Happy Birthday Herr Dürer

Born on May 21, 1471, Albrecht Dürer was one of the finest – and certainly the most popular – German artist. He lived and painted at the same time as Michelangelo and Leonardo, and brought the Renaissance from Italy to Northern Europe. His art brilliantly embodied the theories of perspective and proportion, and his works show an amazing passion for realistic detail.

He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and other than when he went to the Netherlands and then Italy for training, he lived there his entire life. He was a child prodigy and a versatile artist – his travels allowed him to combine the detailed realism of Netherlandish Renaissance Art with the beauty of Florentine Renaissance. He was a master at woodcut engravings and the prints he made from them were extremely popular. His skills in woodcut engraving and printmaking remain unsurpassed to this date. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. The popularity of his prints and their lower cost made them bestsellers – making him the first bestselling artist in the world.

The monumental nature of his paintings, particularly his later self-portrait in which he bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ, and uses his initials significantly as AD 1500 (for the year of the painting) are all for the purpose of giving his profession the elevated stature that artists enjoyed in Italy, in contrast to the craftsman type stature they held in northern Europe. His exquisite self-portraits are breathtaking in every way – and show his journey from child prodigy to a great Renaissance artist.

So Happy 559th to this talented and versatile powerhouse of an artist.

JMW Turner and the Sublime

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming
Before it seeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
             JMW Turner (1812)

The master of sublime was born on this day in 1775. Joseph Mallord William Turner was an English painter of the Romantic style, and is well known for his landscape paintings in which he captures the sublime.

Sublime, according to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) is a concept which instills fascination mixed with fear when one is in the presence of something larger than oneself. Sublime evokes the power of God and of nature. Turner was a master of instilling his paintings with this concept of sublime – reflecting the British Romantic interest in the awe-inspiring power of nature.

In The Slave Ship (1840), one of his most celebrated paintings, Turner evokes sublime both through the power of nature as seen in the powerful and turbulent ocean and the impending typhoon, and the power of God who is all powerful and sees all of man’s deeds. The shipowner has just emptied a number of sick and old slaves into the ocean for the purpose of collecting insurance for lost cargo, but as the ship moves further into the ocean the typhoon may drown the ship – such is the indiscriminate power of nature that renders all men helpless in its wake.

Here, we are in the presence of an all-powerful, angry, and disapproving God, the bright and fierce sunshine is symbolic of an angry God who will dole out justice to the slave owner when he sails his ship into a typhoon. As a viewer we are left in awe – fearful and inspired in equal measure by the emotions Turner evokes in this painting.

Amphora – yes the @ sign has a name

The symbol @ is so commonly used today that most of us don’t even notice it. I’ve heard it being referred to as “at the rate of” and I didn’t think that that was its actual name. Which got me wondering on what its real name was, and how did it end up in our email addresses.

The origin of the symbol again goes back to the ingenious medieval scribes looking to make their job of scribing easier by finding shortcuts.  They may have used the symbol for the Latin word “ad” which means toward. It’s first known use though is where it was used to represent the words “each at” and the e and a being joined together to form the symbol. 

Ancient clay jars called Amphoras

Its first documented use, from where it also gets its name, was in 1536 when a Florentine wine merchant Francesco Lapi used the symbol @ for units of wine sold in clay jars or Amphoras. With this its use in commerce started and merchants started to use it to tell the price of each unit of the item being purchased – 10 loaves of bread @ $1, meaning total cost of $10. Its use in this manner in commerce continued until 1971, and perhaps it was this exclusive use in commerce that made it a good option for use in emails.

An Italian Merchant uses the @ symbol in 1536 (courtesy MOMA website)

The typewriters of 1800s did not even include the symbol in their keyboards. It was not until 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was looking for a way to start sending emails outside of his host environment, and into another host environment that he noticed the barely used @ key on the keyboard of his computer. He realized it was barely used which made it easier for him to choose it. He used it to separate his name from the host network name – and changed the history of the barely used Amphora.

With this decision, the @ symbol was rescued from obscurity, and a life in history books. By using it as the bridge between individual and host network names, he made it the most important part of how humans connect and interact with each other in the digital world.

Sunday Seven – Notre-Dame, Paris

On this Easter Sunday I started thinking of the magnificent Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which had a devastating fire almost a year ago. On Good Friday this year the cathedral had a small closed service. Regardless of one’s faith, the beginning of the rebirth of this medieval church from the ashes of that devastating fire, is reason enough to celebrate.

Maurice Utrillo (`1883 – 1955), Nore Dame, 1909. Musee de l’Orangerie
Marc Chagall, (1887 – 1985) Notre-Dame en gris, 1955
JMW Turner (1775 – 1851). Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, 1826. Tate, London
Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825). The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804, 1806-07. Musee du Louvre, Paris
Henri Matisse (1869 -1954) Notre-Dame,1900 Tate, London
Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935), Notre Dame Cathedral Paris, 1885. Detroit Institute of the Arts.
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) Notre Dame de Paris, 1907. Whitney Museum of American Art

Say Shibboleth !!

Shibboleth: Ear of Grain in ancient Hebrew

I saw the word “Shibboleth”for the first time earlier this week. When I logged out of an account, it said something along the lines of a Shibboleth logout. Which of course, got me wondering – what was that? It seemed so incongruous.

The word – which clearly sounds like a Hebrew word – has a very interesting story. In Hebrew the word Shibboleth actually means ear of grain. Some ancient Semitic tribes pronounced the word with a “sh” sound, while others pronounced it with an “s” sound, and that – believe it or not  – is the beginning of the story of how it eventually came to be part of current network security.  

When two Semitic tribes went to war during biblical times, the victors, who pronounced the “sh” sound, identified the enemy by making everyone say the word shibboleth – and those that said it with an “s” sound were found to be the enemy and – well – slaughtered.

And from there the word came to mean linguistic password – a way of speaking that is used to identify a group of people. It can also be customs, mannerisms, and ways of doing something. One example would be identifying an American from a Britisher by the way they use a fork and knife; a Britisher does not switch the fork from the left to the right hand – whereas an American switches the fork to the right hand after cutting their food. Shibboleth became a way of including and excluding people and identifying them – and I can imagine it must have also been quite useful during modern warfare too, including World War I & II.

Shibboleth has been used a lot when two neighboring countries are at war – or during a civil war – when it is difficult to distinguish between people because there are more similarities than dissimilarities. In the Lebanese Civil war of 1975, Lebanese soldiers checked to see is someone was Lebanese or Palestinian by making them say the word for tomato in Arabic. Lebanese say “banadoura,” while Palestinians say “bandoura.” With this tomayto-tomato they were able to identify the Palestinians. There are many similar wartime stories linked with this word.

It is this very ability to identify who belongs and who does not that enabled the word to lend itself to be used in reference to secure identification when a user logs into or out of a network system run by institutions such as public service organizations or universities. And that is what I recently saw when I logged out of a network.

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth exhibition at the Tate Modern in London shows cracks in the floor – symbolizing the damage cultural exclusion can cause.

Morse's Kunstkammer

I am always fascinated by paintings that are paintings of a gallery or a viewing room – they are basically a painting of multiple paintings (similar to Rockwell’s Picasso vs. Sargent). Two of the best examples of this genre, called kunstkammer (German for “cabinet of curiosities”) are Modern Rome and Ancient Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 – 1765)

For me the most fascinating kunstkammer painting is Samuel Morse’s (of the telegraph and Morse code fame), Gallery of the Louvre which he painted from 1831 to 1833. Before he connected the two sides of the Atlantic with a telegraphic message, Morse tried to do so with this monumental painting. Morse started his career as a painter and was a well-known portrait artist when he painted this work, primarily for the cultural and artistic education of the American public. Morse and his great friend and author James Fenimore Cooper came up with the idea of this painting to firstly, record the world’s greatest art, and secondly, to introduce young Americans to refined European art.

Samuel Morse’s Gallery in the Louvre 1831-33

The massive 6 by 9 feet painting is of the Salon Caree in the Louvre; its walls Morse lined with some of the world’s most famous art.  In the foreground is Morse himself as he looks at a painting his daughter is working on, and to the back left is Cooper with his wife and daughter.  They are surrounded by brilliant small scale replicas of the works of Leonardo, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Carvaggio among others. 

Morse arranged the paintings as he wished and probably in some order that he liked them, and altered relative sizes to fit his canvas.  We can see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Raphael’s La Belle Jardiniere. At the bottom row of paintings – on either side of Mona Lisa- we see two versions of Christ Carrying the Cross – perhaps Morse wanted to highlight the different ways artists handled the same subject matter.  

What a powerhouse of talent Morse must have been – it’s remarkable, almost incredulous, that his talented artist then went on to invent the single wire telegraph and the Morse Code.