Renaissance Man


Ask anyone for a definition of this term and most people would immediately mention Leonardo Da Vinci (can his reputation survive Dan Brown?) or Michelangelo, the two most highly-regarded geniuses of the Italian Renaissance. While Leonardo’s numerous achievments are well-documented, Michelangelo’s work as a painter and sculptor tends to overshadow his other talents as an architect (most notably for the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome) and writer of over three hundred homoerotic sonnets and madrigals dedicated to Tommaso dei Cavalieri.

A lesser known figure of the period who perhaps exemplifies the full range of the polymathic Renaissance ideal is Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). In an era over-stuffed with geniuses, Alberti tends to be overlooked but his achievements in a variety of fields still seem staggering today.

One of Alberti’s earliest works was Philodoxeus (‘Lover of Glory’, 1424), written when he was 20, a Latin comedy that was convincing enough as a parody of Classical style to pass for an original work of the Roman era. Other works followed, among them De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies’, 1429), Intercoenales (‘Table Talk’, ca. 1429), Della famiglia (‘On the Family’, begun 1432), Vita S. Potiti (‘Life of St. Potitus’, 1433), De iure (‘On Law’, 1437), Theogenius (‘The Origin of the Gods’, ca. 1440), Profugorium ab aerumna (‘Refuge from Mental Anguish’, 1442-43), Momus (another Classical comedy, 1450) and De Iciarchia (‘On the Prince’, 1468). More significant than all of these was Della Pittura from 1436, the first ever study of perspective construction. Alberti’s friend Filippo Brunelleschi had earlier devised his own system of perspective but Alberti was the first to set the principles in book form for other artists.


Brunelleschi was an architect and Alberti also produced his own architectural designs, including the Rucellai Palace in Florence, the first Renaissance building using a system of Classical pilasters, and the facade of the Santa Maria Novella church. His monumental study De re aedificatoria (‘On the Art of Building’) was begun in 1450 and occupied him for the rest of his life, a ten-volume work and the first of its kind to address modern architecture based on Classical principles. This was also the first work of architecture to be printed in 1485 and remained an essential working text up to the 18th century. The book’s recommendations for fortification and siege defence were in use for hundreds of years.

Alberti’s restless talents also encompassed music (he was an accomplished organist), map-making and cryptography. The polyalphabetic cypher he created in 1467 was the first significant cypher of its kind since Julius Caesar’s and has since earned him the title “Father of Western Cryptography.” Alberti has also been proposed as the author of the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499. The jury is still out on this but this is a book whose creation would certainly require someone of Alberti’s breadth of knowledge.

The Renaissance ideal rather fell out of favour in the 20th century, even though there were more than enough polymaths to go around (Harry Smith comes to mind). No one in Quattrocento Italy would accuse any of the great men of the period of being a “jack of all trades, master of none”, the familiar dismissal of a culture that makes a virtue of aiming low. Artists today have to compete in an art market saturated with mediocre work which means they need to find a single gimmick that distinguishes them from the crowd then plug it for all it’s worth. As Robert Hughes memorably says in The Shock of the New, “More artists came out of American art schools in a single year in the 1980s than there were people living in Florence during the Renaissance.” Artists like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Tom Phillips let their curiosity and creativity carry them forward, producing work that ranges over a variety of styles and media. Phillips is a good example of the contemporary Renaissance man, a painter, sculptor, writer, composer and creator of the extraordinary artwork/experimental novel A Humument. The fact that most people are unfamiliar with his name says more about our world than it does about the value of Phillips’ work. Robert Heinlein isn’t a writer I usually have much time for but he had the perfect riposte to this situation, and to the philistine assertion of “jack of all trades, master of none”. “Specialisation,” Heinlein said, “is for insects.”

View: The Modern Magazine


Portrait of Charles Henri Ford in Poppy Field by Pavel Tchelitchew (1933).

View magazine was an American periodical of art and literature, published quarterly from 1940 to 1947 with heavy emphasis on the Surrealist art of the period. The astonishing list of contributors included Jorge Luis Borges, Alexander Calder, Albert Camus, Marc Chagall, Joseph Cornell, Jean Dubuffet, Lawrence Durrell, Max Ernst, Jean Genet, Paul Klee, Henry Miller, René Magritte, André Masson, Joan Miró, Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Edouard Roditi, Yves Tanguy, and Pavel Tchelitchew.

Continue reading “View: The Modern Magazine”

Surrealist cartomancy

ubu.gifReworking the illustrations of the standard fifty-two card playing deck has become quite a common thing in recent years with numerous themed decks being produced in costly limited editions. The same goes for decks of Tarot cards which have now been mapped across a number of different magical systems and produced in sets that often add little to the philosophy of the Tarot but merely vary the artwork. This wasn’t always the case, and certainly not in the 1940s when André Breton and a group of fellow Surrealists produced designs for a fascinating deck of cards that hybridises the Tarot and the more mundane pack of playing cards in an attempt to create something new.

The Jeu de Marseilles was named after the city of its creation, and it’s no coincidence that one of the most well-known medieval Tarot designs is the Marseilles deck. Breton and his artist friends—Wifredo Lam, Max Ernst, Jacqueline Lamba, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, Jacques Hérold, André Masson and Frédéric Delanglade—were stranded in the French port along with many other artists, writers and intellectuals attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Europe and gain passage to the America. The creation of the card deck became a way of passing the time during several months of anxious waiting.

Typically for a group that had already spent a decade analysing and deconstructing all available artistic media, it wasn’t enough to merely redecorate an existing pack of cards, Breton wanted a thorough reinvention along Surrealist principles. So the traditional suits were renamed accordingly: Flames (red) for love and desire, Stars (black) for dreams, Wheels (red) for revolution, and Locks (black) for knowledge. Even though the number of cards was kept at fifty-two, this highly symbolic structure places the deck closer to the Tarot arrangement of Wands, Cups, Swords and Discs, rather than the usual Clubs, Hearts, Spades and Diamonds. Breton’s socialist sympathies meant that having a royal hierarchy of King and Queen lording it over a humble Jack was quite unacceptable; these were subsequently re-named Genius, Siren and Magus. Again, the name Magus here is interesting for the added occult reference it gives to the design. Alfred Jarry’s grotesque Pa Ubu (above) was nominated as the Joker.


Flames: Ace; Genius: Baudelaire; Siren: Mariana Alcofardo; Magus: Novalis.


Stars: Ace; Genius: Lautréamont; Siren: Alice (from Lewis Carroll); Magus: Freud.


Wheels: Ace; Genius: De Sade; Siren: Lamiel (from Stendhal); Magus: Pancho Villa.


Locks: Ace; Genius: Hegel; Siren: Hélène Smith; Magus: Paracelcus.

The Jeu de Marseilles was eventually produced as a proper deck of cards (with the original sketches being reworked slightly) and has been reprinted several times since. Copies can still be found at reasonable prices from specialist card dealers.

Thanks to Eroom Nala for research assistance!

Impressions de la Haute Mongolie


Metamorphosis of Hitler’s Face into a Moonlit Landscape with Accompaniment (1958).

Impressions de la Haute Mongolie (1976/Salvador Dali/José Montes-Baquer/Germany)

In any list of films I’d currently most like to see but can’t due to lack of availability, this bizarre “documentary” collaboration between Salvador Dalí and José Montes-Baquer would be near the top of the list. I saw it once, probably shortly after it had been made, when the BBC screened it as part of their Omnibus arts series in the late seventies. By this time I was already very familiar with the Surrealists, Dalí, Magritte and Max Ernst especially, so it was great to see Dalí himself declaring a supposed mission to explore Upper Mongolia in a search for giant hallucinogenic mushrooms. This premise aside, I remember few other details, the whole film was as delightfully confusing as might be expected. The most distinct memory was of the painting above being shown, then the camera pulling back some distance to reveal the full extent of Hitler’s face which is only hinted at in the original. Happily, a web review now provides us with some more details:

Homage to Impressions d’Afrique (1909), is a free-associative poem written by Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), even though he never visited Africa. The film is dedicated to this French author, forefather of the Surrealists, who developed a formal constraint system to generate inspiration from dislocative puns.

Dalí does the very same thing with this chimerical pseudocumentary leading us to the mysterious realm of High Mongolia where a gigantic white soft mushroom grows, many times more hallucinogenic than LSD! From his studio-museum in Cadacès (Spain), he proceeds to report on the alleged scientific expedition sent out by himself to retrieve this precious treasure, with newspaper clips and newsreel. Childhood memories (like the picture above) are the opportunity to explain more thoroughly the source of his inspiration. This bucolic landscape is in fact a close up of Hitler’s portrait (his nose and moustache) turned to the side!

Wholly Dalíesque, this film experiment pieces together astonishing combinations of superimposed images, fading in and out, switching scale with odd perspectives. Dalí invents a filmmaking process and applies his very language to cinematic purposes, bending the rules to serve his desperate need for originality. Travelling through a microscopic close up of paintings or rough surfaces, his voiceover commentary gives sense to the landscapes taking form under his eyes.

Impressions of Africa was also the title of a Dalí painting from 1938, of course:


It’s probably too much to hope that this will turn up on TV again, so for now I suppose I’ll have to look forward to it appearing on DVD at some point in the future. How about it José?

Update: Ubuweb has a copy!