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Southern Renaissance

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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Tapestries and Social Metaphors

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton give a public lecture. This lecture was absolutely fantastic, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Hamilton’s work is very compelling to me, since her installations and pieces often incorporate textiles or fabrics. These textiles and fabrics, which are comprised of single threads woven or knit together, serve as a beautiful social metaphor for Hamilton (as a combination of the singular “I” and plural “we”). Since listening to this lecture, I’ve been thinking of several ways that tapestries (and even the interconnectedness of the Internet as a “web”) can relate to this social metaphor.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Armory, New York, 2012-2013. Photo by James Ewing.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Armory, New York, 2012-2013. Photo by James Ewing.

The interconnectedness of individuals is especially apparent to me in Ann Hamilton’s installation “the event of a thread” (Park Armory, New York, 5 December 2012 – 6 January 2013). While there are several components to this installation, I’m particularly drawn to the immense white fabric and swings which were set up in part of the space. The fabric inherently serves as a reference to Hamilton’s social metaphor, because it is a textile, but this idea of the interconnectedness of people especially was emphasized through the swings that are attached to the fabric. Each swing was connected to another swing through a system of pulleys. As people swung back and forth, the white tapestry rose and fell to match the rhythm of their movements. As a result, the tapestry served more of a visual image of the connectedness of people rather than of any sort of barrier between them. You can see some videos of this installation HERE and HERE.

I love the idea of a tapestry as something which expresses the connection between people. Since this lecture by Ann Hamilton, I’ve been thinking about ways that other tapestries give visual evidence of social collaboration and interconnectedness. One example which has stuck out to me is the series of tapestries that Raphael designed for the Sistine Chapel. These ten tapestries serve as a unique example of social and geographic connectedness: they were designed as cartoons by Raphael in Italy between 1515-1516, but were woven in Brussels in the workshop of Peter van Aelst between 1516 and 1521. Given that some areas of Europe were disrupted by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation at this time, I think that these tapestries also serve as a unique metaphor of Catholic solidarity between Belgium (which was part of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries at this time) and the Vatican.

Raphael and PIeter van Alest, "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519. Tapestry in silk and wool, with silver-gilt threads, height 490 cm, width 441 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican

Raphael and Pieter van Alest, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519. Tapestry in silk and wool, with silver-gilt threads, height 490 cm, width 441 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art

Beyond the woven medium itself, these tapestries also suggest a longing for people to interconnect themselves with the biblical and classical past. I’m particularly intrigued by The Miraculous Draught of Fishes tapestry (shown above), which is decorated with a border that recalls the appearance of relief carvings on classical sarcophagi, but depicts two episodes from the life of Pope Leo X. Additionally, the main scene depicts a biblical event, but includes references contemporary to the Renaissance period. In the back left corner of the tapestry, for example, there is a depiction of Vatican hill with the towers along the wall of Leo XI. Saint Peter’s also is depicted as under construction (a very anachronistic inclusion when one considers how Simon Peter is only just being called as a “fisher of men” in the foreground!).

Raphael and Pieter van Alest, detail of Vatican hill within “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519.

So, the creation and appearance of the Raphael tapestries can relate to the interconnectedness of people, either across geographic boundaries or historical divides. From a reverse perspective, we can also see that the displacement of these tapestries serve as evidence of social rifts. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V looted and pillaged the city, and thousands upon thousands of people were murdered. These tapestries tie into this event, since they were stolen and not returned until the 1550s (although only seven tapestries made their way back). The remaining tapestries were stolen again when French troops entered Rome at the end of the 18th century. It is interesting to me how one of these tapestries was reportedly burned in order for people to try and gain access to the precious material of the silver-gilt threads.1 Therefore, the material which once helped to bind this tapestry together was intentionally destroyed when people metaphorically pulled apart from each other.

All of these thoughts about tapestries and social metaphors have caused me to think also about the Internet as a tapestry which binds people together. My friend, the late Hasan Niyazi, was the best “weaver” of people via the Internet that I have met thus far. As an art history blogger with a particular passion for Raphael, Hasan sought to not only share his research and ideas regarding art, but also to connect the online art historical community together. His untimely death has caused an absence which is still keenly felt among art history bloggers. I think that we are still seeking for ways to make sure that we keep Hasan’s tapestry together. This post about social metaphors and Raphael’s tapestries is dedicated to Hasan’s memory, especially in light of Raphael’s birthday earlier this week (April 6th).

1 There are several different accounts that report when some of these missing tapestries could have been burned. Passavant suggests that one specific tapestry was burned in near the end of the 18th century (incorrectly written in the text as 1789 instead of the 1798 French invasion of Rome). See Johann David Passavant, “Raphael of Urbino and His Father Giovanni Santi,” p. 298, available online HERE).

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Winking in Art

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of "Netherlandish Proverbs," 1559. Image courtesy via Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of “Netherlandish Proverbs,” 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This afternoon my students and I were discussing some of the proverbs that are referenced in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s complex painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). One student pointed out one particular detail on the wall of the house that I had never noticed before: a pair of open scissors with an eye placed above. I wasn’t familiar with a proverb or a reference to this detail in the painting, so I looked it up afterward.

It turns out that these two symbols are a reference to winking! This image is a play off of the words “Een knip oog,” which means “snip-eye,” or a wink.1 Scholar Alan Dundes, who wrote about the appearance of this symbol in Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s copy of his father’s painting, explained that through this symbol “Bruegel the artist is winking at his audience and he expects the viewer to understand that what he has painted in a huge put-on.”2

Learning about this fun detail made me wonder about the history of winking and whether other winks (either literal or symbolic) appear in art. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly information on the cultural history of winking (if anyone does find something, please let me know!), but I have noticed that obvious references to or depictions of winking appear in examples of art from the Renaissance and onward. (I also realized that it is futile to determine if ancient figures in the composite pose are winking: if the head is in profile view, then only one eye is visible to the viewer, which makes it impossible to ascertain whether a second eye would be open or closed! Ha! I like the thought that Egyptians are actually winking in all of their art, but we just can’t tell.)

I was also interested to see that references to winking appear in both Western and non-Western art. Here are a few examples I came across:

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, “The Courted Singer,” 1700s. Oil on canvas, 58 x 46 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

In this painting by Crespi, The Courted Singer (shown above), the winking figure of on the left reminds the viewer that the scene, which depicts a singer being courted, is not inherently gallant or noble. Instead, this singer and her affections are essentially being “bought” with the jewelry and riches offered to her.

Simon Vouet, “The Fortune Teller,” c. 1618. Oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

Winking was also used between characters within works of art, so that the viewer could understand when a figure was sly or involved in trickery. In this painting by Vouet, a man on the right of the canvas steals the purse from a gypsy woman (who is reading the palm of the woman on the far left). This thief winks to a male accomplice, who looks to me like he might be winking in return.

Master of the Winking Eyes, "Madonna and Child," ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Master of the Winking Eyes, “Madonna and Child,” ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Although the winking in this picture may be an aesthetic effect rather than an actual part of the subject matter, I still wanted to include this painting by the so-called “Master of the Winking Eyes.” This piece is included in a current exhibition dedicated to representations of the Virgin Mary in art, which includes a section on representations of her as a wife and mother. This painting, among another in the show, prompted one writer to publish this article: “Did the Virgin Mary Tickle the Baby Jesus?”

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy via Wikiart.

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy Wikiart

Huang Yongu’s Owl is an interesting depiction which caused a lot of controversy. Some interpreted Yongyu’s painting as a self-portrait of the artist who expressing a critique of socialism, and the painting was officially condemned as blasphemous by the Ministry of Culture in March 1974.3 The winking eye in this instance was thought by some to imply, on a basic level, a critique of the socialist system (e.g. officials were turning a blind eye to incorrect behavior). Others did not agree with this interpretation. Even Chairman Mao, who was frustrated with the extent of censorship happening at the time, said with exasperation, “An owl habitually keeps one eye open and one eye closed. The artist does possess the common knowledge, doesn’t he?”Yongu created other versions of the winking owl after this 1973 fiasco, such as this 1977 version and 1978 version.

Of course, to end this list, I have to include a .gif of the Nefertiti bust winking. (Since she has an unfinished eye, she does look a little like she could be winking today.) Do you know of other representations of winking in art? I’m sure there are lots of .gifs with winking works of art too, and feel free to also share those in the comments below!

1 Eric Nicholson, “Et in Arcadia the Dirty Brides,” in Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater, by Professor Robert Henke and Dr. Eric Nicolson, eds (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014, p. 99.

2 Alan Dundes, “‘How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree?': Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Netherlandish Proverbs” in The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els, ed., Wolfgang Mieder (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2004): 20. Citation also found online HERE.

3 The painting was subsequently put on display in a Black Paintings Exhibition, in order for its subversive content to be publicly shamed. Eugene W. Wang, “The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description,” in Critical Inquiry 26, no. 3 (Spring 2000): 435. Article available online HERE.

4 Ibid., 436.

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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.