Director Nick has been musing on a BBC Radio 4 programme on Euclid’s Elements (you can download it here).
Euclid was the Greek mathematician writing around 300 BC who came up with the Golden Section which, in turn, had such a great influence on the Renaissance and the world of aesthetics and science. He is the fellow in Raphael’s “School of Athens” demonstrating geometry or at least, thought to be. Some argue this may be Archimedes of Syracuse.
The Elements is written in 13 volumes (less onerous than it sounds, a volume, in ancient terms, is like a book in the Bible).
It is amongst the earliest books to be printed in the 1480s in Italy, at the time of Leonardo. It is also commentated upon by Britons, including Playfair in the eighteenth century.
Euclid proves through mathematics, things which are provable and always true (universal truths) – these, in turn, are used by Renaissance man as an indication of God’s presence. Many Churches, from Chartres Cathedral to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy, employ the Golden Section for its Divine implications. Painters too, like Piero della Francesca, use the Golden Section and in today’s world of science, the Golden Section appears within cell structure and nature.
One thing that strikes me is that Euclid’s geometry is based on 2-dimensional geometry but when one speaks of the geometry of a curve, i.e. the curvature of the world, or indeed, 3-dimensional geometry, not all of Euclid’s truths apply. These later two are non-Euclidian geometry.
Most amazing of all is that Euclid’s mathematics is born of a society which needed to solve building problems in emerging city-states. How do you mark out a perfect square foundation the size of half an acre, with right angles and so on? You do it with a stake, a pole and geometry which will always give you the right answer. On paper, we do the same with a ruler and a compass.
Why is it important? It raises the thought that there may be natural laws to aesthetics or rules of beauty and that, as Keats says, “truth is beauty and beauty truth”. Euclid reminds us that he was only dealing with two dimensions and that there is so much more mathematics to be had. Euclid also reminds us of the fluidity between the arts and the sciences and this is the sort of cross-curricular knowledge that is at the heart of AHA.
a 6 week course across Italy (4 week option in late summer)
study Western civilisation through art, architecture & sculpture
stay in Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Siena & Verona
for 18 – 22 year olds
for those of every academic background who seek a cultivated mind
“If I could relive something in my life, it definitely would be reliving my experience with AHA.” Mia, 2015
gap year, undergraduate & post degree students
historically, a third are arts and architecture students, a third are doing other humanities and a third are scientists (usually doctors)
students who realise that a cultured, educated mind is a mark of distinction in whatever career they pursue
students join individually rather than in groups
we are a British organisation but we attract students from across the globe
We take students aged between 18 and 22 from every academic discipline. They join because they want to understand why art is important. AHA is the only organisation dedicated to studying the wonders of art at first hand in the company of brilliant, unstuffy tutors who bring art to life. Importantly, we offer the chance to experience Venice, Florence and Rome for meaningful periods of time with shorter stays in Naples, Siena and Verona.
Why should you join?
We want you to have a real, visceral experience of art. So, all of our teaching is on site in small tutorial groups, where we foster discussion and argument. On site study permits all sorts of practical insights such as scale, real colour, and in the case of architecture, actual space.
Furthermore, how wonderful to study the creativity of others and find inspiration. This is where an educated mind becomes a cultivated mind; it is a maturing process in terms of character and intellect. What better way to spend part of a gap year en route to higher study.we have amazing tutors
we offer privileged access to the treasures of Italy – The Sistine Chapel and St Mark’s Venice, to name but two
a six week course with AHA is similar to 2 years of University study* representing astonishing value
AHA extends intellectual horizons and gap year students do not “switch off”
no obligatory exams but possibility of US college credit**
how can six weeks in Italy not be fun?
There are no exams on this course because it was born out of an ideal of a gap year, where students sought to embellish their minds through travel, experience and broader horizons. However, don’t imagine this course is a breeze. We work hard, not least because everyone has travelled a long way and there is much to see and do.
Students are over 18 and as such they travel as independent adults on a course where accommodation, travel, special museum bookings and excellent tuition are dealt with by AHA. Thus, you make the very best use of your time.
University style teaching in tutorials of 9 or fewer students
AHA studies art in context to include music, philosophy, literature, poetry, politics, theology and aesthetics
AHA proves broad academic interests to universities and employers alike who look for sentient, interested, interesting students and employees
we offer travel and pastoral oversight in one gap year experience
* Though comparisons are admittedly imprecise, it is interesting to note that most universities offer 4 hours contact time with a tutor per week in the arts. An AHA course of on site study would represent just shy of 2 years of university study. So, an AHA course is a mighty asset in one’s education.
** On a purely elective basis, students can ask for assessment which could be used to apply for college credit. It comprises a tutor report, attendance record, creative work (film, drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, poem or play), project (2,000 words), image recognition paper and a multiple choice paper.
What do you get?
Arguably, Italy has more significant art than any place on earth and so we study painting, architecture, sculpture, textiles, gardens, mosaics, drawings and decorative arts over the following periods:
the Ancient World
Modern and Contemporary
Within these periods we study:
Painting techniques (fresco, oil, tempera, etc.)
artists: their biographies, significances, influence and patronage
connoisseurship and collections
art criticism and propaganda
You will be in some of the most beautiful cities in the world:
Venice – The Renaissance and modern
Castelfranco – Palladio’s Villas
Verona – The Gothic, ancient and the court at Mantua
Florence – The Renaissance
Siena – The Gothic and politics
Naples – Ancient Pompeii, The Baroque and modern
Rome – Ancient, Renaissance, Baroque and modern
We break up the course with day visits to a selection of the following:
Padua – for Giotto
Pasagno – for Canova
Emo and Maser – for Palladio
Mantua – for The Gonzaga Court
Vicenza – for Palladio
Pisa – for the tower
Arezzo – for Piero della Francesca
Bomarzo – for the first monastery
Pompeii or Herculaneum
The programme is very carefully designed to be both chronological and thematic in order that students can fathom such large swathes of history.
We also teach the context of art, so we touch on the following where relevant:
We build a solid foundation of the terminology of art and history:
– architectural; vocabulary & descriptive terms
– classical or biblical narrative; myths & stories
– geographical; Italy and Europe
– basic datelines, significant families and Popes
– general themes; politics, propaganda & patronage
There is also time for:
Drawing; there is always someone to help and encourage craftsmanship
Marbled paper making
Italian classes in manners and comportment (2 sessions at the beginning of the course)
Mask making in Venice
Gondola rowing lessons
Visits to concerts and the Opera and the football
Occasional cooking classes
I hope you will agree this course aims to make the most amazing use of your time. Quite simply, we want this to be the greatest experience and a true education. Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook to see why people love our courses.
Start planning now and enjoy the process. Search for gap year bloggers, gap year courses and reviews online (try www.gooverseas.com ). Make lists of your favourite travel bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers (we’re @ahacourses, if you were wondering 😀) and follow them, see if it’s something you would enjoy. And keep your mind open – it is all about broadening your horizons.
This is your chance of a lifetime so discuss it with your parents but don’t expect them to do all the research for you. Check out www.yearoutgroup.com for different ideas on what you can do during your year with experienced and trusted providers.
2. THINK about your 52 weeks in detail
A whole year means you can do several different things. Consider all your options and decide what will suit you best. You have time to do that gap year course, visit that idyllic beach and fit in some work experience or volunteering, it’s just a matter of planning your time and your budget.
It is also worth thinking about what you want to get out of your gap year. Universities will be impressed if you have learned transferable skills and matured e.g. critical thinking skills, knowledge of a new subject, experience of a different culture. They will be less impressed with a tan! It may be useful to think about how relevant your experiences are to the course you want to do. And, of course, after a gap year, some people find that they wish to take a different course.
3. BUDGET now, don’t panic later
Many people pay for gap year travel by working for part of the year, asking for Christmas and birthday presents to be in cash from parents, godparents and grandparents, or some may have savings.
There are also scholarships and bursaries to be had if you plan ahead and research your field. AHA have an annual scholarship for a 2 week summer course each year. If you are at an HMC school you can apply for a Bulkeley-Evans gap year scholarship. Ask your careers department if they know of any scholarships or travel awards that you might apply for. Gateway Gap Year Awards (Murray Edwards) are available for Cambridge applicants “who would benefit significantly from a gap year before embarking on their studies at Cambridge.”
If you have your heart set on a year out, you have to be determined … see this list of what NOT to do, if you are saving up for your year out.
4. PERSUADE other people a gap year is worth it
recent research suggest that those who take time off after school come back to academia with much better motivation having explored and developed their identity, built resilience and learned tolerance.
YouthTruth research from the US show that 40% of high school students didn’t feel they had developed the skills and knowledge for college-level classes: it doesn’t make sense to start a college/university education if you aren’t ready.
explain that this a year out not a year off: you want to continue to learn but not in a classroom and not necessarily for a qualification. This is about learning about you and the world and your place in that world.
5. Ready to start planning? Double check the details 🌍
check your passport will be valid for your trips (some countries require you to have an additional 6 months validity after the end of your trip)
find good travel insurance and always read the small print
learn to pack lightly! Generally the advice is to pack, then remove half the clothes and take twice as much money but this brilliant video will help lighten your load too 👜
make sure you know what local customs are: we have found that a large scarf is the perfect cover up for heads, shoulders, legs (when your shorts are too short) for some churches and that only tourists order milky coffee in the afternoon in Italy!
If you’re not quite ready to start planning … you can start dreaming. Remember, no one ever regrets taking a gap year – they just regret not taking one.
The timetable said we would “begin our exploration of Rome with an introductory walk and a Church crawl via the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.”
That doesn’t begin to describe our delight as we ventured out amongst the ochre-coloured buildings of various ages, over the Roman cobbles. And already the learning begins …
The cobbles are called “Sampietrini” which translates as “little St Peters”: they were mined from the surrounding volcanic hills by the ancient Romans, so some are 2,000 years old. I’m amazed when I see from some repair work that they are shaped like little teeth, the root going down into the earth.
Our hotel is in the charming and lively Campo Dei Fiori, the old flower market. It now holds the most tempting selection of food you can imagine from stripy aubergines to freshly chopped salads and huge, whole Parmigiano Reggianos. I can’t wait to buy our picnic lunch …
We are heading towards the Piazza Navona, when the tutor diverts us into an imposing courtyard and asks us to look up (a phrase we’ll hear a lot). Around the upper levels are niches filled with extraordinary statues which we are encouraged to explore with our eyes … is that a pair of dolphins at the feet of one figure … what does it all mean?
A “forced perspective”
We learn that this is the Palazzo Spada bought by the Cardinal Spada in 1632. The stucco work in the inner courtyard is full of symbolic devices: dolphins at the feet of a female figure signify Venus, who was carried ashore by them. Our tutor then points out an arch in the courtyard which goes through to another courtyard. We are all enjoying the lovely long vista to a distant statue, when someone in the other courtyard steps into the vista. Suddenly it feels all “Alice in Wonderland” – what’s going on?
It turns out that what we thought was a life size sculpture at the end of the vista is only 60 cm tall! Cardinal Spada commissioned Borromini to work on his palazzo and it was he who, with the help of a mathematician, created the forced perspective optical illusion in the arcaded courtyard (see title photograph).
In it, diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create the visual illusion of a gallery 37 metres long (it is 8 metres) with a lifesize sculpture at the end. We are amazed: to think that Borromini was working in the 1600’s, over 400 years ago with no engines and no electricity.
The “pièce de résistance” of the Piazza Navona
But the Palazzo Spada’s clever tricks are just an aside on our orientation: we push on to Piazza Navona.
Moving from the tight-knit street to the glorious Piazza gives a sense of space and freedom that delights. The sun gleams on the dome of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which we learn is the titular church of the Pamphilj (Pope Innocent X’s family).
Everyone is drawn to the central fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), built in 1651 by Bernini and topped by the Obelisk of Domitian. It is stunning. The water looks so clean and we’re told you can drink the water from all of Rome’s fountains … it’s delicious.
The sculpture on the huge fountain is impressive and amusing when you see that it drains through a fish’s mouth. Examining it in detail, it seems extraordinary that anyone could create it out of marble: it is truly monumental.
The square itself is humming with people, busy restaurants and the man selling helium balloons who has them on his fishing rod so they float high in the blue sky, advertising his wares. As we absorb the Italian background hum, we notice the different shades of ochre and pink that the surrounding buildings are painted, the false windows on the house opposite the Quattro Fiumi, and the evidence of past wealth, politics and a fascinating history over many centuries.
The Romans invented concrete …
Covering a few more “sampietrini” we come out into a square, Piazza della Rotonda, with an incredible building to one side. Another obelisk to mark the spot and what looks like a triple row of huge columns* announces the grandeur of the Pantheon.
Our tutor explains a little of its history but nothing prepares you for the immense, circular space behind the columns, the open hole at the top, the “oculus”, allowing light and weather into this ancient place. And then we’re told the roof was made of concrete … in 200 AD! The Romans invented it but the art of making it was lost when the Empire fell and not “re-discovered” until the 1800s. To hold the weight the wall is over 6m thick and it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Built on the site of an earlier building (like everything in Rome, it would seem) it was completed by the Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. He kept the inscription from the earlier building which reads “M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit” or “Marcus, Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time”.
We have learned so much in such a short time and already it is lunchtime. It’s not far to a restaurant where the owner greets our tutor by name and we know that we’ll be eating like the Romans do … with such a lot to discuss.
*It is actually 8 in the first row and two groups of 4 behind.
Whilst we at AHA are particularly wedded to delicious Italian food, as a little change of pace from usual, we’re going to be having a look at depictions of food (well, just fruit really) in the work of everybody’s favourite Baroque painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Caravaggio is obviously best known for his stark usage of dark and light, his hyper-realistic representations of biblical scenes, and of course, for being a bit of a loveable rogue (he famously killed a man after an argument over a game of tennis.) However, as well as all of this, Caravaggio had a supreme talent for still life painting.
Granted many of these depictions are within larger pictures, such as The Supper at Emmaus (1601), housed at the National Gallery, and his Bacchus (c.1597) at the Uffizi in Florence, but there are instances where depictions of food take the centre stage, like the spectacularly originally named Basket of Fruit (c. 1595-96), in the Ambrosian Library, Milan.
What is perhaps most interesting in this painting, is that the fruit shown is not perfectly manicured and polished, instead it looks almost as if it is decaying. Some leaves sag wearily under their own weight, whilst others are pockmarked and filled with holes, whilst a central apple bears all the hallmarks of having a worm buried deep in its flesh. Even the grapes, so often shown as glowing orbs of purple and green, are distinctly dusty, and some even look to be rotten, turning to detritus quicker than their friends.
As a painter, Caravaggio was never one to skirt around the truth, or do things by the book. He was renowned for using prostitutes and other folks of ill repute as models in his paintings, in order to portray a gritty realism onto his canvasses, and the slow decay of the fruit in Basket of Fruit is reflective of this style.
Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (c. 1601-05)
In stark contrast to the slightly tatty, ragged appearance of fruit in Basket of Fruit, the work Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (dated between 1601 and 1605, but widely disputed) is a veritable smorgasbord of earthly delights. All of the produce seems to scream at the viewer ‘EAT ME!’ with its appeal heightened by the cross-sections of marrow and watermelon portrayed. One can almost see the juice dripping invitingly from the melon. Virtually all of the imagery in the painting is of immense fertility and life – a handful of art historians have even argued that the writhing, bulbous white marrows are decidedly phallic, bringing to mind Nicholas Poussin’s famously censored painting of Priapus (1634-38). The iridescent freshness and life of the fruit is contrasted greatly by the stone ledge upon which it is placed. Not only is it solidly cold and grey, but it also cracked and chipped, perhaps serving as a reminder that the fruits will also perish one day.
A version of this blog post appeared in January, 2013.
Having returned last week from Nice and Antibes, where AHA ran a tour of 20th Century art in the South of France, it was nice to be reminded of Picasso when learning that a new record for the sale of art has been broken.
The Women of Algiers – Version O by Picasso, 1955. Sold $179m
The picture sold is the last of a series of 15 paintings (version A – O). It’s interesting because these paintings are a sort of essay on a painting by Delacroix of the same title.
There are 15 versions in the group, for instance:
Have a look at the whole collection here, it’s fascinating.
From Picasso in 1955 to Ai Weiwei in 2015 … a competition
For a bit of fun, I wonder if anyone would like to pick one of the 15 versions and tell us why they prefer their choice – the best reply will get a free place to our Ai Weiwei Day (date in October tbc ) which will include a lecture, lunch and entry to the upcoming and soon to be celebrated autumn exhibition at the Royal Academy. Give it a go. Usually, hardly anyone has a go at these things, so your chances are good. If you cannot make the date, we will give you another lecture day when you can come. Competition ends 15th June 2015.
One would have to work quite hard on these images to unravel what is meant by them and where they fit; but nevertheless pictures like Guernica (1937) and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) spring to mind in the use of fragmented form and space.
Was Pablo thinking of Eugène or Henri?
Most striking to me is Picasso’s seeming reference to Matisse, who was also fascinated by North Africa and who went there many times in the 1930’s. Matisse was following Delacroix in a shared fascination with the Orient. I think it was the sensuous, foreign, patterned and colourful nature of another world that absorbed both Delacroix and Matisse.
Picasso knew Matisse well – there was a friendly admiration and rivalry between them. On their last meeting, Matisse notes afterwards that Picasso “saw what he wanted to see. Now he will put it all to good use.” I wonder to what extent The Women of Algiers series, painted just some 100 days after the death of Matisse, is a homage to Matisse rather than Delacroix.
As part of my studies in History of Art at the University of Warwick, there comes the opportunity to spend the autumn term of my third year in one of the greatest, and most unique, artistic centres of the world. This term abroad is the reason I choose Warwick and two years have flown by. I am now officially living and working in Venice for ten weeks and of course this fantastic and rare chance had to be documented for AHA readers.
I have survived a full week in this watery paradise and I can safely say there is no fear I will run out of things to do, nor will I ever get bored of the stunning canal views over every bridge. Over the next ten week I hope to share some of the beauty of the city, the best places to eat and drink and some of the oddities that are only noticed one you live in a place.
Typically, a day might start by being woken up by the clanging of bells across the city (at first rather magical, but the midnight bell tolls are proving irritating). Since I am up, there is the need for coffee, so I stroll sleepily down the road, over the canal to my local coffee bar, where I use my limited (but improving) Italian to ask for a caffe latte. In true Italian fashion, I stand at the bar sipping away, enjoying the rapid chatting around me, a chorus of “Ciao”’s and “Buongiorno”’s. Once I have fuelled up on coffee, its time to get ready for the day.
With some free time in the morning, it is time for touristing. When I initially arrived, I wanted to go and see and do everything in the first week. I have decided to pace myself a bit more, once the full realisation that I am here for ten weeks sunk in. So I allow myself to get a bit lost in the crowds and find new routes. Despite being October, it is really warm and sunny here and there are still hundreds of tourist flooding in everyday. One quickly learns the winding back streets and shortcuts of Venice, and in fact the best shops, restaurants and friendliest people are often found off the beaten track.
Being a History of Art student, naturally I hit the galleries, the Guggenheim in particular. It has been one of my favourite galleries since visiting with AHA, due to the layout as well as the content, and a free day can easily be spent there admiring Peggy Guggenheim’s extensive collection.
In the afternoon, I usually have seminars and this particular aspect of being here certainly bring back memories of my AHA tour. We have seminars on site, awkwardly and eagerly writing down information whilst standing in front of our topic. The experience of seeing the live work as it is explained to you is a far more engaging method than powerpoint and a classroom and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to experience it again.
Evening approaches and life slows down a bit. From about 4 o’clock onwards, people will be sitting in cafes with a spritz aperol and bruschettas, chatting and taking it easy. So of course I join in, having always a weakness for prosecco. This is a wonderful time of day.
After an aperitif and a bowl of pasta for dinner, it is an easy walk to Campo Margherita, the resident student piazza, where the is prosecco is cheap, the company great and the pizza slices substantial. Usually the rest of the Warwick course end up here for a few laughs and catch up about what they have discovered in Venice that day. A great place to get to know the Venice students and meet the locals before heading home to bed, eagerly to bring on the next day in Venezia.
Look out for more blogs about Anna in Venice soon.
Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!
The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.
Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra
This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.
The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.
The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself. The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains. The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body. The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.
Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto
In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.
Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8
The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.
Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.
Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51
This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.
And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.
Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!
In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.
The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.
The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.
Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.
Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.
Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum
In 1930, aged 24, Horst moved to Paris. Attractive, urbane and in search of experimental aesthetic, Horst was absorbed into a bohemian clique that included many renowned people who would shape his career. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a photographer for Vogue Paris, became his lover and mentor; Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a lifelong friend and champion.
Horst began his career as the era of photography began to eclipse graphic illustration in magazines. Fashion week in the 1930s was absent of the model hysteria it has today. Modelling was in its infancy as a profession, and to avoid inconveniencing haute couture clients, models were shot in the studios at night. The black and white nocturnal photographs are sensual and atmospheric, with lighting that is intense without harshness.
The exhibition is large and laid out according to theme. Photographs move from elegant chiaroscuro to the surrealism of the Dali years. Whimsical elements increasingly infused Horst’s 1930s work, making the commercial mystical: tasked with cataloguing nail varnish, he creates impossible patterns with layered hands; mirrors in dark, cluttered attics reflect blue skies and bright clouds.
The centrepiece of Horst’s legacy and the V&A’s exhibit is the ‘Mainbocher Corset’ (1939). Madame Bernon wears a Mainbocher corset, assuming the role of Venus with perfect statuesque proportion. The last photograph Horst shot in Paris before the war, it epitomises the end of a charmed era. Melancholy and seductive, it was retouched to make the corset cling to Madame Bernon’s body; but the original has a loose provocativeness that is more striking.
The 1940s present a mess of fractured wartime motifs and icons of the silver screen. Horst trained with the army in Fort Belvoir, accepted US citizenship and worked as a photographer for army magazines. Photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth hang opposite landscapes of ruined Persepolis (then recently uncovered) and the newly established state of Israel.
Straying from the fashion he was known for, the V&A presents close up ‘Patterns from Nature’, repeated and panned out to replicate gothic architecture. Along with Horst’s collection of nudes, the sheer skill in artistic composition underlines the integrity of his fashion photography, in an era that was steeped in commercialism.
The V&A’s exhibit imparts a loose sense of the man behind the camera. Handsome and elusive, there are a few childhood pictures of Horst, scattered objects and the rare glimpse of him on a fashion shoot. But personality leaps forth with endearing anecdotes. Horst once visited Chanel in her studios to shoot some jewellery she had designed. He sat, chatting to her, playing with a bit of putty they were using to model the jewellery. A few weeks later she gifted him a cigarette lighter. She had moulded it on the putty he had left behind so it fit perfectly into his fist; he carried it throughout the war.
The penultimate room in the exhibition pops with 1950s colour. As fashion crossed the Atlantic to settle in New York instead of Paris, technicolour entered the mass media. Ninety-four Vogue magazine covers, and 25 giant photographs are blown up with jewel tones. Some are overlaid with murals, making haughty models the centre of easels.
Horst’s fashion has a spontaneous feel. It has no desperation or need for immediate admiration, but is confident and considered. There is an inexhaustible thirst for the ground-breaking, but not necessarily the brand new, original, garish or shocking. With no vindictive internet audience to please, art was able to permeate his work as the world moved at a stunning, sloping pace.
Model Carmen Dell’Orefice on shooting with Horst, opening the exhibition and staying young: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29017638