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Archive for the Category » History Non-Fiction «

Bodies And Shadows: Caravaggio And His Legacy, At LACMA

Last weekend, I drove to Los Angeles to visit with a good friend, and to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes–visiting museums.

On a warm, sunny Southern California winter afternoon, we toured the Page Museum at the Rancho LaBrea tar pits, with its unrivaled collection of Ice-Age fossils. There’s nothing like getting a real idea of the size of a mammoth by standing next to a reconstructed skeleton, tinted a mellow dark brown by millennia of immersion in asphalt, and realizing that you don’t even come up to its knee!

By happy coincidence, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is located next door to the Page Museum. And even happier, they are currently featuring a special exhibition, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy.

Now, I’ve been interested in Caravaggio since reading two compelling books about his life and art:

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, a real-life detective mystery about the search for one of Caravaggio’s paintings, and M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio, a controversial biography of the artist that paints a vivid picture of his life and times.

Both books paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was simultaneously sensitive and gifted with a brush, while also living the life of a street tough with a long arrest record, a hard drinker, and even a murderer. And to me, his paintings have always had more life to them than the stylized, impossibly perfect figures of saints and angels of many of his contemporary artists.

Commissioned to create paintings illustrating various incidents from the Bible or allegorical subjects, he used his apprentices, carpenters, painters, prostitutes, and other denizens of his working-class Roman neighborhood to bring characters to vivid life–callused feet, dirty fingernails, and all.  Even his still-lifes of fruits and flowers are bursting with sensual vitality (and in some cases, rot).

In addition to his gift for depicting naturalistic figures in classical or Biblical settings, his use of light and shadow was unparalleled and influential. One of the interesting features of the exhibition was the grouping of contemporary and later paintings around each of the six Caravaggios on display, showing aspects of that influence.

Caravaggio died relatively young–at age 38 or 39, possibly waylaid and murdered on his return to Italy from exile abroad, though some have speculated that he fell ill and died after making landfall, or possibly succumbed to complications from lead poisoning (which might also account for some of his bizarre and paranoid behavior in the final years of his life).

Book Review – Augustus: The Life Of Rome’s First Emperor

Beginning with a gripping account of Augustus’s death in AD 14 (the author speculates that Livia may have participated in an assisted suicide so that timeline for the transfer of power to Tiberius would go exactly as planned), Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor, by Anthony Everitt, is a  fascinating account of the life of the first Roman emperor covers both the personal and political life of Augustus, who was shrewd and ruthless, cruel yet loyal to his friends, a master manipulator of public opinion, and a consummate propagandist who maintained the facade of being merely the “first citizen” in a republic, while holding sole power for forty years.

In addition to vividly sketching Augustus’s famous contemporaries–Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, among others–the author also presents a lively picture of life in ancient Rome, from weddings to funerals, from food to sexual mores.

A very enjoyable and informative book. I’m currently reading up on a lot of Roman history in preparation for my next novel, and I’m definitely going to be downloading this author’s biography of Emperor Hadrian next!

Roman Life: The Ghost City Of Herculaneum

Back in the stone ages, when I was in college, I took an introductory archaeology course, and was instantly captivated by the story of Pompeii’s sister city Herculaneum, also buried in the infamous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

Herculaneum is much better-preserved than Pompeii. Where Pompeii was buried in a layer of light ash, which allowed the wood-and-plaster second stories of houses to rot away, and looters from later centuries to dig tunnels and haul out treasures willy-nilly, Herculaneum was buried in the boiling mud of the pyroclastic flow that killed all of the city’s inhabitants who had taken refuge in the stone boat sheds along the town’s waterfront.

That mud later dried to the consistency of concrete, sealing and preserving fragile items like wood, string…even the interrupted lunches abandoned by panicked citizens. In one house, archaeologists found a carbonized loaf of bread and a bowl of dates.

When I enjoyed my own lunch in the modern city of Ercolano, built above the ruins of the old Herculaneum, I was struck by the fact that we were served round loaves of bread that looked identical to the ones I saw in the museum. Talk about a culinary tradition of long standing!

The book that really brought the ancient city to life for me was Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure.

I took this book with me to Italy when I finally visited Pompeii and Herculaneum years later. It was very odd to walk the unearthed streets of the city, and walk through houses where I “knew” the owners–the names of their spouses and children, what they did for a living, their financial trials and tribulations, lawsuits they’d been embroiled in…I still have a battered copy on my Keeper Shelf in my little library at home.

I’ve now visited Herculaneum twice, and I’d like to share some of my photos from my most recent trip, in April 2002.

Herculaneum – April 2002

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