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O Art, if thou were able to depict conduct and the soul, no lovelier painting would exist on earth.
– Martial (translated inscription in painting)

• Before profile pictures became disposable, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the iconic profile of Giovanna Tornabuoni. She was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni, whose brother Giovanni was Ghirlandaio’s most important patron and a VIP in Florence. After her early death, Lorenzo kept this portrait in his room for many years, even after he remarried. The incredibly detailed dress and jewels reflect Ghirlandaio’s identity as both artist and artisan. He ran a successful workshop during the transition between the medieval structure of art production, which focused on crafts and guild structure, to the development of painting and the glorified painter in the Renaissance.

• Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2011 Collection featured an intricate, woven hairstyle worthy of a Renaissance portrait.

• Emme’s Beaded Cuff is a royal combination of gold beads and garnet Swarovski crystals.

• Connie’s Black Gold Cuff weaves together a rich texture of golden and dark blue beads.

• Mia’s Book Pendant is a modern version of the girdle books monks carried during the Middle Ages. Instead of carrying a Bible, this pendant holds a mini notebook wrapped in luscious leather.

• Susan’s Pendant Necklace hints at medieval stained glass with an amethyst stone set in a sterling silver silhouette and brass frame.

Printed Perspective

• Albrecht Dürer was a Renaissance man. He approached painting, drawing, and printmaking through the lens of science and mathematics. In 1525, he published a manual on geometric theory for artists that emphasizes the application of mathematics to the study of perspective. He was keenly interested in the development of perspective theory in Italy, ancient texts by Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy, and the innovations of contemporary mathematicians.

• What can you do with old books? Turn them into jewelry, like Jeremy May, who condenses pages into wearable blocks.

• Sarah Hitchcock Burzio’s Typography Quotation Notecards re-imagine Lewis Caroll and Mark Twain in beautiful type.

• The bed time story becomes part of the bedding in Tiago da Fonseca’s installation. As you turn the linen pages filled with text, you pile on layers and warmth.

• Amy’s Eagle Feathers are made from a vintage book about a Russian Steppe Eagle and architectural tracing paper.

• Kim’s Book Paper Poms are luscious, flower-like decorations made from book paper.

• Dürer experienced the first flourishing of the printing industry, and revolutionized the quality and depth of printmaking. As graphic art adapted to mass production enabled by the printing press, Dürer set the standard for complexity of concept and execution. The printing press and the internet are analogous shifts in terms of how profoundly they changed the acquisition of knowledge. The question is, who is our Dürer?

• Scottish artist Georgia Russell shreds old books and transforms the fragments into fantastical, feathery forms.

• Suzie Chaney’s La Tête avec un Sourire (The Smiling Head) is composed of layers of plaster and paper modeled on a dog’s skull.

• Daniel Lai’s White on White features two sleeping figures among folded old books.

• Vicky Neil creates Paper Roses from old books of romantic poetry and music, but you can also request a poem of your choice.

• Keep your thoughts together in Chen Daisy’s luxurious White Leather Journal.

Cure Me, Apothecary

When does an apothecary become royal? François Clouet painted many portraits of the French ruling family, but his depiction of apothecary Pierre Quthe is every bit as regal. The sumptuous drapery, lace cuffs and collar, and impeccably groomed beard suggest that Quthe took his craft seriously and was respected for it. Clouet’s royal portraits dwell on intricate costumes and elaborate surroundings rather than psychological depth. Quthe really looks at you and he doesn’t need fancy clothes to prove his worth. He has a book of plants and the knowledge of how to use them for medicinal purposes.

Medizinal Pflanzen, published in 1887 by Franz Eugen Köhler, marks the culmination of several centuries worth of botanical illustration. Köhler’s work consists of almost 300 medicinal plants rendered in meticulous detail. You can view the entire collection here. The plant pictured here is chamomile and peppermint, one of the ingredients of Apothecary Green, a tea blend available from Verdant Tea. Laoshan green tea combines with peppermint, Holy Basil, cardamom, and coriander to create a refreshing and medicinal flavor.

Ann’s Herbarium Pendant is hand made from bronze and polished to a golden glow.

Roberta’s Satchet/Tea Bags are filled with either jasmine tea or lavender.

Silverbonbon’s French Silver Necklace features a vintage ‘Album Souvenir’ book and silver rosary chain.

Robyn and Curtis give you all the tools you need to create your own ecosystem with their Apothecary Jar Terrarium Kit.

Hindsvik’s Vintage Balance Scale dates from the early century and is perfect for measuring out your herbs and spices.

Scott’s Etched Glass Apothecary Jar has a celtic motif, but you can request customized design or lettering.

Sistine Sibyls

Michelangelo sought to impress with a full-out display of his virtuosity in terms of poses, splashes of color, and creamy drapery. Among his personages on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, there is a group of sibyls, who were prophets from Greek and Roman mythology. He had to compete with the frescoes on the sides of the Chapel that were painted by other illustrious artists of the time, so he resorted to the most bold techniques he could think of. One of his main concerns was to have the finest quality pigment available, and, at the time, pigment production was a complex art done mostly by apothecaries and friars. The blues, whites, and ochres came from clays found in Italy, while the ultramarine was made from lapis lazuli from Afganistan, and the tone depended on how finely or coarsely each one was ground.

The pagan origins of the sibyls were legitimized by their prophesies of Christian events, but there was also a general fascination with the Greek and Roman past and prophesies. Virgil’s Eclogues , for example, include a prophesy were the Cumaean Sibyl hints at a return to a golden age, which gave fuel to contemporary “prophets” to laud the pope’s cultural endeavors. Michelangelo, on the other hand, seems to depict them only in terms of their femininity (or lack thereof, in one case) as though they were models for his decadent drapery. He even pokes fun at the contemporary “prophets” by giving his Cumaean Sibyl particularly rough musculature, while one of the children makes a “fig” gesture in her direction. No one would have seen this slight signal of disrespect from down below, and Michelangelo used that to his advantage to include many such tongue-in-cheek references throughout his work in the Chapel.

More on Michelangelo and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Erythraean Sibyl by Michelangelo • Milan Fashion Week Bottega Veneta Spring 2009 Images by Chris Moore via

Gold Ambition

A set of thirty-four thousand pound gold doors might seem extravagant, but in the early Renaissance, they signified everything that made up Florentine commercial and creative pride. Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise are evidence of the flourishing and competitive art market at the time, as the commercial atmosphere in Florence allowed for an ever-growing number of commissions. In his book “The Renaissance,” Paul Johnson writes that “the standards of craftsmanship demanded and provided in late medieval, early Renaissance times were of a quality inconceivable to the modern age…” In fact, Ghiberti and his workshop worked on these doors for twenty-seven years, and he, like many other prominent artists, were given all the support of the government and wealthy patrons. The panels, depicting Biblical scenes, show the stylistic innovations up to that point in time, including schiacciato relief, linear perspective, and an overall realism that was to develop later in the Renaissance.

The gold folding screens of the Kano school also emerged when the art market started catering to a wider audience that wanted more decorative art, in part, to reflect their bourgeois lifestyle. Just as the previous Renaissance work, the Kano style coexisted, to some degree, with religious institutions, though it adapted to new tastes. The Old Plum, for example, was originally located in a Zen temple and depicted Chinese themes on the other side. These golden folding screens sometimes would have occupied entire walls, offering an impressive sight to anyone who entered. Wealthy patrons exploited the awe-inspiring quality of gold as a manifestation of their power and influence, whether as a set of doors or a paper-thin screen.

Drape Me in Red

While Michelangelo was painting large-scale musculature in the Sistine Chapel, Northern Renaissance artists were depicting the same religious scenes with a seemingly opposite visual outlook. Gerard David’s Virgin and Child with Four Angels is only about a foot in length with meticulous detail in the background and golden pattern on the edge of Mary’s robe, suggesting that each brushstroke was produced with a single hair. As Michelangelo displays his artistic skill through his evident understanding of human anatomy, Gerard chooses to focus on the sumptuous red folds of Mary’s robe. The drapery itself does not reveal anything about the shape of Mary’s body, but takes on a life of its own to reflect Gerard’s technique and religious sentiment.

Luther once referred to Pope Leo X as one who “allows himself to be called an earthly god and even tries to command the angels in heaven,” as though this was a contradictory and blasphemous notion. However, the papacy at the time was actively asserting its power with precisely this kind of image through the patronage of art, science, and learning in general. Raphael’s portrait of Leo X is not only living proof of this widespread patronage, but it is a direct visual representation of the connection between the Church, art, and power. The different tones of red envelop the viewer in a way that forces him or her to come to terms with the Pope’s power as tangible and ubiquitous.

Pope Leo X with two cardinals (1518) by Raphael • Fashion by Giambattista Valli via Style

The oozing eroticism of Caravaggio’s Musicians , on the other hand, was meant for the eyes of a few, including his patron Cardinal Del Monte. Here, the red cloth provides a focal point for the complex composition, while echoing the languorous eyes and fleshy lips of the figures.

While Caravaggio suggests sensuality through composition and realistic elements, John Singer Sargent uses loose brushstrokes to convey an uninhibited sexuality that seems to explode beyond the edges of the page. Underlying the strokes of watercolor is a deep understanding of form and anatomy, as the red cloth flows into his groin and around his body. Although any specific area looks abstract, the overall effect is quite powerful, proving that sometimes the sketches are more interesting than the finished products.

Schiele’s Female Nude Seated on Red Drapery evokes a similar idea through contour and bold color, as the red drapery is merely a tool towards expressing a raw sensuality free from associations with religion, money, and power.

Direction, Moods, and Shades

During the Italian Renaissance, lapis lazuli was alluring not only for the intensity of its pigment but also for its rarity and high price. Extracting the ultramarine pigment is a lengthy and complex process that was developed in the thirteenth century, and involves combining the ground stone with wax, oils, and resins before wrapping the mixture in cloth and placing it in another chemical solution. A conspicuous and striking sign of wealth, lapis lazuli was used in Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel, a private chapel for a moneylender of the time.

Thin layers of light-upon-dark glaze form the main figure of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, the silken folds and creases a reference to the artist’s admiration for van Dyck. Gainsborough had studied the Flemish artist’s techniques, gestures, and colors, and applied them to his own portraits, perhaps, as a response to Joshua Reynolds’ subversive criticism of his work.

Blue dress by BCBG Max Azria • Blue Star by Joan MiroModern Blue Vase

Brian Skerry. Underwater photograpy • Fashion by Oscar de la Renta

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Following folds

Drapery has always had the power to convey an incredible amount of sensuality, character, and skill, and there is a surprising amount of variety in the way artists have depicted fabric. Realism is not the only criteria for lusciousness, however. Looking at and comparing the quality of drapery in particular works can reveal the styles and personalities of the artists themselves, though your eyes may get lost in the folds.

Da Vinci’s Drapery for a Seated Figure truly gives an effortless sense of heavy, smooth fabric through precise rendering and delicate understanding of light. It was one of sixteen studies done on linen canvas in preparation for a larger painting. It’s hard to believe this was just a sketch, attributing to the paramount importance of understanding form during the Renaissance.

Athena Nike Adjusting her Sandal is proof of the somewhat contradictory notion that a block of stone and a chisel could be used to capture wet drapery clinging to flesh. Created during the Classical period of Greek sculpture, it exemplifies all the innovations in realism, technique, and attention to detail.

Matisse was a master of color, pattern, and composition, which makes his treatment of cloth all the more interesting. In his Odalisque with Magnolias, every element, including the fabric wrapped around her body, reflects each color in the room, from the green sheets to orange fruit. What makes this work so remarkable is the way the whole spectrum of color is used while the painting itself remains cohesive. The folds here have a more ambiguous quality, as they take on the same abstract nature as every other object.

Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man is, for me, the most powerful painting in existence, as the piercing glance and red cloth are chilling in their accuracy, and every twist of the chaperon seems like a piece of music. Lorne Campbell writes about the way he painted the eyes:
“The white of the eye is laid in white mixed with minute quantities of red and blue. A very thin scumble of red is brought over the underlayer, which is, however, left exposed in four places to create the secondary highlights. The veins are painted in vermilion into the wet scumble. The iris is ultra-marine, fairly pure at its circumference but mixed with white and black towards the pupil. There are black flecks near the circumference and the pupil is painted in black over the blue of the iris. The principal catchlights are four spots of lead white applied as final touches, one on the iris and three on the white, where they register with the four secondary lights to create the glistening effect.”

Strands of Expression

Piero di Cosimo’s Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci depicts the Florentine noblewoman and mistress of one of the Medicis in the characteristic early-Renaissance style. Emulating Roman aesthetics was an integral part of the intellectual and visual Renaissance world, evident in the elaborate hairstyle and associations with Cleopatra. The intricate braiding and delicate strands of pearls was an elaboration on the already individualistic and decorative styles of Roman times. Botticelli, on the other hand, applies the same dynamic quality to his hair as he does to his flesh and flowing outlines. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his depiction of the three Graces in Primavera, where the fluidity of the gestures, folds of transparent cloth, and long locks of golden hair all create a vivid harmony.

Italian Renaissance aesthetics influenced their northern neighbors, although there is a still a distinct Flemish flavor to St. Cecilia by the circle of Ambrosius Benson. The patron saint of music looks rather reserved, as the pallor of her face and black background highlight the sumptuous red hat, ordered rows of pearls and ruffles, and perfectly formed flaxen ringlets.

Velasquez’s portrait of Maria Teresa, an infanta of Spain, reflects a restrained ambiguity that he applied to his depictions of royal personages, as the court was slowly crumbling in its own decadence. The girl’s indecipherable face is surrounded by hair that is twice the size, decorated with translucent silver fans, as the creamy brushstrokes are illuminated against a dark background.

The risque locks of Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot were more provocative than the 19th century French audience was used to, as her languished pose sinks into the folds of sheets that flow into messy strands of curls.

On the other hand, George Romney’s Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Hamilton falls into the more gentile Georgian portraiture phase of English painting. He was known for his classical references in particular, and worked with a romanticized sensibility that was popular at the time, as her hair is swept up almost carelessly to fit with her pensive expression.

There seems to be an erotic quality associated with depictions of women combing their hair, bathing, etc. across cultures and time periods that involves an idealization of the female form. The simple outlines of Kitawana Utamaro’s woodblock print Bijin Combing Her Hair is reminder of how these mass-produced prints that became so popular in the west were often depictions of famous local beauties from Edo. Titian’s Young Woman Combing her Hair is suggestive in a different way, as the blouse slightly slipping off her shoulder might indicate, revealing the particularly fleshy form that Titian was known for.

Seeds of Scarlet

The pomegranate has a certain elusive allure, whether it’s the deep-red color or maze-like interior, and it has found its way into works of art throughout the centuries. Perhaps one of the earliest is Lorenzo di Credi’s Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate, and, like in many Renaissance works, it’s safe to say that the seemingly insignificant objects will have a symbolic meaning, as the pomegranate represents resurrection in this instance. The painting was done in the style of Verrocchio, the then-deceased teacher of Credi, with an attempt to draw inspiration from da Vinci, a fellow student who, comparatively, has a more subtle sense of color and realism.

Jan de Heem’s still-life is very much part of the age of northern European still-life painting, and the pomegranate here is given an unreachable level of lusciousness, as it is depicted meticulously among an equally vivid bouquet. At first glance, it might seem ready to eat, but such perfect paintings have a sense of theatricality about them, as if to remind us of the illusion of such luxury.

Courbet’s Still Life with Apples and Pomegranate seems too meek for an artist of his perspective, but the loose, mesmerizing brushstrokes give the painting Courbet’s signature effect. Chardin, on the other hand, depicts the pomegranate half open, and he shows his skill in portraying almost a reverence for the fruit.

Cezanne is on another level of perception, of course, as he is not concerned with the sensual qualities of pomegranate, but rather evokes something that goes far beyond the physical or familiar. That being said, nothing compares with a eating bowl of pomegranate seeds, and here is the easiest way to deal with such a complicated fruit: submerge it in a bowl of water, separate seeds from flesh, and all of the seeds will sink to the bottom.

See also:

Secret Underwater Pomegranate Trick

Two Luscious Recipes with Intoxicating Pomegranate Glaze!

Bulgur, Celery and Pomegranate Salad Recipe

Recipes With Pomegranate Punch

Pomegranate-glazed salmon with baby arugula salad