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The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

It’s day two of sheep week! Yesterday’s post got pretty involved with practical and useful aspects of sheep, so today we are veering wildly to the opposite extreme—sheep in art. There are lots and lots of sheep in art from cave paintings of ancient prehistory to Babylonian murals, right up to wild abstract rams by Andrew Wyeth and elegant empty sheep skulls by Georgia O’Keefe. It’s hard to choose from so many beautiful works, so we are going to concentrate on a founding legend from the history of art itself. In art history, there is a point when the anonymous artisans of the middle ages give way to the great named masters of the Renaissance. It is the point where the history of western painting usually starts (although obviously, in reality, there were all sorts of ancient Roman, medieval, and Byzantine antecedents). The point when art becomes the discipline we think of today (with genius masters struggling in their Brooklyn garrets when they are not posting little blog articles about sheep) is usually considered to be the career of Giotto. Giotto lived from 1266 (?) to 1337 and popularized many of the bedrock principals and tropes underlying artistic painting from the early Renaissance right up until the First World War (when painting, like humanity, got all messed up). I put one of his nativity murals at the top of this story to show his use of perspective and shaded forms—innovations often attributed to Giotto. The great art historian Vasari grandiloquently summed up the view that painting originates with Giotto by writing, “In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce.” Gosh.

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

So where did Giotto come from? Vasari provides that story too. One day the great artisan, Cimabue was passing through the farmland of Tuscany when he saw a lively little shepherd boy surrounded by his flock. The child was scratching pictures of the sheep on a rock with the earth, charcoal, and sticks at hand. The pictures were so beautiful and lifelike that Cimabue was stunned. He went immediately to the shepherd’s master and begged for the privilege of taking the boy as apprentice and teaching him painting (which the astonished yokel immediately granted). Giotto’s genius flowered in Cimabue’s shop with the proper materials and subjects at hand.

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

The story is dramatic and beautiful. It is like a classical myth or miracle from a saint’s life. Sadly, like classical myths and medieval hagiographies, the story of Giotto’s origin is almost certainly false. Most contemporary art historians don’t even think he studied with Cimabue!   But who cares? This is a myth about the founding of painting. It doesn’t have to be real.

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Not surprisingly many painters have painted renditions of this subject. Aside from Giotto’s actual painting of sheep, I have used these works from throughout art history to illustrate this strange little tale (I’m sorry if you were fooled into thinking this post was going to be about Giotto’s, you know, art—I guess we’ll have to address that some other time).

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

So according to Vasari, western painting grew organically from the Tuscan land and sprang fully grown from the Giotto’s raw genius. That it was a shepherd who had this revelation and that his first (known) subjects were sheep also seems to have symbolic significance. Does this equate artists with Jesus (something Vasari clearly felt) or is it a deeper metaphor about humankind transitioning from farming to skilled work? I wonder what this story really says about artists, truth, and innovation. I wonder even more what it says about the tormented relationship between artists and the whims of the herd…

Today is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric (August 24th, 410 AD).  For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events.  Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean.  Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic.  Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed.  They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).

Artist's Conception of the Visigoths Sacking Rome

Although hardly a genocide, the event was a watershed moment for classical society. Rome, the center of thought, government, and civilization—the city that had not fallen to an outside enemy for 800 years—was unable to mount a defense against a ragged group of barbarians and vagabonds.  St. Jerome, the man of letters who held such influence over Western thought during the dark ages, wrote:” It is the end of the world, I cannot write for the tears.”  The Western portion of the Roman Empire, already reeling from centuries of civil war and widespread agricultural crisis, staggered on for a few decades before being cut apart into sundry vassalages (which constituted the seeds of modern European kingdom states).

Le Sac de Rome par les Barbares en 410 (Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890)

Frequent readers of this blog will know my interest in the concept of “gothic”.  Although the Goths certainly have their own history prior to the sack of Rome, that event enshrined “gothic” as a broader social concept.  There have been plenty of barbarian tribes, but when Alaric looted the eternal city, he ensured that the name of his people would remain infamous. A millennium later, Renaissance writers, enthralled with the glories of classical society, used the word “gothic” to describe aspects of the intervening period which seemed old-fashioned, barbaric, cruel, and unenlightened.  Vasari used the word to pejoratively describe art and architecture from before Giotto (or from outside Italy). Once “gothic” had become synonymous with “Medieval”, it then came to be associated with gloom, mystery and the grotesque.  Victorian writers, scholars, artists, and architects found reason to celebrate these qualities with spooky novels, pre-Raphaelite painting, and creepy mansions.  In the contemporary era, “gothic” can mean any of these things or it can be applied to the contemporary goth counterculture movement.  But whatever the word means, it always seems to indicate something in opposition to the Greco-Roman, whig-liberal Western norm.

Goths?

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