Dinner Tonight

What do you do when you look in the fridge and realize that you have all of the ingredients for Suzanne Goin’s devil’s chicken thighs with braised leeks and David Lebovitz’s homemade peach ice cream on hand?

You make them for dinner.

My apartment smells so good right now.

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Ferndale Food Truck Rally

Last night I met my friend Missy for dinner at the Ferndale Food Truck Rally in the alley behind the Rust Belt Market. It was awesome. After I made it through the killer traffic (it took me an hour and forty five minutes to make a drive that should’ve taken 40, but whatever. That’s not anything different from taking the T everywhere, when there’s always a fun and exciting chance that your train could catch fire or break down underground and trap you for four hours), I met Missy outside the Market and we scoped out the trucks.

There were a few taco trucks, some hamburgers, and a dessert cart. We settled on sliders from Brew Jus, first because they looked awesome, and second because we went to high school with Nick, the chef. The food was delicious. They brew their own beer and then make sauces from the beer, then use those sauces in wonderfully crafted little burgers. We tried the Angry Chicken Slider, which was pulled chicken topped with Angry Cherry Chipotle BBQ sauce and a fresh, crunchy little slaw made from carrots and green apples. We also tasted their vegan burger, which was topped with India Pale Ale Mustard and beet chutney. We tried the mustard on a potato salad too and it was great. I can’t wait to go back to Rust Belt on a weekend to try their bacon-infused steak slider (because I tasted their steak sauce and it was to die for) and check out the artists and designers in the actual market.

The longest line by far was at the El Guapo taco truck. I’ve seen the truck at Eastern Market, and my friends once went to a wedding where the truck was the caterer (which is an awesome idea) so we knew we had to try it. I was intrigued by the lemon-limeade with cilantro and jalapenos, and considered the sweet and spicy, double caramelized Korean beef taco, but we settled on adobo chicken and pork belly confit. The chicken was good: tender, spicy, and just the right amount of cheese. The pork belly, on the other hand, was the best taco I’ve ever had in my life. It was a little bit demoralizing, to tell you the truth, because the carnitas tacos I made on Monday had been the best I’ve ever had, and they were so quickly unseated. The pork belly was so crispy on the outside, meltingly tender on the inside, and each bite was a perfectly-textured flavor explosion. A bit of cabbage added a crunchy, fresh contrast, and the guapo sauce was yummy. I want to eat this taco every single day. Tomorrow at Eastern Market I’m going to try their Aloha, Mr. Hand taco, which is the pork belly topped with a pineapple salsa. I bet the sweet, fresh pineapple will be amazing with the pork belly.

We finished up with some salted caramel ice cream from the Treat Dreams ice cream cart. The flavor and texture were outstanding. So creamy, with that toasty, burnt-sugar complexity that comes from real, handmade caramel. The woman sitting next to us told us that Treat Dreams does ice cream parties, where you and your friends can go , drink wine, design and make your own ice creams, and then eat them. It’s the kind of thing that would be so much fun for a bachelorette party, birthday, or just because you and your friends want to try something fun and different. Missy and I definitely plan to put an ice cream party together. After your party they’ll even sell your ice cream flavor in their store for a week!

So, bottom line, the food truck rally was delicious. They hold it the third Thursday of every month, and you should totally check it out. It’s an inexpensive and tasty night out, and would make a creative, low-key date night. There were plenty of kids there too, if you’re looking for a fun family outing.

Looking for something to do tonight? Consider checking out the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale. They’re putting on a one night only reading of the play 8 by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing the movie Milk8 is about the Federal District Court trial of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the lawsuit filed to overturn Prop 8. Admission is a suggested donation of $10, and all proceeds will go to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is the organization sponsoring the federal lawsuit for marriage equality.

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First Week

You know, I have all kinds of weird feelings about moving. I still feel homesick for Boston every day. I miss my job. I miss my friends. I miss being able to text my crew at lunch and, at the end of the workday, meet everybody at our favorite bar in Harvard Square where we’d drink  Aviations and eat pate and talk about everything under the sun. I was that person. In my defense, the pate was really, really tasty. And I got the recipe before I left.

But there are upsides to Detroit too. Our place is gorgeous. You really can’t beat it. I look outside and see the trees and flowers and pool and feel so happy every single day. The kitchen is wonderfully laid out, opening right into the dining and living spaces so that when I cook I don’t feel isolated. We get to reconnect with so many loved ones, friends and family we’ve only seen a few times a year for the last decade. I’ve missed them so much.

The mosquitoes are heinous. My ankles are being chewed up this very moment. In the entire ten years I lived in Boston, I don’t think I was bitten by a single mosquito ever. Sigh.

So, let’s talk about the great things I’ve discovered so far:

1. Eastern Market.

I mention it first because I have photos. So, yay. In Boston, farmers’ markets are almost always between June and September and from 10-6 Mondays-Fridays. So, tell me, if you have a job, when can you go? You can’t. And it’s frustrating, if you care about local, fresh, sustainable food. Here, though, we have Eastern Market, open every Saturday all day and year round and selling the most stellar produce, meats, and additional stuff I’ve ever seen. We’ve gone every Saturday we’ve been here, because we’ve decided this will be our grocery store. We love supporting local businesses, and the products are so much better than you’d find with national brands.

Eastern Market

One of the beautiful sheds at Eastern Market

Instead of card tables lining the sidewalk, like we had in Boston, Eastern Market has gorgeous sheds full of booths selling really high-quality foods.

EM Veggies

Vegetables

Fruits

Fruits

Herbs
Herbs

There are also vendors who sell eggs, meats, cheeses, flowers, flours, spices, breads, wines, nuts, and every other thing you might need. This week, shopping at Eastern Market, we spent $50 on food for two for seven days. Everything is fresh and of the highest quality, and the money goes to support small businesses in Michigan. You can’t beat that. In Boston, groceries for two would’ve easily run us $150 for one week. Awesome.

On Monday I used some of those groceries to make dinner for my in-laws. They love carnitas, and how could I say no to that? All recipes were from Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibanez. I made his guac, pico de gallo, and, of course, the carnitas, served with Mexican corn salad. The only difference was, instead of boiling the corn, I roasted it husks-on at 450 for 20 minutes. I think it tastes better that way: more concentrated and intense. My father-in-law brought handmade tortillas from Mexicantown and I can honestly say these were the best tacos I’ve ever had.

Carnitas

Seriously, make these. You won’t be sorry. Best tacos ever.

Two quick notes on other cool things I’ve found:

2. Detroit Passport To the Arts: If you’re younger than 45 and interested in Detroit cultural events, buy one. I did last week and I’m so excited. They offer discounted tickets to tons of shows around town, plus after parties and talkbacks and things. Performance art is kind of my thing. I love it. LOVE. IT.

3. The Rust Belt Market in Ferndale is having a food truck party tomorrow night. I’ll be there will bells on. Can’t wait.

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Michigan

So, we’ve moved back to Michigan.

It seems so weird to just say it out like that. It hasn’t sunk in yet. We’re still not all the way unpacked. There are boxes in our bedroom and living room. I keep expecting to get on a plane back to Boston any day now. I’m homesick. I miss my friends so much.

But, after all, I have friends here too. And our place is amazing. And there’s so much more to do here than there was when I left. I’m excited to start exploring and try everything. I’m going to have to get used to unstructured time, which I historically don’t do very well with. I find myself sitting down with the internet, and before I know it a whole week has passed and I haven’t done anything but keep ahead of my google reader. So I hope this blog will be a good motivator. I have to actually do things if I’m going to have anything to write about, right?

In Boston I went to the theater all the time. Experimental theater, not mass-produced Broadway stuff, which really isn’t my taste. I was always one of the first in line for a new restaurant or cocktail bar. I cooked elaborate dinners and threw massive parties. I went to the museum all the time. I read a lot. Seriously, a lot. I worked and took classes at Harvard. In Detroit I have a three month old baby and no job and have to motivate myself to get out of the house because there’s nobody to make me if I don’t want to. Once upon a time this sounded like a dream come true, but I’m starting to realize that unless I can actually take advantage of it, it’s just a lot of wasted time.

At work I had an Outlook calendar and task list always going. I went to my scheduled meetings, and when I was at my desk I would plug away at the task list, checking things off until I’d gotten through everything I needed to do that day. I’ve been thinking maybe I should start making myself a to-do list every morning just, I don’t know, for life.

1. Take a shower.
2. Pack up the baby.
3. Go to the coffee shop.
4. Read two chapters in whatever book I’m reading now.
5. Go to the DIA because they have air conditioning and I want to visit the Whistler.

Like that. But maybe a blog will help too.

So,  a quick introduction to me. My name is Meg. I’m 31 years old. Grew up in Riverview. Went to Gabriel Richard, then U of M Ann Arbor. Moved to Boston ten years ago and got a Masters in Art History and Museum Studies. Worked at Harvard as an event planner. Took a bunch of classes there on the side, mostly in Literature. Almost five years ago I married my high school sweetheart. He’s a lawyer. On April 1 I had a baby, who is adorable, and last week we moved back Downriver so she could grow up closer to our families. That about sums it up.

Ha. This post is a mess. Writing is another thing I’ll have to get back in the habit of doing. If you don’t practice, you lose it. Obviously.

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New Apartment

So, today I moved! It was pretty much the best move ever, in that I went to work in the morning, my amazing husband stayed home and handled the movers, and I went home to my new apartment.

And, you guys, it is insane.

Until this morning, we lived in a little one-bedroom. We had a combo living room-kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and an office that was around twelve feet square.

And now, all of a sudden, I’m in the biggest apartment ever. (Well, not ever, I’m sure Al Pacino has a bigger apartment, whatever, give me my moment.) But seriously. I’m sitting here on the sofa looking around…it’s just so BIG. It seems super empty. The dining room alone is the size of Steve’s first apartment in Boston six years ago. I can’t believe that the two of us managed to live for an entire year in a space this size. Our little kitchen table looks absurd in the HUGE dining room under the freaking chandelier. It’s hilarious.

Other than that, we have a front porch (screened in) and a back porch (open air), two bedrooms (we’ll sleep in one and, I guess, make the other Steve’s office), and a study, which I don’t even know what we’ll do except put bookshelves in it, since we have the spare bedroom going on office-wise. The kitchen is big but, weirdly, it has no counters. We already have one of these Ikea islands, and we’ve ordered another so that’ll help.

Seriously, you guys, it’s so weird that in the square feet we lived in for a whole year when I was 24, all we have to put there now is a dinky little Ikea table and a couple chairs. I’m sitting on the sofa in the living room and looking across a disconcerting stretch of floor. Yards and yards.

The whole place seems super empty. Leaving aside the dining room that’s the size of the apartment we shared for a year, there’s also a living room bigger than our last one, a kitchen ditto (just imagine everything is bigger than our last little one bedroom basement place), two bedrooms, front and back porches, a study, a basement, and a whole floor upstairs that’s the entire size of the house and just two big rooms. It’s ridic. The landlady kept telling us, “And this can be storage! And this can also be storage!” and we had to explain to her fourteen times that we were moving from a place the size of the living room and study and didn’t have anything to store. The whole place is going to be totally empty except for books for at least a year. But we’ll have an hilariously teeny table in the dining room, if anyone wants to come over for dinner and laugh at it.

The landlady also said to us, “Everyone who’s ever lived here has wound up getting married!” like we should be all eager.

I said, “Well, we’re already married ….” which she hadn’t known until then since we have different last names, but she looked a little disappointed for a second and then perked up and said, “Well! Maybe you’ll have a baby!” Awesome.

So next up is to get a sofa bed for the office room, since it’s also supposed to be a second bedroom. And I should probably also get a shower curtain, since apparently my husband didn’t bring ours. And a bin for the ice in our freezer, since we don’t have an automatic ice machine anymore. And a shoe tree for the back of our closet so our shoes don’t wind up on the floor anymore. And something else that I think I’m forgetting.

This is so weird, yet cool. I feel like an actual grownup for once. It only took 30 years.

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Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Shortly after we finished high school, my friend Bill invited me to his mom’s cottage in Erieau, Ontario. He and I laid side-by-side on the beach for hours. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. There were millions, billions of them. A bright pinpoint went zooming across the sky, and I gasped when I realized the air was so clear, the beach so dark, that I was looking at an actual satellite in orbit. For the first time in my life I could see the Milky Way, a gauzy stream of light behind the constellations. This was no peaceful starscape.  It was thrilling. I wished the sun would never come up. I wanted to stay there forever.

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

I think of that beach whenever I see Starry Night. This is no tranquil night scene. Above the placid village, the sky writhes. It explodes. It seethes.

I also think of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia. I can’t possibly be the only one who sees the similarities.

So. Right. Let’s start by breaking the image down to its component parts. There’s a tranquil, orderly village with quiet little lights in its windows. Does anyone ever actually notice the village? I had probably looked at this painting a hundred times before I saw anything but the sky. A church steeple juts up from the valley, echoing the tangled, mysterious black form in the foreground. This dark, flamelike shape draws the viewer’s eye up, where the haloed moon and stars cartwheel around each other. The contrast between the peaceful village below and the pulsing delirium above is hypnotic. Van Gogh paints a vast, exploding universe, and the villagers huddle beneath it.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that the black mass is a cypress tree, which are traditionally planted in graveyards. I guess I can see it.

Art historians consider van Gogh a Post-Impressionist. This is kind of a weird and loose term, and not easy to pin down since it includes so many disparate philosophies, but I’ll do my best. So, everyone knows about the Impressionists, yes? Monet and Renoir? Capturing momentary sensations and fleeting images on their canvases with light and color? Good.

Rouen Cathedral Façade, Claude Monet, 1894. Probably my favorite Impressionist painting. I’m happy it’s in Boston, because I can visit it whenever I want.

Anyway, by the 1880s Impressionism was kind of tapped out. Cutting-edge artists began changing the rules of representation, using their painting to systematically examine the expressive qualities of line, form, and color. Van Gogh in particular was interested in the ways he could use distorted forms and unnatural colors to illustrate his emotions and communicate his experiences with nature. He wrote to Theo, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly.” To balance his expressive use of color, he developed an equally expressive style of paint application. If you’ve ever seen a van Gogh in person you know that the paint is so thick, the brush strokes so forceful that each one has its own shape and dimension. The painting’s surface is itself a rough, tactile thing, standing in relief on top of the canvas and intensifying the work’s colors. Fun fact, this technique called impasto, and paintings in this style are impasted.

There’s a kind of outsider artist romanticism about van Gogh. He was deeply troubled. For whole years at a time, when he wasn’t trying to drink his turpentine, he lived on not much more than bread, coffee, cigarettes, and absinthe. Everyone knows he cut off his ear. And yeah, he really did that (though later he told Theo it was just half of his one earlobe, like that makes it any better), handed it to a prostitute, ran home, and passed out. Gauguin found him in a pool of blood, dropped him off at the hospital, and promptly left town. The two of them really didn’t get along, and Gauguin told Theo he was worried the sight of him would probably kill Vincent all together.

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Ow.

Eventually, Theo found van Gogh space at a psychiatric asylum called Saint Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, France.  He set it up so that Vincent had two rooms, one to sleep in and one for a studio. He painted over 150 paintings during the year he was in treatment, images mostly drawn from things he could see in the hospital and outside his window, or from memories he had before his hospitalization. He painted Starry Night there, but didn’t really think it was that great. He wrote to Theo that he thought the lines were kind of messy, not enough feeling or attention in them. He thought this one was much better:

Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape (with the Alpilles in the Background), Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Art historians consider Olive Trees a daylight counterpart to Starry Night, two halves of the same essential project. They both portray outdoor scenes with a powerful, swirling energy. Van Gogh was especially pleased with the way he was able to have the lines come out looking like old woodcuts, rough, handmade things. The strong lines are intensely rhythmic, and I just love the cloud. Do you agree with van Gogh that this painting is superior to Starry Night? I bet you don’t, and I’d be interested to hear why not.

Go ahead, think about it, and then come back and keep reading.

Got your answer? Want to hear my theory? I think people prefer Starry Night for the same reason that, when you go to see this painting at MoMA, there are throngs of people in front of Starry Night while Olive Trees, an equally superb painting hanging in the very same room, goes practically ignored. Even if you’ve never actually stood in front of the original Starry Night, you’ve seen it a thousand times. And that’s what I’d like to talk about next.

Back when I was just a wee college freshman, I filled out a form at a card table during orientation and one week later I had my very own credit card. Starry Night was the picture on the card, and I loved it. I thought it was terribly cool and sophisticated to have a work of art on my credit card. God, this is so embarrassing, I can’t even believe I’m admitting it to a bunch of strangers. But there you go. This painting is everywhere. A simple google search turned up reproductions for sale on everything from mugs and tote bags to, well…

A light switch cover, a goopy-looking cake, a mousepad with a purse dog photoshopped on top (why, god why?), and the most horrifying dress I’ve ever seen, complete with attached angel wings. If any of you buy this, we can’t be friends anymore.

What does it mean when a work of art is reproduced so widely? What are the cultural ramifications? Is it a good thing that people can buy purse dog mousepads with a Starry Night background? Why would anyone ever want this? Well, I have no idea why anyone wants the mousepad. Or the dress. Or the cake. They’re horrible. But the mugs? The totebags? The t-shirts?

When it came to the art world, van Gogh could probably best be described as an anticapitalist. He tried working in a gallery for a little while, but he had to quit because the commoditization of art made his skin crawl. What would he say if he knew people were slapping his masterpiece on credit cards? And why do people do it?

In 1936, social critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Show me an art history graduate who’s never read this essay and I’ll show you someone who didn’t do her homework. It was hugely influential at the time, and still is. It’s pretty dense. Check it out if you want to, but I’ll distill the relevant parts for you.

Art has always been reproducible, of course. People made extra versions of their paintings all the time. Art students learned by sitting in front of masterpieces and making painstaking copies. But these copies were still handmade, and even despite that, didn’t have the value of the original. In his essay, Benjamin poses that the value of an original work of art comes from its “aura” of authenticity. Starry Night was made by the master’s own hand, in his specific life circumstances, and is a real object with a place in history. He writes that “even the most perfect reproduction of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Before widespread commodification of this painting was possible, the only people who knew what it looked like were people who had travelled to see it in person. You had to be able to stand in front of it. Look for a long time. Take that image home with you in your mind’s eye. If you weren’t one of the lucky few who had personal access to Starry Night, you had no idea what it looked like.

Benjamin argues that, with mechanical reproduction (he’s talking about photography, but this can just as easily apply to mousepads and light switch covers) people’s relationship with art changed. Works of art stopped being valued by the masses because they’re unique and brilliant. Now, he writes, famous works are valued because they’re the originals of the zillions of reproductions we’ve been steeped in our whole lives.

At MoMA, people walk right past Olive Trees and flock around Starry Night because Starry Night is famous. It’s the one they know. They’ve seen it on day planners and scarves and coffee mugs their whole lives, and now they’re excited to be standing in front of the real thing. It’s telling that, the first time I saw this painting in person, I wasn’t particularly floored or enraptured or moved or any of the things I’d expected to be. My first thought was, “Yup, that’s what it looks like.”

I’m not judging this value shift, but I do think it’s important to talk about. Reproductions are vital to disseminating art. Most people might not be able to ever visit MoMA, but they can recognize Starry Night, and I’m not saying that’s negative. But what have these reproductions (and I am talking about the dresses and mousepads and other tchotchkes here) done to the overall role of the work? How does it change the cultural value of the piece – the relationship between the work and our society – if most of the people who see it do so because it’s been reproduced on thousands of products, and they’re there because they want to look at the original of their copies?

Every time this image is reproduced, it’s resized, copied, printed on canvas or cotton or (shudder) frosting. By definition, people engage with the copies differently from how they would relate to the original. They don’t stand in front of the image and look carefully, see how the paint was applied, the colors, the way the lights in the village dull compared to the halos around the stars, think about what it means that the graveyard tree, echoing the steeple in the background, is the eye’s bridge between the comfortable domesticity of village life and the writhing energy of the stars. How do they interact with their reproductions? They write their appointments in them, wear them, drink out of them, eat them. This necessarily alters the meaning and experience of looking.

With that in mind, how does reproduction change the ways we perceive or value a work of art? What does it mean when viewers relate to the original in light of the reproductions, rather than on its own merits? Or does the painting, the object itself, maintain an intrinsic worth, however the culture may interact with it? If this is the case, why do people blow right past Olive Trees when it’s just as good, and the artist himself thought it was better? Where does this worth come from, and who decides?

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Darkness in Teen Lit

Prompted by this Washington Post article, Mike at The Geekly Reader and I are discussing why dark themes in teen lit are no big deal, and possibly even a good thing. Join in!

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Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.

Earlier this month I read Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., and I’ve just written a GIGANTIC reaction post over at The Geekly Reader, if anyone is interested in checking it out.

Verdict in a nutshell: Quite good. Made me think. Nice stylistic and thematic shoutouts to Wallace.

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Fun Link of the Day

Happy hump day! I think Hyperbole and a Half is probably one of the most popular blogs on the internet, but on the minuscule off chance that you haven’t read it yet, this entry made me laugh so hard I cried. On an airplane. And then my husband laughed so hard he cried too. And everyone on the airplane turned around and stared at us.

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The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

We went to Italy for our honeymoon, a major pilgrimage site for an art history nerd like me. There’s no doubt that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is one of the most famous paintings in the Uffizi. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, of course. Everyone has. But in person, I think I was mainly shocked by how big it is. When you study art history in school and then go out into the world to look at the works themselves, it seems like they’re always much larger or smaller than you’d thought. My patient new husband looked at me patiently, waiting for me to tell him about the painting, and all I could manage for the first few minutes was, “Wow. It’s huge.”

Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1486, Uffizi, 5'9" x 9'1"

I’m eloquent like that.

But this is one of the most important paintings in the history of art for a reason. Let’s talk about that, shall we?

This is a painting of Venus Anadyomene, the name for Venus rising from the sea. Of course, she’s not rising here, but when Vasari saw the painting (or more likely heard of it second- or third-hand, since he probably wasn’t allowed to go wandering through Medici bedrooms, where this painting was hung) he described it as, “showing the Birth of Venus, with her Cupids, being wafted to shore by the winds and zephyrs,” and Birth of Venus it has remained.

Unlike the other Olympian gods and goddesses, Aphrodite wasn’t born, exactly, and she was never a child. According to Hesiod’s Theogony (ha! I knew reading that in college would come in handy someday), when Zeus’s father Kronos castrated his father, Ouranos, and threw his genitals into the sea, Aphrodite was created, fully-grown, from the sea foam. Venus Anadyomene has been a popular artistic motif throughout history:

From left to right, Venus Anadyomene paintings by Cabanal, Bouguereau, Ingres, Picasso, and Titian

This particular Venus Anadyomene was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificant, and was painted around 1486. The image is probably inspired by a poem on the birth of Venus, Stanze per la giostra by Angelo Poliziano, who was one of the leading humanists of the day. It’s painted in tempera on canvas, which was unusual for the time. Tempra paint is made with egg yolks, but Botticelli made his own with hardly any fat, and then covered the work with a layer of egg white. This was a highly unusual way to do it, but he got amazing results. To this day there are hardly any cracks, and the colors are still vibrant. Botticelli, who began work as a goldsmith, also applied gold leaf to the fringe of the red wrap the nymph is offering to Venus, the tips of the trees, and the highlights in the goddess’s hair. The effect is dazzling.

So, Venus floats to the island of Cyprus in a cockle shell, which symbolized the vulva in Renaissance art. In these types of paintings, you’ll find that everything symbolizes something. The people who knew the codes found spotting them highly entertaining. She’s standing in the classic Venus pudica (modest Venus) pose, with her right hand covering her breast and her left covering her private parts. It’s an asymmetrical pose that draws your attention right to what she’s hiding. Her pose was probably taken from the Venus de Medici sculpture in Lorenzo’s collection, which Botticelli would’ve been able to study.

Venus de Medici, Uffizi

See?

But compare the ancient Venus to Botticelli’s. It’s the inspiration for the painting, certainly, but he didn’t copy the sculpture exactly. In the painting, Venus’s neck and torso are so long as to be anatomically impossible, though certainly very elegant. In giving her body its sensual S curve, Botticelli put her so deep into her contrapposto stance, her weight shifted so far over her left hip, that if she were real, she would fall. Go ahead, stand up and try it. I’ll wait.

The bodies of the other figures, the wind gods blowing her ashore and the nymph waiting to greet her, are equally unrealistic. The lightness and bodilessness of the winds move all the figures delicately. The draperies undulate, rose petals float to the water, hair billows. To Leone Battista Alberti, a famous writer in Botticelli’s time, motion in art symbolized energy. So much of Birth of Venus is motion: the rippling waves, the leaves of the trees, the figures’ cloaks. Everything is lightness, both gliding and swift. Nothing casts a shadow. This is clearly a fantasy image, graceful and poetic. This is notable because, at the time Botticelli was working, experimental art was on the cutting edge of science, especially regarding perspective and anatomy. There’s none of that newfangled naturalism here: the figures have little volume or weight, and are in a shallow perspectival space. But, they are lyrical and beautiful. Seeing them brings pleasure to the viewer.

But, Meg, you ask, what does it mean? That’s something scholars are still debating. An art historian named Ernst Gombrich has the front-running theory, which is that the work should be interpreted through the lens of Neoplatonism. In his commentary on Plato’s Symposium, Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote about the twin Venuses, “one clearly the ability of the soul to know divinity; the other, the ability of the soul to propagate lower forms. Therefore, let there be two Venuses in the soul, the one heavenly, the other earthly. Let them both have a love, the heavenly for the reflection upon divine beauty, the earthly for generating divine beauty in earthly.” For Plato, Ficino, and the Medici artistic circle, Venus was both an earthly goddess and a heavenly one, inspiring both physical and intellectual love. Plato believed that contemplating physical beauty allowed people to better meditate on spiritual beauty. So, as Gombrich applies those principles to Botticelli’s work, this is a painting of the harmonious intersection of Idea and Nature, or Spirit and Matter. The painting is so beautiful that looking at it raises the viewer’s consciousness above worldly things, to the realm of divine creation.

There are other interpretations in the running, like that the nymph on shore could be Flora, the personification of Florence, and Venus could be an allegory of the spirit of Humanism arriving there. Or that Venus represents Eve before the fall, but when she steps on land and puts on clothes she’ll become postlapsarian Eve, looking toward the Virgin Mary, who will give birth to Jesus, who will redeem humanity (I really doubt this one). Or even a complicated theory that Botticelli was trying to recreate a lost Venus Anadyomene by Apelles, one of the greatest painters of antiquity, and used a girl Lorenzo’s brother had a crush on as his model just as Apelles had used Alexander the Great’s girlfriend. I’m in the Gombrich camp, but you should obviously make up your own mind.

Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1476-1480, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Simonetta Vespucci, a favorite of the Medici court and possibly Lorenzo’s younger brother’s mistress, may well have been the inspiration for Venus. I see a resemblance. That hair! Those eyes! She also looks like the female wind goddess in the top left of Birth of Venus, in my opinion. In a weird piece of trivia, she died when she was 22, and 34 years later when Botticelli died, he was buried at her feet.

As a postscript, it’s worth noting that it was fairly unusual at this time for an artist to paint such a large female nude. The Middle Ages hadn’t ended that long ago, and back then, it was against the law to paint nude figures, especially women. Botticelli’s painting a huge nude lady, especially in the ancient Venus pudica mode, could have gotten him charged with paganism and infidelity. But culture had changed so much by then, and the Medici were so accommodating and protective of their artists, that the work went unchallenged. Also, though many of Botticelli’s works were burned in Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities (some by Botticelli himself), this work was spared. Giant pictures of naked women did not go over well with Savonarola, so good thing for us it was in the Medici collection, kept in a villa outside of town.

Next week, Van Gogh!

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