Tag Archives: Renaissance

Salem Film Fest 2016

CATS, architecture, the Renaissance (or pseudo-Renaissance)…all my favorite topics are featured in documentary films screening at this year’s Salem Film Fest, which opened last night with Curious Worlds: the Art & Imagination of [miniaturist] David Beck. The festival is now a Salem tradition, in its ninth year, and of course a welcome addition to the non-witchy/kitschy calendar. I usually go to one or two films, and regret not seeing more. Even though the slogan of the festival is Come to Salem, See the World, its organizers always include some local productions, so the entire experience has a “glocal” feel to it, which seems appropriate for our city, our time, and this particular medium. This evening we will see Concrete Lovethe Böhm Family, which purportedly “paints an intimate and pointed portrait of the complexity and inseparability of life, love, faith and architecture” through its examination of the life and work of German architect Gottfried Böhm, the patriarch of an architectural dynasty which includes his three sons. This weekend, I’ve got my eye on Projections of America, featuring 26 short propaganda films about America: the people produced for European audiences following the liberation of France in 1944, Kedi, all about the hundreds of thousands of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul, American Renaissance, a short on Renaissance-faire culture (I can’t miss this, as hopefully it will give me all sorts of insights into my students), and The Million Dollar Duck, (not to be confused with the 1971 Disney film of the same name) about the fierce competition among six artists to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition sponsored by the U.S. government. I feel honor-bound to see this last movie, as one of Salem’s most illustrious artists, Frank Benson, was actually one of the competition’s first victors!

Salem Film Fest Concrete Love Poster

Salem Film Fest Poster_Projections_of_America

Salem Film Fest Kedi Still

Salem Film Fest Kedi Cat

Salem Film Fest AMERICANRENAISSANCE_web_1

Salem Film Fest Million Dollar Duck

Duck Stamp

German poster for Concrete Love: the Böhm Family; Projections of America poster;  character cats in Kedi; a “Renaissance” plague doctor in American Renaissance, poster for The Million Dollar Duck, and Frank Benson’s winning design from 1935.


Bits of Bosch

I show a lot of art in my classes but most of the time the images are serving as mere backdrops for the era or issue I am discussing rather than the focus of our collective attention. This is due to the fact that I am historian, rather than an art historian, so art is primarily illustrative for me, and I also find that many paintings (apart from portraits) require a great deal of explanation and elaboration–time that I just don’t have–so I use them to evoke the past rather than explain it. When I do focus in on a painting, and spend some time with it and on it, it’s usually the details on which I dwell. For this reason, I am absolutely enraptured with this amazing high-resolution zoomable “interactive documentary” of The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. You can–I did–spend hours zooming in on every little detail: strange and familiar animals, birds big and small, large strawberries and tempting apples, grotesque figures, wanton entanglements, horrific punishments, bewildering vignettes. You can acquire an intimate knowledge of the painting, much more intimate than could ever be possible any other way (even by examining it in person at the Prado where the whole overwhelms the parts). You can “take” an audiovisual tour if you like, or just wander around on your own in silence, zooming and opening up helpful notes as you move from place to place. And you can go back, again and again and again. As the Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, so too is this particular presentation: it is part of a “transmedia triptych” which also includes a documentary film, “Hieronymus Bosch, Touched  by the Devil” and the “virtual reality documentary” “Hieronymus Bosch, the Eyes of the Owl'”.  You can check out all three projects here.

A few bits of Bosch, starting with my own triptych of his favorite owls: an elephant, mouse in a tube, hedgehogs or porcupines, coupling in a mussel shell and moving into hell, the dreaded knife between the ears, strange music, the mirror reveals all, hanging through a key.

Bosch Owls

BoschElephant

Boschmouse

Bosch Hedgehogs

BoschShell

Bosch Ears

BoschButt

Bosch Mirrorp

Bosch Keyp

The entirety here.

 


Epiphany Eclipsed

Why do we “celebrate” Christmas so spectacularly and ignore its closing act, Epiphany? How did Christmas come to overshadow Epiphany so completely? Well of course we know the answer to this question: crass commercial consumerism, beginning in the Victorian era. But before that, it was all about Epiphany, one of the earliest Christian feast days. Consider this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the Adoration of the Magi, one of thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting this moment when the world, represented by the Three Magi/Kings/Wise Men, came to view the Christ child in his humble birthplace. Here we see nothing less than the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through his Son, Jesus Christ, before the Kings and the world. It’s a really big moment, and one that medieval and early modern Christians wanted to think about, hear about, and see time and time again. I like this particular painting not only for its aesthetic qualities but also the familiarity and intimacy of its setting: Italian Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio made this moment even more familiar and intimate by painting themselves and their patrons right into the scene!

Adoration of the Magi

Botticelli_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Zanobi_Altar)_-_Uffizi

Adoration_of_the_Magi_Spedale_degli_Innocenti

Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery (with Botticelli in the right lower calendar and all of the Medici clan present); Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-88, Spedale degli Innocenti (with Domenico facing us in the midst of his patrons, on left).

It’s quite possible that the underestimation of Epiphany is apparent only from my western (American) Protestant perspective, but apart from its theological importance, there are many customs and traditions associated with Epiphany and Twelfth Night, its more secular incarnation, that would seem to lend this holiday towards more popular celebration (or exploitation): elaborate feasting, including a variety of Kings’ Cakes, containing beans, slips of paper, or Baby Jesus charms, wassailing, frolicking, dancing, gift-giving, marking homes with blessed chalk. Many of these Twelfth Night activities have been appropriated by Christmas in the modern era, especially here in the United States, where Santa Claus seems to have vanquished St. Nicholas, the Three Kings, and even the Italian “Christmas Witch”, la Befana, who delivers presents (or coal) to children on Epiphany Eve rather than December 24. Although given her identity rather than her occupation, I suppose it is only a matter of time before she finds her way to the Witch City.

Twelfth Night Feast 1662

Epiphany Coles 1888

Epiphany Le Petite Journal 1914

REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

Twelfth Night Feast by Jan Havicksz. Steen, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Epiphany. Illustration from Holy Seasons of the Church by E Beatrice Coles (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1888); a Spanish Epiphany custom illustrated in Le Petite Journal, 1914; the famous “Befana Regatta” held every January 6 in Venice.


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.


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