Jun 152021
 

Today is the birthday (1479) of Lisa del Giocondo an Italian noblewoman and member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany whose portrait was commissioned by her husband from Leonardo da Vinci, and is now known in English as Mona Lisa (in Italian it is called La Gioconda).

On March 5th 1495, 15-year-old Lisa Gherardini married Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a modestly successful cloth and silk merchant, becoming his third wife. Lisa’s dowry was 170 florins and a farm near her family’s country home, which lies between Castellina and San Donato in Poggio, near two farms later owned by Michelangelo. The modest dowry may be a sign that the Gherardini family was not wealthy at the time and lends reason to think she and her husband loved each other. Neither poor nor among the most well-to-do in Florence, the couple lived a middle-class life. Lisa’s marriage may have increased her social status because her husband’s family may have been richer than her own. Francesco is thought to have benefited because Gherardini is an “old name.” They lived in shared accommodation until 5th March 1503, when Francesco was able to buy a house next door to his family’s old home in the Via della Stufa. Leonardo is thought to have begun painting Lisa’s portrait the same year.

Lisa and Francesco had five children: Piero, Camilla, Andrea, Giocondo, and Marietta, four of them between 1496 and 1507. Lisa lost a baby daughter in 1499. Lisa also raised Bartolomeo, the son of Francesco and his first wife Camilla di Mariotto Rucellai, who died shortly after the birth. In June 1537, in his will – among many provisions – Francesco returned Lisa’s dowry to her, gave her personal clothing and jewelry and provided for her future. Upon entrusting her care to their daughter Ludovica and, should she be incapable, his son Bartolomeo, Francesco wrote, “Given the affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife; in consideration of the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife; wishing that she shall have all she needs…” Touching.  He probably died of plague the following year.

The Mona Lisa fulfilled late 15th and early 16th century requirements for portraying a woman of virtue. Lisa is portrayed as a faithful wife through gesture—her right hand rests over her left. Leonardo also presented Lisa as fashionable and successful, perhaps more well-off than she was. Her dark garments and black veil were Spanish-influenced high fashion; they are not a depiction of mourning for her first daughter, as some scholars have proposed. The painting is large in comparison with similar portraits of the era, although to the modern eye it seems small.  Visitors to the Louvre frequently comment on how small it is in comparison with what they imagined.

Lisa del Giocondo was always suspected to be the sitter in the portrait, but there was always a degree of doubt until 2005 when an expert at the University Library of Heidelberg discovered a margin note in the library’s collection that established with certainty the traditional view that the sitter was Lisa. The note, written by Agostino Vespucci in 1503, states that Leonardo was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

The Mona Lisa now has its own dedicated room in the Louvre which is always packed with people.  Before the room was set aside for the painting it could take hours standing in line to get a glimpse.  Getting to the front of the crowd is hard work, but not nearly as long as lines in the past, and the painting is up high enough that you can see it even from the back of the room.  It has always bemused me that the Mona Lisa is called “the most famous painting in the world” and, in consequence, is always mobbed, while thousands upon thousands of great works of art displayed in the Louvre go virtually unnoticed. What are people expecting when they see “the most famous painting in the world”? I suspect it’s more like “the most recognizable painting in the world” – and almost no one who visits it has the slightest idea why.  It’s popular because it’s popular.

Mona Lisa has been the subject of endless parodies because it is so recognizable.  Marcel Duchamp’s Dada-esque LHOOQ (a crude pun if you know French) is one of the most well known, but there are plenty of others.

I discovered a dish online called fettucine Mona Lisa which you can find also if you care to.  It’s neither Italian nor 15th century, so I passed on it for this post.  Instead, here is a chickpea soup from libro de arte coquinaria by maestro Martino de Como, written some time in the late 15th century. It is called red chickpea soup because the raw chickpeas are red, not the resultant soup.  Thanks to Franco Cattafesta on Facebook for helping me sort out what cioè del fiore means (highly refined flour), as well as a couple of other puzzles.  Otherwise, the clumsy translation is my own.  Parsley root may need a bit of explaining for Anglos.  It is a version of parsley, Petroselinum crispum, with a tuberous root that looks like parsnip, but tastes quite different.  I always buy it whenever I see it in the market. I would be inclined to use a meat broth rather than water to cook the chickpeas, and make sure you have enough — three “bocali” is probably somewhat over three liters, but the measure varied from city to city.  Make sure the soup is not watery, though, when cooked. It should be hearty.

Brodo de ciceri rosci

Per farne octo menestre: togli una librra et meza di ciceri et lavali con acqua calda et poneli in quella pignatta dove gli vorrai cocere et che siano sciutti et mettevi meza oncia di farina, cioè del fiore, et mettevi pocho olio et bono, et un pocho di sale, et circha vinti granelli di pepe rotto, et un pocha di canella pista, et mena molto bene tute queste cose inseme con le mani. Dapoi ponivi tre bocali d’acqua et un pocha di salvia, et rosmarino, et radici di petrosillo, et fagli bollire tanto che siano consumati a la quantitade di octo menestre. Et quando sono quasi cotti mitivi un pocho d’oglio. Et se lo brodo si facesse per ammalati non gli porre né spetie.

Red chickpea soup

To make eight portions: take a pound and a half of chickpeas and wash them in hot water, drain them, then put them in the pot they will be cooked in. Add half an ounce of very fine flour, a little good oil, a little salt and about twenty crushed peppercorns and a little ground cinnamon, then mix all these things very well together with your hands. Then add three measures of water, a little sage, rosemary, and parsley root, and boil until it is reduced to the quantity of eight portions. When they are almost cooked, add a little garlic. If you prepare this soup for invalids, add neither oil nor spices.

Sep 262015
 

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Today is the birthday (1791) of Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault, a French painter and lithographer, known primarily for “The Raft of the Medusa.” He was one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement in art.

Géricault was born in Rouen and educated in the tradition of English sporting art by Carle Vernet and classical figure composition by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a rigorous classicist who disapproved of his student’s impulsive temperament yet recognized his talent. Géricault soon left formal art traing, choosing to study instead at the Louvre, where from 1810 to 1815 he copied paintings by Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt. During this period at the Louvre he discovered a vitality he found lacking in the prevailing school of Neoclassicism. Much of his time was spent in Versailles, where the stables of the palace were open to him, and where he gained his knowledge of the anatomy and action of horses.

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Géricault’s first major work, “The Charging Chasseur,” exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1812, revealed the influence of the style of Rubens and an interest in the depiction of contemporary subject matter. This youthful success, ambitious and monumental, was followed by a change in direction: for the next several years Géricault produced a series of small studies of horses and cavalrymen. He exhibited “Wounded Cuirassier” at the Salon in 1814. The work is more labored than Chasseur and, so, less well received.

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Géricault in a fit of disappointment entered the army and served for a time in the garrison of Versailles. In the nearly two years that followed the 1814 Salon, he also underwent a self-imposed study of figure construction and composition, all the while showing a personal predilection for drama and expressive force.

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A trip to Florence, Rome, and Naples (1816–17), prompted in part by the desire to flee from a romantic entanglement with his aunt, ignited a fascination with Michelangelo (whose “Last Judgment” was partly inspirational for “Raft of the Medusa). Rome’s art prompted Géricault to begin work on a monumental canvas, the “Race of the Barberi Horses,” a piece of epic composition and abstracted theme that was supposedly to lead him on a new path of expressiveness. Géricault never completed the painting, and returned to France. In 1821, he painted “Epsom Derby.”

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Géricault continually returned to the military themes of his early paintings, and the series of lithographs he undertook on military subjects after his return from Italy are considered some of the earliest masterworks in that medium.

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His most well known, and certainly most ambitious, work is “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–1819), which depicts the aftermath of a contemporary French shipwreck, Meduse, in which the captain had left the crew and passengers to die. The incident became a national scandal, and Géricault’s dramatic interpretation presented a contemporary tragedy on a monumental scale. The painting’s notoriety stemmed from its indictment of a corrupt establishment, but it also dramatized a more eternal theme, that of humanity’s struggle with nature. It excited the imagination of the young Eugène Delacroix, who posed for one of the dying figures.

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The classical depiction of the figures and structure of the composition stand in contrast to the turbulence of the subject, so that the painting constitutes an important bridge between neo-classicism and romanticism. It fuses many influences: the “Last Judgment” of Michelangelo, the monumental approach to contemporary events by Antoine-Jean Gros, figure groupings by Henry Fuseli, and possibly the painting “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley.

The painting ignited political controversy when first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1819; it then traveled to England in 1820, accompanied by Géricault himself, where it received considerable praise. While in London, Géricault saw urban poverty, made drawings of his impressions, and published lithographs based on these observations which were free of sentimentality.

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After his return to France in 1821, Géricault was inspired to paint a series of ten portraits of the insane, the patients of a friend, Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatric medicine, with each subject exhibiting a different affliction. There are five remaining portraits from the series, including “Insane Woman.” The paintings are noteworthy for their open style, expressive realism, and for their documenting of the psychological discomfort of individuals, made all the more poignant by the history of insanity in Géricault’s family, as well as the artist’s own fragile mental health.

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His observations of the human subject were not confined to the living, for some remarkable still-lifes—painted studies of severed heads and limbs—have also been ascribed to him. Géricault’s last efforts were directed toward preliminary studies for several epic compositions, including the “Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition” and the “African Slave Trade.” The preparatory drawings suggest works of great ambition, but Géricault’s waning health intervened. Weakened by riding accidents and chronic tubercular infection, Géricault died in Paris in 1824 after a long period of suffering. His bronze figure reclines, brush in hand, on his tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, above a low-relief panel of “The Raft of the Medusa.”

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Some years ago, not long after my wife’s death, I spent 2 full days in the Louvre with my son – a magical time. To me it was both exciting and depressing. For a number of years I had taught a course on world history with numerous lectures on famous paintings. We endured the crush of people around the Mona Lisa – “the most famous painting in the world” – and the Venus de Milo, partly out of a sense of obligation, and partly to take in the spectacle of the crowds. Soon we left the mob scene and headed for the upper rooms. It was overwhelming. There was room after room of paintings, many of which I had lectured on. There on the third floor, I think (memory is vague), was a room dominated by “The Raft of the Medusa,” and it was completely empty. It was hard for me to take in the fact that a painting that had once stunned Paris and London was now totally ignored. Such is fame.

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I have chosen caneton à la presse (pressed duck) for my recipe today for several reasons. It is a Parisian specialty but is made with duck from Rouen, combining a tribute to Géricault’s birthplace, and his home for many years. I first came across pressed duck as a budding cook in Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World, still one of my most valued cookbooks. It was once an extremely popular and elegant dish, but now it is hard to find except at its birthplace, the Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris. It consists of various parts of a duck served in a sauce of its blood and bone marrow, which is extracted by way of a special silver press. This video, professionally produced by The Guardian, tells you all you need to know – i.e. that the process is grisly, elegant, complex, and very expensive. I doubt that I will ever try it. In certain ways, mostly the expense and hoopla, it offends my sensibilities. But video is cheap.