The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So in the first part of this post, I’ve argued that Michelangelo’s women had access to female models, and that his use of male models for female figures wasn’t unusual. The other thing that is often mentioned in class is that Michelangelo was gay and thus somehow had an inbuilt distaste, or even inability, to portray women’s bodies accurately. Now, without getting too closely into the fluidity of sexual identities in the Renaissance/early modern period (if you’re interested, a great starting point is the essays in Judith Brown and Robert Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy), I don’t think it’s possible in this period that a person’s sexuality can be taken as a straightforward explanation for his or her artistic choices. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t explain why this type of image should be popular with a broader audience.
There are two easier explanations: 1) androgynous bodies were thought to be beautiful in the Renaissance, 2) artistic nudes weren’t meant to be realistic.
The boundaries between male and female were conceived differently in renaissance culture than they are today. Thomas Laqueur has argued in relation to renaissance anatomical practice that at this time there was “only one canonical body and that body was male”. Although people have objected to what Laqueur has called the “one-sex model”, it seems to have been a highly influential way of understanding sexual difference in the renaissance. The idea was that the normative human body was male, and that women’s bodies were simply imperfect versions of men’s. For this reason, in early anatomical books, the bodies used to demonstrate human physiology are always male unless the female reproductive system is specifically being studied
Women, after all, were related to Eve who was created from Adam’s rib. Leone Ebreo in his Dialogues of Love (written from the 1490s but first published in 1535) explains that when God created Adam, he was a complete human, containing both male and female parts; Eve was created from his rib whilst he was sleeping, as women represent the imperfect, passive and corporeal aspect of men – who are representative of the intellectual and spiritual tendencies of humans.
Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist, 1513-16, Paris, Louvre
No wonder then, that for some in the renaissance, the most beautiful women were those who looked the most like that perfect original form. Like is attracted to like, Marsilio Ficino explained: “Women truly easily capture men, and even more those women who bear a masculine character. And even more easily, men catch men, as they are more like men than are women”. Ficino’s follower, Mario Equicola, claimed in 1525 that “the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect”. This was shown to comic effect in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, where he tells a story of a dinner party where he brought his young and beautiful model, Diego, dressed up as a woman, and Diego was declared the most beautiful of all the ladies. There are plenty of images of feminine-looking young men in the Renaissance that show the interest in male androgyny too – many of Leonardo da Vinci’s male figures look feminine (hence the non-controversy about John the Evangelist “really” being Mary Magdalen that Dan Brown talked about in the Da Vinci code).
There are good reasons, therefore, beyond convenience, why renaissance artists might study a male r model as the basis for their female figures. What we need to do when looking at this type of renaissance nude is to disassociate ourselves from expectations of naturalism and to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful.
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 TheBattle of Anghiariand Adoration of the Magi, which 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.
To recap, here are the takeaways I’ve learned from Leonardo’s biography:
Be relentlessly curious
Don’t just see, observe
Don’t just study, experience
Seek knowledge for its own sake
Be perfectionistic when you need to
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.
The artist connects (mostly unknowingly) to other realms, other eras, other timeframes. The artist peers into the future, the artist repurposes the past; the artist walks with the greats, past, present and future, and learns from.
And for all her pains, for all that the artist brings back from these exotic escapades, very rarely does the artist get recognition. Very rarely does she get success. Very rarely does she get fame.
But this is not what no one tells the artist. She will come to find that out on her own. If she’s lucky. And even if she doesn’t, the real pain in her life will come from an entirely different source.
What no one really tells the artist is who she really is.
What no one really tells the artist is where all her creations really come from.
What no one really tells the artist is what her art is meant for.
And so the artist assumes. And pays a steep price for it. What began as elation and motivation soon becomes a burden when it is not understood.
What once a source of living soon turns into a prison of isolation and misunderstanding.
What once could be relied on as a source of inspiration soon becomes a horror channel of surreal information and nightmarish suggestions.
All because no one ever told the artist.
But if no one tells the artist, can the artist at least ask?
Sure. Of course. That is one of the things I can encourage. And I am not one to encourage anything.
One of the reasons I don’t this is because with the encouragement I have above, I expect a follow up question like the one below:
Who does the artist ask?
I submit that this is not a very useful question; there are few people you will meet in your life capable of answering such questions.
A better question would be, ‘what does the artist ask?’
Very good. Now we are getting somewhere if you are asking this question. You have some direction you can explore.
And, if you asked the question, you likely consider yourself an artist.
An artist is a person who creates. The field of creation doesn’t matter. What she creates doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the world is aware of the creation or not.
This is not meant to be an answer. It is not a definition. It is a direction to explore if you wish.
How two artists represented the same subject with radical differences
When two artists chose to paint the same subject, the difference between the resulting works can be fascinating.
Here, I look at two paintings, one by Titian and one by Caravaggio, produced just over 70 years apart, both of them depicting the subject of Bacchus — the Greco-Roman god of wine and festivity.
Titian’s depiction, titled Bacchus and Ariadne, shows the marching band of Bacchus and his followers in full abandon. Bacchus himself can be seen in a pink robe leaping out of his chariot towards Ariadne — dressed in blue — with whom he is in love.
Titian completed the work in 1523. Born around 1490, the artist was in his early-thirties at the time. It was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, an Italian duke and an enthusiastic patrons of arts.
Bacchus, also known as Dionysus to the Greeks, was most likely a fertility god in his origins, a vital “life force” who expressed himself in the energy inherent in nature — from the blood in the veins to the sap in the tree. By the 7th century BC, worship of Dionysus was well-established in Greek culture.
The cult of Bacchus was brought to Rome from the Greece, where ecstatic festivals known as Bacchanalia took place, frenzied rituals where devotees are said to have eaten raw flesh and danced to the drumming of tambourines. By the time this image was painted, the lively and passionate spirit of Bacchus had gained meaning as a complimentary opposite to Reason, as personified by Apollo.
Titian’s work follows the tradition established in art, that of showing Bacchus riding a triumphal carriage drawn by wild animals. Behind him, a partially clothed woman clashes a pair of symbols as the Bacchanalia march proceeds.
At her feet is a young satyr, with the face of a boy and the legs of a goat, who drags a calf’s head next to him — an animal probably sacrificed during the festival. The man behind — a sileni or companion of Bacchus — is wrapped in a snake, symbolic of death and rebirth since snakes shed their skin.
The feisty merriment continues onwards: a chanting follower holds a calf’s leg aloft and a staff with vines growing round it, the vine leaf representing wine. The staff is probably a thyrsus, a symbolic wand used to bestow favour or else as a weapon to destroy those who opposed Bacchus’ cult and the freedoms he celebrated.
Titian’s great painting has a clear narrative element too: Bacchus has fallen in love with Ariadne at first sight and asked her to marry him. As he jumps towards her, he offers the sky as a wedding gift, in which one day she would become a constellation — as seen in the scattering of stars in the top-left of the painting.
The two cheetahs pulling the chariot may also be specific references: Alfonso d’Este is known to have had a menagerie at his palace in which he kept a cheetah or a cheetah-like member of the cat family.
Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus contains all the revelry associated with the mythological libertine — only this time it is bubbling beneath the surface rather than on show. The painting expresses a deeply restrained sense of a “storm-beneath-the-calm”, making it a potent work of art for all its quietude.
Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, painted this work at the age of around 24. It was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, an Italian diplomat who became one of Caravaggio’s early patrons.
The painting shows Bacchus as a callow youth. The boy-god is swathed in autumnal vine leaves that drape over a thicket of black hair that itself might be a bunch of black grapes. His cheeks are plump and red. He is half-dressed, clutching the black ribbon of his robe in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He is reclined before a table or stone slab bearing a carafe of wine and a basket of overripe fruit with pomegranate, pear, apple, peach, quince, fig, plum and grape.
In Caravaggio’s work, the setting is opulent yet also far more sedate than the Titian painting. There is little sense of narrative impulse in this painting, only perhaps in the intimacy of the drink being offered.
For me, the force of Caravaggio’s painting lies in two details: the first is the particular shape of the wine glass offered by the boy, a glass so extraordinarily shallow that it seems to emanate decadence itself. The wine inside shimmers with fresh ripples — as if the boy is shaking a little with excitement as he passes it.
All of the energy of the painting is concentrated in this wine glass. There is no Bacchanalian revelry, no tambourine-thumping sileni. The boy seems not the least bit drunk, only placid and self-assured as he welcomes us into his private soirée.
As if to underline the worldly setting, the second detail that always catches my attention is the grubby pillow on the bottom-left of the painting, exposed beneath the sheets, the one with the blue stripe, reminding us that the opulence here is makeshift and temporary.
Along with this sense of the makeshift, there is also something transitory in the feel of the entire piece. The fruit in the basket is beginning to rot and the vine leaves on the boy’s head are turning brown. These elements hint at a vanitasundertone, a symbolic theme in art that attempts to show the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. With this ephemerality and suggestion of impending demise, Caravaggio gives the painting an additional tragic element.
The sensuality of scene is a prominent aspect, and many critics have written about the homoerotic echoes of the work. The art historian Donald Posner, for instance, felt that the latent homoeroticism was actually alluding to Cardinal Del Monte’s sexuality and his relationships with the young boys who frequented his inner circle.
The painting makes use of a simple setting, unlike the rich detail of the Titian work. The sense of place in the Caravaggio work is given simply by a shadow that falls across the backdrop. By no means untouched by trouble in his personal life, Caravaggio would go on to use light and dark in more figurative ways in later paintings, yet without losing the psychological ambiguity he so successfully located in this early Bacchus depiction.