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For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto!  However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday.  Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise.  Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).

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To celebrate Halloween this week Ferrebeekeeper is exploring dreams and nightmares! Yesterday we introduced the Baku, a dream-eating, long-snouted spirit-beast from East Asia. Today we travel directly to the real of dreams and nightmares itself! Well sort of….Since I am unable to get inside the head of dreamers other than myself (at least with today’s technology) this means going to an almost equally scary place…the bedroom!

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I wanted to combine the place where dreams happen with gothic decorative art (a particularly fitting style for Halloween). I therefore asked myself whether anyone had crafted overly-elaborate gothic beds. A quick Google Image search revealed the answer to be “Oh my goodness!” Apparently the world’s bedwrights have been hard at work creating an insane array of magnificent and horrifying beds to cradle the reposing bodies of well-heeled dreamers.

"Oh my..."

“Oh my…”

Here is a gallery filled with crazy and extravagant gothic beds (a fitting companion to past galleries of gothic clocks, lamps, gates, and houses). Behold the magnificent dark canopies, strange gargoyles, and haunting grotesques…along with every sort of flange, post, tower, buttress, arch, and bracket that imagination can conceive.

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It’s difficult to believe that people sleep in such dark slendor…anyway, hopefully this range of bedframes will inspire your Halloween dreams (assuming that the baku does not get them first). Sleep well!

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Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Today, March 20th 2014, is the first day of spring.  To celebrate, here is an allegorical painting of spring by the baroque master Bartolomeo Guidobono, who spent most of his career painting in northern Italy.  Spring is here personified as a lovely young woman in a simple but elegant gown. A curly-headed nude infant sprawls across her lap and wildflowers spring up at her feet.  Behind the maiden a grove of budding trees recedes into the green distance.  It is a simple and refreshing painting about the relief and happiness of living things as winter fades and the world begins to grow again.  Hooray for spring!

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

The House of Borromeo was an influential family of Lombardi aristocrats who ruled Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore (a long prealpine lake which snakes through Lombardy and up into Switzerland).   Various members of the Borromeo family played important roles in the politics of Milan and of the Catholic reformation (particularly as Archbishops), and even today they control a business empire with considerable wealth and clout.

The Gardens of Isola Bella

The Gardens of Isola Bella

More importantly, however, the Borromeo family was responsible for one of the world’s most impressive residences—an immense palazzo and exquisite formal garden which take up the entirety of Isola Bella, a small island on Lake Maggiore.  Isola Bella was once a rocky crag with a small fishing village on it (the whole island is only 320 metres long by 400 metres wide), however, in 1632 Carlo III set out to build a grand palace and garden on the tiny spot of land.  The climate of Lake Maggiore is uncommonly mild, and the Count undoubtedly was looking forward to cool summers and warm winters on his isolated retreat.  Not even rapacious aristocrats get everything they want however, and the villa’s construction was interrupted by a plague which broke out in Milan in the middle of the 17th century.

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The palazzo is just another enormous beautiful Italian palace filled with sumptuous rooms, art masterpieces, and precious treasures but the tiered baroque gardens are truly remarkable.  Exquisite Mediterranean plants thrive beneath a background of snow-topped Alpine peaks.  Magnificent stairs and formal statuary add additional splendor to the garden.

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

Although aesthetes might find it difficult to pin down the most remarkable feature of this remarkable place, we here at Ferrebeekeeper have an easier task.  The gardens at Isola Bella feature one of the most striking mollusk-themed rooms on Earth.  The shell grotto room connects the ten-tiered garden on one side of the island with the huge mansion on the other—it is literally the linchpin of the island.  The grotto was designed to provide a cool retreat from summer.  The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways are all covered with intricate murals made from shells and black pebbles.  So ornate is the shell-work that it took workmen and architects a century to complete the grotto…

A different room in the grotto

A different room in the grotto

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

Here is a dark Baroque masterpiece.  Using a polished shield as a mirror, Perseus has just severed the dreadful head of Medusa, a gorgon capable of turning anyone who sees her into stone.  Medusa’s head was subsequently used by Perseus as a weapon to slay the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda–but the weapon proved too dangerous for him to keep so he gave the head to Athena, goddess of victory and wisdom.  She set it on her shield (or sometimes her breastplate) and the Gorgoneion thus became a symbol of divine protection and luck as well as a charm for warding off evil.

Through the artist’s imagination, we are allowed to see what Perseus is not: the horrible head of the demigoddess with her countenance contorted in mortal outrage.  Despite her death, the many serpents which make up her hair remain alive and infuriated.  One even bites her forehead in pique. Where her blood pours on the ground, serpents and worms spring to life.  Spiders, scorpions and lizards appear in order to abet the general creepy horror of the scene (as do the stormy clouds and desolate landscape.

Detail

Detail

Rubens was the master of using color and motion to express the sensual and the grotesque.  The full dynamism of his style is evident in this grisly tableau which simultaneously evokes the drama of earlier Medusa paintings by Da Vinci & Carravagio while also bringing some of the detail and imagination of Flemish still life composition to play.

 

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque.  He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings.  His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals.  In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers.  The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.

Heidelberg Castle and the Hortus Palatinus

Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life.  Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers.  In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany.  Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.

Elizabeth Stuart (Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1610)

Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus.  Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens.  Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees).  Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies.  Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.

Historic view of Heidelberg, Germany and the Hortus Palatinus

By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished.  To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong.  Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war.  The garden was never finished.  Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city.  By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins.  The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.

The Hortus Palatinus Today

One of the goals of the visual artist is to evoke senses other than sight (which of course is involved outright).  Modern artists can accomplish this by producing multimedia creations that emit smells, play music, shriek, or even reach out to tickle or grope the gallery-goer. The thoughtful artist, however, realizes that these gimmicks will probably soon be relegated to the scrap heap.  Like the poet, the painter must rely on imagery to entice his viewer’s senses.  Wondering though a gallery of masterpieces, a visitor hungers for banquets laid out centuries ago: he longs to smell eternally blooming roses and yearns to reach through the ages to cosset a spaniel or stroke a silky cat.  These non-visual cues not only heighten the verisimilitude of art, but provide overall meaning and context.

All of which brings us back to the hurdy-gurdy from yesterday’s post. Although musical instruments are fascinating to look at in their own right, when they are included in a painting it adds an additional sensory dimension to the work. Music plays in the viewer’s head even though the gallery is silent.  I hope you listened to some hurdy-gurdy samples so that you can imagine its plangent voice while looking at these pictures.

As the hurdy-gurdy traveled from the monastery to the fashionable dancing rooms of the Renaissance, to troubadours’ gear, and into the hands of beggars, its symbolic meaning changed as well.

Illumination from the Cantigas de Santa Maria Manuscripts (Mid Thirteenth Century)

A detail from “The Garden of Earhtly Delights” (Hieronymus Bosch, late Fifteenth Century)

A Beggar and a Hurdy-Gurdy Player (print by Jacques Callot circa 1620s)

The Hurdy-Gurdy Player (Georges de la Tour, circa 1631-1636)

A Hurdy-Gurdy Player and other Musicians before a Cottage (Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot, 1659)

The Hurdy-Gurdy Girl (Jules Richomme, 1879)

[I included only a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s magnificent triptych because the work is incredibly detailed and I intend to blog about it in greater detail in the future.]

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