Art Historical Musings

Art Historical Musings: The Contemporary in Encyclopedic Museums

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Thursday, August 25th, 2016

Courting the Contemporary
Art-Historical Museums Follow the Money

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

Enjoying the centuries-old paintings in the gently-lit exhibit on Japanese collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the visitor entering the rooms at the hairpin curve of the u-shaped circuit of galleries was confronted with a narrow, lightly curved, soaring piece of gleaming white metal on a thin, highly-polished, black stone plinth (Slide 2, Fig. 1).  In a space at the very end of her tour, contemporary paintings surrounded a glass sculpture of a deer (Slide 2, Fig. 2) affectionately called “Bubbles” because of its skin of varied-sized glass spheres.

Such incidents have become quite common in encyclopedic/universal art museums, where the primary focus on objects–from all over the world–with aesthetic and historic value has been slowly eroded by a pressing need to attract more people to guarantee enough income to keep this type of art venue alive.  Even a frozen-in-time institution like The Morgan Library and Museum splashed a detail of an Andy Warhol book jacket–decorated with a couple of flirtatious nude angels–on the cover of its Calendar of Events: Winter & Spring 2016 (Slide 3, Fig. 3) to trumpet its upcoming exhibit, Warhol by the Book–a departure from its usual, more staid fare.  In yet another incident of new art keeping company with old, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC situated Roy Lichtenstein’s classically toned painting Entablature on the wall above a quintessentially Canova reclining nude (Slide 3, Fig. 4).

Other manifestations of these contemporary times can be found on the websites of all museums–like that of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Slide 4, Fig. 5), where links to social media like Twitter and Facebook have become de rigueur, and redesigns of logos as part of rebranding campaigns–like the one undertaken by The Met in 2016 (Slide 4, Fig. 6)–attempt to alter perceptions by presenting a more with-it, though aesthetically flawed, veneer.

Museum education programs have morphed, too, into vehicles engineered to engage a more diverse audience.  In the face of this increasing proliferation of contemporary art, new approaches have been developed to help museum goers deal with incomprehensible objects that baffle and irritate them.  Traditional, information-based explanations have in some places yielded to Socratic questioning to elicit viewers’ responses to, and thoughts on, the art object.

When museums turn their spotlights on the contemporary in this way, they are responding to outside forces, primarily those of the marketplace.  Since at least the late eighties, when artists began departing from ordinary means of expression, (painting, drawing, sculpture, even video) and embarking on experiments with largely conceptual and otherwise unusual materials, new art has been edging out its competition.  Increased demand has turned contemporary art into big business, creating a veritable “asset class” of great interest not just to collectors but also to hedge fund managers, who buy low in quantity–driving up prices of little-known artists’ work–and then, after holding onto the objects for an average of two years, sell high–sometimes, in the process, flooding the market.

Growing numbers of collectors with major holdings of contemporary art, looking to place their work strategically–either through loans or outright donations, offer financial support to those institutions receptive to their artists.  Art-historical museums like The Met can’t afford to ignore such a large pool of prospective patrons, but when they invite them and their cohorts–galleries, dealers and auction houses–into their hallowed halls, they risk practicing “checkbook art history.”

When an encyclopedic museum that has historically limited its holdings to that of the past, acquires an art object of a certain age, the effect on the artwork’s market value will be little affected by the positive regard thus bestowed.  But when a piece created by a living artist enters a museum’s permanent collection, all of that artist’s production will increase in value, much to the advantage of the dealer/gallery who represents the artist and has sold it.

These and other dangers have not served as a deterrent to universal museums like The Met in New York–which plans to reconfigure and expand its current modern and contemporary wing, and in 2015 leased from the Whitney its vacated Breuer building (Slide 5, Fig. 7) to mount related exhibitions during that process–and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Slide 5, Fig. 8) in Arkansas–which announced in 2016 its intention to transform an old cheese factory into a display box for new art, explaining how it would become “one of the hottest destinations in the country” and be “huge for the younger generation, the millennials.”  The Met, however, was later forced to put its well-underway program on indefinite hold due to financial troubles, some of which have been ascribed to the outpouring of funds needed to cover the refurbishing and staffing of its new annex.

For boosting numbers, such architectural add-ons are good bets.  The results of a 2015 study found that “[m]useums that expanded between 2007 and 2014 saw their attendance rise significantly faster than museums that did not…,” although in time those gains became less dramatic.

This pressing need to bring in more visitors and hence more money originated in the early nineties when a stagnant economy forced the United States government to question its commitment to funding the arts.  The Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 provided fertile ground for the culture wars that ensued, when politicians like the mayor of New York railed against the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s cutting-edge exhibit Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (Slide 6, Fig. 9), and the Corcoran cancelled its upcoming retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs, bordering on the pornographic (Slide 6, Fig. 10), had the potential to trigger a defunding backlash from the federal government.

Other economic pressures have accrued to art museums in the ensuing years.  Afficionados of contemporary art with large enough collections and deep enough pockets began at the beginning of the twenty-first century to build their own museums rather than target a favored museum as the final resting place for their beloved objects.  The alternative to donations–purchasing art outright–has become less of an option for museums, whose acquisition budgets can’t keep up with prices like that of Amadeo Modigliani’s Recumbent Nude, which sold at auction for $170.4 million (Slide 7, Fig. 11).

In their desperate competition for limited funds, art museums today are trapped in a maelstrom of inexorable growth.  Reduced government spending has led to greater reliance on corporate and individual funding, which requires museums to substantiate their worth with healthy attendance figures.  Nothing does that quite so well as blockbuster exhibitions, whose increased costs call for even more individual donor support.  To attract new patrons, museums have to appeal to their artistic tastes, now overwhelmingly contemporary, with reimagined and expanded old buildings and newly constructed minimalist ones that reflect their art.

Enlargement brings its own challenges.  Growing to resemble major corporations, museums have to meet the demands of their metamorphosis by expanding existing departments like administration, visitor services, development and membership, creating new ones like media relations and establishing novel positions like that of chief digital officer–the holder of which at The Met commands a staff of seventy–all of which costs money.  Increased overhead requires additional income, which calls for more fundraising efforts aimed at corporate sponsors and individual collectors, and forces museums to lure even more people through the door with ever more dramatic exhibitions for which new donors must be found, repeating the cycle ad nauseam.

These financial stresses have bred questionable practices.  Nonprofit museums now extract payments, which they call donations, from galleries whose artists they show, requesting anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 to help cover expenses.  They might also squeeze them for referrals of potential donors.  The larger the gallery, the more it can afford to cooperate, which apparently garners maximum benefits.  Almost a third of major one-person exhibits in the US between 2007 and 2013 went to artists represented by just five galleries, with the figure staggeringly greater for contemporary art museums like the Guggenheim (ninety percent) and the Museum of Modern Art (forty-five percent), a cautionary statistic for art-historical museums that insist on playing in this league.

Artists already represented by big-name galleries become widely known and hence more popular, enticing museums to use as a criterion for inclusion the fame factor.  In its press release about its Collectors Committee’s recent purchases, the National Gallery of Art proudly declared that it had acquired Janine Antoni’s chocolate-and-soap sculpted self-portraits, “Lick and Lather …, arguably her most famous work (Slide 8, Fig. 12).”  [Italics added for emphasis.]

The statement highlights the elusive nature of defining the artistic value of mainly conceptual, contemporary art.  Not only do curators find themselves in competition with sales-related departments like marketing and digital media services, but when they and other apologists for the new are asked to delineate criteria for it, they avoid answering the question.

Art seasoned by time can accrue value over the course of its existence simply by virtue of survival.  Too, historical criteria for its quality and importance will have already been established.  Not so with brand new works that have not been subjected to that test of time.  An art that indiscriminately encompasses every self-defined work as art invites a leveling of expectations and hence quality.

Scholars and other arts writers romantically obsessed with the latest artists and their productions often enjoy cozy relationships with their subjects, depending on them for information and explanations, a situation that impedes the objectivity that time and distance can bestow.  The risk is real that these so-called art historians will become “glorified publicist[s] or ventriloquist[s] for the artist.”  Because the living never remain as constant as the dead, specialists in this field might also find themselves sorting out conflicting responses.

This love affair with the contemporary finds expression in other museum activities.  One example is The Met, which for their rebranding intentions commissioned a design and marketing firm–whose website’s tag line proclaims “We are creative partners to ambitious leaders who want to design radically better businesses”–to construct for it a new logo (Slide 9, Fig. 13) and graphical identity.  The choice of consultant should not surprise anyone who has heard the director of The Met, Thomas Campbell, refer to the museum as a business.

The split between curatorial mission and corporate practices was nowhere more obvious than at a Met staff meeting regularly presided over by Director Campbell during which a representative of the design company presented its ideas to a roomful of curators and other staff in the fall of 2015.  A young student intern confided her shock at the way the woman spoke to the assemblage as if to grade-schoolers who needed simplified instructions to grasp her meaning.

Reactions to the new logo have been almost unanimously negative, including among guards who now display it on their jackets.  In focusing excessively on marketing and other business-like strategies, a museum like The Met risks losing status and public trust.  Several years before he became the former director of The Met, Philippe de Montebello cautioned: “How we market our museums tells much about how we view ourselves, and we should not expect our public to be unaffected by such attitudes.”

In devising strategies to gain new audiences, museums have again looked to business models, shifting from a “selling mode” that uses its wares–art objects–to attract visitors, to a “marketing mode” that researches (e.g., through focus groups) the needs, interests and character of prospective guests to more effectively lure then in.  Museum organizations’ statements reflect this change.  No longer placing emphasis on collection-related activities, they demonstrate a new concern with public service and education, even envisioning museums as instruments of “communal empowerment” and “social change.”

This evolution has not stopped there as museums have sought to become everything to everybody.  One need only look at the proliferation of concerts, dance performances (Slide 10, Fig. 14) and completely novel events like exercise routines (Slide 10, Fig. 15) that have become staples for many of them.  The need of visitors to have a good time, and not that of curators and their collections to inform, has turned the museum experience into one that seeks to provide “…social interaction…spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge,…[and] consumerist indulgence,” even happiness.

That’s in stark contrast to the original purpose of museums, which was to provide a place for experiencing art.  Today the museum not the art has become the destination–as in “let’s go to The Met” as opposed to “let’s go look at some Italian Baroque paintings and sculpture.”

Some of the events offered by these repositories of art have little to do with their contents, although they do have the potential to generate income, like the cash bar on the Great Hall balcony at The Met (Slide, 11, Fig. 16), which on MetFridays becomes a place to meet and hang out with friends (Slide 11, Fig. 17).  Much further south, when Tom Walton announced that Crystal Bridges would be converting an old factory into a space for contemporary art, he envisioned “a ‘kind of living room for the community,’ where art, music, performance and food would be on offer in unexpected ways.”

A contemporary museum like the Guggenheim can unapologetically develop events designed to gather “the ‘in-crowd’ of society” under its roof.  In the late nineties, the museum’s director of communications and sponsorship could unabashedly admit:
“We are in the entertainment business, and competing against other forms of entertainment out there.  We have a Guggenheim brand that has certain equities and properties…[I]f they are here for a party and happen to look at the art and come back again, that’s valuable to us.”
His was the time when many cultural institutions in New York City were beginning to entice new audiences with offerings of up-to-date music and high-styled fashion.

No one summed up this change in targeted audience better than the entrepreneurial former director of the Guggenheim in the 2001 press release on his museum’s partnership with the Venetian Resort Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia:
“…today the profile of a typical Las Vegas visitor increasingly approximates the profile of the visitors upon which every major museum in the world…depends, and to which they communicate.”
Contending with that kind of attitude, curators find themselves called upon to partner with, rather than guide, audiences through their collections.  One trend has museums mounting shows–virtually or on their walls–consisting solely of selections made by “citizen curators,” as if there were no special qualifications for assembling artwork into coherent and informative exhibitions (Slide 12, Fig. 18).

The success of all these schemes has brought crowding and noise to formerly quiet settings conducive to contemplation and extended viewing.  At The Met, the Costume Institute has become notorious for taking over galleries already filled with art, effectively shutting down entire viewing areas for months at a time.  The 2015 show China:Through the Looking Glass obliterated the Chinese galleries, turning them into rooms reminiscent of discotheques–loud music permeating darkened spaces illuminated with bright spotlighting (Slide 13, Fig. 19).

Curators now must consider crowd flow when they lay out galleries, especially for blockbusters–those temporary exhibitions devised to generate massive numbers.  In designing new museum spaces, architects have to choose between cavernous rooms to accommodate the hoards and intimate galleries to provide optimum viewing opportunities for visitors naturally inclined to look at the art.

Museums cannot, however, survive on their gate alone and in addition to relying on the support of individual donors, must also pursue government and corporate funding, contending with a new emphasis on educating children.  The study of art for its own sake no longer qualifies a museum’s existence but now must guarantee the acquisition of important academic and/or other life skills.

Providing enlightenment for both adults and young students about the works of art on display (e.g., their origins, materials, subject matter and former contexts) has been giving way to focusing on the viewers’ perceptions, paralleling the shift to indulging entertainment needs rather than offering up works of art as means of engagement.

The matter remains unsettled, however.  On one side are those who believe in the value of the old way (providing information), and worry about dumbing down museum education, meeting visitors at their current level of knowledge instead of challenging them with more sophisticated fare.  On the opposing side are those who would use art education to teach other skills, including how to look at the art itself–as though a masterpiece could not speak on its own to an untutored audience.

Singlehandedly, modern and contemporary art, now ubiquitous, could easily account for this sea change in approach.  One educator with many years experience observing audience response to new art, noted:
“…both modern and contemporary art can produce a great deal of angst, if not negativity…[Visitors] are confused and often hostile when confronted with, for example, an all black canvas.”
Naturally, he had to distract audience attention from the irritant, redirecting their gaze to their own feelings and thoughts.  After all, what can be said about an all black, or all white, or all red, canvas that isn’t purely conceptual, having nothing at all to do with the thing before one’s eyes?

In the end, visitors voted with their feet for the art that most appealed to them.  In a 2015 compilation of statistics from museums worldwide, art-historical museums monopolized the top five spots (Slide 14, Fig. 20), attesting to the type of museum experience the viewer still prefers.  Encyclopedic museums would do well to take stock of the treasures they already possess rather than looking elsewhere for solutions to their financial woes.

Like Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “…you’ve always had the power (Slide 15, Fig. 21).”  It’s time for art-historical museums to click those ruby slippers together and return home to what they alone know how to do so well.

[To get a copy of this paper with the endnotes, send your request to]


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Art Historical Musing: The Drawings of Annibale Carracci

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Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Drawn to Perfection:
Annibale Carracci
Works on Paper

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slide 1:  Title]
[slide 2:  Self-Portrait [Autoritratto col cappello “a quatre’acque”] (April 17, 1593, oil on canvas, 9½ x 7? in [24 x 20 cm]).  Galleria Nazionale, Parma, Italy.]

Legend has it that when Annibale Carracci was a young boy returning to Bologna with his father from a trip to Cremona and they were set upon by robbers, the lad’s precocious ability to render in line what presented itself to his eye aided in the apprehension of the criminals.  The youthful Annibale sketched the culprits from memory so accurately that they were easily recognized and brought to justice quickly enough to ensure return of his father’s stolen money.1

While that and other stories that grew up around the famed artistic family of Carracci might well be apocryphal, the existence of these tales of artistic prowess do bear witness to the high regard in which the two brothers and their cousin were held, and in particular to Annibale’s prodigious drawing skills.  Born in 1560 in Bologna, the youngest of the triumvirate that included Agostino (his older brother by three years) and their older cousin Ludovico (born in 1555), Annibale was characterized by one of his early biographers as a scruffy, introverted, envious and financially naive prankster.2

Never one to be ashamed of his social standing, Annibale often chided the scholarly, upwardly-striving Agostino–who was far more educated than his younger brother–on the way he hobnobbed with courtiers and the like.  To put Agostino in his place, one day in Rome where they were working in the Palazzo Farnese, Annibale handed his pompous brother a letter while they were in the midst of a well-bred group that then eagerly awaited the unveiling of its contents.  Much to Agostino’s embarrassment, the opened missive contained a drawing of their parents: father in his spectacles threading a needle and mother holding a pair of scissors,3 a not-so-gentle reminder of the brothers’ humble origins.

For Annibale, drawing trumped speech when it came to personal expression, a stance he made quite clear in another face-off with his loquacious brother who was going on at length about the antique marvels he was discovering after his recent move to Rome to help out at the Farnese.  When Agostino made the mistake of taking to task the silent Annibale for not joining in the erudite conversation, accusing him of lacking appreciation for the ancient works, Annibale once again got the better of his older brother with charcoal.

Unbeknownst to Agostino until too late, on a nearby wall Annibale had begun a drawing designed to communicate his reverence for the Roman art he was discovering.  When done, he stepped aside to display a perfect rendering from memory of the Laocoön.  The onlookers praised the younger artist.  Agostino fell silent, and Annibale walked away triumphant–but not before laughingly admonishing his brother, “Poets paint with words; painters speak with works.”4

From very early on, reaching for a drawing implement had been Annibale Carracci’s first impulse and it continued to be throughout his life even into his last few years, when the heavy toll that illness took on his expressive abilities left him unable to do much else.  From the pleasurable exercise of sketching his surroundings to the serious study of posed studio models, this master draftsman always looked first to his teacher nature for whatever answers he needed, supplementing it with metaphorical (and sometimes actual) forays into the studios of other artists to draw from their work.  Not only did Annibale “speak with [his] works,” he also thought with them–evident in the many surviving pages of preliminary ideas for compositions that he hatched and developed, and often later discarded.  Ultimately, these various aspects of his drawing practice would coalesce into a full-size cartoon used for transferring his final design onto wall, canvas or copper plate.

[slide 3:  A Man Weighing Meat (c. 1582-83, red chalk on beige paper, 1015/16 x 61/16 in [278 x 170 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The Butcher Shop (1583, oil on canvas, 73 x 105 in [185 × 266 cm]).  Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, UK.]

By the time he drew A Man Weighing Meat (c. 1582-83), the twenty-something-year-old Annibale had already been drawing for many years, but now his interest in depicting everyday life found expression in genre paintings of a type unlike the pastoral idylls of his contemporaries.5  Here he has posed his model, probably a workshop apprentice,6 in the garb of a butcher and given him props–a balance (stadera) for weighing meat along with a stand-in for a slab of flesh–that find their way into The Butcher Shop (1583), one of his earliest known paintings.

The bare-elbow study to the right of the figure in the red-chalk drawing reflects a rethinking of the pose that will appear in the final composition; Annibale angled upward the forearm and rolled back the sleeve.  Highlighting the artist’s selection of an expedient rather than exact model, the character of the butcher shop worker in the painting differs from the assistant in the studio; he is older with a neatly trimmed beard, taller stature and somewhat slimmer build.  His hat, of a different style, sits back on his head rather than forward as in the drawing.

Early on in the absence of significant commissions for the Carracci shop, genre paintings, like small devotional pictures, provided a quick and relatively easy way for the three young men to churn out work that they could sell on the open market and that would also advertise their skills.7  For Annibale, who had been sketching from life for years, it provided a natural extension of his artistic interests, “demand[ing] little more than a direct and forthright approach to the visual material.”8

[slide 4:  A Domestic Scene (1582-1584, pen with brown and gray-black ink, brush with gray and brown wash, over black chalk, 12⅞ x 9¼ in [32.8 x 23.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

In a very different kind of scene as well as medium, Annibale assembled three figures and a cat around a fire.  A young woman, holding a cloth or garment, leans over the flame and looks back toward a young girl, vaguely indicated in line and wash, while a much younger child merges visually with his caretaker’s skirt.  A close look at the actual drawing revealed a lack of spontaneity in the manner in which the ink wash was applied, especially in the woman’s skirt, where Annibale–instead of drawing the brush down the form and guiding the pool of diluted ink–seems to have attempted to blend it as he would have done with oil paint, resulting in a somewhat overworked appearance and mild abrasion of the paper.  It would not be long before he began to produce far more accomplished ink drawings.

[slide 5:  The Virgin and Child Resting Outside a City Gate (n.d., pen and brown ink, brush with traces of brown wash, on light brown beige paper; traces of framing outlines in pen and brown ink,  7⅜ x 8½ in [18.8 x 21.6 cm]).  The  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

A small, undated compositional sketch of The Virgin and Child Resting Outside a City Gate contrasts in ink handling with the earlier genre scene.  Here evenly spaced, parallel hatching designates shadow while sure lines pick out the landscape and architectural features.  Schematic rays of the sun–which reappear in a very late pen drawing9–disappear behind horizontal bands of clouds, and figures diminishing in size create a feeling of recession into space.  A discreetly contoured area of thinned ink on the shaded side of the Virgin’s head has been applied without any fuss, first a middle-value wash and then a much darker band in the deeper shadow on the periphery of the head–no attempt being made to blend the two.  The Virgin’s face, redolent with Correggio sweetness,10 also suggests a date later than the domestic scene.

Not only did Annibale borrow from the output of other artists, he thought deeply about the differences in their styles, forming definite opinions about their work, a fact that runs contrary to the impression of him given by his early biographers as someone uninterested in the theoretical aspects of art.  The postilles (marginal notes) in his copy of Vasari’s Lives demonstrate this awareness.  Lauding Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo, Annibale disparaged the “mannered tradition of Florentine painting,”11 noting too the uselessness of comparing Michelangelo with Titian.  “Titian’s things are not like Michelangelo’s; they may not be totally successful but they are more lifelike than Michelangelo’s; Titian was more of a ‘painter’…and if Raphael was superior in some parts to Titian, Titian nonetheless surpassed Raphael in many things.”12

Apparently no less contemplative than his scholarly brother or intellectual cousin, Annibale joined them both in their first major commission–two rooms in the Palazzo Fava in Bologna, secured through family connections and their willingness to work at a discounted rate, beginning the project about 1583.  The smaller room, which was to contain a frieze about the myth of Europa, was assigned to Annibale and Agostino, while Ludovico, the older and at that time accepted head of their workshop, tackled the larger one, which would tell the story of Jason and the golden fleece.  Before all the frescoes were completed, the brothers would join their cousin in the more important space.13

[slide 6:  The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, fresco).  Palazzo Fava, Bologna, Italy.
The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, pen and black ink with gray-brown wash over black chalk, squared twice in black and red chalk, 10 x 12⅜ in [25.4 x 31.5 cm]).  Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany.]

Annibale’s small ink drawing squared twice for transfer that illustrates The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584) shows the composition in a well advanced state as probably presented to the patron, Count Filippo Fava.  On the verso containing one of the earliest studies, Annibale had inked figures in their respective perspectival planes, including the accompanying termine,14 those illusionistically painted statues that framed the fresco panels.

[slide 7:  The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, pen and black ink with gray-brown wash over black chalk, squared twice in black and red chalk, 10 x 12⅜ in [25.4 x 31.5 cm]).  Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany.
Orpheus Holding a Lyre (before 1584, oiled black chalk over black chalk, heightened with white chalk, on gray-blue laid paper, mounted on wove paper, 16⅓ x 9⅓ in [41.5 x 23.8 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, Ontario, Canada.]

Following such compositional imaginings and before the construction of the modello for his client, the artist would research individual poses,15 using not just models from the studio but also from his recollections of previously observed persons and/or sculpture.  Annibale’s Orpheus Holding a Lyre (before 1584) shows how well stocked his pictorial memory bank already was.  Too general to have been a life study, it might also have been based on one already executed, or refer to some other two-dimensional image.

Lauded for his visual memory, Annibale was reported to have told a friend that “he never–except once, with certain bas-reliefs–had to record for purposes of future recall anything he had looked at carefully.”16  As a group, the Carracci made a regular practice of honing their ability to mentally retain what they had observed.  Upon returning home from life drawing sessions and before doing anything else, they would each pick up a scrap of paper and endeavor to commit to it what they had just recently seen, enlivening it with more animation than the original pose.17

[slide 8:  Polyphemus (early 1590s, black chalk with traces of white heightening on blue-gray paper, laid down, 1611/16 x13⅞ in [42.4 x 35.2 cm]).  Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence, Italy.]

Another good example of Annibale’s drawing from his internal image bank, the black-chalk drawing of Polyphemus for a later cycle of frescoes at the Palazzo Fava sets an almost caricatured head on a rippling mass of torqued muscle and bone, about to catapult the small boulder gripped by the one-eyed giant.  Pentimenti in the hand suggest final figural considerations in an image already close to the painted one, including reflections on the play of light and shadow to be used in the fresco.

[slide 9:  Sheet of Caricatures (c. 1595, ink on paper, 7⅞ x 5⅛ [20.1 x 13.9 cm]).  British Museum, London.]

Drawn to facial features, Annibale joined his cohorts in exaggerating them in a form of art that derives its name from theirs: caricature.  Playful by nature, known for their love of practical jokes,18 always looking to exploit drawing’s potential to distill essence from reality, the artists had fun deliberately distorting the appearance of certain individuals.  In a sheet of these faces, Annibale has sketched in the upper left an ordinary looking profile of a man and in the lower right has riffed on this, opening the eyes wider and hooking the nose more.  The receding mouth of the man is exaggerated in several of the profiles on the sheet.  Such exercises are to be distinguished from the creation of grotesques–products of the imagination.19

Quite opposite in emotional tone, Annibale’s portrait drawings have a quiet intensity, especially those of children, the models for which he drew from youngsters around the studio–“assistants and friends or relatives who frequented the Carracci shop and academy.”20  As with his other subjects, these young people furnished handy objects to study, though Annibale seems to have had a special affinity for the “serious and meditative”21 interiority that children often manifest in their quiet moments.

[slide 10:  Profile Portrait of a Boy (1584-1585), red chalk on ivory paper, 813/16 x 6⅜ in [22.4 x 16.2]).  Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence, Italy.]

In the early red-chalk drawing Profile Portrait of a Boy (1584-1585), the artist has posed the lad in strict profile and taken considerable care to sculpt his form with light and shadow, gently blending strokes on the smooth-skinned cheek and distinctly denoting the direction of hair strands.  Annibale deftly reserved the ivory of the page for the glittering highlights of the hair and the prominent helix of the ear.

[slide 11:  Head of a Boy (c. 1585-1590, black chalk on reddish brown paper, laid down, 227/16 x 915/16 in [316 x 252 cm] including a 2 cm horizontal strip added at the top).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

A similarly finished portrayal, the black-chalk Head of a Boy (c. 1585-1590) captures the tension of the neck muscle as the child strains to look with wide-eyed concern at something on his right.  The down-turned corners of the mouth impart a melancholy mood, suggesting that whatever is outside the viewer’s field of vision might not be welcome.  As with the earlier portrait, here too Annibale is far less interested in the clothing than in the boy’s head.

[slide 12:  Head of a Smiling Young Man (c. 1590-92, black chalk on gray-blue paper with added strips at top and bottom, laid down, 153/16 x 97/16 in [358 x 240 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.
Madonna and Child in Glory with Six Saints (c. 1591-92, San Ludovico Altarpiece).  Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, Italy.]

Identified as a preparatory sketch for a subsequent altarpiece,22 Head of a Smiling Young Man (c. 1590-92) has been so named because of its perceived happy expression.  Yet the face of Saint John the Baptist in the San Ludovico altarpiece, for which it is a study, tells a more complex story of the triumphant validation of miracle that the apparition of the Madonna and child provides, a look for which Annibale was searching in this particular drawing, one unlikely to have been taken from life.

[slide 13:  The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, red chalk heightened with white chalk on reddish brown paper, the lower left corner slightly cut, 163/16 x 113/16 in [411 x 284 cm]).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria.
The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, pen and brown ink on cream paper, laid down, the lower left corner cut and made up, 77/16 x 415/16 [188 x 126]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Portrait of the Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, oil on canvas, [305/16 x 253/16 in 77 x 64 cm]).  Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.]

For The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594), another preparatory drawing, Annibale picked up his red chalk again and using much the same approach as he did for the earlier Profile Portrait of a Boy, brought the picture to a high level of finish, perhaps to serve as an immediate model for the painting.23  That the eyes are similarly out of convergence in all three versions implies that Annibale deliberately arranged Mascheroni’s facial features to block eye contact with the viewer.  Posed stiffly, the disengaged lutenist reveals little about himself–a common feature of this artist’s portraits24–but a lot about Annibale’s own interpersonal style and his tendency to treat people as objects rather than subjects.

The studies of male nudes for the herms and ignudi that adorn the haunches of the Palazzo Farnese’s barrel vault, however, seem far more animated, exuding sensual energy.  When the newly appointed nineteen-year-old Cardinal Odoardo Farnese decided to decorate various rooms in his palazzo in Rome, he would have none other than the Carracci.25  Annibale as the first to become available, arrived in the antique city to begin work in November 1595,26 the beneficiary of what seemed like an unparalleled opportunity but one that ultimately led to disappointment, despair and death.

[slide 14:  Project for the Decoration of the Farnese Gallery (1597-98, red chalk with pen and brown ink on cream paper, 15 ¼ x 10⅜ in [38.8 x 26.4 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

After first completing the Camerino (the Cardinal’s study), Annibale was joined in 1597 by his brother Agostino to assist him with the much larger project of the ceiling of the Farnese gallery.27  After playing with various concepts in a series of ink drawings, Annibale settled on an illusionistic array of framed paintings covering two-dimensional architectural elements supported by herms, and a frieze of scenes framed by ignudi, eschewing a single point of view for the entire project.

[slide 15:  Palazzo Farnese Ceiling (fresco, 1597/98-1601).  Rome, Italy.]

When Agostino “pressed for a unified illusion based on one-point perspective,” Annibale mocked his brother’s idea by suggesting they install a sumptuous chair at the only spot in the huge room from which the paintings would be viewable in a way that made spatial sense to the onlooker.28  The result of the lead artist’s decision was a design that could be read from any place in the room, but one that would always include some upside-down images.

[slide 16:  Atlas Herm with Arms Raised (1598-99, black chalk heightened with white on gray-blue paper, 189/16 x 14¼ in [47.2 x 36.3 cm]).  Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy.]
Atlas Herm (1598-99, red chalk on cream paper, laid down, 13⅝ x 713/16 in [34.5 x 19.8 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

To create the three-dimensional architectural illusion of his intentions, Annibale had to turn flesh into stone.29  Atlas Herm with Arms Raised (1598-99), the end drawing result of one such attempt, shows how he enhanced an original male nude study by pumping up the muscles and juxtaposing bright highlights with lower-value black chalk to impart a marmoreal quality to the form.  Highly unusual for Annibale is the come-hither direct eye contact the herm makes with the beholder–originally the artist.  The turned-away head in the lower left might represent some second thoughts but in the fresco Annibale kept to his original idea.

In returning to red-chalk in a different Atlas Herm (1598-99), at a time when he favored black and white chalk on blue paper,30  Annibale might have wanted to take advantage of the medium’s potential for rendering the warmth of flesh.  In comparison with the Atlas Herm with Arms Raised, this herm would then represent an earlier stage in the transformation of the living model into a marble sculpture.

[slide 17:  A Seated Ignudi with a Garland (1598-99, black chalk heightened with white chalk on gray paper, 16¼ x 16⅛ in [41.2 x 41 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.
Detail of Ignudi and Herms, Palazzo Farnese Ceiling (fresco, 1597/98-1601).  Rome, Italy.]

Inspired by Michelangelo’s male ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican,31 Annibale populated his Farnese vault with analogous figures.  Lightly sketched construction lines and first-thought contours in A Seated Ignudi with a Garland (1598-99) provide a window into the artist’s drawing process.  Among other changes, he reduced the size of the proper right lower leg, further accentuating the tapering of the massive torso toward the pelvis and legs.  In making that choice, Annibale further demonstrated his preference for design over accurate perspective.

[slide 18:  Study of a Recumbent Nude, Lying on his Side (n.d, black chalk with white and pink heightening, on gray-blue paper, 14½  x 19⅔ in [36.8 x 49.9 cm].  Royal Library, Windsor, England.
Study of a Recumbent Nude, Viewed from the Head (n.d., black chalk with white heightening on gray-blue paper, 8½ x 15½ [21.5 x 39.5 cm]).  Musée du Louvre,  Cabinet des Dessins, Paris, France.]

Very different in overall appearance are two black-chalk life studies executed during Annibale’s Roman sojourn,32 each a Study of a Recumbent Nude, one Lying on his Side and the other Viewed from the Head.  In the former, the artist has faithfully observed the unadorned truth of the effect of gravity on muscle and skin, particularly noticeable where the bones jut out along the uppermost contour of the rib cage, pelvis and greater trochanter.  Unlike in Annibale’s imaginative male nudes, here only the left biceps is rounded, accurate for a flexed position, the right one being flat as appropriate for extension.

Annibale was less satisfied with reality in Study of a Recumbent Nude, Viewed from the Head, thickening the left thigh considerably and, less so, the right arm.  This drawing might have started out as a life study and accrued revisions along the way, including a slight change in pose for better effect.  Both drawings bear witness to the artist’s intense absorption in the task at hand.

Content in the practice of his art, Annibale never adjusted to the rarified atmosphere and courtly trappings of the Palazzo Farnese, preferring instead the solitude of his room and the company of his students.  Minimally attentive to his physical presentation and melancholic in disposition, he actively avoided any unnecessary association with nobility.  On an evening stroll when caught carrying a knife, Annibale’s chosen silence about his service to the Cardinal led to time in jail.  Likewise, at another time on learning of an impending personal visit from the Pope’s nephew, he escaped through a side door.33

[slide 19:  An Execution (1600-03, pen and brown ink on dark cream paper, laid down, 7½ x 119/16 in [19 x 29.3 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.]

In Rome, Annibale’s idiosyncrasies stood out far more than they did in Bologna,34 causing no small distress to an already sensitive soul.  No wonder, then, that he would be drawn to the ritual of a public hanging, capturing the salient details with brown ink in An Execution (1600-03).  In the pictured narrative, as an audience peers over the back wall, exercising its communal responsibility in a purification rite designed to ensure the conversion and repentance of the condemned, a friar holds up a devotional image for the criminal to ponder as he is dragged up the ladder to the gallows,35 his fate foretold by the hanging corpse nearby.  Another instrument of death awaits employment on a table to the right.

For Annibale, life soon imitated the morbidity of a hanging when the payment he received for eight years of loyalty to the Farnese projects failed to meet his expectations and in fact, proved to be more of an insult than a reward.  The five hundred gold scudi brought on a saucer to the artist’s quarters, perhaps the result of the machinations of a sycophant at court, plunged Annibale into a depression from which he never recovered.36

In the summer of 1605, before tackling the Cardinal’s next project–the decoration of the great hall of the Palazzo Farnese–Annibale fled permanently from the court bustle, seeking seclusion in lodging behind the vineyards of the Farnesina across the Tiber.  Later he took up residence on the Quirinal Hill, where the open air and pleasant view could have been more conducive to recovery.37  By 1606 he was in yet another area of Rome some distance from the Palazzo.38

The nature of his illness was such that Annibale experienced intermittent periods of productivity during which he produced a few paintings, supervised and assisted with projects by his students–especially his favorite, Domenichino39 –and continued to draw.  He even began to experiment with a new technique, using a thick-nibbed pen (perhaps made of reed) and skipping any ink wash.40

[slide 20:  Danaë (1604-05, pen and brown ink on cream aper, laid down, upper right corner cut, 7⅝ x 10⅛ in [19.4 x 25.7 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Titian, Danaë (1545, oil on canvas, 47.2 × 67.7 in [120 × 172 cm]).  Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.]

After a hiatus of four years during which he had resigned from painting, Annibale resumed activity for a few years beginning in 1604,41 accepting a commission from Camillo Pamphilj to paint a Danaë.  Perhaps challenged by the presence of Titian’s painting of the same subject in the Palazzo Farnese,42 the artist borrowed the general idea from the Venetian painter of a reclining female nude, on a bed, in a landscape setting, along with the voluptuous form of her body, changing the pose of the princess and the position of Cupid to make the composition his own.  Manipulating the thick-nibbed pen to produce both fat and thin lines, Annibale has his Danaë (1604-5) eagerly reaching for the gold coins as they descend from above and come to rest on her left inner thigh.

[slide 21:  Self-Portrait on an Easel and Other Studies (c. 1604, pen and ocher-brown ink on cream paper, 9¾ x 7⅛ in [24.8 x 18.1 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) (c. 1544, oil on wood, 34¾ x 25¼ in [88.3 x 64.1 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]
Self-Portrait on an Easel (c. 1604, oil on canvas).  The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.]

The period of relative inactivity was bracketed by two self-portrait drawings, the later one a meditation on portraiture in general and perhaps more specifically, on the artist’s own legacy.  In a picture related to the painting Self-Portrait on an Easel (1604),  Annibale has positioned a bearded, older man resembling Michelangelo to the right of his arrangement of images that strike poses similar to that of a portrait of this revered forebear (Ricciarelli’s oil on wood) that resided at the Palazzo Farnese from 1600 onward.43  In addition, a similar profile portrait of a seventy-one-year-old Michelangelo introduced a biography of him that had been circulating in Rome since 1553.44

Multiplying his own image, Annibale suggested mirrors, windows, picture frames and the interior of a studio inhabited by a painted canvas on an easel, accompanied by a small menagerie of household pets.  Again, inked lines vary in thickness, and darks are indicated by overlapping and hatched lines.  The self-portrait in the finished painting is all eyes, wide open, looking out at the viewer, while the mouth disappears into a blur of shadow, an apt representation of an artist not known for eloquence.

[slide 23:  Self-Portrait (c. 1600, pen and brown ink on buff paper, laid down on another sheet on which is drawn a decorative border in pen and black ink with gray wash over graphite, 5¼ x 4 [13.3 x 10.2 cm]).  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.]

Although done about 1600, the earlier of the two self-portrait drawings from this period resonates well with Annibale’s last days.  Depicting himself leaning on the picture frame, the artist rendered his visage in fading brown ink, cast a shadow over eyes with lowered lids of sadness, turned down the corners of his mouth in a frown, and darkly superimposed over the top of the cartouche a suggestion of a skull.45

Both self-portraits portend death, undoubtedly reflecting Annibale’s deteriorating physical and mental condition.  On July 16, 1609, he “died miserably.”46  Since then writers have made much of Annibale’s melancholic disposition47 and its link to his ultimate demise.48  Most likely he died from tertiary syphilis.  In his biography of the artist, Bellori asserted that his “death…was hastened by amorous maladies of which he had not told his doctors”49 and in fact, the artist’s symptoms as described by Mancini50 and Agucchi51 conform to those of end-stage syphilis.52

Though the world lost a master draftsman when Annibale Carracci died prematurely at the age of forty-nine, it gained a treasure trove of drawings, cherished enough to survive the centuries.  Among those who looked to the Bolognese artist for inspiration was a certain Dutch painter living in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.  The owner of a drawing of people swimming in a landscape penned by Annibale was none other than Rembrandt himself.  Unfortunately, the exact identity of the scene has yet to be determined.53


1 Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of Annibale & Agostino Carracci, trans. Catherine Enggass (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 7.
2 Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Malvasia’s  Life of the Carracci, Commentary and Translation, translated and annotated by Anne Summerscale (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press), 250–51, 254.
3 Ibid., 251.
4 Bellori, 16.
5 Donald Posner, Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting Around 1590, Vol I (New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1971), 9.
6 Daniele Benati, et al, The Drawings of Annibale Carracci (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1999), 49.
7 Posner, 23.
8 Ibid., 24.
9 See Landscape with the Setting Sun (1605-09) in Benati, et al, 289.
10 The Metropolitan Museum of Art online object label.  Accessed April 9, 2015: search/338420?rpp=30&pg=1&ao=on&ft=annibale+carracci+drawings&pos=7&imgno=0&tabname=label.
11 John Gash, “Hannibal Carrats: The Fair Fraud Revealed,” Art History 13:2 (June 1990), 245.
12 Ibid.
13 Posner, 53-54.
14 Benati, et al, 58.
15 Benati, et al, 44-45.
16 Malvasia devoted many pages to describing Carracci pranks.  See 274-289.
17 Malvasia, 290.
18 Ibid., 267.
19 Posner, 66.
20 Ibid., 20.
21 Ibid., 21.
22 Benati, et al, 96.
23 Ibid., 25.
24 Posner, 21.
25 Gail Feigenbaum in Benati, et al, 109.
26 Posner, 78.
27 Feigenbaum in Benati, et al, 110.
28 Ibid, note 22.
29 Benati, et al, 190.
30 Ibid., 193.
31 Ibid., 194.
32 Carl Goldstein, Visual Fact over Verbal Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 98-100.
33 Bellori, 58-59.
34 Posner, 146.
35 Mitchell B. Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 145.
36 Bellori, 52.
37 Malvasia, 222-223.
38 Kate Ganz in Benati, et al, 204.
39 Posner, 148.
40 Ganz in Benati, et al, 205.
41 Posner, 147.
42 Benati, et al, 278.
43 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, catalog entry for Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli), Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Accessed April 21, 2015.
44 Engraving by Giulio Bonasone, Bust Portrait of Michelangelo at Seventy-One, Facing Right (1546), used by Ascanio Condiri in his biography of Michelangelo, published in Rome 1553. On view April 23, 2015 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
45 Benati, et al, 143.
46 Malvasia, 226.
47 Bellori, 55.
48 Ganz in Benati, et al, 204.
49 Bellori, 63.
50 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York, Random House, 1963), 114.
51 Malvasia, 227.
51 Wikipedia, Tertiary Syphilis.  Accessed April 21, 2015. wiki/Syphilis#Tertiary.
52 Catherine Loisel Legrand in Benati, et al, 25.



Art Historical Musing: The Madrasa in Aleppo

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Thursday, January 1st, 2015

City House, Country House:
A Tale of Two Madrasas

After 9/11, many Americans came to associate the religion of Islam with terrorism, and madrasas with the recruitment and training of future terrorists.  The early history of these “collegiate mosques”1 or “theological colleges”2 (as they have been called) demonstrates their importance as purveyors of propaganda, a common function of all educational institutions.  As developed and deployed by the Seljuks of Anatolia, they served as front-line institutions in the battle to restore Sunni orthodoxy, which had all but disappeared by the time Nizam al-Mulk became vizier and de facto ruler of the Seljuk empire3 in the mid-eleventh century, and embarked on his madrasa-building campaign.

Begun with more modest objectives, the earliest madrasas probably operated out of a teacher’s house.  Eventually these places of learning grew in size to provide rudimentary lodging for students (all male, of course) as well as space for daily prayers.4  Under the generous patronage of Nizam al-Mulk and his regime, madrasas sprang up in many of the major urban areas in the Near East to counter the significant advances that had been made by the rival Shi’i who practiced a different brand of Islam.5

In addition to consolidating power through the imposition of Sunni state-sponsored institutions of religion, the newly built madrasas provided training for bureaucrats who would then go on to faithfully serve their government.  In this way, Nizam al-Mulk transformed what began as a building for study and prayer into one that was used to train “individuals to maintain order and enforce control and power.”6

By 1146 another ruler, Nur al-Din, was in control, having established his base of operations in Aleppo in northern Syria after political and military maneuvers that arrested and repelled the advance of the Crusaders, contained the Seljuks in the north, and consolidated his authority over an ethnically diverse Near-Eastern population.  Himself a Turk from Anatolia with a largely Kurdish following, Nur al-Din turned to the already-established notion of jihad (the political and spiritual struggle against non-believers–in this case the Crusaders) to rally this variegated Islamic populace around shared goals.7

Perhaps inspired by the work of his predecessors the Seljuks, Nur al-Din positioned himself as the commander of the jihadist cause and began a building campaign to restore and erect orthodox Sunni structures throughout his territory, deploying religious education as a glue to hold his lands together.8  In Aleppo, a predominantly Shi’i city, he waited three years before building his first madrasa, al-Halawiyya in 1149, initially avoiding a heavy-handed approach that would jeopardize his popularity and control.9  When he was ready to challenge the Shi’is hegemony, he did it openly, situating this new Sunni madrasa opposite the Great Mosque in the madina, the center of the city.10

At the same time, by choosing to erect his madrasa on the skeleton of the Byzantine cathedral St. Helena–already retrofitted for use as a mosque in 1124–Nur al-Din could further triumph over Christianity.11  While nothing is known about the original plan of the church or the changes made to convert it into an Islamic house of worship, at the time of its conversion into a madrasa (or later) changes must have been made to its physical structure.12

The current appearance or even the continued existence of the al-Halawiyya madrasa remains a mystery.  A Syrian civil war attracting foreign combatants has already claimed the lives of many important monuments in Aleppo and elsewhere.13  Tourist reports accompanied by photographs from as recently as 2012 documented a building in use as a mosque, no longer functioning as a madrasa, and in need of serious conservation and restoration work.14

View of Interior Courtyard, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Interior Courtyard, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Reports, ground plans and photographs from the 1970s and earlier15 describe a building entered through a portal leading to a long corridor that opened into a courtyard with a pool at its center.  Across this modest-size open space, a floor-to-ceiling window topped by an arch faced with alternating black-and-white stones demonstrated the inventiveness and skill of Northern Syrian masons.16

View of Church Apse, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Church Apse, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Acanthus-leaf Column Capitals, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Acanthus-leaf Column Capitals, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Through the door to the left of the large window lay the remains of the Byzantine church–the main section of the madrasa–beneath a pendentive dome (one of the first of its type in Aleppo), the fine construction of which suggested the architects might have modeled it on what was left of the one for the cathedral.17  Two iwans (rectangular spaces walled on three sides and open on the fourth) branched off the space under the dome to its left and right.  Opposite the entrance in a semi-circular apse stood six vintage columns crowned with acanthus-leaf capitals–vestiges of the previous structure.

Carved Wooden Mihrab, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Carved Wooden Mihrab, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

On the southern wall of the madrasa interior, an intricately carved wooden mihrab–the locus of all prayers–became the object of intense activity in October 2013 when the Syrian Association for the Preservation of Archaeology and Heritage walled it off behind a protective barrier.  Dating to the time of Nur al-Din and renovated one hundred years later by an Ayyubid king, it includes verses of the Qu’ran.18

Much later (in 1660), the Ottoman rulers left their mark on madrasa al-Halawiyya with their renovation of the courtyard façades, commemorating that activity with an  inscription over the door to the prayer hall.19  Nur al-Din’s own carved calligraphy, lining three sides of the vaulted corridor leading to the courtyard, was left in place.

View of Interior Courtyard with Trees and Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5850. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Interior Courtyard with Trees and Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5850.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Across town and time, another madrasa took shape, one whose fortunes were as affected by its extramural location as al-Halawiyya’s was by its center-city one.  Unlike the madrasa in the madina, which was wedged into an already crowded commercial district, al-Firdaws was designed to be a reminder of the paradise promised to the devout,20 with enough space afforded by its southern suburban siting to include several gardens, flowing water and pools.21

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws from Nearby Cemetery. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5837. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws from Nearby Cemetery. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5837.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Commissioned early in her regency by Dayfa Khatun, an Ayyubid queen who ruled for her young grandson from 1236 until her death in 1244,22 madrasa al-Firdaws reflected its sponsor’s deep and abiding devotion to Sufism,23 a mystical practice that combined physical deprivation, ingestion of psychotropic agents and dancing.  The Qur’anic verses inscribed along the building’s exterior and in a band of text that snaked around three of the courtyard interior walls reminded these worshipers of the vision of God awaiting them as the reward for their asceticism and religious zeal.24  By sponsoring a madrasa that as a center of Sufism functioned as a khanqah25 (“monastic mosque”26), Dayfa Khatun continued the work of a predecessor, Nur al-Din, who during his reign built nine of these Sufi monasteries in Aleppo.27

View of Portal on Eastern Wall, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5840. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Portal on Eastern Wall, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5840.   Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

The eleven domes of madrasa al-Firdaws and its lengthy inscription along the eastern façade distinguished it from other contemporary Ayyubid religious buildings28 in a way that its otherwise unadorned exterior walls did not.  From a distance, the relatively small portal tucked away in the eastern wall seemed insignificant in comparison to the massive rectangle of stone blocks into which it was inserted, but its triple-tiered muqarnas vault capped by a scalloped half-dome29 atop a tall, narrow space, imbued it with a monumentality designed to inspire a sense of awe.

Squinch Arch, Mihrab Dome, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Çigdem Kafesçioglu, 1990. Image courtesy of MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Squinch Arch, Mihrab Dome, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Çigdem Kafesçioglu, 1990.  Image courtesy of MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Architects in the Near East developed the “stalactite pendentive”–or muqarnas vault– to solve the problem of mounting a round dome on a square room.  Initially using a single squinch arch across each corner to transition from rectangle below to polygon above–and then to dome–architects later used four in a pyramidal configuration.  It wasn’t long before these arches proliferated and the muqarnas vault was born.30  In Syria, adept masons carved each separate stone block into shapes destined to fit snugly into place when assembled and to support the weight above them.31  What began as functional evolved into highly decorative multi-tiered constructions, as could be seen in the portal of al-Firdaws.

Once through the doors of this madrasa, visitors encountered a long vaulted corridor leading to an exterior wall of the back-to-back iwans.  A turn to the left brought a worshiper to the entrance corridor of the now enclosed iwan that once opened up into “a walled garden with a pool, whose waters were piped into the madrasa.”32  A turn in the other direction quickly revealed the interior courtyard, in its design a symphony of mathematical ratios.33

Mihrab, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Mihrab, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Islamic architects and artists relied almost exclusively on the science and art of geometry in both construction and ornamentation, using grids in the layout of buildings and in the containment of decorative elements.34  Deploying repetitive, symmetrical and continuously-generated patterns35 (as in fractals), they created designs like that on madrasa al-Firdaws’s mihrab (or prayer niche) with its overlapping and interlacing, multi-colored stonework.

Divided horizontally into three approximately equal sections, the front of that mihrab contained red porphyry, green diorite, and white marble with veins of various colors.  Within the semicircular top third, a band of Qur’anic inscription36 wrapped around a circle segment, the innermost part of which was an organized riot of interwoven white lines framing red and green shapes.

In the lower third of the mihrab’s facing, supporting the niche were two granite columns with muqarnas capitals37 echoed by vertical stripes of alternating dark and light marble to their left and right, and continuing into the prayer alcove.  Sandwiched between the facing’s top and bottom sections, in a rectangle encompassing the arch of the mihrab’s vault, thick bands of yellow and white marble curved and angled above and below each other; the left side mirroring the right but for the reversal of the overlapping colors, resulting in a not-quite-symmetrical design.

View of Interior Courtyard with Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Interior Courtyard with Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Before entering the mosque (that section of the madrasa that housed the mihrab), devotees first availed themselves of the waters of an octagonal courtyard pool, a complex construction of three layers–an eight-pointed star sandwiched between two octagons–unique to the architecture of Aleppo.38  The stone of the inner perimeter of the basin was carved into scallops alternating with right angles; curves resonated with the hemispheres of the many domes and corners with the surrounding pavement–an arrangement of light and dark masonry in square-based patterns.

Located on opposite sides of the courtyard, column-supported pointed arches opened into vaulted corridors beyond which domed rooms might have hosted gatherings of students and teachers.  Perpendicular to these were the prayer hall on one end and on the other, the yawning entrance to the interior iwan, with its evenly spaced niches that at one time could have held books.39

Residence Courtyard with Iwan, Madrasa al-Firdaws. © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5859. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Residence Courtyard with Iwan, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5859.   Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Flanking the back-to-back iwans were two-story residential annexes, each with its own courtyard and pool, though of somewhat different configurations.  Not visible from the madrasa’s interior space, these areas–since fallen into disrepair–were accessed from the vaulted corridors running alongside the exterior iwan.40  Uncommon in Syrian madrasas, student dormitories41 at al-Firdaws probably reflect that institution’s monastic functions.  The minaret rising from this section ensured that calls to prayer could be heard by sleeping devotees, waking them in time for their long nighttime vigils.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws with Pistachio Trees. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5844. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws with Pistachio Trees.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5844.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Unlike in downtown Aleppo, where madrasa al-Halawiyya kept company with the Great Umayyad mosque and busy commercial structures, al-Firdaws had for its nearest neighbors pistachio trees and tombstones.  Within walking distance, however, residents and their visitors could, if needed, purchase provisions in a nearby populated area and further away, at the souk (market) of Bab al-Maqam, one of the gates to the city.42

Isolated as the madrasa was, it remained for some time in an active area thanks to the Mamluks–the next rulers of the Near East.  As part of the process of restoring Aleppo after the 1260 Mongol invasions destroyed much of the city,43 this new dynasty capitalized on the connection between the center of the city and its extramural neighborhoods.  One such focus was a corridor linking the shrine of Abraham on the Citadel with the one South of Bab al-Maqam in the district just north of al-Firdaws, along which they added their own monuments.44

When the Ottomans arrived in 1516, the central and northwestern parts of the city benefited45 from their penchant for erecting expansive complexes encompassing mosque, madrasa, public kitchen, souk and accommodations for travelers46 in those parts of town.  This concentration of construction and trade around the al-Halawiyya madrasa helped it maintain its significance, evident in the Ottomans’ seventeenth-century renovations of its courtyard façades.

The emphasis on parts north proved far less advantageous to the madrasa in the southern suburb, which saw the depopulation of its surroundings; even the area cemeteries migrated elsewhere, leaving just al-Firdaws’s own, one of the largest in Aleppo and in the twentieth century, the predominant feature of the immediate environment.  What was once a verdant reminder of a paradise to come found itself in a poor, industrial area that profited little from later urban renewal projects.47

In the early twenty-first century, combatants waging war in Syria and its neighboring states have taken the cultural heritage of those countries hostage, already executing too many of the monuments they captured.  Air strikes by the United States to drive back an especially malignant faction in the conflicts added to the wreckage.48

Differences in location, function, appearance and history of al-Halawiyya, al-Firdaws and other Aleppian madrasas have ultimately no bearing on their fates.  In a corner of the world that has through the ages been in the cross hairs of many conflicts, it remains to be seen what will survive this one and whether restoration and renewal will again be possible.

[For latest updates, click here.]
1 Ernest J. Grube, “What is Islamic Architecture?” in Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning, edited by George Michell (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978), 37.
2 Yasser Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo (The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1997), 7.
3 Grube, 38.
4 Ibid., 39.
5 Tabbaa in Constructions of Power and Piety, 125.
6 Ibid., 126.
7 Nikita Elisséeff, “The Reaction of the Syrian Muslims after the Foundation of the First Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1453, Volume I: Crusaders and Muslims in Twelfth-Century Syria, edited by Maya Shatzmiller (New York: E. J. Brill, 1993), 165-67.
8  Ibid., 168.
9 Yasser al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din” (PhD diss., New York University, 1982),182.
10 Ibid., 263.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., 50-52.
13 “Provinces: Aleppo,” APSA (Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology), accessed November 16, 2014, aleppo/monuments.html.
14 “Madrassa Halawiyya, Aleppo,” Virtual Tourist, accessed November 16, 2014,
15 al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din.”
16 Ronald Lewcock, “Architects, Craftsmen and Builders: Materials and Techniques” in Architecture of the Islamic World, 135-136.
17 al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din,” 53.
18 “Aleppo: Protecting the Halawiyeh wooden niche 10.06.2013,” APSA, accessed November 18, 2014,
19 Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, “The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries” in The Ottoman Empire and its Heritage: Politics, Society and Economy, Volume 33, edited by Suraiya Faroqhi and Halil Inalcik (Boston, Massachusetts: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 183.
20 Yassar Tabbaa, “Geometry and Memory in the Design of the Madrasa al-Firdows in Aleppo,” Chapter 3 in Theories and Principles of Design in the Architecture of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1988), 32.
21 Ibid., 28.
22 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 165.
23 Ibid., 176.
24 Ibid., 171-180.
25 Ibid., 8.
26 Graube, 40.
27 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 164.
28 Ibid., 168, 170-71.
29 Ibid., 168.
30 Graube, 124 and 141-142.
31 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 147.
32 Ibid., 169-70.
33 Tabbaa in Theories and Principles of Design, 24-27.
34 Graube, 164.
35 Ibid., 169.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 152.
39 Ibid., 169.
40 Ibid., 159.
41 Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, function and meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 188.
42 Rana Chalabi, “Madrassa Al Firdaus al-‘Alā” (masters thesis, n.d.), accessed October 17, 2014,
43 Ibid., 27.
44 Watenpaugh, 32-33.
45 Ibid., 52.
46 Ciğdem Kafescioğlu, “In The Image of Rūm: Ottoman Architectural Patronage in Sixteenth-Century Aleppo and Damascus,” Muqarnas 16 (1999): 71.
47 Chalabi, 28-29.
48 “Aleppo – Aïn al-Arab-Kobane: US airstrike against ISIS militants on hill of Tell Shair 24.10.2014,” APSA (Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology), accessed November 27, 2014,


Art Historical Musing: Music as Therapy in Art

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Sunday, December 28th, 2014

The Power of Music &
The Madness of Art

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slide 1:  Title.]
[slide 2:  Detail, Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

Pity poor Hugo van der Goes.

[slide 3:  Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

He fell into a funk, and his prior and fellow monks tried to cheer him up with “a melody…and other recreative spectacles.”1  While it can’t be known what music they chose, perhaps success would have been theirs had they performed something decidedly more upbeat.

[for slide 4, click here on Flashdance-What a Feeling.]
[slide 5:  Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

In his 1872 painting, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (known in English as The Madness of Hugo van der Goes), Belgian artist Émile Wauters illustrated the legendary story of an artist who, around 1475 at the age of about 39, checked himself into a monastery–the Red Cloister outside Brussels–and became “a brother conversi, a rank between a lay brother and a monk.”2  Within the space of about five years, he had what would now be called a nervous breakdown or psychotic break.3

[slide 6: Melancholy Healed by Music in Aldobrandino of Siena, Livres pour la santé garder (Régime du corps) (late 13th century).  The British Library, London.  Sloane MS 2435, fol. 10v.]

As perhaps the only extant case study (of sorts) from the early modern period (or any other time) of an artist’s descent into madness, Gaspar Ofhuys’s description of van der Goes’s malady has often been cited in discussions of melancholia and creativity, and music’s healing powers,4 two areas of interest that have extensive histories.  Each has also been a favorite subject of artists over the course of time.

[slide 7:  Detail, Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

As Ofhuys relates the story, when van der Goes–a renowned late 15th century Northern European painter–was returning from an excursion to Cologne accompanied by a couple of fellow monks, “he incurred a strange mental disease…[H]e kept saying that he was a lost soul and was adjudicated eternal damnation; furthermore he was intent on injuring himself physically and committing suicide” and had to be “forcibly restrained by those who were standing by to help.”5

Based on that meager description of symptoms and the sparse biographical data available for van der Goes, attempts to reach a reliable diagnosis or even to discern precipitating factors are by necessity entirely conjectural.  In plunging into his suicidal state, however, the Flemish artist provided future writers (including Ofhuys, who made his own–mostly moralistic–guesses about causes and consequences) ample fodder for ruminating about the link between genius and insanity, and creativity and melancholia.

[slide 8:  Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (1609-10, oil on canvas, 49¼ x 39¾ in [125 x 101 cm]).  Rome, Museo e Galleria Borghese.]

As far back as Classical Antiquity, descriptions of artists emphasized their peculiarities.6  In writing about a particular Greek sculptor, Pliny the Elder made sure to mention not only the artist’s nickname of “the Madman,” but also an “unrivaled devotion to the art” that led him to be a “severe critic of his own work” and to break his statues into pieces upon completion, “his intense passion for his art making him unable to be satisfied.”7

[slide 9: Michelangelo Buonarroti, restored and completed by Tiberio Calcagni, Bandini Pietá (1550-55, marble, height 7⅜ ft [2.26 m]).  Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy.  Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen.]

Michelangelo followed suit almost two millennia later when, unhappy with the sculpture, he took a mallet to a late-in-life Pietá.8  Shortly before he died, this great Renaissance man torched “a large number of his own drawings, sketches and cartoons to prevent anyone from seeing the labours [sic] he endured or the ways he tested his genius, for fear that he might seem less than perfect.”9

[slide 10:  Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1989, oil on canvas, 23⅓ x 19⅓ in [60 x 49 cm]).  The Courtauld Gallery, London.]

In more modern times at the end of the nineteenth century in the hills around Aix-en-Provence, a fortunate hiker might have chanced upon an unfinished painting by Paul Cézanne, hanging from a tree.  A brilliant colorist, Cézanne lamented near the end of his life that “even though I am already old, I am only a beginner.”  About his paintings he said, “they are imperfect things…I don’t capture the local colors.”10

That kind of driving passion was noted by Plato but ascribed only to those who practiced what he considered the higher art forms of poetry and music.11  As painters achieved more status during Hellenistic times, they were granted the same “inspired madness of which seers and poets are possessed.”12

[slide 11:  Adam Elsheimer, Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences (c. 1600-1605, oil on copper, 3⅜ x 5¾ in [8.6 x 14.6 cm]).  The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.]

According to the humoral theory of personality, artists could reach feverish states of creativity (Plato’s divine/creative mania13), energized by internal fires that when spent, left behind “remains [that] resembled black coals and polluted smoke,” plunging them into their more characteristic melancholic state.14

Adam Elsheimer, in his small copper painting, Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences (c. 1600-1605), depicts Minerva in the emblematic pose of the melancholic, complete with shadowed eyes, and head resting wearily on her left arm and hand.  She bears a downturned, burned-out torch–of little use to the artist and scholars toiling away in the darkened interior, each with his own meager source of illumination.  The fire in the horizontally-centered brazier, now reduced to smoldering embers, adds a final touch to this representation of the cold, dark, blackness of the melancholic artistic temperament.15

Henry James’s short-story character knew well of this place when he exclaimed, “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art.”16

A committed and acclaimed artist, Hugo van der Goes suffered similar “passions of the soul” and “was seriously weighted down by them…exceedingly worried about how he was to carry out the paintings he had undertaken.”17  In wondering about the origins of the artist’s breakdown, Ofhuys mentioned his ingesting “melancholy-inducing foods” and imbibing strong wine, “which burns the humors and turns them into ashes.”18

[slide 12:  Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece (1475, oil on wood, 8¼  × 4⅔ ft [2.53 × 1.41 m]).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.]

Ofhuys also made much of Hugo’s exceptional status at the Red Cloister and the high esteem in which the artist was held.19  When the painter joined the monastery soon after completing The Portinari Altarpiece in 1475, he was allowed to bring his studio practice with him.  Granted special dispensation to receive devotees of his art–many of high rank like the Archduke Maximilian, the artist would join his aristocratic guests in luxurious suites built specifically for their convenience.20

Hugo’s special situation contrasted sharply with that of his fellows, who lived a far more austere life in an environment devoid of instrumental music, particularly that of the organ–all forbidden by monastery statutes.  Not surprising then, when Prior Thomas heard about the artist’s distress and ordered a musical remedy, he had it applied offsite, in advance of the brother’s returning home.21

[slide 13: Queen Mary Psalter, early 14th century.  British Royal Library.
Bible of Duke Borso d’Este, mid-15th century.  Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena.]

The prior upon hearing of Hugo’s illness, left the cloister and caught up with the traveling party in Brussels.  “[A]fter confirming everything with his own eyes and ears, [he] suspected that [the artist] was vexed by the same disease by which King Saul was tormented.  Thereupon, recalling how Saul had found relief when David plucked his harp, he gave permission that a melody be played without restraint in the presence of brother Hugo, but also that other recreative spectacles be performed.”22

Prior Thomas had in mind the short passage in the Bible that describes the magic of David’s harp:

“And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”  (Italics in the original.)23

[slide 14:  Whistles Made of Reindeer Bones, Petersfels, Germany (c. 15,000 BP).  Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany.  Photo © Don Hitchcock.
Flute Made of Mammoth Ivory, Ulm, Germany (c. 30,000-37,000 BP, 7⅔ in [18.7 cm] in length).  Photo: © H. Jensen, University of Tübingen.]

While that might be the earliest documented use of music as an agent of healing, archeologists have unearthed an assortment of musical instruments from as far back as between 43,000 and 67,000 years ago that certainly had the potential to be used in a similar way.  The original context might have been their use in magical rituals to conjure up and control spirits.24

[slide 15:  Oinochoe with the Myth of Orpheus (ceramics, red figure).  Tuscania, Italy: Museo Archeologica.  © 2006, Scala, Florence / Art Resource, NY.]

Fast forward to classical antiquity and mythological texts to find references to incantations (perhaps closer to spells than songs) used for healing.  Although the music of Orpheus is reputed to have had great power, “there are no stories of his acting as a healer of the sick.”25

Seventh century BCE saw the deliverance of Sparta from plague through the music of a noted composer of paeans.  Several hundred years later, on the advice of an oracle, the possessed women of a couple of localities in southern Italy began to intone daily a great number of paeans in their quest for relief.  Communal holy songs, these verses acted by appeasing the angry gods behind the afflictions rather than affecting the person directly.26

[Slide 16:  Raphael, School of Athens (c. 1510-12, fresco, 19 x 27 ft [5.8 x 8.23 m]).  Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican State.  Erich Lessing / Art Resource, N.Y. & Detail of Pythagoras, School of Athens.]

It wasn’t until his disciples started handing down stories about the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras (who left nothing in writing) that using music to influence a distressed person’s mood came into its own.  As the tale went, the great teacher–accompanying himself on a lyre–sang paeans to his pupils in order to soothe them.  At times they all sang as one.27  By the fifth century BCE, much had already been written about the power of music to not only affect emotions but also to impact a developing young boy’s character.  Aggressive, frenzied music was suspect and proscribed.

[slide 17: Pier Francesco Mola, Mercury Putting Argus to Sleep (c. 1645-55, oil on canvas, 23⅛ x 39⅛ in [58.7 x 99.4 cm]).  Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH.]

Not long after that, Plato (that great ascetic) picked up on the theme of music as character building or destroying, and issued some guidelines:

“Attunement, having motions akin to the circuits in our soul, has been given by the Muses to the intelligent user of the arts not for mindless pleasure, as it is fashionable to assume, but as an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself.  And rhythm likewise, in view of the unmeasured and graceless condition that comes about in most of us, was bestowed by them for the same purpose.”28

[slide 18:  Boethius, De Institutione Musica (early 6th century CE).]

Plato’s ideas about music’s potential for altering mood and behavior inspired other Greek and Roman writers to pick up on the theme,29 but it was the treatise De Institutione Musica by sixth century CE Roman philosopher Boethius that systematized all the previous material, making it readily accessible for later scholars.  By the Middle Ages, his manuscript on the subject had become compulsory reading for anyone studying at a higher educational level, where it constituted one quarter of the quadrivium along with the other mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.30

In his medico-astrological treatise De Triplici Vita (The Three Books on Life) published in 1489, theologian, astrologer, physician, musician and magician, Marsilio Ficino, picked up where Plato left off.  With Saturn in a dominant position in his horoscope, this Renaissance man was highly motivated to find a system for overcoming his “seal of melancholy.”31

Believing in the magic of music, Ficino developed an astrologically based therapy founded on his idea that “sound and song easily arouse the fantasy, affect the heart and reach the inmost recesses of the mind…Nearly all living beings are made captive by harmony.”  Playing his lyre and singing helped him “banish vexations of both soul and body”32 and he endeavored to share his discovery with others.  For Ficino, earthly music intently played could connect the performer and the listener to the music of the heavenly spheres, completing a circuit that had power to heal body and soul, two entities not yet separated conceptually at that time.

While it’s possible that De Institutione Musica–with all its classical allusions–provided an additional frame of reference for Prior Thomas (besides the Bible) when he came up with a musical solution to the problem of his conversi’s critical imbalance, his adding to the prescription “other recreative spectacles”33 also indicates an awareness of the benefits to the melancholic of not just music, but also attractive diversions.34

[slide 19:  Gonzales Coques, The Artist in His Studio (1650, oil on canvas, 25½ x 32¼ in [65 x 82 cm]).  Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, Germany.]

When Gonzales Coques conceived the idea for his painting The Artist in His Studio (1650), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy had already been published (in 1621, first in English) and widely referenced as the compendium of two millennia worth of knowledge and experience on the malady of melancholy.  Integrating the physical with the spiritual,35 it offered recommendations for treatment, among which music had a leading role.  “He advised students and scholars ‘to refresh their wearied minds with some sort of melody.  For so shall they drive away the dumpes [sic] of melancholie [sic] and make their spirits more lively to learn.’”36

Burton’s prescriptions for curing melancholy singled out pleasant surroundings like gardens and the viewing of Dutch maps, globes and landscape art as ways to lighten the burden on the intellect’s soul.37  Painters like Coques adopted those recommendations as subjects for their pictures.  In The Artist in His Studio, he placed in the artist’s hands a string instrument and situated him in front of a large landscape painting, scattering around the composition other music-making objects: a lute face down on the cabinet against the back wall, and a violin-cello leaning against a  keyboard.  Fruits of the vine and other produce rest on the floor nearby, symbolizing the pleasures of wine and nature as other popular remedies for the relief of melancholia.

[slide 20:  Frans van Mieris the Elder, The Artist in His Studio (1659, oil on panel, 23⅔ x 18½ in [60 x 47 cm]).  Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.]

Similarly, Frans van Mieris the Elder in The Artist in His Studio (1659) included in the easel painting a lounging figure with a lute by his side in a romantic classical setting of arches and columns.  In the studio foreground, a globe and a cello refer to additional anti-melancholy devices, and a statue further back of a writhing figure shows Hercules–one of the patron saints of melancholics–battling a snake.38

[slide 21:  Unknown (formerly attributed to Paul Bril), Self-Portrait of an Artist (c. 1595-1600, oil on canvas, 28 x 30¾ in [71 x 78 cm]).  Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.]

In an anonymous Self-Portrait of an Artist (c. 1595-1600), the protagonist has put aside the tools of his trade, the fires of his creativity having been depleted by the effort to produce the large bucolic landscape that rests on his easel, and avails himself of some musical diversion in an attempt to combat the cold, bilious darkness of his melancholia.

[slide 22:  Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, The Old Song (1959, oil on canvas, 3⅓ x 5 ft [1.02 x 1.53 m)].  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.  © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.]

Music’s power to soothe has never gone out of fashion in artists’ studios, appearing on the canvases of such diverse Northern Europeans as the German expressionist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and the great Dutch realist Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.  Motesiczky in the touching portrayal of her mother in old age, The Old Song (1959), invites into her mother’s room a close friend and neighbor to play a harp for the bedridden woman.

[slide 23:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saul and David (1655-60, oil on canvas, 4¼ x 5⅜ ft [1.3 x 1.64 m]).  Mauritshaus, The Hague, Netherlands.]

In one of Rembrandt’s paintings of the biblical story of Saul and David (1655-60), David concentrates intensively on his musical production, bending and turning his head to better catch the sounds emanating from his harp, while Saul dabs at his eye as if to wipe away a tear, his upset temporarily assuaged by the magic of the melody.  The ancients knew intuitively what contemporary neuroscience has begun to bear out, that music can have a salutary effect on mood.

[slide 24:  From Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, © 2006.]

Advanced techniques of brain imaging have provided modern-day scientists with an increasingly more intimate understanding of the structures and functions of that mysterious organ between the ears.  Researchers, fascinated by the age-old importance of music to the human species, have determined that “musical activity involves nearly every [known] region of the brain…and nearly every neural subsystem.”39

Briefly stated, the processing of the sound of music begins with the auditory cortex, which sorts through its components.  Regions of the frontal cortex attend to the cognitive aspects of the experience, dealing with musical structure and expectations.  In the mesolimbic system, a part of the emotional center of the brain, the production of opioids and the reward neurotransmitter dopamine activates the nucleus accumbens, critical to the experience of pleasure, resulting in an uplifting state of arousal.  Meanwhile, in the cerebellum–the body’s keeper of the beat–and the basal ganglia (also involved in the brain’s reward system), rhythm and meter get registered.40

(slide 25:  Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit (c. 1660-65, oil on panel, 18⅛ x 14½ in [46 x 36.8 cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.]

Seventeenth-century doctors did not wait for the advent of neuroscience and its attendant revelations to include music in their medicine bag for not just melancholic men, but also for hysterical women who suffered from that long-ago-identified affliction known as the wandering womb, or hysteria.41  Dixon’s feminist approach to the study of melancholia invites viewers to consider gender-specific distinctions that artists made in their portrayals of women suffering the blues–reflections of the intellectual milieu of their times.

While the status of the enervated man was elevated to that of suffering genius, the symptomatic woman was understood as little more than a passive vessel for her uterus, “an independent animal capable of appetites and movements beyond the control of body or mind.”42  In his The Doctor’s Visit (c. 1660-65), Netherlandish artist Jan Steen captured perfectly the medical lore of the time as expressed in theme of the “lovesick maiden.”43

In the picture, a young woman in the iconic head-resting-listlessly-on-hand pose, turns her glazed eyes expectantly in the direction of the doctor who–still holding his gloves (an indication that he has just arrived to deal with the emergency) takes her pulse.  A far more alert young woman plays a harpsichord nearby while staring intently at the painting’s subject, watching to see if the music was having any effect.  No glow emanates from the foot warmer in the foreground, a symbol of the spent fires of melancholia.

To potentiate the musical medicine, Steen added a young male caller (the love antidote) who is welcomed in by a servant, and a jokester (the mirth remedy) dangling a fish behind the sick woman.44  A contemporary audience would have recognized allusions to other medical practices, and physicians would have enjoyed even more.45

[slide 26:  Copy after Jan Steen, Lady at a Clavichord (after 1661 or 1664, oil on canvas, 25¼ x 21¾ in [64.1 x 55.2 cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.]

The same artist, in Lady at a Clavichord (after 1661 or 1664–a copy of a lost original), explored again the role of music as a balm for melancholia associated with lovesickness, though this time the victim is a man.  Holding a less-than-half-full glass of wine, and supporting the weight of his head in that now familiar position, he looks longingly at the woman meeting his eyes as she turns the page of a score with one hand and rests the fingers of her other on the keys of a clavichord.  In the near background, another young man (or boy) reaches up to retrieve a lute from the wall, perhaps to hand the sufferer so he can respond to the songs of his love.

[slide 27:  Hugo van der Goes, Portrait of a Man (c. 1475, oil on wood, 12½ x 10¼ in [31.8 x 26 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.]
Hugo van der Goes, A Benedictine Monk (c. 1478, oil on wood, 9⅞ x 7⅜ in [25.1 x 18.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.]

Love’s painful longings pale in comparison with suicidal ideation, and it’s unknown just how effective was the “melody…played without restraint…[and] other recreative spectacles”46 in the face of Hugo van der Goes’s severe distress.  Ofhuys, amid his sermonizing about God’s compassionate nudge of the painter in the direction of more humility, describes how “[t]he brother, realizing this himself abased himself very much as soon as he regained his health, leaving the table at our refectory…and abjectly obtaining his meals with the laiety [sic].”47  In the end, the renowned converso relinquished his privileged position and probably ceased his entertainment of aristocratic admirers in refined quarters.

[slide 28:  Hugo van der Goes, Death of a Virgin (c. 1470–80, oil on panel, 4 × 4¾ ft [1.23 × 1.48 m]).  Groeningemuseum.  Bruges, Belgium.
Hugo van der Goes, Trinity Altarpiece (c. 1478-79, oil on panel, each panel: 6⅔ x 3¼ ft [2.02 x 1.01 m]).  National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.]

It’s uncertain whether Hugo painted again after the breakdown he suffered a couple of years before he died in 1482.  Writers have been unable to resist the temptation to retrospectively identify in his masterpieces indicators of a troubled personality.48  But that type of analysis belongs to the field of art not music therapy, a project for another time.
1 Gaspar Ofhuys, “Extract from Originale Cenobii Rubeevallis in Zonia Prope Bruxellam in Brabancia,” translated by William A. McCloy in “The Ofhuys Chronicle and Hugo van der Goes” (PhD diss., State University of Ohio, 1958), 20.
2 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York, NY: Random House, 1963), 108.
3 Ibid., p. 109.
4 See for example: Peter Murray Jones, “Music Therapy in the Later Middle Ages: The Case of Hugo van der Goes” in Peregrine Horden, ed., Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy since Antiquity (Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2000), 120-144; Laurinda S. Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500-1700 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2013), 121; and Wittkower,108-13.
5 Ofhuys in McCloy, 19-20.
6 Wittkower, 7.
7 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXIV, 14.
8 Anna Mazzanti, The Art of Florence in Its Great Museums (Florence, Italy: Scala, 1997), 97.
9 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translated by Julia Conaway and Peter Bondanella (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 472.
10 Michael Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, translated by Julie Lawrence Cochran (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 20.
11 Wittkower, 4-5.
Wittkower, 98.
Ibid., 103.
14 Dixon, 14-15.
15 Ibid., 119.
16 Henry James, “The Middle Years,” Scribner’s Magazine 13:4 (April 1983), 620.
17 Ofhuys in McCloy, 22.
18 Ibid., 21.
19 Ibid., 16-17.
20 Ibid., 18.
21 Peter Murray Jones, “Music Therapy in the Later Middle Ages: The Case of Hugo van der Goes” in Peregrine Horden, ed., Music as Medicine (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publish Ltd., 2000), 123.
22 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
23  “I Samuel 17:23,” The Holy Bible, King James Version (New York: The World Publishing Co., n.d.), 216.
24 Martin West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity” in Music as Medicine, 51.
25 Ibid., 54.
26 Ibid., 54-55.
27 Ibid., 55.
28 Plato, Timaeus, 47d, quoted in West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity,” 58.
29 West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity” in Music as Medicine, 59-66.
30 Peregrine Horden, “Commentary on Part II, with a Note on the Early Middle Ages,” in Music as Medicine, 104.
31 Angela Voss, “Marsilio Ficino, the Second Orpheus,” in Music as Medicine, 156.
32 Ibid., 161.
33 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
34 Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 143-178.
35  Ibid., 3.
36 Robert Burton quoted in Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 148.
37 Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 152.
38 Ibid., 154 and 156.
39 Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York, NY: Penguin Group Inc., 2006), 4.
40 Ibid., 187.
41 Laurinda S. Dixon, “Together in Misery: Medical Meaning and Sexual Politics in Two Paintings by Jan Steen” in Jane L. Carroll and Alison G. Stewart, eds., Saints, Sinners, and Sisters: Gender and Northern Art in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003), 250-51.
42 Ibid., 250.
43 Ibid., 246.
44 Ibid., 256.
45 Ibid., 249.
46 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
47 Ibid., 23.
48 Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, Volume I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 330-343.  He identifies “somber pathos” as “the very signature of Hugo’s genius.” (342); McCloy sees the 1902 attribution of The Death of the Virgin to van der Goes as inevitable. (115).


Art Historical Musing: Egyptian Portraiture

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Sunday, July 20th, 2014

The Tomb of Ipuy:
Monument as Self-Portrait

With something like awe, the scientists gazed at the still figure from the past, while in turn the little biped stared back at them with its characteristic expression of arrogant bad temper.

For the rest of time it would symbolize the human race. The psychologists of Venus would analyze its actions and watch its every movement until they could reconstruct its mind. Thousands of books would be written about it. Intricate philosophies would be contrived to account for its behavior…

Its secret would be safe as long as the universe endured, for no one now would ever read the lost language of Earth. Millions of times in the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning:

“A Walt Disney Production.”

[Conclusion from “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clark in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Volume 1: History Lesson (Originally written in 1949).  Cited in Patrick F. Houlihan, Wit & Humour in Ancient Egypt (London: The Rubicon Press, 2001).]

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]


Mention Ancient Egypt and most likely images come to mind of the four colossal statues carved out of the cliffs at Abu Simbel, the towering lotus-topped columns of the Temple of Karnak, the rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and/or King Tut’s dazzling tomb furnishings, among the many other examples of imposing monuments built to aggrandize their sponsors.

[Image 1: Edifice as Self-Image Enhancement vs. “Man Behind the Curtain.”]

To believe that these structures represent the total character of the Egyptian people would be like imagining that the National Mall in Washington, DC, depicted everything there was to know about the inhabitants of the United States.

[Image 2: Presentation title slide: Ipuy’s tomb as cleared and repaired by the exhibition.]
[Image 3: Map of Thebes.]

A corrective to that lopsided view of early Egyptian life can be found tucked away between the cliffs overlooking the mortuary structures of the New Kingdom and the tilled land on the west bank of the Nile–opposite modern Luxor–

[Image 4: Village of Deir el-Medina.]

where ruins of a workers’ settlement lie exposed under the relentless Egyptian sun.  Known today as Deir el-Medina, the village probably began its life during the reign of Thutmose I (c. 1506-1493 BCE) as a collection of mud-brick houses surrounded by a wall of bricks in a small valley, reaching its maximize size and population during the long tenure of Ramesses II (19th dynasty, 1290-1224 BCE).1

[Image 5: Map of the Village of Deir el-Medina.]

Not representative of ordinary Egyptians, the residents belonged to a special class of artists, artisans, administrators and others employed to construct the tombs and chapels for the royal family and its close associates in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.  Of sufficient means, many of these “servant[s] in the Beautiful Place of the mighty king” (their official job title)2 could afford to build respectably sized tombs of their own.

[Image 6: Tomb of Ipuy, Lower Part of North Wall-Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb & Tomb of Ipuy, Upper Part of North Wall-Preparation of the Funeral Equipment of Ipuy.]

One among those was that of the sculptor Ipuy, whose long-buried funerary structure was originally unearthed in the late 1800s and further explored in 1911.3   Its painted walls contain many scenes of daily life and, of special interest, several showing workers building and decorating structures, furniture and other objects destined for the royal tombs.  In much the same way that the king and his cohorts sought to portray themselves as models of maat (truth, balance and order) with images of their divine authority, unimpeachable devotion and exemplary living, a craftsman like Ipuy would naturally choose to represent himself engaged in his own life’s work.

In that way he wasn’t all that different from later-day artists whose self-portraits show them either among their creations,

[Image 7: Nicolas Poussin, Self-portrait.]

as in Nicolas Poussin’s Self-portrait (1650, oil on canvas),

[Image 8: Deborah Feller, Reflections on Self.]

or in the act of painting, like this writer’s Reflections on Self (2003, oil on linen).

[Image 9: Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting.]

Artemisia Gentileschi, in her Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-9, oil on canvas) made a bold statement by picturing herself as painting personified, a role only a woman could play.

[Image 10: Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life.]

Along the lower part of the north wall of Ipuy’s tomb, the scenes of “Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb” bring to mind Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (1865, oil on canvas), a cross-section of the artist’s milieu.

Before they were self-representations, however, the images in Ipuy’s tomb were part of an overall program that served the critical function of ensuring safe passage to the good part of the netherworld and guaranteeing a heavenly afterlife through the establishment of an ongoing cult of worship and offerings.

[Image 11: Village of Deir el-Medina & Necropolis.]

Cut into the cliffs overlooking the large swath of real estate that was the village necropolis,

[Image 12: Deir el-Medina Necropolis, Showing Pyramidion.]

Ipuy’s tomb was originally topped by a pyramidion, standard fair for the mortuary structures he and his fellow non-elites could well afford to build.

[Image 13: Approach to Ipuy’s Tomb Entrance.]

Visitors would first enter the courtyard,

[Image 14: Plan and Section of Ipuy’s Tomb (detail-left half).]

encountering a garden and perhaps an adjoining pool (1), and notice–abutting the tomb’s façade to the left of the entrance–a bench for offerings and a stela identifying the owner, either painted on the wall behind it or erected nearby.  They would see the pyramidion, now missing along with its surrounding cliff rock that long ago collapsed.

Stepping inside, they then would walk through a dark, narrow, vaulted, brick passageway and come upon a white contour painting of Ipuy on his way out of the tomb.

[Image 15: Interior of Ipuy’s Tomb, Southwest Corner of Chapel.]

As they continued, they would enter the vaulted chapel–the only decorated room in the tomb–with its mud-coated brick walls covered in yellow pigment, the ground over which all images would be painted.

In the chapel, on either side of the opening that led beyond through another vaulted passageway, they would notice on two low pedestals, statues of Ipuy and his wife Dowesmiset.  Attached to the wall, each was crafted from brick and mud, then covered with layers of linen, white stucco and paint.  The one of Ipuy included the standard prayer for “all the offerings on the altar [of the god].”4

[Image 16:  Plan and Section of Ipuy’s Tomb (detail-right half).]

Passing the statues and entering the hallway between them led first to a slightly higher and wider vaulted corridor (II) and then to a flat-roofed continuation of it (III) at the end of which a brick wall belied the presence of the undecorated rooms behind it, reachable via a five-foot deep pit in the floor.  The rooms beyond were little more than cavities dug out of the cliff.

Unearthed during the excavations, stoneware and various objects hint at the contents and functions of the tomb, but the paintings that covered the walls of the chapel reveal the most about the life of its owner, providing a portrait of not just him but also of the community to which he belonged.

Ipuy lived with about 47 other men and their families, occupying about seventy houses within the original town plus another forty or fifty outside its wall.  Arranged on a grid, the homes opened onto the main thoroughfare and were all similar in layout, variations reflecting the wealth and social status of the inhabitants.  Paralleling the larger Egyptian society, the “men of the gang”5 had clearly defined positions that by Ipuy’s time had become largely hereditary, excepting the occasional usurpation of the choicest ones through bribery and intrigue.

[Image 17: Workforce Division at Deir el-Medina.]

Men were assigned to either the left or right side of the tomb under construction, with a foreman (“chief of the gang in the Place of Truth”6) overseeing each half.  Of equal clout, “the scribe of the Tomb”7 (appointed directly by the vizier) was the bean counter, tracking workers’ attendance, accounting for all items leaving or entering the royal storehouses, and disbursing wages mostly in the form of emmer wheat (for grinding into flour) and barley (for making home brew).

Foreman and scribe served as captains of the village, links between the community and the central government’s vizier and its overseer of the treasury.  In addition to their usual responsibilities, they could make recommendations when vacancies opened in the workforce, providing additional opportunities to generate income.  Because of their power, they could also draft crew members for work on their own tombs and accept private commissions from outside the village.  Wealthy as they were, they remained integral parts of the community, with their families living among and intermarrying with ordinary workers.

Nonetheless, nepotism was standard fare.  The foreman’s deputy was selected from among his own family, usually his oldest son or another close relative, and was generally next in line for the highly lucrative position of chief.  Till then, however, he was paid just like other workers.

One step down in the hierarchy, the “guardian of the Tomb”8 controlled the royal storehouses, under close scrutiny of the foreman and scribe.  Other jobs included the three guards at the entrance to the royal tomb (“door-keeper[s] of the Tomb”9)–musclemen who also did the village dirty work as bailiffs and debt-collectors.  The police (Mediay) kept order and also had a hand in safeguarding the royal tombs, with the two chiefs participating on local courts and involved commercially with workers.

Then there were the actual tomb builders–stonemasons, carpenters and chief carpenters, sculptors and draftsmen–their apprentices, usually drawn from their own families–and their wives and children.  By Egyptian law, women were accorded rights equal to those of their husbands, including property rights that could sometimes be manipulated to their good advantage.

At the lower rung of the economic ladder were “servants of the Tomb,”10 support staff–woodcutters, watercarriers, fishermen, gardeners, washermen and sometimes potters–who commuted to work from down near the Nile and could hope to become full workmen if positions became available.  For additional assistance, the central government allocated to the workers the services of female slaves for grinding wheat into flour, any unused portion of which becoming another commodity that they could save, swap, share or sell.

During their free time, villagers found ways to entertain themselves.  They especially enjoyed a good party, celebrating religious and other occasions like weddings, births and anniversaries with home brew flowing and young men getting into mischief.

Artists, during break time or other idle moments, could reach for potsherds or small chips of limestone from the nearby cliffs on which they could doodle, practice their drawing,

[Image 18: Sketch from Life Ostracon.]

copy already existing images that moved them,

[Image 19: Animal Ostraca.]

devise compositions for current or future projects, and/or create amusing

[Image 20: Sex Ostraca.]

and sexual cartoons to delight their friends.

When Ipuy was ready to design, dig and decorate his tomb, he didn’t have far to go for a pool of skilled craftsmen well versed in the artistic trends of the times.  As the head sculptor, he could have called upon his fellow crew members to sculpt and carve the required images, yet other than the two portrait sculptures of his wife and himself, all the surviving decorations are paintings.

[Image 21: Nineteenth Dynasty Royal Tomb Painting.  Painting from Queen Nefertari’s Tomb, Wife of Ramesses II.]

Post-Amarna painting–about to slide into a steep decline–still had its exciting moments.  In the royal tombs of the early nineteenth dynasty, notably in the paintings of Ramesses II’s wife Queen Nefertari, painters had even begun to experiment with using darker pigments to indicate shading.11  In private tombs, the new emphasis on black-outlined, primary-colored forms against a bright yellow ground could produce either a garish display of images or the lively, expressive figures that scamper around the walls of Ipuy’s tomb.

Despite touches of humor, the chief sculptor’s tomb was serious business, designed to guarantee the transformation of his human essence into an akh being with full citizenship rights in the netherworld and the celestial realms of the cosmos.  An integral part of that process was the establishment of statue and offering cults, the practice of which ensured continuous rebirths and renewals into the infinite future.12

[Image 22: Ipuy & His Wife Adore Anubis & Ptah-Sokar.]

Upon entering the chapel, the worshiper saw opposite on either side of the entrance to the inner rooms, images of the tomb owner Ipuy and his wife Dowesmiset in the act of honoring several gods.  In the interest of maintaining a certain height and overall size for the figures, and to accommodate the resulting lack of sufficient space, the wife’s picture had to be painted on the adjacent walls.

On the left of the rear wall, Ipuy wears a leopard skin with the cartouche of the deified king, Amenhotep I, attesting to his function as a priest in the then popular cult.  The god immediately in front of Ipuy is Anubis and behind him, Ptah-Sokar.

[Image 23: Ipuy & His Wife Adore Osiris & Hathor.]

On the other side of the far opening, Ipuy makes an offering of flowers and fruit to Osiris and his eternal supporter Hathor, perhaps a comment on the relationship between Ipuy and Dowesmiset.  The mortal couple’s daughter is pictured standing beside her mother, tucked inside the older woman’s skirt.

[Image 24: Frieze of Relatives.]

A frieze of seated couples marches around the upper perimeter of the remaining three walls, originally topped by an accompanying band of text.  At the ends, dressed similarly and identified only by their names, tomb owner and wife lead the throng.  The theme of conjugal pairing finds expression in the grip each woman has on the arm of her man, though from the looks of the squawking bird and attentive cat under one woman’s chair, all might not be as harmonious as pictured.

[Image 25: Presentation of Food to the Dead Pair by Their Children.]

On the south wall to the left of the scenes of worship, Ipuy and Dowesmiset receive offerings of food and flowers from attendants who carry gifts, including painted jars capped with green vegetation.  Arrayed on the table, loaves of bread, a plate of fruit and a bouquet of flowers add to the colorfully festive quality of the scene.  In a nod to Egyptians’ affection for their pets, Ipuy’s lap hosts a kitten playing with the hanging fabric, and under Dowesmiset’s chair, an adult cat looks out at the viewer.

Of particular interest in this painting, what looks like reddish-brown shading on the robes has been explained as staining from ointment that has run down from the celebrants’ heads where it had been poured as part of a pleasurable ritual.  The greater the area covered, the more generous the host had been with the provision of unguent.  Realizing the artistic potential inherent in adding lines of oil stain that would gather in the deeper folds of garments, artists exploited this effect to add color that delineated form where before only lines on white had been used.  Brown hatching follows the edge of the women’s robes all the way to the bottom hem even though the stains stop much further up.

Continuing the tour of the chapel, the visitor next encountered scenes from Ipuy’s life, though at the time of Davies’s excavation, the east wall south of the entrance had fallen into ruin except for certain remnants.  His reconstruction of the paintings was based on previous verbal descriptions, one particular drawing of officials in front of the palace window, and a color copy of Ipuy’s house and garden by the earlier explorer.

[Image 26: Ipuy Receives Award from King Ramesses II.]

In the upper register of the wall, a scene of the king reaching out from his palace’s window of appearance to interact with the sculptor Ipuy continues the defining Amarna practice of close contact between Akhenaten and his people.  Although the actuality ended with the fall from grace of the rebel pharaoh, the idea appeared sporadically in tomb images of this period.  Here the figure in front wears vizier attire while the one behind him, lifting his fan to the king’s face, sports that of a gentleman or official (presumably Ipuy).  The vizier, having recommended the chief sculptor for the reward, presents him to his ruler.  Fragments of text described the other recipients–shown wearing their newly gifted golden collars–as scribes, soldiers and temple servitors, a group to which the sculptor would certainly have belonged.

[Image 27: Burial of Ipuy.  His House & Garden.  His Functions as Priest of the Cult of a Dead King.]

Below the scene at the palace window were pictures that charted the progress of Ipuy’s coffin from embalmer’s workshop on the right to the transport of it on its bier to its final resting place in his tomb on the far left.  Across that register are pictured various rituals performed during funerals: mourners’ sprinkle sand over their heads (signaling their grief) and carry papyrus flowers (expressing hope for the dead), and women raise their arms (praising a deity).

Beneath the funeral narrative, servants draw water from a garden pond to irrigate the lush vegetation that surrounds a building resembling Amarna tomb images of houses, though not that city’s actual structures.

[Image 28: Ipuy’s House & Garden (Drawing Water from the Pond).]

In the Davies painting with one of the servants pictured, the original Egyptian artist detailed a variety of identifiable plant life, deploying cool greens and green-blues (assuming Davies’s fidelity to pieces with intact original color) to offset the warm red-browns and yellow ochers.  He also enlivened the action by turning the head of the servant, who looks behind him rather than to the task at hand.

[Image 29: Burial of Ipuy.  His House & Garden.  His Functions as Priest of the Cult of a Dead King.]

On the far right, in a fragment of a slaughterhouse a butcher weighs out portions of meat, perhaps payment to the workers for jobs well done, while beneath him in the laundry room others toil at cleaning the white robes indispensable for a feast.  Moving left from there, four figures (perhaps Ipuy’s family members) pray at an altar–piled high with offerings–to three barks decked out with images of the Amon-Ra ram’s head, each boat with its own small shrine, not unlike a burial catafalque.

[Image 30: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

In preparation for that other-worldly journey, on the wall to the right of the entrance a full range of food-producing activities guarantees an eternal supply of provisions for the dearly departed.  In the top register on the left, Ipuy and Dowesmiset sow a field and harvest flax together, something they would not have done in their earthly lives.  The grain that grows is winnowed on the right, adjacent to a scene of date gathering.

Below, an offering ritual tops an open-air grain storehouse where a couple of youths fight a losing battle against marauding birds that include a marsh duck.  In the center of this very busy level, workers simultaneously load onto and empty from two boats, the portion of harvested grain destined to be exchanged in town for urban products.  On shore, market women sit before their enticing wares, ready to relieve sailors of their in-kind pay for wine, beer, treats and trinkets at seriously inflated prices.

Further afield, goats frolic

[Image 31: Goats Led to Pasture.]

and otherwise go about their pleasurable business of cleaning up behind the harvest, mowing down stubble, vacuuming up stray pieces of grain and chaff, and pruning the lower branches of trees.  One of the herd looks directly out at the visitor, another touch of the whimsy so prevalent throughout the chapel.

[Image 32: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

As other sources of nature’s bounty, the marshes provided aquatic fowl, and the river supplied food fish.  In the old style duck-hunting scene that takes up a large swath of wall, a cat rustles the reeds while a falcon intently eyes the proceedings.

Encapsulated by a thick frame of black, water fills the lowest level, background for two boats jointly engaged in netting a representative sample of each of the available species.

[Image 33: Vintage & Fishing.]

The cool blue-greens offset the warm tones in the register above where vintners gather and press grapes in the already time-worn ritual of making intoxicating beverages.

[Image 34: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

Elsewhere on the same level, servants pluck and butcher geese, prepare fish and mend netting under the watchful eyes of the bird of prey perched above.  Animals–both pet and prey–pervaded every aspect of Egyptians’ lives, appearing everywhere in their art.

[Image 35: A Catch of Fish.]

Around the corner on the north wall, the lower register theme of fishing and other river views continues.  Young men haul in a netful of fish, load and carry baskets filled with their catch, and deposit them on a table, where preparations for their consumption are underway.

[Image 36: Preparation of Funeral Furnishings & Fishing.]

On the rest of that wall, sandwiched between the frieze of seated guests above and the water below,

[Image 37: Preparation of Funeral Furnishings.]

Ipuy’s crew chisels and paints the furniture and other paraphernalia their boss will install in his tomb.  As head sculptor, this tomb owner had a special interest in the quality of the items produced.  They would signal both his high-ranking status and the proper discharge of his duties in keeping with the principals of maat.

[Image 38: Workers Crafting Caskets, Funeral Craft & Tomb Furnishings.]

Devoted to work for Ipuy’s tomb, the narrower register above (reading from right to left) depicts the chief sculptor and one of his sons surrounded by an assortment of tomb furnishings.  The younger man is displaying the fine pectoral that will grace his father’s mummy.  To their left, work proceeds apace on the decoration of the coffin.  In the earlier stage, a sculptor carves the wood that has been chopped from the tree behind him.  Later, a painter will decorate the coffin’s surface with brushes made from the same plant.

Beneath the scene of an apprentice tending the fire under a large glue pot, Ipuy’s oldest son Any, a sculptor himself, practices reading “the service of the opening of the mouth,”13 standing before a table piled with the ritual objects he will need on the day he performs the rite.  On the far left, the funeral craft in which Ipuy’s remains will be carried to his tomb receives its finishing touches.

[Image 39: Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb.]

Befitting his role as supervising sculptor in the Place of Truth, Ipuy devoted a significant portion of the north wall to images of his crew laboring in his workshop on a project for the refurbishing of the temple and/or tomb of the long-dead but deified necropolis patron, Amenhotep I.  On the left, sculptors defying gravity work diligently on a structure destined for the king’s mortuary temple shrine.

[Image 40: Workers Crafting Structure for a Tomb.]

On the right, the artist (perhaps with instructions–or at least approval–from the tomb owner) pictures not just the sanding, hammering and painting, but also the shenanigans that are part of any workplace.  On the roof of what appears to be a portable catafalque in the form of a canopied bedchamber, one man attempts to rouse his sleeping friend while another tired soul takes a break on the steps in the lower right.  Across from him on the other steps, a kohl-painter tests his eyeliner on a willing subject while above them a hammer is about to land on the foot of someone shouting directions.

Although difficult to discern, Ipuy strides onto the stage from the upper right, ready to exercise his god-given authority as chief sculptor by restoring order.  In so doing, he demonstrates for eternity the proper discharge of his duties in full compliance with the principles of maat, thus ensuring his safe passage through the duat, the Egyptian land of the dead.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all information about Deir el-Medina comes from Morris Bierbrier, The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989).

2 Ibid., 27.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all information about the tomb of Ipuy comes from Norman deGaris Davies, Two Ramesside Tombs at Thebes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1927).

4 Davies, 37.

5 Ibid., 47.

6 Bierbrier, 27.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 32.

9 Ibid., 38.

10 Ibid., 39.

11 Ibid.

12 W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 213.

13 David O’Connor, “Society and individual in early Egypt” in Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 25.

14 Davies, 71.


Art Historical Musing: Ludovico Dolce’s “Aretino”

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Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Beauty is a Woman:
Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian
Construct the Nude

In 1557, the great Venetian aggregator Ludovico Dolce published The Dialogue on Painting, Entitled Aretino, less than a year after the death of the volume’s eponymous interlocutor.1  A literary man more than a connoisseur of the visual arts,2 Dolce gathered his information from a variety of sources including the letters of Pietro Aretino, Part Two of which he had assisted in preparing in 1542.3

Positioning the Central Italian art proponent, Tuscan grammarian Giovan Francesco Fabrini (1516-1580) as the foil to the poet and reigning Venetian literary personality, transplanted Florentine Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), Dolce explored contemporary debates about the nature of art.  In keeping with his own intellectual interests, he structured the conversation along the lines of a classical rhetorical device in which he “takes advantage of all the tricks and strategies of formal oratory,”4 including a few ad hominem swipes at Fabrini by Dolce’s favorite, Aretino.5

Viewed as the Venetian answer to Giorgio Vasari’s first edition (published in 1550) of Lives of the Artists, which elevated to godhood the Central Italian artistic giant Michelangelo Buonarroti, omitted Giorgione da Castelfranco completely and had little to say about Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian) and his other cohorts, Dolce’s Dialogue covers a lot of theoretical territory before concluding with a partly mythological biography of Titian6 that establishes his superiority over Michelangelo and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael).7

Along the way, Dolce–through his mouthpiece Aretino–offers praise for Michelangelo’s draftsmanship and Raphael’s delicacy and restraint, intending to use the two artists as protagonists in his description of the elements of fine painting.8  When Fabrini rightfully challenges his adversary on his qualifications to judge beautiful art, he is told that such a skill is within the capacity of anyone with “both eyes and intellect.”9  Aretino draws an analogy between the ability to recognize beauty and the capacity to know good from evil; both are “implanted” by nature and cultivated by learning.10  Beauty, avers the poet, is epitomized by the “harmony of proportion [that] resides in the human body.”11

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment (1536-1541, fresco, 45 x 39.4 ft [13.7 x 12 meters]). Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment (1536-1541, fresco, 45 x 39.4 ft [13.7 x 12 meters]).  Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Having established his bona fides, Dolce’s Aretino eventually uses them to hurl invectives at Michelangelo’s renderings of the nude by using the Last Judgment as primary evidence.  “He is supreme…in only one mode…making a nude body muscular and elaborated, with foreshortenings and bold movements…[H]e either fails to recognize or else is unwilling to take into account those distinctions between the ages and the sexes.”12  In a change of heart probably motivated by his earlier unsuccessful attempts to pry some drawings from the object of his criticism, the real-life Aretino (in a letter to Michelangelo) turned against the artist he had previously venerated.13  Despite his pique and reasons for it, the poet scored some legitimate points in his observations about his former idol’s female nudes.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, David (1501-1504, Carrara marble, 17 ft [5.17 m]). Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, David (1501-1504, Carrara marble, 17 ft [5.17 m]).  Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, 15.6 x 11.9 in [39.6 x 27.9 cm]). Courtauld Gallery, London.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, 15.6 x 11.9 in [39.6 x 27.9 cm]).  Courtauld Gallery, London.

The great sculptor Michelangelo, who carved a paean to homoeroticism with his monumental David (1504, marble, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) and composed a beautifully seductive drawing called The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, Courtauld Gallery, London) for a beloved young male friend,14 never displayed the delicacy needed for rendering lovely women.  His female figures look suspiciously like men with strategically placed anatomical alterations, exuding masculine power rather than feminine grace.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Night (1524-27, marble, 61 x 59 in; max length 76.4 in diagonally [155 x150 cm; max length 194 cm diagonally]). Medici Chapel, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Night (1524-27, marble, 61 x 59 in; max length 76.4 in diagonally [155 x150 cm; max length 194 cm diagonally]).  Medici Chapel, Florence.

 After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leda and the Swan (known only from copies) (c. 1529-31, oil on canvas, 41.3 x 55.5 in [105 x 141 cm.]). National Gallery of Art, London.

After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leda and the Swan (known only from copies) (c. 1529-31, oil on canvas, 41.3 x 55.5 in [105 x 141 cm.]).  National Gallery of Art, London.

When Michelangelo borrowed the pose of his sculpture Night (1524-27, marble, Medici Chapel, Florence) for his painting of Leda and the Swan (c. 1529-31, known only from copies), he created an erotic composition whose impact comes from both the swan’s bill penetrating Leda’s lips and the bird’s feathers caressing the skin between her enveloping legs.15  Less compelling is the woman’s body, constructed of large masses of muscles (e.g., the left deltoid and adjacent biceps) reminiscent of a well-built man rather than an alluring woman.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, 47.25 x 67.72 in [120 x 172 cm]). Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, 47.25 x 67.72 in [120 x 172 cm]).  Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

In contrast, Titian in his Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) has covered the muscles and bones of his object of desire “smoothly with flesh” and “charge[d] the nude figure with grace,” painting “a tender and delicate nude…naturally more pleasing to the eye than a robust and muscular one.”16  Danaë reclines on a bed of rumpled sheets and fluffed pillows, looking contentedly at the cloud of gold that spits coins at her, in a position reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Night and Leda, either or both of which Titian could have seen on his stay in Rome (1545-46).17

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), Galatea (1511, fresco, 25.6 x 18.75 ft [7.5 × 5.7 m ]). Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), Galatea (1511, fresco, 25.6 x 18.75 ft [7.5 × 5.7 m ]).  Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, 33 x 24 in [85 x 60 cm]). Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, 33 x 24 in [85 x 60 cm]).  Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Dolce’s Aretino rarely touches on Titian’s nudes, approaching the subject of the ideal depiction of the unclothed female via laudatory observations about the refined and delicate figures of Raphael in contrast to those of Michelangelo, who “painted porters.”18  He briefly mentions Raphael’s Galatea (1511, fresco, Villa Farnesina, Rome) but goes on at length about his cartoon for the Coronation of Roxana who, though “completely naked…maintain[s] decency [with] a rather soft little piece of drapery conceal[ing] those parts of her which should keep themselves hidden.”19  Indeed, Raphael’s marmoreal La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, Palazzo Barberini, Rome) looks a paragon of virtue despite the position of her right forefinger–invitingly close to her left nipple–and the suggestively isolated position of her left middle finger in the vicinity of her crotch.  Perhaps it’s the mask-like, idealized facial features and the shrubbery behind her that interfere with the erotic potential of the image.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, 73 x 81 in [186 x 207 cm]). Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, 73 x 81 in [186 x 207 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

While rightfully stressing Raphael’s “propriety and modesty,”20 the compiler of The Dialogue in a report to Alessandro Contarini on his experience of Titian’s Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid),21 goes on at length about the raison d’etre for its composition–the rear-view pose of the love goddess.22  Moved to “sweet and vital” feelings, Dolce “recognizes in the hindmost parts here the distension of the flesh caused by sitting,” likening Titian’s brushstrokes to those of nature.23  He ends the letter to Contarini with a reference to Pliny the Elder’s story of a young man who “left his stain” on a statue of Venus,23 mere marble compared to Titian’s Venus, “made of flesh, which is beauty itself, which seems to breathe.”25

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, 47 x 65 in [119 x 165 cm]). Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, 47 x 65 in [119 x 165 cm]).  Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Adonis’s Venus pales in comparison with a much earlier painting that by 1538 resided in the bedroom of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino,26 and which was Titian’s first depiction of a sexy nude woman without pretense of poetic narrative.27  Though plenty has been written attempting to dress her up in deeper meaning, usually as a blessing for a marriage,28 the Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) remains a tribute to its creator’s genius, not just in his ability to distribute oil colors strategically around a canvas but also in his imaginative composition that practically throws the viewer onto the bed with the young woman.29

When Dolce’s Aretino declared that “[p]ainting was invented primarily…to give pleasure,”30 neither poet nor author had in mind Titian’s Venus of Urbino, tucked away in a duke’s private bedchamber.  For surely if either of them had encountered the seductive lady, she would have had a starring role in the Dialogue.

Giorgione da Castelfranco, Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, 42.7 x 69 in [108.5 x 175 cm]). Gemaldegalerie, Dresden.

Giorgione da Castelfranco, Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, 42.7 x 69 in [108.5 x 175 cm]).  Gemaldegalerie, Dresden.

Borrowing from Giorgione’s painting of a Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) on which the surviving artist had worked after the untimely death of his colleague, Titian in the much later Venus of Urbino opened the eyes of the somnambulant goddess31 and trained them on the implied visitor entering the room.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, 54 x 72 in [137 x 184 cm]). Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, 54 x 72 in [137 x 184 cm]).  Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma.

Dividing the canvas between a frontally lit foreground interior and a background bathed in daylight from a rear opening onto the sky, Titian contrasted the reclining nude’s warm, uncreased and otherwise flawless skin against a quadrant of cool green fabric hanging behind her on a dark, bluish vertical drape (or wall).  Suggestive of the cloth of honor backdrop to many a Madonna, this visual trope reprises the artist’s previous use of it in his Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma).  In the earlier, religious work, a dark wall behind Mary, her baby and Catherine partitions the canvas into feminine/indoor and masculine/outdoor spheres, the latter consisting of Dominic and a male donor kneeling in front of a deeply receding landscape under a cloudy but brightly lit sky.

In the equally reverential Venus of Urbino, Titian’s squarish upper-right portion of the canvas could almost pass for a picture hanging on the wall or a mirror reflecting activity within the viewer’s space, so dramatic is the composition’s discontinuous perspective and aberrations of scale.32  Under these visual circumstances, the activity of the maidservants who rummage around in a cassone for an ensemble befitting a noblewoman (or, more likely, a courtesan) constitutes an entirely distinct realm from the one inhabited by the luscious beauty positioned so close to the picture plane.

Reclining on a white sheet that ineffectively covers the bed on which it is spread (perhaps ruffled by recent action or hastily laid down in anticipation of some), this lovely young woman tenderly holds in her right hand a corsage of pink flowers, a rose from which has escaped and fallen onto the exposed portion of the underlying red mattress.  The beauty’s left arm gently snakes over her abdomen and ends in a hand that possesses her mons pubis where, with thumb and forefinger, it busily engages in self-pleasurable behavior.

Whatever socially acceptable function the Venus of Urbino was purportedly created to fulfill, first and foremost it is a tour de force of erotica performed by Venice’s premier artist of the time.  The middle-aged Titian must have spent more than a few pleasurable hours vicariously caressing with his brush on canvas the sexy female model with the come-hither eyes.

The painting that emerged from that encounter conveys “the thoughts and feelings of [his] spirit,”33 epitomizing Dolce Aretino’s venustà (charm)–the non so che (literally, I don’t know what) that defines great works of art.34  Neither Michelangelo nor Raphael ever achieved in their art the beauty that Titian could in his paintings of female nudes.


1 Mark W. Roskill, Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 219.
2 Ibid., 7.
3 Ibid., 34.
4 D. R. Edward Wright, “Structure and Significance in Dolce’s L’Aretino,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 275.
5 For example, on p. 34 of Roskill’s translation of the Dialogue, when Fabrini admits ignorance about “painters who [fooled] birds and horses,” Aretino begins his explanation with, “Even young children know…”  Roskill., 151.  On p. 44, Aretino decides that Fabrini’s wrong-headed convictions stem from his letting his “affection” sway his opinions.  Ibid., 171.
6 Roskill, 320-324.
7 Ibid., 185-195.
8 Ibid., 99.
9 Ibid., 101.
10 Ibid., 103.
11 Ibid., 101.
12 Ibid., 171.
13  Erica Tietze-Conrat, “Neglected Contemporary Sources Relating to Michelangelo and Titian,” The Art Bulletin 25, no. 2 (June 1943), 154-156.
14 For Michelangelo’s poems for, and letters to and from, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, see Stephanie Buck, ed., Michelangelo’s Dream (London: Courtauld Gallery, 2010), 76-97.
15 Fredrika H. Jacobs, “Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,” The Art Bulletin 8, no. 1 (March 2000), 55.
16 Roskill, 143.
17 For other possible sources, see Paul F. Watson, “Titian and Michelangelo: The Danaë 1545-1546, Collaboration in Italian Renaissance Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 245-254.
18 Roskill, 173.
19 Ibid., 169.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid., 215.
22 In a letter to his patron Philip II of Spain, Titian wrote, “Because the figure of the Danaë, which I have already sent to your Majesty, is seen entirely from the front, I have chosen…to…show the opposite side, so that the room in which they are to hang will seem more agreeable.”  Quoted in Jacobs, 61.
23 Roskill, 215.
24 Ibid., 217 and 351.
25 Ibid., 217.
26 David Rosand, “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch,” Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” ed., Rona Geffen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 42.
27 Daniel Arasse, “The Venus of Urbino, or the Archetype of a Glance,” in Geffen, 92.
28 Rona Geffen, “Sex, Space, and Social History in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in Geffen, 63-90.
29 Arasse, 98.
30 Roskill, 149.
31 Arasse, 93.
32 Geffen, 83.
33 Roskill, 97.
34 Ibid., 175 and 176.


Art Historical Musing: Lorenzo Lotto’s “Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza”

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Friday, July 4th, 2014

His Own Artist
Lorenzo Lotto Traveled His Way

On March 25, 1546, Lorenzo Lotto drew up a will in which he referred to himself as a “‘pictor venetiano…de circa anni 66,’”1 helpfully leaving for future art historians the approximate date of birth of an artist for whom secure documentation doesn’t begin until 1503.2  Perhaps feeling the weight of his years prompted that action, for within a few months he was staying in a friend’s house during a period of illness.3

The peripatetic artist was born in Venice and did eventually set up shop there but not before he had already reached middle age (1525) and established a career in such geographically divergent areas as Treviso, Bergamo and the Marches.  By then Lotto had also spent time in Rome, working on frescos in the Vatican Palace, though they didn’t stay up for long.4

His reasons for roaming seem to have been to follow the money, but even when prospering he could still be enticed by a job in some distant location.  On short notice he would pack up his workshop to reestablish it elsewhere.  Nevertheless, except for his time in Rome, Lotto remained within the Venetian sphere of influence, traveling among municipalities in northern Italy and along the Adriatic coast.

Although Lotto probably spent his formative years in Venice,5 the question of his early training has never been definitively resolved.  During the last decade of the Quattrocento when he would have been serving as an apprentice, the fledgling artist had a choice of either the Vivarini workshop–active on Murano under the auspices of Bartolomeo’s son Alvise–or the highly productive Bellini enterprise in the city of Venice proper, where Giovanni and his most promising students, Giorgione and later Titian, would eventually develop a uniquely Venetian brand of painting.6

Wherever the teenage Lotto acquired his art education, by the summer of 1503 he was well ensconced in the Venetian city of Treviso7 and within three years was referred to as “‘pictor celeberrimus’ – a very famous painter.”8  He spent the rest of his life filling commissions for altarpieces and small devotional paintings, and becoming one of the greatest portraitists of his generation.

Virgin and Child with St. Peter Martyr (1503, oil on wood panel, 21⅞

Virgin and Child with St. Peter Martyr (1503, oil on wood panel, 21⅞ x 34¼ inches [55.5 x 87 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Beginning with the saint in one of his earliest works, Virgin and Child with St. Peter Martyr (1503), Lotto manifested an uncanny ability to endow faces with individual character and emotional expression, eschewing the stylized and ideal.  In this youthful oil on panel that borrowed heavily for its composition from the Bellini oeuvre,9 Lotto’s interest in movement and interpersonal interaction was already evident.

That sensitivity would remain a part of this artist’s practice throughout a career that spanned over fifty years, appearing at times in the Madonnas and saints that populated his altarpieces and devotional paintings, and finding profound fulfillment in portraits, one of the most powerful of which was Fra Gregorio Belo da Vicenza, produced during the last decade of the artist’s life.

In December 1546, Gregorio sat for a portrait by Lotto in Treviso where they shared membership in the same religious community and probably knew each other well.  Almost a year later the oil-on-canvas, almost-life-size portrait was recorded as completed in the artist’s carefully kept account book, the Libro di Spese Diverse (begun in 1538 and kept until 1556, the year of his death).10  The painting now hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art where in less than ideal lighting it slowly reveals its genius to the interested viewer.

Fra Gregorio Belo da Vicenza (1547, oil on canvas, 34⅜

Fra Gregorio Belo da Vicenza (1547, oil on canvas, 34⅜ x 28 inches [87.3 x 71.1 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Attention travels first to Fra Gregorio’s face, with its display of intense affect heightened by light falling across it from the upper right.  The brother makes direct contact with his audience with out-of-convergent eyes shadowed by lowered eyebrows.  His mouth (clearly revealed under a well-trimmed mustache), with its slightly pursed lips held tightly together, and his furrowed brow, portray concentration and determination.  Wrinkles under his eyes, deep nasolabial lines and sagging flesh indicate aging and attest to Lotto’s intention to show his subject “de naturale.”11

A couple of tufts of hair grow from Fra Gregorio’s scalp, and his long beard–with its few flecks of white–blends in with, and disappears into, the front of his deep-brown habit.  The pulled-back cloak hood frames the lower half of his head, contributing to the pyramidal shape that imparts maximum solidity to both the composition and the character of the sitter.

Fra Gregorio clenches his right fist, pressing it against himself in emulation of Saint Jerome, whose penance involved pounding his chest with a rock.  As a member of the order of the Hieronymites (Poor Hermits of Saint Jerome), Gregorio opted to be portrayed with the attributes of the saint he venerated, taking on Jerome’s behavior and attire.12  The placement of the brightly lit fist on the horizontal midline of the picture, along with the high-value vertical sliver of white sleeve bordering it, underscores the centrality of this hand’s action to the meaning of the painting.

Fra Gregorio, detail of book

Fra Gregorio, detail of book

Fra Gregorio, detail of inscription.

Fra Gregorio, detail of inscription.

Also lying on the composition’s horizontal midline, Fra Gregorio’s other hand holds open a small book, the lettering of which is imperceptible in the museum’s lighting but which has been identified as the brother’s name-saint Gregory the Great’s Homilies on the Gospels.13  The hand is cradled by the arc created by a sleeve edge painted with the highest value pigment on the canvas, directing the eye to the book above it.  The brother leans on a large brown-gray stone block on which is inscribed his name and the date of the work, an additional reference to the sitter’s rock-solid faith and devotion.

The apex of the triangle that is the figure of Fra Gregorio divides the background into two sections connected with an approximately four-inch band of dark, green-blue sky.  On the right, a cool light suffuses the clouds near the horizon, perhaps the beginning of a sunrise following a long night of vigil by the suppliants in the upper left who look wide-eyed at a bleeding Christ still nailed to his cross.  Summarily painted with small daubs of mostly bright color, the figures of Mary, Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Baptist participate in a scene that seems conjured up by Fra Gregorio as he meditates on Saint Jerome’s years spent in the desert contemplating the crucifix and mortifying his flesh.

In a valley formed by outcroppings of bare rock, dead trees populate a slope visible on each side of the opened book, surely a comment on its contents.  By contrast, trees are elsewhere in full leaf, and vegetation covers most of the turf.  To the right of the cross a sapling bends at an angle parallel to that of Fra Gregorio’s head, and sparse vegetation on the crest of the hill just to the right of his left ear mimics the tufts of hair on his head, an example of the humorous note often discoverable in Lotto’s pictures.

Alvise Vivarini, Portrait of a Man (1497, oil on panel, 24½

Alvise Vivarini, Portrait of a Man (1497, oil on panel, 24½ x 8½ inches [62.2 x 47 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, London.

While the three-quarter-length figure of the Brother Gregorio Belo with its expressive features and identifying attributes can be found in some of Lotto’s early portraits, his first forays into the genre link him with Northern European portraiture via Antonello da Messina’s impact on Alvise Vivarini (and imported portraits by Hans Memling and Petrus Christus14).  This Flemish formula of a bust-length, three-quarter view of a highly realistic, brightly lit face against a dark background as painted by Antonello was adopted by Alvise in his Portrait of a Man (oil on panel, 1497) and further developed by both Giorgione and Titian.  Bellini also adopted this format, but his subjects rarely make the eye contact used to such powerful effect by the other artists.

Youth with a Lamp (c. 1506, oil on panel, 16½

Youth with a Lamp (c. 1506, oil on panel, 16½ x 14⅛ inches [42 x 36 cm]).  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Lotto, in his Youth with a Lamp (c. 1506, oil on panel), took the Flemish pose, added emotional expression, and placed the subject in front of a white curtain behind which a flame-lit lamp illuminates a small patch of a long strip of darkness.  With this adjustment, he demonstrated by his mid-twenties a propensity for adopting stylistic elements from other painters while continuing to follow his own creative impulses.

Those idiosyncrasies worked well for him over the course of the mostly prosperous next twenty years and don’t seem to have been a disadvantage in Venice when, as a 45-year-old bachelor, he returned in response to a promised commission.15  Perhaps hoping there would be more opportunities for him now that Giovanni Bellini, Alvise Vivarini and the still-young Giorgione had passed from the scene, Lotto might have been disappointed to find the younger Titian filling the vacuum with a formidable artistic presence.  Nonetheless Lotto stayed, unlike in his younger years when by leaving town he effectively avoided competing with the powerful machine that was the Bellini workshop.

Maintaining his long-standing commercial ties in northern Italy and the Marches, Lotto sought and found new outlets for his portraits and devotional paintings among the citizen class of Venice.  Unlike the aristocracy that governed La Serenissima, these merchants and professionals were free to have themselves painted as emotionally expressive, powerful individuals surrounded by possessions that spoke to their interests and personalities,16 very much in keeping with Lotto’s own artistic proclivities.  At a time when the commanding Titian arranged subjects in static half or three-quarter-length poses against a dark background, including few if any identifying accessories, Lotto obliged with far more dynamic solutions that seemed in deliberate defiance of that reigning authority.17

Perhaps his nervous personality, religiosity, sensitivity to humiliation and the value he placed on his own work18 led him to jealously guard his artistic independence in the fast-paced world of Venetian artists.  As always, he cultivated profitable friendships with members of the local bourgeoisie and for a time was even part of the circle of the Venetian literary lion Pietro Aretino, coming into personal contact with Titian himself.19  Lotto’s willful insularity shows up in the paucity of comments he afforded other artists in his Libro, and in the way he completely left out Titian.20

Strongly apparent in the portrait of Brother Gregorio is Lotto’s open-form manner of paint handling made possible by the advent of oil in the second half of the 15th century.  Initially aligning himself with the older generation of Venetian painters who didn’t change their usual practices when they adopted the new medium, Lotto in his early work used well-defined contours to set off figures from their surroundings.

When Leonardo dropped by Venice early in 150021 and brought with him a novel way of conceptualizing figure-ground relationships, his sfumato (smoky chiaroscuro) inspired Giorgione and subsequent artists–Titian especially and Lotto eventually–to blur the edges of form and exploit more of oil’s potential.  Likewise, because of the versatility of the still-new medium, painters could dispense with the laborious preparatory process of creating detailed drawings.22  By sketching with brush directly on canvas, they could improvise and spontaneously respond to the image unfolding before them.

The portraits Lotto executed after his arrival in Venice, which are among his best, show his receptivity to this new technique.  Like Titian, he painted three-quarter-length figures, but unlike the more successful painter, Lotto portrayed subjects in active communication with their audience, surrounded by objects whose meanings he liked to leave to the viewer’s imagination.23

By 1533, commissions for altarpieces in towns in the Marches once again took Lotto abroad, though he was back in Venice by 1540 and would come and go as business required until leaving for the last time in 1549.  At age 72, he retired to the Marian sanctuary in Loreto, accepting care in exchange for occasional artwork.  Two years later he joined a religious order and on September 1, 1556, made the last entry in his Libro.24

Berenson opens his final chapter on Lotto’s life with the observation that “[o]ld age is a period in an artist’s life…when old habits are no longer to be changed or new ones acquired…when the man most clearly manifests his native temperament, the almost chemical change it underwent in youth, and what it made of itself in middle age…and the man himself appears with a distinctness never perceived before.  As he now stands before us, thus he essentially was through life.”25

At roughly 67 years of age when he painted Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza, Lotto poured the intensity of his being into the portrait.  In strong identification with his subject, he commanded his brush and paints with a confidence born of years, imparting to the figure and its setting the same determination and force of will, sacrifice and devotion, vulnerability and sensitivity that both served and challenged him throughout his life.  Lotto reveals himself in this and many of his other portraits in ways that Titian never could.
1 Peter Humfrey, “Lorenzo Lotto: Life and Work” in Lorenzo Lotto, Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, David Alan Brown, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 5.

2 Peter Humfrey, Lorenzo Lotto (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 7.

3 Ibid., 153.

4 Ibid., 32.

5 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 5.

6 Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto (London: The Phaidon Press, 1956), 17.

7 Humfrey, Lotto, 7.

8 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 6.

9 Humfrey, Lotto, 8.

10 Lorenzo Lotto, Il Libro di Spese Diverse, Pietro Zampetti, ed. (Venice-Rome: Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale, 1963), 74-75.

11 Ibid., 74.

12 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Catalog entry for “Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza, Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, Venice ca. 1480-1556 Loreto),“ 2010.  Accessed February 25, 2014.

13 Ibid.

14 Peter Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 11.

15 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 8.

16 Ibid., 102.

17 Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, 102.

18 See translations of Lotto documents in Humfrey, Lotto, 176-182.

19 Humfrey, Lotto, 156.

20 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 9.

21 Humfrey, Lotto, 118.

22 Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, 81.

23 Humfrey, Lotto, 90.

24 Ibid., xii-xiii.

25 Berenson, 111.


Art Historical Musing: Carlo Crivelli’s Pietá

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Saturday, May 17th, 2014

The Unique Style of
A Venetian Artist:
Carlo Crivelli &
His Golden Paintings

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1450, tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 15¾ x 21⅞

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1450, tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 15¾″ x 21⅞″ [40 x 55.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bartolomeo Vivarini, The Death of the Virgin (1485, tempera on wood, 74¾

Bartolomeo Vivarini, The Death of the Virgin (1485, tempera on wood, 74¾″ x 59″ [189.9 x 149.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Gallery 606 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art bears the title Venice and North Italy in the 15th Century.  Included on its walls are paintings by Andrea Mantegna (Adoration of the Shepherds) and Bartolomeo Vivarini (The Death of the Virgin).  Some distance from those works, in Gallery 627 under the heading North Italian Gothic Painting, The Met grouped Carlo Crivelli’s paintings, including his 1476 Pietá, with artists from “The centers of Northern Italian painting…,” deliberately excluding Venice.1

Yet in almost all the work Crivelli signed, he made a point of reminding the world that he was “Veneto” (Venetian).2  Born in Venice in the early 1430s, he left little material evidence of his life there before 1457 court records note his status as an independent master.  Sentenced at that time for his affair with a married woman, the young artist spent six months in prison and then, probably not long after his release, left the city.  Over the course of his artistic career, Crivelli traveled among and worked within an assortment of cities in the north and Dalmatia, ultimately becoming closely associated with the Marches.  He was never again documented in Venice.3

Andrea Mantegna, Ovetari Chapel, Padua (1447-1456, fresco).

Andrea Mantegna, Ovetari Chapel, Padua (1447-1456, fresco).

The Met has separated Crivelli from contemporaries linked to his development via Antonio Vivarini’s workshop on Venetian Murano, where he probably received his early training, and Francesco Squarcione’s studio school in Padua, where Mantegna was a rising star.4  As the university town of Venice, Padua was for a time during the mid-1400s “the most creative centre of Renaissance art in all of northern Italy.”5  It drew artists like Vivarini and Mantegna, who worked opposite each other on the Ovetari chapel between 1447 and 1450, and it might have been a stopover for Crivelli as well.6

Antonio Vivarini, Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man (1450s, tempera and gold on wood, 20⅞

Antonio Vivarini, Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man (1450s, tempera and gold on wood, 20⅞″ x 13⅛″ [53 x 33.3 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For his multi-panel altarpieces, Crivelli preferred ornate frames, relied heavily on gold over raised gesso as background for single-figure compositions of saints, and rendered naturalistically plants and other still-life objects.  These elements echo the work of Antonio Vivarini, who (unlike his younger brother Bartolomeo) was never completely won over by the Renaissance practices taught in Squarcione’s school–techniques that soon caught on in Venice.  This connection is acknowledged at The Met by the display in Crivelli’s gallery of Antonio’s 1450s tempera-and-gold Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man.

Antonello da Messina, Christ Crowned with Thorns (n.d., oil, perhaps over tempera, on wood, 16¾

Antonello da Messina, Christ Crowned with Thorns (n.d., oil, perhaps over tempera, on wood, 16¾″ x 12″ [42.5 x 30.5 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1470, oil on wood (10⅝

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1470, oil on wood (10⅝″ x 8⅛″ [27 x 20.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The segregation of these four artists into two different galleries seems to reflect differences in their responses to the advent of a new kind of painting.  In fact, in the same gallery as Bartolomeo and Mantegna are two panel paintings by Antonello da Messina (Christ Crowned with Thorns and Portrait of a Young Man), both done in the oil medium he is credited with popularizing in Venice on his visit there in 1475-76.7

Although Crivelli absorbed some of the lessons of the Renaissance, he remained steadfast in his commitment to tempera, a fast-drying medium that lends itself–even requires–a style reminiscent of pen-and-brush ink drawings.  Finding in Mantegna’s work a powerful example of the expressive power of line only served to reinforce Crivelli’s personal preference for outlining forms and using hatch marks to create shadows.

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 81½

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 81½″ x 57¾″ [207 x 146.7 cm]). The National Gallery of Art, London.

Contemporary in his use of perspective–most dramatically in the 1486 Annunciation with Saint Emidius–and in his illusionistic naturalism–noticeable in the profusion of still life objects in so many of his paintings (especially the enthroned Madonnas), Crivelli took what he liked and leaving the rest perfected an inimitable style that attracted few followers.8  With a fastidiousness for decorative detail bordering on obsessive-compulsivity, he created visual feasts for the eye.

Carlo Crivelli, Saint George (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground (38

Carlo Crivelli, Saint George (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground (38″ x 13¼″ [96.5 x 33.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Just two paintings down the wall from the much quieter Pietá, Crivelli’s 1472 Saint George, aglow in his blue, white and gold armor accented with red straps, holds a candy-cane-striped lance.  The artist designed a stunning cuirass that sports lion-headed shoulder protectors and includes a leonine face on the breastplate.  Sharp blue rays emanate from the knee plates and lions’ mouths, finding resonance in the pointed incisors and long snout of the slain dragon who lies dying behind St. George, the broken-off tip of the saint’s lance lodged in its head.  Crivelli’s relish for bright colors, gleaming gold and intricate design is obvious here, but so are the foreshortened feet, one of which protrudes over the marble ledge into the viewer’s space, reminding onlookers of the artist’s keen interest in three-dimensional space.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child Enthroned (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground, 38¾

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child Enthroned (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground, 38¾″ x 17¼″ [98.4 x 43.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bartolomeo Vivarini, Madonna of Humility (c. 1465, tempera and gold on wood, 23

Bartolomeo Vivarini, Madonna of Humility (c. 1465, tempera and gold on wood, 23″ x 18″ [58.4 x 45.7 cm]).

Saint George’s graceful hand-on-hip contraposto pose reflects a closer affinity to the work of Bartolomeo Vivarini than that of his older brother Antonio, whose figures lack the animation with which Crivelli imbues his.  Similarly, in the 1472 Madonna and Child Enthroned panel painting attached to the Saint George, the elaborately embroidered gold brocade with which Crivelli adorned his Madonna looks strikingly like the fabric with which Bartolomeo decorated his 1465 Madonna of Humility.

Antonio Vivarini, Pesaro Polyptych (1464). Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Antonio Vivarini, Pesaro Polyptych (1464).  Pinacoteca Vaticana.

For his 1476 Pietá, a scene of profound grief, Crivelli retained the gold-over-gesso background but toned down his colors in keeping with the somber subject matter.   Originally part of a polyptych altarpiece in the church of San Domenico at Ascoli Piceno in the Marches,9 this lunette-shaped panel painting once occupied the position usually reserved for a Christ-Man of Sorrows, as in Antonio Vivarini’s 1464 Pesaro Altarpiece.

Carlo Crivelli, Pietà (1476, tempera on wood, gold ground, 28¼

Carlo Crivelli, Pietà (1476, tempera on wood, gold ground, 28¼″ x 25⅜″ [71.8 x 64.5 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In this representation of Christ after his crucifixion, Crivelli posed the dead body in a seated position in front of a ledge that makes more sense as a compositional device than as the sarcophagus assumed in The Met’s online catalog entry.10  That the artist elected not to place the dead Christ’s body in its usual supine position on Mary’s lap suggests he might have purposely conflated the Pietá with a Christ-Man of Sorrows.

Here, the left arm of the dead Christ is draped over Mary’s left shoulder while she looks up into his lifeless face with its closed eyes and pallid skin.  Her open mouth reveals upper teeth and tongue, as if caught in the middle of an agonized wail, and three large teardrops spring from her right eye.  She wears a blue garment edged in reddish gold, damage to the paint surface of which reveals a higher-chroma-blue underpainting and Crivelli’s intentional muting of the overall color key of the painting.

Mary Magdalen appears at Christ’s right, the most colorfully attired of the four figures.  Yet her green-lined red cloak, cool-blue dress with gold-embroidered edges, and gold-trimmed red bodice and sleeve were all rendered in a subdued manner appropriate to the narrative.  Her golden-red hair cascades in rhythmic ripples from its central part.  As she looks down at the wound in Christ’s left hand, three tears drop across her left check and one over her right.  Creases form around the left corner of her mouth as she purses her lips, perhaps in the middle of a restrained sob.

In the background, a curly-haired male figure whose youth indicates he is John the Evangelist, opens his mouth and extends his tongue in an almost audible cry.  With furrowed brow, lowered eyelids, and three tears coursing from his left eye and one from his right, he looks heavenward as if for an explanation of why this happened to his friend.

Crivelli bunched together his figures, confining them between the arch of the frame above and the horizontal line of the marble ledge below.  Only the pierced hand of Christ escapes this claustrophobic space, drawing focus by breaking through the picture plane.

The four figures appear collaged onto the painting’s surface rather than situated in a three-dimensional space.  With no indication of the structure on which it sits, the body of Christ mysteriously supports the weight of his mother Mary who throws herself at him in a desperate embrace as his lifeless head leans against hers.  On the right, Mary Magdalene holds but does not quite lift Christ’s weightless left forearm.  Behind the three-quarter-length figures, St. John the Baptist’s head floats free of a body barely hinted at by its neck and the white-trimmed collar of a brown garment.  The flatness of the decorative gold backdrop–including the haloes–presses from behind, leaving little room for the unseen parts of the actors in this drama.

In keeping with his love of line, Crivelli created in this Pietá a symphony of visual rhythms, most obvious in the wavy hair of Christ and Mary Magdalene, the curly hair of John and the narrow bands of folds on Mary’s white head wrap.  A spike on the far right of the crown of thorns perfectly overlaps one of the rays of Christ’s halo, and the pointy leaves of the golden background floral pattern further elaborate this theme.  Lines pick out the form, with parallel hatching in areas of shadow but also in details like the random, curved lines of Christ’s pubic hair.

Despite Crivelli’s reliance on aspects of an increasingly out-of-fashion Gothic style, he showed interest in contemporary painting practices by using an external light source, which models form better, and dispensing with the use of a spiritual light emanating from one holy figure or another.  With the hatch marks typical of tempera painting, he placed shadows strategically.  Those below Mary’s right arm fall across Christ’s rib cage and bury in darkness the mildly bloody gash from the soldier’s spear.  Those on Christ’s left arm provide a dark ground against which the left hand of Mary Magdalene stands out.  Crivelli also used color to direct the eye, relating the green lining of the Magdalene’s cloak to the green of Christ’s crown of thorns, and the white of Mary’s head wrapping to that of the cloth across her son’s thighs.

While the grimacing, teary expressions depict emotional distress, Crivelli understated the traumatic nature of the event by cleaning up the blood from Christ’s forehead where the thorns penetrate below the skin on his forehead and leave evidence of their sharp presence by the mounds they raise.  An area of redness is all that remains around the perfectly drawn spike hole on Christ’s left hand, hardly the evidence of torn flesh that would be expected under the circumstances.  From Christ’s chest wound–painted to emulate the open mouths of Mary and John–seeps a narrow, transparent stream of blood that trickles down his torso, dividing into three lines that run down his abdomen.

Michele Giambono, Man of Sorrows (c. 1430, tempera and gold on wood, 21⅝

Michele Giambono, Man of Sorrows (c. 1430, tempera and gold on wood, 21⅝″ x 15¼″ [54.9 x 38.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Crivelli’s Pietá tells a story about suffering.  In contrast, Michele Giambono’s 1430 Man of Sorrows evokes in the viewer empathy for the afflicted.  In this tempera-and-gold panel painting that sits in a vitrine just a few feet away from Crivelli’s work in the North Italian Gothic gallery, the older Venetian artist used gesso to model in relief the crown of thorns and the blood that flows copiously from the victim’s wounds.  The faces of Christ and St. Francis are realistically rendered, further contributing to the image’s emotional pull.  In comparison, Crivelli’s faces take on a highly stylized appearance that creates a comfortable distance between the painful subject matter and its audience.

Like Bartolomeo’s faces in The Death of the Virgin, those in Crivelli’s Pietá convey the idea of emotion rather than its actual appearance (note the calculated number of tear drops), perhaps in keeping with the humanistic trend of the time.  More curious is the lack of believable space in a painting by an artist who established it in other works.  Perhaps Crivelli’s goal here was to bring the narrative action as close as possible to the worshiping public by pressing the figures up against the picture plane.

Whatever Crivelli had in mind, in this Pietá he combined the best of his earlier influences with his own unique vision.  In this, one of his sparer compositions, he arranged three mourners around the body of a recently tortured and murdered loved one.  Their grief-stricken expressions reveal the pain that wracks their bodies while the oddly serene look on the victim’s face shows that unlike them, he is now free of human suffering.  It is a picture that could only have been painted by Carlo Crivelli, Veneto.

1 Gallery 627 description, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

2 Zampetti, Pietro, Carlo Crivelli (Florence: Nardini Editore, 1986), 12.

3 Lightbown, Ronald, Carlo Crivelli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 3.

4 Ibid, 4.

5 Humfrey, Peter, Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 53.

6 Lightbown, 3.

7 Hills, Paul, Venetian Colour (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 162.

8 Rushforth, G. McNeil, Carlo Crivelli (London: George Bell and Sons, 1908), 78.

9 Zampetti, 140.

10 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Catalog entry for “Pietà, Carlo Crivelli (Italian, Venice [?], active by 1457-died 1495 Ascoli Piceno),” 2011.  Accessed February 16, 2014.


Art Historical Musing: Art Historical Methods

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Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Doing Together
What Can’t Be Done Alone:
An Integrative Approach to
Raped by Käthe Kollwitz


The Blind Men and the Elephant
by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

“The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾″ x 20⅝″ [29.9 x 52.4 cm)].  Plate 2 from the cycle Peasant War.  Proof before the edition of about 300 impressions of 1908.  Knesebeck 101/Va.  Photo © Kollwitz Estate.

The way to the blockbuster show led through a long corridor that at its beginning widened into an area whose walls the museum exploited for temporary exhibitions of works on paper too light-sensitive for permanent display.  Attracted by the drawings and prints in this accidental gallery, some visitors slow for a more sustained look.

One image, which looked like an ill-kept garden, revealed itself via the wall text to be a 1907/8 etching called Raped by a German artist named Käthe Kollwitz,1 who lived between 1867 and 1945.  Viewers who took the time to look more closely would detect amid the foliage a woman with legs splayed and head thrown back, the subject of the picture’s title.  At that point most would move on to look at other works.  Some few would linger, wanting to learn more about this depiction of sexual assault.

The only other information available at that moment–the description nearby on the wall–identified the brown-ink print as a plate from the Peasant War series executed on heavy cream wove paper.  Although unschooled in art historical methods, an intrigued viewer might intuitively know that much could be gained by exploring every aspect of this simply-framed etching.

Drawing the viewer’s immediate attention and bisecting the bottom of the almost-double-square (approximately 12-by-21-inch) composition, the woman’s foot–set off from lighter surroundings by its dark sole–meets the picture plane and beckons the onlooker to follow its arch to the foreshortened, thick-set leg that disappears under a skirt.  The eye continues along an arc, through the torso and extended neck, stopping at the chin beyond which lies the shadowed face with its features distorted by the angle of view.

Searching for the rest of her, the observer discovers behind a bent-over, wilted sunflower the right leg, forming a horizontal line with the top edge of the skirt and ending in a foot that points toward the upper left corner.  Assisted by a nearby still-upright flower slanted at an angle running parallel to it, the foot directs the gaze to a blossoming sunflower in the background’s deep shadow, the form of which echoes the head of a barely discernible child with a pony tail (or braid) who drapes her right arm over a fence and looks down at the body before her.  Faintly silhouetted against a patch of open space, the young girl can easily be missed by all but the most attentive viewers as she blends in with the leafy plants around her.

Once noticed, the child leads the eye to a structure suggested by two sets of vertical lines hiding in the dark recesses of the upper register–perhaps a house.  Across the rest of this small patch of verdant landscape, damaged plants and flowers tell a story of struggle and recent destruction in what might have been a well-tended, backyard vegetable garden.

A shadow originating from outside the picture plane on the left ends in a point that meets the prone woman’s right foot and relates to her dark skirt.  Cast by a structure with straight edges and therefore of human origin, its top boundary becomes one side of a flattened diamond, the other three edges of which are the overgrown part of the fence that supports the girl, its dark extension to the right, and the left side of the woman on the ground.  Ominous in nature, the sharply angled shadow seems a stand-in for the recently-fled rapist.

Following the perimeter of that diamond shape brings the inquisitive observer to the figure’s left hand, the fingers of which curl around the edge of her torn garment near some trickles of blood on her torso and provide the final clue to the story.  A peasant woman working in her garden has been raped and stabbed, then left for dead.  Hearing the commotion and perhaps some screams, her daughter has come to see what happened and now stares sadly at the sight of her mother, wondering what to do.

Having followed the trail of clues and figured out the narrative, the formerly-naive tourist, seduced by a compelling work of art, has unwittingly entered the empirical world of the connoisseur.  Questions tumble forth about the decisions that went into creating the etching.  Who was Käthe Kollwitz?  What was the Peasant War and why did the artist choose it as a subject?  Why did she make a print instead of a painting?  If this is a series, what does the rest of it look like?  Most curious, why didn’t Kollwitz just tell her story directly and not force her audience to work so hard?

As often happens in exhibits, another visitor approaches and, noticing the engrossed tourist with nose scant inches from the print’s protective glass, engages in conversation about the piece.  An art historian by trade, the newcomer eagerly offers information about a favorite artist, her work and her art.  An exchange ensues.

First they talk about the etching itself.  When the tourist points out the little girl in the background and the trickles of blood near the victim’s left hand, the art historian is surprised, having never before engaged closely enough with the image to notice these elements.  More concerned with Kollwitz’s subject matter in general and how it relates to the context in which the artist lived and worked, the art historian appreciated this new insight and resolved to be more attentive in the future to the object itself.

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper. 20¼

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper, 20¼″ x 23⅜″ [51.4 x 59.4 cm]).  Plate 5 from the cycle Peasant War.  From the 1908 edition of approximately 300 impressions.  Knesebeck 70/VIIIb.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Familiar with most of Kollwitz’s oeuvre, this knowledgeable viewer knew that Raped was the second plate of seven in the print cycle Peasant War, commissioned by the Association for Historical Art in Germany following submission for consideration of the first completed etching of the series, Uprising (originally called Outbreak).2  In that print, a powerful woman, Black Anna, leads a contingent of fellow peasants armed with makeshift weapons against their feudal lords.3

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper. 11⅝

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11⅝” x 12½” [29.5 x 31.8 cm]).  First concept for plate 5 (Knesebeck 70) from the cycle Peasant War.  Knesebeck 46/V.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

The idea for the cycle began in 1899 with a plate Kollwitz etched, variously translated as Uprising and Revolt, that pictured a rag-tag but triumphant mob of scythe-wielding farmers accompanied by a nude woman flying above, carrying a torch from which a flame leaps into the distant background to set ablaze the manor house, home of the oppressors.  Coming from a long line of socialists,4 Kollwitz had already explored the topic a few years earlier in her gold-medal-winning first cycle, A Weaver’s Rebellion.

From childhood, when the young Käthe had enacted barricade scenes with her father and brother, she had imagined herself a revolutionary.  It followed that as an artist she would draw strong women into her narratives, depicting them as they sharpened scythes, galvanized men into action, cared for the wounded and identified the dead.  When Kollwitz read Wilhelm Zimmermann’s 1841 General History of the Great Peasants’ War and discovered Black Anna, an actual participant in the 1525 revolt by peasants against their overseers, the idea for this cycle was born.

Answering the tourist’s questions about Kollwitz’s choice of printmaking, the art historian explained that after struggling unsuccessfully to master color in her studies at a Berlin academy for women and later in a painter’s studio, and being introduced in 1884 to the work of master printmaker Max Klinger, the young artist finally gave up on painting and in 1890 took up etching, a technique at which she soon excelled.  Although Kollwitz later devoted herself to the medium of sculpture, in which she modeled emotionally compelling figurative pieces, she never abandoned printmaking.  Expanding her practice to include lithographs and woodcuts, she valued the reproductive capabilities inherent in these mediums, guaranteeing the widest possible audience for her socio-political ideas.

The composition of Raped differs markedly from Kollwitz’s usual images of women who are shown in active roles, not supine on the ground.  It is also the only instance where she tackled landscape with enough details to identify cabbage leaves, sunflowers and other plants.5  As for its narrative, in correspondence about this print the artist referred to Raped as “the next to the last plate,” which would have made it the sixth out of seven (though it was published as Plate 2) and described it as “an abducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, while her child, who had run away, looks over the fence.”6

Knowing the artist’s intentions and how she came to etch Raped served only to whet the tourist’s appetite for more information.  Just then someone else approached, walking directly up to the two viewers who were blocking access to the print.  As chance would have it, the latest arrival turned out to be a psychotherapist who worked with trauma survivors and had a long-standing interest in art depicting sexual abuse and other forms of personal violence.

Käthe Kollwitz, whose work is permeated with meditations on struggle and death, naturally aroused the psychotherapist’s curiosity, especially with respect to how the artist came to focus on those themes.  Joining the already in-progress discussion, the clinician related how the printmaker’s son, Hans, had nagged his mother into writing about her life and her development as an artist, and how despite her initial objections, she had surprised him with a manuscript in 1922 that he later augmented with diary entries and letters, and published in 1955.7  Hearing what had already been learned by exploring the image and its creation, the therapist added to the discourse aspects of Kollwitz’s psychosocial history crucial to understanding her choice of subject matter for the etching.8

In recounting her early years, Kollwitz described seeing a photo of her stoic mother holding her firstborn son, “‘the holy child,’” who had died within a year of his birth.  Her mother lost a second son before Kollwitz’s older brother Konrad was born.  When Käthe was nine, her mother had Benjamin, who also failed to survive beyond his first year, dying from the same meningitis that took the firstborn.

The artist remembered how one night, during her baby brother’s illness, the nurse had burst into the kitchen where her mother was dishing out soup and yelled that the infant was throwing up again.  Her mother had stiffened and then went on serving dinner, her refusal to cry in front of her family failing to conceal her suffering from her young daughter, to whom it was obvious.

After that dinner, Käthe–with her younger sister Lise–was sent to play in the nursery where she built with her blocks a temple to Venus and began preparing a sacrifice to a goddess she had learned about in a book on mythology, and who she had chosen to worship over the Christian “Lord”–a stranger to her despite her family’s devotion to him.  When her parents walked into the room to convey the bad news that her little brother had died, Käthe was certain “God had taken him” as punishment for her disbelief and sacrifice to Venus.

Because the family’s way was to grit teeth and carry on, with no discussion or even expression of loss and grief, Käthe carried the burden of guilt for her brother’s death into her adult years.  Her mother’s unexpressed sorrow suffused their home and her oldest daughter lived in fear that her parents would come to harm.

Stopping the story at that point, the psychotherapist retrieved an ebook reader from a handbag and read from Kollwitz’s autobiography.  “I was always afraid [my mother] would come to some harm…If she were bathing…I feared she would drown.”  Reflecting on watching through the apartment window as her mother walked by, Kollwitz continued, “I felt the oppressive fear in my heart that she might get lost and never find her way back to us…I became afraid Mother might go mad.”

As the clinician tucked away the ebook reader, the trio of observers turned back to the etching Raped.  Suddenly they understood what the artist might not have known herself, that the young girl looking over the fence was nine-year-old Käthe and the woman on the ground was her mother, finally felled by a trauma too insistent to be repelled.

As the three viewers continued contemplating the poignant image before them, another person approached.  They eagerly began sharing their recent discoveries as they made room for the newcomer who, noticing the dates of the artist’s life, explained that Käthe Kollwitz was not a twentieth century artist but a woman born, raised and educated in the second half of the nineteenth century.9 Living in Germany in the late 1800s must have affected her art, they all agreed.

But that’s a story for another time.
1A print of the etching was displayed for a while in the Drawing and Print Gallery of The Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago.  The work under consideration, a proof, is in the private collection of the writer.

2Martha Kearns, Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1976), 85.

3See Elizabeth Prelinger, Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 30-39, for a description of the evolution and content of The Peasant War cycle.

4See Jane Kallir, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles” (Galerie St. Etienne, exhibit essay, October 8 through December 28, 2013) for additional information about Kollwitz’s print cycles.

5 Hildegard Bachert, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles,” gallery talk (Galerie St. Etienne, November 7, 2013).

6Käthe Kollwitz, quoted in Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik, by Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, trans. James Hofmaier (Bern: Verlag Kornfeld, 2002), 291.  Relevant excerpt of text included in provenance documents accompanying the proof.

7The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, ed. Hans Kollwitz, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1955).

8See Ibid., 18-20, for information about Kollwitz’s childhood experiences of loss.

9Bachert, gallery talk.

Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles
The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Now till December 28, 2013.


Book Review: “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood” by Sigmund Freud

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Thursday, October 17th, 2013

A Case Study of
Psychoanalysis as an
Art Historical Method

Freud's Leonardo bk cover

Turn-of-the-nineteenth century Vienna was a fertile time for scientists, intellectuals and artists as the planets aligned to create what has been called “The Age of Insight.”  The mind became an object of intense scrutiny for practitioners of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and the literary and visual arts.  New methods that were developed in pursuit of understanding human nature from a biological perspective found usefulness in the study of art and artists.

One resident of the city, Sigmund Freud, created a system of indirect investigation into the psyche using personal experiences like dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, and artistic productions.  Calling his method psychoanalysis and taking it beyond the confines of his medical practice, Freud applied it everywhere without reservation, writing about jokes and everyday missteps, romance and war, and creativity and art.

Ever curious about Italy and its artists, Freud wrote a book-length analysis of Leonardo da Vinci based on a memory the artist had included in his Codus Atlanticus.  In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, the doctor uses psychoanalysis with great conviction to answer intriguing questions about this Renaissance master and scientist.

The first German edition of the book, published in 1910, was followed by four more (1919, 1923, 1925 and 1943).  An English translation titled simply Leonardo da Vinci appeared in 1916, followed by an additional two (1922 and 1932) before the one under consideration here.  In 1964 Alan Tyson, working under the general editorship of James Strachey with Anna Freud and Alix Strachey for The Standard Edition, translated the text with an expanded title for this first American edition.

In his book-length essay, Freud takes as his starting point Leonardo’s description of an event from his childhood, using a flawed German translation of the original Italian, to understand why Leonardo traded art for other inventions and took off in pursuit of scientific knowledge.  In typical Freud writing style, the psychoanalyst anticipates all manner of resistance throughout the piece, beginning by assuring those who would question his motives that his intentions are not “‘[t]o blacken the radiant and drag the sublime into the dust’” but rather to further understand a man that he referred to as “among the greatest of the human race.”

Before he tackles the childhood memory, Freud describes Leonardo’s struggles with his art, beginning with the perfectionism that made each painting a major endeavor of upwards of several years and left more than a few unfinished.  He cites Vasari and later art historians who quote Leonardo’s contemporaries on the subject, and mentions several specific paintings as examples, including the Last Supper, where the artist’s frustration with the rapid execution required of fresco painting resulted in the technical disaster that has challenged conservationists ever since.

From there Freud begins an elaboration of Leonardo’s personality based on observations by those who knew him in some way, maneuvering closer to his primary thesis by proposing that the artist “represented the cool repudiation of sexuality.”  He finds evidence for this in Leonardo’s own words as quoted by Edmondo Solmi, an Italian philosopher of Freud’s time.  Soon enough the psychiatrist addresses Leonardo’s homosexuality, declaring that even though the fledgling artist had gotten into trouble with the law for it when he was in Verrocchio’s studio and surrounded himself with beautiful young boys once he was a master, for sure he never actually engaged in sexual activity.

In another secondary source, Freud finds Leonardo averring that “[o]ne has no right to love or hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature.”  Applying that to the artist’s assumed abstinence, he notes that in this case “[t]he postponement of loving until full knowledge is acquired ends in a substitution of the latter for the former.”  Thus, for Leonardo, investigating took the place of creating art and of producing much of anything else.

In his element now, Freud asserts that around age three most children go through a period of “infantile sexual researches” usually precipitated by the advent of a new sibling, which invites the question: whence babies?  When repression puts an end to this phase, various outcomes are possible.  Freud believed that Leonardo’s unconscious resolution was perfect; by channeling his sexual drive into non-practicing homosexuality and allowing his investigative instinct to reign supreme, the artist-scientist avoided a neurotic resolution, freeing his libido to “act in the service of [his] intellectual interests.”

After establishing this psychoanalytic foundation, Freud provides information about Leonardo’s childhood, noting that the artist was illegitimate, initially lived with his mother, and when five years old went to live with his father, who had recently married.  That these inadequate bits of biographical data are poor substitutes for having the analysand before him doesn’t seem to deter the doctor from basing his conclusions on them.

Finally Freud presents the memory, translated for this book from the German text he quotes, Marie Herzfeld’s translation of the Italian original as it appeared in Nino Smiraglia-Scognamiglio’s edition of the Codex Atlanticus.  Her version erroneously rendered nibio as vulture when in fact it means kite, a much smaller, non-carrion-eating raptor with the ability to hover in the air due to its long, forked tail.  She also omitted dentro (within), which alters the action of the all-important tail.  These changes have been indicated in brackets in the rendering of Leonardo’s words that follows.

It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures [kites]; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture [kite] came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against [within] my lips.

After extolling the virtues of psychoanalysis as a tool for deciphering this passage, Freud points to the obvious erotic content, noting that “tail” (coda in Italian) is a common slang term for penis.  He then goes on to construct an interpretation of the memory that defies Occam’s razor.

Although he acknowledges the similarity between Leonardo’s memory and the dreams and fantasies of women and passive homosexuals, Freud opts to see it as a symbolic representation of the baby suckling at its mother’s breast.  He supports this hypothesis by pointing out that in Egyptian mythology a mother goddess, whose name was Mut (similar to the German mutter for mother), was pictured with a vulture’s head, adding that at the time all vultures were believed to be female.

Freud concludes that the memory represents the overdependence on, and eroticization of, Leonardo by his mother, who used him when he was quite young as a substitute for his missing father.  In the rest of the essay, Freud looks first for confirmation of his ideas to Leonardo’s art–in the special smiles that grace the faces of his women and in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, with its hidden vulture.

As further support, the psychoanalyst pulls in his theories on infantile sexuality, the phallic mother, homosexuality and the Oedipal complex.  He finds indirect evidence in Leonardo’s writings for a negative relationship with his father, linking it to the artist’s homosexuality and his rejection of religion.  Freud even finds meaning in Leonardo’s obsession with flying machines, citing the connection between dreams of flying and sexual performance.

In the final chapter of the book, feigning humility, Freud addresses possible objections to his “pathographical review of a great man,” admitting the limitations of applying psychoanalysis to the biography of someone about whose early life so little is known.  He nonetheless confidently asserts that he has accomplished what he set out to do, showing how the circumstances of Leonardo’s childhood, combined with his inherent capacity to repress and sublimate his primitive instincts, resulted in a celibate artist-scientist forever torn between his art and science.  Although Freud was well satisfied with his conclusions, their unfavorable reception seems to have discouraged him from tackling other art historical subjects.

Freud came to this particular project via a long-standing interest in Leonardo–once remarking in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess on the artist’s celibacy and left-handedness–and had read Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky’s historical novel, Leonardo da Vinci, which he cites in the text as though it were a historical document.  His other bibliographical resources include volumes written on Leonardo by an assortment of scholars as well as a long list of his own publications.

Not unlike Leonardo, Freud was enticed away from his original career path by his curiosity.  Born in Moravia in 1856 but resident in Vienna from age three until he fled Austria for London in 1938, Freud studied biology and medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1882.  Three years later, a trip to the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and time spent with the celebrated expert on hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, changed his professional direction from clinical neurology to medical psychology.  With his Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud moved even further away from the laboratory, confining his research to observations of his psychiatric patients and reflections on his own experiences and psyche.  Out of that work, he developed the practice of psychoanalysis and his theories about the unconscious.

When he decided to pursue an analysis of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud turned to writings by prominent art historians, among them the German Jean Paul Richter (1847-1937) and the Frenchman Eugène Müntz (1845-1902), whose methods happened to be at odds with each other.  Richter, a disciple of Giovanni Morelli (who believed art was best studied by looking at objects with a well-practiced scientific eye), published in 1883 The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, a two-volume work, first in Italian, then German and English, the last of which Freud consulted.  Müntz, on the other hand, believed in the importance of archival research and, opposing Morelli’s focus on connoisseurship, based his studies on documents he unearthed in Italian archives.  His monograph Léonard de Vinci, released in 1899, was one of Freud’s references.

If the psychoanalyst was aware of the caldron of ideas that simmered close by, especially in the Vienna School but also elsewhere, about how best the discipline of art history should be practiced, his bibliography doesn’t reflect it.  The ideological stew included empiricists who looked to science as a model for the investigation of artworks as physical entities in documented contexts, philosophers who approached the study of art from a metaphysical perspective–more concerned with ideas than things, and a new breed of cultural historians, who occupied a middle ground between the two, finding value in each and adding ethnography and psychology to the mix.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66″ x 44″ [168 x 112 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, 66.

Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, page 66.

Freud seems to have gravitated toward outliers like Walter Pater (1839-1894), a British aesthete whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 1873, had to be recalled because of their anti-religious nature.  In his discussion of specific artwork by Leonardo, the analyst relied on those essays plus the work of two others: Oskar Pfister (1873-1956), a Swedish minister with an interest in philosophy and psychology with whom Freud maintained regular correspondence for many years, and whose discovery of a vulture in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne provided critical evidence for the hypothesis expounded in the book; and German-born Richard Muther (1860-1909), an emotionally expressive writer whose description of images tended toward the “lurid and erotic.”  In fact, Freud’s insufficient knowledge of art history and the scholarship on Leonardo made mistakes inevitable and stood in the way of producing “a meaningful art historical essay on the artist.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30″ x 21″ [77 x 53 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Freud referred to the more mainstream writers earlier in the book when introducing Leonardo, his practices and milieu, but switched over to the others later on when analyzing the latent meaning he espied in the artist’s words and images.  For the Mona Lisa, he liked Pater’s perception that it contained “a presence…expressive of what…men had come to desire…the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work.”  And he turned to Muther for observations on the physical relationship among the mothers and baby, and St. Anne’s perpetual youth in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

Because his interest was primarily psychological, Freud could be expected to seek out those who approached the study of art from a similar perspective.  While there is surely much to be gained through the understanding of artists’ intrapsychic development and interpersonal relationships, Freud’s system of thought–psychoanalysis–contains many flaws, not the least of which is his attribution of adult sexual feelings to infants and children.

In explaining Leonardo’s memory, the doctor first must explain how the vulture’s tail comes to be symbolic of the artist’s intense erotic attachment to his mother and how that desire later morphs into homosexuality.  He does this by invoking the phallic mother who is imagined to possess a penis by the little boy appalled at the thought that someone he loves so dearly should lack such a precious appendage.  This intense mother-son bond  is reinforced by Leonardo’s oversolicitous mother and absent father, and the child’s unconscious identification with the idolized mother.  The boy grows up to be a man who love boys in the same way his mother loved him.  Here Freud confuses homosexuals with pedophiles; the former are attracted to other men while the latter prey on vulnerable children.

Because Freud’s reasoning about such Leonardo mysteries as his perfectionism, depiction of smiling women, and turn from art to scientific research depends so heavily on the Oedipus complex and other aspects of his theory of infantile sexuality, it’s important to know how he came to substitute those assumptions for his empirically based seduction theory of hysteria.

In his work with women suffering from what would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but was then diagnosed as hysteria, Freud came to the unavoidable conclusion that their symptoms stemmed from “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences…[in] the earliest years of childhood,” incidents forced upon them by adults in their immediate family environment.  Since most of his patients were women whose fathers came from prominent Viennese families, his observations were met with a chill that forced him to retract his basic premise and instead attribute his patients’ symptoms not to memories but to fantasies growing out of infantile sexual desires for their fathers.  The construction of the Oedipus complex followed.  Boys, Freud asserted, coveted their mothers, wished to do away with the competition, and feared castration at the hands of vengeful fathers.

Had Freud held to his original discovery, perhaps he would have understood Leonardo’s memory of a visit from a bird that places its long tail in his mouth as a screen memory for oral rape.  On that stronger foundation, the doctor could have constructed a different theory about Leonardo’s homosexual activity in Verrocchio’s workshop and his later predilection for boys.

In The Aetiology of Hysteria, Freud observed a link between adult hysterical symptoms and adolescent trauma, which he then traced to childhood sexual assaults.  Rather than seeing Leonardo’s interest in younger males as a manifestation of his over-identification with his mother, the analyst might have chosen the simpler conclusion, that to avoid intolerable feelings of victimization, the artist unconsciously took the role of perpetrator and re-enacted his abuse with others, a common outcome of early sexual trauma.  With that far less complex connection, Freud might then have been able to link Leonardo’s perfectionism with his need to compensate for the shame he carried as a result of being sexually abused.

In addition to those missed opportunities, Freud was led on a wild vulture chase by a significant error in translation.  His excursion into Egyptian hieroglyphics and mythology in support of his contention that Leonardo’s memory of the bird and the appearance of its image in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (as illustrated by his good friend Pfister) proved the artist’s erotic attachment to his mother, while fascinating, must be disregarded.

It would be unfortunate if at this point one concluded that psychoanalysis has little if anything to contribute to the study of art and the artists who create it, for when Freud briefly left behind his obsession with Leonardo’s “vulture-fantasy” and sexualized relationship with his mother and looked instead at his paintings, he had much to offer.  In associating the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa with Leonardo’s memory of his mother’s adoring gaze, and the mother-and-daughter dyad of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne with the five-year-old boy’s relationship with his adopted mother and paternal grandmother, both of whom lived in his father’s house and took over his care from his single mother, Freud kept it simple and raised intriguing questions.  In expounding on those connections, he assumed kindness and tenderness on the part of the pictured women, but one could just as easily see in these images an unconscious wish for an ideal that never was.

In either case, in directly encountering Leonardo’s art, drawing upon limited but salient biographical data and applying the principals of psychoanalysis, Freud introduced to the study of art a potentially powerful tool.  Had he not abandoned his initial discoveries about childhood trauma and spent his genius on devising convoluted theories to explain hysterical symptoms, he might have come to more convincing conclusions about the life of Leonardo da Vinci and made an important contribution to the field of art history.


– Fermi, Eric.  Art History and its Methods.  New York: Phaidon Press, 2011.
– Freud, Sigmund.  Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.  Translated by Alan Tyson.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964.
– _____________.  On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on Art, Literature, Love, Religion.  Edited by Benjamin Nelson.  New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
– _____________.  “The Aetiology of Hysteria.”  In The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.  New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Italian-English Dictionary.  New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
– Kandel, Eric R.  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.  New York: Random House, 2012.
– Kultermann, Udo.  The History of Art History.  New York: Abaris Books, 1993.
– Onians, John.  Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
– Sorensen, Lee, ed.  “Eugéne Müntz” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Jean Paul Richter” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Walter Pater” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– Simmons, Laurence.  Freud’s Italian Journey.  New York: Rodopi B. V., 2006.
Wikipedia.  “Oskar Pfister.”  Last modified September 21, 2013.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]