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We’re so vain: Inside Seventeenth Century’s Vanitases

26 Dec

Vanitas -atis f. (Latin)

  Emptiness, worthlessness, unreality, boasting, ostentation.

 Vain/ [veyn] –adjective, -er, -est.

  1.     Ineffectual or unsuccessful; futile: a vain effort. 

 2.     Without real significance, value, or importance; baseless or worthless: vain pageantry; vain display.

  3.    Archaic. Senseless or foolish.

  Van·i·ty [van-i-tee] noun, plural -ties

  1.Excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.; character or quality of being vain; conceit.

 2.Lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness: the vanity of a selfish life.

  3.Something worthless, trivial, or pointless. 

 December has arrived, and with it, many things come to end. It’s funny how every year the same thing happens (I swear! December comes every year) and I still can’t get used to it. Here we are… the candle’s gone out, yet again, reminding us that we are getting older while time flies.

 These past few months have been hectic and I have therefore neglected the blog a little bit; so I thought the finishing of my first year of the Art History course I took was the best excuse to deoxidize my writing. I thought: “Out of all that I’ve studied… What really made an impression or surprised me?” Two things came to mind: The Roman catacombs from the third and fourth centuries and the seventeenth century Vanitas… which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how I recurrently feel captivated by symbolist or allusive content in art.

    Anyway, this is why vanitas (some better known as Still Life) surprised me: apparently, there’s more to them than random stuff scattered around in the shadows.

Vanitases talk about the futility and shortness of earthly life and symbolize how death will eventually come and take every one of us without discriminating. 

QUIS EVADET?  Who avoids it (death)?

I guess I myself had never really thought about vanity as futility…huh…

To depict and symbolize our brief time on earth, several elements were used:

  • Soap bubbles, antique ruins, withering flowers, candles going out, smoke and wind stand for how ephemeral things can be.
  • Skulls and skeletons represent death
  • Mirrors show how the reflected image is always altered from reality
  • Clocks and snakes are time
  • Books, scientific instruments, materials and tools, jewels, crowns, weapons, vases, cards, musical instruments, represent our earthly existence
  • And finally, spikes symbolize the resurrection

 Life was being reevaluated.

‘What does it all mean?’ ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What are we here for if everything eventually goes away?’ Leonardo quotes Ovid when he says: ‘Devouring Time, and you, jealous Age, consume everything, and slowly gnawing at them, with your teeth, little by little, consign all things to eternal death!’(1). This awareness of the passing of time brings both despair and comfort. How come? Comfort was found in the afterlife. Arcadia became the epitome of a perfect and ideal world(2), and that is where the beauty of eternity lied.

There is some vanity in vanitases, too. And that is the artistry itself. In vanitases we read that Art outlives everyone: sculptures, buildings, paintings, vases; even in ruins, beat the longest-lived of us and even death itself. Death now also becomes ephemeral before the grandness of art.

Were vanitases deep, reflexive and melancholic compositions? or a way to bring the faithful closer to the afterlife? a way to make oneself relinquish of possessions and devote to God? Because -let’s not forget- the seveteenth century was the time of the counter reform, the Catholic Revival.

 I guess in times of conflict (as were the seventeenth century in Europe, and  now) we tend to reflect on how frail life can be and how we want to treasure every moment of it. I also guess many in pain hold on to the hopes of better luck in the afterlife.

Whichever the answer, vanitas are very much still alive and moving.  


(1)Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XV, AD 8

(2)After the collapse of the Roman power in the west, Arcadia became part of the Byzantine Empire. Arcadia remained a rustic, secluded area, and its inhabitants became proverbial as primitive herdsmen leading simple pastoral unsophisticated yet happy lives, to the point that Arcadia may refer to some imaginary idyllic paradise, immortalized by Virgil’s Eclogues, and later by Jacopo Sannazaro in his pastoral masterpiece, Arcadia (1504). From


Trajan’s Column

10 Feb

It’s been already 4 hours that I have been fighting with my computer. Ok, so this isn’t funny, ironically, not only I have a Trojan, but a great deal of barbarians charging against my computer. Something like the Dacians threatening the roman frontiers during the first century a.C., this is how our story begins: Trajan and I fighting, displaying all of our infantry and forces against those who threaten us and our peace.

I would like to add that besides my little viral inconvenience, this racconto is especially difficult for me since it would be a real feat to outdo my source, the great Lino Rossi and his excellent translator; his detailed explanation of everything related to the Column in “Trajan’s Colum and the Dacian Wars” has moved me to tears (always so inopportune, Ana, the library is simply NO place for that!). Therefore, this article will humbly try to pay the book homage.

Let’s place ourselves in front of a 100 ft. tall cylinder. It’s colorful, decorated with gold and bronze; 17 marble cylinders superimposed on a square base of 17 ft on each side. In one of them, a door takes us into the chamber in which we find the golden urns of Trajan and his wife, Plotine. Inside the interior conduct, a staircase lit by 43 small windows leads us to the top, where Trajan’s bronze statue is. It is the year 113 a.C. and this marvelous piece was built in memory of and as homage to Rome’s triumph over the Dacians and Rome’s conductor: Trajan.

If we take a closer look, we find that this wants to tell a story. In a spiral way up to the top we see that we are being told about how Trajan led Romans to victory against Dacia during the 101-106 a.C wars. Like a comic or a storyboard, we shall follow this story like a film roll. It isn’t necessary to know how to read or write to follow a story told through images, right? Do you see where I’m getting at? This is accessible to all!

The wars: Towards the end of the first century, Rome’s military power and civil evolution had reached its peak. The story illustrated in the Column is centered in Dacia’s fairly large territory, beyond the Danube’s curse (part of actual Romania), inhabited by diverse ethnic groups like the German, Sarmatian or Tracian; barbarians to Romans’ eyes; but not so much in reality, as their national pride, gallantry, organization and economical activity inferred. Regarding religion, and if I may, this is the most interesting part, they worshipped the god Zamolxis, practiced orgiastic and secret rites (including human sacrifices) and believed in heavenly life as a reward to those warriors who gave their life for their country.  Death was then sometimes voluntarily encountered by those warriors who refused to surrender, recurring to both individual and massive suicides.

This shows us what kind of determined and brave army the Romans were to encounter during their campaigns.

Since the year 85, the Dacians represented a constant threat to the northwest lime of the Roman empire; and successive battles over the course of 15 years left the Roman power very wounded; this is, until Trajan realized that diplomacy was no longer the way and decided to declare war. In doing so (and winning) he put his best qualities as a commander and organizer, political leader and economic planner in display, which made him big.

I would like to focus on the fact that this Column should be observed under the perspective of a great celebration to the army; whose emperor dedicates “to the memory of the bravest of men who died for the Republic”. They are the heroes in this story, and not the drama per se; which is noticeable due to the almost excessive richness in the depiction of the scenes where civil engineering and military works take place, as opposed to those in which battle is actually represented.

The Column has 23 spirals, each containing an average of 7 scenes. I will not deepen in the details, but I would like to share some highlights that caught my attention as I summarize –a lot- the story told.

It is March of 101 and the Romans get ready: they disembark and start their civil engineering labors at the enemy’s frontiers; then they proceed to move forward under the personal commandership of Trajan, without encountering any Dacian opposition yet, who has faked a retreat. Finally the first war prisoner appears, and after further advances and settlements in enemy areas, at the gates of Bistra valley, the roman expeditionary forces reunite and face the enemy in battle, which is won thanks to Thunderer, who creates a storm that forces the Dacians away to a fort surrounded by stick with Romans’ heads at their tips, possible earlier captives –remember these peoples are Vlad III’s forefathers; the great impaler, better known as Dracula-, dragons and other demons. In Rome’s part of the Danube another battle breaks out, where roman soldiers appear to be badly wounded and assisted by Greek doctors; interestingly, this is the only scene where non-Romans are being shown doing technical work. Trajan, with his troops reassembled, moves on to another battle point where he once again defeats his enemy, who retreats to the woods.

Here, the juxtaposition of the following scenes are worthy of mentioning: while after the Dacians’ retreat we see a celebrating and thankful Trajan, with a sort of ‘concentration camp’ on the background, right next to it we find a village where Roman soldiers are being tortured by women, confronting thus the joy and reward depicted in the first one and the pain and humiliation of the second; displayed like this to represent the changing and unpredictable fortunes of men at war.

Spring of 102, the third war campaign begins. The Romans attack and the Dacians back away lead by Decebalus, who agrees to a truce but is planning revenge at the same time, as we can see from the images of his people whispering in a conspirational way through the woods as they leave. Nevertheless, the Romans, oblivious of this situation, celebrate victory once again, the winged victory also being a part of the celebrations.

After two years of peace the last war begins; the Romans are about to be defeated by Decebalus until Trajan pulls out a Schwarzenegger and appears in the scene to save the day; in the summer of 106 the main Dacian city is besieged and its citizens finally surrender. Those who don’t, in a last desperate attempt to save their dignity, set fire to the buildings left and commit suicide, according to Zamolxis’ precepts. Decebalus manages to escape. Following him, the Romans continue to move forward and come across three Dacian detractors who tell them where their leader’s treasure is. In the end, Decebalus charges one last time unsuccessfully in October and ends up killing himself at his enemy’s feet by plunging a dagger into his throat.

The last scene shows the rest of the villagers (men, women, children) leaving their homeland, taking their cattle, proudly looking back for one last time; as homage to the innocents and their fortunes in times of war.

The Column is an actual panegyric to those involved in wars. Whereas Trajan is represented as an omnipotent figure –always leading- this monument is built not only for him, but for all who participated in this gigantic undertaking; to all who were brave and gave their life for pride and others.

Seen from the XXIst century this idea might seem ridiculous –even though we still suffer from this disease-; but it wasn’t. National pride is what brought (these) people together, and what the Romans accomplished, even more under Trajan’s guidence. I know, this is a very romantic view, but, dreamin’ don’t cost a thing. It is about ‘unity’, keeping one’s head high and recognizing those who give life for others and those others’ own fortunes of having been defended.

Smart cookie, this Trajan. He did not invent this type of propaganda, but he did a hell of a job on this one. There’s blood running through the grooves of the column, but its beauty and impressiveness is undeniable.

There is nothing left to do but to join this eulogy and succumb to its transcendental and timeless beauty.

The Seated Scribe

9 Feb

As i walked into the general reading room I almost burst into a fit of laughter. During the almost 45 minutes that took me to fill out the request cards (there are two types, one to ask for books within the site and another one for books that are in another building), hand them in (apparently, “signature” does not mean you have to actually sign, but to write down some number), and re-fill out the cards (it was the blue one, not the green one! And Ana, please write down the correct date, you ordered the books for April!); I went through every mood known to mankind, especially the desire to run for the hills as at a certain point, the frustration was too much too take. Finally, humor prevailed thanks to a very nice assistant who couldn’t help but to laugh at how much I kept screwing up, if she only knew she’s gonna see my face everyday…

Of course, my chain of unfortunate events doesn’t end there; once I opened the door to a very silent reading room, I had to restrain myself from laughing since I had no idea where my assigned desk was. Finally, I found it and my books arrived.

Ironically enough, this is what I first come across with on my research about the Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt.

Look, open your papyrus rolls and become a son educated with these books that have been fruitful from the beginnings, the way my father taught me with texts that were already useful before him, and thus I avoid making mistakes. I understood that this favored me and my growth, thanks to my wisdom and shrewdness (…) therefore, become a child risen among the books, since whichever position at the royal house, thee shall never sink into misery.” (Book of Kenit, XIth dynasty)

 Let’s begin then.

 The Scribe: I won’t assume that you, my fellow reader, know what we are talking about here; hence, here’s a description of our object of study.

 Some recent studies estimate that the average percentage of people capable of reading and writing in the Old Kingdom was approximately of a one or two percent of the male population. In their hands was the administration and control of the country’s resources as the Pharaoh’s representatives. Writing was, in fact, “a matter of State”, meaning, it was born and developed according to the State’s needs. It must be understood that in those times, the dominant culture within the population was the oral, which explains the use of alternative materials used as support for successfully transmitting those ideological messages that the royalty wanted to address to wider society sectors.

The work as a civil servant was inseparably tied to that as a scribe, and the advantages that this career entailed –self assuredness, social prestige and closeness to the King- made this an especially desired job, whose maximum aspiration was to be vizier who was the one responsible of all the public servants.

 Being writing taught within the royalty circles and used as a transmission vehicle for nobility’s ideological values, its learning was inexorably accompanied by the assimilation of such values. Hence the pride in being a scribe, as their statues and literary texts reflect:

 “I know the secret behind the hieroglyphs (the divine word) and the composition of ceremonial rituals. (As for) The repertoire of magic formulas, I master it without any difficulty, I am, in fact, an excellent specialist in his trade who excels in his knowledge (…)” (Stone plaque, Louvre, XI dynasty)

 Such pride in being a scribe! However, their pride also derived from, as it has been stipulated, abiding and making others abide by the Pharaoh’s Word, the maat; everything else that he did in his life was only a mere decoration of some general principles. The same thing happens with human representations in the Old Kingdom, in which it is impossible to talk about portraits since there weren’t any particular, individual representations, but rather generic qualities associated with a social group.

 These illustrations are the ones we find in funerary chambers of such characters, and note that specifically during the Old Kingdom, sculptural works were destined exclusively for this use, so they remained hidden from the living’s eyes (even more reason to make them all alike :p) ; as they were body substitutes that were to be magically willing to “contribute” to making “the body last as long as the rock in the mountain”; which was a common Egyptian precept:

 “I will make you love writing more than your own mother. I will demonstrate its beauty, which is bigger than any other trade’s. Look, there is no other trade in which you don’t receive orders except this, in which case it is you who order. Knowing how to write will be of more use to you and the work you do in it will last through eternity, like the mountains” (From the Jeti teachings)

 All of whom read these words are capable of production and reproduction of the written word. What would be of our world without it? We don’t know, but we could find out if we let the people who are apparently determined to lunge us into the ignorance that the omission of writing entails. People determined to belittle teaching and those who bestow it. How sad is a world where the scribe is no longer admired and where one doesn’t work for a lasting future anymore. Let’s change that.

It could be argumented that in those ancient times, whereas writing was admired, it was also only reserved for the elite, therefore, the majority lived in ignorance, and that was, in effect, the State was consolidated. Well, this was true and it still intends to be. Even so, why not look on the bright side of this so-called elitism? Without these privileged people there wouldn’t be any admiration, hence ‘art’, we wouldn’t have “The Sitting Scribe”, but above all, without all this we wouldn’t have aspiration.

 Writing, like scribes, has given us so much. This is my conclusion so far: without knowing about the technical/aesthetic aspects of the piece, we stand before someone who could appreciate the beauty and wisdom behind the written word and the one who transmits it. This is to say a lot. And I admire him for that. Because it indeed lasts an eternity, like the mountains, and his words resound today in who is writing more than ever.

Hello world!

8 Feb

It would seem that the more museums I visit, the less I seem to understand.

I do not know why paintings are put up on their walls for people to look at, nor why there are even paintings hanging whose creators are anonymous! why do we stroll about museums and galleries looking at paintings?

I understand the pleasure of having a decorative piece in your living room, even in the bathroom!, but in the end, as I walked around the museum departments, I found myself asking the same question over and over: what exactly am I looking at? what is there here to see?

A guided tour passed by me and I could overhear the guide saying “well…there’s not much to see here really..oh, wait! -and she stood by a painting which I had noticed before- don’t read the legend, can you guess what this scene is describing?”; of course, no one dared to answer; but from that moment on, I tried to play that little game, pretending to pass as an intellectual, to see if i could really grasp the meaning behind those works.

“mmmm… I see a portrait of a man… a lot of detailing on his clothes… the perspective’s good for such a small frame..” what is it?”,  “Portrait Of a Man”…O-K.

I did find useful, though, how this woman (the guide) explained how one of the paintings that had been painted by a Lutheran, depicted Jesus among elderly men, but made these men look ridiculously old; as a sort of mockery to catholics. I can now understand why this could be of some interest. The woman did a much better job than me in explaining these facts, though.

And to think that this is simple Quattrocento! Not to mention embalmed sharks, videos of naked people with boxing gloves pouring blood on themselves, Picasso, or self-induced pregnancies and abortions!

Despite all this, I love art. I am very passionate about it. Does this make me a hypocrite? What is it that I find so attractive, fascinating? Why do I think Malevich is an absolute genius?

I think I knew at some point, but have completely forgotten.

Thus the intention of this space: to recover the ability to understand, and to help those who feels as lost as I do, one work at a time.