You knew I would soon veer to art, didn’t you?

Oranges and Italian art:

Because of a combination of new artistic techniques and some apparently reasonable, but mistaken, assumptions about the history of citrus, oranges appeared frequently in paintings by any number of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In making the break from Byzantine scholasticism to the new humanism of the Renaissance, artists began setting their religious figures against naturalistic backgrounds. Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills.

Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

In his “Maestà,” the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna showed Jesus entering Jerusalem through the streets of Siena, past orange trees in full fruit.

Fra Angelico painted Jesus resting under an orange tree.

It was almost unthinkable for a great master to do a “Flight into Egypt” without lining the route with orange trees.

A “Last Supper” was incomplete without oranges on the table, although there is no mention of oranges in the Bible.

Titian’s “Last Supper,” which hangs in the Escorial, shows oranges with fish.

A Domenico Ghirlandaio “Last Supper” goes further: a mature orange grove is depicted in murals behind the Disciples.

The deterioration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been too extensive for any oranges in it to be identified, but in all likelihood, according to Tolkowsky, they were there.

Most painters thought of the Annunciation as occurring indoors, and Paolo Veronese, for one, moved orange trees indoors to authenticate the scene, setting the plants in trapezoidal pots, of the type in which orange trees were grown in his time in northern Italy.

Fra Angelico also used orange trees to give a sense of the Holy Land to his “Descent from the Cross,” which was otherwise set against the walls of Florence, and, like many of his contemporaries, when he painted the Garden of Eden he gave it the appearance of a citrus grove.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in a family chapel of the Medici show Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar looking less like three wise kings from the East than three well-fed Medici, descending a hill that is identifiable as one near Fiesole, dressed as an Italian hunting party, and passing through stands of orange trees bright with fruit.

Actually, Gozzoli’s models for the magi were Lorenzo de’ Medici; Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople; and John Palaeologus, Emperor of the East.



The orange tree was more than a misplaced landmark. It was also a symbol of the Virgin, erroneously derived from an earlier association that medieval theologians had established between Mary and the tall cedars of Lebanon.

Thus, countless paintings of the Madonna or of the Madonna and Child were garlanded with orange blossoms, decorated with oranges, or placed in a setting of orange trees.

Mantegna, Verrochio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio, and Fra Angelico all complemented their Madonnas with oranges.

Sandro Botticelli, in his “Madonna with Child and Angels,” set his scene under a tentlike canopy thickly overhung with the branches of orange trees full of oranges.

In the Neo-Latin of the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called medici— an etymological development that had begun with the Greek word for citron, or Median apple.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in art and interior decoration the Medici themselves went in heavily for oranges. In Florence, oranges are painted all over the ceilings of the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees, and in Tolkowsky’s view the five red spheres on the Medici coat of arms were almost certainly meant to represent oranges.

When Botticelli painted his “Primavera,” under a commission from the family, he shamelessly included Giuliano de’ Medici as the god Mercury, picking oranges.

Botticelli also painted his “Birth of Venus” for the Medici.

It was Venus, and not the Hesperides, according to a legend current at the time, who had brought oranges to Italy.

Botticelli’s model was Simonetta dei Cattanei, wife of Marco Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici’s Platonic love. Simonetta came from Porto Venere, where Venus was alleged to have landed with the original oranges, so Botticelli painted her in the celebrated scallop shell bobbing on the gentle swells off Porto Venere, and lined the coast behind her with orange trees.

Giuliano’s son, Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII, commissioned Raphael to design a villa for him with a great double stairway leading to a sunken garden full of orange trees.

All this was bound to engage the envy of royalty in the north, and at the end of the fifteenth century, in an expedition often said to mark the dividing point between medieval and modern history, Charles VIII of France went to Italy intending to subdue the peninsula by force of arms. Instead, he fell in love with Italian art, architecture, and oranges. When he returned to France, every other man in his retinue was an Italian gardener, an Italian artist, or an Italian architect. Charles was going to transform the castles and gardens of France.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.



Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun @ the Met

Remember this painting?




The work of the French 18th-century painter, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), is being featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York right now. Amazingly, this is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition devoted to Vigée Le Brun in modern times. The 80 works on view include oil paintings and a few pastels from European and American public and private collections.

The Met’s website has great images and good information about the artist and the exhibition here

The images and information in this post is taken largely from the Met’s website.




One of the finest 18th-century French painters and among the most important of all women artists, Vigée Le Brun is a beacon of inspiration to all women. She was remarkable not only for her technical gifts but for her understanding of and sympathy with her sitters.

With her exceptional skills as a portraitist, she achieved success in France and Europe during one of the most eventful, turbulent periods in European history and indeed the path of her own life reflects that turbulence.

To wit: At the age of 21, she married the leading art dealer in Paris. Her husband’s profession created a conflict of interest that at first kept her from being accepted into the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Nevertheless, through the intervention of Marie Antoinette, she was admitted at the age of 28 in 1783, becoming one of only four women members.

However, her association with the royalty forced her to flee for her safety from France in 1789; she traveled to Italy, where in 1790 she was elected to membership in the Accademia di San Luca, Rome. She worked independently in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Berlin before returning to France, painting portraits of, among others, members of the royal families of Naples, Russia, and Prussia.

Despite the fact that she was in exile, she exhibited at the Paris Salons. That seems pretty amazing to me.

One of the best features of the museum’s website is that you can take an audio tour online of the exhibition here:


Let’s look at a few of the key objets in the exhibition:

Here’s her portrait of her brother, painted when she was 18 and he was 15.


Etienne (1758–1820) is presented as a draftsman holding an artist’s portfolio and porte-crayon. He later developed a reputation as a witty poet and playwright.  The French Revolution marked his life in serious ways as well as that of his sister.


Here’s her portrait of her stepfather, whom she disliked intensely:


The stepfather, Monsieur Le Sèvre (1724–1810), was a gold- and silversmith who brought Vigée’s family to live above his shop on the rue Saint-Honoré. He is shown seated at a desk, reading, in a satin robe and nightcap, typical at-home attire for men of the time. The sympathetic portrayal belies the intense dislike Vigée felt for him. She accused him of hoarding her income.


Her mother, Madame Jacques François Le Sèvre:

VLB 1774-8 Jeanne Maissin


The sitter (1728–1800) had married our artist’s father, Louis Vigée (1715–1767), a portraitist and official at the Académie de Saint-Luc.  After his death, she married Jacques Le Sèvre, a goldsmith. Madame Le Sèvre encouraged her adolescent daughter’s professional aspirations by chaperoning her sittings and taking her to see works of art. Vigée’s mother wears a satin cloak trimmed with swans’ down and bows of a color the artist particularly favored.


Her allegorical interpretation of “Poetry.”


Vigée was nineteen when officials sealed her studio on the pretext that she was painting professionally without having joined a guild. She therefore applied and was admitted to the Académie de Saint-Luc. Of the works she contributed to her first exhibition, three were allegories of the arts: Painting, Poetry, and Music. Here, Poetry, a draped nude, writes in a portfolio with a goose quill. She looks upward, conveying a moment of inspiration.


Her patron, the queen Marie Antoinette in Court Dress:


In 1777, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria wrote to her daughter Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) asking for a portrait. Vigée Le Brun received the commission, her first from the queen. She remembered that the queen “walked better than any other woman in France, holding her head very high with a majesty that singled her out in the midst of the entire court.”


The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat


Vigée Le Brun shows the duchess (1749–1793), a close friend of Marie Antoinette, bathed in pale golden light. She wears the straw hat and costume of an elegant courtier-shepherdess.


Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress


The queen and her circle had grown weary of the discomforts of the formal attire worn at Versailles. In the early 1780s, in private settings, they therefore abandoned their corsets and hoops for draped, loosely belted muslin chemise dresses, which were relaxed and natural.

With the support of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, Vigée Le Brun became one of fourteen women (among 550 artists) admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture before the Revolution. At her first Salon, she displayed a number of portraits, including one of the queen in a white muslin dress and straw hat. The characterization of the monarch was admired. However, the pastoral costume was condemned as inappropriate for the public portrayal of royalty and the artist was asked to remove it from the exhibition.


Comtesse de Ségur

Antoinette-Elisabeth-Marie d'Aguesseau, comtesse de SÈgur (1756-1828)

VigÈe-Le Brun Elisabeth Louise (1755-1842). Versailles, ch?teaux de Versailles et de Trianon. MV5962.


The countess (1756–1828) shared in the work of her husband, a diplomat, historian, and supporter of the American War of Independence. With her lips parted in a smile, she here abandons the mask of impassivity traditionally embraced by courtiers.

This luminous, subtly painted image is in the new style Vigée Le Brun adopted after she saw Peter Paul Rubens’s Presumed Portrait of Susanne Lunden.



Baronne de Crussol Florensac

RO 307

The baronne de Crussol Florensac turns to gaze at the viewer over her shoulder. She holds a musical score and wears a splendid red costume with a deep black velvet collar and a matching hat. Little is known of this woman of great beauty, elegance, and distinction. The support, a wood panel, contributes to the lustrous surface of the picture.


Marie Antoinette and Her Children


In 1785, by order of Louis XVI, the office of royal households commissioned this important portrait of Marie Antoinette from Vigée Le Brun, the first woman to attain the rank of painter to the king. Inspired by depictions of the Holy Family, the work was intended to extoll the queen’s maternal role. The empty bassinet alludes to her fourth child, who had recently died.


You can see many more images from the exhibition at the Met’s website linked above.


It’s about time!





A relic from the past.

(I posted a version of this yesterday but was not happy with it.  So, I have recast it as follows.)


This is the story of a strange bottle of an unusual elixir purchased recently in an apothecary shop in Florence.  I love these old-world shops and their mysterious contents. I wish there was enough time to examine and research every single product contained within their sphinx like walls.

I must admit I first purchased this item simply because I was intrigued by it.  I liked the glass bottle, the graphic label, and the color of the liquid.

It’s all very cool, don’t you agree?  I had no idea if I would like the taste of the liquid, but it seemed like a small risk.

I flipped the bottle around and saw that it was made in Florence.  That alone makes it fun to buy and experiment with. What did I have to lose besides a few Euro?


I got it home and followed the directions.  I mixed a few drops (1/2 a teaspoon is what I used) in a small glass of water and gargled with it.  It tasted herby and earthy and not unpleasant.  It tasted kind of like a Florentine potpourri smells.

Great.  I’m intrigued.

Now, I wonder: what is the history of the potion and why is it labeled in French?  Is it French or is it Italian?






The Latin phrase at the top of the graphic label “cui fides vide” would make a good motto for life: “watch whom you trust.”  Hmmmm.  Interesting.  A warning on a bottle of a strange liquid.

The back label explains that this tincture was “invented in 1755 by Dr. Julien Botot for Louis XV, the king of France.”  Now this is getting really interesting!


So, let’s remind ourselves a little bit about who Louis XV:  king of France from 1715 to  and best known for contributing to the decline of royal authority that led to the French Revolution in 1789. Ouch!  Madame de Pompadour was his mistress.

It is clear from paintings of the guy that he enjoyed some royal splendor, that’s for sure!

For the intrepid blog reader, here’s a video on Louis:


We must recall the state of royal hygiene in the 18th century.  Bathing was optional and dental care unheard of.  Oral hygiene, heretofore, consisted of an occasional borax scrub with some twigs, which was very hard on the enamel.

King Louis XV would have depended upon perfumes and powders to conceal the consequences of his very infrequent bathing.  Moreover, history regales us with stories of Louis XV’s debauchery, so one can imagine he might have liked to tidy up his person.

His royal highness turned to his trusty physician, Dr. Edme François Julien Botot, for advice on freshening up his imperial mouth. In 1755 the good doctor designed the potent herbal rinse now under our examination, made with cinnamon, ginger, anise and a natural gillyflower (part of the clove family) base.

Thus “eau de Botot” is considered to be the world’s first antiseptic mouthwash, produced not in France as one would expect but instead for some reason I cannot discern in Florence. But, for me that just makes it more interesting since I pretty much love anything produced in Florence!

Dr. Botot also created a toothpaste for Louis XV, which is still available today as well.  I just happen to prefer a glass bottle to a tube when I am choosing products. Both the mouthwash and the toothpaste are still produced by world-famous Manetti and Roberts.



It is worth recalling that days after Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI, gave Botot a royal endorsement, the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille.  While the monarchy went down in a series of swift severings, Botot mouthwash lived on!  Crazy product from pre-revolutionary France lives on today!

Botot “eau de bouche” is still made from the original French formula.  The recipe hasn’t changed since it received its nod of approval as a Superior Natural Product from the Royal Society of Medicine of France in 1785.

Botot products (these along with powder and soap) have clearly enjoyed a long life in France and Italy and here are just a few of some of their historical adverts.

yhst-96829732451264_2267_4472857475b2888a7a83a345f210ba617e5a3168       Dental-Poster-Botot-2



Who knew that a bottle of a brown liquid produced in Florence with a label in French would tie my daily life into pre-revolutionary France.  Wonders never cease!





Synchronicity. Hepburn and Givenchy.


Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than this image?

Synchronicity brought it into being.  Hepburn and Givenchy.

As I have been posting, many of actress Audrey Hepburn’s movie costumes were designed by Hubert de Givenchy, the famed French fashion designer.


Here we see the fashion designer above.


And here, in the photo, above we see a candid still of Audrey with Givenchy.  She is modeling the wedding dress she wears in Funny Face and appears to be dancing some ballet steps.

Fortunately, for us and all of posterity, a lot of photos of Audrey and her favorite designer, or Audrey in his clothing, live in the ether net. For me, the photo below is one of the most beautiful pictures ever taken of any person, ever. Beauty personified.


I just can’t get enough of this image.  I could look at it for the rest of my life.  And I plan to do just that!


But let’s talk a little turkey about Hubert himself.

Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was born in 1927 and is of course a French aristocrat and the founder of The House of Givenchy in 1952.

He is, as we have been discussing, famous for having designed much of the personal and professional wardrobe of Miss Hepburn:



(and the two of them together is a pretty amazing sight)



Givenchy also created clothing for other amazing clients such as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, seen below:


In 1970 Givenchy was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.  Like Miss Hepburn in the field of acting, Givenchy is the top of his profession.  Their synchronicity was perfect.
Here are a few of the outstanding garments he designed throughout the years.



But there was something very special going on between Hepburn and Givenchy.

He even designed a fragrance especially for the actress.


As I said in my recent post on Funny Face, it is obvious that Miss Hepburn became the muse for many amazing artists, including Givenchy but also for the photographer Richard Avedon.

Givenchy, the designer, seen below, is himself is a pretty nice tall drink of water.


Hubert de Givenchy

Wouldn’t you have loved to receive a personal note from him as below?


And here, to end this post, is a gorgeous Miss Hepburn in an equally gorgeous Givenchy design.  Sigh.  Absolutely breathtaking.


Au revoir mon ami, happy le weekend!