Through the Online Looking-Glass

I’m going to share a piece of information with you, which I suspect most of my readers will not care about at all, or at least not very much.  On this day back in 1642, the great Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni died, in the city of Bologna. For those of you not hugely interested in art history, this event may not seem to be of any great importance.  However it gives me the chance to do something rare these days, and that is appreciate, rather than criticize, what a great teaching tool the internet can be.

Last night after dinner I was checking up on some headlines in the art world, and came across a mention that it was the birthday of Francesco Albani, another Italian Baroque painter, who was born in Bologna in 1578.  Albani was one of the chief rivals of Guido Reni for major fresco commissions, but while Albani was very decorative, Reni was often the more sensitive painter, as his intense portrait of his mother, reproduced below, shows us.  The stark image, not at all colorful like many of Reni’s other works, puts me in mind of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland”; falling down the internet rabbit hole began soon thereafter.

Reading more about Albani and Reni, I came across a reference to Reni’s ceiling fresco for the Basilica of St. Dominic in Bologna, the church where the founder of the Dominican Order is buried. The church has gone through many changes over the past 800 years, including extensive remodelling during the pontificate of Benedict XIII (1650-1730), who was himself a Dominican.  Not knowing anything about Benedict XIII, I read up on him, and learned about someone else I knew nothing about, Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504-1577).

It seems this particular Pope Benedict consecrated a huge number of bishops during his pontificate, approximately 159, from all corners of the world. These bishops then went on to consecrate bishops in their respective home countries.  Tracing back the lineage of who consecrated whom gets us to Cardinal Rebiba.  Because of the huge number of bishops consecrated by Benedict XIII, the vast majority of bishops and Popes since his time are “descended” from him, including the present incumbent, Pope Francis.  Only about 5% of current bishops can trace their consecration through someone other than Cardinal Rebiba, so finding a bishop who is not in this line must feel something like a “Where’s Waldo” adventure for those who are deeply interested in episcopal matters.

Now, is any of this material of particular importance to someone who is not a researcher or historian? To be honest, it’s probably not.  And yet, if you love knowledge, this is exactly the sort of educational jumping-off point which the internet is really good at providing.

All of the preceding information came from a single, online mention of someone I did not know anything about.  I then let my brain and my fingers take me on an exploration through history, and learned a number of interesting new things as a result.  The entire process gave me immense pleasure, and fed my mind with something more significant than funny cat videos – although I freely admit that such things have their place, as well.  The curious fact that today is the anniversary of Guido Reni’s death, is something that might have passed me by had I not fed my brain the information I did last evening.  Now I find myself interested to learn about the artistic and political heritage of Bologna, during the heyday of these two painters.

What, if anything, such knowledge will lead to, I do not know.  Yet exploring your natural curiosity and building upon the knowledge you have is something that all humans should be doing, regardless of age or whether we are still in school.  I find there is always great joy to be had, pursuing new areas of knowledge about the world in which you live, and the interesting and surprising things you may not already know about it.  And whatever its faults, the wealth of information available online to do exactly that, is one of the reasons why we should be making the effort to become smarter, and more aware of our shared history and culture.

Detail of"Portrait of the Artist's Mother" by Guido Reni  (1612) Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Detail of “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by Guido Reni (1612)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna


12 thoughts on “Through the Online Looking-Glass

  1. I love this! The portrait captured me. I see her lapels as an open book–his mother was an open book? Her face shows a compelling blend of humor, suffering, strength and weakness. I’ve been on a similar kick online lately, researching ancestry, which is opening up a thirst for the study of history as never before.


  2. Yes, it’s amazing. Now wonder the average IQ is going up, Except that there is an unsavoury side effect at times, a collateral damage of sorts, when instead of focussing on work immediately at hand we keep tumbling in a viscous circle of rabbit holes.


    • I think you’re right, in that there is a danger of unguided use just leading nowhere, but then that’s the difference between adulthood and childhood, is being able to look at the information out there, and make good decisions. The question of whether education is doing a good enough job at raising adults is a different one, of course. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Another significant point about Rebiba is that his consecrator is unknown. So as Catholics we believe that there is an unbroken episcopal line of succession back to the Apostles, but in 95% of cases we can’t officially (on paper, as it were) get any farther back than Rebiba.


    • Yes, a priest friend was telling me that there was some sort of fire and records were lost, but obviously you don’t get all the way up to a Cardinal unless somebody consecrated you. Still, I like the idea of finding someone who is not in that line. Thanks for sharing and for reading!


  4. You left your reader hanging! Your early quote, “The stark image, not at all colorful like many of Reni’s other works” about the painter’s mother, makes the reader wonder,”Just what was the relationship between son and mother?” Why did he paint her this way? She is not painted as pretty (though if she was smiling, she would be). The Mother looks like a very intelligent woman, though worried. So many questions left unanswered 🙂


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