Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Intaglios - Memories of a Grand Tour of Europe...

I remember the first time I went to Greece. I wanted to make sure I had a record of my trip so I took a few pictures… actually I took 36 rolls in 7 days! And as this was long before digital cameras were common, so they all had to be developed. But in the end, they did exactly what they were supposed to do and I have wonderful pictures of my trip.

Today when I go on a trip I’ve got a digital camera and I rarely get any of the pictures printed. My how things change! As much as I look back and see the inconvenience of carrying film canisters and the expense of getting whole rolls developed, the reality is, that was far more convenient than people had it in the past.

Imagine it’s the mid-18th century and you’re a young man (or occasionally a woman) who’s just graduated from Oxford. You’re ready to see the world… so you begin what was known as the Grand Tour. You head off to Paris to work on your French, mix with the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie and experience everything the City of Lights has to offer.

After a few months you begin your journey over the Alps and through Switzerland to make your way to Italy. Once there you’ll visit Turin, Venice, Florence, Rome and various other cultural centers. Throughout your time there you’ll be working on your Italian, studying history, visiting museums and ruins and of course rubbing elbows with the upper crust of Italian society. If music is your passion you’ll likely venture a bit south and spend some months in Naples as well.

Grand Tours were part educational and part epicurean. For the educational aspects wealthy travelers would be accompanied by a Cicerone or Bear-Leader (tutor). They might also have grooms and valets and coachmen as well. The less wealthy would hire guides and tutors along the way as was necessary. For the epicurean aspects of the tours Cicerones or guides would be of help, but often young travelers would seek to experience a city’s delights with local companions… and some, like Byron and Boswell, might spend much of their Tours searching out a given city’s underside of prostitution, gambling and whatever other debauchery they could find.

If you’re from a moneyed family, all along the Grand Tour you’ll pick up souvenirs of your journey in the form of grand paintings or sculptures or furniture or any various sorts of antiquities. If you’re from somewhat more humble origins however – this is a relative statement as by definition anyone embarking on a Grand Tour was from the wealthiest segment of society – and could not afford such luxuries, the Italians had the perfect solution: Intaglios.

Intaglios were typically small plaster stamps with reliefs carved into them. These reliefs often depicted scenes from Greek or Roman mythology, or individuals or scenes from history. The travelers would mount the intaglios into books and then make notes corresponding to each one as to his adventure that resulted in his buying or obtaining that stamp. By the end of the trip a traveler would have books filled with intaglios and notes that would last a lifetime and were perfect tools for telling children stories about their adventures in the world beyond the county line.

Intaglios make for great decorative pieces… of which we have quite a few. Today, rather than coming in books they come mounted in frames that range from a single intaglio to more than a dozen. In addition, they come in various shapes and sizes and themes. Although it is possible to find original intaglios, most today are copies made from molds of the originals. The newer intaglios are usually brighter than the originals as plaster can fade after 200 years! Most intaglios are white but on occasion they will be painted a different color – usually black – in order to create a piece with a different feel.

The next time you find yourself flipping through the pictures of your trip to Paris or Rome and lamenting the fact that you’ve got too many to choose from, just be happy that you had a digital camera and didn’t have to carry around books full of plaster in order to revisit your memories!

Intaglios are often combined in a frame with a variety of sizes and shapes to create compelling decorative pieces.  These three feature intaglios in different sized frames.  

This intaglio features a carving of 6th Century BC Greek wrestler Milo of Croton as he is devoured by a lion.  Original accounts of his death stated he met his end at the claws of wolves, but most depictions in the 18th and 19th century replaced wolves with a lion.

While most intaglios are round, some featured other shapes.  The below frame includes three different shapes, including an octagonal one featuring the Greek monster Medusa.

Although intaglio frames are sometimes purchased individually, they are usually purchased in groups as they can be placed in different patterns to fill irregular spaces or balance a room.

Intaglios usually are white plaster, but they are occasionally painted different colors, to give a different look and feel.  These sets have been painted black and seem to jump out from the behind the white matting.  

During Grand Tours intaglios were collected and pasted into books.  On the adjacent page were typically numbers corresponding to each intaglio that would describe where the piece was acquired and often what was depicted in its carving.  

While decorative intaglio frames usually feature a number of intaglios, sometimes a single piece is sufficiently compelling to stand on its own.  Above a frame features an egg shaped piece with a carving depicting the Greek tragedy of Apollo and Daphne.  

As we can see, intaglios are very versatile in how they can be displayed.  Above this set of frames features the intaglios sitting on  matte made of pages from antique books.  

This frame has a distinctly Italian flavor.  The bottom intaglio features the Roman Coliseum, the middle intaglio features a lion - a common Italian symbol during the Renaissance, and the top intaglio features a pair of Senators.

Intaglios on our walls in Atlanta.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Brief Look at Mirrors - Much More Than Meets the Eye...

Sometimes technology advances the world in ways few people might have expected. Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper freed up 85% of the population to do things other than work on farms. The mobile phone laid the foundation for everything from Uber to Tinder and myriad apps in between. In the art world it was the mirror that enabled something we are all familiar with today… the self portrait. While we might have known what Rembrandt or Van Gogh looked like without their self portraits, the fact that we actually have them gives us a much better insight into the souls of both men, and countless others. And it was mirrors that made them possible.

Basically, mirrors are spectacular things. Whether a simple rectangle you buy at Target for the back of your bathroom door or the embellished Louis XIV style giant you picked up as the centerpiece of your dining room wall, mirrors can be both functional and beautiful.

While today most of us take them for granted, the reality is, mirrors didn’t exist through most of human history, and for much of the time they have, we probably wouldn’t recognize them as mirrors at all! Indeed, one of the first mirrors in literature was not a mirror at all, but a pool of water. In Greek mythology Narcissus was a hunter known for his beauty. Tired of his boorish behavior towards those who loved him, his father, the river god Cephissus, lured Narcissus to gaze into a pool where his eyes set upon an extraordinary beauty.  Not realizing it was simply a reflection of himself, Narcissus fell in love with the image… Unable to pull himself away from his love, Narcissus drowned…

History’s first mirrors were made some 8,000 years ago out of polished obsidian, a naturally occurring glass that occurs when lava flowing from a volcano rapidly cools.

Later in much of the ancient world mirrors were made from highly polished metals such as copper, bronze, and gold. Given their materials, these mirrors were quite heavy and generally small and their reflections were not nearly as clear as found in modern mirrors. They were however quite useful for directing light into buildings or on occasion into the eyes of foreign armies. It’s even said that in 212 BC Archimedes used a set of mirrors to set fire to Roman ships attacking Syracuse.

Building on the 9th - 10th Century Syrian & Cyprian discovery of how to make clear glass, the modern mirror finds its origins in Europe’s Middle Ages. The challenge of mirrors was the ability to adhere molten metal to the glass without shattering it. The Florentines were the first to develop a technique for effectively doing so. Later the Venetians, with their spectacular glass skills would take over the mirror trade and would dominate the marketplace for a century. The Venetian secrets were extraordinarily valuable and craftsmen who sought to take their skills elsewhere often found it a short lived endeavor. When France’s Louis XIV convinced a group of Venetian artisans to share their secrets with France, Venice’s Council of Ten had them assassinated in Paris in 1667.

But by then the secret was out and a year later a French company, Compagnie du Noyer (today it’s called Saint-Gobain) was commissioned by Louis XIV to put the Venetian secrets to work in creating the mirrors for Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

As the King's extraordinary efforts might suggest, in the late 17th century mirrors were largely the provenance of the rich due to their high costs. In the early 18th century however the techniques for making mirrors had spread far beyond Venice and Paris and as a result mirrors became far more common among the non wealthy. In response to this extraordinary growth in the mirror marketplace, a wide variety of embellishments such as paint, gilding and carving found their ways into and onto mirrors, providing the wealthy with new ways to differentiate their objets d'art.

From solar power reflectors to the facades of 50 story skyscrapers to backdrops for far too many selfies, mirrors today remain a mainstay of modern life that we often take for granted… at least in the west:
Angie and Hugh were on a trip to Ghana when an older native gentleman struck up a conversation with them. Angie asked permission to take his picture, which he was happy to give. Once taken, she shared with him the picture on her camera’s digital screen. The man began to howl and laugh as he touched his face and hair. Apparently he hadn’t seen a mirror in many years and he was surprised to discover that his beard and hair had grown gray!
As objets d'art, mirrors are rarely taken for granted, and thankfully we are fortunate that's an area in which we have much experience. Below are some of our most fascinating mirrors… and a few that we only wish were ours!


A Gorgeous Round Custom Made Eglomisé Sunburst American Mirror.

A Greek Key American Wooden Mirror from the Early 20th Century with Antiqued Glass.

A Pair of 19th Century French Trumeaux Mirrors with Eglomisé Shells

The Hall of Mirrors in the Château of Versailles.

Two Stunning Large Size Blue Glass Trumeau Mirrors Ornate With Eglomisé Arrows.

Italian Mid 19th Century Gilded Sunburst Mirror.

19th Century French Gilded Rectangular Mirror Adorned with Beautifully Carved Flower Urn and Pine Cones at the Crest.

Ancient Egyptian bronze mirror decorated with two falcons in the collection of the British Museum.

Italian 20th Century Gold and Silver Gilt Mirror with Richly Carved Wood with Old Mirror.

Pair of Italian Early 20th Century Gilded Richly Carved Mirrors w/ Flower Urns Carving at the Top.

Pair of Painted and Gilded Swedish Mirrors from the Early 20th Century. Were used in The Hunger Games Movies, in Katniss' Victor's House.

The four story Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by architect Farshid Moussavi

Italian Early 20th Century Venetian Mirror with Original Glass with Etched Details 
and Lovely Crown.

Modern, Whimsical Mirror Painted with Gold and Silver Gesso.

The "Verona" Venetian Style Mirror

A Roman Silver mirror discovered in the ruins of an ancient villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, in southern Italy.  It is part of what's called The Boscoreale Treasure and most pieces are in the Louvre and the British Museum.  

The "Octagonal" Venetian Style Mirror.

Very Large 18th Century Italian Carved And Painted Mirror, Flanked by Two Fluted Pilasters Surmounted by Voluted Capitals. Profiled Molding. New Antiqued Glass.

American Hand-Carved Painted Wood Mirror from the 20th Century.

French Window Frame Painted Wood Palladium Mirror. Mid 20th Century (Circa 1930)

Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor