Category Archives: Art News

Photographer Freddy Fabris recreated Old Master paintings with a cast of car mechanics — and it’s so good!

Jamie Edwards

Stumbled across this online and think it’s great. Photographer Freddy Fabris decided to recreate a series of Old Master paintings as photographs, and in the place of Christ, disciples eating bread, seventeenth-century anatomists, etc., he used car mechanics from a garage in America’s Midwest. As Fabris explained to Huffpost:

For many years I wanted to pay homage the great Renaissance masters. Translating painting into photography was a challenge I looked forward to. I wanted to respect the look and feel of the originals, but needed to come up with a conceptual twist that would create a new layer to the original. To take them out of their original context, yet maintain their essence.

I’ve selected a few of my favourites below, and reproduced them alongside the original work that inspired Fabris; you can view the whole series here.

Fabris Anatomy 2

Fabris, Anatomy Lesson (from The Renaissance Series)


Rembrandt Tulp

Rembrandt van Rijn, Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,1632; The Hague


Fabris Creation

Fabris, Creation of Adam (from The Renaissance Series)

Michelangelo Creation

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Creation of Adam (from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling)


Fabris Rembrandt

Fabris, Rembrandt-esque Portrait (from The Renaissance Series)

Rembrandt Portrait .png

Rembrandt, Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam



Art Detective “doing” Bosch.


“There’s so much in him ….” Him being Hieronymus Bosch. True.

Garden 2

Earthly Delights in the 2016 Bosch exhibition

Here’s Waldemar Januszczak being interviewed by the brilliant Janina Ramirez, as part of her Art Detective podcast series, on the subject of Bosch’s so-called Earthly Delights (1480s or 1490s; Prado, Madrid). Worth a listen; it does well, on the whole, to avoid, if not rubbish, some of the nonsense that people have had to say about Bosch, and this particular picture, in the past (including the “crazy idea” that this picture had something to do with Adamites!). It does a good job too to emphasise the basic religious significance of this picture, despite what you might think when you look at it for the first time.

There are some problems, though. It’s not all that exceptional, for instance, that Bosch ended up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady, as this was family tradition. (Though it might be exceptional that Bosch, as a painter, achieved such a senior position: he rapidly rose to the status of sworn brother, a promotion from “ordinary member,” and artists didn’t tend to occupy such an elevated position.) Most problematic, though, is the idea, rehearsed here, that the triptych was an altarpiece (  “… of course it was,” says Januszczak), which was set up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady’s chapel. OK, so a copy — they say here — might later have sat on the altar there ( … though I can’t remember what the evidence is for this? is there any? don’t think there is); and it is a triptych. But neither of those things mean that the original was an altarpiece.

For a start, not all triptychs were altarpieces; that’s the kind of assumption that led to the bonkers Adamites theory. (Put simply, that theory arose because if the triptych is assumed to have been an altarpiece, then it follows that it can’t really have sat on a Christian altar, can it? Sorry: the imagery just doesn’t fit there, for this image bears no sensible correlation with what actually goes on at a Christian altar …. So people went scurrying about to find alternative “altars”. Cue: the Adamites, whose altar, adorned with Bosch’s picture, presided over all the orgiastic sex. Err ….)

Any anyway, more compellingly, all the evidence — and when we’re dealing with Bosch, evidence is a rare commodity so should be seized upon whenever it’s available — suggests that the triptych was commissioned by a “local noble” for a domestic, albeit very grand, setting. That noble was Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau.

The triptych is first documented in the Nassau Palace of Coudenberg in Brussels in 1517: it was seen there by Antonio de Beatis (see, if you can, Gombrich, ‘The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967); Steppe, ‘Jheronimus Bosch. Bijdrage tot de historische … ,’ in Steppe (ed.), Jheronimus Bosch … (1967) ). At that time, in 1517, the triptych was in the possession of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda, Engelbrecht’s nephew (the latter died in 1504 without direct legitimate heirs, so his property went to Henry). Current thinking is that Engelbrecht commissioned the triptych in the 1480s or 1490s (though disagreement reigns over which decade it was). Neatly, we do know that Engelbrecht visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1481, to attend the 14th Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece; and coincidentally, the first time that we find Bosch mentioned as a painter in his own right in the surviving documentation comes from that very year, when “Joen the Painter” sold shares in the Bosch family house at ‘s-Hertogenbosch to his older brother Goessen. Engelbrecht visited again in 1496, in the entourage of Philip the Fair. (The latter, we know as a matter of fact, was a patron of Bosch’s: in 1504, presumably with Engelbrecht once more in tow, Philip the Fair was in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and asked Bosch to produce a large triptych for him showing the Last Judgement. Inevitably — though not necessarily — this leads to speculation that Engelbrecht might have suggested to Philip that Bosch was an artist to be aware of!) And given that the Nassau owned a property nearby at Breda, we can guess that Engelbrecht, as well as Henry, actually visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch quite regularly, for business as well as pleasure.

The Prado endorses this view concerning Engelbrecht’s likely patronage, as did the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP Catalogue Raisonné, 2016). Not least this is because the triptych’s provenance can be traced from Engelbrecht-Henry Nassau into the possession of Phillip II of Spain, and, by extension, from there into the Prado in 1933. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that when Phillip sent the triptych to the monastery of El Escorial, in 1593, it was not placed in a religious setting there either … it was placed instead in the royal apartments, in the Gallery of the Infanta.)

Januszczak surely knows this story about the triptych’s provenance: after all, displayed in the very same room as the Earthly Delights in the 2016 Prado exhibition was a portrait of the triptych’s likely patron, Engelbrecht, done in the 1480s by the so-called Master of the Princely Portraits. (You can just about make this out in photograph above, in the display cabinet.)

So, good and interesting podcast. But let’s not forget the evidence.

** Shameful plug, and tenuous link, alert: the podcast mentions Bruegel, and in case you’re interested, I’m giving a lecture about Bruegel at the Holburn Museum in Bath on March 22, to coincide with their exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty. More here.

Bosch, Bosch, Bosch


In a few days’ time, the exhibition Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius will close the Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Most of the works are then being shipped to Madrid, where, on the 31st May, another Bosch exhibition will open at The Prado: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition (31.05.2016 – 11.09.2016). The trailer (which has a curious voiceover) is here:

Regular readers will remember that the Prado and Noordbrabants museum have come to blows this year (the 5th centenary year of Bosch’s death), mainly over the Bosch Research & Conservation Project’s findings. The findings call for the “downgrading” of several works previously thought to be by Bosch that are held by the Prado. This led, at the eleventh hour, to the Prado’s decision to withdraw the Cure of Folly and St Anthony from the show in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Those works will now be included in the Prado’s own exhibition, which will also include the monumental (so-called) Garden of Earthly Delights (1480s) that the Prado owns (and obviously didn’t lend to the Nordbrabants Museum).

Turner and his Fighting Temeraire make the new twenty quid note


New 20£

The Bank of England have revealed the design of its new £20 note (above), which will begin circulating in 2020. It features Turner’s 1799 Self-Portrait (now in the Tate Britain) and his almost ubiquitously familiar painting The Fighting Temeraire, of 1839 (NG, London; below). Also featuring on the note will be Turner’s famous quote ‘Light is therefore colour’, a phrase first uttered by Turner in an 1818 lecture delivered at the RA.

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

The new design is the result of a landmark public vote, the first time that the public was invited to nominate candidates to feature on a new note. The bank ended-up with a list featuring some 29,000 nominees, 590 of which were artists. From these, a shortlist was drawn up: Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hepworth, William Hogarth, and designer Josiah Wedgwood, and eventually Turner won.

This story has been the subject of some controversy. Rightly, it was pointed out that women are conspicuous only by their relative absence from the new batch of notes–by 2020, the £5, £20 and £50 notes will feature portraits of notable blokes, whereas only one woman (besides HMQ Elizabeth II, obviously) has got a look in: Jane Austen, who will feature on the £10 note from 2017. Caroline Criado-Perez, head of the campaign for more women to appear on banknotes, was rightly, I think, miffed that only one woman made it on to the Bank’s list of five notable historical figures for inclusion on the new notes, quipping that “I guess the Bank of England thinks one woman out of five historical figures ticks off their gender quota.” The Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, meanwhile, has admitted that although diversity was a consideration in the decision nevertheless conceded that “further progress” could be made in this regard.

I DO think, though, that we should acknowledge the Bank’s efforts to increase transparency and independence by involving the public in a vote (even if the final decision was made by a board headed by the Bank’s deputy governor, other high-fliers and some specially drafted in “advisors” etc.). I do also think–laying the gender inequality aside, if such a thing can ever be done–that Turner makes for a very appropriate choice. Turner is, after all, without doubt one of the preeminent and most important figures in British art history.

Theory no. 37,987,869*: the Mona Lisa really shows Leonardo’s gay lover


Mona Lisa

The Telegraph reports today the latest Mona Lisa theory.** Silvano Vincenti–the art detective, who has spent the last few years digging around in the ground beneath S Ursula’s convent in Florence looking for Lisa del Giocondo’s (née Gherardini) remains–has finally “come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on?”. Vincenti says that we’ve all been wrong for years, and that the Mona Lisa is actually not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Lisa at all. It’s really a portrait of Leonardo’s live-in assisatnt, and conjectured lover, Salai. Partly based on examinations of infra-red images, Vincenti says that the “androgynous” Mona Lisa is a fusion of Lisa’s face with the best bits of Salai; he says that the forehead, nose and that smile, are all Salai’s features. Underlying all this is the speculation that Leonardo and Salai were gay lovers–hence Vincenti’s comparison between the face of the Mona Lisa with the face of the Incarnate Angel, here reckoned to be a portrait of sorts of Salai, and notable because the angel has a stonking erection. Reading between the lines, the Mona Lisa thus goes from idealised portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife, to a secret homage to Salai, Leonardo’s gay lover.

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Frankly, Vincenti should’ve known better. The basic premise that the identification of the portrait’s sitter is ‘a question that has divided scholars for years’ is a false one. No scholar–or else, no serious one–actually doubts whether the portrait is a picture of Lisa, however idealised or imaginative it may, in many respects, be.

At any rate, it is frankly misleading to claim that even if Leonardo found Salai attractive, and even if he had, somewhere in his mind, Salai’s features when producing his pictures, that those pictures must then be understood as pictorial manifestations of Leonardo and Salai’s gay romance. This is a misunderstanding of the artistic process, what it entails and how it works. It’s also a rather naïve take on sexuality in the Early Modern period, during which relationships between older men and young boys would never have been understood according to a modern taxonomy of sexuality (gay, homosexual etc.). To say the Mona Lisa is actually about gay love, articulated in those terms, is simply anachronistic.

This latest theory is therefore a kind of dramatising and skewing of the known facts that gives rise, in this case, to a view not dissimilar to the wholly problematic interpretations of Michelangelo and Tomasso dei Cavalieri’s relationship and the works of art, poetry etc. that they exchanged.

Anyway, as Prof. Martin Kemp has been saying for years–and this is repeated in The Telegraph‘s article–we don’t actually know what Salai looked like. Vasari’s written description of him is generic, to say the least, and conforms to a standard type: “he was pretty and had curly hair”, basically. So any attempt to spot Salai’s features in Leonardo’s work is a lost cause from the off, and any results are wholly conjectural.

Thus Kemp’s view: “This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy…”.

To put that another way, this is Dan Brown stuff.


* This is, by the way, the second time Vincenti has peddled this “theory”. This is just a re-hashing. In 2011, he said the same.

** do wish people would stop referring to Leonardo as “da Vinci”.

Restoring Joachim Wtewael at the NG


Another excellent video by the National Gallery here, about the marvellous Jill Dunkerton’s work to restore their Raising of Lazrus (about 1605) by Joachim Wtewael. As Dunkerton explains, the picture was a right old mess just a few years ago, and this video charts her painstaking work to bring it back to something like its original glory.

Fascinating stuff, and another good example of how important conscientious conservation is for the preservation of important works of art for future generations to enjoy.

PS sorry about the lack of action recently (writing, writing, writing!). Many new posts coming next week!

Birmingham Central Library. In Memorandum.


Central Library

Central Library

The concrete heart of Birmingham is being destroyed. I, of course, am referring to John Madin’s brutalist masterpiece The Central Library.

 I remember the first time I visited Birmingham city centre, it was a few months before I started university in 2013. I got off a train at New Street and, having no idea where I was going, I walked to Victoria Square. There, peaking out from between the Town Hall and the Victorian Baroque Birmingham Museum was a huge concrete monolith of a building. I don’t remember much about that first visit three years ago but I remember the Central Library, though at the time I had no idea of its former function or about the ins and outs of British postwar concrete architecture. It’s jagged, angular concrete exterior struck my very core.

It is now, as was the fate of the second city’s Victorian library, being torn down by yellow cranes that appear in stark contrast to its muted colours; the demolition commenced before the final appeal to save the library had even begun. Birmingham City Council took a hammer to one of its most unique buildings, regardless of the fact that is one of the finest examples of Brutalist architecture in the UK and one of the finest examples of John Madin’s, one of the most brilliant Brummie architects, buildings. Though, shockingly, it is not the only of Madin’s buildings currently being demolished in Birmingham City centre. His incredible skyscraper stood at 103 Colmore Row, part of the Birmingham skyline for the last forty years, is also being taken down.

Central Library now.png

Why 103 Colmore Row, let alone the Central Library, have not been listed is still a point of contention for many people. Other outstanding examples of British brutalist have been: London’s Barbican Estate and Trellick and Balfron Towers, the UEA Ziggurat in Norwich and, closer to home, the New Street Signal Box (not five minutes walk from the Central Library) are all protected. Despite this, the Central Library, a remarkable example of postwar architecture that is so outstanding and unique to Birmingham and fits so well in to the city, with the entire Paradise Circus built just to house it has not been. Instead the city council have allowed it to be demolished, crushed in to nothing, razed it to the ground, in order to build another boring contemporary steel and glass structure as a gate between Victoria Square and Centenary Square. It is honestly a travesty, a real shame. A tragedy.

Colmore Row .png

103 Colmore Row

Signal Box

New St. Signal Box

It’s marmite nature may have divided Brummies and visitors alike but there is no way of denying that Central Library has been a distinctive, remarkable structure in the city since it opened in 1974. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact at some point I am going to get on a train from Selly Oak to New Street and it will not be there anymore, but it breaks my heart every time I go in to the city and a little bit more of it has been torn away.

So I’m writing this to say that, Birmingham Central Library, you magnificent brutal bastard, I will miss you. No matter how many t-shirts, postcards, tote bags and pin badges I buy with your unforgettable silhouette on it, I will miss you. 

Waldemar’s still unchaining the Renaissance (or not)


Waldemar .png

Just sat down to catch the latest instalment of The Renaissance Unchained, Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC. We’re on to episode 3/4 now, and all of the previous shows are on the iPlayer. This week’s episode was called “Silk, Sex and Sin”. Important caveat, again, to what follows: I want to declare, right away, that I think we should be grateful that Waldemar is doing his bit, using his platform, to make sure that interest in Renaissance art doesn’t wane. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Mainly, this concerns a general mis-match between what Waldemar thinks he’s doing, saying, and achieving, and what he’s actually doing, what he’s actually saying. The series is supposed to unchain the Renaissance, to give new insights, to speak the unspoken. But it doesn’t.

I didn’t post about last week’s film yet, partly because I didn’t have time, and partly because I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t said before. Show 2 didn’t really seem to have a point: oh here’s Giotto, here’s Simone Martini, here’s Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo etc. etc. And then there was “wasn’t Jesus really ugly in the Renaissance?” I thought this series was supposed to be about unveiling a new side to the Renaissance? Well, none of those artists/subjects just mentioned are by any stretch of the imagination unfamiliar, even to the most pedestrian art enthusiast. To go back to my earlier point about show 1, if we really wanted to consider the untold Renaissance, wouldn’t we want to wonder, for instance, a bit more about such topics as: where have all the women gone? Might we not have spent less time raking over the dead familiar stuff, and spend a bit of time thinking about Sofonisba Anguissola, for example? And might we also not wonder why there aren’t many “Renaissance Women” to speak of in the first place? Waldemar was well up for highlighting that Vasari forgot about things going on outside Italy but what about Vasari’s even worse omission of women. Etc. etc.

At the end of show 2 I was still not convinced that the Renaissance was being unchained. Instead Waldemar simply espouses another potted history of the Renaissance–this is Gombrich’s Story of Art. So far it has featured all the well-known, mostly Italian, blokes (despite setting out to do the opposite), and, actually, all the old clichés. Since show 1 sought, so vehemently, to show that the Renaissance wasn’t an Italian phenomenon (even though everybody already knew that), I found it sort of funny that show 2 was all about Italian men…

Other annoyances:

Michelangelo battled not only with marble but with the ancients, too? Yeah, Waldemar (any old Michelangelo book will tell you that)! I also didn’t get the bit about “poor old Michelangelo” being duped by the Ancient sculptures, which, by the time they were dug up in the 1500s had lost their polychromy. But can we really be sure that if these sculptures had been found with paint still on them–and I’m not 100% sure that all Antique statues were painted (were they?)–that Michelangelo and others would have been less interested in the intrinsic visual properties of marble? I’m not so sure.

It’s also strangely ironic, I suppose, that at one moment in a show that claims to show new sides to the Renaissance, to cast light on hitherto neglected souls, that Waldemar did a piece to camera front of Senastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation (in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome; below). Michelangelo was involved in designing this fresco, yet that collaboration was not mentioned, and poor old Sebastiano didn’t even get a look in, wasn’t even mentioned. Instead we were whisked off to the Sistine Chapel, for Botticelli, Perugino, the big M, and so on and so on (not necessarily a bad thing, but incongruous given Waldemar’s supposed aims).


There were plenty of other bold, wholly untrue claims. One was that nobody’s ever heard of, thinks about, or writes about Nicollò dell’Arca, who has been”written out”, Waldemar told us, of the story of the Renaissance: “you just don’t hear about Niccolò dell’Arca”. But that’s not quite true.

Anyway, those were my thoughts about show 2.

Anyway, felt compelled to write again, since show 3 was in many ways just as problematic. We’ve moved on to Venice. Splendid! There were lots of Bellinis, Carpaccios and all the rest, which are wonderful. But then, with Giorgione, the first big problem arose. We don’t know anything about Giorgione, true, but when Waldemar said that he had solved the mystery of Giorgione’s Tempest, he was, yet again, doing hard-working art historians a disservice. Waldemar, as though making a breakthrough, told us that he’d come up with a solution to the Tempest, which has troubled art historians, and told us the picture is actually based on Hesiod’s Theogony. Now that isn’t exactly “common knowledge”, granted, but the thing is it’s not (yet again) a Waldemar original (as he enthusiastically implied!). The idea that Giorgione’s famous picture was inspired by Hesiod was first proposed–as far as I know, and I could be wrong–by Ursula and Warren Kirkendale in 2015. Even if they weren’t the first, what is certainly true is that Waldemar isn’t. (Obviously I understand he need for TV drama, but would it have been so hard to say “as others recently have pointed out… and I agree…”? To put it bluntly, I don’t much like this kind of scholarly appropriation that Waldemar goes in for. True, a TV show doesn’t have the apparatus, nor the appetite, for dense, academic argumentation, but I think that there are ways of being scrupulous about acknowledging your sources without bogging the viewer down and which must always be done.)

Waldemar also went on to claim that it is only as a result of “recent research” that we now know that the glassworkers were moved to Murano, not only to protect the main city of Venice from fire, but also so that Venice could keep its glass blowing techniques a secret from their rivals. To his credit, Waldemar does not attribute this “recent research” to himself, but he still suggests that this is a recent revelation that he is sharing with his audience when it is a claim that has been asserted for centuries.

Ponte delle Tette (Venice)

At least in show 3 the women made it in–hurrah. Unfortunately this was in the way of the Ponte de le Tette, or Bridge of Tits. Obviously not the most empowering of guises in which women could make an appearance in Waldemar’s newfangled account of the Renaissance. Waldemar uses the bridge as a segue into discussing the audience grabbing aspect of this episode’s title–sex! In particular, he looks at Titian’s revolutionary portrayal of the female nude, which allows Waldemar to oggle Titian’s Danaë, the Rape of Europa, the Venus of Urbino and others. Titian was indeed a groundbreaking and consummate painter of the female nude. However, Waldemar completely ignores the really interesting aspects of these paintings, which is that despite all their sexiness a fair few of Titian’s mythologies (the ones with the most female nudes!) were commissioned by Spain’s Philip II, who just happens to have been one of the most powerful Catholics in the period of religious upheaval that we call the Reformations and Counter Reformations (an important context for understanding Titian, and, broadly speaking, all European art from the sixteenth century that Waldemar failed to mention). It might have been interesting, then, to think about how we can resolve or square the ostensible paradox that Titian’s sexy nudes were originally oggled by the very-Catholic, notoriously strait-laced Phillip!

Titian, Frari .jpg

Waldemar failed to mention religion in his discussion of sex, failing to address what appear to be the inherent dichotomies and incongruities. But he did later go off to visit one of my favourite buildings in Venice–the Scuola di San Rocco–as an example of a religious building that is covered in the most amazing collection of Tintoretto paintings. He also mentioned Titian’s famous Assumption of the Virgin in the Frari, but once again, missed the opportunity to share any of the more interesting things about that painting, going instead for the more banal ones.Waldemar could, for example, have talked about the fact that Titian was one of the first artists to really consider the space he was painting for and the picture’s relationship with its surroundings. I got excited when Waldemar started his talk about the painting from in front of the choir screen, guessing that he was going to talk about the fact that the Assunta is meant to be gradually revealed to you and you move along the nave towards the altar, until you reach the choir screen, which, when opened, perfectly frames the altarpiece ahead. Titian, and later Tintoretto, wanted the experiences of the audiences to be interactive, awe-inspiring and above all, spiritual (you know, that revelationary moment in the Frari when you reach the choir screen and see get a full glimpse of the Virgin’s assumption into the Heavens). However Waldemar said nothing about it. It was such a missed opportunity to talk about something that was really a very Venetian, and very pioneering, approach.

Again, though, is Waldemar really bringing us anything new and exciting about the Renaissance that we didn’t already know by talking to us about Titian’s most famous painting? While it is indeed a very, very good painting there are numerous others that do not get the same attention that Waldemar could have talked about and which really would’ve highlighted an under-appreciated side of the (Venetian) Renaissance. Venice is full of masterpieces that are not as well known as the Assumption. Titian, along with Tintoretto and Veronese (who also gets a mention for, unsurprisingly, his stunning representation of fabrics) represent the triumvirate of the most famous Venetian painters of the Renaissance. But what about all the others? If Waldemar had really wanted to uncover a more hidden side, he could have given a voice to painters such as Francesco Montemezzano or Jacopo Bassano, who were both very competent artists working in the same period as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese but are nowhere near as well known. He might also have dwelled on Venice as an artistic crossroads, that played host to all sorts of artists as they moved about Europe.

All this week’s episode of The Renaissance Unchained did not really fulfill its brief of challenging “the traditional view of art’s most important epoch”. Instead it provided a watered down version of any good (or not so good) art history textbook, with some spurious “recent research” claims, and other breakthroughs, thrown in.


* Update

Bernard says:

The series is broadcasted early 2016, so probably filmed in 2015 and written maybe even earlier? Is it possible the Kirkindales and this Waldemar came to the same conclusion independently?

  • jamieedwards756 says:

    It’s possible, of course. But, being a skeptic, I guess I’m doubtful… It seems somehow too much of a coincidence, perhaps?! At any rate, I didn’t mean to make much of a big point about it. For me it’s just another (possible) example of how Waldemar can skew the truth by neglecting to mention that certain ideas are already out there in the world of art history.



The museum of the future! Technology advances research in the humanities (again)

Faith Trend

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.40.24

A viewer looking at a graphic of Venice and seeing the reconstructed map of the city for a given year and the document that served for the reconstruction, in this case an image the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the eighteenth century


Following on from Jamie’s fascinating blog post a little while back on the use of technology in the reconstruction of the church of S. Pier Maggiore in Florence, this week I’m highlighting a really fascinating project going on in Venice at the moment and it comes with a helpful 10 minute Ted talk.

Professor Federic Kaplan is part of a project run by EPFL and the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari to create a massive digital collection of Venice’s archives so that they can create a time machine using that data so that when you look at something like a Google map, as well as being able to move around the space, you can also move backwards and forwards through the space and see what it was like hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.39.56

A helpful chart that Kaplan uses to show how we can create digital information for past centuries – through the digitisation of thousands of printed books and materials and through extrapolation (or simulation) of that material.

Kaplan explains it far more succinctly and passionately than I do so I’m going to let him do all the talking here.

Kaplan highlights that to construct such a time machine, one needs large archives and excellent specialists for those archives. Venice has both of these in abundance which is one of the many reasons it was chosen for this project. As a researcher who has spent many hours in Venice’s Archivio di Stato (which is indeed a very large archive!), the idea that all of their hundreds of thousands of archival documents will one day be online, possibly even transcribed and translated, is a source of major excitement. Kaplan gives just a few examples of the sorts of questions that could be asked of this material from: ‘who lived in this palazzo in 1323?’ or ‘how much did sea bream cost at the Rialto market in 1434?’ to mapping out Mediterranean trade routes to ask questions like ‘if I am in Corfu in June 1323 and want to go to Constantinople, when can I take a boat?’

Even better, for an art historian, is the idea that this type of time machine could be very visual and very interactive. Obviously art historians will be far from the only ones who benefit from this project, research in all areas of the humanities will be significantly impacted. As Kaplan says, ‘research in the humanities is about to undergo an evolution which is maybe similar to what happened to life science thirty years ago.’

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.40.44

A fully 3D experience!

Imagine the huge impact that this sort of data collection, digitisation and manipulation (to make it interactive and accessible) will have on research in the humanities? The future of our field is going to be very exciting.

Waldemar Januszczak “unchains” the Renaissance


Renaissance Unchained.png

image: BBC iPlayer

Just managed to sit down to watch the first instalment of Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC, which you can watch on the iPlayer (until it goes out of date, and unless you’re abroad) here. Called The Renaissance Unchained, it’s a four-parter, in which Januszczak is promising to deconstruct some of the great myths and misunderstandings that dominate, he says, in our collective understanding of the “Renaissance”.

Show one set out to destabilise the view that the Renaissance is a strictly Italian phenomenon, that the Italians, beginning about the turn of the 1400s, were solely responsible for art’s “rebirth” following the grim Dark Ages. This rebirth, so the familar story goes, culminated in Michelangelo, the Divine. He took pointed aim at Vasari, whose Lives (1550; rev. ed. 1568), established the very idea of the Renaissance–Vasari after all was the very first, as Januszczak points out, to use the term Rinascimento to describe the phenomenon in art that he charted right back to the time of Cimabue. The problem, as Januszczak made very clear, is that Vasari’s Rinascimento is unapologetically Italian: art was reborn only in Italy, it grew only in Italy and it was definitely perfected only in Italy. Nowhere in Vasari’s great teleological scheme of art’s progress do non-Italians get a look in (except in the ’68 edition which features a brief and rather patronising appendix on “Diverse Flemings”).

Anyway, all this, as the show argued, is a problem. A big problem.

Januszczak intends to fix this problem in his series by showing that the Renaissance didn’t happen only in Italy (even if it was only in Italy that the period was actually termed the Renaissance), and he started in the first show by telling us all about the important advances made in art in Germany and the Netherlands, mainly in the early 15th Century. Januszczak points out quite rightly that when Giotto et al. were making their art in Italy, in the Netherlands the van Eyck brothers were doing seriously revolutionary stuff, ditto Rogier van der Weyden etc. etc. He mentioned their mastery of oils as being a major contributing factor here (doing well to avoid repeating the erroneous view that the van Eycks’ invented the technique), likewise their interest in mirrors, optics, their use of lenses and so on (I couldn’t resist the screen grab above showing Januszczak sporting 15th-Century- style spectacles in front of Jan van Eyck’s Canon van der Paele Madonna!).

This was all good and quite right. And just before I say anything else, I’ll confess that I happen to be a fan (generally speaking) of Januszczak’s absorbing style, which is not too serious yet not at all patronising, and I am grateful for the fact that he is highlighting a serious bias in popular understanding of the Renaissance period (obviously, as a “Northern Renaissance” person, I see this as being a noble endeavour).

Eyck, Canon van der Paele

Jan van Eyck, Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele, 1434-6, oil on panel; Groeningemuseum, Bruges

That all said, I have, perhaps predictably, some gripes.

First is the implication that Januszczak is the very first person to notice this bias, stemming directly from Vasari, in our understanding of the Renaissance period–“I’m arguing…”, “I want to show… “, “I am suggesting…”, that sort of thing. This, however, is quite unfair and misleading. A great deal of work has been done in recent times which has highlighted the many problems inherent in Vasari’s account of the Renaissance, which includes the many omissions. And this work  hasn’t limited itself to highlighting just the author’s Italocenticism (which, in any case, should more properly be his Tusco-centicism, since for Vasari the Florentine the Renaissance happened on the banks of the Arno). Many have asked, to give just a particularly pertinent and important example:”where are all the women?!”. This is to say, really, that it might have been nice to have acknowledged, somewhere, that there is a great deal of scholarship out there that already problematises Vasari’s account on a number of serious levels. (Indeed any one of our undergrads could have told you this, such is the emphasis placed on understanding and debunking Vasari’s account of The Renaissance in modern art history!)

Second–and this leads on from the first–I didn’t really appreciate the implication that all art historians fall for Vasari’s claims, and toe the Vasarian line, hook, line, and sinker. Especially annoying, perhaps, was Januszczak’s repeated observation that, because of Vasari, art historians refer to Jan, Rogier and company as the “Flemish Primitives”. He used this observation to draw attention to the lingering influence of Vasari: Giotto is a Renaissance Genius; Robert Campin a “Primitive”. Two points/problems. 1) Not many art historians (that I am familiar with anyway) make much (serious) use these days of the term “Primitives” to describe the age of Campin and the van Eycks. Netherlandish Primitives as a term enjoyed its heyday in much earlier times, about the turn of the 1900s. 2) That said, I’m not really convinced that the term “Netherlandish Primitives” was ever meant disparagingly anyway. The scholars that used the term “Primitives” were often not those that sought to show that Vasari was right, after all, and that northern European art is implicitly inferior to Italian. Obviously some might have done. But conversely, many others that used the term Primitives were precisely those that were instrumental in the excavation, study and critical re-appraisal of “Early Netherlandish Painting” (a term that came to replace Netherlandish Primitives, with its altogether more positive overtones–it is no coincidence that Erwin Panofsky’s 1953 magnum opus is thus titled Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin and Character).

In other words, I thought it was a bit unfair to say that all art historians are bewitched by Vasari, believe him, extend uncritical credence to his account, and that all us art historians (including us scholars of northern European in particular) consequently still go around talking about the Netherlandish Primitives!

With a bit more reflection, I also didn’t much appreciate the suggestion that van Eyck etc. produced art that was better than what was going on in Italy. I don’t think this the place for making value judgements. They’re different, that’s true, but that’s not the same (or shouldn’t be) as saying that one is better than the other.

I don’t mean for these words to sound unfair. I’m pleased, as I said, that Januszczak has chosen to use his tele platform to highlight the great art that was produced in the Netherlands from 1400 to 1600 (and before and beyond). But what I am saying is that, perhaps inadvertently, Januszczak did a whole bunch of scholars a disservice by presenting some of his main ideas in the way in which he did.

In the next episode Januszczak is threatening to delve into the world of Bosch… I wait, with interest and trepidation in equal measure, for that one.


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