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Posts Tagged ‘museums’

Writ in Water

February 23, 2016 | by

The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.

Keats’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...

—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817

Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.

But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More »

Old Maps

November 17, 2015 | by

Islandia, a map by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1590.

Many years ago, on a family vacation in another country, we took an English-language tour of a medieval university. The group saw the antique telescopes and charts used by famous astronomers, and the stone-floored laboratories where philosophers had tried to turn lead into gold. And there was a room filled with maps—sixteenth-century maps, we were told. These were objects of beauty, filled with colors and sea monsters, fanciful by modern standards. Read More »

The Coltrane Home in Dix Hills

September 23, 2015 | by

The deceptively ordinary house where Coltrane composed A Love Supreme.

Coltrane’s unassuming house in Dix Hills.

In an empty corner of a modest home in suburban New York, hiding beneath a construction zone’s deposits of dirt and dust on the floor, is a patch of bright, bold, almost electrically colorful vintage purple carpet. It couldn’t be more out of place; the rest of the surroundings are just exposed old wall beams and tattered bits of plaster coming down. But it seems right at home, somehow calm and calming, in the midst of it all.

The carpet dates back to the 1960s, when John and Alice Coltrane used to live here and make their way back to the same corner room to go to sleep at night. Close by the master bedroom was the kitchen, the heart of the home in a way, and from there the hallways led out to the kids’ rooms, the den with the fireplace, and the garage out to the side. Over that was the ashram. In the basement was a recording studio. Then, up a now tenuous set of stairs, was the chamber that made this modest suburban home most famous: the room where John Coltrane composed his stirring, searching masterwork A Love SupremeRead More »

The Flexible, Forgeable American Signature, and Other News

May 1, 2015 | by

Glaspalast_Munchen_1891_062

Geheime Korrespondenz, 1891.

  • On etiquette, art, and the increasing complications of public space: “Taking a selfie in a museum may be disruptive to others, and antithetical to the experience of art, yet given the option, most people will avoid walking through the line of sight and ruining someone else’s photograph … In the end, that is the fundamental paradox of art and public space: We go there both to be free and to submit.”
  • The Patriots’ tight end Shrek Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski has inspired a cottage industry—people can’t seem to write enough erotic novels about the guy. (Sample salaciousness: “Suddenly, all I wanted to do was watch Gronk do his thang-thang in the zone place there. My vagina demanded it.”) Now a couple is suing the author of A Gronking to Remember for using their image on her cover without permission.
  • “Historical fiction has become a byword for middlebrow wasteland.” But Hilary Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, whom critics are fond of comparing, have written novels that make a compelling case for the genre—so much so that people have started bickering about whether they’re really “historical” fiction at all …
  • “I think something happened, somewhere around Love’s Labour’s Lost and the early history plays and going into Romeo and Juliet. Either he fell in love or he just grew up, but something happened to him where he suddenly ‘got it’ about women and there was a profound shift in his writing.” In which Shakespeare gets acquainted with the female psyche.
  • The demise of the signature: a new poll suggests that very few Americans give a hoot about our John Hancocks. “While 61% of responders sign paper at least once a week or more, nearly half do so in a hurry and a full 30% just scribble something fast to get it done … 30% said they have a ‘flexible’ signature, with 64% saying it’s because of computer use. A full 81% of people admitted to faking someone’s signature three or more times a year, and a quarter said they wouldn’t be able to tell if someone had forged their own.”

Making the Mummies Dance

February 20, 2015 | by

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Photo: Ralph Hockens, via Flickr

In honor of the Metropolitan Museum’s birthday, I’d like to suggest a fun weekend read: Thomas Hoving’s Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of ArtHoving, who died in 2009, became the Met’s director in 1967, and in his decade-long tenure he made the museum the world-class institution (and moneymaker) it is today, influencing the whole industry in the process. It was Hoving who created the Fifth Avenue plaza, the set of shallow steps that lead up to the museum’s doors, and the big banners that announce exhibitions. He added gift shops and splashy special exhibitions, courted donors like crazy, and expanded the physical space into Central Park—facing opposition all the way.

Hoving’s biggest innovation, though, was his approach to acquisition: rather than build up a deep, conservative collection of small pieces, he decided to splurge on big-ticket masterpieces from all over the world. As a result, the Met is now home to such pieces as Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja and the Temple of Dendur, and since his time, directors have followed this model. Read More »

Readers Demand More Grandparents, and Other News

February 11, 2015 | by

grandparents

Fiction: A grandparent-free zone?

  • Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
  • On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
  • This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
  • Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
  • Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …

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