Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sparrow, shark tooth and rocks

History, arts and science are seen as three separate areas, that apparently have little in common. But it was not laways like that. In past, all the three were closely linked. This was brought out during a guided tour in Bologna (Italy) about the birth of geology as a scientific discipline and its links with art and history.

When I had first seen the announcement from the medieval museum about the guided tour to the San Giacomo church focusing on geological issues, I was not very sure about participating. "Listening about Geology would be boring", I had thought. A little search on the internet had shown that the guides for the tour were two important persons - Giambattista Vai, professor of geology at Bologna university, and Alessandro Ceregato, a marine research scientist. Usually such tours are conducted by archeologists, historians and art critics. So I was intrigued by the idea and decided to try it.

During the guided tour, most of the explanations were given by Prof. Vai, while Alessandro Ceregato spoke mainly about a painting by an Italian artist called Passerotti.

When I was new to Italy, I was not very keen to join the "guided tours to churches", as I used to think that these would be "religious" visits. However, after a few wonderful experiences, soon I had to change my mind.

Church has played an important role in the history of Europe. Often, it was not only a religious power but it also ruled and controlled different countries. The Catholic Church also patronized most of the arts, artists and sciences. Thus, looking at the churches as part of the history of Europe, can help us in gaining new understandings about history, arts and different branches of science.

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San Giacomo church is a huge structure in the university area of Bologna (in the image below, the church can be seen in top-right quadrant - this picture was taken on a snowy evening, from the top of the medieval tower in the city centre).

San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy


Prof. Vai started the visit by explaining that he was going to talk about some events that had happened around the year 1500 AD. This was the period of the early renaissance and Italy had a large number of great artists who were making a new way of making art. The artists included Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello, Brunelleschi and many others. Their new way of looking at paintings, was the result of the introduction of ideas of geometery and mathematics in the art through the concept of "prospect". (In the image below, Prof. Vai during the tour).

Prof. Giambattista Vai, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy


Till then, the art had mainly been flat and two dimensional. Paintings showed people and events, but they did not have depth and proportions - they were very clearly paintings, different from the reality. The new ideas of "prospect" in the art, looked at things like the source and the angle of light, it analysed shadows and looked at the hidden geometric forms in nature. It also looked at the proportions and the distances, and introduced the idea of depth in the paintings. Thus paintings became more realistic.

Thus suddenly artists were looking at and examining carefully the geography of the places, the structures of biological life and inanimate objects - it was as if they were looking at everything around them with fresh eyes, to understand their specific characteristics so that these could be represented in their three-dimensional reality in their paintings. This changed the way paintings were made and at the same time, gave birth to the science of geology. Geology deals with understanding how earth is composed of different materials and layers and their characteristics.

The study of Geology was important not just for the artists, it also had other practical implications including the search for new metals and minerals useful for treating illnesses. It also had links with more esoteric ideas such as the alchemy.

Geology and fossils

In Italy, people had found fossils of marine life and objects like the sea shells, while digging in the hills and mountains. They couldn't understand how these things had come to these places, so far away from the sea or rivers. The most accepted theory in Europe to explain such finds was through the universal floods during Noah's times as described in the Bible.

Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to leave written documents of his opinions on this subject. Leonardo's argument was that shells and fossils of marine animals could not have come to the mountains with the flood-waters described in Bible, as those floods would have left such objects on the surfaces of the hills and mountains and wouldn't have buried them inside the rocks and hills. Thus, his hypothesis was that some time in the past, those same mountains were at bottom of the oceans.

Unfortunately, Leonardo preferred writing in "reverse handwriting" and thus his diaries were not properly read and understood till more than 200 hundred years later. Thus his theories remained forgotten. On the other hand, other artists, humanists and budding scientists in the renaissance period of Italy had continued to think and discuss about it and thus the science of geology came up as a branch during the 1500s in Bologna. One such person from Bologna, Ulisse Aldrovandi, is called the father of geology because he coined the word "geology" in 1603.

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Geology in the 15th century art

After all the explanations, we were taken around the San Giacomo chruch to look at the paintings made from fifteenth to sevententh century to see how artists had incorporated those early ideas of geology in their work.

First, we looked at a painting by Bartolomeo Passerotti. At the bottom of this painting, we looked at two objects - a sparrow on the left and a shark tooth on the right corners (below Passerotti's painting).

Painting by Bartolemeo Passerotti, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy

The sparrow is considered as the signature of Passerotti (literally "Passerotto" means "sparrow"). The special thing about this sparrow is that it has been painted in such a detailed and realistic way that it's species can be identified. It is local species of sparrow that was very common in this part of Italy 3-4 hundred years ago, while today it has been replaced by the more common hybrid or European sparrow. This again showed the attention to real-life details in the paintings introduced at that time.

The shark tooth near the footstone and a pebble on the bottom right of the painting, discovered in a hill (details in the image below), is from the Aldrovandi's collection of natural history. The painter Passerotti was a friend of Aldrovandi, and by placing that tooth in his painting, he acknowledges his friend's work about the theories of geology.

detail of Shark's tooth in Passerotti painting, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy


The marvellous Bentivoglio chapel

Then we went to look at the Bentivoglio chapel, a small chapel in a corner of San Giacomo Maggiore church, that is full of beautiful paintings. The Bentivoglio family, descendents of a Spanish king, ruled Bologna for more than 100 years in the fifteenth century. This was their own private chapel in the church.

On the right wall, the chapel has a beautiful Bentivoglio family portrait of Giovanni the second, with his wife Ginevra and their eleven children, the whole family standing around a sitting Madonna with baby Jesus. There is also a Bentivoglio statue in this chapel that I liked very much.

Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy

In the centre of the chapel is a beautiful alterpiece done by Francesco Raibolini (also known as "Francia").

Alterpiece by Francia, Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy

On the left wall of the chapel, there are two paintings by Lorenzo Costa, on the themes of death and fame. Prof. Vai pointed out the different kinds of rocks, hills and mountains shown in these two paintings, explaining how the knowledge of geology was affecting the way such objects were painted, so that they are no longer shown as generic objects, but were specific rocks and hills, pained in such a precise way that they could be identified even now, after different centuries.

Lorenzo costa, Death, Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy

Lorenzo Costa, fame, Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy

Rock formations, painting detail, Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy


For example, in one detail of the painting, it is easy to identify the hills surrounding Bologna (in the image below), including that hill where later the well known San Luca church will be built.

Detail of hills in L. Costa paintings, Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo church, Bologna, Italy

Lorenzo Costa's two paintings in the Bentivoglio church have so many other details about life in those times, that deserve another separate post, so I won't talk about that here.

Conclusions

The two hours of the guided tour passed very quickly. Prof. Vai reminded us to visit the Capellini science museum in Palazzo Poggi close by, one of the biggest collections of paleontological and geological objects in Italy. The visit was very interesting, and its added bonus was that I finally had the opportunity to enter and see the famous Bentivoglio chapel from inside. Normally, this chapel is closed to public and can only be admired from the outside.

Once again this visit reminded me to not to look at the paintings only for their beauty, but to also look at them more carefully as historical documents that can teach us about the past.

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This post was originally written in 2011

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