Tag Archives: Art

Bowditch’s Birthday

I hope that mariners all over the world are celebrating the birthday of one of Salem’s most eminent native sons, the nautical scientist Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born on this day in 1773. The author of the pioneering, and still authoritative, New American Practical Navigator, I like to think of Bowditch as one of the last self-taught, “practical” scientists: he was forced by family necessity to abandon his academic studies at a young age and taught himself classical and modern languages, algebra, calculus and astronomy while working as an apprentice at a ship chandlery in his teens. Here we have a perfect example of the determinative role of birthplace: Bowditch is clearly a product of worldly Salem in its golden age, when opportunities were many and limitations few, for men that applied themselves–and had connections and resources, of course. Even an apprentice ship’s chandler accountant, Bowditch had access to the 116-volume library of Irish scientist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812). Acquired by a Beverly privateer during the Revolutionary War and auctioned off in Salem in 1781, it is one of the foundational collections of the Salem Athenaeum. Armed with his self-education from books, Bowditch went to sea following the completion of his apprenticeship and in the course of seven voyages gained the empirical experience and data that enabled him to correct some 8000 errors in the then-authoritative navigational manual, John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator and eventually issue his own American Practical Navigator in 1802. Thereafter his life was one of choices (except, of course, for his unfortunate death from cancer in 1838) and he chose the more practical role of insurance-company financial statistician rather than the academic offers that came his way, first in Salem and after 1823 in Boston: the laudatory speeches given at his farewell dinner at Hamilton Hall are still ringing in the eaves!

Bowditch Birthplace Kimball Court

Bowditch Apprentice Carry On 1956

Bowditch Navigator

Bowditch Hastings Smithsonian

Bowditch Bust Smithsonian

Nathaniel Bowditch’s birthplace on Kimball Court in Salem; Bowditch as role-model apprentice in Jean Lee Latham’s influential Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1956); The Title Pages of the first edition of The New American Practical Navigator (1802); Artist Pattie Belle Hastings’ take on the Practical Navigator, from the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book”; Engraving of Bowditch by J. Gorss from a drawing by J.B. Longacre, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.  


Lion’s Paw

When I was assembling my portfolio of Renaissance “green” merchants, I came across a Lorenzo Lotto portrait that I had seen long ago and then forgotten: I remember being perplexed by it then and remain so now. It is Man with a Golden Paw, dated 1527, featuring a man leaning forward and slightly to the side with a (embellished, sincere) hand on his heart and a lion’s paw in his other hand. When I first saw the portrait in my early 20s I remember being struck by his appearance (is he wearing earmuffs?), now I’m more interested in the lion’s paw.

Lorenzo_Lotto Lion's Paw

Lorenzo Lotto, Man with a Golden Paw, 1527, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The meaning and placement of this particular paw has not been established with great certainty, but most art historians seem to think it offers a clue about the name or occupation of the sitter: a Leo-like name, a goldsmith? Lions in general, and pieces of lions in particular, are so often utilized in art forms throughout history that context is all-important. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the lion had myriad religious and secular associations: as the long-reigning King of Beasts, he represents strength, majesty, courage and fortitude, even Resurrection. Conversely, but still expressions of his power, the lion could represent pride or vengeful wrath. In religious iconography he is associated most strongly with St. Mark and St. Jerome, who removed a painful thorn from a lion’s paw and received a friend and servant for life in return: any possibilities for our painting in this particular story? In various poses, the lion represents a range of attributes in heraldic devices as well, always kingship, bravery, fierceness, and more subtle watchfulness (as it was a medieval belief that lions slept with their eyes open). Lotto’s paw-holding man holds my interest because at this point in time (again, 1527) the lion reference could mean anything: a rather mundane association to family name or profession, a testimony to skill, strength, or power, an expression of faith. But not long after this moment, his prized paw will be reduced to a mere decorative motif, shorn of its long-held symbolism and so commonly featured in the decorative arts from the eighteenth century onwards that it becomes almost invisible–certainly not the focal point of the piece.

Detached (literally and symbolically) lion’s paws, 17th- 21st centuries:

Lion's Paw Furniture Mount MET

Lion's Paw Raphael

Lion's Paw excavation

Lion's Paw bookend RH

Gilt Bronze Lion’s paw furniture mount, French, late 17th-early 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sketches of Raphael Cartoons by Sir James Thornhill, c. 1729-1731, Victoria and Albert Museum; Excavated Lion’s Paw from the Victorian conservatory at Tyntesfield, Archaeology National Trust SW; Lion’s Paw bookends, Restoration Hardware.


The Color of Money

It’s not a hard-fast Renaissance rule, but mutable green was often associated with those who worked or lived in the world of money, as opposed to those who were born into privilege or manual labor. Artists loved to experiment with their greens–verdigris, terre verte, malachite–and so you see emerald backdrops for a variety of subjects, but nearly every time a merchant or a moneylender was in the picture, he is in close proximity to green. Green was not yet of the earth, but still in the realm of humans, and attached to the more dynamic middle of society rather than the more steadfast upper or lower levels. That vibrant green, also attached to youth and fertility, adorned the merchant Arnolfini’s wife, and dominated the settings of his commercial successors, who appear to have dwelled in a world of green and gold, inside. Look at all these merchants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Jan Gossaert’s confidant man of business, who appears to have been given a green halo of sorts.

Jan-gossaert-merchant-001

Man Wearing Gold

Hans Holbein 1532

Bildnis-eines-jungen-Kaufmanns Hans Holbein

Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art; Adriaen Isenbrant, Man Weighing Gold, c. 1515-1520, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family, probably Hermann Wedigh, c. 1530, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Young Merchant, probably Hans von Muffel, c. 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

There is always a bright green cloth on which the money, or its instruments, rests. While the men above look like honest brokers, green was also used as the color of greed in the more satirical compositions of Northern Renaissance artists like Marinus Roymerswaele and Quentin Massys, which retain the setting but distort the faces or avert the gazes of bourgeois money-changers, scary tax collectors, and lawyers.

Quentin Massys Tax Collectors

Lawyers Office

Quentin Massys, The Tax Collectors, first quarter of the 16th century, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Marinus Roymerswaele, The Lawyer’s Office, 1545, New Orleans Museum of Art.

I’m not sure that merchants and bankers and bureaucrats were aware of such color associations, but there is ample evidence of clothing consciousness in the Renaissance. A perfect example of self-fashioning through clothing choice is the amazing “Book of Clothes” by aspirational accountant Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg, who commissioned 137 watercolors depicting outfits he wore for each stage and event of his life, from infancy to death. Discussed at length in Ulinka Rublack’s wonderful book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (2010), Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein seems strikingly modern to me–like a blog or a selfie–and is a great visual reminder of just how modernly materialistic this era really was. And while he was in his still-slim youth, Schwarz wore several striking green outfits.

Book of Clothes

More images of Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein, which is at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum , here.


Curtmantle

Though my primary field is Tudor-Stuart history, occasionally I teach a more general English history survey which spans from Roman era to the seventeenth century. My biggest challenge in this course, which I am teaching this semester, is to refrain from settling into mere storytelling about the characters and exploits of a succession of colorful kings and queens. The students in this course are generally not history majors, and their knowledge and interest in history tends to be quite History Channel-ish, meaning that they are more interested in personalities than structures. I try to balance it all out, and for the most part I think I’m successful, but periodically I must slow down and simply consider the character and reign of a monarch in rather narrative fashion. Such is the case with King Henry II, nicknamed Curtmantle for the shorter French/Angevin mantle he supposedly wore, who was born on this day in 1133. It doesn’t matter how much I dwell on King Henry–they want more, and I’m wondering why? Of course the broad strokes and details of his life are dramatic–the rise to power in the wake of Civil War, his conquest and contests with Queen Eleanor, his family fights, his multi-front wars, the murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the penitential consequences–I still think that it’s the popular characterization of Henry rather than the historical one that has captivated my students. Even though they’re far too young to remember Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), he is still their Henry.

Curtmantle O'Toole Becket

Curtmantle Lion in Winter

Peter O’ Toole in a publicity photograph for Becket (1964) and a still from The Lion in Winter (1968).

My students are so young they haven’t even seen or heard of O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II, but when I ask them what they know about him, they describe O’Toole’s portrayal:  now that’s a powerful performance! Once again, we see that history is produced by film (sigh). But I think you have to go further back:  not (of course) to the actual era of Henry II, but to that which produced the characterization that inspired O’Toole’s performance. Henry became Henry because of his hand in martyring Becket, of course, but also because of his women: his wife Eleanor and his mistress Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund”. Henry’s struggles with the Church in general and Becket in particular appealed to 18th and 19th historians charting secular “liberation”, while their more romantic counterparts in the arts focused on the women: the Pre-Raphaelites in particular seem to have been obsessed with Eleanor and particularly Rosamund, featuring them both individually and together in mythical contest (based on an old fable alleging the Queen tried to poison the mistress). This is all very dramatic stuff, almost equaling the narrative of that dynasty of the (long) moment, the Tudors. I predict a Plantagenet comeback.

King Henry II

Henry II Thornycroft framed

Curtmantle chapbook

Queen_Eleanor__Fair_Rosamund1-619x744

Fair Rosamund 1916

Henry II as characterized by Alfred Crowquill’s Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England (Read & Co, c 1860) and Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens (1932). A chapbook of folk ballads with Henry II and the Fair Rosamund on the title page, c. 1815-30, British Museum; Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan, 1905, De Morgan Centre, London;The Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse, 1916, National Museum Wales.


Pieces of March

I’ve never seen them in person, but the celebrated frescoes by Francesco del Cossa representing March, April and May in the Room of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara have still captivated me for years. They were painted by del Cossa in 1469-70 at the behest of Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena and Ferrara, who is featured prominently in typical Renaissance fashion. The complex astrological and classical schemes in the murals keep me guessing, but it’s the details that keep me looking. Let’s look at March as a case in point.

1march Allegory

Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva, c. 1469-70, at Palazzo Schifanoia and Web Gallery of Art.

The del Cossa murals have three sections: the gods above, the zodiac in the center, and the d’Este court below–but everyone looks accessible and interesting. In the case of March, triumphant deity Minerva, patroness of learning and crafts, is seated in her chariot surrounded by scholars deep in discussion and craftswomen hard at work (at least some of them–all while beautifully dressed and coiffed). These women–most particularly the Three Fates in the foreground– have received a lot of attention from Renaissance costumers and reenactors: even though they dwell in the realm of the Gods they seem quite grounded, by the details of their dress and activity–quite in contrast to those who occupy the realm below.

1march_0crop

1march_1crop

The central section of the Allegory of March is the most mysterious: here we see the somewhat familiar Athena hovering over the ram Aries, with two oddly-dressed characters on either side. They are deccans, mediating spirits who ruled for only periods of ten days: a black man dressed in rags and a rather effeminate arrow-and ring-bearing young man (???)–what’s happening here? These guys could represent lots of things–fortitude, beauty, caution–but why the adrogyny, why the rags? The ragged man was so captivating to novelist Ali Smith that he inspired her Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, How to be Both (2014), told partially from the perspective of Francesco dell Cosso.

Allegory of March Zodiac figures

March deccan

Allegory of March Smith Cover

Leather commemorative binding of Ali Smith’s How to be Both by Derek Hood, featuring pieces of the March mural and a famous letter from del Cossa to Borso d’Este asking for more money for the commission–when he was rebuffed, he left Ferrara for good: Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by my self: so if you, your Highness really don’t want to give me more than 10 bolognini [pennies] per square foot, I’d be losing 40 or 50 ducats…..I’ve got a name these days, and this payment leaves me on a par with the saddest apprentice in Ferrara…and I’ve studied, I study all the time, and I’ve used gold and good colours at my own expense…and done the whole thing in fresco, which is really advanced work……

I’ve got a name these days: a nice expression of Renaissance confidence in achievement, and attitude! Del Cossa places us firmly on the ground–and in his own time–in the lower register of the mural where we see Duke Borso reigning under a very impressive loggia as his subjects go about their March-appropriate activities: the courtiers hunt and the peasants prune. Obviously there’s some damage here, but in the upper left hand corner there’s a perfect vignette of daily life: while men prune grapevines atop an impressive brick foundation (Del Cossa’s father was a mason) we see dogs chasing March hares, who look like they’re definitely going to get away.

1march_5 crop

1march_7crop


From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.

800px-Joris_Hoefnagel_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569

Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

Hip (-Hop) Hamilton

It seems to me that from time to time one of our Founding Fathers emerges from the pack, to glow just a little brighter in a blaze of adulation. Certainly John Adams had his time a few years back, singled out by David McCullough’s book and the HBO series; more recently “Sexy Sam Adams” emerged as the hero of the History Channel’s (or as most historians refer to it, the Hitler Channel) Sons of Liberty miniseries, sponsored, of course, by Sam Adams beer. Now it’s all about Alexander Hamilton, the star of a namesake, sold-out musical on off-Broadway. Hamilton, written, directed and starring Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based on Hamilton’s rag-to-riches life, as charted by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, set to a score that sounds far more lively than that of 1776.

Hamilton the Musical

Hamilton the Musical 2

Hamilton Poster

I don’t find the spotlight on Hamilton, or the success of Hamilton, even remotely surprising. After all, I live in Alexander Hamilton world: the first thing I see every morning when I wake up is Hamilton Hall, the c. 1805 assembly hall named after the Federalist hero/martyr, and the sign boldly attesting to that fact. And even if you’re just familiar with the outline of his life you can understand that it would make for a good story: illegitimate Caribbean orphan sent to New York, student, lawyer, lover, soldier, author, first Secretary of the Treasury, victim of a duel. Fill in the details and you’ve got a blockbuster!

Alexander Hamilton 1957 Rand McNally Ad

Hamilton Batman Bill

Hamilton Birthday Card

Hamilton Vodka

Hamilton updated: 1957 Rand McNally ad; defaced $10 Batman bill; Alexander Hamilton birthday print by A5/Day; Alexander Hamilton small-batch Vodka.


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