Category Archives: Art

Art Florence Italy Renaissance

A smile so pleasing

This snippet comes from Vasari and tells the story of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-5).  Vasari (1511-74) was an Italian artist and writer, often credited as being the first modern art historian.

For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook to execute the portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa.  He worked on this painting for four years, and then left it still unfinished; and today it is in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fountainbleu. If one wanted to see how faithfully art can imitate nature, one could readily percieve it from this head; for here Leonardo subtly reproduced every living detail. The eyes had their natural lustre and moistness, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows were completely natural, growing thickly in one place and lightly in another and following the pores of the skin. The nose was finely painted, with rosy and delicate nostrils as in life. The mouth, joined to the flesh-tints of the face by the red of the lips, appeared to be living flesh rather than paint.

On looking closely at the pit of her throat one could swear that the pulses were beating. Altogether this picture was painted in a manner to make the most confident artist – no matter who – despair and lose heart.  Leonardo made use of this device: while he was painting Mona Lisa, who was a very beautiful woman, he employed singers and musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and so chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. As a result, in this painting of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.

Art Florence Italy Renaissance

Botticelli’s Joke

This snippet comes from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Vasari (1511-1574) is regarded as the first Italian art historian, and his biographies of Renaissance painters, first published in 1550, went on to become an instant classic. As well as outlining the lives and works of various painters, Visari was also fond of amusing anecdotes and gossip. The following is taken from his life of Sandro Botticelli:
One of Sandro’s paintings, a very highly-regarded work to be found in San Francesco outside the Porta a San Miniato is a Madonna in a circular picture with some angels, all life-size.  He was a very good-humoured man and much given to playing jokes on his pupils and friends.  For example, the story goes that one of his pupils, called Biagio, painted a circular picture exactly like the one of Botticelli’s mentioned above, and that Sandro sold it for him to one of the citizens for six gold florins; then he found Biagio and told him, ‘I’ve finally sold that picture of yours. Now you must hang it up high this evening so it looks better, and then tomorrow morning go along and find the man who bought it so that you can show it to him properly displayed in a good light, and then he’ll give you your money.’ ‘Oh, you’ve done marvellously,’ said Biagio, who then went along to the shop, hung his picture at a good height, and left.

In the meantime, Sandro and another of his pupils, Jacopo, had made several paper hats (like the ones the citizens wore) which they stuck with white wax over the heads of the eight angels that surrounded the Madonna in his picture. Then, when the morning came, Biagio arrived with the citizen who had bought his painting (and who had been let into the joke). They went into the shop, where Biagio looked up and saw his Madonna seated, not in the midst of angels, but in the middle of the councillors of Florence, all wearing their paper hats!  He was just about to roar out in anger and make excuses when he noticed that the man he was with had said nothing at all, and was in fact starting to praise the picture, so Biagio kept quiet himself. At length he went home with him and was given his six florins, as the price agreed by Botticelli. Then he went back to the shop, a moment or two after Sandro and Jacopo had removed those paper hats, and he found that the angels he had painted were angels after all and was so stupefied that he was at a loss for words.

Eventually he turned to Sandro and said, ‘Sir, I don’t know if I am dreaming or if this is reality, but when I was here earlier those angels were wearing red hats, and now they’re not. What’s the meaning of it?’ ‘You’ve taken leave of your senses,’ said Sandro. ‘All that money has gone to your head. If what you say were true, do you think he’d have bought your picture?’ ‘That’s so,’ said Biagio, ‘He didn’t say a word. But all the same it struck me as very strange.’ Then all the other apprentices flocked around him and convinced him that he had had some kind of giddy spell.

Art Dining Italy Renaissance

A centaur made of sugar

These fragments are taken from a Milanese banquet menu dated 1491. As well as providing descriptions of the sorts of food eaten at a large feast, the menu also indicates the theatrical presentation of each course (which, frankly, in some cases is distinctly surreal). Formal dining is one aspect of court life which underwent very few changes from the Middle Ages onwards.  Hors d’oeuvre courses consisted of pastries, poultry and fish, and were followed by main courses of more fish, and heavier meats. The meal ended with courses of sweet desserts and oysters. Each course is accompanied by especially chosen wines. Here are a few excerpts from the menu:

Three swans with their skins decorated with gold; two roasted reared geese with bowls of grape juice on the side; one large golden pastry of game per plate. The lids of the same game pies are to be in the form of three very high and ornate mountains with forts on top, decorated with gold.

Large boiled pikes covered with black pepper sauce; one large boiled Toro [fish] with bowls of blue sauce on the side; salted fish. The covers of the plates holding the salted fish should consist of a model of the Colosseum lavishly decorated with gold.

A course of large boiled meats: two whole calves; four whole heifers; four whole kids; two whole roe deer; eight hares; pigs; and two wild boar. On large platters should be served six large capons; six geese; six pheasants; six ducks; twelve pigeons; and ten partridges. On other large platters should go eight hams; two salami; six large sausages; six tongues.’  This course is to be presented as follows: ‘a centrepiece with a laurel tree which is cut open and spurts blood; a small boy comes out on horseback reciting apposite verses and mottoes with much grace and skill.

Fish jelly on large plates; saffron jelly on others; white jelly which looks like snow on others.  The plate covers are three different forts made out of jelly with drawbridges over a moat in which live fish swim, surrounded by golden cuttlefish with flowers all around.

A course of large fish; four fried John Dorys per plate in a sauce with olives and lemons; four fried sea bass covered with salsa verse per plate with sugar-coated aniseed.

To be served in the following mind-boggling manner:

a centaur made of sugar carrying a woman dressed elaborately in vegetable leaves, crosses a river, as he runs from another figure made of sugar who appears to be following him and defeating him.

Pies of sour apples; and other kinds of pies; black tarts with sour apples in basins and mashed pears in bowls.

This is presented in

three large ships loaded with apple jam, adorned lavishly with mottoes and carried by sailors from under the sea.

Oysters in large basins with little bowls of pepper on the side; truffles in little plates or cups; giant roast chestnuts with fennel and pepper.

To be served in

a galleon full of oysters presented with other marine creatures adorned with mottoes.

Large golden sponges; large golden marzipans; large columns of icing; and other things made out of sugar in the Roman manner and decorated with gold.

This teeth-aching course is delivered in

a large ship from the Fortunate Isles bearing Moors with mottoes, full of sugar and gold.

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Art Florence Italy Renaissance

Giotto & The Perfect O

This is from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and is one of my favourite snippets. It concerns Giotto (c.1267-1337), one of the first great Italian artists of the Renaissance.

Giotto won such reputation in Pisa and beyond that Pope Benedict IX, who was intending to have some paintings commissioned for St Peter’s, sent one of his courtiers from Trevisi to Tuscany to find out what sort of man Giotto was and what his work was like. On his way to see Giotto and to see whether there were other masters in Florence who could do skilful work in paintings and mosaic, this courtier spoke to many artists in Siena. He took some of their drawings and then went to Florence itself, where one day he arrived at Giotto’s workshop to find the artist at work. The courtier told Giotto what the Pope had in mind and the way in which he wanted to make use of his services, and, finally, he asked Giotto for a drawing which he could send to his holiness. At this, Giotto, who was a very courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, closed his arm to his side, so as to make a sort of compass of it, and then with a twist of his hand drew such a perfect circle that it was a marvel to see. Then, with a smile, he said to the courtier: ‘There’s your drawing.’ As if he were being ridiculed, the courtier replied: ‘Is this the only drawing I am to have?’ ‘It’s more than enough,’ answered Giotto. ‘Send it along with the others, and you’ll see whether it’s understood or not.’

The Pope’s messenger, seeing that was all he was going to get, went away very dissatisfied, convinced he had been made a fool of. All the same when he sent the Pope the other drawings and the names of those who had done them, he also sent the one by Giotto, explaining the way Giotto had drawn the circle without moving his arm and without the help of a compass… So the Pope sent for Giotto to come to Rome, where he recognised and honoured his genius, and commissioned from him five scenes from the Life of Christ for the apse of St Peter’s, as well as the principle work for the sacristy. Giotto executed these so painstakingly that they were the most finished work in tempera ever to have left his hands. The Pope, realising how well he had been served, had Giotto given as a reward six hundred gold ducats, and did him so many other favours besides that it was talked about through all Italy.

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