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“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of a culture is how it reflects on its past. For instance, nineteenth century German composer Richard Wagner idealized the Middle Ages, while modernists of the twentieth century imitated the Viennese classics. Italian musicians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, meanwhile, looked upon ancient civilization for aesthetic and ethical ideals.
But what did the Renaissance know of antiquity, in particular of its music? Italian humanists played a leading role in the revival of antiquity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but their knowledge of ancient musical practice was severely limited, because it was, of necessity, based only on references in literature and, to some extent, visual sources whose reliability could be questioned. Even as devoted an admirer of antiquity as Vincenzo Galilei (1520-1591), an Italian lute player, composer and music theorist – and the father of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei – had an inaccurate view of ancient music. Francisco de Salinas, a musician and Spanish humanist of the sixteenth century, attempted to apply the ancient theory of rhythm to the practice of contemporary art. Gioseffo Zarlino, a Renaissance-era Italian music theorist and composer, followed the music of antiquity and classical aesthetics, frequently referring to Aristotle and making extensive use of his doctrine of form and matter. Zarlino was the first to recognize the primacy of the triad over the interval as a means of harmonic thinking, and his development of just intonation came from a realization of the imperfection of the intervals in the Pythagorean system along with a desire to retain as much purity as possible using a limited number of tones. He was also the first person to attempt to explain the old prohibition on parallel fifths and octaves as a rule of counterpoint and to study the effect and harmonic implications of the false relation.
And these are just a few examples from the second half of the sixteenth century. The instruments and musical theory and symbolism of antiquity would have a crucial role in the development of Renaissance art.
During the Middle Ages, music and art were developing quite differently. With its basis in numbers, music was considered to be a discipline of logic and science and, thus, was included among the seven liberal arts, along with grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, geometry and astronomy. Most contemporary art, in contrast, focused on biblical and allegorical themes.
While ancient music was destined to wait long time before being decrypted, the theory of music was much more fortunate and was shaped during the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the ideas of Pythagoras. The 6th century B.C.E. mathematician observed that when the blacksmith struck his anvil, different notes were produced according to the weight of the hammer. Number (in this case, the amount of weight) seemed to govern musical tone. “Pythagoras conceived of the universe as a vast lyre, in which each planet, vibrating at a specific pitch, in relationships similar to the stopping of the monochord’s string, harmonized with other heavenly bodies to create a ‘music of the spheres,’ a concept which remained viable for centuries.”
These ideas were well known among music theorists, architects and artists. For instance, we can see from one of Raphael’s best-known frescoes, “The School of Athens,” that the artist was quite familiar with music in general and classical musical theory, in particular. The painting is part of the wall decoration in the Stanza della Segnatura in the apartment of Pope Julius II. Previously, these rooms were frescoed by Piero della Francesca, a Tuscan painter known for his perspective. Under Leo X (pontiff from 1513 to 1521), the room was used as a small study and music room. The Stanza della Segnatura was used by Julius II as a library, with the bookcase located beneath the frescoes. The library was arranged so that the subjects of the frescoes on the walls corresponded to the categories of the books on the shelves below. Thus, the “Disputation Concerning the Blessed Sacrament” was located above the books on theology, the “School of Athens” above those on philosophy, the “Parnassus” in the lunette above the books of poetry, and the scenes of Pope Gregory IX approving the Decretals and Justinian with the Pandects were on the wall where the legal texts were housed. The complex structure of the walls was reflected in the frescoes on the ceiling and in the small vaulting cells, with symbolic representations of Justice, Poetry, Philosophy and Theology on the medallions and allegorical representations of the Judgment of Solomon, the Temptation of Adam and Eve and Apollo and Marsyas in the four rectangular scenes. According to the Renaissance concept of a universal order, philosophy and theology were the foundations of wisdom, Christian revelation was the highest of the superior powers of the spirit, and justice represented the apex of the moral hierarchy. But where does music find its niche?
Leonardo da Vinci, according to Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli, was not only a great painter and architect but also a talented musician (cited in: Zubov VP of Leonardo da Vinci. Moscow, Leningrad, 1961, with. 25). As Vasari writes in The Lives of the Artists, “he decided to learn to play the lyre, like one to whom nature had given a naturally elevated and highly refined spirit, and accompanying himself on this instrument, he sang divinely without any preparation.” (Vasari, 285.) Paolo Veronese, in “Wedding Feast at Cana,” meanwhile, depicted himself, Tintoretto, Bassano and Titian playing musical instruments. Depicting Titian with the viola in his hands, the artist thus clearly underlined his leading role in the Venetian school of painting.
Music also occupied a significant place in the court of Pope Leo X, who, from his earliest youth, had cultivated authors and artists: “He endeavored to endow his court with all possible worldly splendor, and gave every encouragement to humanism, by summoning its champions about him in spite of their irreligious temper; and it was before him that the first comedies in the Italian tongue were brought out, notwithstanding their questionable morality. Machiavelli wrote for him. Raphael covered the walls of his palace and of his churches with gorgeous representations of ideals and sensuous beauty. Above all other things, Leo loved music, and profane music especially.” (A history of all nations, Vol. 11, by Ferdinand Justi, Sara Yorke Stevenson, Morris Jastrow, p. 31.) Leo frequently discussed issues of music theory, which he knew very well, and he sang and played on a small organ that stood in his chamber.
The history of musical instruments, including their classification and development across cultures, as well as the technical study of how they produce sound, often cannot rely on the study of ancient instruments. Because of their fragility, the number of very old instruments available for research and study is very limited. The oldest instrument in the world, in fact, according to the Ashmolean Museum’s collection catalogue, is a treble viol made by Venetian Giovanni Maria da Brescia that dates only to 1525-1550. This means that anyone who is interested in musical instruments from the quattrocento and earlier needs to look elsewhere, particularly in the drawings and paintings of the period. As Emanuel Winterniz notes, though, “the image of an object may not have been drawn from the object itself, but copied from a picture of it, and this again from another, inevitably resulting in a less reliable rendering of the actual instrument.” It has also been noted that artists were sometimes known to conjure up imaginary instruments, as in Filippino Lippi’s painting, “The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God Apis,” in which a musician plays a double-belled trumpet. (This, Winternitz suggests, may have been the artist’s interpretation of the classical double pipe instrument called the aulos.)
In contrast to Leonardo, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and many other artists of the Renaissance, Raphael neither played musical instruments, nor composed music. However, his musicality is revealed in several ways, including an unusual harmony between composition, color and design. The Pythagorean theory of music is reflected in his fresco “School of Athens,” in which we see a chart, compiled from ancient lyre strings, properly connected and numbered with numerals VI, VIII, IX and XII. The length of these strings represents the Pythagorean theory of intervals: octave (6:12 = 1:2), fifth (6:9 = 9:12 = 2:3), quart (6:8 = 8:12 = 3:4) and tone (8:9). Intervals are indicated in the tables by their Greek names: range (octave), diapente (fifth), Diatessaron (fourth) and epoglon (second). Under the curve is the perfect Pythagorean number X, the sum of the first four numbers proportional to the main musical consonance: an octave, fifth and a quart (1: 2: 3: 4).
Naturally, because many of the images were taken from classical mythology, Renaissance artists were interested in depicting antique musical instruments. As with the sounds of musical instruments, the representations of them in art gives rise to many associations, from joyful to sad, from peaceful to rebellious. Music was more than an inspiration for artists. They believed that music and painting were the same, and they saw shading and rhythm in both. Symbolically, musical instruments for centuries were synonymous with love, and some instruments were associated with its various conditions. For example, medieval astrology taught that all musicians were “the children of Venus.” (James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art(London: Harper & Row, 1974), 210.) Venus’s associations had some important classical roots. Venus was recognized as Venus Coelestis, goddess of sacred love, pacifier of Mars, loving mother of Aeneas and sanguine source of universal harmony. She was also Venus Vulgaris, goddess of bodily love and passion and the seductress who led Helen and Paris astray, causing the Trojan War. Medieval and Renaissance representations of Venus’s nativity commonly portray her being transported to shore on a scallop shell – iconography that carried over to the incorporation of her likeness on lutes and citterns with their analogous shell-like constructions.(Robin Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 158.)Venus was linked with music in artworks such as Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” (c. 1560), and Breugal the Elder’s “Hearing” (1618). English sources and iconography also underlined Venus’s relationship with music. In 1565, Thomas Cooper described the “Cithara” (or Cittern) as, “A womanly harpe singing songs of loue and not of heroic acts.” (“Cithara” in Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus Linguae Romanae & Britannicae (London, 1565).) The term “Cithara” would seem to derive from Venus’s island birthplace of Cytherea. Venus is also often depicted teaching music. A detail from the frontispiece to the published songs in Handel’s Rinaldo (1711), for example, portrays Venus instructing Cupid in the art of music. Similar scenes of Venus-like figures teaching music to Cupid-type characters were common in decorative English music title pages.
Musical instruments played an especially important role for Renaissance artists in the depiction of love scenes. Some of the best-known examples include a series of paintings by Titian generally referred to as “Venus with Musicians” that date from 1550-1585. Musical instruments accompany the goddess in the scenes depicting her with Mars, and the instruments are both a weapon and armor for her partner. In addition, in this series of works, the musician derives inspiration from viewing the Muse. The “absorbed look” plays an important role in the paintings and fills the scenes with sensuality.
example of a painting with love “overtones” is Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia.”
(1601-1602) (The English translation is “Love Conquers All,” but the work is
also known as “Amor Victorious,” “Victorious Cupid,” “Love Triumphant,” “Love
Victorious,” and “Earthly Love.”) The painting depicts Cupid as a peculiar,
naughty young boy rather than the romanticized child he appears as in other
classical works. Cupid, Mars (the god of war) and Venus (the goddess of love),
stomp on a violin, a lute, open music books, symbols of government and a
compass, symbolizing the havoc the heart can create.
distinction between wind instruments and string instruments passed from
antiquity to European culture and was based on the differences in their
relative symbolic values. The differences were expressed most explicitly in the
ancient Greek myth of Apollo’s contest with rival musicians. One myth is quite
humorous and became a popular subject for artists – “The Judgment of Midas” – while the other is deeply tragic. Often, the
two myths are confused, but there are some important distinctions.
In the Midas
myth, Apollo, the god of the
lyre, was involved in a
musical contest against the woodland god Pan, with the competition judged by
the mountain god Tmolus. Pan blew on his pipes and, with his rustic melody,
gave great satisfaction to himself and his faithful follower, King Midas, who
happened to be present. Then Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. After
listening to both performances, Tmolus pronounced Apollo as the winner. All but
Midas agreed with the judgment, and the king questioned the justice of the
award. As punishment for Midas’s bad taste and poor judgment, Apollo changed the
king’s ears into those of a donkey to symbolize what he thought of Midas’s bad
musical taste. Ovid describes the scene in Metamorphoses:
Tmolus was arbiter;
the boaster still
Accepts the tryal
with unequal skill.
The venerable judge
was seated high
On his own hill,
that seem’d to touch the sky …
… Pan tun’d the
pipe, and with his rural song
Pleas’d the low
taste of all the vulgar throng;
Such songs a vulgar
judgment mostly please,
Midas was there,
and Midas judg’d with these …
… All, with applause, the rightful sentence heard,
To him unjustly
giv’n the judgment seems,
For Pan’s barbarick
notes he most esteems.
The lyrick God, who
thought his untun’d ear
Deserv’d but ill a
human form to wear,
Of that deprives
him, and supplies the place
With some more fit,
and of an ampler space:
Fix’d on his noddle
an unseemly pair,
large, and full of whitish hair;
Without a total
change from what he was,
Still in the man
preserves the simple ass.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI)
This myth has been
widely illustrated in paintings such as “Apollo
and Marsyas” by Palma il Giovane (1544–1628), “The Judgment of Midas” by
Domenichino and assistants, and an oil sketch by Rubens also
titled “The Judgment of Midas.”
The punishment was certainly appropriate in an artistic sense, since
the donkey has long been considered to be insensitive to music. For example, in
“Nativity” (c. 1470), Italian artist Piero della Francesca depicts Mary kneeling in adoration before the newly-born Christ,
who is laid on her cloak. Five angels sing, welcoming his birth, and two of
them play lutes. Beside them, a donkey appears to bray, while an ox peers down
solemnly at Christ. It is humorous to see a donkey singing along with the
angels in such a solemn scene. The donkey,
of course, also often represents stupidity, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s print
“The Ass at School” (1556) provides
an example of this symbolic usage.
According to the other myth, things develop much more dramatically. In
a musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas, the terms stated that the winner
could treat the defeated party “any way he wanted.” (H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York:
E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959) 111.) The contest was judged by the Muse Agnis, a
musician from Phrygia who was, according to some accounts, considered to be the
inventor of the aulos, a wind instrument. Agnis was also one of the three
mythical Phrygian musicians (along with Marsyas and Olympus) to whom the
Ancient Greeks attributed the invention of the Phrygian mode in music. According
to the myth, Marsyas was defeated and flayed alive in a cave near Celaenae for
his hubris in challenging Apollo. The victor nailed Marsyas’s skin to a pine
tree near Lake Aulocrene, which Strabo noted was “full of the reeds from which
the [aulos’s] pipes were fashioned.” Diodorus Siculus felt that Apollo must
have regretted this “excessive” deed, and said that he laid aside his lyre for
a while, but Karl Kerenyi observes of the flaying of Marsyas’s “shaggy hide: a
penalty which will not seem especially cruel if one assumes that Marsyas’
animal guise was merely a masquerade.”
The flaying of Marsyas became a theme for painting and sculpture, and
there are numerous instances of Renaissance paintings, woodcuts, intaglios, and
sculptures depicting the story, many of them indicating a connection between
Christ and Apollo (with Apollo as purifier allowing the redemption of Marsyas).
The punishment of Marsyas by Apollo is depicted in “Apollo and Marsyas” by
Michelangelo Anselmi (c. 1492-c.1554), “The Flaying of Marsyas” by Jusepe de Ribera
(1591–1652), “The Flaying of Marsyas” by Titian (c. 1570-1576) and “Apollo and
Marsyas” by Bartolomeo Manfredi.
In another myth that is closely connected with Marsyas, Athena, during
the feast of gods, decides to please them with music from the aulos, which, in
this account, she is said to have invented. While most of the Gods enjoyed the
music, Hera and Aphrodite laughed at Athena. Offended, Athena ran away to the
woods of Phrygia, looked at her reflection in the lake and saw that her cheeks
were sagging and her eyes were bloodshot. The Greeks, it must be explained,
characteristically made the aulos from double reeds of cane that were held in
the pipes by bulbous sockets and that were sounded simultaneously. Because of
the powerful blowing necessary to sound the two pipes, the Greeks often tied a phorbeia, or leather strap, across the
cheeks for support. The playing technique known as “circular breathing” (or
“nasal inhalation”) was used, and this caused the player’s cheeks to inflate
then sag. This is what led to the laughter of Hera and Aphrodite. When Athena
saw her reflection, she threw away the aulos, and the instrument was later
picked up by Marsyas, who would become so skilled on the instrument that he would
dare to challenge Apollo.
It is clear from these two myths that Pan and Marsyas had two
different instruments. The syrinx is traditionally associated with Pan and, as
a result, is commonly known as the pan flute or panpipe. It is based on the
principle of the closed tube and usually consists of five or more pipes of
gradually increasing length (and sometimes girth.) As for Marsyas’s instrument,
the aulos, it is a simple double-reed woodwind, usually with four or five
finger holes. Artists who used these stories as subjects, however, often changed
or combined the myths.
“The Contest of Apollo with Marsyas” by Italian
Mannerist painter Agnol Bronzino demonstrates a keen understanding of the
iconographic details of the plot, though with a notable error: Marsyas holds
not an antique aulos but a shawm of the sixteenth century (a medieval and
Renaissance musical instrument of the woodwind family). The work was commissioned
by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, and was painted by the artist
during his stay in Pesaro between 1530 and 1533. As Edyth Wyss describes the
painting in her article Bronzino’s
four scenes are disposed in a deep, rocky
landscape that falls off toward a distant river. The foreground scene at the
right depicts the musical competition. Apollo seen in three-quarter back view,
is readying his lira da braccio, which for the most part is hidden behind his
shoulder. Laurel twigs lie at his feet. Marsyas is a scruffy, thin fellow, who
plays his shawm strenuously. The helmeted young woman clad in a tight jerking and
holding a jousting lance must be Minerva as attentive arbiter. Beside her is
another gawky youth who glances reverently at the flutist. He wears a spiky
crown and can be none other than Midas, the foolish judge from the competition
between Apollo and Pan.
of Apollo and Marsyas in the art of the Italian Renaissance, Edith Wyss. p.
Bronzino’s portrayal of Apollo’s victory over
Marsyas met the demands of his time in technical as well as allegorical terms.
The painting must have been valued since at least two copies survived. In
addition, Venetian Giulio Sanuto engraved Bronzino’s painting full scale on
three panels in 1562. This engraving bears a long dedication to Alfonso II d’Este
in which Sanuto explained that “the major lesson to be learned from the favola
of Marsyas was a warning against overbearing judgment.” (Wyss 110). In addition
to Marsyas’s shawm, several other musical instruments are depicted in the engraving,
including a pan flute, which is found in a scene that features nine muses in
the background. This scene was copied from “Parnassus” by the Italian
Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. Interpreting this painting through the use
of iconographical traditions derived from the classical myths about music, we
find at the center of the stage nine muses, with three singing and all moving
to the music of Apollo’s lyre. Horizontally across from Apollo stands Mercury
holding his customary caduceus from which his syrinx hangs and resting one arm
on the winged horse Pegasus. Standing on top of the grotto are the closely
linked figures of Mars and Venus, and perched close to them is Amor, holding
his bow. Amor’s gaze is directed at the smallest figure in the painting,
Vulcan, who is placed at the mouth of a cave, where he has apparently been
forging the silver jug in front of him. He is stepping toward Amor, who is
blowing a dart at him through a cylindrical pipe. While this painting has a
variety of interpretations, it is clear that music plays a fundamental role in
“I was seven when I decided to be a geographer, twenty-five when I decided be an art historian. I have been very, very lucky to study and be both, to do what I have enthusiasm and passion for. ”
B.S. Geography and Environmental Studies, TNU.
M.A. Liberal Studies, CNDM;
M.A. Art History, GMU.