A Quiet Moment


Moments of real quietude seem so rare in our hectic lives that they stand out like pools of sunlight in a busily shadowed forest. We have to create them, because they don’t come on their own. Or they do, but we think we don’t have time for them and they tiptoe away, sometimes sadly, sometimes smirking at our shortsightedness.

Last week I made a committed effort to make it to the Getty Museum to catch, on its penultimate day there, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, which he painted in Delft around 1663 and which resides in the Rijsmuseum in Amsterdam. The gallery was busy, and a small crowd clustered and ebbed around the small picture (it’s only 18 5/16 x 15 3/8 in.). But I forced the conversations and people to recede into the background of my mind and gave my full attention to Vermeer.

I looked. And looked some more. And let the picture reveal itself to me, detail by detail. Here is what I saw:

A young woman’s body is in the room, her blue frock rooting her to the heavy furniture – the blue velvet chairs and a table covered by indigo cloth. But her head is far away, literally and figuratively – in the map, in the world outside the room, in the place where her beloved is…

She is hungry for news from him, but her exact emotions on receiving them are unknown to us. She is literally moved by his letter that just arrived. Her coat, tossed on the table by an open chest — in which she keeps her writing implements and his other notes? — suggests that she rushed into the room, eager to catch what he had to say. She dove into his words while still standing, though a chair is right behind her. Her lips are parted slightly, as if letting out a sigh. Her head is bent in total absorption. But posed in profile to us, she is inaccessible, keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself.

Tracy Chevalier, who wrote a novel about Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, gave a Ted talk in which she suggested her interpretation of that other exquisite woman painted by Vermeer, and her world. Of course Chevalier had that as her goal. I found myself thinking that I could muse on the circumstances of this letter reader, on the contents of the creamy page in her hands, on the ripples it caused in her life. But somehow I felt compelled to respect this woman’s privacy, on which her body language insists, and to savor the visual pleasures of the picture itself.

Vermeer set up his composition beautifully: while the woman’s conical body is at the core of the scene (she is probably not pregnant – her clothes give her that appearance), everything else is off center – the pale rectangles of the wall, the two tall-backed teal chairs, the sandy green map that echoes the color of the woman’s skirt. So while the picture seems visually simple, it is far from boring or static. The two brightest patches are the letter – one page in her hands, the other resting on the table, next to a string of discretely glimmering pearls tied with a blue ribbon. And one more area of light – the white chemise at her chest – is where you’d put your hand to express that something has touched your soul.

Vermeer relishes small details, almost discreetly: to enliven the large patch of the map he gives a blue finial to the rod that keeps it stretched at the bottom. The heavy chairs have lion head decorations and shining brass studs. Yellow ribbons at the sleeves and chest add interest to the woman’s blue frock, though its sky blue hue is itself beguiling. The light ribbon tying her hair at the back merges with a strip of river on the map, which seems to be making an inroad into her head.

The painting’s subject is a quiet, private moment, rendered tenderly and non-intrusively. As I stood before the Woman Reading for perhaps forty minutes, lured by its restrained charm, I became aware of the rare pleasure of spending an unhurried stretch of time immersed in a single picture, feeling my way sotto voce into her room, her world, her mind. Discovering more and less evident particulars by letting them reveal themselves to me, gradually. Allowing myself a contemplative and transformative moment in a life packed with so much business. The inward experience of the painting mirrored my viewing of it.

I tend to be visually engaged with the world, but I also live in my head much of the time. And when I am faced with paintings, I THINK about them more than LOOK at them. I start constructing interpretations around them, fill out their larger context, think of history at that time. Vermeer, in his subtle way, made me slow down – physically and mentally – and just look. Relish that moment. And make it last – on that day and at other pools of light I can create by spending time – making time – for works of art, and for myself.


Taking the last look

Baldung Grien, Ages

I would have never suspected – having been spared an encounter with death until now – that it could be so… I hesitate to use these words, because they may seem inappropriate, yet they have been true for me — fascinating and positive. It’s not that my grandmother’s passing has not saddened me in a profound way. Nor am I callous and glossing over the loss. Rather, I am amazed that her death has been opening new perspectives for me. I will mull over most of them privately. They will take time to travel through my mind and heart. But for the moment – and perhaps for the last time in this blog, I want to reflect on two thoughts that came to me when I went to see my grandmother for the last time — in the funeral home.

I did not realize, when my Mother mentioned stopping there for the last formalities, that one of them – the primary one – would be to see my grandmother in her coffin. So I did not have time to dread this moment, to feel fear or shock at the direct sight of death… We entered the impersonally comfortable funerary room and there she was. In a wooden casket. Asleep. That’s what she looked like. Just asleep, serene, lying quietly in the corner. I was struck by how beautiful her face was – the worries and anxieties that plagued her all her life smoothed out, bringing into focus her elegant cheek bones, fine aquiline nose, smooth forehead and cheeks (all that face cream doing her a world of good! She should have been a Pond’s spokeswoman – her skin glowing and unblemished at 96!). I was amazed by how natural it felt to be there with her, as if she were still in our life. I expected, somewhere in the back of my mind, for her to open her eyes and speak to us. The fact that she was present just in the physical body, that her spirit had left, seemed dauntingly final and utterly unreal. This incongruity was confirmed to me in a striking way by my camera.

It played an uncanny trick on me. I took a picture of my grandmother in the casket because I wanted to capture her beautiful face for good. Because this was the last time I would see her. Ever. That “ever” part is the hardest to grasp. I wanted to hold on to her visage – the way we are so used to doing these days, with the camera of our smart phones giving us the luxury of making any moment into a particle of memory that we can store and revisit at will. As I looked at the pictures I took – in shock – the old debate about the nature of photography sprang to my mind: does the camera capture reality? It was baffling to discover the answer – or, rather, to fail to find one. Of course, as a historian, I know well that truth is relative, that it is particular to every individual and changeable with each distinct point of view. And I could rationally understand the gap between the camera’s eye and mine. But being a visual person – an art historian, trained to see carefully and critically – I was astounded by the complete disjunction between the two images, the photograph and my vision. The picture showed a decidedly dead woman, a mask, a face that did not have any resemblance to my grandmother. The face I saw in the casket was absolutely hers, familiar, dear, lovely, merely at rest. Was the camera right, or my sight? The natural conclusion would be that my perception was distorted by love, and that the camera objectively captured cold reality. And yet, what is reality? To me the far more real likeness was that of the woman I’ve known all my life, one who has watched and fussed over me, spoiled and treasured me, whose face lit up when I came into the room, whose warm hands embraced my face with such affection and joy. The coldness and hardness of a cadaver shown by the photograph – I simply did not see them! They were not there when I was leaning over the wooden box soaking in her features.

My mother and I sat in the room for a long time, crying, remembering, talking about the past. It felt like there were three of us in the room. We did not want to leave, to walk out and accept that now there were only two. And then, at some point a Renaissance painting swam up into my mind. Three Ages of Man by the 16th century German master Hans Baldung Grien. Actually, it shows four ages: a baby asleep in the foreground, a lovely young woman with a supple creamy body on the left, an old woman with sagging breasts and flesh darkened by age in the middle, and a skeleton with an hour glass on the right. Four generations. One having passed away. This was us – minus the baby. Three generations of women now reduced to two. When I taught this painting in my Renaissance course, its meaning seemed clear but abstract to me. I talked to my students about the ubiquity of death in the Renaissance, about its presence having been felt much more frequently and directly by people. And hence giving rise to many images of skeletons taking away younger women and men. But now Baldung Grien’s painting made sense to me viscerally.  Death has come to our door and replaced my grandmother with a dead body, soon to become a skeleton. Her passing – an hourglass for our lives.

This has been one of the discoveries bestowed on me by death: Renaissance images that I have known for years and enjoyed aesthetically and intellectually are suddenly coming to life for me. I can feel them in a wholly new way. History and life are taking on dimension and depth for me. And the experience is at once luminous and humbling.

Dying Well


Life is ironic. I taught a lecture on death to my UCLA students. Death in the Renaissance: how people prepared for it with special manuals called The Art of Dying that addressed fear, loss of faith, reluctance to part with one’s possessions and beloved. These manuals also had sections for priests, to help them administer last spiritual comforts and rites, and for family members – to guide them through the ordeal of watching the dear one die and ponder their own eventual death. I showed my class artworks from that period that depicted deathbed scenes and their aftermath.

I wanted to convey to my students the human aspect of facing death in the Renaissance, because at that time it was far more ubiquitous, visible, and knowable that it is to us in the 21st-century America. We are removed from it much of the time and try to avoid it if at all possible. In 15th and 16th-century Europe death was everywhere. Wars were constant and immediate – on your doorstep, in your town. Babies died at heartbreaking rate. Young women perished in childbirth so frequently that they made up wills before the beginning of labor, in case they would not survive it. Public executions were regular and much attended occurrences. And living in small communities – even in large cities like Florence or London – people witnessed friends, neighbors, and family members die more commonly than we do today.

So I tried to think about it all, with an open heart, though, really, mostly with my analytical mind. Right after the class ended, I got a call from my mother: my grandmother, who’s been declining for some time, stopped eating – not consciously, but because her body began to shut down. It would just be the matter of days.

What I discovered as that day, and then next ones progressed, was that while intellectually I could think about death from many – and sympathetic – angles, emotionally it hit me in a way I never anticipated or could be prepare for it.

I don’t know, perhaps reading The Art of Dying at the bedside of a person who was fading away really helped Renaissance men and women come to terms with this mysterious event. Maybe the fear, and thus preparations for the afterlife – the Last Judgment, the Purgatory, the Hell with all its terrifying devils – transformed their grief and pain into purposefulness. Or maybe the sorrow of loss in universal, at any time, and when it comes down to it, no preparation is adequate. I have been long anticipating my grandmother’s passing. She was 96, fading away, not communicating much for the last few months, her world shrinking to the very basic needs and her body and mind no longer available for much else. She has been depressed and confused about moving to a nursing home, but unable to articulate her anxiety and frustration to herself or others. Once a strong, feisty, opinionated woman, she had stopped being herself a long while ago, and though it saddened me to see this cruel change to near non-being, I had gotten used to it and made some manner of peace with it. Except that I have been ardently hoping that I would die at a far younger age so as not to reach this state.

And yet when the news of her imminent end came, the emotional storm that engulfed me took me by absolute surprise. I felt guilty about my reaction. What saddened and hurt me most was that in her passing a part of me was exposed – the raw sadness of a little girl I had been under her care – and the sorrow that with her death that vulnerable, sweet child was being orphaned. I remembered Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about her grief following the sudden death of her husband. One observation in particular in that book stuck with me: that when people who have known us since our youth die, with them goes that young part of us (for they always remember us as we were when they first met us, or fell in love with us, be they our lovers or besotted grandparents). Now the innocent girl in me, craving love and comfort in the big scary world, was going to be left unprotected – or had to become her own parent or grandparent.

I tried to focus on my recollections of my grandmother: her waiting for me when I returned from school, to feed me and sit with me over my homework; her teaching me to love, memorize, and recite Pushkin; her taking care of herself by doing her calisthenics and putting what we described as tablespoons full of Pond’s cream on her face well into her 90s to preserve her looks (she had beautiful, soft, smooth cheeks). I’ve  inherited that vanity and hold on to it fondly. And yet, all these memories aside, I would, now and then, be engulfed by a powerful and baffling wave of sorrow that my usually analytical mind could not categorize and that utterly unmoored me. A raw feeling like I have never experienced before. I was in a completely foreign territory.

Grief over the death of those close to us is not a single event, but an entire journey. I am embarking on it now. I can see how comforting were the mechanisms relied upon by Renaissance men and women in these circumstances – religion, priests, manuals, visions of the afterworld, support of family and neighbors at their doorstep. It was, I am imagining, a more communal experience. Mine is going to be more solitary. But I am, strangely, looking forward to it. I can sense how much I will discover in the process. How thinking about my grandmother and what she has meant and taught me will uncover parts of myself I have never realized. It will be a gift from her. That in itself – this unexpected offering – astonishes me. Her dying, if not well, at least, thankfully, comfortably, is teaching me something new about life. I think it must have been similar for people in the Renaissance.

Superwomen, too, need help


I’ve been discussing with various friends of late the difficulty of being a modern woman. We’ve gained opportunities to develop our careers, pursue our interests, fulfill our potential in ways our predecessors only a couple of generations back did not possess. It seems a blessing and a cause for celebration. Yet the reality is not quite so rosy. Most women also want relationships, families, kids – which require a great deal of additional attention, energy, and time. Juggling professional and personal lives leaves women overwhelmed and run down. They worry about not doing enough in one or another sphere, or both. And have almost no time for themselves – to rest, exercise, read, and recharge so as to tackle their multiple obligations with vigor and satisfaction.

Something has to change – seems to be the general feeling. The more well off women hire nannies and babysitters, but feel guilty about not spending adequate time with the kids. The less prosperous cut corners and fall behind – whether in their professional development or domestic chores. Men get credit for taking time off to do things with their children. Women tend to be taken less seriously for it. Perhaps what has to change are these expectations – the attitudes toward gender roles.

In my Renaissance art class I devoted one lecture to 15th– and 16th-century women who followed their intellectual interests in a society that gave little support to such deviations from the gender norms. There were just a handful of women patrons and artists in the Renaissance, so they stand out all the more for their dreams and daring. One such woman struck me as a particularly inspiring example – for both what she achieved and how her partner helped her in the process.

Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna in 1552 to a well-established painter Prospero Fontana. She learned her father’s craft from him and was introduced into his business world. This would seem a natural course of events, but it was not very common in that era. Most women were raised to be wives and restricted to domestic sphere. It took an uncommon father to recognize, nurture, and promote the talents of a daughter. Lavinia herself supplied the drive and ambition. The few women artists who made it in the men’s world confined their output to portraits. Lavinia managed to obtain public commissions and to paint important religious and mythological subjects – though she also became the portraitist of choice for the Bolognese nobility and for men associated with the city’s renowned university.

In 1577, when she was 25, Lavinia married a wealthy fellow artist Giovanni Paolo Zappi. It was a late marriage for a woman – many girls wed when they were teenagers. More unusual still, Zappi recognized that Lavinia’s talent was superior to his own and decided to dedicate himself to helping her – by rendering backgrounds in some of her paintings (a task often left by masters to their assistants) and by taking on most of the household duties. Being good Catholics, the couple produced 11 children. Zappi did most of the childcare so that Lavinia could focus on her career.

In 1603 the family moved to Rome, where Lavinia was invited by Pope Clement VIII to become the official painter to the papal court – an unprecedented honor for a woman. In the eternal city she combined work for the pope with commissions for portraits and religious images for other high-ranking patrons. In another rare honor for a female, she was elected a member of the Roman Accademia di San Luca, the highest professional association of artists.

Would Lavinia have achieved all this success without a father and a husband who fostered her abilities and gave her the opportunities to fully realize them? Would she have been able to concentrate on her career if Zappi had not taken care of the kids? I rather doubt it. I think in the Renaissance, as today, the way for a woman to do it all was to have a partner who took upon himself a major share of domestic duties and left her space and time to do her best where she excelled. Of course finding such a progressive and caring life companion might be as difficult as juggling it all. Or, more or less realistically, we need a shift in societal outlook. For those men out there who have already attained such enlightenment – kudos and thank you! For others, please begin.



This blog stemmed from a class I was taught at UCLA, which I designed and called The Art of Living and Dying Well in the Renaissance. When I first thought of this subject, I had a vague notion of discussing life in the 15th and 16th centuries — the home of my imagination – through artworks produced and used during that time.  As I began to research and put together the course, different stages of life, ambitions and anxieties of men and women in the Renaissance, and objects they employed from birth to childhood, marriage to maturity, death and beyond — came into sharper focus for me. I also realized that my students probably did not know very much about the past, so to engage their interest and empathy I would need to draw parallels between their experiences and those of people in the past. I would need to make a distant era come alive for them in clear, exciting, and understandable ways.

It worked! The students loved the course, frequently commented on the commonalities between what they knew and what their predecessors 500 years ago underwent, and could relate to why people then commissioned and used various artifacts at various junctures of their lives. (Their biggest compliment came on Valentine’s Day when a number of students said they were happy to have the midterm from their favorite class fall on that date.)

I have previously taught many years ago and loved it then. I subsequently devoted a decade to writing books about art, history, interesting cultural figures, and even exotic animals that have been used as gifts or symbols of power and knowledge from antiquity to the modern era (beginning in 3rd-century B.C. Alexandria and ending at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.). A decade of thinking intensively about the past and its different aspects, and making it alive and fascinating for my readers has enormously deepened and expanded my own understanding of the Renaissance. (I had first fallen in love with this period as a child and returned to it repeatedly in my books.) I brought this accumulated knowledge, passion, and creative thinking to my UCLA class. My confidence in what I knew, and my love for it animated my teaching and gave it depth, resonance, and sense of fun.

While teaching my own course I also happened to take an evening class on new media marketing, to bring myself into the 21st century, since my nose has been so persistently buried in the past. I wanted to learn about this revolutionary world and to see how it can enrich mine. A major component of the class was a project of our own choosing that would utilize the tools and skills of social media. As I pondered what I could choose as my subject, it occurred to me that a blog on the Art of Living and Dying Well would be an exciting and stimulating creation. It would utilize all the expertise I posses myself, my joy in sharing it with others, the books and exhibitions I come across, and conversations I engage in with people from various walks of life — people who would make guests appearances in my blog. These people would bringing their knowledge — of medicine, religion, aging, luxury artifacts, and other related subjects — to the discussion of what constitutes living well (now vs. the Renaissance), the choices we make for the present and the future, the values we try to adhere to or attain. And so this blog was born.