Sunday, November 8, 2009

#26 Mona Lisa's Pupillae

I was able to view Da Vinci's (see last posts) most famous painting "up close and personal" at the Louvre in 1973 while we were on our "Paris break" from one of those British-Isles-oriented, college-courses that I led overseas. This was before the museum began installing an ever tighter series of security barriers, including now a kind of plexiglass bubble-box that I must assume would keep the spectator at some distance--and optically interrupted--from the live surface of the world's most notorious near-anonymous face. Pity. Because ... if I had to view the original work in that constricted way for the first time, as others must do today, I never would have figured out what was so special about it.

For in those more trusting times--when you could actually hug a stone at Stonehenge--if you were a devotee of the divine La Giaconda, you had simply to LEAN (albeit awkwardly) over the conventional velvet-rope-and-brass-standard "barrier" lining the the gallery at a distance of about three or four feet from the wall. That is, if you manage to wriggle through to the front of the crowd. Not a problem for an aggressive Ugly American.

When once you're close enough, then comes the surprise. It's not the smile. It's all in the EYES. Okay, it's the eyes in conjunction with the smile. But here's the enormous difference between viewing the painting in an art book or on the TV screen and viewing it in person: you get to see the dots of her eyes, so to speak. The PUPILS.

For one thing, the actual portrait is larger than you might imagine: somewhat over 2 ft. x 3 ft.--big enough to see all of Da Vinci's detail, if viewed from a reasonable, fairly close-up distance. Now in the small photo of the painting above--and however/wherever else you are most likely to see it--her eyes come off as sort of unfocused brown and white. (A blue-eyed Italian lady might have been a different story.) Our little black lens-apertures are missing from view. They're simply below your threshold of perception, under these second-hand circumstances.

Even so, there's no doubt she's looking at you; Leonardo positions the irises just right, binocular-wise. He didn't study Anatomy for nothing. But in person, it's the pupillae that will effectively bring about the irresistible BOND between her eyes and yours. They take the woman's gaze, locked with yours, to another level of intimacy altogether. That's the secret to her fame, I believe. For those who have seen the real-life "Mona Lisa" under the formerly ideal conditions, her "look" becomes more than a casual glance: rather, it's a penetrating, philosophical, kind of Sartrean le regard. As if she knows something about THE YOU standing there--the painter, the viewer, whoever catches her eternal eye--that might be better left unknown. And knowing that ... she smiles.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

#25 Da Vinci Vindicated

Thought I'd better bring out the original, after shamelessly exploiting his "Vitruvian Man" for rhetorical purposes over in the Daily Mosteller. And it gives me a chance to recount an encounter with Leonardo, some 35 years ago.

First of all, it's an evocative piece of work. No wonder the drawing has been redacted/exploited for all manner of logos by myriad health/fitness/science entities like Blue Cross and Sky Lab II--though usually stylized and decidedly non-gender-specific, unlike the original here. Setting aside the artist's always interesting homoerotic subtext in almost everything he did--q.v. especially the Da Vinci Code conundrum about the ambiguous male/female figure at "The Last Supper"--this piece is a fascinating blend of art and science, or at least pseudo-science. It's the thought that counts.

And no man ever thought so much about so many things as Leonardo, as we all know. In fact, it got in the way of his work, more often than not. No greater "Renaissance-Man"; no greater procrastinator. My hero. All told, his greatness rests on a very small number of actual accomplishments. This one, though, is particularly interesting because it's an overt attempt to resolve, through his art, that persistent conundrum of his age: New Science vs. New Humanism. He was trying to humanize science here, and vice-versa. We know from the drawing's footnotes that he was faithfully following "scientific" guidelines for perfect human proportions, laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius. (The artist had already been forced to study the "New Anatomy"--people were finally carving up people in the name of medical science--by his first teacher, and we can see it in those macabre "muscle-and-bone" sketches of his, which were nonetheless well ahead of their time for accuracy.)

All this went along with the optimistic Renaissance notion of the perfectibility of man. "Drawing" upon a countryman from the classical period, Da Vinci used the architect's questionable geometrics to construct a human figure of ideal proportions. He was serious:

For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height ... from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the the underside of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the underside of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. ["Mona Lisa?"] The length of the foot is one sixth the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that that the the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.
Leonardo even tried to crack that ancient chestnut, "squaring the circle," in his drawing above, and supplemented in the following:

Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses [think of the bygone, I assume, grammar-school chalkboard-compass--a giant one!] centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square.
Perfect nonsense, of course. But it seemed to make good art. How about the perfect face ... the perfect "enigmatic" smile? (more)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

#24 Celebrating Bjarni ... IV--The Place

This is Leif's settlement site on "The Cove of the Jellyfish" at the very northern tip of Newfoundland. It was named first by French fishermen as L'Anse aux Meduse (Medusa-like jellyfish presumably there abound), a toponym that the later colonizing Englishmen appropriated, but folk-etymologized to L'Anse Aux Meadows. This incredible archaeological discovery sits re-covered today, preserving (as usual in these cases) what already has been done, while awaiting further developments in archaeo-technology before going at it again. But go at it they did in the 60s and 7os after the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist/wife Anne (talk about Hollywood!) found the place. It was the capital city of Vinland.

Extensive excavation and precise carbon-dating proved it to be a little Norse village occupied for at least several years and dating from the year 1000. Everything fits. There can be little doubt that this was the New World home and commercial staging-area for Leif Eiriksson and his siblings, and other of his successors there. Eight buildings were uncovered, including the long-house and workshops for iron-working and carpentry, along with a few discarded tools and implements. There was an area for boat repair. Vinland, Inc. was evidently a going enterprise while it lasted. It was a real homestead, too--a broken spindle and an intact sewing-needle indicate definitively the presence of women. No surprises here. All of this is just what the sagas had been telling us all along.

And the Ingstads listened. Just like Sigurd Stefansson, Helga and Anne took the saga-writers at their word, and Sigurd's map, too. Really, it was all too easy. What's truly incredible is that it took 500 years to discover the site. All the clues were there. After Leif's first stop at rock-bound Baffin Island, he proceeded to Labrador, which may have been what Bjarni saw--"low-lying hills covered with forests"--ready for plunder but maybe too densely-covered for easy settlement. It was only spitting distance farther south to the tip of Newfoundland--unlike Bjarni, who turned back in mid-misadventure, Leif and his smallish armada were in full explorer-mode--and what did they find? An idyllic little cove filled with peaceful jellyfish, surrounded by semi-pastoral headlands abundant in grapevines. Where better to set up shop? The place would be convenient to the woodland treasures of "Markland"/Labrador just to the north, which in turn would be on the way back and still a very short distance to the "market-central" back in Greenland.

Even so, diminishing returns seemed to have set in. According to the sagas, in-fighting among the settlers, and especially out-fighting with the natives, doomed the the colony eventually to failure. In contrast to later colonization of, and migration to, the Americas, there just weren't enough white-folk. The displaced Greenlanders were, of course, vastly out-numbered--without much prospect of more on the way--by the indigenous Skraelingar. For long periods their relations were peaceful, however, even involving trade and barter between the parties. But in times of un-peace the battles were fierce. For example--and what follows from The Saga of Eirik the Red will have to be our lone excerpt from these remarkable works of historical fiction--here is Leif's pregnant sister, Freydis Eiriksdottir, on the sidelines of a pitched battle with the "skin-people," where they currently have the upper hand and her fellow Vinlanders are retreating--

Freydis came out and saw how they were retreating. She called out, "Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that you are, when, as seems likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon. I think I could fight better than any of you." They gave no heed to what she said. Freydis endeavored to accompany them, still she soon lagged behind, because she was with child; she went after them into the wood, and the Skraelingar directed their pursuit after her. She came upon a dead man, Thorbrand, Snorri's son, with a flat stone fixed in his head; his sword lay beside him, so she took it up and prepared to defend herself therewith.

Then came the Skraelingar upon her. She let down her sark and struck her breast with the naked sword. At this they were frightened, rushed off to their boats, and fled away. Karlsefni and the others came up to her and praised her zeal. (c. 1300)
What a woman. I'd run too. She may have given birth right then and there. I would have. But we DO know that out of all this struggle and strife came a wife who was able to deliver the very first European baby in the Western Hemisphere. Move over Virginia Dare. From the Groenlendinga Saga we learn that it was a boy, Snorri, born to that same Karlsefni above, and his wife Gudrid.

But after about ten years from Leif's momentous (except to the rest of the world) landfall at lovely Jellyfish Cove around the turn of the first millennium--everybody quit the joint ... never to return. And it only took another thousand years for all of this interesting footnote to history to fully come to light. Happy Columbus Day! (end)

Monday, November 2, 2009

#23 Celebrating Bjarni ... III--The Maps

Here's another map, limned by a young Icelandic teacher and hobbyist cartographer named Sigurd Stefansson around 1570 at the bishopric of Skalholt near modern-day Reykjavik (note ancient residue in last syllable). Sigurd's map gave a much more accurate picture of the northern latitudes of the New World, believe it or not, than the earlier Waldeseemuller world map, by now the standard, and the one that had forever immortalized Amerigo Vespucci at the expense of his fellow countryman, Columbus. For the scholarly Sigurd had done his homework well. He relied on the sagas.

His map had zero impact at the time, of course, but that little capital "A" down in the left hand corner would have enormous influence on the archaeological rediscovery of the true "discovery" of America ... some five hundred years later. Sigurd followed the sagas faithfully in piecing together the land-and-sea-scape provided in mainly two of somewhat lesser literary worth, but abounding in historical value: the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Groenlendinga Saga (not taught in my class, but pointedly and often alluded to).

Sigurd the Mapmaker read an incredible story ... one eminently suitable for Hollywood adaptation. But also true. Harrowing sea-voyages. Frontier Indian fighting. Near starvation. Birth of first child on North American soil. Sound familiar? Nope, its not Massachusetts or Virginia. All this happened more than a half-millennium earlier, on and around that magical year 1000, and on and around the places depicted on Sigurd's map.

Here's what the sagas told him: there was the Icelandic merchant Bjarni's first sighting--those "low-lying hills covered with forests"--when blown off-course on his way to the Norwegian outlaw Eirik the Red's Greenland colony. Eirik's opportunistic son, Leif, picked up the challenge 15 years later ("forests" meant timber, of which tree-depleted Greenland, despite its P.R. moniker, was in dire need) by setting sail in in the very same long-ship that Bjarni used, along with several others. (Note: I have seen these big, clinker-built, dragon-prowed, more-than-seaworthy knarrs "up close and personal." It was during my "quest for the Beowulf poem's Heorot" in 1973, when I visited Roskilde, Denmark, site of the Viking Ship Museum. See DM # 139.)

He took a safer route than that of Bjarni's wind-blown ride across open waters, however, and this was important for Sigurd's map. Leif took a "coastal" course, staying as close as he could to land masses that HAD to be there, if Bjarni was telling the truth. They were. In fact, it would have been a miracle if these itchy Viking sea-hounds had NOT discovered the northeast coastlines of North America. Just look at the map. Or check a modern one. These guys already had the nautical-tech to sail Columbus-like across vast ocean-distances if necessary, but they didn't have to. "Vinland" is right in Greenland's backyard ... literally: as mentioned earlier, they share the same continental plate.

Curiously though, Sigurd doesn't use Leif's "Vinland" to label his promontory in the lower left of his map (actually the island of Newfoundland--he also generously attached his own Greenland to "mainland" North America. Even in 1570, nobody had yet circumnavigated the forbidding extent of that massive, ice-bound island). His other designations are right from Leif's expedition: In late fall or early winter of 1000 A.D. they first make historic landfall--Leif would be the #1 European to do so, and he would hang on to that record for five centuries--on what he named Helleland (= "flat-rock-land," present day Baffin Island); next they arrive on the shores of heavily-forested Markland (= "wood-land," today's Labrador), farther south and much more promising for Leif, at least commercially, as reflected in the name he gave to it; and finally the voyagers land and set up camp on the inviting coast of Bjarni-country. On the "low-lying hills" he finds grape-vines. And upon them vinber = Old Norse for "wine-berries." (It was the Medieval Warming Period; the Little Ice Age was not to strike these latitudes for another 350 years) Here was the place to be. They all stayed the mild winter, and Leif named the place after the grapes.

But as you can see, Sigurd doesn't label this seeming New World Eden "Vinland"--as Leif would have it, according to the saga accounts. He names it after Leif's name for its aboriginals: the Skraelingar (O.N. "skin-people"-- for wearing/trading skins or being half-naked). My speculations are that perhaps the 16C Icelander was (unduly) skeptical about all that grape-business (the Little Ice Age had long since taken effect across the northern climes), or that he was trying to be cartographically accurate as to the true inhabitants of the place, since his Viking kinsmen had long ago abandoned it. For all he knew, the Skraelings might have had a thriving nation going in 1570; the English and French hadn't really gotten started yet.

Whatever the reason, Sigurd's map unwittingly verifies the root cause behind the FAILURE of the Norse colonization of America ... Americans. Native ones, that is. The Indians drove out the white-eyes for once. And only time. After ten years of struggle, Leif Eiriksson's original settlement--right near that little capital "A" on the map--was abandoned forever. Today it's the community of L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and they speak primarily English. A smattering of Eskimo, but nary a word of Icelandic. (more)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

#22 Celebrating Bjarni ... II--The Sagas

Now that my lazy "Columbus Day Fortnight" is over, and the days of November are already hard and dark upon us, alas ...

Until the 1960s we had only the word of the Norse sagas that any of this Viking exploration and colonization of America took place at all. Our school-kid fantasies of the swashbuckling Viking adventurers who got the jump on Columbus by 500 years had remained the stuff of myth and legend for as many more, for most everybody. Until: Mr. Leif Ericsson's summer home in the Canadian province of "Vinland" (okay: modern Newfoundland--more appropriately named, however, than its later namers could have known) was discovered. And archeologically verified.

More of that later. But lets talk about those Norse sagas for a minute, and about some interesting missed opportunities in the realms of history and literature. My background in Medieval Lit (and especially as Anglo-Saxonist and Beowulf scholar) put me in close touch with Old Norse/Icelandic works of poetry and prose. In fact, I taught an inter-term, special-topics course called "Northern Saga" (with a couple of Old Irish epics thrown in) at my college for several years. Fuggetabout your Quixote or Gulliver or Pamela as candidates for the first modern NOVEL in Western Literature--it was the Icelandic Brennu-Njalssaga, only one, the best, out of a half-dozen more that could be chosen. And written down some 300 years before! (Those ancient Scandians discovered more than just clinker-built long-ships and continents.) But they were entirely ignored and thus completely non-influential until relatively modern times.

First--and I promise not to "re-schedule" a college course here--the sagas were ignored as true belles lettres primarily because nobody read them. Outside of the shared-language audience of Iceland and Norway, that is. (And then by very few; after all, they were first in medieval manuscript, like the page fom Njalssaga above, before the age of print, which in itself helped spur the "modern" novel. The sagas were that much SO far ahead of their time.) Written down in the late-13th and early-14th centuries, they were simply NOT part of the Western Literary Tradition really until the Penguin people got to translating and distributing them in earnest some 50 years ago. Pity, for among the 30 or more sagas extant are three or four that could stand comparison with Hemingway.

The most gifted of the anonymous saga-writers didn't know they were writing novels, of course. They were writing history, preserving notable past events (theretofore passed on orally) by putting them into readable prose. Luckily for us, they took liberties--never with actual events, but with the character of the characters behind them. In short, they added psychology. The true measure of the true novel. There is for example no greater portrait of complex womanhood--the good and the bad--than Hallgerd in Njal, nor of flawed heroism than Gunnar in that same saga. Also, and I don't know quite how they managed it, the real historical events follow a coherent novelistic structure, right along with character exposition. The "story of the burning of Njal" is the epitome and triumph of these unsung novelists, but look for some great "modern romance" in the Laxdaela Saga, some rousing action-adventure in the full-length sagas of Egil and Grettir the Strong, and some tightly-knit short-stories (yes, they seem to have discovered the modern version of that, too) in such as the "Hraefnkels Saga" and several others. If you have the time.

Second--the sagas were ignored as true history until, again, virtually modern times. And again luckily for us, the events described are exactly right. For whatever fortuitous reason, the saga-writers chose events that occurred right around the end of the first millennium: from about 95o to 1050, a period involving political and religious turmoil in Norway, its subsequent colonization of Iceland and Greenland, and the first European settlement in America. Exciting times. What's interesting is that it took another 200 years or more for the Icelanders to write it all down. Even then, as history, not much attention was paid. Nobody in Britain or the Continent was reading Old Norse then, or even 200 more years later when Columbus et alia were contemplating a trip west across the Ocean Sea. The Great Northern Route to the New World never entered their minds. Of course the idea of a "New World" never entered the mind of Columbus even after he "discovered" it--even unto his death. Poor guy. That's why, ironically, the German cartographer Waldeseemuller gave first-name credit to travel-writer and quondam explorer Amerigo Vespucci on his influential 1507 Universalis Cosmographia. The map-maker's toponym stuck. As we all know.

The biggest irony, though, is that for five centuries before all of this, most everybody who could speak the North Germanic dialect of Indo-European already knew where the johnny-come-lately "Amerigoland" was, and who discovered it. (more)