Sunday, April 19, 2020

Painting Flowers

Texas Wildflowers

I painted this one as a kind of reconstruction.  I based it on a painting I made in 1972 when I was 14.  I painted it when I was in middle school and won the school art award with that picture.  It was a 24" x 30" canvas of Texas wildflowers painted in acrylic in something like a natural setting with rocks.  I have no idea what happened to that painting, but I'm sure it no longer exists.  Alas, there are no photos of it that I could find. 
So, I decided last year to do it again, only this time as I would do it at age 61 instead of 14.  Like that original, I painted it in acrylic paint on a 24" x 30" canvas.  Unlike the first time, I stretched and primed it myself.  Most of the flower varieties in this painting are based on the those that I included in my painting in 1972 as best as I could remember, plus maybe a few extras.   I made this one much more explicitly in a landscape setting and added all kinds of things that were not in the original picture such as insects and fossils.  All of these are things that I loved as a child and still love now.

This is the only one of the flower paintings that I made so far that is professionally photographed.

The Moon and an Io Moth

I made this painting based on a small lot with a kind of planted prairie in McCaren Park in Brooklyn that I passed every time I walked to my studio.  These are all flowers that saw blooming there last autumn.  The insects including the Io moth are memories of things I saw and remembered from when I was very young. 

This is also based on a painting of autumn by the Yuan Dynasty painter Qian Xuan.

This is in acrylic on a 20" x 30" canvas.


This is the most recent of my flower paintings.  I painted it for my students as a demonstration painting on my kitchen table while I am under house arrest along with everyone else for the pandemic.  This is based on the daffodils I saw blooming in McGolrick Park about a block from where I live.
It is relatively small, 14" x 18" on a canvas panel, also in acrylic.

I'm planning a painting of tulips to make on my kitchen table on 2 separate panels, a kind of diptych.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Shadow of Venice

The great church of Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health) stands at the entrance to the Grand Canal from the Bacino San Marco of Venice, a great white marble baroque spectacle rising over the red terra cotta roofs of Venice.  It is the tallest church in the city.  It's great lead dome stands visible across the city and dominates the Grand Canal entrance on the Punta della Dogana next to the old customs house.

The 33 year old sculptor and architect Baldassare Longhena won a competition to design the church commissioned by the Venetian Senate.  He broke with the conservative Venetian taste for traditional basilican churches.  Andrea Palladio stretched and tweaked the traditional basilican form in his Venetian churches, but never broke with it.  Longhena did break with tradition and designed a huge centralized domed church of a kind imagined by Renaissance architects, but seldom built.  Longhena proposed his design as a fresh start, a new beginning, as was the Virgin Mary herself.  He said that his design suggests a crown for the Blessed Virgin herself.

Longhena reached back to the distant past for the floor plan of the church.  Like so many Venetian churches, Santa Maria della Salute nods to the Byzantine origins of the city.  The aisled octagonal floor plan derives from the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  The two lead domes of the church echo the five lead domes of San Marco nearby.

The rest of the church is Baroque spectacle in its elaboration and theatricality.  Saintly statues swarm over the monumental architecture while giant volutes -- each topped with a saint -- support the dome.

The interior of Santa Maria della Salute with its vistas that resemble stage sets of the time.

The high altar with the 13th century Byzantine icon of Panagia Mesopantitissa ("Our Lady the Mediator") from Candia (today's Heraklion on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea).  The Venetians "recovered" the icon from the city before its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1669.

The sculptural ensemble on the high altar shows Venice pleading to the Madonna and Child for deliverance from the plague, the raving witch chased off by a putto to the right.  The Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte created this altar and most of the other sculpture in the church.  Longhena frequently employed de Corte.

The Venetian Senate commissioned this great church to be built as a thank offering for deliverance and memorial to the dead of the Great Plague of 1630 that ravaged all of northern Italy from Bologna to the Alps including Venice.  The plague that year swept through great cities such as Milan and Bologna and through the countryside killing perhaps a million people before it was over.  Venice lost a third of its population in that plague.  Santa Maria della Salute was the last of the Five Plague Churches built in Venice as votive offerings and memorials (the others are San Giobbe, San Sebastiano, San Rocco, and the Redentore).

Another great work of art to come out of the Great Plague of 1630 is this altarpiece, the Pala della Peste by Guido Reni showing the local saints of Bologna pleading for the deliverance of the city.

A detail of Reni's Pala della Peste showing Bologna with plague dead carried out of the city.

Giovanni Bellini, The San Giobbe Altarpiece, c.1487

The shadow of the plague hangs heavily over so many of the splendors of Venice.  The great San Giobbe Altarpiece of Giovanni Bellini originally stood on a votive altar in the plague church of San Giobbe.  Prominently featured among the saints paying court to the Madonna and Child are Job and Sebastian, two saints frequently invoked in times of plague (Venice followed the Byzantine tradition of sainting Old Testament figures).  The painful blue-black skin lesions of bubonic plague suggested the boils of Job and the arrow wounds of Sebastian to sufferers and their care-givers.

A photo collage reconstruction of Bellini's painting in its original frame and location.

Interior of the Church of San Giobbe.

Standing today in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute is this early work of Titian, St. Mark Enthroned.  This painting originally stood in the Church of Santo Spirito in Isola.  This too is a plague memorial, for the Plague of 1510 that killed Titian's close friend and sometime collaborator the 32 year old Giorgione, among the city's most celebrated and influential painters.  The Evangelist sits on a high throne before the open sky, his face darkened by a cast shadow.  Plague saints flank his throne.  Two medical saints, Cosmas and Damian stand on the left.  On the right are two sainted sufferers, Roch and Sebastian.

The city of Venice sitting in the middle of its lagoon, a major port city for most of its history, was especially vulnerable to epidemics.  Venice was a port of entry for the Black Death in 1348 along with cities such as Genoa and Marseilles.  The Plague probably arrived in Venice from Egypt and spread rapidly throughout the European continent after already ravaging China, Central Asia, and much of the Middle East and North Africa.  The Black Death was the worst natural disaster in recorded history killing an estimated total of 200 million people out of a global population of around 440 million at the time.  The population of Venice in 1340 was about 160,000, among the largest cities in Europe.   The 1348 Black Death may have killed half the population of the city.

The plague returned again and again to Venice until the end of the 17th century.  Between 1456 and 1528, the plague struck the city 14 times.  And then there were the catastrophic plagues of 1575-76 and 1630.

The enterprising and resourceful ruling oligarchy of Venice pioneered methods of preventing infections from spreading.  The Venetians invented the quarantine and coined the word from "quarantena," the forty day period of confinement and observation imposed on all people suspected of infection. 
The Venetians also invented an institution that until recently was a common feature in port cities around the world, the lazaretto; an isolated hospital for confining people to quarantine.
Passengers and crews of arriving ships suspected of carrying infection were confined in the lazaretto where they either were released after 40 days, or they sickened and died and were buried on the island.  In times of plague, the city of Venice shipped the afflicted and everyone living with them to the lazaretto to their inevitable deaths.  Ruthless as this policy was, it was no more so than the practice of other plague stricken cities to board up houses with the inhabitants inside leaving all to die.  The Venetian authorities separated the dying as much as possible to spare the living.

Venice built two lazaretto hospitals on remote islands in the Lagoon; the Lazaretto Vecchio and the Lazaretto Nuovo.  Both of these islands are now ruins, uninhabited and seldom visited.

The Lazaretto Vecchio

In 2007, archaeologists excavated some of the mass burials at the Lazaretto Vecchio.  The closely packed remains, the haphazard way in which they were all thrown in without ceremony testifies to the enormity and desperation created by the plagues that struck Venice.

The Lazaretto Nuovo.  Nothing remains of the original hospital on this island.  The buildings that stand there now are the remains of an old rope factory.  Giorgione is buried somewhere here.

New York City had a lazaretto on two islands in the Outer Harbor just off the coast of Staten Island, Hoffman Island and Swineburne Island named for two Health Department officials.  Patients who appeared to have a chance of recovery went to Hoffman Island where they were cared for and either deported or released into the city.  Terminally ill patients went to Swinburne Island that had hospice barracks and a crematorium whose chimney was and still is a landmark of the island.

The remains of the Swinburne Island lazaretto today with the crematorium chimney.  The islands today are inhabited only by sea birds.

Yours Truly in Venice in 1988 on my one and only trip to La Serenissima.

In today's global pandemic, I am well and under stay-at-home orders with everyone else.  Michael and I share our Brooklyn railroad flat with our two cats and so far manage well.  Michael is unemployed by the epidemic and I find myself tasked with teaching painting by "distance learning."  The jury is still out on the success -- or not -- of that effort. 
We are both doing well, though there are days when we read about the alarmingly high daily death tolls in the hundreds in New York, and hear distant ambulances at all hours, and we are terrified.

To fight the terror and the boredom, I paint at home on my kitchen table in acrylic paints.  For the duration I have no more access to my studio, and I'm unwilling to travel there anyway in these conditions.  I've mostly painted instructional demonstrations for my students, but I just started painting flowers for my own purposes.  I started painting flowers again in acrylic paints last year in my studio, and I'm doing more of it at home in my kitchen on a smaller scale using photos I take of the daffodils, tulips, and other flowers from the small park down the block. 

And after a too-long hiatus, I'm starting this blog up again.

My kitchen table studio.

I wish all who read this well.  I hope you will be safe and healthy for a long time to come.