Monday, October 28, 2019


Antonello da Messina and Ultramarine

“A noble color, beautiful, the most perfect of all colors”
Cennino Cennini, Il Libro dell’Arte, c.1400

La Vergine Annunciata
Antonella da Messina
c. 1476
Palazzo Abatellis
Palermo, Sicilia

There is Blue - with such evocative adjectival subspecies as navy, cerulean, baby, or powder. Then there is an unclassifiable Blue, a Blue that defies categorization  and yet is decidedly Blue.
It is the breathtaking, ineffable Blue of the Palermo Madonna of Antonello da Messina. 
The Blue of Antonello was Ultramarine, the exquisite and rare Blue of ground Lapis Lazuli. Until the 1700s, the only source of Lapis was the remote Sar-e-Sang valley in the Badakhshan mountains in northeast Afghanistan, where it has been mined for six thousand years. 
Cennino Cennini, the author of the early 15th century text, Il Libro dell’Arte_ ( _The Book of Art_),  describes the magic involved in taking Lapis Lazuli. grinding it down to a fine powder, and with some alchemical legerdemain, transmuting it into ultramarine. 
Ultramarine (lit. “beyond the sea” which perfectly describes the stone’s origin from Afghanistan through Persia and then across the Mediterranean into the Adriatic to Venezia),  is a zeolite pigment, chemically more stable than other blue pigments, most of which are azurite derivatives which oxidize quickly to greenish-black.
Antonello da Messina (c.1430 -1479) was one of those little known transformative geniuses. The legendary art historian John Pope-Hennessy described Antonello as "the first Italian painter for whom the individual portrait was an art form in its own right.” 
Antonello was born in Messina, the eastern tip of Sicilia, trained in Napoli, visited and worked a while in Venezia, but spent most of his time on that beautiful  island at the toe of Italia. He was one of the few southern Italian painters who influenced the style of northern italian artists. 
Antonello’s portraits are striking: full frontal views of the subject, with dramatically dark backgrounds ( a chiaroscuro technique a century and a half before Caravaggio) and identifying markings such as books or tabletops. Antonello’s portraits channel the early Nederlandisch masterpieces of Memling and van Eyck but there is no evidence that he ever left Italy. 
This captivating image of the Virgin Mary - her youth, her eyes, the remarkable foreshortening (lo scorcio) of her raised right hand, as she is interrupted in her reading by the Angel of the Annunciation, never fails to astonish the viewer. 
Why Blue for the Virgin Mary? In Roman times, the color Blue was associated with “Barbari” (“those with beards” “- a proxy for “barbarians”) and so they didn’t use it (even though the ancient Egyptians loved the stuff).  Renaissance painters chose blue for Mary’s robes because it was a color not previously associated with anything else (red for passion, e.g.) and represented humility.

La Vergine Annunciata
Antonella da Messina
c. 1476
Palazzo Abatellis
Palermo, Sicilia

Sunday, September 15, 2019


Angel and Farmer (Detail)
Ludwig (Ludovico) Seitz
Galleria dei Candelabri
Musei Vaticani


Ludwig (Ludovico) Seitz’s wondrous Vatican Angel is not a product of the Renaissance, yet it channels so much of the Renaissance as well as being surrounded by it in the Galleria Dei Candelabri in the Vatican.

Some paintings are so iconic that they remain emblazoned in our minds, reappearing often as lovely dreams. The wondrous painting of the Angel and Farmer by Ludovico Seitz (Ludwig Seitz, 1844 - 1908) in the Vatican's Galleria dei Candelabri (Gallery of the Candelabras), is one of these.

It depicts, in blazing, living color, the metaphor of Divine Grace on Human Works, as exemplified by the Angel showing the Sun to an old man toiling away at his labors. 

The Angel’s accoutrements (laurel wreath, staff, flowing robe) and her immediate surround (the verdant garden) are depicted in dazzling colors, indeed all the colors of the visible spectrum (ROYGBIV), whereas the laborer and the rest of the painting are muted in sepia or a drab gray. 

The Angel is pointing out that without sunlight, the laborer`s works are in vain. Just as sunlight brings about the material works of man, Grace allows the works of the spirit to shine. 
Seitz’s genius Iies not only in painting those dazzling colors, but also for the “incredible lightness of being”’he invests in the Angel, floating, buoyant, androgynous, ethereal and yet tangible, just magnificent.

Behind the Angel is the Latin motto:

“With the grace of God and the effort of Will we obtain the excellence of Virtue”

The Farmer and The Angel (Detail)
Tempera on panel 
Ludwig (Ludovico) Seitz 
c. 1899
Galleria Dei Candelabri
Vatican Museums

Sunday, September 1, 2019


Domenico Ghirlandaio 
Elderly Man and Child
Ritratto di un vecchio e un bambino
1490 Louvre

“.... there is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento painting, whether in or out of Italy...”                     Bernard Berenson

Among the defining characteristics of the Renaissance were naturalism and humanism, and one of the characteristics of humanism was an authentic realism- with no accreted layers of theology, religion, mythology or metaphors.

To be sure, many Rinascimento paintings and sculptures were depictions on religious or mythologies themes, but the spirit of the Renaissance hewed toward inquiry and realism even in these works.

In Domenico Ghirlandaio’s iconic and enduring  portrait of the Elderly Man and Child, we see an artist who has transcended painting metaphors and inferences, symbols and tangents, to an artist who paints reality; reality admixed with a courageous intimacy.
Ghirlandaio depicts the  face of the Elderly man with all its faults- “warts and all.” 
This realism is such that I employ this painting to teach the residents about oculocutaneous rosacea of the eyelids and cheeks, and the nasal carbuncular changes (called rhinophyma), conditions which are depicted here with an anatomicopathological accuracy that is almost photographic in detail.
Nothing is sugarcoated.
Detail and truth. 

Ghirlandaio presents the portrait in a naturalistic and sympathetic fashion, at variance with the physiognomic theory of the era, which maintained a connection between external appearances and internal truths.
Whereas the pre-Renaissance view of the old man might have been to disparage his “old age-ness”, Ghirlandaio elevates the rendering of his wizened face and deformed nose to a tender moment where the old man and the child share a common bond - perhaps this is a grandfather and his grandson. 
Given the affection the two have for one another, we can assume that they are related, and likely at the level of a grandfather and grandchild.

“Rather than implying a defect of character, An Old Man and his Grandson” invites appreciation of the man's virtuousness.
“The painting depicts a moment of intimacy between the elderly man and the child, underscored by the placement of the child's hand on the old man's chest, and the old man's gentle expression. This show of affection endows the picture with emotional qualities beyond those expected from a traditional dynastic portrait.”

In fact the Italian name for this painting is very specific: “Ritratto di un vecchio e nipote”
“A painting of an old man and grandson (or nephew)” (The term “nipote” can refer to either a grandchild or a nephew). 

Of this great humanistic masterpiece, the great Harvard art historian Bernard Berenson stated that “there  is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento painting, whether in or out of Italy."

Domenico Ghirlandaio 
Elderly Man and Child
Ritratto di un vecchio e nipote 

Saturday, August 24, 2019


Delphica, the Oracle of Delphi
Michelangelo Buonarotti
Capella Sistina, Vatican

Cangiante is one of the four canonical Renaissance painting techniques, the others being Unione, Sfumato and Chiaroscuro.

In the Cangiante technique, one color abruptly replaces another color, to create shadow or to highlight an area that would be dulled more if the color would simply be mixed with brown or black.
Notice the abrupt transition from green to yellow in Michelangelo’s famous Delphic Oracle in the Capella Sistina Her blouse displays Cangiante  technique, to create texture and shadow. There is also Cangiante seen in the orange to yellow transition in her outer robe. 
Much bolder than Unione and Sfumato, Cangiante accentuates changes in color as opposed to toning them down. You’ll notice greens as ”yellow” shadows and yellows as “orange” shadows in this type of painting style.
Another example of Cangiante is seen in the robe of Michelangelo’s Daniel, also in the Capella Sistina. 

The term Cangiante derives from “cangiare,” a Renaissance Italian verb for “cambiare,” “to change, to transform” Ultimately from “changier” French first half of the 14th century. Late Latin “cambiare,”  from Latin “cambire,”  “to trade or barter.” P-I-E root “kemb” “to bend”

Detail of Delphica, the Delphic Oracle
Michelangelo Buonarotti 
Capella Sistina, Vatican

Friday, August 23, 2019


La Madonna della Pace (detail) 

The Perugia School of Painters - those remarkable Umbrian artistic geniuses: Raphael (Raffaello), the eponymously nicknamed Perugino, and Pinturicchio- have left as their legacy among the most exquisite visages of the Madonna, the baby Jesus and saints. 
Here we see a closeup of a sublime portrait of the Virgin by Pinturicchio. Born Bernardo di Betto in Perugia in 1454, his nickname “il Pinturicchio” means “the little painter,” an attribute of his short stature. 
Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, tells us that Pinturicchio trained as a paid assistant under Perugino, thus the eerie similarity between Pinturicchio’s Madonnas and those of the Master himself.
The Madonna here is indeed exquisitely rendered: the sensitive depiciton of her face, its ovoid shape channeling the oval of an egg, the seed that became her Son. The modeling is subtle and soft, her cheeks almost seem to have rouge on them, creating a vitality, a vividness, her half-lidded eyes portraying both a sensuality and a sadness, a presaging of knowledge of His future Passion and Crucifixion. The veil, in ultramarine, that alchemically transformed lapis lazuli, has a translucency even as it is as a deep blue. Pinturicchio captures the Virgin as if she were sitting directly in front of his easel. 

La Madonna della Pace 
The Madonna of the Peace 
Il PInturrichio (Bernardino de Betto)
c. 1490
Pinacoteca civica Tacchi-Venturi
Duomo di San Severino 
San Severino nelle Marche

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Does an Apple a Day keep the Doctor away?

An article I wrote on apples in art, philology, history, science and nutrition. 

Adam and Eve
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Courtauld Institute

Thursday, August 1, 2019

LUX ET VERITAS: Jan van Eyck’s Eye

The Marriage of the Arnolfini
Jan van Eyck
National Gallery of Art, London 

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage is one of the great secular masterpieces of early Nederlandisch painting and the northern Renaissance. That it is a secular painting, and not religious, is also what makes it so iconic and important. 

In the back of the painting, on the far wall, at the vanishing point, is a wondrous mirror, above which are these words in Latin: “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic” - “Jan van Eyck was here.” 
Jan van Eyck bore witness to the marriage of the Arnolfini with his presence, and he bore witness to his presence in the mirror. 

Here is a fine article about Jan van Eyck, his masterpiece the Arnolfini Portrait, Nikolaus Cusanus, and that wondrous and all-revealing mirror:

Beryllus lapis est lucidus, albus et transparens. Cui datur forma concava pariter et convexa, et per ipsum, videns attingit prius invisible. Intellectualibus oculis si intellectualis beryllus, qui formam habeat maximam pariter et minimam, adaptur, per eius medium attingitus indivisibile omnium principum.

The beryl is a brilliant, white and transparent stone. It is possessed simultaneously of a concave and a convex form, and whoever attempts to peer through it comes across things hitherto invisible. If we measure a beryl to reason and fix the gaze of eyes of reason upon it, we perceive the greatest and the smallest forms at once and are thus affected by the recognition of the inseparable origins of the all.

–Niclas Krebs, later Cardinal Nicholas of Kues (Nikolaus Cusanus), De beryllo, cap. ii (1458) in Nikolaus von Kues’ philosophisch-theologische Werke in deutscher und lateinischer Sprache, vol. 3, p. 4 (S.H. transl

The Marriage of the Arnolfini
Jan Van Eyck

NGA, London

Thursday, July 25, 2019



Carlo Crivelli (1430 - 1495) was an iconoclastic genius who, though he lived and worked in Venezia and Le Marche near Ancona at a time when the naturalistic trends of Firenze held sway, continued to work in the conservative International Gothic Style of Northern Europe. 
His settings, as we see here in the finely detailed Annunciation with Santo Emidio, are jewel-like and full of elaborate allegorical detail. 
Here there are two narratives taking place simultaneously in which allusions abound.
To me, the extraordinary, powerful, almost vertiginous linear perspective goes beyond being a mere line of sight to the vanishing point in the center of the painting. 
Crivelli favored verdant backgrounds, his works enriched by a characteristic use of fruits (do you see the cucumber? 🙂 ), and flowers as decorative motifs, often depicted in pendant festoons, which channel the Paduan studio of Francesco Squarcione, where he studied and worked.

The painting pays homage to the town of Ascoli, to which, in 1482, Pope Sixtus IV granted a degree of self-government. It is part of an altarpiece for the church of Santa Annunziata in Ascoli to celebrate the event. The coats of arms are those of the Pope (left) and the local bishop, Prospero Caffarelli (right). News of Ascoli's new status reached the town on the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, which then became a feast day when the town celebrated its liberty.

L’Annunciazione con San Emidio
The Annunciation with Saint Emidius
Carlo Crivelli
NGA London

Saturday, July 13, 2019


Fidelio - Act One Quartet 
Mir ist so wunderbar (I feel wonderful)

Four people - same situation - Four different realities.

Extraordinary, and all from such a simple tune.
Then again, isn’t one aspect of genius its elegant simplicity combined with awesome power? 

Take the four and a half minutes to listen to the Act I Quartet from Fidelio, and let this sublime music and its meaning wash over you.

Yes, it is about the power of love.

Gundula Janowitz, William Wilderman, Stella Richmond, Misha Raitzin, 
IPO, Zubin Mehta conductor

NEVER FINISHED, YET PERFECT: Leonardo’s Saint Jerome in the Desert

Saint Jerome in the Desert
  Leonardo Da Vinci (c. 1480)
Tempera and Oil on Walnut Panel 
Musei Vaticani 

Submitted for your wonder and fascination is Leonardo’s never finished, iconic and brilliantly conceived painting of St Jerome in the Desert.

So many of Leonardo’s ideas - in engineering, science, medicine and art- never were completed. He could never say “done,” even for La Gioconda (Mona Lisa), and yet there is always a perfection of form and power of meaning even in his drafts and uncompleted works. 

St Jerome in the Desert, one of only seven Leonardo’s 20 or so extant works that are indisputably only in His hand, will be coming to the Met from the Vatican later this year, as a one-painting show to honor the 500th anniversary of the death of the Master.

The painting shows St. Jerome at prayer at the end of his life, a hermit in the wilderness, alone save for his lion companion—a common Renaissance subject. And yet it stands alone in its deeply moving, intimate depiction of the penitent saint in a moment of private reverie. As Jerome stares up at his crucifix, his spiritual struggle is plain to see, even though many passages of work show little more than the ground preparation on the wood panel, with hastily sketched outlines.
And we literally have Leonardo’s hand in this masterpiece- his fingerprints can be found in the upper left of the painting it as he rubbed and smoothed his oils and tempera on the walnut.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

CORRECTING A MOZART MYTH: The Truths about the Mozart Allegri Miserere Story

The “Bologna Mozart” portrait
The 1777 copy of the lost 1770 portrait of Mozart
wearing the medal of the Order of the Golden Spur
Accademia di Musica di Bologna 

For as long as I remember as a Mozartian, which goes back to my teenage years, I have heard the story of the ”secret” Gregorio Allegri Miserere and Mozart’s “miraculous” feat of
copying it out “perfectly” upon “one” listening.
It sounded like a Mozart myth.
So I decided to do my own research to find out the truth.
There is indeed a kernel of truth in this well-worn story. The story of Mozart’s two April 1770 visits to the Vatican during Holy Week and the Allegri Miserere “caper,” have gone through many permutations, most of them distorted and hyperbolic.
Below is my research that removes the encrusted accretions of two centuries of  hyperbole, gets the facts straight, and shows you exactly how a young genius could have done it.

During the first (1770) of their three Italian journeys,the trips that were formative in Wolfgang's compositional embryogenesis, Wolfgang and Leopold found themselves in Roma during Holy Week.
Wolfgang and Leopold arrived in Roma from Firenze on Wednesday , 11 April 1770, a rainy afternoon in the Eternal City.
During the Tenebrae Service at the Vatican on Thursday April 12th (Holy Thursday in Christian tradition), the Mozarts heard Gregorio Allegri's sublime nine-part, two-choir. polyphonic 1635 masterpiece, Miserere (Miserere mei, Deus).

One of many Mozart myths is that the Miserere manuscript was “heavily guarded” at the Vatican and that there were “no other copies.”


By 1770, one hundred thirty-five years after the Miserere was composed, there were a number of copies around Europe, several specifically in London, where the Mozart family sojourned for several months in 1764. The Allegri Miserere was performed a number of time times in London in the 1760s.
Could Wolfgang have heard it as an eight year-old when he was in London?

Where were the other copies?
The Vatican, of course, had a copy (likley the original autograph manuscript ) of the Miserere. Another copy was in Bologna in the possession of Mozart’s friend and early musical mentor, Padre Giovanni Battista Martini.  The King of Portugal also had a copy.

After hearing the Miserere on Holy Thursday, April 12th, Wolfgang went back to his apartment and, with his eidetic memory and absolute pitch, wrote out on several sheets of composition paper what he remembered of the work.
Wolfgang and his father went back to hear the Miserere performed again on Saturday, April 14th (Holy Saturday in Christian tradition), the day before Easter Sunday.
Finding some mistakes in the copy he had made, Wolfgang made corrections.
The Mozarts went on to Napoli to attend an opera at San Carlo (which Mozart didn’t care for) and then on to see Pompeii.
Somehow and at some point, Wolfgang's fair copy got into the hands of Pope Clement XIV.
The Pope, instead of excommunicating Wolfgang, decided to award Wolfgang the honor of Chevalier of the Order of the Golden Spur (Caveliere dello Sperone D'Or), First Degree.
Recieving the Order of the Golden Spur was an extraordinary honor for anyone, especially a teenager. The Pope went one step further in giving Wofgang First Degree honors, a higher rank than that conferred on most other recipients, including Christoph Willibald von Gluck.
On July 5th 1770, Cardinal Lazzaro Pallavicini, the papal secretary to Pope Clement XIV, conferred LonSperone D'Oro di prima classe (The Order of the Golden Spur in the First Degree) on Wolfgango Amedeo Mozart, a rank equal to the Order of the Golden Spur the Papacy had previously conferred only on Orlando di Lasso, some two hundred years earlier.

How did Wolfgang do it?
He did it as follows:
1) he used his eidetic memory;
2) he used his absolute pitch:
3) perhaps he had seen a manuscript in London in 1764  (there were a number of copies there);
and most importantly,
4) the work is short and VERY repetitive - in fact it repeats six times.

It was quite doable for Wolfgang to copy out what he had heard.
The Miserere is about twelve minutes. But, it is actually a two-minute compsition repeated six times. A genius such as Wolfgang would have had very little trouble remembering the melody. The polyphony would have been the issue.
What is truly astonishing, therefore, and in my view, was Wolfgang's remarkable ability to parse out the nine-part polyphony that comprises the heart of the Miserere, not putting a repeat sign at the end of a two-minute composition.
THAT is the stuff of genius......

Listen to the haunting, mystical Gregorio Allegri Miserere, in the iconic, benchmark 1980 performance by the Tallis Scholars.

Vincent DeLuise

Image: The so-called Bologna portrait of 1777. This is the 1777 copy by an unknown artist of the lost 1770 oil painted of Mozart for Padre Martini’s Gallery of Composers for the Accademia di Musica di Bologna e Verona. Note that Mozart is wearing the Order of the Golden Spur in this portrait. Leopold said that Wolfgang was “sick” when he sat for the portrait but that the portrait resembled Wolfgang almost exactly.

Sunday, April 28, 2019



Kudos to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and museum chairs Drs Marmor, Truhlsen and Medow, for launching an extraordinary new Museum of Vision, to be unveiled at the AAO headquarters in San Francisco next year. 
This public museum of over 38,000 objects will be a fascinating and edifying resource for young and old to learn about our most prized possession, our sight, and all that Ophthalmologists are doing world-wide to protect our vision throughout our lives.
Here is the link to a short video which details the Academy’s wonderful new initiative.