Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.

woman holding a balance

On a rare loan from Washington DC, Johannes Vermeer's 'Woman Holding a Balance' ('Dame met weegschaal') is on display at the Rijksmuseum, along with 'The Milkmaid' ('Het Melkmeisje') and 'Woman Reading a Letter' ('De Brieflezende vrouw'), both from its regular collection of 17th century masterpieces.

All three paintings share the same typical Vermeer setup: a woman alone in a room, engaged in a daily activity (measuring, pouring, reading), daylight streaming in from a window on the left. Simple, quiet scenes, with subtly balanced compositions, a masterful use of light, and a curiously tranquil effect.

Vermeer - Woman holding a balance

Of the three, 'Woman Holding a Balance' is the most allegorical, and as such has been subject to endless study. For instance, the seemingly obvious fact that the woman is pregnant is disputed by experts. And contrary to traditional interpretations, the scales have been revealed to be empty.

Behind the woman is a painting of the Last Judgment, supreme symbol of religious thought, while before her on the table lie her worldly possessions: jewels, gold and silver. The scales hang in between, suggesting a balance between spiritual and material concerns, between 'memento mori' and 'carpe diem' - in other words, the virtue of temperance. (However, the fact that the scales are empty might actually tip the balance in favor of spirituality.)

To convey this message of temperance and balance, Vermeer created an extraordinarily intricate composition. What seems to be a simple, homely scene is actually a complex whole of rectangles (mirror, painting, table, box) and curves (curtains, cloth, clothing, face), highlights and shadows, all of which add to the total equilibrium. Led by the light and the woman's gaze, the painting naturally steers the eye towards the balance. On closer inspection, it turns out that the entire composition revolves around the balance with mathematical precision - as illustrated by these images.

However, as in all great works of art, any amount of analysis will never completely explain its beauty. There is a timeless atmosphere to this image, a serenity which invites prolonged staring. And the longer you stare, the more it seems that what the woman is weighing is really that most elusive quality of painting itself - the light.

Both the Rijksmuseum ('How to recognise a Vermeer') and the National Gallery of Art (in-depth feature and video) offer a wealth of information on the painting. And for an even more exhaustive study, there's the Essential Vermeer site.

Update: Even Holland's new poet laureate, Ramsey Nasr, pays hommage to this painting in his poem 'Wat ons rest - een gedicht over lege schalen' ('What is left to us - a poem about empty scales').

in b flat

In B Flat is an online collaborative music project with contributions all in b flat, brought together as youTube videos. There's no rhythm, just sounds, so you can play and mix the embedded videos simultaneously in any combination, producing a pleasantly soothing ambient soundscape.

Meanwhile the videos, which show the different musicians playing, really create the feel of an impromptu virtual band - as if the world's playing music together.

Worth playing around with!

Via Hi-Res.

florence graffiti

Just launched a new snapshots gallery, powered by Zenphoto, to replace the old manual one. It'll need some tweaking, but the basics of straightjacketting the layout and tagging the images is done. (Find bugs? Let me know.)

There's a new album too, called words and collecting, well... words found in public places. Many of them have shown up before on this blog, but there are some new ones as well. For example, here's an interesting Florentine take on graffiti.

Chi scrive sui muru, chi agisce d'istinto

Which translates as something like, "Whoever writes on walls, acts out of instinct."

Update: Replaced Zenphoto with a simpler PivotX gallery plugin.

medusa's head

Two awesome renderings of Medusa in Florence. One already showed up in the previous post: Cellini's bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head, in the gallery on the Piazza della Signoria. The other is Caravaggio's 'Medusa', in the Uffizi museum. Painted on an actual shield, this circular painting must be one of the most vivid depictions of the freshly beheaded Gorgon.

Caravaggio - Medusa

In Greek mythology, after being raped by Poseidon, Medusa grew hair of living snakes, and she was so terrible to behold that anyone who looked at her turned into stone. Perseus, however, managed to cut off her head by not looking at her directly, but at her reflection in his bronze shield. And her head, which Perseus took as a trophy, continued to be a mask of terror...

Seen live, the convex surface of Caravaggio's shield makes the face with its bulging eyes and gaping mouth seem to protrude from the background, dramatically emphasizing her 'beheadedness', which is captured in the moment when she is aware of it herself. As a Guardian review of the painting describes it, "this is both a horrific and horrified image, as the eyes of the gorgon are fixed forever on the terrible realisation of who she is."

florence sculpture

Some random samples of sculpture from the overwhelming open-air museum that is Florence... So overwhelming, in fact, that the city has been known to induce Stendhal syndrome, after the French writer Stendhal who suffered from it on visiting Santa Croce. In his own words:

Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves.' Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Florence sculpture - 1

Florence sculpture - 2

Florence sculpture - 3

florence skyline

The skyline of Florence is dominated by a single building, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or simply the Duomo. Though the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio vies with it for height, it is still dwarfed by the sheer volume of the cathedral's dome.

Florence - Duomo - 1

Built by Filippo Brunelleschi and inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, the dome was the first of such magnitude to be attempted since antiquity. It was completed in 1436 and remains the largest masonry dome ever built. (By contrast, the Pantheon was built in concrete, but this technique had been lost since Roman times.)

Florence - Duomo - 2

Florence - Duomo - 3

For more history and photos, see Brunelleschi's Dome.