Tafelmusik and Bach

Yay to Tafelmusik’s third visit to Australia! We can’t believe it’s already six years since we saw them first with the Galileo Project.

Galileo Project has received a Helpmann Award in Australia, for distinguished artistic achievement, and the International Astronomical Union has named an asteroid “197856 Tafelmusik” in honour of the concert.

Bach and his World is another innovative multimedia program from Tafelmusik.

The program was conceived, programmed, and scripted by Tafelmusik double bassist Alison Mackay, based on her Bach: A Circle of Creation, premiered by Tafelmusik in May 2015. Alison is the creative force behind many of Tafelmusik’s most innovative concert and touring programmes, including The Galileo Project and House of Dreams.

Alison Mackay

For these multimedia productions, the Tafelmusik musicians must memorize nearly two hours of music. The musicians now enjoy the experience of being able to communicate on stage without the barrier of music stands and the ability of moving around while playing to be in the prime position for the ensemble needs of each piece. There was a lot of hesitation about taking on such a huge task the first time, for the Galileo Project, but now musicians are enthusiastic about the freedom they feel in being able to perform in this way and spend countless hours alone or with two or three colleagues working on sections of pieces, to memorize the entire programme.

Bach and His World draws on spoken word, video and detailed images to explore the world of the artisans — papermakers, violin carvers, string spinners, and performers — who helped J.S. Bach realize his musical genius. Led from the violin by new Music Director, Elisa Citterio, appointed in January 2017, this all-Bach program is performed on instruments of the composer’s time, the story narrated by actor Blair Williams.

Bach’s world comes alive as Tafelmusik recreates the ambience of a Friday evening at Zimmerman’s cafe in Leipzig, with images of his treasured artisans blended with footage of the craftspeople who create Tafelmusik’s instruments today. Because the guild members of early modern Europe were obliged to guard their trade secrets, modern makers have had to be detectives, using forensic evidence from scraps of old strings and sources such as Diderot’s 18th century Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts to determine the materials and techniques that would have been used for Bach’s instruments.

Malcolm Rose, who makes the brass strings for the Tafelmusik harpsichord, helped to discover the old way of making strings, analyzing scraps of strings left on old instruments to discover the proportion of copper and zinc in the brass which would have given Bach’s harpsichord a warm and resonant sound.

Bach and his World examines Bach’s material world and all the things that had to happen between the moment a musical idea came into his mind to the point of an actual performance for the public. We first learn about the family of paper makers in a tiny Bohemian village in the NW corner of the Czech Republic who supplied Bach’s paper for five years – this is known because of research into watermarks in paper – and how the paper was made. We learn about how Bach made his ink and began composing by ruling lines on a page with a five-pointed “rastrum” to make manuscript paper.

Bach made his own ink. Bach’s ink was called “iron gall ink” and was made of iron sulphate, oak galls (small outgrowths on oak trees – the little balls have high concentration of tannins), gum arabic, salt and water. The iron sulphate is corroding the paper, eating holes through the pages.

We learn about the Leipzig instrument makers who worked with Bach to create his instruments and we actually see a cello being created, specially by Quentin Playfair, from the plain cut wood to the finished instrument. This process unfolds while Christina Mahler and Allen Whear play some of Bach’s most exquisite music for solo cello.

Toronto luthier, Quentin Playfair, was asked to re-create a 1726 cello made in the workshop of Antonio Stradivari and the process was recorded for the concert
Toronto luthier Quentin Playfair

We see amazing footage of gut strings being made from sheep intestines and the inner workings of harpsichord jacks. We’ll also learn about the financial aspects of musical life in Leipzig – the tax base which provided the funding for instruments, salaries and housing for the town musicians, and the debt which the city owed to highly-taxed Jewish merchants at the famous Leipzig trade fairs.

Quills from raven feathers are cut so that they create a uniform sound when used to pluck the strings inside a harpsichord.

The concert is a celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach while at the same time introducing the audience to the way baroque instruments are built and how they work with each other in the orchestra.

Most of the music on the programme is typical of the works that would have been performed at regular Friday night concerts at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in the North German city of Leipzig where Bach lived for the last 27 years of his life. He directed the music in the principal churches of the city, taught at the famous St. Thomas choir school, and directed the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble made up of university students, members of his family, professional players from the Leipzig municipal band, and musical visitors passing through the town. Many of these performers played on instruments made by local artisans in Leipzig, a well-known centre for instrument building.

The building of baroque instruments began with materials from the natural world — bird feathers for the quills that pluck harpsichord strings, maple and spruce for the bodies of stringed instruments, and boxwood for oboes. Sheep intestines were used to create strings for Bach’s stringed instruments, and brass strings were made by hand for his harpsichords. 18th century techniques are still used for the manufacture of historical strings for period instruments today.

Having a full, two-hour presentation (including intermission) devoted to the music of one composer may seem like a recipe for monotony. But Johann Sebastian Bach was no ordinary artist. He had a distinct musical style, rendered in seemingly endless variety: a richness nicely reflected in Mackay’s 21-piece patchwork quilt of a program.

It is a program that not only delivers a cross-section of Bach’s inventiveness with a variety of solo and ensemble genres, it also gives each member of the Tafelmusik orchestra a moment in the spotlight. Freed from the constraints of music stands and enlivened by the need to tell a broader story, Tafelmusik’s period-instrument-playing string, woodwind and harpsichord musicians delivered lively, engaging performances.

It is another superb, committed and passionate performance that has become the trademark of a Tafelmusik concert.

Around the World in 80 Museums

Today is International Museum Day and we are going around the world in 80 museums. The list has been put together by Museum Hack, a company that offers museums tours with a difference. The list is not a ranking of museums by importance or any other criteria.

#1 The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

Getty Centre, Los Angeles

Opened in 1997, The Getty Center is best known for its gorgeous views, stunning gardens, and for being a great place for nannies and au pairs to take celebrity kids. This branch of the Getty Museum features pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, decorative arts, and photographs from the 1830s until today from all over the world.

#2 de Young Museum, San Francisco, California

de Young Museum, San Francisco

Located in the heart (ish) of Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum has welcomed visitors from all over the world for the last hundred years. Boasting the title of “the most copper covered building in the world”, this museum features American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, textile arts, and art of Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and more.

#3 SFMOMA, San Francisco, California

SFMOMA, San Francisco

Reopened in 2016, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art spans a whopping 170,000 square feet, making it one of the largest museums in the United States period and one of the largest in the world dedicated to modern and contemporary art.

#4 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Designed by architect Louis I. Kahn, this house of art is recognized as one of the most significant works of architecture of recent times. So basically, the museum should be in a museum.

#5 The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana

The National WWII Museum, New Orleans

Celebrating the achievements of the United States to the Allied victory in World War II, this museum contains artifacts, models, and interactive exhibits.

#6 The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest museums in the United States. Housed in this big old building are big namepieces like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Constantin Brâncuși at the Art Institute of Chicago

#7 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

If you like your museums well-rounded, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is for you. The MFA has over 450,000 works of art under its belt, from Dutch Golden Age paintings to Japanese pottery. It’s also the museum on this list parked closest to Harvard Yard, if that’s something you’re into.

#8 Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum, Washington D.C.

Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum, Washington D.C.

If you want to get an up close and personal look at the world-famous 1903 Wright Flyer or Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, this museum is literally the only place you can do that without some kind of time machine.

With Buzz Lightyear and Magellan T. Bear at the National Air And Space Museum 🙂

#9 National Gallery Of Art, Washington D.C.

National Gallery Of Art, Washington D.C.

Another one of the largest museums in North America, the National Gallery of Art is the only place in the Americas where you can see a real live Leonardo da Vinci painting. You can take a gander at that bad boy before you take a stroll through the museums’ contemporary sculpture garden for a full day of museum fun.

National Gallery of Art – Fountain room on the west side of the main gallery floor.

#10 The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York, New York

The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York

They say if you can make it here you can make it anywhere, and the same is true for the artwork displayed at The Met. Representing over 5,000 years of art from all times and places, this museum is at the top of most “must see” museum lists for good reason.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock (1950) at the Met Fifth Avenue

#11 Guggenheim, New York, New York

Guggenheim, New York

This 5th Avenue hotspot is home to Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern and contemporary art. It was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright as a “temple of the spirit” so be sure to pay your respects the next time you’re in NYC.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

#12 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Perhaps to be avoided by arachnophobes, the National Gallery of Canada is a glass and granite masterpiece guarded by its own giant Louise Bourgeois spider. Focusing mostly on Canadian art, this museum is not to be missed by lovers of the Great White North.

Great Hall at the National Gallery of Canada

#13 Museo Nacional De Antropología, Mexico City, Mexico

Museo Nacional De Antropología, Mexico City

The Museo Nacional De Antropología in Mexico City is one of the largest and most visited museums in Mexico. Here, you’ll enjoy some a rich collection of Mexican art and artifacts including Stone of the Sun, an Aztec calendar stone that weighs 14 tons and definitely cannot be smuggled out of the museum in a large tote bag.

#14 Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City

One of the most colorful museums on the list, the Museo Frida Kahlo is also known as the Blue House (La Casa Azul) because it’s bluer than a sad smurf on a clear day. This museum contains work by Frida Kahlo, as well as her husband, Diego Rivera, and other Mexican folk art and artifacts.

#15 Instituto Ricardo Brennand, Recife, Brazil

Instituto Ricardo Brennand, Recife

The Instituto Ricardo Brennand contains a variety of artwork from European paintings to artifacts representing colonial and Dutch Brazil. This museum also contains one of the largest collections of armory in the whole world.

#16 Inhotim In Brumadinho, Brazil

Inhotim In Brumadinho, Brazil

Inhotim is not so much a museum as it is a sprawling art city. Topping out at 5,000 acres, this artistic exploration was started when former shipping magnate Bernardo Paz began collecting contemporary art and decided to turn his passion into a place where local artists could come create and display large-scalework. It’s like the Jurassic Park of museums.

#17 Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Santiago, Chile

Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Santiago

The Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino displays primarily pre-Columbian artworks and artifacts from Central and South America. Started by Chilean architect and collector, Sergio Larraín García-Moreno, the museum began as a way for him to show off his own impressive collection of pre-Columbian goods and has blossomed into a huge collection today.

#18 Museo De Arte Latinoamericano, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Museo De Arte Latinoamericano, Buenos Aires

The Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires’ mission is to educate, display, and promote artwork by Latin American artists. And if Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires is too long to say, it’s also known affectionately as MALBA.

#19 Rova of Antananarivo, Antananarivo, Madagascar

Rova of Antananarivo, Madagascar

Although it’s being restored from a fire in 1995, you can still tour the Rova of Antananarivo, otherwise known as the Manjakamiadana Rova, or the “Queen’s Palace”. This former royal palace complex is located on the highest point in Analamanga. Speaking of pointing, it’s considered taboo to point directly at the Rova, so keep your directions verbal.

#20 Iziko South African Museum: Cape Town, South Africa

Iziko South African Museum: Cape Town

This South African museum contains exhibits of African zoology, paleontology, and archaeology. Founded in 1825, this museum has had its fair share of controversy, but today strives to represent and celebrate South Africa’s people and cultures.

#21 Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town

Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is the first major museum in Africa dedicated solely to contemporary art. Nicknamed “Africa’s Tate Modern”, the Zeitz showcases artwork and installations by underrepresented African artists.

#22 House of Slaves: Gorée Island, Senegal

House of Slaves: Gorée Island, Senegal

The House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) in Gorée Island, Senegal, serves as a memorial and museum to the Atlantic slave trade. Located off the coast of Dakar, this museum is a reminder and tribute to those who passed through the “Door of No Return” and endured the horrors of slavery.

#23 Museum of Marrakech, Marrakech, Morocco

Museum of Marrakech

Located in Dar Menebhi Palace, the Museum of Marrakech is filled with decorative mosaics, stained glass, and intricate tile artwork. The building itself serves as the main piece of artwork (especially the original courtyard) but pottery, calligraphy, old gravestones, coins, paintings, clothing, and historic documents are on display as well.

#24 Museum of Modern Art of Algiers, Algiers, Algeria

Museum of Modern Art of Algiers

Formerly a department store, the Museum of Modern Art of Algiers is one of the baby museums on the list, having just opened in 2007. And if that description isn’t familiar enough, this modern and contemporary art house also goes by the nickname, MAMA.

#25 Alexandria National Museum, Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria National Museum

Considered one of Egypt’s finest museums, the Alexandria National Museum used to house the United States Consulate and is now home to artwork and artifacts that chronicle the history and culture of Egypt and Alexandria.

#26 The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt

The Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The Egyptian Museum, not surprisingly, houses one of the largest collections of artifacts from Ancient Egyptian history. What started as a way to get looters to stop stealing ancient artifacts (thanks Indiana Jones) is now a popular tourist destination.

#27 Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid

Considered one of the greatest art museums in the world, The Prado Museum is home to an extensive collection of European and Spanish art from the 12th century until the early 20th century. What sets the Prado apart from other museums is that fact that its collections were not started with making a cohesive collection in mind, but by collecting as many pieces by one artist as possible. Kind of like a Pokemon technique but for art.

Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid

#28 Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, Spain

Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid

The Reina Sofía Museum, in Madrid, Spain is a national museum of 20th century art. If you’re a fan of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, welcome to the club; if there is a club, they probably meet at this museum.

#29 Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Completing the “Golden Triangle of Art” with the Prado and the Reina Sofía, is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This pretty place will pique your painting passions with over 1,600 of them under its roof.

#30 MACBA, Barcelona, Spain

MACBA – Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona

The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, or MACBA, showcases around 5,000 modern art piece from three time periods; forties to sixties, the sixties and seventies, and contemporary. Unlike other museums, MACBA had no art when it was built but was planned as part of the 1992 Olympics. However, the museum didn’t open until 1995, art included.

#31 Museo Atlántico, Lanzarote, Spain

Crossing the Rubicon by Jason deCaires Taylor, 2017 – Museo Atlantico, Lanzarote,

If you think our list so far has been a little too dry, head on down to Lanzarote, Spain for the world’s only underwater sculpture museum! Here you’ll join a licensed diver as they help you explore the sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor. It’s a chance to live out your very own Little Mermaid fantasy without the sea witch or voice curse.

#32 Musée D’Orsay, Paris, France

If you’re craving some impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces then the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, France is the place to be. If you’re craving a croissant Paris, France is also the place to be.

Musée D’Orsay, Paris
Musée D’Orsay, Paris

#33 The Louvre, Paris, France

Get ready to fall in Louvre with the world’s largest art museum. Originally built as a fortress, The Louvre protects some of the world’s most important art pieces like the Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa which you’ll recognize by the mob of people waiting to talk selfies in front of it.

The Louvre
Apollo Gallery, The Louvre

#34 Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Paris, France

Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Paris

If you love all things Claude Monet it stands to reason that you will also love a museum dedicated to his life and work. With over 300 of his pieces, this museum is so Monet and it doesn’t even know it.

#35 Musée National Rodin, Paris, France

Another museum dedicated to one artist, the Musée National Rodin contains 6,600 sculptures, 8,000 drawings, 8,000 photographs, and 7,000 art objects. A stroll through the museums garden will having you thinking with The Thinker, feeling romantic with The Kiss, and heading to The Gates of Hell like a bat out of it.

The Thinker, Musée National Rodin

#36 Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium

Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles

The Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (The Museum of the City of Brussels) is dedicated to the history and folklore of Brussels (the city not the sprout). On display are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, engravings, photos, and models, including a scale-representation of Brussels in the Middle Ages.

#37 Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts, Brussels, Belgium

Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts, Brussels

This museum was born from royalty. By a royal decree in 1845, the Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts (The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium) must showcase artwork from Belgian artists, or else. Okay, there was no “or else” but it made it more exciting…

Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts, Brussels

#38 Musée des Instruments de Musique, Brussels, Belgium

Musée des Instruments de Musique, Brussels

The Musée des Instruments de Musique (The Museum of Musical Instruments) contains over 8,000 musical instruments with over 1,200 on display. In addition to exhibitions, this museum focuses on education with workshops and classes offered throughout the year.

#39 Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, Belgium

Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

Founded by former Belgian King Leopold II, The Cinquantenaire Museum is one of the largest museums in Europe. This Belgian beauty contains thousands of pieces from many time periods and locations.

#40 National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

National Gallery of Ireland started in 1864 with only 125 paintings. Through grants and gifts that number today is more than 14,000 piece of art including an extensive collection of Irish artwork. Not bad for 154 years.

#41 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

From the time it opened its doors in 1885, the Rijksmuseum has seen over one million art pieces pass through its collection. On display are works from Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, and more of your favorite Dutch dudes.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Night Watch by Rembrandt, 1642 at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

#42 – The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Located close to the Rijksmuseum, The Van Gogh Museum was created to showcase the work of Vincent van Gogh and fellow Dutch contemporaries. This museum was also the home to the largest art theft in the Netherlands with 20 paintings stolen and later recovered. So don’t try anything shady, they’re ready for it.

#43 Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Opened in 1960, the Anne Frank House serves as a tribute and museum to Anne Frank who hid in the house during Nazi occupation and kept a diary of her life. Visiting this historic landmark is a reminder of the terror of the Nazi-controlled Europe and the resilience of a young girl’s spirit.

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam

#44 Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands

The Mauritshuis has the elegant distinction of housing the Royal Cabinet of Paintings featuring mostly Dutch Golden Age paintings of its 841 objects. This is also where you’ll get to gaze upon The Girl with the Pearl Earring and buy a rubber duck version of her immediately after.

Mauritshuis, The Hague
Golden Room, Mauritshuis, The Hague
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague

#45 Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

The Louisiana Museum of Art contains modern and contemporary art from WWII until the present day. By its name, you might think this museum was located in New Orleans, Louisiana but you would be mistaken. This museum got its name from the original owner of the property Alexander Brun who had three wives. All. Named. Louise.

Sculpture room at Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk
Yayoi Kusama
Gleaming lights of the soul, 2008
Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk

#46 The Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

If you want to live out your 17th century pirate fantasies, The Vasa Museum is the place for you. The Vasa ship was a real treasure ship build in the early 1600s that set out to sea in 1628 and sank that very day giving it one of the shortest maiden voyages in history. In 1961 the ship was rescued from its watery grave and you can now explore the almost fully intact 17th century ship at your leisure.

Vasa Museum
Vasa ship

#47 Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden

Bildmuseet, Umeå

The Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden houses international contemporary art, sometimes along with art historical retrospectives. Its seven stories of art and artifacts just waiting to be perused.

#48 Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victoria and Albert Museum is London’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. It is the namesake art house of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the Duchess of Cambridge has become Royal Patron to the museum this year.

Handel statue at Victoria & Albert Museum
Music auditorium, Victoria & Albert Museum

#49 – Tate Modern, London, UK

Tate Modern, London

Built on a former power station, Tate Modern is one of the largest modern and contemporary museums in the world. Today Tate Modern is part of four Tate family museums with real-life sugar daddy (he was a sugar refiner) Henry Tate to thank.

#50 – The National Gallery, London, UK

The National Gallery was founded in 1824 and like all almost 200-year-old things, has seen its share of history. Housing mostly paintings dating from the mid 13th century to 1900, The National Gallery was faced with a dilemma during WWII when many paintings were being evacuated for safety. Winston Churchill was having none of this and remarked: “bury them in caves or in cellars, but not a picture shall leave these islands.” This led to gallery workers realizing temperature affect paintings and now we have air-conditioned galleries. So the next time you’re freezing in a museum, thank Churchill.

The National Gallery, London

#51 The British Museum, London, UK

The British Museum, London

The British Museum is dedicated to human history and culture all the way from the dawn of mankind until the dawn of the selfie. It was started in 1753 by physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane’s collections of books, manuscripts, natural specimens, and some antiquities, and has been educating and delighting audiences ever since.

#52 Design Museum, London, UK

Design Museum, London
Design Museum, London

The Design Museum in London explores product, industrial, graphic, fashion, and architectural design. The museum was originally housed in an abandoned banana warehouse, but split from that location and moved to its current one for more space and less banana smell.

#53 Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, UK

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

The Sir John Soane’s Museum is the former home of neo-classical architect John Soane. He used his house as a place for exploration and experimentation in his own work so the museum is a result of three houses that were bought, demolished, and rebuilt by Sloane. When he died Sloane fought to preserve his house and work just as it was so that future generations could learn and be inspired by his sometimes wacky architectural practices and collections.

#54 Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

The Pergamon Museum is conveniently located on Museum Island in Berlin Germany. The museum showcases restored historical ruins like the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Mshatta Facade, as well as a Middle East museum, and museum of Islamic art. It’s one of the most visited museums in Germany and is great for running up and down stairs like Rocky.

#55 Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany

Altes Museum, Berlin

Also located on Museum Island, The Altes Museum (German for old museum), is known as one of the most important buildings of the Neoclassical era because of its massive columns, delightful atrium, and exquisite staircase that leads up to the top of a rotunda that makes one feel like they could win a gladiator fight with anyone no matter how strong or naked.

#56 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Under the octagonal dome of the Kunsthistorisches Museum occurred the biggest art theft in Austrian history! In 2003 the Cellini Salt Cellar sculpture by Benvenuto Cellin was stolen and later found buried in a box in the forest three years later. Were the thieves hoping if they buried a piece of art an art tree would grow? We’ll never know.

#57 Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

If you love standing in line and the Italian Renaissance, the Uffizi Gallery is for you. Because of the priceless and delicate art housed within these walls, only small groups are let in at a time so during peak seasons you could be waiting longer than you’ve ever waited for brunch or a cronut. But it’s all worth it when you set your eyes their gorgeous collection.

#58 Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence

The Palazzo Medici Riccardi is a Renaissance palace that may look modest from the outside but inside is full of opulent frescos and artwork worthy of royalty. It’s also seen some stuff. In 1983 Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler met and had dinner here, if these frescos could talk, they would sure have some stories to tell.

#59 – La Specola, Florence, Italy

If you’ve had your fill of beautiful, traditional museums, then La Specola is your next stop. This natural history museum is full of always interesting, sometimes terrifying, wax anatomical models from the 18th century. It also contains fossils, animals, minerals, exotic plants, zoological subjects, medical instruments, and more unique oddities. Eww!

#60 – Galleria Dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Galleria Dell’Accademia, Florence

You’ve seen him in books, movies, cartoons, and your dreams if you’re into that sort of thing; now see the Michelangelo’s sculpture of David live and in person at the Galleria Dell’Accademia. There’s also other paintings and sculptures but let’s be real, David’s the star.

Michelangelo’s David at Galleria Dell’Accademia, Florence

#61 Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

Galleria Borghese, Rome

There’s no place like Rome and there’s no museum like the Galleria Borghese. Here you’ll enjoy art from a collection started by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a lover of art and nephew of Pope Paul V.

#62 The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

The Acropolis Museum, Athens

The Acropolis Museum focuses on the artifacts from the Acropolis of Athens. Here you’ll enjoy getting up close and personal (well not too up close and personal) with ancient Athenian buildings and objects in the very location they were used.

#63 The National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Considered another one of the greatest museums in the world, The National Archaeological Museum houses some of the most important artifacts and pieces of Greek art. If Uncle Jesse from Full House entered the museum they might display him, too, as he is, in our opinion, a very important piece of Greek art.

#64 Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece

Benaki Museum, Athens

Another place to view Greek art from the prehistoric to the modern (Uncle Jesse still not included) is the Benaki Museum. Located in the Benaki family mansion, it celebrates Greek culture throughout the ages.

#65 Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem, Israel

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem

Yad Vashem translated to “a monument and a name” and is dedicated to the family and victims of the Holocaust. It is located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem and memorializes as well as celebrates individuals who fought against the Nazis.

#66 The Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem, Israel

The Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem

The Shrine of the Book is the wing of the Israel Museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient religious Jewish manuscripts. The scrolls are so old and delicate they can only be displayed for months at a time before they are rotated out and go into hibernation in a storage facility like an ancient paper bear.

#67 – Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia

Whether you’re recently heartbroken or just know what it feels like, The Museum of Broken Relationships is the place to go for closure, healing, and maybe some crying. Here you can view personal object left by former lovers with short descriptions about the person or relationship. From axes to underpants, this museum is a graveyard of haunted love.

Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb

#68 State Hermitage Museum And Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

State Hermitage Museum And Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg

The State Hermitage Museum in Russia houses the largest collection of paintings in the world including most of artwork collected by the great Catherine the Great, a woman who loved art just as much as she loved being Russia’s longest-ruling female leader.

#69 The Museum Of Qin Terracotta Warriors And Horses, Xi’an, China

The Museum Of Qin Terracotta Warriors And Horses, Xi’an

Imagine you’re a farmer in China in 1974, minding your own farmer business, when suddenly you discover thousands and thousands of buried Terracotta warriors just waiting to come to life and beat you up. They may not spring to life just yet, but these warriors were built for protection, specifically to protect Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in the afterlife.

#70 Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China

Shanghai Museum

Founded in 1953, The Shanghai Museum contains over 120,000 pieces, including bronze, ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, jades, ancient coins, paintings, seals, sculptures, and more. It’s considered to be China’s first world-class modern museums and is built in the shape of an ancient bronze cooking vessel called a “ding” so if looking at the museum makes you hungry for some ancient delicious delicacies, that’s why.

#71 The National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

The National Palace Museum, Taipei

The National Palace Museum houses over 8,000 years of Chinese art and history dating way back to the Neolithic age. If being in this museum makes you feel like you’re in an Emperor’s palace that’s because a good amount of artifacts and art pieces were collected by Chinese Emperors themselves who lived and loved and occasionally stubbed their toes on the corners of things just like us.

#72 ArtScience Museum, Singapore

The ArtScience Museum in Singapore is the world’s first of its kind. At first glance, this museum resembles a large lotus flower ready to be picked up and sniffed by King Kong but it’s also known as “The Welcoming Hand of Singapore”. Here you can enjoy traveling exhibitions that exemplify the marriage of art and science.

ArtScience Museum, Singapore
ArtScience Museum, Singapore

#73 Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul, South Korea

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul

The neofuturistic Dongdaemun Design Plaza is home to conventions, trade shows, exhibitions, fashion shows, concerts, and other performances. Here you can enjoy unique and innovative showcases and events. Plus you might even be featured as an extra in one of the many Korean shows and films filmed here if you wait long enough and look cool enough.

#74 Chichu Art Museum, Kagawa, Japan

Chichu Art Museum, Kagawa

The Chichu Art Museum translates to “art museum in the earth” but you don’t need to dig a tunnel to get there. This museums goal is to explore the relationship between people and nature and is built mostly underground so as not to affect the surrounding environment and scenery.

#75 Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya City, Japan

Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya City

Unlike a lot of museums who receive their art through grants, donations, and gifts from several individuals, The Tokugawa Art Museum is comprised mostly of the art of one family, Owari branch of the Tokugawa clan, who once ruled the Owari Domain during the Edo period of Japan. Makes Grandma’s pearls seem pretty useless, doesn’t it?

#76 National Museum, New Delhi, India

National Museum, New Delhi

The National Museum contains around 200,000 works of art, both of Indian artists and from around the globe, representing 5,000 years of history. Established in 1949, this museum is the same age as Meryl Streep, Billy Joel, and Twiggy.

#77 Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa), Wellington, New Zealand

Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa), Wellington

Te Papa Tongarewa translates to “container of treasures” and that’s just what is housed on its six floors. The museum is mainly dedicated to preserving the art and culture of the current inhabitants of New Zealand, the Māori people, and other Pacific cultures. They are currently housing a Jim Henson retrospective complete with puppet workshop so go now if you’d like to be immortalized in felt.

#78 Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne Museum

A trip down under might land you in the loving arms of The Melbourne Museum. This museum features exhibits that explore nature and all her mysterious workings as well as celebrates the rich and diverse culture of Australia’s history and Aboriginal people. There’s even giant IMAX screen where you can sit back and enjoy a 3D documentary or film.

Brickman Awesome at Melbourne Museum

#79 Mona – Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania

The owner of the Museum of Old and New Art, David Walsh, once described Mona as a “subversive adult Disneyland”. If that excites something inside you it’s time for a trip to Tasmania. At Mona you’ll experience unique, innovative installations along with live art performances and large-scale public art, mostly coming straight from David Walsh’s private collection.

Mona – Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart
Dots Obsession by Yayoi Kusama, 2016 – Mona

#80 National Museum & Art Gallery, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

National Museum & Art Gallery, Port Moresby

You may have seen art and artifacts from Papua New Guinea at other museums around the world but nowhere can its history and tradition come alive more easily than where it all started. At the National Museum & Art Gallery you’ll explore over 50,000 years of history including artwork, tools, and even war artifacts like a P-38F Lockheed Lightning aircraft, the oldest P-38 in a museum in the world.

That’s a lot of walking… And there is so much more to see! We need suitable transportation…

🙂

The Wit and the Voice of Birgit Nilsson

The legendary soprano Birgit Nilsson would have been 100 today.

“You are the greatest Brünnhilde I have heard in 40 years.”

“And who did you hear 40 years ago?” inquired Birgit Nilsson of what must have been a momentarily flummoxed Karl Böhm.

The wit and the voice seem utterly inseparable to us now – disarming, unflagging and totally at the legendary soprano’s beck and call. It could lash, or it could draw you in closer: it could certainly do both at the same time. With the advent of the centenary of her birth, the image of the laughing Valkyrie burns brighter than ever. There she jokes about Rudolf Bing being a dependent. Here she accuses a competitive Franco Corelli of giving her rabies. There she identifies her imitation pearls as bought with the meagre fees of the Vienna Opera.

We hear the same stories over and again, some undoubtedly apocryphal. But the spark of a quick mind and the brilliance of a steely attitude makes them evergreen. Akin to putting on one of her records, it makes you wonder, how could this woman, with such outsized, positively Wagnerian qualities, ever possibly exist?

Born on a farm in Västra Karup, Sweden, Nilsson was a bit of a disappointment to her father. Like some of the tales that emerge from those northern climes, young Marta Birgit Nilsson was the only child of a man who desired a son. Nils Svensson, a sixth generation farmer, wanted there to be a seventh – what he got instead was a girl with a preternaturally loud voice, who could play the piano from the age of three and had little ambition of settling down as a farmer’s wife. “At my christening I allegedly drowned out both the pastor and the organ,” was how Nilsson put it in her own memoir.

Though Birgit attended agricultural school, where she learnt how to cook and milk cows, her mother Justina Svensson quietly but firmly nurtured her gifts. Not overfond of being a farmer’s wife herself, Justina had long harboured ambitions of being a singer – it was she that first bought Birgit a toy piano, and she that saved the equivalent of $500 from her inheritance in order to send Birgit to the Royal School of Music in Stockholm. Sadly, her mother heard her sing only once before being killed in a car crash.

Her father, who had little truck with any of these ambitions, never contributed a cent to Nilsson’s education. But despite being disappointed in his hopes for her, he maintained a genial, joking relationship with his child, delighting in his insistence that the great diva was not so good. His party trick, as it were, was to apprehend bemused audience members during the interval, inquiring as to whether they thought Ms Nilsson had been too loud in the first or second act. Invariably he would seize on the one person who gave him any concession on this ground, and present it to his daughter as an overwhelming consensus: she had been much too loud.

At the time, nearly all graduates of the Royal School sang at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and so it was for Nilsson. In time honoured tradition, her debut came about in 1946 when another singer fell ill, leaving her to jump into the role of Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz at rather short notice. While familiar with Agathe’s arias, the spoken dialogue and recitatives proved difficult to master within three days. Her less than perfect performance resulted in the conductor, a cantankerous Leo Blech, temporarily banning her from the house. “I thought I was finished,” said Nilsson, who later revealed that she had contemplated throwing herself into a river close to the theatre.

On stage at Royal Swedish Opera 🙂
Under the stage at Royal Swedish Opera (Prompter cubby hole) 🙂

It was rather the more benevolent Fritz Busch who saved her from being finished at the ripe old age of 28. Recognizing her potential, Busch engaged her for the role of Lady Macbeth in 1947, a part whose difficulties are not so far removed from the big voice-killers that populated her career. One of the most important litmus tests for a successful Lady M is her final high D Flat, which on top of being cruelly exposed is required to be sung piano and held for a respectable length of time. Busch suggested that Nilsson merely mime the note, leaving the task to another singer standing in the wings. In fact, the singer cracked the note multiple times in rehearsal, leading Nilsson to point out that “I will be blamed if that note is cracked anyhow. Why not let me crack my own D Flat?” Suffice it to say, she essayed her own D Flat night after night, with nary a crack to be heard. It was from there that her career took wing, with Nilsson re-engaged at the Royal Opera by Blech a mere 12 months after she had been dumped by him. That house was to become an invaluable training ground, bearing witness to her first Leonores, Marschallins, Sieglindes, Donna Annas, Sentas and Toscas, all sung in Swedish.

Nilsson soon plunged headfirst into the world of Wagner, finding her powerful instrument uniquely suited to his demands. Her timbre, as the critic John Ardoin put it, “was sunlight reflected off a copper surface” – it could slice through a large orchestra “like a marble column from its lowest notes to the high C of its top register”. Allied with reserves of breath, superhuman stamina and a questioning intelligence, Nilsson was a rare creature indeed, her instrument of fire and ice also finding her a home in the works of Strauss and Puccini.

Her Vienna State Opera debut in the spring of 1954 proved a significant turning point. The word “demanding” does it little justice – Nilsson was made to guest four different roles within a period of nine days. “And that was not the worst,” she related in her memoir. “I was singing each role for the first time in its original language. In German, I was performing Elsa in Lohengrin, Leonore in Fidelio and Sieglinde in Walküre; in Italian, Aida. I was granted a musical run-through with piano with the various conductors, but the staging rehearsals were conspicuous by their absence.” (NB. That is still often the case at Vienna State Opera.)

Nilsson rose to the occasion, winning over both critics and audience alike. “I even received applause after Dich, teure Halle (unusual for this opera),” she noted. Fidelio had been dropped for Tannhäuser a few days after she touched down in Vienna, throwing yet another spanner in the works.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth (1960)

An Elsa at Bayreuth soon followed, and her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring at the Bavarian State Opera in 1955. She impressed enough to be invited by Karajan himself, now artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, to sing Brünnhilde in Walküre. His methods she found disconcerting – he wouldn’t hear of having vocal coaches in rehearsals, and would play recordings (not even his own) to save the singers’ voices while preparing the orchestra. “Karajan was not a one-on-one instructor, and he never discussed the interpretation of a role,” Nilsson later reported. “It was enough for him if you found the spotlight and reined in your acting.”

Once, when Karajan had sent Nilsson a detailed offer of all the roles, repertoire and periods of work for which he would need her, he received a two-word reply: “Busy. Birgit.” Nilsson had some respect for Karajan the conductor, less for him as theatre chief and fee payer, and absolutely none for his role as stage director and lighting designer. Hence the famous episode of her joke appearing on stage for a technical rehearsal of the Met’s Die Walküre wearing a miner’s hat with a built-in lamp.

While she was more or less an established star by the mid-1950s, Rudolf Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, remained unimpressed. He had ample opportunity to see her in action – her American debut had taken place in 1956 with San Francisco Opera; she had auditioned for him in Berlin; and he had seen her Salome in Munich. It was not until he heard her Isolde at the Vienna Opera in 1958 that a contract was forthcoming. “I was not mad,” Nilsson told the New Yorker in 1966. “I develop slowly. I was glad to come to the Metropolitan opera when my voice was better. But, if Mr Bing had hired me then, I might not have been so expensive.” 🙂

Birgit Nilsson in her Met debut as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, 1959

Isolde was the role with which she made her Met debut, and it was confirmed: Ms Nilsson, Swedish farm girl, was the real deal, the natural successor to the great Kirsten Flagstad, a star amongst stars at that illustrious house. The New York Times ran its review of the performance on the front page, with the headline “Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes Like New Star in ‘Met’ Heavens”. It was to be the first of 233 appearances by Nilsson at the Met spanning 16 roles. After winning an ovation that lasted 15 minutes, she proclaimed she still had enough breath of sing Turandot “right this minute”.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at The Met (1966)

“The Swedish soprano assumed one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation,” wrote Howard Taubman in the Times. “With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde’s fury and Isolde’s passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.”

The year 1959 was a bumper one for Nilsson, which saw her enter the studio for the first time under Decca’s wing to record excerpts from Tristan und Isolde with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. Coming into her prime as a dramatic soprano, the thrill of hearing a 41-year old Nilsson remains undimmed. Its majesty, molten power and innate authority is something to behold. Critic David Blum describes her voice in the Liebestod as seeming “to glide on waves and, in its ease and repose, to be transformed into liquid matter. Whether floating full-bodied at piano or riding the breakers with majesty and passion, it has the resplendence of an unblemished pearl, illuminated by a deep lustre at its core.”

No discussion of Nilsson’s career is quite complete without touching on the legendary Solti Ring. Nilsson’s name has become synonymous with the world’s first officially recorded studio Ring (for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti). The autobiography is always warm in her appreciation of Solti – who continued to be regular live colleague both at the Royal Opera House and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and her fellow singers. But she is critical of producer John Culshaw and the technical results of the Ring and Salome recordings.

But, the efforts of all involved notwithstanding, I have to admit I am not wholly satisfied with the Decca recordings. I have to agree with the music lovers and critics who say “the balance between the orchestra and the singers finds the singers at a great disadvantage.”

We were often covered by the enormous volume of the orchestra, far, far too often. Throughout, the orchestra was too loud. Of course, one should hear every instrument and the special effects—but not at the cost of hearing the singers! Perhaps the motto for the recordings was the comment attributed to Richard Strauss during an Elektra rehearsal: “Play louder, please. I can still hear the singers.” (Maybe the singers on that occasion were very bad?)

During the period of the loud orchestra and special effects, Salome was also recorded by Decca. On the album cover the producer, John Culshaw, is quoted as saying, “Never before has one been able to hear the triangle in a performance. Here for the first time you can hear this instrument.” I have nothing against the public’s hearing the triangle, but I ask myself whether the voice of Salome is not at least as important. It is always lovely to hear one’s voice praised but it is a bit disappointing to hear that the sound is better live than on the recording. Or worse: that the voice sounds better on some pirated recordings than on takes from the studio.

I had many discussions with John Culshaw and the sound engineer, Gordon Parry, about this. Mr. Parry explained that in the orchestra sat a hundred prima donnas who wished to be heard. I looked at him as sweetly as possible and said it was unlikely that Decca had told any orchestra member what they had told me, namely, that a Ring recording without Nilsson was unthinkable.

Possibly the Decca Boys were so taken with the idea of getting in all of the effects previously unheard that they temporarily forgot that opera is actually singing with orchestral accompaniment.

Later, in transferring the recording to CD, the balance was changed. Despite the hundred prima donnas, the opera was restored to its original form. I was very happy with the result, even though it took twenty-five years for my criticism to be validated.

Solti was responsible for many of her outstanding recordings – her wonderfully nuanced Brünnhilde sits alongside a single-minded Salome, a deranged Elektra and a magnificent Turandot. Nilsson found a way, as did the hundred prima donnas, of getting the best out of, and being lifted by, Solti’s sometimes manic vitality. To spend a few hours in their company is to encounter something profound.

By the late 50s and 60s, Nilsson’s success was such that even her father’s gruff, unimpressed exterior began to slip. At a performance of Tosca, he turned to the unsuspecting gentleman next to him, remarking, “don’t applaud her. She’s only my daughter.”

A heady time that would send many into a tailspin, her sense of humour held her in good stead. In preparation for her Met debut as Elektra, she worked closely with one of the house’s vocal coaches, Walter Taussig. Although she had made her debut as Elektra in Sweden in 1965 and had brought it to Vienna, as was her general practice with new roles, she remained nervous about bringing the part to the Met, never wanting to deliver less than her best. “If you make a big success in New York, it goes all over; if you make a big flop, it goes all over, too,” she explained.

Such anxieties seem to be overcome, as is demonstrated in a delightfully mischievous letter she sent to Taussig’s wife: “Dear Mrs Taussig, I have a confession to make. I have had a child with your husband. Her name is Elektra. I am quite sure she is his because nobody else could have given me this child.”

Nilsson never relinquished this so-called child until the very end of her career – her final ever performance was as Elektra in Frankfurt, 1982. “It was a great performance and I felt I was in my best form, as though it was the high point of my career,” she later said. Though to some her once penetrating voice had lost some of its lustre and earth-shattering power, the burning intensity and sheer presence of Nilsson was never in doubt.

In 1973, Birgit Nilsson made her first (and only) appearance in Australia for the first official public concert at the Sydney Opera House, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. Nilsson sang the celebrated aria Dich, teure Halle from act two of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Nilsson, 55 at the time, was at the height of her powers and her superlative performance remains one of the most spine-tingling moments in Australian music.

A decade after her retirement, she shared a line with a reporter from The New York Times that for her must have been something of a credo. “I’ve always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me: stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won’t hurt so much.”

Birgit Nilsson died in Västra Karup in 2005, the place where she was born.

Nilsson’s centennial is being celebrated on a suitably Wagnerian scale.

There is a new coffee-table book recounting her career. Not one but two lavish boxed sets of her recordings. A new documentary. And two days ago, the foundation she set up near the end of her life awarded the $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize — the richest in classical music — to the singer many consider her heir: Nina Stemme. The Birgit Nilsson Prize has been dubbed the Nobel Prize of music, and it is similarly given in recognition of achievements of the highest possible level. The prize can go to any orchestra, conductor or singer for ‘outstanding achievement in opera, concert, Lieder, or oratorio’.

Nina Stemme is the fourth recipient of the prize, following Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Nilsson herself decreed that the first prize, awarded in 2009, four years after her death, should go to Plácido Domingo. The choices of the previous prize-winners have come in for some criticism, but the prize is apparently resolutely apolitical, with any activities beyond the musical sphere discounted from the selection process. Hence Vienna Philharmonic’s shocking record in gender equality and cultural diversity didn’t disqualify the orchestra from winning the prize.

A decision was made early on that the prize should have no strings attached, and so far prize-winners have all used the money for their own worthwhile music related projects. Plácido Domingo funds a Birgit Nilsson prize in his Operalia competition with it, given to singers interpreting arias within the German Repertoire of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. Vienna Philharmonic has used the prize money to digitise their archive, while Riccardo Muti has apparently used the prize money for youth orchestra projects.

One of today’s most sought-after dramatic sopranos and long recognised as this generation’s Nilsson, Nina Stemme said she was deeply honoured to be receiving the Prize. “It is a great honour to be recognized for my work, but it is even greater to be recognized in my home country by a world-renowned organization that bears the name and carries the legacy of a legend… my idol Birgit Nilsson. As this is her centenary, receiving this award becomes a most humbling and extraordinary honour. I am very grateful to be connected with this great lady and to be in the company of Maestro Domingo, Maestro Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic, all of whom have previously received this extraordinary award.”

Brigit Nilsson also helped Nina Stemme early in her career, awarding her a scholarship in 1996. The Board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation for young singers continue to manage and award the Birgit Nilsson Scholarship.

Birgit Nilsson and Nina Stemme, 1996

Stemme will be formally presented with the Prize by King Carl XVI Gustaf this October at a ceremony held at the Royal Opera House in Sweden.

We saw Nina Stemme in the Ring at Vienna State Opera in 2009. She sang the role of Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in Siegfried.

Brünnhilde, which Nina Stemme first sang in 2008, is the ultimate test for the dramatic soprano – or, rather, the ultimate three tests, because Wagner presents a different Brünnhilde in each of the operas in which she appears – Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

The Siegfried Brünnhilde is the most lyrical of the three Brünnhildes, the end of Siegfried is Tristan-like in the passion of the love duet. Eva Johannsen sang the other two Brünnhildes but she was well and truly upstaged by Nina Stemme, whose luscious-voiced Brünnhilde followed an exquisitely melting Sieglinde.

Based on the article in the May issue of Limelight Magazine.

Science in the Soul

“I think it’s high time,” writes Richard Dawkins in the introduction to Science in the Soul, “the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a scientist.”

We agree. Dawkins doesn’t mean to imply that he might be one such deserving scientist. Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks and now Stephen Hawking are out of contention, but there’s Brian Greene, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Neil deGrasse Tyson, James Gleick, Michio Kaku and others…

The laureates for Literature have caused quite a stir at times. The Swedish Academy’s decision to bestow its distinguished literary award — and the accompanying $1.1 million prize — to Bob Dylan in 2016 unleashed a storm of criticism, with many arguing the American musician and songwriter did not deserve an award that was typically bestowed on novelists, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction. Dylan’s reluctant acknowledgement of the award and his decision to be absent at the official award ceremony only added fuel to the fire.

In this era of “alternative facts” and with science under siege, maybe it’s about time that a science writer was awarded the prize. But it’s not going to happen this year. The Swedish Academy is dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, financial malpractice and repeated leaks, and has announced earlier this month no Nobel prize for literature will be awarded this year.

If they were to head down the science path, just about the first person the Nobel organizers would bump into would be Richard Dawkins.

Debates about the most influential science book of all time habitually settle into a face-off between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But last year, a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society Science Book Prize returned a more recent winner: Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins took a decisive 18% of the vote, while Darwin was jostled into third place by Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in the Royal Society poll of more than 1,300 readers. As interesting as the votes on the 10 books shortlisted for contention was the often passionate championship of titles that were left off the list. They were dominated by physics and cosmology. Silly not to include David Deutsch, sniffed one of many, who cited a range of works by the Oxford-based quantum physicist. Carl Sagan’s “mind-blowing” 1980 TV tie-in Cosmos garnered a clutch of votes from fans who described it as life-changing.

A less inspiring picture emerges from a crunch of the ratio of recommendations by gender, unsurprisingly perhaps in the context of a prize that only had its first female winner – Gaia Vince – in 2015. Of 313 suggestions outside the shortlisted books, fewer than 20 were for books by women – but they win out on imaginative titles. Hats off to Elizabeth Royte for The Tapir’s Morning Bath and to Robin Wall Kinnear for Braiding Sweetgrass – and above all, to primatologist Jane Goodall, who summed it up in the five words of her 1971 title: In the Shadow of Man.

The top 10 most influential science books of all time – from the shortlist
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – 236 votes
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – 150 votes
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – 118 votes
The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White – 101 votes
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre – 88 votes
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh – 81 votes
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – 77 votes
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – 39 votes
Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes – 5 votes
The Science of Life by HG Wells, Julian Huxley and GP Wells – 4 votes

Out of this list, 6 authors are eligible for the Nobel Prize as they are still alive. And since the members of the Swedish Academy are busy infighting and have lost public confidence, maybe others should step up to the task.

It was in 1976 when Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.

The original book cover, illustrated by Desmond Morris.

The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.

This gene-centric view of evolution also began to explain one of the oddities of life on Earth – the behaviour of social insects. What is the point of a drone bee, doomed to remain childless and in the service of a totalitarian queen? Suddenly it made sense that, with the gene itself steering evolution, the fact that the drone shared its DNA with the queen meant that its servitude guarantees not the individual’s survival, but the endurance of the genes they share. Or as the Anglo-Indian biologist JBS Haldane put it: “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

These ideas were espoused by only a handful of scientists in the middle decades of the 20th century – notably Bob Trivers, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and George Williams. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins did not merely recapitulate them; he made an impassioned argument for the reality of natural selection. Previous attempts to explain the mechanics of evolution had been academic and rooted in maths. Dawkins walked us through it in prose. Many great popular science books followed – Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and, recently, The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

More books followed from Dawkins, including The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), which won the Royal Society of Literature Award in 1987, and River Out of Eden (1995). Dawkins particularly sought to address a growing misapprehension of what exactly Darwinian natural selection entailed in Climbing Mount Improbable (1996).

Though much of Dawkins’s oeuvre generated debate for asserting the supremacy of science over religion in explaining the world, nothing matched the response to the polemical The God Delusion (2006). The book relentlessly points out the logical fallacies in religious belief and ultimately concludes that the laws of probability preclude the existence of an omnipotent creator. Dawkins used the book as a platform to launch the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (2006), an organization that, in dual American and British incarnations, sought to foster the acceptance of atheism and championed scientific answers to existential questions. Along with fellow atheists Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett, he embarked on a campaign of lectures and public debates proselytizing and defending a secular worldview. Dawkins launched the Out Campaign in 2007 in order to urge atheists to publicly declare their beliefs.

In the memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (2013), Dawkins chronicled his life up to the publication of The Selfish Gene. A second volume of memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (2015), recorded episodes from the latter part of his career.

Dawkins’s prose is lucid and powerful, his arguments difficult to contend. Science in the Soul is Dawkins’ 14th book and contains the usual vivid explanations of Darwinism and kin selection, replicators and phenotypes, written in sentences that grab you by the throat. He is brilliant, as ever, at evoking a sense of wonder about nature – a fly’s compound eye, the waggle-dance of a honeybee – then showing how the scientific reality is infinitely more complex and beautiful than the appeal to the supernatural.

It is a shame that Dawkins is now perhaps better known for his irritable contempt for religion, since his true legacy is The Selfish Gene and its profound effect on multiple generations of scientists and lay readers.

Setting aside the response to his views on religion and politics, there have been plenty of attacks on the idea of the selfish gene. The Selfish Gene has been attacked variously by philosophers, comedians, vicars and journalists. Much of the enmity stems from people misunderstanding that selfishness is being used as a metaphor. The irony of these attacks is that the selfish gene metaphor actually explains altruism. We help others who are not directly related to us because we share similar versions of genes with them.

Richard Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century. He is erudite, considered in his statements and unapologetic in his insistence that facts, empirical evidence and reason take center stage. He received a standing ovation at the end of his talk and rightly so!

Consider this statement from Kurt Wise, who has a Ph.D. in paleontology and an M.A. in geology from Harvard University, and a B.A. Geology from the University of Chicago:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.

Here is someone who despite having the ability and knowledge to engage in critical thinking and think for himself, deliberately chooses not to. And admits it out loud!

A number of Stanford studies became famous for the contention that people can’t really think straight and reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t have any answers for how people can embrace critical thinking and empirical evidence and reason. But he most definitely does not use abusive language towards anyone, individual or group, and while some of his statements might make you cringe, well… the truth sometimes hurts. Criticism is not ‘abuse’. People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that’s still not abuse. And it is noticeable that many of the attacks on Dawkins are ill-tempered spats full of abusive language, while he remains calm and rational and backs up his arguments with evidence.

We don’t have the answers either, and it is quite likely that we have even less optimism than Dawkins that humanity as a whole will evolve to the next stage of overcoming the evolutionary and cultural conditioning to fully embrace facts, empirical evidence and reason.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias”, the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford.

Some cognitive scientists prefer the term “myside bias”. Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

An experiment performed by a group of cognitive scientists neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with.

This lopsidedness might reflect the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

And this social game has not changed much over centuries and millenia. The unwritten rules for success, failure, belonging, and other key attributes of people’s lives remain similar to the hunter-gatherer times. People need to fit in, to behave in ways that are acceptable to the groups to which they belong. What has changed are the toys people use in playing the game.

Little bears don’t suffer from the hunter-gatherer conditioning, they weren’t around then! 🙂

It says that the book is written by a passionate rationalist for other passionate rationalists…

That’s us!

The Curious Mr Feynman

Richard Feynman was a curious character.

He advertised as much in the subtitle of his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Everybody knew that, in many respects, Feynman was an oddball.

But he was curious in every other sense of the word as well. His curiosity about nature, about how the world works, led to a Nobel Prize in physics and a legendary reputation, both among physicists and the public at large.

Feynman was born 100 years ago May 11. It’s an anniversary inspiring much celebration in the physics world. Feynman was one of the last great physicist celebrities, universally acknowledged as a genius who stood out even from other geniuses.

Another Nobel laureate, Hans Bethe, a Cornell University physicist who worked with Feynman during World War II on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos (and later on the Cornell faculty) referred to Feynman as a magician. “Normal” geniuses, Bethe said, did things much better than other people but you could figure out how they did it. And then there were magicians. “Feynman was a magician. I could not imagine how he got his ideas,” Bethe said. “He was a phenomenon. Feynman certainly was the most original physicist I have seen in my life, and I have seen lots of them.”

Feynman was a master conjuror of physics. A mathematical whizz with exceptional intuition, he seemed to pull solutions out of thin air. He crafted a lexicon for particle interactions: iconic squiggles, loops and lines now known as Feynman diagrams. His Nobel-prizewinning work on quantum electrodynamics included methods that even he saw as a sleight-of-hand for removing infinite terms from calculations. Yet, his results — equivalent to more systematic, rigorously expounded mathematical techniques independently proposed by co-laureates Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga — matched atomic-physics data beautifully.

Apart from his brilliance as a physicist, Feynman was also known for his skill at playing the bongo drums and cracking safes. Public acclaim came after he served on the presidential commission investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. In a dramatic moment during a hearing about that disaster, he dipped material from an O-ring (a crucial seal on the shuttle’s rockets) into icy water, demonstrating that an O-ring would not have remained flexible at the launch-time temperature.

His autobiography had already become a best seller, so Feynman was well-known when he died in February 1988.

John Wheeler, Feynman’s doctoral adviser at Princeton University before World War II said then “I felt very lucky to have him as my graduate student. “There was an immense vitality about Feynman. He was interested in all kinds of problems.”

Feynman’s curiosity was not satisfied merely by being told the solution to a problem, though.

“If you said you had the answer to something, he wouldn’t let you tell it,” Wheeler said. “He had to stand on his head and pace up and down and figure out the answer for himself. It was his way of keeping the ability to make headway into brand new frontiers.”

Feynman found fascination in all sorts of things, some profound, some trivial. In his autobiography, he revealed that he spent a lot of time analyzing ant trails. He sometimes entertained Wheeler’s children by tossing tin cans into the air and then explaining how the way the can turned revealed whether the contents were solid or liquid.

Curiosity of that type was instrumental in the work that led to his Nobel Prize. While eating in the Cornell cafeteria, Feynman noticed someone tossing a plate, kind of like a Frisbee. As the plate flew by, Feynman noticed that the Cornell medallion on the plate was rotating more rapidly than the plate was wobbling. He performed some calculations and showed that the medallion’s rotation rate should be precisely twice the rate of the wobbling. He then perceived an analogy to a problem he had been investigating relating to the motion of electrons. The wobbling plate turned out to provide the clue he needed to develop a new version of the theory of quantum electrodynamics.

“The whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate,” he wrote in his autobiography.

It was not curiosity alone that made Feynman a legend. His approach to physics and life incorporated a willful disdain for authority. He regularly disregarded bureaucratic rules, ignored expert opinion and was willing to fearlessly criticize the most eminent of other scientists.

During his time at Los Alamos, for instance, he encountered Niels Bohr, the foremost atomic physicist of the era. Other physicists held Bohr in awe. “Even to the big shot guys,” Feynman recalled, “Bohr was a great god.” During a meeting in which the “big shots” deferred to Bohr, Feynman kept pestering him with questions. Before the next meeting, Bohr called Feynman in to talk without the big shots. Bohr’s son (and assistant) later explained why. “He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea,” Niels had said to his son. “So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”

Feynman knew that he sometimes made mistakes. Once he foolishly even read some papers by experts that turned out to be wrong, retarding his work on understanding the form of radioactivity known as beta decay. He vowed never to make the mistake of listening to “experts” again.

“Of course,” he ended one chapter of his autobiography, “you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that’s the end of you.”

Feynman’s books urge us to explore the world with open-minded inquisitiveness, as if encountering it for the first time. He worked from the idea that all of us could aspire to take the same mental leaps as him. But, of course, not every ambitious young magician can be a Harry Houdini. Whereas other educators might try to coddle those who couldn’t keep up, Feynman never relented. The essence of his philosophy was to find something that you can do well, and put your heart and soul into it. If not physics, then another passion — bongos, perhaps.

Original stories on Science News and Nature.

On the Art Gallery Trail in Florence – Uffizi Gallery

No city other than Florence contains such an intense concentration of art produced in such a short span of time: from the 1300s through the 1500s. The sheer number and proximity of works of painting, sculpture and architecture in Florence can cause visitors who try to see them all to experience an artistic overload labeled in the 1980s by Italian medical researchers as Stendhal’s Syndrome.

Named after the 19th century French author who first described it, the malady consists of symptoms such as dizziness, panic, confusion, fainting and overwhelming exhaustion caused by trying to see too many works of art in too short a time. Although this may sound like a joke, Florentine hospitals treat hundreds of visitors each year for these symptoms. A visit to Florence, whether brief or extended, should be enjoyable, exciting and inspiring, not bewildering and exhausting.

That means you don’t visit Florence (or any other city) with an obligation to see everything and you have an idea of which works of art to see, along with some information about them. You can confine yourself to the greatest works of the period or you can consider other works that you find interesting and worthwhile but not necessarily Masterpieces. That way you can successfully navigate the chosen museums, as well as the city’s streets and piazzas, churches and palazzos. We also alternate, one day of art, one day of shopping… 🙂

The Uffizi Galleries are immense and trying to see everything in them is a formula for utter exhaustion and a possible case of Stendhal’s Syndrome. But they are on the must-do list for Florence.

Aside from its status as a museum, one of the oldest and most renowned in Europe, the Uffizi is also among the architectural masterworks of Renaissance Florence. The name Uffizi comes from the Italian word uffici, which means “offices” and refers to the building’s original purpose. Commissioned in 1560 by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici to gather under one roof all the numerous tribunals, archives, and magistrates’ offices of the ducal administration, and thus to concentrate power near the Palazzo della Signoria, it was built from a design of Giorgio Vasari.

But the origins of the Uffizi go back to 1546, when Cosimo initiated an ambitious plan to transform the neighborhood. He had a long straight street cut through the crowded district between the Palazzo della Signoria, a portion of which he had recently adapted for his living quarters, and the Arno River. The original plan approved by Cosimo called for a building that would have eliminated, among other structures, one of the most important buildings associated with the medieval Florentine government: the Loggia dei Lanzi, or Loggia della Signoria, as it was known at that time.

Just before construction was to begin, Cosimo changed his mind and rejected the plan, having decided to spare as much of the surrounding neighborhood as possible, preserving not only the Loggia della Signoria but also the Mint and the ancient church of S. Pier Scheraggio. He called on Vasari to come up with a new design. Although better known in his own time as a painter, and in ours as the first biographer of Italian artists, Vasari produced a handsome, original plan, creating a narrow U-shaped four-story structure with two long wings that extend from the Piazza della Signoria all the way to the Arno River, linked at the far end by a short façade that faces the river, with a corridor above and a triple archway on ground level. The courtyard is not a yard at all but preserves Cosimo’s street between the two wings. The wings remain open on the short side that connects the building with the Piazza della Signoria.

Vasari’s plan didn’t require as much demolition and expropriation of property as the previous plan, and it better integrated the Uffizi into its urban context. Cosimo was perfectly capable of being autocratic, but he was also a shrewd enough politician to know when it was important to show respect for the city’s traditions. By preserving buildings closely associated with the Florentine republic of past centuries, he could demonstrate that he honored the city’s communal heritage. The new building would embody the general welfare of the state and not merely Cosimo’s own convenience in having his uffici next door to his residence.

From the start, Duke Cosimo planned to use the piano nobile, one floor above ground level, for the display of important works from the Medici art collections, a project carried out by his son and successor, Duke Francesco. Over the years, other parts of the building also became display spaces for works commissioned or collected by the Medici. When the dynasty died out in the 18th century, the last Medici heiress willed the family’s treasures in the Uffizi to Florence, in perpetuity, thereby founding one of the first modern museums. It opened to the public in 1765.

Today, the uffici of the vanished ducal regime are long gone, and the entire, vast building is devoted to the display, storage, and conservation of art. The Uffizi owns thousands of works of art, most — although not all — of them collected by generations of the Medici family. Its holdings include not only panel paintings, in particular those created during the Italian Renaissance, but also a variety of sculptures and many frescoed ceilings.

Beginning in the 1300s, Florence was part of an international mercantile and banking network that led to all kinds of cultural exchanges, which eventually enriched the collections of the Uffizi. A Medici bank representative in Bruges sent home to Florence one of the greatest works of 15th century Flemish painting, the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which several centuries later found its way to the Uffizi. Gifts from diplomats and prelates courting Medici favor, the dowries of Medici brides, and inheritances from both Italian and international marriages of the Medici dukes enlarged the collections still further. Duke Ferdinand II (1621–1670), for example, inherited Titian’s Venus of Urbino from his wife, Vittoria della Rovere, a member of the ducal family of Urbino.

So much art, too little time! Although the Uffizi contains one of the greatest art collections in the world, going through it can sometimes seem like an attempt to consume at one sitting an Italian meal with an infinite number of courses. Just to look at — never mind appreciate — such an enormous amount of art in a single visit is impossible. But there are ways to survive the Uffizi without developing a case of aesthetic indigestion.

The secret is to be selective. Don’t try to see, or even glance at, everything. There are many works of great interest, and you should feel free to look at any that engage your interest.

During the Florentine Renaissance, art was not something separate from life, on display merely to be admired. It was a part of people’s lives, bound up with both their public and their private experiences. Uccello’s Battle of San Romano Paolo provides a perfect example to highlight how politics, sex and religion informed art during this period.

Battle of San Romano (1435-1440 ca)
Paolo Uccello (Pratovecchio, Arezzo 1397-1475)
Uffizi Gallery

Uccello’s Battle of San Romano bears no resemblance to the bloody reality of an actual battle — it looks more like the illustration of a fairy tale or a decorative tapestry. Known for preferring the study of perspective to sex (he’s supposed to have rejected his wife’s suggestion that he come to bed in favor of consorting with his “sweet mistress”, perspective), the artist here indulged his peculiar passion to the point of obsession. But there’s more to the Battle of San Romano than is evident at first glance. Embedded in this seemingly fantastic work — where armor and headdresses are ceremonial, combatants’ splintered lances fall precisely on the lines of the perspective grid, and horses’ bodies form segments of perfect circles — are fragments of actual history, and a political significance powerful enough that struggles for possession of the painting were almost as fierce as the battle it portrays.

Battle of San Romano (1435-1440 ca)
Paolo Uccello (Pratovecchio, Arezzo 1397-1475)
Louvre, Paris
Battle of San Romano (1435-1440 ca)
Paolo Uccello (Pratovecchio, Arezzo 1397-1475)
National Gallery London

The panel in the Uffizi, signed by the artist, is one of a set of three; the other two are in the Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery, London. Although they don’t form a continuous visual narrative, they were created as an ensemble. All three show incidents from the battle of San Romano, which took place on June 1, 1432, when the Florentine forces confronted the Sienese. For many years scholars assumed that Cosimo de’ Medici had commissioned the paintings, since the hero of the event is the condottiere Niccolò da Tolentino who was a friend and ally of Cosimo. Furthermore, the paintings appear in the inventory of the contents of Palazzo Medici, compiled after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico in 1492, and they were hung in an impressive ground-floor room used by Lorenzo to conduct state business. Although these factors were long assumed to be conclusive evidence of a Medici commission, new material brought to light in 2001 proves that the works were instead commissioned by a Medici supporter in Florence, Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, probably in the late 1430s. They came into the possession of Lorenzo de’ Medici only around 1484.

The actual battle of San Romano was still recent history at the time Uccello received the commission. It was part of a larger ongoing struggle between Florence on one side and Lucca along with its allies Siena and Milan on the other, a struggle in which Lionardo Salimbeni played a part. Although he’d enjoyed a modestly successful political career in Florence, his highest achievement was his membership on the city’s ten-man war council (dieci di balia), the body that oversaw the war that included the battle of San Romano. Commemoration of the Florentine victory would have provided an obvious motivation for commissioning the paintings.

Another series of events also occurred in the mid- to late 1430s that may have further increased Lionardo Salimbeni’s interest in the battle. In 1433, Cosimo de’ Medici helped negotiate an end to the war with Lucca, a war that had cost Florence an enormous amount of money while fomenting a lot of civic unrest and bringing little in the way of territory. Shortly after the truce, Cosimo’s enemies, led by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, succeeded in having Cosimo arrested and later exiled. Cosimo was accused of paying Niccolò da Tolentino and his soldiers in order to set himself up as a tyrant rather than to serve the republic. The Albizzi regime, distrustful of Tolentino because of his Medici connections, sent the condottiere off to fight in support of Bologna against Milan, apparently hoping he might be killed in combat. Instead, his troops lost the battle and Tolentino was captured by the Milanese. In Florence, the defeat caused an uproar and strong criticism of the Albizzi regime. Voices began calling for the return of Cosimo de’ Medici.

In 1434 Cosimo returned from exile, and he quickly consolidated his power as the behind-the-scenes ruler of Florence. In 1435 Niccolò da Tolentino died while a prisoner of the Milanese. At the request of the Florentine government, Milan returned his body to Florence for burial, but the Medici-dominated government did more than just inter Tolentino — they gave him an elaborate funeral, buried him in the cathedral, and some years later sponsored a painted monument there to his memory. Perhaps Salimbeni concluded that a series of paintings of the battle of San Romano that showed Tolentino as its hero would be a reminder of a glorious moment in a conflict that had included all too few such moments. It would be a fitting episode to decorate his newly renovated home (he had just remarried), since it would both commemorate his own part in the victory and advertise his support for the now firmly established regime of Cosimo de’ Medici.

It’s not easy to figure out the relationship between Uccello’s panels and the actual battle, since what took place on the battlefield is no longer clear, and Uccello hardly qualifies as an objective illustrator. The artist relied on written (and possibly oral) reports on what had taken place and then used his imagination to fill in the details. Several contemporary chroniclers left descriptions of the battle that vary widely, depending on the writer’s biases. One, who disliked the Medici, described Tolentino as “foolhardy” and claimed that when the battle went against him the craven condottiere burst into tears and had to be rescued by his co-commander. Another writer, Neri di Gino Capponi, cast Tolentino as the hero of the battle, although his account may be colored by his having been one of the Medici supporters who had hired Tolentino. Matteo Palmieri, also a Medici partisan, penned a fuller account shortly after the battle took place. He describes it in some detail and praises Tolentino for both bravery and strategic skill, making him the individual most responsible for the Florentine victory — which was announced in Florence that same day, when according to Palmieri, “a holiday was celebrated and the exultation of the common people was beyond measure.” Palmieri’s account may have provided Uccello with some of the details that appear in his paintings. For their part, the Sienese claimed they hadn’t done too badly in the encounter, and they refused to concede a Florentine victory.

The Florentine government, though, clearly considered Tolentino’s exploits a victory worth celebrating. A year later, in 1433, when we might think that interest in this less than crucial battle had faded, the distinguished Florentine scholar and political leader Leonardo Bruni delivered an oration. Speaking in Tuscan rather than Latin, so everybody could understand him, Bruni delivered his speech in the Piazza della Signoria in the presence of government officials, ordinary citizens, and the guest of honor himself, Niccolò da Tolentino. He praised Tolentino in glowing terms for his service to Florence, comparing him to the great ancient Roman generals, the highest compliment the scholarly Bruni could offer. Bruni hailed Tolentino as the defender of Florence’s liberties against the duke of Milan. The Sienese, against whom Tolentino was fighting, were allies of the Milanese and so, by extension, Tolentino was defending democratic, republican Florence against the aristocratic tyranny of Milan.

It appears that the Medici looked very positively on all this glorification of Tolentino’s defense of the republic. Beginning with Cosimo, the 15th century Medici rulers of Florence were eager to associate themselves with the republic, so it’s clear that Cosimo must have approved of casting his friend and ally Niccolò da Tolentino as a republican hero. Given Tolentino’s subsequent death at the hands of the Milanese, which occurred after Cosimo’s brief exile and triumphant return to Florence, Cosimo may have been willing to see the condottiere considered a martyr in the cause of Florentine liberty. With this in mind, Lionardo Salimbeni’s multiple motivations for commissioning Uccello’s series of paintings become clearer — he could please himself with some handsome additions to his home while also pleasing the most powerful man in Florence by making a hero of the man they’d both been involved in hiring to defend the liberties of Florence.

The panel in London shows Niccolò da Tolentino launching an attack on the enemy; the Louvre panel displays the arrival of Tolentino’s co-commander Michelotto da Cotignola, and the Uffizi episode shows the unhorsing of a figure usually identified as Bernardino della Ciarda, the condottiere who had defected from Florence and who now led the Sienese troops. According to contemporary chronicles, though, this incident never took place, since della Ciarda prudently kept his distance from the field of battle. Perhaps the figure represents the defeated enemy, in general, rather than any identifiable individual. The warrior’s white horse rears at the center of the composition, with a Florentine lance thrusting the darkly armored rider from the saddle. Other horses fall about, turn away, or fling up their rear legs, their abdomens and hindquarters forming those segments of circles so beloved by Uccello.

If the central figure in the Uffizi panel really does represent della Ciarda being unhorsed, it would be a fitting counterpart to the more faithful condottieri, Niccolò da Tolentino and Michelotto da Cotignola, celebrated in the other two panels. In the open countryside in the background a dog chases rabbits that flee in all directions—a mocking and easily understandable reference to the defeated enemy and a further reason to conclude that the unhorsed warrior may represent della Ciarda, the leader of those scattered Sienese forces, no matter whether he was actually present during the battle.

How Lorenzo il Magnifico got hold of these paintings in the 1480s is not a pretty story, but it offers a rare glimpse of the ruler of Florence using something close to brute force to acquire certain works of art. After Lionardo Salimbeni’s death in 1479, his sons launched complex efforts to claim parts of his estate, but the issues became so contentious they consumed several years without any resolution. Finally, family members called upon the head of the Medici family, Lorenzo il Magnifico, to act as the principal executor and to settle the problems — not an unusual request, and one of many similar ones addressed to Lorenzo, who had a reputation for fairness in such matters.

The Salimbeni heirs must have been rudely surprised by Lorenzo’s behavior in this case, however. As Il Magnifico looked over their inheritance, he expressed a strong interest in acquiring Lionardo Salimbeni’s three panels of the Battle of San Romano by Uccello, probably because of their connection with the Medici family through Cosimo’s sponsorship of Niccolò da Tolentino. Lorenzo may already have been familiar with the paintings, since the Medici had enjoyed the Salimbeni family’s hospitality in the past. Lorenzo “persuaded” one of the Salimbeni heirs, an employee of the Medici bank in Milan, to give him the portion of the series he’d inherited (the man was no doubt afraid of losing his job if he refused), but when Lorenzo encountered resistance from the owners of the rest of the series, he resorted to an uncharacteristically open display of power. He sent a group of his own workmen to the Salimbeni’s Florentine palazzo where, in the dead of night, they forcibly removed the remainder of the large paintings (each 1.8m feet high by 3.2m
wide) and carried them to Palazzo Medici. One suspects the men involved in this act of artistic piracy were not your average servants but, rather, strong-arm types hired for the occasion, as they were led by a well-known and presumably burly woodworker named Francione (Big Frank), whose job it must have been to pry the paintings out of their settings without damaging them.

What could Salimbeni’s sons do when the ruler of Florence walked off with a portion of their inheritance? Nothing, as it turned out, at least not while Lorenzo was alive. After 1483 the panels disappear from the Salimbeni inventories, so we assume that 1484 was the year they entered the Medici collections. The fact that no one in the Salimbeni family made any attempt to reclaim the panels until after the Medici had been exiled in 1494 is a clear indication of Lorenzo’s enduring power. The Salimbeni were part of the patronage network maintained by the Medici, and they knew better than to defy their padrone and his family.

One obvious reason that Lorenzo was so eager to acquire Uccello’s Battle of San Romano series is that the paintings represented a historic military victory closely associated with his own family; his grandfather Cosimo had been a key figure in both the financing and the planning of the war during which the battle took place, and its hero, Niccolò da Tolentino, had been a close associate of Cosimo’s. Furthermore, the large ground-floor room where Il Magnifico displayed the paintings originally had been used by Cosimo as a place to conduct the group meetings and one-on-one encounters where the real economic and political business of Florence took place.

Lorenzo used the room for similar though not identical purposes. It was there that he welcomed foreign dignitaries into his home. Although he sometimes kept his fellow Florentines waiting for hours in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, important foreigners — diplomats and rulers from Italian states and abroad — gained quick admittance to this politically potent room adorned with scenes of hunts and battles. In a grand room, surrounded by the artistic achievements of Florentine artists and with Uccello’s imposing panels reminding those who entered of Florentine military prowess (more fiction than fact), Lorenzo could present himself to his foreign visitors as a ruler whose political power equaled that of any prince.

Adoration of the Magi (1475–1476 ca)
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One way an affluent man could repay the Medici for favours granted was through flattering portrayals of leading members of the family in a work of art, and this was the route taken by an otherwise obscure individual named Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama. Around 1475 he hired Botticelli to paint an Adoration of the Magi that later decorated his funerary chapel in S. Maria Novella. The panel is a small but beautifully realized work that contains an intriguing collection of portraits. Along with del Lama himself, there’s an assertive self-portrait of the artist, as well as several portraits of Medici family members.

The dispensing of patronage — in the form of political favors, financial assistance, business advantages, employment opportunities, professional advancement, dowry funds and marriage negotiations, written recommendations, or just a word dropped into the right ears — was a cottage industry for members of the Medici family, and the dense network of people indebted to them was among the family’s principal sources of power. In return for their efforts, the Medici received the personal gratitude and political support of those they assisted. Although we don’t know what help the Medici gave del Lama, a man of humble origins (his father was a barber) and a somewhat shady reputation, we know he somehow became a successful broker and a fellow member with the Medici of the Guild of Money Changers and Bankers. Why del Lama chose to include Cosimo de’ Medici and his two sons Piero and Giovanni, who were all dead by the time the work was painted, is uncertain. Perhaps those elders had given del Lama the assistance that enabled his financial success. Clearly, del Lama wanted to make sure the Medici knew how grateful he was, and he no doubt intended his tribute as a way of assuring continued good relations with Florence’s most powerful family.

Although the painting measures ‘only’ 1m by 1.7m, it was a perfect size for del Lama’s small chapel, long ago destroyed, which was squeezed in against the inner wall of the church of S. Maria Novella, to the right of the main door. Several factors explain the subject chosen. The del Lama chapel was dedicated to the Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi) because the patron’s name, Guaspare, is an Italian form of Caspar, one of the Three Magi. But there’s another and equally important reason for the choice of subject: it was a favorite of the Medici family. The story of the Magi decorates one of Cosimo de’ Medici’s private cells at the monastery of San Marco as well as the Medici Palace chapel, and male members of the family were active in the prestigious Company of the Magi, one of Florence’s major religious confraternities.

In his biography of Botticelli, Vasari mentions the existence of three Medici portraits in del Lama’s Adoration of the Magi. He identifies the elder Magus, who tenderly kisses the Child’s foot, as a portrait of Cosimo (d. 1464) and, kneeling on the right in the guise of the youngest Magus, Cosimo’s younger son, Giovanni, who died in 1463. But Vasari misidentified the middle-aged Magus, in red at the lower center of the scene, claiming the figure is a portrait of “Giuliano de’ Medici, the father of Pope Clement VII.” That’s impossible, as Giuliano was barely twenty years old at the time the work was painted. The middle-aged Magus is more likely a portrait of Cosimo’s older son, Piero, who died in 1469.

Even if we assume these are posthumous tributes to Medici family members who had helped del Lama, it still seems odd that Vasari, having misidentified the middle-aged Magus as Giuliano de’ Medici, made no mention of any portrayal in the painting of Giuliano’s older brother, Lorenzo, the head of the family and the ruler of Florence in 1475. We might expect that Lorenzo would have a prominent place in a composition where the Medici have literally become the Magi.

The absence of any mention by Vasari of Lorenzo and his mistaken identification of Giuliano has not stopped modern scholars from speculating on which figures among the spectators might be correctly identified as Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, although there’s little agreement on which figure represents which brother. Several scholars identify the cocky youth portrayed leaning on his sword in the extreme left foreground as Lorenzo; another claims Lorenzo is the serious-faced man portrayed in profile, third in on the right, wrapped in a long, pale-blue robe trimmed with gold and staring raptly at the Virgin and Child. Giuliano is sometimes thought to be the young man in red and black, shown at half length and in profile on the right, just next to the kneeling Magus identified by Vasari as a portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici.

Another (better?) guess is that Lorenzo may be the more mature man in black and red who remains modestly to one side, among the group on the right but a little apart from them, with his head slightly bowed and his eyes lowered, his profile silhouetted against the wall behind him. Without in any way spotlighting him, the space around the man’s head subtly draws attention to him. His dark skin and jet-black hair accord well with contemporary descriptions of Lorenzo. The plant growing out of the wall near him is sometimes identified as laurel (lauro in Italian), a play on the name Lorenzo that also appears in the poetry of the Medici circle. If informed of del Lama’s artistic plans, which he probably was, Lorenzo may have asked not to be displayed too prominently. Such calculated modesty, no doubt learned from his grandfather Cosimo, would have made good sense in the mid-1470s, when Lorenzo was still learning his role as head of the family and behind-the-scenes head of state.

A further reason to identify this figure as Lorenzo is the presence, just behind him and to the right, of an elderly man with white hair who gazes out at the viewer and points to himself. This is most likely Guaspare del Lama, who was well into his sixties when he commissioned the work. If Guaspare aspired to remain in the good graces of the Medici, what better way of demonstrating his continuing loyalty than by having himself shown right next to the current head of the Medici family?

We might suspect that Guaspare was a bit startled, though, when the painting was delivered to him, and he noticed the bulky blond man in a gold-colored cloak on the far right, who stares arrogantly outward, a pendant to the aristocratic-looking youth with a sword on the left side. Although Vasari says nothing about it, the figure is usually taken to be Botticelli’s self-portrait. Even though it’s not common to find the painter shown more prominently than his patron, perhaps Guaspare was practicing some Medicean modesty.

Despite the emphasis on portraiture in the scene, Botticelli never forgot that he was portraying a religious subject. The elevated setting for the Holy Family emphasizes their difference from the ordinary mortals around them and replicates the position of the altarpiece itself, which would have been positioned above the altar of del Lama’s chapel. The event takes place in a shed constructed on an outcropping of rock, with ruined masonry on the right and the weedy remains of an ancient Roman arcade in the left background. Crumbling classical architecture was a traditional symbol of the old pagan order shortly to be replaced by Christianity. A hole in the roof allows the gold rays of the star of Bethlehem to enter the shed and fall on the Christ Child.

Vasari comments at some length on Botticelli’s portrayal of the oldest Magus, noting the deep emotion displayed by the elderly man “as he kisses the foot of Our Lord with wonderful tenderness and conveys his sense of relief at having come to the end of his long journey.” The elder Magus does not hold the Child’s foot directly in his hands but has covered both of Christ’s feet with a veil that drapes around his own shoulders, an action imitating that of a priest at the benediction of the Sacrament, when he covers his hands with a veil to hold up by its foot the vessel, called a monstrance, that contains the Eucharist, the body of Christ, for the adoration of the faithful. Cosimo de’ Medici, whose portrait Vasari identifies in the person of the old Magus, was one of the rare laymen granted papal permission to keep a consecrated host in his chapel, an indication not merely of Cosimo’s piety but of his power and exceptional status in the Florentine community. Along with the other presumed portraits of the Medici family, the identification of the eldest Magus with Cosimo can be seen as an instance of religious imagery that reinforces both the impression of Cosimo’s deep piety and the reality of Medici political power.

Primavera (1482 ca)
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

“Venus, that is to say, Humanitas, is a nymph of excellent beauty, born of heaven and beloved by God. Her soul and mind are Love and Charity, her eyes Dignity and Generosity; her hands Liberality and Magnificence; her feet Comeliness and Modesty. Her whole form is Temperance and Honesty, Charm and Splendor. My dear Lorenzo, a nymph of such nobility has been wholly given into your hands! If you were to marry her and claim her as your own, she would make sweet all the years of your life.”—Letter of Marsilio Ficino to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, ca. 1477
“[T]his enchanted world, permeated by mute music, silent song.” — Paul Barolsky, 2000

When the distinguished Florentine intellectual Marsilio Ficino penned a letter to his fourteen-year-old pupil Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, he wasn’t advising the young man about his love life but, rather, urging on him the study of philosophy. By identifying the Humanities with the goddess of erotic love, perhaps he hoped to make studying more attractive to the boy, as well as showing him the value of humanitas, the sum of all the fine qualities most valued in a Renaissance gentleman. Ficino personified this abstract concept through Venus, with each part of her body standing for a virtue that his pupil should strive to attain.

About five years later, in 1482, someone — we still are not certain who — gave Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco an extraordinary wedding gift, which at times has been interpreted in terms of Ficino’s letter as the world’s most beautiful painted philosophy lesson: Botticelli’s Primavera, or Springtime. Today, though, the belief that the painting is merely the visual equivalent of Ficino’s letter is no longer accepted; instead, art historians regard the work as both a poetic and sensual dreamworld and a complex symbolic statement that reveals different levels of meaning to different viewers. Nevertheless, disagreement persists about how the painting should be understood. Scholars have cited a variety of possible sources for its imagery, ranging from rarified intellectual texts to poetry, marriage manuals, and popular pamphlets on astrology. There’s no doubt that the painting is rich in literary, familial, political, sexual, religious, and mythic associations, but as one present-day scholar commented wryly, the painting “has been affected by an obvious crisis of over-explanation”. None of the evidence is definitive — the painting may simply celebrate marriage, in general, and its importance for family continuity rather than any one particular marriage.

Arguments also continue about who commissioned the work, for what purpose, and at what precise date, although a good case can be made that the painting was commissioned around 1480 by Lorenzo il Magnifico as a wedding gift for his young second cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, an orphan who had grown up surrounded by art and classical culture in the home of Il Magnifico. We know that the elder Lorenzo arranged the marriage of his youthful ward, and that his reasons were political. The bride, Semiramide degli Appiani, was the sister of Jacopo IV degli Appiani, the lord of Piombino and Elba, and the Medici needed the military and economic support of the Appiani family. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, though still in his teens, was the only available Medici bachelor who’d reached a minimum age for marriage; in the early 1480s the male children of Lorenzo the Magnificent were still too young. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco appears to have been less than pleased by the arrangements made on his behalf, and he professed indifference to his upcoming nuptials, so the gift of such an extraordinary painting by a favorite Medici artist may have been part of the elder Lorenzo’s efforts to placate the young man.

Visitors to the Uffizi are often spellbound by the beauty of the Primavera but mystified by its enigmatic content. The individual figures and groups of figures have no apparent relationship to one another. Although reading the painting from left to right as if it were a written text enables us to identify the figures, all from classical mythology, this fails to produce a coherent narrative. On the far left is the god Mercury, clad in a rose-red cloak and recognizable by his winged sandals and caduceus (a staff intertwined with serpents), which he holds in his right hand and uses to dispel clouds that might disturb the painting’s idyllic atmosphere. Next to him the Three Graces, classical embodiments of beauty, perform a sinuous dance, their long blonde hair and gauzy white garments rippling around them.

At the center stands a modestly clothed Christianized Venus, whose rose-red cloak echoes the color of Mercury’s garb, reminding us of the connection between those two planetary deities. We might mistake Venus for the Virgin Mary rather than the goddess of sexual love but for the presence of the winged and blindfolded Cupid who hovers above her, aiming his fire-tipped arrow at one of the Graces. Although Cupid’s paternity remains uncertain, in some versions of the ancient myth he was the child of Venus’s affair with Mercury. On the right side is the only real narrative: the wind god Zephyr, puff-cheeked and blue-skinned, pursues the nymph Chloris, from whose mouth issues a stream of flowers as she is transformed into Flora, or Primavera, the flower-bedecked personification of Spring. The exquisite figures inhabit a lush, shadowy garden where dark green trees laden with oranges form a backdrop, and flowers carpet the grassy meadow.

The work abounds in painted images that most likely refer to the Medici family. The round golden fruit would have suggested to fifteenth-century Florentines the well-known family emblem of the Medici: the palle, six red or gold balls on a shield. Around the figure of Zephyr the orange trees give way to laurel, lauro in Italian and traditionally in the Medici family a reference to the name Lorenzo. Among his activities in classical myths, Mercury bore a special responsibility for doctors; the Italian name Medici means doctors, and the god’s serpent staff is still the symbol of the medical profession.

The myth of Zephyr and Chloris, Greek in origin, comes to us from the Roman poet Ovid, who describes the month of May by telling the story of Flora, whose feast the ancient Romans celebrated in early May. Ovid relates how Zephyr, the west wind, pursued Chloris, the nymph of fields, and how, at his touch, she was transformed into the far more splendid Flora. After capturing her, Zephyr raped her, but eventually he regretted his lustful excess and married her, making Flora the mistress of flowers and the patroness of springtime. There can be little doubt that Botticelli illustrates this story on the right side of his painting. The flowers streaming from the mouth of Chloris blend into the flower-embroidered dress of Flora, which in turn melts into the flowers of the meadow, creating an almost cinematic sequence, an imaginative visual translation of a verbal description.

But what relationship exists between this ancient nature myth and the rest of the painting? Poetry and philosophy from the Medici circle in Florence may offer some clues, but they don’t provide a definitive explanation. Many of the poems composed by Lorenzo the Magnificent and his friend Angelo Poliziano evoke the gods and spirits of the ancient world, and they abound in evocations of springtime and love. We don’t need to assume that Botticelli read Ovid in the Latin original, since either Lorenzo or Poliziano could have suggested Ovid’s story as a starting point for Botticelli’s images, perhaps along with handing over copies of their own poems. But it’s also possible that the artist never intended to illustrate a narrative — the painting can be seen as a series of loosely connected poetic “stanzas” about springtime that don’t produce a continuous story line. Botticelli was a creative spirit, a visual poet, who possessed an unparalleled ability to transform words and ideas into unforgettable painted images.

The philosopher Ficino interpreted Venus as Love in its broadest sense — as that which both gives physical life and has the power to soar beyond the senses, into the realm of the intellect and the spirit. Although Ovid doesn’t mention Venus or Mercury in his telling of the Primavera story, the goddess of love was associated with spring because she presided over growth, flowering, and fertility. In ancient Greek art Mercury often appears as the leader of the Graces, a connection that survived into the fifteenth century. Even though the figure of Flora-Primavera has given her name to the painting, the central placement of Venus, the halo-like circle of light that surrounds her head, her hand gesture of regal invitation, and her gaze directed at the viewer all suggest that she may hold the key to the work, welcoming the viewer into her magical springtime garden.

The resemblance of Botticelli’s Venus to the Virgin Mary surely isn’t accidental. From the center of her garden of love, Venus presides over her classical court as a haloed queen, very much as Mary — pictured in religious art as the Queen of Heaven — presides over the celestial Garden of Paradise. Even the relationship between Zephyr and the nymph he’s pursuing may have a quasi-religious dimension. A close look at the face of Zephyr reveals fine gold lines representing his breath as it flows from his mouth to that of Chloris. Religious paintings of the Annunciation often show the progress of the Holy Spirit toward Mary the same way: as golden rays of light that extend from the Dove to Mary. But unlike the Angel Gabriel, who is merely the messenger, Zephyr takes physical possession of Chloris, though Botticelli wouldn’t have dreamed of showing an actual rape. Instead, in one of the most ingenious and daring details of the painting, he may be illustrating what art historian Paul Barolsky calls an imaginative form of oral sex: as the personification of the spring wind, Zephyr impregnates Chloris by blowing into her mouth. And her mouth, in turn, gives birth to her new, transformed self: beginning as a stream of flowers, Chloris becomes Flora.

Another way to understand the painting is through the seasonal imagery that pervades it. Spring begins when Zephyr transforms Chloris into Flora and brings forth the first flowers. The Graces dance in celebration of the season, while Venus and Cupid remind us that spring is the time of love, fecundity, and their consequence—procreation. Venus is the astrological deity who rules the spring season from April 21 through May 21, just as Mercury rules the later spring, from May 22 through June 21, the first day of summer. Although today few people take astrology seriously, in the Renaissance it was still considered by many to be a valid science. Ficino wrote about it extensively, and in the early 1500s Pope Leo X, a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, endowed a Chair of Astrology at the University of Padua.

Clearly, a painting as dense with visual imagery as this one doesn’t appear out of nowhere. In addition to its relationship to religious traditions and classical mythology, the work is also part of a Tuscan tradition of depicting the Garden of Love, a subject featuring Venus as the central figure that’s often depicted on birth trays — a popular gift to new mothers — and other objects related to marriage and childbirth. In that context the function of such imagery is clear: Venus brings love, and love brings marriage and children.

The elegant, courtly qualities of the painting may be related to the festivals sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent, celebrations that formed an important part of Lorenzo’s political activity. Botticelli was directly familiar with those events, as he’s known to have produced banners and other decorations for them. Such pageants, performed by gorgeously costumed members of the city’s elite but intended for everyone to enjoy, were part of the Medici family’s long-standing political program of keeping the common people happy by keeping them entertained. May Day celebrations were particularly elaborate.

Although the Primavera, a private commission, wasn’t meant as a public political statement, even paintings of mythological subjects may have a political dimension. The unusually large size of the painting (two meters high and more than three meters wide) places it on a scale with other large paintings owned by the Medici: Uccello’s series of battle pictures and the now lost Labors of Hercules series by the Pollaiuolo brothers. It’s easy to see how scenes of battles and heroes might be used to support the Medici political agenda, but a celebration of fertility and procreation that implies the continuation of the family dynasty could have formed another part of the same agenda.

Mythic stories about the season were also a way of linking Florence to its classical past and the city’s contemporary life — to the peace and prosperity that Lorenzo wished to associate with his reign. The hundreds of flowers scattered about in the painting as well as their personification as Flora remind us that the name Florence means “flowers”, and that the city’s cathedral was dedicated to St. Mary of the Flower. If Il Magnifico himself commissioned the painting as a gift to his ward on the occasion of the younger Lorenzo’s wedding (uncertain, but possible, even probable), then such a reminder would not have been out of place.

The youthful Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco might have drawn further from Botticelli’s painting the moral that passionate physical love, the province of youth and Springtime seen in the Zephyr-Chloris-Flora myth, is transformed by the influence of Ficino’s “heavenly” Venus and the chaste Graces into a higher, more mature, and more spiritual love that is ultimately the love of God. By this route, classical deities could be revived in a Christian context, because they’re no longer dangerous pagan gods but have been transformed into benevolent symbols and personifications with Christian significance.

Since the work was most likely a gift to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco on the occasion of his marriage, the work also may be related to the marriage customs and beliefs of the time. According to a Medici inventory of 1498–1499, the work hung over a lettuccio, or daybed, in a ground-floor room of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s town house, an older dwelling next door to the famous Palazzo Medici in Florence. The painting’s theme of fertility and procreation would make it an appropriate decoration to be placed over a bed, and although a daybed isn’t the same as a marriage bed, it could have been a place where, in the evening after the servants had gone to sleep, the young couple could doze, dream, and perhaps even make love, under a picture of the enchanted garden of Venus, the goddess of love.

Along with whatever philosophical inspiration and sexual stimulus the painting provided for the groom, it may have conveyed very different messages to the bride. Italian Renaissance marriage manuals endlessly repeat the ideal behaviors expected of an upper-class wife: chastity, submissiveness and childbearing. Chastity refers to the necessity that the bride be a virgin at her marriage and that she maintain a demure appearance and virtuous behavior as a wife. Submissiveness was essential because aristocratic marriages were political and economic alliances between families, not love matches, and the bride, usually between fourteen and sixteen years old, had little say in choosing her husband, and an ironclad obligation to obey him.

The manuals further emphasized that for women the purpose of marriage was procreation, and that the wife’s pleasure, happiness and satisfaction must come from childbearing and motherhood. Art historian Lillian Zirpolo relates each of these lessons for the bride to Botticelli’s Primavera. She sees the Three Graces as personifications of the ideal behavior of a Renaissance wife: chaste, demure, graceful, and decorous. She interprets Flora’s smile and Venus’s contented expression, as well as the bulging abdomens of the two women, as expressions of their satisfaction with motherhood. In seductively beautiful painted form, the work may offer a lesson in female familial duty.

Zirpolo further relates the story of Zephyr and Chloris to a more alarming aspect of Renaissance marriage manuals, all of them written by men: they find the origins of marriage in the story of the mass kidnapping and rape of the Sabine women by the Romans. That tale, one of the fundamental myths of ancient Rome, claims it was necessary for the Romans, who had a severe shortage of women in their own tribe, to carry off the women of the Sabine tribe, against the women’s will, in order to marry and procreate with them, thus saving the Roman race. Renaissance brides were instructed to submit to their husbands for similar reasons.

Zephyr and Chloris, viewed from this perspective, take on quite a different meaning. Zephyr becomes truly menacing, and Chloris becomes a frightened and defenseless woman, the panic-stricken prey of a determined assailant. For the Renaissance bride, the lesson was clear: resistance to her husband’s will was both futile and dangerous, but submission to him would bring the rich rewards embodied in the contented and literally flourishing Flora. It’s easy to imagine Semiramide degli Appiani — probably no more than fifteen at the time of her marriage, but already well schooled in proper behavior for her important new role as a Medici wife — having little difficulty in absorbing the message Primavera held for her.

How should modern viewers, both male and female, regard this many-leveled work? Today, few people of either sex read the Roman poems and Renaissance philosophical treatises that provided Botticelli with his material. Even fewer women would want anything to do with marriage manuals that celebrate kidnapping and rape as a model for the beginning of a happy marital union. Perhaps the best option is to acknowledge the work’s various possible meanings to its Renaissance viewers and then to step back from those meanings and appreciate the painting for the deep spell cast by the sheer physical beauty of Botticelli’s painted forms: the palette of rich, muted colors, now restored after a recent cleaning; the elegant, studied poses of the figures; the rich patterns of curving, interlocking lines and intricate surface patterns that resemble the tone-painting and complex, interweaving voices of a Renaissance madrigal. To appreciate such musical magic, we don’t need to understand every last one of the words; and to appreciate Botticelli’s visual magic, we don’t have to accept — or even understand — every idea that his images convey.

In the end, the Primavera leaves us with more questions than answers. The fact that several centuries of scholarly efforts have not provided any definitive answers to what the painting means should alert us to the possibility that the work was never intended to have just one meaning. Perhaps the very elusiveness of its meanings and the many possible interpretations of its imagery were all part of the “game” — the intellectual exercise so enjoyed by the artist’s sophisticated clientele. As a contemporary of Botticelli commented about the meaning of one of the artist’s works: “Some give one explanation and some another; no one is of the same opinion, so that it is the most beautiful of painted images.”

Birth of Venus (1486 ca)
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

“From the midst of the sea there emerged a divine face of an appearance worthy of veneration even by the gods. Then gradually I saw the whole shining figure rising out of the sea. Her hair, most abundant in its richness, flowed yieldingly about her divine neck in slight curves, fluttering luxuriously.” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass

The Birth of Venus is Botticelli’s most famous and beloved painting, a marvelous mixture of classical mythology, Renaissance poetry, and Christianity, fused by the artist’s ability to transform even the most unpromising material into magically beautiful images. As told by the ancient Greeks, the birth of the goddess of erotic love is a gory family saga that features infanticide, parricide, cannibalism, and castration. And yet, Botticelli’s charmed brush purges the final chapter of the story of all such associations and turns it into a triumph of elegance and delicacy.

Unlike Botticelli’s Primavera, the Birth of Venus may not have been a Medici commission. Although at a later date both paintings belonged to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the original patron of the Birth of Venus is unknown. The two works are not a pair and most likely never hung next to each other as they do today in the Uffizi. The Birth of Venus, probably from around 1486, is painted on canvas rather than on a wood panel, and it is somewhat smaller in its dimensions, although the figures are larger. The central figure is Venus, here newly born from the sea foam and wafted to shore on a pale pink shell by the breath of the winged wind god Zephyr, shown cozily entwined with Chloris, the nymph of flowers whom he had abducted in Botticelli’s slightly earlier Primavera.

The ancient Greek story of the birth of Venus begins at a much earlier moment than the one Botticelli shows. Back in the shadowy beginnings of the world, the father god Saturn ruled by terror. Warned by some primal instinct that his children would eventually kill him, he developed the nasty habit of eating each of them as they were born. But the various mothers managed to save a few of their offspring, and eventually a group of the god’s children rebelled against him and killed him. Fearing that his powers would survive even death, they dismembered their father’s corpse and castrated him, flinging his genitals into the ocean. But the grisly old god was so prodigiously fertile that his severed genitals mated with the sea foam, and the unlikely result of that union was Venus.

Not a trace of the legend’s savagery remains in Botticelli’s painting. His source wasn’t the ancient myth itself but one of the retellings that appeared during the Renaissance. Perhaps Botticelli had read The Golden Ass, an ancient Roman novel that appeared in an Italian translation in 1469, which contained a more refined description of the birth of Venus, or perhaps he’d read Renaissance poems that treat the subject with equal delicacy. In any case, Botticelli’s sophisticated patron — whoever this was — wouldn’t have been satisfied with a slavish copy of a literary text.

Botticelli met the challenge brilliantly. He does not show the actual birth of Venus but, rather, the moment of her landing on shore. For the pose of his Venus he used the classical Venus pudica, or modest Venus type, where the goddess appears with one hand covering her breasts and the other concealing her sex, an image that appears in Italian art as early as the 1300s. Although ancient Roman statues show Venus as a mature and worldly woman unconcerned with being seen in the nude, Botticelli portrayed the goddess as a wistful, virginal-looking girl sincerely interested in preserving her modesty. She uses the curling streams of her long, taffy-blonde hair, lightly touched here and there with gold pigment, to conceal her nakedness, and she looks more than ready to receive the flower-embroidered pink cloak in which an attendant on the right side of the painting is about to wrap her. The latter — identified as one of the Horae, or Hours of the Day, in classical mythology among the attendants of Venus — hurries toward the goddess with the grace of a dancer, her garments and the cloak she carries billowing around her body.

Despite similarities of pose, Botticelli’s Venus bears little resemblance to a classical goddess. Her body is oddly shaped, with an elongated neck, sloping shoulders, circular breasts, high waist, and thick ankles, and yet such is the authority of Botticelli’s style that most viewers barely notice these aberrations. Instead, the artist enchants us with the gentle melancholy of Venus’s face, the sinuous play of line in her abundant hair, and the contrast of her simple, somehow modest nudity with the complex draperies of the clothed female attendant on the right and the decidedly carnal tangle of Zephyr and Chloris on the left.

Behind the figures are a body of water and a landscape. The trees on the far right have absolutely straight, parallel trunks touched, like the strands of Venus’s hair, with highlights of gold. The waves of the chalky green sea form perfect little V-shapes or, closer to the shore, swirl into prominent patterns of foam that more closely resemble lace than water. Considering the circumstances of Venus’s birth, the artist was no doubt aware that the Italian word schiuma, which can mean “sea foam”, was — and still is — slang term for semen. A flat blue sky provides the kind of summary background that caused Leonardo da Vinci to accuse Botticelli of creating landscapes by throwing a sponge at his pictures. But realism wasn’t Botticelli’s goal. The flat, almost tapestry-like composition is part of the painting’s magic, creating a dreamlike atmosphere in which the figures seem to float.

Modern viewers familiar with the ghastly Greek myth of the origins of Venus are sometimes puzzled by the determination of Renaissance humanists and art patrons to ignore that aspect of the legend. But despite the enthusiasm for classical culture that prevailed in elite circles in Florence in the late 1400s, it was still a Christian society, and stories such as the birth of Venus required some reinterpretation before they were considered fully fit for Christian consumption.

The group of humanist scholars who gathered around the Medici family included several whose ambition was to reconcile classical culture with Christianity — a tall order, given such stories as the birth of Venus and numerous others that enliven Greek and Roman mythology. Nonetheless, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, one of the most talented of the group, offered a reinterpretation of the story of the birth of Venus that was rarified enough to satisfy even the most sensitive Christian minds. He suggested that we shouldn’t take the story literally but, instead, should interpret it symbolically. The birth of Venus, he declared, is really about “the birth of beauty in the human mind, fertilized by divinity.” The idea that beauty can be born in the human mind only when that mind is “fertilized” by God is certainly a most imaginative transformation of the Greek myth of the ocean impregnated by the severed genitals of Saturn.

The possibility that the painting can be interpreted on more than one level, and that the literal meaning is perhaps the least important, is an approach that would have appealed to Botticelli’s highly educated and cultured circle of patrons, a group that included poets, linguists, and philosophers as well as wealthy merchants and bankers like the Medici family. As noted in the essay about Botticelli’s Primavera, the same Marsilio Ficino who came up with the ingenious reinterpretation of the birth of Venus had also written to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in enthusiastic terms a few years earlier, equating Venus with humanitas, a concept embodying all the desirable traits of a Renaissance gentleman. In Ficino’s flexible philosophical categories, Venus could also personify ideal beauty — and beauty, according to Plato, is identical with truth. Still adapting Plato, Ficino claimed that the contemplation of earthly beauty could lead the soul upward to divine beauty and ultimately to the contemplation of God. With these ideas in mind, it would be inaccurate to conclude that Botticelli’s painting is purely pagan in its subject matter. Although it tells the pagan story of the birth of Venus, the painting is also resonant with Christian meanings.

On the visual level Botticelli made his own references to Christianity. For members of his cultured Renaissance audience the modest pose of Venus and the running female figure on her right would bring to mind paintings of both the Baptism of Christ and the Annunciation to Mary that they’d seen as altarpieces in churches. As if to emphasize the latter parallel, Botticelli often used the same face for his images of Venus and the Virgin Mary, providing a vivid illustration of another idea of Ficino’s: that both Venus and the Virgin Mary are emanations of Divine Love, with Venus representing its earthly aspect and Mary its heavenly one.

According to a charming but unprovable legend, Botticelli fell in love with the famous Florentine beauty Simonetta Cattaneo, the wife of a compliant fellow named Marco Vespucci and reputed to be the favorite mistress of Il Magnifico’s younger brother, Giuliano de’ Medici. As a result of Botticelli’s infatuation, it is supposedly Simonetta’s lovely face that appears in the artist’s paintings of the goddess of love and the Virgin Mary, including the Birth of Venus. Several portraits by Florentine artists, said to be of Simonetta, reveal an attractive young woman, but one who lacks the ethereal loveliness of Botticelli’s Venuses and Virgins, whose appearance no doubt owes as much to the artist’s imagination as to his alleged passion for Simonetta.

There’s something about the dreamy, otherworldly beauty of Botticelli’s work that has given rise to all kinds of misconceptions about the artist, extending even to his name. The nineteenth-century English art critic and esthete Walter Pater used to repeat the name “Botticelli” over and over, enchanted by the sound of it. The unromantic truth is that Alessandro di Filipepi (the artist’s baptismal name) had a portly older brother, Giovanni, a successful pawnbroker whose friends nicknamed him “Il Botticello,” the Little Barrel. Since the young Alessandro appears to have been raised in his brother’s home, it was natural that people would begin to refer to the boy as “Sandro del Botticello”, which in time became the more familiar Botticelli. A possible picture of Botticelli as an enthusiastic partygoer emerges from a playful poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici, devoted to Florence’s best-known drinkers. The following ditty, a portion of that poem, may refer in punning terms to the artist:

Botticelli, little barrel . . . Where’d they get the “little” from?
Cramming food and talking nonsense; fat and full and quite at home.
Here to lunch and there to dinner, never misses, never doubt.
He’s Botticelli on arrival, and full to the brim goes rolling out.

The picture of the artist that emerges from Lorenzo’s affectionate lines suggests a man who enjoyed good food in good company, but it appears that Botticelli may have been part of the Medici intellectual circle as well, an unusual honor in an era when most artists were still treated like servants or tradesmen. Where else, if not from these intellectuals, would Botticelli have acquired his sophisticated and detailed knowledge of classical mythology and its possible levels of meaning? Botticelli may have listened to and perhaps even participated in wide-ranging discussions of the dialogues of Plato, ancient Roman poetry, and classical mythology, as well as the efforts to reconcile all of those with Christianity. But the written works produced by the scholars of the Medici circle are little read today, except by specialists. Only Botticelli possessed the gift of turning their ideas into ravishing visual images.

It appears that the Medici valued Botticelli as both a painter and a loyal supporter of their regime. In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 they called upon him to produce “disgrace pictures”—portraits of the bodies of the hanged conspirators, painted on the exterior walls of the city hall, a commission that must have left the sensitive artist shuddering but which he executed without hesitation. Although the payment — the considerable sum of forty gold florins — came from the government, there’s little doubt that Lorenzo the Magnificent was behind the choice of a painter and his generous remuneration.

For all his success with the Medici and other wealthy clients in the 1470s and 1480s, Botticelli outlived his own popularity. During the later 1480s Florence fell under the spell of the fanatical Dominican preacher Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who railed against the city’s materialism and the fascination of its intellectuals with pagan ideas and attitudes. He urged the Florentines to burn their “vanities” — jewelry, tapestries, paintings, luxurious clothing — in a huge bonfire in front of the city’s cathedral. Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492, in some accounts begging on his deathbed for Savonarola’s blessing, and two years later the family that had so consistently patronized Botticelli was forced into exile.

According to Vasari’s report, Botticelli became such a dedicated follower of Savonarola that he repented of his interest in classical subject matter and later gave up painting entirely. Here too, legends have replaced less dramatic facts. Botticelli continued to paint for various clients into the early years of the 1500s, although he was no longer in such great demand. His later works took on an austere appearance, and his subject matter became exclusively religious and moralistic. We may believe Vasari’s sad description of the aged Botticelli, crippled and impoverished at his death in 1510. The world the Medici had nourished, where pagan ideals coexisted with Christianity and where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus had found success, was gone from Florence, and Botticelli was by then too old and ill to participate in its spectacular revival in Rome in the 1500s.

Portrait of Leo X (1518-1519 ca)
Raphael (1483–1520)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The intricate and intimate connections of religion and politics in the Renaissance are never more numerous than in images of popes and prelates. Although many Renaissance portraits offer no clues to either the identities of the sitters or their motivations for commissioning a portrait, in the case of Raphael’s masterly portrayal of Pope Leo X with two cardinals, we can dip into a rich trove of Renaissance history to fill out the political context, as well as the lives of the three men in the painting and the supremely gifted artist who immortalized them.

Always a consummate portraitist, Raphael was at the peak of his powers when, around 1517–1518, he created this image of Leo X Medici in the company of two cardinals who are also his cousins.† Raphael had come to Rome from Florence around 1509, called there by Pope Julius II. While Michelangelo labored almost alone, painting the ceiling of the nearby Sistine Chapel, Raphael, helped by a troop of assistants, frescoed the walls of several important rooms in the Vatican Palace. When Leo X succeeded Julius in 1513, the new pope soon sent the irritable, intimidating Michelangelo home to Florence to work on Medici projects there, but Raphael remained in his employ in the Vatican. Leo liked the gracious, diplomatic artist as well as the work he produced, and he must have been especially satisfied with this portrait, as he kept it among his personal possessions. After the pope’s death it passed to another member of the Medici family, was later owned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, and except for a brief exile in Napoleonic France, it has always been displayed in Florence.

Raphael’s genius in capturing the character of his sitters is on full display in what amounts to a dynastic portrait of Leo X and his two cousins. This is not the usual official papal portrait — we don’t see the politically oblivious pope occupied with affairs of state, which interested him very little. Instead, he is about to examine, through a gold-framed magnifying glass, a splendid illuminated manuscript, a Bible opened to the beginning of the Gospel of John, perhaps in honor of the pope’s baptismal name, Giovanni. Raphael depicted the page so accurately that the book has been identified as a manuscript now preserved in Berlin. Next to the manuscript sits a finely worked bell of gold and silver, topped with a red silk tassel. The brilliant rendering of textures — the shimmering dark-red velvet and lustrous white silk brocade of the pope’s vestments, the glossy crimson silk of the cardinals’ robes, the gleaming gold and silver of the bell, the magnifying glass frame, and the decorated manuscript page, as well as the differing skin tones of the three men — stands as evidence of Raphael’s complete mastery of the art of painting.

Although the seated pope is at a slightly lower level than his two standing companions, Leo’s large head and bulky, richly clothed body dominate the composition. Raphael succeeded in giving the homely and somewhat timorous pope a commanding, even majestic presence—his corpulence becomes an expression not of indolence but of authority. Contemporary sources report that Leo was extremely proud of his elegant white hands, prominently posed in the painting and without rings that might distract from their beauty. Those same sources also relate that the pope was severely myopic and that he could read only with the help of a magnifying glass. But Raphael knew better than to portray him squinting through the glass. Instead, Leo holds it, not like a reader but like a connoisseur, ready to have a closer look at a work of art. Raphael often idealized his subjects, but this doesn’t mean he made them better-looking than they were in reality. In this portrait the idealization consists of emphasizing the pope’s attractive qualities and transforming his unattractive features into advantages that showcase his power.

How Giovanni de’ Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s second son, became Pope Leo X is a story that reveals much about the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries. Born in 1475, since childhood Giovanni had been destined by his father for an ecclesiastical career, because Lorenzo believed that a presence in the highest echelons of the Church would be a great political advantage to the Medici family. The boy received his monastic tonsure at age seven, and by the time he was ten his father’s tireless efforts had acquired dozens of benefices for him—income-producing Church offices that required no responsibilities. In 1489, after a great deal of pressure, bribes, and persuasion exerted on Pope Innocent VIII by Lorenzo de’ Medici (actions that included giving his teenage daughter Maddalena in marriage to the pope’s dissolute forty-year-old illegitimate son), the thirteen-year-old Giovanni was named a cardinal. His formal investiture was delayed until 1492, but even for that lax period the appointment was considered premature.

Although Giovanni had been educated by the finest minds in Florence and later studied theology and canon law at the university in Pisa, he’d also received a very different kind of education during his youth, when he learned to take for granted that all the benefits and favors at the disposal of the Church could be bought and sold though influence, barter, or gold and that this was perfectly normal. To enter the Church was not to begin a life dedicated to spiritual matters but to embark on something more like a profitable career in business or politics. His later inability to grasp that the trading or selling of Church offices, benefices, pardons, and indulgences was inappropriate — and could even be seen as sordid — is a reflection of what he’d experienced throughout his childhood, as he witnessed his father using every means at his disposal to assure his son’s advancement in the Church. Perhaps some of the seeds of the Reformation sprouted in the garden of the Palazzo Medici.

After the death of his influential father in 1492, Giovanni’s promising clerical career was nearly ruined by his older brother Piero, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s successor as the unofficial head of the Florentine state. By 1494 Piero had made his family so detested in Florence that the people revolted and forced the Medici to flee the city. Giovanni passed the next years in wandering exile, spending time at the court of Urbino, as well as in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. After the election of Julius II in 1503 and Cardinal Giovanni’s return to Rome, the young prelate’s career prospered, and he was able to contribute to the restoration of Medici rule in Florence in 1512.

At the death of Julius II in 1513, Giovanni de’ Medici was elected pope, taking the name Leo in honor of the lion (leone) known as the Marzocco that was one of the symbols of Florence. But Leo X was no lion in his personality or his papacy. An easygoing, luxury-loving man only thirty-seven years old and not yet ordained as a priest at the time he assumed the papal office, Leo is supposed to have responded to his election by saying: “God has given us the papacy; now let us enjoy it.” And enjoy it he did, filling the Vatican not only with artists, poets, and philosophers but also with actors, dancers, acrobats, animals (including an elephant) and their trainers, gourmet cooks, clowns, and courtesans.

To the relief of many both within and outside the Vatican, Leo X abandoned the aggressive militarism of Julius II, but he lacked his predecessor’s energy and determination, and he failed to understand the seriousness of the religious unrest stirring in northern Europe. He dismissed Martin Luther’s now famous protest of 1517 — his posting on the church door in Wittenberg of the Ninety-Five Theses challenging the Church’s sale of indulgences — as nothing more than “monkish squabbles” that would soon fade away. Raphael may well have been painting this work at the very moment Luther set off the spark that ignited centuries of religious resentments and led to the Protestant Reformation.

Fate had very different destinies in store for the two cardinals who attend Leo in Raphael’s portrait. On our right, the tense and watchful Luigi de’ Rossi meets the viewer’s eye with a sharp, suspicious glance of his own. Born in 1474, he was the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s illegitimate half sister, Maria, wife of Leonetto de’ Rossi. Luigi had been raised and educated along with Giovanni de’ Medici, and the two had become close friends. Leo made his cousin a cardinal in 1517, which indicates that the painting cannot have been begun before that year.

Rossi had reason to look nervous. He was one of thirty-one cardinals Leo created in 1517, an unusually large number to be appointed at one time. The explanation for the sudden expansion of the College of Cardinals was the uncovering of a plot by certain members of the Curia to assassinate the pope. After having the perpetrators executed or exiled, Leo decided it would be prudent to weight the College in his favor, and among those friends and relatives he promoted was his cousin Luigi. Cardinal de’ Rossi died in 1519, so Raphael’s painting must have been completed before that date. Although Rossi accomplished little during his short life, his presence in the painting gives us a firm time frame for one of Raphael’s masterpieces.

Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the handsome, sad-eyed man on our left, was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s brother Giuliano, who was murdered in 1478 during a plot against the Medici known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. Giulio was raised by Lorenzo among his own children, and he formed an especially close bond with the slightly older Giovanni. When Giovanni became pope in 1513, Giulio was one of the first cardinals he created. After serving his cousin in various capacities, in 1523 he was himself elected pope, as Clement VII. Expected to be at least competent, he instead proved to be among the most disastrous pontiffs in the history of the Church. His inept diplomacy and his inability to make decisions and stick to them brought down on the Eternal City in 1527 the worst attack since the barbarian invasions of a thousand years earlier: the Sack of Rome.

But those events — de’ Rossi’s death, the crises of the Reformation, the stormy papacy of Clement VII — were all in the future. Although we don’t know the pope’s precise motivations for commissioning this portrait, the fact that he chose to have himself portrayed in the company of two cousins who had been his companions since childhood, and whom he’d raised to the cardinalate, suggests he considered the work the clerical equivalent of a traditional dynastic portrait, an expression of his desire to have the Medici family remain as potent and enduring a force in the Church as they were in the Florentine state. Although the Medici coat of arms — six balls on a shield — doesn’t appear in the painting, the brilliantly reflective gold knob on the back of the pope’s chair serves as a reminder of the palle, a word that was also a rallying cry for Medici supporters.

The symbolic significance of the portrait as a stand-in for the pope is attested by its presence at several important Medici weddings in which the family of bankers who’d become rulers allied themselves with the aristocracy and even with royalty. Shortly after the painting was completed, it was rushed from Rome to Florence and given a prominent place at the festivities following the wedding in September 1518 of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, duke of Urbino and grandson of Il Magnifico, to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a niece of King Francis I of France. The same portrait also occupied a place of honor at the wedding in 1533 of Alessandro de’ Medici, the first hereditary duke of Florence, and Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V.

The most important appearance of the portrait was at the marriage in 1539 of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora di Toledo. Cosimo had obtained the painting shortly after he became duke in 1537, and in displaying it he paid homage to Leo X, his relative who had providentially fated him for fame and power by baptizing him with the potent name of Cosimo. He was named after the great Cosimo de’ Medici of the fifteenth century, who had attained such authority and respect in Florence that after his death the city declared him Pater Patriae, the father of his country. By coincidence, one of Duke Cosimo’s godparents, Cardinal de’ Rossi, is also in the portrait.

Although Leo X proved no match for the wily German princes when it came to dealing with Martin Luther and his adherents, the major goal of his papacy had nothing to do with either international diplomacy or the religious conflicts in northern Europe. The pope’s main interest was in supporting and consolidating the recently reinstated Medici government in Florence and in assuring the protection and advancement of Medici family members. In this quest he succeeded. Not only did his cousin Giulio eventually become the second Medici pope, but Giulio’s illegitimate son Alessandro (fathered on an African slave some years before the future pope was named a cardinal) became the first Medici duke, the beginning of a dynasty that would endure for more than two hundred years.

From An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence by Judith Testa.

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