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Travel Before Technology

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Fabulous Journeys' Reveals European Fascination With Exotic

One of the marvels of 21st-century life is the ability to plan an exotic, faraway adventure simply by clicking a few computer keys. We can book a flight, reserve a hotel, plan our meals, and map out a sightseeing itinerary for each day of our journey. We can even hop on the Internet to peek at photos of where we’re going before we arrive—making the actual expedition a bit anti-climactic.

Of course, electronic travel planning wasn’t an option for Europeans in the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries. In fact, many Europeans rarely traveled at all. Some spent an entire lifetime in the familiar confines of their towns and villages, dissuaded from travel by its time-consuming nature, expense and overall hardship.

Nevertheless, Europeans certainly wondered what life was like just beyond their immediate horizons. That’s where artists came in.

A stunning exhibition at the National Gallery of Art showcases about 60 prints on paper that reveal how artists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance depicted travel—sometimes glorious and rewarding, and other times ominous and fraught with danger. Not surprisingly, these magnificent prints were in great demand in Europe and helped fuel interest in travel around the world.

The exhibition, “Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper, 1450-1700,” shows different artists’ notions of travel both imagined and real. The display is divided into three sections. Fantasy and allegorical travel presenting life and death as a journey—often with religious implications—is the theme in the first room. Images of real, earthly travel fill the second room, with prints of traveling pilgrims and the maps they created on their sacred journeys. And the third room is a series of drawings that refer to 16th- and 17th-century travels into Africa and the Americas.

“Knight, Death and Devil,” an engraving from 1513 by German artist Albrecht Dürer, is among the very first works on display, but it’s difficult to tear yourself away to see the rest of the exhibit. The classic pictorial allegory of Christian life depicts a stolid knight astride his steed with a trusty dog by his side as he navigates a horror show all around him.

The devil—depicted here as a truly freaky character with a werewolf ’s face and snakes slithering through his hair—holds an hourglass symbolic of the brevity of life. But the knight, his regal horse and his canine companion move forward down a narrow, righteous path toward heaven, unfazed by the devil or the decomposed skull at their feet.

“The Ways and Fashions of the Turks,” a 16-foot-long panorama of a trip to Constantinople, is another highlight that depicts with incredible detail some of the characters and places seen along the journey. The panorama reveals much about life in this period, including how the Turks ate, worshipped, buried their dead, celebrated, and even how they relieved themselves.

Again, the work here is so breathtakingly detailed that it’s easy to lose track of time as you marvel at the purpose and perfection committed to these etchings and engravings.

Among the works in the third room is “Lion Hunt,” an engraving finished by Schelte Adams Bolswert sometime after 1641, which reminds us just how perilous travel could be outside the confines of trains, planes and automobiles. Staring at the violent image, one can practically hear the lions’ roar as they fight for their lives against a trio of well-armed hunters. In the foreground, a hunter is upended on his horse as a fully grown lion chomps into his body. Terror flickers in another hunter’s eyes as he readies his dagger for one of the other big cats.

The exhibition isn’t all so grave and foreboding. One of the most popular pieces is titled “The Land of Cockaigne,” a 1564 etching by Niccolò Nelli. In this whimsical fantasy, life is depicted as gluttony and everyone appears extremely happy to be there. In the top-left corner, pieces of roasted fowl drop from the skies onto a table surrounded by eager eaters. In the far right, a river flows with wine. In between, a boiling pot perched atop a mountain of cinnamon spews macaroni and ravioli. A prison—designed for anyone caught working—is constructed with sausages barring its windows.

As with many excellent art exhibitions, “Fabulous Journeys” is entertaining and deeply educational. A simple woodcut from 1508 depicts traveling pilgrims who have stopped at a clearing to talk. The wall text informs us that pilgrims wore badges, which are shown in the image, to signify the holy sites they had visited.

Many of the serious, classical art exhibitions at the National Gallery might try the patience of easily bored youngsters. But this one is so rife with fantastic imagery and so detailed in its depictions of travel and adventure that at times it reminded me of Maurice Sendak’s classic illustrated children’s tale, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

For now, a fabulous array of wild things conjured by the human imagination are contained in this fabulous exhibition that celebrates man’s urge to travel beyond our immediate horizons.

Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper, 1450-1700 through Sept. 16 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets and Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

Turning Cold Marble to Life

“Wispy” is not a word typically associated with Italian Renaissance sculpture, but gazing at the marble busts of children at the jaw-dropping new Desiderio da Settignano exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, that’s the adjective that comes to mind.

One of the Renaissance’s greatest sculptors, Desiderio rendered each child’s hair with such fine-tuned precision that one almost expects the strands to move under the gusts of the museum’s high-powered air conditioning. That exquisite attention to detail is surely why someone noted on Desiderio’s tombstone that “he brought cold marble to life.”

Born in Settignano, a stone quarry town, and trained in Florence in the mid-15th century, Desiderio became so masterful in his low-relief and expression carvings that many studied observers mistook his work for that of another master: Donatello.

The National Gallery exhibition offers a sampling of Desiderio’s work in the genres for which he is most famous: children, extraordinarily low reliefs, including some immensely popular depictions of the Virgin and Child, as well as delicate portraits of women.

One of Desiderio’s most famous sculptures, “Laughing Boy,” reveals the artist’s sensitivity and appreciation of the joy of life. Gleeful and playful, the bust turns slightly at the neck, indicating that the child is reacting to something he’s seen—a concept that was rare before the 17th century.

“Madonna,” a subtle low-relief carving, gives the Madonna-child rendering a particularly tender dynamic as the animated child tugs on his mother’s cloak. The hands are exquisitely wrought and give the sculpture the appearance of motion. According to the museum’s wall text, the delicate halos have been nearly completely worn away by centuries of outdoor exposure.

Perhaps the most amazing fact about this master sculptor is that he lived only 35 years. In that short time, he mastered the interplay between stone and light and succeeded in using height and depth to suggest motion. Desiderio reportedly took “a long time about his works and polished them over and over.”

That skill, dedication and meticulous devotion to craft is supremely evident in this exhibition that, indeed, turns cold marble to life.

Desiderio da Settignano: Sculptor of Renaissance Florence through Oct. 8 National Gallery of Art located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets and Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999