The most beautiful thing in Italy
In 1530, the painter Titian completed a work for the space above an alter in Santi Giovanni e Paolo. It was titled Death of Saint Peter Martyr, and was described by his “hype man” Aretino as such:
"If you were to direct the eyes of your sight and the light of your intellect towards this work you would comprehend all the living terror of death and all the true agonies of life in the face and the flesh of the man on the ground, and you would marvel at the chill and the flush which appear in the tip of his nose and in the extremity of his body; and being unable to restrain your voice you would let yourself exclaim, when you contemplated the companion in flight, that you could perceive in his appearance the pallor of vileness and the whiteness of fear. Truly you would give a just verdict on the merits of the great panel if you told me that there was nothing more beautiful in Italy."
The painting was destroyed in a fire in 1876, but before that was “the most admired, most copied, most described single masterpiece in Europe, a pilgrimage painting that attracted visitors whose education was not considered complete until they had stood before it.” (Sheila Hale in Titian, His Life).
The copies survive, and in this wood cutting you can get an understanding for the piece, but what an incredibly tragic loss.
Is painting dead?
I think about Titian and his Assunta. It’s 22 feet tall! I’ve never seen it but it must tower above the high alter of the basilica. Think of the people who it was painted for, the daily - or at the least weekly - church goers who knew no television, no billboards, no tumblr… but they did know the bible. And they knew Titian. They knew each of the saints. Knew how to identify the virgin Mary by sight and symbol.
I think about Caravaggio and his Death of the Virgin, nearly 100 years later. The entire significance of the piece, its impact and humanity, is predicated on understanding 1) the gospel (the story) and 2) the contemporaneous norms surrounding the depiction of the assumption of Mary (is she dead, is she not dead, is she a classical goddess…).
When our only shared cultural stories are already grotesquely visual, what can possibly be challenged or suggested by painting? Please tell me. It is such a passion to me, and yet I am afraid the true Art with a capitol “A” is dead.
I know people still make devastatingly beautiful images. And all the talent and meticulous care is still there. But how do you show our society, with a painting, what’s so wrong right now? Who we really are?
Just another meaningless doodle of a stranger at a coffee shop… but as I was drawing it I noticed - on the shaft of the General Pencil Co. pencil I was using - the text, “since 1889”.
1889. One year before Vincent Van Gogh killed himself. The year he painted The Starry Night, only six generations ago.
Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two piasanos. Spiritually the jugs may be graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of old and bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail spits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.
Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.
It is often said "The public does not appreciate art!" Perhaps the public is dull, but there is just a possibility that we are also dull, and that if there were more motive, wit, human philosophy, or other evidences of interesting personality in our work the call might be stronger. A public which likes to hear something worth while when you talk would like to understand something worth while when it sees pictures… …When a thing is put down in such permanent mediums as paint or stone it should be a thing well worthy of record. It must be the work of one who has looked at all things, has interested himself in all life.
Advice I needed to hear and aim to aspire to.