Monthly Archives: December 2011

Goya: Setting the Human in the World

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"The Marquesa de Solana." Francisco de Goya, 1795.

Look at the background in this painting. What do you see?

I keep doing posts about Renaissance art – an unintentional focus, since this blog is about creating ideas from any past art. Maybe I gravitate toward the Renaissance because we live in a new renaissance of science and technology (more on this on the About page), and the Renaissance’s ideas about human potential and achievement naturally mesh with our own. But here’s a reminder that we can take art from any period (in this case, Romanticism) and transform it for our own creation: a portrait by the great Spanish artist, Goya.

So what’s in the background? Nothing; it’s empty. This emptiness is strange, since the subject is a lady of very high status. We’d expect to see her painted within a ruined classical landscape, a richly furnished room, a country estate. Instead: nothing. We don’t even know whether she’s outside or indoors. If we’re looking to create ideas out of this painting, what can we do with such emptiness?

To paraphrase Prof. Richard Brettell (still from my DVD lectures on the Louvre), the lady gains nothing from the setting, since it’s empty. She might have seemed grand against the background, or wise, or haughty. But against the emptiness, she shrinks into herself, pulling her arm in as she withdraws from the viewer. Look at her face: she’s neither confident nor proud. (Compared to, say, the “Mona Lisa,” where the setting is unreal and scary but the human is bold.)

What creative power!  When we make art or play with ideas, we choose – do we want only the human, or the world outside? We might withhold the outer setting, like Goya, or we might include it – and then we get to decide how to fill it. The possibilities are as infinite as the stars.

The stars. One of my favorite “settings” is a person under the stars, like the time I went camping in the mountains and saw the trees stretch to the stars. It felt profoundly majestic to look at those stars, just as people had thousands of years ago, trying to understand our place in the universe for the first time. The same sky that inspired the first astronomers inspired me.

How about you? How do your surroundings affect your ideas?  If you’re an artist or a writer, how do you shape the human within the world?

Brunelleschi’s Dome: Reaching for the Sky

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Florence Cathedral Dome. Filippo Brunelleschi, 1420-34.

Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence is the most important building in the history of the world.

Not really, of course – I’m forgetting (duh) the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Tower of London, Versailles…  But the Dome is important for my imagination, for the way it fires my ideas and inspires my creation. Maybe you can find inspiration in it, too.

Imagine this: In 1296, work on the cathedral begins. Space is left for a glorious eight-sided dome, tall and soaring. The planners know how the dome ought to be, but nobody knows how to build it. Then Brunelleschi comes along in the 1420’s, with some ingenious solutions (an inner shell inside the dome; supporting rings of timber; bricks patterned to direct the weight outward, not down toward the floor). Without any buttresses or support columns, Brunelleschi fashions the heavy sandstone into a dome that is higher and wider than any ever built.

Now, most of us aren’t architects. So why, you may ask, do I discuss Brunelleschi here? It’s not like we’re going to study his techniques in order to construct buildings ourselves. But I’m not a painter, either, and yet I post about how great paintings (like the “Mona Lisa” and Raphael) inspire my writing. Once we grasp the idea behind an artwork or building, we can transform that idea for our own creation, whether we are artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, or simply people who like to think about the world.

Florence Cathedral and the Apennines.

My favorite views of Brunelleschi’s Dome pan out a bit, so you can see a vast expanse of sky. The great red dome arches upward, a symbol of human potential and achievement – which become themes in my writing. The human striving under the sky is one of my recurrent images.  And then, think of the Dome at night, a Renaissance creation under the stars. Humans made this; we dreamed it. In my books, I ask, how are my characters connected to the sky? Do they think of the stars, reach for them, try to understand them? It’s the spirit of the Dome that I take and transform.

So you see, a 600-year-old building animates my creation, helps me form ideas of a new renaissance in the 21st century (more on this here). What’s your favorite building? Does it ever inspire you?