The Casual Blog

Tag: Leonardo

The big lake, Leonardo, and Blue Planet II

This week was raw and rainy, and I was sick with a cold.  But it brightened up for the weekend. On Saturday morning I went up to Umstead park and walked around the big lake.  At a certain point, I set up my tripod and took some pictures with various lenses and filters. As usual, my objective was to practice the craft and come up with a few new images that, if not masterworks, at least weren’t too embarrassing to share.  Which is what I did, as shown here.

On the drive back I neared the end of the audiobook version of Leonardo, the recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  I’d gotten bogged down in a couple of sections where Isaacson describes and interprets particular paintings more than I found helpful. But I thought he did a good job over all of telling Leonardo’s story and bringing to life aspects of the early Renaissance.  

I’d known in a general way that Leonardo was a polymath, but I had not appreciated the full range of his interests and accomplishments.   He was a professional musician, theatrical producer, and writer, as well as an inventor, engineer, designer, architect, urban planner, and proto-scientist.  Not to mention a pretty good painter.

Leonardo was good-looking and convivial, though there was a dark side.  Isaacson notes some very disturbing behaviors, including probable sexual exploitation of minors and eagerly offering his services to murderous tyrants.  His reach frequently exceeded his grasp, and he started many more things than he finished. But it’s hard not to be inspired by his powerful curiosity and passionate attempts, sometimes successful, to see things that no one had seen before.  

This week we watched a several episodes of Blue Planet II, a BBC documentary about the life in the world’s oceans.  We’d gotten tired of waiting for it to show up on Netflix and decided to pay for it on Amazon. It was worth it!  The photography was just incredible. As scuba divers, we’ve swum in some of the places and seen some of the creatures, but many were new to us.  And we saw some almost unknown behaviors — fish playing, using tools, and working cooperatively with different species.

It’s exhilarating to experience such wonders, and troubling that the level of the threat to them is dire.  Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are killing the big coral reefs, and plastics and other chemicals are strangling and poisoning many creatures.  The reefs and underwater forests could be gone in a few decades. The question remains whether humans will get their act together and save our oceans.    

NYC: finding a nice hotel, good food, great art, and mildly disappointing opera

13 11 24_5292
Sally and I went up to New York City last weekend to see sweet Jocelyn, eat, and see some art and some opera. Here’s a report.


For all the great things about New York, one problem for visitors is that good hotels tend to be painfully expensive. In quest of the holy grail of a nice-but-not-exceedingly-dear hotel, we tried a new one: the Carlton, at Madison and 28th. Perhaps because it’s not in a high-profile neighborhood, the value proposition is strong: charm, good service, and rooms under $200.

The high-ceilinged lobby was an eclectic-but-stimulating mix of styles (modern, beaux arts, art nouveau). Our room was quiet and comfy. The shower pressure and hot water supply met Sally’s exacting standards. The furniture and fittings were attractive and modern, except for the bathroom sink, which was old school (rounded porcelain with no shelf space). The gym was adequate and available 24 hours. The location was a comfortable walk from the theatre district and within 10 cab-minutes of everything we had planned.


Jocelyn was waiting for us at the hotel when we arrived, and she’d already scoped restaurants and made a reservation for that evening. We checked in, unpacked, and walked one block to Lexington Avenue and an area rife with Indian restaurants known as “Curry Hill.”

The one Jocelyn picked was Chote Nawab. We love eating Indian, although there are common shortcomings: the food often isn’t very pretty (lots of brown), or the atmosphere is a little formal and downbeat. But Chote Nawab was really lively, with many cheerful young people, excellent service, and delicious curries well presented. Jocelyn was as cheerful and lively as any. She was very excited about her new life in New York, and had lots to report.
13 11 23_5301


On Saturday we did two very different art exhibits: the Art Spiegelman restrospective at the Jewish Museum (92d and Fifth) and the Dutch masters exhibit at the Frick (70th and Fifth).

I was generally aware of Art Spiegelman as a comics artist, but until this exhibit had no clue as to his wide range and depth. He uses a lot of styles and reference points, with courage, exuberance and also humility. His masterpiece, Maus, is a graphic novel about his father’s experience in the Holocaust, which established the graphic novel as a serious art form. The sections I looked at were intriguing and moving. After the show, I ordered a copy.

The show at the Frick was headlined by Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). This is a painting generally regarded as a transcendent masterpiece, and one that I’d been wanting to see for many years. Vermeer’s work is extremely subtle, with seemingly ordinary subject matter, and seeming straight-ahead realism, but a mysterious emotional power.

The Girl is, at first sight, a fairly ordinary girl. But with more time, the painting transmits a more complicated message. She looks as though she’s been surprised, but not unpleasantly so. Could something be going on between her and the artist, as Tracey Chevalier imagined in her novel? Maybe. The painting is ambiguous, but the truth seems just barely out of reach.

She gave me big, long-lasting goose bumps. I enjoyed the rest of the show, which included works by Rembrandt, Hals, and several other Dutchmen of the 17th century, but nothing that was as affecting. I also revisited the Frick’s permanent collection, which is one of the finest small collections of European painting in the world. Henry Clay Frick seems to have been a particularly brutal captain of industry in the gilded age, but still, he had very good taste. However good or bad the motivation for his philanthropy, I’m grateful.

More good food and some opera

After we finished at the Frick, Jocelyn, Sally and I walked across Central Park as the sun was setting. It was getting colder, so we stopped for some coffee, and then made our way to an early dinner at the Leopard, an Italian restaurant on west 67th Street.
13 11 23_5328
Jocelyn’s friend Mike joined us, and we had an extraordinarily fine meal. My ravioli with braised artichoke and a tomato marjoram sauce managed to be both hearty and delicate. We shared two desserts, which were delicious, and lost track of time. It was snowing when we got out on the street, and we had to hurry to Lincoln Center to make the 8:00 curtain at the Metropolitan Opera.

We saw Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which is a new production for this season and was completely new to me. I thought the music was gorgeous – as fine as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. But dramatically the thing is puzzling and for substantial stretches fairly boring. Why does Eugene reject Tatiana? Why does he ultimately desperately long for her? I don’t know, and worse, the drama didn’t really make me care.

It was quite cold and snowing when we finished the opera at about 11:15, and there were many more people looking for cabs than there were cabs. We walked past Columbus Circle and over to Sixth Avenue, and finally found a cab to get us back to the Carlton.

A little more art
13 11 23_5313

On Sunday we had breakfast at the hotel, and then walked a few blocks up Madison to the Morgan Library. They had an exhibit of Leonardo’s drawings and notebooks, including the famous Codex on the Flight of Birds. Leonardo was, of course, an extraordinary individual – a true Renaissance man, curious about everything in the natural and human world, and constantly innovating, or imagining future innovations.

I didn’t realize how few paintings he made, perhaps because he was so interested in everything. His drawings seem effortless and timeless. But his presumed self portrait in red chalk shows an old, bearded man looking extremely remote and grumpy, if not bitter. It’s hard to reconcile his extreme gifts and imagination, which seem reason for great joy, with this persona.

Our week in Tuscany

Sally and I got back on Sunday from our first trip to Italy, where we saw the major tourist sites of Rome, Siena, and Florence, as well as five medieval cities in central Tuscany. We took in a ton of Renaissance art and architecture, wandered for miles through narrow streets, and drank some wonderful wines. We also had our share of minor travel tribulations, such as lost luggage, lost car, and just plain lost. We got soaked by a sudden downpour on the way to the Vatican, but for the most part the skies were blue and temperatures were mild.

Hearing about other people’s vacations is usually either frustrating or boring, and I will therefore spare you a blow by blow of the beautiful places and fine food. But I will say, if at all possible, you should go. It was an amazing feast for the senses and the mind.

It was also a time machine. The antiquities of Rome, like the Colosseum and the Forum, are awe inspiring. I asked myself, would I have enjoyed gladiators fighting to the death or religious dissidents being fed to the lions? Probably not, but who knows? The Romans’ appropriation of Greek art, followed by the Renaissance reappropriation of those same ideas, all made sense. But the hard phyical facts were also mildly shocking. There were a lot of statues of nude people! I get that they decided to glorify the human form, but faced with all those bare bodies, it seems fairly obvious these were highly sensual people.

With the benefit of some education in art history, I was looking forward to many great masterpieces, and they were certainly there. We made a particular point of seeking out the paintings of Caravaggio, which are amazingly powerful, and the great sculptures of Michelangelo. I will also note that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was awesome. There were so many other master works that I looked at hard and was touched by.

At the same time, I was struck at how many fine examples of Renaissance and Baroque art were connected, using the same subjects, the same gestures, the same costumes, and so forth. So many Annunciations, so many Adorations, so many Crucifixions, with so many similar arrangements. Clearly artists were borrowing from each other all the time. On the trip, I finished reading The Knock Off Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, by Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman. It makes the case that creative endeavors in certain fields, including fashion, haute cuisine, and football, develop through copying unconstrained by intellectual property law. Looking at art in terms of what is shared rather than what is original to the artist goes against the grain of art history as I learned it, but it helped me think about the art without getting completely overwhelmed. The art tells us about the community of people that it grew out of, and connects us with those communities.

There did come a point each day when I reached then saturation point, and could not stand to look at on more beautiful Madonna. But looking at these ancient objects had affected my perceptions. As I emerged from the last 12th or 14th century church of the day, I had the impression that the people around me were unusually vivid. Their faces seemed brighter. And they moved!

The Italians are not intent on your being a great art scholar. I was surprised at museums and churches generally gave little information about their treasures. They also are not much concerned with providing public restrooms. I finally figured out that it’s accepted to duck into a bar. Even so, there were further challenges, like finding water, soap, and paper towels all in one place. It is really disheartening, after a long search for a WC, and a moment of sweet release, to soap up your hands only to find there is nothing to rinse with.

But these things pass. After two days in Rome, we spent two days based in Siena, a marvelous Medieval city, and ventured out by car to see the Tuscan countryside and taking in the beautiful ancient towns of San Gigminiano, Volterra, Montelcino, Pienza, and Moltepulciano. It was a great pleasure to drive the winding roads among vineyards and olive orchards. Seeing so much land devoted to wine gave me a new understanding and respect for the place of wine in this culture.

I’ve long had a fascination with medieval architecture. Walking along the narrow streets gives a window into a different kind of community. Somehow these people of several centuries ago organized themselves to produce a kind of hive that worked very well and endured. Their walls and battlements prove that fear and violence were part of their world, but their churches show that they had moments of peace and transcendence. By the way, the streets in these hill towns can be unbelievably steep. Montepulciano was especially challenging. Our work outs finally paid off; we were in good enough physical shape to walk them.

We also adored Siena. We we disconcerted at first that cars zoom down the narrow streets dodging pedestrians, rather than pedestrians dodging cars — the pedestrians seemed at high risk — but we got used to it. We developed a taste for gelatos. A high point was climbing the circular staircase of the spectacular cathedral to look out over the city at sunset.

Arriving in Florence was another jump in the time machine, this time to the high Renaissance. It’s beautiful, and also easier to walk in. And the old part of the city thrummed with people. We did the famous churches and museums, including the Duomo, the Uffizi,the Accademia, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novello, and San Marco. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio at sunset and sipped wine at an outdoor table at Piazza de Signoria. What a beautiful place! We agreed that Florence goes on the list of our favorite cities.