Travelers to ancient Babylon were met with an astonishing sight: a gate nearly 50 feet high and 100 feet wide made of jewel-like blue glazed bricks and adorned with bas-relief dragons and young bulls. Dedicated to Ishtar, goddess of fertility, love, and war, the main entrance to the city was constructed for King Nebuchadnezzar II circa 575 BCE.
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Albrecht Dürer created his famous woodcut of a rhinoceros in 1515 based on a written description and an anonymous sketch of an Indian rhino that had arrived in Lisbon earlier that year. The animal was intended as a gift for Pope Leo X from the king of Portugal, but it never reached its destination, perishing in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy.
Dürer’s image is less than accurate, depicting an animal covered with an armor of hard plates, scales on its feet, and a small spiral horn on its back. This is not exactly surprising, considering the artist never saw the actual specimen. What is surprising is that his depiction served as a scientific reference for centuries, despite the existence of a similar but more accurate print by Hans Burgkmair, also from 1515. The similarities between the two images suggest that Burgkmair may have also based his woodcut on the same anonymous sketch.
It’s snowing today in New York City and crowds are lining up to skate at the legendary ice rink at Rockefeller Center, with its sparkling light displays and famous holiday tree. If I visit this year, it’ll be as a spectator only, since I’ve never ice skated in my life. Sad, I know, but I have a good excuse—I grew up in extremely warm areas of Mexico and Texas, so I didn’t have many opportunities to learn. But that doesn’t stop me from admiring skaters. I love their graceful gliding, and enjoy seeing the camaraderie that spontaneously develops when groups of people converge on the ice. Evidently I’m not alone, judging from the many depictions of skating groups in the Artstor Digital Library.
Some of the more controversial nudity in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was painted over the year after the artist’s death. Those additions were left intact when the Last Judgment was restored in the 1990s, but thanks to a farsighted cardinal we can see what the fresco looked like before it was censored.
The Last Judgment was commissioned for the Sistine Chapel by Pope Clement VII just a few days before his death. Michelangelo hadn’t even finished the fresco before controversy erupted over its unclothed figures.
Not long after the painting’s completion, the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art, decreeing that “all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” Clement’s successor Pope Pius IV complied with the tenet, and in 1565, the year after Michelangelo’s death, had the more controversial nudity painted over by Daniele da Volterra, earning the artist the nickname Il Braghetonne, “the breeches-maker.” Da Volterra also substantially repainted the figures of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise, whose positions were considered unseemly. Further coverings were added in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” of 1533 is well known for its anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground, but upon close perusal, the objects on the table between the two subjects prove just as fascinating.
To start with, the painting memorializes Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, and his friend, Georges de Selve, who acted on several occasions as French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, to the Pope in Rome, and to England, Germany, and Spain.
The upper shelf, which is concerned with the the heavens, includes a celestial globe, a portable sundial, and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time, while the lower shelf, which reflects the affairs of the world, holds musical instruments, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic, and a terrestrial globe.
“I noticed that she wore her evening dress, all her dresses, like sports clothes—there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon a golf course on clean, crisp, mornings.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The recent movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby has turned the spotlight on the fashion and styles of the Roaring Twenties. So what made the twenties roar?
The economic boom was decisive. Soldiers came home from World War I to jobs in manufacturing plants ready to turn from war production to consumer goods; with the flourishing economy, many commodities became affordable for the first time. Another key engine for progress was the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. It was signed into law in 1920, heralding unprecedented liberation. The twenties were also a pivotal time for mass communication: radio, cinema, and the automobile sped up the distribution of information—and trends.
Artstor is partnering with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to provide access to more than 10,000 high-quality images from six leading museums.
As part of its collaboration with Artstor, the DPLA will aggregate and make available data records and links to images from six major American museums: the Dallas Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art (paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection), the Walters Art Museum, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery. In addition to linking to the original contributing museum’s own website, each DPLA record will link to the image in Open Artstor, a new Artstor initiative that allows users to view and download large versions of public domain images.
The DPLA is a large-scale, collaborative project across government, research institutions, museums, libraries, and archives to build a digital library platform to make America’s cultural and scientific history free and publicly available anytime, anywhere, online through a single access point. As part of its two-year Digital Hubs Pilot Project, the DPLA is working with several large digital content providers—including the National Archives and the Smithsonian Institution—and seven state and regional digital libraries to make digitized content from their online catalogs easily accessible to all. The DPLA will celebrate the groundbreaking work of hundreds of librarians, innovators, and other dedicated volunteers in its collective effort to build the first national digital library platform on April 18 at the Boston Public Library.
Spring is here! The return of sunshine inspired us to look at Botticelli’s Primavera, a masterpiece of the early Renaissance and arguably the most popular artistic representation of the season, even if – as we shall see – its interpretation remains inconclusive.
Botticelli painted Primavera sometime between 1477 and 1482, probably for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, cousin of the powerful Italian statesman (and important patron of the arts) Lorenzo Medici. The date is just one of the many facts surrounding the painting that remain unclear. For starters, its original title is unknown; it was first called La Primavera by the artist/art historian Giorgio Vasari, who only saw it some 70 years after it was painted. While it’s generally agreed that on one level Primavera depicts themes of love and marriage, sensuality and fertility, the work’s precise meaning continues to be debated (a search in JSTOR led us to almost 700 results, with nearly as many differing opinions). Here’s what we think we know:
March is Women’s History Month, the perfect time to highlight the work of Karen Finley, a world-renowned performance artist, author, and playwright whose work has addressed issues such as sexuality, abuse, and American politics from an uncompromising feminist perspective.
Finley came to national attention when her 1990 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was vetoed, along those of three other artists, because the content of her work was considered inappropriate. The artists sued and ultimately lost a Supreme Court appeal, but Finley was not deterred. As her struggles with the NEA were already in full swing in 1990, Franklin Furnace—in a bold move, as the organization itself was partly funded by the NEA—presented her installation, A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much.
It’s October, which gives us a great excuse to feature a spooky post featuring skulls! Specifically, their appearance in the still lifes known as Vanitas.
Vanitas depict objects that remind us of our mortality and the transience of earthly pleasures. Popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in Northern Europe and the Netherlands, the genre continues to inspire artists to the present day – the Artstor Digital Library includes four terrific examples of Andy Warhol’s Skulls from the Baltimore Museum of Art, and you’ve most likely heard of Damien Hirst’s “For the love of God,” a diamond-encrusted platinum skull reputed to be the world’s most expensive art piece.