An Early Escher

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“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.”

Unquote

“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

Fallow and Fertile

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Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia 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.

Smile

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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.

A Well-Timed Exit

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.

It Has a Good Beat, You Can Dance to It

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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.”

La Fornarina

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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.