Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Two Olivers

Isaac Oliver
Self Portrait

Isaac Oliver
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Isaac Oliver
Lord Herbert of Cherbury

Isaac Oliver
John Donne

Isaac Oliver
Henry, Prince of Wales

Isaac Oliver became the principal painter of miniature portraits at court during the final years of Elizabeth I, continuing in that position under her successor James. When Isaac died in 1617 he left this specialized work in the hands of his eldest son Peter Oliver (1594-1648). During the 1620s Peter continued to create the traditional tiny jewel-toned oval pictures for which has father had been famous.

Peter Oliver
Charles I when Prince of Wales

Peter Oliver
Elizabeth of Bohemia

Then in the 1630s Charles I decided that Peter Oliver's skills could be better employed executing fine miniature copies of the Renaissance masterpieces the King was acquiring by the shipload from Italy. Several of Peter's meticulous copies, as seen below, remain to this day in the Royal Collection, even though the originals by Titian, Correggio and Raphael so passionately appreciated by Charles I were sold in the 1650s at the hands of Cromwell's usurpers during the Commonwealth and never regained by the Crown.  

Peter Oliver, after Titian
D'Avalos Allegory

Peter Oliver, after Titian
Madonna & Child

Peter Oliver, after Correggio
Venus, Mercury & Cupid

Peter Oliver, after Correggio
Venus, Cupid & Satyr

Peter Oliver, after Raphael
St. George & the Dragon

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Claude Lorrain
View of the Campagna from Tivoli

The Truth  is stirless 
Other forces  may be presumed to move 
This  then  is best for confidence – 
When oldest Cedars swerve 

And Oaks untwist their fists 
And Mountains - feeble - lean 
How excellent a Body, that
Stands without a Bone 

How vigorous a Force
That holds without a Prop 
Truth stays Herself  and every man
That trusts Her  boldly up 

– Emily Dickinson

Monday, December 29, 2014


In 2001 Tim Parks translated Roberto Calasso's Literature and the Gods. It reads now as a sort of manifesto for Calasso's linked cycle of cultural meditations currently extending to seven volumes, the first of which was written thirty years ago, and the latest, Ardor, issued just this autumn.

Toward the end of Literature and the Gods, Calasso quotes from Contre Sainte-Beuve, an early work of criticism by Marcel Proust 

"The poet's mind is full of manifestations of the mysterious laws and, when these manifestations appear, they grow more vigorous, they detach themselves vigorously on the mind's deep bed, they aspire to come out from him, because everything that must last aspires to come out from everything that is fragile, short-lived, and that could perish the very same evening or no longer be able to bring them to the light. So at every moment, whenever it feels strong enough and has an outlet, the human species tends to come out from itself, in a complete sperm, that contains the whole of it, of today's man who may die as we said this very evening, or who perhaps will no longer contain it in its wholeness, or in whom (since it depends on him so long as it is his prisoner) it will never be so strong again. Thus the thought of the mysterious laws, or poetry, when it feels strong enough, aspires to come out from the short-lived man who perhaps this evening will be dead or in whom (since it depends on him so long as it is his prisoner, and he could get sick, or be distracted, or grow worldly, less strong, squander in pleasure the treasure he carries within him and that decays if he chooses to live in a certain way, since its destiny is still tied to him) it will no longer have that mysterious energy that allows it to open out in its fullness, it aspires to come out from the man in the form of the work. "

With the blessing, there will be many more volumes before the shape of Roberto Calasso's ongoing cycle becomes wholly visible. One of the happiest privileges of living and reading in the present is the knowledge that Calasso, at age 73, continues his work, with a new installment already perhaps embarked on its own twisty path to the press.

"He's an interesting phenomenon, Calasso. He absorbs absolutely everything. The mind of this gentleman is nothing less than the history of civilization in miniature. He's a crucible: he mingles East and West; he extracts essences, and the aim is infinity."   Joseph Brodsky

"Literature grows like grass between the heavy gray paving stones of thought." – Roberto Calasso

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Coupe des Ptolémées



Carved of onyx in Alexandria during roughly the same time when Jesus Christ was alive in nearby Judea, this two-handled cup is decorated with high-relief scenes of cult rituals in honor of Dionysus. By the early Middle Ages the cup had passed into French royal custody. It became one of the necessary, traditional implements of the French coronation regalia  during the ceremony, at the time of Holy Communion, new-crowned queens, century after century, would take ablution from this chalice. For this ceremonial purpose, the French had fitted the cup with jewel-encrusted mounts. During the chaos of the 1789 Revolution, the Cup of the Ptolemies disappeared. It was recovered in 1804, missing the golden mounts and precious stones. Due to that theft, posterity is able to see the cup as it came from the hand of its unknown maker. The crime, in that sense, was a fortunate misfortune.

 This object at present is preserved within the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Roman Figures

Atlas Standing

Atlas Striding

Another small group of drawings by Guercino from the Royal Collection. There is a never-resolved tension here between contrary visions  between the traditional impulse to idealize, and the contemporary impulse to dwell on particulars.

Bearded Figure
c. 1640-50

Cato's Farewell to his Son
c. 1635-37

Madonna among Clouds
c. 1640-43

The Visitation
c. 1632

The Visitation
c. 1632

Studies of Heads
c. 1631

c. 1640-50

St. John the Evangelist
c. 1630

Figure Group
c. 1621-23

Standing Youth
c. 1620-40

Man with Hat
c. 1621

Circumcision of Christ
c. 1646

Woman with Putto
c. 1623

c. 1625

Emaciated Man
c. 1620-40

c. 1630-35

c. 1640

Actor with Mask
c. 1620-40

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Roman Elephant

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) worked hard for most of the 17th century embellishing Roman public spaces with monuments, fountains and other three-dimensional flourishes. When the Pope wanted a fresh way to display an ancient obelisk, Bernini figured out how.

Yet the artist's self portrait in old age suggests something like self-doubt, or perhaps regret. Given his remarkable energy and ambition, Bernini must have found it difficult to watch his powers wane.

In the Bernini portfolios preserved as part of the Royal Collection, these design sketches for Roman fountains alternate with baroque angels and studio nudes  everything unified by the same audacious hand.