Book Notes History

Notes on “The Ghosts of Cannae”

P8 – “Verisimilitude is not truth, just the appearance of truth.”

P12 – “Mark Twain seemed to have gotten it about right when he concluded that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme.”  Twain may have said that… but Twain also has the “Periodic Law of Repetition.  See Letters from the Earth.

P42 – Romans were never too proud to learn.

P87 – “At one point Livy has him (Hannibal) say: ‘Many things which are difficult in themselves, are easily effected by contrivance.’  This was tactical Hannibal in a nutshell.”

P162 – Livy’s “cinematic” description of the post-Cannae battlefield.

P184 – Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 b.c.e.  “Property rights were given the same regard as academic freedom by the rampaging Romans, who picked the place (Syracuse) clean–so clean that the haul brought home by Marcellus for his ovation was said to have kick-started the city’s passion for Greek art.”

P239, 240 – Sophonisba’s death: “Choose my fate as your heart may prompt you, but whatever you do, even if it means my death, don’t surrender me to the arrogant and brutal whim of any Roman… What a woman of Carthage–what the daughter of Hasdrubal–has to fear from a Roman is all too clear.”

Interviews Writers

“Having a Life and Not a Career”

Most bizarre: I was re-watching the recent clip of Christopher Hitchens speaking with Andersen Cooper and I thought, good interview, then thought, speaking of good interviews, what’s Charlie Rose doing these days?… and there Charlie was with Christopher!

A must watch: Charlie Rose interviews Christopher Hitchens about his new memoir and his battle with cancer.

Book Notes

“No Explanation, Nor Apology”

Anyone can learn to paint and to analyze physical truths as facts, but few have the power of self-analysis.  The artist must first be a dreamer, and then a sane analyzer of those dreams.  Again, “There can be no expression without previous impression.”

Learn to discern the exact boundary between synthetic re-creation, suggestion, and mere caricature.  In caricature lies the weakness of our so-called “modern” ideas of art.  The best “modern” painters do not stoop to caricature.  A form may be so modulated, so reshaped, so transmuted, that it fits perfectly into our ideas of certain requisites in a picture, but on more step past this line of good sense brings us to the abyss of caricature, and all is again weak and puerile; for the shapes have become extraordinary, and call our attention to their bizarreness.

Caricature is not really art; it is a travesty on art, and is very easily arrived at.  Art possesses the poignance of caricature, with the reserve of profundity.  A great work of art is complete.  It is not the result of concentration on any one department.  It does not “go” for color, or for organization or for movement, or for symbols requiring a code.  It has the best of all these things in it–hidden away, if you will.  It needs not explanation, no apology.

– John F. Carlson, from Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, circa 1929.

Art = Math Writers

“By Going Wrong, I Began to Work Out How to Go Right”

Today on the train ride back to Rome from Puglia I caught up on some podcast listening, including a Fresh Air episode featuring the writer, David Mitchell.  The title of the post is the quote from Mr. Mitchell early in the interview that quickly spun me into a time-traveling* train-ride rapture.  How divine when discussion of art and art-making transcend the medium, as is right and righteous.

Book Notes pLog Pith

pLog Pith VI

It is this deep sincerity, this deep appreciation of the significance of things that makes one picture great among a thousand lesser ones, and causes us to feel, when we behold it, that we have thought and felt that way all our lives.

– John F. Carlson, from Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, circa 1929.


“A Candle Burned at Both Ends…”

…Makes a Lovely Light.

Seeing Hitchens like this breaks my heart.

Book Notes

“A Superior Order of Beings” – Public Taste & the Arts

The present generation appears to be composed of a new, and, at least with respect to the arts, a superior order of beings.  Generally speaking, their thoughts, their feelings, and language on these subjects, differ entirely from what they were sixty years ago.  No just opinions were at that time entertained on the merits of ingenious productions of this kind.  The state of the public mind incapable of discriminating excellence from inferiority, proved incontrovertibly, that a right sense of art in the spectator, can only be acquired by long and frequent observation, and that without proper opportunities to improve the mind and the eye, a nation would continue insensible of the true value of the fine arts.

– Joseph Farrington, from “Memoirs of Reynolds,” circa 1813

Travels and Museums

Sargent and the Sea

New show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.


Everybody Wants Some

News in Italy today that there is a newly discovered Caravaggio.

I’ve seen an image… and that most definitely is not a Caravaggio.

Masters Techniques

Sfumato = 30 Layers?

French Scientists Crack Secrets Of ‘Mona Lisa’

Materials Techniques

“Bianco di San Giovanni”

This white was mentioned in an earlier post on Caravaggio as an “extender white” for oil painting.  However, on a manufacturer’s website it indicates the following:

Bianco di San Giovanni is considered the white pigment par excellence for fresco painting. It is used also in tempera and grounds while it is not advised in oil and encaustic painting techniques.

Clearly there is some confusion.  I will research further…

Masters Travels and Museums

“Old Masters & Modern Science”

Review of the show “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries,” by Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times in London.

Essays and Enquiries Masters

The Calling of Someone at the Table

A painter’s analysis of Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew by Timothy Joseph Allen.
Written as a response to my late great colleague Professor Terry Kirk in December, 2006.  Published on pLog July, 2010.

Terry, your analysis and interpretation of this painting is intriguing.  I especially like your idea about pinpointing the exact moment in time that has been captured–and if I’ve understood correctly–you assert it is just after the words of Christ have been spoken, but just before the words of Christ have been heard by its intended recipient–the figure on the far left.

However, I would argue that Levi–soon to be Matthew–is indeed the one in the center of the table.  I’ve created the following diagram to support my argument.

Tip: right click to open in new window to see a bigger version in a separate window while you read.
Masters Techniques

Caravaggio Techniques and the Camera Obscura

Today I had a lively in-studio conversation with friend, colleague and restorer Eowyn Kerr on Caravaggio, his technique (did he glaze?) and why a painter should never underestimate the potential of a good table cloth.  She was even kind enough to make for me a lovely sketch on how to understand the cross-section of a painting sample (though she refused to sign it) and, in doing so, she suggested to me that Caravaggio did not lay in a lead white base for flesh to then glaze down, but rather, worked with a flesh mid-tone, then made the highlights with a flesh-colored lead white mix.  To be specific: begin the flesh with an “extender white” or “shell white” (once known as “Biacco di San Giovanni”) mixed with some yellow ochre, green earth and vermillion, then, over that, the lead white flesh.

pLog Pith

pLog Pith V

If you want Warhol
walk the aisle of a supermarket

If you want Koons
watch VHS porn

If you want Hirst
visit the morgue


If you want Caravaggio
build a bonfire in a cave

If you want Velazquez
plan a trip to the moon with a sliderule

If you want da Vinci
hike the highest mountain in Abruzzo in May


Art = Math Essays and Enquiries

A Story About Jan

Here is what happened: I just listened to the story on NPR about Plato, which mentions Pythagoras, which makes me think “Art = Math”, which makes me think Velazquez, then Las Meninas, then I remembered mentioning that in a short story I wrote while rafting through the Grand Canyon in 2008.

Here is that story:

A Story About Jan

The First of Many

(Changed from the previous title: How Unspeakable Acts of Wickedness Shape my World View.)

Jan denied me an M&M again today.  As her boat came along side mine I said:

“Hey, Jan!  Throw me an M&M!”

She shook her head.  “Only for my boat,” she said, and drifted past.

Of course, it is important to keep such moments of pain and unrequited pleasure in perspective, but I am slow in doing so.  I reluctantly hear the voice of my father float back from down stream, from a past, not a future, and it reprises the irritating truth:

“In twenty years, who’s going to care?”

But in a river of walls that has seen its share of twenties, truth begs revision.  How deep yet subtle our solipsism sets its roots and shapes our thinking.  From now on I’ll say:

“In a billion years, who’s going to care?”

From now on I will begin discussions on precious art with the preamble that ten billion years from now our sun will explode–so Meredith says–and the finger of Thomas will melt away in the wound of Caravaggio’s Christ and the angelic face in Velazquez’s Meninas will incinerate.  From now on I will tempt others with the unpopular:  When measuring the probabilities of miracles, the most probable is the one you are living.

If nothing else, these ruminations are a satisfying distraction.  A good way to keep my head up, to keep looking down stream, to the future, not the past.

Ahead I see Jan’s boat.  Maybe tomorrow she’ll give me an M&M.

On the Colorado River, Grand Canyon
August 17th, 2008

PS  Later in the afternoon I read Jan my story.  That night she gave me a beer.

Note to self:  write more stories about Jan.