Saturday, December 9, 2017


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Friday, December 8, 2017

What’s important about Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s altarpiece depicting St. Francis?

What’s important about Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s altarpiece depicting St. Francis?

Probably the main idea why we study Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s is altarpiece is because it was created in a transitional time between the Gothic period of time and the early Renaissance. Because of its placement at a pivotal time and its subject matter, which is St. Francis of Assisi, in both sets the standards as well as represents the changes that occur both physically in terms of how things look and changes in thought during that period.

The physical qualities of altar painting from before 1300 or so in Europe are heavily influenced by a style that was developed in what we call the Byzantine Empire starting as early as the fourth century, especially in Greece and the region we know today as Turkey. There are many physical and visual characteristics that this altarpiece represents.

This altarpiece was probably made on a piece of recycled what or panel. Most likely, it was assembled from a series of older pieces of furniture or panels of what that had time to petrify, another term for “age.” The reason why very old wood was used is that it was more stable than new work or greener would because it contained less moisture and the wood becomes harder and more stable as it ages.
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The panel was then coated with a series of alternating layers of a glue referred to as “gesso,” which is basically boiled animal hide which creates a type of glue or binder. Affixed to the panel with this gesso was plaster and canvas. Plaster is made usually from calcium carbonate also referred to as marble dust, and has a brilliant white sheen to it which allows for a consistent smooth surface on top of the wood that the paint can adhered to without any kind of chemical interactions occurring.
The paint used on the surface of this panel was made out of a medium, a medium is literally a type of paint, called egg tempera. Egg tempera uses a combination of water, glue, and sometimes the egg whites or egg yolks to create a kind of binder that glues particles of pigment permanently to the surface of a panel painting. If you’ve ever tried to clean a plate that has dried egg on it, you’ll know why it makes a good medium.
The pigments, also referred to as colorants or dyes, were often made by grinding up minerals or semiprecious stones. Sometimes other substances such as dyes made from plant or vegetal matter would be used as color mixed with the medium of egg and glue.
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This type of medium, egg tempera, would then be applied in small patches or hatch marks, that would be layered over time to create shading, tone, and color.

Egg tempera was the primary type of color or medium used up until around 1400 when oil paint began to be used more often.

The physical size of this altarpiece is also part of why we study it. It’s a little bit taller than 5 feet and so the central figure, which represent St. Francis, is life-size for the time. The composition could be described as bilaterally symmetrical. Which means that the figures St. Francis is flanked by an equal number of scenes or images on either side of him making the overall image appear even or symmetrical. Furthermore, the composition is subdivided on either side of Francis with three smaller scenes in which he appears over and over again.
The way in which Francis and the scenes are painted is not very realistic or illusionistic. The anatomy of the figures is stiff and un–lifelike. We can recognize that these are people however, they are not standing in naturalistic poses such as the “contrapposto” pose that we saw in ancient Greece and Rome. The proportions of the figure are slightly elongated, and the proportions of the face are also stylized or incorrect according to today’s standards of realism.



The proportions of the face for all the figures, adheres to a type of style, or visual convention, that comes from the Byzantine style. Sometimes this is referred to as “maniera greca.” Roughly translated as “the Greek manner,” the proportions of the face in the maniera greca style are that the eyes are located a little too far up in the fore head, the nose is a little too long and ends too far down the face, and the mouth is located a little too far towards the bottom of the chin.

The scenes are not very realistic in terms of the illusion of space. The buildings and the figures sizes are not in proportion to one another. There is no illusion of space, there is no background behind the figures that would contain things like a horizon line, clouds, or a change in scale as things move further back. Today, we are used to something called linear perspective. This makes all of the parallel lines and straight lines on buildings makes sense to us, however, linear perspective was not used until 1400 and that’s why these buildings look odd. It is almost as if all of the figures are standing up against the front of the picture in a single line and the buildings, the small hill in one of the scenes, are not the right sizes when compared to the figures.



There is also no light and shadow, or shading, that describe the figures for the buildings in a realistic way. There are some tonal variations or shading variations however, these are almost cartoons of what light and shadow look like and this will change about 70 years later after this altar was completed.

The background of the altar and of the scenes on the left and right sides are made with thin sheets of gold glued onto the background and have very little or no variation in them.

All of these distortions, stylizations, and rendering are part of a consistent tradition that had lasted for nearly 1000 years until the 1300s.



Moving from physical description to an analysis of the content and meaning of this altar, it’s important to realize that the unrealistic way in which this was painted is part of its meaning. When Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, began to be organized and codified in the fourth century, eventually there was a controversy concerning the use of images because of the second commandment which states that, one should not worship idols or may graven images. Basically, what this means is that, Catholics believed that it was essentially wrong to make images of religious figures because of the idea that they might be worshiped as idols. This is referred to as the iconoclastic controversy. Eventually it was decided that the creation of “icons” and religious art was acceptable because it allowed people to learn from the imagery.

As the Roman Catholic Church became more powerful, and there was a call or a demand for religious imagery, a kind of cartoon style, the maniera greca, was chosen because it was not illusionistic and therefore not like the Greeks and Romans “pagan” style of art. Probably, also because it could be mistaken for something real.

The creation of religious art and religious icons such as this altarpiece, was then seen as a way of educating people about religion, and the religious figures one was supposed to emulate. By the time of St. Francis of Assisi, some social and economic changes began to occur. St. Francis represents many of these changes in the viewpoints of Catholics at this time and so this painting of him and the scenes of his life represent many of the concepts that the common important during the Renaissance.

For example, St. Francis to stands in the center of the painting, was important reformer of the Catholic Church. He is represented here with a haircut that’s called a monks tonsure. This style of cutting a religious person’s hair was meant as a way to make them humble because it was considered to be a less attractive hairstyle than a full head of hair. In this way it would humble people involved in the church, by making priests and monks less attractive. Part of this is probably because priests and monks at this time were supposed to be celibate.

St. Francis also holds a book which is very similar to the “book of the world” or “libris mundi” that is depicted in many representations of Jesus from the Byzantine Empire. He also has wounds on his hands and feet, called the “stigmata,” which were bestowed upon him by God in honor of his religious sacrifice and integrity. People who received the stigmata were thought to be blessed by God because the wounds were in emulation of the ones that Christ received on the cross.


Francis is represented wearing a simple robe, barefoot, and a Baroque belt with three knots in it.  This clothing represents the main ideas behind the order of Catholicism called the Franciscan order he began. The main tenets or concepts are poverty, chastity, and obedience. Francis is not wearing expensive clothing and this is part of the value system he believed in.

The life and times of St. Francis are depicted almost as if they are a comic book on his right and left hand sides. The various scenes represent important episodes in which Francis acted in a way that led him to a kind of spiritual enlightenment.

Here’s a summary of the main events that led to Francis becoming a monk. Francis was born into a fairly wealthy family when she left to go fight a crusade against heretics and infidels. At one point he was taken hostage or prisoner and while imprisoned he had visions and visitations by spiritual entities that instructed him that he should “rebuild God’s house.”

After Francis was freed, as he was returning home Francis gave away his cloak and other worldly possessions. He then proceeded to give away many of his father’s possessions all in emulation of the charity and non-materialism that Jesus espoused in the New Testament.

After he did this, Francis was given the right to start a new type of “order” in the Catholic Church now called the Franciscan Order.  The main concepts being, poverty chastity and obedience but more importantly a life given to acting or emulating Jesus Christ when he was on the earth. There are other stories after she becomes a monk in which he receives the stigmata from a type of angelic creature called the seraphim. We see this in the upper left-hand corner of the altarpiece. There are also other scenes of Francis is good works circulating around him one of most notable is his sermon to the animals in the garden in which she expressed the idea that while animals may not have a soul like humans have they are part of God’s creation and should be honored and should be aware of God.

The take away from all this, and why this altarpiece and St. Francis are particularly important is that this altarpiece represents a fusion of some of the traditional imagery and art styles from earlier periods with some new radical ideas concerning religious reform that Francis brought about. The most important being that Francis advocated that all people should live and behave in such a way that they are copying or living life in the way that Jesus would.



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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

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Use the code: 
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Active from today until Dec 11
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Donatello's David

Form:  This lifesize bronze sculpture stands in a contrapposto stance.  His musculature is that of a young boy, probably around the age of thirteen or so.  The hat he wears (described by Stokstad as jaunty) is anachronistic and possibly out of place even for a shepherd boy from Italy in the 15th century.  David stands atop the bearded and helmeted head of Goliath who he has just vanquished.

Iconography and Context:  According to Janson, "this is the first life sized free standing sculpture since antiquity."  The figures size and pose are almost direct references to the classical tradition of casting idealized athletic figures in bronze with the lost wax process as evinced by the Doryphoros and Riace Bronzes (although they would not have been familiar with the bronzes since they were discovered in the 1970's).  In this way, Donatello would have combined the Bible story of David and Goliath with the classical and humanistic concept of kalos.  In effect, he was uniting both a theological and neoplatonic/humanistic point of view.

The iconography also points towards a political point of view.  The Italian city states were constantly at war with each other.  For example, Florence thought of themselves as the "David" to Rome's Goliath.  In this case, David is standing atop Goliath's head who sports a helmet.  According to Janson's Art History, the "elaborate helmet of Goliath with visor and wings, (is) a unique and implausible feature that can only refer to the dukes of Milan, who had threatened Florence."  For Janson, the hat David sports is then a reference to peace.

You may find Donatello's David a little bit ridiculous looking in his sun hat and almost effeminate stance and you are in good company.  Irving Stone's the chapter entitled "The Giant" from the book The Agony and the Ecstasy excerpted in Liaisons (page 164) Michelangelo explains why he thinks Donatello's version of David is ridiculous.

Stone quotes the Bible extensively in his passage.  Read the whole thing for yourself here and (I know it's a crazy idea), maybe you might even want to look it up in Liaisons!


1 Samuel
Chapter 17 (David and Goliath)
http://www.nccbuscc.org/nab/bible/1samuel/1samuel17.htm

1
The Philistines rallied their forces for battle at Socoh in Judah and camped between Socoh and Azekah at Ephes-dammim.
2
Saul and the Israelites also gathered and camped in the Vale of the Terebinth, drawing up their battle line to meet the Philistines.
3
The Philistines were stationed on one hill and the Israelites on an opposite hill, with a valley between them.
4
A champion named Goliath of Gath came out from the Philistine camp; he was six and a half feet tall.
5
He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a bronze corselet of scale armor weighing five thousand shekels,
6
1and bronze greaves, and had a bronze scimitar slung from a baldric.
7
2 The shaft of his javelin was like a weaver's heddle-bar, and its iron head weighed six hundred shekels. His shield-bearer went before him.
8
He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel: "Why come out in battle formation? I am a Philistine, and you are Saul's servants. Choose one of your men, and have him come down to me.
9
If he beats me in combat and kills me, we will be your vassals; but if I beat him and kill him, you shall be our vassals and serve us."
10
The Philistine continued: "I defy the ranks of Israel today. Give me a man and let us fight together."
11
Saul and all the men of Israel, when they heard this challenge of the Philistine, were dismayed and terror-stricken.
12
3 (David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. He had eight sons, and in the days of Saul was old and well on in years.
13
The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to war; these three sons who had gone off to war were named, the first-born Eliab, the second son Abinadab, and the third Shammah.
14
David was the youngest. While the three oldest had joined Saul,
15
David would go and come from Saul to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem.
16
(Meanwhile the Philistine came forward and took his stand morning and evening for forty days.
17
(Now Jesse said to his son David: "Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves for your brothers, and bring them quickly to your brothers in the camp.
18
Also take these ten cheeses for the field officer. Greet your brothers and bring home some token from them.
19
Saul, and they, and all Israel are fighting against the Philistines in the Vale of the Terebinth."
20
Early the next morning, having left the flock with a shepherd, David set out on his errand, as Jesse had commanded him. He reached the barricade of the camp just as the army, on their way to the battleground, were shouting their battle cry.
21
The Israelites and the Philistines drew up opposite each other in battle array.
22
David entrusted what he had brought to the keeper of the baggage and hastened to the battle line, where he greeted his brothers.
23
While he was talking with them, the Philistine champion, by name Goliath of Gath, came up from the ranks of the Philistines and spoke as before, and David listened.
24
When the Israelites saw the man, they all retreated before him, very much afraid.
25
The Israelites had been saying: "Do you see this man coming up? He comes up to insult Israel. If anyone should kill him, the king would give him great wealth, and his daughter as well, and would grant exemption to his father's family in Israel."
26
David now said to the men standing by: "What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and frees Israel of the disgrace? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine in any case, that he should insult the armies of the living God?"
27
They repeated the same words to him and said, "That is how the man who kills him will be rewarded."
28
When Eliab, his oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he grew angry with David and said: "Why did you come down? With whom have you left those sheep in the desert meanwhile? I know your arrogance and your evil intent. You came down to enjoy the battle!"
29
David replied, "What have I done now?--I was only talking."
30
Yet he turned from him to another and asked the same question; and everyone gave him the same answer as before.
31
The words that David had spoken were overheard and reported to Saul, who sent for him.)
32
Then David spoke to Saul: "Let your majesty not lose courage. I am at your service to go and fight this Philistine."
33
But Saul answered David, "You cannot go up against this Philistine and fight with him, for you are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth."
34
Then David told Saul: "Your servant used to tend his father's sheep, and whenever a lion or bear came to carry off a sheep from the flock,
35
I would go after it and attack it and rescue the prey from its mouth. If it attacked me, I would seize it by the jaw, strike it, and kill it.
36
Your servant has killed both a lion and a bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be as one of them, because he has insulted the armies of the living God."
37
David continued: "The LORD, who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine." Saul answered David, "Go! the LORD will be with you."
38
Then Saul clothed David in his own tunic, putting a bronze helmet on his head and arming him with a coat of mail.
39
David also girded himself with Saul's sword over the tunic. He walked with difficulty, however, since he had never tried armor before. He said to Saul, "I cannot go in these, because I have never tried them before." So he took them off.
40
Then, staff in hand, David selected five smooth stones from the wadi and put them in the pocket of his shepherd's bag. With his sling also ready to hand, he approached the Philistine.
41
With his shield-bearer marching before him, the Philistine also advanced closer and closer to David.
42
When he had sized David up, and seen that he was youthful, and ruddy, and handsome in appearance, he held him in contempt.
43
The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog that you come against me with a staff?" Then the Philistine cursed David by his gods
44
and said to him, "Come here to me, and I will leave your flesh for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field."
45
David answered him: "You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted.
46
Today the LORD shall deliver you into my hand; I will strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will leave your corpse and the corpses of the Philistine army for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God.
47
All this multitude, too, shall learn that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves. For the battle is the LORD'S, and he shall deliver you into our hands."
48
The Philistine then moved to meet David at close quarters, while David ran quickly toward the battle line in the direction of the Philistine.
49
David put his hand into the bag and took out a stone, hurled it with the sling, and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone embedded itself in his brow, and he fell prostrate on the ground.
50
(Thus David overcame the Philistine with sling and stone; he struck the Philistine mortally, and did it without a sword.)
51
Then David ran and stood over him; with the Philistine's own sword (which he drew from its sheath) he dispatched him and cut off his head.When they saw that their hero was dead, the Philistines took to flight.
52
Then the men of Israel and Judah, with loud shouts, went in pursuit of the Philistines to the approaches of Gath and to the gates of Ekron, and Philistines fell wounded along the road from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron.
53
On their return from the pursuit of the Philistines, the Israelites looted their camp.
54
4 David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he kept Goliath's armor in his own tent.
55
(When Saul saw David go out to meet the Philistine, he asked his general Abner, "Abner, whose son is that youth?" Abner replied, "As truly as your majesty is alive, I have no idea."
56
And the king said, "Find out whose son the lad is."
57
So when David returned from slaying the Philistine, Abner took him and presented him to Saul. David was still holding the Philistine's head.
58
Saul then asked him, "Whose son are you, young man?" David replied, "I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem."

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

'New Love' by Sean Allgrove

This guy isn't very active when I googled him but I love this piece. https://seanallgrove.deviantart.com/

Sean Allgrove  from theUnited Kingdom recently moved to rural Suffolk after spending the past few years in Cambridge. Studied Illustration and Animation but my love is for painting people...or men...mostly men. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Art History: Women's roles during the Renaissance


Art History: Women's roles during the Renaissance


Context and Iconography: The Male Gaze


The series of images at the left are almost major landmarks in understanding the Renaissance conception of the difference between male and female roles.  Images such as these and the writings of Reniassance authors, such as those by Castiglione and Christine de Pizan are in some ways representative of the "ideal" roles for each gender.  Since images like this were primarily commissioned by male patrons and made by male artists some historians have named this phenomena the "male gaze."


Leonardo and his contemporaries literally believed that, "Man is the measure of all things."  In this drawing we see that Leonardo takes this idea almost quite literally and scientifically.  Leonardo, consistent with classical thinking, chooses to represent the nude male figure rather than the nude female.  This choice is quite deliberate because much of the thinking concerning classical humanism revolves around the specifically male experience of the world.  In fact, authors like Castiglione specifically look on men who have, 


. . .such a countenance as this is, will I have our Courtier to have, and not be so soft and womanish as many procure to have: that do not only curl the hair, and pick the brows, but also pamper themselves in every point like the most wanton and dishonest women in the world. One would think that in the way they walk, stand, and in all their gestures so tender and weak, that their limbs were ready to fall apart. Their pronunciation and language are effeminate. These men, seeing that nature has not made them women, ought not to be esteemed in place of good women, but like common Harlots to be banished, not only out of princes’ courts, but also out of the company of Gentlemen. To come therefore to the quality of the person,
Catiglione, Excerpt from the "Courtier"

Images of Mary can almost always be traced back to the Gothic depiction of Mary as the "Throne of Wisdom."   In most images, such as in these by Giotto and Leonardo, she not only serves as a mother but as a platform or throne for her child.  Stokstad refers to this as symbolic of the old testament references to the Lion Throne of King Solomon who is known as a wise and fair ruler and judge, but it is also a communication of the male conceived ideal of what the perfect woman should be.

Even when the Renaissance artist breaks with tradition and begins to think critically about the new roles of men and women, as in the Arnolfini wedding portrait and Christine de Pizan's writings, we still can see that both support the concept that there are appropriate roles for males and females in the world. 


God has similarly ordained man and woman to serve Him in different offices and also to aid and comfort one another, each in their ordained task, and to each sex has given a fitting and appropriate nature and inclination to fulfill their offices. Inasmuch as the human species often errs in what it is supposed to do, God gives men strong and hardy bodies for coming and going as well as for speaking boldly. And for this reason, men with this nature learn the laws - and must do so - in order to keep the world under the rule of justice and, in case anyone does not wish to obey the statutes which have been ordained and established by reason of law, are required to make them obey with physical constraint and force of arms, a task which women could never accomplish. Nevertheless, though God has given women great understanding 

Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies 1405


In the case of the Arnolfini portrait, the role is that of the good wife.  Notice that being a wife is also being a good mother and we can see this symbolically in Giovanna Cenami's swelling belly and bunched up drapery which symbolizes pregnancy according to Panofsky.

Both Castiglione and de Pizan seem to warn us off of changing the male and female roles and sticking to what we know or is prescribed in the Bible.  In fact, many images of females who break out of these traditional roles, such as the biblical women, Eve, Judith, and Suzanne and the not so biblilical Phyllis are responsible for our down fall and in this case of Eve for our "original sin." 



Form:  This is a simple sketch in pen and ink that was probably a preliminary drawing for an engraving or a painting.  The anatomy is rather stiff and less gestural than those of his contemporary Italian counterparts.
Space is created through a size scale relationship of foreground to background and a variation of marks in the background buildings indicates a use of atmospheric perspective. 

Grien uses cross contour lines (lines that literally follow the direction across the curves of the trunks) to indicate the texture of the tree and cross hatching to develop the value structure of the figures and their drapery in the foreground.  These linear techniques would have been important for a printmaker to master.

Iconography:  The them of an "ill matched couple," which usually depicts a young and beautiful maiden in the company of an older man is a common them in Renaissance art of the North.  In many images the younger woman has her hand on the purse of the older man but in this case the subject matter of the image is a young beautiful woman dressed in Renaissance clothing of the Northern style riding around or taming an older man. Images like this were meant to be a warning to men of the power of inappropriate passion and a warning against the sexual powers of young woman.

Context: More specifically this relates to the story of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and Phyllis, the wife of his pupil Alexander the Great.  According to the Brittanica, 

"in late 343 or early 342 Aristotle, at about the age of 42, was invited by Philip II of Macedon to his capital at Pella to tutor his 13-year-old son, Alexander. As the leading intellectual figure in Greece, Aristotle was commissioned to prepare Alexander for his future role as a military leader. As it turned out, Alexander was to dominate the Greek world and defend it against the Persian Empire."
This union of older philosopher master was the beginning of a nearly lifelong advisory position for Aristotle. 
Alexander respected the superior intellect of Aristotle in all things and felt that Aristotle represented the ideal intellectual who represented a total mastery of the intellectual over the physical self.  (Remember the Apollonian Dionysian conflict?) 

Phyllis questioned Aristsotles absolute control and according to legend made a bet with Alexander that she could show him that passion was stronger than reason.  She began to flirt with Aristotle.  After inflaming Aristotle with lust, he began to beg for a sexual trist.  Phyllis informed Alexander that she had the proof he sought and instructed Alexander to hide in the bushes and watch while she literally mad an "ass" out of Aristotle. 

In order to get what he wanted, Aristotle had to agree to do whatever Phyllis wanted.  She instructed Aristotle to get down on all fours and allow her to ride him around the courtyard. 

Form:  In this variation of the theme, the two figures are nude and the total environment is much more worked out.  This image indicates a fairly good use of anatomy and perspective and shows more of a development of the mark making discussed in Grien's drawing.  The development of the vocabulary of marks would have been important for Grien to be able to make a high quality engraving. 

Engraving 

In engraving, the design is cut into metal with a graver or burin. The burin is a steel rod with a square or lozenge-shaped section and a slightly bent shank. The cutting is accomplished by pushing the burin into the metal plate. The deeper it penetrates into the metal, the wider the line; variations in depth create the swelling tapering character of the engraved line. After the engraving is finished, the slight burr raised by the graver is cleaned off with a scraper. The engraved line is so sharp and clean that it asserts itself even if cut over a densely etched area. In the print, the engraved line is notable for its precision and intensity. In engraving, the hand does not move freely in any direction but pushes the graver forward in a line; a change of direction is achieved by the manipulation of the plate with the other hand. Although copper, zinc, aluminum, and magnesium plates are used--and in the past soft iron and even steel were used--the best all-around metal is copper. It has the most consistent structure and is neither too soft nor too hard.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Context: In the North, places like Germany, France and Holland, the art market was a bit different than in Italy.  Although the Reformation did not officially begin until 1518, there were stirrings of it earlier than that. 

In Northern towns and cities, there was a different distrubution of wealth and probably a larger upper middle class than in Italy.  In addition to these factors, the main patron for the arts was in Italy in the Churches of Rome, Padua and Florence.  Since individuals could afford to buy work for smaller prices many artists sought out this different market. The print market allowed artists to sell multiple copies of the same images to a larger number of people and make as much money from it as the sale of one or two paintings.

This also freed some of the artists from the typical more Catholic or overtly religious iconography of much of the art of the South and allowed them to explore other kinds of imagery and subjects.

Iconography:  Stokstad describes the iconography of this image as a "moral lesson on the power of evil" but more than that, Stokstad discusses the use of images of witches in his images as an expression of evil.  It is interesting that this is one of the roles that older, perhaps unattractive woman were accused of during the Renaissance and well into the 1800's.  In some ways, the depiction of witches in the art of the Renaissance represents the anti-ideal for a woman.  In this way, woman are still provided with a role model of what not to become. 

Form and Context: 

Woodcut is the technique of printing designs from planks of wood. . . It is one of the oldest methods of making prints from a relief surface, having been used in China to decorate textiles since the 5th century AD. In Europe, printing from wood blocks on textiles was known from the early 14th century, but it had little development until paper began to be manufactured in France and Germany at the end of the 14th century. . . In Bavaria, Austria, and Bohemia, religious images and playing cards were first made from wood blocks in the early 15th century, and the development of printing from movable type led to widespread use of woodcut illustrations in the Netherlands and in Italy. With the 16th century, black-line woodcut reached its greatest perfection with Albrecht Dürer and his followers Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein. In the Netherlands Lucas van Leyden and in Italy Jacopo de' Barbari and Domenico Campagnola, who were, like Dürer, engravers on copper, also made woodcuts.

As wood is a natural material, its structure varies enormously and this exercises a strong influence on the cutting. Wood blocks are cut plankwise. The woods most often used are pear, rose, pine, apple, and beech. The old masters preferred fine-grained hardwoods because they allow finer detail work than softwoods, but modern printmakers value the coarse grain of softwoods and often incorporate it into the design.



The printing of woodcuts is a relatively simple process because it does not require great pressure. Although presses are used, even hand rubbing with a wooden spoon can produce a good print. The ink used to print woodcuts must be fairly solid and sticky, so that it lies on the surface without flowing into the hollows. The printing ink can be deposited on the relief either with dabbers or with rollers. Thinner papers are particularly suitable for woodcuts because they make rich prints without heavy pressure.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.



TIZIANO Vecellio (Titian) The Venus of Urbino 1538 Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm 
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italian Renaissance


In the background of Titian’s painting entitled "The Venus of Urbino" (1538) are two women looking inside or placing things inside a chest. This chest or cassone is most likely a dowry chest, in which case the women are then preparing the chest with gifts for the upcoming nuptials. Venus, the goddess of beauty, nude in the foreground, presides over the event, but there’s something wrong with this picture. Venus is really the Duke of Urbino’s courtesan (mistress) and the title of the painting is just a disguise to make a nearly pornographic portrait palatable. This kind of double meaning in a painting is common during the Renaissance especially in portrayals of women.

What is also interesting about this images is that the artist chose to juxtapose the eroticized female form with commodities or luxury items.  By playing the textures and body of the female against expensive fabrics, fur, fruit, and dowery chest containing the family jewels and porcelain, the artist is also making the human female form another commodity which can be bought and sold.  In this way, the wealth of the patron is also eroticized.  This device is played off again and again throughout the history of art.

The cassone is a familiar object in the upper class Renaissance home. Provided by the bride’s family and kept throughout her life the chest is symbol of her marriage. The decorations on the chest are designed to educate the woman who owns it. The images that adorn cassoni relate familiar classical and biblical narratives concerning the lives of great women. For example, San Francisco’s "Legion of Honor" has a panel from a cassone by Jacopo del Sellaio that depicts the "Legend of Brutus and Portia," circa 1485. Both Plutarch (AD 46-119), a Greek historian, and Shakespeare (1554-1616) in his play "Julius Caesar," depict Portia as a strong and loyal wife. In Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar," Portia exclaims, "Think you I am no stronger than my sex, Being so fathered and so husbanded?" (Act 2, i, 319-320) and stabs herself in the leg to prove to Brutus that she can bear any discomfort for him. After she learns of Brutus’ defeat, she kills herself by swallowing hot coals. Another cassone from the Louvre depicts the Old Testament story of Queen Esther and her self-sacrificing patriotic acts that saved the Jewish people. The subtext of these tales is not just loyalty but self-sacrificing loyalty in the face of adversity.

Titian's painting has been the subject of much observation.  It's interesting that so much positive "press" has been associated with this image considering how much it has been vilified in the past.  Mark Twain, in his biography Tramp Abroad, recorded his response to his encounter with the Titian painting:


You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world --the Tribune-- and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses -- Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed --no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl --but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to --and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her --just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world...yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words....There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought -- I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.

Now that you know how Twain felt about this work.  This poem by Browning discusses a similar painting.   It is used by the narrator of the poem as a point of departure to discuss how he feels about his last wife and how he feels women should behave.  As you read it, try to relate the painting above to it. 

"My Last Duchess" - Robert Browning - 1842

  1   That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
  2   Looking as if she were alive. I call 
  3   That piece a wonder, now; Frà Pandolf's hands 
  4   Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
  5   Will't please you sit and look at her? I said 
  6   "Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read 
  7   Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
  8   The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
  9   But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
10   The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
11   And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
12   How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
13   Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not 
14   Her husband's presence only, called that spot 
15   Of joy into the Duchess' cheek; perhaps 
16   Fra Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps 
17   Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint 
18   Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
19   Half-flush that dies along her throat." Such stuff 
20   Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
21   For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
22   A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad, 
23   Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er 
24   She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
25   Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast, 
26   The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
27   The bough of cherries some officious fool 
28   Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 
29   She rode with round the terrace - all and each 
30   Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
31   Or blush, at least. She thanked men, - good! but thanked 
32   Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked 
33   My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 
34   With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame 
35   This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
36   In speech - which I have not - to make your will 
37   Quite clear to such an one, and say "Just this 
38   Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
39   Or there exceed the mark" - and if she let 
40   Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
41   Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse - 
42   E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
43   Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
44   Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without 
45   Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 
46   Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 
47   As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet 
48   The company below, then. I repeat, 
49   The Count your master's known munificence 
50   Is ample warrant that no just pretense 
51   Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 
52   Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed 
53   At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go 
54   Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 
55   Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
56   Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.


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