March 2010

Exhuming Caravaggio

Keeping up with the Caravaggiomania theme, I wanted to bring attention to some recent news stories (brought to my attention by heidenkind). Currently, two groups are working together to exhume the possible remains of Caravaggio:

– Silvano Vinceti, a television producer, believes that he narrowed down the possible remains of Caravaggio to fragments of nine different bodies. These remains have been sent to the Professor Giorgio Gruppioni (University of Ravenna) for carbon dating. Vinceti has exhumed the remains of other prominent historical figures, including Petrarch and Pico della Mirandola. However, Vinceti has long been susceptible to criticism, largely because he isn’t a trained historian or scholar. You can read the recent news article here. (There is also an interesting picture in the article that shows Gruppioni and Vinceti displaying an open box that may contain Caravaggio’s remains – it’s kind of creepy but also really cool.)

Mr. Gruppioni and the University of Ravenna, in tandem with the University of Bologna, are furthering this testing by performing DNA tests on possible descendants of Caravaggio. See the Associated Press release here. (I think it’s interesting that this article doesn’t mention Mr. Vinceti’s involvement in the project. Are the universities are somewhat embarrassed about their association with the controversial television producer?)

Even though Vinceti isn’t a trained scholar, I’m glad to see that he is utilizing the knowledge of scholars for this research project. It will be interesting to see what findings come from these studies! Wouldn’t it be neat to find out that you were a descendant of Caravaggio?



Caravaggio, Medusa, 1598-99

One of my students brought my attention to this recent article in the New York Times. The article highlights a new argument by Philip Sohm, an art historian at the University of Toronto. Sohm believes that people aren’t as interested in the Renaissance artist Michelangelo anymore – instead, people have shifted their interest to Caravaggio. Sohm has charted interest in Caravaggio and Michelangelo through the number of scholarly publications over the past fifty years, and the number of writings about Caravaggio have gradually overtaken those about Michelangelo. Sohm calls this new phenomenon “Caravaggiomania” – and as a Baroque scholar who loves Caravaggio, I think that term is awesome.

Sohm thinks that art history doctoral students are having difficulty finding new and innovative things to say about Michelangelo. I don’t doubt this is the case. Michelangelo and the Renaissance period have been beaten to death for centuries in terms of research – but I do think that new interpretations and fresh scholarship can still rise up in the 21st century. I just wonder where Renaissance scholarship can go for new and fresh ideas. I’ve been thinking about this quite recently, actually, ever since I read heidenkind’s post about her difficulty in finding great publications about Donatello.

Sohm’s Caravaggio argument is timely, particularly since this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. There are a lot of huge celebrations and events taking place to honor Caravaggio this year, including a major exhibition that is currently on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. This exhibition is bringing together Caravaggio paintings from all over the world – you can see a list of the paintings at the bottom of this Italian website. Other events have also taken place in preparation for this show, such as the public restoration of Adoration of the Shepherds. How I wish that I could go to Rome and celebrate this summer!

Anyhow, because of these celebrations, there undoubtedly has been Caravaggiomania over the past couple of months and years. Here’s the question that I would pose to Sohm: How many publications and writings have occurred recently because of the preparations for this celebration? Is it possible that we will see a decline in Caravaggiomania next year, once all of the celebrations have ended?


MOMA Breaking from the White Cube

I just read this interesting blog post by a curatorial assistant at the MOMA. It looks like the major museum is slowly breaking away from the “white cube” ideology by painting some of the walls. Now, granted, light grey isn’t an extreme departure from the white cube space, but hey, it’s a start. (You can see a photograph of the color change within the MOMA blog post.)

Any opinions on the color choice? Do you think that there are new associations brought about by the changes to wall color? For me, the light gray seems to give the modern paintings a feeling of history – gray evokes the passage of time, emphasizing that these works are not brand-spanking new.
Do you think that gray walls seem to historicize these works more than the neutral white color? Maybe historicizing these modern works is a good thing – after all, in the 21st century, modern art is a thing of the past.

Dolley Madison and the Lansdowne Portrait

When I was in elementary school, I had to give a report on Dolley Madison. I was fascinated with Dolley’s life, and poured over a children’s version of her biography. I remember being particularly interested in how the first lady had to flee from the White House during the War of 1812.

One thing that I didn’t learn from my project (or at least, I don’t remember learning), was that before Dolley Madison’s flight from the White House, she ensured that a portrait of George Washington would be kept safe from the British soldiers. This portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1796, shown right), is often called the “Lansdowne portrait,” since at one point it was given as a gift of appreciation to William Petty, the Marquess of Lansdowne (Great Britain). The portrait depicts a significant point in American history, showing Washington renouncing a third term as president.

Dolley Madison called this portrait “iconic” and delayed her flight from the White House until she was able to arrange for the painting’s safekeeping. She wrote to her sister, “I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured.” This month’s edition of Smithsonian magazine has a very interesting article that gives more details about Dolley Madison’s flight and the portrait.

Ever since my elementary school report, I’ve always admired Dolley Madison. But now knowing the fundamental role she played in preserving an important work of art, I like her even more.


Elizabeth I and a Snake?

I’ve always liked royal portraits. It’s always fun to see how a monarch decides to visually assert his/her power, prestige, wisdom, wealth, etc. In portraiture, these attributes and characteristics of the sitter are emphasized through various signifiers (e.g. lavish, expensive clothing signifies that the wearer of the clothes is rich). What what if the signifier (or symbol) isn’t clear or easily understood?

That seems to be the case with this portrait by Elizabeth I (anonymous artist, 16th century, shown left). The final product of this painting showed Elizabeth I holding a bunch of roses in her hand. I haven’t seen what the painting looked like with roses (this Telegraph article described the roses as a “decorative” element), but it seems to me that roses could have also been been an easily identifiable symbol for Elizabeth I, since roses were a symbol of her family, the house of Tudor.1
But whether these roses were symbolic or decorative, they were obviously added at the last minute. Deterioration of this painting has revealed that the monarch originally was holding a snake in her hand. Based on the remaining visual evidence, an artist has recreated how the snake probably appeared in the original portrait (see below). It is thought that the snake was repainted with roses because of the “ambiguity” of the serpent symbol (again, see Telegraph article).

Well, “ambiguity” is right. The well-known symbolic associations with snakes are the Fall, sin, death, and Satan. And I’m pretty sure Elizabeth I wasn’t going for those associations. Once in a while you hear about snakes being associated with wisdom, so maybe that explains why the snake was originally included? Can you think of any other symbolic reasons why Elizabeth I would be depicted with a snake?

On another note, deterioration of this painting has also caused a strange ghostly appearance on Elizabeth I’s forehead. This portrait was painted over another unfinished portrait, and the eyes and nose of the previous woman face have become visible. It appears that the painter of Elizabeth I decided to reuse the unfinished panel, a common practice at the time.

Poor Elizabeth. As was suggested on The Corinthian Column, Elizabeth I doesn’t appear to have been the most attractive of monarchs. And having an extra nose and pair of eyes in your forehead is not going to improve your looks.2

1 You can see other portraits of Elizabeth I with Tudor roses, such as “The Pelican Portrait by Nicolas Hilliard (c. 1575-1580).

2 This Elizabeth I portrait is part of the National Portrait Gallery (London) collection. It has not been on display for almost a century, but will soon be exhibited as part of the show “Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I.” The show runs from March 13 to September 26.


Email Subscription



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.