Tag Archives: art

Amedeo Modigliani – 100th Death Anniversary

24 Jan

On 24th January 1920, on that sad, cold, grey, winter’s day, it was Saturday I may add, Jewish-Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis in the Charité Hospital in Paris. There is no beautiful death, the transition to the unknown is bound to be tinged with tragedy, but Modigliani’s death was particularly sad and tragical; so young, so in love, so talented, one step away from receiving recognition. Such an ugly, sad, inhumane way to depart; ill, frail, in a cold room in a hospital bed, the painter who was so humane and who lived for Beauty and devoted his life to it. The next day his young lover Jeanne Hébuterne, who was two months shy from her twenty-second birthday and eight months pregnant with their second child, ended her life tragically by throwing herself from the window of her parents’ flat on the fifth floor; the thought of living without her beloved was unbearable. She was his lover, his muse, his devoted and faithful companion, even in death. Her epitaph on their grave says “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.” Who knows what a new decade would have brought to them both?

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

Amedeo was born in July 1884 in a Jewish family in Livorno. His family was well off but around the time he was born, they faced severe financial difficulties. Nonetheless, the dreamy and sickly boy grew up in an environment where literature and philosophy were appreciated. At the age of sixteen he contracted tuberculosis and spent some time in Naples, Capri and Rome, hoping the warm mild weather would soothe his disease. After studying art in Livorno and Florence, Modigliani moved to Venice in 1903 and there he encountered the joys of hashish. Three years later he moved to Paris and encountered the works of Cezanne; the two proved to have a lasting influence on him. His early work shows the influence of Klimt; portraits of femme fatale women with large wide brimmed hats; full, sensuous and thirsty lips and their breasts exposed, a touch of Fauvism in the garish choice of colours, green or blueish for the skin. Cezanne, Cubism and the traditional African masks from Kongo, so popular in the art circles in Paris at the time, all left an impact on his art. Angular, elongated faces with large almond eyes and long noses have found their way from the limestone sculptures to the canvases where finally, after all the influences, his pure artistic instinct, his lyricism, love and poetry emerge.

Photographs of Jeanne Hébuterne

In early 1917 Modigliani finished a series of around thirty nudes. In April 1917, Amedeo met Jeanne Hébuterne, a demure, talented and beautiful schoolgirl who was studying painting at the Académie Colarossi. Ukrainian scultpor Chana Orloff introduced them. Modigliani was no stranger to seduction and it’s easy to see why Jeanne fell for him. He was known in his younger days for his devilish good looks and charms which easily lured women, to his bed and to his canvases. But what was this shy girl from a strict family doing in the wild, free-spirited hippie crowd at Montparnasse? It was her brother André, who also aspired to be a painter, who brought her to the art circles in Montparnasse. The French writer Charles-Albert Cingria described her as “gentle, shy, quiet, and delicate”. Even in the photographs, there is an air of demureness and melancholy around Jeanne; she seems quiet yet passionate, shy but stubborn and strong. She did after all turn her back on the strict bourgeois Catholic upbringing and to the horror of her prim and proper parents moved in with Modigliani soon after meeting him. And what a meeting of souls that must have been! Like Dante and his beloved Beatrice who died young, but inspired his art. Modigliani was an avid reader and always carried his dear homeland Italy in his heart, and during painting sessions he would recite passages from the works of Dante and Petrarca which he knew by heart, and sing arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1917, oil on linen, 65.4 x 100.9 cm

Interestingly, since meeting Jeanne, nudes appear less frequently in Modigliani’s art and her slender figure and face fill canvas after canvas. That’s not to say that Modigliani never painted nudes again, he did, but they don’t seem to dominate his art like they did in previous years. He never painted a nude of Jeanne; perhaps she was too shy to pose like that, or perhaps her body was too sacred to him to share it with the rest of the world, even if it’s on canvas. She was, after all, his future bride, as he wrote in one letter. The nudes he painted in 1917 echo the luminosity and sensuality of Renaissance nudes and the wonderful Venetian sense for colours and tones. All so similar, yet all so different. His oeuvre isn’t a repetitive string of portraits and nudes, but one great gallery of souls. It seems that Modigliani had the gift of transcending the bounds of the flesh, no matter how luminous, soft and pink it was, and painting the soul, connecting soul to soul on a deep, profound, humane level. The same quality of understanding and humanness lingers through the art of another very unique painter whose art, just like Modigliani’s cannot be placed into a specific art movement, and his name is Marc Chagall.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of a Girl, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, 1917, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 92.7 cm

Amedeo Modigliani, Iris Tree (Seated Nude), 1916, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 59.8 cm

The painting above, “Seated Nude” from 1916 is one of my favourite nudes that Modigliani painted, looking at it now, I am once again filled with ecstasy! Such beauty of the flesh, those warm colours, that pink on her cheek, that mystery in her closed eyes, touches of blue on her eyebrows and her lips, who is this silent muse?

“On that blue velvety Parisian afternoon, Modigliani sat by the window, smoking a cigarette, lost in his thoughts, occasionally glancing at his empty canvas. A nude model is sitting on the chair, behind her a tattered wallpaper, grey wall protruding behind it. Clock is ticking. Rain is beating on the window. Time is passing…. Her long chestnut hair falls over her sunken cheeks. Her eyes are fixated on the wooden floor, but when she lifts her weary eyelids towards Modigliani, aquamarine blue shines through, overwhelming the room, piercing through the greyness of the afternoon. Yes, her eyes are as blue as cornflowers he had seen years before, on one train ride, in the south of France. Fields of cornflowers there were, blue and tender, and amongst them a red poppy was smiling…. yes, blue as cornflowers; Modigliani’s his thoughts lingered on like this…. Her eyelashes are dark, wet from tears, but her face radiates calm resignation. Her lonely blue eyes sense something dark. She looks at Modigliani for a moment, and the next moment she’s lost in her thoughts again. Dreamy veil covers this bohemian abode. Rain is still falling. ‘Modi’, as Modigliani was known, is still smoking the same cigarette. His grey-silvery smoke fills the room like some old tune. A few old, forgotten books lie on the windowsill. Wooden floor is covered with paint flakes at parts. Rain – blue and exhilarating – baths the city. He picks up his brush….

The nude lady is as sad as this rainy afternoon, but he can’t paint her eyes. He feels her sadness, but he can’t bring himself to capture that beautiful aquamarine blueness, because he does not yet know her soul.”

(An excerpt from my older post)

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couche, 1918

These luscious, sensuous nudes were exhibited on Monday, 3rd December 1917 in the gallery of Berthe Weill. Modigliani was thirty-three years old, and this was the first and the last exhibition of his life. Many Parisians were drawn to the gallery that evening, but unfortunately for Berthe and Modigliani, the gallery was situated opposite the police station and seeing the gregarious curious crowd in front of the gallery made the policemen curious too. They instantly showed up and were scandalized by the art they had seen and instantly demanded Berthe to remove them, or else they would be confiscated. It was the pubic hair which scandalised the policemen especially. These narrow minds judging such a wonderful artist, very sad, especially since Modigliani devoted his life to Beauty. The scandal and failure of the exhibition didn’t plague his spirit for long. Love had entered in Modigliani’s life in the form of a shy, sweet Jeanne and Modigliani was very inspired and very prolific, filling canvas after canvas with her face, serious with direct gaze and large blue eyes. Apart from Jeanne, Modigliani painted many other neighbourhood faces, pretty melancholy street-urchins, but he painted them with poetry and compassion. He spent a great deal of 1918 and 1919 in Nice where he met the old Renoir, and he painted some landscapes while there, a genre uncommon for him. Their daughter Jeanne was born in Nice on 29th November 1918. After returning to Paris in late 1919, Modigliani continued with his melancholy portraits, but sadly he died soon afterwards, on the 24th January 1920. Now let us take a look at some wonderful portraits of Jeanne and other girls!

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, Seated, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne in a Hat, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1917

Amedeo Modigliani, Petite Lucienne, 1916

Amedeo Modigliani, Two girls, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Marie, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Paulette Jourdain, 1919

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918

Andrew Wyeth – Winter Corn Fields

21 Jan

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.

(Andrew Wyeth)

Andrew Wyeth, Winter Corn Fields, 1942, tempera on board

Despite having been born in July, in 1917, the American artist Andrew Wyeth wasn’t a child of summer’s warmth, flowers and golden sunlight. Winter was the season his soul felt most drawn to, as he said himself: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” Wyeth mentions autumn as well, but the richness, colours and vibrancy of autumn haven’t truly found their way to his canvases. Instead, a lot of his landscapes, such as “Winter Corn Fields”, painted early in his career, when Wyeth was twenty four or twenty-five years old, show the gentle and whimsical beauty that hides under the seemingly harsh, bare and dead winter landscape. I love all the interesting layers in this painting that create a sort of visual rhythm that is thrilling and clearly comes from the artist’s deep dive into nature and attention to details. The fields are not entirely covered by a dreamy, serene, white veil of snow. It seems like the snow, kissed by the rare pale rays of winter sun had partially melted and then froze again. Hidden under the snow, the richly coloured reddish-brown chunks of wet soil are appearing, and so is the lush dark green grass. The colour palette is so minimal; lots of white, dark green, brown, pale beige and yellow; such earthy, subtle colours and yet so much vibrancy and life is portrayed with it. In the background, we see a rusty red shed and a grey house on which only one little attic window is seen. Who lives there, and do they miss seeing the fields around their house vibrantly green and alive, littered with yellow and silver dandelions, I wonder.

Andrew Wyeth, The Granary, 1961, watercolor on paper

Another beautiful, very dreamy painting by Wyeth, a watercolour this time called “The Granary”, which I recently discovered, shows a winter countryside scene with the granary during a full-blown snow blizzard. This is the kind of scene which is dreamy to gaze at, but only through the window, while one is cozy and warm inside, sipping tea and reading a book. No bird, or mouse or a bird would be out here in this magical yet horrible weather condition. But in the artwork such as this one, it simply looks mesmerising and unreal, and this is something that so much of Wyeth’s art has in common, with his poetic painterly vision he successfully transformed trivial, mundane, even boring everyday scenes into something lyrical and hauntingly beautiful.

Pietro Longhi – Scenes from Everyday Life

12 Jan

Pietro Longhi is a wonderful Venetian eighteenth century painter who, unlike some of his contemporaries in Venice, devoted himself to portraying the simple beauties of everyday life. These days I enjoy gazing at his genre scenes and let’s take a look at a few interesting ones.

Pietro Longhi, The Painter in His Studio, 1741, oil on canvas, 41 × 53.3 cm (16 1/8 × 21 in)

A painting is a finished work, but in Longhi’s painting “The Painter in His Studio” we see the hidden, mysterious aspect of art and portrait painting; we see what happens behind the curtains, a sweet secret that only the artist, the sitter or the model know. In this work, a painter is painting an oval portrait of a Venetian noblewoman. Her clothes speak of her wealth and importance. I deserve to be captured for eternity on canvas, her gaze seems to say. Her hair is powdered and short, her stays laced, and a little dog is peeking under her lace sleeve. Considering how wide her sumptuous dress is, perhaps there is another dog hiding in there. Their carnivals and their masques, one never knows with these Venetians, what are they hiding, what is real and what a mirage. The man beside her; is he her husband, her brother, a father or a friend, we don’t know. But he also has a Venetian masque on his face, moved to the side though. Maybe he is telling the painter something really important. And look, his hand is about to pull something out of his inner pocket, what is it, a dagger? In case he is displeased with the painter’s work. Or some gold coins, if he thinks the likeness of the two faces, the one on canvas and the one in reality, is astounding. On the left of the painter, we see his painting equipment. The background is painted in muted brownish tones and is empty of details and ornamentation, we don’t see the continuation of rooms or space, which makes these three characters seem like actors on the stage, but then again, aren’t we all?

Pietro Longhi, Fainting, 1744, 50×61.8 cm (19 11/16 × 24 5/16 in)

From a calmness of a portrait sitting painting we are moving on to a more dramatic scene, painted around the same time, 1744, when Longhi was about forty-two years old; it is unsure whether he was born in 1701 or 1702. A lady dressed in a pastel pink gown, deadly pale and weak, is just opening her eyes. Quick, quick, someone call the doctor! The lady had fainted. Oh, she is opening her eyes slowly now. Her one hand is on her breast, the other is hanging limp. A soft pillow was brought so she can lay her head on it, and smelling salts are offered to her delicate nostrils. Do not let this pastel pink sweetness fool you, for this scene is not as innocent as it may seems at first.

The evidence of the crime lays open to our eyes in the bottom left corner; an overthrown little table with a notably Rococo playful and flamboyant chinoserie pattern, cards and a little velvet purse full of coins are scattered on the floor. People have gathered sympathetically around her, but this lady has a card or two up her sleeve. The reason she fainted is not the lack of fresh air, or the stays laced too tight, but rather the fact that she was loosing in the game. What else can she do but stage this silly little incident. Ha, but the man dressed in a long blue cloak and a long dark grey wig on the right doesn’t seem to believe her. His hand is stretched towards her as if he’s asking for the money. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s portrayal of truth on his canvases, portrayal of the real world around them, and the painting “Fainting” most likely inspired Goldoni’s comedy “La finta ammalata or “The Fake Patient Woman” (1750–1751); there’s a scene in which the main character Rosaura had just fainted and she is surrounded by her friend, her suitor, her father and her doctor.

Pietro Longhi, The Game of the Cooking Pot, 1744, 49.8 × 61.8 cm (19 5/8 × 24 5/16 in)

Another charming and slightly confusing scene is presented in the painting “The Game of the Cooking Pot”. The lady in the gorgeous white gown is a sight to behold; her delicate pale face, her tiny pearl earring, a subtle pink flower in her powdered hair, her little white shoe peeking under the dress, all so dainty and doll-like in the typical Rococo way. But then there’s a guy on the right, holding a stick, his eyes tied with a handkerchief so he cannot see, and he is about to hit … the pot? The Game of pentola or The Game of the Pot is yet another one of strange Rococo games played by adults and not children which includes a person who has to strike the pot and smash it in order to find a pleasant surprise underneath. In a fancy Rococo interior carefree and pretty young people are indulging in lighthearted fun, and why would they not? Life is to be enjoyed. In the background, on the left, there’s some wine in jugs and some biscuits, little details that Longhi painted to add his scenes some warmth and domesticity.

What were the Venetians up to in the 1740s. This is sort of like an Instagram of their day and age; everything is smooth and perfect, there’s no smallpox, pimples, sadness or a bad hair day. Everyone is “caught” on the canvas having so much fun, like in a group selfie, a big smile everyone! And of course they are having much more fun than you are. Pietro Longhi’s focus on painting genre scenes led the art critics to compare his work to that of his English contemporary, the famous brutally satiric William Hogarth. This comparison isn’t true at all. They both placed their focus on the everyday life on their age and area, but Hogarth’s work tends to be harsh, his wittiness turns to sarcasm, whereas Longhi’s world is delicate and dainty, and figures in his paintings look like actors on stage, their face expressions and movements carefully devised to tell the tale. Pastel colours, fine brushstrokes, Longhi shows both the refined and frivolous past times of Venetians around him; gambling, playing games, sitting for portraits, reading letters, dancing, taking music lessons, receiving visitors. Every canvas is a scene from life. Also, the notable small size of these interior scenes is another thing which connects Longhi’s art with that of Vermeer and other seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed daily life, though with more modesty, mystery and coldness, they are after all people from the dark, rainy, and gloomy North.

Pietro Longhi, The Letter, 1746, oil on canvas, 61 x 49.5 cm (24 x 19 1/2 in)

In this painting I love the detail or a washing line with the white garments painted in such loose, feathery soft, almost ghostly strokes, it just looks so delicate, and adds to the aura of gentleness which matches the pale pretty girl’s pastel pink gown and a sweet round face.

Pietro Longhi, The Music Lesson, 1760, oil on copper, 44.6 x 57.6 x 0.2 cm (17 9/16 x 22 11/16 in)

Since when is holding hands crucial for learning the notes? Hmmm…. The music teacher’s profile alone, with the wide wicked smile and those eyebrows indicates a lecherous Faun-like nature. And look at the way the little dog is observing it all, with his paw in the air.

Costume Sketches for The Young Victoria (2009)

26 Dec

I love period dramas and I love costumes in them! In fact, I love to gaze and admire the costumes so much that sometimes I don’t even care for the film itself; if the costumes are an eye-candy, I will probably enjoy the film as well. Aesthetic is everything. So, maybe I am not the best judge of a particular film itself, but I think it doesn’t take a genius to see that the costumes for the film “The Young Victoria” (2009) are gorgeous! The costume designer Sandy Powell won an Oscar for the costumes she designed for this film and today I wanted to share some of her, seems to be, watercolour sketches which look so vibrant and playful, and more free-flowing and sketchy than a Victorian era fashion plate would be. The film follows Victoria, played by Emily Blunt, from the times she was a Princess Victoria, through her coronation, falling in love with Albert, their marriage and ends with the birth of her first child, daughter Victoria in 1840. The time period is short, covering the 1830s and 1840, but fashion-wise subtle changes can definitely be felt, from puffy 1830s sleeves to simpler 1840s styles which I love very much.

Here is what Powell says about the process of finding inspiration and research for the costumes: “There are a lot of royal portraits of Victoria and the family, so obviously, we started with that. And written material, including her own diaries. She was very specific about her clothing and would describe in great detail what she was wearing and what she did that day, so that was very useful. And after that, I went to Kensington Palace, where there is a museum, and also some of her original pieces of clothing are archived there. We had access to look at those.” And also she emphasised the point of how simple the 1840s fashion actually is: “With the women’s clothes, I don’t think that they are complex. I think they’re quite simple for this period. The most important thing is the undergarment. A woman will have a corset and petticoats on, and that creates the silhouette — the base on top of which the dresses will go. The dresses themselves are very light. They’re made of fine fabrics– silk, mostly — and they just pop over the top of the underwear that’s already created your foundation. So in a way, once an actor has her underwear on, it becomes a question of putting another dress over it.” You can read the entire interview here. Ahhh, to be clad in those long silk gowns, with flowers in my hair, wander the lonely and cold corridors of my palace, only in a dream!

Haunting Melancholy Dolls by Mari Shimizu

15 Dec

“She’s got the whole dark forest living inside of her.”

(Tom Waits)

Some time ago I discovered these gorgeous dolls made by a Japanese artist Mari Shimizu, and I was instantly drawn to their beautiful pale haunting faces, large eyes radiating melancholy and rosebud lips which hide secrets. Mari Shimizu has been creating these dolls for almost twenty years now, having started in 2000, and she is entirely self-taught. The detailing and the inspiration that went into creating each doll individually is baffling! They are all unique and yet they all seem to belong to this one world; half-fantasy and half-macabre. As I gaze at each doll, it seems to me that their eyes, shiny and large like gemstones, jade or sapphire, are gateways to this other world, that of the imagination.

Some of them are inspired by Alice in Wonderland, some are vampire-like, with delicious little fangs and faded lavender coloured Rococo-style gowns, others are skeletons with rich inner lives, and I mean literary so; their insides, instead of organs, have a whole other vivid crazy world inside them; nude maiden riding a horse of Fuseli-inspired fantasy, anything goes. Mari Shimizu wasn’t into the whole pink, sugary, kawaii aesthetic that Japan is famous for (that isn’t the only aspect of Japanese culture, I know, but it seems a lot of foreigners are drawn to the cuteness and childlike stuff that Japan offers, from mangas to Lolita clothes).

Her imagination wanted to go to greater depths and greater lengths, and looking at these dolls you can notice a whole scale of inspiration that went into it, from Western art and fairy tales and stories, and she said in an interview here that she especially likes Renaissance and Victorian eras which would explain some of the themes behind these dolls, Death and the Maiden, a popular motif in the Middle ages and the Renaissance, and Alice in Wonderland: “Alice in Wonderland is fascinated by being an absurd drama with a girl as the main character, depicted in an era when human activities are automated in the industrial revolution. I interpret that the innocent and pure existence of a girl is a story that fights adult absurdity over time. Human emotions and growth are inherently absurd.  It is animals and nature that tell us the truth, not formulas.  Alice in Wonderland is drawn through the eyes of a girl whose world is still undifferentiated, and she can listen to animal conversations and freely change the size and presence of objects.  It is a theme that always has new discoveries that break our fixed concept.” (in the artist’s own words)

Henri Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1791

Laurits Andersen Ring – Young Girl Looking Out a Window

4 Dec

“City of swarming, city full of dreams
Where ghosts in daylight tug the stroller’s sleeve!
Mysteries everywhere run like the sap
That fills this great colossus’ conduits.

One morning, while along the sombre street
The houses, rendered taller by the mist….”

(Baudelaire, Seven Old Men)

Laurits Andersen Ring, Young Girl Looking Out a Window, 1885

A young girl is standing by the window and looking out at the urban grey cityscape; grey skies and old roofs gradually disappearing in the mist. Their brown and fading brick red shades are the only colour in this sea of greyness. Then there’s also the soft pink of the girl’s cheek, perhaps from the cold winter air, or perhaps thoughts of distant beloved someone have turned her cheek into a summer’s garden of pink roses. She is dressed in simple, somber attire, and we see so little of her face that it is hard to tell what she is feeling, but we can imagine. She’s clearly a poor, working class girl, yearning for more. Perhaps she moved from the countryside as many have at the time, including the painter himself, and now, looking out of her small attic window at the “swarming city, city full of dreams” she doesn’t see the things that were promised to her. Even though it isn’t shown on the painting, we can imagine the rest of the scene; a poorly furnished cold little room, with old wooden floor, a tattered worn-out wooden furniture, little comfort and little brightness and little warmth, a perfect background for a Joy Division song to play in the background and flood the space and the girl’s life with an even greater sea of misery. It must be a singularly dreary late autumn day, for if it was a winter day, the roofs of Copenhagen would have probably been covered in a layer of snow. These verses seem as if they were directed to this girl looking out of her window:

Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agatha,
Far from the black ocean of the filthy city,
Toward another ocean where splendor glitters,
Blue, clear, profound, as is virginity?
Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away, Agatha?

(Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, translated by William Aggeler, 1954)

Born as Laurits Andersen in 1854 in a little village of Ring, as a carpenter’s son, the ambitious Danish painter added “Ring” to his name as a way to differentiate himself from a fellow painter Hans Andersen Brendekilde (who added Bredenkiled himself out of the same reason) because they both exhibited their paintings at a joint exhibition in 1881. Ring began his art journey as a painter’s apprentice in his village, took some private classes in painting while working in Copenhagen in 1873, until he was accepted as a student at the Danish Academy of Arts and for a while studied under Peder Severin Krøyer, but he never liked the discipline and themes promoted by the Academy. You know someone is a great painter if they rebel against the Academy. The painting “Young Girl Looking Out a Window” is a fairly early and a fairly unknown work, at least compared to his more famous paintings, such as his Northern landscapes and village scenes which tackle the difficult aspects of poor people’s lives. Ring was very interested in the social justice and portraying realism in art, real things and real people, and not mythological fantasy themes. He didn’t want to escape reality, he wanted to tame it and transform it into colours and forms on his canvases. And this painting of a sad-looking girl gazing out the window was painted at the time when Ring himself was struggling financially and artistically, and spent a winter in an attic room in Copenhagen, living more on his ambitions than on bread and butter. Also, the way she was painted, seen from the profile and crammed into the very corner of the canvas, is something he typically did.

Love, Blood and Savagery in Botticelli’s The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti

10 Nov

These four canvases by Botticelli hide a strangely dark and cruel tale inspired by a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part one: Nastagio meets the woman and the knight in the pine forest of Ravenna, 1483, tempera on wood

Tormented by unrequited love, a young nobleman by the name of Nastagio Degli Onesti flees his hometown of Ravenna searching for some faraway place where he wouldn’t be thinking and dreaming of her – the beautiful haughty damsel who rejects him so cruelly over and over again. She enjoys rejecting him and seeing him suffer, and he tried suicide on a few occasions but all the attempts were all unsuccessful. Nastagio is tired from the unending blows of rejection and not even wanderlust can stir his dead, tired, lovelorn soul and his travel stops in a little place called Chiassi, a seaport a few miles away from Ravenna. It was the beginning of May and evening was approaching when Nastagio wandered into the dark mystic pine woods: “It chanced one day, he being come thus well nigh to the beginning of May and the weather being very fair, that, having entered into thought of his cruel mistress, he bade all his servants leave him to himself, so he might muse more at his leisure, and wandered on, step by step, lost in melancholy thought, till he came [unwillingly] into the pine-wood. The fifth hour of the day was well nigh past and he had gone a good half mile into the wood, remembering him neither of eating nor of aught else…” (*)

The distance, the change of scenery, nought could stop him from thinking of his cruel-hearted damsel in Ravenna; instead of beauties of nature, he only sees her pretty countenance, instead of the scent of the fragrant pine trees, he only breathes in her name from afar and breathes out desperation and longing. Ahhh…. Deep in mournful reveries that tear his heart even further, Nastagio “heard a terrible great wailing and loud cries uttered by a woman; whereupon, his dulcet meditation being broken, he raised his head to see what was to do and marvelled to find himself among the pines; then, looking before him, he saw a very fair damsel come running, naked through a thicket all thronged with underwood and briers, towards the place where he was, weeping and crying sore for mercy and all dishevelled and torn by the bushes and the brambles. At her heels ran two huge and fierce mastiffs, which followed hard upon her and ofttimes bit her cruelly, whenas they overtook her; and after them he saw come riding upon a black courser a knight arrayed in sad-coloured armour, with a very wrathful aspect and a tuck in his hand, threatening her with death in foul and fearsome words.” This is the scene from Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (fifth day, eighth story) which Botticelli has depicted in the first panel of the four-part series. I love the different phases of narration depicted in a single painting; in the background on the left we see Nastagio’s servants and then the tent, then we see Nastagio walking alone in the woods, and then right in the centre is the horrid encounter between Nastagio and the poor naked damsel. Having no sword or other weapon in hand, Nastagio picked up a branch, trying to defend the lady.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part two: Killing the Woman, 1483, tempera on wood

And now, in the background of the second panel, we again see the scene that had happened but minutes before; the woman being chased by an evil knight on a white horse. Now, the woman is killed and her body lies on the grass and the knight, angry faced but also seemingly accustomed to the actions, is tearing her flesh and ripping her organs out. Nastagio looks away in horror and the gesture of his arms shows how horrified and disgusted and bewildered he is by the strange scene that awoke him from his meditative reverie. Boccaccio writes: “This sight filled Nastagio’s mind at once with terror and amazement“. Dogs are eating her organs and now, on a moist grass of a dark pine forest, lies the naked dead body of a beautiful woman whose last breaths and words he had witnessed, and yet he was unable to save her from “anguish and death.” You would think that Renaissance was all about harmony and elevated themes, or so we were taught in grammar school, but what Botticelli has depicted here is a wild, untamed flow of savagery, the Dionysian element trying to stir the perfect Apollonian world of Renaissance; world of knowledge and reason is now tainted with blood, screams and torture.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part three: The banquet in the forest, 1483, tempera on wood

The knight then explains to Nastagio the strange, barbarous scene that Nastagio had witnessed. Once upon a time, in days when Nastagio was but a child, the knight, whose name is Guido degli Anastagi, also lived in Ravenna and was also suffering from unrequited love. He loved a damsel who was as cruel and haughty as Nastagio’s beloved is, and who also enjoyed tormenting him, enjoyed to see him suffer from rejection. Unable to take it anymore, death seemed dearer to Guido then such a miserable, lovelorn existence, and he took his life. The damsel was pleased that such was the power of her beauty and charm, and she shed not a tear, but very soon she fell ill and died. Having no remorse before her death for her cruel behavior towards Guido, she was condemned to eternity in hell. Guido is also there, having committed the sin of suicide. And their punishment is intertwined; every Friday he has to chase her through the forest with the dogs, kill her and rip out her heart and feed it to the dogs. A cruel, cold, little heart which was incapable of love; that is her sin.

This repetitive punishment occurs every Friday and will repeat every Friday for as many years as there were months that the lady rejected Guido. Fascinated by this discovery, the following Friday Nastagio invites his family and friends for a little gathering, a party, and the cruel damsel whom he loves is also there. This is the third scene. Party is disturbed by the same savage ceremony of damned lovers and all the guests see the lady die again and her heart being ripped out. The Knight Guido again tells the crowd of their punishment in hell and it makes an impact on people, especially the females who teary eyed suddenly feel more loving and gentle. Nastagio’s beloved, the daughter of Paolo Traversiari, suddenly feels guilt and regret for her past actions and decides to marry Nastagio, fearing the same destiny might await her in case her cruel rejection of his love perseveres.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part four: Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, 1483, tempera on wood

The fourth panel, perhaps the dullest one, shows Nastagio’s wedding to the once haughty pretty wealthy maiden. Well, she is still pretty and wealthy, but more down to earth and perhaps more afraid of hell’s flames. She sends her maid to tell Nastagio that “she was ready to do all that should be his pleasure“. The scenery and its connection to the story is fascinating; in first two panels the setting is the wild, dark, mysterious pine forest where Nastagio wanders into because he is daydreaming and not paying attention to where he is going, so he walks into the woods as in a dream. The third panel is half-half; woods are still present in the background behind a long white-clothed dinner table. And then, after the moment of cruelty – the killing – is over, the setting goes to a more classical, polite, rational space; a banquet celebrating the marriage. Dense, repetitive row of trees gives a sense of depth and, along with the figure of the knight, and the emphasised narrative element of the painting, are all reminders of the Gothic art of the previous centuries, but it strangely fits the mood of the story.

Boccaccio’s tales from “Decameron” were suppose to carry a wise, education message to them and in this story the message is not to reject love because everyone deserves to be loved and have the right to love. Women should learn from the cruel damsel’s behavior and not follow in her footsteps. It is a sin not to love. Nastagio and his lady live happily ever after, but this isn’t the only positive outcome of the event, oh no, suddenly “all the ladies of Ravenna became so fearful by reason thereof, that ever after they were much more amenable than they had before been to the desires of the men.” Did no one found it strange that the only reason to return someone’s affection was the fear of suffering the same damnation? It’s interesting how some things sound so normal in these old tales, while they are utterly bizarre in our day and age.

The four pictures were commissioned in 1483 by Antonio Pucci, a wealthy merchant from Florence, for the occasion of the wedding of his son Giannozzo with Lucretia Bini. The theme was most likely chosen by Pucci himself and the paintings were intended for the bedroom of the newlyweds. Why, yes, a nude lady being killed by a knight and having her heart ripped out… quite a soothing, romantical scene to gaze at before bedtime and to see the first thing in the morning. An applause please, for Antonio Pucci’s wonderful aesthetic sense. The theme was chosen for its happy ending, I mean, they do get married in the end, but still. Now the paintings are, luckily, not gracing the walls of any poor couple’s bedroom, they are in Museo del Prado.