Art Journeys reflect Ever Evolving Cultural Shifts
By Miguel Bermudez
In many ways, art reflects what society at large is going through at a particular time in history. The end product tells us much of the socio-political environment. The journeys that art undertakes during each historical period also reflect the views and aspirations of their creators and owners alike. Three stories of the fascinating roads that were traveled by art pieces, illustrate a seldom-explored facet of the art world.
The Rise of Great Italian Cities –
A Journey in the early 1500s
A pair of magnificent Pietre Dure Tables dating back to the 1500s was auctioned by Sotheby’s London on December 10th, 2015. They were in the possession of the Grimani Family of Venice, a prominent patrician family that included three Doges of Venice as of the 16th century, until they were acquired in 1829 by the 3rd Earl of Warwick and brought to Warwick Castle in England, where they remained until auctioned by Sotheby’s this past December.
The production of these tables required an incredible variety of precious and semi-precious stones that had to be expertly cut by Italian Masters in Florence and in Rome. Some of the materials used were Agates, Jaspers, Chalcedonies, Lapis Lazuli, Amethyst, Cornelians, Alabasters and Marble.
The usage of Lapis Lazuli illustrates the efforts taken to decorate one of these tables. At the beginning of the 14th Century, the darkness, which had so long covered the western world, began to dissipate and with it, the great Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, Florence and others began making advances in letters, science and commerce. This Renaissance of the science and arts in the western world started demanding costly articles from Asia, such as precious stones. The wealth and luxury that were appearing in these cities gave birth to the creation of incredibly beautiful pieces to furnish new palaces. Precious gems and materials from India and Persia began making their way via the port of Alexandria through the Red Sea, and were then brought into Italy by the nobles of Venice and Genoa, who were all engaged in trade.
Lapis Lazuli was being sourced from the blue-veined mountains enclosing the Kokcha River valley in the far northeastern province of Badakhshan, Afghanistan (at that time, part of Persia). Camel, donkey and mule caravans were the only modes of transportation able to reach these mines, which were located in an inhospitable country of bare mountains and deep ravines and altitudes of between 2,000 – 5,500 meters above sea level (6,500 – 18,000 Ft).
Thinking about the incredible journey that lapis Lazuli had to take in order to get to the workshops in Florence to then be cut and skillfully applied onto a hard surface resulting in a piece of art that demonstrated wealth, creativity and the light of the new era tells us much about the spirit of that time.
Art Journeys in the 1700s-Catherine The Great Demonstrates the Greatness of An Empire
One of the largest movements of fine art in history took place in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. The empress single-handedly built one of the largest museums in the world. The impetus of her collecting journey may have been politically motivated to humiliate her rival Frederick the Great of Prussia, as much as a realization that in order to gain the respect of the other European sovereigns, Catherine needed to showcase her refined taste and superb intellect. She wanted Russia to be recognized as an enlightened society.
Her hunger for collecting was legendary. In 1764, Catherine acquired 225 paintings that were being sold by a Prussian merchant. These paintings were originally intended to be purchased by Frederick the Great, who was unable to pay for them after his defeat at the hands of the Russian army. The empress delighted greatly by this set of circumstances.
(Portrait of Catherine II (1729-96) c.1770, Fedor Stepanovich Rokotov)
She continued using the same approach for many of her vast acquisitions. In a period of 32 years (1764 – 1796), Catherine acquired the following:
– 4,000 paintings from the Old Masters.
– 38,000 books
– 10,000 engraved gems
– 10,000 drawings
– 16,000 coins and medals
– A complete natural history collection
(Left: Castle Howard Pietra Dure Cabinet, auctioned on by Sotheby’s on July 2015. © Sotheby’s Picture Library)