Login/
Create Account

Cat's Cradle Blog

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Power and Art: Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Il Principe (The Prince) by Niccolò Machiavelli. "La Nuova Italia" Editrice, 1941.

Born on May 3, 1469, Machiavelli remains, if not a household word, then one of the most recognizable names of the Italian Renaissance.  “Machiavellian” has earned a permanent place in the English language.  The Prince, one of his most important treatises, continues to be standard reading in university classrooms and a roadmap for political behavior in our time.  Whether he meant The Prince as satire or as a serious tribute to the Medici and other power brokers of the 15th and 16th centuries, his work has left a mark on our culture that continues to this, the 543rd anniversary of his birth in Florence, Italy.

The Florentine Renaissance, within which Machiavelli lived (1469-1527), was a study in paradox and contrast.  Florence rose from the bleak ashes of the Black Death (as depicted in Boccaccio’s Decameron), during which 70% of the city’s population either died or went elsewhere, to become a booming center of textiles (first wool, then silk) and finance (the banking enterprises of families like the Medici).  It was a city where money talked and power rested in the hands of the Medici family during most of the period.

The money that ruled Florence, rather than addressing the needs of the impoverished, went to displays of status.  The Medici, the Pitti, and the other wealthy and powerful families outdid one another with investment in private and public artworks.   Michelangelo’s “David,” now housed in the Accademia, was once a sculpture on public view in the Piazza della Signoria; a replica stands there now. Architects such as Brunelleschi thrived, and thus resulted a city of extraordinary beauty.  Botticelli, Da Vinci, Donatello, Fra Angelico, and many others found patrons in wealthy families, in the Florentine government, and in the Church itself.   Without the rise of families like the Medici, it’s doubtful whether Florentine art would have thrived as it did.

The art of the Renaissance, on the surface, provides a striking contrast to Machiavelli’s emphasis on “doing what is necessary” to build and keep power.  Nevertheless, his writing and the great art of the period shared many things.  They rested on a foundation of rational humanism.  They evoked the past, especially the past of classical Greece and Rome.  They also had a deep interest in contemporary subjects:  Machiavelli’s analysis of politics, Da Vinci’s portraiture, the Brancacci chapel’s frescoes with the faces of Florentines who lived during the time artist was working.

The Italian Renaissance was a time of contrast and conflict.  Bloody political upheaval marked the period.  Popes sired illegitimate children and kept mistresses in the Vatican.  Families warred with each other over who controlled cities.  Yet the Renaissance in Florence and other Italian cities was also a time of immeasurable beauty, of artistic innovation, and of enormous creativity.

Machiavelli’s work must certainly be counted among some of the most significant of this fascinating time.

Ci vediamo, mei amici!

Kathy Carter
Cat’s Cradle Books

The last Kodachrome roll: photography, history, progress?

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

A year ago the Kodak company ceased production of Kodachrome, that rich medium used in 35mm slide photography as well as in the creation of countless films.  The last 36-exposure roll went to Steve McCurry, whose haunting photograph of a green-eyed Afghan girl (1984) became a symbol of earlier conflict in Afghanistan.   What a task this final odyssey must have been, making decisions about what to include and how to compose and set the shot! 

In one way, the demise of Kodachrome is just a step along the path of photographic history.  The medium is young compared with the other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.  The transformations photography has undergone are nothing short of amazing. 

Early French technical reference volume for photography

19th century French reference volume for photography

I wonder if early photographers saw the shifts from dauguerrotype to tintype to silver emulsion as nostalgically as this one.  I think rather not.  The early technology of photograph led to greater convenience and better results, generally.  The advent of smaller and smaller hand-held film cameras, especially in the twentieth century, democratized the medium and brought snapshot photography into the hands of Middle America.  Camera portability transformed journalism as well.  Instant Polaroids spoke to instant gratification, which some might say was one of the markers of the post-WWII era.  And the advent of color photography – including the recently departed Kodachrome – took the medium to new realms of possibilities. 

Digital photography, of course, was the next technological step.   Film photographers could be Luddites in the early years of digital development, but most have embraced the technology now.  Instead of film, we use a digital card holding hundreds of images.  Instead of a darkroom, there’s PhotoShop.  Instead of prints, we view images on a screen.  We delete the ones we don’t want (and there are many of those; not having to pay for processing leads us to shoot with great abandon).  The rest we save for printing…or for viewing in a digital picture frame.  The end result is a picture.  The process getting there is transformed forever.

I still have my Olympus OM-1 35mm SLR.  It takes great pictures.  But getting them developed is more and more problematic, especially if I want to shoot in black and white.  The OM-1 went with me to the Outer Banks one summer for some beach photography that I still think is some of my best.  It traveled with me to Britain, France, Italy, and Greece, and rewarded me with rich Kodachrome slides, some of which still send me back in place and time.  My daughter’s baby pictures were taken on the OM-1.  So, too, were the photographs I shot during my short but interesting career in print journalism: peanut farmers worried about drought, outsider artists and their work, historical sites, new businesses hopeful for success, concerts, and even a C-130 that landed at a small airstrip where I was living and working. 

Alfred Stieglitz at the Met

Metropolitan Museum of Art bulletin featuring the work of Alfred Stieglitz

There is a whole history in the heft of the camera in my hand, and in the way the macro lens feels as I balance it.  When I use it, I feel a connection to generations of photographers who have gone before me using different equipment and technologies. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I own digital equipment, and I love using it.  The Nikon D-5000 DSLR is a joy, and its new macro lens an absolute dream.   The palm-sized Fuji Finepix has amazing features for a tiny point-and-shoot.  

And yet, I wonder whether leaving the medium of emulsion film behind is not also leaving something creative behind that is different.  Maybe not better than digital, but different.  When I’m behind the lens, especially the lens of my old 35mm, I feel connected to generations of photographers who have gone before me.  I’m humbled by their superior talent and technical expertise.  But I keep on shooting and capturing anyway.

Savor the work of photographers through time and space in our photography catalog. 

Until next time….

Kathy Carter

Cat’s Cradle Books