Thought-Pourri: Get Back Into It Edition

Although I’ve been back from Spain – and England, unintentionally (more on that in a minute) – for over a week now, I’ve been laid up with the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Hence, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to start blogging again. So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive my silence up until now.

I had a wonderful time in Madrid and Barcelona, which has given me some fodder for some upcoming posts. All went very well until it was time to head back, and due to a combination of airlines and airport factors I missed my connecting flight in Heathrow. The Dante-like experience of getting rebooked for the following afternoon was something which I prefer not to recount. As a result, after a 15 year absence from England, I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and although I could have gone into the city to see friends, I was so wiped out from the experience that I just vegetated in my room.

On the flight back to DC the following afternoon, I was treated to a plane full of people coughing their brains out and complaining of flu-like symptoms. Whether I picked it up from them, or from my similarly afflicted relatives in Spain – where the news was reporting nightly on a pandemic of “Australian flu” throughout the country – upon my return to the States I ended up trapped in bed for a week, apart from a couple of medical visits where I was warned to isolate myself due to my being “extremely contagious.” I’m still not completely okay, but at least am well enough to share some news with my readers. Don’t worry: this particular form of plague cannot be transmitted via reading a blog post, or so I am led to believe.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Get A Head

Saint Aredius (or St. Yrieix, as he is more commonly known in France) lived in the 6th century A.D., and served as the first Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery which he founded in the town of Attanum, about 30 miles outside of Limoges. Attanum was subsequently renamed for St. Yrieix, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage shrine thanks to his reputation for working miracles. During the 11th century a reliquary was created by local craftsmen to contain the skull of the saint and, through the vicissitudes of history, this object – minus the skull – ended up being purchased about 1,000 years later by American financier J.P. Morgan; it is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an extremely unusual but very interesting move, the town of St. Yrieix is now demanding that The Met return the reliquary of its patron saint. The essentials of the argument are that, first, all Church property was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution in 1789, and second, subsequent laws passed in 1891 and 1905 meant that cultural treasures such as these became protected state property, which could not be exported out of France without express government permission. In this case, it is alleged that the reliquary was privately sold to a French art dealer by the local parish priest in 1906, who replaced the original with a copy; the original was then subsequently re-sold to an English art dealer, who sold it to Morgan. All of this would, in theory, have been illegal at the time.

I won’t comment on the specific legal arguments here, although it certainly sounds like there are at least grounds for a hearing of some sort. From the standpoint of precedent, this could be the beginning of a major headache for a number of museums, particularly in the United States, where the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age stuffed their homes in Manhattan and Newport with religious objects from France, Italy, and Spain, many of which may have been exported under somewhat clouded circumstances. No word yet on how The Met intends to respond.

From a design standpoint what is particularly fascinating about this reliquary is the fact we can see the foundational wooded carving which the decorated surface metals are attached to, in this image from a catalogue of Medieval sculpture published by The Met.

Framework

Get A Clue

Just when you thought the furor over the auction of “The Last Da Vinci” was over, researchers may have just discovered another, very early work by the Master. Scholars have long known that Da Vinci completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who by his own admission was a better sculptor than a painter. A very famous example of this is in Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, now in The Uffizi, where the twisting angel on the far left, painted by the young Da Vinci, is far more complex and accomplished than the other figures in the altarpiece. Now, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is launching a new exhibition claiming that a work in its permanent collection is an early work by the young Leonardo.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (c. 1479-1485) is a predella painting – a smaller panel attached underneath a larger panel – that was part of a larger commission that Verrocchio was contracted to complete for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Cathedral of Pistoia, about 20 miles from Florence. Verrocchio’s patrons were the Medici family, who commissioned the altarpiece in honor of their late uncle, Donato de’ Medici , who had been Bishop of Pistoia. The main image, of the Madonna and Child flanked by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Donatus, patron saint of the late bishop, was begun by Verrocchio but completed by another of his assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537).

Thanks to advances in technology and a growing knowledge base for close, analytical comparison of known works by Da Vinci to works believed to be by him, scholars involved in this exhibition seem fairly convinced that around 80% of this small painting was executed by Da Vinci, probably with the help of his fellow workshop apprentice Credi. To my mind what is a particularly persuasive clue here is the fact that the predella is executed in oil, rather than tempera paint. Few Italian artists were using oil paint at this point in art history, but Leonardo was definitely using it by the early 1470’s, well within the timeline for this picture. Those of you who find yourselves in the Worcester, Mass. Area this spring will have to toddle along and have a look, and let us know what you think.

Leo

Get On Board

Contemporary French artist and designer Mathieu Lehanneur works in many genres and materials, including architecture, lighting, and furniture. His most recent exhibition, “50 Seas”, which opens today at Christie’s in Paris, features fifty ceramic discs, each representing the sea in different geographic areas of the globe, a bit like taking a virtual cruise around the world’s oceans and peeping out of the porthole as you go. I particularly appreciate the painstaking, dare I say it, geeky-nerdy way that he went about finishing these works, as he explained to Christie’s:

I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’

At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’

If you’ve ever worked in ceramics, you know that this is a serious pain in the behind to get right. Just because you put a glaze on something before you fire it in the kiln does not mean that it will turn out exactly the way that you want. Not only can the colors change, sometimes radically, from what you think they will be, but if the slightest thing goes wrong during the process you could end up with a ruined piece, and have to start all over again. So in this case the artist is not exaggerating when he says that they probably had to try nearly 2,000 times to get the 50 different final results which were kept.

This combination of technology, craftsmanship, and love of the complexities of the natural world is exactly the sort of thing which Catalan Modernista architects and artists such as Gaudí would have loved. Were he living in early 20th century Barcelona they would be clamoring for Lehanneur to collaborate with them on decorating a residence or a public building with these richly colored, undulating designs. “50 Seas” is on view at Christie’s Auction House in Paris until February 2nd.

Seas

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Portraying Politicos: The Real Art Of The Possible

​This weekend The Federalist published my brief survey of some of the work created thus far by the Contemporary Art world both for and against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are just the latest public figures to come under artistic scrutiny. In art history, political personages have frequently served as sources for both artistic inspiration and artistic patronage. Sometimes the results can be magnificent works of art, but at other times, the attempt to glorify a political leader can turn out to be rather ridiculous.

Portraiture is an easy way for artists to highlight the power and influence of a political figure. For example, in Diego Velázquez’ magnificent “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650) at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, the painter portrayed the politically powerful pontiff in such an insightful way, that it is still recognized as one of the finest portraits ever created in the history of art. The challenge of painting such a physically unattractive figure was no small task; even the Pope himself was said to remark that the intense, sharp gaze and the blotchy skin was “all too true”. Nevertheless the artist managed to successfully straddle the delicate line between idealism and realism in capturing the intensity of his subject, and giving the impression that here was a very serious leader, whom you did not want to tangle with.

Sculptor Penelope Jencks’ pleasing “Eleanor Roosevelt” (1996), located on Riverside Drive in New York City, was, ironically enough, unveiled by Mrs. Clinton herself back when she was First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt was a physically unattractive woman, and to many on the Right she remains a political anathema. However in this sculpture, Jencks managed to create an interesting, powerful portrait of an important political figure, without over-idealizing her subject. It is a thoughtful, reflective piece, with its “listening” pose and casual stance, as Mrs. Roosevelt is shown resting against a stone with her ankles crossed. It manages to flatter the memory and influence of Mrs. Roosevelt, without pretending that she was some sort of goddess.

On the other side of the coin, we find Agnolo Bronzino’s strange, Mannerist portrait of about 1537-39, “Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici As Orpheus”, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The young Grand Duke of Tuscany is portrayed (rather surprisingly) in the nude, and given the attributes of Orpheus from Greek mythology. He is shown playing music intended to soothe the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades, who is lurking in the background. One theory in trying to understand this image is that it was intended as a political allegory, symbolizing how the newly-restored Medici dynasty would bring back quiet and calm to Tuscany, with the abolition of the Florentine Republic. Yet if such was the intent behind this painting, by turning the scion of a political family into a god, one cannot help but chuckle at the result.

Similarly, if you have visited the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., you may have seen the monumental sculpture by Horatio Grennough titled “Enthroned Washington” (1840). To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of 1st U.S. President, Congress commissioned a statue from Grennough designed to evoke the heroic, long-vanished seated statue of Zeus from Mount Olympus by the Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias. The completed statue of Washington was originally placed in the grandeur of the Capitol Rotunda, but it drew so much controversy and laughter as a result of its semi-nude appearance, that Congress moved it to the East Lawn of the Capitol. It was later given to the Smithsonian, and has resided in the more modest surroundings of the National Museum of American History since the 1960’s.

Art meant to praise a political figure is one thing; art meant to criticize one is another. If today’s political candidates see themselves as being unfairly and crudely skewered by the art world, they should realize that they are in fact in good historic company. The English Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War, among others, all featured a wide distribution of popularly available prints and illustrations, which in many cases led to the general acceptance of politically-motivated lies as truth. Often these works were crude, pornographic, racist, or just plain trash.

Anyone with common sense can look at such pieces, and dismiss them as nothing more than poorly-executed works of art. However if you do not believe that art critical of the establishment can lead to real political consequences, search for some of the lascivious engravings of false allegations that were widely circulated regarding Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the fall of the French Monarchy. Many of the lies propagated by these works ended up being alleged as facts against the King and Queen at their respective trials, and subsequent executions.

During the Eighty Years’ War, art created with the intent of crudely insulting one’s political opponents was very popular on both sides of the conflict. This was the long slog between Catholic and Protestant powers for control over what is today Belgium and The Netherlands. Because of the length of the conflict, the wealth of the combatants, and the fact that this was all taking place against the backdrop of one of the greatest artistic flowerings in European history, many highly individual, and rather insulting, works of art were created during this battle of wills.

One interesting example of this is “Queen Elizabeth I Feeds the Dutch Cow”, a painting by an unknown 16th century Netherlandish artist which is currently in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. In it, we see King Philip II of Spain riding a cow, which is meant to symbolize his power over The Netherlands. Unfortunately for Philip, he cannot move his mount forward despite his spurring, because the Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange has the proverbial bull – er, cow – by the horns, and the cow herself is being fed by the equally Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England.

At around the time this work was painted, Elizabeth had entered into trade agreements with the Dutch, which allowed the rebels greater means by which to hold out against the Spanish. Meanwhile Frederick, Duke of Anjou, to whom the rebellious Dutch had offered sovereignty when they rejected Philip, and who then proceeded to get himself thrown out of Holland after a disastrous uprising against him at Antwerp, is shown in the picture as well, being defecated on by the cow. A final individual in the painting is wearing Spanish court dress as he milks the cow from underneath, but the artist shows that this fellow is about to get kicked or trod upon by the cow.

While this painting was created to insult Spanish politics, another work of art dating from roughly the same time and place seeks to do the exact opposite. In about 1570, another unknown Netherlandish artist created a highly political sculpture titled “The Grand Duke of Alba Defeats The Enemies of Philip II”, which is still held in the Ducal collections of the House of Alba. It features the 3rd Grand Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, attacking a monstrous, three-headed hydra. What makes it particularly interesting and political however, is that the three heads of the hydra are caricatures of three of Philip’s greatest political enemies: Pope Paul IV, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Augustus, Elector of Saxony.

All three of the leaders who make up the monster which the Duke of Alba is trying to slay caused significant political headaches for Philip, and all three had to tangle with the Duke of Alba on more than one occasion. Thus, while the sculpture certainly flatters the Grand Duke and, by extension, Philip himself, its more important, political purpose is to insult other European leaders who were opposed to Spanish political ambitions. In reality, only Pope Paul managed to find himself bested by Alba, but then even popes were rarely Catholic enough for Spanish standards. As a result, this piece of political propaganda is, to some extent, an example of wishful thinking.

Whether created to support, flatter, or disparage a particular figure, these portrayals of powerful politicians continue to fascinate, as well as to inform both our understanding of these individuals, and the times in which they held sway over government and society.

When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.

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The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)