I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room
I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.
Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.
Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.
The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.
Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.
This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.
A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.
These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.
Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.
I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.
As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.
But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.
The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.
But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.
The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.
But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.
The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.
The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.
We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.
In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.
The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.
I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.
Marie-Henri Bayle, who is better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal, visited Florence in the year 1817. He reports being so strongly affected by the art and the tombs that he became dizzy and nearly fainted. The term ‘Stendhal syndrome’ has since entered popular parlance, referring to lightheadedness induced by powerful art. If any city in the world is beautiful enough to endanger one’s health, it is most certainly Florence.
I imagine Stendhal riding through the Italian countryside on horseback, or being pulled in a leisurely carriage, giving the author time to observe the city’s surroundings and to savor its distant profile as he came near. The modern traveler seldom has such an experience. My first sight of the city was of the Firenze train station, whose cavernous interior, supported by metal girders and filled with tourists and ticket machines, was just as bland and anonymous as any other train station. We pay a price for the convenience of rapid transport.
Exactly 200 years after Stendhal fainted in Florence, I arrived early in the morning, having come from Pisa, where I was staying. Though it is admittedly inconvenient to take a train into Florence, I recommend this procedure to anyone traveling on a budget. Flights to and from Pisa are very cheap; and Pisa itself is far more economical than Florence. The trains run frequently between the two cities, and the ride takes around an hour. For my part I appreciated the chance to glimpse the Tuscan countryside through the train’s window: a bucolic tapestry of rolling green and brown hills, patched with farms and dotted with towns.
One day is all I had in Florence—absurd, I know—so I had to use my time effectively. My first stop was the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, the museum famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s David. It does not look like very much from the street, so I almost missed the entrance. I was afraid that, due to the statue’s fame, I would have to wait in a dreadful line to get in; but perhaps because it was still early in the day, I was inside in minutes.
Once inside, a long hall opens up to reveal, standing at the far end under a brightly lit dome, the iconic form of the Biblical hero. My first reaction was surprise at its size. I had imagined the statue to be slightly larger than life-sized; but it is fully 17 feet tall—roughly three times larger than life—and stands on a pedestal which adds to its grandeur. I tried to examine some of the other paintings and statues on display, thinking it would be wise to leave David to the end. But I was so entranced by the statue that I soon gave up and went straight over to admire it.
I was reminded of a trip I had taken when I was a teenager to see the Statue of Liberty. Since I had seen the iconic statue thousands of times in photographs, I assumed that it would be underwhelming to see it up close. Yet I found that, once confronted with the behemoth, I could not turn away; I was drawn to it as with a magnetic force. Michelangelo’s David had the exact same effect on me. My eyes were fixed to the statue. Gazing at it, I felt my body tingle with a strange, excited energy. All the sleepiness of the morning was swept away; all my travel anxieties were quieted. The statue filled up my consciousness with a thrilling sensation of heroic beauty. Its effect is so powerful that it seems beguilingly new when seen in person, despite the overexposure it suffers in popular media.
Even more than other iconic works of art, Michelangelo’s David brings to mind the epithet “perfect.” The face, stance, and body are so convincingly conceived that we cannot imagine Michelangelo making any other choice. A well-known story, related by Giorgio Vasari (the famous art historian), tells how the politician Soderini criticized the statue’s nose for being too fat:
Michelangelo, noticing that the Gonfalonier was standing beneath the giant and that from where he was he could not see the figure properly, to satisfy him climbed on the scaffolding by the shoulders, seized hold of a chisel in his left hand, together with some of the marble dust lying on the planks, and as he tapped lightly with the chisel let the dust fall little by little, without altering anything. Then he looked down at the Gonfalonier, who had stopped to watch, and said: ‘Now look at it.’
To which Soderini replied: “Ah, that’s much better.”
This story is delightful in part because it captures how final, inalterable, and complete is the statue’s form—so perfect that any perceived flaw must be a mistaken apprehension. However, close inspection does reveal some deviations. The statue’s hands are noticeably too big, most obviously the right hand—which reminds me of a puppy who has yet to grow into his paws. The figure’s head is also, you will notice, too big for its slender body. Indeed if we saw a flesh-and-blood man who matched this statue’s form, I think we would be more shocked than impressed.
It is also worth noting that the statue is not exactly a convincing representation of the Biblical David. For one, the sling is so de-emphasized—just a barely visible line going over his shoulder and behind his back—that it is easy to overlook completely. And why would David be going into battle completely nude? Besides, it seems downright incongruous to make David, the famous giant-slayer, into a giant himself—a towering muscular warrior. Earlier representations of David, such as Donatello’s, had portrayed him as an impish boy; Michelangelo deviates from this tradition so far in his statue that the story is almost entirely forgotten as we gaze upon the work.
Yet, like any work of great art, what would normally be defects become, in Michelangelo’s statue, perfections. Nobody sees that glorious right hand, massively curling around the minuscule sling, and wishes it were otherwise. Nobody sees the towering muscular figure and wishes it were reduced to the stature of a boy. Nobody, in short, wishes the statue were anything other than what it is.
And yet, what is it? And why does this statue make such a deep, lasting impression? It is tempting to consider the David as something like the Venus de Milo, an ideal representation of human form. Yet, as I have pointed out, the statue is not anatomically correct—and quite intentionally so, since Michelangelo was not the man to make such an elementary mistake. And in any case the David’s muscular body, though impressive, does not differentiate it from one hundred other idealized nudes.
The viewer’s eyes can seldom pause on the statue’s torso, however fine, but inevitably stray up to the statue’s face. There we encounter something wholly unlike the serene, placid, empty expression of ancient statues. Rather, we find a face full of character—confident, defiant, supreme. The anonymous perfection of the ancient world—statues which unite the qualities of many into one ideal being—has become the individual perfection of the High Renaissance, the completeness of the single man.
As we are told in countless books, the Renaissance was a time when the mind of Europe shook off its sense of being powerless in the hands of divine forces, and developed a self-confidence in the power of humanity—and more than humanity in general, confidence in a few, select, great men. The ultimate expression of this occurred during the High Renaissance, when eminent artists were not merely regarded as brilliant craftsmen or genius creators, but in the words of Giorgio Vasari “mortal gods,” who strode about the earth like colossi, reshaping unformed chaos into perfect form like God Himself.
Everything about the David bespeaks this sense of power. His stance is the perfect combination of stability and mobility. He is rooted to the spot, and yet his gentle lean shows how easily he may shift himself. (This stance, which looks so natural in the statue, is actually quite difficult to reproduce—I’ve tried.) Even more than his muscles or his stance, however, the statue’s oversized head and hands are what give it the sense of force. For it is exactly these organs—giving us our ability to conceive the world differently, and to manipulate it into our prefered forms—that makes humans special, which makes us into “mortal gods.” The David is thus a symbol of humanity’s ability to subjugate matter to mind, to dominate the world with our will.
It is humbling to learn that Michelangelo completed this statue while he was still in his twenties. The original commission was for a statue to adorn the top of Florence’s cathedral; but since the work is obviously much too big to be hoisted up so high (it took three days to move it just a few blocks), a committee had to decide on a new location. Eventually it was agreed to put it in the plaza outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it stayed until 1873, when it was finally moved into this museum in order to protect it from the elements. A copy now resides in the square—which, though apparently identical, fails completely to make the same impression as the original. Why this should be so is not something I can easily explain. The slight deviations in form and color are apparently enough to totally rid the statue of its mesmerizing majesty. A master’s touch is not so easily replicated.
Though there is nothing to compare to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Galleria dell’Accademia has a fine collection that is worth visiting on its own merits. Of particular note are the series of Prisoners originally sculpted by Michelangelo for Pope Julius II’s unrealized tomb. The most famous of these unfinished sculptures, the Dying Slave, is one of the prizes of the Louvre.
The pieces in Florence are, by comparison, rough and unformed—mere suggestions in stone. And yet I think they possess an eloquence all their own, providing snapshots of Michelangelo midway in the process of creation. The human forms emerge from the stone—the twisted bodies at once languid and dolorous, as if suffering from a nightmare. And like a dream they are themselves confused and only half-real. When the visitor compares these rough limbs, trapped in marble, to the smooth skin and living frame of the David, she can sense the tremendous act of imagination required to create these works—seeing the finished whole buried within unformed chaos, choosing the true alternative from infinite possibilities.
To me, this is the great theme in all of Michelangelo’s works: the act of creation which can make us into “mortal gods.” It was he, after all, who gave us the most poignant image of divine creation in Western art, on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
The rest of the museum has some excellent paintings from the late gothic and the early Renaissance, but what most sticks out in my memory is the room full of sculptures by Lorenzo Bartolini. These are all plaster works, and range from busts, to funerary monuments, to friezes, to full-size sculptures. Though their technical execution is impressive, what impresses more is simply the proliferation of works on display—every wall and surface is covered, and there is hardly space for the visitor to walk through. I must admit, however, that the final effect of all this is of a frigid academic correctness.
Now it was time to see something of the city. Florence has a well-preserved historic center and maintains the look and feel of a medieval city. The narrow streets are not, however, so chaotic and claustrophobic as other old European cities I have visited, such as Toledo, making it a very pleasant city to stroll about in. But I only had a day—less, in fact—so I was in that rushed, anxious state of mind of having far too much to do in too little time. Aimless strolls and meditative people-watching were beyond me.
Soon I arrived in the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the city. This iconic square is presided over by the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall. This building has been the capital building of the city for hundreds of years, and has been called various names over its history, mostly corresponding to which political power was ascendant—Popolo, Priori, Signoria, Ducale. Nowadays it is simply called “old”—perhaps to acknowledging the power of time, which rules us all. It is an extremely attractive structure. The brown, square body of the building flowers into a decorative battlement, whose crenellated walls hang out over the edge. Stretching high up above is the clock tower, which mimics the main structure in its blooming parapet. Its slender form reminds me of a swan’s neck, and gives the whole building a lovely gentleness.
This building has been at the center of Florence’s history—and all its many factional disputes and power squabbles—for hundreds of years. It was also the scene of one of the most famous art contests in history. Leonardo da Vinci and the much younger Michelangelo Buonarroti (who disliked one another) were both commissioned to paint vast panoramas of battles from Florentine history. Both of them prepared full-sized preliminary cartoons that were hung in the Palazzo Vecchio for all to see and admire. Giorgio Vasari and Benvenuto Cellini both singled out these works for their surpassing excellence, the latter even saying: “So long as they remained intact, they were the school of the world.” Unfortunately, neither of these works survived: Leonardo’s shoddy paint deteriorated, and Michelangelo never even got around to painting it. The only survivors are some partial copies made while they were extant. Nowadays the spot they would have occupied is covered by paintings by Vasari, which few people care for.
The inside of the building is, of course, richly decorated; and it is one of my many regrets of my visit that I did not have time to go inside. But I was on the clock, and had to prioritize.
At one end of this square is one of the many treasures of Florence: the Loggia del Lanzi. This is a covered area, open to the public, filled with sculptures—a miniature, open-air museum. Two of my favorite sculptures on display were created by Jean Boulogne, a Flemish mannerist sculptor better known by his Italianized name Giambologna. One of these depicts Hercules fighting the centaur Nessus. The hero has the beast by the hair, and is bending its back painfully over his knee. The writhing, almost insect-like form of the centaur—prostrate and helpless—contrasts wonderfully with Hercules, who bends his body like a Roman athlete in preparation to strike the fatal blow.
Even more impressive is Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. The name hardly explains the action of the work (who is the man crouching underneath?), which is to be expected, since Giambologna originally crafted this as a demonstration of his prowess and only came up with the name afterwards. It is a sculptural tour de force, with no true front or back, no beginning or end. The writhing bodies twist upwards, revealing themselves in different aspects as the viewer walks around the work. The final effect is brilliant—pressing upwards with a desperate energy, seeming to stretch towards the sky. The work has proven very popular and is much reproduced; just recently I spotted a copy in the gardens of Versailles.
Yet the undoubted star of this group of sculptures is Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus. Now, I admit I am prone to being partial to Cellini, since I read and loved his autobiography (see link above). In that book he describes the strain of constructing the statue:
The labour was more than I could stand; yet I forced myself to strain every nerve and muscle. To increase my anxieties, the workshop took fire, and we were afraid lest the roof should fall upon our heads; while, from the garden, such a storm of wind and rain kept blowing in, that it perceptibly cooled the furnace. … Battling thus with these untoward circumstances for several hours, and exerting myself beyond even the measure of my powerful constitution, and a sudden fever, of the utmost possible intensity, attacked me.
This was not the end of Cellini’s troubles, however. He was using a lost-wax technique to cast the statue out of one solid piece of bronze—something that was extremely novel and risky in Cellini’s age. After retiring to bed to recover from his sudden fever, and tossing and turning there for two hours, he was called back by an assistant who told him that the bronze was “caking,” which meant that the fire wasn’t hot enough to melt it. Cellini solved this by adding oak logs to the fire. But then the fire got so hot that the furnace exploded, forcing Cellini to pour the molten metal into the cast before it boiled out. But he found that the high temperature had burnt away the alloyed metals, thus preventing the bronze from pouring properly. He solved this crisis by throwing in his pewter dishes and cutlery, whose addition gave the metal the correct consistency. From this chaos his Perseus was born.
Cellini was a goldsmith, not a sculptor, by training; and his background helps to explain the peculiar excellence of his sculpture. The statue does not awe with its monumental grandeur, but rather delights in its fine detail. The base of the sculpture (which he designed as well) is as delicate as Cellini’s salt cellar in Vienna, and forms an integral part of the work. The statue itself is no less detailed: the viewer can almost smell the entrails dripping from Medusa’s severed head. This grisly detail is matched by the limp, crumpled, and beheaded body of Medusa laying underfoot; and all this combines to make Cellini’s Perseus a much more strikingly violent statue than we are accustomed to seeing. The realism makes the striding Greek hero, with his winged sandals and helmet, look both glorious and menacing; he has done a great deed but has also bathed himself in blood.
The sculptures in the Loggia del Lanzi are not the only ones to be seen in the Piazza. I have already mentioned the copy of Michelangelo’s David, which stands in the original position. Nearby is Baccio Bandinelli’s statue of Hercules and Cacus. The victorious hero holds the fire-breathing monster by the hair, his other hand clutching a club. What most sticks out for comment is Hercules’ gigantic frame; every inch of his skin is rippling with bulging muscles. The statue was famously mocked by Cellini (who was a rival for patronage and so not exactly a fair judge), who said “his sprawling shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass’ pack-saddle; his breasts and his the muscles of the body are not portrayed from a man, but from a big sack full of melons set upright against the wall.” And indeed, his skin does look unnaturally bumpy—especially his back. But the final impression is effective: conveying invincible physical strength.
Another prominent feature of the Piazza is the Fountain of Neptune, designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati. Unfortunately, however, I was unable to see the fountain, since it is undergoing restoration. It has been the repeated target of vandalism, and so nowadays it is covered by a thick scaffolding. Even Florence cannot be perfect.
Now it was time to go to Florence’s other famous square: the Piazza del Duomo, where the visitor can find Florence’s iconic cathedral. (Though the word “cattedrale” exists in Italian, the word “duomo” is commonly used to designate cathedrals. I had assumed it meant “dome” but I was wrong; it derives from the Latin word for house, “domus,” as in “house of God.”)
If any building in Florence is capable of inducing Stendhal syndrome, it is this. The cathedral is magnificent. The exterior of the building is a sublime work of abstract decoration, constructed using differently colored marble from various parts of Italy. It took centuries to complete, and must have cost a fortune. When combined with its decorative paintings, statues, and friezes, along with its monumental size and noble form, its harmonious geometrical arrangement, the impression is similar to that created by the interior of St. Peter’s in the Vatican—and, indeed, many Italian churches—an overwhelming sense of aesthetic pleasure, delightful on every scale. There is a wonderful brilliance to Italian architecture that, even if it does not reach the profundity of the gothic, compensates with its pure visual joy.
I waited on line to take a walk inside, which did not take half so long as I expected. Compared with its glorious façade, the inside is something of a let down, being surprisingly unadorned. There is, however, a famous painting of Dante by Domenico di Michelino, in which the Florentine poet stands before the city of Florence and gestures towards Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in the background. This is but one of the many tributes that Florence paid to Dante posthumously, after its infamous banishment of the poet during his lifetime. There is also a 24-hour clock decorated by Paolo Uccello, whom Vasari criticizes in his Lives for dedicating his time to useless technical problems of perspective. Uccello was also responsible for the funerary monument to Sir John Hawkwood, an English mercenary. Yet the most memorable work is the decoration on the inside of the massive dome, completed by none other than Giorgio Vasari (who had help), depicting the Last Judgment. From the ground the viewer cannot see the details very well, but the various figures combine to make a harmonious image.
This dome is, of course, the most famous element of the cathedral. At the time it was built, it was an engineering feat without parallel. Its architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, studied several surviving Roman domes, such as the Pantheon, in order to conceive it; but he was at an engineering disadvantage to the Romans, since the formula for concrete had long been lost. Thus Brunelleschi was forced to use brick as a substitute lightweight material. His designs were so radical at the time that he had a difficult time getting the authorities to believe him. For one thing, since he realized that scaffolding would require an exorbitant amount of wood, he created a design that could be constructed without it. To his contemporaries, this sounded like madness. When he was asked to reveal his plans (for he had many rivals, and had to compete to gain creative control) Brunelleschi was unwilling to do so, and instead responded with a challenge:
… he suggested to the other masters, both the foreigners and the Florentines, that whoever could make an egg stand on end on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since this would show how intelligent each man was. So an egg was procured and the artists in turn tried to make it stand on end; but they were all unsuccessful. Then Filippo was asked to do so, and taking the egg graciously he cracked its bottom on the marble and made it stay upright. The others complained that they could have done as much, and laughing at them Filippo retorted that they would also have known how to vault the cupola if they had seen his model or plans.
This was not the end of his troubles, however. The commission, responding to a rival faction, soon appointed the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti to be Brunelleschi’s partner. Yet Ghiberti had little idea of the architect’s plans and no relevant experience. This greatly irked Brunelleschi, since he would have to share the glory with somebody who contributed nothing. Thus to reveal his partner’s incompetence, Brunelleschi pretended to be sick and unable to work; and since Ghiberti could not direct the work himself, the project came to a standstill. This made it sufficiently obvious that Brunelleschi was the driving force behind the construction.
The final result is glorious. Octagonal rather than circular, the dome has two shells, inner and outer, and is crowned with a lantern that is accessible via a stairwell in the dome itself. I admit that I am baffled by how Brunelleschi accomplished this feat. Without a wooden support, how did he keep the bricks in place as the mortar dried? It seems impossible. And how did he transport the bricks up so high without scaffolding? In addition to his architectural innovations, Brunelleschi also created influential contraptions to hoist and move the building materials; and it is possible that the young Leonardo da Vinci saw some of these, which would have obviously appealed to the young omnivore.
Nowadays a statue of Brunelleschi, by Luigi Pampaloni, stands in the plaza, a compass one hand and his plans in the other, the architect gazing anxiously up towards his creation. He was, without doubt, one of the great geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, and his dome remains one of history’s great examples of the combination of science and art.
Standing next door to the cathedral is its bell-tower, called Giotto’s Campanile since it owes its gothic design to that iconic Italian painter. Its colorful marble exterior, covered in decorations and sculptures, matches that of the cathedral; yet its vertical design is more obviously gothic in origin. Facing the cathedral is Florence’s baptistery, the Baptistery of St. John, where none other than Dante was dunked into the faith. Having just seen the sparse baptistery in Pisa, I did not feel inclined to go inside; but now I regret it, seeing that the building’s roof is decorated with a beautiful Romanesque mosaic.
The most famous element of the baptistery is, however, on the outside: the Gates of Paradise. These are monumental doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, aforementioned as Brunelleschi’s unwelcome partner. He may have not been much of an architect, but he was a brilliant sculptor. He received the commision to make the doors after winning a famous competition, in which all the best Florentine artists participated. Here is the story from Vasari’s Life:
Altogether there were thirty-four judges, each one an expert in his particular art, and although opinions varied considerably, some of them liking the style of one man and some that of another, they all agreed none the less that Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo di Bartoluccio had composed and finished their scenes better, and with a richer variety of figures, than had Donatello, even though his also showed great qualities of design. The figures in Jacopo della Querci’a scene were good, but they lacked delicacy despite all the care and design that had gone into them. Francesco di Valdambrino had made some good heads and his scene was well finished, but the composition was confused. …. Only the scene which Lorenzo offered as a specimen … was absolutely perfect in every detail: the whole work had design, and was very well composed; the finely posed figures showed the individuality of his style and were made with elegance and grace; and the scene was finished so carefully that it seemed to have been breathed into shape rather than cast with iron tools.
(Donatello did not actually participate in this competition, as he was too young at the time.)
The original doors have been moved into the Duomo Museum for restoration. What stands in the baptistery now is a modern copy. Nevertheless it is a stunning work, shimmering with gold and covered with detail. Upon seeing the exuberance of microscopic detail and delicate craftsmanship, one is not surprised to learn that the door took over twenty years to make. It was, however, somewhat difficult to appreciate, since it is removed with a fence and is usually surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Ideally one would be able to get close and examine the door panel by panel. Its name was given it by Michelangelo several decades later, who, when asked his opinion of the doors, said they were fit to serve as the entrance to paradise; and Vasari seconded the opinion by calling the doors “perfect in every particular, the finest masterpiece in the world.”
Now it was time for another museum. I was saving the Uffizi for last, since it is open relatively late (until 18:50). Instead I went to the Bargello. This is an excellent art museum (if it were in any other city it would be more well-known) housed in the oldest civic building still standing in Florence. It is a somewhat severe structure, with high crenellated walls that make it look like a fortress, which was once occupied by the chief of police (“bargello” in Italian) and used for executions. Nowadays its medieval courtyard and expansive rooms are used for far more pacific purposes.
I had little expectations from this museum, so I was delighted to find several masterpieces that I had heard of before. One of these was yet another work by Michelangelo, his Bacchus. The statue was apparently made to emulate classical works; and for my part Michelangelo accomplished his task all too well. Though expertly made, with a convincingly off-center pose suggestive of drunkenness, the statue’s final effect is somewhat unpleasant. This is due, I think, to the antique face, which is stiff and inexpressive—hardly even human. Nevertheless I think it is astounding the degree to which the young artist recaptured the spirit of Greco-Roman art, especially considering how far beyond it Michelangelo could go.
Also on display are the panels used to judge of the competition for the baptistery doors. The two finalists, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, both created a panel depicting the sacrifice of Isaac. It is fascinating to see how these two masters interpreted this traditional scene differently. For my part I can see why Ghiberti’s work was preferred. His figures are more supple and dramatic than Brunelleschi’s, whose seem stiff and unnatural by comparison. Another gem is Giambologna’s Mercury, one more of his much-copied figures. The extraordinary lightness, balance, and grace of the statue does justice to the fleet-footed messenger god.
Cellini is also represented here, for the museum has a small bronze model for his statue of Perseus, as well as the original base of the statue (I believe the one outside is a copy). I was even more delighted to find Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bust of Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of one of his rich patrons, a woman with whom the artist fell madly in love. The intensity of his passion is easily visible in the work, which portrays his beloved with electrifying realness, his muse wearing an expression somewhere between ferocity and tenderness—the strange space is where all love affairs reside.
Yet my favorite pieces were found in the large hall on the first floor (second floor for Americans). Here can be found some of Donatello’s greatest works. Two statues of David are on display, an early one in marble and a later one in bronze. Of these the second is by far the greater. This was the first free-standing bronze statue made in Europe since antiquity. Here the Hebrew king is depicted nude, in a pose that can only described as sassy. Indeed, as many have remarked, the young warrior is astonishingly feminine, which have prompted some commentators to see it as intentionally homoerotic. Certainly, the solemnities of religion or the glories of battle do not come to mind when viewing the statue. One is instead drawn in by the beauty of the androgynous figure—his smooth skin, relaxed pose, and oversized hat and sword. The severed head of Goliath lying at his feet seems like an afterthought. Less beguilingly ambiguous, yet just as masterful, is the artist’s St. George, whose heroic pose and gaze prefigure the power displayed in Michelangelo’s David.
In this same room is yet another famous statue of David in Florence, this one by Andrea del Verrocchio. Here David is portrayed as even younger than in Donatello’s version, a boy in his early teens. The sensuality of Donatello is entirely absent from this version; yet Verrocchio maintains the impish defiance of the lithe figure. The boy is very handsome, which has caused some to speculate that Verrocchio modeled the work after his young pupil Leonardo da Vinci, known for his physical beauty. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, the statue is valuable for revealing the development of the Italian Renaissance. In Donatello’s we see the triumph of humanism and realism, in Verrocchio’s (made a generation later) the dominance of refinement, elegance, and delicacy, and in Michelangelo’s (made another generation later) the monumental grandeur of the High Renaissance.
Indeed, I would say that the Bargello’s collection, aside from its intrinsic worth, is valuable for its ability to reveal the development of Florence’s artists, both historically and biographically. It is one of the many jewels of the city.
But now I could not put it off any longer. I had to go see the greatest art museum on the Italian peninsula: the Uffizi.
The building of the Uffizi Gallery was designed by none other than Giorgio Vasari, who has already featured so prominently in this post. While Vasari may not have excelled in any field, he was certainly adept in many. The original idea was to make new government offices (hence the name “Uffizi”), but from the start (during the 16th century) the Medici rulers used at least a part of the building to display some of their massive art collection. As such, the Uffizi is one of the oldest museums in Europe, though it did not officially become a public museum until the 18th century, when the Medici family donated their art collection to the people of Florence. Nowadays it is the most-visited museum in Italy, and for good reason.
Vasari built a loggia, or an open courtyard, into his design; and this is now where visitors line up to buy a ticket, surrounded by street vendors selling their watercolors, posters, and other art paraphernalia, and heavily-armed military men look around with menaces and machine guns. In the 19th century sculptors added statues of famous Florentines into the walls of this courtyard; and the effect is a powerful reminder of how crucial this small city—with a population of just 70,000 during the High Renaissance—has been to Europe’s cultural history. Aside from great artists such as Benvenuto Cellini, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, Florence has given us great writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and great thinkers like Machiavelli and Galileo. Imagine how different European history would be without these men! If brilliance were just the product of genetic chance, then it would boggle the mind that so many geniuses were born at around the same place and time; it seems that Florentine culture contained a vital spark that set these minds afire. If only we could figure out how to reproduce this cultural vitality.
After examining the eminent Florentines, I took my place on the line. I was sandwiched between American families. In general I dislike overhearing conversations. For every interesting tidbit there are nine stupidities. It is not that people are so foolish—at least, not so many of them—but that, when speaking freely among friends, almost everyone utters banalities, absurdities, or frankly foolish things at an alarming rate. The mind, when unchecked, generates a near-constant stream of nonsense. That is just the way we are built. This is why I so appreciate traveling alone in a foreign country. Without other people around to provoke me, and when all the ambient conversation is unintelligible, my mind calms down into a blank silence. Then, I can at least pretend that I am not an average dullard.
But, as I said, I was sandwiched between two American families; so that despite my earphones in and an audiobook playing (it was Bleak House) I could not help overhearing some of what was said. The majority was the usual sort of bickering and complaining that goes on during any family vacation—impatient whining, microscopic arguments, and so on. But at some point the families noticed each other, and started up a conversation, I suppose to pass the time as the line slowly inched forward. I learned that one group was from Tennessee, the other from Texas, and both had the accent to prove it. I remember hearing one of them say, “Ah, ya’ll are southerners, too. Ya’ll get it. Those Northerners look down on us.” And I must admit that it is true, at least as far as New Yorkers are concerned: we are very sure of our cultural superiority. Living in Europe has not helped to erase this tendency in myself.
Finally, after much waiting and more complaining from the Americans—the anxious impatience that people display is what really makes waiting in lines terrible—I entered the iconic gallery.
One of the Uffizi’s best qualities is its layout. A single, unbroken path can take the visitor from the start of the gallery to its end, in a satisfying chronological sequence. This, by the way, is one of the primary disadvantages of enormous collections such as the Louvre or the Metropolitan: the visitor must wander around, double back, scan a map; and even after all that, there is a very good chance of missing something. Not so in the Uffizi. An ornate hallway leads along the interior of the building—overlooking the aforementioned courtyard—filled with busts and sculptures. Leading outwards from the hallways are a series of rooms filled with paintings, giving the visitor a panoramic view of the Renaissance.
As always with museums, I am at serious risk of losing myself in descriptions of artworks, swelling this post beyond its already bloated proportions. To begin, I will only mention a few exemplary works. There is work by that celebrated founder of the Renaissance, Giotto: The Madonna Enthroned. At a glance it is clear that Giotto was still very much working within the gothic tradition; yet the symmetrical composition, realistic drapery of the clothing, and voluminous bodies show that Giotto had pushed art towards realism. This is especially apparent if we compare Giotto’s work with that of his (reputed) master, Cimabue, who also has a painting of the enthroned Virgin on display. Although Cimabue’s is excellent in its own way, it certainly seems stiff and stylized next to Giotto.
The Uffizi also has Gentile de Fabrio’s famous Adoration of the Magi, one of the high points of gothic art. It is a busy composition, with a multitude of figures arranged without respect for perspective. A further departure from naturalism are the costumes, which are plainly of the Renaissance and not of the ancient near east. Nevertheless it is a beautiful work—harmoniously arranged and full of tantalizing detail.
Skipping ahead a few centuries, the Uffizi also has the most iconic work of the mannerist period: Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck. The title more or less says it all. The painting seems to break, and very deliberately, all of the strictures of Renaissance art. The titular Virgin is flagrantly misproportioned: as in a gothic work, she is notably taller than everyone who surrounds her, and of course her neck is swan-like in its extension. Likewise, the infant Jesus appears massive; and in his sprawled pose on the Virgin’s lap, I cannot help thinking that the poor babe has had too much to drink. The work is glaringly unsymmetrical, with all the attendant angels crammed to one side; on the other, a prophet holding a scroll appears so ludicrously tiny that we fear the Madonna may squash him underfoot. For my part I think it is a beautiful painting, although it completely fails to evoke anything resembling religious sentiments.
Caravaggio also has some notable works on display. One is his imagined portrait of Bacchus, who reclines in a white robe, appropriately surrounded by grapes and wine. The final effect is not of classical grace, however, as Caravaggio’s realism transforms the god into a smug and self-satisfied boy. There is also a painting of Medusa’s severed head by the painter, which quite rivals Cellini for ghastliness. His most powerful work, however, must be his Sacrifice of Isaac. As is often remarked, Caravaggio had a genius for turning Biblical scenes—represented in highly stylized images for centuries—into strikingly realistic works. The detail that most distinguished this painting is Isaac’s face, distorted with fear and desolation—exactly how one would imagine a son to feel who was about to be killed by his own father.
The Uffizi also has an impressive collection of works from artists across the seas and beyond the alps. There are paintings by the Spanish triumvirate, El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez (an excellent self-portrait). Dürer, van Dyck, van der Weyden, and Rembrandt are also in attendance. I should also not neglect to mention some of the wonderful statues on display. In one room the sons and daughters of Niobe are displayed, all distressed and in agony due to Artemis and Apollo’s arrows. (Niobe boasted that she was superior to the goddess Leto, because she had more sons and daughters, and accordingly suffered divine punishment.) There are busts of famous Romans, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. One niche contains a finely sculpted wild boar, of ancient date. Another pair of statues depict a mythological figure (Prometheus?) bound and hanging by his hands, no doubt suffering divine justice, which was very harsh back in those days.
I go on and on, and have not yet gotten to the stars of the Renaissance. Though not a Florentine, Raphael de Urbino is welcomed into the collection with his Madonna of the Goldfinch. As in many Raphael works, a very pretty Madonna sits in a lush field, while the infant Jesus and John the Baptist play at her knees (this time, cradling a goldfinch). The cool colors and symmetrical composition create the typical Raphael effect: a soothing, delightful harmony. There is also a version of Raphael’s iconic portrait of Julius II; long believe to be the original, nowadays that title is given to a version in the National Gallery, London.
Never one to be shown up, Michelangelo also contributes a version of the holy family, the Doni Tondo. This is actually the only finished and mature panel painting by that master which survives. (Two lesser works are kept at the aforementioned National Gallery.) The colors are extremely vibrant and bright, which is partially due to Michelangelo’s voluminous style, using stark contrasts in color to create a statuesque effect. As is often remarked, the great artist was first and foremost a sculptor, and his mature paintings look like an attempt to create sculptures in pigment. While I love the monumental grandeur of the painting, I must admit that I miss the bucolic sweetness of Raphael; and the nude figures in the background (which scholars have struggled to explain) only make matters worse. Michelangelo was not an artist for small scales.
I have cheated somewhat by viewing the gallery out of order, so as to discuss its two most paintings last: Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera. They are both in the same room, surrounded by other works by the Florentine master.
The Birth of Venus is just as stunning in person as I expected it to be. Few images in the history of Western art are comparably famous. We have seen it so many times that the painting has become an integral part of our visual culture. And yet, when you examine the painting, you will see that it is odd in several respects. First, like Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Venus is conspicuously misproportioned: her long neck and sloping shoulders are even reminiscent of Parmigianino’s swan-like Madonna. Besides this, her stance, so apparently relaxed, would be impossible for a real person to hold. Noting these deviations reminds us that it is partly the effect of familiarity that we accept these images as “realistic” depictions of ideal beauty. We are so used to the image of David and Venus that our brains do not even scrutinize them.
Another oddity is that Botticelli obscures the narrative of the painting through the arrangement of his figures. Venus is supposed to be blown from the sea to the shore, where the hora (a minor goddess) is waiting to robe her. Yet all the figures are on the same, two-dimensional plane; and Venus’s gaze (as well as her conch shell) is unnaturally oriented perpendicularly towards the viewer rather than towards her destination. Indeed, the longer the painting is gazed at, the further from reality it appears. The female companion of the wind god, Zephyr, is knotted around his body in an impossible posture; the hora’s feet are levitating off the ground; and a consistent light source is difficult to identify. This is not the stereotypical realism of the Renaissance.
The paintings irrealism may partly be explained by noting Botticelli’s classical sources. He based the pose of Venus on an ancient Roman copy of a classical Greek statue, of Venus modestly covering herself—an idealized depiction of the female form. Botticelli may also have seen Greek vase paintings, which would explain the two-dimensional orientation of this work, as well as its unnatural orientation. Yet to these ancient influences Botticelli combines the emotional frankness of gothic paintings with the technical sophistication of the Renaissance. The result is a work so original that it can hardly be grasped on its own terms.
The final result is supremely convincing: the cool blues contrasting with the warm greens, the symmetrical composition of the zephyr and the mona, and the supreme beauty of the newly-born Venus. For my part, no image of the divine feminine is more convincing than Botticelli’s Venus—her graceful face, lithely bending body, flowing hair, playful modesty, and knowing smile. All the statues of Venus that have survived from antiquity seem like petrified dolls in comparison. The more I look at the painting, the more enchanting I find it. Botticelli achieves something quite unlike what we expect from the Renaissance—a deeply otherworldly work, symbolizing the harmonies of the natural world, the fertility of nature, and the profound mystery of creation.
The Birth of Venus, though daringly innovative, does not present a great challenge to the would-be art historian. But Botticelli’s other masterpiece certainly does: Primavera. This is another visually arresting work, although it does lack something of the triumphant harmony of The Birth. Yet it makes up for this with its mystery; for nobody seems quite sure what Botticelli was trying to represent.
Eight figures stand in an orange grove. Clearly identifiable are the Three Graces dancing in a circle. Beside them, Mercury (wearing his winged sandals) is poking at a cloud, looking rather intrigued. In the center is a woman normally identified as Venus (though I don’t know why); and above her Cupid, blindfolded, aims his little bow, apparently at the Three Graces (which does not make good mythological sense). To the right of Venus is the personification of Spring, dressed in a floral dress, busy gathering flowers. Here we instantly recognize the enchanting face of Venus from The Birth. To her right, a woman is being abducted by a flying man: This latter is the god of wind, zephyr (also in The Birth, although here he is blue); and the pursued woman is Clovis, a nymph whom he carries off and marries, which magically transforms her into the goddess of Spring. This suggests that the painting should be seen as a narrative from right to left, with the abduction immediately leading to Spring, at Clovis’ left. But the story falls apart from there.
As in The Birth, here all the figures more or less occupy the same two-dimensional plane. Admittedly, Venus is higher up on the panel, which would normally indicate depth; but this is disrupted by Venus’ size—she is, if anything, bigger than the other figures. Botticelli had a genius for creating beautiful faces—classical in their symmetry, and yet possessing a sweet simplicity I normally associate with medieval painting—with which he endows each of his figures (except Cupid). The background, too, is remarkably lush: full of different species of plant and flower, a botanical cornucopia.
As far as interpretation goes, it is easy to see that Botticelli wanted to suggest the fertility and beauty of Spring. The viewer can also discern a general sequence, with springtime beginning at the right with wind and ending with Mercury banishing the clouds. But beyond this, many questions remain—the exact identities of the Graces, why Cupid is aiming his arrow at one of them, their symbolic relationship with Mercury and Spring, and so on—which makes this painting, among other things, a great gift to art historians around the world. Scholars would be out of work if every painting were easy to interpret.
You may be interested to learn that these paintings have only fairly recently come into artistic vogue. Vasari hardly pauses to mention The Birth and Primavera in his short (barely 10 page) biography of Botticelli, half of which is taken up with disapproving anecdotes about how the painter squandered his talents in later life. For centuries Botticelli was neglected and ignored. His personal style—idealized, stylized, figurative—was difficult to accommodate with popular views of the Renaissance, and so he received scant attention. It was partly due to the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters, poets, and critics devoted to the Early Renaissance, that his renown increased. Nowadays, The Birth of Venus is scarcely less famous than the Sistine Chapel, which shows how fickle a thing is fame.
The majority of Botticelli’s works were not of mythological subjects, of course, but of Christian ones; and many of these are on display too. What is striking is that Botticelli used the same face—unmistakably pretty and graceful—for his Virgins as for his Venus. Did he use the same female model throughout his working life, or was the iconic face his own invention? Partly as a result of this, his works can be identified at a glance. Though the two above-mentioned works are undoubtedly his masterpieces, I enjoyed all of his paintings; they are suffused with a refreshing sweetness that never fails to charm me.
I left the Uffizi as it was about to close and daylight was on the wane. With little time to spare, I made my way to my next destination: the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge. This is by far the most famous bridge to span the river Arno, which it does at its narrowest point. Like the Ponte Rialto in Venice, the Roman Bridge in Córdoba, and the Charles Bridge in Prague, the Ponte Vecchio is bound to be flooded with tourists on any given day. There is not much of a view from the bridge in any case, since it is boxed in by little stalls for jewelers, goldsmiths, and souvenir shops, making it a kind of miniature mall. One notable feature is the Vasari corridor—designed by Vasari, of cours—a covered walkway that extends from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio, and on to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. It was designed so that the Grand Duke could walk from his residence to the seat of government with ease and safety.
The corridor was damaged in 1993 when a car-bomb exploded near the Uffizi gallery, killing five people and destroying some works of art. The Sicilian Mafia detonated several of these car bombs around Italy, in an attempt to retaliate against the Italian government for its measures against the organization. There are few things more evil than blowing up a museum.
After crossing the bridge I trekked up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The walk up was very pleasant, taking me alongside rose gardens under a tree-shaded path. I was somewhat disappointed with the square itself, however: it little more than a vast, open parking lot, filled with tourists and stands selling paraphernalia. The only exception to this is the bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David, which similarly fails to recapture any of the magic of the original, not least because of its sickly green color. But the Michelangelo Square is nevertheless one of the great spots in Florence, because of the incomparable view of the city it offers.
Standing there, the entire old center is laid out before you. The river, crossed by the Ponte Vecchio, frames the bottom of the picture; and the rolling brown hills and mountains of Tuscany extend into the distance. The town lays flat in the valley, and the brightly-painted buildings are covered in rust-colored tiled roofs. Two buildings break the monotony: the Palazzo Vecchio and the Cathedral, which stand proudly over their surroundings. The sheer scale of Brunelleschi’s dome—by far the largest structure in the city—can be grasped from this distance. The view is one of the most picturesque views of a city I have ever seen, showing that the city of art is itself a work of brilliance.
Now I was running out of time. So I descended the hill, crossed back over the Ponte Vecchio, and went to wander around the city one last time before I took the train back to Pisa. I had had an incredibly full day, and could had seen what I most wanted to see. Yet even the fullest day in Florence cannot but leave the visitor full of regrets. What I most regret are the basilicas I missed. There is San Miniato al Monte, a beautiful Romanesque structure atop a hill, near the Michelangelo Square. Then there is the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a massive earth-colored building (it served as a cathedral before the Duomo) that became the burial-place for the Medici family, whose patronage played such an important role in the artistic life of Florence. Nextdoor is the Laurentian Library, one of Michelangelo’s most celebrated works of architecture. But my keenest regret is not visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce, a lovely church that is known as the Temple of Italian Glories. It was here that Stendhal had his famous fit of aesthetic pleasure, as he was overwhelmed by being near the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo.
I only got to see this basilica from the outside, unfortunately, for it was closed for the day. Nextdoor is a statue of Dante, Florence’s most famous banished son, who is buried far away in Ravenna. Now that I had seen Florence, I could understand why Dante was so bitter about his banishment. It is one of the great cities of the world.
Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.
I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.
Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.
It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.
This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:
I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.
Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.
Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.
In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.
An artist lives and acquires fame through his works; but with the passing of time, which consumes everything, these works—the first, then the second, and the third—fade away.
After Plutarch’s Lives, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is likely the most iconic collection of biographies of famous men. He published two editions of the book, the first in 1550, the second in 1568; and both found success in Vasari’s lifetime and have continued to sell well ever since. In life Vasari was a typical Renaissance man, achieving fame for his paintings (he decorated the Palazzo Vecchio) and his architecture (he was responsible for the loggia of the Uffizi), in addition to his work as a biographer. Granted, his paintings are not highly regarded nowadays (though many are pleasing enough to my eyes); but this posthumous verdict did not prevent him from making a fine living. And when you write the first book of art history in the history of art, the rest hardly matters.
The edition I own is highly abridged, as are nearly all popular versions, since the original contains dozens upon dozens of painters, sculptors, and architects—most of whom the casual reader does not know of or care for. This explains why most of the Lives are so short. Indeed, fans of any particular Renaissance artist are liable to be disappointed by Vasari’s treatment. He runs through Sandro Botticelli in all of ten pages, for example, barely pausing to mention the Birth of Venus. Indeed, many of these biographies are hardly biographies at all, just extended catalogues of works. This is certainly useful for the art historian (though Vasari made many mistakes) but it does not make for electrifying reading.
The modern psychoanalyzing mode of artistic biographies was, of course, entirely alien to Vasari, and he seems to regard the artist’s personality as a source of gossip but not of insight. This does not prevent him from including many good stories. Like Plutarch himself, Vasari is rich in anecdote—and, as in Plutarch, half of them are probably false. Fact or fiction, a good story is preferable to a dry fact, and this is when Vasari’s Lives really come alive. We hear of Cimabue agreeing to take on Giotto as a pupil, after seeing the young boy scratching on a stone; or of Paolo Uccello staying up long nights to work on problems of perspective. Whether these stories help us to understand the paintings is doubtful; but they do help to bring alive this amazing time in history.
Vasari begins the book with a sketch of the history of art as he understood it. His opinion is not a masterpiece of subtlety. In essence, the Greeks and Romans understood that art begins by copying nature, and so produced excellent works; then art fell into barbarism (Vasari coined the term “gothic” to describe medieval art) in which the ancient knowledge was lost and artists had no knowledge of proper technique; finally the painter Giotto came and revived the arts, inaugurating a process that culminated in the works of Michelangelo. I must say that this view, though little more than naked prejudice, is at least refreshing in Vasari’s conviction that art was ascending and culminating in his own epoch. (Most of us are disposed to think it is declining.) It is striking that Michelangelo’s historic importance was understood even during his own lifetime. This was not an age of poor Van Goghs working in lonely shacks. The great artists were recognized and rewarded when they lived; and younger artists were seen to have surpassed their masters—novel concepts in our romantic age.
The Life of Michelangelo, whom Vasari knew and worshipped, is by far the longest and forms the core of this collection. Indeed, all the other lives can be seen as mere leadup to the great Florentine, who fulfils all the promise of former ages. Vasari here turns from chronicler to hagiographer, praising Michelangelo with every breath. You might even say that Vasari turns into quite the Boswell, including various bits of Michelangelo’s conversation, and also several letters written to him by the great artist, as if to prove that Michelangelo really was his friend. All this makes for good reading, even if the worshipful tone is grating. The second longest Life in my collection is that of another Florentine (Vasari was a fierce patriot of his home city), Filippo Brunelleschi. This life is perhaps even better than that of Michelangelo, as Vasari charts the squabbles and drama behind the scenes of Brunelleschi’s dome.
Vasari’s style is easygoing and almost conversational, and the pages go by quickly. He strikes me as a man full of shallow opinions but of a generous mind and a steady judgment. This book—full of errors, lacking any historical context, and greatly out of step with modern opinion—could hardly be read as a standalone volume on Renaissance painting. But every book on the subject borrows, knowingly or unknowingly, from Vasari, who has given bread to scholars and delight to readers for generations with this charming book.
I have endeavored not only to record what the artists have done but to distinguish between the good, the better, and the best, and to note with some care the methods, manners, styles, behavior, and ideas of the painters and sculptors; I have tried as well as I know how to help people who cannot find out for themselves to understand the sources and origins of various styles, and the reasons for the improvement or decline of the arts at various times and among different people.
The train from Munich crawled through the city’s surroundings towards the central train station. We were entering Vienna. I gazed eagerly through the window, but could discern nothing save for the usual nondescript buildings, the industrial wreckage, and the bleak tracks and power cables that surrounds every modern city like a cage. Nevertheless I was excited. I had just finished Stefan Zweig’s absorbing autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which portrays the Vienna of the pre-War years (before World War I, that is), in loving detail. But I hardly needed Zweig’s description to know that I was entering one of Europe’s cultural capitals, where great artists, writers, and especially musicians lived and worked.
Thus I felt a little disoriented when I stepped off the train and found myself on a city street. I don’t know what I was expecting—a giant opera house or a city-sized museum—but certainly not an ordinary street, full of ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Indeed, the scene that confronted me was rather ugly, full of glass office buildings surrounded by yellow cranes (no doubt busy erecting more glass office buildings). Yet the disillusion quickly passed, since, after storing my bags in a luggage locker, I went straight to the Belvedere Palace Museum, a quick ten-minute walk away. Thus before I could even glimpse the city I was plunged into its art.
The Belvedere Palace consists of two buildings, an upper and a lower, both built during the Baroque period. They are separated by a lovely orangerie, a French-style garden full of neoclassical statues, carefully pruned ferns, decorous fountains, and artificial ponds. From the Upper Belvedere (where the museum’s most famous art is located), the visitor can see Vienna’s center looming beyond, with its cathedral’s dark spire splitting the skyline. It is a lovely place, worth visiting even if it were not full of famous works of art; and its design, by Johann Lukas von Hildebrant, proved stylistically influential. But I am no connoisseur of palaces or their deadening pomp. So after a quick walk around the gardens, I queued up and passed through the ornate lobby into the museum.
The Upper Belvedere’s collection focuses on art from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The highlight of its collection, and the reason why so many tourists bother visiting, is its extensive collection of Klimt’s work. For my part I knew close to nothing about Gustav Klimt before my visit; thus I felt somewhat out of place in such a horde of gaping spectators. Klimt is much more famous than I had suspected. There was a frenetic energy in the Klimt rooms, much like the atmosphere in the Louvre around the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, with tour groups jostling for photos (which are inevitably ruined by other jostling tourists). What was all the fuss about?
The first works I encountered were of plants, trees, and other natural scenes. Klimt’s style immediately struck me for its resemblance to wallpaper. An eye for pattern and design transforms everything into an ornament: the colors decorate rather than delineate, and any sense of depth is flattened into the scheme. As I gazed into the swarming mass of greens, pinks, reds, blues, and yellows, I felt a tingling sense of pleasure, like that of drinking cool soda water on a hot day. Every element of the paintings was subservient to a sense of texture, an almost tactile use of color. I would not call them beautiful, but they are very pretty.
But Klimt’s most famous works are not of nature, but of women. These combine his taste for the ornate with a surprisingly frank sensuality; and the combination has proven popular.
Judith and the Head of Holofernes illustrates this perfectly. Klimt takes the original story from the Book of Judith—about a widow visiting an enemy force and decapitating its general, Holofernes, traditionally interpreted as an act of pious devotion—and turns it into one of the most iconic images of the femme fatale. The disrobed Judith looks at the viewer with an extraordinary expression, a perfect mixture of scorn and invitation, of seduction and triumph. Her carefully realistic skin contrasts sharply with the abstract two-dimensional background, made from gold-leaf, which makes her seem to pop out from a graphic design. Though the painting celebrates the triumph of woman over man, to me it represents the double poles of fear and desire of the male gaze—the sex drive tinged with castration anxiety, to use a Freudian expression (as we must, in his home city).
Even more famous than this painting is The Kiss. Indeed, it is so famous it can hardly be properly seen, which is the irony of so many famous painting. The crowds they attract make it impossible for the visitor to observe closely, to ponder, to become completely absorbed in the work. To give the museum credit, they have set up a printed copy of the work in an adjoining room, marked “Kiss Selfie Point,” in the hopes that selfie-seekers would go there and leave the original unmolested. But it did not work. Dozens of people were gathered around, all busy taking pictures of each other and of themselves, and seemingly none actually looking at the painting.
All this notwithstanding, I can see why the painting has become so iconic. The woman kneels on a flowery meadow, her lover bending down to kiss her cheek. The poses are exaggerated and unnatural, reminding me of Mannerism; the man’s neck in particular seems painfully bent. Yet all the attention is focused on the woman’s face, which wears a look of rapturous joy. They are both wrapped in golden clokes, the man’s with a stiff vertical design, the woman’s with swirling spirals, which serve to obscure their bodies into one amorphous whole. The composition of the figures, situated at the top of the canvass, makes it seem as if all nature—the earth, the flowers, the stars—are swelling and concentrating themselves on this one blissful moment.
Having said all this in Klimt’s praise, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of his work. At best the strike me as excellent graphic designs, absorbing and attractive, but failing to touch any strong emotional or intellectual keys in me.
The Upper Belvedere has more to offer besides the world’s best collection of Klimt. One painting which stands out in my memory is a pentaptych (consisting of five separate panels) by Hans Makart, portraying the five senses in allegorical form, as female nudes engaged in symbolic poses—looking at a mirror, cupping an ear, smelling a flower, reaching for an apple, or resting a hand on a cloth. The painting is saved from its potentially trite theme and shallow symbolism by excellent technique and tasteful execution; the result is an ode to sensuality, which artfully represents Makart’s own views on ‘Total Art’ (art that appeals to all the senses). As you may know this idea is mostly associated with Wagner, and indeed the two of them were friends in life. The sensuality of Makart’s work was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable influence on Klimt, who is said to have worshipped him.
Another famous painting on display is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. This is one of five surviving versions by the painter, the others scattered around Europe. The original painting, which hangs in Malmaison, was commissioned by Napoleon to send to Charles IV of Spain after the two countries’ rapprochement following the strife of the Revolution. (Charles sent Napoleon a portrait of himself by Goya.) The painting is executed in David’s characteristic neoclassical style, turning Napoleon into a second Alexander the Great. Though the heroic ethos of David’s paintings is ethically questionable at best—the worship of warriors and conquerors is something I have trouble understanding—his works are undeniably visually striking and impressive, and this one is no exception.
The only other work I will mention (though there are many more deserving of note, ranging stylistically from neoclassicism to romanticism to impressionism) is the collection of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. These are hard to miss: they cover an entire wall in the museum and, besides, are unlike any other busts in the world. Rather than sculpt images of calm dignity, Messerschmidt made a collection of extreme expressions and distorted features. Apparently he achieved this by pinching himself and observing his reactions in the mirror. They must have been awfully painful pinches, since many of the busts portray horrendous grimaces. But pain is not all he captured; some are smiling maniacally, some have their lips pursed like an old lecher, some are engaged in a terrific yawn, and so on, covering everything from delirium to disgust. It strikes one as a little silly at first; but given how often we tense up our faces—from pain, from pleasure, from a curious odor—we may rank Messerschmidt as a more accurate chronicler of the human soul than many more famous sculptors.
After taking in my fill of art, I returned to the train station, picked up my bags, and went off to check in to my Airbnb. The gap between my arrival in a city and the check-in time of my accomodations, by the way, is something that had been troubling me. For how can I take advantage of arriving early if I have to drag my bags around until the afternoon? The luggage lockers in train stations have proven to be the best way to solve this problem; and I recommend their use to any similarly beset travelers.
Now it was time to see the old city center. The first thing I noticed is that Vienna is very flat. Everything seemed situated on a level plain, which somehow made distances seem longer. Little deviations in angle help to make one feel progression; without that, one feels as though one is on a treadmill. The wide and long avenues also contributed to this impression: I felt small in the openness of the city’s streets, trying to traverse a space too expansive for my puny legs. But what most struck me about Vienna was the city’s unified aesthetic. Everything is built in a grand, stately style, in a noble marble-white. Walking around the center, you do indeed get the impression that you are wandering around a massive palace or museum or opera house, or rather some combination of all of the above. And this is not very far from the truth.
Vienna is sometimes called the “City of Music,” and the city will not let you forget it. Concerts are everywhere. Salesmen sporting white wigs and dressed in fluffy satin suits walk the streets selling tickets to see performances of Mozart and Beethoven. It is no wonder that the city is known for music, considering that not only Mozart and Beethoven, but also Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg have worked here. Nevertheless I find it somewhat depressing that the genuine cultural vibrancy that made the city so famous—the universal love of art that Zweig lovingly describes in his autobiography, in which the theater and the opera were universal obsessions—have been turned into a kind of parody of what it was, a tourist industry, in which cookie-cutter performances of canonical works are sold to tourists, the majority of whom have only a very limited interested in classical music. I suppose this is only to be expected, considering that the profit motive of the vendors harmonizes with the desire of the tourist for iconic experiences.
All this being said, it is no doubt true that Vienna still has a thriving performance scene. This is evidenced by the city’s several opera houses, the most famous of which being the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. This is a monumental and dignified building, built in the nineteenth century, in which Gustav Mahler worked as a conductor. Though I unfortunately did not take this opportunity (since I didn’t know at the time), it is possible to buy cheap standing-room tickets 80 minutes before a show. Another notable venue in Vienna is the Burgtheater, a elegantly decorated circular building near the Town Hall. I did not venture within, but from the outside I observed busts of Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing hovering above me, the gods of German theater. This theater, still popular, has historically been important in the German-speaking world for its trend-setting style.
From there I walked to Vienna’s lovely neo-gothic city hall, situated at the end of a large plaza. Opened in 1883, the building bears a strong resemblance to Munich’s neo-gothic town hall (built around the same time). I suppose this resemblance is due to both structures owing much to Brussels’ authentically gothic city hall. On the day I visited there was an outdoor fair set up, and the square was full of trailers and tents selling appetizing food. Though I was tempted by Indian curry and Turkish kebab, I decided that, since I was in Vienna, I had better have a sausage. It was spicy, filled with cheese, and came with warm potato salad. The Austrians, like the Germans, certainly know how to accompany a beer.
Near the City Hall (or Rathaus, in the teutonic speech) is Universität Wien’s central building. It does not look especially interesting from the street; but after wandering inside I found myself in a lovely courtyard, whose shaded walk enclosed busts of the notable Austrian intellectuals that have been associated with the university. There I found Freud’s scowling face, whose enormous forehead and glowering eyes reveal a man who sought dark secrets. Much more cheerful is Karl Popper, who looks eminently professorial and harmless, even avuncular—though I think the real Popper was not so mild. Erwin Schrödinger looks completely abstracted, as if lost in an uncomfortable dream (presumably featuring a cat); his bust has his famous equation—used to calculate quantum effects—written beneath his name. Vienna is certainly not short on intellectuals.
Klimt was famously commissioned to decorate the Great Hall of this university in 1894. When he finally revealed his designs for Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, the university reacted with shock and alarm, declaiming the works as pornographic and refusing to install them. The originals no longer survive, since the Nazis reportedly destroyed them during their retreat, though this is not confirmed. Judging from the surviving photographs, the works are quite impressive allegorical designs—both deeply original and visually striking. That being said, the profusion of nude women is hardly in keeping with the sober dignity of an old university. But when they commissioned Klimt, what did they expect?
Next to the university is the Sigmund Freud Park, where I observed college students in their native habitat—bent over cheap takeout noodles, their heads buried in books. This park is presided over by the Votivkirche, an excellent example of neo-gothic architecture, comparable even to St. Patrick’s in New York City. Its name (“Votive Church”) alludes to its construction: it was built to give thanks to God after a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853, for saving the emperor’s life. God may have not been so pleased, seeing as Franz Joseph lived to see the death of his brother, his wife, and his son (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and to witness the beginning of the Great War which would end his empire for good. Lovely as the church is, I could not properly appreciate its form, since it was being restored when I visited; and so its façade was covered with scaffolding, which in turn was covered with a giant advertisement. Nowadays even churches are billboards.
Vienna’s most famous church may be the Peterskirche. This was remodeled by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who you may remember as the same man who designed the Belvedere Palace. Though the outside of the church is, in my opinion, unremarkable, its inside is quite impressive, decorated from top to bottom in a florid yet tasteful Baroque. Outside the church’s front entrance is the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, a memorial to the Great Plague epidemic of 1679. The column is bursting with forms and figures, using a complex iconography to represent the victory of faith over the threatening disease (in those days thought to be caused by sin). Though full of angels, the bulbous form of the column manages to be quite grotesque, which I think is appropriate given what it commemorates.
One more church deserves mention. On one of my walks back to my Airbnb I stumbled upon the Karlskirche, which unfortunately was closed when I found it. Yet, even from the outside, the church leaves an impression for its monumental size and for the spiral columns (inspired by Trajan’s column) that flank its entrance. The Karlskirche is only a five-minute walk from another of Vienna’s treasures: the Naschmarkt. This is a street market that has existed since the sixteenth century. Now, I am no foodie, nor do I enjoy shopping for exotic products. Nevertheless I was impressed by the vast display of fresh fruits and vegetables, of spices and herbs, of candies and baked goods, all of which seem to go on forever—indeed, it was almost unbearable to witness, since I visited on an empty stomach (but didn’t leave that way).
Yet dwarfing even the finest of these churches in size and splendor is Vienna’s Cathedral, the Stephansdom. Its profile is unmistakable. The front entrance of the cathedral (to the west) is flanked by two Romanesque towers, rising up in grandiose dignity. To the back is the cathedral’s famous southern bell tower, a massive gothic spire that can be seen from many corners of the city, a feature as characteristic of Vienna’s skyline as is the Duomo in Florence. Yet the Cathedral’s most striking feature is not its towers nor its profile, but its colorful roof. The Stephansdom’s slanted roof is decorated with glazed tiles; on the southern side these are arranged into a bright diagonal pattern; and on the north the tiles create Vienna’s and Austria’s coats of arms. The inside of the cathedral is decorated in a high gothic style and contains the tomb of Emperor Frederick III, who was responsible for obtaining cathedral-status for the church from Pope Paul II.
I feel that I am rambling on about Vienna, and yet failing to capture the flavor of the city—a city which for so long was one of the great cultural and political centers of the continent. “Center” is the operative word here, since the city leaves no doubt that it was the seat of power and the ultimate arbiter of artistic taste. Yet I am cataloguing buildings as if they were a random assemblage, while Vienna seldom feels haphazard or fortuitous; rather the city feels planned down the last centimeter, like one giant palatial complex. Indeed, you might say that the city seems to grow out of the labyrinthine Hofburg Palace in the city center. This palace served as the winter residence of the omnipotent Habsburgs for generations; and it is still occupied by the President of Austria.
The most iconic view of the palace is from the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, a crushingly vast, open space that features two heroic equestrian statues: of Archduke Charles of Austria, and of Prince Eugene of Savoy, two of Austria’s greatest generals. Facing this plaza are the arching wings of the Neue Burg, the newer section of the palace (built in the 1800s), whose arms sweep out like a giant embrace. This is only a fraction of the palace, however, which expands chaotically through the area. Built over a span of centuries, the Hofburg lacks the unified grandeur of, say, Versailles or the Schönbrunn. Indeed, when I visited I could not tell where it begun or ended.
Nowadays the gargantuan complex, in addition to being the official residence of Austria’s leader, is the home of several institutions. One wonders how any emperor, however egotistical and vain, could ever have used so much space. The aforementioned Neue Burg, for example, is home to an ethnology museum, a museum of arms and armor, and a museum of musical instruments. Elsewhere in the complex is Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School, which puts on horse shows that are a popular attraction. (I didn’t go.) The Imperial Treasure is also on display—with its bejewelled crowns and scepters and other ornaments of power—though no doubt well guarded. What attracted me most was the Court Library (now part of the Austrian National Library), famous for its gorgeously decorated Punksaal (“State Hall”). And this is only a taste of the behemoth.
Right next door to the Neue Burg of the Hofburg is the Maria-Theresien-Platz, an attractive square named for the statue of Empress Maria Theresa in its center. Two of Vienna’s most famous museums face each other from across the square: the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of the History of Art) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (the Museum of Natural History). These are housed in matching grand, palatial buildings, topped with a dome, which creates a satisfying symmetry across the square. The two buildings were built under the reign of the unhappy Franz Joseph in order to make the imperial art and science collections public—for which we may heartily thank him. Though both museums are popular attractions, the art museum is indisputably the more so. Being in all things a follower, I visited this one.
The museum building itself is attractive. A mock-palace decorated in a neoclassical style, each room is well-tailored to the art it displays: providing a charming but not distracting background. The exception to this is the central stairwell, which is adorned with statues of heroes and lions, and whose ceiling and walls are covered in paintings. Klimt is responsible for a few of these paintings, such as a nude Cleopatra that occupies a nook. Not only is the building itself impressive, but the exhibitions are expertly arranged and displayed. It is an excellent institution.
Despite the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s name, the museum is not an attempt to portray the whole history of art. The collection is, rather, the result of the tastes of Emperors and the periods of their glory. Thus we begin with antiquities—Egyptian and Greco-Roman—for the Empire funded and commissioned many excavations in the years when it was easier to simply take artifacts from their native lands. I admit that it was difficult for me to pay proper attention to these collections, since I was in Austria to learn about Austria, not Egypt or Greece. This is a shame, however, as the collections are undeniably impressive, well-organized and displayed, and featuring thousands of items—many of them beautiful and all of them instructive. Of particular note is the Cult Chamber of Ka-ni-nisut (a section of an Old Egyptian Temple) and marvelous Gemma Augusta, a delicately carved inscribed gem from a Roman workman.
From these relics of ancient peoples the collection jumps to the high point of Habsburg in the Kunstkammer rooms. A Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer (normally translated as “chamber of curiosities”) originated during the Renaissance as a kind of private a museum, a collection of strange and rare objects to stimulate the mind (and sometimes thought to have occult properties). The other examples I have seen contained fossils (not understood at the time), stuffed exotic animals, and foreign artifacts. But the Kunstkammer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is full to the brim of luxury items, the most striking of which are delicate creations in gold. Far from the product of intellectual curiosity, this collection seems more to be a display of wealth.
The most notable item in this section is the salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. I was especially keen to see this, since I had read and loved Cellini’s roguish autobiography—possibly my favorite example of the genre—in which he repeatedly boasts that he is the best goldsmith in the world, even of all time. So I was curious to see whether his boasting was justified. It was. I find it depressing to think that this man, who wrote one of the great books of the Italian Renaissance, was also an extremely accomplished artist. Some people can do everything. The cellar contains two reclining figures: a man representing the sea, and a woman representing the earth. Each is seated next to decorous boxes, one to contain salt, the other pepper. The craftsmanship is exquisite in every detail: the bodies lithe and expressive, the ornamentation sumptuous. Imagine having something like that at your dinner table.
Though the Cellini Salt Cellar is without doubt the highlight of the Kunstkammer rooms for its artistry, it is only a small part of the extraordinary display of craftsmanship and wealth. A succession of Habsburgs used their combination of resources and connections to assemble a vast collection of scientific instruments, statuettes, models, clocks, lamps, and decorative plates, trays, and cutlery, all of it made with the finest craftsmanship out of the most expensive materials. And yet, aside from Cellini’s cellar, the display produced in me little more than an admiration for the fine skill required, and a mixture of awe and disgust at the flaunting of riches.
After exploring the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Habsburg rooms, I thought there could be little more to see in the museum. But I was blissfully wrong. The second floor of the museum is a world-class painting gallery, comparable to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or even Madrid’s Prado. The collection mainly contains works by Germanic, Dutch, and Flemish artists, though there are some notable exceptions. One of these is Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow, with the rosy-faced Virgin Mary watching over the infant John the Baptist and Jesus, playing in a field. The painting exhibits the Renaissance master’s smooth forms, agreeable colors, and harmonious compositions. Also notable are the several works by Velazquez on display, which were originally given as a gift by the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs.
Other paintings call out for attention: several excellent portraits by Jan Van Eyck, self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens (looking resplendent) and Rembrandt (looking rather shabby), and one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Art of Painting, which portrays a painter (himself, presumably) engaged in painting a woman dressed in blue (possibly his daughter). As is usual with Vermeer, an expert composition is matched with exquisite realism, blending the iconic and the intimate. On the one hand, the painting looks like a snapshot of an ordinary day; you can almost guess the time of day from the shadowing on the crickled map on the far wall. And yet, once examined, the painting reveals itself to be anything but casual, but even more carefully composed than the painting which is being painted in the painting.
All of these wonderful works notwithstanding, the highlight of the gallery is indisputably its collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The acknowledged master of the Flemish Renaissance, Bruegel began his career as an engraver of prints, and only took up the brush comparatively late in his short life (he died at around the age of 40). Even so, he left us with a treasury of paintings, which combine the engraver’s eye for detail with an earthy humor and an ironic sensibility, making him one of Europe’s great artists.
Perhaps I enjoyed Bruegel’s work so much because there were influenced by another of my favorite artists, Hieronymus Bosch. This is most apparent in Bruegel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which tackles the typical Boschian theme of the combat between sin and piety in the typical Boschian manner of a vast panorama. In the lower-left of the large town square the people boisterously celebrate Carnival, with all the hilarity, mirth, and drunkenness expected; and in the upper right, robed figures and well-behaved children carry out the abstemious rituals of Lent. The riot of detail is too much for the eye to take in at a glance, or even several; and no central narrative emerges from the busy activity of the town. The closest thing to a central action is the joust between the figure of Carnival, a fat man seated on a barrel, being pushed by drunkards, wielding a skewer, and Lent, a skinny, miserably figure in religious vestments, being pulled by a monk and a nun. Both of these figures are pure Bosch in their exaggerated ghastliness, down to the odd objects sitting on their heads.
Another remarkable panorama by Bruegel is his painting, Children’s Games, which shows hundreds of kids engaged in dozens of sorts of play—with masks, with dolls, in groups, by themselves, climbing, rolling, play acting, and so on—creating a veritable anthology of childhood. But Bruegel’s artistry is not confined to these social summaries. He was also deeply sensitive to the beauties of nature, as is shown in his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow. I do not think that I am the only one to feel a peaceful sense of sublimity in this work. Somehow Bruegel has captured the feeling of the hours after snowfall, when the world is frozen still and silent, and the works of human hands are humbled in the anonymous white of winter. When I visited there was a guest artist busy making a copy of the work, which I admire, for there is much to learn in this work.
Yet my favorite work in the Bruegel collection is his Tower of Babel, the most convincing representation of that mythical tower I know of. I admit I am predisposed to like the painting because the story is among my favorits of the Bible. It shows how much we humans, individually weak, can accomplish if we unite together—a power so great as to even make God in heaven tremble, since He decided that He had better scatter us and confuse our speech if He was to defend his astral territory. The story seems so prescient, too, considering that we have succeeded in leaving earth and entered the heavens, and with the help of two universal languages: English and mathematics, the international languages of science. Though the story has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory for humanity’s presumption, I tend to see it as an allegory for the potential of cooperation. Thus I feel a strange pathos when I look at Bruegel’s image of the unfinished—never to be finished—tower, dominating the landscape and brushing away the clouds.
This does it for my tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. But one museum remains: the Sigmund Freud Museum.
This is located in the apartment were the psychoanalyst lived and worked for over 40 years, on Berggasse 19. I believe the rest of the apartments in the building are still residencial. To enter I had to queue up on the stairwell, since only a limited number of visitors can be admitted at any one time, due to the limited space. I admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the museum. You see, when Freud fled the Nazis and moved to London, he was able to take all of his furniture (such as the famous couch) with him; so the museum in Vienna is largely bereft of its original furnishings. (There is a Freud Museum in London in which you can see what his house and office looked like.) Instead, the exhibition mainly consists of information and photographs, with a few antique items on display.
Even though I did not learn very much about Freud—since I already knew a fair amount about the psychoanalyst before my visit—it was still special to know that I was standing in the apartment of somebody whose thoughts had changed the world. For even if Freud’s ideas are bunk as science and questionable as therapy, he undoubtedly contributed to our concept of the human condition, helping to erode the old Platonic idea in rational beings, and instead accustoming us to the now-common notion of unconscious, unreasonable, and ugly motivations. Since Freud, we have not been able to trust so blithely in the logic of our thoughts or the purity of our actions; and I think this is ultimately a good thing: since blindness to the animal within makes us unable to restrain it.
Evening was falling now, and I was going to leave the next day. I was tired and sore from having walked all day for days on end; but there was one more place to visit: the Schönbrunn Palace.
Sometimes called the “Versailles of Vienna” (which is somewhat Francocentric, I think), the Schönbrunn (literally, “Beautiful Fountain”) is the marvelous palace that, for hundreds of years, was used by the Habsburgs as a summer residence. As such, it stands in the center of Austrian history. Franz Joseph, Austria’s aforementioned last emperor, was born, lived, and died within these walls. Located about an hour’s walk from the center, the palace is accessible by metro, tram, and bus for the foot-weary, and is easily worth the detour.
As it stands today, the Schönbrunn mainly owes its monumental, neoclassical form to that remarkable empress, Maria Theresa. It is painted a cheerful yellow color, which helps to humanize the inhuman proportions of the building. The visitor entering from the street passes two imperial eagles, elevated on columns, which lead into a stone courtyard. By the time I arrived the palace was closed (which did not much bother me, since I prefer gardens anyhow). So I walked around the monumental pile to the other side, which opens up into the palace’s orangerie.
The gardens are arranged in the orderly French style, with rows of ferns adorned with classicalizing statues of heroes and gods. These lead up a gentle hill to the famous Gloriette, a kind of ceremonial structure, vaguely reminiscent of a triumphal arch, built to celebrate Habsburg power. I slowly ascended the slope until I reached its modest peak. The grass swells like an ocean wave on its way down the hill; and at the bottom, flower patches lead up to the palace, which does not look so presumptuously big from up here, and whose yellow façade grows agreeably in the sunset light. Vienna is stretched out in the distance, almost completely flat, save for the dark spire of a church silhouetted against the pink sky. I wrote in my diary: “The clouds look painted. I can almost see the brushstrokes.”
I made my way back down through a side path, which took me through a more wooded area and passed near the palace’s zoo. Some large animal—a lion, a bear, or even an elephant—was growling powerfully in its enclosure. The deep and throaty roar made my hair stand on end; the sound was so deep it even seemed to shake the leaves on the trees. A panic momentarily came over me; and this instinctual fear quickened my senses and snapped me out of my fatigue. I was here, I was in Vienna, listening to an elephant in the palace gardens.
Finally I reached the bottom of the hill and passed by the palace on my way back to my apartment. As I passed, strains of music caught my ears. A concert of chamber music was being held in the palace; and by standing nearby, I could hear the players quite well. It was Mozart, whose composition accompanied my final moments of wonder in the City of Music.
The next day, as I waited for my train to take me to the airport, I wrote these concluding thoughts in my diary:
Every day I ingest Culture, sometimes so much I can hardly swallow it all without feeling ill. What effect does all the art-viewing and book-reading have on me? Does the sophisticated, elegant, finely crafted decorations of, say, an Egyptian sarcophagus create any reflected, echoed, imprinted form in my mind? Do I gain something from visually processing the forms of brilliant men and women? My mind has its limits, which I feel all the more keenly when I measure myself against these artists.
Taste is not only a part and an index of morality;—it is the ONLY morality.
John Ruskin can be said to be the John the Baptist of the religion of art, a herald of things to come. He was shortly followed by the great aesthetes, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust—who all read and were deeply influenced by his work. But Ruskin himself cannot be called an aesthete—at least, not in the sense that he considered aesthetic appreciate the central goal of life. For Ruskin, art provided not only aesthetic pleasure but genuine moral instruction; great paintings could be read like psalms, and great buildings were sermons in stone.
In this, as in so many other ways, Ruskin can be jarring for the modern reader. Indeed, his ideas were jarring even back then. He made a profession of insistently, dogmatically, and unequivocally asserting opinions that, to most people, seem manifestly untrue. The most notorious of these opinions is thus summed up by him: “You can have noble art only from noble persons, associated under laws fitted to their time and circumstances.” Unethical people, therefore, could produce only base art. And if an entire age habitually produced shoddy paintings and buildings—as Ruskin believed of his own age—then there must obviously be something deeply wrong with that society.
Art and society were thus, for Ruskin, deeply intertwined. This is the bridge that connects his art and his social criticism. Art is never just for art’s sake; it has a didactic and a moral purpose. A work of art is great in proportion to the greatness of its ideas; and these ideas are not the products of an eccentric individual, but of a whole culture, evolving and refining itself through generations. Every great work that results from this evolution “is the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History, and Religious Faith of nations.” As such, these works have a vital social purpose; and it is the job of the art critic to explicate their moral significance. We see this most clearly in Ruskin’s major works on architecture, The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which are concerned, above all, with the ethical lessons inherent in gothic architecture.
For Ruskin, however, art was not only moral, but truthful. From this conviction came his youthful defense of J.W. Turner in his five-volume Modern Painters. Turner’s works, he thought, revealed a deep insight into the workings of nature; and since Ruskin was himself keenly sensitive to natural beauty, especially mountains, he became Turner’s champion. The job of the landscape painter, like that of the poet, is to record nature as faithfully as possible. Inferior painters and poets allow themselves to be overpowered by emotions, which lead them to personify or to distort nature: Ruskin called this the “pathetic fallacy.” But the truly great painter or poet, the Turners and Dantes, are always in complete control of themselves.
One can see why this was jarring. Most of us naturally distinguish whether something is good, beautiful, or true; but Ruskin insisted that these qualities were inextricable. Art could not be great if it was immoral or if it was untrue. Indeed, for Ruskin, you might say that these qualities were not separable at all; having any of them without having all three was inconceivable. But their existence was not dependent on solitary, virtuous geniuses. To the contrary: the ability to understand nature only exists in developed cultures; moral systems are the products of peoples; and great art can only exist within a school and a tradition. Society was therefore deeply important for Ruskin, being the wellspring of everything he admired and sought.
The later half of his life was, as a result, spent in social reform. Specifically, Ruskin set himself up as the enemy of industrial capitalism. Gothic art was great because each workman was an artist; but in mass-production the workers are reduced to machines. The division of labor is, as he said, really the division of souls, allowing for efficiency but stunting human growth. The ethic of enlightened selfishness could never inspire any great works, since the highest ethical value is selflessness. The environmental destruction wrought by industrialism was not only a crime against future generations but a crime against ourselves, since we were destroying the truth and beauty of nature, which is one of the vital sources of happiness.
This is the quickest summary I can give this selection of Ruskin’s work, whose volumes fill many shells and touch on many different disciplines. There are many reasons to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas. The relationship of beauty to truth and to goodness is obviously more complicated than he insisted. Murderers, rapists, and thieves have been great painters. Honorable men have built ugly houses. And what is the truth of a symphony? But for me it is a relief to find someone who finds beauty so socially vital.
I have spent far too long in concrete landscapes, surrounded by endless rows of identical houses, each one ugly in itself and uglier en masse. The effect that such thoughtless dreariness has on my mood—in contrast with the great enlivening freshness I feel when in a lovely city—has convinced me that architectural beauty is not merely an added frill or an extra perk, but is a positive social good. And it is difficult to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas on architecture, society, and the economy when one goes from a modern suburb to a well-preserved medieval town. How is it that finer houses were built by peasants? How is it that the most wealthy society in history can produce only the most mindless repetition, vast labyrinths of stupidity, destroying whole landscapes in the process?
Ruskin is the prophet of this phenomenon, and thus valuable now more than ever. But apart from this, Ruskin is worth reading just for the quality of his writing. His early style, flowery and involuted, gave way to a clearer strain later in life. But throughout his career his prose is rich with observation and abounding in memorable phrases. Even if one disagrees with all of his conclusions, it is impossible to read him without some stimulating thought.
For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.
The main problem when encountering Van Gogh is that his life has become the quintessential artistic myth of our age. The obscure genius ahead of his time, toiling in solitude, tortured by personal demons, driven by a creativity that sometimes spilled over into madness—and so on. You’ve heard it all before. You have also seen it before. His paintings suffer from the same overexposure as does his life story. Starry Night hangs, in poster form, in dorm rooms and offices; it is used in commercials and as desktop backgrounds. The challenge, then, as with all iconic art, is to unsee it before it can be properly seen.
The best way to pop this swollen bubble of this myth is, I think, to read these letters. Here an entirely different Van Gogh is revealed. Instead of the mad genius we find the cultured gentleman. Van Gogh could read and write English, French, and German fluently, in addition to his native Dutch. He peppers his letters with references to Dickens, Elliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola. His prose is fluent, cogent, and clear—sometimes even lyrical. His knowledge of art history is equally impressive, as he, for example, compares Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s understanding of human nature. Not only this, but he was far from insulated from the artistic currents of his day. To the contrary, he was friends with many of the major artists in Paris—Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and aware of the work of other prominent painters, such as Monet and Cézanne.
But, of course, Van Gogh’s myth, like many, has some basis in truth. During his lifetime he did not receive even a fraction of the recognition his work deserved (though if he had lived a little longer it likely would have). He was often unhappy and he did suffer from a mental illness of some sort, which did indeed lead him to sever a portion of his own ear. What is less clear is the role that his unhappiness and his mental illness played in his work. In our modern world, still full of Romanticism, we are apt to see these factors as integral to his artistic vision, the source of his inspiration and style. Van Gogh himself had, however, quite a different opinion, seeing his suffering and illness as a distraction or an obstacle, something to be endured but not sought.
The letters in this volume span from 1872 to 1890, the year of his death. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and who supported Vincent financially. There are also a few letters to his sister, Wil, and to his artist friends. From the beginning we see Van Gogh as an enthusiastic and earnest man, very liable to be swept up into passions. His first passion was the church. Following in his father’s footsteps, Van Gogh went to England to work as a preacher. His letters from this period are full to bursting with pious sentiments; in one letter he even includes a sermon, which he composed in English. He quickly grew disenchanted with conventional religion, however, and soon he is pining after his cousin, Kee, who rejects him and refuses to see him. Not long after that he takes in a woman named Sien, a former prostitute, and his letters are filled with his dreams of family life.
But in all of these letters, even before he decided to take up art—which he did comparatively late, at the age of 27—Van Gogh show a keen visual awareness and appreciation. He includes long, detailed, and sometimes rapturous descriptions of towns and landscapes. He is also, from the start, independent to the point of stubbornness. He persists in trying too woe his cousin even in the face of his whole family (including Kee herself) discouraging him. He insists on taking in Sien despite the disapproval of nearly everybody, including his brother and his mentor, Mauve. When it came to art he was absolutely uncompromising, refusing to paint anything just for money, and getting into passionate disagreements with some of his artist friends (Gauguin, most notoriously).
Van Gogh’s intractability often landed him in trouble. He had a bad relationship with his parents and often quarrelled with his brother, Theo, who was his closest confidant. But it is also, I think, the quality that is ultimately most admirable in him. His personal standards drove him to work hard. He was no savant. His letters are filled with exercises and studies. He was tough on his own work and constantly strove to improve it. And though he sometimes got discouraged, there is never any hint of quitting or compromising. This is the classic story, often told. But it is easy to lose sight of how dreary and dispiriting this life could be, day to day. In films the struggling artist is enmeshed in a moving drama, and the audience always knows it will come right in the end. But for Van Gogh this was a plodding daily reality of struggle and failure, with no audience and no guarantee of ultimate success.
That we admire Van Gogh for persisting is, in large part, because his art was truly great. But what would we think if he was mediocre? This, you might say, is the paradox of persistence: We admire those who persist in the face of struggle when they have genuine talent; but when they do not, the spectacle becomes almost pathetic. What would we think of a man financially supported by his brother, constantly quarrelling with and alienating his parents, toiling away in isolation, who produced nothing beautiful? We might be inclined to call such a person naïve, foolish, or even selfish. Whether we admire or scorn stubbornness, in other words, depends on whether it eventually pays off. But in the meantime nobody can know if it will, least of all the stubbornly persistent person. It is, in short, a great risk.
Yet it cannot be said that Van Gogh wagered everything on his talent, since there is not even a hint of calculation or self-interest in his continuing persistence. He is so manifestly, uncompromisingly, absolutely obsessed and absorbed by art that there is no other option for him. Even when institutionalized and hospitalized he thinks of nothing but when, how, where, and what he can paint next. And though he at times expresses regret for the sacrifices this entails—he is especially vexed by the toll it takes on his love-life—he never discusses art with even a touch of bitterness. He is willing to live in a hovel and survive on crumbs if it means he can afford paint. To see such unqualified devotion, not in a novel or on a stage, but in the real, intimate context of his daily life is (to use a hackneyed word) inspiring.
Vincent’s story had a tragic ending. On a summer day in July he walked into a wheat field where he was painting and shot himself in the chest. He survived two more days, finally passing away in his brother’s arms on July 29. The circumstances surrounding this death are rather remarkable, and I don’t wonder that two biographers, Naifeh and Smith, have raised questions about it. The tone of his final letters, while troubled, are far from despairing. He even includes an order of paints in his final dispatch to Theo. And it is also extraordinary to think that a man who had shot himself in the chest could walk a mile back to the inn, or that a man locally known for his mental instability could get a gun. The recent film, Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen), is focused on this question.
Theo did not long survive his brother: he succumbed to syphilis within just six months. Theo had married his wife, Jo, less than two years earlier, which proved an extremely fortunate circumstance—for art’s sake, at least—since it was Jo who championed Vincent’s legacy and who published his correspondence. Theo and Jo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent, was responsible for founding the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I recently visited. To any who get the chance, I highly recommend this paired experience, for the letters and the paintings are mutually enriching. Few people in history seemed to have lived so entirely for the sake of posterity: churning out paintings which few people saw, writing letter after letter few people read, creating a story and an oeuvre that now have the power to tear you in two.
Barcelona, is a vast and cultured city, and has a correspondingly huge number of museums. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Catalan Modernisme; and a museum dedicated to archaeology and to design—just to name a few. But I have only visited the three most famous: the National Art Museum; the Miró Foundation; and the Picasso Museum.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
The biggest and grandest museum in Barcelona is the National Art Museum of Catalonia, situated atop the Montjuïc hill. The museum’s building itself is splendid: the Palau Nacional, a large palace built for the 1929 World’s Fair. It reminds me very much of El Escorial, and for good reason, since it was intentionally made in a Spanish Renaissance style. Four large towers flank a central dome, which rise above the city on its perch.
The museum’s collection is expansive, ranging from the Romanesque to modern art. The oldest pieces are arguably the museum’s most impressive. Whole church apses have been transported into the museum in order to display their frescos. And these frescos are exquisite. Romanesque art always charms me with its fantastic stylization. As in Egyptian and Babylonian art, humans are idealized and abstracted, turned into cartoonish symbols. The volume of Greco-Roman art and the realism of the Renaissance are completely absent from these flat figures, residing in a two-dimensional realm of color and sentiment.
When I first saw medieval Christian art I found is disagreeable, almost childish in its lack of naturalism and its technical unsophistication. But now I find in the Romanesque a sense of otherworldly peace. It is a spiritual art, representing timeless truths, and thus the stylization suits it perfectly. Unlike the real world, where facts and details have no meaning beyond their own existence, every line in Romanesque frescoes is imbued with significance. Every scene is part of a cosmic drama; every man and beast symbolizes a divine attribute; every gesture illustrates a religious truth. The apparently simplicity of the works, then, is the result of a synthesis: focusing a whole worldview into vivid clarity.
Quite as enchanting as the frescoes are the Romanesque capitals. These often display what, to me, seems like a playful delight in the grotesque. The monsters, men, and vegetable motifs that weave around each other—their squat forms helping to hold up the structure—are almost pagan in their exuberant love of life. The friezes are ingenious, endlessly varying, each one a different pictorial solution to the puzzle of turning things into designs. Apart from the frescoes and the capitals, the museum also has a digital reconstruction of the monumental portal of the Ripoll Monastery (in Gerona). Using a projector you can explore the façades many excellent friezes in detail, and in 3D.
The character of the art changes quite noticeably once you go from the Romanesque to the Gothic section. Gothic representation is, on the whole, far more naturalistic than that of the Romanesque. The people are individualized—escaping the anonymously identical faces of the Romanesque—with flowing robes and fluffy beards. Frescoes and paintings have more sense of solidity and depth. This growing naturalism, if it lacks the purity of the Romanesque, does give the Gothic a greater visual delight, while maintaining a deep sense of spirituality.
Having finished with the medieval period, I ascended the stairs to the second level. Here you can stand under the building’s central dome. Its inside is decorated with an attractive, allegorical fresco by Francesc d’Assís Galí. From here you can skip ahead in time a few hundred years, and visit the museum’s collection of modern art. I must admit that none of the individual pieces made a deep impression on me as I walked through. But I did very much like the historical and sociological framing of the progression of modern art, which reminded me very much of how Robert Hughes introduced the subject in his documentary, The Shock of the New.
This about does it for the National Art Museum. Luckily, the next museum is only a short walk away.
The Fundació Miró sits perched on the same hill, Montjuïc, with the same grand view of the city beyond. Around it are the lush gardens of the hill, where many locals come to exercise, play, and walk their dogs. The building of the foundation looks incongruous amid such surroundings, white and angular like a warehouse. It was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, a friend of Miró’s, who managed to create an ideal museum space. Each room, bare and unobtrusive, is bathed in natural light; and the visitor is led effortlessly through the museum on a linear path.
The right angles and stark whiteness of the building offsets the colorful curves of Miró’s paintings. These are arranged both by chronology and theme. Miró’s earliest works are actually some of my favorites. They were made during his fauvist period, when he was painting realistic scenes of Montroig—his ancestral home in Tarragona, to which he returned throughout his life—using lush and vibrant colors. The influence of Cézanne also shows, with shapes somewhat simplified and made geometrical. To me, these works have a wonderful cheerfulness, purely absorbed in the joy of bright colors and the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape.
But this realistic phase is soon got through. Now we come to the Miró as we know him: the Miró of flat spaces and abstract shapes. The human form in particular becomes unrecognizably twisted in Miró’s works—a whole person being evoked with a few lines and dots and shapes. To me many of these paintings have a sort of childlike naiveté—completed with a seemingly simple technique, at times approaching stick figures. But there was nothing childlike in Miró’s thought. He was deeply interested in poetry throughout his life and aspired to make his paintings like poems, employing an idiosyncratic system of symbols. To the knowledgeable eye, therefore—which I do not possess—his paintings are deeplying meaningful.
On a purely formal level, however, they may still be savored. Miró’s bulbous and suggestive shapes, swelling and sticking, stretching and squeezing, evoke many things at once. Unlike Picasso, who bent form but never broke it, Miró’s paintings sometimes verge on the nebulous—the outlines floating on top of nowhere. It is a deeply organic world with no hard surfaces, with every simple form evoking the body and the natural world. And though grotesque and even monstrous, it is not a frightening world. Miró’s demons are cartoonish and his nightmares have laughing tracks.
This is the Miró that charms me. But when Miró attempts a grave statement, I cannot go along with him. His series of three paintings, The Hope of a Dead Man, which were painted on the occasion of a young anarchist’s condemnation and execution, provoke no reaction in me save boredom. They consist of a single blank stroke on a white background, with a ball of color floating nearby. Such art is too much statement and too little substance. In general I think Miró’s work is rather hermetic—floating in his own dream world—and so his attempts to be political fall flat.
The Fundació Miró also tells us something of Miró’s philosophy of art. One of his most quoted phrases was his desire to “assassinate painting.” This statement can be interpreted in manifold ways, but I believe refers to his desire to escape bourgeois commodification. (Notwithstanding this desire his paintings sell for millions of dollars at auction.) It is true, though, that Miró was never quite content with painting. He loved poetry and strove to emulate it, developing a complex system of symbols for his works. He also branched out into sculpture (of which the Fundació Miró has many examples) and even into tapestries. Apart from assassination, Miró was interested in the idea of anonymity, believing that art should be so popular that it cannot be said to have come from anyone. (According to what I’ve read, Miró liked popular music, especially Jimi Hendrix.) All of these ideas, taken together, seem quite odd in a painter who developed an individual style that is not widely popular.
I cannot say that I emerged from the Fundació Miró deeply shaken by an aesthetic awakening. But I did emerge deeply impressed by the diligence with which Miró followed the bent of his vision and his success in bringing forth an entirely new visual language. After visiting this museum one can hardly doubt that Miró was one of the great Catalan artists of the previous century.
(Unfortunately photos are not allowed in this museum, so you will just have to imagine the art.)
The last museum on my itinerary is quite a walk from Montjuïc: forty minutes away, deep in the old city center. This is Barcelona’s Picasso Museum. Picasso was not Catalan: he was born in Málaga (where there’s another Picasso museum) and spent several years in La Coruña. Nevertheless he is regarded as something of an honorary Catalan, since he spent his teenage years in the city and often returned to it throughout his life. This is why Picasso suggested Barcelona as the location for a museum dedicated to his artistic career.
The Museu Picasso occupies five aristocratic houses dating from the gothic period. Its collection is somewhat bipolar: with an extensive (approaching exhaustive) collection from the beginning and end of Picasso’s career, and very few from its famous middle. Despite this—or because of it—the museum is one of the best places to go to explore the workings of Picasso’s mind.
In the first rooms of the museum the visitor can see Picasso’s juvenilia—in itself not especially great, but showing great promise. These gradually increase in sophistication, under the influence of Picasso’s academic tutelage, until it culminates in Science and Charity. This paintings, which he completed in 1897 at the age of 15, is astonishingly finished. Picasso manages to be both allegorical and naturalistic. The morbid topic of death is portrayed with great realism, with the brown hues of the space and the sick girl’s palid face giving the painting a certain grimy edge. Belying this naturalness is the careful diagonal composition of the figures, and the obvious dichotic symbolism of the doctor (science) and the nun (charity). It is no wonder the critics loved it.
But Picasso does not continue down the academic path. Instead he turns toward the avant-garde, and thus commences his blue period. Here his work becomes decidedly unrealistic, completed in monochromatic blue; and his drawings of human forms reveals the influence of El Greco, with bodies extended and features exaggerated. In subject matter, Picasso turned towards poverty, sadness, and death—the darker aspects of the human experience. Though perhaps not technically in the Blue Period, The Madman (1904), which you can see at the museum, illustrates this trend in Picasso’s painting: a homeless man, covered in rags, his long fingers extended almost maniacally—all done in a single shade.
Also on display is The Frugal Meal (1904)—showing two gaunt, emaciated forms, the man desperate and the woman resigned, leaning over a bare table. This vein in Picasso’s early work reminds me of one of Van Gogh’s early works: The Potatoes Eaters. Both artists, it seems, were deeply concerned with the poor and neglected during their youths; and both used gritty hues and nightmarish distortions to represent it. As I mentioned, the museum has relatively few paintings from Picasso’s most well-known periods—when he was developing, perfecting, and then moving beyond cubism—but this time is not totally neglected. The museum has, for example, The Offering (1908), a recognizably proto-cubist work clearly reminiscent of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The museum also has a copy of Picasso’s famous etchings, Minotauromachy (1935), made when Picasso was experimenting with mythological themes in the years leading up to Guernica.
The museum becomes, once again, close to exhaustive when it reaches Picasso’s later years. Most notably, the museum boasts the complete Las Meninas series (1957).
Las Meninas is, of course, a famous painting by Velazquez, on display at the Prado in Madrid. Picasso used this iconic image as the bases of a series of reinterpretations, 45 in all. Though many are excellent, I don’t think any of these paintings, individually, is a masterpiece. But taken together the series is an incredible look at the way Picasso can take a form apart and put it back together. Velazquez’s painting explodes under Picasso’s gaze, reduced to its basic elements. Picasso then experiments with the different ways these elements can be distorted, twisted, stretched, compressed, simplified, and how all these can be reassembled into a new work. Admittedly there is something trivial about all this; many of the paintings look somewhat slapdash and hasty. But their lack of finish does help us to see Picasso’s mind at work—to catch a glimpse of his cognitive processing of shapes and compositions. And one of the paintings, at least (the most famous one, in black and white) does capture some of the creative energy of Velazquez’s original.
Here I reach the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona’s museums. But the city of Barcelona, you might say, is itself a sort of museum, housing some of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen. It is to these buildings, and the architects that designed them, that I turn next.
Although Joan Miró’s name is hardly less known than that of Dalí’s or even Picasso’s, his art seems strikingly less popular. I have been told by several people that they cannot appreciate it. And, indeed, I was often left cold by the works I had seen in the Reina Sofia—some of which seems to confirm every negative stereotype about modern art. But I wanted to give Miró another chance; so I visited the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, and read this book.
One of the most difficult tasks before any young artist is to develop her voice. By “voice” I mean many things: style, philosophy, identity, themes, and so on, which taken together make an artists work immediately recognizable as hers. In a word, this requires originality. One might be inclined to think that originality is the easiest thing to achieve—being the natural product of everyone’s differences. But to produce a deeply original work—one that could not have been produced by anybody else—is anything but easy. Artistic voice emerges in a dialectical process with one’s influences, as they are first mastered and then synthesized, until gradually something appears which cannot be traced to any influence.
This process is most easily seen among painters. And it is wonderfully illustrated in Miró, whose work incorporated fauvism, surrealism, and cubism. But it wasn’t only artistic trends that shaped the young painter. He was deeply inspired by natural sights—particularly the countryside near Montroig (near the city of Tarragona, in his ancestral Catalonia). The voice that Miró developed through his formative experiences and influences is unmistakable—displaying a sensibility for forms and color that no other artist could replicate. And consequently one feels, upon entering the Fundació Miró, the same way one feels upon entering the Dalí Museum in Figueres—that one is entering a new visual universe that obeys different laws.
In short, I have come to enjoy Miró’s work far more than I had. I find in it a sense of playfulness, and sometimes a sense of peacefulness, that is deeply appealing; and I enjoy watching his manipulation of forms shift throughout his work, while remaining recognizably Miró, like a theme and variations. But I still must admit that it does not affect me very deeply. My appreciation, in other words, is more intellectual than emotional. And I think that would have suited Miró just fine.
This little book is full of glossy pictures and does an excellent job in covering the different phases of Miró’s career.