Tag Archives: Europe

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?

Raphael: Creative Optimism

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"St. Michael Vanquishing Satan." Raphael, 1518.

Raphael was “gentle” and “humane,” says Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Artists. (Which was published in 1550 – Vasari had seen vast changes in art within his own lifetime, and thought somebody ought to write this down.)  Full of “natural modesty and goodness and good-fellowship,” he avoided “savagery” in life and in his work. His figures, like St. Michael in the painting at left, possess “grandeur and majesty.”

Prof. Richard Brettell describes this St. Michael as serene and calm, even though he’s in the act of fighting Satan. Here, we see Raphael’s idealism and optimism about humanity. Raphael conveys a kind of hopefulness, that we can understand the universe and ourselves.

One of my favorite quotes is from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Raphael prefers to make a heaven. His St. Michael, in vanquishing Satan, pushes aside the dark, devilish corners of the human mind, the shadows, the evil. Raphael’s ideal: the good, achieving, creating mind can conquer the bad parts of human experience.

As a 21st-century writer, I tend to think like Raphael. Yes, I know of war, genocide, famine, disease, cruelty, stupidity, ignorance, environmental destruction. And yet I create visions of the world in which humans are almost gods: creating marvelous technology, accessing all the knowledge of the past, using modern science to understand the universe like never before. It’s not that I ignore the presence of evil. Rather, I choose, like Raphael, to imagine how we might overcome it.

Raphael lacks the dark, lurking danger of Leonardo (more on this here). I’m not saying that Raphael is better, or worse, than Leonardo – simply that they represent different styles of creation. Maybe we, as creators, could have both options in our “tool kits.” Sometimes, we might need a dark, pessimistic picture of humanity and the 21st century. At other times, we might need a positive statement of human potential. Or a mix of both.

What do you think? Do you tend to share Raphael’s optimism, or do you prefer a different view of the world? If you’re an artist/writer/musician, are your creations idealistic, pessimistic, or something in between?

Tintoretto: The Huge Scale of Creation

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"The Coronation of the Virgin." Tintoretto, c. 1580.

No way was this painting going to fit to the left of my text, as usual, so I just stuck it at the top. It’s still too small to see properly. But I put it here because it gave me an important idea – creation can be vast. Sure, “creation” in the traditional sense of God’s creation, the world, is big. But I’m talking about the creation of the human mind – art, music, literature, ideas. How can we make vast creations for the 21st century?

Detail from Tintoretto, "Coronation of the Virgin." Some of the spectators.

I discovered this painting in my “Masters of the Louvre” lectures. The artist, a Venetian known as Tintoretto, won a contest to replace a burned-out fresco with this scene. It’s huge in scale, bold, fantastic. At the top center, the Virgin is re-united with Christ and crowned in heaven. Many Renaissance painters worked with this scene, but Tintoretto’s creation is superior in its overwhelming sense of scale.

Look at all the people he’s packed into the clouds! Hundreds of them watch from the distant, ever-rising layers. A nice achievement, to create a huge world filled with triumph, or any other emotion. But for the 21st century, this painting needs to be even bigger…

An infinite universe, more than 13 billion years old… The history of Earth, life emerging from the oceans, continents crashing together and ripping apart, humans evolving to understand the age of the rocks and the scope of the stars…

I’m writing about some of these ideas in my current novel. But I’m still learning how to create a sense of vastness, so I only have paltry descriptions: when describing a starry sky, for example, I might say something about the age of it. Or I might have a character or the narrator mention the lightning brilliance of the human mind. Maybe someday I’ll write a vast epic that traces back to the beginning of the universe and ends with 21st-century man. For now, though, I work with smaller things.

In the Tintoretto painting – Who gets a seat to see the spectacle? Only a few are important enough to be in the foreground, which is rather discouraging. What about individual achievement? It’s rarely noticed in our age of billions, where the scale is at 7 billion people, and rising. Yet that is the world in which we create: colossal, overwhelming, unimaginable, just like this painting. Tintoretto shows us the scope needed – or rather, the scope possible – in a creative work.

How about you? Do you ever think about the vastness of the world? If you’re an artist/writer/musician/philosopher, does it ever figure in your creations?

“Mona Lisa”: Opening New Worlds

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"The Mona Lisa." Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06.

I was sick of the “Mona Lisa.” It was old and tired, I thought; so iconic that it ceased to have meaning. But that was so wrong! What’s new in the “Mona Lisa”? A wealth of ideas, ripe for transformation.

I’m still listening to my “Masterpieces of the Louvre” lectures, so I’ll share an insight from Prof. Richard Brettell. The “Mona Lisa,” he says, fascinates us for two reasons. One, that mysterious, knowing smile. (Which seemed too  popular, too fixed in the one painting to mine for re-creation.) Two, “the wild beauty of the Alpine landscape” behind her. Aha! Here’s the key.

For this, in fact, is no real place. It doesn’t exist. An ocean cove cuts to the middle of spiky mountains, which don’t look like anything in Europe. Rather, Brettell notes, they look like something you might see in Japanese art, except Leonardo didn’t know of it. The curving road, red and raw, seems to have been only recently carved from the rock. It’s a strange, fantastic landscape.

How are we supposed to process this? Brettell asks. It’s a clash of two realms: the human, knowable and familiar, against the incomprehensible. Granted, the lady is at the very edge of the knowable – centuries of interpreters have puzzled over the meaning of her smile – but she is still human. The landscape, on the other hand, is completely fantastic. Typical of a Leonardo painting, it has “intensity and lurking danger,” suggesting darkness, turmoil, even evil.

I think the weird landscape belongs to the imagination (after all, it’s not a real place). What strange new worlds we create in the journeys of the mind! And look at the lady – she is confident, knowing, set in front of this landscape as if she controls it. She is not afraid of strange new worlds.

In the Italian Renaissance, people questioned the traditional pillars of meaning as science opened up new vistas. The same is true in our 21st-century Renaissance (more on this here). In Leonardo’s time, it was the world of the Church against the emerging power of the human mind, of logic, of the scientific method. Now, the overwhelming explosion of new technologies and ideas often makes the world seem fragmented, unknowable. People are often pessimistic, confused, or anxious about the future.

Why don’t we take a cue from the “Mona Lisa”? She exists confidently in front of the unknown. Whatever strange new vistas that science opens up, she stands in the foreground, refusing to give in to anxiety. Reaching to the utmost of the human realm, she returns with a knowing smile, telling us that everything will be fine in the end. We have power over strange new worlds.