Thomas Cole was an American painter of the famous Hudson River School, though slightly bizarrely, he was actually born in Bolton, Lancashire. Famous and successful in his day, he did the obligatory Grand Tour to Italy in 1842, six years before he died at the age of 47. He had the requisite technical skills, certainly, but if you had to pin down what made him special, it was, I think, a sense of grandeur and otherworldly numinosity. A kind of large scale American version of Caspar David Friedrich, with a touch of the classicism and ethereal light that Turner and Claude Lorrain had mastered.
To a degree he is the victim of the kind of snobbery that relegates him to second tier status in the art world. If you were to dilute him down to the most basic elements, you might end up with someone like the gifted commercial sentimentalist, Thomas Kinkade.
In any event his Italian paintings are terrific, and here’s one of them:
I’m not sure where it’s held these days, but note that it’s almost contemporaneous with Cole’s work. Lear had a long life and spent about 5 decades travelling on and off, mainly in Europe, at a time when that was obviously a bit more arduous than today. Both paintings are magnificent.
Before them both though, in 1826, was Camille Corot, with a much simpler style, but the same magical effect:
You can of course still see this scene, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, only a few miles from the city centre. The Roman engineering of the Aqua Claudia and associated structures is astonishing, but the photographs can’t compete with painters.
When you’ve built the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe, for its time, you would expect it to tower over the landscape and the trees. The Chateau de Vincennes does exactly that in the last of the twelve month cycle. It’s still there today, though without the many smaller towers you see in the painting (and in the model below).
The chateau took a battering over the centuries, and housed a community of English nuns and the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, though not at the same time. It was further damaged by a rentamob once the French Revolution was well underway. The Duc de Berry’s interest in it is that he was born in the chateau, 676 years ago last week.
Vincennes was a heavily forested area near Paris – now part of the Parisian urban sprawl – and as you might expect, there was a lot of hunting, in this case a wild boar hunt, with dogs, a potentially risky business. Oddly enough, still no snow, that seemed to wait till after Christmas in medieval France, judging by the Tres Riches Heures. By this point in the series – about 1440 – the duke was dead, the Limbourg brothers were dead, and the probable artist was the Master of Shadows, which is a cool name, in real life Barthélemy d’Eyck, which is still not bad.
October’s a busy month: ploughing (weighed down with a rock), sowing the next crop, archery, bird scaring, various people messing around by the river. They’re ploughing and sowing round here too, at the moment, in my corner of Nordeuropa.
The obvious unseasonal element in the picture though, is a huge badass castle, only this one wasn’t owned by Jean de Berry. It’s the original Louvre Palace in Paris, which did indeed stand where the current building stands, and it’s a remarkably accurate representation. Visitors to the lowest floor of the current Louvre might recognise the enormous rounded bases of the towers, which have been well preserved. The palace was built by Charles V, who happened to be Jean de Berry’s big brother, so it’s still a family affair. Amusingly, he was known as Charles the Wise, whose enemy in life was Charles the Bad, and who was succeeded as king by his son, Charles the Mad. We should bring back these handy adjectives for our own royals (Charles the Twit?).
Often there is a parallel between what the Limbourgs are depicting in their monthly cycle and what goes on in the countryside of my part of northern Europe. Not this month, due to our dearth of viniculture (actually there is a tiny bit). As always with Jean de Berry, he’s happy to show the rhythm of the seasons but what he really seems to like is showing off his real estate. In this case the Château de Saumur, which is satisyingly still with us.
Saumur is a big wine growing area on the Loire. The chateau sits more above the town the in the painting, but it depends a bit on the angle from which you’re viewing it. The building is remarkably unchanged, really
This is one painting in the series where the historians are pretty sure that given the stylistic differences, the upper two thirds was a Limbourg job, while the bottom third was completed much later by Colombe. It fits, to my untrained eye. Art historian François Cali described this scene as “These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light”, but as you can see from the above picture, the painting is hardly exaggerated, the architects for Henry II of England and Philip II of France who owned the building in the decades preceding the painting weren’t hanging back. It was actually begun more than 400 years earlier – built to last.
The painting has two nice further details: bottom left is an exhausted looking pregnant lady, and in the middle foreground is possibly the first depiction of that well known artistic motif, the ‘builder’s bum’.
In a week when Paris is under a modest threat of major flooding given the water level in the Seine, it’s interesting to note that in 1689 – so slightly before climate change/extreme weather/global warming etc – the Île de la Cité was flooded by the effects of heavy rain, sweeping through the Palais de la Cité, and destroying the lowest levels of stained glass in the still amazing Sainte Chapelle. That was 327 years ago, and 273 years before that, the Limbourgs produced their detailed depiction of the buildings in the month of June. It’s a wonderful thing that the Saint Chapelle is still there, and really very little changed. You may note that if those figures are correct, this year is about the septcentennial of the Tres Riches Heures.
This is the great Viollet-le-Duc‘s recreation of the Palais de la Cité
and here is the Limbourg’s view. What’s interesting to speculate is that it was painted from the Duc de Berry’s residence on the river, the Hôtel de Nesle, featured in May.
…and if you look at the Sainte Chapelle now, it’s pretty much the same. Its real glory though is the stained glass interior. Look it up on Google if you’re interested, but the photos don’t quite convey the extraordinary effect of just being inside it. Shame it’s not used as a church any more.
The rest of the June miniature is basic haymaking. It takes place in spring and early summer, in that window of opportunity when the leaves of the grasses are at their most developed. If you leave it too late, after the seeds and flower heads are evident then you lose a lot of the nutritional value. All this is well documented ‘scientifically’ now, but it’s the kind of country lore that was gained over centuries of experience. This miniature is actually one of many representations of medieval farming that shows this kind of “rhythm of the seasons“. The Tres Riches Heures are a companion of sorts to Virgil’s wonderful Georgics.
Well, Paris has changed a bit. Jean de Berry’s main Parisian residence was the famous but poorly archived Hôtel de Nesle, which sat on the left bank of the Seine in the Saint Germain area, opposite the Louvre. It fairly rapidly fell apart after the Duke died in 1416, with a contribution from the time honoured practice of stealing lead from the roof, although the distinctive tower on the river survived for quite a few centuries. I think that’s the bit on the left side of the building complex in the Limbourg’s painting. The Limbourg’s tower is square, and the actual tower was round, but a lot of these things are a bit unreliable in medieval art. The buildings have also been identified as the Conciergerie (which had a square tower) and associated buildings, but I’m not convinced. Jean de Berry clearly liked to have his own stuff in the paintings.
It’s another beauty which conveys the impression that the Duc de Berry spent most of his time hanging out with his friends in seasonal recreations, which is probably true. The mindblowing room of tapestries called the Hunts of Maximilian in the Louvre, from about two hundred years after the Limbourgs, demonstrates much the same sort of thing. The Hôtel de Nesle is fascinating, in part because so little is known for such an extraordinary building (it even had piped water). The following pictures convey a little of what happened to it.
The site is now where the Institut de France stands, and the small river you see in the pictures above must have been culverted centuries ago. See this view from Géoportail, France’s own terrific equivalent of Google Earth (for France)
The 1st of November is one of the great feast days: All Saints. In the past few days there have been a flurry of articles on how Halloween (the Eve of All Hallows, ie saints) is actually a Christian feast that’s been somehow transmuted into a vague Satanist/Samhain/pagan borefest, with lavish costumes and silliness. Not my bag, although it can be fun I guess. I would have to concur with @Mr_Eugenides on Twitter:
Kids dressing up for Halloween: lovely. Parents with kids: great. Students: if you must. Grown adults: get a ******* grip of yourselves.
It is also the anniversary of what was a bit of a revelation for me. Nine years ago, I took my dad to Rome, for a break. He wasn’t too nimble physically, the plane was late, our luggage hadn’t arrived with us, his medication was in the luggage, and it was a Holy Day of Obligation (see here, for those of you who don’t get it). In other words, we had to get to mass.
We arrived at Termini, Rome’s main station at about 1730, and it was dark. I figured that if we headed over to the Piazza della Repubblica and up the hill to the Piazza di San Bernardo, there were so many churches around there that we’d find a 6pm mass. The lack of nimbleness meant a very short taxi ride, and I left Dad in the Chiesa di Santa Susanna, listening to nuns singing, while I found a helpful chemist. Very sensibly, you can buy lots of medication over the counter in Italy (unlike the UK), so a belated thank you to the bearded pharmacist with impeccable English in the Farmacia Internazionale on the Piazza Barberini.
When I got back, I had spotted a 6.30pm mass in the nearly adjacent church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, so in we went. My ego would identify me as a pretty knowledgeable art and architecture buff, but it was only when I entered the church, that I realised that it housed what I had always thought of as perhaps the greatest sculpture mankind had ever produced (I know how much of a poseur that phrase makes me).
Really, it is that good: Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. So I attended mass, in a city centre church with no admission restrictions or charges, with, on my right side my dad, and on my left, one of the most extraordinary technical, aesthetic and (yes, it’s true) erotic creations of any human hand.
You have to see it to fully appreciate, but you can get pretty close, as opposed to say, Michelangelo’s Pieta (with which it has some similarities), now miles from the crowd in St Peter’s, since the infamous hammer attack in 1972. However, so striking and perfect is the brilliant detailing, most notably in the folds of cloth and the ecstatic face of the saint, photographs can to some degree, do it justice. The eroticism is pretty much overt, inspired by these lines from St Teresa’s own writings. It’s no accident that the word ‘ecstasy’, with all it implies, is applied to extreme religious experience:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
(For very good histories and commentaries, all worth reading, try these sites: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 .)
Such is the perfect setting, in what is known as the Cornaro Chapel of the church (named after the benefactors, who are themselves portrayed in reliefs, as spectators on either wall of the chapel), with the associated altar and golden shafts of light, that it would be criminal to display it anywhere else. Which brings me to my last point.
As far as I can see, the last time a true Bernini work – as opposed to the many auction pieces described as ‘after Bernini’ – came on the market, it was a very small, damaged terracotta study of a Moor, in 2002. Essentially it was a clay sketch. This relatively insignificant piece went then for £2,096,650 at Sotheby’s.
If, somehow, ‘St Teresa in Ecstasy’ went on the market today, I reckon it would easily become the most expensive artwork ever sold. The current record is somewhere between $250 and $300 million, for what I would describe as a pretty mundane painting by Cezanne. Admittedly, the Sunni Qataris (who bought the Cezanne) would be unlikely to invest heavily in a Catholic mystical meisterwerk, as opposed to generic famous French post-impressionists, but you still get a good idea of the going rate. A billion? Two billion?
Cezanne features prominently in Robert Hughes’ iconic book and TV series of art after Impressionism, memorably entitled The Shock of the New. However, Bernini easily fulfils the definition provided by Hughes in that work, and if anything, goes beyond it:
“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”
All of which makes me reflect on how fantastically fortunate we are to be able to do what I did – just walk in, almost randomly, and get up close with something so mindblowingly brilliant, without being crowded out, moved along, ripped off, disturbed or otherwise hassled. You only have to attempt a visit to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre to see what I mean. It has actually become pointless to do so.
Yet it’s still possible, across the world, mostly in Europe, and particularly in Rome, to experience thousands of the most sublime and priceless works of art and architecture , for free, basically for as long as you want to. I’ve given one example above, but there’s also Borromini’s facades, the ceilings of Il Gesu and Sant’Ignacio, the Scala Regia etc etc. This is not intended to be a rather obvious tourist guide to Rome, more to point out how counterintuitive it is in these times for such astonishing and priceless works of man to be just sitting there, waiting for our passing glance or intense study, regardless of their value, their maintenance, the risk of damage and so on.
These are not ‘ordinary’ masterpieces, rather they are the subject of this quote from Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Pure Reason:
“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
Such is the wonder of YouTube, that you can find almost any bit of music somewhere, and in the case of great performances, preserve them forever. Piano virtuosity – as opposed to, say, orchestral stuff – particularly lends itself to this. I say virtuosity because some of the more ‘cerebral’ stuff, like late Beethoven, is probably better heard but not seen, such is its profundity no distractions are desirable.
One of the prerequisites for this kind of thing is total command of rhythm. Here are three absolute belters. First, Yuja Wang playing Arcadi Volodos’ jazz-inclined take on Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca
Next is Volodos himself, playing in someone’s apartment. It’s the awesome Mendelssohn Wedding March & Dance of the Elves (after Midsummer Night’s Dream), S. 410, transcribed by Franz Liszt, further transcribed by Vladimir Horowitz, then fiddled with by Volodos
Lastly, Harout Senekeremian’s take on Marc-Andre Hamelin’s deconstruction of various Alkan meisterwerks, which is his Etude no 4 (available as a set here). Just extraordinary.