The Redemer and David

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masaccio The Explusion. Before and after restoration

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

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

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

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

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

Bernini’s ingenious twist to the fig leaf campaign

Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina

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

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

Final thoughts

Achilles in Hyde Park is covered with a fig leaf

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

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

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

The fig leaves linger on at unexpected places.

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

Habits of a Renaissance Man: Learning How to Learn from Leonardo da Vinci

Adopt these habits to enhance your learning process.

A few days ago, I finished reading Leonardo da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson. This book is easily the best 30 bucks I’ve spent in lockdown. Such an amazing read! My mind was absolutely blown.

I’m sure you know who Leonardo da Vinci is (or at least have heard his name before), but I’ll refresh your memory anyway: With expertise spanning virtually all fields known to man — arts, science, engineering, humanities — Leonardo is an Italian polymath who has been dubbed the “Renaissance Man.”

He is, arguably, history’s most creative genius.

How is it possible to become an expert in so many fields? And no, not in a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of way, but to actually become a master of all those trades. The answer is intricate, of course, but if I were to boil it down into one thing, I’d say it’s this: Leonardo is a master of learning.

That is essentially the skill that makes polymaths like Leonardo shine so brilliantly: They have mastered the art of learning. I know, it’s a bit meta — but that’s exactly why it’s amazing. After all, once you’ve learned how to learn, you can replicate that process to whatever subject you want and ultimately become a master at it.

Here, I’ll outline seven habits that I’ve identified in Leonardo. While I encourage you to read the full book to get the whole picture, you can use these seven takeaways as a starting point.

1. Relentless curiosity

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” Leonardo wrote in his notebook.

Did you know that the tongue of the woodpecker can extend more than thrice the length of its bill? And when it’s not used, it retracts into the skull and wraps itself around the brain, thus becoming a cushion for when the bird does what it’s known for: Smashing its beak repeatedly against tree bark.

That’s amazing, isn’t it? Another one of Mother Nature’s magic.

But you don’t really care, do you? Me neither. Why should I know about a woodpecker’s tongue? It won’t affect my day in any way. In fact, I can go about my entire life without needing to know about it in the slightest.

But that’s the trait that defines geniuses like Leonardo: They’re ridiculously, painfully curious. They just ought to know everything. Every little object or occurrence piques their interest and leads them down an inquisitory rabbit hole. When they have a question, they have to answer it no matter what.

But weren’t we all like that when we were children? Everything we see fascinates us. We bother adults around us with questions they deem unnecessary and at times comical. Sadly, we lose that behavior as we grow up, once we’ve learned that the world isn’t as forgiving as we thought it to be.

But there are some like Leonardo, who maintained that childlike sense of wonder well into their last breath. And that relentless curiosity has made all the difference — it shaped them into peerless learners, able to process all sorts of raw data into extraordinary insights.

As Albert Einstein, another one of history’s greatest geniuses, once said:

“I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.”

2. Sharp observation

Sherlock Holmes, another renowned (albeit fictional) polymath known for his deduction skills, once said to his friend John Watson:

“You see, but you do not observe.”

Geniuses don’t just see, they observe. Leonardo certainly embodies this habit of keen observation. He proves to be an incredibly acute observer, as shown through the woodpecker example before, and more:

  • He noticed how people’s facial expressions relate to their emotions
  • He watched how light bounces off different types of surfaces
  • He identified birds who flap their wings faster in their upswing, and others who are faster in their downswing

Furthermore, we know that Leonardo is a man who acts on his curiosity.

When something catches his eye, he doesn’t just think “Oh that’s cool,” and carry on. He actually tries to understand why and how it works—and ultimately, he emulates the findings into his creations, like his exceptionally realistic paintings and sophisticated mechanical devices.

Leonardo notices patterns where others didn’t even glance twice. In other words, geniuses like him see things unseen.

As said by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

3. Emphasis on experience

While Leonardo is famous for his extraordinary intellect, not many people know that he had barely any formal education. He went to an abacus school when he was young, and that was it.

A substantial part (if not all) of the brilliance we know him for is not the product of institutionalized learning — they’re the result of Leonardo’s own efforts. More specifically, his observations and experiments.

When it comes to learning, Leonardo puts a heavy emphasis on experience. He doubts people who like to cite experts but spend no independent effort on becoming experts themselves. He said:

“They will say that I, having no literary skill, cannot properly express that which I desire to treat of, but they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words. And [experience] has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will cite her in all cases. Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: on experience, the mistress of their masters.”

To become a master at any trade, one has to actually experience that trade. Everyone can read books about engineering, for instance, but not everyone can become an engineer. They have to actually practice the craft.

Change “engineer” with any other profession and the lesson will still apply.

School can be a solid source of enlightenment, but no one can become a master unless they move beyond the classroom and into the real world.

4. Seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake

When you eat ice cream, do you eat it because of its nutritional value? I would say no, otherwise, you would’ve gone for a salad instead. One reason for that could be because we associate ice cream’s taste with “happiness” and salad’s nutrition with “usefulness.”

Many of us have a similar association with playing and learning. Playing equals happy, and learning equals useful. We only learn when we think it’ll help in our career, or when we need a good grade to pass a class in university. Or, worse yet, only to look smart in front of others and garner their praise.

But why does it have to be like that? What if you indulge your curiosity like you indulge your appetite? What if you learn whatever you want to, not just what’s useful or what’s demanded of you?

As we see in Leonardo’s observation on the woodpecker’s tongue, a piece of practically useless knowledge can also be a source of joy. Sometimes, seeking knowledge for its own sake is enough. Maybe you’ll find a use for it later, but even if you don’t, at least you’ve enjoyed the process. That’s already a win.

When you associate knowledge itself with happiness, not just usefulness, it becomes almost impossible to stop learning — you’ll crave it like ice cream.

5. Purposeful procrastination

This one might sound weird at first. After all, do I need to tell you to procrastinate? If you’re like me, you already procrastinate so much it’s become a problem. If anything, you want to get rid of this habit, not adopt it. But Leonardo can give us a different perspective.

He once said:

“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”

Sometimes, when Leonardo is struck by inspiration, he doesn’t immediately act on it. Instead, he dwells on that inspiration and lets it shapeshift and evolve. Once he knows for sure what form he can give it, only then he started creating.

When painting The Last Supper, for example, sometimes he stares at the canvas for an entire hour, makes a single stroke, and that’s it. He leaves and continues another day. But now we see how magnificent that painting is.

If you do it purposefully, procrastination can be a powerful tool.

Think of it like this: A steak that’s marinated for 30 minutes, and another that’s marinated for an entire day — which one do you think tastes better? Honestly, it depends, but you’ll have a better chance with the second one, simply because the seasoning has more time to seep into the meat.

Creativity is kind of like that. When an idea comes to you, sometimes you shouldn’t act on it right away. Let it marinate in your mind. Play around with it, imagine what strange things can you do with it. If you do it right, the resulting idea will be far more interesting than its initial form.

6. Timely perfectionism

Still related to the previous point, this one is also a bit controversial. Isn’t perfectionism bad for learning?

“Real artists ship,” Steve Jobs famously said. What matters more than creating one immaculate art is creating a hundred good-enough ones, because the process will teach you many important lessons. But he underwent a long process before he arrived at that conclusion.

Jobs used to be a perfectionist, not wanting to release a device unless its motherboard looks beautiful — a motherboard, mind you, not a screen or a logo. Who sees a motherboard? Almost no one. You have to crack the device open to see it, after all. But Jobs wanted every aspect to be perfect, even the ones not visible from the outside.

Leonardo is the same. To him, an artwork is not finished until it’s perfect. That’s why he often leaves his work unfinished. “Finished but imperfect” is not in his vocabulary, so he’d rather they stay unfinished forever. Examples of this are The Battle of Anghiari and Adoration of the Magiwhich are both paintings that Leonardo left unfinished until his passing.

Often, perfectionism runs contrary to improvement. Your obsession with perfection can hinder you from making mistakes and reflecting on the lessons. The main goal in learning is to do your best even if it’s imperfect, improve in the process, then move on to the next work and do better with it.

Yes, that’s true. But learning is not a static process.

There will be times when your goal is to create the best work — not “the best you can possibly make,” but “the best, period.” And during those moments, there is no greater virtue than perfectionism.

7. Connecting everything to everything else

This is my favorite quote from Leonardo:

Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

Perhaps, the biggest fallacy of modern education is that we’ve put knowledge into separate boxes when it’s supposed to be a unified entity.

Science, art, history, philosophy — they’re all supposed to work in tandem. They inform and expand on each other. They fill each other’s gaps. After all, they have the same purpose: To help us make sense of the universe.

By separating knowledge into silos, we’re breaking the universe into fragments, and this way we will never understand it in its entirety.

Geniuses like Leonardo, however, know that a fragmentary approach is incorrect. There is a science to art, just as there’s an art to science. Everything is connected to everything else — and we should learn to see that connection.

Final Thoughts

Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

To recap, here are the takeaways I’ve learned from Leonardo’s biography:

  1. Be relentlessly curious
  2. Don’t just see, observe
  3. Don’t just study, experience
  4. Seek knowledge for its own sake
  5. Procrastinate (purposefully)
  6. Be perfectionistic when you need to
  7. Connect everything to everything else

I have tried implementing these seven habits in my own life (that’s habit no. 3: Experience!) and I honestly think they’re worth a shot.

Some of them already come naturally anyway, like no. 4 — I learn because I enjoy it, I’ve always been like that. Maybe you already identify with one (or more) of these habits as well? Good, then you won’t be starting from zero.

Lastly, a tiny note: I’m not a historian. While I did my due diligence when writing this piece, I encourage you to do your own. Although even if we dismiss the historical accuracy and remove Leonardo’s name from this article, these seven habits can still be useful to adopt.

Finding Italy’s Oldest Pharmacy

Hiding in the centre of Florence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Restoration