Category Archives: renaissance

Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies of the Human Skull (1489)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Studies of the human skull, 1489, Pen and ink on paper, 29 x 20 cm. Lent by Her Majesty The Queen (RL 19059). The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

He may be one of the fifteenth century’s best known scientists and empiricists, but Leonardo has become synymous with mystery and obscurantism.

The smoke which blurs the features of his most famous painting, also coils around the edges of these burnt-brown anatomy drawings and the plans he made elsewhere for real world inventions.

So today it could be his legacy is most present in antiquated pen and ink studies like this, and in the backward-facing handwriting that accompanies them.

It’s not that we learned so much from his observations and blueprints. Leonardo is said to have kept his findings to himself. His machines were too fantastical for his era.

But filmmakers and game designers make heavy working use of the aesthetic of his private, ochre drawings and script. Skulls like these crop up all the time in movies and intro sequences.

It hardly need be mentioned that the secretive mood evoked by the old master’s researches also inspired one of the 21st century‘s best selling books.

In fact, the closer Leonardo came to understanding humanity and improving our lot, the further we now plunge him into the realms of the arcane and the hidden.

In our times of mapped DNA, our love of these smoky studies could be a nostalgia trip. I hope one day they can revisit our own scientific reports with as much delight.

This work can be seen in Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, The National Gallery, London. The show runs until 5 February 2012 see gallery website for more details.

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (2001)

When a gallery is a deconsecrated church and the artwork is a piece of religious music, walking in is a hair’s breadth from turning up for Sunday worship. It’s humbling, even humiliating.

The early choral work, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, is drawing people in off the street, nevertheless. This is one church that’s full. The only people lacking are clergy and choristers.

Instead 40 state of the art speakers surround the ad hoc congregation. They are placed at person height and a different voice from Salisbury Cathedral Choir can be heard on each.

Were this a live performance, it would feel even less like art. Empassioned song fills the gallery, but the singers are absent. Their lack of presence is the most engaging aspect of the piece.

The choir is an effect of technology so perhaps God is just an effect of such choirs. He and they are both here and not here. It depends whether or not you close your eyes.

But the voices are in layers, so there is something fathomless about that question. And the several parts of the composition can surprise you. Phrases come at you from different angles.

Cardiff has said she wants this to work to explore the ways in which sound can structure a space. It can certainly dominate a place and resonate with a building’s original function.

So, walking in is strange. And as notes here point out, the experience is intimate. We are, one supposes, naked under the eyes of God. Hence a bit of embarrassment.

There’s little choice but to join the flock and accept the embrace of this work. But getting out of church is still a relief. Weddings, funerals, ecclesiastical art shows, you name it.

There are plenty more voices offering counterpoint to this. Classical music blog An Overgrown Path has specced out the audio equipment. Todd Gibson on From the Floor found it emotional.

Dugal McKinnon’s blog, meanwhile, offers a compelling analysis which spells out the transcendental qualities of the work and goes much further on the theme of presence and absence.

The current show at Fabrica runs until 30 May 2011.  See website for more details.


Properzia de’ Rossi (1490-1530)

Of the 35 renaissance artists to feature in this copy of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, there is only one woman. And it is a surprise half way through Book III to discover even one.

This was Properzia de’ Rossi and the three pages dedicated to her life are among the most engaging in Vasari’s exhaustive and occasionally riveting masterpiece.

It may be apocryphal, but she is said to have proved her fine art chops by carving a multitude of figures into a peach stone for a scene of the passion of Christ.

But her greatest triumph was to carve a marble panel, which, Vasari claims, reflected some of her own autobiographical circumstances, on the doors of San Petronio in Bologna

The scene in question comes from the Old Testament and shows the wife of Potiphar disrobing for Joseph in a bid for his attention, ‘with a womanly grace that is more than admirable’.

De’ Rossi was also suffering from unrequited love and a footnote in the Oxford World’s Classics edition reprimands Vasari for ascribing mere ‘romantic or sentimental inspiration’ to a woman.

But seems to me rather that this work is all the stronger for the apparent comment on de’ Rossi’s own life. It gives the work so much more honesty and front.

And if women were generally excluded from public life in 16th century Bologna, what Vasari calls this artist’s ‘burning passion’ may have been socially challenging. It’s almost Tracey Emin.

Or am I just lumping women artists together? in the same way Vasari does when he uses his chapter on de’Rossi to fill us in about Sister Plautilla, Madonna Lucrezia and Sophonisba of Cremona.

He tells us that in one drawing by the latter, ‘a young girl is laughing and a small boy crying because, after she had placed a basket full of lobsters in front of him, one of them bit his finger’.

That does seem very early in the history of art for comic lobsters, only perhaps not so early for proto-feminist statements.