Category Archives: Art History

Godfathers of the Renaissance*

Two of my favorite things are renaissance art and mobster movies, so that’s why I like the Medici’s. The Medici family owned the renaissance, going from businessmen to bankers to politicians to monarchy and Pope-age between the 1400’s and 1700’s. They pretty much ruled Florence and were important patrons of art and science. They spent so much money on it that they were directly responsible for a lot of the paintings, sculptures and architecture that came out of the Italian renaissance. Galileo even tutored some of the kids and named 4 moons of Jupiter after them. The Corleone’s wish they were the Medici’s.

Early Medici, Early Renaissance

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici is the first notable Medici and the one with the name most fun to say out loud. By 1400 he was the richest man in Florence, commissioning lots of building and sculptures in the town including the Duomo by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. He felt patronizing the arts was his patriotic duty.

BAM. The first and most important dome ever (or something like that, art history was like 5 years ago.)

Giovanni was a well-liked leader but after he died some rival families drove his sons out of Florence. Those families quickly ruined the city financially and the Medici’s were welcomed back. Giovanni’s son Cosimo became the leader of the republic and was a passionate supporter of art and academics. He commissioned a church from Brunelleschi, had a monastery rebuilt so Fra Angelica could live and work there and built the first public library. He was loved so much that after he died everyone just sort of let his son Piero become the leader, establishing a kind of monarchy of awesome (technically they were ruled by a council).

Lorenzo the Magnificent, Partying Like it’s 1499 (When it’s Really More Like 1470’s-ish)

Piero’s son was Lorenzo the Magnificent and like his family before him he loved to live extravagantly and spent money lavishing Florence. He created an academy to nurture young artists like Botticelli, da Vinci, Verrochio and later Michelangelo. He set up pageants and parties for Florence and wanted to return to the spirit of the classical times of Greece and Rome, essentially ushering in the entire philosophical revolution behind the renaissance. You might even say that he was magnificent. He also supported art that depicted more than just religious subjects, that celebrated secular and humanistic themes as well as using mythological images from classical times, greatly expanding the scope of the visual arts at the time. He was a tough ruler but brought in a time of prosperity for Florence. Good times were had by all.

"Venus" was painted by Sandro Botticelli for Lorenzo back when he was awesome. He gets way less awesome in the next section.


Party Foul

Things start going badly for the Medici’s and lovers of excess in general when Lorenzo’s brother was assassinated by a rival banking family and then some douche bag monk named Savonarola got power of Florence for four years. The rival family were the Pazzi’s and they were attempting to murder Lorenzo as well. Francesco Pazzi looked on the surface to be good friends with Lorenzo and his brother. He walked with the brothers into their palace where an ambush waited, killing Lorenzo’s brother as Lorenzo escaped. The people of Florence were not down with this so they ran the conspirators out of town and in the town square strung up the body of a Pazzi who had immediately committed suicide. In the aftermath Lorenzo continued to support art but was no longer a rambunctious partier, focusing instead on serious political business and peace-keeping.

Meanwhile, the monk Savonarola had been preaching death and destruction to the people of Florence based on his hatred art, music, plays and especially the Medici lifestyle. After Lorenzo’s death his message became more violent and he gained a following. Then he and his fanatics overtook power in Florence from Lorenzo’s son. Three years into his reign he and his followers staged a “Bonfire of the Vanities” and burned pretty much anything that brings any kind of fun or joy to anyone’s life. During this time Sandro Botticelli had become one of his followers, first abandoning pagan imagery and then leaving painting all together. He burned his own paintings in the bonfire, as did some other painters. One year later Savonarola was executed by being burned in the same spot the bonfire had been held, in punishment for his rallying against the sitting pope.

Savonarola: hated art, is depicted forver in art.

And Then Three Centuries of Some Other Stuff

After Savonarola the spirit of the renaissance moved south to Rome where the High Renaissance period started. The Medici’s did a bunch of other royal and political stuff, producing 4 different popes, and eventually falling, but this post is long enough.

Pope Leo X: He's the one that sold indulgences and commissioned the Sistine Chapel. Gangsta.

In Conclusion

Writing the other day about how the art market is driven by the demand for status symbols reminded me of Medici patronage. Is it appreciation of art or just displaying wealth? Do those have to be mutually exclusive? Does it matter? I guess I’m interested in the balance and relationship between money and art, customer and artist. As an artist money can mean that you’re limited by the expectations of the purchaser, but it can also be a source of energy for creation. Some of the Medici’s seemed to have genuinely loved art, science and philosophy and had different personal reasons for supporting it, but the most important aspect of those dealings was that like contemporary collectors, in exchange for supporting the arts they got prestige, immortality and a strengthened impression of their power.

Gotta look good.

So really what I’m saying is I would like to be adopted by a rich powerful family in exchange for my paintings, renaissance-style, because that seems like a sweet deal.

*Title stolen from a PBS documentary.


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Salvador Dali’s Guide to Making Art

"Melancholy, Atomic, Uranic Idyll" 1945

Sorry to anyone who noticed the no posts the past couple weeks (mom), but you can’t say you weren’t warned about the laziness!

“50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”

The late 40’s were an interesting turning point in Salvador Dali’s career. The trauma of the atomic bomb caused him be interested in both more scientific and more spiritual themes, and in 1948 he wrote a book called “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship,” a guide on how to be as great as Salvador Dali. Wanting to be as great as Salvador Dali, I bought the book.

Dali has always been one of my favorite artists. I think it’s because of how well he creatively manipulates symbols. Symbols are neat because they speak directly to the unconscious. They make up the language of visual art but need to be constantly re-imagined to be unique, something I could only hope to one day be as successful as Dali at.

Dali’s Atomic Mysticism:

In the first half of his career Dali focused on the symbolism of Freud’s emerging psychoanalytic theories. There was a lot of sex and excrement. I mean, he did plenty of other stuff too, but one of his main themes was unconscious thoughts and desires.

"The Lugubrious Game" 1929. Seriously, check out the guy at bottom right:

Dali was traumatized after the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945. His focus turned to the field of nuclear physics which he combined with a new interest in Christianity and what he saw as the ideal of renaissance painting.

"Dematerialization Near the Nose of Nero" 1947. Something about atoms, maybe? I mean, it says "atom" right in there.

Dali started a new spiritual era in his art that influenced everything he made from then on. His “Mystical Manifesto” explains the change during this time:

Many of the scenes I have painted in this period express the immense fear that took hold of me when I heard of the explosion of the bomb. I used my paranoiac-critical method to analyze the world. I want to perceive and understand the hidden powers and laws of things, in order to have them in my power. A brilliant inspiration shows me that I have an unusual weapon at my disposal to help me penetrate to the core of reality: mysticism… I, Dali, shall use my work to demonstrate the unity of the universe, by showing the spirituality of all substance.

"The Temptation of St. Anthony" 1946. One of my favorite paintings by anyone. Possibly THE favorite ever. I'll have to think about it.

Dali’s Secrets of Mystical Craftsmanship:

And now that I have read his book, and am therefore also a genius, let me share some of his secrets:

  • The painter must study architecture and avoid music. “Architecture will be for you a very superior ‘frozen music,’ since it addresses itself not to the ear but to the noblest organ, the eye.”
  • “Your studio must be situated close to the spot where you were born, and as, if you are to be a good painter, this spot must have an admirable natural setting.”
  • “When you are painting always think of something else.”
  • It’s not possible to paint everything that exists in the universe. The painter is limited to “only a few of them with fanatical constancy. The painter is above all one who likes this and who does not like that. This is known as ‘having taste.'”
  • On a scale of 0-20… Genius: Raphael-20 Dali-19 Mondrian-0. Craftsmanship: Raphael-19 Dali-12 Mondrian-0. Originality: Raphael-20 Dali-17 Mondrian-1/2.
  • “The two most beautiful and useful colors that exist are black and white, and the true nobility of the art of every colorist depends on the knowledge of how to utilize these as the basis of your pictorial work.”
  • A painter’s slumber takes practice. When napping one must lay holding a heavy brush upright and above a ceramic plate, so that when the brush drops out of your hands you wake up. A few moments of sleep is all you need to feel revived and any more will harm your work.
  • Create a telescope out of two magnifying glasses and a sea urchin skeleton through which you’ll view the painting to decide if it’s done or not. And because sea urchin skeletons are “very like the skeleton of heaven” you should always keep one somewhere in your studio to “constantly remind you of the celestial regions which the sensuality of your oils and your media might so easily cause you to forget.” It’s actually tripping me out a little that I’m reading about Dali’s urchin obsession today, since I just finished a painting of a sea urchin a few days ago (and gave it a cosmic title!) But I guess that shouldn’t surprise me now that I’m a mystical craftsman.
  • “The last secret of this book is that before all else it is absolutely necessary that at the moment when you sit down before your easel to paint your picture, your “painter’s hand” be guided by an angel.”


Filed under Art History, Inspiration

“Art and Human Nature”

Venus of Willendorf, ~23,000 BC. No art had ever been created in the world before this sculpture.


One of the fun things about working at the library is emailing academic journal articles to myself for free through the university. It’s fun because they’re meant to be for students so I feel like I’m stealing knowledge. I found one article called “Art and Human Nature”  by Noel Carroll (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 62, blah, blah.) I was interested in it because I always like finding ways to justify trying to make paintings for a living. I mean, it’s not like it really helps anyone. So this article talks about why art evolved.

The author starts by giving a definition for art and why we can say all human cultures have created it:

“There are certain very frequently recurring features in a great deal of what are called artworks across cultures, including their embodiment in a sensuous medium that calls for an imaginative response to their decorative, representational, emotive and symbolic properties. Also these things are typically the product of the application of skills, acquired from a tradition, and they address both feeling and cognition, often affording pleasure.”

“Art” as described above is universal, and something universal wouldn’t have evolved without having adapted advantages. Art for art’s sake is just a modern spin, the roots of art are a lot more primitive. These are some ways that the articles suggests art has been beneficial to human evolution:

Imagination Practice

Having an imagination and being able to think about how things could be, but aren’t, is a valuable adaptive asset that lets a person run cost-free trials of possible future events in their mind, and lets them arrange chains of events into meaningful wholes. Fictional stories, myths and narrative images are some of the oldest forms of art and are one of the most effective exercises of our ability to do that.

"Garden of Earthly Delights" by Bosch. It could happen!


Also, being able to empathize with and understand others through the imagination is an important part of sociability, which is an important part of human survival, which brings us to…

Mind Reading

Art is often a creative expression by a person or group that’s then experienced and understood by someone else. Some music is “happy” or an actor’s face is “angry” or a temple is “majestic,” etc. As social animals it’s vital to be sensitive to and able to interpret other people’s emotional states, something art allows us to refine. As the author says: “Art, in short, is one of the most important cultural sites we have for training our powers for detecting the emotions and intentions of others.”

"The Old Guitarist" by Picasso. I feel this is sad. Wikipedia says I'm right. Art interpreted.


Group Cohesion

Not only do individuals interpret art, people can respond similarly as an audience to an artwork. This is another important way art enhances sociability in humans by “quickening the social glue.” (Does alcohol count as art?) Groups of people laugh at the same parts in movies, bond over the same music or are affected similarly by religious objects, coordinating their emotions and creating group cohesion.

Obama's "Hope" poster by Shepard Fairey. Had me convinced.


Different cultures will create different art, just like they have different languages or religions, adapting them to their needs. Art encodes cultural information and embeds it in the mind where it’s accessible, creating shared understanding in a society.

What a douche.


Art Killed Neanderthals, is Badass

The author also mentions that evidence suggests the Cro-Magnon peoples possessed art and the Neanderthals didn’t. So there’s that.


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