Friday, February 7, 2020


Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan
Giovanni Bellini
National Gallery, London

Giovanni Bellini’s Revelatory Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan

La Serenissima (Venezia), that universally beloved city, is drowning. I have visited five times in my life and hope to go back many more times. Please complete the barriers surrounding the Lido !

This post is to honor Venezia and its Doges. 
What is a Doge, you ask? The Doge was the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice between 726 and 1797. 

The Doge of Venice (Venetian: Doxe de Venexia Italian: Doge di Venezia [ˈdɔːdʒe di veˈnɛttsja]; derive from the Latin term, dūx, "military leader"), translated as Duke (compare the Italian Duca). 

Giovanni Bellini’s iconic depiction of one of Venezia’s most powerful Doges, Leonardo Loredan, captures the power and control of these Venetian rulers, as well as the awesome responsibility they bore for their empire and citizens. 

Giovanni Bellini is justifiably admired for his exquisite Madonnas. He was also one of the great official portraitists of his time.. 

The esteemed art historian John Pope-Hennessy described Giovanni Bellini as "the  greatest fifteenth-century official portraitist", adding that "the tendency towards ideality that impaired Bellini’s private portraits here stood him in good stead, and enabled him to codify, with unwavering conviction, the official personality.”

I have been discussing side bias in portraiture of late, and again here, the artist has chosen to depict the left face of the subject. 
However, in this extraordinary portrait, the light is coming from the Subject’s Right side (the Left side of the painting), so that even though the Left  side of the Doge’s face is featured, it is relative shadow.
Why would that be? What hidden metaphors are we missing? Bellini was a master of light and color. Nothing here is random.

Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan
Giovanni Bellini
NG, London

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


The Chantilly Codex

Submitted for your delectation and edification is the Baude Cordier Heart of Music of c. 1405 that is part of the  famed Chantilly Codex of c. 1390, This fascinating Musical Heart was added by the composer Baude Cordier a few years after the Codex was printed.

Note the musical score and rhythmic markings within the heart.
The Chantilly manuscript, Musée Condé no. 564, both celebrated and notorious for the extremely complicated notation of the ars subtilior, but also admired for the decorative aspect of some of its pages, comprises, in the five fascicles of its original corpus, seventy ballades,seventeen rondeaux, twelve virelays and thirteen isorhythmic motets, all of them compositions of the second half of the fourteenth century.

The piece "Belle, Bonne, Sage, Plaisant" was written by Cordier to a special lady for the New Year, and reflects the shape of the notation with the text (“Lovely, good, wise, and pleasant”)

The graphic layout of the notation is a play on words on the "Cor" ("heart") in "Cordier".

Composers in the Codex includeJohannes Symonis, Jehan Suzay, P. des Molins, Goscalch, Solage, Baude Cordier, Grimace, Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan Vaillant, Franciscus Andrieu, Johannes Cuvelier, Rodericus, Trebor, and Jacob Senleches.

Friday, December 27, 2019

AGNOLO’S FROZEN BEAUTIES: Bronzino’s Madonnas and the concept of Paragone

The marmoreal and sculptural beauty of Agnolo di Cosimo’s  (il Bronzino) depictions of the Madonna never fail to astonish me. He creates a sort of paragone confrontation sui generis, which is to say, that within his own paintings he confronts the debate between painting and sculpture (vide infra).

Herewith for your admiration is the sublimely beautiful face of the Virgin Mary in the Louvre version of Bronzino’s Holy Family with St. Anne  and the infant St John.
Take a look here as well at the Kunsthistorisches version.

Astonishing beauty.
I would love to know who was Agnolo’s model for these portrayals of Mary, or did he craft these exquisite visages purely from his own conception of perfect beauty?

“In an art-historical context, the Italian word paragone (“comparison”, pl. paragoni) refers to a number of theoretical discussions that informed the development of artistic theory in 16th-century Italy.
“These include the comparison between differing aesthetic qualities of central Italian and Venetian schools of painting (the so-called disegno/colore paragone) and whether painting or literature was the more convincing and descriptive medium.
“But the term paragone most often refers to the debate about the relative merits of painting and sculpture during the Renaissance period. This debate unfolded primarily in Italy but also in the Low Countries (Flanders and the Netherlands) in writings about art and artworks themselves, and informs our understanding of some of the most significant art and artists of the Renaissance.”
Ref: Oxford Art Online

The Holy Family with St Anne and the infant St John
Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, detto il Bronzino

Sunday, December 15, 2019


Mozart and Salieri. Whole books, Broadway and West End plays, and an Oscar-winning movie have been conjured of the purported rivalry and animosity between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amade’ Mozart.

Was there a rivalry? Yes. 
Did Salieri poison Mozart or contribute to his early death?  No. That is a fable.
Yet one more Mozart myth.

What was the real relationship between the composers?

It was cordial, competitive and collegial.

By the time Wolfgang Mozart arrived in Vienna in summer 1781, Antonio Salieri was already ensconced as Court Composer and Kapellmeister. Salieri’s operas were being produced, were popular, many enjoying numerous performances. Salieri had virtually nothing to fear from Mozart.
In fact, it was actually Mozart who was jealous of Salieri, not the other way around.
Mozart is documented in a letter to have written about the “Italians” and their “cabals” to keep some of Mozart’s operas off the stage. Mozart mentioned Salieri by name and discussed Salieri’s “plots” in a 1789 letter to Michael Puchberg.

In reality, however, Mozart and Salieri were mostly cordial to each other, as but two of several fine composers in the competitive world of operatic music in Vienna in the 1780s and early 1790s. There were also other superb composers actively working in Vienna at that time, such as Martin y Soler. 
Mozart’s operas were not the ones that were most often presented in Vienna during his lifetime. Apart from Die Zauberflote, the three famous Mozart operatic collaborations with Lorenzo Da Ponte - Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi' fan Tutte, each only had a dozen or so performances during Mozart's lifetime. It was only after Mozart's passing that his musical genius became widely recognized and admired.

So what are the Facts about Mozart and Salieri. Here are four:

1) Mozart and Salieri were both invited by Count Orsini Rosenberg (director of spectacles for the Habsburg Court) to craft a short opera by for the pleasure of Emperor Joseph II and his sister Maria Christina Duchess of Teschen, for a February 7th 1786 performance at Schonbrunn Palace. Mozart wrote the opera, “Der Schauspieldirektor” (The Impresario KV 486) which is still occasionally performed (it was a highlight of Mozartwoche this past January in Salzburg), whereas Salieri’s operatic offering “Prima la Musica e Poi Le Parole” (“First the Music and then the Words”) has languished for two centuries with only three performances documented.

2) Mozart and Salieri collaborated together as colleagues on the Cantata “Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (For the recovered health of Ophelia, KV 477a) for the soprano Anna Selina (Nancy) Storace. 

3) Mozart invited Salieri and Salieri’s protege and mistress Caterina Cavalieri to a performance of Die Zauberflote in October 1791, where Salieri was effusive in his praise of the Singspiel. After the performance, Salieri effused that, “... it was an operone (a grand opera) worthy of the highest praise.”

4) Salieri was one of the piano teachers of Mozart’s second son, Franz Xaver Mozart.

There are no signs from any of the above facts that there was any animosity.

Musicologist and critic Harold Schonberg wrote this in a May 1974 article in The NY Times:

The fact is that there is simply not shred of evidence linking Salieri to Mozart's death.
In addition, as many have pointed out, would Mozart's widow have picked Salieri as a composition teacher for Wolfgang Jr. had she entertained any idea that he was her husband's murderer?
“It has also been pointed out that while Mozart had good cause to envy Salieri, the Italian had relatively little to be worried about Mozart. It was Salieri, not Mozart, who was the more successful composer. It was Salieri, not Mozart, who had the entrée to the court, There is even some evidence that Salieri looked upon Mozart with certain amount of fondness."

Oh, you heard or read something about Salieri poisoning Mozart? No proof. Another Mozart myth.

Oh, you read that Salieri, insane at the end of his life and in an asylum, said that he poisoned Mozart? I hope you read that he told Ignaz Moscheles that he had nothing to do with Mozart’s illness or death.

Read on dear reader, this summary from Harold Schonberg:

One of the saddest bits of musical biography in existence was written by the great pianist and composer, Ignaz Moscheles, who visited Salieri in 1823, presumably after Salieri's suicide attempt. Salieri thought that he was dying.
Moscheles had studied with the Italian and was very fond of him. “Our meeting,” wrote Moscheles, “was a sorrowful one; for already Salierk’s appearance shocked me, and he spoke to me in broken sentences of his nearly impending death.
At last he said: ‘I can assure you as a man of honor that there is no truth in the absurd report; of course you know—Mozart —I am said to have poisoned him; but no —malice; sheer malice; tell the world, dear Moscheles, old Salieri, who is on his deathbed has told this to you.”

Mozart and Salieri- composers and musicians in Vienna in the late 18th century
Cordial colleagues

Wolfgang Mozart- the 1819 posthumous oil of Mozart by Barbara Kraft
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Vienna

Antonio Salieri- the Joseph Willibrod Mahler portrait of Salieri of 1825
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Vienna

Saturday, December 7, 2019

STRANGE BEAUTIES: The Refined Sensuality and Off-Beat Genius of Parmigianino

Il Parmigianino
Museo Nazionale de Capodimonte, Napoli

The Refined Sensuality and Off-Beat Genius of Parmigianino

When you took your Italian Renaissance course, if you took it, at some point you landed squarely on a painting commonly referred to as the “Madonna with the Long Neck,” the archetypal painting in the Mannerist style.

It was created by the preternaturally gifted artist Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, whose nickname was Parmigianino (so many Italian artists har nicknames - “cosiddetti”- such as Sassetta, Bronzino, Pontormo, Veronese, Guercino, Parmigianino, and Tintoretto).

Parmigianino was one of the supreme masters of the late Rinascimento, who died, like Masaccio and Raffaello, terribly young even for the times, at age 37. His works are tipified by the elongations and exaggerations that are emblematic of Mannerism.

One of Parmigianino’s many grand creations, a work that is imbued with the refined sensuality for which he is justifiably famous, is the portrait you see in this post, known as Anthea (Antea), a magisterial and mysterious painting (that was on loan from the Museo di Capodimonte in Napoli in a solo exhibition at the Frick a decade ago).

Anthea is depicted with a marten fur stole draped over her highly exaggerated right shoulder, with an arm so far from her body it is as if there were another arm in there somewhere (well, that’s Mannerism for you 🙂 ).
Who was Antea? The name was not given to the painting by Parmigianino, but rather, was associated with it in the latter part of the 1500s. Was she a 16th century courtesan lover of Parmigianino ? A metaphor for Aphrodite? No one seems to know for sure.

The wiki entry for the painting tells us that “in the description of the Farnese Ducal Gallery (1725) it is listed as “Portrait of Antea” or “The Beloved of Parmigianino,” referring to some famous courtesan of Rome and mentioned by both Benvenuto Cellini and Pietro Aretino.”

This attribution has been later contested, as well as the traditional dating of the work to the period in which Parmigianino was in Rome (1524–1527). Studies of the woman's garments, a mix of luxury and popular elements, led to the hypothesis that she could be either a daughter, a lover or a servant of Parmigianino, if not Pellegrina Rossi di San Secondo or another noblewoman of Parma.”
Parmigianino repurposed the face of Antea in the famous Madonna of the Long Neck”(see image in comment) and it bears a striking resemblance to Parmigianino himself !).
What was that comment and website by Simon Abraham that “every artist paints himself”?
There may be a kernel of truth to it.

Anthea (Antea)
Il Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola)
c. 1534 Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Napoli

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