Happy Camels at the Library

The other day we visited the local library to do some work in a cool, non-home space (this is always a good idea because libraries don’t have kitchens, which are great distractors). As soon as we arrived we saw lots of familiar faces–it was almost as if we’d never been away. As usual, the Chinese guy had found a corner to doze in while his grandson made repeated circuits of the library; the lady with false teeth pushed her dachshund around in a baby’s pram, parking it beside her as she read; the muscular Nigerian youths pored over textbooks; the distinguished older gentleman sipped something strong from a plastic water bottle; and the glamorous librarian-ness spoke in a high nasal voice with theatrical fluency and emphasis.

It was a pleasing scene, though one that inspired some anxiety for personal reasons. The last time I was here it was a year ago and I’d just finished the first draft of my murder-mystery novel set in the fourteenth century, convinced there were only a couple more weeks of work to do. Ha! Here we are in August 2018 and the sixth draft looms.

So, while John worked on his book, I decided to cheer myself up by doing something novel-related but undemanding. This led me to the art-history shelf. The two big names that jumped out were Giotto and Simone Martini. In 1361, Petrarch wrote, “I know two illustrious painters, and handsome lads: Giotto, a Florentine, whose fame among moderns is very great, and sensual Simone…” (…duos ego novi pictores egregious, nec formosos: Iottum, florentinum civem, cuius inter modernos fama ingens est, et Simonem sensem…“).


Giotto di Bondone

There is a legend that Giotto was a shepherd boy whose paintings of sheep were so strikingly natural that the master Cimabue just happened to be passing by and recruited him to his workshop immediately. It’s hard to know if that’s true though. In fact, it’s hard to know whether all the paintings attributed to Giotto were really his. What is true is that he was associated with a new naturalness and a departure from the stiff symbolism of Byzantine art.


Cimabue in Byzantine mode


In Dante’s Purgatorio, the narrator meets the painter and manuscript illuminator Oderisi da Gubbio, who declares:


Credette Cimabue ne la pittura

Tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido,

Sì che la fama di coliu è scura:

In painting Cimabue thought that he

Should hold the field, now Giotto has the cry,

So that the other’s fame is growing dim.

(XI, 94-96) Translation taken from Digital Dante


Giotto fan


So Giotto was famous long before his death in 1337. I picked up a booklet showcasing what is considered to be his masterwork, the interior frescos of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted around 1305. The two frescos featured in the booklet were The Birth of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi.


The Birth of Christ


The Birth of Christ


I love this painting. Joseph is exhausted–it’s been a hard couple of months. Mary (wrapped in celestial blue) is swapping a serious look with the swaddled Christ. The midwife hands him over and the women’s hands are very expressive–gentle, soft, pale as doves.

A flock of sheep (including one lamb) are huddling together nervously as if aware that something big is going on. The ox and ass are not only adorable but also symbolic; they represent, respectively, the New and Old Testament, which may explain why the ox seems pleased and the ass’s expression is unreadable. The angels are  busy giving thanks except for the one on the far right, who is announcing the glad tidings to two rude shepherds.





Adoration of the Magi




The thing about this painting is that it has two huge honking camels in it. They both have blue eyes and goofy happy expressions. This makes it quite hard to concentrate on anything else.




However, on second look you might also see the star, which looks like a comet. Some have said that the fact that Halley’s Comet appeared in 1301 (a few years before Giotto painted this) inspired him to present the Star of Bethlehem as a comet. For that reason, when the European Space Agency launched a spacecraft in 1985 to study Halley’s Comet, it was named Giotto.




Simone Martini

Another great Italian painter of the fourteenth century, Simone Martini, was born in Siena in 1284. Summoned by the Pope around 1339, Martini transferred to Avignon, where he remained until his death in 1344. It was there, in France, where he met his compatriot Petrarch, with whom he formed a kind of working relationship. Petrarch commissioned him to paint the portrait of the famous Laura. Unfortunately lost, all that remains of the portrait are two sonnets by Petrarch, in which the poet eulogizes the artist’s divine talent.


Ma certo il mio Simon fu in paradiso

(onde questa gentil donna si parte),

Ivi la vide, et la ritrasse in carte

Per far fede qua giù del suo bel viso.


L’opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo

si ponno imaginar, non qui tra noi,

ove le membra fanno a l’alma velo.


But Simone must have been in Paradise

(from where this gentle lady came)

saw her there, and portrayed her in paint,

to give us proof here of such loveliness.

This work is truly one that might

be conceived in heaven, not among us here,

where we have bodies that conceal the soul.

 (Canzoniere 77, Petrarch)

Translation from art in fiction blog:


Luckily for us, there are other works that have survived (to tell you the truth, I find the whole Laura thing boring. She just wasn’t that into you, Petrarch! For God’s sake). One of the most incredible is The Annunciation with Saints Ansanus and Massima.





“No, thank you.”


“Look, you’re supposed to be pleased about this.”



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