Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York

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A Million Thanks

Those of you who follow me on social media know that yesterday afternoon this blog hit one million visits!  I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all of my readers over the years, as well as fellow writers in the blogosphere who have encouraged me from the beginning and continue to do so.  That so many of you subscribe or take the time to drop by this site, when there are far better writers than I whom you could be reading, is both humbling and a great honor to receive.

As regular readers know, I do not make a living from my writing – although if you are an editor or publisher let’s have a chat, shall we?  This blog is just something I do, usually five days a week, and in my spare time.  I bear the costs of running and hosting this site, and I do not expect that is going to change, for however long it continues.

Someone told me recently that I am more of an essayist than a blogger; this is probably true.   I do not break stories, and I generally do not share a link unless I have commentary to accompany it.  Often a news item is merely something which I treat as a jumping-off point to discuss something else entirely.

Also, the length of my average scribbling on these virtual pages is generally far longer than the typical 300-500 word post.    To date, I have written the equivalent of roughly fifteen 100K word novels.  That is a lot of thinking, typing, and editing over the years, but fortunately I work pretty quickly.

As to the “Why?” of what I do, I hope that I serve as a voice for culture, in a society which has largely forgotten what that word means.  The temporary trends of political tit-for-tat, and the needs of a celebrity-hungry media do not hugely interest me, since I take the long view.  While I criticize where warranted, I also hope that I seek to build up, not simply tear down.  Encouraging my readers to learn more about our world, and Western culture in particular, but also to look at popular culture in ways which might not otherwise occur to them, is the real raison d’être here.

By way of conclusion, I quote the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, who in his “Book of the Courtier” rather neatly sums up what I have tried to do thus far, and will continue to do here on this blog for as long as I am able, and for as long as people are interested in reading it.

I say, then, that since princes are today so corrupted by evil customs, and by ignorance, and mistaken self-esteem, and since it is so difficult to give them knowledge of the truth and lead them on to virtue, and since men seek to enter into their favour by lies and flatteries and such vicious means, the Courtier…should try to gain the good will and so charm the mind of his prince, that he shall win free and safe indulgence to speak of everything without being irksome. And if he be such as has been said, he will accomplish this with little trouble, and thus be able always to disclose the truth about all things with ease; and also to instil goodness into his prince’s mind little by little, and to teach continence, fortitude, justice, and temperance, by giving a taste of how much sweetness is hidden by the little bitterness that at first sight appears to him who withstands vice; which is always hurtful and displeasing, and accompanied by infamy and blame, just as virtue is profitable, blithe and full of praise.

Detail of "The Suitor's Visit" by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658) National Gallery, Washington DC

Detail of “The Suitor’s Visit” by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658)
National Gallery, Washington DC

 

 

 

That’s Amore: The Inelegant Joy of Real Pizza

Last evening in most convivial company I ate pizza at Il Canale, an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood.  My choice was the Napoli, consisting of tomato sauce, basil, black olives, anchovies, and buffalo mozzarella, on a superb crust having just the right textural combination of chew and crunch.  I probably inhaled my pizza in about five minutes, because it was so outstanding. On the other hand, it may also have been because my parents always called me “the vacuum cleaner”, due to my ability to suck up enormous quantities of food – a trait which, fortunately, is combined with a rather fast metabolism.

Il Canale has become a favorite among residents of the village, and it’s not hard to understand why.  This is not American-style pizza, doughy, perfectly symmetrical, and teeming with processed who knows what.  Rather this is the way pizza is generally prepared in Europe, employing long-established guidelines regulated by the Italian government.  This means that among other things, the bread is not a chemically based afterthought, virtually tasteless and designed merely to hold the toppings, which are themselves overly processed and lacking in genuine flavor.

Pizza did not yet exist during the time of the Italian Renaissance man among men Count Baldassare Castiglione, the patron of and inspiration for this blog, so we do not know what he might have thought of it as a food.  However based on his writings we can assume that he would have found it a rather problematic dish to consume. In his “Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione recounts a dinner party at the home of Federico Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, where one of the guests picked up his nearly-empty soup bowl, said to his host, “Pardon me, my Lord Marquess”, and proceeded to gulp down the remaining broth. “Ask pardon rather of the swine,” replied Gonzaga, “for you do me no harm at all.”

Still, pizza is ultimately a peasant food, and treating it as though it were pheasant under glass when it was meant to be eaten directly with the hands would be a bit precious.  This is an inelegant dish, but part of the joy comes in figuring out how best to eat it.  I usually attack a whole pie such as this one, by eating the first slice with a fork and knife, in order to make access to the rest of the pizza easier, while simultaneously allowing the often molten-hot cheese to cool slightly.  I then follow by picking up each remaining slice in turn and folding it in half, sometimes folding in the point first and then folding the entire slice in half, so that the sauce and toppings have less chance of escaping down the front of my shirt.

Even if you can’t make it to Il Canale, it’s worth seeking out places that do pizza this way, particularly for those of us accustomed to delivery pizza and “discs emerging from the microwave”, as a friend puts it. Yes, pizza is still messy to eat, no matter how fancy it is.  What is quite different, in this instance, and very, very enjoyable indeed, is to be able to taste a combination of natural flavors when enjoying one of these types of pies.  That, at least, one suspects Castiglione would approve of.

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown