Let’s Play Medical Detective with These Famous Paintings

I spy van Gogh’s depression, Bronzino’s syphilis, and way too many goiters

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (detail), Agnolo Bronzino, 1542 | Public Domain

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.

Vincent van Gogh — Dr. Paul Gachet | Public Domain

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.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Agnolo Bronzino, 1542 | Public Domain

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…

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (detail), Agnolo Bronzino, 1542 | Public Domain

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.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (detail), Agnolo Bronzino, 1542 | Public Domain

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

Opisthotonos, Sir Charles Bell, 1809 | Public Domain

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.

The Descent from the Cross, Rogier van der Weyden, 1435, | Public Domain

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.

The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, Caravaggio, 1607 | Public Domain

Others are more subtle.

Christ Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, 6th century AD | Public Domain

You can also find a lot of Madonna and Child scenes with the bulge.

Madonna col Bambino, Andrea Mantegna 1465 | Public Domain

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.

Bacchus’ flatulence

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1522–23 | Public Domain

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.

Bacchus and Ariadne (detail), Titian, 1522–23 | Public Domain

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

The Mystery Of Symbols In Art

Decoding the obscure language of iconography

Photo by Juan Di Nella on Unsplash

The symbolic language of art is a language of intrigue and meaning.

Did you know that a lily means purity, or an ostrich egg signifies virginity? (More of that later).

One art historian, Erwin Panofsky, likened the language of artistic symbols to that of gestures between people. He imagined walking along the street and being greeted by an acquaintance who lifts his hat in friendliness:

“This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others.”[1]

We don’t lift our hats anymore, probably because we don’t wear hats or else we don’t want to mess our hair up. The point is that signs and symbols communicate ideas, and those symbols have a wonderful history.

For me, one of the great pleasures of visiting an art gallery is in exploring the possible meanings of the works on display. After all, every picture tells a story, yet for many visitors the language of art is a mystery.

Woodcut print from a 1618 edition of Cesare Ripa’s ‘Iconologia’. Shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

For centuries, artists have drawn on a rich collection of stories, from ancient Greek and Roman myths to the stories told in the Old and New Testaments. As the centuries passed, a language of symbols developed so that artists could tell these stories with deeper and more intricate emphasis.

People still read the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and thanks to blockbuster films, the names of ancient gods and characters such as Jupiter, Achilles and Helen are still alive in our imaginations. The Bible too — upon which so much of Western art is based — continues to be read. Yet for the understanding of art, it is useful to know not just the stories but also the ‘rules’ that artists followed (and sometimes broke) in order to depict these stories.

It also makes a trip to an art gallery far more enjoyable.

Legends and Lore

As a student of art history, one of my biggest delights was to come into contact with some of the more esoteric sources of pictorial conventions. One such text, for instance, which had a huge influence on Christian symbolism, is the Golden Legend.

Folio Page from “The Golden Legend” by Jacobus de Varagine (1228–1298). Printed by Anton Koberger, 1488. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

Written around 1275 by a Dominican friar called Jacobus de Varagine, the Golden Legend is a compilation of the lives of the saints and legends of the Virgin, as well as other stories relating to the Christian calendar.

Since the Golden Legend is a collection of traditional folklore about the saints; you won’t find these stories in the Bible. The tales of martyrdom and heroism were widely read in medieval Europe, and as such entered the vocabulary of artists and the conventions of their work.

To give an example, if you see a figure in a painting holding a palm leaf, then they are almost certainly a martyred Christian saint whose story is told in the Golden Legend.

St. Lucy, by Francesco Zaganelli (c. 1475–1532). Tempera and gold on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915. Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Here is a painting of St. Lucy by the Italian painter Francesco Zaganelli. The green palm leaf she is holding in her left hand tells us straight away that she is saint who came to her death because of persecution.

The association of palm leaves with saintliness comes from the feast of Palm Sunday, a celebration in Christianity commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when palm branches were placed along his path.

The symbolism of the palm branch in fact stretches back to the ancient world, where it was a symbol of victory and peace. A victorious athlete competing in ancient Greece, for instance, was awarded a palm as a symbolic prize. The palm also has a place in the Muslim tradition where, as a symbol of peace, it is associated with heavenly Paradise.

In the Western artistic tradition, individual Christian saints such as Lucy and Catherine can be further distinguished by objects they tend to be holding or stood beside. These items are known as ‘attributes’.

Let’s examine the case of St Lucy in a bit more detail, since she offers a good example of how pictorial traditions actually help embroider stories.

St Lucy lived in Italy, and died around 304 during a widespread persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. She was a real historical figure, yet her depictions in art tend to focus on legends.

As the above image shows, Lucy holds a palm leaf to indicate her martyrdom. Sometimes she is shown at the moment of her death, which was said to have occurred by a knife to the throat.

Saint Lucy, by Francesco del Cossa (c. 1430 — c. 1477). Source Wikimedia Commons

Not all depictions of Lucy are quite so gruesome, however. Since her name comes from the Latin lux, meaning ‘light’, she is sometimes shown holding a candle or oil lamp. Most common of all, she is shown holding a pair of eyes, sometimes held between her fingers and sometimes resting on a plate in her hand or else sprouting from a stalk. Originally the eyes were given to her simply as an allusion to her name, and developed as a convention since she became associated with the protection of people’s eyesight. Legends were later developed to give additional meaning to the eyes: in one story she was said to have had her eyes gouged out by a tyrant; in another she plucked them out herself to subdue an admirer who would not stop praising them.

Mary’s Flora

As with all symbols in art, the rules are never hard and fast. A palm leaf indicates a martyred saint, but sometimes a palm leaf is used as specific attribute of an individual saint too: in depictions of John the Evangelist, who is the presumed author of the fourth gospel, he is sometimes shown holding a palm leaf. This relates the Virgin Mary on her deathbed, at which moment she is said to have handed him her palm. Again, this is an apocryphal story – in other words, it doesn’t appear in the Bible.

‘The Death of the Virgin’ by Andrea Mantegna (c.1431–1506). Source

Look at this painting of the Death of the Virgin by Andrea Mantegna. We can now identify the figure on the left in the green robe as John the Evangelist, since he is clearly holding a palm leaf. With a bit more detective work, we could probably identify all the other figures surrounding the dying Mary. One thing is for certain: they are all holy or sanctified people, because of the halos hovering above their heads.

As well as a palm leaf, another item of flora that is often seen in association with the Virgin Mary art is a lily flower, the presence of which indicates her purity.

One theme of the Virgin’s life in which a lily is nearly always present is the Annunciation, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. The Annunciation was the moment that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced she would conceive and bear a son.

Annunciation’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Sharedunder CC BY-SA 4.0

Sometimes the lily is in a vase; at other times the angel is shown carrying is, as in Leonardo’s painting. Why a lily? Well, since the event occurred nine months before the Nativity, the events of the Annunciation were calculated to have occurred on 25 March. The spring setting gave rise to the motif of the flower, which later refined to a lily. Leonardo decided to give his painting an all-over spring feel, with a lush carpet of flowers beneath Gabriel’s feet.

The Virgin Mary became deeply revered during the late medieval and Renaissance periods. For the Christian Church, the Virgin Mary emerged as the Purissima or ‘most pure’ of figures. It’s for this reason that she appears often as the subject of art, sometimes through episodes of her life, as we have seen, and sometimes as the mother figure of Christ.

Adam’s Apple

In Western art, paintings of the Virgin and Childwere extremely popular. They are so numerous that it is impossible to find a single set of conventions to which they all accord. Here is just one detail which is always worth looking out for.

‘ Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels’ by Quentin Massys (1466–1530). Source Wiki Commons.

The symbol of an apple was sometimes taken up by painters when depicting the infant Christ, for instance, in this painting by Quentin Matsys, which shows the Christ Child held by his mother. Now, if you look closely to the left side of the painting, at the bottom of the column is an apple.

Why an apple? In fact, apples are one of the most prevalent fruit in all of Western art, and have several meanings depending on the context. Probably most well-known of all apples is the one that Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden.

According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans, created by God in his own image. God placed them in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise where the only rule was not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Unfortunately, a serpent tempted Eve to eat some of the ‘forbidden fruit’, and when she also gave some to Adam, they both recognized their nakedness and covered themselves with a fig leaf. This symbolic act was in recognition of their shame at disobeying God’s orders.

‘The Fall of Man’ by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). SourceWiki Commons

In paintings of this scene, the forbidden fruit is typically shown as an apple, sometimes proffered by the snake hanging down from a tree, and sometimes held in Eve’s hand as she passes it to Adam.

So what about Christ’s apple? The purpose of showing the Christ child with an apple is to connect Him to the story of Adam and Eve: if Adam and Eve were responsible for the ‘fall’ of humankind, then Christ is suggested as being the redeemer. The symbol of an apple is a way of uniting the stories into a grander narrative, reaching back in time and stretching into the future.

Ostrich Eggs

The history of art is replete with symbols both commonplace and cryptic. To end this cursory look at symbols in art, I thought I’d share one of the more obscure reverences in the tradition, and one of my favorites too.

‘San Zaccaria Altarpiece’ (1505) by Giovanni Bellini (c.1430–1516). Source Wikiart

Take this painting by Giovanni Bellini. It shows Mary and Christ surrounded by fours saints, positioned symmetrically about the throne. The overall style of painting is known as a sacra conversazione, a tradition in Christian painting where several saints are gathered together around the Virgin.

Among the riches of this painting, one fascinating detail is at the very top of the picture, so easy to miss: an ostrich egg hanging from a chord.

What is an ostrich egg doing hanging in mid-air like that? Well, how much do you know about incubation habits of ostriches?

It is now known that ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests, which consist of little more than a pit scraped into the ground. The eggs are incubated by the females in the day and by the males at night.

However, in medieval times, the ostrich — a much admired bird at the time — was commonly believed to bury its eggs in sand and allow the heat of the sun to carry out the incubation. On account of the young emerging without parental involvement, it was thought that the ostrich egg was an ideal symbol of the virginity of Mary — a theologically tricky concept for which parallels in nature were sought.

So the ostrich egg was a symbol Mary’s virginity, which is why it has pride of place at the very top of this painting.

Next time you’re at a dinner party, see if you can squeeze that one into the conversation

How to Find the Remarkable Symbolism in this Italian Masterpiece

Decoding The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Virgin Mary. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Peacock, oriental rug and a caged goldfinch. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.)

Illusionistic fruit and veg. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Florence and Livy’s History of Rome: What’s the connection?

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.

Left: Engraving of Livy after Nicolas Beatrizet, c. 1582. Right: Florence, Italy.

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

Detail from Piero Strozzi’s illuminated copy of the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita.

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 populi libri 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.

Photo of Florence by Pedro Mealha

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.

Detail from Story of Lucretia attributed to Sandro Botticelli, cassone or spalliera panel, c. 1496 — 1504.

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.

Detail of Story of Mucius Scaevola attributed to The Florentine Master, cassone panel, c. 1480.

References

[1] G. Billanovich, ‘Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 14, №3/4, 1951, p. 182.

[2] Petrarch, ‘To Titus Livy’ in Fam., XXIV, 8.

[3] Martial, 14.190.

[4] See Footnote 1, p. 176.

[5] D. R. Kelley, ‘Renaissance Retrospection’ in Faces of History, 1999, p. 137.

[6] J. C. Robbins, ‘The Art of History: Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and the Visual Arts of the Early Italian Renaissance.’, 2004, p. 113.

How Fresco Painting Works: Art Fundamentals

A difficult technique with unique artistic results

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

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

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

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

The second quality of fresco is that it must be made with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again. This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear-sighted designs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Treboux