Celebrating Women’s History Month!
Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500, Louvre, Paris. Image Source
Hello, Art and Travel Lover,
I’m sorry this newsletter is so late. The second half of February and early March—when I should have been writing it—was a super busy time for me. (Check out Zoe’s World below to find out why.)
But now that things have slowed down, I can finally focus on my newsletter. I suppose I could have skipped this month, but I didn’t want to. It’s March—Women’s History Month! .
So with that in mind, this issue will focus on women: a Renaissance woman who made history, a twentieth-century woman who was written out of it, and two Queens of the Nile.
Here’s the scoop:
1. BEYOND THE BOOK: Isabella d’Este: A Force To be Reckoned With!
2. ART UPDATES: Janet Sobel: Who Knew?
3. GET THE KEYS. LET’S GO!: Egypt Anyone?
4. THE ART OF VISUAL LISTENING: The next topic in this series is “Form and Content.”
5. ZOE'S WORLD: Libraries for Kids Auction, Virtual Book Launch, and Book Launch Party—OH MY!
6. READERS RESPONSE: Donatello and Puglia
Off we go!
BEYOND THE BOOK
Allegory of Isabella d’Este’s Coronation (detail) by Lorenzo Costa the Elder, 1505-1506. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image Source
ISABELLA D’ESTE: A Force To Be Reckoned With!
In chapter eighteen of my book—The Art of Traveling Strangers—Viv and Claire are in Florence. At one point, Viv compliments Claire on how she handled a group of rowdy college students who interrupted their appreciation of the magnificent Florentine cathedral. Viv’s appreciation of Claire’s take-charge attitude and Claire’s own awareness of its rarity causes her imagination to soar.
“With my confidence bolstered by Viv’s praise, I wondered how different I might have been if I’d lived in the Renaissance guided by humanism. And I began to imagine myself as the Renaissance humanist Isabella d’Este—intellect, head of state, art patron . . . and now me.”
In the novel, Claire envisions herself as Isabella sitting for a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. But there’s much more to know about Isabella and that portrait than my book reveals.
Isabella d'Este was a patron of the arts, learning, and literature. She was active in politics and wrote more than two thousand letters that offer important insights into the Italian Renaissance.
She was also a humanist. Renaissance Humanism was an intellectual movement interested in the classical world and focused not on religion but on what it meant to be human. Humanists believed in the importance of realizing one’s full potential both for one’s self and for the good of society.
Born into nobility, Isabella may have been named for her relative, Queen Isabella of Spain. At the age of six, she was betrothed to the future Marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga. Educated in Latin, Greek, Roman history, music, and astrology, Isabella was debating politics with ambassadors when she was only sixteen.
Contemporaries described Isabella as a beauty, with dark eyes and golden hair. She was also famous for her fashion sense. Her style was copied by noble women throughout Europe.
Isabella d'Este by Titian, 1534-1536, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Image Source
Isabella’s Political Prowess
In 1509, Isabella's husband, Francesco, was captured by French forces and held prisoner in Venice. Isabella served as regent in his absence and defended the city as commander in chief. She then negotiated a peace treaty that freed her husband in 1512.
Upon his return to Mantua, their relationship deteriorated, and Isabella moved to Rome, where she held court among the elite.
When Francesco died in 1519, Isabella’s eldest son became the new Marquis of Mantua with Isabella as his regent until he came of age. But even then, because of her popularity, she continued to play a prominent role in the governance of Mantua.
In 1527, when Rome was attacked by Bourbon forces, Isabella led the defense of her property and saved the lives of many who’d taken shelter there. Returning to Mantua, she then went on to lead the city's recovery from illness and famine that killed almost one-third of the population.
In 1529, Isabella became ruler of a small city-state—Solarolo—and remained its sovereign until she died in 1539.
Isabella and the Arts
Besides being a skilled political leader, Isabella was also passionate about the arts. She supported many Renaissance painters, writers, poets, and musicians. She collected artworks throughout her lifetime, essentially creating an art museum in her private studio (or apartment) in Mantua.
In 1493, Isabella commissioned Andrea Mantegna to paint her portrait, but she wrote,
“the painter has done it so badly that it does not look like us in the least.”
She then commissioned a portrait from Raphael’s father, Giovani Santi of Urbino, but she didn’t like that one either. It, too, failed to resemble her. Giovan Francesco Maineri also painted her portrait. But again, she complained it didn’t look like her. This time it was because he made her too fat.
In 1498 Isabella commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint her portrait, and the next year, as he fled the French forces invading Milan, he stopped in Mantua to honor Isabella’s commission. He did at least two drawings while there, but only one remains.
This life-size drawing hangs in the Louvre and probably reflects Isabella’s own wishes for how she should be portrayed. She said once that she wanted to instill a “fine meaning” into the works she commissioned, and she was known to have given explicit instructions and even compositional sketches to the artists she hired. So, it’s fair to assume, she also gave specific directions to Leonardo.
For her portrait by da Vinci, she chose to be depicted in the latest fashion, which had just switched from Spanish to French. She also points to a book. This was probably her decision as well. Unfortunately, the drawing we see today was altered, and the book can no longer be seen.
But, if you look at the copy of Leonardo’s drawing below, you can see the work as it was originally intended.
Isabella d’Este, After Leonardo, 16th century, Ashmolean Museum, Oxfrord, England. Image Source:
The inclusion of a book is revealing. Books depicted in Renaissance paintings were usually prayer books held open in the sitter’s hands. But this book is closed, suggesting it refers to contemporary writers or her love and collection of classical manuscripts—a clear indication of her status as a humanist.
Another revealing element in this work is Isabella’s positioning. This is the only confirmed portrait Leonardo ever did in profile and, as such, probably reflects Isabella’s request to be captured in the same dignified pose as the rulers on classical coins.
Before Leonardo could paint the final portrait, he left Mantua for Florence. We know this because Isabella wrote him a letter, urging the completion of her commission.
Leonardo and Isabella exchanged letters for six years after his visit to Mantua, but there was no mention of a finished painting.
Although Leonardo’s portrait of Isabella is only a drawing, it’s considered to be one of his finest, and to me it reveals the powerful noblewoman as she wished to be seen—beautiful, fashionable, dignified, an educated humanist. . . and thin.
Untitled by Janet Sobel, 1942. Image Source
JANET SOBEL: WHO KNEW?
As the story goes, during the summer of 1947 in New York, Jackson Pollock invented a new way of painting that transformed contemporary art and snatched the center of the art world away from Europe. His revolutionary drip-style paintings have been touted as the first truly American art form with dynamic drips and splatters of paint covering the entire canvas.
In 1949 Life magazine suggestively asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" Then in 1956,Time magazine intensified the hype about his radical painting technique by calling him "Jack the Dripper."
But, the truth is, Jackson Pollock didn't invent this new "born and bred" American style. Janet Sobel did, and she wasn’t born or bred in America.
She came to New York with her mother and siblings in 1908 at the age of 15 after escaping the anti-Semitic violence in her town in eastern Ukraine. She married Max Sobel the following year and spent most of her time raising their five children.
When their nineteen-year-old son, Sol, became disillusioned with his artistic talents in the late 1930s, Janet started playing around with his art supplies. With no artistic training, she began making art that was completely free from any established rules or techniques. She was 45.
Laying her canvas on the floor, Sobel painted simplified figures gathered together in imaginary spaces. Some have likened these works to Marc Chagall. (See Untitled above.)
Janet Sobel painting. Image Source
But soon, she began experimenting with unique painting techniques. She used eye-droppers to squirt, suck, and drag wet paint around the canvas, creating threads of color that danced across the entire surface.
Milky Way by Janet Sobel, 1945. Image Source
The painting above, Milky Way, is one example of her experimental works. It was created in 1945, two years before Pollock began producing his drip-style paintings like the one shown below—Galaxy. Interesting how even the title of Pollock’s painting is similar to Sobel’s.
Galaxy by Jackson Pollock, 1947. Image Source
Of course, creative coincidences do happen, but this wasn't one of them.
When Janet’s son, Sol, saw her works, he immediately started promoting them. He even reached out to the influential art collector Sidney Janis, who was instrumental in establishing the reputations of the now-famous artists: Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Pollock.
In 1944, Sobel's first solo show met with accolades like "astounding sophistication" and "absolutely unrestricted" imagination. That same year, Sidney Janis included her work in his exhibition called Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America, which toured the U.S.
The following year, the renowned art promoter, Peggy Guggenheim, included Sobel in a major exhibition—The Women—at her Art of This Century gallery. We know Jackson Pollock saw her work at this show (if not before) because the art critic, Clement Greenberg, wrote in 1955 that he visited the exhibition with Jackson and that they
"noticed one or two curious paintings shown at Peggy Guggenheim's by a 'primitive' painter, Janet Sobel (who was, and still is, a housewife living in Brooklyn)."
He goes on to say that
"The effect – and it was the first really 'all-over' one that I had ever seen… – was strangely pleasing. Later on, Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him."
Untitled by Janet Sobel, c. 1946. Image Source
In 1946, just as Sobel was poised to soar, her husband moved the family from New York to New Jersey for his work. Since Janet couldn’t drive, this move effectively cut her off from the New York art scene. Then in 1947, her staunch supporter, Peggy Guggenheim, closed her gallery and moved to Venice. To make matters even worse, Sobel became allergic to paint and had to use other media instead, which were not as conducive to her drip technique.
By 1948, Janet Sobel basically disappeared from the art world just as Jackson Pollock’s drip-style paintings were taking the world by storm.
Jackson Pollock. Image Source
So, as it turns out, it was a Brooklyn housewife—as Clement Greenburg dismissively described her—from Ukraine (not the US) who first pioneered the “all-over” drip technique that influenced Pollock and changed the art world forever, only nobody knew. . .
GET THE KEYS. LET’S GO!
The Great Pyramids of Giza, 2600 BC, Egypt. Image Source
Although Egypt has been at the top of my list as a travel destination forever, I’ve never been. But, my friend Joyce just went and told me all about her trip to this ancient art-filled country that she called heavenly.
Nuts and Bolts
When Joyce set off for Egypt, she also had a friend who went. Joyce chose to go with Educational Opportunities Tours (EO)—a Christian travel company, while her friend went with Overseas Adventure Travel. (OAT). OAT cost about $1000 more than EO, but it capped the tour at only eighteen people, spent more time on the Nile, and stayed longer at the different locations. Although Joyce was totally enamored with Egypt and loved her guide, she felt her tour was a bit rushed and that she might have preferred OAT.
I wondered about her safety while there, and she said she felt protected at all times. Hotels were gated and guarded by armed men, and the tour busses came equipped with armed guards as well.
The first word Joyce used for Cairo was “intense.” The city is one of the most densely populated urban centers in the world, with over twenty million inhabitants. While the downtown is beautiful, with its colonial-era buildings, the city teems with poverty-stricken people. Joyce said it was not as bad as India, but bad. Cars vied for road space with donkeys and carts, and trash was everywhere. But the museums were outstanding.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo (EMC) was built in 1902 and is the oldest archaeological museum in the Middle East. Housing over 170,000 artifacts, it has the largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities in the world.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, designed by Marcel Dourgnon, 1902.
During Joyce’s visit, the museum was in transition, with many items already moved to the new (still in process) Grand Egyptian Museum. To Joyce’s eye, though, the old historic repository looked filled to the brim with art. But it’s age was showing. Many works were displayed in antique glass cases and identified with typewriter-written labels.
The new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is eight miles away from its older sibling and sits on the Giza Plateau overlooking the Great Pyramids. According to the museum’s website, it’s scheduled to open to the public in November of this year. Spreading over 121 acres, it’s the largest museum in the world dedicated to only one civilization.
The main draw will be the special exhibition devoted to the treasures of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), where visitors will be dazzled by more than five thousand artifacts unearthed by Howard Carter in 1922.
If the museum does open in November of 2022, it will fall on the 100th anniversary of Carter’s discovery.
The Grand Egyptian Museum, designed by the Heneghan Peng Architectural Firm, planned opening 2022. Image Source
The new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) is also located in Cairo. It opened in 2021 and proudly displays twenty-two royal mummies from ancient Egypt. The museum uses the latest technologies to highlight all the historical periods of the great Egyptian civilization, and Joyce was swept away by the sophistication of the design and displays (quite a contrast to the antiquated glass cases and typewritten labels in the old Egyptian Museum).
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, deslgned by El Ghazzali Kosseiba, 2021. Image Source
Joyce’s group also traveled to other historic sites in and around Cairo. Besides the famous Great Pyramids of Giza (shown at the top of this section), they visited Memphis. It was the capital of the Old Kingdom—the first flourishing of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
They then explored the nearby necropolis of Saqqara, with its Step Pyramid of King Djoser. This monument started the craze among Old Kingdom pharaohs for pyramid-shaped stone tombs—each one designed to outdo the other.
Step Pyramid of King Djoser, 2670-2650 BC Image Source
But none of this was as spectacular as her cruise down the Nile.
The Nile and the Queens of the Nile: Nefertari and Hatshepsut
Map of Egypt Image Source
Joyce’s group flew from Cairo to Aswan and then set off on the Sonestra Saint George Nile Cruise, traveling the river in luxury—swimming pool and all. The experience was so delightful that Joyce wished they’d spent a week on the Nile instead of just four days. (Duly noted!)
On her first day in Aswan, she visited the Temple of Philae. In the 1960s, during the construction of the Aswan Dam, this famous temple was disassembled, stone by stone, and reassembled in a brand new location to save it from drowning.
Philea Temple, 380 - 362 BC,, Aglika Island. Image Source
In Aswan, Joyce’s friend stayed at the Old Cataract Hotel—a historic luxury resort on the banks of the Nile. Joyce wished she had stayed there too. This elegant Victorian hotel was built in 1899 by Thomas Cook for European travelers. Its guests have included Agha Khan, Tsar Nicholas of Russia, Winston Churchill, King Farouk, Howard Carter, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Princess Diana, and Agatha Christie who was inspired by its exotic atmosphere to write, Death on the Nile.
The Old Cataract Hotel, 1899, Aswan. Photo compliments of Joyce.
Sailing farther down the river, Joyce fell in love with Luxor (formerly known as Thebes). During the New Kingdom—the second great flourishing of the ancient Egyptian civilization—Thebes was the capital.
While in Luxor, Joyce’s friend stayed in the Winter Palace. Like the Old Cataract Hotel, it was built at the end of the nineteenth century and hosted many of the same illustrious guests. Although Joyce didn’t stay there herself, she said she would have loved to, and so would I!
Winter Palace, Luxor. Photo compliments of Joyce.
In Luxor, the massive Karnak and Luxor Temples are on the east bank of the Nile, while the Valleys of the Kings and Queens are on the west.
Map of Luxor. Image Source
In the Valley of the Queens, Joyce saw Nefertari’s lavishly decorated and beautifully restored tomb. The degree of detail is incredible, and the colors are said to be more brilliant than any of Egypt’s other tombs or temples.
Nefertari was the wife of Ramses II and is one of the best-known of all the Egyptian queens. She married Ramses when she was 13, and he 15. They were married for over 24 years. During that time, Ramses II celebrated his love for Nefertari with monuments and poetry dedicated to her honor.
Queen Nefertari was highly educated and could read and write hieroglyphs. Ramses valued this rare skill and entrusted her with delicate diplomatic correspondence. The pharaoh held her in such high esteem that he not only gave her political power, but had her accompany him, in some cases, on military campaigns.
Click here for more on Nefertari and more gorgeous images.
Tomb of Nefertari,13th century BC. Image Source
In the Valley of the Kings, Joyce visited the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Standing at the top of the monumental staircase and looking out over the valley, she was filled with awe and could imagine the lavish ceremonies that had taken place there.
Senenmut, Queen Hatshepsut’s trusted advisor (and maybe lover), built the temple. It’s known as one of the most outstanding examples of New Kingdom architecture. The way it echoes the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal elements of the background cliffs is especially impressive.
Click here for more on Queen Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple.
Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, designed by Senenmut, 1479-1458 BC. Image Source
Hatshepsut was crowned queen of Egypt around the age of twelve when she married her half-brother. Upon his death, she became regent for her stepson, Tutmoses III. But soon, she established herself as co-ruler and took on full pharaonic power.
As pharaoh, Hatshepsut expanded Egyptian trade and oversaw major building projects, most notably her mortuary temple. Hatshepsut was only one of three women known to become pharaoh in three thousand years of ancient Egyptian history and the first to attain the full power of that position. Cleopatra, who also had such power, would rule some fourteen centuries later.
Knowing that her role as pharaoh was highly controversial, Hatshepsut fought to defend its legitimacy. She declared that as the daughter of one pharaoh and the wife of another, she had the purest of royal blood. Also to support her rightful rule, she requested that many of her images depict her as a male pharaoh (ceremonial beard and all).
Hatshepsut probably died in her mid-forties, around 1458 BC. Her step-son, Thutmose III, went on to rule for thirty more years. Late in his tenure, he had almost all evidence of Hatshepsut’s reign destroyed, possibly to erase her example as a powerful female ruler. Because of this, ancient Egyptian scholars knew little about her until 1822, when they could finally decode and read the hieroglyphs on the walls of her mortuary temple.
Click here for more about Queen Hatshepsut.
So, are you ready to go to Egypt now? I sure am!
THE ART OF VISUAL LISTENING
With these topics behind us: “What is Art?”, “Why is Art? “, “Art and Beauty,“ and “Seeing, Perception, and Creativity,” we’re now ready to tackle “Form and Content.”
“. . . In order to . . . appreciate art, we need to learn its language. And to do that, we need to study the artwork’s form—its physical appearance. Understanding the form helps us decipher the work’s content—it’s meaning or message.”
Read more . . .
Signing books at The Art of Traveling Strangers Book Launch Party at Claire’s in the Long Beach Museum of Art, February 26, 2022
Libraries for Kids Auction, Virtual Book Launch, and Book Launch Party—OH MY!
As I said in the introduction of this newsletter, it’s been a busy time.
On February 14th, the Bookish Road Trip online auction for Libraries for Kids started. My donation received a generous bid (Thanks to you, Alicia!), and, in the end, Bookish Road Trip raised more than $3000 to provide books for kids in rural Kenya. Whoo-Hoo!
AND . . .
on February 22nd, my book, The Art of Traveling Strangers, was released to the world!
If you’d like to purchase a copy, click here.
To commemorate the release, I did a book launch on Zoom with my sister—Bergie, daughter—Shannon, and friend—Alicia. We pretended to be on a fictitious airline called Traveling Strangers. While flying virtually to Milan, we talked about the book and discussed some of the artists and artworks my main characters, Viv and Claire, encountered on their journey. If you missed the event, you can still watch the fun by clicking here.
Then on February 26th, we continued to celebrate by throwing a party at Claire’s restaurant in the Long Beach Museum of Art. I chose Claire’s because that’s the name of my art historian protagonist, who lives in Long Beach, and—of course— loves art museums. I couldn’t think of a better place to honor my fictional character.
The weather cooperated beautifully, Claire's kept everything running smoothly, and I couldn't have been happier with so many friends and family celebrating with me!
And on top of that, with several guests in from out of town, the party continued for days.
Party Girls: Rinda, Zoe, Mimi, Katy, Gretchen, Elle.
Book Launch Party February 26, 2022
But what about the book, you say? Well, it was the #1 new release in European Art History on Amazon! What a thrilling surprise.
Thank you to those who bought the book and those who posted reviews. You are the reason I write!
Both of the tips below offer enticing enhancements to articles posted in last month’s newsletter.
Alicia (from Long Beach) alerted me to this beautiful pictorial essay on picturesque Puglia. It made me drool!
Roger (my husband) found this excellent article on a new exhibition in Florence that will be up through July: “Donatello: The Renaissance.”
The lead-in to the article says it all!
“An exhibit in Florence puts the 15th-century sculptor at the epicenter of the Renaissance, presenting a master whose innovations transformed art history.”
Thanks so much for joining me.
Until next month, ~Zoe
Copyright (C) 2022 Zoe Disigny Author. All rights reserved.
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