The Real Gondoliers of Venice

The one thing probably EVERYONE knows about Venice is about the Gondoliers. Well I can tell you, they do in fact exist!

I didn’t take a gondola ride myself, because even the cheapest were 80 euros, but plenty of gullible romantic tourists opt for the typical Venetian experience, which means that lots of cheapskate single skeptical tourists get to stand on the canal bridges and watch the show!

They’re a special breed of guy – maybe it comes from wearing a costume all day, particularly one that involves tight pants and muscle-hugging shirts… And of course the adorable hats to complete the ensemble.

I swear this isn’t posed. They really were just standing like this…

The prices for gondola rides start at around 80 euro, and go about as high as you’re willing to pay. The basic ride for two would be one of these guys silently pushing you around the canals in a long black boat for a half hour. But gondola rides are like cars, where you can keep adding luxury features. Or like salads, where you can keep adding toppings (75 cents for veggies, 25 cents extra dressing, $1.00 for avocado or toasted almonds, $3.00 for a piece of grilled chicken or salmon… etc.) For instance, you’re gondolier can sing to you. Ka-ching. Or there can be another guy in the boat playing the accordion. Ka-ching. Or your gondola could have a sun-roof and red and gold velvet cushions upon which you and your lover husband recline and sip champagne while you feed each other fresh Adriatic oysters… Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.

(That song, by the way, is a Neapolitan tarantella. In case you ever need to bust out that trivium at a cocktail party.)

One of the more pimped-out gondolas

And the gondolieri aren’t bad singers, either. Venetians are generally good at music, I’ve found. Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of an actual singing gondolier (ran out of room on my memory card… darn), but here instead is a picture of some Venetian opera singers singing a duet from Don Giovanni:

They were singing “La ci darem la mano.” Super cute. For your own edification, watch this version with Bryn Terfel. It’s the closest Mozart ever gets to soft-core pornography. It should be pretty obvious, but… the duet is about him seducing her.

And yes, the chamber ensemble is decked-out in 18th century costume as well.

I will remember Venice fondly, for sure. Not the exhausting heat and the soul-sucking crowds, but the costumes and the music and the novelty of the canals, which really are as beautiful as everyone says!


What happens in Venice… stays in Venice.

Somehow, despite all the things I’ve ever heard about Venice, I never quite understood this incredibly basic fact: there are no cars. Only boats.

So you can imagine my reaction when I walked out of the train station expecting to splurge on a taxi to my hostel… and instead of a road, there was a river. Whaaaat? I was halfway in a water taxi before the driver kindly informed me it would be 60 euros to my destination. I didn’t know I could move so fast wearing a 40 pound backpack, I hopped right out of that thing. (I ended up taking public transportation, which was… another boat. Sorry, the novelty of it all never really did wear off…).

So, most of my posts have managed to focus on one aspect of a city, but in planning what to write, I’m finding that almost impossible with Venice. Impossible to focus. Which, I think, is actually the overarching theme. Venice is too busy, too varied, too exciting. I really think it’s like the Italian Vegas, except about 2000% more legit, and with fewer skyscrapers. Also the strippers are classier. I mean… what?

Maybe it’s because it’s isolated – a 45 minute boat ride, or a 20 minute train ride – but there’s definitely a certain freedom about Venice. And it’s historical as well – there’s a reason Casanova was Venetian (I’m reading his memoirs now).

I think it all comes down to the masks. You’ve heard of the Venetian masquerades; they’ve got the only Mardi Gras celebration (just called “carneval”) in the world cooler than New Orleans’.

Masks are undoubtedly Venice's most significant product, after gelato of course.

The masks are the physical embodiment of the idea that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice boasted one of the most rigid social hierarchies in Europe, which is why the masks proved so useful. According to a mask-maker I talked to (who was trying so hard to sell me one – sorry buddy!), Carneval lasted 70 days at its height. Eventually, laws were put in place restricting it to 3 months, so this was clearly a lot more than just a pre-Lenten binge-fest. There were a multitude of laws restricting the wearing of masks at other times of the year, so it seems that it was somewhat of a problem. For instance, you were not allowed to wear a mask while gambling. Nor were you allowed to wear a mask while entering a nunnery. So clearly, people were wearing masks to allow anonymity, and impunity from illegal activities, like defaulting on gambling debts, and seducing nuns (oh Casanova, you so naughty). But it went the other way too – people were required to wear masks when voting in certain legislative bodies, to preserve anonymity.

A Phantom of the Opera mask AND a V for Vendetta mask in the same shop window?! Be still, my heart! 😉

So it seems like masks are the answer to a hyper-restricted society. In a mask, you are aristocrat or peasant, married or unmarried, upstanding citizen or outlaw, male or female… The mask-maker was explaining to me the shape of the white mask you see next to the Guy Fawkes mask: because people would be wearing these masks for weeks and months at a time, this type of mask (the most basic, called a bauta) allowed the wearer to eat and drink without removing it, allowed him to speak freely, but also changed the voice slightly in order to disguise it.

The mask culture is old, celebrated, and absolutely fabulous. Here we have a mask of San Marco cathedral:

And the costume jewelry is TO DIE FOR:

Sorry, I’m a girl and also a princess. I get distracted by shiny things. Back on topic.

There’s great artifice in everything about Venice. For instance, the simple fact that while I was there, I never saw a single food store or supermarket. Aka, the things normal people who live there would need. Conclusion? No one actually lives in Venice. It’s all just tourists. Of course that’s not quite true, I’m sure some people live in Venice, but I thought this was a pretty telling thing. Stores exist to make money, and if everyone is eating at bistros and hotel restaurants (aka tourists), nobody’s going to be selling groceries.

All this just further confirms the Vegas-Venice connection. Vegas has that same freedom and anonymity – no one is actually from Vegas, and after all, who actually lives in Nevada?!

And to conclude, more pretty pictures of the masks of Venice (including several that are obviously not mine):

Even the kitties have costumes in Venice…

And of course, what discussion of masks would be complete without a POTO reference?

Searching for Catullus in Paradise

I’m not gonna lie, Verona was a little disappointing. The town is lovely and especially the Palazzo Vecchio (I really loved the art collection there), but the hordes tourists and the 90-degree heat just made the place unbearable.

After escaping the chaos at the Casa di Giulietta, I went to the main square to sit for a bit and have an iced coffee. Flipping through my little Verona guidebook, I found a mention that Catullus was born there. But looking further, I could find NO evidence of his commemoration in Verona – not a statue, a street, a piazza, a museum. Nothing. How like the tourist industry, to make millions off of a made-up Shakespearean site, and barely acknowledge the fact that Verona is the hometown of one of the best-known and widely-read Latin poets. Don’t people care about Latin poetry?!?!?! Stupid question, maybe.

But anyway, this connection with Catullus confirmed my disgust with the gimmicky Juliet’s House and made me determined to track down something associated with him. Anything.

I miraculously discovered some free wifi, and wikipedia informed me that Verona apparently does not have a single thing associated with Catullus. Bummer. BUT, Sirmione, where Catullus had a summer villa and which he mentions in several poems, is only an hour or so away. There is an archaeological site at the villa, and a beautiful bust of the poet to take a picture of!

According to Google-maps, this is what Sirmione looks like:

A teeny-tiny spit of land sticking out into the lake. There’s not even a train station. I figured it would be a tiny little village, where I would be the only person, and the only feature of note would be this Catullus site. Instead, I found a massive and crowded vacation spot. It’s like, the Myrtle Beach of norther Italy, apparently:

Actually the place was gorgeous and I would have loved to spend a while there just walking around, lying on the beach, looking at the picturesque castle. But I had to be in Venice that night, and if I didn’t catch the 6:30 bus, I’d be stranded without my backpack (which I’d left in Verona). That gave me… one hour to find Catullus. Shouldn’t be a problem, this place is pretty small, right? Wrong. Looks small on the map, but huge when you’re lost and walking in the heat. I probably asked 20 people where to find the Grotto of Catullus (what the site is called) and they just kept gesturing, like “Keep going that way” “Keep going” “Farther yet…” and I just kept walking and walking to the end of the island. But at some point, I passed the half-hour mark, and I had to turn back or I would miss my bus.

So in summary: I spent an hour powerwalking through a beautiful beautiful town looking for something I never found. Alas, Catullus. My efforts were in vain!

However, I did find lemons as big as my head.

But I found Catullus 31 entirely fitting to this little jewel of a town stuck out in the middle of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains:

Topographic Information – in real time

Since people keep asking, “Wait, where are you?” (It’s not just you, Steven Feis!)

Trip overview so far:

Rome –> Siena –> Florence –> Ravenna –> Bologna –> Mantua –> Milan –> Bergamo –> Sirmione (Lake Garda) –> Verona –> Venice –> Lugano –> Thun –> Niederhorn (Beaternberg) –> Grindelwald

And a zoom-in of Switzerland:

Understandably, the blog is behind me, so if you’ve been reading, as far as you know I’m still in Verona! But worry not, we’ll catch up eventually!

Juliet’s House in Verona – some strange traditions

In 2010 a movie came out starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave called “Letters to Juliet.” In this movie, an idealistic American girl (Amanda Seyfried) visits Verona, where she finds a letter to Juliet from the 1950s that was never answered. She tracks down the sender of the letter (Vanessa Redgrave), who arrives on the scene with her incredibly attractive grandson, and together all three search all of Tuscany for Vanessa Redgrave’s long-lost love, Lorenzo.

Trailer here:

It was a very cute movie, but just like hollywood simplifies and idealizes things like love, redemption, and road trips through the Italian countryside, the film’s picture of Verona as a quiet, sleepy town is not quite accurate.

In this beautiful screenshot, a handful of composed, meditative people sit quietly and compose their heartfelt letters to Juliet by hand in a picturesque Italian courtyard.

Everything is so peaceful…

Here’s what it really looks like:

] Absolute chaos.

But really, the place is so crammed with people it was hard to get from one end of the courtyard to another. The people are loud, and the gimmicks are… gimmicky. Everyone was stampeding each other to participate in the various traditions that have grown up around the Casa di Giulietta.

Tradition 1: Scrawl the name of your lover on the walls in sharpie.

Tradition 2: Stick a piece of gum on the wall, then have someone take a picture of you stretching it out between your fingers. This means that the walls around Juliet’s courtyard actually look like this:


Tradition 3: Write the name of you and your boyfriend on a padlock, and lock it somewhere. Anywhere. It means your love is eternal because no one can unlock a padlock, right…

A padlock is forever… Every kiss begins with a padlock… Padlocks are a girl’s best friend… Now you have a friend in the padlock business, the Shane Company… Etc.

I snark, but actually I kind of like this tradition. There’s something very un-graffiti-like about a padlock. Also they sell them in lots of pretty colors 🙂 But it does lead to some obnoxious tourist stunts…

Must find…. empty spot… for padlock….!

Tradition 4: Juliet’s breasts bring good luck/fertility/longevity/better orgasms. We must touch them and take pictures of it!!!

No but actually, they sell breast-shaped keychains in the massive giftshop just off the courtyard. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of a holy relic… makes about as much sense as the idea that rubbing Woolsey’s toe will help you get into Yale. Not that it stopped me from doing so. Multiple times.

The “Letters to Juliet” is a real thing, though. People all write letters to Juliet discussing their happiness, their unhappiness, their luck, their bad luck in love, and a group of volunteers called Juliet’s Secretaries answer every single letter. There’s a box in the courtyard where people can drop their letters (not a beautiful billboard of artsy love notes, like in the movie), but most people opt to email theirs in.

You can’t see it, but the tops of the computers are engraved with hearts. Very cute.

After the chaos in the courtyard, Juliet’s house was actually pretty nice. It was five floors of a house furnished to look like that of a Renaissance merchant, and decorated with various artistic representations of Romeo and Juliet through the centuries. The house, of course, is not actually Juliet’s house or Capulet’s house or anything – some guy in the 19th century thought the little balcony over the courtyard looked pretty and started calling it “Juliet’s balcony” as a tourist gimmick. And how it has endured.

Probably the only *genuine* piece of Romeo and Juliet memorabilia in this whole city, is the actual bed from the Zeffirelli movie. You have to admit, that’s kind of neat:

Yeahhhh… get it.

A Night at the Opera in Milan

How could a visit to Milan be complete without seeing a show at La Scala?!

It was Verdi’s Luisa Miller, and basically it was a cross between Lucia di Lammermoor and Romeo and Juliet.

SPOILER ALERT!!! Lol, just kidding. I’d never even heard of this opera, and I bet you haven’t either. So read on!

Rodolfo is the son of a Count, and Luisa the daughter of a peasant. They are already in love when the opera begins, though Luisa has no idea that Rodolfo is the son of her father’s liege lord. Rodolfo’s father the Count, of course, wants him to marry a Duchess, and has Luisa and her father arrested to keep the lovers apart. The Count threatens to kill Luisa’s father unless she writes a letter to Rodolfo saying she is in love with another. Rodolfo, receiving the letter and thinking that Luisa has been untrue, agrees to marry the Duchess. Luisa’s father is released but when she sees Rodolfo’s marriage procession from afar, thinks that he has been unfaithful to her. Rodolfo, still in despair and vowing revenge for Luisa’s unfaithfulness, slips into Luisa’s house and slips poison into some water, which they both drink. After drinking, he confronts her about her unfaithfulness, but she confesses that she wrote the letter under duress and was never unfaithful to Rodolfo. But of course it’s too late – they both die, and Luisa’s father is left alone holding his daughter’s body. Annnnnd CURTAIN!

Basically, it was VERY good – every single singer was phenomenal, particularly the baritone playing Luisa’s father, who actually got shouts of “Encore!” after his first aria. I’ve never heard that happen before at an opera performance, and La Scala audiences are supposed to be particularly tough. Check out this video of tenor Roberto Alagna (an intenational superstar and one of my favorite singers) getting booed off the stage at a performance of Aida at La Scala in 2006:

His understudy comes onto the stage wearing jeans to finish out the scene with Amneris!

But anyway, no such disaster occurred during Luisa Miller. Everything was fabulous, and I got to be glamorous in a cocktail dress sipping wine and sitting in a private box!

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A Detour to Mantua

After a day and night in Bologna, Steven and I headed back to Milan, where I stayed with him for a few days.

But on the way, we paused in Mantua, which has exactly three claims to fame:

1. The first real opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, premiered at the Ducal Palace here in 1607.

2. Romeo spends one scene exiled in Mantua in Shakespeare’s play (probably the only reason you’ve ever heard of it).

3. Vergil is from Mantua!!! (Sorry, I get most excited about this last one!)

So Steven and I spent an afternoon strolling around. The Ducal Palace was closed because of the recent earthquakes (I guess they didn’t want the old building collapsing on top of the tourists… darn), but I got to snap a few pictures of the massive monument to Vergil!

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From Canto I of Inferno:

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.
‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned…”

Bologna – A Hundred and One Porticoes

My friend Steven (Yale ‘11) is in Milan doing a Fulbright, but even though he’s been in Italy for the past nine months, he’d never seen Bologna before. So he took the train down from Milan we met up on the steps of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bologna. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, so naturally there were tears, fierce embraces, and cries of joy and ecstasy at being reunited! Lol, jk. But we were pretty happy to see each other!

So I have to say, Bologna, besides being very medieval looking, didn’t have all that much to offer me. What it did have was excellent food, and the most porticoes I’ve ever seen in my life.

So maybe it’s because the streets are so medieval and narrow, but every walkway in the entire city is portico-covered. It’s very nice, actually. As has been the case for my whole trip thus far, it was BLAZING hot in the sun, and the marble and shade and breezy openness of the porticoes made walking around the city all day actually enjoyable!

Here’s a slideshow of some of the spectacular porticoes:

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But the reason I’m calling this post “One Hundred and One Porticoes,” is because in addition to the countless porticoes of various lengths throughout the city, Bologna is also home to the mother-ship of all porticoes: The Longest Continuous Portico in the World. This monstrosity has 671 arches, which doesn’t sound like that many, right? Wrong. The thing is 3 miles long and climbs a mountain to a basilica overlooking the city. Steven’s friend Eleanor (another Fulbrighter, living in Bologna) explained the reason for its existence: The basilica houses a particularly important religious icon which is brought out on a particular feast day and paraded down to the city every year. The portico was built along the procession route to protect the icon from sun and rain damage, because apparently it is just that important.

Some images of The World’s Longest Continuous Portico, and the Basilica at the top of the mountain:

By the time we were made it back down from the “summit,” our legs were jelly and we were hot, sweaty, and sore (or at least I was – Eleanor is in much better shape than I), and above all ready for some FOOD. Eleanor took us to a brilliant fish restaurant with no menu (they just bring you whatever they’re serving that day!). We tucked into a fully-deserved four course meal, a bottle of white wine, and some girly discussion about our attractive and charming Italian waiter, who kept winking at Eleanor 😉

Ravenna – The most beautiful mosaics in the world

The title pretty much says it all: In Ravenna (just off the eastern coast), you will find the greatest concentration of collectively the most beautiful mosaics in the world, IMHO. I’m surprised and sad that Ravenna’s tourism is less than flourishing – I was literally the only guest in my hostel – but I guess it just means I’ve found Italy’s hidden gem (and really, the quiet in Ravenna was so necessary after the hordes in Florence).

Ravenna in a nutshell: In 402 AD Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire (this is post-Constantine, so the empire had already been split into two halves, Eastern (Byzantine) and Western), and remained the capital until the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. The seat of power was located in Ravenna just long enough for lots of building and construction to take place – and remember too that by this time Christianity was already the official religion of the empire, so they’re not building temples in Ravenna, they’re building churches.

People don’t give Early Christianity much credit, artistically. The basilicas are large, inelegant things designed only to hold as many people as possible, and the imagery doesn’t yet have those story-tropes that developed during the Middle Ages and feature so prominently in Renaissance art.

But the one thing that Early Christians did well was decorate the crap out of churches and tombs – with mosaics.

If you’ve ever taken a European history class or an art history class, you’ve probably seen these two images:

These two panels face each other across the altar of the Basilica of San Vitale. The first is of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (most famous for rewriting and codifying the laws, and for having built the Hagia Sophia), and the second is of his wife, the Empress Theodora (most famous for having been an actress and prostitute before marrying the Emperor). But besides housing these two super-famous pieces of art, San Vitale was 1000% percent worth the visit, because the entire altar is encrusted with more of these gorgeous, vibrant, and colorful mosaics.

More pretty pictures from San Vitale:

(Please do click on the pictures so you can see the large, high-quality versions!)

An overall view of the altar from the nave. You can *just* make out the Justinian and Theodora mosaics in the panels to the left and right of the bottom row of windows.

An image of heaven in the apse above the altar.

To the right of the altar – I love that this shows how sophisticated the narrative scenes are (in the lower half), as well as the beautiful carpet-like decorations that entirely cover the walls and ceiling.

As you can see, the artist used a LOT of gold in the decoration, but the best part is that because of the unevenness of the mosaic surface, the gold glitters and sparkles so spectacularly. I tried to get a picture of it:

You can see in this in detail – look above and below the central angel to see the shimmering gold!

Another example of glittering mosaics, from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (a Roman Empress, buried next door to San Vitale)

Also in Ravenna, completely worth saying you’ve seen it, Dante’s tomb:

There’s a monument to him in Santa Croce in Florence, but don’t be fooled – he’s really right here in Ravenna!

So basically, if you ever get the chance, don’t pass up a side trip to Ravenna – all these things, Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, and Dante’s Tomb are easily done in one afternoon. Definitely my favorite day of sightseeing so far!

Florence – What makes The Masters, masters?

If you know how much I love the Old Masters, Leonardo, Rafael, Michaelangelo, Perugino, Lippi, and especially Botticelli, you already understand how I’m enjoying Florence. You can’t walk a block without coming across something that one of these guys had a hand in.It’s paradise and exhaustion.

But I’m also seeing so much art that is not by one of these heavy-hitters, and I hate to say it, but I might be starting to question the absolutist oligarchy of art history that has formed around this group of guys. Maybe Leonardo was not the best ever, maybe some dude you’ve never heard of was just as good….

Does it sound like heresy? It sure feels like heresy.

Alright, there are some things that cannot be disputed. Let’s go through a short list of undeniable facts, as I’ve come to understand them.

1. Michelangelo really IS unrivaled when it comes to sculpture. Every single body he ever carved has so much mass and weight.My favorite example of this is in his famous Pietá in Rome. Christ’s body is heavy in Mary’s arms, and we see this beautifully conveyed in this little detail of Christ’s underarm, where we can clearly see Mary’s hand pressing into the flesh of his side, and raising that area of fatty tissue over the muscle. Just like a real, heavy body would look when someone holds it up.

Michelangelo’s Pietá, in St. Peter’s, Rome (c. 1498)

2. Leonardo is really the master of background shadows.

His extreme use of shadow is unlike anyone’s I’ve seen, and it adds a depth and softness to his figures that not only adds dimension, but an air of mystery. This is the “sfumato” that we hear so much about – “smokiness.” The darkness of the shadows keeps the “softness” aspect from becoming too saccharine, as often happens with Rafael.

Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks, c. 1480s

3. Botticelli really does know how to paint a beautiful face. I could look at Madonna of the Magnificat forever…

She might just be prettier than Alan Rickman. Well… maybe.

But other than that, I’m really not sure how unrivaled the masters are. First of all, every Renaissance painter I’ve seen still retains that quality of “cartoonishness.” Botticelli is an extreme example of this, as his are some of the most cartoonish of all. That’s not to say they’re not beautiful, but his paintings never come close to breaking the illusion that what you’re looking at is a painting, not real life. It’s like looking at particularly gorgeous anime.

Not to ask the most cliché question ever, but… I’m starting to wonder what makes “good art.” Well, Giorgio Vasari thinks he knows, so let’s start there. Vasari’s most famous contribution to history is his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” in which he literally  just identifies several dozen of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance and provides biographical sketches about each one, in addition to analyzing the quality of their work. In deciding “who is the best,” Vasari’s discussions center around several aspects of the artwork: the harmony of the layout and design, the accuracy of the perspective, the “lifelike” quality of the figures, the vibrancy of the colors, the emotional truth of the faces and bodies, and the context in which it was painted (that is, he holds later artists to higher standards because they have a larger body of quality art to learn from).

Ok, so let’s look at some pictures. This is Michelangelo’s representation of The Holy Family:

The “Doni Tondo,” made for the Doni family between 1506-1508. It’s now in the Uffizi in Florence.

Vasari LOVES this picture (not just because he has a serious man-crush on Michalangelo) because of it’s perfect composition, all three of the figures unified by motion and rotating around a single central axis. But the colors are very loud, and the outlines of the figures are almost cartoonish to me – they look like they’re cutouts resting on a separately prepared background. And the shadows are a bit dramatic as well – take a look at the one under the Virgin’s foot… So there’s an example of genius of design, according to Vasari.

So what about perfect perspective? Paolo Uccello was a painter who, according to Vasari, was completely OCD about his perspectives. This is his most famous work, The Battle of San Romano:

Mid-15th century. Apparently part of the multi-panel work is in the Uffizi, but I don’t remember seeing it…

Apparently this picture is mathematically perfect as far as perspective goes. I won’t even try to parse that, but that’s what Vasari says, so we’ll take his word for it. But perfect perspective does not an artist make: “Although the details of perspective are ingenious… yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers… and often transforms his mind’s fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner… dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely… very often he becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, a did Paolo Uccello.” Apparently, getting everything technically right does not a true artistic genius make. And I think most of us would agree – good writing is not just perfect grammar, good music is not just following the rules of voice leading, and good acting is not just memorizing lines and blocking. In fact, brilliant art more often than not actually violates these formulaic standards… but I digress.

One aspect that I certainly look for in painting is indeed the lifelike quality of the figures. How alive do they look, how true? Vasari gave two gold medals for lifelike figures: To Rafael, and to Leonardo.  Vasari describes how extraordinarily lifelike the Mona Lisa is: “In this head, whoever wished to could see how closely art could imitate nature… the eyes had that lustre and watery sheen which are always seen in life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tins, as well as the lashes… the eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the skin, could not be more natural. The nose… appeared to be alive. The mouth… seemed, in truth, to be not colors but flesh. In the pit of the throat… could be seen the beating of the pulse.” And he has similar things to say about some works of Rafael. So here is the Mona Lisa:

So according to Vasari (who is writing in the mid-16th century, I should make clear) this portrait is the ultimate expression of naturalism and lifelike representation. But I’ve always had this single enormous problem with most paintings that try to represent a human face: What would that face look like in real life? Like literally, if the portrait came to life this minute, how would the painted face translate into actual human features? For almost all Renaissance art, the disparity between art and life is too great. Even for Mona Lisa, I cannot conjure up an image of a real woman with the features I see in the painting.

But I don’t have this problem for all art, however. For instance, let me show you a few portraits by John Singleton Copley (second half of the 18th century):

These are just a couple examples, and of only one artist, but for each one I feel as if I’m almost looking at a photograph, or a freeze-frame. Each of these has that quality that enables me to imagine that face moving, speaking, having different expressions. As beautifully shaded as Mona Lisa is, and as expressive her smile, to me she looks frozen compared to these. In short, she looks like a painting. A very nice painting, but not a person.

I know putting Copley next to Leonardo is comparing apples to oranges, and I’m wrapping up the discussion prematurely in the interest of space (and your attention span) but it makes me think: Why are the faces of Mona Lisa, or “Lady with an Ermine,” or Botticelli’s Venus so universally praised and instantly recognizable, while I would put money that anyone reading this has probably never seen these particular Copley portraits before?