Archive for März, 2014

Ruins and Reconstructions, Dreams and Nightmares in the 18th century

In Allgemein by Francesca / 26. März 2014 / 0 Comments

Last week we showed the detail of a 3D print of one of Piranesi’s designs, which is part of the current exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London that celebrates Piranesi’s manifold design sketches and architectural fantasies — the genre of drawing was called the „cappriccio“ . The Soane’s Museum, like a handful of other museums (such as Yale’s Peabody Museum) is spearheading the explorations into the world of 3D-printing technology applications in art, that has taken the headlines by storm several times in the last few years, mostly by reporting news of the 3D printing applications in science.

Piranesi’s graphic meditations upon Rome mix proto-romantic imagery of nature and wilderness with the ruins of Rome, if they don’t happen to be pictorially re-imagining a reconstruction of the Roman ruins and seeking to restore the buildings to completeness. Piranesi’s illustrations of a reconstructed and re-imagined Rome offer unusual and somewhat unfamiliar impressions of Rome, because the depiction of Rome as a city of ruins is by a long way more common. Although here and there an artist might have, like Piranesi, sought to imagine an un-ruined Rome, by contrast, the practice of illustrating, painting, or drawing the ruins of Rome flourished and gained wide popularity over a course of time. Roman ruins as a theme in painting reached a peak of admiration and publicity in the later eighteenth century, through painters like Pannini, Canaletto and indeed Piranesi, who together are now subsumed under the name „Vedutisti“ („view-painters“). It coincided, of course with the same epoch when the grand tour was in vogue, antiquarianism, amateur archaeology, and commissioning or inspecting excavations during a trip to the Mediterranean was a fashionable passion of the well-to-do.

Piranesi’s sketches and drawings of the ruins of Rome thus fall within a then extremely popular motif for illustration — which also extended to drawing or painting — the motif of Roman ruins, that celebrated the period’s ideals of pre-industrial cultural refinement and nourished many other dreams, reaching far beyond an interest in Rome and rather turning the Roman ruins into symbolic objects representing certain ideas or feelings to modern man. As Roland Mayer writes: „The taste for Rome’s ruins grew slowly through the medieval period. It snowballed in the eighteenth century, when northern visitors to Italy felt the need to decorate the parks and gardens back home with fake ruins“.

This being said, Piranesi also had a very different and much darker streak in his creative work, as his graphic legacy also includes a richly filled portfolio of sketches depicting imaginary prisons in subterranean vaults and lead the viewer into a distorted and ghoulish world of incubus-like corridors and beast-like machinery, claustrophobic yet enormous Escher-like spaces of illusion and imprisonment. These series, subsumed under the name „Carceri“ (which means „prisons“ in Italian) have had an afterlife of their own, standing in a genealogical line with works of art that betoken an altogether different thematic preoccupation, different aesthetic leanings, a different outlook on life, where the darkness of prisons and workhouses, alcoholism and overcrowded conditions are at the center of artistic portrayals. This genre, which has had manifold ramifications in the art and literature into the 19th and 20th centuries, certainly merits a separate reflection, with beginnings of which I hope to report back next week!

Views of Rome in the Bank of England? Sir John Soane, the Grand Tour, and the Dilettanti Era of Archaeology

In Allgemein by Francesca / 20. März 2014 / 0 Comments

John Soane was an architect and proponent of neo-classical style during the late Georgian era, one of the first to make intelligent use of natural light in building designs for art galleries. Dulwich picture gallery, with its top-lit showrooms, set the standard for many later art gallery and museum buildings. Soane’s biggest building project, on which he worked 45 years, was the Bank of England, where he succeeded R. Taylor as architect and surveyor. The redevelopments and expansions of the Bank of England building overseen and designed by Soane in those years were manifold and took place on a grand scale. To name but a couple of salient features, Soane designed a Doric Vestibule, as well as the Tivoli Corner, which was based upon a model of the temple of Vesta at Tivoli.

Soane, who came from a family of bricklayers, was introduced to George Dance the Younger during a work engagement. Qua founding member of the Royal Academy, it is believed that Dance encouraged Soane to attend lectures at the Academy, since they were free, and Soane began following courses of lectures on architecture and perspective. He excelled as a student, with many of his designs winning medals at academy competitions. Under these circumstances, John Soane was awarded travel scholarships to go on the Grand Tour, and starting in 1778, he set out for first Paris, then Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Cumae, Vesuvius, Herculaneum, the Pontine Marshes, Syracuse, Malta, Venice, Florence, Vicenza, and many more places, in the company of various new friends that he made on the tour.
The Grand Tour, a kind of aristocratic „gap year“ (or perhaps even „gap decade“) of the 18th century, consisted of travel to Italy and other parts of Europe to see Roman ruins, ancient temples, sculptures and other remains of antiquity, with the aim of educating one’s sense of style and beauty, and developing the young traveler’s sense of virtue, in line with the contemporary ideals of the English enlightenment.
It was a group of Grand Tour alumni who formed the London Society of Dilettanti, an exclusive club dedicated to the delights of ancient Rome—and to heavy drinking. The Dilettanti were keen sponsors of the study of ancient art, and were founders of the Royal Academy as well as the British Museum. Many pieces inside the British Museum, like the Knidian lions and the statue of Demeter of Knidos, were excavated by the Dilettanti themselves or their sponsees, in the late 18th or early 19th century.

John Soane remained faithful to the Royal Academy throughout most of his life and continued to exhibit designs there for many decades. Through the sponsorship he received, Soane was able to rise from modest origins in bricklaying to the top of the architectural profession in his day. Friends whom he first met on the Grand Tour later became clients, so that prior to taking up the Bank of England project, which would occupy him for the best part of his life, Soane worked on numerous domestic projects, leaving his distinctive mark of style on many townhouses, galleries, country residences and gardens in and around London.
Over the decades of his life, he accumulated a growing collection of antiquities, which he housed at his home at 13, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The collection contained Greek and Roman bronzes, candelabra and urns, Roman mosaics, Greek vases, various statue-heads and other architectural salvages, Roman glass, Chinese ceramics, and copies and miniatures of famous sculptures such as Diana of Ephesus. Soane also acquired the architectural collection of his late teacher Henry Holland, and owned paintings by Canaletto, Hogarth, and Turner, to name but a few. Some 250 architectural models are gathered in the house, as well as a library with Incunable texts and a 13th century English Vulgate, various rare manuscripts, and many works on architecture and design. There are many and special editions of the Roman architect Vitruvius, and of Winckelmann, whose idea for a scientific study of classical archaology was all the rage also in the English 18th century, and was practiced with great verve especially by the Dilettanti’s Robert Newton. Sir John Soane was knighted in his later life, and made his house a Museum of Architecture, by Act of Parliament, in 1833.

More than 30,000 architectural drawings are assembled in his bequest, and the Museum has one of the richest holdings of graphic works by Piranesi. Particularly famous for his etchings of views of Rome, in which he used his knowledge of design and architecture to provide the missing parts of Roman ruins, Piranesi’s graphic work offers a recreated, full view of ancient Rome and its buildings. These views of Rome were a strong influence to neoclassical architecture, which John Soane embraced from early on. Now on show at the Sir Sohn Soane’s Museum, there are fantastical objects taken from the sketchbooks of Piranesi: 3-D printing technologies have been used to create, for the first time, objects that were designed, but never realised, by Piranesi, and which John Soane had made sure would be preserved in his archive and library. Soane would, I’m sure, be very happy to know that his efforts of design sketch preservation ended up gifting people from the future with a whole new set of beautifully designed objects and sculptures.

 

photo courtesy of the Sir John Soane’s Museum

The National Museum : 19th Century Ideas on Tactile Display

In Allgemein by Francesca / 12. März 2014 / 0 Comments

The museum experience has a bad rep with the modern traveler: between crowds of onlookers obstructing the view of popular works of art, staff with an unpleasant air of bureaucratic authority and transient feelings of being overwhelmed at the sheer numbers of unfamiliar objects to be inspected in seemingly never-ending successions of glass cases within oppressively large buildings, many art and culture lovers nowadays may well prefer the controllable intimacy of a small exhibition or historic house visit, or turn to the digital collections and virtual displays that many museums provide instead of visiting the dusty and musty museum. It’s not only that digital displays give people from faraway locations a chance to see important works of art they could now otherwise see. It is also that those who are near enough a museum to visit it, often choose not to. One of the reasons, I’m sure, is the ability to look for works of art in a more goal-oriented manner than the typical museum is designed to encourage, which is rather more for browsing than searching. This is only a small tip of the iceberg that is the remove between us today as a culture consumer, and the audience of our forbears for whom these shows were really put on.
The classic „National Museum“ that graces many a European capital with a large, impressive stately building somewhere in a prominent location of the city centre—think British Museum, think Berlin Museum Island, think Paris, Budapest, Prague—is a testament to the 19th century forma mentis that likes to classify and catalogue, to collect and archive, and most of all, to own culture.
Museums appeared all around Europe during the 18th, 19th and part of the 20th century to store and display cultural treasures such as ancient Graeco-Roman or Renaissance sculpture, pottery, or paintings acquired abroad under mostly controversial conditions and by infamously famous archaeologists such as Lord Elgin or Heinrich Schliemann. Back home in the all-new, all-industrial megalopolis of the new colonial empires, modern gentlemen with electric lights in their homes and the ability to telephone, could then wander up the grand new boulevards, step into the tall museum through a marvelous gilded fence, and, perambulating underneath the archways and colonnades of the house’s neoclassical architecture, instruct themselves in the art and thought of ancient Greece and Rome. Archaeological museums were not all: science museums, natural history museums, museums of modern art, soon a plethora of museums rose to success, simultaneously as the educational system slowly began to broaden its social reach and to diversify itself in academic disciplines.
This somewhat caricatured impression does, if nothing else, allow us to see by contrast how different we are today, how traditional national museums are not an easy fit for the global citizen. Dubbed „a museum of a museum“ or referred to as „the last colonial museum in Europe“ for its brazen distortion of historical fact and misrepresentation of Africa, Belgium’s Congo Museum perhaps is the most clear-cut emblem of our own times’ estrangement from the past. Or take the Museum Island in Berlin, which was badly damaged during the Second World War, and was considered unworthy of much repair in the 1950s already, and left more or less abandoned. It eventually re-opened its doors properly in the 2000s, raising more questions than it answers.
The old museum buildings are positively huge, infinitely intricate in their design, difficult to maintain, and difficult to change. In many cases, they were purpose-built for the presentation of their particular content, so that changing anything around inside the galleries might be out of the question. This in part explains why, instead of overhauling these gigantic museums (or even museum complexes), arts councils in many European cities rather gave the go-ahead to brand new arts and culture centers, which mushroomed all over Europe, throughout the early 2000s, to provide space for the arts and performances of our own age—some were absorbed into the city’s culture and instantly became irreplaceable, others, like an arts center called „the Public“, located in the UK Midlands, attracted vitriolic news coverage after not succeeding in its mission as expected and/but leaving behind a trail of arts funding drainage. Certain museums have thoroughly restructured and reinvented themselves and manage to transcend the sclerotic anachronism pressing upon them. The British Museum, for instance, has undergone several dramatic changes in order to keep up with the flow of time and change, as has London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but two examples, and the world of museum enthusiasts awaits with curiosity what exactly the Belgian Congo Museum will do to update its look and stance—a decision is imminent. Nowadays in museums, we can sample the artifacts offered, and also, we can contemplate the medium, in all its gigantic layout, its classificatory obsession, its highlights, its distortions, its omissions. In the time that museums have begun to seem less exciting to the mainstream of culture lovers, they also have inadvertently become a difficult-to-erase, tactile and interactive display of the history of ideas in Europe.

The Chaotic History of Venice Carnival Masks and Costumes

In Allgemein by Francesca / 5. März 2014 / 0 Comments

Much of Venice was sprinkled with confetti this week-end, as the Carnival celebrations began to get into their full (and silent) swing, and vaguely lost romantic couples were greeted here and there by fully costumed figures nodding gently with veiled and masked heads. The magnetic, mysteriously melancholic and somewhat outdated Venetian masks that are usually banished behind shop windows seemed to come to life for a short spell of three days only, and the doctor masks and jesters, the grim reapers, Harlequins and Columbines suddenly all were gleefully floating through old-fashioned cafés and town squares in elaborate period costumes, appearing as musketeers and courtesans, as fantasy clowns and fairies. That on Mardi Gras, the centrepiece of the festival, it turned out to be acqua alta and Saint Mark’s Square was covered knee-deep in water seemed to disturb no-one. Photographers, dressed-up revelers and visitors alike slipped on impromptu plastic bag Wellingtons or simply went barefoot. In fact, the water added extra scenic effects to the dramatic appearances of costumes that often boasted gilded masks and robes, tall wigs, wide capes, high shoes, voluminous tulle collars, lace cuffs, dark-and-light feathers and gems all around the head and all manner of jewelry, walking canes and strange and magical, old-worldly accessories to match.

As such, the Venetian Carnival is a modern invention born from the desire to revive some of Venice’s old and forgotten traditions and quirky customs. It would seem that records of the city can recall carnival celebrations being held as far back as the 12th century – as an outburst of joy and dance that the Venetian Republic had been freed from domination. The wearing of masks during the festivities and for all kinds of other occasions seems to have become de rigueur very soon, and laws regulating the use of masks followed suit. A history of mask and masked ball prohibitions in Venice (to prevent individuals from using masks to conceal their identity when engaging in illegal activities or acts of dubious morals, for instance) led to the carnival festival becoming more and more mythologized and cultivated with special care, in private and in secret.
There are a few recurrent costumes and masks which lend the Venetian Carnival its distinctive and recognizable charm, such as the “Jolly Joker”, “Dottore” and “Bautta”; however, the history of each mask is different and historically, these masks would never have been seen together at the same time.
Inextricably tied up with Venice’s history as a Republic and as an independent city-state is the Bautta mask, which had to be worn by men during certain political gatherings as an anonymizing measure to help the functioning of Venice’s direct, secret democracy.
The Doctor mask, with its long and beak-like nose, on the other hand, has a completely different history. It is said to have been first invented in France during the time of the bubonic plague, by Charles de l’Orme, a doctor who hoped that wearing a mask covering his nose and mouth would protect him from contaminating himself with the Black Death. The round openings for the eyes were sealed with thin glass, for protection against infection, simultaneously creating an erudite and bespectacled effect. The final touch to this doctor’s pre-modern set of precautions was to wear a coat of waxed garments, and leather leggings and gloves during times of contact with plague patients. This outfit caught on and gained wide use amongst pest doctors of the time, and was further developed in a variety of ways – for instance, the mask’s long beak was to be filled with scented herbs and perfumes, so that the doctor would not smell the foul smells of disease, as these were believed to be the cause of contamination, at the time.
It comes as not too great a surprise, perhaps, that this doctor’s outfit struck some people as bizarre and even buffoonish, and found itself to be amalgamated with the comedy masks and costumes of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. This was a culture of traveling comedy actors, who would improvise farcial and satirical performances outdoors, based on a number of stock characters, one of which came to be the Pompous Doctor.
Probably best remembered today through his later adaptation by the French playwright Molière in Le Malade Imaginaire, the Commedia Doctor was characteristically boastful of his vast knowledge of obscure and useless things as well as babbling in dead languages, and the character would be recognizable to the audience by the distinctive mask and costume. Today, in Venice, the mask appears again, in new incarnations: a part buffoon, as the self-assured doctor who most of all loves the sound of his own voice and appears in an ever so slightly indulgent and decadent costume with white collars and cuffs; and a part sinister, as the bird-like messenger of death, wearing a long hooded cloak like the grim reaper, a long staff in his hand.
Another popular mask in the Venice Carnival, the “Jolly” as it is called, takes its origins in 19th century USA. A mixture of the classic Pierrot with his pale and melancholic face, and the Joker as we know him from playing cards (believed to have been introduced to a pack of cards for the first time in 1860s USA), this mask is a modern fantasy persona that is part German court jester, part Joker card come to life, and a little bit Pierrot. In Venice, one can see him bouncing around brandishing mirrors and bells like the old German court jesters, or indeed a pack of cards or dice, as he is broadly thought to impersonate the different facets of chance, games, craziness, the inverted world, the unpredictability and all the bitter-sweet ephemera of life.
And on this ephemeral note, the Carnival magic seems to have vanished like a dream, now that it is Ash Wednesday and the Lent begins.