Archive for the ‘Art History’ Category

There is a piece that I am still thinking about from our recent trip to Italy.

It is the Penitent Magdalene by Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi 1386-1466), a late work into which he poured his anguish.

Donatello was trained as a goldsmith, but has achieved his fame for his full size sculptures.A defining moment was the trip he took to Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi around 1404-1407.  Filippo studied buildings, especially the Pantheon, the domed Roman building which still today is the best preserved example of Roman architecture. It was later to serve him well in coming up with his original design for how to finish the dome on the giant cathedral in Florence.

Donatello studied Roman sculpture, thus helping to ignite the Renaissance sculptural masterpieces of the following two centuries.He himself then made masterpieces such as his David, St. Mark and many others.

He carved his Penitent Magdalene out of wood in his 60’s. Although it seems at first that wood would be easier than stone to carve, in fact it is very difficult as it can splinter at any time. Donatello’s vision is uncompromising. Mary is aged and gaunt. She has spent decades fasting in the desert. The bloom of youth is long gone, to say the least.

Donatello’s life-long friend Brunelleschi died in 1446. The two had quarreled and not reconciled before Filippo’s death. I believe he poured his grief into this work. The date of the work  is not known precisely, but are roughly 1453-1455.

It is currently housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.

Mary magdalene by Donatello

I’m going to switch to Art History mode for a few posts.  Although at one point I earned an MA in the subject from the University of Michigan, I never pursued a career in it, and thus lost a lot of the knowledge I’d gained. But I never really lost my interest.

In preparation for a recent trip to Rome, Florence and Venice, I read the following books (in addition to 5 guide books): The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance by Paul Strathern, The Venetians: A New History from Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern, Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, Adrian Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy, and The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World by Paul Robert Walker. I used Audible.com for all of them, so I could continue with my art work while listening.  I loved the performances by the readers almost as much as I enjoyed the books.

Although the Renaissance is definitely the star of the show in a tour of Italy, I want to highlight a couple of pieces from the Middle Ages today.

Andrea Pisano, a sculptor and architect (c. 1290-1348) executed panels for the Campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence.  These included artisans and workers at work, such as ploughing, building, weaving, painting and forging metal. I loved these little panels.  The originals have been removed from the Companile and installed in the Cathedral Museum. They are thus being preserved, and also are easier to see.

A second thing that fascinated me were the inlaid marble floors, especially in the Duomo (Cathedral) in Siena. Although the cathedral itself was completed 1215 – 1263, the work on the floors continued in the 14th through 16th Century.  About 40 artists worked on the 56 floor panels.

The earliest method they used was “graffito,” scratching lines in the marble that were filled with pitch. (yes the term graffiti comes from this word.) The effect is of drawing.

Later they used the “intarsia” method, which had been perfected in Islamic North Africa. It was use to create intricately fitted different colored stones into elaborate pictures.  Actually “intarsia” mostly refers to wood inlay.  For stone it is called “pietra dura.”

Even though I sort of understand how this was done, I can’t imagine how the accuracy in fitting together the stone was achieved.  Today it is carried on in Agra, India.  And a workshop still exists in Florence.  I want to follow up on this in the future.

I’ve been immersed in reading David McCullough’s biography, “The Wright Brothers.” In particular he has drawn a loving portrait of Wilbur. Will was the elder brother, taller, and  a genius. He was careful in everything he did, thorough, calm and sober to a fault.

After much experimentation in America, both at Kitty Hawk, NC, and at their home in Dayton, OH, the brothers tried to sell their third flying machine. The US government spurned their advances twice, but France expressed interest.

On Will’s second trip there, a skeptical French reporter, Francois Peyrey met him. “I felt my doubts fly away one by one . . .Through curls of smoke I examined Wilbur Wright, his thin, serious face, lit by the strangely gentle, intelligent and radiant eyes . . . I had to admit: no, this man is not a bluffer.”France had many pilots who were also experimenting with flight. Wilbur’s eventual demonstration of their flying machine at LeMans in 1908 was a triumph. In his second flight he made two giant figure eights in front of the crowd, landing gracefully exactly at his point of departure. One famous French pioneer gasped, “Well, we are beaten!  We just don’t exist!”

A writer for Le Figaro concluded, “He and his brother made the conquest of the sky their existence.  They needed this ambition and profound, almost religious, faith in order to deliberately accept their exile to the country of the dunes, far away from all . . . Wilbur is phlegmatic but only in appearance. He is driven by a will of iron which animates him and drives him in his work.”

Wilbur was a man of science and action, but possessed by a broad intellectual and artistic curiosity. While in Paris he visited the Louvre 15 or more times, and filled pages with descriptions of the paintings he saw in his letters home. He preferred the Rembrandts, Holbeins and Van Dycks “as a whole” better than the Rubenses, Titians, Raphaels and Murillos. I looked up which painting of those masters are at the Louvre to grasp what it was he liked about them.

There are many late Rembrandt self portraits, brooding, isolated, and monochromatic. The “Philosopher in Meditation,” 1632, is also there, and must have appealed to Will. The Holbeins include “Erasmus,” the portrait of the greatest scholar of the Renaissance, and a Humanist.  It was he who wrote, “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” It sounds like Ben Franklin (or Wilbur Wright for that matter), but those were the words of Erasmus, born in 1469.  His masterful portrait of Nikolaus Kratzer is also there.

Anthony Van Dyke was a student of Rubens, and what attracted Wilbur is not immediately clear to me. He was a Flemish Baroque painter mostly of court portraits. Yet it was Anthony Van Dyke he liked best of all. I’d have to read Wilburs letters to learn why exactly.

Among the 19th Century French masters he loved Corot, especially his treatment of the sky.  That is easy to understand.

By the way, he always came to his own conclusions about art.  For example, he was critical of Notre Dame, finding the nave too narrow, the pillars too heavy and close together and the interior far too dark. But he praised the cathedral at Le Mans, although the only part of the church service he said he could understand was the collection!