Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Botticelli Code

Pallas and the Centaur, Botticelli
photo courtesy of Google Art Project

The paintings of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) have been pondered over by art historians for centuries, due to the often abstruse subject matter and iconography riddled within them.  Botticelli was often commissioned – predominantly by the Medici family – to paint mythological subjects.  One particular painting that has been subject to much analysis is his 1482 oil on canvas, commonly accepted as Pallas (or Minerva) and the Centaur.  The painting depicts a woman draped in a shimmering white gown bearing the three interlocking rings of the Medici family, an emerald green fabric and adorned with olive branches, holding a lavish halberd in her right hand and grasping the hair of a forlorn looking centaur with her left.  She carries on her back a shield, while the centaur clings to a black and gold bo, the quiver draped from his back.  The pair stand in what appears to be a meadow with a lonely looking beach not far in the distance, a ship with no sails perched on the water.  To their right a ledge creeps its way into the frame, moss hanging from the ledge. 
Close up, Medici symbol, photo courtesy of Google
Art Project
Close up, photo courtesy of Google Art Project
Art historians have generally accepted this woman to represent Pallas Athena, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, although there is no solid iconographical evidence pointing to it.  Regardless, according to a 1516 inventory of the Medici archives, the painting is entitled ja figura conuna Minerva e centauro in tela e asse dritto (roughly, the figure Minerva and centaur on canvas and straight board).  According to an article located in The Burlington Magazine, the most convincing interpretation relating the woman in Botticelli’s painting to Minerva is her relation to the centaur.  It appears to be a triumph of Wisdom over lust, which the centaur typically signifies.  In this case, the painting would appear to be a comment on chastity, a logical interpretation due to the fact that the painting was probably originally located in the bedroom of Lorenzo di Medici. 
Others believe her identity to be that of Camilla, a princess from Latium in Virgil’s epic Aeneid.  According to Freerick Hartt, Camilla was a chaste huntress dedicated to the service of Pallas Athena.  As with Minerva, there are no intrinsic symbols indicating this, only the title given it a 1498 inventory.  In this particular inventory, only a mere decade from when the painting was created, it is entitled Camila and a Satyr.  Though historians believe that the man who labeled it this title would not have been educated in the arts or history, they wonder who or what advised him to it – perhaps a title on the original frame.  Interestingly, Virgil writes of Camilla, “decus italae virgo”, or Splendor of Italy.  If this woman is in fact Camilla, then her personification exemplifies something particular about how the Medici family chose to be portrayed.  Moreover, she may symbolize the virtuous and civilizing nature of the family as portrayed to their city and country.
Close up, halberd, photo courtesy of
Google Art Project
            Perhaps the most intriguing argument over the identity of the characters and their meaning comes from A. I. Frothingham in an article for the American Journal of Archaeology.  Frothingham writes of the discovery of an image from the Roman calendar year 354, in which an Amazon woman represents the great Western city Trier – entitled Treberis.  The Amazon woman known as Treberis holds a spear in her left hand, while grasping the hair of a barbarian on her right, who has cast aside his bow and arrows.  The pair are surrounded by the riches of Rome and meant to symbolize the wealth of her great city.  Treberis herself represents the good government of Rome, which has granted the Germanic barbarian tribes with wealth and peace.  When viewed, the resemblance between the two pieces is shocking.  Though they are not exactly alike, they are similar in significant ways, such as the poses of the two characters, the weapons they carry, and most importantly the movement and personification of the women.  In Treberis, the Amazon woman represents the wealth and power of her country; but in Pallas and the Centaur she might be Florentia, representing ger great city, adorned in the olive branches symbolizing peace and under the watchful guidance of the Medici.  The halberd, also a symbol of guardians, furthers this argument.  She firmly grips the centaur, who may represent the chaotic and uncultured condition of Florence territory (according to Frothingham).
            Whoever the mysterious woman in Botticelli’s masterpiece really is, the symbols of the characters do lead historians in the right direction.  The Medici symbol provides evidence that the piece was commissioned for and representing the family, while the olive branch symbolizes peace, the halberd guardianship, and the centaur lust.  Art historians will unfortunately, only ever be able to guess at the true meaning, but so far they have provided students of art history a wealth of arguments and ideas from which to delve into.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Principles of Design in Sculpture

Sacrifice of Isaac, Photo courtesty of Wikipedia
Creative Commons & edited by Tessa Bookwalter

The piece I have chosen to discuss for this week is Brunelleschi’s Sacrifice of Isaac.  This relief depicts the scene from the scriptures in which Abraham, following God’s orders, takes his son Isaac to a mountain in Moriah to sacrifice him there. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) sculpted the bronze relief in a competition to construct the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401.  At its conclusion, Brunelleschi and the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) were declared equal winners and asked to design the doors together; but Brunelleschi would not accept the offer, remarking that two equal geniuses could not combine their forces to create a work of art. 
  1. Unity and Variety: The panel revolves around the center scene, with a figure on every side surrounding Abraham and Isaac.  Each character is necessary to create unity, because they draw the eye inward to the duo.  The angel Gabriel’s body and arm arch toward the center; and the mountain and brush opposite him curve inward as well, creating a line on either side which draws the eye in.  To the bottom, the characters create a foreground, which draws the eye up.  There is variety in imbalance from the rather empty top portion of the panel when compared with to the crowded foreground.  This variety helps to separate the sections of the piece, while the mountain in the foreground curves upwards on both sides, helping to create unity in the piece as a whole.
  2. Balance: As mentioned before, Brunelleschi’s panel is somewhat horizontally imbalanced.  The top half of the relief reveals empty space – Brunelleschi carves the figures of Gabriel, Isaac and Abraham affront a stark background.  As he moves downward, Brunelleschi carves behind his figures the mountain at Moriah (which Isaac, Abraham, and the lam sit atop), creating a busy background.
  3. Emphasis and Focal Point: The focal point of Sacrifice of Isaac is clearly the center, in which the figure Abraham takes a knife to his son’s throat.  The emphasis on this emotional scene is created in a variety of ways.  Most notably is the angel Gabriel, who swoops into the frame from the top left corner, arching his arm up and grasping Abraham’s outstretched hand.  The line created here draws the eye to Isaac’s face, which is perhaps the main focal point of the entire panel.  Abraham himself leans in toward his son, also creating a line drawing the eye to Isaac’s emotion filled face.  Each of the figures serves the purpose of drawing the eye in.  The horse in the foreground leans his head down to eat, in a line which draws the viewer directly to Isaac, and the two figures on either side curve inward, creating lines which draw the eye to the center.
  4. Rhythm: Rhythm in this piece helps – along with the other elements – to visually draw the eye inward.  The folded draperies on each of the figures swoop in such a way that they move the viewer from one particular section to the center.  The drapery also creates a rhythm that adds to the unity of the work as a whole.
  5. Scale: Brunelleschi is not entirely concerned with scale in his panel.  Although the characters are not entirely out of scale, there is little attention to perspective of any sort. 
  6. Proportion: Proportion seems to be more accurate.  In relation to themselves’, the characters’ bodies are relatively proportionate to real people with the exception of Abraham’s left hand, which seems larger for emphasis, and the horse in the foreground – which seems to have a head and legs that are rather disproportionate to the largeness of his torso.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Touch and Feel: Texture in the Italian Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance, realism in painting style spread rapidly.  Oil paints became the medium of choice as artists traded the fast drying and finicky egg tempera for paints that would blend beautifully and dry slowly, allowing artists time and flexibility to create realistic masterpieces.
This unique aspect allowed for artists to create amazing texture, a word which derives from the Latin “weaving,” describing surface character of fabrics and other materials experienced through the sense of touch.  The visual texture in pieces such as Fra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi (1496) and Piero del Pollaiolo’s panel Temperance (1470) provide marked examples of the artists’ ability to create trompe l’oeil with only paint and canvas.

Adoration of the Magi, Filippo Lippi, 1496.  Photo
courtesy of wikipedia creative commons.
Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), of the Carmelite friars in Florence, was an accomplished painter of his time.  His Adoration of the Magi, ripe with different textures, proves his mastery with the paintbrush.  Lippi creates the illusion of weight in heavy cloaks, utilizing chiaroscuro to create depth.  Every detail in this painting depicts some different texture, from the clouds in the sky to the wood and brush overhang above the Virgin and Child.  Those who pray around the duo wear light, silken scarves and are adorned with fur collars and cuffs, which look soft to the touch.  In this way Lippi creates the illusion of physical weight – the silks look light and airy while the furs and cloaks appear heavy, draped over bodies that seem to physically exist beneath them.

Temperance, Piero del Pollaiolo,
 1470. Photo courtesy of wikipedia
creative commons

Piero del Pollaiolo’s panel for Temperance, along with six others, originally formed the backrest decorations in the courtroom of the Guild of the Mercantanzia.  This panel in particular is exquisite in its fine detailing, from the throne in which the virtuous woman sits upon to her richly colored velveteen cloak.  Pollaiolo pays great attention to the work as a whole, but her cloak is the most striking when viewed in person.  Her deep red dress looks truly real, popping off the panel and seeming soft to the touch.  The stark contrast of the background’s solidity and her soft dress adds to this effect.  Pollaiolo paints the marble back ground so that it looks deep and cold, while her dress appears luscious with life. 
Lippi’s Adoration is full from top to bottom with different textures, so much so that it becomes overwhelming; whereas Temperance, much more tame, focuses mainly on a few different textures.  Temperance also portrays much richer textures, which leads me to believe that perhaps texture was key to this piece.  Adoration focuses less on this aspect; Lippi uses texture to add to the piece, not as an integral part of it.