‘He is the Shakespeare of Painting.’ – Giotto’s Arena Chapel

July 30, 2020 at 6:58 pm (Art)

A panel from Giotto’s Arena Chapel serves as the cover art for a book I am currently reading – very slowly and deliberately: . The Arena Chapel, in Padua, Italy, was originally designed as a private place of worship. Covered frescoes painted by Giotto di Bondone, with assistance from those in his workshop, it was commissioned by a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni, in the early 1300s. (Hence it is also referred to as the Scrovegni Chapel.)

The exterior of this edifice is appealing yet modest.

It gives little hint of the riches contained within:

In the book’s first chapter, Clark offers a minute analysis of  the panels that tell the story of Joachim. This rendering of that story appears on the site Christian iconography:

The canonical scriptures say nothing of the birth or parentage of Mary, but countless art works through the ages have taken their cue from legendary material. Starting in at least the 2nd century, this material proposes that Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anna. Because they had been childless for 20 years, Joachim was expelled from the Temple when he brought his offering on the Feast of Dedication. Despondent, he went with his flocks into the mountains far away. Five months later an angel told him he was to be a father and should go to meet Anne at Jerusalem’s Golden Gate. While Joachim sacrificed a lamb in thanksgiving, the angel brought Anne the same message, and the couple met and embraced at the Golden Gate. When the child was born they named her Mary.


The Expulsion of Joachim

The absolute blue in Joachim’s Expulsion…conjuring an emptiness no human effort can ever stave off, uninflected and godforsaken, the Temple floating on it like a tipping life raft–seems to speak to a bleakness of vision that Giotto’s art, taken as a whole, surely exists to refute.


Joachim Among the Shepherds. I particularly love this panel because of the dog’s spontaneous expression of joy at seeing Joachim, and Joachim’s tender acknowledgement.


Annunciation to St. Anne


Joachim’s Sacrificial Offering


Joachim’s Dream

The blue in Joachim’s Dream is less cruel–the angel, after all, does appear in it–but it remains as cold as a color can be, pressing down into the desert at  the angel’s behest almost as far as Joachim’s halo….

Is that blue sky so cold; is it pressing down with such force? It does not appear so to me. And that angel seems more like a harbinger of goodness than anything else, caught as he is in the very act of materializing! And the animals there once again, sweetening the scene with their simple goodness.


Meeting at the Golden Gate

How wonderful is this image! Joachim and Anna embrace: they are going to have a child after all. And this child, a daughter they will call Mary, will become a most awesome part of the history of the world.

The story goes that Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the chapel as an act of penance:

There is a tradition that he hired Giotto to atone for the sin of usury, although there is debate about whether this idea has any foundation. Dante placed his father in the Seventh Circle of Hell for his notoriously ill-gotten gains, and Enrico himself was a moneylender on a grand scale; it is these facts that have given rise to the tradition. Against the idea that he founded the chapel as an act of atonement may be cited the fact that it was a very sumptuous commission for his own personal use, attached to the grand palace that he built for himself. In 1320 Enrico Scrovegni fled the wars and civil strife that plagued Padua at the time, and settled in Venice. He was formally banished from Padua in 1328, and died in Venice in 1336.

from the Wikipedia entry

If, in fact, the tradition holds true, then Scrovegni’s act of contrition gifted the world with one of its greatest works of art.





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‘The archdeacon’s speech had silenced him – stupefied him – annihilated him; anything but satisfied him.’ – The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

July 26, 2020 at 1:06 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

Just look at this wonderfully hirsute gentleman! (Always looking for an excuse to use that word ‘hirsute’ ) Among a (large) number of other works, Trollope is the author of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, a series of six books describing, in the words of the Wikipedia entry,

…the dealings of the clergy and the gentry, and the political, amatory, and social manœuvrings that go on among and between them.

The novels in the series are:

  • The Warden (1855)
  • Barchester Towers (1857)
  • Doctor Thorne (1858)
  • Framley Parsonage (1861)
  • The Small House at Allington (1864)
  • The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

(Again, thank you, Wikipedia.)

Quite a few years ago, I read three of them: Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, and Framley Parsonage. I enjoyed them all. The first is probably the most famous; I began with it, without realizing that it was the second entry in a series. Then off I went, on some other literary quest, undoubtedly devouring mysteries all the while, or at least since 1987, when I went to work at the Howard County Library and was instructed in the utter rightness and necessity of reading crime fiction. (And what a long, strange, completely wonderful trip that has been!)

So, why did I go back back to this saga? This literary turn may fairly be ascribed to the writings of one Michael Dirda, star of the Washington Post’s Book World and resident intellectual in a distinctly nonintellectual environment. In a recent article (which alas, I’ve been unable to retrieve), Dirda cited a scene in Framley Parsonage as being especially memorable and beautifully rendered. Inspired  by  this encomium, I decided to reread said volume.

This was such a thoroughly enjoyable experience that I decided to go back to the beginning, as it were, and tackle The Warden.

The Reverend Septimus Harding is as good and decent a man as one would ever hope to encounter, in fiction or in real life. He has two daughters: Susan ,the elder, who is married to Archdeacon Grantley, and the younger Eleanor who still lives at home with him. (Eleanor’s unwavering devotion to her father is one of the most moving aspects of this novel.)

The Reverend Harding serves as warden to a hospital (what we would call a nursing home) which houses twelve elderly gentlemen who are beyond their working years and have no other family to care for them.

All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and above all, that treasure so inestimable in declining years, a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

From this labor, the veritable opposite of onerous, Rev. Harding derives a comfortable income. Yet it is that income, as supposedly specified in the will of a deceased well off parishioner, that becomes the major issue of dispute in this novel.

The Warden, which is so often entertaining, humorous, and sunny, depicts a crisis of conscience more excruciating than almost any I have encountered anywhere in fiction. (In fact, I’m reminded, in that regard, of Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.)

I’d like to  close on a lighter note, one which illustrates the sly wit for which Trollope is noted and treasured (and that wit is never deployed in a vulgar or mean-spirited manner):

The bishop did not whistle; we believe that they lose the power of doing so on being consecrated; and that in these days one might as easily meet a corrupt judge as a whistling bishop;…


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‘For a brief moment, she smiled, and I glimpsed an angel far from Paradise.’ Death in Delft: A 17th Century historical murder mystery by Graham Brack

July 19, 2020 at 12:28 pm (Art, Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  This little novel found me out via one of Amazon’s cunning algorithms. I had previously not heard of it, nor of its author Graham Brack. As the cover explains, the setting is Delft, in the Netherlands, and the time is the 17th century.

This was the era of the Dutch Golden Age. Its characteristics are summed up as follows in the Wikipedia entry:

The Dutch Golden Age … was a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the era from 1581 (the birth of the Dutch republic) to 1672 (the disaster year), in which Dutch trade, science, and art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first section is characterized by the Eighty Years’ War, which ended in 1648. The Golden Age continued in peacetime during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.

For many of us, this remarkable era primarily means the following:

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals

Soldier and Laughing Girl, Vermeer

The Young Bull by Paulus Potter

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob van Ruisdael

Not to mention this:

Antique Delftware plate

Well, I did let myself get sidetracked there, didn’t I?

Master Mercurius is – well, a curious character. A cleric attached in some capacity to the University of Leiden, he is ordained both as a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. The latter serves as a cover, at a time when Catholics were not generally esteemed or welcome in the Netherlands.

Having been recognized by his superiors as something of a natural sleuth hound, Mercurius is sent to Delft to look into the disappearance and possible kidnapping of three young girls. Once established in this city which is new to him, he is assisted with his endeavors by a number of individuals, among them two of Delft’s most notable citizens: Anton van Leuwenhoek and Joannes Vermeer.

The story of the achievements of these two gifted individuals is woven seamlessly into this engrossing narrative. In fact, it is a discovery made by Vermeer that provides a clue that proves crucial to  the solving of the mystery of the missing girls (one of whom, alas, is found deceased early on in the story).

Mercurius himself is a very appealing and believable character. Despite being in holy orders, he is as vulnerable to the world’s temptations as any man would be. But he is also genuinely self-effacing, empathetic, and above all, kind. One instinctively has faith in his commitment to the cause.

The book is full of memorable scenes. After van Leowenhoek has shown some of his works in microscopy to Mercurius, the latter exclaims:

‘I hope, mijnheer, that you will publish your drawings and receive the credit your work deserves. You have opened our eyes to the smallest works of our Creator, and are therefore a benefactor to mankind.’

Religious doubts and convictions play an important role in this narrative, but they never overpower or interfere  with the action. I like this quote:

 I remembered a prayer that I was told was used by an English soldier during their Civil War: “Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be today. If I do forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.”

Mercurius adds, with fervor, “I knew exactly how he felt.”

The second book in Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is entitled Untrue Till Death. It’s due out on August 10, and I very much look forward to reading it.

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Cocktails with a Curator….Captivating!

July 14, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Art)

The Polish Rider, by Rembrandt


The White Horse, by John Constable

Every Friday at Five PM, the Frick Collection has been presenting “Cocktails with a Curator.” For 17 or 18 minutes, a curator holds forth on the subject of a single work of art housed at the Frick: its history, provenance, and most interesting features. Along with this edifying – but never heavy handed –  commentary, the viewer gets a curated cocktail recommendation that ties in somehow with the work being presented. (Recipes for the cocktails can be found on the Frick’s website.)

The episodes remain available on YouTube after they are originally broadcast. But it’s fun to be present for the first broadcast, because of the running chat that appears on the right. People send greetings from many different places.  When I watched this past Friday, in addition to a goodly number of us in the U.S., their viewers in the UK and Canada; there was someone from Wroclaw, Poland, and another person from Naples, Italy.

Commenters in the chat box invariably wax enthusiastic about the broadcasts. These are mainly hosted by Xavier Salomon, who introduces himself as “the Peter Jay Sharp chief curator at the Frick Collection.” (A few of the episodes are also presented by another curator, the delightful Aimee Ng.) Son of an English mother and a Danish father, Salomon was born in Rome and grew up there. At age eighteen, he moved to London, where he attended the renowned Courtauld Institute. Ultimately he received his doctorate there, having authored a dissertation entitled ‘The Religious Artistic and Architectural Patronage of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571-1621)’

Well gosh…

As for his professional history, we’re informed by an article in This Week in New York that Salomon “…previously worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and the Met here in New York…” The author of this piece adds that this is “…quite a resume for a man only just in his forties….”

Xavier F. Salomon

This same article proclaims Salomon to be “…fast becoming an internet superstar for his Friday talks.” This is easy to believe if you follow the nonstop praise appearing in the chat box.

The first in the series centers on Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. And no, Xavier does not recommend a Bellini cocktail to his viewers, but rather, a classic Manhattan. (For those who choose not to imbibe, or who are under age, there is also a ‘mocktail’ recipe.)

Here are the two episodes that correspond to the paintings at the top of this post:



You might also enjoy ‘Travels with a Curator.’ I particularly like this one, about an exquisite gem in Venice that was completely new to me. (Ah, will one ever return to Venice…)


Xavier and Aimee both acknowledge the pain and frustration we’re all feeling right now, as we remain imprisoned by this loathsome antagonist. In these video segments, they do their best to brighten these gray days that we are all facing.

You can access these treasures via the Frick site or on YouTube. And this Friday, it’s Vermeer!

I for one am deeply grateful.





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Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia

July 4, 2020 at 12:31 pm (Music)

Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia came into existence in 1992. It is based in A Coruna, Spain. Since the orchestra’s 2013-2014 season, its conductor has been Dima Slobodeniouk.

Quotation is from the Baltimore Sun

Here is a lovely gift to us from the chorus:


This performance of Mozart’s 41st Symphony, the Jupiter, is positively breathtaking. All the joyous affirmation of this work is bodied forth, especially at the very end, Here is exultation unbound!



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Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

July 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm (History, Poetry)

In my youth, when my parents were still very much alive and very ardent fans of the opera, especially the productions of the Metropolitan Opera, I recall how when they got home from a performance, they were filled with exultation – such art! such beauty!

This seems like as good a time and place as any to insert one of my favorite pictures of my parents. The place is Bayreuth, Germany, home of the world famous Bayreuth Festival. They are standing beside the Festspeilhaus, the hall purpose built for performance of the operas of Richard Wagner. Mother and Dad loved this music. At the time this was taken, mid-twentieth century, they were in their glamorous heyday, as this photo will attest:

So, as I said, they’d come from the opera, almost always exultant at the memory of what they’d seen and heard. And then they’d read the review in the New York Times. More often than not, the opera they’d just seen had received a review more or less in the ‘meh’ range. My father would thunder to anyone within range, “Did this idiot see to the same opera we did?!”

So, there are times when I read a review of a book I’ve just read and highly esteemed, when I am genuinely perplexed, not to say dismayed, by the reviewer’s take on that same work. For instance, Charles McGrath’s review of the new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appeared  last month in the New York Times. Here’s part of it:

Nicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, “Cross of Snow,” he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day.

Wait just a second…”a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder…”? Yes, Basbanes writes about the issue of Longfellow’s reputation, but he does not, at least in my view, belabor the subject.

But wait – there’s more:

…by the time of Longfellow’s centennial, in 1907, he was already beginning to be dismissed as old-fashioned, and nowadays, if he’s remembered at all, it’s mostly as the author of lines almost laughable in their badness: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water”; “I shot an arrow into the air, /It fell to earth, I knew not where”; “Thy fate is the common fate of all, /Into each life some rain must fall.”

“Laughable in their badness?” Okay, dated, quaint, I’ll grant you. But ludicrous? Just plain bad? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

It’s true that some of Longfellow’s poetry has not worn well. It can be sentimental, and his insistence on rhyme imbues some of the poems with a childish quality. But others have a timeless essence that I for one find appealing; plus the language can be quite beautiful.

One of my favorites is called “Resignation.” I did not know this poem before I encountered it in The Escher Twist, a mystery by Jane Langton:

There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call Death.

Toward the conclusion of The Escher Twist, Eloise Winthrop, a widow who has daily visited her husband’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, suddenly finds herself welcomed to a tea party given by none other than Isabella Stewart Gardner!

It was so exciting! There was the little stone bridge across Auburn Lake, and there was Mrs. Gardner herself on the other side, her long skirt trailing on the grass. She was holding out both hands.

“Welcome, my dear,” called Mrs. Gardner, laughing. “Welcome to the other side.”

Overjoyed, Eloise hurried across the bridge. The party was in her honor! Gently Mrs. Gardner took her arm and introduced her to the other guests. “Mrs. Winthrop, have you met Mr. Longfellow? Do you know Mrs. Farmer? Oh, Fanny, dear, your triangular sandwiches are so delicious.”

This is one of my favorite scenes in all of crime fiction – in all of fiction, for that matter.

(Fanny Farmer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are all three buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Longfellow mentions the place very particularly in a letter:

Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that is, my own tomb. I assure you, I looked quietly down into it without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot, this Mount Auburn. Were you ever there?)

Jane Langton (1922-2018) never made it into  the top tier of famous mystery authors, but I’ve long considered her to be one of the best. Her mixture of inventive storytelling, wit, mercurial characters, and perhaps a soupçon of the supernatural I find captivating.

Anyway, back to Longfellow:

Charles McGrath obviously is no fan of either Nicholas Basbanes or Longfellow, but he does offer this grudging admission:

…whatever you think of Longfellow the writer, Longfellow the person is hard to dislike.

What an understatement. Longfellow was kind, empathetic, generous to a fault, and endlessly patient.  For most of his adult life, he mixed readily with the great and the good of this country and Europe, but throughout, he retained the modesty and forthrightness that characterized his interactions with others.

More things I learned about Longfellow from this book:

The house in which he and his family lived had, some sixty years before they moved into it,  been inhabited by George Washington as he planned a strategy for dealing with the Siege of Boston.

The National Park Service now administers The Longfellow House –  Washington’s Headquarters National Site. They have made a lovely welcoming video:

Longfellow was a scholar of languages, able to read at least fifteen different ones, and to speak almost as many. In his position as a professor at Harvard, he taught literature in many languages. He did a great deal of translating, often aided in these endeavors by his brilliant wife Fanny; in some cases they were the first to introduce works in various foreign tongues to American readers.

Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. The late, great critic Harold Bloom has high praise for it:

[Longfellow’s] “translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.” In an interview for this book, Bloom went further, saying that he preferred the Longfellow translation to “all the current versions.” His reason: the “fidelity” it shows to Dante’s original Italian.

Although we associate Longfellow with the constellation of worthies who inhabited the Boston-Cambridge area in the early to mid nineteenth century, he was actually born and raised in Maine. Moreover, he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825, the same year as his classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Bowdoin has an impressive list of alumni.)  Longfellow taught for a time at Bowdoin before moving on to Harvard.

There’s much more in this lively biography.  Longfellow’s personal life receives welcome attention. He was married twice. His first wife Mary died at the age of 24, following a miscarriage. He later wed Frances “Fanny” Appleton, after an arduous courtship of several years. Once she finally accepted  him, though, theirs proved to be a marriage of true minds, if there ever was one. They shared a deep love of literature and the arts, and together they had six children, losing one, a daughter, not long past infancy.

Longfellow, Fanny, and their two eldest sons, Charley – a real handful, apparently – and Ernest

(Many years ago, I visited the Longfellow home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I came away with a vivid memory of the story, told by a docent, of the terrible accident which cost Fanny her life. It took place in the house. She was 44 years old at  the time. I confess I read a large part of this book with mounting dread, as I was not sure at what point I would encounter this story.)

The book’s title refers to both a photo and a painting of a site in the Rocky Mountains where  a cross made of snow lingered on the mountain’s face the year round.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, by Thomas Moran, 1890


Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1873

Here is Longfellow’s poem, “The Cross of Snow:”

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron


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News of the Art World

July 2, 2020 at 2:36 pm (Art)

A previous unseen sketch in charcoal by Picasso is slated to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on July 28. Dated 1931, this portrait, called Femme endormie (Woman Sleeping) depicts one Marie-Thérèse Walter, ‘lover and muse’ of the artist.

On seeing it, I was immediately put in mind of this image:

Ara Pacis Augustae

This frieze resides in the Museum of the Ara Pacis, in Rome. I had never previously heard of this institution, or this work, until I obtained this book:

Does anyone else perceive the likeness? I think it’s the angle of the head, the suggestion of a slightly veiled repose.

As to the book itself, it is slow going, but I like the elegiac tone. I return to it from time to time.


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