Designers wanted to put a dome on Rome’s Sant’Ignazio church, but neighbors complained of the shadow. So, instead, artist Andrea Pozzo painted this design on the flat ceiling.
When it’s viewed from the side (below), the church gets its dome after all.
Artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff commenced an oil portrait of Franklin Roosevelt at noon on April 12, 1945.
This is as far as she got. FDR was being served lunch when he said, “I have a terrific headache” — and collapsed of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
“Corner House,” by Hungarian painter István Orosz (b. 1951).
“Illusion,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is the first of all pleasures.”
There’s no mistaking a portrait by Giuseppe Arcimboldo — the Milanese painter represented his subjects as masses of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and fish. These personifications of the four seasons were composed between 1563 and 1573.
“False Perspective,” a 1754 engraving by William Hogarth.
“Whoever makes a DESIGN without the Knowledge of PERSPECTIVE,” he wrote, “will be liable to such Absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece.”
“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.” — Tom Stoppard
Monet lost his vision, but not his hearing.
Beethoven lost his hearing, but not his vision.
There’s no chalice on the table in Leonardo’s Last Supper …
… but there is one on Bartholemew’s head (far left).
Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I might brood about thwarted creativity, but it contains one of the most brilliant magic squares in all of European art.
You can reach the sum of 34 by adding the numbers in any row, column, diagonal, or quadrant; the four center squares; the four corner squares; the four numbers clockwise from the corners; or the four counterclockwise.
As a bonus, the two numbers in the middle of the bottom row give the date of the engraving: 1514.
In 1911, Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno found a way to steal the Mona Lisa six times over at no risk to himself.
First he made private deals with six separate buyers to steal and deliver the priceless painting. Then he hired a professional art restorer to make six fakes, and shipped them in advance to the buyers’ locales (to avoid later trouble with customs).
In August he paid a thief to steal the original from the Louvre, and when news of the theft had spread he delivered the six fakes to their recipients, exacting a high price for each. Then he quietly disappeared. The flummoxed thief was soon caught trying to sell the red-hot original, and it was returned to the museum in 1913.
Composer Arnold Schoenberg was fascinated with numerology. Born on Sept. 13, he came to fear that he would die at age 76, because its digits add to 13. He examined a calendar for 1951 and was dismayed to see that July 13 fell on a Friday. When the fateful day came he took to his bed, fearing the worst. The day passed uneventfully, and shortly before midnight his wife entered the bedroom to say goodnight. Schoenberg uttered the word “harmony” and died.
The time of his death was 11:47 p.m., 13 minutes before midnight on Friday, July 13, in his 76th year.
Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes calls for fivescore clacking timepieces to be set up across the stage, wound fully, and set to different speeds. Once they’re all going, the performers leave, the audience enters, and everyone watches them run down.
This takes 20 minutes. “It is up to the conductor to decide the duration of the pause, before he leads the players back on to the stage to receive the thanks due from the public.”
When Raphael died in 1520, a portrait was found in his studio of a local baker’s daughter named Margherita. She is thought to have been his lover — on his deathbead he had bid her farewell and arranged for her care.
The portrait might reveal something else as well. Writing in The Lancet in 2002, Georgetown University medical professor Carlos Hugo Espinel suggests that “La Fornarina” might have had breast cancer:
There is a bulge in the [left] breast that, beginning inward from the axilla and curving horizontally to the right, slopes gently toward the nipple. This bulge seems to be a mass, oval in shape, puckering just above the tip of La Fornarina’s index finger.
After studying other artworks, Espinel has also concluded that Michelangelo had gout, that Rembrandt died of temporal arteritis, and that the Mona Lisa’s smile may have resulted from the partial paralysis of a facial muscle. Independent research has supported some of these diagnoses.
Eyewitness account of a performance by the 8-year-old Mozart, 1769:
“After this he played a difficult lesson, which he had finished a day or two before: his execution was amazing, considering that his little fingers could scarcely reach a fifth on the harpsichord.
“His astonishing readiness, however, did not arise merely from great practice; he had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition, as, upon producing a treble, he immediately wrote a base under it, which, when tried, had a very good effect.
“He was also a great master of modulation, and his transitions from one key to another were excessively natural and judicious; he practiced in this manner for a considerable time with an handkerchief over the keys of the harpsichord.
“The facts which I have been mentioning I was myself an eye witness of; to which I must add, that I have been informed by two or three able musicians, when Bach the celebrated composer had begun a fugue and left off abruptly, that little Mozart had immediately taken it up, and worked it after a most masterly manner.
He was still an 8-year-old, though. “For example, whilst he was playing to me, a favourite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time.”
(From Daines Barrington, “Account of a Very Remarkable Young Musician,” Philosophical Transactions)
Anton Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony. So did Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. In the 19th century, a superstition arose that a quick death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies.
Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
Mahler figured he could escape the curse with a decoy: When he finished his ninth, he retitled it “The Song of the Earth” and wrote a second “ninth” symphony. When nothing happened, he told his wife “the danger is past,” started a new work — and died.
Deciding that her life was “dull,” Helen Martins went a little crazy in 1945 and began filling her garden with sculptures of owls, camels and people. She said she drew her inspiration from Blake, the Bible and Omar Khayyam, but she also pointed most of the figures eastward to reflect an obsession with the Orient. And she decorated the house’s interior walls with crushed glass.
Martins was derided during her lifetime, but the house has been preserved and is now a national monument in South Africa.
Schizophrenic artist August Natterer (1868-1933) may have been a visionary, but it’s hard to tell.
For example, in this drawing, Axel of the World, With Rabbit (1919), he said that the rabbit represents “the uncertainty of good fortune. It began to run on the roller … the rabbit was then changed into a zebra (upper part striped) and then into a donkey (donkey’s head) made of glass. A napkin was hung on the donkey; it was shaved.”
Seneca wrote, “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”
Leonardo da Vinci recorded most of his personal notes in mirror writing. Maybe he wanted to hide his ideas from the Church … or maybe, being left-handed, he didn’t want to smudge the ink.
The frontage of the Saint-Georges Theater in Paris, transformed entirely with paint by muralist Dominique Antony.
This technique, where an effect emerges only when an image is viewed from a certain perspective, is called anamorphosis. Here’s a much earlier example.
Adolf Hitler produced more than 2,000 paintings and drawings before World War I.
He once described himself as a misunderstood artist.
“Let each man exercise the art he knows,” wrote Aristophanes 2400 years ago. That spirit inspired Italian immigrant construction worker Sabato Rodia, who spent 33 years building the Watts Towers in his spare time.
“I had in mind to do something big and I did it,” he said. He started work in 1921, and by 1954 he’d created 17 interconnected structures, some nearly 100 feet tall. His materials included broken pottery, scrap metal, bottles, bed frames, and seashells, and he assembled them using hand tools and window washers’ equipment.
Rodia finally gave up and left after repeated vandalism — local rumors said the towers were antennae for communicating with the Japanese. But when the city actually broke a crane trying to knock them down, it changed its mind and preserved the site as a state historical park.
If you live near the Liverpool coast, don’t be alarmed to see human figures slowly disappearing beneath the waves. They’re part of a modern sculpture, called Another Place, designed by Antony Gormley. There are 100 cast-iron figures in all, spread over a 2-mile stretch of beach.
They’re coming to New York in November.
The U.S. Supreme Court building is pretty spiffy. It has its own cafeteria, a 450,000-book library and a basketball court on the fifth floor (which staffers call “the highest court in the land”).
It’s so spiffy that when it opened in 1935, some justices were embarrassed. Harlan Fiske Stone called it “almost bombastically pretentious … wholly inappropriate for a quiet group of old boys such as the Supreme Court.” Others called it “the Temple of Karnak” and suggested that justices ought to enter the courtroom riding on elephants.
One worrying note: The building’s frieze depicts Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, but his beard obscures some of the Hebrew, so the visible text reads:
But let that pass.
(Top image: Wikimedia Commons)