Category

Southern Renaissance

Crevelli’s Cucumbers, Christ, and Cotán

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I am reading the most wonderful book right now, The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint, which was just published last year. Thus far it has helped the post-holiday “January blues” to feel more manageable. This is a book that I wish I would have written myself. For the past few years, I have been less interested in the things that I studied in graduate school, and personally feel drawn to just looking at images of people reading books. I suppose these images serve as my escape, since I wish I had more quiet moments alone that I could spend reading for pleasure.

What caught my attention last night, though, was a tangential mention of a cucumber in the painting The Annunciation , with Saint  Emidius (1486, shown below) by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli.1 While books to appear in this painting (which ties into the purpose for its inclusion in my new book), I think the most striking thing is the cucumber that is prominently displayed in the foreground, balanced on a ledge and projecting toward the viewer.

Carlo Crivelli, "The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus," 1486 (National Gallery)

Carlo Crivelli, “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus,” 1486 (National Gallery)

 

The book says that the cucumber is a symbol of resurrection and redemption, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art also supports this connection with redemption. An audio interview with food writer Gillian Riley, embedded on the National Gallery webpage for the painting, more generally says that the cucumber is a symbol for Christ.

But why would cucumbers be seen in this way? This definitely is not a common symbol in Renaissance art, or even Christian art for that matter. Crivelli used the motif often in his art, so much that it has been called his “signature motif.” So far, I’ve only found some amusing and snarky speculation. And I’m afraid this post is just more speculation. I wonder if this conclusion has been determined by the context that Crivelli creates within his paintings: the cucumber appears over the head of the dead Christ in Crivelli’s The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene (shown below). In this painting, the angle of Christ’s limp head is has the same position and directional movement as the cucumber in the garland above, suggesting a visual and symbolic relationship between the two.

Crivelli, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” 1485 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Crivelli, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” 1485 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius  and Madonna and Child ( shown at the top of the post), the cucumber is placed next to one or more apples. The apple is commonly depicted as the Forbidden Fruit from the Garden of Eden, and therefore serves as a symbol of sin. Perhaps this context helps us to know that the cucumber, then, symbolically is a reversal of the apple.

The cucumber and the apple also have different shapes too, and I think it is also in the realm of possibility to think of them in gendered terms. The round apple has been connected with female breasts in the past (even within the context of the Forbidden Fruit and Eve).2 Perhaps the cucumber was intended to serve as a symbol of Christ in a very physical way. Perhaps Leo Steinberg would have liked this idea? I think that Elizabeth Honig might agree that the phallic connotations would have been possible, she noted something similar in sixteenth-century art, although admittedly for a Northern context.3

One thing that I would like to determine, though, is whether the seventeenth-century painter Juan Sánchez Cotán might have somehow been influenced by Crivelli’s composition. Cotán’s still life that includes a cucumber has a very similar composition to Crivelli’s one in the Annunciation, with both of the cucumbers placed right in the foreground on a ledge. Both paintings also have a similar interest in illusionism with a strong shadow that falls to the right.

Carlo Crivelli, Detail of cucumber and apple from "The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus," 1486 (National Gallery)

Carlo Crivelli, Detail of cucumber and apple from “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus,” 1486 (National Gallery)

Juan Sánchez Cotán, "Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)

Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber,” 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)

Could it be that the Hapsburg Spanish presence in Italy somehow allowed for knowledge of Crivelli’s art to reach Cotán in Spain? Perhaps it is a stretch, but it would be interesting if a connection could be made! Any ideas? It is interesting to think about the cucumber and resurrection in this context too, since the other fruits and vegetables positioned in a way to suggest ascension and descension, depending on the direction the viewer’s eye moves horizontally across the picture plane.

Does anyone else have thoughts on cucumbers in art? When I first read about cucumbers as a symbol of resurrection, I jokingly wrote on Twitter that I hoped it was because the cucumber descends into a tomb of brine and re-emerges with a new life as a pickle. Alas, it doesn’t look like that is the case!

1 Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro,The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018), p. 26

2 I’m specifically thinking of the Hildesheim doors, in which even holds an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over her chest, as if it is a breast. This is discussed in Adam S. Cohen and Anne Derbes, “Bernward and Eve at Hildesheim,” Gesta (vol. 40, no 1): 2001, 24.

3 Elizabeth Honig, Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (Yale University Press, 1999), 43.

 

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Book Review: “The Museum of Lost Art”

I recently finished reading Noah Charney’s new book The Museum of Lost Art. I have an academic crush on Charney’s work – he always manages to write about fascinating topics that I wish I had thought to write about myself. I’m glad that he is one step ahead of me, though, because he writes in a very engaging and approachable way. I wish that more art history texts were written like his.

The book is divided into sections, and within each section Charney considers different ways for how a work of art can be “lost.” For example, some works of art are destroyed intentionally or destroyed accidentally, while others are altered from their original conception. Each section is tied unified by beginning and ending with an anecdote that relates to the topic. I found this to be a bit confusing when I read the first section, but then I perceived what Charney was doing and the remaining sections made more sense.

Masaccio, "Holy Trinity," 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, “Holy Trinity,” c. 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The thing that I liked most about The Museum of Lost Art was that I learned new things about famous works of art that I thought I already knew well. For example, I didn’t know that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity painting was covered up with a false wall in the latter part of the 16th century when Vasari was hired to alter the space.1 This canonical painting, which appears in most introductory art history textbooks as an example of mathematical (linear) perspective, was only rediscovered in 1860 when the church was remodeled.2

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

I also was also intrigued to learn that part of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors was “lost” at some point after it first was painted in 1533. The crucifix in the upper left corner originally was created to be partially obscured by the green curtain (which has been connected to the political tension of the day), but at one point the crucifix was completely painted out. Only in recent times, when conservators at the National Gallery cleaned this painting in 1891, was the crucifix discovered.This clear alteration before 1891 suggests that this political message (which references Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church through the formation of the Church of England) was offensive or problematic.

Holbein, "The Ambassadors," detail of crucifix

Holbein, “The Ambassadors,” detail of crucifix

The only section that I wish had a little more attention in this book is that of the “Looting in the Ancient World.” I think that the ancient Near East could have gotten more coverage here in the book, since many works of art were altered or lost due to the different warring groups who lived in this area. Probably my favorite article which discusses this topic is Marian Feldman’s “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of the Mesopotamian Monuments,” which includes a discussion of the Akkadian King portrait head. I realize that Charney was giving a brief overview of this topic in his book, but I do wish that the ancient Near East could have received a bit more discussion.

Otherwise, I really did enjoy this book and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in the biographies of works of art, art crime, looting, conservation, and restoration.

1 Noah Charney, The Museum of Lost Art (Phaidon: New York, 2018), 215.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 235.

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Alberti’s “Istoria” and Modesty

Longtime readers of my blog may remember when I wrote a post about istoria painting and the game of hide-and-seek to find the “figure in communication” (who is looking out at or communicating with the viewer of the painting). Lately I’ve been thinking more about istorie. Out of all of Alberti’s recommendations for this special category of painting, I feel like his recommendation regarding the depiction of modesty is the most difficult for art history students to pinpoint immediately. This confusion makes sense, since the word “modesty” has many definitions:

1) The avoidance or impropriety or indecency, through one’s appearance, manner, or behavior

2) A person’s unassuming state about their abilities or appearance

3) The quality of something being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount

In the case for Alberti, I think he was thinking of all three definitions of the word “modesty.” The first definition of modesty about impropriety may seem confusing given the popularity of the nude form in Renaissance art, but Alberti wrote:

“If it is allowed here [in the painting], there ought to be some nude and others part nude and part clothed in the painting; but always make use of shame and modesty. The parts of the body ugly to see and in the same way others which give little pleasure should be covered up with draperies, with a few fronds or the hand.”1

Vasari, "Allegory of the Immaculate Conception," 1541. Tempera on wood, 58 x 39 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Vasari, “Allegory of the Immaculate Conception,” 1541. Tempera on wood, 58 x 39 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

So, one could immediately connect this statement with censorship and modesty in relation to indecency, and perhaps Alberti does have that in mind to a degree – it seems like there is some tension in the Renaissance to resolve the desire to depict biblical figures within a classicizing, nude style. So far I haven’t found a Renaissance painting that literally applied Alberti’s recommendation to use a frond-as-a-coverup, although the figure of Truth in Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles (see below) covers her genitalia with a long tress of blonde hair.

Similarly, I think that Vasari’s painting, Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (shown above) could serve as an example of this consideration of modesty, since the nude figures in the foreground are twisted in a way so that there isn’t an excessive focus on their sexual organs. At the same time, though, Vasari recognizes the beauty of the nude form in this painting with the various nude, idealized angels that surround the Virgin. Similarly, Vasari’s painting Incredulity of Saint Thomas depicts Christ with an prominently-displayed idealized torso, but drapery covers the lower half of his body.

However, Alberti also seems to be thinking about “modesty” in other ways. He also continues in his text to explain:

“The ancients painted the portrait of Antigonos only from the part of the face where the eye was not lacking. It is said that Perecles’ head was long and ugly, for this reason he – unlike others – was portrayed by painters and sculptors wearing a helmet. Plutarch says that when the ancient painters depicted the kings, if there were some flaw in them which they did not wish to leave unnoticed, they ‘corrected’ it as much as they could while still keeping a likeness. Thus I desire, as I have said, that modesty and truth should be used in every istoria.”2

This explanation leads me to think that Alberti is also considering the second definition of modesty: the state of not being too proud or confident about oneself or one’s abilities. In this case, I think that Alberti is thinking about the modesty of the figures within the painting, and the self-effacing tendency of the figures to not visually showcase any feature which is exaggerated or unsightly. This self-effacing context made me think of the personification of Remorse shown in Botticelli’s istoria painting,The Calumny of Apelles (detail shown below). Remorse is depicted as an old woman, but she doesn’t showcase her old wrinkles too much for the viewer and covers much her face with a hood. Instead, Botticelli opted to cover up most of her unsightly, aged features, which perhaps visually suggests – without reading too much into the subject matter – a self-effacing characteristic that figure.

Botticelli,  detail of Truth and Remorse from "Calumny of Apelles," 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli, detail of Truth (left) and Remorse (right) from “Calumny of Apelles,” 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Finally, the context of Alberti’s writing also suggests that modesty can relate to the third definition about something that is small or limited in number. Before his discussion on modesty, Alberti writes about dignity and restraint. Although he recommends a complex composition in istoria painting (which involves a variety of figures in various poses), but at the same time also warns against excess. He explains,

“In my judgement no picture will be filled with so great a variety of things that nine or ten men are not able to act with dignity.”3

I think Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles also serves as a good example of limitation in number. Although Botticelli includes ten figures (not to mention all of the figures depicted as sculptures) within his painting, his composition is not overly crowded. Instead, Botticelli is able to exercise modest restraint with his composition, and showcase a variety of poses and figures while still utilizing ample areas of open space to emphasize this restrained modesty.

Botticelli, "Calumny of Apelles," 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli, “Calumny of Apelles,” 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Do you know of good examples of istorie that fit with any of these definitions and connotations of modesty? Please share!

1 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, 76. Available online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=sVGZtXjRXPAC&lpg=PA77&dq=alberti%20modesty%20istoria&pg=PA76#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid., 76-77.

3 Ibid., 76.

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Right-Foot and Left-Foot Telemons at Hadrian’s Villa

I suppose this isn’t really a full fleshed-out post, but more of a post-it note. I received an email this week from Francisco Julius, who works as a guide in Rome. He wrote to me in response to my previous post “Ancient Egyptians and Greeks: Left-Foot Forward!”, which explores Egyptian and Greek sculptures of figures who are depicted in a particular stance with their left foot forward. Francisco brought two interesting Roman examples to my attention, which are located today in the Sala a Croce Greca of the Pio Clementino Museum of the Vatican.

Sala a Croce Greca in the Pio Clementino Museum of the Vatican, showing two telemons from Hadrian's Villa, 1st century CE. Height 3.35 meters. Oriental red granite or syenite brought from Aswan in Egypt.

Sala a Croce Greca in the Pio Clementino Museum of the Vatican, showing two telemons from Hadrian’s Villa, 2nd century CE. Height 3.35 meters. Oriental red granite or syenite brought from Aswan in Egypt.

The two telemon (structural supports in the shape of a man) in this room were originally located at Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana) at a sanctuary dedicated to Antinous. Antinous was the Emperor Hadrian’s homosexual lover; he tragically drowned in the Nile when he was a young man. Hadrian encouraged a cult-like following of Antinous, and the sanctuary to Antinous (called the Antinoeion) at Hadrian’s Villa is just one of many structures, monuments, and sculptures that Hadrian built to honor Antinous.

Telemon (sometimes called Antinous-Telemon) from Hadrian's Villa, 1st century CE

Telemon (sometimes called Antinous-Telemon) from Hadrian’s Villa, 2nd century CE

Interestingly, the two telemon from this sanctuary don’t follow the artistic convention of having the left foot forward. Instead, one figure surprisingly has its right foot forward (shown above), while the other keeps with convention by having its left foot forward. It is interesting to see that the Romans were interested in keeping this Egyptian stance (like the Greeks), but that the Romans seemingly didn’t care to follow this specific visual tradition of the left foot forward. Perhaps this is another way to show that the Romans copied Greek art, but modified it to fit their own artistic goals. In this case, a symmetrical (mirror image) appearance between the two telemons is created with the opposite legs, perhaps for visual balance.

On one hand, this switch from convention is a bit surprising to me, considering how much Hadrian loved Greek culture. But, I guess Hadrian was really a Roman at heart, since he didn’t mind having this slight departure from the Greek tradition!

On a side note, it appears that this right-footed telemon was painted by Raphael in the Room of Fire (la Stanza dell’incendio) in the Vatican. The telemon appears in the corner of the room. At the time Raphael created this fresco, the two telemons were located in Tivoli at the Palazzo Vescovile (Episcopal Palace). Now I’m led to wonder whether Renaissance artists were aware of this left-foot-forward tradition! Could Raphael have been aware that he was painting an example which departed from ancient convention?

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Unkempt Artists

Photograph of Antoni Guardi, March 15, 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Lately I’ve been listening to episodes of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History ClassEarlier this week I listened to an episode on the architect Antoni Gaudi (shown in his younger years above), who is best known for buildings like Casa Milà, and the yet-unfinished church La Sagrada Familia. In the latter part of the podcast, I was surprised to hear about the circumstances surrounding Gaudi’s death. As Gaudi became older in age, he began to care less about his personal appearance and looked rather disheveled, albeit that he devoted care and attention to his work project at La Sagrada Familia. (Gaudi also appears to have been camera-shy during his later years, because I couldn’t find any photographs of him in such a disheveled state!).

After leaving the La Sagrada Familia work site on June 7, 1926, Gaudi was struck by a tram. Due to his disheveled appearance, people at the scene did not recognize the famous architect and the taxi drivers refused to drive a vagabond to the hospital. (The taxi drivers were subsequently fined.) Since Gaudi was not immediately helped (and also was ultimately taken to a pauper’s hospital), by the time he was found by his friends he was in very poor condition. He died three days after the accident, on June 10, 1926. His funeral was a very large affair in the city of Barcelona, and he was buried in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.

If Gaudi had not been mistaken for a vagabond, perhaps he could have received better medical attention and his life would have been spared! What a tragedy!

This story made me think about other instances in which artists have been described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance, including those Renaissance artists written about by Vasari. I realize that by writing this post I am fostering the “artist-genius” construct in a way (in the sense that these artists are creative nonconformists who care more about the appearance of their art than their own appearance), but it still is interesting to consider. Here are a few particular examples that I wanted to highlight:

  • Parmigianino: Vasari writes that Parmigianino’s obsession with alchemy affected the artist’s personal appearance, “changing [him] from a dainty and gentle person into an almost savage man with long and unkempt beard and locks, a creature quite different from his other self.”
  • Vasari writes that Gherardi was very unconcerned about his personal appearance, who would wear his cloak inside out or two different types of shoes. When Duke Cosimo de Medici questioned Gherardi on his inside-out cloak, Gherardi, responded, “…but let your Excellency look at what I paint and not my manner of dressing.”2 The Duke responded by sending Gherardi a reversible cloak, so the cloak could never be inside-out!
  • Perhaps given Van Gogh’s emotional health issues, it is unsurprising that this artist is described as unkempt. However, I was interested to learn that Van Gogh seemed to deliberately dress in an unkempt fashion. I was about to write that is seems contradictory for one to consciously try to appear unkempt, but upon second thought, it seems like a lot of fashion trends strive for just that effect!
Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

  • Gustave Klimt is described as having a long, disheveled beard. It seems fairly groomed in the photograph above, but I wanted to draw attention to the floor-length smock that Klimt would typically wear when he was painting in his studio (see above). Perhaps Klimt was not as disheveled and unkempt as some of other artists mentioned here, but his mode of dress was a little bizarre, to say the least (especially since he typically did not wear anything else underneath the smock!). Oddly, he posed for many photographs dressed in this smock, including one of him in a boat!.

What other artists do you know of that are described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance?

1 See Paul Barolsky, Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (Penn State Press, 2010), p. 28. Available online HERE.

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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.