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There is colorful news from the world of fashion and lifestyle!

Every December, Ferrebeekeeper (and everyone else on the planet who writes about color) gets to comment on the Pantone “Color of the Year”, a well-publicized hue which is chosen by a group of fashion mavens and marketing experts to embody our cultural zeitgeist. The Color of the Year welds together the fashionable palette of the day with whatever events happen to be in the news. Thereafter companies, designers, and brands plan the colors for their clothes and goods based around this standard (which is how stores work together to craft lucrative aesthetic trends). You should click this link to see Ferrebeekeeper’s commentary on past colors of past years!

It is a powerful idea…however, this year’s color does not technically exist?

Well, cough…at least it doesn’t exist according to classic Newtonian physics… Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will already recognize that this weaselly sort of language applies to the beautiful rich pink color of magenta. And, indeed, the 2023 Color of the Year is “Viva Magenta” (see above). Magenta famously drove Sir Isaac Newton (further) into madness, since it was his favorite color but he could not find it within the prismatic spectrum of visible colors. Only when the great Sir Isaac set up multiple overlapping prismatic rainbows did he realize that magenta is an illusion our mind makes when it sees bright pink and blue at the same place and same time.

Beyond the pure realm of the electromagnetic spectrum, the color of the year embodies other confusing modalities. For example it has long been posited that there is a strong correlation between the economy and the color of the year. Self-important/self-deluded economists no doubt theorize that the former entirely influences the latter and never vice-versa: I am less sure. But even if bear years really do yield subdued colors, this would make “Viva Magenta” an outlier–since 2023 is projected to be a glum year of economic recession (in contrast with the beautiful, joyous, and bright magenta). Once again, the Pantone executives have carefully hedged their prognostications. If you proceed to Pantone’s site to take in this year’s entire palette, you will see that Viva Magenta is surrounded by a disheartening smear of lifeless beige and gray colors.

Back in the nineties I worked in an office with a colleague who dated a Pantone insider from wayyyyy back in the ’80s (when Pantone produced its consumer product palette advice without all of the color-of-the-year hoopla). My colleague’s beau was doing quite well choosing colors…until he chose a brilliant hot pink cerise (do you remember the year when it was everywhere? 1986 maybe?). Unfortunately, the great masters of capitalism regarded that ’80s electric magenta as too bohemian/artistic (and as a possible cause of the 1987 crash). Thereafter Pantone started pushing drab conservative colors for a while (and they chose other people to choose the Pantone colors).

Abstract Painting in Magenta and Red (Frida Kaas) Digital

Will this year’s magenta similarly be the last drop of dramatic color before a new drab era? The cultural critics of the New York Times do not seem to care for “Viva Magenta” much (they seem like the sort of people who would prefer ecru or pearl gray…or just black). Personally, I rather like “Viva Magenta” (which looks like something a 19th century opera-enthusiast would wear). Additionally, I have high hopes that the economy will not sputter out and that society will finally embrace colors (other than monotones, red, blue, and brown). We will see during 2023. At the very least, Viva Magenta is dramatic…in that respect it certainly catches hold of what we already know about the year to come…

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Orchid Monastics in a Golden Orchid Rain (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Our Inktober special feature of Halloween-adjacent pen-and-ink drawings continues with this enigmatic golden orchid monastery piece which I drew with colored inks on yellow paper.

Lately I have been drawing a series of intricate altarpiece-style compositions after the style of Medieval illuminators (whose seminal contributions to art, culture, and media have been underappreciated because of the post-Vasari cult of celebrity). Hopefully writing about these illustrations in these posts will help contextualize the themes I am trying to highlight.  

Here is a little monastic microcosm of the world.  In one monastery, a white-haired abbot lords it over his little flower novices.  In a sister monastery, the mother superior and her votaries carefully send out an intimate message to the monks by means of technology. Sundry lizard people, extinct animals, and cloaked figures roam about in the space between the two houses as a rain of yellow orchid blossoms falls down from the heavens.

To my mind, the most important part of this composition is the tiny strip of nature in the foreground–a little ecosystem of weeds, wildflowers, seeds, nemotodes, myriapods, and maggots (who are furiously breaking down a mouse skull). The human world of sly courtships, status posturing, and religious grandstanding grows up out of this substrate and pretends to be superior to it (while actually being entirely dependent on the microscopic cycles of life).  All of the pompous & made-up things which humankind uses to dress up our savage primate drives do not change the fact that ecosystems are of paramount importance.

The religions of Abraham (among others) put animals and the natural world at the bottom of their moral hierarchy. I believe they are ultimately doomed because of this stupid outlook.  Whether they will take us all to a garbage-strewn grave with them remains an open question.  

Oh no! I just noticed that I published an incomplete version of the special Halloween post about “Spoon River” I mow cannot find the full post so, I guess, don’t read that post until I go back and rewrite it (at some time in the future! Right now I am too weak to wrestle any more with the larger themes of that dark cross sectional diagram of American society). Speaking of dark views of society, our Halloween-theme weeks invariably feature a post about Gothic aesthetics. It would be unconscionable not to have a post about Gothic tombs–but there are so many contenders! Where do I even start?

The answer is…Portugal? Above is the exquisite sarcophagus of Pedro I of Portugal who ruled the Iberian nation from 1357 until his death in 1367. The magnificent royal coffin is located in the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça right next to the equally splendid matching sarcophagus of Inês de Castro, a Gallician noblewoman whose life and death was the central story of Pedro’s life and career. The full horrible story of their cursed love has been told in numerous operas and was universally known in Portugal in the 14th century, however since there are few 14th century Portuguese gossip mongers still around, we will have to outline the story here. This is bad news since not only is the story a full-on “Game of Thrones style” disaster, but many of the parties involved shared similar names (which I guess were common to all Iberian princes and princesses).

Pedro I was the son of Afonso IV of Portugal (1291 –1357) an important king who kicked off the age of exploration (and made Portugal a world power), but Afonso IV struggled mightily against his powerful neighbors, the Kings of Castile. In 1325 Alfonso XI of Castile entered a child-marriage with Constanza Manuel of Castile, the daughter of Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (and great granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Castile) . Two years later, Alfonzo XI of Castile annulled this marriage to Constanza Manuel in order to marry Afonso IV of Portugal’s daughter Maria of Portugal (Pedro’s sister). Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) Alfonzo XI of Castile mistreated Maria of Portugal (who would have expected such behavior from a man who threw his child bride to the curb to grasp for more power?)

Anyway, Afonso IV of Portugal reached out to the equally aggrieved Juan Manuel (the powerful father of Constanza Manuel) and Constanza Manuel was married to Prince Pedro (later to become King Pedro I, whose sarcophagus we are writing about). Alas, Constanza Manuel brought the noblewoman Inês de Castro with her to Portugal as a lady-in-waiting. Pedro married Constanza Manuel, but he began a love affair with Inês de Castro which scandalized the nation. In 1345, Constanza Manuel bore Peter a son, Ferdinand, and then died. Afonso IV banished Inês de Castro to a convent, but Pedro kept seeing her (and she kept bearing him children). Fearing Castilian influence (and worried that Pedro’s sickly legitimate son would fall prey to the multitudinous illegitimate ones), Afonso IV sent three courtly assassins to deal with Inês de Castro. In 1355, the king’s goons beheaded her in the convent in front of her children. Afonso IV believed this would solve the problem, but, for some reason, it instead sent Pedro into a towering rage. Prince Pedro rebelled against his father and begin to ravage the heartlands of Portugal. Afonso IV martialed his army and defeated Pedro in battle, but as soon as he was victorious, he died and Prince Pedro became Pedro I, King of Portugal.

“The Death of Inês de Castro”, Karl Pavlovic Brjullov

Two of the assassins who had executed Inês de Castro fled to Castile, but King Pedro I offered Alfonzo XI various hostages in exchange for the fugitives. Once he had the killers back in Portugal he tried them for murder and when they were convicted, he personally, physically, literally ripped their hearts out (although the third killer, Diogo Lopes Pacheco, got away and after many adventures returned to die as an elderly prosperous Portuguese nobleman with his heart in its proper place).

A historical re-enactment

According to legend, Pedro I had a magnificent throne made for the mummified body of Inês de Castro and would force courtiers to kiss her leathery hand. Actual primary sources from 14th century Portugal do not corroborate this detail (although they also don’t explicitly say that Pedro I didn’t build a throne for his mummified posthumous wife). However what is certain is that he arranged for exquisite matching coffins so that she would be the first person he saw after resurrecting (excepting Jesus or super angels or whatever).

The Coffin of Inês de Castro, Portugal’s posthumous queen

It is a terrible story…but they really are beautiful fancy coffins. I don’t know, though, something about this story makes me wonder if it is actually worth it to be King of Portugal. Maybe supremely high social status is not the panacea we imagine it to be. I guess we can ask King Pedro I.

Sometimes you have to rip out a few hearts

Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hills–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River.

Oh gosh, October is really flying by this year. I guess we might as well jump to this year’s spooky Halloween topic right now so that we will be able to enjoy (?) these posts as we approach Halloween. Topics in previous years have included the undead, the mother of monsters, flaying, and dark clowns. This year we are returning to the classics and writing about cemeteries (but with an eye on the future as well as the past). Arguably this is a repeat of my 2018 “necropolis” series, but I was dissatisfied by how that panned out (even if I am still astonished and troubled by Vietnam’s “City of Ghosts“) so this year we will circle back to explore the emotional, political, and philosophical (and environmental) aspect of cemeteries and take a look at some amazing graveyards as well.

We will do all of that in subsequent posts of this series, but to start with, let’s just check out an amazing ancient cemetery! The ancient city of Hierapolis is located in what is now Turkey, but its “golden age” took place during the Greco-Roman period particularly from Hellenic times to the beginning of the Byzantine era. The true apogee of Hierapolis was during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The location has a famous hot spring with heated bubbling mineral water–and it is hard to imagine anything more appealing to the Roman mind than a giant natural jacuzzi (especially one right beside the Adriatic in the Hellenized heart of Asia Minor). Well-to-do Romans would retire to Hierapolis to enjoy the healing benefits of the baths and the services of doctors/quacks/healers/magicians of all sorts. The location was a sort of medical mecca of the Roman world. You should go look up the wonders of the Hieraplois baths and theater on your own. For the purposes of this article though, the other side of the medical industry is germane. When the ancient doctors could not help patients, the people who moved their seeking succor stayed permanently.

Like other Roman cities, Hierapolis was designed with the market, theater, and forum in the center of town–along with the baths and medical establishments (and a great colonnaded main street). Around the city center were shops, temples and the dwellings of the great. Farther from the center were more modest dwellings and artisan’s shops and workplaces. The city was surrounded with walls and immediately outside these walls, along each thoroughfare, were extensive cemeteries. Just imagine how creepy roman cemeteries were back in the day when all of the outcasts and footpads of town would haunt the dark mausoleums, columbariums, and tumuli! Like us, the ancient Romans also had their own extensive creepy pantheon of demons and monsters, but the Roman spooky realm was haunted by beautiful flesh-eating lamia, and grim owl-like strix (and headlined by dark gods like Dis Pater, Hecate, and Cronus).

Anyway, Hierapolis was wealthy, as were the citizens who came there to spend the remainder of their days, and thus many of the Roman tombs built there were beautiful and solidly built–and they are still there. The Roman elites commissioned lovely gardens of cypress, asphodel, and roses around their graves. Many of the stunningly beautiful carved sarcophagi which you will recognize from Latin textbooks or history articles about Rome are from Hierapolis (the best have been gathered together in a museum). Even if you are a stern, joyless Christian and find little to love about a bunch of pagan graves, Hierapolis is the also the final resting place of Philip the Apostle and it had a long successful turn as a Byzantine spa city as well.

Tomb of Philip the Apostle (or possibly Philip the Evangelical, depending on which Biblical archaeologists you believe)

Since I was a child, I have loved the Olympics, but a lot has changed in the world since the black-and-white moral conflict of the cold war (and a lot has changed for me since I was a child living in blood-red rural America). As one of the few venues where the nations of the Earth convene, the Olympics gives us a god’s eye view of the international order (albeit through the darkened lens of corporate sponsorship and whatever NBC thinks will appeal to the most American viewers). As the games proceed we can talk about some of what we are viewing. For example, I think the Tokyo Olympics will illustrate how America’s ongoing political crisis is leading to precipitous national decline even more starkly than say the manifold failures of our navy or the savage buffoonery of our national legislature. But we will see! The games have yet to be played and there are always surprises. First let’s talk about the opening ceremony.

One of the ways the Olympics outshine quotidian sports contests is by throwing little tidbits to other disciplines like fashion, music, technology, art, and dance. The original Olympics had medals for music, literature, and the arts, and, although such cultural contests have been subsumed by the dictates of modern broadcasting, elements remain within the pageantry and protocol of the games. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening ceremony–which certainly showcased Japan’s continuing expertise at robotics (and also featured some delightfully preposterous dance routines). However the real spectacle worth watching is the parade of nations! We get to see almost all of the other nations of Earth and a sample of how they dress for fancy occasions, not to mention a prime lineup of extremely fit human beings of all shapes and varieties.

Ghana’s flag bearer, Nadia Eke

It was wonderful, like it always is. Also, after a year or more of watching anxious and sick people on TV, the athletes looked particularly happy and healthy. I don’t know about you, but my heart soared with delight seeing that flag holder from Ghana dance into the stadium with such graceful & proud bearing.

And there was so much more! There were Bermudans in Bermuda shorts! There were magnificent gleaming Hercules chests (these days, Tonga is not the only nation headlined by a magnificent oiled muscleman!)

Who wore it butter?

There were jewels and gold from the Persian Gulf.

I really liked the style of the bejeweled Bahraini athletes!
The Hungarians themselves look great, though

Of course there were also fashion choices which failed to “stick the landing” too. Hungary is an amazing country but their outfits made them look like the title sequence of the gory film I watched in driver’s ed! Maybe let’s try to avoid red spatters in future costumes.

Brilliant Blue Bombas

Sartorial magnificence of every flavor was on display. However to my eyes, the most beautiful costumes belonged to the athletes from…Benin? Their regal embroidered tunics and dresses of royal blue featured fluorescent pink and aqua floral icons. These matched their magnificent satin hats (of name unknown to me). I wasn’t expecting the word’s 163rd wealthiest nation to win the international fashion contest (in fact half of my favorite things from my notes are from nations on the Gulf of Guinea!), but like I said, half of the delight of the Olympics comes from joyful surprises.

America’s outfits were fine, I suppose, but the dark navy blue on top of dark denim read as almost black. Also, I always worry that our nation mistakes casual comfort for elegance, which is to say I thought we maybe looked a bit like lazy villains (which suits the past four years, I guess).

Anyway, the opening parade is over and we can get back showing off in venue which primatologists (or bio-scientists of any stripe) will instantly recognize: physical competition. But before we get too competitive I hope we hold onto a bit of the international amity and open delight in the appearance and actions of foreigners which characterized the opening ceremony. Something tells me we are going to need to love each other a lot more if we are going to survive what is coming (much less make it through to a glowing future of thriving forests, healthy oceans, joyful children, and giant space arks). But somewhere in that Olympics parade there are always things that make me think that such a world is at least possible.

Temnothorax ants living in a tiny acorn

Of all of Ferrebeekeeper’s topics (over there at left in the topic cloud) the one which is farthest from my heart but closest to this blog’s purpose concerns the hymenoptera. This enormous order of important insects always offers diverting stories and anecdotes (like the Schmidt sting index or the Asian giant hornet), but the real reason I started writing about them is that the nature of the huge eusocial ant colonies and bee hives mimics the human super colony in eerie and intriguing ways.

The ants pictured with tapeworm larva (below)

Thus we come to today’s horror story concerning Temnothorax ants which live in German forests in unobtrusive rotting logs and suchlike habitats. Temnothorax ants have a disquieting problem: a parasitic tapeworm likes to live within the abdomens of some of the worker ants. However, to the infected ants it does not seem like a problem. They live up to three times longer than their uninfected sisters and, while the other ants rapidly age and wear out, the ones which harbor live tapeworms keep permanent adolescent good looks through their enormously extended lives. Additionally, infected ants exude a sweet chemical which makes them socially appealing to the honest hard-working ants in their own colonies. Uninfected ants seem to misidentify infected ants as queens (or at least as royalty of some sort) and spend a great deal of time feeding, grooming, and caring for them.

High status individual human

This sounds like a pretty delightful deal for infected ants who live like (and are like?) Kanye West, but there are a couple of drawbacks. The infected ants soak up critical resources from the greater hive and reduce its overall efficacy and ability to survive. Infected hives are at much greater risk of destitution or outright destruction from predators. Which brings up the final problem: the parasitic tapeworm’s final life stage does not take place inside the guts of an ant, but rather the tapeworm must be eaten by an ant-eating bird. There, inside the larger predator, it mates and lays eggs which are released by the bird into the forest where Temnothorax ants feed on the rich droppings and are infected.

So infected ants aren’t just dullard aristocrats not carrying their weight. They are actively seeking self-destruction. When birds tear into the nest the infected ants lift up their heads, glisten, and wait for annihilation (while the infected ones are desperately trying to protect the larvae and the queen). Of course the ants (uninfected and infected) do not comprehend any of this. If we were to ask them about their lives the uninfected workers would probably tell us how fortunate they were to meet so many high-status ants and the infected ones would probably try to sell us self-help books about raw food or talk about running for office in Texas.

Jupiter and Ganymede (Roman, late 3rd century) mosaic

Yesterday’s post about the solar system’s largest moon, Ganymede, begs for a follow-up post about the myth of Ganymede. Ganymede was an adolescent Trojan prince known for his supreme comeliness. For some reason, the young prince was out slumming as a shepherd (which is a thing princes do in myths but not in real life) and this twinkish coquetry drove all-seeing Zeus into a lather. Overcome by lust, the king of the gods assumed the form of a giant eagle and grabbed the pretty prince up in his talons and carried him off to Olympus (leaving Ganymede’s distraught hound dog baying at the clouds). At Olympus, in the halls of the gods, Ganymede became the cupbearer (and favorite male concubine) of Zeus/Jupiter and was thus granted immortality and a sort of second-rate godhood. The whole tale is a sort of a gigolo apotheosis (although classical artists did not always portray Ganymede as a willing captive).

For various reasons, all sorts of artists have been attracted to the tale over the years. The magnificent sky-god eagle and the beautiful nude prince do indeed make for a really dramatic tableau. Yet my favorite visual representations of the story are Roman, like this gorgeous relief.

Abduction of Ganymede (unknown Greco-Roman sculptor, AD 140-150), marble relief

As slave-owning masters of the world, the Romans knew the ambiguous joys of love-by-command and somehow there is always a wistful hint of coercion and mortal sadness in Roman versions of the tale (perhaps the Greek sculptors forced to carve these pieces had some commentary of their own to add). For example, in the matchless piece above, the beautiful Ganymede wears a Phrygian cap (which was a cap from Phrygia, a conquered Roman province in Greece…but also the universally understood symbol of a manumitted slave). Now, that I come to think of it, Jove’s eagle was the symbol of the Roman Empire.

Ganymede feeding the Eagle (Roman, late first century), Marble

Of course, there is more than a hint of mortal sadness in the tale anyway. We mortals have a name for when the gods snatch away our favorite people and carry them off up to dwell in cloudtop palaces forever. Maybe this is why the Ganymede theme appears again and again in Roman sarcophagi and funerary art.

Here is an example which was carried off by the English at the height of their Empire and placed in the British Museum!

Here is a silver diadem discovered in a recently excavated Bronze age tomb from the La Almoloya archaeological site in southern Spain. The tomb consisted of a great earthenware jar containing the remains of two elites–a man and a woman (the jar was buried under a sort of longhouse/mead hall/political assembly building). Since the Argaric people were early masters of metallurgy, both skeletons were richly arrayed in gold and silver jewelry, however the female skeleton was the one wearing the diadem. The NYTimes article which I read went to great length describing how shocking the highly polished reflective silver would be in an era when mirrors and reflective surfaces were not omnipresent (the author of that article also took pains to describe the tintinnabulation that this Bronze age chieftainess would have made with all of her bangles, plugs, earrings, and necklaces). Archaeologists have traditionally assumed that Argaric society was patriarchal, but this discovery has caused experts to reassess that conclusion (and to take note that previous graves also contained crown-wearing, high-status Argaric women). Perhaps power was shared between the genders or even apportioned in some sort of matriarchal fashion (although I think we will be left to speculate about this unless more conclusive evidence is discovered).

Argaric culture flourished from 2200 to 1550 BC. As bronzeworking warriors surrounded by less technologically advanced tribes, they were able to rapidly expand into an empire of sorts. I wonder how much they knew of the great contemporary palace civilizations of Mycenae and Knossos to the east. Alas, their technology seems to have been their undoing, since the need for timber, charcoal, and arable land resulted in widespread deforestation and agricultural collapse.

It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

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