Girolamo Savoldo and Fifty Shades of Grey

ash, ashen, cinereal, clouded, dappled, dingy dove, drab dusky, dusty, grey, heather,iron, lead, leaden, livid, mousy, neutral, oyster, pearly, peppery, powder, sere, shaded,silvered, silvery, slate, smoky, somber, stone 

The first thing to be said here is that ‘grey’ is the English spelling which we Canadians favour – whereas ‘gray’ is the Americanization of same, a transmutation linked to liberty, one imagines.

The terms for grey (above) are all the ready synonyms I could find – none of which quite adequately describe the peculiar characteristics of grey/silver pigments that have come to us via the little-regarded but superlative painter Girolamo Savoldo.  Savoldo, who died in 1548,  came from Brescia and worked for most of his career in Venice, where he soaked up the vast vocabulary of colours known to his Venetian counterparts.  Somehow, though, Savoldo transformed those colours, particularly the greys, through tricks of light and luminous textural bravura that would not be seen again until van Dyck reinvented grey in the Baroque period. Subtle silver transitions from pale lavender/purple/smoky slates to burning, white-marbled highlights.  I give you two examples of Savoldo’s smouldering, shimmering, waterfalls of grey –  the Magdalene, and the Angel and Tobias –




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Nec Spe Nec Metu: Superman, Caravaggio and Hope

The most recent incarnation of Superman, the ubiquitous Man of Steel (which I confess I have not seen and, in all likelihood, will not see, because of a lifelong aversion to the ‘superhero’ genre – aside from the Saturday-morning cartoon Hercules) put me in mind of this motto – ‘nec spe nec metu’ – which is used in different contexts in the Renaissance.  Specifically, Superman’s father, Jor-El, tells him that the ‘S’ on his chest; which generations of gullible Americans have interpreted as product placement for ‘Superman’ swag;  is actually a symbol for ‘hope.’  One assumes that the clever author of the screenplay had to look no farther than the Latin ‘spes’ to make such a connection.

The phrase ‘nec spe nec metu’ probably has its origins in Stoicism, meaning ‘neither hope nor fear’  or, more pedantically ‘without hope, without fear’  (perhaps from ancient medicine and Silesio; perhaps adapted from general Roman orations) – implying a kind of resigned equilibrium and forbearance.  In a more courtly context, it might have been adopted and adapted in the form of a maxim to remind knights and crusaders that absolute fearlessness does not require hope  (only the fearful resort to ‘hope’).

In the sixteenth century in Italy, the famous collector and art patron Isabella d’Este, of Mantua, adopted the phrase ‘nec spe nec metu’ as one of her various ‘imprese’, personal signs, sometimes combining word and image, used as assertions of identity and character –  intimately connected to emblem art.  Her secretary for a time, Mario Equicola, wrote a little booklet with this title.  The phrase itself  is slightly more obscure than her adoption of the ‘XXVII’ symbol, Latin numerals for ’27’ which, when pronounced in Italian, reads ‘ventisette’ and thus has an oblique onomatopoeic morphological relationship to the phrase ‘vinti siete’ which means, roughly, ‘you have won’ – although ‘you’ is in the plural form and therefore could infer not victory, but rather ‘I am vanquished’ – but I digress.  The ‘nec spe nec metu’ appears among the ornaments of her private spaces in Mantua.

One wonders how such concepts might have resonated with the painter Caravaggio, whose flamboyant civil, personal and professional disobedience in his Roman years seem far removed from the lofty ideals of Stoicism or knighthood.  But evidently he and his band of Roman ‘bravi’ (essentially gang members) adopted this phrase as their call-to-arms.  It intrigues me because the most logical place for Caravaggio to have picked up this motto was in Mantua, perhaps during those ‘lost’ years between the time he left Milan and appeared in Rome.

In the lawlessness of Rome around 1600, perhaps he saw grim personal fortitude as the only means by which the true artist could survive.  Here’s a detail of his Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta, in which he scrawled his signature in the blood of the saint – a dramatic footnote to a fascinating life –

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” – Dante

Caravaggio signature



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Messenger Peacocks: The Wings of Fra Angelico

It takes considerable painterly imagination to approach the wings of angels.  That angels even HAVE wings is a matter of theological debate; the Bible gives variable reports – cherubim, seraphim, wingless messengers, wings with eyes and hands – and the wonderful passage in Ezekiel “The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far away as the outer court…”.  I wonder what Fra Angelico heard as he worked, with his assistants, on the astonishing frescoes throughout the monastery of San Marco in Florence?  Did he hear musical wings alighting in the inner courtyard, where the orange trees are? What sorts of apparitions graced his waking dreams that he was so able to imagine angels’ wings? He must have watched – as all painters charged with such solemn avian agendas must have watched – the flights of birds above the courtyard – did their wings thrum in chorus like the battering, beating wings of Ezekiel’s angels?

For Fra Angelico, an angel’s wing is a careful geometry and a fearful symmetry – a progression from the arched gold of the shoulder expanse through degrees of softest blue to reds and lilac purples to darker porphyries and ending in deep-dyed indigo tips – where did such colours come from? Hovering angels like messenger peacocks, seen through a painter’s eye and hand – here is Gabriel, angel of the Annunciation, from the monastery of San Marco – 



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The Substance of Halos

I recently revisited the Trecento painting show at the Art Gallery of Ontario – Trecento being art historian talk for Italian paintings of the early fourteenth century, the age of Giotto di Bondone, who was kind of the Michelangelo of the period.  Giotto and his generation were the fathers of early naturalism in painting, softening those strongly outlined Byzantine eyes, creating human expressions through colour and contour, bringing heaven down to earth.  But there were some things that did not translate, as in the example of the Last Supper (from the Alte Pinakothek, below), chiefly the stuff and substance of halos and how to paint them. No matter the degree of air and atmosphere and light and shadow, for Giotto halos remained opaque gold salvers, mysterious aureoles made not of light but of pure, hard gold.  I love the way the halos move with the heads and block out the figures behind them.  For these artists halos were not light emanations signifying sanctity, but ornamental costume pieces worn in a solemn passion play. 

Of course, halos are not exclusive to Christianity – Homer’s heroes evidently emanated light, and halos and nimbuses appear in Buddhist and Islamic art – sometimes in the form of rays of light and, in Asian art, as flickering, flame-like frames for heads and even entire bodies – not encased in fire but radiating wisdom, whether saints or potentates. 

In the age of Fra Filippo Lippi and then Botticelli, halos became gossamer transparencies, like silken webs shimmering above the heads of the Virgin and Child, fragile as the wings of moths – made of delicate natural substances interwoven with air and light.  Eventually halos disappeared altogether in Christian art, as artists like Michelangelo translated saints into superheroes – hulking, Herculean moody presences, partially made of darkness.

I miss Giotto’s simple view of hearty halos made of sterner stuff


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Languorous Languidness and Vapors

Blame the heat – we’re having an early bout of simmering, liquid heat that fogs the brain and tires the limbs and makes one both languid and restless at the same time – from Latin ‘languidus’, meaning weak and faint – which is not exactly the same as languorous – from Latin for feebleness or ‘lassitude’ – another wonderful ‘l’ word in the same family of terms used by the French to describe elegantly paralyzing immobility.  Pictures of southern ladies clad n the lightest of white linens and fanning themselves slowing come to mind, as does the southern term ‘vapors’ –  developed from the medieval notion of exhalations from the stomach affecting the brain – not always heat related but often heat induced, languid collapses of white-linen decorum.  Whatever will we do when August comes?

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Cans of Worms and Bags of Knots

I’ve disappeared for a couple of weeks, having gone down the rabbit hole of starting another book – as sand through the hourglass, so go the days of our sabbatical.  

Anyhow, for no particular reason, I’ve been idly ruminating on the expression ‘a can of worms’ and discovered, via the usual suspect sources, that it may actually be Canadian in origin (although there’s some disagreement on this). Any fisherman (and I don’t know any, so this, too, is hearsay) can tell you that bait worms used to be sold in cans, and so one can literally ‘open a can of worms’ and expose a tangled mass difficult to separate and apt to wriggle out of the container.  Literalist that I am, I cannot imagine how worms remained alive in a can, but the singular charm of worms is their seductive wriggling (seductive if you’re a fish) so they must have been a teeming, heaving sexy mass of worminess when one keyed the lid off the can.  Thus the analogy to a big old tangle of circumstance or intrigue that can easily get out of hand and thus might be more trouble than it’s worth, originating in the can of worms era of the 1950s and 60s, perhaps among Canadian fishermen having a particularly slow day.

I think ‘stirring up ‘a hornets’ nest’ was the traditional idiomatic expression for more or less the same thing (and, before that, Gordian knot and Pandora’s box), the hornet idea evidently derived from the French for ‘wasps’ nest’, although the French might also say “donner un coup de pied dans une fourmilière” which means to “give a kick to the anthill” or, even better, to open “un sac de nœuds”,  “a bag of knots’ – the French are so incoherent and adorable, aren’t they?  


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Cangiante: Iridescence, Opalescence and Changeability

In Act II of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the Fool says to Orsino:

“Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal”
‘Changeable taffeta’ evokes the quality of shot-silk, in which weft and warp are woven in two or more colours, often contrasting, to produce an iridescent effect. The resulting surface seems opalescent, and Shakespeare’s allusion here is to the very quality of changeability implied by shot-silks and opals – a materialization of the act of changing one’s mind. The same effect in painting is called cangiante, from Italian ‘cangiare’, ‘to change’ and thus changeable.  Michelangelo is always considered the champion of cangiante in some passages of the Sistine ceiling, but there is lovely cangiante in the work of Giovanni Bellini in Venice.  For example, the loincloth of St. Jerome in the San Giobbe altarpiece (c.1487, now in the Accademia in Venice) one sees subtle effects of cangiante that are a stroke of iridescent emphasis,  shimmering expertly.apart from the softer sfumato paragraphs of the opposite St. Sebastian.  The altarpiece is a quiet act of painterly bravado, a work now out of time and space, that hovers at the brink of a so-called High Renaissance that will, in many ways, only echo its siren call – 
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