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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The Allure of Evil in Art

The victim, the witness and the perpetrator

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

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

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

Victim

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

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619

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

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

Witness

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

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

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

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850

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

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

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1599

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

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

Perpetrator

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

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

William Blake, Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels, 1808

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

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

Conclusion

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

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.

Recent Restoration

How the Renaissance Revolutionised Art & Creativity

An explanation of a major turning point in Western art and culture

David (1501-04) by Michelangelo. Marble. The Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Italy. Image source by Steve Barkeron Unsplash

Beginning in the early 15th century, Western culture underwent a major turning point, characterised by a new confidence in the possibilities of human thought and creativity. It was a moment in time when art became intellectualised, and artists and architects began to establish themselves as individuals with singular talents.

That turning point was the Renaissance.

What does it mean?

The word Renaissance is a familiar term in the history of art. It is a French word that comes from the Italian rinascimento, meaning “rebirth”.

In other words: there was once a birth of cultural excellence, and now, from around 1400 onwards, there emerged a rebirth of the same excellence. But a rebirth of what exactly?

The simple answer is a rebirth of the values relating to ancient culture, most especially the Classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Renaissance centred largely around Italy, where a profound interest in classical antiquity was spurred on by the rediscovery of old texts by authors like Aristotle and Archimedes, and by the recovery of ancient sculptures that were presumed lost. Admirers of the ancient world saw the Classical past as a time of rational thought, prescient philosophical enquiry, and the emergence of human-centred systems of understanding.

With new ideas spreading, the arts began to flourish under a concentration of commissions from influential patrons, most notably the powerful Medici family which ruled Florence for more than 60 years. Many of these patrons wished to link their own status with the eminence of the ancient world and the creativity of the present one. Painters and sculptors were were in demand like never before.

In short, ancient Greece and Rome became idealised as high-points in human civilisation. To be influenced by them and to draw on their philosophies was therefore seen as the very best sign of good taste and learning.

Old books rediscovered

Several things spurred on this interest in the classical past. One of them was the rediscovery of old texts.

An example is the writings of Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who wrote an enormous encyclopaedia covering the full breadth of ancient knowledge. It is from his Natural History, published in around 77 AD, that scholars were able to read about ancient painters like Apelles and Zeuxis, whose works were praised by Pliny for their high levels of naturalism. In one story told by Pliny, Zeuxis entered a painting contest with a rival artist; when he unveiled his painting of a bunch of grapes, birds flew down to peck at the fruit, so lifelike was their appearance.

Stories like this gave the classical past a certain idealised character which artists wished to imitate and learn from.

In architecture and sculpture too, the vocabulary of antique forms and their a search for a perfect harmony of parts inspired the likes of Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to build the famous dome of Florence Cathedral. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’ The Ten Books of Architecture (written between 30 and 15 BC) meant that the architectural principles of antiquity could be observed and developed in detail.

A comparison of the ionic order according to Roman architect Vitruvius based on ‘The Ten Books of Architecture’ (written between 30 and 15 BC) with actual examples and with Vignola’s order. Image source Project Gutenburg

People on the move

One of the key factors in the emergence of the Renaissance was the way ideas moved around the European continent as people travelled.

One major event was the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by Ottoman soldiers in 1453. Before this point, Constantinople had been the capital city of Byzantium, otherwise known as the Eastern Roman Empire — an extension of the Roman Empire into eastern territories that had lasted for a thousand years, even beyond the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Rome.

As a major city situated between Europe and the Middle East, Constantinople had become home to large numbers of ancient texts, many written in their original Greek. When the attacking Ottoman army overtook the city, refugees made their escape and travelled west. Along with their personal possessions, they took with them valuable items relating to their culture and community, including numerous Greek texts.

Humanism in Italy

In numerous respects, Italy was ripe for the seeds of ancient learning to take root. It was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe thanks to extensive trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Florence, above all, was extremely wealthy and supported a strata of diplomats and scholars who were well-versed in Latin and Greek.

Within this fertile setting, a new movement known as humanism began to emerge. Humanism promoted the idea that man was the centre of his own universe, and that the achievements of literature, art, rational thought and science should begin to rival the dominancy of the Christian worldview.

One such individual central to the humanist movement was Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444). With careful reading of ancient texts, Bruni came up with his own version of how society should be organised, based on ideals of civic virtue and the forms of government found in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic.

Bruni exemplified the Renaissance concept of humanism, a belief in the potential of human beings to order themselves more wisely and to live more fairly and prosperously. Bruni’s translations of Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics were widely distributed in manuscript and in print.

Ancient artefacts reconsidered

The Belvedere Torso was a fragmentary statue carved sometime around the 1st century BC. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 15th century in Rome, most likely excavated from among the ancient ruins. Over the course of the next hundred years, the marble sculpture gained admirers and went on to become a significant point of reference for Michelangelo and many other artists working in Renaissance Italy.

The Belvedere Torso (c. 1st century BC) by Apollonius. Marble. Pio-Clementio Museum in the Vatican City. Source Wikimedia Commons

The Belvedere Torso was one of many works whose style and technique were thought to express the perfection of the ancient past. After its discovery, the statue slowly began to attract the attention of artists and scholars, many of whom made detailed drawings of the object.

For the artist Michelangelo especially, the life-likeness of the sculpture, combined with the way it idealises the male form, was symbolic of the sculptor’s powers of creation. He admired the contorted pose of the torso, how it twists around on itself to bring out the muscularity of the whole body. It indicated to him how an artist can mirror nature and even transcend it to become an independent and creative force through his own endeavour.

The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel (c. 1511) by Michelangelo. Fresco. Vatican Museums. Source Wikimedia Commons

It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the influence of the Belvedere Torso in Michelangelo’s own art, some of which have gone on to become the most famous images ever made.

In the scene of The Creation of Adam painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in around 1511, Adam’s body is reminiscent of the ancient statue. The muscular definition of Adam’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are turned to allow Michelangelo to delineate the structure of the muscles, have their roots in the Belvedere sculpture.

Detail of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” (Sistine Chapel) showing Saint Bartholomew holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin, (1535–1541). Fresco. Source Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, in The Last Judgement fresco, painted on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, the figure identified as Saint Bartholomew — who, rather morbidly, is seen holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin — assumes a posture that is clearly drawn from the Belvedere model.

Most noticeably is the arrangement of the Saint’s legs, which sit astride the cloud. Michelangelo used variations of this posture in several of his sculptures as well as in his paintings. The marble statue of Victory (c.1519) and the Rebellious Slave (1513) both adopt a similarly turn-twist motion, with the legs askew and the upper body turned to one side.

The Belvedere Torso remained popular with artists across the centuries that followed. In the 17th century, the painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) made sketches of the statue, whose monumental energy can clearly be seen in his overall painting style.

Later, in the 18th century, Antonio Canova (1757–1822) continued to draw inspiration from the torso for his Neo-classical sculptures. And in the 19th century, the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is thought to have used the Belvedere statue as inspiration for his work The Thinker.

Belvedere Torso (c. 1602) by Peter Paul Rubens. Pencil and black chalk on paper. Source Wikimedia Commons

And so it’s possible to trace the chain of influence — from a lost ancient Greek sculpture, to a Roman copy made by Apollonius, itself lost until its rediscovery in Renaissance Rome, through the various artworks made by subsequent generations of painters and sculptors. In this way, the Belvedere Torso helps us to understand how ancient Classical art was venerated by European artists, and how its influence helped shape the art of the last 500 years.

The effect of historians

It is perhaps easy to imagine that the events which we now call the Renaissance were somehow a triumphant revolution in intellectual life.

Yet many modern historians have begun to reconsider this idea, arguing that the so-called “Dark Ages” or Middle Ages out of which the Renaissance emerged were not quite as dark as once supposed. An example might be the soaring gothic cathedrals of the High and Late Middle Ages, hugely impressive achievements that went out of favour in the mid-15th century.

Likewise, the Islamic Golden Age that occurred across North Africa and the Middle East, as mentioned above, was a period of cultural and scientific flourishing, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 14th century.

In fact, it would take several influential historians to make it seem as if the Renaissance was a more radical break with the past than the evidence suggests. As such, we have to except that to some degree the Renaissance was an invention of historians as much as a reality.

Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) remained the principle guide for late 19th century students of the subject and provides one of the defining accounts of the Renaissance. Through his in-depth study of the individual components of the Italian state, Burckhardt established the Italian Renaissance as a period of world-historical significance, a homogenous moment delivered on a national scale — and with it, a sharp break from the Middle Ages that came before.

Ongoing debates

There is no doubt that the Renaissance was a profound cultural movement that affected European life in all intellectual spheres. What is disputed is the exact beginnings and ending of the movement, and to what extent it was an Italian phenomena or if it was continent-wide.

Terms like the Northern Renaissance capture important intellectual events that were taking place north of the Alps, from Netherlandish painting to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the first movable-type printing press. The idea of a Renaissance in the north counterbalances the Italy-centric view of the period.

Nevertheless, the term Renaissance remains a widely recognised label for the multifaceted period that came before the modern era. With far-reaching developments in science and astronomy, and most especially art, alongside the decline of the feudal system and the growth of commerce, the Renaissance must be understood as a vital cornerstone of Western history

Ann Treboux

How to Read Paintings: The Alba Madonna by Raphael

A masterpiece of composition and powerful elegance

The Alba Madonna (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons(public domain).

I find that the more you look at this painting, The Alba Madonna by Raphael, the more compelling it becomes.

Let your eyes explore the shape and form of the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak, for instance. See how it gently dominates the scene, not only unifying the three figures in the picture by holding them within its folds, but also seeming to rest so naturally around Mary’s form, over her outstretched leg and onto the ground beneath her.

The effect is not only to create a harmonious composition, but also to establish the peace and integrity of the holy family — Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist — in visual form.

Raphael has the somewhat dubious distinction of being called a “perfect” painter. So many of his works have the aspects of serenity and inner harmony that it can be all too easy to stop looking at them with any degree of scrutiny. He was not a painter of mysterious or violent scenes. Instead, his artistic efforts went in search of a different type of mystery — a pursuit of harmonious beauty. Yet it was a search that is no less fascinating.

Detail of ‘The Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Images of the Virgin Mary and Christ as a young child — otherwise known as the Madonna and Child — have a long history in Western art. The earliest examples can be found in the Christian catacombs in Rome that date as far back as the 3rd century. This painting, made in around 1510, marks one of the great achievements in Renaissance art.

Perhaps what is initially most striking about the Alba Madonna painting its the circular form. This is a so-called “tondo” painting, from the Italian rotondo meaning “round”.

Numerous legends sprung up over the centuries that sought to explain why Raphael painted in the tondo-form. Most of them rehearse the cliche of the itinerant artist moving from place to place, who, thanks to his spontaneity and exceptional talent, was able to paint on anything that came to hand — in this case, a circular panel from a wooden barrel.

One of many studies for the ‘Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In truth, Raphael was a far more considered artist than these stories give him credit for. To have simply grabbed the first piece of wood that came his way was wholly unlikely. In fact, the tondo-form was popular in Florentine painting, and had its roots in Greek antiquity.

Raphael made numerous sketched studies for the Alba Madonna, and these show that the tondo-form was present in his thoughts throughout the planning process.

The sketches also offer a crucial insight into Raphael’s working technique, not least how he worked through various ideas of the composition, looking for ways to interlock the three figures in a rhythmic pattern within the circle.

The Alba Madonna is notable for showing Mary sat on the ground next to a tree stump. This follows the lesser-known tradition in Christian art known as the “Madonna of Humility”, in which images of the Virgin show her sat on the floor or on a low cushion, indicating her humbleness.

Detail of ‘The Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Raphael worked especially hard to arrange the three figures in a harmonious group, using their line-of-sight to forms an intimate and rhythmic unity. He also learned from artists around him. The upturned gaze of John the Baptist, for example, was a technique common in paintings from Urbino, where Raphael first trained under the artist Perugino.

Composition always played a vital role in Raphael’s work. The precise arrangement of elements in the painted space give his work an inner unity and structural balance. See how, for example, the head of John the Baptist is slightly larger than that of Christ, as a means of balancing out the interplay of looking, and how Jesus holds John’s staff, so physically linking the figures.

Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, Raphael made use of geometrical shapes in his compositions to elevate his art towards the Renaissance ideal of mathematical harmony. A few year before making the Alba Madonna, Raphael painted the Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna del Prato), also known as the Madonna del Belvedere after the Viennese castle where it hung for many years.

Madonna in the Meadow (1505–1506), by Raphael. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source (public domain). Edited by author.

In this work, there is an obvious pyramidal composition. Mary’s head creates the top of a triangle shape; the points of the base are made by her extended right foot and the toes of John the Baptist (bottom-left). There is an inner triangle too, formed between the two children and the shape of Mary’s reaching arm. The unified format gives the work an architectural structure, yet with an inner movement provided by the smaller triangle.

As Raphael’s work grew in maturity, his reliance on the pyramid evolved into a more complex blend of structural elements. In the The Alba Madonna, the triangular composition is still present, but it is allowed to flex with a degree of musicality that is new to Raphael’s work. An elliptical movement between various points of interest creates a beautiful rhythm across the work.

Composition structures of ‘The Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Edited by author.

The year Raphael made the Alba Madonna, he’d been in Rome for two years. He’d moved there in 1508, summoned by Pope Julius II to decorate the personal apartments in the Vatican. Before Rome, Raphael had based himself in Florence, which was one of the great artistic centres of Italy at the time. Raphael he learned from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and in the spirit of the times, imitated many of their techniques in his own work.

The end painting, then, was not arrived at by chance or spontaneous inspiration, but by a careful and thorough working-out. The sketches he made in preparation for the painting also confirm the manner in which Raphael looked to other artists for inspiration, conforming to the prevailing theory of the times in which learning from other artists was seen as essential for creativity and invention. Vasari put is like this: “The most gracious Raphael of Urbino, who, studying the works of old and modern masters, took the best from all, and having gathered them together, enriched the art of painting with that complete perfection.”

Ann Treboux