Podcast Episode 275: A Kidnapped Painting

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In 1961, Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington went missing from London’s National Gallery. The case went unsolved for four years before someone unexpectedly came forward to confess to the heist. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the greatest art thefts in British history and the surprising twists that followed.

We’ll also discover Seward’s real folly and puzzle over a man’s motherhood.

See full show notes …

Riposte

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

When Michelangelo’s David was unveiled in 1504, it was seen to symbolize the civil liberties of the Republic of Florence in the face of the surrounding city-states and the powerful Medici.

A Medici duke commissioned Cellini’s Perseus With the Head of Medusa, which was unveiled 50 years later. Composed of bronze, it was situated opposite the David — so that Medusa’s gaze seemed to turn it to stone.

Elevated Thoughts

davis home office

The home workspace of National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis includes an overhead library.

“The original idea I had was to put the books that meant the most to him over his head at all times, floating, above and in his head as his own, very personal lyric,” said architect Travis Price.

“The dome shape above was a tholos, the shape of a pregnant woman’s womb, similar to the rotunda of the oracle’s temple at Delphi.”

(From Alex Johnson, Improbable Libraries, 2015.)

Sound Sense

The opening of Chapter 5 in E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End describes a concert performance of the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — and succinctly illustrates six ways that people listen to instrumental music:

Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come — of course, not so as to disturb the others –; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fräulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is ‘echt Deutsch’; or like Fräulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fräulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings.

“All these responses are, of course, presented in highly ironical terms,” writes University of Graz literature professor Walter Bernhart, “but surely it is a very clever brief outline of a basic typology of music reception.”

(From Werner Wolf, Walter Bernhart, and Andreas Mahler, Immersion and Distance: Aesthetic Illusion in Literature and Other Media, 2013.)

Safe Tears

Why do we enjoy sad fiction? In 2009 Boston College psychologist Thalia Goldstein asked 59 subjects to rate the sadness and anxiety they felt in response to four film clips (two presented as fictional, two as factual) and to their own memory of a sad event they’d experienced personally. While they reported equivalent levels of sadness in response to all these things, their anxiety level was significantly higher when recalling their own experience.

“Apparently we do not mind experiencing intense sadness if that sadness is not tinged with anxiety,” Goldstein writes. Indeed, that might make it more cathartic. And because we know that we can walk away from a fictional sadness, we may feel safer suspending our disbelief to explore and understand our feelings deeply.

(Thalia R. Goldstein, “The Pleasure of Unadulterated Sadness: Experiencing Sorrow in Fiction, Nonfiction, and in Person,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 3:4 [2009], 232.)

An Early IMAX

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In 1827, visitors to London could get a titan’s view of the city by visiting Regent’s Park. There surveyor Thomas Hornor had built a colosseum housing the largest painting in the world, a panorama seven stories tall and 130 feet in diameter. A spiral staircase rose to a large gallery from which visitors could view London as seen from the ball atop St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Estimates of the painting’s size vary from 24,000 to 44,000 square feet; flyers called it “nearly an acre of canvas.” Half a million people visited the Colosseum in 1829, but Hornor’s backer left for Paris and he was quickly broke. New owners reopened the attraction in 1845, though, and it stood as a fixture for 30 years, renowned for the clarity of its vista. “The ascent is easy, the sky is fine and bright, the atmosphere is clear,” wrote one visitor. “We can command constant sunshine.”

More Silent Music

The “In futurum” section of Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 Fünf Pittoresken (starting here at 8:08) consists entirely of rests.

The direction tutto il canzone con espressione e sentimento ad libitum, sempre, sin al fine means “the whole piece with free expression and feeling, always, until the end.”

Sheet music is here.