Category Archives: Art

Happy Festa della Toscana!!

000fraangelicobeheadsIn 1438 the painter and monk Fra Angelico imagined the execution of saints in the manner that criminals were in his day. That is, just outside of walls of Florence. With great fanfare the condemned were marched through the city, then out the gates, where they met their deaths.

In this picture the swordsman is tasked with the job. Dante described the execution of counterfeiters, who were lowered head first into holes. Executioners filled the holes with sand, leaving the spectacle of exposed legs and feet flaying. Hanging ended the life of the Bonfire of Vanities preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. That was in 1498, just before his public burning in the Piazza della Signoria, and subsequent scattering of the firebrand monk’s ashes in the Arno River.

Tuscany was absorbed in the unified Italy in 1861, which at the time had the death penalty. But then, in 1889, Italians banned capital punishment up and down the boot. Not surprisingly, the fascists practiced capital punishment during their reign from 1926-1947. In the end, Benito Mussolini would be one of the executed, not surprisingly.

Today Florentines and people of other Tuscan cities and towns are celebrating Festa della Toscana. On this day in 1786 the Duchy of Tuscany became the world’s first country to remove death penalty from their laws. In Florence they are proud of that. Tuscan’s don’t get the day off if the holiday falls on a workday, but every year they observe the day in one form of celebrating or another.

To my friends in Florence, a heartfelt Happy Festa della Toscana.

Who drew Laughing Mona Lisa?

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“Laughing Mona Lisa” appears uncredited on back cover of a 1980’s out-of-print book.

Isn’t it a Pity?

Yes, it’s too bad when time shrouds the identity of  an artist with a level of anonymity of a paleolithic bison painter.  All I can say now is that I searched some more,  but did not find. Cerco, ma non trovo. 

The name I was looking for belongs to the creator of  “Laughing Mona Lisa,”  a piece of graphic art that was the subject of my last blog post.  Unfortunately, the artist’s identity appears to be something that’s now lost somewhere in the irretrievable history of 1970s southern California pop culture. The trail was older, longer, and more faint than I imagined.

Apparently, art blogger Robert A. Baron  went this way ahead of me. He got as far as tracing the image to a piece of wrapping paper from a Pier I Imports store in Redondo Beach, California .  The gift wrap was back in the 1970s.  Also during that decade, the graphic  circulated in the form of cocktail napkins, says Baron.

That just goes to show how wrong I was with my earlier assumption. My plan was to contact the store in Florence, Italy, where I purchased the T-shirt,  and then the wholesaler,  the manufacturer, and so on.  After all that, I thought,  maybe I would learn who created the series of images that regularly appears across my chest and stomach.

This much I do know now, the original graphic has changed a little over the decades.  So, it’s evolving in the public domain,  apparently adapting to contemporary contexts as it continues to be in play in form of T-shirts and who knows what else next.

One change in the graphic is in the framing of the panels.  Each shot was originally depicted  as one frame on a roll or reel of  35 mm film. That is, the panels were framed by strips of camera or projector sprocket holes running along the sides of each panel. Or, as they are called in the film industry: perforations,  perfs, for short.

The perfs reinforce the impression that the restrained smile on Leonardo’s model was a thing in motion, not fixed in a pose.  Alone, each panel would stand as a single cinematographic instant, frozen within a sequence of instances as this lady’s expression changes on its way toward uncontrolled laughter.  Leonardo’s original painting is one of those instances as well.

By the way, something like that could be said about the expressions of shock on the faces in Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” as the apostles react in the moment immediately following  Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me?”  Here is another frozen moment on its way to something else. First shock, then presumably horror.

While not as dramatic as the scene in the “Last Supper”, the expression in the Mona Lisa is presumably the initial reaction to the entertainment  Leonardo arranged for her long sitting.  Leonardo “surrounded his model with musicians, singers and buffoons to keep her in gentle gayety and so avoid the melancholy aspect we observe in most portraits,” says  Giorgio Vasari. Vasari is the 16th century Italian painter, architect and author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Just “gentle gayety”?  Come on, Giorgio.  With buffoons in the room,  would not the punch lines, pratfalls  and slapstick produce some laughing out loud?

Mona Lisa appearing as captures on 35mm film.

Mona Lisa appearing as captured on 35mm film.

In 1980, years after the wrapping paper and cocktail napkins, the graphic appears again on the back cover of a slim edition of a now out-of-print collection of Mona Lisa parodies and Mona Lisa influenced artwork. That would be, Mona Lisas, by Mary Rose Storey, pictured above. “Laughing Mona Lisa” appears on the back cover.

This time the panels appear without the film perforations, so the graphic at this point is more in the style of comic book panels. This is  also how the drawing appears on my souvenir T-shirt.  The curious thing is that while other artwork is credited to the artists in Ms. Storey’s book, “Laughing Mona Lisa” remains uncredited on the back cover. It’s not even listed as “anonymous.”

So how do I leave this?

Ok, this helps. When I was a newspaper reporter, I sometimes wrote about hikers, climbers, or hunters and children getting themselves lost in some wilderness or another. There would be a big search operation with hundreds of volunteers and sometimes aircraft. Most of the time the people were found. Once or twice the individuals disappeared for good, sad to say.  In those cases, the last press release from the sheriff  read “search suspended.”   Suspended? Suspended until when?  I always had ask that.  Suspended pending further information, was always the answer.  No closure.

So, search suspended.  There’s nothing here of the magnitude of a missing person, of course. This little case does remains open and with no word on whether the artist is even alive after all this time.  I’d love to learn that he or she is alive and well, of course.

Meanwhile, if I’m going to have a conversation with the creator of a piece of graphics art that I like, it will be something else, and some another time, probably fairly soon.

Please stay tuned.

Seeing Mona Lisa Differently

I’m sorry. I don’t know this clever artist’s name.  It so often happens that way with all the graphic art that surround us. For the past 100 years or so we’ve been increasingly inundated with mechanically reproduced images.  This has relegated most of what we see to the realms of anonymity.
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In this case, I wear it.  I bought the t-shirt. Twelve Euros, I think.

The problem here is that without the name, there’s no way I can properly credit the artist whose unsigned work I’m discussing here. And without the name, it’s hard to express my gratitude for way this playful work of  t-shirt art has changed how I  look at the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s  Mona Lisa.

Because it is customary to give credit where credit is due, at first opportunity I meant to return to shop in Florence where I bought the t-shirt and ask the lady to point me down the path to the artist. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile: Hey artist,  are you are out there?  Step up and let me know.  We’ll have an espresso.  I want you to know that I wear your shirt once a week.  That is, at work, in the packing house where other working people stop me all the time to ask me what it signifies. The lady who cleans the restrooms loves it and was the last to ask.

As I have told one or two of my co-workers in the packinghouse,  the truth is that Leonardo’s masterpiece is a painting I once literally turned my back on.  This was a long time ago. I was just 19.  I’m not fond of crowds then, nor am I now. I needed relief from the crowd-induced claustrophobia I was experiencing in the Louvre, where the painting hangs.  These people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking of that “mysterious smile”, that “enigmatic smile”, that smile they were seeing under their own reflections upon the bullet-proof glass. The experience was less than I had hoped.

And so the this is how it was for me back then, and how I left it for years, a smile fixed in recollection and behind glass  I nursed a sour grapes feeling that the painting was overrated.

Not too long ago, I bought this Mona Lisa-themed t-shirt as a souvenir in Italy. Artsy T-shirts are about the only kind of souvenir I will buy when I travel. They’re reasonably cheap light, and perfect for the kind of travel packing I do. When I buy a new t-shirt,  I throw out the one in my backpack that is the most worn.

shirtszAs I was saying,  this unidentified  graphic artist’s work changed how I see the Mona Lisa, or rather how I see the Mona Lisa when viewing computer screen reproductions of the Mona Lisa.

How so?

That’s the question I’ve been mulling over lately. I believe the answer lies in how the brain likes to process visual images artists create in the form of a painting or sculpture.  At some level the brain has to ask, is this a thing in motion or a thing at rest?

Michelangelo’s David is stationary, and that’s important because that David is captured in a moment of intense mental preparation for the kill. Also,   Donatello’s David, stands posed with one foot resting on Goliath’s severed head.  But then,  Bernini’s  David  appears with his the body awhirl in the act of  launching of the stone from the sling.

The same can be said of paintings. A still life is still life. The fruit is not supposed to be going anywhere. Jesus can hang lifeless on the cross in one painting, but and in another be carrying the cross to the hill.

As for the Mona Lisa.  It’s a portrait. Ordinarily, a portrait’s  subject is a figure that is not in motion. Leonardo’s model is posed, it should seem,  positioned at rest, seated in a chair that someone has set out in a lovely patio or loggia,  an outdoor room with a commanding view of the rocky landscape.

So, is she, or isn’t she? Stationary, that is.  I sure thought so for years and years after I turned my back on the painting to extract myself from the crowd. Because Leonardo was an excruciatingly slow painter,  Lisa del Giocondo would be sitting for long time indeed.

Being a painter who liked to take his sweet time,  clever Leonardo arranged for entertainment to amuse the lady during her long sitting. Giorgio Vasari tells us that Leonardo hired musicians and clowns to perform for the lady.

So with clowns, we can assume there was some slapstick, high jinks and jokes. And from that, can we not assume that Lisa also laughed?  Now,  if she laughed, would that smile have been a fixed, long-posed smile?

The art on my shirt has lead me to think otherwise and process the image as one frame in a motion picture.  This graphic presents the lady’s expression in a series of twelve consecutive frames that appear to represent a face in full animation.

That is,  from the mild amusement of, say,  Leonardo’s hired clown entering the loggia, followed by more schtick and buffoonery,  leading up to a final moment of some rollicking ROFLMAO-worthy pratfall.  I particularly like how the graphic artist has her falling out of the right edge of the final frame.

Brilliant.

So these days, I’m going with Leonardo’s subject being a subject in motion. His notebooks do attest to an abiding interest in the motion of birds and other animals. He liked to purchase caged birds just to release them and study their movements.

Like some other works of art from the past, this painting remains in continuous play in our times. Duchamps and Dali have painted spoofs of it. I don’t bemoan the appropriation of old works for present day tastes and amusement.  I like it, perhaps in way similar to the way Renaissance era people enjoyed seeing the works Romans and Greeks at play in their time and in their art.  I relish the past achieving a presence in the present, like how  Mona Lisa made an appearance in Batman comics.

And these days, as forensic archeologists pick at the bones in her grave,  I see do imagine a much-alive Lisa del Giocondo laughing. I so love to wear her laugh across my belly. Better that, I think,  than just a smile behind bullet-proof glass.

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Batman, The Renaissance and Plato

Lets say you’re an established comic book author. You have a sweet gig writing Batman stories for DC Comics. Also, say DC wants to publish a series of their superhero comics set in actual historical times and places. What historical details do you change in your Batman story? Which do you keep intact?

Back in the pre-Google days of 1994 Doug Moench wrote a Batman story set in the Italian Renaissance, back when it was not so easy to gather this fact or that from history. Still, this Batman would be a Batman who talks shop with Leonardo da Vinci, and combats notorious evil-doers of Fifteenth Century Florence.

If you were Moench, how much history would you really have to know about the time period? What would it take for the speech bubbles to convincingly represent what Leonardo might say about Plato or human-powered flight, or to unravel the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s smile? Could you do all that and still retain all the cool factor of a comic book?

Sure, why not?

This particular story comes from a DC Comics’ edition of its Esleworlds imprint series published off and on from 1989 to 2005. The series featured DC superheroes in stories set in alternative histories. This one is Batman Annual #18, Dark Masterpiece. An earlier edition placed Batman in Victorian England in the darkest days of Jack the Ripper serial murders.

As Batman fans know, the backstory is that young Bruce Wayne suffered horrific childhood trauma from seeing his parents murdered. That experience manifested itself in a strange adult obsessions for crime fighting while dressed up in the regalia of tights, cape and mask. Here, in the Renaissance era version, it’s the same obsession. Again, tights, cape and mask, but a different boy, a different Batman.

This historic Batman lives in Florence, that cradle of the Renaissance. He is Tomas Di Medici, a son of the ruling Medici family, patrons of the arts and letters. Tomas’ father is Giuliano de Medici.

Here’s where some of the actual history comes into play. On Easter Sunday, 1478, Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in an attempted coup by members of the rival Pazzi clan. The killing took place during mass in the Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, The Duomo. Although, the comic book moves the crime scene to a dark side street outside of the Leonardo’s studio. Both the father and mother die in the attack. It is still Pazzi clan at work and Giuliano is just as dead. “Death to the Medicis!!” reads the speech bubble over the head of a shadowy figure.

Advanced students of Renaissance studies should get a kick out of the opening pages that devote nine panels and 16 speech bubbles to a conversation referencing something as esoteric as 15th Century Florentine Neoplatonic philosophy. Frankly, this scene does very little to advance the Batman story, so it must be here for those of us who enjoy the history and don’t mind all the poetic license that is being taken with the facts.

The scene is Leonardo’s studio, minutes before the assassination. Giuliano de Medici has arrived with his wife and little boy to view a painting. Art history buffs will recognize the angel as being the one in Leonardo’s “Annunciation”, an early work from 1473. The conversation between Giuliano and Leonardo veers awkwardly into the territory of religion. “This is not the first time you have you flirted with Blasphemy in my presence,” Giuliano complains.

Leonardo has a comeback. “Is it not ironic, Giuliano, that so religious a group as your Medicean Circle should lean so heavily on the pagan Plato?”

This refers to the Medici sponsored Platonic Academy, and their attempt to emulate Plato’s original academy of Athens. To that end, many of Florence’s most powerful and influential men attended Friday evening Academy sessions at the Medici-owned villa at Carregi, just outside of Florence. They dined, drank wine, played games and read Plato to each other.

The Florentine variant of Neoplatonism was a little like the modern New Age “movement” in that it borrowed “wisdom” from a variety of religions. As Neoplatonists they strove to reconcile all theological differences through Plato’s metaphysics.

This fixation on Plato helped drive the an impulse to embrace the arts and thinking of the ancient past, ushering that rebirth of classical ideals and aesthetics we call the The Renaissance.

Strains of this thinking continued for centuries, becoming apparent in the works of Goethe, Shelly, Keats, Emerson, Thoreau, Ezra Pound and the psychologist Carl Jung. Neoplatonism informed the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, but not Leonardo.

“I am more concerned with achieving wonders in the here and now,” says Leonardo in the penciled script of a speech bubble.

What a thing to come across in a comic book.

This digs a whole lot more deeply history one would expect in a comic book. It’s way more than what is needed to tell a tale of a batman who takes revenge on the Pazzi and brings them to justice after they kidnap the woman who was the model for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

Better serving the story, are the wings enfolded in this Batman’s cape. Batman creator Bob Kane has said that Leonardo’s drawing of flying machine wings inspired the character. In this story, Leonardo re-configures his ornithopter wings so that Batman soar from a church bell tower to another tower where the Pazzi are holding the Lady Mona Lisa captive for ransom. Moensch pays homage to Kane, who paid homage to Leonardo.

What does the story have wrong?

First of all, Giuliano was neither a husband nor a father at the time of his death in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Although, his mistress bore a bastard son a few weeks later.

Instead of becoming Batman, the son became a pope, Pope Clement VII.

One panel shows Batman running across the top of the Ponte Vecchio. The problem is that the famous bridge is as it appears today, and as it has appeared after a later Medici duke had Georgio Vasari remodel the bridge. The project included construction a single continuous roofline, covering the Duke’s a personal private passageway. In 1478 the bridge would be occupied by butchers and tanners, not jewelers. It would be decades later when the jewelers moved onto the bridge, after the duke banished the foul-smelling tanners and butchers that had been there.

In these drawings Guiliano resembles his contemporary portraits by only a little. The drawings do resemble his older brother, Lorenzo. Lorenzo “The Maginicent” was also attacked by the Pazzi, but he survived, thwarted the coup, and raised his brother’s orphaned son, the one who became pope.

Leonardo appears much older that he would have been when Guiliano died.

Leonardo tells the boy that Columbus has proved the world to be bigger than was recently thought. It would be decades before Columbus returned from his voyage. Even then Columbus was insisting that world was just as small, small enough for the Caribbean Islands to be a part of Asia, populated by “Indians.”

There is more of discrepancies and convergences discover of course. That means there’s more fun in store fora Renaissance-savvy reader who orders one of the reasonably priced used copies out there on the internet.

Batman charges across the roof of the Ponte Vecchio in pursuit of a Pazzi conspirator in the plan to rescue Leonardo’s beloved Lady Mona Lisa.

All images appear under “fair use” and “creative commons” provisions of copyright statues pertaining to reviews. Images under copyright of DC Comics, 1994.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Florence’s Mosquitos and Art

Mario Vargas Llosa once traveled to Florence with a plan to forget about his native Peru in “absolute solitude”. The 2010 Nobel Prize winning novelist tells us about this trip in the opening and closing chapters of The Storyteller. Florence’s Renaissance art was supposed to help with the forgetting. The mosquitos didn’t help at all.

The Storyteller is a postmodern novel in which Vargas Llosa is not just the author, but also a character and narrator in those chapters. It turns out that Mario’s time of solitude were mobbed by summer crowds and menaced by mosquitos he remembers attacking the tourists on behalf of displaced Florentine natives.

Even while viewing Florence’s Renaissance art, the mosquitos bite Mario. He can’t forget Peru. The mosquitos won’t allow it. The swarms continue to remind him of Peru and the Peruvian mosquitos that bit him on the arms, legs and neck years earlier when he visited the jungle’s Machiguenga people

While Florence’s art is clearly at play in the opening and closing chapters, specific works receive scant mention. The narrator mentions Botticelli’s Primavera and Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. That’s it, and he mentions these only to praise a contemporary photograph taken in the Peruvian jungle, a photograph displayed as part of a temporary exhibit in a little gallery near Dante’s house.

In the jungle picture, a storyteller performs among a gathering of Indians. Mario is so captivated by the image that he says the photo is as much a masterpiece as those two paintings hanging in Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery. The story is, after all, a novel primarily about the immense cultural value of storytelling, and a Jewish man who disappears from modern Lima to live among the indigenous Machiguenga people as their storyteller. And as a postmodern Latin American novelist, author Vargas Llosa means to undermine the old Eurocentric grand narrative.

The Mario in this story rents a room in a pensione and spends his days either in galleries viewing paintings and photographs, or in cafes reading Dante and Machiavelli. He tells us that the stream of tourists inundate the streets like a flooding “Amazonian River.” So, instead of a comfortable and reflective solitude, he experiences a sense of isolation among the crowds, and a sense of loss and sadness in seeing foreign invaders occupy Florence. He says, “…there are virtually no natives left in Firenze.”

That part is an exaggeration, although it is true that some of the city’s streets become choked with foreign tourists in the summer. It’s true that many Florentines schedule long vacations from the city in the peak tourist season. Vargas Llosa is too good of a storyteller to let the facts spoil his story.

With his exaggerated crowds and mosquitos, Vargas Llosa raises those big questions of cultural hegemony and threatened native populations, and applies those questions to both the Machiguenga and the Florentines. While the Machiguenga are displaced by the corporate exploitation of their jungle homeland, Florentines see their lives altered by the tourists and the travel industry. And so, he asks, “Are the mosquitos the zanzare of the Firenze totem animals, the guardian angels of Leonardos, Cellinis, Botticellis, Filippo Lipis, Fra Angelicos?” He wants to know if the mosquitos are that, “or are they the weapon that the absent Florentines try to put their detested invaders to flight?”
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Next time: What Vargas Llosa lifts from Florentine literary traditions.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Florence

Who would expect the city of Florence to figure prominently in a novel about a man who lives among a threatened Indian tribe in the middle of the Peruvian jungle? The question came to mind last week with the news that writer Mario Vargas Llosa was being awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

Florence is the setting of the first and last chapters of The Storyteller. The rest of the book is set in Lima and the jungle, as the narrator tells the story about a friend who had become a traditional storyteller, traveling from one jungle village to another.

Stay tuned. Will follow-up.

Pope Boniface’s Dog

Dante made a place for Pope Boniface in Hell, meanwhile this despised pontiff of the late middle ages was commissioning manuscripts with artfully decorative images and designs in the margins. So, here’s a pre-Renaissance dog chasing a hare. It’s purely decorative and has no connection with the Latin text in this book, Liber Sextus, which is a collection of Papal letters clarifying points of Canon Law.

Still, one can ponder with some amusement the historical juxtaposition of this rabbit-chasing dog and the degree that the pope pursued his enemies. Dante fell out of graces for being on the wrong side of the debate over whether the Florentine Republic should assist the pope with its soldiers in one of those pursuits. For that, Dante was convicted and condemned to death on trumped of corruption charges, forcing the poet into exile for the rest of his life. It’s a sad story, but then without that we would probably not have quite so divine of a Comedy to enjoy.

(This manuscript is from the University of California, Berkeley, Robbins Collection.)