Monday, August 28, 2006

On the Importance of Dates in Art Appreciation

I know how irritating it can be when someone reviews something I've written, but misrepresents or didn't quite understand a point I made. So I want to share a portion of the e-mail I received from Rob Burdock, the blogger whose "embedded dates" technique I last wrote about.

Rob wrote: "Perhaps I wrongly give the impression that my reason for devising this system for remembering dates was due to a real need to regurgitate an artwork's date during an Art History test. While this may earn an extra point the real reason for devising this system was so I could place the piece into the correct context with other creations of the same period. When I first began studying the subject my lack of Art History knowledge and my inability to remember dates resulted in me quite easily visualising Giotto skipping hand in hand through the streets of Florence with da Vinci or Bernini telling Michelangelo that his David was frankly a bit of rubbish! (Bernini's words, not mine) so being able to accurately date artwork was important for me to understand artist's influences, contemporary conventions etc. ... "

I absolutely agree with Rob about how important it is to know the relative position on a timeline of different artists and artistic styles in order to appreciate art in the context of contemporary influences. That's the sort of integrating knowledge that takes one's appreciation of what one is looking at to "the next level".

Here's a terrific resource: The best art history timeline I've found is on the New York Metropolitan Museum's website, at

Beware: you can spend hours on this site, traveling around the world and back again, on a magical art history tour!

I have to admit ... this is the best I've found ... but once I found it, I stopped looking! If you know of other good art timelines, I'd love to hear of them.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Looking at the Details in a Work of Art

Just back from a short (computerless) trip and feeling anxious that it's been so long since my last post. I think if I'm going to maintain a blog, I'll have to learn to let that worry go ... this is supposed to be a pleasure!

Following a thread in an art forum discussion this morning, I came across a clever blog entry that you might enjoy. I think the focus of this particular blog is a tad off-track for my interests, but this entry is fun.

One of the examples this blogger (named Rob) used to demonstrate his technique was Bramante's Tempietto, dated c.1502. I love this little structure and, if I have time, I always go see it when I'm in Rome First, Rob points out that the shape of the Tempietto is round =0. Then he noted the two shell reliefs in the niches flanking the central escutcheon on the upper drum = 2. Hence the memory aid for the date, '02.

The real advantage I see in using this embedded date approach is not so much as an assist in the memorization of precise dates -- which is a gripe of mine about how art history is so often taught. Rather, what I like about it is that it draws you in to study the painting or sculpture or architecture closely, so you really look at and think about the details. THIS is what art appreciation is all about!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The more one knows, the more confusing it can be!

Sometimes artists would give the physcial features of the reigning pope to the historic pope who figured in the event being portrayed. It was an "honor thy father" thing, or ... perhaps more likely ... a sycophant thing. As one gains more experience viewing art, one might come to recognize, from contemporary portraits, what, say, Clement VII looked like. So one might be a tad confused whan looking at Giorgio Vasari's Mass of St. Gregory the Great (1540), in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. ... St. Gregory (590-604) happens to look exactly like Clement VII (Papacy: 1523-1534)!

It was also common for an artist to depict his patron in a history painting, but viewers today are less likely to recognize a mere cardinal!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

1511: Martin Luther at Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

For part of the year 1511, Pope Julius was away from Rome, battling enemies near Bologna … and incidentally, ignoring Michelangelo’s pleas for at least partial payment for his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

At the same time, there was much activity at the Augustinian monastery and church of Sta. Maria del Popolo . Raphael had started his extraordinary work on the Chigi chapel (pron. KEEgee). And two Augustinian monks arrived from Germany to present a petition to the head of their order, who resided in Rome. When the two monks learned that the man they sought was with the pope in Bologna, they settled into their lodging at Santa Maria del Popolo to await his return.

Upon their arrival in Rome, just inside the Porta del Popolo, the younger of the two had fallen to his knees, kissed the ground, and shouted, "Blessed art thou, holy Rome!" It was Martin Luther, aged 27.

But Luther’s joy quickly turned to dismay, and he soon came to hate everything about the city: what he viewed as the ignorance and irreverence of the priests, the highly visible prostitutes, the rubbish in the river. He deplored the Roman habit of urinating in the street, even though decorum dictated that this should not be done within view of an image of a saint! He even loathed the vigorous gesturing that accompanied Italian conversation!

It was Martin Luther’s only visit to this city, but once was all he needed to be convinced that Rome was in the clutches of the devil. His disgust was much like the reaction of St. Augustine himself, who had been appalled by Roman life more than a millennium before.

Just six years later Luther posted his 95 topics for debate on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, and started the ball rolling towards the Protestant Reformation.

When Julius returned to Rome from his military endeavors, having lost Bologna to the French, he hung above the altar in Santa Maria del Popolo -- suspended by a silver chain -- a cannonball that had almost taken his life on the battlefield.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I come across wonderful books and places and things in my researches and travels. As much as I can reasonably include in one of my Jane's Smart Art Guides, ( I do. But then there's all the other interesting material that I want to share ... I just can't bear to let go to waste! And when I enjoy a book, I want to pass that pleasure along to others.

I read H.V. Morton's A Traveller In Rome last year. (Out of print, so look for it on This book is a delight to read before a trip or while you’re visiting Rome. Published in 1957, Morton effortlessly weaves his way back and forth through layers of history, and I was impelled through it as though I had no choice in the matter! By way of demonstration, here’s just a snippet that explains the name of the Basilica of St. John Lateran ...

"The gay young men of imperial Rome drove fast chariots, cultivated low companions, kept late hours, drank too much, and sometimes became amateur gladiators. Plautius Lateranus, the notorious play-boy, (was) evidently one of those big, good-natured men who never meet trouble half-way, but who go out and bring it home with them. (...) He agreed to be the one who was to hold Nero down while others slipped their daggers into him. A plot is in danger of discovery in
direct proportion to the number of people in it, and this one contained so many conspirators that it was doomed to discovery (…) Like so many men of his type, he absolved his follies by a courageous death. (…)

The Lateranus property eventually became part of the dowry of Fausta, the wife of Constantine the Great, and as soon as Constantine had given freedom to the Church, he made a gift of the Lateran Palace to the Pope. He thus ensured one of Fate’s most unlikely associations: that the name of one of Messalina’s lovers and that of St. John the Baptist should go down the ages together as St. John in
Lateran, the Mother church of Christendom."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

San Marco provides respite to the weary traveler.

I've been stymied about starting a blog for over a year. Back then it seemed like a good idea, but I was daunted by the commitment, given what else I was tying to do ... ie: create launch titles for my new audio-art-guide publishing business. I put it off. Meanwhile, bloggers proliferated exponentially, and I became convinced that my efforts would be lost in the burgeoning blogoshere. Then one day, recently, three things simultaneously pushed me over the hump. First, as I enthused about something I'd just read, Michael, my partner, said, "That could have been your blog entry for the day." Then Aaron, my web master, told me how easy it is to use Then I went on a blog hunt, looking for people who might already be talking about what I'm interested in ... and I didn't find a thing. So here I am ... blogging.

We're recently back from 3-weeks in Italy and France, adding our voice to reports that it's been horrendously hot in parts of Europe this summer. In late June, in Florence, we suffered a day of 102F. We scaled our plans back, deciding to skip the Brancacci Chapel across the river, in favor of lying spread-eagle in our skivvies, reading, in our airconditioned hotel room! The Orta dei Medici, by the way, is a lovely hotel, especially if you're focused on San Marco, as we were. They claim that the garden that our room overlooked -- along with the bell tower of San Marco -- is actually the very same courtyard where Michelangelo worked in his youth, when he was in the household of Lorenzo Il Magnifico. How cool is that?! Makes me think it's time to reread Irving Stone's The Agony & The Ecstasy. The Accademia museum, where the lines to see Michelangelo's David are long in the summer, is also quite nearby. And there's an excellent restaurant called Accademia, right on Piazza San Marco. We had two very nice dinners there, during a three-night stay in Florence, because of the heat ... it was near the hotel and was well-airconditioned!
We were in Florence to test the script of the next Jane's Smart Art Guides audio guide, (Fra Angelico: San Marco, Florence) which provides an in-depth tour of the delightful frescoes Beato Angelico and his assistants painted around the cloister and in the dormitory in the 15thC. ( We'd been in Rome, too, doing preparatory work for the next title, to follow Fra Angelico -- Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura at the Vatican inRome. This brings me to the WHY of this blog. I have become consumed by my interest in 14th - 17thC European art and architecture, and the context of its historical under-pinnings. I can't pass a church without going in. In Italy, especially, the churches are still packed with exceptional art. This is not the case in France, where the government owns the churches, and any important religious art has been removed to the Louvre -- except for the architectural sculpture and stained glass, of course. Anyway, I know there are lots of like-minded people out there -- not art scholars, although your input would be welcome, too -- but amateurs (in the true sense of the word -- that is, art-lovers) who would enjoy the interchange of mutual enthusiasms. If you've found this blog, and read this far, feel free to post. To paraphrase Robert Burns: "Here's to us, and all who are like us!"