A BLACK DEATH NOW AND THEN

“Such was the cruelty of the stars, and perhaps to some extent of men also, that between March and the following June, what with the virulence of the plague and the abandonment and neglect of many of the sick by those who were healthy but fearful, it is firmly believed that more than one hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence, when it is likely that beforehand no one would have estimated that the city had so many inhabitants.”1

C. W. Eckersberg
“The Marble Steps Leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome”
1814-1816
Oil on canvas
32.5 cm x 36.5cm
National Gallery of Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark

“There was a cold morning
When Santa Maria della Pace
seemed to whiten in shadows
And an afternoon when we looked up,
as if casually,

At the stone eagles of the Last Judgement
perched on Santa Crisogono in Trastevere.
I’ll never forget how the sky shimmered
like a bowl of light
That poured over our heads as we climbed

One hundred and twenty-four stairs—
The steep unforgiving gray stones
of Santa Maria d’Aracorli—
Built in gratitude
for deliverance from the Black Death.”2

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancients footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”3

From Boccaccio to Edward Hirsch to Bob Dylan, writers often echo elements of times passed. Recently I have rediscovered two of these classic themes: the “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio from 1350, and the Millard Meiss essay on “Painting in Florence and Sienna After the Black Death” from 1951. These are haunting and horrifying observations from history, which have been too easily forgotten over the years. From Florence to Rome and all across Europe during those times, thousands of people were migrating to distant safe places, while even more thousands of people were dying at home.

Boccaccio made use of parables and morality tales in order to entertain and enlighten the public in the Decameron, while offering in the introduction a history and a warning for generations to come. Six hundred years later, Millard Meiss was describing the plastic process in altar pieces and frescoes of that time period. He often noted the new naturalism in certain paintings, and the movement or gesture created by these artists. Sadly however, he notes that there are no documents remaining that mention the Lorenzetti after this time, concluding that they too were victims of the Black Death.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
“The Effects of Good Government”
1338-1339
Fresco
7.7m x 14.4m (overall)
Palazzo Pubblica, Siena, Italy

First appearing in Florence from June to September in 1348, the Black Plague continued with resurgences in 1363 and again in 1374. During these times, the city states experienced other social, political and aesthetic developments: these included transitions from a merchant oligarchy to nobility rule, followed by revolutions against these very same nobles; business and banking failures; and painting developments with regard to looking to past classics for inspiration, or looking to the future and progress. Everything seemingly in disarray.

“…things had come to such a pass that dead human beings were treated no better than goats. It became apparent that the sheer scale of this disaster had made ignorant folk fully aware and resigned in the face of that one thing which limited and less frequent misfortunes, such as occurring the natural course of events, had not been able to teach intelligent people to endure with patience. There was not enough consecrated ground to bury the great multitude of corpses arriving at every church and almost every hour….So, when all the graves were occupied, very deep pits were dug in the churchyards, into which the new arrivals were put in their hundreds….like merchandise in the hold of a ship….”4

In the midst of all of this, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti produced their finest works, incorporating both organic form and spatial movement. Pietro was concerned with continuing in the modes of Giotto and Duccio, whilst Ambrogio was focused on the contemporary world and his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna. In either case, they advanced the path of early Italian painting.

But what can we say about writing and painting in this day and age? Do we find ourselves in a new international style, or a new dark ages, continuing to be scattered in many smaller diverse city states?

There is an early painting by a contemporary artist in Philadelphia, Sidney Goodman, that has always been an enigma to me, even from the first time I saw it years ago. It was the image of some sort of tragedy, with a few survivors going about, but not from any particular time. It could easily have been an example of, or the result of “Bad Government” during the Post War Era in the 1960’s. Or did it portend to the future? In any event, it is a terrifically staged scene in which the characters act.

Sidney Goodman
“The Walk”
1963-1964
Oil of canvas
83 1/2” x 65 1/4”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

When I look at the larger more populous centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, I often feel like they have insulated themselves from the rest of the country. However, when I think of other areas, there are a lot of artists living in isolation, social distancing, and continuing to work. These artists and writers include: Kristy Deetz and Ed Louis in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Altoon Sultan from Groton,Vermont, to Erik Johnson in Eugene, Oregon; Christa Charles and Patrick Manning in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and in Indianapolis, Carla Knopp and Steve Paddack.

One artist in particular, Maddy Weisz, from Ft. Collins, Colorado has recently created another set of stage like images, dealing with human interactions and isolations all at once. When I asked her about these paintings, this was her response:

“My paintings are derived from the thousands of photos . . . I’ve taken over the years . . . . They are not good photos by any means, but I usually find interesting people walking, interacting . . . .”

“. . . . for example the arrangement of people and things in the ‘Tiny Dancer’ painting . . . . I happen to be watching from our Hotel room in Brussels to the plaza below, and captured the little girl dancing while all the people around her were absorbed in other things.”

“I’ve been interested in the idea of stage settings for a long time, and I’m really glad you picked up on this theme. . . . I’ve been trying different formal approaches to this idea. Sometimes I have an idea about the patterning of the ground space around the figures before painting, but most of the time I let the painting evolve intuitively.”5

Maddy Weisz
“Tiny Dancer”
2021
Oil on canvas
20” x 16”
Collection of the artist,
Ft. Collins, Colorado

Finally, there is a novel by Albert Camus that describes and captures our own existential moment: a horrific viral pandemic.

A doctor, a journalist, and a friend find themselves in the midst of a mysterious virus that is sweeping the land. The friend suggests that he can set up a local sanitary squad or safety committee, in order to keep the local citizenry healthy, and to assist the doctor in his work. It started out as some men’s duty, but quickly turned into everyone’s concern. About half way through The Plague, Albert Camus sets these characters Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert in a conversation discussing the idea of man and his courage, heroism, and decency.

“Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eye still on him, he said quietly: ‘Man isn’t an idea Rambert.’”

Rambert, jumping off of his bed declares: “Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no further.”

Although he was very tired, Rieux rose and responded: “You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you; there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”6

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
“The Effects of Bad Government”
1338-1339
Fresco
7.7m x 14.4m (overall)
Palazzo Pubblica, Siena, Italy


1 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; p. 13.
2 Hirsch, Edward; “Roman Fall” from Earthly Measures; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1999; p. 39.
3 Dylan, Bob; Writings and Drawings; A Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1973; p. 299.
4 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; pp. 12-13.
5 Weisz, Maddy; “E-Mail correspondence with this writer,” 10:01 pm, 5 February 2022.
6 Camus, Albert; The Plaque; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2004; pp. 146-147.

STOLEN MOMENTS

“‘Listen,’ said Polly, ‘what’s that?’

The cataloguing team was walking back from lunch.  Titus stopped in the west cloister and looked up at the windows of the Dutch Room.  ‘I didn’t know there was a concert up there this afternoon.’

‘Concert?’ said Aurora, frowning.  ‘What concert?’

‘Don’t you hear it?’ said Polly.  ‘It’s nice.  Really nice.’

‘But it’s Wednesday,’ said Aurora.  ‘Concerts are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.’

‘Maybe we’d better take a look,’ said Titus.  With Polly at his heels, he hurried up the stairs.

‘Don’t be silly, Titus,’ Aurora called after them.  ‘There isn’t any music.  I don’t hear a thing.’

stolen1
Johann Vermeer
“The Concert”
1658-1660
Oil on canvas
28 9/16” x 25 1/2”
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston, Massachusetts
(Current location unknown)

“But as Titus and Polly reached the top of the stairs, it was plainly audible to both of them, plangent notes from some sort of harpsichord, a threadlike soprano voice running softly down a scale to the plucked accompaniment of a guitar.

‘It’s probably for some special visit,’ said Titus, striding along the corridor.  ‘I didn’t know one was scheduled for today.  I must have forgotten.’

But there was no trio of musicians in the Dutch Room, no milling throng of polite guests.  And the music had stopped.’”[i]

This is how the writer Jane Langton described one of a series of strange events occurring in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Later, music would also be heard coming from the Early Italian Room, from the Spanish Cloister, and finally from the Chinese Loggia.  A “sympathetic displacement of noises” it was suggested.[ii]   All of this and other strange happenings, including a murder, occurred in her fictional account of this museum in Boston.

One of the first major purchases by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her collection was Johann Vermeer’s “The Concert.”  She accomplished this at an auction in Paris in 1892 and it later became one of the highlights of this important and personal collection.

stolen2
“Photograph of the Dutch Rooms in their Current State”
Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston, Massachusetts

Unfortunately, we know of it today as one of the 13 pieces that were stolen from the Gardner by intruders dressed in security guard’s uniforms in 1990 and never recovered.  The placement of objects throughout the museum is strictly enforced and the current empty frames illustrate the absence of these treasures.

This might remind us of a similar mystery occurring 56 years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic.  A bungling Dutch constabulary spent the evening looking closer at a theft in a cheese shop than he did at another theft that had occurred in the cathedral directly across the street.[iii]   It was the theft of the “Just Judges” panel and only the most recent of several incidents throughout history involving the “Ghent Altarpiece” by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

stolen3
“The discovery of the theft of the Righteous Judges, April 10, 1934”
St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.[iv]
In the panel of the “Just Judges” from the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece, we see all of the figures facing toward the center of the painting.  There are several identifiable portraits amongst the riders:  Jan van Eyck himself, his brother Hubert, and one of their patrons, Phillip the Good.  They are a set of contemporary portraits of Netherlandish nobles in the roles of Old Testament figures including Philip the Bold in disguise as King Solomon.  Sharing a pilgrimage, they form a cadre representing the most honest and just citizens.

stolen4
Jan and/or Hubert van Eyck
“The Just Judges panel from the Ghent Altarpiece”
1432
Oil on panel
St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent
(Current location unknown)

These “Judges” show up later in history and mystery when they come to play a part in the novel The Fall by Albert Camus published in 1956.  A former Parisian lawyer now holds court, so to speak, in a seedy bar in Amsterdam just after World War II.  He has assumed the role of a ‘judge penitent’ of the contemporary world.

We are sitting in the café Mexico City, when this stranger intervenes with the bartender on our behalf in ordering the correct gin.  It is Jean-Baptiste Clamence and he goes on to fill in some of the history of the bartender and the interior of this place.  “Notice, for instance, on the back wall above his head that empty rectangle marking the place where a picture has been taken down.  Indeed, there was a picture there, and a particularly interesting one, a real masterpiece.”[v]

“Yet if you read the papers, you would recall the theft in 1934 in the St. Bavon Cathedral of Ghent, of one of the panels of the famous van Eyck altarpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Lamb.’  That panel was called ‘The Just Judges.’  It represented judges on horseback coming to adore the sacred animal.  It was replaced by an excellent copy, for the original was never found.  Well, here it is.  No, I had nothing to do with it.”[vi]

“False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones.”[vii]

 

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigations should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617.278.5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org; or ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, www.artcrime.info; or INTERPOL, General Secretariat, 200 quai Charles de Gaulle, 69006 Lyon, France, E-mail: Contact INTERPOL.


[i] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; Penguin Books; New York, New York; 1988; p. 81.

[ii] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; p. 85.

[iii] Charney, Noah; Stealing the Mystic Lamb:  The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece; Public Affairs & Perseus Books Group; New York, New York; 2010; p. 145.

[iv] Charney, Noah; Stealing the Mystic Lamb:  The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece; (from the section of photographic inserts between pp. 146-147).

[v] Camus, Albert; The Fall; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House; New York, New York; 1956; p. 5.

[vi] Camus, Albert; The Fall; pp. 128-129.

[vii] Camus, Albert; The Fall; p. 130.