Italy

Sandro Botticelli by Chris Hall

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from  Adoration of the Magi  (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.  

Elisabetta Sirani by Chris Hall

Elisabetta Sirani (1638 – 1665) was an Italian painter in the Baroque tradition from the city of Bologna.  She was trained by her father, the painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani.  By her 17th birthday, Elisabetta Sirani was a master engraver and painter and had completed more than 80 works.  By the age young age of 19, Elisabetta had become an independent artist.  Soon she was running her father's workshop, who was incapacitated with gout.  The responsibility of  supporting her parents and her siblings, entirely through art, was, reportedly hard on Elisabetta, and may have caused her early death.  She died under mysterious circumstances in 1665, at the young age of 27.  Some say it was stress, others say it was her jealous father who poisoned her.  Before she died she had created over 200 paintings, drawings, and etchings.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo by Chris Hall

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526 – 1593) was an Italian Renaissance painter from the city of Milan, best known for creating imaginative portraits made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books.  At a distance, his art appears as normal portraits, but on closer inspection, one can see that the objects encompassing the portraits actually overlap to make the various anatomical facial features.  Often the objects assembled in his portraits are befitting for their subject matter, such as the books used to make up his portrait study of The Librarian.

Arcimboldo's work is such an aberration from Renaissance norms that many modern critics have wondered aloud whether or not the artist was in some way deranged or mentally unbalanced.  Most critics weigh in on Arcimboldo being sane, however, and that he catered to the Renaissance's fascination with puzzles, riddles, and the bizarre, as during his time, his work was greatly admired.  Arcimboldo's work fell out of favor some time after his death, but Surrealist movement brought back a renewed fascination for his strange, imaginative portraits.

St. Nicholas: Bad Ass Super Saint by Chris Hall

If God dies, at least we’ll still have St. Nicholas.  Russian proverb.

Nicholas was an early Christian and Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, in modern day Turkey).  Because of his charity and also because of the many miracles that were attributed to him during his life, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.  St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, archers, repentant thieves and murderers, brewers, pawnbrokers, students, merchants, judges, the poor, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and many more. . . A full list of the people who St Nicholas protects can be found here:  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/people/

Nicholas was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed ritual fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Nicholas is reported to have been a lean man, and not the jolly old elf of Santa Claus legend.  Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith, and at one point was exiled and imprisoned.  Some icons show him as having dark skin, so yes; there is a chance that Santa Claus is a black man.  

St Nicholas Reputation for Gift Giving

Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift giving and would often put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  This habit, along with his protection of children, led to his being the inspiration for Santa Claus (Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklass,” a corruption of “Saint Nikolaos.”  In one of his most famous gift giving exploits, Nicholas discovered a poor man with three young daughters.  The poor man could not afford a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would remain unmarried, and might possibly have to resort to prostitution.  Nicholas decided to help them anonymously, either out of modesty or possibly to save them the humiliation of having to accept charity.  As the eve of the first two girls coming of age, Nicholas would toss a bag of gold coins through the open window.  On the eve of his third daughter’s birthday, the poor man decided to lay in wait to discover his secret benefactor.  Nicholas learned of the plan, and instead tossed the third bag into the chimney.  The youngest daughter had hung up her stockings to dry near the hearth, and the bag of gold somehow landed in one of the stockings.

St Nicholas Stays an Execution

One day while out visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from his home city in Myra came to him and told him of how the ruler Eustathius had wrongfully condemned three Knights to death.  On reaching the outskirts of the city, Nicholas learned that the prisoner’s execution by beheading was to happen that morning.  Nicholas ran to the executioner’s field and stayed the executioner’s sword, which he then threw to the ground.  Nicholas ordered the release of the innocent prisoners and then went to confront Eustathius.  Eustathius confessed his crime and Nicholas absolved him after a period of penance.

St Nicholas Resurrects Three Murdered Children

Nicholas is attributed as having miraculous powers, as well.  In one legend, during a terrible famine, an evil butcher lured three children (or in some stories, three traveling students) to his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure.  He planned to sell the meat as ham.  Nicholas, who was visiting the region to care for the hungry, dreamed of the crime, and went to the house of the evil butcher.  Nicholas them resurrected the three dead boys from the barrel.  

St Nicholas and the Miracle of the Wheat

According to another legend, during the same famine (between 311 and 312), a ship anchored off Myra which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople.  Nicholas implored the sailors to share some of the wheat with the starving people of Myra.  The sailors were reluctant to share because they knew that the cargo had been weighed and any deviation would be reported.  Nicholas promised the sailors that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, so sailors agreed and unloaded a share of the wheat.  When the sailors arrived in Constantinople, they found that the wheat weighed the same, as if nothing was taken.  The people of Myra, however had enough wheat for two full years.

St. Nicholas Conquers the Sea

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas found himself aboard a sinking ship in a storm.  Nicholas prayed, the seas calmed, and the ship was rescued.  This was only the first of many episodes which Nicholas figures in the rescuing of ships and sailors.  Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors, who in return would spread Nicholas’ popularity around the world.  In another legend, a ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm.  The sailors were unable to move the ship to safer waters.  The sailors, hearing of Nicholas’ earlier interventions, prayed for Nicholas to help.  Nicholas actually appeared over the ship and then gave the sailors a helping hand, retying and strengthening the ropes holding the masts, and guiding the ship to safety.  As soon as the ship and sailors were rescued, the Nicholas vanished into thin air.  Because of the many stories of Nicholas coming to the aid of ships and sailors, Nicholas became known as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poseidon.  

Posthumous Activities

After Nicholas’s death, it did not take long for him to be sainted.  Meanwhile, the miracles continued.  One evening the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day, on December 6th, when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into town and ransacked the place.  The pirates stole everything of value, and even took a young boy, Basilios, away to sell as a slave.  The young boy became the slave of the Emir, and would often serve the Emir wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Devastated by the lost of their only child, Basilios’ parents grieved for a whole year, until the next St. Nicholas feast.  Basilios’ parents then prayed to St. Nicholas for Basilios’ safety.  St Nicholas then appeared to Basilios and whisked the terrified boy away, and returned him to his parents.  The whole thing happened so quickly, Basilios was still holding the Emir’s golden cup.

St. Nicholas’s Magic Bones

St. Nicholas tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.  Because of the many wars in the region, many Christians became concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.  For both the religious and commercial advantages that come with having a major pilgrimage site, the cities of Bari and Venice, Italy, began to compete with each other for hosting the saint’s bones.  In 1087, 62 pirates from Bari resolved to settle the matter, when one of them reportedly had a vision of St. Nicholas commanding him to recover his bones in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  The pirates, or sailors (depending on who is telling the tale) in a rush because of the resistance from Greek Orthodox monks, collected only half of the bones, and re-interned them in Bari, in Southern Italy.  Venetian sailors got what was left of St Nicholas during the First Crusade and placed the remains in a newly built church to St. Nicholas on the Lido.

While in Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas began to exude a clear watery liquid, smelling of rose water or myrrh.  The locals called it manna.  The mysterious manna was said to possess miraculous healing powers.  St Nicholas’ bones in Bari continue to ooze the magic potion, which is collected once a year by the clergy of the basilica on May 9th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ re-internment.  Today you can purchase vials of St. Nicholas manna, economically diluted in Holy Water, in the basilica’s gift shop.

This is not Saint Nicholas' bones, but Alexander the Great's bones, as discovered by St. Sisoes.  Still, a nice illustration.

St. Nicholas Today

St. Nicholas continues to have an exciting afterlife in his incarnation as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  There is the whole living at the North Pole thing, the elves that make toys, and of course the flying reindeer.  In the Netherlands Santa Claus is accompanied by a mischievous Moor (or more commonly a white Dutchman in blackface) named Black Pieter.  In parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus gets help from a demon named Krampus, who punishes all the wicked children.  While in the United States, Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola gets help from a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose.

In 1993, historians believe they had found the original tomb of St. Nicholas on the Turkish island of Gemile.  On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that they would be making a formal request to return St. Nicholas’ skeletal remains back to Turkey, saying his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.  There is no word as to how the people of Venice and Bari responded.  Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, and although officially a secular state, they have had difficulty accepting St. Nicholas.  In 2000 a Russian bronze sculpture of St. Nicholas in orthodox vestments was erected in Demre (formally St. Nicholas’ hometown of Myra).  Buses of Russian tourists arrived everyday to Demre, who would then knell and pray at the base of the statue.  In 2005, the city removed the statue and replaced it with a brightly painted plastic resin statue of the more secular Santa Claus.  This caused an international uproar, but the city held its ground until Christmas Day, 2008, when they replaced the statue a second time, this time with a fiberglass version of St Nicholas with Turkish facial features and clothing.  The controversy continues, however, as some have pointed out that St. Nicholas was Greek, and the Turks did not arrive in the region until the 11th century.  

Uccello's Saint George and the Dragon with a Poem by Chris Hall

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon, 1470

Not my Best Side by U. A. Fanthorpe


Not my best side, I'm afraid.
The artist didn't give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn't comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don't mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

II 
It's hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It's nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn't much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon--
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl's got to think of her future.

III 
I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can't
Do better than me at the moment.
I'm qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don't you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don't
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don't you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You're in my way. 

The Short and Violent Life of Michelangelo Caravaggio: Artist, Brawler, Murderer, Pimp by Chris Hall

Ottavio Leoni,  Portrait of Caravaggio,  c 1621

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, c 1621

His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting (chiaroscuro), make it possible for painters like Rembrandt to exist. Caravaggio’s commissions for religious works featured violent struggles, grotesque decapitations, torture and death, perhaps a reflection of his own tumultuous life. 

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

His early life was colored by the loss of his father, uncle, and grandparents from the plague, and seeing their stripped bodies piled up in cart to be taken away.  As a young man in Milan, he got into a fight with a policeman and killed him.  Fleeing justice he resettled in Rome and began painting. Caravaggio quickly burst into the Rome art scene and despite his paintings being controversial (on one occasion a painting was rejected because he used a well known prostitute to model as the Virgin Mary), he never lacked for commissions or patrons.  Yet he handled his success poorly and lived a violent life, always on the run from the law for being involved in fights and for vandalism.  Caravaggio’s police records in Rome fill several pages.  An early published account of him from 1604 describes how “after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." 

On 29 May, 1606 Carvaggio killed again, this time it was a notorious pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Caravaggio stabbed Tomassoni in the groin with a fencing sword and he bled to death.  Caravaggio’s motive for the murder is unclear.  Some have suggested it was over a gambling debt, or a contested point in a tennis match, others have suggested that it was because Caravaggio stole one of Tomassoni’s prostitutes for his own stable, or had slept with his wife.  Whatever the cause, the result was that the Pope issued a death warrant for Caravaggio, a Bando Capitale, which means essentially that there was reward out, literally, for his head. 

Caravaggio fled to Malta by way of Naples, taking refuge with sympathetic patrons and continuing to paint.  In 1608, in Malta, Caravaggio was on the fast track to become a Knight of the Order of St. John.  This was not to last, however.  Only a few months later and for reasons unclear, Caravaggio battered down the door of Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, one of the Order’s most senior Knights, and shot him, leaving him seriously injured.  Caravaggio was imprisoned in the guva, a bell shaped dungeon underground, with a trap door exit in the ceiling.  After only being there a week or so, somehow Caravaggio managed to escape, first by climbing up and out of the guva, making his way out of the fortress, and then by climbing 200 feet down a sheer precipice and into the sea, where he swam for three miles and got on a boat bound for Sicily.

Caravaggio, David Holding the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610

Now with assassins on his trail from both Rome and Malta, Caravaggio began sleeping fully clothed and armed.  While he still continued to paint, his behavior became increasingly erratic and he would tear apart his canvases at only a slight word of criticism.  Caravaggio soon made his way back to Naples where an attempt on his life was made.  It is thought that it was the Knights of the Order of St. John.  Reports in Rome said that Caravaggio was dead, but he survived the attack, seriously injured and with his face disfigured, but still alive.   In the summer of 1610 Caravaggio attempted to purchase his pardon from Rome with three canvases.  Ironically, one of the canvases, David Holding the Head of Goliath (1609-1610), features a Caravaggio self portrait, as Goliath’s severed head.  On 18 July he was on his way north by boat with the paintings when he died on route under mysterious circumstances, some saying exhausted from a life on the run, worsened with lead poisoning (from his paints) and a malaria fever, others say by assassination, from someone representing either Rome or Malta.  He was 38.  

Michelangelo "The Hangman" Buonarroti by Chris Hall

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Self-Portrait

Raphael called him "The Hangman" for his temperament and solitary nature.  Michelangelo “The Hangman” Buonarroti produced some extraordinary work, of which I am sure many of are already familiar . . . these are some details from the Sistine Chapel, depicting scenes from the Bible as well as Christ at the Last Judgment.  I was once fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see the work in person.  I wish I could say that it was an ecstatic moment, but I was immersed in a sea of humanity, all of us blindly bumping into each other and stepping on each other’s toes, for having to look up to the distant ceiling in order to see the work.  But it wasn’t a complete let down; I still got a real sense of the scale and could appreciate the magnitude of Michelangelo’s accomplishment.  By the way, "The Hangman" had a grim sense of humor.  The flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, seen below in the Last Judgment, is a self-portrait.  Also, King Minos the Demon Judge of the Damned, also shown below, is a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the church official who started a campaign to censor Michelangelo's work for its nudity.  When Cesena complained to the Pope about him being portrayed as a demon, the Pope responded that his "jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain." 

Click on the images to enlarge.

The Art of Pompeii by Chris Hall

In 1999 I had the opportunity to tour Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD.  I had previously seen some of the art in books and also in the museum in Naples, but seeing the art in Pompeii, in situ, had a profound effect upon me.  It was clear to me that the people of Pompeii thought, felt, and expressed themselves in much the same way we 20th Century people do.  Like us they were obsessed with sex, death, spirituality, nature, and capturing portraits for posterity.  Seeing these artworks among the ruins produced in me some strange, meditative thoughts, on life, death, and art, both as record specific to time and as something universal and eternal.  

Below are some images from Pompeii that I deem to be beautiful, in some form or fashion.  

Click the images to enlarge

Sex

Death

Spirituality

Portraiture

Animals and Nature

History


Love