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November 2011

Book Review: “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa”

Charney, "The Thefts of the Mona Lisa," published by ARCA (2011)

If you are looking for a book this holiday season (either to give as a gift or to read yourself), I heartily recommend Noah Charney’s new book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa. I read the book over Thanksgiving break (which was easy to do, since the book is just a little over 100 pages). Like Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb, this book on the Mona Lisa was informative, thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining.

In some ways, I think that Charney presents books in the same way that I like to deliver art history lectures. He even includes the same kind of anecdotes that I think students would find interesting. I even laughed out loud when I read Charney’s musings on what Leonardo da Vinci might have accomplished if Ritalin was available in the 15th century.1

This book not only discusses the infamous 1911 theft of the statue by handyman Vincenzo Peruggia,  but other crimes involving the famous portrait. I particularly enjoyed reading about Picasso’s indirect involvement with the Mona Lisa: the artist was accused of stealing the Mona Lisa, but in reality was (only!) guilty of owning some Iberian statuettes which were stolen from the Louvre in 1906 or 1907. Charney even convincingly discusses how Picasso, as a criminal collector, may have hired the thief in the affaire des statuettes.2

Anyhow, you should read the book. It’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed just about everything in it. In some ways, I’m a little surprised that I liked the book so much, because I don’t particularly love the Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1506) as a work of art. Oh, I think the painting looks alright, but I’m a little repelled by the varnish and greenish-tint of the painting. And the crowd in front of the painting at the Louvre is off-putting, to say the least. I had a much more meaningful experience at the Louvre with one of Leonardo’s other paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483-1486).

But back to the Mona Lisa. I have to admit that I am much more impressed with this painting when I look at some of the digital restorations that have been proposed over the past few years. This one by Lumiere Technology is especially appealing to me. I like the bluish tint to the landscape and the delicacy (and visibility) of Lisa’s veil. I also like the digital reconstruction created by Naoko Gunji and Jane Vadnal (no link – I have yet to find a digital copy of the reconstruction online). Gunji and Vadnal sought to suggest the original colors, but also restore the original proportions of the painting. The reconstruction includes more of the columns which have been cropped off the sides of the original panel.3 On the flip side, some other suggested restorations available online seem a little too, uh, fanciful.

What are your thoughts on the Mona Lisa? Have you read Charney’s book yet? One other last plug for the book – proceeds from the book sales go to support ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. ARCA is an international nonprofit research group. If you love art crime, you should buy this book to support a very worthy cause!

Many thanks to Noah Charney and ARCA press for supplying a review copy of this book.

1 Charney, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, (ARCA: 2011), 12. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for starting projects, but never seeing them through. Consequently, a lot of the extant paintings by Leonardo are unfinished. Vasari even writes that Leonardo left the “Mona Lisa” unfinished. Although the painting seems to be finished today, it could be that Leonardo was never completely satisfied with the final product. See Charney, 21.

2 Charney, 55-59.

3 A reproduction of the Gungi and Vadnal reconstruction is found in David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 311.

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The Turkey in Art

Happy Thanksgiving! This morning I’ve been wondering a little about the history of the turkey bird and its representation in art. I’ve learned a couple of interesting things, particularly from the book More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality by Karen Davis. This book not only discusses the history of the turkey in connection with the Thanksgiving holiday, but also a broader history (and consumption) of the bird. The turkey was first shipped to Europe from Mexico in the early 16th century. The turkey was then bred in Europe (Davis specifically mentions Renaissance England) and eventually the domesticated bird was brought back over to the Americas.1

I think it’s pretty safe to say, then, that the turkey was viewed by Europeans as an “exotic” bird, at least initially. As I’ve been looking at some representations of turkeys this morning (all by European artists), I can’t help but wonder which of this artists might have viewed the turkey in an “exoticized” light, and which (later) artists may have seen the turkey as an integrated part of European life.

Here are some of my favorite turkeys in art:

Giambologna, "Turkey," 1560s. Image courtesy of Squinchpix.com

Johann Joachim Kändler, Turkey model, c. 1733. Getty Museum. This turkey was one of eight models which were made by the Meissen manufactory. Kändler, a sculptor, was hired to help with the royal commission for large porcelain animals.

Pieter Claesz, "Still Life with Turkey-Pie," 1627

Metsu, "The Poultry Seller," 1662

Michiel van der Voort the Elder, detail of pulpit, 1713, Cathedral of Our Lady (O.-L. Vrouwekathedraal), Antwerp

The turkey depicted on this pulpit is found on the left side of the image, halfway up the staircase. Its distinct tail feathers are especially noticeable. In addition to the turkey, this pulpit shows a variety of other birds, including a parrot, heron, owl, and peacock. These birds are included to emphasize the natural world, which was thought by Saint Bernard to be a source of inspiration for the faithful. (I bet this is the only instance in which the turkey bird serves as a point of spiritual inspiration!) I’d love to research more about this pulpit (if anyone has any sources to recommend, please leave a comment!). So far I have only found a few sources online: the Web Gallery of Art and this online forum. You can see another detail image of the pulpit here.

Goya, "Plucked Turkey," 1812

Do you have any favorite depictions of turkeys? Happy Thanksgiving!

1 Karen Davis, “More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality” (Brooklyn, New York: Lantern Books, 2001), p. 54. Citation available online here. Davis’ book also goes into some depth discussing the difference between the wild turkey and domesticated turkey (see, for example, p. 79). She also mentions that the turkey was not a widespread part of Thanksgiving meals (outside of New England) until after 1800 (see p. 53).

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Ancient Greeks and Romans Broke their Pediments

Diagram of broken, segmental (rounded) and open pediments

Like other Baroque art historians, I love the broken pediment as an architectural feature. A broken pediment is  “broken” at the apex of a triangular pediment. I usually don’t differentiate between the “open” and “broken” pediment when I teach by students about these features, but I know that many architectural historians choose to differentiate between the two. An “open” pediment refers to when the base of the pediment has been removed (or “opened,”). One of my favorite broken pediments from the Baroque period (which actually has been broken, opened, and also shifted backward) is found in the Cornaro Chapel, designed by the artist Bernini (1645-1652).

Both open and broken pediments were popular in Baroque art. Baroque scholars love these kinds of pediments; they serve as good examples of how 17th century architects added a little bit more dynamism and movement into their architectural features (in contrast to the harmony and symmetry that characterized much of the architecture of the Renaissance).1

But I think that it’s hard for Baroque scholars to remember sometimes that the idea of segmenting pediments was not developed during the Baroque period. In fact, the broken and/or open pediment existed in ancient Rome and Hellenistic architecture from Alexandria.2 Unfortunately, not many extant examples of architecture survive from Alexandria, so scholars need to look to Roman and/or Nabatean art that copied Alexandrian architecture, such as the Market Gate of Miletus, Treasury at Petra, and Pompeiian wall paintings (all shown below).

I often teach my students about how the Greek Classical period is similar to the art of the Renaissance, and how the Hellenistic period is similar to the art of the Baroque period. The broken pediment in Hellenistic architecture is a further manifestation of this fact. It’s also interesting to see that the Romans picked up on this architectural feature that would probably have been conceived as “distorted” by Greeks who lived during what has been termed the “High Classical” period. In this light, the broken pediment is another manifestation of how Roman architecture was interested in the re-invention of Classical Greek architecture. No wonder they latched onto the Hellenistic invention of the broken pediment.

Here are some examples of broken pediments that appear in ancient Roman art:

Market Gate of Miletus, 2nd century CE. Currently located in the Pergamon Museum (Berlin). Image courtesy of Thorsten Hartmann via Wikipedia.

Facade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra, Jordan, 2nd century BC -2nd century CE. Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon on Wikipedia.

Detail of second style wall paintin from cubiculum M of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, Italy, ca. 50-40 BCE

Arch of Tiberius, ca. 26 C.E. (rebuilt around core of earlier monument, ca. 30 B.C.E.), Orange, France

Broken pediment from Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan, c. 150 CE. Image courtesy of Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikipedia.

What are your favorite examples of the broken (or open) pediment in architecture?

1 That being said, there are examples of the broken pediment that exist in Late Renaissance architecture. For example, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger employed broken pediments on the top story of the façade of the Palazzo Farnese (ca. 1530-1546).

2 See Judith McKenzie, “The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, 300 BC to AD 700, Volume 63″ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 105. Source available online here. See also Judith McKenzie, “Alexandra and the Origins of Baroque Architecture,” available online here. The latter citation also includes a discussion of how the earliest surviving examples of the segmental pediment (a rounded, semi-circular pediment) are found in Alexandrian architecture.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.