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Dr. Irving Spitz: December 2011 Archives

December 2011 Archives

Written Manuscripts and Books Belonging to the English Monarchs: A real windfall of treasures

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The British Library is currently hosting a fascinating exhibit entitled “The Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.” This relates to hand-written illuminated manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries, which comprised the reading material of British monarchs. The exhibit is drawn almost exclusively from the library’s holdings of lavishly illustrated manuscripts and books. 

It is a real privilege to see these beautifully hand-copied items close up. Since it is not over crowded, each gem can be perused in detail. Over 150 manuscripts are on display. It includes Bibles, histories, Psalters (a volume containing the Book of Psalms), genealogies, tales of mythological heroes, scientific works and accounts of coronations. One interesting point to emerge was the large number of French manuscripts in the collection. 

One of the major highlights of the exhibition is a travel map itinerary by Matthew Paris for 13th-century pilgrims who wished to journey from London to Jerusalem. It shows the detailed route through England, France and Italy. On arrival at the Italian port of Apulia, pilgrims embarked on a sea voyage to the Holy Land. The travel map consists of several pages each composed of parallel vertical columns that are read left to right from the bottom to the top. 


This travel map highlights important landmarks including cities on route. The concluding section shows a map of Acre and Jerusalem. Acre, being the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, receives considerably more prominence than Jerusalem, the climax of the pilgrimage. The reason is that by the time the map was drawn, Jerusalem had been captured by Saladin. 

Another fascination jewel in the exhibit is the small beautiful Psalter belonging to Henry Vlll. The page on view shows a seated portrait of Henry depicted as the biblical King David. Adjacent to his portrait, Henry inscribed in the margin in Latin in his own hand "Note who is blessed." Does Henry refer to King David or to himself? 


Of the many exceptional bibles on exhibit, one of the most eye catching is the magnificent bound volume belonging to Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. In the margins of the displayed pages are annotations made by both Henry and the Chancellor. This suggests that these two powerful men consulted this bible while building an argument supporting Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Since only two opened pages of each manuscript can be viewed from each volume at one time, there are several computer touch screens throughout the exhibit that permit detailed viewing of some of the books and manuscripts.

“The Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination,” closes on March 13, 2012.

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.


Fig 1: Matthew Paris: Map of the Holyland,
British Library, 14 C. vi i , f f. 2–5v

Fig 2: The Psalter of Henry VII: Henry VIII as David,
London c. 1540, Royal 2 A xvi © British Library Board. 
Note the Latin inscription in Henry’s hand in the margin. See text for details.

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Leonardo Da Vinci at London's National Gallery

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A once-in-a-lifeime opportunity to view the most complete display of his paintings ever held

London’s National Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition featuring nine of the 15 known surviving paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Such is the hype created by this unprecedented event that advance tickets sold out the first week of the opening. It has also generated a lively sale of the almost impossible to come by tickets on the black market. 

Leonardo is unquestionably one of the pivotal figures of the high Renaissance and the most versatile polymath of all time. He was an artist (both painter and sculptor), inventor, musician, poet, architect, engineer (hydraulic and military), town planner, botanist, anatomist, astronomer and philosopher. In addition, he had a great interest in the mechanism of flight and optics. He wrote extensively, filling up several notebooks with his characteristic left-handed backward script starting at the right side of the page and moving to the left. It needs to be deciphered with a mirror. 

Leonardo was more interested in the idea and concept of a creation than of the final product; as a consequence, he seldom brought any of his brilliant projects to a successful conclusion. His fertile mind had moved off to something else. 

Previous exhibitions have highlighted Leonardo’s achievements as an inventor, scientist or draftsman. This is the first exhibit to be dedicated to his paintings. It correlates to the 18 years that Leonardo spent in the service of Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. This was probably the most productive period of his career, which began in 1482 when he was 30 years old. 

In his lifetime, Leonardo started no more than 20 pictures and most experts agree that only 15 of these paintings that survive were entirely by his own hand. Several of them are also incomplete. Leonardo’s career began in Florence, where he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, who ran an important workshop. He was trained in a tradition where every feature of a painting, not only the dominant focus, was given equal importance, whether it be a bird, flower, forest or landscape.

In addition to the paintings, the exhibition also features a large selection of drawings and studies by Leonardo as well as other contemporary artists, many of whom were trained by Leonardo himself. Thirty four of the drawings on show come from the Royal Collection at Windsor.

Leonardo’s first painting in the exhibition, from the Ambrosian Art Gallery in Milan, is a portrait of a young man (a musician) in a three quarter profile pose. This was almost unique for that time in that it turned the sitter to engage the viewer.

Perhaps the most captivating portrait in the entire show is that of the 16-year-old beauty, Cecilia Gallerani, who was Sforza’s mistress. She is shown holding an ermine, an animal prized for its lovely coat. This eye-catching painting comes from Cracow in Poland and is acknowledged to be one of Leonardo’s greatest creations.

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Hanging close by is another beguiling image, La Belle Ferronnière, from the Louvre. This portrait is believed to be Sforza’s wife, Beatrice d’Este. 

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Ironically, wife and mistress appear on adjacent walls in the same room. From the Vatican comes the remarkable unfinished painting of the early fourth century Christian, St Jerome who is beating his breast with a stone. 

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Shown together are the two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, the earlier one from the Louvre and the second from the National Gallery’s own collection. The latter was especially restored for this exhibit. To see these two paintings on either side of the same gallery is a real privilege. As pointed out in the outstanding scholarly exhibition catalogue by Luke Syson and Larry Keith, it is unlikely that even Leonardo himself had the privilege of viewing these two pictures together. The Paris version is softer and not as sharp as the one from London, but other subtle differences between these two masterpieces become readily evident when viewing them together.

Another noteworthy recently restored painting is of Christ as Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World). This has only recently been attributed to Leonardo. The face has not worn well, probably a result of too rigorous cleaning in the past, and unlike the hands, it lacks the subtlety seen in so many of Leonardo’s other portraits. 

All the paintings that Leonardo undertook during his period in Milan are in the current exhibit with the exception of the unmoveable fresco, the Last Supper, housed in the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Because of the experimental technique used by Leonardo in executing this fresco, it started to deteriorate almost immediately after its completion. The final room of the exhibit displays a full-scale copy of the Last Supper by Giampietrino, one of Leonardo's apprentices and includes drawings by Leonardo of some of the individual figures of his epic fresco. 

This exhibition, with loans of Leonardo’s paintings from Cracow, Paris, Milan and St. Petersburg is without question one of the most monumental and impressive ever mounted, and represents a real triumph for the National Gallery and its exhibition curator, Luke Syson. To see nine pictures by the master is a feast for the eyes of connoisseur and non-expert alike. Because of the current international financial uncertainty, art experts were predicting that the age of the blockbuster museum show was over. The National Gallery has proven them wrong. 

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Royal Court of Milan¸ remains on view until the end of the first week of February, 2012. Some 500 tickets are made available each day and huge lines begin to form in Trafalgar Square very early in the morning. Within minutes of opening, every image is swamped by eager viewers. The best time to visit is in the afternoon about one hour prior to closing. At this time, the gallery is least crowded. 

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post

Legend to Figures

Fig 1: Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), 
Property of the Czartoryski Foundation in Cracow on deposit at the National Museum in Cracow 
© Princes Czartoryski Foundation

Fig 2: Leonardo da Vinci: Studies of hands
Lent by Her Majesty The Queen 
The Royal Collection © 2011
It has been suggested that these hands served as a preparatory drawing for the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani 

Fig 3: Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’)
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (778) 
© RMN / Franck Raux

Fig 4: Leonardo da Vinci: Saint Jerome
Musei Vaticani, Vatican City 
© Photo Vatican Museums
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La Traviata at The Royal Opera House

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A most respectable performance of an ever popular operatic favorite.

In the current season, the Royal Opera House has scheduled 22 performances of Verdi’s La Traviata, the tragic story of the doomed courtesan, Violetta Valery. Richard Eyre’s production with stage designs by Bob Crowley dates from 1994. Rodula Gaitanou was responsible for the current revival. At the beginning of the Prelude to Act I, one sees the seated Violetta, whilst videos of her as a young girl are projected as flashbacks. 

The gambling scene in Act Two was particularly effective. Because of the large stage, the final act, set in Violetta’s bedroom, seemed pretty bare. The production is classical and non-flamboyant and has always been an audience favorite. It is certainly more effective than Franco Zeffirelli’s extravaganza seen at the Metropolitan in New York although it is by no means as thought-provoking as Willy Decker’s innovative production seen initially in Salzburg and more recently in Amsterdam and New York. 

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The two principal male singers were exceptional. Especially impressive was the glorious Italianate lyric tenor of Piotr Beczala. This Polish artist gave a wonderful portrayal and is certainly an Alfredo to be reckoned with. He sang with ardour and enthusiasm. His Lunga da lei (Out from her presence) at the beginning of Act 2 was one of the most outstanding renditions that I could recall. 

Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, was sung by British baritone Simon Keenlyside. He certainly brought dignity to the role with his glorious sonorous baritone. He remained somewhat reserved, aloof and detached even in his final encounter with the dying Violetta. 

Completing the trio was Ailyn Perez, the American light lyric soprano who has sung this role with the Royal Opera on tour in Japan as well as the Vienna Staatsoper. She was a little unsettled at the beginning but mustered all her resources to give a masterful account of the fiendishly difficult E strano (how wondrous) from Act One. On occasion she had a tendency to swoop and glide to reach the higher resisters. 


Ms Perez rose to her greatest heights in her encounter with Giorgio Germont and in her passionate duets with Alfredo. There was palpable chemistry between the two lovers. She succeeded in bringing out all the emotional intensity and pathos of the aria Addio, del passato (Farewell to the bright visions) in the final act. 

Patrick Lange, chief conductor of the Komische Oper in Berlin, led a lively paced rendering of the score and brought out some lovely passionate playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Especially impressive were the beautifully nuanced sweeping strings in the two preludes. 

This was the second of the three casts of this revival. La Traviata remains in the current repertoire until January 2012, when Anna Netrebko reprises as Violetta. That should prove to be a sure show-stopper. 

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post


Fig 1: The staging of Act 2, Scene 2 in the Royal Opera production of La Traviata, © ROH / Catherine Ashmore.

Fig 2: Ailyn Perez (Violetta) and Piotr Beczala (Alfredo) in the Royal Opera production of La Traviata, © ROH / Catherine Ashmore.
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The 75th Anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: A Grand Celebration

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In honor of this important milestone, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is putting on a two-week music extravaganza with participation of some of the greatest artists in the world. Besides the IPO music director, Zubin Mehta, other conductors making an appearance include Valery Gergiev, Christoph Dohnanyi, Gianandrea Noseda and Kurt Masur. Prominent soloists accompanying the orchestra include the well-known pianists Evgeny Kissin, Yefim Bronfman, Daniil Trifonov (winner of both the prestigious Arthur Rubenstein and Tchaikovsky Competitions) and Yuja Wang (described by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times as a pianist whose virtuosity is stunning). Violinists include Pinchas Zukerman, Vadim Repin, Gil Shaham (Musical America’s Instrumentalist for 2011) and violist Julian Rachlin. 

There will also be solo piano recitals by Yefim Bronfman, Evgeny Kissin and Murray Perahia. This two-week festival begins on December 17 and takes place in Tel Aviv. A good part of the program will be devoted to the music of Beethoven and includes performances of six of his symphonies. Also scheduled is his violin concerto (soloist: Pinchas Zukerman) and two of his piano concerti (soloists: Yefim Bronfman and Yuja Wang).

In addition, the IPO, in conjunction with its foundation have put together a special personalized VIP trip of Israel geared to sophisticated tourists. Some of the highlights will include a visit to the recently renovated Israel Museum in Jerusalem including the museum’s restoration laboratories of the Dead Sea Scrolls which are usually closed to the public. This will be hosted by the director, James Snyder. There will also be visits to the recently opened new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Litwak Gallery which houses the largest gallery of glass artifacts in the world as well as Ron Arad’s recently completed “Design Museum of Holon.” He was the architect who created the World Trade Center Memorial in Manhattan.

Participants will be shown recent excavations of the City of David, guided by archaeologist Prof. Gaby Barkai. There will be a tour to the Negev Desert for a visit to the Solar Research Center at Sde Boker and a visit to the Druze Community in Daliet El Carmel in the north with a lecture about their religion and culture.

Accompanied by senior military personnel, visitors will be shown Israel’s security fence. Visits have been arranged to the Peres Center for Peace, the Dayan Center for Strategic Studies as well as the Buchmann Mehta School of Music to hear a rehearsal by the School orchestra. 

Hospitality will be provided in private homes by members of the IPO Foundation as well as other prominent Israelis from the scientific, artistic and business world.

For further details please see www.afipo.org/events/patron-trip-israel.
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