Book Love…

The four textbooks for my online European History course arrived early Friday morning.  I was sitting around in my blue fleece polar bear pajama pants, drinking coffee when the doorbell rang. Besides the fact that my mom and uncle used to hit the floor and hide when unexpected guests arrived on their driveway, I can’t really explain the adverse reaction the doorbell causes in our house.  My fully dressed son looked out the window and seeing the Canada Post truck, ran for the hills. “C’mon Ben!  I’m in my pajama pants!” I pleaded. “Just answer the door!”  I heard the lock on his bedroom door click.  I’m recounting the experience as therapy today. Thank you for listening.

The books were taking over the shop, climbing walls, settling into crevice and cranny, as if they were alive.

What is the enchantment of new (and of course, old) books? I already own more books than I may ever read, and yet can barely resist the lure of Amazon, the book aisle in Superstore, local bookstores or other people’s libraries.  One of the most exciting things about my European History course is its four textbooks.  Four!  Good books become objects of meaning. They mark the history of our personal growth, becoming trophies of new knowledge and insight.  I like to keep my books in full view, as visible road maps not only of where I’ve been, but where I’m going.  They spill from bookcases, sitting in piles on table and floor, reminding me of who I am.

swerveLast summer I was introduced Stephen Greenblatt’s, Pulitzer prize winning book,  The Swerve.  Greenblatt, a professor of Humanities at Harvard,  tells the tale of Poggio Bracciolini, a 14th century Italian scholar who went on a treasure hunt for lost manuscripts in French, Swiss and German monastic libraries. Through good timing and good fortune, Poggio eventually found an important manuscript, the De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). This first century  BC poem, is written by Lucretius, explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience.  Seen as the most dangerous of ideas, the poem suggests that the universe functions without the aid of god(s), and that religious fear is damaging to human life.  In richly poetic language, it also explores Epicurean atomic physics and questions of the mind, soul and thought.  Greenblatt’s thesis in The Swerve is that the rediscovery of this manuscript shaped the thinking of the early Renaissance.  He argues that this swerve in thought also influenced Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein, eventually leaving its trace on the Declaration of Independence.

I found The Swerve a sparkling read. Some scholars and critics didn’t agree with me though. Some thought that Greenblatt was molding history to fit his personal ends (as if that was something new), criticizing his portrayal of the Renaissance as ‘an outburst of light after a long medieval darkness.’ Others saw it as an anti religious polemic, reacting with swift indignation, even suggesting Greenblatt’s award be rescinded. But the general public mostly received The Swerve as a brilliant work of non-fiction.

As for me, I swept up in the book hunter’s pursuit of ancient manuscripts in dusty monasteries and scriptoriums. Equally so in the tales of Herculaneum libraries by the sea, papyrus rolls and the academia of ancient Greece.  I was inspired to follow-up with Greek, Renaissance and Medieval art history courses, and this summer’s European history course.  I’m sure over time, I’ll reach my own educated conclusions on “How the World Became Modern” but I’m grateful for the introduction to some very compelling ideas.  If you happen to be interested,  History of Medieval and Renaissance Italy professor William Caferro offers the most balanced review of The Swerve I’ve come across.

book urnHistory needs storytellers, weavers of words that spark our imagination and interest. Otherwise some of us would never stick our big toe in its luminous waters and what a shame that would be.  Maybe one day I’ll become so learned and crotchety and stickler-ish that I’ll be offended by The Swerve too.  But I’ll probably keep it, it’s settled in amongst the library of art and history books in the roman garden urn in my living room.  And  besides, you know what they say about a truly great library…

truly great

Happy Belated Raphael!

raphael57aI’m wishing Raphael Happy Birthday a few days late. My news feed was buzzing this weekend with everyone’s favourite Raphael paintings, which is what alerted me this oversight. The good news is that it’s unlikely Raphael will mind my tardiness.  Interesting note, one that I’ll be reminded of every Easter weekend from now on, Raphael was born and died on Good Friday, 37 years apart. Rumour has it his death was preceded by an uncontrollable fever that broke out during an evening of amorous pleasure with his model and mistress, Margarita Luti. raphaels mistress Afterwards, not wanting to disclose the nature of his illness, he was given the wrong medication and died just a week later.  Even 16th century historian Georgio Vasari recounted that Raphael was brought down by his excessive passion. There are worse ways to live and die, I suppose. Although how dreadful for poor Margarita.

Anyways, in honour of the 532nd birthday of the illustrious Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, I’ll add my favourite Raphael painting to the internet buzz as well.  Mine is The School of Athens.  I studied The School of Athens from my textbook last semester but had never seen the painting in print, en situ.  Context makes all the difference.  As magnificent as School of Athens is viewed separately, seeing it as a fresco within the Vatican makes it even more so. It’s impossible to understand the scale otherwise. (School of Athens is on the right hand wall within the semi dome)

school of athens, vatican

Pope Julius II commissioned for The School of Athens for the papal library in 1509.  It’s part of a series of themed frescos depicting distinct branches of knowledge; Philosophy, Poetry (including music) Theology and Justice.  School of Athens is an imaginary academy featuring some of the world’s greatest  philosophers and thinkers from ancient Rome/Greece to the 15th century.  It’s long been seen as Raphael’s masterpiece, embodying the classical spirit of the Renaissance. I think it’s best understood in context of the surrounding frescoes, rather than on its own. With the 15th century thrust toward humanism, it was important for the Pope to be regarded as balanced and progressive, embracing all the arts.

This close up details some of the philosophers and thinkers that Raphael portrayed, with Plato and Aristotle as central figures. I appreciated the inclusion of Hypatia, second century mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, and the only woman included in the academy. (Hypatia came to a rather fateful end; dragged naked through the streets by the christians, then while still alive, had her flesh scraped off with oyster shells.  Nasty tale.) It’s been suggested that Raphael used Michelangelo as physical inspiration for Heracutus and Leonardo DaVinci as inspiration for Plato.

school_of_athens_annotatedVasari noted that Raphael also included himself in the painting, to the far right, next to Zoroaster.  You can only see a portion of his face in the pic above, but note the close up below.  Raphael is in the in the centre, staring out at us, full eye contact.) Nothing like a little self promotion.raphael  On a side note, it wasn’t unusual for Renaissance painters to include figures based on real people in their work. Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time as Raphael was painting the Vatican Library. Rather famously, Michelangelo portrayed the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies,  Biagio da Cesena  (who had criticized Michelangelo’s work) as the god of the underworld in the Last Judgement, minos-judge-underworld-michelangelo-last-judgment with donkey ears and a snake biting his groin.  Such is the power of the artist.  But I’m afraid I’m off on another goose chase. And the Sistine Chapel is a story of its own.

What strikes me about The School of Athens, aside from my appreciation of  Raphael’s artistic skill and the fresco’s theme,  is the enormous amount of planning that must have gone into the prep work.  Imagine having to decide who to include in the imaginary academy, where to place them, how to dress them, how their expressions will appear, who they’re interacting with – you get the picture.  The composition of the fresco is a study in itself.  The architecture would have been no easy task to execute either, especially on such a large-scale.  It’s hardly a wonder that it took the then twenty-five year old Raphael two years to complete the masterpiece, which ranks alongside the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

And so, Happy Belated Raphael.  Five hundred years later, your contribution to the art world still amazes and awes.

The Lost Cycle of Time?

Ancient Origins has a fascinating article today titled, The Lost Cycle of Time.  One of the things I’ve been observing studying art history is that suddenly great civilizations disappear, only to be replaced by civilizations whose art and culture has regressed.  This makes me ask ‘why?’  With the gaps in recorded history, ‘why?’ isn’t an easy question to address.  What, I wonder, influences a golden age of discovery, like those of the ancient Greeks or the Renaissance?  Maybe we could include the computer age in this as well?

I’m by no means an expert, only a question asker, a ponderer.  Walter Cruttenden’s article is intriguing as it attempts to explain the effect of the cosmos on collective consciousness.  This consciousness, he suggests, may explain the ‘why’ of our historical periods of great discovery, the rise and fall of great empires.

Perhaps there’s another explanation.  The world is filled with unanswerable questions.  But today I’m in the fifth dimension, singing ‘The Age of Aquarius’.  Let the sun shine in.  🙂



Midterm Meditations…

Last week I pulled my groin doing relaxation exercises. How utterly lame is that? Besides having kids or breaking my ankle in the kitchen, a pulled groin is about as close to an athletic injury as I’ve come.  This kind of intense, movement limiting pain has a big effect on my ability to stay balanced.  How in the world do people with chronic pain do it? Pretty sure I’d be addicted to pain killers and mood stabilizers before long.

This week is midterms at school.  This is the first year I’ve been a full-time student and I thought I was managing pretty well, in spite of things.  But after limping to drawing class on my screaming pulled groin, struggling to get the nude’s head proportional to her body, comparing myself ruthlessly against far younger, far more talented students and my prof’s head disappearing into the aura of an ocular migraine, I had a little midterm meltdown.  So I ditched class and sat in my car, seat reclined, feet out the open window with my mascara running down my cheeks. Ahh, student life.

And yet here I am this morning, fueled by coffee and irrationality,  forgetting all that. Instead I’m thinking about adding another two classes and plotting how in the world I can get to art school in Florence.  Every morning my Facebook feed taunts me with classes abroad in fresco painting, conservation & restoration, writing.  I’m imagining myself young and untouched by life, an art & history student at a Florentine school housed in an ancient palazzo, years stretching boundlessly ahead.  Sigh.  Why is so hard to be settled where we are?  Why am I stalled studying Ancient Greece when I want to be studying the Renaissance? Why is it so damn hard to get head size right?  Where is my mood stabilizer?!

This is probably the point to remember to breathe… 2,3,4.  Let me share my pain and leave you with this picture of the Palazzo dei Cartelloni, the building that houses the SACI art school in Florence. We can cry together.

saci 2
Palazzo dei Cartelloni, SACI, Florence, Italy (ps – that’s a bust of Galileo crowning the entrance way)

Leonardo’s Wings

I’ve been trying to settle into an ancient history paper this weekend, but my brain keeps taking off on me.  Across my living room, the Mona Lisa, the Vitruvian Man and The Lady of the Dishevelled Hair are all vying for my attention.  Seems I’m on a bit of a Leonardo kick.  Over the past couple years, I’ve been taking art history courses spanning from prehistory to the twenty-first century.  I’ve been running back and forth along that timeline ever since.  Every time I think ‘the Renaissance is definitely my fave!’, I get swept up in compelling stories of yet another century, another country or continent.  Maybe there’s no such thing as settling on a favourite point of history.

A few days ago I returned to the Renaissance and watched a fascinating dramatized documentary, ‘Inside the Mind of Leonardo.’   What a mind. Painter of the immortal Mona Lisa and The Last Supper,  inventor, architect, physicist, geologist, civil and military engineer, botanist, anatomist, map maker, musician. I’m awestruck by the genius of the original Renaissance man.  Wouldn’t it be incredible to poke around in the diary of someone like that?

Actually, if you go to the Pinocoteca Ambrosiano and the Bramante Sacristy in Milan, you can.  That’s where a portion of the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo’s diary is housed.  Of course, you’d have to learn to read Italian backwards and probably get some sort of security clearance to see it all.  But part of the collection of writings and drawings are on public display.  While you’re there, you can also see the white gloves that Napoleon wore at the Battle of Waterloo. History is such a magnificent goose chase, isn’t it?  From ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars in just three paragraphs.

The Bramante Sacristy

But back to Leonardo.  How do you even begin to consider his artistic, scientific, philosophical and engineering innovations without filling a library?  Or at the very least, writing a paper?  I won’t subject you to that, but can I ramble a bit about wings? Leonardo’s wings specifically.  Until last week, I didn’t know that twenty-first century flight traces its beginnings to fifteenth century Europe.  I missed acquiring this apparently common piece of knowledge as a kid, which makes it all the more exciting to discover now.

Leonardo was perhaps the first European to envision the aerodynamics of modern flight. It became a lifelong preoccupation, though his efforts wouldn’t be realized for another four centuries. As a youth in Florence, nature was the foundation for Leonardo’s ideas, including flight. He examined birds, bats and insects;  analyzing and sketching their internal anatomy.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Wing Study
Leonardo Da Vinci, Wing Study

I was briefly put off, imagining young Leonardo killing and dissecting living things in his experimentation.  But this apparently isn’t true.  Historians seem to agree on Leonardo’s refusal to consume animals and his recognition of the cruelty of mistreating them. This wasn’t at all common practice at the time.  Here’s some interesting info on Leonardo’s vegetarianism. Strange, I’m considering this myself now also, not something I was expecting to address via art history.

Fifteenth century Europe didn’t look favourably on Leonardo’s investigations into flight. The church viewed much of science as magic, a pursuit that could get you hung or beheaded for heresy. Galileo, Leonardo’s contemporary, spent the last ten years of his life on house arrest for his views on heliocentrism, a view Leonardo supported also.  But I’m off on another chase into the Copernican Revolution. How can anyone study history without getting hopelessly side tracked?

My point in this meandering reflection, is that advancement of flight wasn’t based on the wings of birds, but rather on the wings of bats.  The above left illustration is a bat wing, which later was implemented in the design of the glider, which eventually led to modern flight.  I spent quite a while perusing this here.   I’m not sure why this all strikes me as so significant, other than that I hadn’t considered it before.  I didn’t know last January when I traveled to Europe, that I was figuratively flying on Leonardo’s wings.

As I was saying, art history is taking me to many uncharted places.  I’ve lost roughly thirty-six hours to this pleasant diversion and my ancient history paper is still waiting. But before I try to focus on that, let me leave you with this picture of Napoleon’s white gloves.  I’m sure before long, they’ll be wrapping their white fingertips around my shifting attentions also.

napoleon's gloves


Golden Discovery…

I’ve been waking these past mornings with visions of Raphael’s School of Athens, Leonardo’s Last Supper and Vitruvian Man and Michelangelo’s David and The Sistine Chapel.  As many pre dawn risers have been opening their browsers for the early news,  I’ve been logging in for the latest updates on the High Renaissance.  To say I’m enamoured with Quattrocento Italy would be an understatement.  (0h, how I love that word, quattrocento – just saying it makes me feel like a renaissance woman…)

...what studying an art history course is NOT...
…what studying an art history course is NOT…

This is kind of ironic since a mere ten days into Art History 102,  I plunged into despair and withdrew, overwhelmed with deadlines, grading and the kind of intellectual competition (my own ) I’d completely forgotten existed.

It’s strange, isn’t it, how our visions of things don’t necessarily line up with how things are. I’d been imagining studying art history being like sipping wine with an art appreciation group while gazing upon the Italian coast.  But instead found myself  transposing reams of historical information onto index cards, struggling to remember it all.  And before I knew it, I’d developed a highly suspicious imaginary tumour under my left arm.  Ahh, such are the risks of returning to school…

I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I’ve been thinking that following the art school dream ought to be an easy thing.   Well, at least easier than not following it.  Because surely the universe will assist and applaud a heroic quest for self fulfillment, right.  And surely because we’re doing something positive and worthwhile, our more rational self will shut down and shut up our sabotaging irrational self, right.  Wrong.  You know that saying, ‘wherever I go, there I am’,  well so it is.

Anyways to make a long story shorter, after a week of doubt, panic, surviving cancer, a lot of peanut m and m’s and changing my student status three times – I’m back with the program and loving it.

Change, even good change, is challenging.  Just this past week has meant exchanging an idealistic perspective for a real one, letting go a little of  performance expectations, pushing past self-imposed limitations and fears and reconciling with structure and learning curves.  Returning to school teaches things well beyond curriculum.

But there’s a kind of brilliance you find on the other side of yourself.  My world has literally been thrown open (once again) with ideas I’d never have discovered had I withdrawn.  Like how before Brunelleschi, the mathematics of perspective was left behind in ancient Rome and Greece. Or how it took a monk of questionable practice to shift the painted art of religion from solemn and unnatural to approachable, beautiful, colourful and playful.  Or lovely new lyrical words, like contropposto, chiaroscuro, ariccio, quattrocento… 

And larger themes, like how religion and humanism have always pushed and shoved one another for influence.  And how art and architecture have reflected that ongoing struggle.

Everything we see holds pieces of the stories, lives and thinking from hundreds, thousands of years ago – one thought building upon another.   It’s a vastly different way of looking at the world for me.  That Palladian window over there on the neighbor’s house – now I understand it beyond being just a design shape.  Now I see behind it the architect Palladio, acting and reacting within the shifting culture of the fifteenth century.  And how Palladio’s innovations were rooted back in ancient Rome and Greece.  In fact, the entire explosion of thought, architecture, art, science, and math of the  Renaissance roots back to the ancient thinking of philosophy and humanism.

Which leads me to ponder the dark ages, and the influence of the church… but that’s another rabbit hole.  And I have a midterm to prepare for.   Returning to school, in spite of a bit of a rocky start, is one of the finest things I’ve ever done.  Seriously, if you’re thinking of it, just do it.  It’s full of golden discovery.

...sweet, sweet discovery...
…sweet, sweet discovery…