Posts Tagged ‘ Albrecht Dürer ’

The Nude among the Habsburgs in Spain

The Body as Subject in Paintings from the Prado

1. Lot and his Daughters by Francesco Furini. Oil on canvas. ca. 1634. Museo Nacional del Prado (“Prado”), Madrid. (Clicking once of the illustrations here enlarges the image and clicking again frees the image from the frame.)

This summer’s exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado (running until October 10, 2016), presents 28 paintings from the collection of the Spanish kings now in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, 24 of which are said never to have been in the United States before. The theme that organizes this event is the nude in paintings collected by Philip II (r, 1556-98) and his grandson Philip IV (r. 1621-65), whose portraits (by Titian (#2) and Velázquez (#3), respectively) greet the visitor at the entrance. Both these men were voracious collectors. Philip II inherited the art of his great-grandmother Isabella I and his father Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain), but he not only enormously increased the collection but also greatly stimulated art in Spain. After the reign of his son, Charles III, who showed interest in neither governing nor art collecting, Philip IV resumed the obsession of greatly expanding the royal collection of art.  He commissioned Rubens to deliver numerous works and underwrote the purchases that Velázquez made on his behalf during tours through Europe.  Both these kings preferred Italian (especially the Venetians) and Flemish paintings, and a handful of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens works are the heart of the Clark exhibition. Flemish cabinet landscapes with mythological figure and few other Italian and Spanish painters (including Velázquez (#3)) make up the remainder of the show.

Collecting Nudes in Royal Spain

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

Philip II’s father, the emperor, was a patron of Titian, from republican Venice. His son (who would achieve no imperial crown even if he had aspirations) also became a patron of Titian, who met Philip in 1548 when the latter was still a prince and touring Italy and the Netherlands to inspect the lands he would inherit. Titan painted his portrait at the time. Philip thereafter engaged him regularly until the artist’s death more than a quarter of a century later. Unlike his father, however, Philip did not confine his acquisitions to Titian’s orthodox and conventional religious subjects. In 1553 Titian offered Philip three of what he called “poetical compositions”—mythological scenes involving nudes. One of these almost surely was the famous Danaë and the Shower of Gold, one of a series on Danaë that Philip specifically requested. Similar paintings followed, including in 1562 the Rape of Europa. Philip II also purchased numerous religious paintings from Titian, as well as “historical” paintings not involving nudes (such as Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist) and commissioned portraits. He also inherited works from his father and his aunt, Mary of Hungary. Philip’s collecting was not limited to Titian, but included masterworks by Bosch, Veronese and Tintoretto. The best estimate of the collection he amassed is 1,567 paintings.1

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez was the painter most closely associated with Philip IV. A young Velázquez on his second visit to Madrid from his native Seville, got the opportunity to paint the young king in 1623. The king was so pleased with the result that he installed Velázquez in a court position and granted him the exclusive right to paint his portraits. Velázquez spent most of the rest of his career largely concerned with portraiture. He painted so many of Philip IV that Enriqueta Harris concluded that he “probably painted more portraits of Philip than any other artist has ever painted of a single patron.”2

Philip IV became closely acquainted with Rubens in 1628 when he was acting as a diplomatic agent for Philip’s aunt, the Infanta Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Regent of the Netherlands. Rubens had become engaged in diplomatic (and related spying) activity for the Habsburgs in efforts to establish peace between England and Spain. He impressed both courts so much that he was knighted by both Philip and Charles I. In 1628 he brought to Philip nine paintings, and during his nine months in Madrid he engaged in considerable painting, including many portraits of the King and royal family as well as several other notables. He also copied all the paintings of Titian in the royal collection. All of these paintings he he took back with him to Antwerp to use in his workshop (where copies of the royal portraits were made by Ruben and his students). Philip acquired some of the copies made by Rubens on the latter’s death. In all, Philip was so impressed with Rubens, both as an artist and a functionary, that he conferred on him and his son for their lives the office of Secretary to the Privy Council in the Brussels court. For his part Rubens found the king’s taste agreeable and he would produce a great number of paintings for Philip for the rest of his life. Philip engaged his brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who was appointed governor of the Netherlands in 1634, as his purchasing agent not only of the works of Rubens but also of other Flemish painters. In 1638 Rubens dispatched 112 pictures to Madrid including many mythological works with nudes. Other Flemish painters also supplied cabinet landscapes some of which are also found in the Clark exhibition together with a large Flemish allegory (#4) which had been sent to Philip IV before the diplomatic mission of Rubens.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1618-23. Prado, Madrid.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Gerard Seghers, Joost de Mompe and Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1620. Prado, Madrid.

Philip’s collection was increased not only by commission and purchases from living artists but also by gifts, purchases from other collections and even at auction (such as from the collection auctioned after the execution of Charles I). By Philip IV’s death the collection of paintings that had been amassed by the Spanish monarchs was immense, filling several residences, a large monastery with royal chambers attached and other buildings.  Fires, invasion, revolutions and gifts would only reduce the holdings—the normal risks of an expensive art collection. The nudes in the collection had another risk. So their most Catholic Majesties took steps to prevent the nudes from being seen by those with less catholic tastes and more Catholic piety, at the same time that they publicly conformed to the morality policed by the Church and the Inquisition. So while Philip II erected the monastery of El Escorial as a demonstration of his piety, he also built nearby a private hunting reserve, La Fresneda, where the paintings considered lascivious were kept. He also had at least another private room for paintings; Titian wrote letters to him mentioning such a room. Philip IV also had private rooms for paintings that might be considered salacious. He had a special vaults for certain Titian works at the Alcázar Palace. He also greatly expanded another hunting lodge originally commissioned by Philip II, called the Torre de la Parada and located in the mountains of El Pardo outside of Madrid. An inventory in 1700 showed that the residence held 176 paintings, mostly by .Flemish and Spanish artists. The paintings included family portraits, hunting scenes, animal paintings and religious works for the chapel. Philip IV also commissioned Rubens for a series of large mythological works. Making small sketches on panel to plan the arrangement of the series, Rubens designed fifty two paintings (including Fortuna (#5)) which were executed by Rubens alone or together with members of his workshop and other Flemish painters, the last of which was delivered in 1639.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

The Williamstown show begins with Rubens’s 6 by 3-1/3 foot painting of Fortuna (#5), which the portraits of the two monarch flank. The first of these two kings never saw the painting, but it is an apt painting to apply to the reigns of both kings, who experienced the fleeting attention of fortune, although both would have been surprised to see how unfaithful a mistress Fortune could be. Philip II presided over the largest extent of the Spanish empire and with the gold and silver mined by the pueblos indígenas Spanish conquerors had subjugated amassed a luxurious court filled with, among other things, sumptuous art. That empire and the wealth it commanded would reach its tipping point when the defeat of the armada sent by Philip II to bring down Protestant England (a land he once presided over through his late wife Mary) not only checked Spain’s European ambitions but also removed the last restraint to Anglo settlement of the New World. Philip IV, who commissioned Fortuna, found himself during the Empire’s war against Protestants involving in a war with Catholic France which Spain could not win. The peace treaty handed over ascendancy in Europe from Spain to France’s Louis XIV. Fortune would rarely smile on the Spanish monarchy again.

Fortuna also illustrates another theme of the show—the paintings survived intentional destruction by censors more staunchly Catholic than the Habsburgs. Some of Rubens’s work escaped the flames twice. On the painter’s death, his wife Helena Fourment wanted to destroy the nudes. She had posed for several of Rubens’s most famous mythological paintings (as well as several more conventional, clothed, portraits) and planned to preserve her modesty by destroying the nudes. She was talked out of the decision by her confessor, Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who seemed less interested in ministering to his penitent than saving the works for his brother Philip IV.  All of the nudes in the royal collection escaped another threat, this one from Charles III (r. 1759-88), under the influence of his confessor Joaquín de Eleta, an archbishop so fanatically reactionary that he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Inquisition. Charles was persuaded to relent by Mengs, the neoclassical painter who was a favorite of Joaquín. His son, Charles IV (r. 1788–1808), agreed to transfer the royal nudes to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts on the condition that the paintings be kept in a sala reservada with access to this private room limited to those with prior written authorization (presumably art students or visiting dignitaries). Soon in 1792 and 1797 37 works by 15 different artists were deposited. In addition to the Titian and Rubens works, Dürer’s important Adam and Eve and others were saved from the flames and also from public view. They were briefly shown after the Napoleonic invasion, but two important Titians (a Danaë and Sleeping Venus) disappeared. It wasn’t until 1827 that the works were integrated into a collection organized by schools of art and later exhibited to the public. The works in Clark exhibition come from these one time hidden paintings.

The Nude and the Nature of Desire

Even in a day awash in pornography and the objectification of women for even trivial ends, it is surprising to see that these kings selected and secretly displayed pictures whose essential purpose is to titillate and arouse. It is not simply the hypocrisy of men who donned titles like “the pious” or “the devout” that is so unexpected. A large part of it results from the realization that in a society where political, religious and economic systems were designed to strictly enforce the most oppressive and reactionary orthodoxy (not the least of which concerned “purity” and mortification of the flesh), a society which elevated the Virgin as the paradigm for female virtue, was presided over by men who acted outside of prevailing morality.  This was at a time when the forces of reaction outside the monarchy held the upper hand. (This post tells how Philip II, for example, was unable to intervene at the behest of his friend Theresa, when the Inquisition kidnapped John of the Cross. Such was the power of fundamentalist conformity that even the absolute monarch had to defer.)

The major Titian in the exhibition, Venus with Organist and Cupid (#6) exemplifies the nature of these erotic paintings. Like Sight and Smell (#4) and Fortuna (#5), the Titian canvas is part of a popular Late-Renaissance-Baroque category, the Allegory. In the Brueghel painting the two women represent the two senses. (The painting is a companion to another in the Prado, Taste, Hearing and Touch, another painting supervised by the elder Brueghel.) “Smell” is presented with a bouquet by a Cupid, while “Sight” is shown her reflection in the mirror by another. The dog to the left represents a keen sense of smell, and the abundance of flowers is for Smell’s delight. The painting has a variety of devices, like magnifying glass, telescope and various calibers to aid Sight, and the walls are covered by an abundance of paintings, subjects for this sense. Fortuna‘s subject is the fickleness, and the far-reaching consequences, of fate. Standing on a glass globe, Fortune surrounded by a churning sea is buffeted by winds which blow the fabrics she is holding and others swirling around her. The Titian work is an allegory concerning erotic desire, but, unlike th other two works, it really has no “symbolic” meaning or message; it is purely an erotic representation for its own sake.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

Aside from the nude the supposedly allegorical elements are the cupid, a deer, and the lovers to the left in the garden. On the right is a fountain with a satyr (a lustful goat-like forest creature) and a living peacock resting no the edge (because of its use of its lush ornamental display in courtship rituals?). The reclining Venus dominates the picture, and her body is turned fully toward the viewer. She is considerably larger than the organist, who twists about to leer at her genitals. Her hair is in the style of a contemporary courtesan, but unlike a courtesan, it is she who is being entertained. She dominates the color scheme of the painting as well. Her skin seems luminous and stands out against more muted colors which comprise most of the rest of the canvas. The works of both Titian and Rubens in the exhibition show remarkable treatment of the female skin, and Rubens in particular seemed to revel in the way the play of light on curves and folds created different color mixtures and tints (e.g., #5).

The Titian nude has a remarkable background. While the sofa on which Venus reclines is covered with fabrics draped in a way to suggest luxurious pleasure, the background seen through the window is a rich, formal landscape with fountain and domesticated animals and rows of harmonious, ornamental trees. The rows open up to clouds that reveal traces of a beautiful blue sky. The combination of the nude, a musician and background landscape through a window was a popular series by Titian. In fact, the Prado has another, nearly identical, except that a dog replaces the Cupid. A curious detail is that the other Prado reclining Venus has a wedding ring on her right hand. Aside from these two Titian painted three other reclining Venus with musicians: Like the two in the Prado, the one in Berlin’s Staatliche Museen has an organist. The two others (one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other in Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) have a lutenist as the musician. This series is the culmination of Titian paintings of reclining nudes including Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which Titian completed by painting the background landscape, the Venus of Urbino and the Danaë and the Shower of Gold (also in the Prado). The Roman masters were not attracted to these paintings by Titian. Michelangelo saw Danaë and the Shower of Gold when Titian had a temporary studio in Rome. That painting had the advantage of depicting an established mythological story and having a color scheme that impressed Michelangelo. Nevertheless, in private Michelangelo criticized Titian’s composition for failing to adhere to classical principles of depicting the human body (involving the distances between breasts, navel and separation of legs). The same “non-classical” body proportions is seen in the painting at the Clark.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Domenico Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

Domenico Tintoretto’s Lady Revealing Her Breast (#7) is another case of pure eroticism. The work is the portrait of a courtesan. That her head is off to the side, possibly in embarrassment, convinced some that the picture shows the woman first being introduced into her profession. Like most paintings of the younger Tintoretto, this one is characterized by subtle use of unusual colors. The pale purple background softly enhances the shade of her flesh in much the way late nineteenth century painting might attempt. Originally, the Prado attributed this work to Domenico’s father, and others believed it was painted by Jacopo’s daughter Marietta, but Domenico’s specialty was portraiture and the work lacks the energy and emotional concentration of his father’s works.

The elder Tintoretto is represented by two biblical-historical works with nudes. One is the often painted story of Susannah and the Elders (of which more below). The other is the encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Both of these paintings, together with four others at the Prado (Esther and AhasuerusJudith and Holofernes, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and Moses Rescued from the Nile), were part of a frieze decorating a dome in a Venetian palace. Velázquez purchased the paintings for Philip IV while on tour in Italy. The paintings were mounted in the dome at a 45° angle and so the paintings have an unusual perspective. Philip IV arranged the paintings in a ceiling at the Alcazar palace, arranged around a central oval painting, possibly The Purification of the Midianite Virgins. This last painting, however, seems to be later than the horizontal paintings by the elder Tintoretto and painted by another, possibly his son Domenico.

8. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

8. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

The six rectangular paintings are unlike other Tintoretto works. They are interrelated by color and pattern and appear designed primarily for decorative purposes. Five of the six paintings are about two feet tall. Three of those five (including both nudes at the Clark) are about four feet wide. The other two are 6¾ feet wide. The sixth, the painting of Judith with the body of the Assyrian general she had just decapitated, has dimensions of slightly over 6 feet by by just under 8¼ feet. This largest of the paintings thus was the central work of the paintings fixed in the frieze. Although they all portray scenes from the Old Testament, they have neither a devotional or didactic purpose. All of the paintings feature elegant costumes, opulent jewelry, stylish coiffure set against luxurious furnishings and drapery and often with background of gardens and modern buildings. The fabrics, clothing and foliage created a complex pattern with intricate design that connected the paintings around the frieze of the dome. Although all other aspects of the paintings related to modern Venice, the costumes appear Oriental and may give a clue to the dating of the paintings.3

The painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (#8) shows the crisis point of the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by the wife of the Egyptian captain to whom he had been sold into slavery. The lust in this painting is not the male’s (Joseph), who is recoiling from the attempt. Rather, the (unnamed) wife, though naked and turned toward the viewer’s leering gaze, is in the midst of being rebuffed. Her face is heavily made up with black lines around her eyes. Her double chin makes her appear much older than Joseph and marks her as the predator, even though her body is rendered in a way to arouse the prurient interest of the viewer. She appears to have just thrown a robe or cloth to ensnare Joseph, but neither her body nor her overt appeal succeed. When viewed from straight on, as at the Clark, it looks like Joseph is leaning backwards. But given the angled mounting in the original dome, likely Joseph appeared upright with the captain’s wife reaching up towards him. Joseph will pay for insulting his master’s wife of course, but his innocence is demonstrated in this painting by his face, his feminine attire, posture and ornaments (including what looks like a necklace). The event takes place in the richly furnished bedroom and the characters seem swaddled in the drapery from the bed. While Tintoretto became known for his dramatic expressivity, here the moment is lost because the painting is only one of a series which highlights the ornamentation rather than the intensity of the moment. Nevertheless, despite its ornamental intent, the scene is rendered as a moment of dramatic narrative (however stylized), unlike the Titian (#6) and the one by Tintoretto’s own son (#7), whose works seem essentially about tantalizing rather than presenting a moment of drama with a delineation of character. These latter features were characteristic of both Tintoretto specifically and the Baroque in general.

9. Susannah and the Elders by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Oil on canvas. ca. 1617. Prado, Madrid.

The apocryphal story of Susannah (a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel recognized by the Catholic, Orthodox and Syrian churches) is represented in the Clark exhibition not only by the panel by Tintoretto but also by an oil by Guercino (#9). The tale is a simple one. Two lecherous old men spy on the chaste Babylonian wife of a wealthy Israelite while she bathes in her own garden. Aroused, they confront her and threaten to testify that they witnessed her meeting a lover unless she submits to them. She refuses but unable to prove her innocence is sentenced to death. The execution is prevented by Daniel who has the men examined separately, which reveals inconsistencies, resulting in Susannah’s freedom and her accusers’ execution.

The Guercino Susannah shown at the Clark was originally purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi. This version is relatively chaste as Susannah is shown in profile and face averted. Her right arm covers much of her breasts and a cloth covers part of her right thigh. Generally among the many paintings of this scene, the choice is to show the nude Susannah directly to the viewer. That was the choice made by Tintoretto in the panel at the Clark, and in that case Tintoretto adds the titillating detail of one elder grasping Susannah’s breast. In that painting the robes of the elders and the foliage of the tree Susannah sits under provide the design details for the overall frieze pattern. (The tree is key to the inconsistencies of the elders’ testimony.) Another early painting (ca. 1555-56) on the same subject by Tintoretto, now in Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, also shows Susannah frontally, as does another by Guercino, a work in the National Gallery of Parma. The Guernico showing at the Clark is a more masterful rendering than these other three. It is formally composed with the leering elders to the left backed by the branches of the telltale tree and Susannah demurely in the right half, seated on a stone bench in front of a serene sky, her body in the pose of a classical Greek sculpture. The contrast of color makes a formal division of the painting and highlights the contrasting characters of those depicted. The chiaroscuro treatment of the men and their grotesque expressions and movements show the disturbing nature of their emotions, especially when contrasted with the innocent and calm depiction of Susannah.  One of the men points toward the viewer as though to warn us to remain silent, making the viewer complicit in their behavior. It is an odd point to be made by a painter who depends on patronage of the devout. The painting merges the emotional turbulence of the Baroque art to come with the deference to classicism of the Renaissance works of Michelangelo.

The Nude Among the Gods

9. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of †itian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

10. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of Titian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

Rubens is represented by three other large mythological paintings. One, Rape of Europa (#10), is one of the copies of Titians which Rubens made during his visit to Madrid in 1628-29. The copy is a faithful reproduction of the original (now at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston) and shows the respect Rubens had for the Venetian master. By the time Rubens made this copy he was already celebrated for his scenes of violence, mythological paintings and nudes. But the Titian is a work of intense expressivity. The story told by the painting is how Zeus, transformed into a bull, tricks the young Europa, for whom he lusts, and is now abducting her against her will. Europa’s terror of the abduction is physically palpable, as she rides precariously on his back with a foreboding sea populated by two evil looking creatures in the front (and unknown terrors below). But it is not just a representation of physical and sexual violence (although it is that indeed), because cupids fly overhead apparently benignly and one is riding one of the creatures below. In ancient Greece and Catholic Europe during the Counter-Reformation, especially Habsburg Europe and very particularly Spain, the terror of an encounter with a god is also an occasion of frightening enthusiasm (in its original, etymological sense). To be possessed by a god is beyond one’s control and if one submits, the result is ecstasy. Bernini would brilliantly express the terror of the rapture 20 some years later in his sculpture of Saint Teresa (a contemporary of Philip II). Bernini portrayed the ecstasy of the Spanish mystic, when Ruben only emphasized the devoutness of the saint (not her experiential response) in his early painting. It’s tempting to think that Rubens’s encounter with Titian with this painting added to his palette both ardent passion and emotion pressed to its human limit.

10. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

11. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

The Rape of Hippodamia (#11) shows another aspect of Rubens. The picture is among the last set commissioned by Ferdinand for Philip IV, intended to decorate the 25 room Torre de la Parada, Philip’s hunting lodge near Madrid. For a year and a half Rubens produced 112 oil sketches of mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Rubens was suffering from gout at the time and some of the paintings were completed by painters in his school although he did finish many himself. This painting comes from Book 12 of Metamorphoses. The epic is an intricate series of stories, sometimes within other stories, all of which lead, like a river, into the next, and all describing the cause, process and result of change. The story in the Rubens painting is one of the stories within a story. It is told after the Greeks had finished their first battle upon landing to lay siege to Troy. Achilles found himself unable to kill a Trojan warrior, whose skin was impervious to spear or arrow. He was therefore forced to strangle him with his own helmet strap. After the battle, the oldest of the Greek heroes, Nestor, as he often does in the Iliad, tells the Greek lords how he knew of a more remarkable fighter in the good old days, when he was young. And he tells the story of the warrior Caeneus, who like the Greek adversary had impenetrable skin. This was part of an earlier metamorphosis granted by Neptune (detailed by Nestor). What concerns the painting took place at the wedding feast of Pirithoüs and Hippodame to which Caeneus was invited as a guest. Also invited were the centaurs, half-brothers of the bridegroom (whose father, Ixion, the king of the Lapithae, mated with a cloud in the form of Juno and fathered the half-men, half horse creatures). The most savage centaur,  Eurytus, drunk and overcome with lust, abducts the bride Hippodame, setting off a lethal brawl, which Nestor, who claimed to have attended, details at great length with the blows given in all their gruesomeness in a parody of Homer’s battle descriptions. Eurytus is killed by a wine bowl broken over his head. Caeneus comes to the aid of the bride and is protected by his skin, but the centaurs bury him under so many rocks and trees that he is sent to the underworld. On being questioned after this account, Nestor reveals that he has not told the tale quite accurately. In short, Ovid is satirizing Homer with this burlesque of a battle in the wedding hall. I think Rubens is also presenting a burlesque battle.

Beside being a diplomat and artist, Rubens was something of a classicist. Son of an Antwerp lawyer, Rubens was educated classically, learning Latin and possibly Greek, and read the classics, especially Virgil, until his early teens.4  His early “pocketbook” (a sketchbook that was largely destroyed by fire but partially reconstructed from copies and descriptions) arranged sketches of poses and emotions with appropriate quotes from Latin texts (particularly Virgil). His single-sheet annotated sketches show that he deeply contemplated classical texts (including Ovid), sometimes adding details or combining events or characters to more acutely render the underlying meaning. “Classical texts were for Rubens sources of inspiration, liberating rather than confining and restricting.”5 Surely, Rubens both consulted the text and understood the burlesque treatment Ovid gives the wedding hall battles.

The Hippodamia work is unlike his earlier battle scenes (of which Rubens was something of a master). Those scenes emphasize the contortions and agony of conflict and death. Viewed from a distance they seem a writhing mass of chaos. They seem to owe something to Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, which Rubens made two chalk sketches of: one in the Boijmans Collection in Rotterdam and the other in Frits Lugt collection in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris. Michelangelo’s relief, though on a rectangular stone panel, is not composed as though the figures were on that single plane. Rather the characters occupy several planes, seemingly in three dimension. Rubens’s chalk sketches not only study of the bodies and their movements but also, by shadowing, the relative depths of the carvings of the high relief.

The composition of Rape of Hippodamia is quite a contrast. In fact, with the two parallel planes that the figures inhabit, it is more like a relief than a painting (just as Michelangelo’s relief is more like a painting, or sculpture, in composition). The movement is all from left to right with the Lapiths chasing the centaurs. But the chase is somewhat cartoonish, and there is something emotionally distant about the moment. The figure with the dagger on the left (Caeneus?) has both feet well off the ground, leaping far higher than seems normal in that space. The disorder of the banquet is emphasized with bowls, jars and furniture toppling over. Hippodamia herself, in the grasp of Eurytus, has a stylized expression, quite unlike the terror or agony which we would expect and which Rubens excelled at painting. And the clothing (aside from Hippodame’s which is partially ripped from her) hardly seems what wedding guests would normally be clad in.

Whether or not the intent of Rubens is what I suggest, it is clear that the painting creates a sensation of great rushing tumult partially resulting from the rhythmic placement of heads. (I simply happen to believe the tumult is over the top.) The contrast of skin colors between Hippodame and the combatants makes her the central figure. And her horizontal placement among the mostly upright men shows that she is object of the tumult. The complimentary color tones which surround her makes the painting highly decorative, and given the subject matter, appropriate for the men’s lodge for which it was intended.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

The large painting (nearly 6 feet (h)  x nearly 9.5 feet (w)) Marriage of Thetis and Peleus (#12) by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens was a later example of a situation (the gods coming together to feast) executed by numerous painters of the Spanish Netherlands, often several times by a single painter. The popularity of this setting arose around the turn of the seventeenth century at the height of the Mannerist movement in Northern Europe. The scene allows for bravura treatment of the human form, permitted the use of nude figures and freed the artist from the constraint of High Renaissance formalism: an assembly of Olympic gods, after all, was not the Last Supper. Jordaens himself began as a Mannerist, but by the time of this painting had fully imbibed the influence of Rubens.  The Jordaens feast is for the wedding of Thetis and Peleus arranged by Zeus. The feast would ultimately result in the Trojan War owing to the refusal to invite Discordia (Eris in Greek, the god of Discord). In pique, Discordia flies into the banquet and tosses a golden apple with the inscription “To the fairest.” Each of three goddesses immediately assume the apple belongs to her—Venus, Juno and Minerva (in their Roman names). Paris will be invited to judge the contest. When he renders judgment in favor of Venus, she (as she promised him beforehand) delivers to him Helen (wife of Greek warlord Menelaus), and the Greek fleet was soon off to retrieve her and lay waste to Troy. The marriage has another connection with the later contest: their offspring would be Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, who would himself die before the walls of Troy. (Do not concern yourself with trying to correlate the time lines of the Judgement of Paris and the birth, adolescence and eventual participation in the Trojan War by Achilles; they do not correlate well. Perhaps this is why Homer only indirectly alludes to the Judgment of Paris because the backstory is problematic.)

The painting features the three goddesses. The central nude is Venus with Cupid at her knee. Behind her is Minerva, in full battle gear. Across the table is Juno, whose hand is outstretched for the apple. Discordia flies overhead, having just dropped the apple which is visible in the middle of the table. I suppose it is Thetis and Peleus at the far right.To the right of June is Zeus, her husband, and behind him is Mercury, one of his sons. As goddess of love, Venus is is entitle to sit naked at the nuptials. The painting was used by Philip IV as part of his redecoration of the Torre de la Parada. The work is elegantly composed, competently executed, contains the requisite nude per wish of the patron and displays the requisite opulence to decorate one of the palaces a specifically redesigned palace. Yet it is neither a work of Renaissance perfection nor Baroque passion. But when a patron like Philip IV commissioned works in bulk, he probably did not expect every one to be a masterpiece.

The Nude as Decoration

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

In the Flemish cabinet landscapes, represented in the exhibition by four works, the nudes are ornamental features among lush scenery. While each of the four works are interesting in their own right, my favorite is Abundance with the Four Elements (#13). This is another of the allegory class of paintings. The four elements are represented here by female nudes: earth, fire and water on in the midground with air flying above to the left. When this canvas was painted, the elder Brueghel was the most important painter in northern Europe. His fame allowed him to run a studio on something of an industrial model. The master would design the work but his students and other Flemish collaborators (including the young Rubens) would assist. In this genre the landscape was the essential design element, and the nudes were the feature desired by the clientele. This particular allegory was used over and over, both the elder Brueghel and his son painted more than one. The general pattern of landscape with nudes seems to have been immensely popular among Brueghel’s clients and it influenced many Flemish painters. Today we think of Brueghel as the painter of radical works of peasant life. But what funded the art was the studio which catered to patrons with specific tastes, and the Flemish cabinet landscapes with nudes was a popular decorative item that funded the art that lasted. Philip IV and his grandfather may have been shrewd  connoisseurs and patrons, but it is the artist, not the buyer or the broker, who changes the way we see things. And that was as true 400 years ago as it is now. And today, Brueghel’s peasant paintings are probably more indelibly imprinted in the modern mind than anything that the Habsburg collectors most treasured.

Nakedness as the Mystery of the Human Condition

Perhaps it’s an unreasonable idea that we, in our age, should expect “meaning” in our terms from artists 400 years ago. And of course Titian, Rubens and Tintoretto did not expect to be judged on the basis of a handful of nude paintings they made at the request of (or second-hand purchase) of a couple of immensely wealthy collectors. But that was the premise of the Clark exhibition, and so let us see if we can glean meaning from the selection. Notwithstanding their superiority as the front rank of the post-Renaissance painters, it is not Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens or Brueghel that suggests an underlying drama and mystery to human nakedness. It is true that they, particularly Titian and Rubens, were unmatched in creating luminous flesh, mixing pigments in such a way that the color itself is more real than all the surroundings, and indeed more “real” than actual flesh. Moreover the texture and movement of this color expresses a surface not seen since, not even by Renoir.6 These masters achieved (or nearly so) for the surface of the body what the ancient and Hellenistic Greeks achieved for its form, and they did it by a similar technique—by idealizing and slightly exaggerating certain components to trick the viewer into thinking he has seen a naturalistic representation.

But this breakthrough by these masters was used largely for ornamentation and for the kind of eroticized remake of traditional subjects that they believed the patron class demanded. It would be the lesser Baroque artists who used the nude to attempt to achieve effects beyond mere titillation. Furini’s Lot and his Daughters is perhaps the best example in this exhibition.

14. Detail of Furini's Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

14. Detail of Furini’s Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

Genesis 19 tells the disturbing story of the last day of Sodom. Lot, sitting at the city gate, meets two angels (מלאכים) arriving to retire for the night in the center of the city. Lot urgently prevails on them to stay at his house, but shortly, the men of the city, young and old, arrive and demand that Lot turn over the strangers so that they can rape them. Lot begs with them to desist and offers his two virgin daughters instead. They refuse and try to force entry, but the angels blind them. The next day the angels instruct Lot to gather his kin to leave the city to escape the destruction that god intends to deliver. Lot attempts to persuade his sons-in-law to accompany him, but they think he is joking. On their exit the angels tell Lot, his wife and daughters not to look back on Sodom, an injunction Lot’s wife disobeys, and she is turned into salt as a result. When Lot and his daughters reach the mountain cave which is their sanctuary the daughters realize that they will remain barren unless they seduce their own father. They twice intoxicate him so that each can couple with him, unions that will impregnate both, and allow the seed of their father to live on.

The painting is the first seduction of their father. It is profoundly unsettling. The figures are in an uncomfortable mass, standing in front of a dark bluish void, a color that dominates the composition (including Lot’s face) and contrasts with the green drapery which cover the lap of the daughter on the right. The daughter on the left, whose buttocks is covered by a diaphanous robe, holds a wine jug in her left hand. Both daughters are naked as they face their father. Most of the intimate details are shown in the section contained in figure #14. We see the hair of both daughters, each with a jeweled headband of sorts. The daughter on the left also has a red ribbon which accents her own red hair. The daughter on the left (the elder one, whose idea it was) is pulling down her father’s robe with her left hand. A tress of her hair falls on her left cheek, a detail that makes the scene even more intimate. Lot tentatively touches both daughters on the shoulder. The scene is entirely non-judgmental, as is the ancient text it is based on. And yet, it also allows the viewer to contemplate the incest taboo which makes the story noteworthy in the first place. Naked flesh is unsettling, the source of moral corruption, but also what is responsible for the race surviving.

The treatment of the figures, which does not exalt in the flesh that made Rubens famous, is nonetheless more “modern” to viewers of today. The composition is designed to convey a moment not a bravura technique nor sensuality. It is perhaps that choice that makes it more memorable than the works of Furini’s betters.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

Francisco de Zurbarán, the Spanish master of chiaroscuro who mainly confined himself to religious paintings and still lifes, is represented by two works from a series of 10 paintings illustrating the labors and death of Hercules. Zubarán was not a natural to portray the demigod, and it seems that attribution to him was not certain until the mid-twentieth century when the record for payment for the works was discovered. The commission was for Zurbarán to supply 12 such paintings (later reduced to 10) to decorate the newly built Hall of Realms at another of Philip IV’s pleasure houses, Buen Retire Palace outside Madrid. The identification of the works remains somewhat clouded. The work called Hercules Defeats King Geryon (#15) in the Clark Exhibition was entitled Hercules Kills Eryx when the attribution to Zubarán was first made.7 Indeed, two things compound that confusion. First, the online Prado collection does not contain or identify the work. But more importantly, the defeated figure does not resemble Geryon or Geryones, who is consistently referred to in ancient sources as “three-bodied” and depicted in ancient iconography with three heads (and other features). Whether the slain figure represents Eryx or Geryon is probably of little importance since both are figures in the tenth labor of Hercules and both are slain by him (see Apollodorus, Library, ii.5, for the story). The painting does not rely much on the narrative of that tale, instead showing Hercules from behind standing over a corpse. We would perhaps not call this painting a “nude,” showing only the buttocks of Hercules (and, unusually the anus of the corpse, which can be seen more clearly in the painting than the reproduction here). This is true also of the other painting from this series shown at the Clark, Hercules and the Hydra (#16). (The latter however may have show frontal nudity, with a loin cloth painted later, since the stance of Hercules is quite odd, unless it was intended solely to display his genitals.)

The treatment of Hercules in this series is quite different from that of Hellenistic artists. The Hellenistic kings identified with Hercules, just as the Habsburg rulers did, but the former emphasized his youth and beauty (unabashedly showing full frontal nudity and the body in three dimensions in action). The depiction of Hercules by Zubarán, however, is not one of idealized beauty. Hercules is both stolid and largely static. His body does not show sleekly rippled muscles but rather unusual muscular architecture, with tube-like features that don’t look anything like classical depictions. Nor are the scenes done with the wit and flair of Rubens, who was much more comfortable with mythological scenes than probably any other Baroque artist.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

But the paintings seem to serve their purpose. They were hung above the ten large windows in the very long Hall of Realms with their bottoms more than 10 feet off the ground. Between those windows and below the scenes of Hercules were battle scenes. The room (which was the ceremonial throne room of the palace) was designed to show the virtues, accomplishments and duties of the Catholic King.8 The martial aspects went back to Charles V; the allegorical representations were more recent. In addition to the other reasons why kings identified with Hercules, Philip IV’s image handlers wanted him associated with an ineluctable force that defeats Discord. The goddess Discordia (who we encountered in the Jordaens painting in her traditional setting, above, #12) was a topic on the mind of politicians, writers and artists in Habsburg Europe at least from the beginning of the 17th century.9 A few years before the commission to Zurbarán, Rubens himself had completed the dramatic ceiling of the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in London under commission of Charles I. One of the corner ovals consisted of a painting, Hercules as Heroic Virtue Overcoming Discord, an oil planning sketch of which can be seen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Like Zurbarán’s depiction, Hecules is excessively muscled, and Discordia, like Eryx/Geryon, is defeated in a grotesque position. Years later an elderly Calderón del la Barca tackled Discordia in a nuanced way (after Philip and his efforts against the goddess were over) in his comedia famosa entitled La estatua de Prometeo (Prometheus’s Statue) (written in 1669; first published, posthumously, in 1715), but a discussion of that treatment must await a future post. The Habsburgs, however, saw no nuance behind Discord, only Lutheranism (or other heterodoxy), rebellion or succession dipsutes. The latter two would come later. Now Philip IV was assisting the empire in defeating Discord by setting Europe on fire and waging a war that already lasted a generation and that would devastate and depopulate Germany. Zurbarán was not asked to create visually interesting work or works filled with devotional or spiritual meaning, both of which Zurbarán specialized in. He was only asked to create a mythology to justify the monarchy in its brutal and grim work, and Zurbarán complied. From the floor, where the dignitaries had audiences with the king or viewed the many productions that were staged in the room, the unrealistic musculature and postures of the figures were not apparent. Only the atmosphere, which the dark palette also contributed to, was necessary to communicated the implacable force meted out to those who defied Habsburg Order and their inevitable destruction. The final picture in the Hercules series, which showed a dying hero wearing the poisoned robe of Nessus seeking the pyre that would end his torment, showed the reward at the end of the King’s labors—apotheosis.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

The final three paintings in the Clark exhibition are works that would customarily (or perhaps better, a priori) be considered as filling the role that certain nudes did in Hellenistic art: depictions of intense human suffering. We saw this in the Dying Persian in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition earlier this year (fig. #14 in that post). Other examples form the Hellenistic age include the flaying of Marsyas, such as the 2nd century B.C.E. version now at the Musee Capitole Palazzo Conservatori in Rome. The representation of Marsyas would foreshadow all later representations of the Passion of Christ. The most famous and influential Hellenistic work in this genre, however, is the Laocoön Group, now in the Vatican. This sculpture profoundly influenced Italian artists from the time it was excavated in Rome in 1506. Renaissance and Baroque painters applied the conceptual framework to four more familiar mythological figures, who were repeatedly drawn on to signify suffering: Tityos, Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion. (The later was the father of the centaurs in Rubens work above, #11). These (nude) figures could be painted in the throes of agony because they were condemned to Hades by the gods. Early on the Habsburgs endowed them with political meaning. Mary of Hungary commissioned Titian to paint these tormented figures as a symbol of the punishment inflicted on the German rebels by Emperor Charles V. See, for example, Titian’s treatment of Sisyphus. Of course the figures were seen as deserving to suffer, but some of the renderings were quite gruesome (even according to Habsburg taste for vengeance). See, for example, Titian’s Tityos. By politicizing the stories (and casting the Habsburgs in the role of Olympian deities), the symbols became unmoored from their ancient meanings, and in the Baroque these stories became excuses for something close to sadism. We would expect depictions of saints, on the other hand, to be handled with pathos of the Hellenistic originals (which the Hellenistic kings, unlike the Habsburgs, even accorded to their political opponents).

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

The three works that end the Clark show are treatments, with the usual iconography, of the first martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, done by by Guido Reni (ca. 1617-19) (#17), Jusepe de Ribera (1636) (#18) and Juan Carreño de Miranda (1656).  Sebastian, according to legend, was a captain in Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guards. When it was discovered that he was a Christian, Diocletian (who was in the midst of a campaign to exterminate Christians) ordered that he be executed by being tied to a tree and having archers fill him with arrows. Although he was left for dead, Irene of Rome collected his body, nursed him back to life and healed his wounds. Sebastian, once recovered, proceeded to denounce Diocletian in person, who had him seized and clubbed to death. It is the scene of an arrow-punctured Sebastian that was routinely rendered.

Despite what we might expect, in contrast to the Baroque treatment of tormented mythological beings, none of the three renderings of the saint seem to attempt to elicit feelings of pathos or express the agony of the torture. Indeed, although each has received multiple arrow punctures, they all seem unnaturally tranquil. This is not how El Greco treated his subject, in a painting in the Prado collection. The earlier work, like all of Greco, is an intellectualized, expressionistic treatment of suffering and shows the saint yearning for release. The three in the Clark exhibition seem, by contrast, highly stylized, more a reason to show the male body than a contemplation of the suffering, or indeed the devotion, of Sebastian. A Prado curator, Pablo Pérez d’Ors, who helped organized a Masterpiece showing of Prado works in Puerto Rico in 2012, even suggested that the Ribera painting disproved criticism’s of Spanish art as reflective of inherent cruelty in Spanish culture.10 But it was only three years later that Ribera showed that he could paint a scene of a saint tortured before an uncaring audience with his Martyrdom of Saint Philip, which seems an eminently more sensible way of portraying a martyrdom, however much it also reminds one of the practices of the Inquisition in Spain.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

If one puts aside the purported setting of the pieces and treats each work not as a depiction of a martyrdom or an object to be venerated, then they can be seen as studies of the male body in two dimensions, much as the ancients treated the male nude in three dimensions. All three show the careful study Italian artists had made of classical models for nearly a century, not only in terms of proportion but more importantly how the male torso was designed (both geometrically and in terms of muscular architecture). But the Reni (#17) and the Carreño (#19), which show the orientation of the pelvis, also display the counterpose posture (contrapposto) which was the first great classical innovation in the portrayal of the human body. Reni especially is able to give his subject’s body a rhythm that suggests discomfort and perhaps yearning to be released. (Reni’s attempt to relate his subject’s body language to his predicament in this case seems not to have been attempted in another of his paintings in the exhibition, Cleopatra, who appears to be eating figs as she exposes her breast to the viewer and the small serpent who will kill her.) Carreño’s subject has the most individualized physiognomy, perhaps based on a real person. His painting is the one with the most non-Italian influence—the sky and landscape seem to owe more to Rubens and other Flemish painters than to Roman ones. In short, all three portraits contain the key features of classic Greek and Italian Renaissance art, but Carreño also has more contemporary coloring.

Yet both classical Greece and Renaissance Italy celebrated the male nude as part of a philosophy that exalted in the belief that man was the center of all thought and the measure of all things. This was decidedly not the philosophy of Habsburg Europe. While the Habsburgs themselves, and their courtiers, were not constrained by the oppressive morality they imposed on their subjects, they required the illusion that they, like their subjects, served higher powers. So the celebration of the male body had to be packaged into a context where it clearly did not belong and which diminishes it as a work of imagination.

Final Thoughts

The nude was an integral part of Greek culture. It was not just art. Spectators watched naked athletes compete. Philosophers celebrated the beauty of the human body. In fact, gods were made in the image of man because there could be no higher beauty. Over several hundred years classical artists explored the body and created rules for representation that to this day seem to define human beauty, at least in representational art.

No Western culture since then celebrated nakedness as much as the Greeks. The Romans were shocked by the rampant nakedness of the Greeks and their art, but they recognized how the Greeks had discovered a beauty that they could only copy, not invent. For nearly a millennium Western art hid the body. (Greek respect for the body may have been exported to Buddhist lands, where it thrived while Europe rejected it.) When the Italians rediscovered the classical reverence for the body, it was part of  the general acceptance by Italian intellectuals of most of the “new” ideas they were learning form the ancients. The Spanish Monarchy never fully accepted the humanism of the ancients and certainly not the concept that a human, qua human, was the highest good.

On the basis of this (admittedly small) sample, it appears that Philip II and Philip IV understood that the nude provided a delight to those who could afford them. Women of course provided carnal delight, so they could populate expressly erotic works and populate “poetical” compositions in which they played figures subject to or fleeing from sexual assault. In any event, the female nude was mainly an object of lust or given over to it.

The male nude was not an object of lust so he is seen only in exceptional circumstances. Oddly those circumstances were either to delight in physical torment (something near bloodlust) or to display religious devotion. By far the most frequent male nude in the royal collections was the Savior. Next his most devoted followers, suffering torments for their devotion.

It is difficult to leave this exhibition without meditating more on the collectors than the artists. This is in part due to the fact that the artists the Spanish kings patronized (with few exceptions) worked in narrow, often trod, paths acceptable to their clients. The power of the artistic imagination, his ability to shock, the primacy of his vision, concepts that existed earlier and later than this period, were unknown. But the impression is mainly due to the particular subject of the exhibition, which only was a small part of the collecting activities of these two kings. If the exhibition were of royal family portraits, scenes of the life of Christ or other biblical narratives, ancient persons, historical works, still lifes, etc., all of which are much more amply represented in their collections, the viewers’ rumination would be on the works and not the society that consumed them. But the curators chose to examine the nude in the collection of rulers who enforced a highly conservative and religiously dominated social order.  That fact cannot be separated from the works themselves, even if some would be considered masterworks in other contexts.


1Sanchez Canton, F.J., The Prado trans. by James Cleugh (New York: Harry M. Abrams, Inc., c1959), p. 21. [Return to text.]

2Harris, Enriqueta, The Prado: Treasure House of the Spanish Royal Collections (London, New York: The Studio publication, [1940]), p. 29. [Return to text.]

3Based on stylistic evidence Renaissance art historian Mary Pittaluga (Il Tintoretto (Bologna, N. Zanichelli [1925]) assigned the panels to ca. 1655, while Rodolfo Pallucchini (La Giovinezza del Tintoretto (Milano: D. Guarnati, [1950]) thought they were painted ca. 1544. They attributed the costumes to the influence of the Mannerist painting of Parmigianino. Stella Mary Pearce has argued, however, based on a fashion book published in 1590 that the costumes reflect the dress of peoples from Rhodes and Persia, who were not uncommon in Venice, given its status as a maritime trading center. She concludes that the paintings were painted around 1588 but certainly within the last 10 years of Tintoretto’s life (1584-94). For a discussion, see Stella Mary Pearce, “Dating on the Evidence of Costume and Hairdressing” in Newton, Eric, Tintoretto (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1952), pp. 228-31. [Return to text.]

4Jaffé, David and Elizabeth McGrath, Rubens: A Master in the Making (London: National Gallery Co., 2006) (“Jaffé & McGrath”), p. 11. [Return to text.]

5McGrath, Elizabeth, “Words and Thoughts in Ruben’s Early Drawings” in Jaffé & McGrath pp.29-37, at 35. [Return to text.]

6You can evaluate this assertion yourself at the Clark, which has more than 30 Renoirs on permanent display, including an early and late self portrait. [Return to text.]

7Caturla, Maria Luisa, “Zurbaran at the ‘Hall of Realms’ at Buen Retiro,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 89, no. 527 (February 1947), pp. 42-45. [Return to text.]

8For a reconstruction of the Hall of Realms as it existed when redesigned for Philip IV, see Brown, Jonathan and J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (New Haven [Connecticut]: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 141-92. A drawing of the placement of the paintings on the long walls is found at p. 144-45. A discussion of “Hercules Hispanicus,” the authors’ construct for how the monarchy in 17th century Spain viewed Hercules, is found at pp. 156-61. [Return to text.]

9See, e.g., DiPuccio, Denise M., Communicating Myths of the Golden Age Comedia (Lewisburg [Pennsylvania]: Bucknell University Press, 1998), pp. 175-76. [Return to text.]

10See the description of Ribera’s Saint Sebastian in the Museo de Arte de Ponce’s catalogue, Hartup, Cheryl and Pablo Pérez d’Ors (eds.), Del Greco a Goya: Obras Maestras del Museo del Prado ([n.p.:] Museo de Arte de Ponce, [2012]), p. 116 (English version) (PDF file). The defense of Spanish culture is odd for two reasons. First, Ribera’s treatment owes more to the influences of Italy (where he studied and was then livving) than his original Spanish roots. And second, a single painting is hardly evidence to contradiction the religio-political institutionalized intolerance, repression and cruelty evidenced by such things as the 1492 Alhambra Decree, Spanish treatment of native Americans, the Inquisition, the auto-da-fé, the Habsburg war policy during the Thirty Years War and such bizarre symptoms as the Hermanos Penitentes. This religious-tinged dalliance with reacton was not eliminated with the Habsburgs but remained only slightly below the surface of Spanish society until the explosion of the 20th century. [Return to text.]


“Not Alone”: Probing Nature Digitally

Soho Photo Gallery, a small cooperative showcase of art photographs in Manhattan’s TriBeCa, this week opened a show by the Belgium photographers Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy entitled “Not Alone.”

The exhibition consists of seven large prints of wildlife.1 To call these nature photographs, however,  does not do them justice. They are highly rendered exercises in digital art photography which portray a large landscape containing, and  usually almost hidden, one animal. But rather than try to explain the first impression of these works, let me simply direct you to a short video prepared by the artists (evidently about another installation last year) and posted to Vimeo:

You can see the size of these works, but the video does not show their unique composition qualities. The photographs are not simply an enlarged print of a single photograph. Each one is a composition of between 100 and 150 separate photos taken in a grid-like manner and then digitally stitched together in a computer lab. The product is a file made up of literally billions of pixels. The 100-150 individual shots are all taken with the same focus and metering, based on the initial photograph of the “subject,” the animal nearly hidden in an otherwise seemingly dense array of patterns and blended colors. The effect from a distance is like a field of vision when one “spots” an interesting animal, with the rest of the surroundings not immediately a mater of attention. But because this moment is frozen, it’s possible to see the many details that would otherwise go unnoticed by our concentration on the subject.

While I was at the gallery yesterday, by chance I met Ghislain David de Lossy, a charming man who graciously took time to explain the technique he and his wife employed in these works. Led to likely locations by a guide, they would set up blinds several miles apart to await the arrival of the “game.” If a subject arrived, they would await until the animal accustomed itself to the structure which was new to its environment. Once the subject assumed a desired pose, it was photographed in sharp focus at an appropriate metering. The photographer then proceeded to swivel the camera on its mount to take the framing photographs one by one in a grid-like fashion, all the while attempting to maintain a perfect horizontal so that the individual photos could be sewn together in the lab. Mr. David de Lossy said that often this proved difficult, especially when the camera mount was set on permafrost, which sometimes slightly gave way and subtly affected the horizontal of the tripod. In those cases the grid-like pattern for the 100-150 photographs could not be maintained and when the efforts were reviewed in the lab, sometimes large segments of the total landscape was missing and the effort was for naught. In addition to the intense concentration required over long periods simply to locate the subject, the incredibly precise clarity of the portraits required state of the art equipment. The artists told that they used a 600 mm :4 super telephoto lens (at full aperture) on a 24 mpx Nikon D3X. The result is the effect of looking out of a very large picture window into a European forest or tundra.

All of this is of course background to the real interest of the works. The idea that animates all them is a sense that the natural world has hidden features that escape our notice. This is expressly demonstrated by portraying a subject that is often barely noticeable except for careful study of the large work. Natural camouflage, dense vegetation or a combination often make animals invisible in the wild. Finding the animal in these works is often the first task. Once the animal is located, one can’t help but marvel at how it remains hidden in the open. But once one discovers the “subject,” its possible to see it simply as an element of a larger composition.

The work Snipe (Ytry Tunga, Iceland. 2012) is a good example. The print is about 8 feet long and 3 feet high.2 A stream runs from mid ground, mid picture and comes into focus as to runs  to the bottom right. In the foreground there are soft white and yellow flowers which form what initially appear to be an arching band in sharp focus (surrounded by softly out of focus tall grasses). The band of flowers in focus are minutely rendered. Up close (and the pictures demand very close inspection) one can see the individual seeds on the grasses that surround the flowers. As the eye follows this band it sees a thin shape that is horizontal in contrast to the vertical orientation of the grasses and flower stems. It is the long beak of the snipe. The beak is in perfect focus as is the head of the bird (the only part visible above the grasses hiding it). The sharp focus together with the crisp color renderings molds the black eye of the bird into a three dimensional sphere. Stepping back from close inspection makes plain that the band of focus was not really an arch (which seemed to follow in the foreground the flow of the stream) but rather was an artifact of the focal depth chosen to photograph the bird’s head. But nothing about the focus or metering especially highlighted the bird. In fact, one the subject is spotted, it’s something of a marvel what a small part of the composition it is. The length of the beak is only about 6 inches on the print, which is 16 times as wide. The relative smallness of the subject allows for closer inspection of the environment of the animal, which in itself offers numerous interesting details in a vast panorama. (You can see a “zoomable” file of this work at the de Lossy website here.)

I’ll have to make use of a rendering of one or two of these works, just so you can see what I am talking about. Bear in mind, however, that a reproduction here cannot begin to show the incredible detail of prints. All they can show is how relatively small the animal subject is to the entire landscape. It is a little ironic that a digital photograph is really not best seen on a personal computer (because the screen is not large enough). I’ll give you a link at the end to the de Lossy website which allows for zooming in on several works. Even that, however, is not nearly the same as being able to walk up and see the images a point blank range. Perhaps this shows that even digital technology cannot dispense with tangible works themselves.

Sisso (Montgai, Spain. 2012) is panoramic landscape of a meadow under a light blue sky. The subject is called in English a Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) and is a breeding male in full dramatic neck plumage.

Sisso by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2012).

Sisso by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2012).

Even if you click on the photo to see the file in full size you won’t begin to feel the details of this large landscape. You can barely see the bird  on the right midground of the picture. He is along a band of in-focus read flowers. These flowers dissolve into the foreground. Behind the flowers is an out of focus field of tall grass and shrubs. When he bird is examined, it’s clear that he is at extreme attention. His neck is fully extended. The black hood feathers are apparent. But most arresting is the intricate pattern of short dark and light brown strips on his back side which contrast with the white and black feathers of his front. Aside from the white breast, the colors are perfectly harmonious with the vegetation. Once again the “subject” is only about 6 inches and in this case is set considerably off center to the right. (You can see a “zoomable” file of this photo on the de Lossy site here.)

Another example I’ll show is Palokärki (Korouoma, Finland. 2011), the subject of which is what is called the Black Woodpeck in English (Dryocopus martius).

Palokärki by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2011).

Palokärki by Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy (2011).

As you can see the composition is defined by the vertical lines of the trunks of the conifers (Norway spruce?). There are few branches with sparse leaves and the background is a wintry sky. On one of the trunks to the right is the bird in its typical hunting pose. On close inspection individual barbs of the feathers can be seen as well as tufts of afterfeathers. The one visible eye is a black dot within a perfectly white orb. The beak is rendered in such perfect clarity that it seems (to me) that a recently captured insect is visible at the tip. It is impossible to overstate the precision of the focus. (The “zoomable” version is found here.)

Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy appear to have come upon this genre relatively recently. Their career seems to have largely involved (human) portraiture, and they have worked for both Corbis and Getty (and still do). (This probably accounts for the decision to focus on a single subject in the landscape.) Mr. David de Lossy tells me, however, that he has had a lifetime of birding experience in Europe behind him and that when he turned to this type of nature photography he was motivated by two considerations: to add some creative technique to the genre and to avoid doing easy shots. These considerations undoubtedly formed the basis of an unstated aesthetic. In this regard I can’t help but compare a photo from the show with an acknowledged European masterpiece.

The Little Owl by Albrecht Dürer (Watercolor on paper. 1506. Albertina, Vienna, Austria.) Click to enlarge.

The Little Owl by Albrecht Dürer (Watercolor on paper. 1506. Albertina, Vienna, Austria.) Click to enlarge.

I don’t have a file of the photo and it is not on the de Lossy website (although another shot of the same kind of bird is found here), so you will have to take my description (or better yet see the show) of  Mochuelo M (Bellmunt d’Urgell, Spain, 2013). The subject is the Little Owl (Athene noctua). The landscape is a rocky outcrop surrounded by new growth of various grasses. The spotted brown owl looks out from behind the grass, with one eye in full view, its right eye just barely. The little bird is perfectly secure in its environ. Of course, when the most famous rendering of this bird was done by Albrecht Dürer more than 600 years ago, the purpose was entirely different. Dürer’s version illustrates the time (and technique of the times) perfectly. The bird is examined in artificial surroundings, but the wild nature is emphasized by the talons, which clearly show its predatory nature. The bird looks down, almost as if in a sullen mood (perhaps for being out of its element). Dürer renders the portrait with intricate brushstrokes to simulate the texture of the feathers. It is a perfect representation of the Renaissance urge to examine nature as “types,” to separate it from the whole and to catalog it. The aesthetic of this show (and perhaps our time), however, is quite the opposite. The animals are not highlighted (except by focus). They are seen in situ, despite how difficult that makes it for the artist and the viewer. It no longer is something for our edification, but rather for our wonder. Our job is not to classify and learn but to marvel.

The show is on view until February 1 and the prints are listed for sale. If you are in the city it is well worth your effort to see for yourself. Those unable can view a considerable number of the photos at the de Lossy “Not Alone” website. But I have to warn you that while it gives a sense of the prints, only physical inspection will do.


1In this exhibit the works were printed (by inkjet (?)) on Hahnemülle photo rag over dibond. [Return to text.]

2All the prints at the Soho Photo Gallery were 96.06 inches long and ranged from 25.29 to 39.37 inches tall. de Lossy told me that the prints were constrained by the size of the exhibition space and that at the last European show the prints were twice the size, without loss of resolution or deterioration of color. (The Vimeo video shows larger prints, but not ones in the Soho exhibition.) [Return to text.]

Milton, Vengeance and the Relative Logic of Absolute Truths

Revolutions often arrive at their crisis point, not from external pressure, but as a result of the inevitable logic of the revolution. That logic holds that those who resisted the needed change are responsible for the violence made necessary by their resistance. And they must be accountable, particularly if they have refused clear opportunity to stop and especially if they themselves used reactionary violence. The problem is that those not unflinching in their devotion to the cause do not always clearly see the inevitable logic. No one much cares about the vast bulk of humanity who perish in revolutions. Kings are different, especially to their former subjects.

Kings are symbols, not simply people. The forces of reaction try to invest Kings with mythical qualities. Revolutionaries, especially intellectuals or bourgeoisie or, sometimes, aristocrats, generally tread carefully. They use trials to try to exorcise the symbol. But that method never works because the form of trials always has to be ad hoc in those circumstances. Before Louis XVI was executed, he was given a trial of sorts. And by giving a trial, the Convention gave out the impression that their was a choice. But the lawyer-like logic of revolutionary Robespierre showed there really was no choice. Although personally opposed to capital punishment, Robespierre explained that in a revolution to overthrow monarchy and establish a republic there can be no question of a trial for the former “sovereign.” When the pretence under which he exercised power, namely, that he embodied France by right given by God was overthrown, he forfeited his life:

“A trial for Louis XVI! But what is this trial, if it is not the call of insurrection to a tribunal or to some other assembly? When a king has been annihilated by the people, who has the right to resuscitate him in order to make of him a new pretext for trouble and rebellion? And what other effects can this system produce? In opening an arena to the champions of Louis XVI, you resuscitate all the strife of despotism against liberty; you consecrate the right to blaspheme against the Republic and against the people, because the right to defend the former despot involves the right to say everything that concerns his cause. You arouse all the factions; you revive, you encourage dying royalism. The people might freely take part for or against it. What more legitimate, what more natural than to repeat everywhere the maxims that his defenders would be free to profess at your bar and from your very tribune? What kind of Republic is it whose founders raise up adversaries on every side to attack it in its cradle!” (Robespierre to the National Convention, December 3, 1792; Scott Robinson translation in William Jennings Bryan (ed.), The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 7 (NY: 1906), pp139-40.)

To try a king is therefore a mistake. The English Parliament made the same mistake when Charles I fell into their hands after his fateful Engagement with the Scots. There was certainly enough righteous anger after Parliament had to quell a second royalist uprising, an uprising which used the troops who were released by Parliament after the first Civil War on their parole not to take up arms against Parliament. That’s why George Lisle was shot immediately after the surrender at Colchester. Parliament also ordered the execution of several other Royalist leaders.

The case of the King was tricky nevertheless. Trials are supposed to legitimize punishments, but what charges can be laid against a sovereign? And if charges can be laid against a sovereign, a trial suggests that he can be found innocent, which presents the dilemma that Robespierre would point out later.

Cromwell had the additional problem that there wasn’t overwhelming support for trying Charles, perhaps not even majority support in Parliament — opposition that was more attributable to cowardice than Robespierre’s point. But the army was certain of Charles’s unredeemable duplicity, so on December 6, 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride commanding a regiment of foot together with a cavalry regiment (supported by others patrolling the streets) occupied the approaches to Parliament, and Pride permitted only approved MPs to enter, turning back some and arresting others. Only about 80 of the eligible 470 MPs entered the hall.

January 4, 1649, from John Nalson’s Record of the Trial of Charles I, 1688

The Rump Parliament (as it would be known after the Restoration) now attempted to constitute a tribunal to try the King. It first had to resolve that its authority did not need the assent of the Lords or King. It did so on January 4, 1649. On January 6 Parliament established the High Court of Justice to try Charles. The court itself had only MPs (no judges) except for John Bradshaw, a judge of London’s sheriff’s court, the highest judge Parliament could persuade to participate. When Charles was brought before them, he noted other irregularities, including that there were no Lords present. But he also questioned the legitimacy of the commonwealth (Robespierre’s point), when he challenged the jurisdiction of the court by asking “who gave them power to judge of his actions, for which he was accountable to none but God: … he would not so much betray himself, and his Royal Dignity, as to Answer any thing they objected against him …” Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England: Begun in the Year 1641, Vol III:1 (Oxford: 1717), pp254-55.

The court proceeded as best they could, but owing to the ostensibly dignified carriage of the King, who was permitted to speak, a good case was made to look much worse than it was. The King and his followers were able to generate waves of sympathy especially among the superstitious lower classes. On the day of his execution, January 29, 1649, he was allowed to speak again (a mistake the French regicides would not make). He said that he had always labored to ensure the freedom of his citizens. But freedom did not mean that citizens had a right to participate in government. “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” He affirmed his allegiance to the Church of England. He was then beheaded. A legend grew up that a “groan” was emitted from the crowd such that, according to a childhood friend of Charles’s children, “he never heard before, and desired he might never hear the like again.” The witness’s own manuscript description of the event, however, contradicts the account. (Mathew Henry, The Life of Rev. Philip Henry, A.M. (Williams ed.: 1839), p17 & note r.) And then, quite incredibly, the soldiers were supposed to have permitted spectators to mop up some of the blood. These relics were claimed later to heal the sick.

But worst of all the Royalists had ready a publication designed to prove the execution was actually a martyrdom. Εἰκὼν Βασιλική [Eikon Basilike –“Royal Icon”]: The Pourtraicture of his sacred Majestie in his Solitudes and Sufferings (London: 1648 [o.s.]) was published 10 days after the execution, on February 9 (when the King was buried). The book was written as though by Charles himself. (Some royalists would later swear that Charles in fact did; another, John Gauden, after the Restoration, when he was Bishop of Exeter (a see he complained bitterly of, for its poverty), took credit for it.)

The book proved sensational and the Republicans viewed it as a grave threat. It went through numerous editions. Written as a diary, Charles supposedly gives his reasons for his actions and includes the simple prayers and aphorisms he supposedly uttered. The author had a difficult task in justifying royal actions, and limited his case to recent matters so as to avoid bringing to remembrance those things that all of England condemned in his conduct, but the author still found it necessary to misstate facts and revise the facts and attribute motives to the king that he never once indulged in. It began with an explanation of the reasons for calling the Long Parliament (and not calling one for so long before):

Frontispiece of Eikon Basilike, showing the pious Charles

“This last Parliament I called, not more by others advice, and necessity of My affaires, then by My owne choice and inclination; who have alwaies thought the right way of Parliaments most safe for My Crowne, and best pleasing to My People: And although I was not forgetfull of those sparks, which some mens distempers formerly studied to kindle in Parliaments, (which by forbearing to convene for some years, I hoped to have extinguished) yet resolving with My self to give all just satisfaction to modest and sober desires, and to redresse all pubique grievances in Church and State; I hoped by My (freedome and their moderation) to prevent all misunderstandings, and miscarriages in this: In which as I feared affaires would meet with some passion and prejudice in other men, so I resolved they should find least of them in My selfe; not doubting, but by the weight of Reason I should counterpoize the over-ballancings of any factions.” (pp1-2.)

The claim was a barefaced lie which could be uttered only by someone convinced that his reader had no regard for the truth or so smugly persuaded of his own righteousness that the facts were irrelevant. Charles convened Parliaments only when he needed money (for his army) and only tolerated it when it complied. When Parliament tried to tie its fiscal legislation to other matters, Charles dismissed it and tried to obtain money by extra-legal methods. Before “the last Parliament I called” as the book calls it, the King had gone 11 years without calling a Parliament.

Of course the facts were: he hadn’t called a Parliament because he felt his Crown was safer without it, and when the need for armed action arose in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars, occasioned by his own insistence on control of the Scottish Church), he needed the funds that only Parliament could provide him.

The King was the soul of reason: “I intended not onley to oblige My friends, but Mine enemies also: exceeding even the desires of those, that were factiously discontented, if they did but pretend to any modest and sober sense.” (p3.) And so on. But the tract was most effective when it spoke of Charles’s religion. Not only did it use the simple language of the Book of Common Prayer, it sounded downright Wesleyan (actually Arminian, which Wesley would later adopt, which of course only further inflamed the Puritans):

“O Lord, I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.

“Deliver me from blood guiltinesse O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousnesse.

“Against thee have I sinned, and done this evill in thy sight, for thou sawest the contradiction between my heart and my hand.

“Yet cast me not away from thy presence, purge me with the blood of my Redeemer, and I shall be clean; wash me with that precious effusion, and I shall be whiter then snow.” (pp11-12.)

The King, even dead, could not be allowed to appear the more saintly. And here is where John Milton began his rise to international fame.

Milton was 40 when the agitation arose over what to do with the King, having encouraged the second civil war. He was now independently comfortable. He inherited his patrimony when his father died two years before. His father, who was by profession a scrivener, made his fortune by, of all things, writing religious music, hymns and the like. It paid well enough for the son to have a private classics tutor, and to go to Cambridge. He had the further luxury of never having to work, so he planned the career of a poet. He became an expert classicist and even debated in Latin. He wrote important poems at Cambridge including “Lycidas,” an elegy for his friend Edward King and L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, two pastorals contemplating perfect pleasure (which later provided part of the text for an oratorio by Handel). He received a B.A. (1629) and Masters (1632) from Cambridge, and then retired to his suburban home for six years of reading. In 1638 he set off on his Grand Tour of France and Italy where he met such intellectuals as Grotius, Galileo and Giovanni Batista and patron of the arts Cardinal Francesco Barberini. When he returned to England it was in the middle of the Bishops’ Wars, the prelude to the Civil War brought on by Charles’s attempts to bring episcopy to the Church of Scotland. Milton began writing political tracts critical of the king. He wrote five tracts against episcopal control of churches, taking a republican point of view. He wrote a reform tract on education and a political tract proposing liberalizing divorce. When he was threatened with censorship (divorce was a radical idea then), he wrote in 1644 his first important theoretical political piece, Areopagitica, arguing for the right to publish without license. (He published it without the required license.) He became more radicalized as the Civil War continued, and must have, like all opponents of the King, been thoroughly outraged when it was discovered that the King, in prison, negotiated the secret Engagement whereby the Scots would invade England and restore Charles to the throne.

Milton began work on a book to explore how commonwealths are formed, what their constitution should be and about where the line is between legitimate monarchy and tyranny. On February 16, 1649 The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was published, just after the King was beheaded and shortly after Eikon Basilike was first distributed. It could not have been more timely. Although it did not expressly defend regicide, the conclusion was inevitable; tyranny was so great an evil.

It called for a commonwealth of virtue. Milton blamed tyranny on the depraved spirit of the rabble. Freedom requires moral fiber (“none can love freedom heartilie, but good men”), but most people “being slaves within doors, no wonder that they strive so much to have the public State conformably govern’d to the inward vitious rule, by which they govern themselves.”) It was full of the stuff of Roman republican virtues, as if from Cato or Sullust. But it impressed the Parliament, because he explicitly condemned the wavering MPs who had pleaded for mercy for the king, in a way that fully justified the Pride Purge:

“Others who have beene fiercest against thir Prince, under the notion of a Tyrant, and no mean incendiaries of the Warr against him, when God out of his providence and high disposal hath deliver’d him into the hand of thir brethren, on asuddain and in a new garbe of Allegiance, which thir doings have long since cancell’d; they plead for him, pity him, extoll him, protest against those that talk of bringing him to the tryal of Justice, which is the Sword of God, superior to all mortal things, in whose hand soever by apparent signes his testified will is to put it. But certainly if we consider who and what they are, on a suddain grown so pitifull, wee may conclude, thir pitty can be no true, and Christian commiseration, but either levitie and shallowness of minde, or else a carnal admiring of that worldly pomp and greatness, from whence they see him fall’n; or rather lastly adissembl’d and seditious pity, fain’d of industry to begett new discord. As for mercy, if it be to a Tyrant, under which Name they themselves have cited him so oft in the hearing of God, of Angels, and the holy Church assembl’d, and there charg’d him with the spilling of more innocent blood by farr, then ever Nero did, undoubtedly the mercy which they pretend, is the mercy of wicked men; and their mercies, wee read are cruelties; hazarding the welfare of a whole Nation, to have sav’d one, whom so oft they have tearm’d Agag; and vilifying the blood of many Jonathans, that have sav’d Israel; insisting with much niceness on the unnecessariest clause of thir Covnant wrested, wherein the feare of change, and the absurd contradiction of a flattering hostilitie had hamperd them, but not scrupling to give away for complements, to an implacable revenge, the heads of many thousand Christians more.”

The text was a closely argued treatise on the source of law, the nature of tyranny and the responsibilities of rulers. Milton called for the people to rally around Parliament.

So, having found the man they needed, the Council of State appointed Milton Secretary for the Foreign Tongues on March 15. (The position was peculiarly appropriate for Milton inasmuch as the principal function was to translate into Latin diplomatic correspondence.) On March 28 the Council ordered him to prepare a document concerning Cromwell’s proposed incursion into Ireland. Milton’s first official work as Secretary was published on May 16 – Observations on the Articles of Peace (in J.A. St. John (ed.), The Prose Works of John Milton, vol 2 (London: 1888), p139ff). It was devised again to discredit the King, for whose benefit the Scottish treaty with Irish rebels was made. Milton’s goal was to enlist the nation’s support for the campaign by showing how the Irish (which, he claimed, rightly, belonged to England) were both Roman Catholic and monarchists — Milton would always try to associate Protestantism (to which the English were instinctively bound) with republicanism, or at least anti-monarchism (of which the English were skeptical). He reminded the reader of the Irish massacres of English and Scottish settlers only eight years before: “the bloud of more then 200000 … assassinated and cut in pieces by those Irish Barbarians” (id. at 183). The reminder was unnecessary. Cromwell used it to justify the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford during the campaign.

Cromwell’s major work, however, was to respond to the book the king supposedly wrote, Eikon Basilike. His production was titled, cleverly enough, Eἰκονοκλάστης (Eikonoklastes [“Icon Smasher”]), which appeared in October 1649. The book amply repaid the Council’s confidence.

It attacks and overwhelms every point made in Eikon Basilike with a firm and often mocking tone. It begins with a humble excuse for attacking the deceased: “It were too unreasonable that he, because dead, should have the liberty in his book to speak all evil of the Parliament; and they, because living, should be expected to have less freedom . . . to speak home the plain truth of a full and pertinent reply.” (Preface.) It exposes the hypocrisy of the author’s claimed veneration of Parliament (Ch. I). It ridicules the King’s sanctimonious repentance for having signed the death warrant of his impeached retainer Thomas of Wentworth (an act done not out of conviction, but purely for craven political purposes), after he announced defiantly to Parliament that he would not execute their judgment — “that no fears or respects whatsoever should make him alter that resolution founded upon his conscience”:

“Either then his resolution was indeed not founded upon his conscience, or his conscience received better information, or else both his conscience and this his strong resolution struck sail, notwithstanding these glorious words, to his stronger fear; for within a few days after, when the judges, at a privy-council, and four of his elected bishops had picked the thorn out of his conscience, he was at length persuaded to sign the bill for Strafford’s execution. And yet perhaps that it wrang his conscience to condemn the earl of high-treason is not unlikely; not because he thought him guiltless of highest treason, had half those crimes been committed against his own private interest or person, as appeared plainly by his charge against the six members; but the because he knew himself a principal in what the earl was but his accessory, and thought nothing treason against the commonwealth, but against himself only.” (Ch. II.)

The book minutely rebuts, often in gravely mocking terms, each assertion made on behalf of the king. Its sheer length and tireless, and sometimes subtly clever, refutations of the self-pity, false piety and dissembled motives of the king were sweeping. But it failed to wipe away the sympathy created by the book or the mystical claim a king has on his subjects. In 1649 alone Eikon Basilike was printed in 35 editions in England and 25 in continental Europe. But Milton’s book firmly established him as the Council’s principal advocate. When eminent classicist (and protestant) Claudius Salmasius of Leiden published his withering condemnation of the regicide, Defensio Regia pro Carolo I, it was Milton to whom the Council turned to provide the Latin response.

Salmasius, writing from securely republican Holland, was paid by Charles II for his efforts. For all of its scholarly neo-Latin, it merely rehashes the divine right of kings, and calls on the European monarchs to unite to put his patron Charles II on the throne. The defense of kings so delighted Queen Christina that she invited him to Sweden and regaled him with honors and gifts for a year. The Council chose Milton to write the Latin defense, and they permitted him to use his name as author (it was as large as the title on the title page). He used the opportunity to introduce himself (literally), to viciously attack Salmasius’s intellectual dishonesty, his lack of information and his cravenness, and to put forward a nuanced view of the role of kings and what limits they cannot pass without becoming tyrants. And he offered biblical, historical and logical reasons to show that the people can dispose of tyrants. The book, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, brought international fame to him when it was published in February 1651. Humanists from all over obtained copies. Even Christina approved of it. It was burned in at least two places (including Paris) and banned from German universities. There could not be a surer endorsement for humanists.

He should now have been happy. Although he did not take the position for money, it gave him an additional handsome income. His young wife was with him; his in-laws (who had been royalists and with whom he had financial disputes) had moved out; he had a son in March 1651 (along with 5 year old Anne and 3 year old Mary). He dealt with foreign dignitaries (albeit as translator, a station probably more humble than he thought he deserved), and the powerful, rich and aristocratic members of the Council now not only knew him, but depended upon him to defend the regime. But as a classicist Milton surely knew that the gods did not sell good fortune cheaply.  He was rapidly, and surely, becoming blind. It began in his left eye, which clouded over. The sharp pain allowed him to read only for a short time. If he closed his right eye, things in the left eye appeared smaller. His eyes would become heavy after meals. By the time he published Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, he was completely blind in his left eye. It was probably glaucoma, but the only treatment at the time likely made him lose his sight faster (Gordon Campbell & Thomas N. Corns, John Milton (Oxford: c2008), pp. 211-22). By 1652 he was blind. He later (1655?) wrote the sonnet (XIX) “When I consider how my light is spent.” He asks: “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” Then answers: “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts.”

But Milton’s trials did not end with blindness. Two months later, in May, his wife died giving birth to another daughter, Deborah. In June his son died. He was evidently reprimanded (or at least questioned) by the Council for permitting the publication of the Socinian manifesto, a tract not consistent with the then prevailing orthodoxy. (Milton was the licensor of publications.) His explained he was not a socinian, but rather had always believed that freedom of discussion would root out error — as he argued in his Areopagitica (William B. Hunter, Jr. (ed.),  A Milton Encyclopedia, vol 3 (Cranbury, NJ: c1978), pp. 174-75). Worse Milton was beginning to see an anti-libertarian streak in Cromwell; the issue now was reduced tolerance for nonconformists and establishing state supported clergy. (Cambell & Corns at 246-248.) It would lead on April 20, 1653, to Cromwell’s coup — his dismissal of the Rump Parliament before Parliament could decide how to deal with its own future. Cromwell did not have elections to replace it; he simply nominated an assembly and called it Parliament. While many of Milton’s friends (including John Bradshaw) broke with Cromwell on this point, Milton remained with Cromwell in the reconstituted Council of State. Over the next two years Cromwell would take positions that Milton had formerly disapproved of, or broke with men who Milton had agreed with. Milton continued with Cromwell and said nothing. He did not even comment, however as he used to when he disagreed in the past, by writing mildly and guardedly opinionated sonnets. Instead, Milton seemed to burrow into his job. And because he was given secretaries (including Andrew Marvell), it’s difficult to know what it was the Milton did in that respect either, because there were no longer documents in his hand. And perhaps he was doing less and less. In 1655 his salary was reduced from £288 28s 6d to £155 per year (although it was made perpetual). Marvel, his secretary, was paid £200 when he began in 1657. It was as though the Council had retired him. Cromwell wrote no books for European intellectuals or pamphlets for Englishmen. He didn’t even write a poem during the time.

But in April 1655 word arrived of something so monstrous that it snapped Milton out of his silence. The 17th Century was no stranger to brutality and military horrors of all kind. The Thirty Years War on the continent left Germany year after year a wasteland such that nature was imitating Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts. England had seen horrors in all its lands during the Civil Wars. And even when Parliament won, military executions followed. And of course, there was the regicide.

But no one had ever expected a sovereign to go out to slaughter unarmed innocents, killing women and children by bashing their heads in, all in the name of the one church of universal love.

The victims seemed hardly capable of rocking Rome to its foundations. The Waldenses were a small, pacifistic sect, which arose some time in twelfth century, when a wealthy French merchant Peter Waldo (or Pierre Vaudès or Pierre de Vaux) had some sort of religious conversion and began preaching poverty and charity. He had taken the gospel injunctions quite literally and gave away his fortune. Waldo even had the Bible translated into a Provençal dialect, the first translation into a vernacular language (since Latin stopped being the vernacular). There was nothing particularly novel about the teachings of Waldo or his disciples. In 1179 a delegation went to Rome where they were blessed by Pope Alexander III. He forbade them, however, from preaching without permission from the local clergy. And this is where they fell afoul of Rome, which demands strict adherence not only to dogma but to hierarchy. In fact, hierarchy was more important, because thirst for power drove Rome as much as thirst for souls. So when the unauthorized preaching of the Waldenses became notorious, they quickly were declared first schismatics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and then heretics in 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. Becoming anathema radicalized the Waldenses, who gradually rejected the entire apparatus of the church, including the intercession of priests and the apostolic succession of the popes. In the twelfth century the Count of Saxony had afforded protection to the group in the Piedmont. The Inquisition soon began hunting them down. Propaganda and force was used to root them out from the late fifteenth to mid sixteenth centuries, but the Piedmontese Waldenses were able to defend themselves. The attention of the Church soon turned to the Protestants, and so did the Waldenses, who in the 1530s, after meeting with Swiss and German Protestants, joined their cause, adopting the theology of Calvin over the beliefs of their founder. And so now the Waldenses were the Protestants of Italy, a closer threat to the hegemony of Rome than either Luther or Calvin, and the Church acted accordingly.

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois; Catherine de’ Medici emerges from Louvre to inspect the carnage

What ensured the horror that was about to descend on the Waldenses was the state of the ducal succession in Savoy. When Victor Amadeus I of Savoy died in 1632, his oldest son Francis Hyacinth (the “Flower of Paradise”) was only 5, so the duchess consort Marie Christine became the de facto ruler of the duchy. Marie Christine had a peculiarly appropriate blood-line for her role in history. Her father was Henry IV who had to feign Catholicism to avoid threats on his life; he was assassinated by a Catholic anyway. Her mother was Marie de Médicis, the foul-mouthed second wife, who succeeded Marguerite de Valois after the annulment, and exerted her influence on behalf of the Habsburgs. Marie’s own mother, Catherine de’ Medici (grandmother to the duchess consort) was long suspected of having triggered the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a week after Henry and Marguerite de Valois were married, when all the great Protestant Huguenots were in Paris to celebrate the nuptials.

When the Flower of Paradise died the year after he became Duke, he was succeeded in 1638 by his younger brother, Charles Emmanuel II who was 4; Marie Christine would remain regent.

The Waldenses at the time were beginning a period of rare tranquility. The plague brought by the French army when it occupied the Piedmont Valleys in 1630 nearly decimated them. It reduced them to only two pastors, and they spoke only French. But the Waldenses carried on as they always did. Soon the plague left as did the French army. And by mid-decade they began settling into a quiet, undisturbed existence. But tolerance for the unassuming was not practiced. First Capuchin monks were sent as missionaries; they established monasteries in the Piedmont valleys. They attempted to have the Waldenses hand over their bibles. The Waldenses, believing they existed under the protection of the Duke, wrote Charles Emmanuel requesting he restrain the missionaries. The court’s response in the name of the Duke (who was still a minor) astonished them. First he changed the criminal procedure specifically for them: Now only one witness would be sufficient in a court against any Waldensian. Next he quartered soldiers in their houses. Then he provided that any Waldensian who converted would be free of taxes for 5 years. At the same time a judicial enquiry was instituted into the basis for existing privileges accorded Protestants. The Duke then proclaimed ever more egregious edicts: Protestants were not permitted to act as teachers, either publicly or privately. They could not hold offices of trust. Finally, they were ordered to attend Mass weekly.

In 1650 a Council of the Propagation of the Faith (De propaganda fide) was established at Turin. This local dignitaries and church figures operated as the board. They gathered large sums of money by requesting alms throughout the country. The money was used as bait for Protestant debtors or indigents to convert.

Finally, on January 25, 1655, the Duke of Savoy, not yet 25, and still under the thumb of his mother, issued the Order of Gestaldo. It commanded all Waldenses living in the communes of Lucerna, Fenile, Bubiana, Bricherasio, San Giovanni, and La Torre (the rich plain in front of the Piedmont) to quit their dwellings within three days, and retire into the Valleys of Bobbio, Angrogna, and Rora. They were also to sell their lands to bona fide Catholics within twenty days. Those who were willing to abjure the Protestant faith were exempted from the decree. Otherwise the penalty was death. The only conceivable reason to order a large population to move into the mountains in winter on three days’ notice is to provide the sheerest pretext for killing them. And that’s what the forces of Savoy did.

It must have seemed like the abomination of desolation that their savior had spoken of to his disciples. But even he warned: “[P]ray ye that your flight be not in the winter.” For certain it was that there would be for them “affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation.” (Mark 13:18-19.) For those who complied and left there was suffering. One pastor (Leger) said of his congregation of about 2,000, not one accepted the offer to convert. “I can well bear them this testimony, seeing I was their pastor for eleven years, and I knew every one of them by name; judge, reader, whether I had not cause to weep for joy, as well as for sorrow, when I saw that all the fury of these wolves was not able to influence one of these lambs, and that no earthly advantage could shake their constancy. And when I marked the traces of their blood on the snow and ice over which they had dragged their lacerated limbs, had I not cause to bless God that I had seen accomplished in their poor bodies what remained of the measure of the sufferings of Christ, and especially when I beheld this heavy cross borne by them with a fortitude so noble?” But this was just the beginning. Those that escaped united with the others just as the decree instructed. They even sent prayers to the Court and even to the Propaganda fide. But the order was just the prelude to the final destruction.

On April 17, 1655 the Marquis de Pianeza appeared before the Valleys at the head of an army of 15,000 men. It was composed of Piedmontese bandits, several companies of Bavarians, six regiments of French, and several companies of Irish, who had been banished by Cromwell after his campaign five years before. Bloody, vengeful mercenaries all. The Waldenses determined to resist and barricaded La Torre. The women had been sent into the mountains. The mercenary army stormed the barricade but was repelled after three hours of fighting. Count Amadeus of Lucerna attempted a secret flanking maneuver in the dead of night. He struck the defenders in the rear, but they pivoted, pierced his forces and escaped into the mountains. The mercenaries called it a night and retired to a local church to sing Te Deums.

For several days the army skirmished with the very short-handed Waldenses defenders but were each time beaten down from the heights. And then Pianeza announced he was willing to treat. At the conference he impressed upon the Waldenses representatives his pacifistic aims. Previous atrocities were not ordered by him. He was only looking for a few possible criminals among their midst. It was either owing to an other-worldly ability to practice Christian forgiveness or a fatal naiveté or a secret suicidal urge, but the representatives trusted him, and invited his troops into their midst on top of the mountain. The heights had only two escape routes; one was impassable in winter, the other was being fortified while the soldiers fraternized with their intended victims for two days. On Saturday April 24, 1655 4:00 a.m. a signal was given from La Torre, and the horror beyond imagining began.

The eye-witness accounts were stunning. And even in a world where death had ridden triumphantly over the continent for half a century, the abomination perpetrated was of an order not ever seen. One survivor wrote:

Massacre in La Torre from Samuel Moreland, History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piemont (London: 1658)

“Nothing now was to be seen but the face of horror and despair, blood stained the floors of the houses, dead bodies bestrewed the streets, groans and cries were heard from all parts. Some armed themselves, and skirmished with the troops; and many, with their families, fled to the mountains. In one village they cruelly tormented one hundred and fifty women and children after the men were fled, beheading the women, and dashing out the brains of the children. In the towns of Vilario and Bobbio, most of those who refused to go to Mass, who were upwards of fifteen years of age, they crucified with their heads downwards; and the greatest number of those who were under that age were strangled”

The soldiers were to dispatch the inhabitants, and then a priest and monk were to set the house on fire. Pastor Leger described it: “Our Valley of Lucerna, which was like a Goshen, was now converted into a Mount Etna, darting forth cinders and fire and flames. The earth resembled a furnace, and the air was filled with a darkness like that of Egypt, which might be felt, from the smoke of towns, villages, temples, mansions, granges, and buildings, all burning in the flames of the Vatican.” But that is too literary a description. The soldiers soon grew weary of simple slaughter and devised ingenious ways to vastly compound their crime, to their infernal amusement.

An old woman was sliced with a sickle and then beheaded. An old man was tied to donkeys and dragged through the streets. Breasts were cut off of a woman and fried and served as food. Women were mutilated and left to bleed to death in the snow. Men were tied up and thrown down cliffs where they would live in agony until they died of starvation. A woman was flayed alive. An old man was garroted so violently that his head came off. A woman was impaled length-wise through her body and the pole was planted in the ground so that she would die in that position. A man was cut into such small pieces that the soldiers laughed that they had “minced” him. Women and children were thrown down the cliffs their heads having been bashed in. One man was captured with his four sons. The soldiers asked him to convert and hacked his first three to pieces when he refused. After the fourth refusal a soldier picked up his last son by the legs and bashed his brains out. “My hand trembles,” says Leger, “so that I scarce can hold the pen, and my tears mingle in torrents with my ink, while I write the deeds of these children of darkness—blacker even than the Prince of Darkness himself.”

“Oh that my head were waters,” wrote Leger, “and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” “It was then,” he adds, “that the fugitives, who had been snatched as brands from the burning, could address God in the words of the 79th Psalm …” To counter the brazen denials of Pianeza, Leger went from village to village to accumulate written testimonies of as many of the survivors as he could. Those depositions were given to Samuel Morland, sent by Cromwell to investigate, and they are now at Cambridge. Morland would write the history of the affair in English.

The news of this atrocity spread first to the Swiss cantons and then ignited Protestant Europe. And Cromwell was shocked most of all. Cromwell wrote a protest to the duke, and on May 25 requested Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin to intervene. The same day he wrote to the heads of the Protestant state to urge united actions. He sent Samuel Morland with the letter to Louis and Mazarin and a speech to Charles Emmanuel reproving him. Cromwell sent £2000 to Geneva to set up fund for relief of the survivors.

Milton, who undoubtedly assisted in all this correspondence, was probably overwhelmed. He had long warmly regarded the Waldenses. In the Commonplace Book he kept during his private studies after leaving Cambridge he mentions each of the three histories of the sect (William B. Hunter, “Milton and the Waldensians,” 11 Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, at 153 (Winter 1971)). On his Grand Tour he visited Savoy briefly. In the work that brought him to the attention of Parliament, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he refers to the Waldenses for the proposition that war for the defense of religion was justified. In Eikonoklastes he refers to the Waldenses to show their ancient “protestant” roots and to argue that Protestants are the least militant of all peoples. And Milton’s own religion (as shown in later works) clearly resembles that which the Waldenses would display in their later history.

But even if there was no record that Milton had admired the Waldenses the sonnet he wrote to commemorate the atrocity would show all that was needful. It is a masterful piece of gravity and restrained anger. It is perhaps the first, and in any event one of the best, pieces of protest literature ever written. The work cemented the Waldenses and their tragedy into the memory of mankind. And it would be a turning point in Milton’s poetry.

Sonnet 18

from Poems (1673)
[numbered XV in the 1673 collection]

by John Milton

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.