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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.

palmanova-01.jpg

I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

1280px-Palmanova1600

Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

piazza-grande

But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

Palmanova1

 

Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

palmanova_ast_2004078_lrg.jpg

 

On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion.  Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death).  The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.

In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era.  Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy.  Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity.  Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Lorenzo Lotto, 1521, oil on canvas)

Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints.  The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles.  Everything else, however points to their humanity.  The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism).  Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it.  The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden.  Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.

A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance.  In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade.  Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting.  They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze.  The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia.  The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity.   Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.

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