Tag Archives: Pope Clement VIII

Turn the key. Open another door…

Cabinet, antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen

Cabinet lock from desk designed by David Roentgen

Welcome to this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, with a special visit to the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Extravagant Inventions, The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens.  As always, the drawers hold even more mysteries, so let’s begin!

antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen, Abraham Roentgen

Rolltop Desk by Roentgen

Abraham Roentgen, 1711-1793, may have lived life as a cabinet maker, but his works were in the castles and private homes of the aristocracy, such was the outstanding quality.  He was admired in England for his interesting use of inlay, inventive mechanical fittings and the hidden drawers he used in his furniture.

Another feature found at this exhibition is the Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette which I featured on this blog when the Google Art Project went to the Palace of Versailles.  This exquisite piece was produced by David Roentgen, 1743-1807, Abraham’s son.   Expanding the business with shops in Berlin and Saint Petersburg, David sold furniture to Catherine the Great of Russia.  This suite is believed to still be in the Palace of the Hermitage, the hiding place of so much remarkable and forgotten art.

Versailles, Google Art Project, Queen Marie Antoinette, Automaton

Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars signaled the end of David Roentgen’s career.  The Revolutionary government regarded him as an émigré, seized the contents of his showrooms and his personal belongings.  Following the invasion of Neuwied, his workshops closed and prosperity never returned; he died half ruined at Wiesbaden in 1807; albeit, the craftsmanship of this family of cabinet makers survived, perhaps to inspire a new generation.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, New Times, Holland Cotter

Three Mulattoes of Esmereldas, 1599, Andres Sanchez Gallque

“In a fall art season distinguished, so far, largely by a bland, no-brainer diet served up by Manhattan’s major museums, you have to hit the road for grittier fare.”

When an art reviewer begins with the above sentence, it can only mean more to come of a witty, well written article celebrating a new exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.  Surprising links to ruling dynasties, and long ignored history is the focus of Joaneath Spicer, the museum’s curator of Renaissance and Baroque art.

Agnolo Bronzino produced a portrait of Alessandro de Medici, who ruled Florence for seven years before being assassinated in 1537.  He is considered by historians to be the illegitimate child of Giulio de Medici, Pope Clement VII, and a black or biracial woman.  His dark skin was remarked on by contemporaries who nicknamed him Il Moro.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Portrait of Maria Salviate de Medici and Giulia de Medici, 1539

The portrait of Maria Salviati de Medici and Giula de Medici (1539) shows a child of the Italian aristocracy with black facial features, confirming the intermingling of African and European blood in the Medici family.  My own research on the Journey of the Magi fleshed out the story of Carlo di Cosimo de Medici, 1430-1492.  The illegitimate son of Cosimo de Medici and a Circassian slave name Magdelene.

The reviewer of this exhibition has supplied me with the final explanation of why I prefer historical art: “…one of the saving graces of art – what keeps you coming back – is that it isn’t a bottom-line business.  You think you’ve come to an end, a conclusion, and there’s always more: the exception, the extension.”   Like the many drawers in the cabinet, each waiting to be opened, explored, and imagined.  Thank you Holland Cotter, for taking that trip to Baltimore!

Watson and the Shark, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, coat of arms, history

Watson and the Shark, 1778, John Singleton Copley

Scuto Divino

A coat of arms and this painting tell another great drama from the time of travel on the high seas.  Painted by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark depicts Brook Watson, 1735-1807, as the young merchant seaman in great peril.  Watson survived, but lost the power of his right leg in the attack.  He went on to great success in business and politics, even serving as Lord Mayor of London.  When he became a Baronet in 1803, Watson specified that the coat of arms designed to mark the honor must include a visual reference to his ordeal more than half a century earlier.  Thus the upper left of the crest depicts the leg Watson lost to the shark in 1749, and the motto Scuto Divino means “under god’s protection.”

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Chicago Art Institute, Vote Early and Vote Often

Allegory on the Defeat of the Duke of Alva at Brielle

The first flowering of images of “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” type occurred in Germany and the Netherlands during the Protestant Reformation.  While the iconography is now difficult to puzzle out, an anonymous engraving dated 1580 from the Netherlands casts the dastardly Spanish invader, the Duke of Alva, and his forces as foxes in clerical garb, and the courageous Dutch nobles as geese.  These humorously be-spectacled fowl routed the Spaniards back out to sea from the recently captured town of Brielle.  This surprise counter attack occurred on April Fool’s Day, 1572.  The town’s name literally translates as spectacles, so afterwards it was often said that the Duke had lost his glasses on April 1.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of  Curiosities!  A short trip to New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Europe, but with so many interesting pieces of art and vignettes of history to experience.  Museum Monday will be coverage of the Chazen Museum and the Uffizi paintings and tapestries.  I look forward to chatting with you!
A late entry sent to me about the upcoming Vincent Van Gogh movie, Loving Vincent.  Take a moment to watch this unique animation telling his story, it will make you thirsty for more!




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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio



Caravaggio by Leoni Ottavio, 1621

Caravaggio by Leoni Ottavio, 1621

In September 1600, Tiberio Cerasi, Pope Clement VIII’s treasurer-general, commissioned three paintings for a small chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  He chose the stellar artists of the day: Annibale Caracci for an “Assumption of the Virgin,” that hangs over the altar.  Also Michelangelo Merisi – now established as Caravaggio, after his hometown near Milan, to paint a “Crucifixion of Peter” and a “Conversion of Saul” on the side walls.  The 40-year old Caracci painted in the style of the High Renaissance grandeur; Caravaggio, at 29, was a meteorically rising star who recently created a sensation with a startlingly realistic cycle of paintings telling the story of St. Matthew.  Cerasi died before completion of the chapel in 1601, but he got more than his money’s worth.  These commissions are among the key works of the Italian Baroque style.

Cerasi Chapel

Cerasi Chapel

Assumption of the Virgin, Cesari 1600

Assumption of the Virgin - Caracci 1600

Entering the Santa Maria del Popolo and walking towards the Cerasi chapel, to the left of the apse, filled with exquisite Renaissance tombs, the Virgin with her outstretched arms ascending to heaven meaning to be a comfort, but the fierce canvases on the sidewalls assert themselves, dominating the narrow space.

Crucifixion of St. Peter

Crucifixion of St. Peter - Caravaggio 1601

The painting on the left chapel wall depicts the martyrdom of St. Peter by crucifixion – Peter asked that his cross be inverted so as not imitate his mentor, Christ, hence he is depicted upside-down.  The large canvas shows Romans, their faces shielded, struggling to erect the cross of the elderly but muscular Saint.  Peter is heavier than his aged body would suggest, and his lifting requires the efforts of three men, as if the crime they perpetrate already weighs on them.  The scene, set on some stony field, is grim.  The dark, impenetrable background draws the eye to the sharply illuminated figures who remind us, through the banal ugliness of their actions and movements – note the filthy feet of the lower figure – that the death of the apostle was not a heroic drama, but a wretched and humiliating execution.

Conversion of Saul - Caravaggio

Conversion of Saul - Caravaggio 1601

‘The Conversion of Saul’ on the opposite wall recounts the day that the apostle Paul was traveling from Damascus and “felled by light from the heavens above the brightness of the sun”; blinded, Saul heard Jesus telling him that he had been chosen as his minister.  Caravaggio’s version of the scene is a masterstroke of economy, the transfiguring moment described in the book of Acts embodied solely by Saul, his mount, and a half-concealed elderly groom, the trio packed into the available space.  Saul spills into the corner of the scene – toward the viewer – oblivious of the massive horse that all but fills the canvas, just as the groom is oblivious to Saul’s transformation.  The great white shape of the horse’s massive shoulder and foreleg announces itself as a sort of lightning bolt, poised above the enraptured Saul.  In the guise of naturalism, Caravaggio has created a visual metaphor for transfiguration.  Miraculous enlightenment embodied by apparently everyday experience, this treasure subtly holds its secrets from the casual observer, tantalizing the reverent mind to contemplation.

The history behind the commission of these paintings is no less dramatic than the images themselves.  The original works rejected by the church, passed into the private collection of Cardinal Sannessio.  Several modern scholars have speculated that Sannessio may have taken advantage of Cerasi’s sudden death to seize pictures by Rome’s famous new painter.


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