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.

A VIEW OF DELFT

Much of the mystery surrounding the life of Johannes Vermeer begins with the Arnold Bon poem written in eulogy after the death of Carel Fabritius, who was killed as a result of the explosion of the gunpowder magazine in Delft on 12 October 1654. 

Carel Fabritius
“A View of Delft, With a Guitar Sellers Stall” 
1652
Oil on canvas
15.5 cm x 31.7 cm
National Gallery, London

All of the stanzas of Arnold Bon’s poem recall the life and accomplishments of Fabritius, who at the time was the most eminent painter in Delft.  However, the last stanza mentions a younger artist, a Vermeer, who rises like a phoenix following this tragedy. 

Bon, Arnold; Last Stanza of the Eulogy Poem for Carel Fabritius; Published by Dirck van Bleyswijck; Delft, The Netherlands; 1667; p. 854.

“Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midstand at the height of his powers,
But happily there arose out of the fire
VERMEER, who masterfully trod in his path.”[i]

Aside from this single mention, very little had been written about Vermeer for many of the decades that followed.  Almost two hundred years later the art historian, critic, and connoisseur Théophile Thoré-Bürger was carrying out a survey of European museums and private collections.  In several cases, he recognized a different hand and eye amongst these paintings.  None of them, he felt, could still be attributed to artists such as Carel Fabritius or Pieter de Hooch.  Nor could they have come from the school of Rembrandt.  In an essay from 1866, not knowing at that time who this artist might be, Thoré-Bürger referred to Vermeer as the Sphinx of Delft.  As Thoré-Bürger continued his research this artist’s identity became clearer, and many artists and authors started taking notice. 

“…like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.”[ii]

Vermeer’s paintings have often played an important role in historic pieces of literature, recent fiction and popular novels.  During the summer of 1921 the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris collected and arranged several examples of Dutch painting for a loan exhibition from The Hague that included two Vermeer paintings:  “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and “A View of Delft. 

It was in a setting at this exhibition that Proust situated his character, the novelist Bergotte, directly in front of the View of Delft:  “He repeated to himself:  ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’  Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee; whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself:  ‘It’s nothing, merely a touch of indigestion….’ A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants come hurrying to his assistance.  He was dead.”[iii]

In more recent times, the author Jane Jelley traces many ideas covering Vermeer paintings, producing a series of art historical essays written as if they were prose poems. They bring a refreshing vision and description to these works.

“No reproduction of the View of Delft does justice to this masterpiece.  If you are lucky enough ever to stand in front of this painting in the Mauritshuits in The Hague, you are likely to find its effects as compelling as do many other visitors.  They have also turned their backs on one of the most famous pictures in the world, to follow the gaze of the Girl with a Pearl Earring.  She is actually not looking at us after all, but at the town in which she was born, the town in which she was painted.  Together we see straight into a tranquil, newly-washed, early summer morning in Delft 1663; as if through a window in the wall.”[iv]

Johannes Vermeer
“A View of Delft”
1660-1661
Oil on canvas
96.5 cm x 115.7 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague
The Netherlands

Jane Jelley’s writing also recognizes the pure plastic qualities of painting; those elements that are especially important when viewing a painting close up, with very little distance between the eye of the viewer and the surface of the painting.  These are qualities that apply equally to Vermeer as well as to de Kooning.

“Like flies in amber, stray brush-hairs have been caught in the paint in some of Vermeer’s paintings.  There are some on the surface of the View of Delft ‘used to finish the painted reflections of the buildings in the water’. . . . and conservators wondered whether Vermeer had used old or poor quality brushes; or whether these had shed hair because of the way they were made.”[v]  

Johannes Vermeer
“A View of Delft (detail)”

“Whatever its thickness, a good brush should balance in the hand like a violin bow.  An experienced painter will feel the weight of the handle; and judge where he should hold it, and how he should move his arm.  He can use the force from a turn of a wrist, or the pressure of a finger, to change the direction, depth, and speed of the stroke, as he feels the response of the thicknesses and texture of the paint against the canvas.  The brush movement is as much a part of the painting as the colour, tone, or composition; and in some canvases, especially from the twentieth century onwards, becomes the subject of the picture itself.”[vi] 

The ultimate example with regards to this writing is in volume five of A la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust.  The novelist Bergotte dies in a gallery, at an exhibition of Dutch paintings, in front of the “View of Delft.” He fixes his last living look on that picture, homing in on several details that had been pointed out by a critic in the newspaper:

“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall….”

Johannes Vermeer
“A View of Delft (detail)”

“…His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall….’ He repeated to himself:  ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’”[vii]

Johannes Vermeer
“A View of Delft (detail)”

It was not, however, the character Bergotte, but Proust himself who managed the final word on the View of Delft.  Vermeer was a special favorite of Proust, and in an interview late in his life, Marcel Proust made this observation:  “Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague, I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world.”[viii]


[i] Bon, Arnold; Last Stanza of the Eulogy Poem for Carel Fabritius; Published by Dirck van Bleyswijck; Delft, The Netherlands; 1667; p. 854.

[ii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, p. 665.

[iii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, p. 665.

[iv][iv] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; pp. 142-143.

[v] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; pp. 87-88.

[vi] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; p. 87.

[vii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, pp. 664-665.

[viii] West, Adam, ed.; Proust in Context; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, United Kingdom; 2013; p. 84.