Tag Archives: Renaissance

Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

I love to play with history, inside the classroom and out, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. Any sort of mashup of past and present, especially if it is clever and creative, is instantly going to catch my attention–and hold it, for a least a little while. So when I saw just one of the images of French photographer Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” series, in which twentieth-century superheroes are reimagined in the guise and garb of Northern Renaissance portraits, I had to see them all. Below are my favorites, and you can see the rest here, along with more of Goldberger’s provocative work. His commentary on his photographs is interesting too: By the temporal disturbance they produce, these images allow us to discover, under the patina of time, an unexpected melancholy of those who are to be invincible. “Temporal disturbance”, that’s what interests me. And don’t these icons look a bit melancholy in their trunk hose and ruffs?

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Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” Superheroes: more here (including lots of Star Wars characters in ruffs–and the Incredible Hulk!)

These images got me thinking: who were the superheroes of the sixteenth century? Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Superman might look like they’re hanging out in the sixteenth century in Golberger’s photographs but they don’t really reflect sixteenth-century values and ideals, as superheroes should. After looking at what seemed like hundreds of prints of his Twelve Labours, I decided that Hercules must be the perfect Renaissance superhero: he’s from the classical past, but convertible enough for that era (or any, really). People in the sixteenth century liked to mash-up history just as we do: that’s what the Renaissance is all about, and the Reformation popularized such representations. Picture in point: Martin Luther portrayed as “Hercules Germanicus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, slaying all the Catholic authorities in his midst, the perfect Protestant superhero.

Hercules Jost Amman BM 1590

Superhero Luther Hercules

Hercules in the company of a Roman warrior and a wild man, Jost Amman, c. 1590, British Museum; Luther as the “Hercules Germanicus”, Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

 

 


Just one (re)Discovery

In my ongoing quest to put Christopher Columbus in context, both in and outside of the classroom, I’m offering up one of the most vivid visual sources of early modern Europe–and a brilliant example of Renaissance projection and propaganda:  the Nova Reperta of Jan van der Straet (better known as Stradanaus), a series of 24 etchings illustrating all the “discoveries” of the era. Stradanaus (1523-1605) began his career as a designer of tapestries and fresco artist in the service of the Medici family in Florence but expanded his reach considerably after 1570 as a draughtsman and designer of prints which were engraved and published all over Europe by several  Antwerp publishers in huge numbers. The Nova Reperta (“New Discoveries”) series, celebrating (and proclaiming) Renaissance innovations in art, science and technology, was first published in 1580 and reprinted numerous times thereafter. The images are striking and consequential, but so too are the captions, which either defend an age-old practice as a contemporary discovery or herald what truly is “new”, although there’s a bit of equivocation when it comes to the New World: Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci share in the acclaim, which is to be expected in this age, but there is a rather unexpected variation in the use of the terms “discovery” and rediscovery. A rare example of Renaissance humility?! The title page presents the major achievements of the age, with America (discovered by Columbus and named by Vespucci) projected as just one of many discoveries, including gunpowder, the printing press, an iron clock, the Brazilian guiacum wood cure for another American discovery—syphillis–distillation, the silkworm, the stirrup, and a magnetic compass, most of these things invented either well before–or outside of–Renaissance Europe.

Nova reperta

The sequence of images of America are referenced both in terms of rediscovery and discovery: “Americus rediscovers America–he called her but once and thenceforth she was always awake” (one of the first “Europe awakes the world” images–note the roasting leg in the background); “America rediscovered: who is able with mighty heart to fashion a song worthy of the majesty of these events and discoveries?”; “Christopher Columbus of Liguria, overcoming the terrors of the ocean, added to the Spanish crown the regions of almost another world that he discovered, 1492″; “Americus Vespucci of Florence, in a marvelous expedition to the west and to the south opened up two parts of the earth greater than the shores which we inhabit and known to us in no previous age, once in which by common consent of all human beings is called by his name, Americus, 1497.”

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Nova reperta 3

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Images taken from the Posner Center at the Carnegie Mellon University Library:  NE674 .S8 D53 “New discoveries; the sciences, inventions, and discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as represented in 24 engravings issued in the early 1580′s by Stradanus.”

 


Procuring Pepper

In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role:  when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.

As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).

Pepper Marco Polo

L0006013 Indigenous people collecting pepper grains.

Pepper WH BM

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Joseph Peabody by Frothingham

Procuring Pepper:  harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MS Français 2810 , Bibliothèque Nationale de France; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.

 

 


Illustrating August

August is probably one of my least favorite months, but I’m trying to adopt a different attitude this year. As I’ve either been in school or teaching school for my entire life (except one year) it is generally the last, fleeting, month of freedom before the resumption of academic responsibilities (I know everyone is really feeling sorry for me now): the first part of the month is really hot and the last part is all about completing my syllabi. But since I’ve been chair of my department, my perspective has changed, because the administrative responsibilities lighten, but do not cease, in June and they definitely intensify in August. So there really is no going back; and consequently there is no fleeting end of the summer. Chairs also teach less, so there are fewer syllabi to complete and more time to enjoy September, which is truly one of the most glorious months of the year. While there is a general perception that August is a transitional “back to school” time for everyone today; this was not always the case. Calendar pages, seeking to characterize each month according to activities, originally focus on work (the ever-present scythe, threshing) and later on leisure (tennis, boating, wandering among the flowers) but always in a lush landscape. August, for the most part, is all about abundance, until we get to the more-stark present.

August MS KL

August MS KB

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August Fruits Detail 1732

August Fruits 1732

 

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August Mucha crop

August 1969 Marchbanks

August 2012 DV

Illustrating August in three Renaissance Books of Hours ( The Hague KB 76 F 14, Paris, c. 1490-1500; The Hague KB 133 D 11, Liège, c. 1500-1525; Simon Bening, 1510-60, Victoria and Albert Museum); details from the August page of  Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Fruit, by John Clark et. al. after Peiter Casteels, 1732, Rooke Books; two art nouveau Augusts (Eugene Grasset, La Belle JardiniereAugust, 1896; Alphonse Maria Mucha, 1899, Mucha Foundation); modern Augusts–a bit more stark–by Harry Cimino and Dione Verulam


June is for Jousting

While searching my usual sources for characteristic images of the month of June, I was struck by how many epic battles occurred during the most green and golden of months: there are as many images of conflict as there are of pastoral fields and full-blown flowers. This is pretty understandable given that spring and summer constituted “campaign season” in the pre-modern past, but momentous battles continue into the modern era, presumably after nature has been conquered herself: Naseby, Louisburg, Bunker Hill, Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, D-Day. I don’t really want to go there, so I’ll think I’ll dwell in the more distant past, where not only serious battles occurred in the first month of summer, but also “play” ones, as a whole circuit of tournaments and festivals emerged in the late medieval and early modern eras, signalling the submission of the military aristocracy and the coincidental expansion of royal authority and centralized monarchies. As soon as a way of life gets ritualized, you know it’s on its way out!

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Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary, British Library MS Harley 4379, f. 19v; June calendar page from BL MS Additional 24098, Book of Hours, Use of Rome (the “Golf Book”, c. 1540); Kings Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France meet at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”, 5 June, 1520; King Henri II is injured during a celebratory joust on 30 June, 1559, Franz Hogenberg, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (leading to a half-century of power struggles and warfare among the unleashed French nobility, divided and motivated by their religious differences); Louis XIV’s “Grand Carrousel”, 1662: the festival (after Henri de Gissey) and a participant in one of the elaborate “oriental” costumes designed for the event, Chateau de Versailles (certainly no self-respecting noble would put on this garb a century before!)

 


Enchanted Gardens

I’m rather depressed about my garden: I think I lost a lot of perennials–including many dear old friends–over this past bitter winter. This is generally the week–or even earlier–that my favorite spring plants pop up, but so far all I see is trillium and pulmonaria in the “woodland garden” out back. Notably missing is my all-time favorite, the almost-magical Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which should definitely have popped up by now. I think my Jacks are dead, although several of my gardening friends tell me to not give up hope as we are as much as four weeks behind this year, but there is not a single little sprout to be found peeping through the mulch. I fear for my Lady Slippers, but they come up a bit later so I have not given into despair quite yet. The center perennial beds seem to be in better shape than the shady back, with the exception of the germander edging border that I’ve been slowly developing over the past few years: quite a few of the individual plants have been lost, breaking the uniformity of the border. I’m tempted to just rip them all out and start fresh with a hardier plant, and so I would really welcome suggestions for low-lying, traditional, hardy, front of the border alternatives.

So I am not spending these first precious days of May dancing around my lush, flowering garden (in a flowing white dress) because it is neither lush nor flowering: looking for inspiration (or escape) I am instead delving into the “Enchanted Garden” sub-sub-sub genre of paintings. Of course medieval-esque fantasy gardens are a favorite Pre-Raphaelite theme, but even before their Decameron-inspired images appeared in the nineteenth century, artists were inspired to amplify nature in rather seductive ways. In the later sixteenth century, the popular poem by the Italian poet Tarquinato Tasso, Gerusaleme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), inspired several paintings of enchanted gardens. The poem turns the Crusades into an epic fantasy, in which heroic Christian knights confront all sorts of obstacles in the Holy Land. One particular knight, Rinaldo, is enticed by the beautiful Saracen sorceress Armida to enter her lush garden, and there she keeps him occupied for quite some time, until he is rescued by his comrades. I like the painting by Flemish artist Jan Soens best among several illustrations of Rinaldo and Armida, because it seems to focus as much on the garden as on the sorceress.

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Jan Soens, Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden, c. 1581-1611, The Walters Art Museum

Several centuries later, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired several pre-Raphaelite painters to depict one of its most popular stories (the 5th to be told on the 10th day): the tale of the besotted Ansaldo, who conjured up a magical May garden in the midwinter for his lady love, Dianora, who had promised him that she would leave her husband and run away with him if he completed this seemingly-impossible task. Ultimately Ansaldo releases Dianora from her promise, and the garden dissolves “like the morning dew”, but it seems to have been a collective aim of British romantic painters to recapture it and other enchanted gardens for posterity.

Enchanted Garden Stillman

(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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Marie Spartali Stillman, Messr. Ansaldo Showing Diavola His Enchanted Garden, 1889; John Waterhouse, The Enchanted Garden, 1917, Lady Lever Art Galler, and study for above, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections

Also romantic, in a more naive way, are the paintings of British artist Helen Fielding (1900-1979) who depicted her Lancashire environment in an ever-charming way, including a garden that seems enchanted in all seasons, here pictured, as vividly remembered, in the spring of 1908. I love the inscription on the back, from the Christie‘s catalog: The Enchanted Garden was very/beautiful in April, when Father thought it would be better to send Mother, George and I also the Aunts, Grandma and Miss/Carter (who wore pink) to Grandpa’s at Blackpool/to be safely out of the way of the Suffragettes/in Lees. We saw for the first time the/Wild Cherries in flower and small trees/covered in the palest pink blossoms/which Grandpa said was the Crab apple, George and I had never seen trees/with blossom which covered them like/snow, also in the Enchanted Garden was/the pond which would soon be full of frogs/and tadpoles and the year was 1908/Helen Layfield Bradley 1975. I know just what she means by “trees covered with blossoms like snow”, don’t you? Still waiting for that here.

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Helen Fielding, The Enchanted Garden, 1975


Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

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L0058356 Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-

Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


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