Tag Archives: Renaissance

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.

 

Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

Albrecht Dürer’s Watercolours

17 Jun

Extremely versatile and prolific artist, Albrecht Dürer was born in Nürnberg – one of the artistic centres of Europe in the Renaissance. Durer was a true Homo Universalis, one of the first artists that showed interest in Italy and its art developments, and also one of the first painters to use watercolours and popularise the use of that medium. I wanted to share these beautiful watercolour painting of flowers, trees, some birds, and his famous painting ‘Young Hare‘ because I think it’s fascinating how someone would even be interested in painting simple things from nature. Durer’s wide range of interests, and his enjoyment and study of everything around him could be compared only to Leonardo da Vinci. Themes of his paintings expressed his wide range of interests; fragments of nature, watercolour landscapes, portraits and self-portraits and paintings of religious content.

Since I am trapped in the nineteenth and early twentieth century art, Munch’s Scream, Van Gogh’s starry skies, and Modigliani’s melancholic nudes have become my reality, and it utterly fascinates me that something as simple as grass could capture the artist’s attention. Durer must have possessed a calmness of mind. No despair or anger in these serene watercolours.

1510-20. Albrecht Dürer, ‘Eight Studies of Wild Flowers’, Watercolour1510-20 Albrecht Dürer, ‘Eight Studies of Wild Flowers’, Watercolour

1526. Albrecht Dürer - Study of Lilies, watercolour on paper, Musee Bonnat, France1526 Albrecht Dürer – Study of Lilies, watercolour on paper, Musee Bonnat, France

1503. Albrecht Dürer - The Large Piece of Turf1503 Albrecht Dürer – The Large Piece of Turf

1545. Albrecht Dürer, Turk's Cap Lily (Lilium Martagon)Albrecht Dürer, Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium Martagon)

1526. Albrecht Dürer - Primula1526 Albrecht Dürer – Primula

The Tuft of Grass Minor, watercolour by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1521)The Tuft of Grass Minor, watercolour by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1521)

1494. Linden Tree on a Bastion - Albrecht Durer1494 Linden Tree on a Bastion – Albrecht Durer

1495. View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol - Albrecht Durer1495 View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol – Albrecht Durer

1500. Peonies - Albrecht Durer1500 Peonies – Albrecht Durer

1543. Albrecht Dürer ‘Three Studies of a Tree Bullfinch‘  watercolorAlbrecht Dürer ‘Three Studies of a Tree Bullfinch‘ watercolor

1512. Wing of a Blue Roller - Albrecht Durer1512 Wing of a Blue Roller – Albrecht Durer

1508. Albrecht Durer - An Owl1508 Albrecht Durer – An Owl

1502 Albrecht Durer – Young Hare

Arcimboldo – A Genius of Mannerism

6 Jun

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is one of the few artists that I truly admire. His paintings are overwhelmingly whimsical, daring and original, bizarre and fascinating even after more than four hundred years. There’s no doubt that these richly individualistic paintings are works of a Genius of Mannerism.

1591. Arcimboldo - Vertumnus, a portrait depicting Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor painted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons1591. Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Vertumnus

Originality and whimsicality of Arcimboldo’s paintings have ensured him the title of the most interesting Mannerist painter. Admired by his contemporaries, Arcimboldo’s paintings remained puzzling even to the cynical and skeptical audience of the twenty-first century. His imaginative portraits such as ‘Summer‘, or ‘Vertumnus‘ shown above, all posses an unexplainable enigmatic power which leaves the viewers overwhelmed with thoughts and questions. What kind of person painted such marvelous paintings, especially if we consider the time period? And what an imagination?

‘Portrait’ above shows Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as Vertumnus, or the Roman God of seasons. Rudolf was a peculiar ruler; a King of Hungary and Croatia who at one point decided to move his court from Vienna to Prague and focus on art, science and other hobbies rather than wasting time on dull state affairs. Who has time for politics and wars when there’s art and all sorts of life mysterious waiting to be discovered? Rudolf never married, and his sexuality was the subject of whispers at court, many believed that he was homosexual. Instead, he went on to become a patron of arts, showing a particular fondness for Norther Mannerism.

1563. Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Spring1563. Giuseppe Arcimboldo – Spring

Rudolf’s other interests varied from astronomy, botany and science in general, all the way to alchemy. His court was an abode for all sorts of weirdos and individual minds of Europe at the time; along with a Flemish botanist Charles de l’Ecluse and astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, there was also a female creature at his court, quite unusual for the time, a poetess, Elizabeth Jane Weston, known for Neo-Latin poetry. Themes of her poems varied between idyllic reveries, odes to Rudolf and odes to herself.

Did I mention that Rudolf also kept a menagerie of exotic animals and botanical gardens? Though, that’s not so unusual for the Habsburgs. Rudolf was also fascinated with clocks, telescopes, musical instruments, water works, astrolabes and compasses; all of which he had specially made by the finest European craftsmen. He also had a ‘cabinet of curiosities‘ (Kunstkabinett); ‘encyclopedic collection of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined’; in short, a collection of different things belonging to natural history, geology, art, archeology, antiquities, relics and all sorts of things that would be interesting for a Renaissance man. Considering the variety of his interests, I doubt that he would even have time for a wife. Free from chains of marriage, he had plenty of time for exploration. As a person, Rudolf seems like a strange mixture of Homo Universalis of Renaissance and a rather odd individual.

1640s Wenceslas Hollar - Landscape shaped like a face (date unknown)Wenceslas Hollar – Landscape shaped like a face (date unknown) – 17th century

Fantasy or insanity? Now that’s a debate that could refer to both Arcimboldo and his patron Rudolf. Art critics have many times questioned Arcimboldo’s work, treating his ingenuity as a deranged mind. We can observe Arcimboldo’s painting style from two main aspects. Firstly, the enigmatic mood of his paintings is something that was very popular in Renaissance, it questioned one to think and use its reason to solve the problem. Secondly, the nature of Arcimboldo’s paintings reflects the atmosphere of the time; Renaissance world of harmony was slowly fading away, replaced by doubts and fear – that’s the spirit of Mannerism.

Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf is perhaps the most vivid out of all his imaginative paintings. By skilfully arranging different vegetables, fruits and flowers from all seasons such as cherries, wheat, grapes, corn, plumes, olives, pumpkins, cabbage, apples, pears, onions, chestnut, figs etc, Arcimboldo created a portrait of an Emperor and a perfect personification of a Roman God Vertumnus. Arcimboldo used this formula of ‘portraits-allegories’ many times, one of my favourite renditions of this method is his painting ‘Spring’ which is composed entirely of flowers and leafs. Hidden-faces were quite a popular thing back then, as we can see in the engraving Landscape shaped like a face by Wenceslas Hollar. At first sight it’s a landscape, on the other it’s definitely a face. Landscape, face, landscape, face…

Although Arcimboldo had no direct followers, his work was hugely influential on Surrealists and Dadaists such as Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. This is the third time I’m writing about Arcimboldo as he seems to be a popular subject, both for me and my readers – I’ve written about his painting The Librarian and about the connection between his painting and Syd Barrett’s Vegetable Man.

The Librarian – Triumph of Abstract Art in the 16th Century

3 Sep

If someone told me that this is an Expressionistic painting, I’d think it’s interesting, but not unusual. However, this painting was painted in 1566, at the peak of Renaissance, and knowing that, I think the painting The Librarian is extraordinary.

1570. Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Librarian

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is famous for creating numerous portraits made entirely of objects such as fruit, vegetables, roots, leafs, flowers, fish and most interestingly – books. Painting The Librarian is the one that caught my attention the most, out of all Arcimboldo’s paintings, because he created it by assembling books and with that succeeded in making an allegory.

Arcimboldo’s other works, such as his religious themed paintings, have now fallen into oblivion, due to the great interest that his other paintings caused. It was the individuality of these other paintings that made them popular so much. What Arcimboldo had painted in the sixteen century would be stunning and interesting even in the twentieth century. If you compare his work with the society, mentality and also other art at the time, it’s easy to see why his work, so daring and unconventional, remained popular throughout the centuries. The Librarian is described as a ‘triumph of Abstract art in the 16th century’. It is also described as both a celebration and satirical mocking of librarians and scholarship. This painting is an allegory too for it stands as a parody of materialistic book collectors who are more interested in acquiring books than reading them and valuing them for their content. In Renaissance the worth of an aristocrat man was valued by the amount of books he had read, or rather, had in his library, and Arcimboldo is mocking this conventional delusion of his time; the size of someone’s library mustn’t determine its value or knowledge, only possessing books is not enough, and real knowledge and wisdom can not be bought with money. This is exactly what is interesting about Arcimboldo’s paintings and what draws people towards his art, even Syd Barrett was inspired by his ‘vegetable man’ series of paintings, as I have written previously.

Books of Reader

Still, Art critics debate whether his paintings are whimsical and allegorical or a product of a deranged mind. I find his paintings highly individual, interesting, original, whimsical, allegorical, slightly bizarre and fascinating.