Saturday, February 17, 2018



I once had the privilege of meeting Leonardo face-to-face in the Royal Library in Torino, Italy.
As a graduate student studying with Carlo Pedretti, I was anxious to see as many Leonardo works
as I could in person. The red-chalk drawing that Leonardo made of himself in his later life, probably when he was in France working for King Francis I, around 1515-18, is now in the Biblioteca Reale
di Torino.
The encounter in Torino was very moving to me, not just as a confirmation of Leonardo's left-handedness but of his greatness as well.

Cross-hatching lines in fifteenth-century drawings are used to give volume and shading to
human figures and drapery. The way to distinguish drawings by Michelangelo from drawings by Leonardo is in the direction of the cross-hatchings. Michelangelo was right-handed, so the cross-hatchings move from bottom left to upper right or upper right to bottom left, as in this example:
Leonardo's cross-hatchings, as in this drawing below, move from upper left to lower right or lower right to upper left:

From this simple distinction, see if you can tell which is a Leonardo drawing of an eye and which a Michelangelo?

In the eye drawings the cross-hatchings are more subtle, but Leonardo's eye is on the left,
Michelangelo's eye on the right. (See the lines above the eyebrow and coming directly out of the pupil in the Michelangelo drawing, close to the nose and between eyelid and eyebrow in the Leonardo.)
Now you will look at Leonardo's self-portrait with closer study:

The lines of his hair and beard wave down the page and almost at right angles to those lines are
the cross-hatch lines that move upper left to lower right to give shading and depth and texture to
the hair.
Here is another portrait of Leonardo at the same age:
You can see from the cross-hatchings that this portrait is not by the master but by his pupil,
Francesco Melzi, who was right-handed. The cross-hatchings here move lower left to upper right.

  The most remarkable feature of Leonardo's self-portrait, however, is not the fact that it was drawn by a left-handed artist. It is that his drawing is so life-like, that when presented with his face on the page, he leaps into life on the page.
Instead of the spectator looking at him, he seems to be regarding the spectator. His set mouth and lips and nose contrast with the shining quality and depth of his eyes, which seem to seek out the viewer
and make contact, as though a real person had survived still after 500 years, or, as though he wished to speak to you over the space of eternal time. The pock-marks on the paper do nothing to diminish the force of his gaze and strength of his presence. Leon Battista Alberti said in his treatise On Painting of 1435, "Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive." Alberti is speaking of portraiture in painting, but Leonardo makes himself come alive in just a simple, red-chalk drawing on paper. The "divine force" of his own life appears real even after four centuries have passed. Emerging from a piece of paper, he stands again a giant universal man of creativity and human thought. How
grateful I am to have met him in the form of his self-portrait in old age. His serious mien and stead-
fast look are the literal marks of a great and beautiful soul.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gozzoli's painted MEDICI ZOO


As we have described in another blog entry, Benozzo Gozzoli paints the Journey of the Magi
on the walls of the private family chapel in the Medici Palace in Florence in 1459-60. On the
walls are horsemen, the three Magi or Kings, portraits of friends of the family as well as family members, and something not mentioned in the first blog, ANIMALS, many, many animals, and birds.
Two scenes show shepherds with their sheep, oxen, dogs, and donkey, all appropriate for the scene
describing the Nativity of Christ in Luke:
On the wall of the Youngest King, a deer is being chased in a hunt:
while above that scene a rabbit peeks out of a protected warren and hopes the nearby dog does
not smell him (yellow arrows mine):

 Far from being a static landscape painted behind the scene of the procession, nature "red in tooth and claw" is on display, with a hawk flying after a pheasant in the sky above the middle-aged king,

a leopard attacking a bull near the oldest king,
another leopard running for a deer beyond those,

and a rabbit caught by a hawk and spilling its entrails close to the viewer at the bottom of the scene:

Not all of nature is vicious, but many of the wild animals seem just waiting to be let free, as the
leopard (paw-mark spots) being held by two ropes by the falconer in the same scene:
 or the cheetah, (single spots) on the horse with the page dressed in light blue:

or the monkey perching on a horse like a person at the edge to catch the viewer off-guard:

The ducks and the Bactrian camels (two humps) and dromedaries (one hump) all are placid in their
places, but they are foils to the violence occurring around them:

The artist has carried out his job of portraying the Medici family and allies intermingled in the
procession of an ancient story of important figures on their way to pay respects to a single child
who has just been born. But Gozzoli is absorbing more than what he has observed in the landscape
of Tuscany around him over the seasons; he is doing two things here:
1) he is recording some of the wild animals that the Medici owned as part of their private zoo,
exotic animals from far away, in competition with Marco Polo and his observations of the
wild animals of the East (see blog entry on Gozzoli and Marco Polo.) The cheetah, leopard, camel, monkey are all non-native species that speak of the enormous wealth of the Medici in their ability to procure animals from far-off lands.We know that when Lorenzo il Magnifico is older (1486), he is given a giraffe by the Sultan of Egypt to add to his collection of wild animals. The giraffe does not figure in Gozzoli's frescoes precisely because it was not part of the Medici zoo during this period, but the other animals could have been observed first-hand by Gozzoli. Most of the most exotic are depicted on one wall, that of the Oldest king, and it is as though Gozzoli wished to corral these creatures into a space together to form a zoo on the wall. In painting these creatures in the private chapel, he has documented for history the animals that formed part of the Medici zoo in the 15th century.
2)he is recording the violence of nature behind the human figures also as part of his own observations
of human nature and its potential for violence as well. Some of the human faces are far from happy
and the allies the Medici count as friends are perhaps less adoring and loyal than they think:
Sigismondo Malatesta, for instance, looks daggers at his hosts, as though not wanting to be part of
their political parade:
In the group of men behind the second portrait of Gozzoli on the oldest king's wall, the "zoo" wall,
some of the Florentine "friends" seem to gather together to conspire; they seem to whisper to each other as they look across the wall at the members of the Medici family.
We know that eighteen years after the frescoes were painted, a conspiracy was gathered just this way. In 1478 the Pazzi "friends" decided to try to assassinate Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother; they only succeeded in killing Giuliano in the Duomo during Easter Sunday mass, Lorenzo escaped, but the violence which then ensued in the chase after the conspirators led all the way to Constantinople, where the last of them was caught and brought back. Most were hung and quartered in vicious ways, bodies dragged through the streets of Florence and put on display on the walls of the Bargello. So the undercurrent of violence in human society is hinted at by Gozzoli in his portrayal of nature as competition for survival.


It might seem on the surface that Benozzo Gozzoli, the painter of frescoes in a Christian chapel for the Medici in 1459-60, might have little to do with the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo (1254-1324,) who made his famous trip to the Orient between 1271 and 1295. A deeper look at Polo's written view of the East and Gozzoli's procession of kings from the East reveals that, in some interesting aspects, the painter's Journey of the Magi in Florence has specific debts to the written and visual accounts of Marco Polo's Journey from the earlier century. While Gozzoli himself may not have read the entire text of Polo's story, he is influenced enough by Medici advisers on the frescoes who have read one of the many versions of Marco's account, that parallels are evident. (For this analysis I rely on Laurence Bergreen's fascinating book, Marco Polo, from Venice to Xanadu, (New York, Vintage, 2008.))
       The first manuscript with Polo's story is written in French by a man named Rustichello da Pisa, who puts down what Marco Polo dictates to him between 1298 and 1299 when Polo is a prisoner-of-war in a Genoese jail after his return from China. That manuscript is now lost.(page 328) The story, however, is published in manuscript form in 1300, also in French, in a later edition of one of Christine de Pisane's books in the 14th century, after which it is  translated into Latin, and receives its first printed version in Italian in 1477. Its first Tuscan version circulated while Marco was still alive and manuscripts in Italian were available in 1445 and 1446. (page 347) It would have certainly been known in manuscript form in the 15th century by the Medici, who collected rare books of this sort for their library. In fact, one such manuscript of Marco Polo's Livre des Merveilles was written and illuminated in 1375, with illustrations that included camels, seen here below: (more on the camels later.)
Of course parts of the story could have been retold as part of the oral lore about the East in Benozzo
Gozzoli's Florence without reliance on text.
         But here are some of the visual clues Gozzoli paints that show Marco Polo to be a
source for his Journey.
On the back wall of the chapel in the sky above the middle-aged King, a hawk is flying after a
pheasant with intent to kill.
In Marco Polo's description of the Mongol lands he traverses before reaching Kublai Khan, he mentions that certain people in that region tell of having seen "a young female hawk catch and eat a black pheasant." Later in his own experience in China, Marco witnesses a hawk trained to kill other animals. (pg.95)

It must be noted that a visual precedent for this scene exists in a previous Journey of the Magi painted on a single altarpiece painted for the Strozzi family in Florence by Gentile da Fabriano in 1423; Gentile follows more closely Marco's detail of the chased bird being black, but his bird looks less like a real pheasant than Gozzoli's bird. And Gozzoli's bird, while not black, is darker than the hawk.  Both painters retell Marco Polo's story in different ways; da Fabriano is limited in space so the hawk is right up on the bird, but Gozzoli has more space to use, so the pheasant has a fighting chance in the hawk's chase.

In Marco's description of a noble Mongol mother lambasting her sons for always fighting among
themselves, he says that she compares them to ferile animals, a wild dog, a panther attacking on a
mountain, a gerfalcon, camels biting. These kinds of animals appear in Gozzoli's painting, 
dog in hunt:
leopard (type of panther) attacking on a mountain,
 gerfalcon with the rabbit,
and camels, though not biting.
The similar choices of animals in the wild echo the same theme in Marco Polo's story, which is about a comparison of men and wild animals. Gozzoli places the animals in among the men in his procession to hint about the animal nature of men, with both inent on survival.

       3) THE LUSH LANDSCAPES of trees, rivers, hills, valleys as the Gozzoli magi make their trip
are similar to the descriptions in parts of Marco's journey. Certainly some manuscript pages that illustrate Polo's text often look like the rocky but lush landscapes of Gozzoli's journey. Here is a page from the 1410-12 French manuscript 2810 in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris of Marco Polo's story:

The way Gozzoli handles the rocks in the landscape is very similar to the rocks in the French manuscript page.

4) THE HUNTS OF THE FALCONERS - Marco Polo describes the falconers of Kublai Khan who set their falcons on prey.(p. 163) In the procession painted by Gozzoli on the wall of the Oldest King,
a falconer has let his hawk loose to prey on a rabbit which it consumes to the left of the

Kublai Khan, according to Marco Polo, liked to hunt "stags, buck, and roe-deer" among other animals, and he used  "leopards and lynxes all trained to beast catching...and very good at the chase."(p. 162)
In Gozzoli's painted chapel, the leopard on the leash of the falconer above will probably be used in this fashion, and the artist illustrates the same kind of hunts with two other leopards on the same wall; in one scene in the landscape the leopard attacks a bull and appears to be bringing it down; in another a leopard is chasing a deer:

         6) THE CAMELS in the illustrations of the 1375 manuscript of Polo's visit are set directly next to each other in a row, mimicking the movement of camels over the terrain with the repetition
and overlapping of the heads of the camels. The same overlapping of the camels and the same camel
shapes for the heads of the camels occurs in the Journey of the Magi on the wall of the Oldest King.
                                                                                   Catalan Alas, 1375, Marco Polo's Journey.

Similar hats are worn by the camel drivers in Gozzoli's painting, too (yellow arrows mine.)

        The Journey of the Magi as told in Luke marks the beginning of the Christian story, as the Three Kings arrived from the East to give gifts to a child whom they had heard was prophesized to become a King. The aim and end of the Journey in the Gozzoli's Chapel is the altarpiece depicting Mary adoring the Child, the beginning of Christ's life.  While it might seem odd for the Medici and Gozzoli to rely on an Italian writer who travelled to lands where Buddha and other idols were the deities worshipped, it is completely understandable when we realize that Gozzoli was being called upon to paint scenes of foreigners with Eastern dress and headdresses travelling over some lands unknown to the average Florentine with animals of exotic origin. Marco Polo's written account as well as the illustrations of his journey in manuscripts painted before Gozzoli's frescoes furnished some of the material for the description of Gozzoli's Magi Journey.