The Courtier in The Federalist: How Two Of History’s Greatest Artists Reimagined The Earth As Map Makers

My latest for The Federalist is out today, in which I look at how two of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, played a major part in the development of cartography: da Vinci in his military mapping work for the infamous Borgias, and Dürer in creating up-to-date, portable maps of both the heavens and the known world in the Age of Discovery. My thanks, as always, to Joy Pullmann and everyone on her team at The Federalist, for helping to make my writing both look and read better than I could do on my own. If you like what you read, please do me a favor and brave the trolls, and leave a comment over on the Federalist site; comments are, of course, always welcome here, as well.

Borja

Thought-Pourri: Events Edition

Due to recent events, I wasn’t able to post on Tuesday, for which I apologize. Between traveling to review an exhibition (more to come on that), social obligations, and yesterday’s snow storm on the East Coast, among other things, it’s been a very busy week. Today’s won’t be a particularly dense piece for your delectation, I’m afraid. However, I think you’ll find the following events of significant interest.

The Arts with the Catholic Art Guild

The Catholic Art Guild in Chicago kicks off their 2018 event season this weekend at the magnificent church of St. John Cantius with pastor, author, and radio host Fr. Thomas Loya, who will be speaking on Byzantine iconography and its liturgical context. Other speakers in the coming weeks include composer Mark Nowakowski, historian Dr. Denis McNamara, architect Duncan Stroik, and sculptor Anthony Visco, along with hands-on workshops for those interested in manuscript illumination, stained glass, sculpture, and gilding. I’m speaking as well, as you may have previously read, and deeply honored to be included in such an august company of presenters. Hope to see many of my readers in the Chicagoland area there!

Guild

Holy Week with the Dominicans

Holy Week begins this weekend with Palm Sunday – hard to believe it is almost Easter already, particularly with the weather we’ve been having recently in the Capital, where it feels nothing like Spring. For those of you in the DC area, be sure to check out the liturgies and events at St. Dominic’s, the historic parish church located near L’Enfant Plaza in DC, as well as the profoundly beautiful Tenebrae service on Wednesday of Holy Week at the Dominican House of Studies, across the street from Catholic University. Oh, and for advanced planning purposes, the eighth annual Spring Gala at Dominican House is coming up: you’ll want to reserve your tickets in advance as this is always a well-attended, wonderful evening, and will feature music by The Hillbilly Thomists, whom you may have seen featured in the news.

Thomists

Wartime Sites with the NCAS

Beginning April 14th and continuing through May 19th, the National Civic Art Society is sponsoring a series of upcoming tours titled “Washington at War”, with a particular emphasis on the architecture and historical significance of places that have played a key role in shaping the Capital region and indeed the United States as a whole. Locations will include Fort Washington, the Lincoln Cottage, Soldiers’ Home, the U.S. Navy Yard, and Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the military memorials located on the National Mall. Register for the tours by following this link.

Fort

Who’s That? Let’s Play Art Detective

Recently a reader asked if I could help identify a painting of an unknown lady. The woman in the picture bore many of the hallmarks of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, but I could not be sure that it was her. I also, rather cheekily, disagreed with an expert who had previously looked at the painting and concluded that it was 17th century, when to my eye it looked more like a 19th century Elizabethan Revival painting, designed to evoke the Tudor era for the purposes of interior decoration. I will always defer to an actual art expert of course, as I sit back and scoff in my big leather armchair, but in my response I had to explain to my interlocutor that it is often very difficult for any art historian to figure out who is being represented in an older work of art, unless the sitter’s identity has been clearly marked or documented.

Today being the birthday of Jacopo “Tintoretto” Comin (1518-1594), it seems appropriate to select a work by this Venetian Old Master painter to illustrate just how difficult identification in art can be. The painting I’ve chosen is artistically interesting, particularly for those of you interested in military history, but as we shall see we often can’t answer the question, “Who’s that?” – even in the case of an artist as famous as Tintoretto.

The portrait shown below dates from about 1555-56, and is in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. It depicts a gentleman in his 30’s or 40’s with a slightly reddish, forked beard, wearing steel armor with gold decoration, who is standing before an open window in a palace. In the background, a Venetian galley and another ship are heading out to sea under stormy skies. At the base of the column on the right we can see part of a date, but the picture appears to have been trimmed down slightly, so we can’t be sure of the exact number written there.

One possible reading of this painting by art experts, including the Kunsthistoriches Museum, is that the date on the column originally read “1540”. In looking at the historical record of what was going on in Venice at the time, this date could mean that the painting was related to the signing of a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice in that year, which brought to an end what was known as the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540). However as this treaty marked a humiliating defeat for Venice at the time, this hypothesis seems unlikely to me.

More likely – said the armchair historian – this painting has something to do with the founding in 1550 of the “Fanti da Mar”, the Venetian Marines Infantry Corps. They came to be as a reaction against the military losses that Venice had been suffering at the hands of the Turks during much of the 1500’s. Interestingly enough, the Fanti da Mar later became the San Marco Regiment, which itself was the foundation for the modern-day Italian Marines.

The armor depicted in the painting is that traditionally worn by commanders of the Fanti da Mar at the time, as shown in a later painting by Tintoretto of Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian Marines at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and future Doge of Venice. This portrait cannot be of Venier himself however, since at the time it was supposedly painted he was already in his 60’s. Moreover, at this point he was not yet commanding the Venetian Marines. 

A more likely candidate would be the condottieri (mercenary) Astorre Il Baglioni (1526-1571), who was hired by Venice in 1556 to fortify the Venetian mainland against the Turks and made Governor of Verona. That would make him exactly the right age and general profession for this picture, and a somewhat crude portrait of Baglioni from this time shows a man in his 40’s with a distinctive, receding hairline, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait. Another portrait of Baglioni much later in life shows him with a forked beard, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait, but now gray with age.

However, as fascinating as this speculation is, there is a more fundamental problem with this identification. Although Baglioni was a military man, he does not appear to have been a member of the Venetian Marines, let alone a commander of them. So unless new research shows up indicating that he was made a Marine Corps commander, we are left at a dead end with this line of inquiry, as far as identification of the subject is concerned.

Art appreciation involves not just looking at images of famous kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, but rather about staring into the eyes of people from long ago who became successful or well-regarded enough in their profession to have their picture painted. Before the dawn of photography, painting, sculpture, and engraving was how these people were commemorated for their contemporaries and for future generations. Even with all of our knowledge, resources, and technology, there are many great, portraits of unidentified people from the past like bankers and bakers, soldiers and scholars, and unknown Venetian Marines, whom we may never be able to conclusively identify. But the detective work that goes into trying to identify them is endlessly fascinating.