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“Our Daily Bread” and Brazil

Anna Bella Geiger, “Our Daily Bread (O Pão Nosso de Cada Dia),” 1978. Six postcards and screenprint on paper bag mounted on card. Tate Modern

I recently returned from helping to co-lead a study abroad program in London. Our group visited the Tate Modern and I became familiar with Anna Bella Geiger’s work, Our Daily Bread (O Pão Nosso de Cada Dia). The postcards on display in the museum document a performance in which Geiger ate bread to highlight the poverty in Brazil, as well as South America. The holes in the bread depict the outline of Brazil and South America, in addition to the outlines on the empty bread basket.

I’m struck by the title, which references the Lord’s Prayer from the Bible (“Give us this day our daily bread”). It evokes the strong Catholic presence in Brazil, which has roots in the colonial period and the evangelization efforts of missionaries. Geiger has explained how she was influenced by the Jesuit’s “systems” in teaching Native people about Catholicism, and I think that the visual example paired with Christian text ties into the system that she is referencing.

As discussed in this video, Geiger’s work often uses the imagery of cartography with untraditional artistic mediums to suggest a disconnect between belonging and not belonging to something. I think there is a disconnect suggested between how Christianity and its “daily bread” prayer are often seen as a part of Brazilian identity, but poverty and hunger is also very much a part of Brazilian identity too.

Ironically, bread-made-from-wheat was not always associated with Brazil. Ana Carolina de Carvalho Viotti has written about how manioc was nicknamed “bread of Brazil” in the colonial period. And the maps of the colonial period include imagery of brazilwood or sugarcane as the key exports that impacted the country’s identity. It was much later when wheat production began in Brazil, not until in 1919. Production has increased over the past hundred years and right now Brazil is on target to have a record wheat crop this year. It seems like the meanings of Our Daily Bread is changing in some ways, with this rise of wheat and its potential economic impact, although poverty in the country is still a major concern. Ironically, the record wheat crop in Brazil has been pitched as a way to end the wheat shortages in the world as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, so perhaps Geiger’s image of the country of Brazil now expresses solution to help combat hunger elsewhere in the world.


Sutton Hoo Burial Ship Anniversary

One of the best blog posts that I read this past summer was on the British Museum blog site. It was written by curator Sue Brunning on the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The post was not only informative, but it was also engaging and written in a way that channeled excitement in me. I was reminded of the reason why I started blogging in the first place.

Brunning’s post was written to commemorate the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which took place eighty years ago in 1939. This discovery was monumental and was unprecedented in many ways, since it is one of the most intact burials that has been found in Europe. This ship – which was almost 90 feet long (27 meters), served as the burial place for some extremely important individual (possibly the King of Anglia) in the 7th century. There is some old film footage of the excavation that shows helps to showcase the scale of this find. Probably the closest find in terms of historical weight and scope, I think, was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt seventeen years earlier, in 1922.

The Sutton Hoo is sometimes called “Britain’s Tutankhamun,” and an even more recent discovery of a different tomb of a 6th century Anglo Saxon prince has been hailed in the media as “UK’s answer to Tutankhamun.” However, I think that it will take a lot of work to have these British examples overshadow King Tut. It was a King Tut exhibition in the 1970s which created the sensation of the “blockbuster exhibition” in museum culture, and I think this event further helped to solidify the boy king’s status in modern culture today.

In terms of scholarship and archaeological trends, King Tut’s tomb might have gotten more attention because the Egyptian mummy was still intact in its sarcophagus, whereas the remains in the Sutton Hoo ship had decomposed. Without tangible, display-able human remains, there may have been less of a motivation to create an impressive display for the Sutton Hoo items (although in more recent years, a new display of the treasures has been well received). That being said, I think it’s interesting how both burials have some objects that have visual similarities: the Sutton Hoo helmet gives off a ghostly humanoid presence which is akin to King Tut’s sarcophagi and famous funerary mask.

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Another reason why I think that Sutton Hoo might not get as much attention is that many of the objects found in the burial are either small in scale, such as a purse clasp (shown below), shoulder clasp, and belt. These objects include a lot of minute detail and interlace lines that needs to be seen closely to be observed. I don’t think that these formal elements diminish the historical or aesthetic value of these objects, but I think that the smaller scale might cause the objects to require a more intimate, up-close connection with the viewer. Although there were small-scale objects also found in King Tut’s tomb, larger objects are also found therein and would have been more visually able to reach the masses in a blockbuster exhibition. These large scale objects continue to draw visitors to see King Tut – currently the website for the ongoing exhibition King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh 2019-2021  displays a large gilt chariot as one of the highlights of the show.

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Nonetheless, despite that the Sutton Hoo burial is not as much of a household name as “King Tut,” the findings at this excavation are extremely impressive and significant! I’m glad that the British Museum has given these objects a display (and a £4 million revamp at the Sutton Hoo site) that emphasizes their significance. Will these objects ever get to travel around the world in the same way that King Tut’s mummy and tomb objects have? Some Sutton Hoo objects did travel around Suffolk and north Essex while the National Trust display at Sutton Hoo was under renovation, but I’m not aware of any other time that any objects from this excavation have traveled. Does anyone know otherwise?

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Vermeer’s Cupid Revealed!

Vermeer, "Girl at the Window," (with recent restoration revealing image of Cupid), c. 1658

Vermeer, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,” (with recent restoration revealing image of Cupid), c. 1658. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Like many other art historians, I have been fascinated by the recent article in The Art Newspaper which announced that a hidden figure of Cupid has, though restoration work, become visible in Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an OpenWindow.  This image of Cupid has been known for about forty years due to x-ray scans, but it was thought to have been overpainted by Vermeer himself. However, new studies have revealed that the Cupid was painted out of the scene several decades after Vermeer had died.

This figure of Cupid is actually familiar to those familiar with Vermeer’s art: it also appears in another painting by Vermeer, A Lady Standing at a Virginal (1670, shown below). In fact, Vermeer placed Cupid in almost the same compositional place as Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.  Vermeer would often use similar props or compositional devices in his paintings, so the discovery of this new Cupid is consistent with what we have know about Vermeer’s work. There is even a “Cupid” item that is listed in Vermeer’s inventory, so he may have owned this painting himself.

Vermeer, "Lady Standing at a Virginal," 1670. National Gallery of Art, London

Vermeer, “Lady Standing at a Virginal,” 1670. National Gallery of Art, London

I have a strong hunch that the Cupid figure was taken out of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window in order to make it more salable. As an artist, Vermeer fell into obscurity after his death. Art dealers in the 18th and 19th centuries reattributed to his paintings to better known artists from the 17th century, likely due to lack of information, but it also undoubtedly in an effort to make more money.1 For example, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was thought to be a painting by Rembrandt when it was acquired by the Elector of Saxony in 1742.It seems likely to me that the Cupid was painted out sometime before the Elector of Saxony purchased the painting, since Rembrandt often has muted, dark backgrounds that don’t include framed paintings of Cupids. It makes sense to me that a dealer might encourage the Cupid to be painted out, in order for the attribution to seem more plausible.

Perhaps this Cupid figure – despite being covered up with paint – has helped imbue this painting with a bit of luck over the centuries: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window  was hidden for safekeeping during World War II and escaped destruction during the massive bombing of Dresden in 1945. Later that year the painting was seized by the Red Army and taken to Russia as booty. After the war, the Soviet Minister of Culture wanted to East Germany to keep this painting in Russia as a token of gratitude for Russian assistance, but the proposal was dropped and the painting returned to Dresden in 1955. I remember specifically going to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden in August 2017 to see this painting, but I was disappointed to learn that it had been taken off of view for conservation purposes – my guess is that they already were working to clean this painting and reveal this Cupid figure back then.

Which Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window  do you prefer? The newly-restored version (shown at the top of the pose) or the overpainted version (shown below)? I have to admit, it will take a while for me to get used to the fact that this girl is no longer reading her letter “by herself” in visual isolation – there is another commanding figure in the room! Hopefully I’ll get more adjusted to the appearance over the next year; it is expected to take that long for all of the overpaint paint to be removed from the Cupid figure.

Vermeer, "Girl Reading a Letter at a Window," c. 1658

Vermeer, “Girl Reading a Letter at a Window,” c. 1658. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

1 The painting was also described as being “in the manner of Rembrandt” in 1747 and then in 1801 was described as the work of Rembrandt’s pupil Govaert Flinck. Between 1826-1860, the painting was attributed to the domestic painter Pieter de Hooch, with the correct attribution to Vermeer not appearing until 1862. For more information, see Arthur K. Wheelock, ed., Johannes Vermeer (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 1995), 56-57. Available online here:

2 For more information on art dealers and their effect on Vermeer’s posthumous reputation, see Emma Barker’s “The Making of a Canonical Artist: Vermeer” in The Changing Status of the Artist (Open University Press, 1999), 201-4. Limited preview available here:


Art Restitution and Historical Injustices

Elgin_Marbles_British_Museum Wikipedia

This week my students and I have been talking about whether the Parthenon Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon which are currently in the British Museum, also called the Elgin Marbles) should be returned to Athens. The Greeks perceive the removal of these sculptures in the early 19th century as an ethical injustice to their people, partially since they were removed by the British ambassador Lord Elgin during a period of Ottoman occupation in Greece. The Greeks have already prepared a space to house these sculptures, in the relatively new National Archaeological Museum building in Athens. In fact, activists are noting that next month marks the “black anniversary” of when the Parthenon sculptures arrived in the British Museum 200 years ago (on June 7, 1816). A recent news article explained that the Greeks are noting this historical marker by putting extra pressure on the British to return the sculptures.

I personally can see validity in reasons for why the sculptures should remain in London, as well as reasons for why they should be returned to Athens. These sculptures are part of both British and Greek history, not to mention the constructed Western canon that still exists today.1 My goal in exploring this debate with students is to help them understand how this controversy about ancient art helps to reveal historical and current values regarding art and culture.

As my students and I have been talking about the mounting pressure to return these sculptures to Greece, I have been thinking about how the act of restitution and repatriation is becoming a common practice. In fact, there has been more discussion of restitution and repatriation in the past few decades, especially for the Parthenon Marbles, than there have been since the 19th or early 20th centuries.

I think that there are several reasons for why art restitution is so popular and upheld today, but I personally think that there is one historical reason which has served as an major impetus in the past several decades. I asked my students what they thought might be this impetus for restitution, and I also asked why they think that today we are culturally uncomfortable with the idea of imperialism or a country/group/individual asserting power over another. Our discussion went something like this:

Student 1: We care about restitution and righting wrongs today because of the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Me: I think that helped to open up the door for it, especially in recognizing minorities and women.  But I think we can go even further back in time. What else happened in the 20th century which contributed to our current interest about restitution?

Student 2: Well, as students, our generation cares about social justice today. We are trying to be sensitive to the needs of minorities and underrepresented groups of all kinds, including those of different sexual orientations and religious minorities.

Me: Social justice is valued today. But why is that the case? Why do we care about social justice now instead of a century ago?

Student 3: Maybe the Civil Rights Act led us to care about social justice?

Me: I think the Civil Rights Act is part of it. But what else happened in the 20th century to draw awareness to social injustice? What previous events were perceived as unjust?

Student 4: World War Two and the Holocaust! In another one of my classes we have been talking about the long-lasting and devastating effects of this war.

Me: Yes! This is what I think too! I think that today we are uncomfortable with imperialism and nationalistic conquest because of what Hitler and the Nazi party did, especially because the Nazis are responsible for the horrific mass killings of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. World War Two haunts the collective memory of our culture today, and for good reason. I think that World War Two will continue to shape and inform the way that we approach social justice, art and restitution for the rest of our lifetimes. All of these events that you have mentioned, like the Civil Rights Act and the feminist movement, have happened in the aftermath of World War II. And consider, for example, the stories that have appeared in the news of paintings and objects that have been returned to Jewish families after they initially were stolen by the Nazis during the World War Two era. Perhaps some of you have seen the Woman in Gold movie that was released last year, which followed the restitution of a Klimt painting to a Jewish family. This is just one example of restitution art; there are many more examples of restitution have occurred and many lost objects which still need to be found and returned.

Being influenced by such cultural memory of the Holocaust and Nazi party isn’t a bad thing at all – but it is good to realize that what we are experiencing is a cultural mindset (even a perhaps a trend, if you will). If the Parthenon Marbles do go back to Athens, we should realize that we will be making a statement about our own current values and cultural memory through the sheer act of restitution. And I hope, for that reason, that if the Parthenon Marbles ever do go back to Athens, that copies will be placed in the British Museum so that we can continue to have a dialog about changing cultural values and why these statues have traveled across Europe over the centuries.

1 For an excellent article on how the Parthenon marbles have influenced British culture and the Western canon, see Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art (Yale University Press, 1999, 43-83). Limited preview available online HERE.


Raphael’s Studio, Graffiti, and “Grotesques” at the Vatican

Note: The following post was written in honor of my friend, the late Hasan Niyazi, who was the blogger at Three Pipe Problem. Several times Hasan and I would write posts that were in response to or inspired by something that the other had written. When writing this post, I was reminded that Hasan had already paved the way for my own research: he posted brief information about Raphael and the Vatican Loggia in January 2010 and in April 2012.

Hasan had a particular love for Raphael, and the art history blogging community thought it appropriate to honor Hasan on April 6th, which is Raphael’s birthday. You can find a compilation of links and tributes for this event HERE. Hasan and I enjoyed corresponding about myths and historical misconceptions surrounding art history, and I think he would have appreciated my detective work to determine whether or not Raphael actually left a graffito in the Domus Aurea (especially since Hasan mentioned in a post from January 2010 that he had difficulty finding an image of any inscriptions left by Renaissance artists on the walls – an issue I have tried to remedy here).

On another note, too, I think there are some interesting parallels between Hasan’s written text and the graffiti left by Renaissance artists. Just as these artists left a mark of their physical presence after their discovery and interaction with ancient Roman paintings, Hasan left his own text (a virtual signature) on a wall (a digital screen) after making artistic discoveries of his own. 


Over the past several weeks, I have been listening to online lectures on ancient Roman architecture by Prof. Diana E. E. Kleiner of Yale University. Many of these lectures are found through Yale’s Open University website for the course. It has been fun and rewarding to listen to another professor teach about a subject with which I am familiar, although I know that there is always more to learn about the Romans.

I was particularly intrigued by one lecture that discusses some of the paintings that are located in Nero’s Domus Aurea (“Golden House”). This immense pleasure palace was never completed during the Roman period; it was left incomplete after the unpopular Nero was forced to commit suicide. Some sections of the palace and grounds were torn down afterward, while others were sealed and used as a foundation for the Forum of Trajan. These private apartments and other rooms were discovered during the Renaissance around 1480, when a man accidentally fell into one of the underground rooms.1

Plan of the Domus Aurea. Areas outlined in black date from the time of Nero. Walls on the south end (filled with diagonal slash lines) date from the time of Trajan. The rooms that are filled with dark gray were visited during the Renaissance period.

Due to their subterranean location, these rooms were called “grottoes,” and the decoration on the walls subsequently was called “grotesque.” (Later, the word “grotesque” took on other connotations.) Renaissance artists were stunned at this discovery, for the walls in the rooms were still painted, gilded, and stuccoed. In general, the Roman painting in the Domus Aurea can be interpreted as a transition between the Third Style into the Fourth Style of ancient Roman wall painting. The small fantasy-like vignettes and delicate, whimsical designs placed upon monochromatic backgrounds recall the Third Style, while other walls incorporate more elements from previous styles such as illusionistic vistas (an indication of the eclectic and inclusive Fourth Style, which combines elements from the First, Second, and/or Third Styles). One example of Third Style painting would be the cryptoporticus ceiling (image shown below). Perhaps the best extant example of Fourth Style painting from the Domus Aurea can be found in Room 78, although it should be noted that Renaissance artists did not visit this particular room.

Painter possibly Fabullus, Cryptoporticus (Room 70) wall painting, Domus Aurea, 1st century CE

Many Renaissance artists visited these grottoes, and many of them, paradoxically, left graffiti on the walls and defaced the paintings they so much admired. Some of the graffiti left in the Domus Aurea belong to students of Raphael, such as Pierino Fiorentino and Giovanni da Udine.2 Northern artists also visited the grottoes and left their names, including the artist and writer Karl Van Mander.3 Perhaps these artists felt like they could bridge some type of historical divide between them and the revered ancients through such markers.

Image of the graffito of Giovanni da Udine (signed as "ZVAN DA VDENE FIRLANO") from the cryptoporticus (room 70) in the Domus Aurea

Although I can find no evidence that Raphael left his own graffito on the walls, Vasari does record that Raphael visited the site with his assistant, Giovanni da Udine.4 The wall paintings definitely left an impression on the two painters. The influence of the walls of the Domus Aurea on the style of Raphael and his pupils are especially clear when viewing Raphael’s paintings in the Vatican Loggia of Pope Leo X as well as the Loggetta and Stufetta of Cardinal Bibbiena (an image of the Loggetta is shown below). Out of these three spaces, the Loggetta and the Stufetta were decorated in the antique style first. The Loggia, however, is probably the best well known and most influential, since it served as the prototype for modern grotesques.5

Studio of Raphael (particularly Giovanni da Udine, who was assigned the task by Raphael), The Loggetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, 1516-1516. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art

Studio of Raphael, detail of the ceiling of the Loggetta Bibbiena, 1516-1517. Vatican.

Many of these paintings have decorative elements which recall the Third Style of Roman wall painting, such as the monochromatic white background and lyrical vegetal designs. I particularly appreciate the whimsical designs that include animals, and I think that the fantastic and whimsically illogical aspect of the Third Style is shown in many details with animals.6 For example, one detail of a pilaster in the Loggia depicts a fat rat and round squirrels resting on delicate acanthus leaves, while swans perch on spindly tendrils (see image below).

Studio of Raphael, detail of Pilaster IX, with acanthus foliage populated by animals, and flanking half-pilasters, 16th century

Scholars have debated the contribution which Raphael had in the decoration of these areas. Most recently, Nicole Dacos asserted that Raphael supplied the initial designs and sketches for the Loggia, although none of these sketches survive.7 After this point, studio assistants including Francesco Penni, Giulio Romano, Giovanni da Udine, and Perin del Vaga, and Polidoro da Caravaggio completed the decoration. Raphael is also thought to have provided the designs for the Loggetta and the Stuffetta, although he gave Giovanni da Udine “carte blanche” to paint with assistants in the Loggetta.8

I think it’s really neat to see a way in which Roman wall painting influenced Renaissance painters. During the Renaissance, artists often had to look toward ancient sculpture for artistic inspiration, since sculpture survived much more easily than painting.9 One can only imagine the excitement of Renaissance painters to discover ways in which the ancient Romans worked with color, utilized their imaginations to create fantastic imagery (which would have fit well with the Renaissance concept of ingegno, I think), and also explored modeling and illusionism.

It is unfortunate, then, that these paintings were so well loved that they were “gradually effaced by the grafitti and torch smoke of the very people who came to admire them. So great, indeed, was the prestige of the Domus Aurea paintings that their rapid deterioration gave rise to the story, which persisted into the late eighteenth century, that Michelangelo, Raphael, and other masters had intentionally destroyed the frescoes after copying them, so that no one would be able to identify the source of their great art.”10 Even in recent times, the Domus Aurea still has been under threat from a conservational standpoint: the building has been closed since 2006 due to risk of structural failure and collapse. Luckily, though, it was just announced that the structurally-sound portions of the building will reopen between July and September of this year. How exciting!

Do you know of any other ways in which Renaissance painters were directly influenced by specific Roman paintings? Please share!

1 Hetty Joyce, “Grasping at Shadows: Ancient Paintings in Renaissance and Baroque Rome” in The Art Bulletin 74, no. 2 (1992): 219.

2 Nicole Dacos, La Découverte de la Domus Aurea et La Formation des Grotesques a la Renaissance (London: The Warburg Institute, 1969), 148.

3 Ibid., 144, 152.

4 La Découverte de la Domus Aurea et La Formation des Grotesques a la Renaissance by Nicole Dacos includes an extensive appendix of the graffiti were left in the Domus Aurea during the Renaissance and afterward. An additional list in this appendix includes the list of graffiti that were mentioned in an earlier publication by Weege in 1913, which were no longer visible when Dacos published her book in 1969. Raphael’s signature is not specified in either of these lists. For information on Vasari’s account regarding Raphael’s visit to the site, see chapter on Giovanni da Udine.

5 Nicole Dacos, The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure (New York: Abbeville Press, 2008), 7. The Loggia is found in the old Papal Palace; it is located on the second story of three superimposed stories. Raphael assumed the project of constructing the third floor and decorating the second floor of the galleries when Bramante, the original architect, died. In the sixteenth century the second story was known as “la loggia,” and the name that specifically refers to the second story has remained.

6 The Roman architect and historian Vitruvius decried the illogical aspects of Third Style painting, writing, “We now have fresco paintings of monstrosities, rather than truthful representations of definite things. For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes, instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines. . . . How is it possible that a reed should really support a roof, or a candelabrum a pediment with its ornaments, or that such a slender, flexible thing as a stalk should support a figure perched upon it. . . .?” See Vitruvius, De archaetectura VII, 5. Text available online here:

7 Ibid., p. 10.

8 Ibid., 34.

9 We can tell that ancient sculpture also served as a source of inspiration for the Loggia paintings, in fact. Nicole Dacos points out that a sculpture of Diana (Artemis) of Ephesus appears in one of the paintings of the Loggia, which may have been derived from a statue known at the time of Pope Leo X. Ibid.., 40-45.

10 Joyce, 220.


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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.