Tag Archives: Renaissance

Theo and Leo

Last night, the “Strandbeests” were released here in Salem, the kinetic, evolving, mechanical-yet-ethereal “beach animals” of Theo Jansen, a Dutch engineering artist and Renaissance Man. There was a not-so-sneak preview of these PVC-pipe creations a few weeks ago up on Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, but yesterday the big beests were on view for the special opening of Strandbeest: the Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Peabody Essex Museum. The exhibit is interactive but also a bit static–it’s striking to see these “animals” move and with the exception of one of the smaller beests, that really can’t happen in the confines of a gallery. But Mr. Jansen’s own evolutionary process is revealed, and the photographs of the beests on the beach (by Russian-born photographer Lena Herzog, who happens to be the wife of my very favorite filmmaker, Werner Herzog) are absolutely haunting. In the midst of the exhibition, with these big skeletal structures all around me, I became absolutely fixated on reproductions of Jansen’s preparatory sketches–they reminded me of Leonardo’s notebook drawings almost instantly. I spent the summer looking through (reproductions of) these notebooks as I was teaching a course on Renaissance art and science so they were fresh in my mind, but the association is rather obvious: Lawrence Weschler, who wrote the introductory essay to the companion volume to the exhibition, calls Theo Jansen a cross between da Vinci and Don Quixote. Leonardo, of course, was as preoccupied with engineering as much as he was with art (probably more so) and he had his own animalistic creations, including a “mechanical lion” made for a pageant celebrating the newly-crowned King of France, Francois I. But it is Leonardo’s sketches of wings in his passionate pursuit of flight that remind me of Jansen’s drawings, or vice-versa. Dream machines are eternal, it seems. Strandbeests PEM Strandbeests 067 Strandbeests 046 Strandbeests 034 Strandbeests 023 Strandbeests 026 Strandbeests 019 Strandbeests 055 Strandbeests 016 leonardo-da-vinci-bird-wing-with-mechanical-connections-1 Leonardo Wings Sketch Scenes from the exhibition preview of Strandbeest: the Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Notebook sketches from Leonardo’s  Codex Atlanticus, Veneranda Biblioteca and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

What to do in June: then and now

For various projects over the years I have compiled a stack of reprints of agricultural, health, and “better living” manuals and almanacs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which prescribe monthly tasks and helpful hints, including Thomas Tusser’s Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1557) and its sequel Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, Richard Saunders’ Apollo Anglicanus: The English Apollo (1665 edition), and Nicholas Breton’s Fantastiks: Serving for a Perpetuall Prognostication (1626) just to name a few titles. While we may not welcome a regimen as much as early modern audiences, I’ve got a busy summer ahead of me so must make some lists. The contrast of rural life centuries ago with (sub-) urban life today is striking: my busy life looks pretty leisurely in comparison.

What to do in June, circa 1600:

1) Weed:  in June get thy wedehoke, thy knife and they glove: and wede out such wede, as the corne doth not love. Slack no time thy weding, for darth nor for cheape: thy corne shall reward it, or ever thou reape. (Tusser)

2) Shear the sheep, but not the lambs.

3) Fatten pigs.

4) Ensure that all outbuildings are in good condition to store grains when the rain comes: things thus set in order, in quiet and rest, shall further thy harvest and pleasure thee best. (Tusser)

5) Harvest the first crop of hay: it is now June and the Hay-makers are mustered to make an army for the field. (Breton)

6) Distill roses and “sweet herbs”.

7) Drink the “pleasantest” wine, and white wine in particular, for it purgeth Choler, and noxious humors from the stomack. (Saunders).

8) Eat “Sallets of Lettice prepared with Vinegar” (Saunders)

9) Don’t eat too much, and exercise: all this month glut not the stomack, but arise from the table with an appetite; arise betimes in the morning, and exercise your body with some long walk. (Saunders)

10) Take heed of eating Cheese and Apples this month, and don’t stay too long in the bath, but to wash the feet this month in cold water is commended. (Saunders)

What to do in June, circa 2015:

1) Weed.

2) Trim the claws of my cats, even those of intimidating Mr. Darcy (or take them to the pet groomer).

3) Buy “healthy weight” cat food for my cats, especially Mr. Darcy.

4) Write nice note to new neighbors asking them to paint their old peeling shed, which borders our garden.

5) “Harvest” flowers from lady’s mantle, alexanders, roses, and other June flowers.

6) Put terrible-smelling salmon stuff on roses.

7) Drink the “pleasantest” wine, especially Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand.

8) Get on the kale bandwagon.

9) Don’t eat too much and exercise.

10) Seek out new goat cheeses–the only kind of cheese I can eat—and try to take more advantage of my clawfoot tub, as well as what Nicholas Breton calls the sweet season [in which] the senses perfume, and the spirits comfort.

Arthur Wesley Dow June Morning

Arthur Wesley Dow, A June Morning (also known as A View of Ipswich, Massachusetts), 1893.

Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

Park 002

Lawn Dice

Dice Smithfield Decretals BL

Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.

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.


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.

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.



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


Bearded Days

I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert:  the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays.  At your New Year’s Eve party.  Men’s facial hair all over the place.  Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while.  From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet.  Now they’re everywhere.  And not just a little scruff.  Beards that have grown for a year.  “Yeards,” they’re called.  Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan.  Of a lumberjack.  “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art.  This hour On Point:  What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately:  I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.

The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Times article, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries:  European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bearded Age Memling 1471

Bearded Age Ghirlandaio

Bearded Reformers

Clean-shaven Renaissance Men and (mostly-) Bearded Reformers:  Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin, 1471-72, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp / © Lukas—Art in Flanders VZW; David Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1490; Detroit Institute of Arts/ Bridgeman Art Gallery; Luther in the Circle of Reformers, German School, c. 1625-50, Deutsches Historisches Museum.

I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.

PicMonkey Collage

Goya Sebastian Martinez y Perez 1792

Degas Collector of Prints 1866

PicMonkey Collage

Two kings of the very hairy seventeenth century: King Charles I, c. 1640 by Anthony van Dyck (Parliamentary Collection), and King Charles II, c. 1670 by Peter Lely (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). A representative of the clean-shaven eighteenth century: Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, painted by Goya in 1792 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Beards are back in the nineteenth century: A Collector of Prints by Edgar Degas, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the two iconic bearded robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, painted by society portraitist Theobald Chartran in 1895 and 1896, the last days of the beard (apparently until now!)


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