Underneath the Colosseum

I’ve always really liked the Colosseum (70-80 CE, shown on left) and its history: Vespasian! Nero the Loser! Gladiators! The bastardization of Greek architectural orders! But even apart from art history, I personally have a soft spot for the Colosseum because of my own experience in Rome: several years ago I got to see Paul McCartney play a (free) concert outside the arena. It was awesome to see the Colosseum “rocking out” in florescent lights, serving as a backdrop to Beatles music.

Since I am featuring a giveaway for two subscriptions to Smithsonian magazine this week, I thought it would be fitting to write a post inspired by a Smithsonian article. I immediately turned to an article about the Colosseum in a Smithsonian issue from earlier this year (“Secrets of the Colosseum” by Tom Mueller, January 2011). This article contains some interesting, lesser-known facts about the Colosseum. For example, did you know that during the Renaissance Pope Sixtus V tried to turn the Colosseum ruins into a wool factory? Luckily, that project was abandoned after Sixtus V died in 1590. Phew!

The bulk of the Smithsonian article focuses on the hypogeum, the area beneath the arena floor of the Colosseum (see below). This area provided a network of service rooms and tunnels for performers, athletes, animals, and equipment. Currently, there has been a lot of hype created about the hypogeum (ha ha!). This area and the third floor of the Colosseum were just recently opened to the public last fall, following a $1.4 million restoration project. From what I understand, the hypogeum will probably be open through October of this year.

I’ve always thought that the hypogeum was particularly interesting, especially since I once heard that the hypogeum has its own unique ecological niche. For centuries, plants have rooted among these underground ruins. These plants are located quite far beneath the regular ground level and probably experience a unique range of external temperatures, sunlight, and rainfall. With such unusual conditions, one can suspect why botanists have been interested in these plants for such a long time. “As early as 1643, naturalists began compiling detailed catalogs of the flora, listing 337 different species.”1 Multiple surveys have taken place since then; in 2003 it was recorded that the combined lists contain 683 species.

I especially liked how the Smithsonian article discussed how the hypogeum allowed Colosseum spectacles to maintain an element of surprise and suspense. For example, animals that were held in the hypogeum would enter the arena on a wooden ramp at the top of a lift. “Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air.”2 The hunter in the arena would never be sure of where the next animal(s) would appear.

I can’t help but think of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games books after reading more about the surprise tactics used in Colosseum events. Although I had made connections between the Hunger Games and the Colosseum before (in both instances contestants are supposed to fight to the death), I hadn’t considered more parallels. The arenas for the Hunger Games were designed to continually introduce new surprises to the contestants. I even recall at least one instance (I think it was in Catching Fire) in which Katniss is lifted into the arena in a glass cylinder, suggesting that she was held in an underground space similar to the hypogeum.

Anyhow, I wonder how much Collins researched the Colosseum while writing her books. Has anyone else read The Hunger Games series? Can you think of more parallels between the Colosseum and the Hunger Games? What are your favorite things about the Colosseum?

1 Tom Mueller, “Secrets of the Colosseum,” in Smithsonian 41, no. 9 (January 2011): 29. Article found online at: (accessed 4 August 2011).
2 Ibid., 34.
Image credits: Colosseum image by Diliff via Wikipedia. Hypogeum image by Briséis via Wikipedia.

"Smithsonian" magazine giveaway!

Last week I hit the “300th post” mark for Alberti’s Window. This is a big milestone for me! I’m so glad that I started this blog in 2007. Not only has this blog been a great way for me to organize my research and ideas, but I have gotten to collaborate and work with a lot of fantastic individuals in the process. Thanks to all of those who have worked with me along the way!

To celebrate, I wanted to have a little giveaway on this blog. I’m giving away two free 12-month subscriptions (11 issues) to Smithsonian magazine! I love Smithsonian; often articles from recent issues provide fodder for my post entries. Three of my favorite Smithsonian-inspired posts are: “What Old/Castaway Object Embodies You?”, “Can You Spot Jackson Pollock’s Name?”, and “Sympathy for Renoir.”

I will be randomly selecting the two subscription winners (using this site) on August 9, 2011. So you have just one week to enter this giveaway! You can enter your name up to four times. Here are the ways you can enter:
1) Leave a comment on this post!
2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it). After tweeting, leave a comment on this post to let me know too, please.
3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.
4) Become a follower of my blog (via Blogger – see sidebar on the left to join). Once you have become a follower (or, if you already are listed follower), leave a comment on this post.
Please make sure that you write a separate comment for each of your entries. I will write a post, announcing the two winners on August 9th. The winners will then have three days to contact me via email ( in order to claim the prize and give a mailing address. If a winner does not come forth by that time, I will then randomly select a new winner.
Unfortunately, I have to restrict this giveaway to readers who have mailing addresses in the United States. For all of my international readers – I promise to include you on another giveaway in the future!

Announcing Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to “e” who won “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” DVD set!  Comment #11 (by “e”) was randomly selected as the winning post:

“AWESOME! Congrats on having so many followers! You know I love your blog. It has taught me so much and you’ve recommended so many great pieces of art that I’ve had the opportunity to go see. Thanks, M!”

I know that this set will fall into good hands; e has been a faithful reader of my blog for years.  Congratulations!

It was really fun to hold this giveaway.  I hope that I can offer other giveaway sometime in the future.  And for those of you who didn’t win, never fear!  Several episodes from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” series are available on YouTube.  I’d recommend that you start with this first segment from the episode about Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”

Enjoy!  And congratulations again to “e.”

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Lorenzo de’ Medici: Destroyer of Art?

Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) is well known for being a great patron of the arts during Renaissance in Florence.  However, it is also supposed that Lorenzo de’ Medici may have destroyed (in part) a series of paintings in his collection: Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (c. 1435-56).

Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three different panels, which unfortunately are now separated into museums within three different countries.  During the Renaissance, though, these paintings hung in the bedroom of Lorenzo de’ Medici.  Here are the panels (as they appear today), shown in sequential order of their intended left-to-right placement:

 Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (Niccolò da Tolentino Leads the Florentine Troops), c. 1438-40; National Gallery of Art, London

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (Bernardino della Ciarda Thrown Off His Horse), c. 1456; Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano (Micheletto da Cotignola Engages in Battle), c. 1435-40; Louvre Museum
Do you notice anything curious about these paintings?  There aren’t any depictions of the sky, and the large flag in the National Gallery panel has been cropped. And, surprisingly, the panels were probably cut under Lorenzo de’ Medici’s direction.  After Lorenzo de’ Medici gained possession these panels (he stole at least one of them from its rightful owner), Lorenzo probably cropped the paintings so they would better fit on his bedroom wall.  Originally, Uccello’s panels were arched at the top (they were originally commissioned to be placed on walls with vaulted ceilings) and likely included bits of sky.  Restorer Leo Stevenson has recreated one of the Uccello panels to how it may have appeared originally (see right).
Do you like the panel better with a patch of sky?  I do.  But as J and I watched “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” episode on the Uccello panels, he commented that he actually liked the cropped paintings better.  J thinks that the confined, restricted scenes help to emphasize the chaotic feeling of battle.  I think this is an interesting idea.  Would Lorenzo de’ Medici have preferred the cropped painting for this same reason?  Maybe.  But it seems like Lorenzo’s motives were more practical than aesthetic.  I’m disappointed, though, to know that such a well-known patron of the arts took the liberty to hack off a portion of Uccello’s panels.
The Battle of San Romano is one of the featured works of art in “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series. If you’re interested, you can win a copy of this episode by entering my giveaway to receive a free DVD set of “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series.  Hurry and enter!  The giveaway ends tomorrow, 30 June 2010.

Pinholes in Vermeer’s Canvases

Like many other art historians, I have learned that Vermeer probably used the camera obscura to help in the creation of his art.  However, I recently learned that Vermeer also employed a simpler and more rudimentary method to help him create perfect perspectival lines.  To start, Vermeer would often use a pin to create a small hole at the vanishing point within each painting.  Of the 35 known works that exist by Vermeer, approximately half of his paintings still have pinholes that can be seen with the naked eye.1  In The Art of Painting (c. 1666, shown right), the pinhole (and therefore vanishing point) is underneath the female model’s right hand, close to the knob for the map holder.

Vermeer probably attached a piece of string to the pin that he stuck in his canvases.  By using string, Vermeer could create perfect orthogonal lines which would converge at his pinhole.  If one recreates the string-and-pin method on The Art of Painting, the perspectival lines of the tiles and table perfectly align with the pinhole as the vanishing point.  Some scholars like Robert D. Huerta have even gone so far as to say that Vermeer might have put chalk on his string (see first full paragraph of link), and then snapped the taut string to leave a chalk line on the canvas.  This way, Vermeer would have had an easy (and erasable) marker while he worked to create an illusion of space.

It seems like Vermeer was a pretty clever guy.  After all his work on perspective though, one thing about this painting strikes me as funny: have you ever noticed that the artist in the foreground is disproportionately large in comparison with the female model?  If the artist stood up, he would be twice the height of his model.  Do you think that Vermeer was so focused on creating the perspectival illusion that he didn’t notice the figural disproportion?  The National Gallery of Art’s website defends Vermeer by saying that the disproportion is symbolic, emphasizing the artist’s central role in the allegory.  Perhaps that is the case, but the gigantic artist always catches me off guard.

1 “The Art of Painting” episode in the BBC series The Private Life of a Masterpiece (2008) reports that 17 paintings have pinholes that are visible to the naked eye.  This seems to be the most up-to-date information on the topic.  Essential Vermeer mentions that 13 paintings contain pinhole images (including ones visible through x-ray), but appears to be citing an earlier source from 1995.  See Jørgen Wadum, “Vermeer in Perspective,” in Johannes Vermeer edited by Arthur Wheelock, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 67-79.

The Art of Painting is one of the featured works of art in “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series. One of the fun things that I learned from his episode was that the red undergarments of the artist (look at his legs) were a mark of fashion.  Red was a preferred color for clothing at the time, since red looked warm and cozy.  If you’re interested, you can win a copy of this episode by entering my giveaway to receive a free DVD set of “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series.


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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.