Oracle of History

Guiding you through the ages

Archive for the tag “Italy”

Painting Through Time

I’ve always been fascinated by paintings. Sometimes it feels like a portal into another world or time period. From an academic stand point, it makes sense, especially if they are paintings from a time when there were no photographs. It’s important to remember, however, that these paintings are what these people want us to see.

Can you imagine someone 100 years from now, judging our society from the memes we leave behind on the internet? Perish the thought!

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Go support the artist on Tumblr here

That being said, paintings can be an amazing source of knowledge about a time period. It gives us a visual reference of how they want to be portrayed. Here, I will list some of my favourite paintings and the historical importance behind it.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, by Claude 

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Seaport with Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641 by Claude. Downloaded from the National Gallery website for non-commercial purposes. 

As someone who has studied the conversion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity, I love the retelling of Saintly stories. Religion is a very common theme in paintings, especially Christian stories in a Western world that relied on it for many of its values and morality.

The story of Saint Ursula is interesting because there is no confirmation of her even having lived. Unlike many male saints, there isn’t a collection of written work that we can point to as proof that she existed. The legend is based on an inscription at the Church of Saint Ursula in Cologne. What is even more interesting is that her martyrdom was taken out of the General Roman Calendar after it was revised in 1969. Maybe because it couldn’t be verified?

The story goes that the British Princess Ursula left to join her future husband, a pagan governor in Gaul (now modern-day France). She came across the channel with 11,000 virginal handmaidens, but before she married she decided to conduct a pilgrimage to Rome by traveling across Europe. According to legend, she met her untimely death in Cologne where the Huns, who were not known for the Christian charity, beheaded her along with all her handmaidens. The Church of Saint Ursula is supposedly located where some of these beheadings happened.

The painting fascinates me because, Claude, the artist, would have painting this over a thousand years later. It shows that not only the legend was thought valid, but it must have been part of the stories of martyrdom told in Church at the time. The painting itself is laced for foreboding since anyone familiar with the story will know that Ursula and her handmaidens would meet an unfavourable end.

Picture Gallery with View of Ancient Rome, 1757, by Giovanni Paolo Panini

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This painting was commissioned by Count Étienne François de Choiseul, the Ambassador of the French King Louis XV to Rome.  It is one of four paintings, meant to show the glory and beauty of Rome. The other paintings show St Pete’s Basilica as well as views of “Modern Rome” (well, modern for the 1750s).

I like this one because it shows the value that people put on the ancient monuments, even then. It makes me wonder if the history of Rome would have been harder to uncover if it hadn’t been for society’s obsession with the Ancients. The painting also shows how little these ancient monuments have changed since this was painting. A testament to historical preservation and priorities.

It’s also a testament to the artist who not only had to paint an art gallery, but had to create many smaller pieces of artwork in great detail. The longer you stare at it, the more is revealed.

A Regatta on the Grand Canal, about 1740, by Canaletto

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Canaletto was famous for his paintings of Venice, mostly sweeping tableaus of life in the city. One of the great events of Venetian life was (and still is!) the Carnival, but did you know that there is also a regatta that starts the festivities? This painting shows us just that.

It’s part of a series of twelve paintings about the Grand Canal, the Carnival being a very popular subject for painters. This painting showcases a race with colourful banners demonstrating people’s support for a particular team – not much different than how we show support for sports teams today. It also gives us a glimpse of what Carnival might have been like all those years ago. The Carnival regatta has been an institution since 1315. I wonder what it was like the first time they raced?

I particularly love this painting because it brings the Grand Canal to life, showing a colourful and joyous moment in Venice. It makes you want to jump right through the frame and join the celebration. On a personal note, one of my life goals is to be in Venice for Carnival and this certainly gives me the itch to travel.


Bonus Painting 

After looking at these paintings, I can’t help but think how strange it must have been to live in a different country and only know the world through paintings. What happened when they heard about a big international event? Maybe they said something like this….

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Adventures in Florence

After a rather long hiatus from writing on this blog, I became inspired by a recent trip to Florence for a conference. The conference centred around the management of archaeological sites, which is incredibly appropriate for a city like Florence because the whole historic centre is actually listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Not only was the city incredibly beautiful with the Christmas lights, but there was a certain atmosphere about the place. I think my picture of the Ponte Vecchio can attest to that.

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Ponte Vecchio on our first day

I’m not sure what draws me to historical places. The idea that you are walking on the same well trodden ground as people hundreds of years ago is fascinating. As part of the conference, we were able to get free access to the famous museums. That was amazing, especially since we were all travelling on a student budget.

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First sighting of the David

Seeing Michelangelo’s David was definitely a highlight. Did you know it was made from one solid block of marble? Pretty awesome! It was particularly impressive to see it in the flesh again after a solid year of talking about it on social media for a previous employer. Time Traveler Tours & Tales successfully completed a kickstarter campaign in June to fund an app that will bring the story of Michelangelo’s David to life through an interactive tour of the city of Florence. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

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Uffizi Gallery

No trip to Florence is really complete,  however,  without a visit to the Uffizi, the famous art gallery that houses some of the world’s most famous Renaissance and Medieval artwork. Although you might not recognize the names, you will definitely recognize the paintings. What struck me the most about the visit was actually the concerted effort to provide alternative interpretation of the artwork for blind patrons.  Accessibility is so important, especially in the art world. This made me incredibly hopeful for the arts of the future, which is why I find technology and museums so fascinating.

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Botticelli’s Venus and the blind friendly equivalent

It also made me realize that Italy is really a country of the senses. You are meant to experience it by taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound. It can be seen in the way it is often portrayed in popular media, emphasizing the way the food tastes, the breathtaking sights, and the sounds of the streets. I love that about the country, but for those who do not have use of all five senses, it may seem like they are missing out on something.

On a brighter note, we were able to spend our last evening taking in the sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo, an amazing vantage point where you can see the entire city from above. Two of us even drank a little bottle of wine to truly celebrate the occasion (only 4 euros!).

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View from the Piazzale Michelangelo

It was a truly great 5 days for the networking opportunities, but also for discovering the city in the winter. It makes me want to go to previously visited cities and see them in all seasons. Every country does Christmas differently, for example. See below for a particularly festive shop window in Florence.

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This trip has reignited my wanderlust! Send help (and money)! It also has reinforced my love for heritage and the yearning to preserve it. I hope for a new year full of great experiences and exploring the world.

Happy New Year!

Is Historical Accuracy Worth The Price?

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What would you pay for a historically accurate movie or TV Show? This is a question constantly asked by people involved in the production of historical entertainment for the big and little screen. It often costs quite a lot of money to make sure that everything is period perfect and this may be why a lot of productions cut corners in this department. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the need to adapt a story for entertainment purposes and in some cases it does make the historical figures more interesting. Maybe it’ll even inspire people to look up the real historical facts.

But what if putting a little extra work actually makes a difference?

Case study 1 – HBO’s Rome

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A cult favorite, this TV show is often cited as a reasonably good representation of what Ancient Rome would have been like. Even one of my professors at university recommended it to us. Not for the plot though, but for the attention to detail in the show. You must, of course, keep your skeptical goggles on, but the sets and props are pretty spectacular.

Unfortunately, it had a very short life span, with only two seasons under its belt. A shame for those who love ancient rome and quality entertainment. The main reason for the shut down seemed to be cost, which seems not to be a problem now for HBO with shows such as Game of Thrones. Rumors have spread that if Rome had been as popular then more “attention” would have been given to the show. However, this becomes a chicken vs egg debate that has been run into the ground for years.

Case study 2 – Showtime’s The Borgias 

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The Borgias follows the “reign” of Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish nobleman who rises through the ranks of the church to become Pope. We also see the lives of his children, estranged wife, and mistress in a decadent Renaissance Italy. Although nobody really knows what the Borgias were like, it does paint a pretty picture of the lives of Italy’s most notorious family. Let’s be honest here, it’s mostly costume and set porn, but it does reflect very much the time that we see in Boticelli paintings or the work of Nicolo Machiavelli (who was a big fan of Cesare Borgia, by the way). I can guarantee that they were able to do this with a substantial amount of investment. Is it historically accurate? Probably not, but at least it makes an effort to look like it. This is the same network that made The Tudors, after all.

The question is, would they have made such an investment if the story itself wasn’t so exciting.  The premise of the show is that the Borgias are “the original crime family.” This implies violence, sex, and intrigue. Would any network want to invest in an historical drama that didn’t have these things?

My point is that history can be exciting and it would be a shame if it got completely lost in the glitz of hollywood entertainment. If only all studios and networks invested a little more effort in historical accuracy then all of us would be happy.

Bonus – Historically Accurate Disney Princesses from Buzzfeed

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