Albenga Baptistery

Albenga Baptistery, interior view, early 6th century, Albenga, Italy

“Early Christian Baptisteries were more than simply convenient shelters for liturgical rites. They functioned as symbols in themselves; their shape and decoration reflected and reinforced the theological significance or meaning of the ritual. Whereas the shapes and their furnishings were specially built to accommodate a complex ceremony having regional and indigenous variations, certain details of their design were intended to express the meaning and purpose of the rite…” writes R. Jensen in his 2010 book Living Water. The Albenga Baptistery intends to briefly explore a magnificent example of Early Christian Baptistery Architecture.    https://brill.com/view/book/9789004189089/Bej.9789004188983.i-306_008.xml

Albenga is an old Italian city with a rich history. Built on the Gulf of Genoa, in the province of Savona in Liguria, Albenga is charmingly nicknamed, City of a Hundred Towers. During the Roman period, Albenga was a busy port town called Albium Ingaunum. Interestingly, the city’s ancient Roman structure survived time, and today, the two Roman main streets, the “Cardo” and “Decumanus” intersect at its modern centre. The city is also famous for the wreck of the Roman ship, exhibited in the Naval Museum. This  Marine Archaeology find is the “largest Roman transport vessel known to date in the Mediterranean, with a load exceeding 10,000 amphorae, and therefore with a net capacity of 450/500 tons. The amphorae contained wine from Campania destined for the markets of southern France and Spain. Along with wine, black-glazed ceramics…” and other types of export pottery were discovered as well.  https://www.scoprialbenga.it/en/roman-naval-museum.htm     In addition to Roman ruins, Albenga boasts splendid Early Christian and Medieval monuments like the city’s 12th-century Cathedral, the famous early 6th-century Baptistery we will further discuss, and “hundred” of Medieval Towers.  

The Albenga Baptistery was built during the early sixth century AD, when the city, following a perilous period of unrest, was reconstructed by Emperor Flavio Costanzo in his attempt to rebuild the Roman Empire. The Albenga Baptistery can be described as an octagonal room with a baptismal font in the middle and “inner walls articulated in two arcades, one above the other, and originally covered by a dome.” The lower arcade presents eight arches followed by niches, one of both on each of the eight walls. Each niche has a semicircular or rectangular ground plan and a small window for illumination. “Two of the niches, to the south-west and the south-east, have doors connecting the octagonal room with the outside.” The Baptistery’s upper arcade has sixteen arches, seven of which are large windows, one smaller in size, and the rest of the arches, in between windows, simply closed. Interestingly, “while the octagonal shape dominates the inside of the building and also the outside of the upper part, the thicker, lower part has an irregular, decagonal outer shape, probably in order to adapt to surrounding buildings of which little is known.” Bottom line, this is an ambitious Early Christian architectural project “realized through important economic and architectural efforts.”          https://www.academia.edu/14528427/Photomodelling_as_an_Instrument_for_Stratigraphic_Analysis_of_Standing_Buildings_the_Baptistery_of_Albenga_con_Cristian_Aiello_Federico_Caruso_Chiara_Cecalupo_Elie_Essa_Kas_Hanna_in_Rivista_di_Archeologia_Cristiana_90_2014_pp_259_293    

The Baptistery’s interior was, it is believed, decorated with a bold mosaic pictorial program that covered, most probably, the niches, the walls and the pavement surrounding the baptismal font of the Baptistery. Today, the only part covered with mosaics is the barrel vault over the northeastern interior niche. Reading Nathan S. Denis’s Visualizing Trinitarian space in the Albanga Baptistery, we learn that “the early sixth-century baptistery in Albenga, Italy, contains one of the earliest attempts to render the Christian Trinity in pictorial form.”

This mosaic is made of two parts. The bigger part of the two presents “a tripartite group of interlocking Chi-Rho monograms imprinted upon an equally tripartite gradient-blue nimbus” of golden-yellow and white marble tesserae for the Chi-Rho and a circular field of light-blue glass mosaic for the nimbus. “Surrounding the monogram are twelve white doves; immediately above the monogram is a small orb containing a golden cross; and… eighty-six eight-pointed white stars against a deep, lapis-coloured background…” The smaller of the two is on the lunette above the window and shows two lambs flanking a jewelled cross in a paradisiacal landscape of green and blue background.

Both compositions are framed by a thick rinceaux border on a striking white background. There is a second border, both geometric and floral, on the underside of the window arch flanking a white anchor, and again, over the entrance to the niche, flanking an inscription that reads “NOMINAMVS QVORVM HIC RELIQVIAE SVNT,” or “We call upon [them] whose relics are here.” The inscription is accompanied by the names of  “Sts. Stephen, John the Evangelist, Lawrence, Nabor, Protasius, Felix, and Gervasius, with the two missing names on the lowest register generally believed to have been St. Victor and Sixtus I.”    

On Albenga’s Baptistery, an article worth reading: https://www.academia.edu/37328427/Bodies_in_Motion_Visualizing_Trinitarian_Space_in_the_Albenga_Baptistery

For a Student Activity, please… check HERE!

The Archangel Gabriel of Hagia Sophia

Archangel Gabriel, 9th century, south side of the Bema of the Holy Apse, entire figure seen through scaffolds, photographed in 1938, MS.BZ.004-03-01-02-016-029, The Byzantine Institute, Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. the late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

“Whittemore is now working on a huge archangel, on the S. face of the arch in front of the E. semi-dome. On the same scale as the Virgin, he was one of her two guards. Whether his colleague, on the N. face, is preserved or not Whittemore doesn’t yet know. But the one on the S. face is very well preserved indeed: enough tests have been made to establish that. And he may be of the early Macedonian period: X or even IX—after 842, when images were finally restored. You may imagine with what thirst I await the revelation.” This is an excerpt from a letter Royall Tyler wrote to Mildred Barnes Bliss, back on October 11, 1936 about the Uncovering of the Mosaics of Hagia Sophia and The Archangel Gabriel of Hagia Sophia in particular.     https://www.doaks.org/research/library-archives/dumbarton-oaks-archives/historical-records/bliss-tyler-correspondence-excerpts#uncovering-of-the-mosaics-of-hagia-sophia–constantinople–october-1936

Archangel Gabriel, Mosaic on the Southside of the Bema of the Holy Apse, 9th century, Hagia Sophia of Constantinople

The 1902 to 1953 correspondence between Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the founders of Dumbarton Oaks, and their close friend and art adviser, Royall Tyler, and his wife, Elisina, are important primary sources and document the formation of the Blisses’ art collection. They also discuss contemporary history, literature and poetry, music, politics, and expatriate life… https://www.doaks.org/research/library-archives/dumbarton-oaks-archives/historical-records/bliss-tyler-correspondence-excerpts

Two monumental mosaic Archangels, Michael and Gabriel, over 10 meters in height, stood guard flanking Mary with Christ Child on her lap at the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom of God in Constantinople. Dating from the 9th century, they were epic in size, towering over the Bema Soffit of the Holy Apse, massive and solid, yet… wherever you were standing and however you were looking at them, they seemed majestic, imposing and ethereal as they levitated on the golden mosaic bed of divine light. Archangels Michael and Gabriel stood regal and imposing, members of a celestial court of honour for Christ and his mother, splendidly dressed in white and gold just like the members of the Imperial Court stood next to the Emperor.

Today, the presentation of Archangel Michael on the north side of the Bema soffit is regretfully almost totally missing. Gabriel, however, is still well preserved, helping us understand the magnificence of Hagia Sophia’s Holy Apse composition. My fascination stands with Gabriel’s face and the amazing ability of the Byzantine mosaicist to use hundreds of different-size tesserae and countless different coloured stones or glass to create a face of spirituality and transcendentalism on such a grand scale, with facial contours and a sense of three-dimensionality that astounds the viewer.

To quote Bob Atchison “The flesh tones used in the face and neck are fine-grained white marble, Proconnesian white marble, Proconnesian grey, cream marble (used very sparingly), and two or three tones of pink marble. Extensive use is made, furthermore, of off-white milky glass which has sometimes a bluish, sometimes a purplish tinge; this forms the right outline of the face, the left outline of the forehead, the pockets under the eyes, the area of light shadow to the left of the nose, etc. Olive glass is used for strong shadows to the left of the nose, round the eyes, the dimple under the nose, and for the shadow under the mouth, where it is mixed with lighter shades of glass and with pink marble. The tip of the nose and parting of the mouth are in deep red glass. Vermilion glass is used in the lips (in the lower lip it is mixed with pink marble) and one line of it forms the end of the chin. The nostrils are in black glass. No green or yellow-green occurs in the archangel’s face.”     https://www.pallasweb.com/deesis/angel-bema-hagia-sophia.html

“It seems too good to be true that there is such a mass of the noblest mosaics ever created, waiting there to be revealed… And I needn’t say that in the whole field of art, there’s nothing that seems to me to touch this work, for importance, and for the unutterable joy these things give when they are uncovered.”     https://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence/letters/11oct1936

For a Student Activity, please… check HERE!

Workers tracing the lower part of Archangel Gabriel, the south Angel, in the Bema soffit of Hagia Sophia, 1939. From the collection: The Byzantine Institute, Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. the late 1920s-2000s. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.

Grant Wood and the Revolutionary Spirit

Grant Wood, 1891-1942
Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, Oil on Masonite, 76.2 × 101.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, Photograph: © 1988 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art © Estate of Grant Wood / Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear  /  Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,  /  On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;  /  Hardly a man is now alive  /  Who remembers that famous day and year…Wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow back in 1860. Grant Wood and the Revolutionary Spirit is my new POST on a 20th-century painting capturing the most important moment in the story of Paul Revere.    https://poets.org/poem/paul-reveres-ride

Eight years of Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and Art in America came to a halt. Some prominent Colonial artists were in England at the time, studying, and remained there, others, disagreeing with the violence, embraced neutrality. Yet some, although safe in Europe, returned to fight and take part in building a new nation. They all managed to give a view of the period with portraits, historical scenes and more. From architectural buildings to furniture, silverware, glass and porcelain, adorned with symbols of patriotism and national pride, people were proud of their new nation and showed it.

Grant Wood is an American artist who has never lost his “Revolutionary” vision and spirit. He was born in 1981, on a farm in rural Anamosa, Iowa, but unfortunate circumstances, his father’s unexpected early death, forced the family to move to Cedar Rapids where Wood, a High School student by then, was introduced to Art. As a school graduate, he first moved to Minnesota and Chicago later, where he took Art Classes with Ernest A. Batchelder and Charles Cumming until 1916 when he returned to Cedar Rapids to take care, financially, of his mother and sister, working as a home builder and decorator. The end of World War I changed Wood’s career as he began teaching Art at McKinley Middle School. In the 1920’ Wood travelled to Europe, and in 1925, he gave up teaching to focus on his art full-time encouraged by his friend David Turner, “the savvy and energetic mortician,” and the people of Cedar Rapids who “like a revelation… their clothes, their homes, the patterns on their table cloths and curtains, the tools they used” kindled his creativity as he “suddenly saw all this commonplace stuff as material for art. Wonderful material!”

If the 1920’ were Wood’s formative years, the 1930s saw Wood’s artistic maturity and recognition as a leading figure of the American Regionalist movement, a rather conservative and traditionalist style that appealed to popular American sensibilities and the need for an American cultural identity. His famous painting American Gothic won a medal at the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition in 1930, the Institute bought the painting, and Wood, thirty-nine years old, saw his reputation rise among his colleagues. Back in Cedar Rapids, he joined forces with Ed Rowen and created the quaint Stone City Art Colony, where they taught classes through Coe College. In 1934, his life changed dramatically when he accepted a position as professor of Art at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. His appointment to the University of Iowa was ill-fated as a series of unpleasant events professionally stressed him and personally harassed him…  https://www.theartstory.org/artist/wood-grant/life-and-legacy/

In 1931 Wood painted a charming, captivating and enchanting painting titled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. In Picturing America Teachers Resource Book we read “Wood was a self-consciously “primitive” painter who emulated the unpretentious, unschooled manner of American folk artists… The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere goes one step further to capture a child’s point of view. A bird’s-eye perspective (like the view from an airplane) allows us to survey a vast sweep of countryside and gives the New England village the ordered clarity of a town made of toys: the country church and surrounding houses are simple geometric shapes, as though constructed of building blocks; the trees are crowned with perfect green spheres, like those a child would try to draw… The rolling landscape beyond is left sleeping in a darkness that is broken only by tiny glimmers from faraway windows. To complete this evocation of a childhood dream, Wood whimsically portrays Paul Revere’s trusty steed—“flying fearless and fleet,” in Longfellow’s words—as a rocking horse.”     https://picturingamerica.neh.gov/downloads/pdfs/Resource_Guide/English/English_PA_TeachersGuide.pdf

Upper Elementary and Middle School students find the historic event of Paul Revere riding on the night of April 18, 1775, to alert the colonial militia to the approach of British forces exciting and fascinating. We discuss historic events, we read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, explore and discuss Wood’s painting Using Picturing America Teachers Resource Book. Finally, for homework, I usually assign them to do an Activity you can access… HERE!

Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne

Piero del Pollaiuolo, about 1441 – before 1496Apollo and Daphne, 1470-1480, oil on wood, 29.5 x 20 cm, The National Gallery, London

Daphne, daughter of Peneus, was Apollo’s first love, which not blind chance, but Cupid’s savage anger, gave… One suddenly loves, the other flees the name of lover, rejoicing in the hiding-places of the woods and with the spoils of captured beasts (and) as an imitator of unmarried Diana: a ribbon was restraining hair placed without rule… Having barely finished the prayer, a heavy numbness seizes her limbs, her soft breasts are girded by thin bark, her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches, her foot, just now so swift, clings by sluggish roots, her face has the top of a tree: a single splendor remains in her… since you can’t be my bride, at least you will certainly be my tree! Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Wikisource, Daphne and Apollo help us better understand the dynamics in Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne painting.     https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Metamorphoses/Daphne_and_Apollo

A tiny picture in the National Gallery, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells us so many stories… “the rivalry of the gods, the power and danger of desire and the tragedy of unrequited love.”     https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/piero-del-pollaiuolo-apollo-and-daphne

The literary source for this amazing panel painting comes from the Metamorphoses, a narrative poem, built upon the Hellenistic erudite tradition, written during the period of Augustus, c. 8 AD, by the Roman poet Ovid. The poem includes 11,995 lines and is divided between 15 books and presents 250 myths. It is a record of world history starting with the creation of the world and finishing with the deification of Julius Caesar. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is considered the poet’s magnum opus. It was popular among the Romans and later highly regarded among Renaissance artists, as, rich in myths… transformations, personifications, loves, rivalries, jealousies, happy ends and tragic ends, communicated the greatest of stories!

Piero del Pollaiuolo’s painting of Apollo and Daphne depicts the most crucial of moments… the rivalry between Apollo and Cupid is a fait accompli, as one (Apollo) suddenly loves, and the other (Daphne) flees the name of lover. Apollo’s desire frightens Daphne who cries for help Father bring help! Rivers, if you have divinity, destroy my shape by which I’ve pleased too much, by changing it. Apollo’s love is not returned, and Daphne is slowly turned into the beautiful Laurel Tree. The god is, however, still enamoured and he loves this one too (the Laurel Tree) and with a right hand placed on the trunk feels that her heart still trembles under the new bark… As Daphne is slowly metamorphosing, he softly talks to her since you can’t be my bride, at least you will certainly be my tree! My hair will always have you, my lyres (will have you), my quivers (will have you), O Laurel…

For Polaiuolo, the Greek Myth of Apollo and Daphne becomes a Florentine affair. Daphne like Petrarch’s Laura becomes the ideal, unattainable love of the Renaissance courtly circles, “fair-skinned, blonde and seemingly modest.” She “allows young men to nobly strive for an ideal beauty beyond their reach.” Apollo, fair, blonde and aristocratic as well, seems persistent but genteel. Is he symbolically representing an idealized “portrait” of Lorenzo de’ Medici? Let’s not forget that the leader of the Florentine privileged society saw himself as the forceful god Apollo and had adopted the laurel as part of his personal emblem. The background landscape scene is definitely presenting the Tuscan countryside with the Arno river valley and the distant vista of the city of Florence itself. The painting may be small in size, but Piero del Pollaiuolo realized a small treasure, to “be admired close up by an educated patron.”     https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/piero-del-pollaiuolo-apollo-and-daphne

If you please… access a PowerPoint with artwork depicting the Myth of Apollo and Daphne HERE!

For a Student Activity on the Myth of Apollo and Daphne, please… check HERE!

A Bulletin Board with Elementary School level Activities on Plants and Myths, very popular among my students.

When Fashion becomes Art

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, 1871-1949
Delphos Champagne pleated silk Dress with separate gold stencilled empire waistband, armholes and side seams decorated at the hem with white, blue and yellow Murano glass beads, 1920, private collection
Delphos Dress, ca. 1920, Collezioni di Museo Fortuny, inv. MFN01711 ©Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Museo Fortuny
The Charioteer, 478-474 BC, bronze, Delphi Archaeological Museum

“It’s not the quantity, but the quality of light, that makes things visible.” Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo once said. When Fashion becomes Art is my new POST on Fortuny’s quest for high quality, the shimmering glow of silk, body movement and the Delphos Dress.

It is 1909, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo creates the Delphos Dress inspired by the Statue of the Charioteer at Delphi. “The sculpture depicts the driver of the chariot race at the moment when he presents his chariot and horses to the spectators in recognition of his victory. Despite the severity of the moment, the youth’s demeanor encapsulates the moment of glory, and the recognition of his eternal athletic and moral stature, with abundant humility.” Fortuny, fascinated by the beauty of the Charioteer but focused on the Xystis, the typical Chiton all Charioteers wore while driving in a competition, designed the Delphos Dress as a unique, timeless and iconic 20th century garment. Helen von Nostitz visited Fortuny in his Venetian Palazzo and wrote “There were Mycenaean patterns and the garment of the Charioteer of Delphi with its  bold and noble drapery. The splendor of the garments glowed between the simple wooded pillars, like the sun setting on the lagoon; from deep orange to radiant carmine, the symphony of color played all tones. Fortuny stood next to them almost austere…” Gabriele Brandstetter, Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2015     https://books.google.gr/books?id=brDlBgAAQBAJ&pg=PT114&lpg=PT114&dq=Charioteer+Delphi+garment&source=bl&ots=Qj_Xair0zi&sig=ACfU3U3xXLNQ3kwQZLaq9SBLkldlClKVxQ&hl=el&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiLvP7S9svqAhVQyaQKHSjRCP4Q6AEwEXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Charioteer%20Delphi%20garment&f=false

Lillian Gish in Fortuny, 1920 
Isadora Duncan in a Delphos Dress with her daughter
Mrs. William Wetmore
modelling a Delphos Dress in front of Fortuny fabric. Originally published in Vogue, December 15, 1935

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, painter, set designer, photographer, inventor and technology aficionado, was born to an artistic family, in Granada Spain, in May 11, 1871. His father, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, was a successful genre painter and an avid collector of antiquities and artefacts. His mother, Cecilia de Madrazo y Garreta, was a noted collector of textiles. Fortuny was only three years old when his father died and his mother decided to move to Paris so that her family will be close to their cousin Coco de Madrazo, an artist in the circle of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Mariano Fortuny, growing up in a very artistic and theatrical environment, an artist himself, developed two very distinct passions, first, how to best apply the latest lighting technology to the performing arts and galleries of art, and second, how to create inimitable and stunning textiles for timeless fashion designs. Whatever he did, he successfully “blended art and technology with science and craftsmanship, giving him a unique ability to understand and control the entire creative process from raw material to finished product.”    

In 1888 Mariano Fortuny moved to Venice, where the family’s interest in antique textiles reignited. His wife Henriette Nigrin, a young woman he had met in Paris, shared his aesthetics and the family collection of ancient textiles inspired him to explore the world of fashion. In 1906 he opened his textile/fashion workshop at the Palacio Pesaro degli Orfei creating original fabrics and costumes using modern techniques, his own patents and secrets impossible to solve even today.

His Delphos Dress is immortalized in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as “faithfully antique but markedly original.” It created a sensation, as in an era when rigid corsetry was still the norm, it daringly hugged the body revealing the silhouette and body contours. At first, actress Sarah Bernhardt and dancer Isadora Duncan became enamoured with it and fashionably wore it, ignoring convention. Then… it became history! Today we are still intrigued by its “distinctive fine pleats, whose method of creation remains a tantalising mystery,” the way Fortuny silk was  “dipped in a dye bath multiple times, enriching the colour of the fabric, which fluctuated according to light and movement” and how “The edges of the dress were finished off with strings of small Venetian beads that served both as an ornament and to weigh the dress down, giving it its distinctive drape.”     https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190617-the-designer-who-freed-the-female-body

Mariano Fortuny’s Venetian house is a Museum, unfortunately, closed to the public since 2017 for restoration.      http://fortuny.visitmuve.it/en/home/

A Video, short, but worth seeing: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/la-naissance-d-une-robe-unique-la-delphos/qgJiyD72_413Jw?hl=fr

For a Student Activity on the Delphos Dress, please… check HERE!

A portrait of the legendary Couturier is exhibited alongside his first creation in the clothing sector, and one that made famous the name Fortuny, the printed silk Scarf Knossos  (Credit: Archivio Fotografico Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia/ Marcello Venturini)

Parallel Stories of Byzantine Imperial Portraits

Roundel with Emperor John II Komnenos, ca. 1110 – 1118, marble, 90 x 90 x 7.5 cm, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum
Angaran Roundel, marble, d. 100 cm,Campiello de Ca’Angaran, Dorsoduro in Venice

Parallel Stories of Byzantine Imperial Portraits is about our fascination with the ‘image’ of the Byzantine Emperor… “The Emperor had to conform to idealized standards of deportment. He had to be seen as fixed, stable, and unmovable, a ruler whose character and judgement were unswayed by emotional excess. Such a demeanor was described by the eleventh century courtier and orator Michael Psellos in a speech addressed to Isaac I Komnenos…  You are straight, true, stiff… steadfast, firmly fixed, lofty… an impartial judge, unwavering in justice… a secure counselor, noble, unshaken in stormy waves. Psellos stressed the ruler’s lack of emotions: Where is there any anger in you, where are there streams of laughter, where are there traces of rage, and where is the babbling of speech? Where is there boasting, or violence and a willing mind? Where is there a knitting of the brows or an angry expression? For there are no unseemly qualities in you, neither easily excited emotions… nor delight, nor any graces, nor much laughter.” Writes Henry Maguire on IMAGES OF THE COURT in The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, page 186     https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/The_Glory_of_Byzantium_Art_and_Culture_of_the_Middle_Byzantine_Era_AD_843_1261    

Two Byzantine Emperors – Two Parallel Lives

Roundel with Emperor John II Komnenos, ca. 1110 – 1118, marble, 90 x 90 x 7.5 cm, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum
Silver Aspron Trachy of John II Komnenos, 1118-1143 AD, Thessalonica mint, 3.69 grams, 29/27 mm, (Iω/ΔЄC/ΠΟT/Tω/ΠOP – ΦV/PO/ΓЄ/NH/T, the Emperor standing facing, wearing divitision and loros, holding labarum and akakia), private collection     Copyright © 1998-2020, VHobbies.com
John II Comnenos, 1118, Komnenos Mosaic (John II Komnenos, Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, Irene of Hungary), mosaic, Hagia Sophia Museum

Standing on a decorated suppedion, the Emperor of Byzantium at Dumbarton Oaks faces us in all his glory! He wears his ceremonial attire with poise and distinction: “a sagion (cape), bound at the right shoulder with a simple fibula, over a divitesion (tunic) and a loros (the gemmed scarf wrapped around the emperor’s torso.” Crowned and bejewelled, the Emperor stands in front of a vividly decorated background of cloverleaf arranged in a radiant design, holding the imperial insignia: “in his right hand he holds a labarum, a staff with a square finial” and in his left hand “an ornate globus cruciger with, in this instance, a leaved patriarchal cross.”

Who is the impressive Emperor depicted in this Byzantine relief sculpture Roundel exhibited today at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum of Byzantine Art? Is this a unique example of Byzantine imperial portraiture? The answer is NO! There is a second, matching Roundel in Venice, known as the  Angaran Roundel, embedded on the exterior wall of a Venetian house in the Dorsoduro district, equally rare in Byzantine imperial representation. “It has been suggested that these two emperors are Alexios I and John II Komnenos, father and son, who reigned jointly between 1092 and 1118.”

Both Roundels, made of marble, date from the 12th century. For their creation, the unknown artist used a “marble piece of a horizontal slab that was cut from the top of a column shaft of unusually large diameter. The roundels therefore are reused architectural elements of an ancient monument of considerable size.”     http://museum.doaks.org/OBJ27169.htm

Angaran Roundel, marble, d. 100 cm,Campiello de Ca’Angaran, Dorsoduro in Venice

The Angaran Roundel is almost identical to the one exhibited at the Dumbarton Oaks. Both depict Byzantine Emperors looking straight, true, stiff… steadfast, firmly fixed, lofty… holding the symbols of their power, gazing at us with majestic authority… but detached. Created by a great Constantinopolitan artist as an Imperial Ensemble, we can imagine, if this is a correct supposition,  a third roundel with Christ in the middle. The Imperial Portraits somehow ended up in the Veneto area, most probably as the 4th Crusade loot. They were still in the Veneto until 1937 when Robert Woods Bliss acquired the one depicting Emperor John II, through Royall Tyler, who writes to Bliss “I went to Lugano yesterday, & saw the Emperor, who is magnificent… There’s no change in the amount (33,000). H.F. prefers to receive it direct… Volbach was wrong about the material of the Emperor. He is marble (not limestone): I should say he was of exactly the same light grey marble, not shiny, as the Campiello Angaran roundel, & he’s exactly the same in style & in every respect except a few details of costume (the loros is different), & details of the footstool… The chances are they came from Constantinople, as one doesn’t see why the Venetians should have representations of the Byz. Emperor made, when they had not long before shaken off his overlordship… I’m simply delighted that you’ve got this superb carving, the like of which is most unlikely to turn up again…”     https://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence/letters/25jul1937

On the 3rd of July, Ismail Safa Yalbaz, member of the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies Group, shared a POST on the Angaran Roundel that got me thinking… how many times have I been to Venice and missed visiting the Campiello de Ca’Angaran in Venice’s Dorsoduro district? I promised myself… next time in Venice, my respects to the Emperor will be the first thing to do!

For a Student Activity on the two Roundels, please… check HERE!

Ariadne on Naxos

Dionysos and Ariadne, 1st century AD, Pompeii, from the House of Capitelli Colorati, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Ariadne on Naxos… what an inspiration… “Eros  /  The archipelago  /  And the prow of his seafoam  /  And the seagulls of his dreams  /  In his highest mast, the sailor flutters  /  A song” the Archipelago Song by Odysseas Elytis, 1979, Nobel Prize in Literature.     https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1979/elytis/biographical/     and     https://www.greeklyrics.gr/stixoi/to-tragoudi-tou-arxipelagous/

The Islet of Palatia in Naxos, where today, since the 6th century BC, stands “Portatra,” the entrance to the Temple of Apollo, Naxos’s most recognized monument.

Naxos is one of the most interesting destinations in Greece! In the center of the Aegean Sea, the biggest and greenest Cycladic island, with a glorious ancient Greek past and the strong influences of the Venetians and the Franks, Naxos is not simply beautiful… it breathes history …and Mythology I would like to add! Naxos was the playground of the Olympian gods, the place where virtuous or naughty, entangled with beautiful women and brave men, gods created a scenery of love and adventure, reality and imagination. The story I like most involves the god Dionysus, the Minoan princess Ariadne and the Islet of Palatia, where today, since the 6th century BC, stands “Portara,” the entrance to the Temple of Apollo, Naxos’s most recognized monument. https://www.greeka.com/cyclades/naxos/

Imagine the scene… Theseus and Ariadne flee Crete in a hurry. With the help of Ariadne, Theseus had just killed the horrible Minotaur in the depths of Knossos’s palace maze. Their first stop to rest on their way to Athens is the island of Naxos… where the story unfolds dramatically and excitingly. God Dionysus, in love with Ariadne, appears to Theseus in his sleep and convinces him to abandon Ariadne at Naxos and continue his trip alone. Ariadne, unaware of divine intervention, disembarks at Naxos, enchanted by the beauty of the island, happily explores it, and tired falls asleep on the beautiful islet of Palatia. When she wakes up… god Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Dione, looks at her adoringly and a new love-affair is in the making. A glorious wedding follows and an eternal gift is still with us to admire… the constellation known as Corona Borealis is said to be Dionysus’s wedding gift to Ariadne, a special ornament to adorn her beautiful head.

In Pompeii, the House of the Coloured Capitals is one of the oldest excavated, back in 1822, again in 1832/33 and 1846. It is one of the largest houses in Pompeii as well, with more than 40 rooms on the ground floor alone, beautifully decorated with frescoes and floor mosaics, combining architecturally, Samnite and Roman features.  The name of the house comes from the brightly coloured capitals of the columns of the central peristyle.

You enter the House through a rectangular Atrium (area marked b) with a central Impluvium and proceed to a porticoed Peristyle (area marked f). One of the bigger rooms opening to the peristyle (area marked h), the oecus, is beautifully decorated with frescoes in the 4th Pompeiian Style on a yellow ground. Dilapidated today and neglected since it was initially excavated in 1822, the house’ oecus featured central panels on each wall with a mythological scene. The single panel, faded yet still holding its original charm, character portrays Dionysus and the sleeping Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Dionysus, holding a thyrsus, standing tall in the center of the composition, gazes in wonderment at Ariadne, still sleeping at the knees of god Hypnos. A naughty cupid reveals Ariadne’s covered beauty to Dionysus while an old Silenus, in need of support, and an entourage of satyrs and maenads seem to follow the young god of revelry. https://sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption/pompeii/regio-vii/reg-vii-ins-4/house-of-the-coloured-capitals

The fresco depicting Dionysus discovering the sleeping Ariadne was luckily removed and can now be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The scenes left in situ, however, have all but faded away…

For a student RWAP (RWAP stands for Research-Writing-Art-Project), please… check HERE!

Oecus is the Latinized form of Greek Oikos (House), used by Vitruvius for the principal hall or salon in a Roman house, which was used occasionally as a triclinium for banquets.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oecus

The Month of July

The Month of July, latest 1407, possibly by Maestro Venceslao, Fresco, Torre Aquila, Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento, Italy

The Month of July fresco comes from Torre Aquila in the Castello del Buonconsiglio, in Trento, Italy. It is part of an amazing fresco Cycle of the Twelve Months painted on the walls of the tower’s 2nd-floor main room and presents summer at its best. This exceptional room, 6 x 5,8 x 3 m in size, was commissioned by Prince-Bishop George of Liechtenstein, as a quiet, atmospheric retreat, away from the rest of the Castello’s busy and noisy state quarters. Master Wenceslas, a Bohemian painter active in Trento since 1397, creates a rich July scene, full of natural beauty and pastoral activities.

Valle dei Laghi is one of the sixteen districts of Trentino in the Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. https://www.discovertrento.it/valle-dei-laghi/territorio#.XvucvSgzZPY

July is a busy month for labourers at Trento and Master Wenceslas is documenting it in the best possible way. The farmers catch up with their activities and the Court aristocrats enjoy summer bliss. The scene is rich, dense and joyful… inspired by real-life but immensely beautified. The commissioner of this fresco, Prince-Bishop George of Liechtenstein wants to present the idea that his territories flourish under his good governance and prudent guidance. The painter, Master Wenceslas, understood this very well, and created a summer scene of dazzling colours, greens and yellows dominating the open expanse of the countryside!

Castello Toblino is located in the valley of the lakes between Padergnone and Sarche in the municipal area of Madruzzo, in the province of Trento. https://www.trentino.com/en/highlights/castles/castel-toblino/

Multi-coloured mountains, lush shrubbery, a lake, a Castello by its shore and a red country Villa are just a few of the landscape props Master Wenceslas uses to identify the area as the beautiful Trentino Valle dei Laghi. Castello in particular, defensive walls, crenellations, drawing bridges, large glass windows, balconies full of flowers and stork nests on the rooftop make up for a beautiful vignette on a lakeshore.

Right in the middle of the composition the depiction of the lake, the boat and three fishermen set the tone. The lower part is a vivid illustration of the activities of the nobles and their servants as summer settles in. It is falconing season, and Master Wenceslas beautifully presents it. Hunting with a hawk was the favorite activity of the Trento nobility, an expensive one to keep up with, as specialized servants, destined exclusively for the care and breeding of precious birds, were required and handsomely payed for. In the July fresco, one such falconer, carrying two hunting hawks returns from hunting. A little further down an elegant gentleman, dressed in a red and black doublet, with a gesture of polite refinement, seems to offer the hunting catch, two beautiful birds, gallantly to a lady dressed in white. A truly generous gift for a beautiful Lady!

Horizons are kept high in Master Wenceslas’s July fresco to make room for the depiction of busy Trento farmers and their agricultural activities. Surrounded by a crown of colourful mountains, purple, white or ochre, up in the highest Trento meadows, the typical activity of the season takes place: haymaking. Farmers are depicted mowing and raking, one of them even scythe sharpening. It is a vivid illustration of the month’s required work for both men and women. They wear perfectly white cloths and hats, cloth or even made of straw, and against a bright green background, they effortlessly move, carrying their instruments of work, as if they are part of an elaborate ballet chorus. The reality is that haymaking is a hard and tiring job, not a summer holiday for sure! Entire families were involved in mowing grass, letting it dry in the sun, and turning it over very often with the hay pitchfork, in order to make it dry faster. 

Prince-Bishop George of Liechtenstein was probably very happy looking from a distance the work accomplished on the meadows of his territories by his “loyal” farmers. His guests probably marveled at how busy and well-ordered life was under his rule. At Torre Aquila the aristocracy was allowed to dream… Reality was, however, different and peasants, exhausted and exasperated were on the verge of revolt…

For Student Activity please… check HERE!

The Months of July and August

Nearchos the Potter

Archaic Black-Figure  Terracotta Aryballos (oil flask) by Nearchos, Archaic – ca. 570 BC, 7.8 cm, MET, NY
Archaic Black-Figure  Terracotta fragment of a Kantharos (drinking cup) by Nearchos, Archaic – ca. 550 BC, 15,5 cm, National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Antenor Kore,  525-500 BC, Parian Marble, Acropolis Museum, Athens

In the words of Simonides of Ceos, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.” (Quoted by Plutarch, De Gloria Atheniensium 3.346f).  I wonder if Nearchos, the celebrated Athenian painter and potter, was a poet at heart!

Looking at Attic Black-Figure pottery, you get the impression that sometime during the second quarter of the 6th century, an artistic revival takes place. The artists of the time, pottery makers and pottery painters show an exquisitely refined technique and draughtsmanship of a very high order indeed. Among them, Nearchos, potter and vase painter, stands at the very top.

Nearchos comes from Attica and is considered today a great master of the Black-Figure style. His career as a potter most probably started as a student in the workshop of Kleitias and Ergotimos, the famous creators of the François Vase. He lived and prospered in Athens, sometime between 570 and 555 BC, where he established a flourishing workshop. He raised two sons, Tleson and Ergoteles, who trained to become famous potters themselves. Later in his life, established, respected and wealthy, a “poet” at hart, he commissioned a beautiful Kore for the Acropolis of Athens, and acquired further admiration and fame.

Archaic Black-Figure  Terracotta fragment of a Kantharos (drinking cup) by Nearchos, Archaic – ca. 550 BC, 15,5 cm, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

A small ostracon of a Kantharos vase in the National Archaeological Museum at Athens was my introduction to his artistic abilities. I like how precise, dense and detailed his “incisions” are in depicting contour details and how the use of colour, white and purple enhances his composition. I also feel for the depicted story, the dialogue between Achilles and his god-sent horses… his fierce admonition “Xanthus and Balius, Podarge’s famous foals, this time think of a way to bring your master back alive when the fight is done, not leave him dead on the field, as you did brave Patroclus” and Xanthus’s devastating answer “This once, mighty Achilles, we will save you, yes, even though the hour of your doom draws nigh, nor indeed will we be the cause of your death even then, rather a mightier god and relentless Fate…” (Iliad, Rhapsody Τ) https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Iliad19.php#anchor_Toc239246279

Archaic Black-Figure  Terracotta Aryballos (oil flask) by Nearchos, Archaic – ca. 570 BC, 7.8 cm, the MET, NY

The small Aryballos at the MET is another Nearchos favourite of mine. This is a small, “intimate” item of great ergonomic qualities. Imagine… admiring it as it comfortably fits the palm of your hand, filled with your chosen perfumed oil! The shape is perfectly balanced and the design is rowdy and exotic… pygmies fighting cranes, satyrs, Hermes, Perseus and two tritons! Think… your new aryballos will be the talk of your fellow athletes in your favourite Palestra!!!     https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/252451

Antenor Kore, 525-500 BC, Parian Marble, the Acropolis Museum, Athens

The Antenor Kore was found, battered and in several fragments, during the 19th century excavations on the Athenian Acropolis, in the so-called Perserschutt, the “Persian debris” level. It is a late Archaic statue of a young girl, her long, auburn hair beautifully groomed in locks and curls, dressed in chiton and an Ionian Peplos, adorned with jewelry, smiling, happy to honour goddess Athena. Fragments of a Pentelic marble statue base identify Nearchos  the Potter as the  donor and Antenor, son of Eumares as the sculptor. The dedicatory inscription, translated, reads: Nearchos the potter dedicated this work as an offering to Athena / Antenor the son of Eumares made the statue.

If you still wonder whether Nearchos, the celebrated Athenian painter and potter, was a poet at heart! My answer would emphatically be… YES! https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/antenor-kore     and     https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/sites/default/files/antinor_gr_0.pdf

For a student-friendly Activity Worksheet on Learning from Ancient Greek Pottery… Click HERE!

Bernardo Bembo and La Bencina

Hans Memling, 1433 –1494
Man with a Roman Coin (Bernardo Bembo), ca. 1471-1474, oil on panel, 31 x 23,3 cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen
Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
Ginevra de’ Benci, 1474-78, oil on wood, 38,8 x 36,7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC – On the reverse side of the portrait of Ginevra: juniper, laurel, palm branches: VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT (Beauty adorns Virtue)     https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.50724.html     and     https://www.nga.gov/collection/highlights/da-vinci-ginevra-de-benci.html and https://www.facebook.com/mauritshuis/posts/allow-us-to-introduce-bernardo-bembovarious-details-reveal-that-this-man-is-the-/1438404546228025/

“Therefore we will sing of the chaste love of Bembo, so that Bencia may rise up, made known by my verses. O lovely Bencia, Bembo marvels at your beauty, with which you could surpass the goddesses of heaven. Great Mars would wish to prefer this to his love for Venus, and Jupiter himself would abandon Europa and desire it. But Bembo in astonishment marvels more at you ancient virtue, you chaste heart and hands with the skill of Pallas…” writes Cristoforo Landino for the LOVE of Bernardo Bembo and La Bencina.    http://www.italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-2/sub-page-03/poems-about-ginevra-and-bembo/?fbclid=IwAR34DOVq8MMQgt7ZBJ651Bd2l-HGxjM6gTJFNNx0CHHsp2hZVi26XyAkHkM

The Venetian Ambassador to Florence, the intellectual Bernardo Bembo, first saw Ginevra on the 28th of January 1475, during the splendid Giostra Giuliano de Medici staged in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. Ginevra de’ Benci, the daughter of Amerigo de’ Benci, director of the Medici Bank in Geneva and the second wealthiest man in Florence, seventeen years old, witty, enchanting and rich, married to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini, a Florentine cloth-trader of importance, was present, dazzling with her charm, the elite of Florence. “In all the city you will not find a more beautiful girl, nor any more modest” wrote the poet Alessandro Braccesi. Suave Bernardo Bembo, a man in his early forties, married with children, with a mistress and a love-child, took little time in becoming La Bencina’s cavaliere servente. Among them, Leonardo da Vinci, young and amazingly talented, ready to immortalize an interesting story that still “haunts” us with its beauty and secrets, created one of his earliest masterpieces.    https://books.google.gr/books?id=KWCNItrBe6oC&pg=PT163&lpg=PT163&dq=Florence+1475+Giostra&source=bl&ots=jY6VGoEF7e&sig=ACfU3U3t2D0MaOTr2VF5cHfdBamVl8s_Zg&hl=el&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwio79a81YHqAhXBw8QBHb37B5AQ6AEwEHoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=Florence%201475%20Giostra&f=false

Leonardo’s painting of La Bencina, characterized as “the earliest of all psychological portraits” and depicting “a new sense of mystery and uniqueness of the human personality” is for me an alluring mystery behind rich foilage and an “alabaster” façade. The surviving poems, however, of her beauty and character is another story…

The reverse side of Leonardo’s painting of Ginevra de’ Benci

“I beg for mercy; I am a wild tiger” LaBencina wrote in one of her poems, the only verse that survives of her entire oeuvre. We can only wonder about her response to Bembo’s “Courtly Love.”

“…Therefore, lovely Bencia, imitating such arts as these, you come as an example to Tuscan ladies. Well known, I confess, is the love of Paris and the frenzy of the Spartan woman, but it is known for its base adultery. You, Bencia, are more beautiful than Leda’s child and are known to all peoples for your rare chastity…” by Cristoforo Landino

“Ginevra shed tears as you go, Bembo./ May she desire long delays and / Beseech the Gods above that / Every difficulty may hinder your journey. / And may she wish that the kindly stars / With adverse winds and heavy storms / Prevent your departure” by Alessandro Bracessi

Lorenzo de’ Medici, on the other hand, addressed two poems to her praising her decision to “leave the passion and evil of the city and to devote herself to prayer in the country… never looking back!” https://books.google.gr/books?id=fMDoImNWqHQC&pg=PA302&lpg=PA302&dq=Lorenzo+de+Medici+sonnets+Ginevra&source=bl&ots=DFGL8O9riU&sig=ACfU3U1FKJK0wSGfLjtePymRgLwoRWYOPg&hl=el&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi7jdXxvIPqAhUFNOwKHTZ3BIgQ6AEwAnoECAYQAQ#v=onepage&q=Lorenzo%20de%20Medici%20sonnets%20Ginevra&f=false    and    http://www.italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-2/sub-page-03/poems-about-ginevra-and-bembo/?fbclid=IwAR34DOVq8MMQgt7ZBJ651Bd2l-HGxjM6gTJFNNx0CHHsp2hZVi26XyAkHkM

For a RWAP dedicated to Ginevra de’ Benci (RWAP stands for Research-Writing-Art-Project) please… Check HERE!

For student work on a RWAP dedicated to Ginevra de’ Benci, please… Check HERE!

Student work