Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pitfall of Outline Maps

This morning I had a major "D'oh!" moment when I realized that Wales does, in fact, exist.

In the preface of The Image of the World, author Peter Whitfield mentions the Evesham Mappa Mundi. I went to the Wikipedia page on Evesham, looked at the little red dot, and said to myself "That doesn't look right. Hmmmm, where is that?" Scanning the article, I found that Evesham is in Worcestershire, and that really didn't seem right. After all, Worcestershire is much closer to the western coast of England. Or so I thought. Then a lightbulb appeared over my fat head. I had used Wikipedia's map to memorize the historic counties of England. The historic counties. Of England. England does not include Wales. So now I have to un-learn the "fact" that Herefordshire, Shropshire, and parts of Gloucestershire are on the west coast of England.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

16th Century English Wool Trade

On pages 22 and 23 of The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588, Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells how the war with Spain affected English towns, giving them excuses - often very good ones - for refusing to meet levies imposed in the face of the Armada.

These hints of social tension have to be understood against a background of genuine hardships. Economic distress, caused in trading communitites by the commercial disruption of the war with Spain, was a frequently alleged ground of inability to pay for defence against the Armada. Ipswich claimed to be unable to pay for the ordnance charged against her. To the Privy Council's insistence that the cost be met by merchants who had profited from wartime reprisals against Spanish shipping, the municipal authorities 'for answer thereof affirm that they have thereby rather sustained loss than gain'. The port of Southampton wrote with a similar complaint in greater detail on 17 April: two large ships and a pinnace had been required of that town but its 'poor and insufficient number of inhabitants' would have been hard pressed to raise even the fourth part of the £500 this would have cost. War with Spain and consequent loss of trade was the main reason alleged--plausibly enough, in a place traditionally prominent in the Spanish trade and heavily concerned in its chief commodity, cloth. During the sixteen years of the Spanish embargo, the burghers said, there had been 'almost no other trade or traffic'; reprisals, as at Ipswich, had brought no relief--only a net loss of £4,000; native townspeople of substance had all gone away and there were virtually no gentlemen left. The community had already been taxed to its limit: a subsidy of £120 had been levied with difficulty; a recent charge of £250 for munitions 'remaineth dead and without profit to the town'; repairs to the seabanks and 'some little fortification' had exhausted the town's resources. To cap it all, the press had taken 110 mariners away to the fleet; so the town would have been unable to find men to sail the ships even 'if we were able to levy the charge among us.' In less strident, but equally self-righteous terms, the magistrates of East Bergholt also appealed to the economic effects of the Spanish embargo to explain their refusal to contribute, for the town's cloths

were best saleable in Spain and now through long want of vent into those parts, we find not only the stocks and wealth of the said inhabitants greatly decayed, but withal they, being very charitable and godly bent, are driven, out of their own purses, to see all the poor and needy artificers pertaining to the trade provided for sufficiently with meat, drink and clothes.

I found this a bit confusing because I'd read of how sales of raw wool to Flanders were so vital to the English economy at that time, yet here Fernández-Armesto talks of English coastal towns selling cloth. Also, since Elizabeth was supporting the Dutch Protestants who were draining Philip's resources, wouldn't those Channel merchants have had new Flemish buyers to replace the lost Spanish ones? As a matter of fact, wasn't the wool trade with Flanders one of the reasons for Elizabeth's support in the first place? Thinking it likely that "raw wool" didn't mean what I had thought it meant, and that I didn't understand the complexities of the English Channel trade, I consulted the Gunroom.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mapmaker's Opera, Fight Club, and the Byzantines

Yesterday I finished two novels: The Mapmaker's Opera by Bea Gonzalez; Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. They make an odd pair, to say the least. The first is about preservation: all through the book people variously try to preserve the memory of a beloved grandmother, a song, a species of bird, their honor, their family, their individuality, their posessions, their culture. The second is about the desire to dissolve individuality and tear down history with a world-encompassing tantrum.

Gonzalez laments the extinction of the passenger pigeon:

As for the fate of the Passenger Pigeon--that, alas, is all too well know. In 1896 the last significant chapter for these birds was written in the state of Ohio. By then, only a quarter of a million remained of the billions that had once filled the sky. In April of that year they came together in one last great nesting flock in the forest on Green River near Mammoth Cave. Recently installed telegraph lines were used to notify the hunters of the appearance of this flock and they arrived by railway from far and wide. The result was catastrophic--two hundred thousand carcasses were taken, another forty thousand were mutilated and wasted, one hundred thousand newborn chicks were destroyed or abandoned to predators in their nests. Only five thousand were thought to have escaped.
The hunters' efforts were wasted in the end. The birds--packaged for shipment to markets in the East--rotted under a scorching sun when a derailment prevented them from being shipped as planned. The putrefied carcasses of two hundred thousand birds were disposed of in a nearby ravine.
The last bird of its kind, Martha, died alone at the age of twenty-nine inside the Cincinnati Zoo at about one o'clock on September 1, 1914. There were few then who understood the significance of what had just come to pass. A bird that had once thundered across open skies had been vanquished for good--driven to extinction by man's ignorance and greed.

Palahniuk's nihilistic pique stands in counterpoint.

Tyler asked what I was really fighting.
What Tyler says about being the crap and the slaves of history, that’s how I felt. I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see.
I wanted the whole world to hit bottom.
Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground.

At the very end of the book, our protagonist takes a parting shot at the beauty of the individual with one of his most memorably snarky lines.

I've met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, "Why?" Why did I cause so much pain? Didn't I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness? Can't I see how we're all manifestations of love? I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God's got this all wrong. We are not special. We are not crap or trash, either. We just are. We just are, and what happens just happens. And God says, "No, that's not right." Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can't teach God anything.

The interesting thing about Gonzalez's story is how she portrays those who seek revolution vs. those who seek beauty. Naturalist Edward Nelson spends his life observing and documenting birds. His friend Robert Duarte, a grower of the henequin plant that is in such high demand by the Americans, shares in his passion; he loses himself in books and birds, occasionally intervening on the side of leniency for his workers but generally preferring to know as little as possible about how his overseer does his job. One could present these characters as morally bankrupt dreamers, but instead they are some of the most likeable characters in Gonzalez's story. The Mexican revolutionaries, on the other hand, get short shrift: amid the smoke of a burning plantation, an unseen and anonymous member of the rioting mob unknowingly causes the book's greatest tragedy. Gonzalez seems to be saying that, for the most part, humans can't help themselves because their endeavors inevitably become chaotic and corrupt. I think the following may be the most telling quote in the book.

"Forget about it, muchacho," Mr. Nelson says again, gently, and he places his arm around the young man's shoulder, delivers some reassuring pats to his back and then returns to the bounties of nature that, alone on earth, have the power to make things right.

This is not Nelson talking, but Gonzalez! I think that in her cosmology nature is the only bootstrap by which humans may pull themselves above their own flaws. I tend to agree with her.

The interesting thing here is that Gonzalez and Palahniuk aren't as dissimilar as they first appear. The way in which Gonzalez pointedly de-glorifies the Mexican revolutionaries isn't all that different from Palahniuk's pathetic portrayal of Tyler Durden's "space monkeys". Of course the main difference between the two is that, for Gonzalez, salvation lies in nature. For Palahniuk, man has no salvation; man just is.

All these thoughts of chaos and anarchy lead me inevitably to thoughts of the 12 Byzantine Rulers series I've been listening to. I know that my perception of chaos is somewhat exaggerated because the lectures compress a hell of a lot of history into each lecture, and the chaotic bits get the most attention. Still... just look at the events surrounding the reign of Andronicus, and the whole notion of history as ordered progression becomes a Brobdingnagian joke. Manuel, grandson of Alexius I, dies, leaving his wife, Maria, to piss off Constantinople with her westernness. Italian and French merchants jump at the opportunity to renew their trade stranglehold, and things go from bad to worse. Nutty, charismatic, buff, exiled old Andronicus catches wind of all this and sweeps into Constantinople, having been cheered on the whole way. He slaughters all the Italians in town and everyone related to Manuel except Alexius II, the son of Manuel and Maria. Then he slaughters Maria and declares himself co-emperor with Alexius. Then he slaughters Alexius. Then he marries Alexius's thirteen-year old widow. Then he compiles a list of all the people he's slaughtered and he slaughters all their dogs. The last sentence was the only one I made up.

Andronicus, inspired by all this slaughtering, turns his energies to dealing with corruption. By slaughtering everyone who's corrupt. Thirty seven of the fifty nine people left in Constantinople are all "Corruption sucks. Andronicus is cool." but the rest think he's gone too far and start hatching plots to take him out. Andronicus, having had one too many nutbars, really concentrates his vital energies on being the best slaughterer he can be. King William the Good of Sicily, always eager for a chunk of the Byzantine pie, welcomes refugees from the nuttiness and comes up with an ersatz Alexius II to legitimize a move on Constantinople. His army easily takes Thessalonica, and Andronicus responds by going for ISO 9000 certification on his slaughter industry. His cousin Isaac Angelus, after narrowly avoiding execution, gathers support, captures Andronicus and leaves him to the mob, who treats him to a nice slow slaughter of his own. Isaac trounces the Sicilians, marries the daughter of the Hungarian king, and proceeds to completely destroy the economy, get humiliated by the Bulgarians, and go nuts à la Andronicus. But wait, what news from the east and west? "You got your Muslims in my Jerusalem!" "You got your Crusaders in my Constantinople!" This time the English and French aren't a problem because they go by water, but Frederick Barbarossa wants to march through and Isaac is forced to comply. Frederick, totally pumped from having shown off his power, blows a raspberry over his shoulder at Isaac, makes his way across most of Anatolia, and then gets his ass drowned in a river.

So one of Frederick's generals turns to his men and says "Buck up, lads! We're a massive and utterly directionless army hanging out in Asia Minor. What could possibly go wrong?" Cut to Venice, where the Doge Enrico Dandolo is listening to the soothing, far-off sounds of Isaac's older brother Alexius, who is: deposing Isaac and having him blinded; crowing himself Alexius III; messing up the economy even worse; allowing more and more of his empire to be whittled away by the Turks. When the Crusaders come to Dandolo for support he spins a story about invading Egypt and then pulls a monumental bait-and-switch; as he must have known would happen, the Crusaders can't come up with the money they promised, and they effectively become indentured to Venice. He sics them on the Hungarian coast of Dalmatia, ignoring the Pope's wagging finger. Here he meets Alexius Angelus, who had headed west to drum up support for a coup. In exchange for help he promises to end the schism and reunite the Orthodox and Cathoic churches, but Dandolo really has his eye on Constantinople. As the Crusaders lay seige to the city, Alexius III buggers off. His ministers look blankly at each other and then one of them says "Um, the Crusaders came to overthrow Isaac's usurper, yeah? So, like... they might go away if we restore Isaac. (beat) Yes, that blind old Isaac whom we've had rotting in a dungeon for eight years, what, you got a better idea??" They quickly realize that Isaac is too far gone to rule, so they crown Alexius Angelus to rule alongside his father. It doesn't help. Alexius strips the church of its wealth in a desperate attempt to pay the Crusaders, thus further enraging a populace that already hates him for his promise of unification. As Dandolo encourages the Crusaders to invade, Alexios Doukas has Isaac and his son killed and assumes the throne. He does a pretty good job of defending Constantinople - for a short time. Cut to smoke, thuds, men going gaga over shiny gold, screaming, raping, pillaging, murdering. Entropy descends, ravening, on the greatest city in Christendom. It never recovers.

Is this any less anarchic than the space monkeys?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Age of Rembrandt exhibit at the Met

Notes from my visit to the Met on January 6, the last day of this exhibit.

Woodland Road, probably ca. 1670
Meindert Hobbema (Dutch, 1638–1709)

"The trees are beautifully textured and lit, but the rest of the painting - the people, the cottages - doesn't seem that impressive to me." After I wrote this, I was very surprised to read the placard claiming that, to American collectors of the Gilded Age, Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Hobbema were the three greatest Dutch landscapists!

Piping Shepherds, ca. 1643–44
Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620–1691)

The shiny hair on the cow and the textures of the instruments - in fact, all the textures, are lovely. The musicians' faces are very well-rendered, and the gentle, cloudy sky tugs at my emotions.

The Forest Stream, ca. 1660
Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/29–1682)

The placard says this was inspired by a trip to Westphalia. In any event, I can see that this man knew trees! He captures the horizontal layering, the way the leaves cluster, the deep shadows and the reflections and the sparse patches. Warmly textured foliage is revealed by gentle light peeking through the clouds. The reflections on the water pooling in the stream are stunning. I find his stone surfaces to be better than Hobbema's, yet still not quite believable. Perhaps the geology is different, and this is actually realistic; however, the stones just seem too soft to me, as if they, like Hobbema's buildings, are filmed through cheesecloth.

Man in Oriental Costume ("The Noble Slav"), 1632
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

Unlike the figures in the other big Rembrandts, the man has a sort of aura of light that delineates his shadowed shoulder. This one was inspired at least partially by trade with the Ottomans (a mutual enemy of Spain!) and the diplomatic mission from Persia to the Dutch Republic (1627-28). Were this a lesser painting, the historical connections would be the most interesting thing for me. This is not a lesser painting. I know that no reproduction can convey how the light hits that turban; it's as though spiders spun a latticework over it. What sort of brush makes those thick, rough runnels of paint that so adroitly catch the light and spray it back out so enthusiastically? Could it be very thick horsehair? The two primary focus points are the sumptuous flowered gold fabric on his shoulder, and the turban. The secondary points are his face, the translucent blue-streaked sash, and the gold tassels and pendant hanging from it. Move to one side and you can see how Rembrandt used thick globs of paint to make the jewel high in the turban sparkle. The lower jewel does not stand out as much; perhaps it's a polished stone rather than a gem.

I can't say enough about the way Rembrandt conveys depth. The turban leaps out of the canvas, protruding inches forward from the face! This is a study in contrasts: the soft, slack, old-man's skin on the neck, not reflective at all, could hardly stand out more in both texture and in depth from the glittering turban.

Bellona, 1633
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

According to the audio guide, this was probably made for an Amsterdam civic guard house. The shield carries a very dramatic likeness of Medusa. Hanging from the armor is a sheet of sumptuous blood-red velvet with an overwhelming array of gleaming gold highlighting the trim. The helmet, typical of Rembrandt's skill, is amazingly lifelike; it seems I could almost touch its burnished curves. The figure within the glittering armor is strikingly unglamorous; she has a homely, big-sisterly air about her, yet upon close examination I saw how ready she is for action, and not simply because she's the sister of Mars. The heavily armored right hand, lurking in deep shadow and looking for all the world like Hellboy's stone hand, is not readily noticeable. Once I did notice it, however, I couldn't stop noticing it, resting there on the golden hilt of a rather nasty-looking sword. Together, the gleaming contents of the left hand and the shadowed contents of the right convey a powerful message: not only is the Dutch Republic ready to defend herself at a moment's notice, but she will conduct a potent offensive war if necessary! The overall impression is of a plump woman with broad hips: a big sister or cousin for whom kicking ass comes in a close second to having babies.

There's a great deal of green in this painting that one doesn't notice at first: eventually the sash on her sword arm draws my eye, as does the sapphire green in the sword strap with the gold gilt and the blue gems. The greenish blue in the neck scarf reminds me of the sea, and the deep forest green of the helmet's plume is so dark that the very way in which it mingles with the shadows draws my eye.

Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, 1633
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

Look at the way the "petals" of the ribbons protrude from the canvas! Look at how the fabric of the sleeves bulges outward in between the gathers, and the way the tips of the sleeves stick out! Even the beads on her left wrist look like they're sticking out of the painting! From ten feet back the lace frills at her sleeves look almost absurdly intricate; I take a few steps forward and see that Rembrandt made those intricate gaps in the lace by scraping away the white paint while it was wet!

The young woman's left hand rests on a brick-red cloth with gold embroidery. It caught my eye because something about it said Mexico to me. I couldn't remember whether the Dutch were trading in the West Indies at this point, so I went to Wikipedia and found this article. Rembrandt painted this just twelve years after the Dutch West India Company got its charter! More curious than ever as to whether the cloth might indeed be South American, or perhaps Ottoman, I consulted Gwyn, a costuming and fabrics expert. She said

It looks like it came from the Spanish design world, but woven on French machines. Silk and wool, from the sheen. Color is a nice deep wine/burgundy, so may be momentous for the Bourbon family, who threw off relations across Europe like the Saxe-Coburgs did a couple of centuries later, but with better outcomes.

I read the word "wool" and gears started to turn. Here are my thoughts, with some [responses] by Jaap, an awesomely knowledgeable tour guide in Amsterdam, who provides some balance for my speculation.

Just the day before I had looked up the "Spanish Fury" in Wikipedia, attempting to refresh my vague memory from a history lecture. Wikipedia mentions that the sack of Antwerp in November of 1576 "encouraged the decline of the Antwerp Cloth Market as English traders sought out new commercial links, not wishing to risk visiting the town that now resembled a war zone. By 1582, all English trade to Antwerp had ceased." Then I started thinking about Catherine of Aragon, in which author Garrett Mattingly tells of how, by the early sixteenth century, the export of raw wool to Flanders had become so important to the English economy that the enclosure of pasture land was displacing roughly five percent of the English population.

So. In the early sixteenth century, Flanders is sitting pretty because England needs it a lot more than it needs England. Philip II, to whom a single Protestant within his domains is like a raspberry seed between his teeth, drains the Spanish treasury trying to subdue the Dutch Protestants, and finally manages to accidentally maul Antwerp via the ugly and inevitable side-effects of not paying a standing army. My memory of what happened between Spain and the Netherlands in sixty years after the Armada is hazy, but Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam and painted this right in the middle of both the Thirty Years War and the Dutch West India Company's brief period of prosperity. [Don't overestimate the importance of the WIC. It was nothing compared to the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or Dutch East India Company) and today attracts not a tenth of the attention we pay to the VOC.] In light of all this, and especially what Gwyn told me about the Spanish design and the French machines and the silk, it seems pretty reasonable to think that this cloth is a potent symbol. Here's the plucky Dutch Republic, battered and bruised but not beaten, still resisting juggernauts with one hand while carrying on a thriving trade empire with the other, saying "We have far-flung trade connections bringing in designs and/or designers from Spain. We have silk from the east. We have French machines. We have the artisans to run them. We RULE. Nyah nyah." [I don't think Rembrandt had any need to say that. All this was obvious both to him and his clients who commissioned these paintings and decided what was worn and how it was to be depicted.]


What is that gold pendant, and is it hanging from her fan or from her dress?

Old Woman in an Armchair, 1635
Attributed to Jacob Adriaensz. Backer (Dutch, 1608–1651)

The placard says this used to be considered a Rembrandt. I take one look and say "Oh HELL no! Those hands were not painted by Rembrandt!" They do not protrude from the canvas the way the hand of the Young Woman with a Fan does, and the brush strokes, especially those composing the chair, are just too crude. The two paintings seem like completely different animals. Also, the depth is far too static to have been painted by him. Look at "Man in Oriental Costume" or "Bellona", and see how Rembrandt conveys even the slightest variance in depth; now look at how this woman's dress seems to be all on a single plane. Her face, and her headpiece and neck frill certainly convey something of that mastery of depth, though; I could see how someone could think it was a rushed Rembrandt.

A Vase of Flowers, ca. 1618
Jacob Vosmaer (Dutch, 1584–1641)

This is nice, but it's nowhere near what Abraham Mignon achieved. I fell in love with Mignon's work at the Louvre two years ago, and for the life of me I can't see why the man is so unknown; I've almost never seen any other artist's still life that, to me, compares to his work.

Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, ca. 1640
Jan Davidsz. de Heem (Dutch, 1606–1683/84)

WOW! How the hell did he get that bubbly texture on the lemon rind?? It almost looks like kilned enamel.

Interior of a Kitchen
Willem Kalf (Dutch, 1619–1693)

The highlights in this one are particularly striking, although I don't get much else out of it. The pumpkin, leeks(?), cucumbers, platter, mirror, and glass vessel in the wall niche all catch the light dramatically, leaping out of the gloom.

Vanitas, 1662
Edwaert Collier (Dutch, active by 1662, died after 1706)

This is one of the most memorable paintings in the whole wing. It embraces a common dichotomy of seventeenth century Dutch still life, which is to say that it calls attention both to the power and riches of the patron, and to the futility of acquisitiveness in the face of time, decay, and death. With this work, though, it seems to me that Collier takes that dichotomy to almost absurd heights, and the result is undeniably playful.

Among the signs of culture, influence and affluence such as the resplendent whip-handled money bag, the expensive metal and glass vessels, and the violin, we see a portrait of Holland's favorite moralist, Jacob Cats. The large book, The Decades by Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger, is open to a chapter condemning material goods. We see the perfectly distorted image of the violin neck through a glass goblet which, along with the gleaming silver chalice, is tipped on its side. That which filled the vessels is gone, and this seems like a sly reference to death that Collier hid in plain sight, presenting a delightful counterpoint to the symbolically obvious skull and hourglass that are partially hidden in the shadowy background.

One of the most interesting things about this painting is how Collier's techniques compare and contrast with Rembrandt's. Collier's paper surfaces are superlative; one can almost feel the weight, texture, and thickness of the pages, almost smell their mustiness. At first the perfect texture and reflectiveness of the silver chalice dazzled me as much as any Rembrandt. However, after my eye failed to "follow" the chalice into the canvas I came to see this extra gaudiness as a way for Collier to mask a command of depth that is far inferior to Rembrandt's. If you need further convincing, just look at the necklace hanging off the edge of the table. Those beads don't look three-dimensional at all! Compare them to the beads held by "Young Lady With a Fan"; Rembrandt's wilder brush strokes somehow convey an undeniable depth, his beads receding from the viewer in a way that Collier's beads utterly fail to do.

A Vase of Flowers, 1716
Margareta Haverman (Dutch, active by 1716, died after 1750)

Ahhhh, now that's what I'm talkin' about!! Hell yeah! The texture, the depth, it's all there! The variable shading between the brightly lit flowers in front and the shaded ones in back! The roundness and the shininess and the texture of the grapes... the dimple in the peach... the tiny, delicate, wispy stalks of wheat, the beads of water with the reflections, the palpable depth variance within each crinkly leaf... oooh, forget-me-nots! There's a tiny bug on the peach, with a tiny glint of light reflecting off its black carapace. The butterfly looks alive! Look at the shading! Such depth!!! Another little butterfly and a second snail, each one assiduously, delicately rendered!

Portrait of a Man, possibly 1650s
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

His hands are hidden, and then I go back past the other Rembrandts: "Man in Oriental Costume" has his hand in shadow; "Young Woman with a Fan" has her right hand obscured by the fan. He, like many artists, obviously didn't like taking the time to draw hands. The difference between him and those other artists, though, is that when he did draw hands, they reached out of the frame. Again, take a close look at "Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan" and then take a close look at "Old Woman in Armchair"; the hands will tell you which one was a Rembrandt, and which was only attributed to him.

Portrait of a Man, early 1650s
Frans Hals (Dutch, born after 1580, died 1666)

I've seen this painting, or one like it, somewhere else. The cuffs are electric, edgy, geometric. The angular patches of paint are almost reminiscent of the way you can see the polygons that form the surface of a computer generated image. There's lovely depth in the hat, lovely dim reflectance in the satin sheen on the hat and the outfit. He's ruddy, defiant, bold, alive!

Man with a Beard
Style of Rembrandt (17th century or later)

This imitation of Rembrandt, possibly Dutch, has really striking depth: his hat brim pokes right out; his face recedes into the shadows! There's something not quite Rembrandt, though: in the patchy brush strokes around the eyes that remind me of van Gogh; and in the slightly electric look in the strokes defining the shirt. However, the way the artist troweled on thickly stepped layers of paint to highlight the neck frill really reminds me of Rembrandt's "Jewish Bride" in the Rijksmuseum.

Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1650, reworked 1660s or later
Frans Hals (Dutch, born after 1580, died 1666)

The guide says that the background is incongruous because it's not original; it was painted in later! I take a close look at her sleeves and find that, unlike Rembrandt's technique of scraping the white paint away in "Young Lady With a Fan", Hals added streaks of black paint; I like Rembrandt's effect much better.

As in "Portrait of a Man", the way Hals uses triangular or rectangular patches of paint gives the fabrics a kinetic, charged feel. The flesh, though, does not display this polygonal aspect, and that contrast certainly makes the composition more interesting.

Portrait of a Woman
Adriaen Hanneman (Dutch, born about 1601, died 1671)

I find this style to be both compelling and challenging: compelling because the opalescent luster is so invitingly sumptuous, and challenging because everything from her face to her hair to her clothes has this same texture. It's as though everything is made of very fine velvet; it's striking, although I don't know if I could stomach too much of this not-strictly-realistic style. The weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is the lack of textural variance to accompany the depth variance - and there is some incredibly well-conveyed depth here. The hand and the face both have intricate variances of depth, and the nose in particular sticks out perceptibly from the rest of the face. The silver pendant and the hairpiece have a fantastic luster.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675)

The patches of color from the cloth, reflected off the underside of the basin, look like stained glass! I wouldn't have noticed this if not for the guide.

I was anxious to get close to this painting because I wanted to see if Vermeer used the same tiny, bold medallions of paint that lent such fabulous textures to his paintings that I saw in the Rijksmuseum, especially Milkmaid. No, there's only the barest hint of this bold pointillist style in the gold thread and reflective metal of the box. "Milkmaid" was painted in 1658, only four years before this one; could Vermeer have discarded that style in those four years, or did the textures in this composition simply not call for it?

Enough of my fine-toothed-combing; time to take a step back. Like the other Vermeers I've seen, this is stunning. It's interesting to me how Vermeer conveyed light so differently than Rembrandt. Vermeer's reflections are dots and solid patches - pools of light! He conveys depth with haziness which, though it could hardly be more different than Rembrandt's bold, rough-edged streaks of reflected light, serve just as well to draw my eye into his composition. The cloth on the table in the foreground is hardly hazy at all, whereas surfaces farther back are moreso. I can't say enough about how each softened facet of the lovely crumpled fabrics reflects the light differently!

A Kitchen
Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh (Dutch, 1609/11–1670)

Depth is not this guy's forte. He gets some mileage from shiny, burnished objects, but the composition seems contrived solely for that purpose.

The Smoker, ca. 1623–25
Frans Hals (Dutch, born after 1580, died 1666)

Very bold, crude brush strokes. Obviously meant to be viewed from some distance.

The placard says that one of Hals's paintings bore the inscription "indecent lovemaking and smoking are both bad for the soul, but only the latter will harm the body." I guess that VD was just something that happened to other people!

Landscape with a Cottage, 1629
Pieter de Molijn (Dutch, 1595–1661)

This is interesting in a way I find very hard to articulate. The light is muted, almost smeared: there's a sense of greyness uniting the different surfaces and depths. The texture of the trees is lovely. There's something sad about the way the eye is drawn from the trees, out to the tiny figures on shore, out to sea, then back with the spilling light through the path and back to the trees. It conveys an emptiness with that slice of sea, the expanse of sky, and the way the brooding quality of the sky leaks into and suffuses the trees.

Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl, 1659
Willem Kalf (Dutch, 1619–1693)

This one is very dark, very subtle. The first thing I notice is the lovely wavy texture on the lemon rind - it's not blotchy like de Heem's lemon rind, but wavy like light reflected off rippling water and onto a shaded yellow wall. It's patchy, a bit like sponge work. Then I see lovely, subtle, sumptuous reflections, and admire how Kalf led me to them: the peel drew my eye and then, BAM!, the depth variance between the peel and the platter grabbed me. My eye moves back to that platter and then futher, delighting in the exquisite texture of the reflective porcelain. The reflections off the glassware lurking in the shadowy background invite a more languorous, contemplative examination.

The more I look at this, the more I like it. Again, the things I notice first draw my attention to subtler elements on which I then linger. My eye moves from the porcelain and the lemon to the moldy fruit and the platter, then I notice the soft cloth bulging into the foreground! I can hardly believe it took me this long to notice it, because now that I see it I can't take my eyes off it! The reflections, so restrained yet so refined, are endlessly inviting. This is a very, very skillful composition that invites me to rove within it, to hang out a while. I notice that there are, in general, three planes of depth with contrasting permutations of elements: the closest is soft and dark; the middle is shiny, crisp and reflective; and the farthest is dark and shiny!

Still Life with Lobster and Fruit, 1650s
Abraham van Beyeren (Dutch, 1620/21–1690)

Oh, here we go with the lemon peel again. I wonder if this is like a signature of the artist, because each one seems to have a distinct way of rendering the texture. This peel reminds me just a bit of John Singer Sargent; although I could be just imagining things, there's something about the cascades of streaky blobs in his brush strokes that remind me of the light in Sargent's Fumée d'Ambre Gris.

This one interests me most for the quality of its light: it has an immense array of reflections, but they are all soft. This painting is the definition of "lambent". I wrote "Lousy/nonexistent foreshortening", but then I took a few steps back and reconsidered. "Oh, that's better!" I wrote. "Now I can see depth! Well, look at that!" Clearly, this one is meant to be viewed from a distance. Ten feet seems about right. The color is soft, yet vibrant; the textures are muted, yet the reflections make them very inviting.

Peacocks, 1683
Melchior d' Hondecoeter (Dutch, 1636–1695)

The monkey looks amazing! The peacocks are incredible, but lack the depth they should have (the word "should", here, having been defined when I walked in and saw the Rembrandts). There should be more perceptible depth between the head and the shoulders and the rump. Oh, look at the angry squirrel! The sheen of its fur is exquisite, like the nearly palpable monkey. The melon is lovely, but the peaches and apricots and such get a meh, and the grapes a meh+. The grape leaves, however, are stellar! Vibrant light shows every fold, every dimple and wrinkle. A+ on those!

Overall, the main flaw in this one is a lack of depth. Jeez, Mr. Rembrandt, did you have to go and ruin everyone else's work for me??

Still Life: A Banqueting Scene, 1670s
Jan Jansz. de Heem (Flemish, born 1650, died after 1695)

The guide says that de Heem lived in Antwerp, possibly for the fruit!

Something about the chair in the foreground seems not up to the standards of the rest of the painting; the foreshortening seems imperfect, the surface a bit crudely rendered. In contrast, the pitcher is fantastic... and yet again, the foreshortening isn't quite convincing. That's a damned nice silver coffee urn, though; the foreshortening there is unimpeachable . The reflections are lovely and inviting, especially the ones in the gold... whatever that gold thing is... and in the lobster which, along with the small crust of bread, looks real enough to touch. I give this one an A. Depth is very well conveyed through alternating sharpness and haziness, and by very well rendered smooth curves; these elements make up for the imperfect foreshortening.

And AGAIN with the lemon! De Heem's rind has a very fine texture that's different from the others, including his own in "Still Life with a Glass and Oysters"; the blotches bespeak a "dab and streak" brush stroke. I think I like this one the best!

Falconer's Bag, 1695
Jan Weenix (Dutch, 1642–1719)

Aha! Like the Hanneman, this one has a satiny suffusion of light, but unlike the Hanneman this texture doesn't cover all of it! Weenix varied his surfaces, so it's much more interesting. Holy crap, the birds look amazing! You can almost run your fingers through the feathers! The leaves are perhaps not quite as believable as some of the others I've seen today, but they're still very good. As we pass into the background the light gradually fades into shade. The eye lingers on the birds for a while, then moves back in curiosity to the background scene: people, swans, a boat, the water, stone arches, trees, sky... GOOD GOD, that buckle in the foreground is fantastic! So is the red and gold tassle! Yeah! I like the way things are sharp in the foreground and get gradually softer as the eye moves back. Aha, but there's a hint of light way off at the horizon! This strikes me as a lovely rhetorical device: objects in the distance face into haziness, but the corresponding fade into darkness is punctuated with the promise of sunlight around the corner, thus avoiding any potentially depressing overtones, not to mention forthright symbols of mortality that permeate many of the still lifes!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Maps Exhibit at Oriental Institute in Chicago

European Cartographers and the Ottoman World, 1500–1750: Maps from the Collection of O.J. Sopranos

Following is a foolscap full of my jottings from several rapturous hours spent at the exhibit on December 26.

"Asia Minor", from Prima Asia Tabvla by Bernardus Sylvanus, Venice, 1511
This was the first Ptolemy atlas to be printed, rather than hand- illuminated, in more than one color! It was quite striking to see the difference in appearance between this map, with its red place names that were obviously made with moveable type, next to the hand-illuminated pieces from around the same time.

"Asia Minor", from Tabula Nova Asiae Minoris by Lorenz Fries, Viennae, 1541
Fries simplified and reduced maps by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, removing some classical elements. This was the first Ptolemaic map to make specific reference to sixteenth-century political realities, with it inscription "Asia Minor Sive Maior Tvrchia" (Asia Minor or Greater Turkey). The text for Fries's edition was prepared by Michel de Villeneve, ake Servetus. Among the charges against him during the Inquisition was that his atlas described Palestine as being largely infertile. At the time of his execution in 1553, many of his works, including copies of Ptolemy maps, were burned.

Giacomo Gastaldi, 1500-1566, was perhaps the biggest name in sixteenth century cartography. He had the advantage of a friendship with Ramusio, secretary to Venice's Council of Ten. Ortelios, another big name, 1527- 1598, systematized his map collections, adopting a uniform scale and presenting each map as a part of the greater world.

The "Lost map of Hajji Ahmed" is an interesting story. Apparently Oronce Fine, a Parisian, based this map on woodcuts from 1534 and spun a fanciful story about a captive Turk making the map. Someone posted a video from the symposium about the exhibit on YouTube. There's also a link on the exhibit page to this.

"Mediterranean Sea" from Caertboeck van de Midlandtsche Zee, by William Parentsz, Amsterdam, 1595
This was the first waggoner* to extend the Dutch approach to sea charting into the Mediterranean. You can really see the Dutch influence, and the fact that this map was made primarily for coastal reference, as the coastlines are packed full of detail but that of the inland areas is relatively sparse.
*Woo hoo! Thanks to David Howarth's The Voyage of the Armada, I know the story behind the waggoners! In 1588 a Dutch man named Waghenaer became the first person to compile an exhaustive collection of coastal route maps, or "rutters". Each rutter had two elements: a detailed drawing of the profile of a particular section of coast; a highly exacting set of instructions on how to navigate around obstacles. These instructions would run along the lines of "When the steeple of this church is in line with that hill, there you must turn west in order to avoid the shoals ahead..." Wagenhaer's books of rutters were so useful to mariners that they became known as waggoners!

"Mediterranean Sea", from Carte Nouvelle de la Mer Mediterraneé by Romeijn de Hooghe, Amsterdam, [1694] 1711
The dedication in the cartouche (I learned that word at the exhibit!) is to William of Orange, who was king of both the Netherlands and Great Britain at the time. The Black Sea is very oddly-shaped, not only in this one, but in several maps from around this time; also, Italy is oddly misshapen, with a too-high instep here and an oddly swept-back heel there. It would seem that cartographers' notions of some areas had not yet achieved a high level of accuracy.

One of the most striking pieces is a map of the Mediterranean and Black Seas that was hand-painted on vellum by Domenico Olivia in 1568. On the "neck" of the vellum is a depiction of Christ on the cross, supposedly watching over mariners. Vibrantly multi-colored "Rhumb-lines" (another term I learned at the exhibit) radiate from the compass roses.

"Ottoman Empire", from Speculum Orbis Terrarum by Gerard de Jode, Amsterdam, 1578
De Jode came into conflict with Ortelius; there is evidence that Ortelius used his influence to delay the licensing of de Jode's atlas. The most interesting thing about this map, especially in relation to those around it, is that de Jode paid no attention to political boundaries. This illustrates the sixteenth-century way of thinking about political aggregates, so very different from modern notions, that Garrett Mattingly wrote about in his book Catherine of Aragon. As the exhibit placard says, de Jode's map illustrates the different conceptualization of political space. Sovereignty in the late sixteenth century remained fundamentally a matter of personal allegiance and dynastic influence. In such circumstances boundaries were more fluid and remained un-demarcated on the ground, more easily described than mapped.

Frederick de Witt, Amsterdam, [1635] 1680
This map shows the persistence with which information, sometimes inaccurate, passed down through generations of cartographers. His maps contained Ortelius's naming and configurations.

Faden (book of maps - late eighteenth century?)
Faden started out importing and reselling European maps, and eventually began to commission and engrave his own. This map of the Arabian peninsula was updated to include observations made by Carsten Niebuhr in the course of the Royal Danish Expedition that took place in 1761-67**.

"Western Mediterranean", anonymous, Cedid Atlas Tercumesi, Istanbul, 1803
This striking map was printed for the Ottoman Military Engineering School. It was linked to early nineteenth-century efforts to modernize the Ottoman military. All maps in the atlas were taken from Faden's "General Atlas" that had been acquired by the private secretary to the Ottoman ambassador in London! This was translated into Ottoman Turkish and re-engraved. From this point on, Ottoman maps increasingly reflected western geographical science and cartographic practices.

As we move along the wall adjacent to the de Jode, we see a striking aspect of the evolution of cartography between the sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth. By then, the French had taken the lead in cartography, and their focus on rational order shows in the way maps became intricately ramified. The astonishingly busy map of Hungary by Guillaume de L'Isle, Paris, 1717, is among the first to show the course of the Danube correctly.

The last section illustrates how trade and travel were inextricably bound to cartography, as map-makers relied upon information brought back by travelers, and how the increasing availability of this information forced them to become more accurate.

"Rhodes", from Peregrinato in Terram Sanctam by Bernhard von Breydenbach
Erhard Reuwich accompanied Breydenbach on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1483- 84. His woodcut represented an entirely new approach to topography: showing the "true likeness", as opposed to more fanciful representations. You can see the damage inflicted on the harbor during the Ottoman siege of 1480.

**Niebuhr was the sole surviving member of the Royal Danish Expedition to the Arabian Peninsula between 1761 and 1767. Niebuhr's maps of interior Arabia remained the standard reference for cartographers until well into the twentieth century!

"Constantinople" (Plan de la ville de Constantinople et de ses Faubourgs) from Voyage Pittoresque de la Greece, Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, Vol. I by Fr. Kauffer, Paris, 1782
Kauffer was an engineer attached to the staff of the French embassy in Istanbul. This is a bloody AMAZING map! The precision and delicacy of detail is akin to something one would see in a very good American Civil War-era map.

"Constantinopolis" from De Rebuspublicus Hanseaticis by Matthaus Merian, Frankfurt, 1641
This panoramic view shows a concern with realism. Even the reproduction in the exhibit book, though, doesn't show the thing I find most striking: the refined use of cross-hatching, so much more prevalent than in any other map in the exhibit, gives this panorama a highly distinctive, warm, and lavishly textured style.

The exhibit has some travel journals of one Lady Mary Worley Montague, wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court in 1717 and 1718. She sounds like an interesting character: she was openly scornful of earlier authors, whom she claimed never actually witnessed the people and events they write of; she was also a steadfast advocate of inoculation during a time when the medical community was very much against it.

"Itinerario, Voyage of te Schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten, Amsterdam, 1596
Van linschoten knew the spice trade from six years in Portuguese Goa, and this apparently had quite an influence on Dutch commercial expansion into the East Indies. At some point he got his hands on some secret Portuguese rutters. The maps for the Itinerario, drawn by Henricus Langene, were far more accurate than Gastaldi or Ortelius, and were quickly reproduced.

View of Tunis from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Braun & Hogenberg, Cologne, 1572-1617, ed. 1633
This view of Tunis narrates an attack on the city, at the time under the protection of Barbarossa, by Habsburg forces in 1535 in an effort to contain Ottoman expansion into the western Mediterranean. How gratifying it is to see this woodcut, produced in a time when Europeans and Ottomans were fighting so desperately to conquer, or more likely reconquer, any and all territory on the northern coast of Africa! In his book The Victory of the West, which I highly recommend, Niccolo Capponi writes in detail of this near-stalemate that lasted for decades, and was broken only by the hugely important Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The book that goes along with the exhibit is a bit pricey at $42, but when Grace asked me if I wanted it I said "Yes". The reproductions, though at times disappointingly lacking in fine detail, are exhaustive. A surprising number of them come from local sources such as the University of Chicago. I think the book is probably worth the price, especially given the pleasing amount of detail and thematic planning that went into the exhibit.

Reaping the benefits of geography

Since I've been reading history it's become more and more apparent that my lack of geographical knowledge causes me to spin my wheels, pausing to look up a place or fuming over not having an atlas with me. During the last year I've spent a lot of time boning up on geography, mainly using these outline tests. I've memorized the U.S. capitals, the English historical counties, all the countries of the world, and all the capitals except those in Oceania and the Caribbean. Recently I had a great moment when I realized the fruits of my labors. I was listening to the twelfth podcast in the 12 Byzantine Rulers series, and Brownworth was talking about Michael III's Patriarch Photios. The Bulgarians were making overtures to join the Orthodox Christian fold at around the same time when some Scandanavian Slavs in Armenia were making folks in Constantinople nervous. In 863, under Photios's guidance, Micael took the opportunity to attempt to convert all of them to Christianity. As I was listening I realized that I wasn't spinning my wheels at all, because I knew where all those places were! It may not sound like much, but to someone who's always been not only historically but geographically challenged, it was a real watershed.

Here I go.

My friend Karen told me that our mutual friend Catalina wants to start a blog. I assumed it was easy, but since I'd never done it I figured I should just start my own so that I could tell her how to do it. The problem was that I think that blogging is nothing but masturbation, and since so much that passes for discourse is also masturbatory, the notion has always seemed particularly unsavory. Then it occurred to me that a blog could serve a useful purpose: it could help me by serving as a journal for my historical studies; and it might convey some of my newfound enthusiasm for history. If I can put an extra coat on the very thin paint that is my memory, while potentially helping someone else to discover the excitement of history, then a little wanking might not be out of order. There's also the nice fringe benefit of the release valve: maybe writing about my enthusiasm du jour will help me refrain from talking my friends' ears off about it.