March 2, 2018

A Last Look

{“Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern,” Brooklyn Museum}

So…I think I owe you an explanation. As you might have noticed, I’ve stopped blogging for a while now. In summer 2017, I left my job at the Brooklyn Museum and moved to London to get my MSc in art and archaeological conservation. That’s right– I’m no longer a curator, but a conservator! A scientist who spends much of her time in a lab, looking at things under a microscope, trying to understand what the objects from our past are trying to tell us if only we listen hard enough to the signs they show.

This was always my favourite part. It’s the reason why I believe I’ll always be, in my heart of hearts, an art historian before a curator or a conservator, and a writer before anything else.

Having said that, I always knew that this blog would only remain active insofar as I remained active in the field of curation (hence the name of this blog.) And now that chapter of my life as “a museum girl in New York” has ended in favour of this new life in Europe, filled with archaeological excavations, chemical analyses, and treatments of objects from all over the world.

Maybe I’ll come back to New York one day as a different kind of “museum girl.” But until then, I’m going to focus my recreational writing on on more fictional pursuits. If I ever come out with a book, I promise to let you be the first to know!

Thank you for coming along with me for these past two years.



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July 12, 2017

Milan, Lyon & London

**Click the following links to see my art historical posts on London, Milan, and Lyon


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June 17, 2017

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 4/4)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


Sadō, or ‘the way of tea’ is a nationally revered art form in Japan. Often translated as the Japanese ‘tea ceremony,’ many practitioners of sadō resent this interpretation because it implies a restrictive ritual of rules, which erodes one’s idea of the enjoyment that it provides. For the purposes of this post, however, such a translation does not undermine the pleasure of Japanese tea culture. Rather, it highlights the complex refinement inherent in sadō that makes it worthy of its status as an art in the first place. Warlords in medieval Japan understood this fact. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when imperial authority was weak and warriors wielded great governmental power, they sought to emulate such refinement by becoming practitioners and collectors of tea wares. In doing so, they added a cultured dimension to their personas as military conquerors, which lent an authority to their power that otherwise lacked in comparison to the royal rulers that preceded them. Seen on a macro scale, their desire to possess fine tea wares paralleled their desire for power. Such was the case during Japan’s Muromachi period, when warlords vied in battle as well as in wealth and culture.

Tea appreciation in Japan began in the ninth century, when the monk Eichū (743-816) returned to Japan with tea leaves from China, where he had been studying Buddhism for thirty years. He served them to Emperor Saga (786-842), who emulated certain aspects of China’s Tang culture at his court, including the practice of courtiers reciting poetry while drinking tea. However, at this point tea appreciation did not catch on. It was only during the twelfth century when tea culture truly began, brought into being by Eisai (1141-1215), a monk who established the Rinzai school of Zen/Chan Buddhism. Like Eichū, Eisai also brought tea back with him from China. The difference, however, is that Eisai extolled its medicinal value, and on this basis he served tea to the ruling military elite while also integrating it into the daily practices of his Zen teachings. Long before we had an understanding of caffeine, Eisai recommended that monks drink it to revive themselves when fatigued. A set of rules for handling tea, called sarei, was soon established, and the tea ceremony was born. These protocols blended well with the other practices of Zen Buddhism, which placed an emphasis on daily discipline, rigorous training, and the harmony of mind, body, and spirit. And because this attitude resonated deeply with the military class, who cherished the same orderly virtues, the tea ceremony also became treasured by the samurai elite.

To understand how these warlords used the tea ceremony and its wares for their political aims, we must follow a timeline of their conquests and domination. After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the country was thrown into a series of civil wars between various fiefdoms. This lasted until 1392 when the first Muromachi shōgun, Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), assumed power over the country. He and his descendants continued to have an affinity for the tea ceremony and its service by monks, and during this period, Japanese architecture became influenced by this predilection. The formal palace style of the Heian period gradually gave way to the shoin (study room) style, which incorporated elements of temple architecture such as tea ceremony rooms. Once an activity only fit to be held within temple walls, the tea ceremony came to be performed in these study rooms by menservants dressed as monks, who were called dōbōshū.

The Ashikaga family collected valuable tea wares as a result of this affinity, and when Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) seized control of their lands, as well as their possessions, he inherited an impressive collection. By this time, trade with Europe was well established through Japan’s commercial relationship with Portugal, and it was in Nobunaga’s best interests to cultivate close ties with wealthy merchants from the trading port of Sakai, who controlled the import of military firearms from Portugal. To that end, he invited these townsmen to tea gatherings where he flaunted the tea utensils once owned by the Ashikaga clan. This was his tactful way of showing that their authority was now vested in him. Oftentimes, he would also give these utensils to generals who pleased him, thereby drawing a comparison between his high regard of them and the esteem with which he prized his tea wares.

Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) perpetuated this political practice. After his ascent to power in 1582, he held three large tea gatherings within the first seven months as a way to secure political allegiances, at which he displayed Nobunaga’s collection of tea articles to remind his guests of who now had control of the country. When Hideyoshi was appointed regent in 1585 he travelled to court to thank the royal family, and as a token of his gratitude he served them tea himself. This was the first time that the tea ceremony was performed at court by a daimyō .

These conveyances of taste and enlightenment by warlords to the public poignantly illustrate the usefulness of sadō as a political tool. And while this appropriation constitutes only a minor point in the expansive breadth of manipulative tactics employed by Japanese military rulers to justify power in the minds of their subjects, it aptly explains how charmingly they could do it.



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May 27, 2017

Recap: Japan

**Click the following links to see my art historical recaps of Kyoto, Ise, and Tokyo!


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April 16, 2017

Recap: Indonesia

**Click the following link to see my art historical recap of Indonesia!


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November 23, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 3/4)

titunamaScene from Tutinama (Tales of the Parrot), ca.1560

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


The Mughal Empire, a dynasty that presided over 4 million square kilometers of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan at the height of its power, was comprised of a Turco-Mongol lineage whose rulers insisted on a Persianate culture. This choice was based on their belief that the Persian heritage was more sophisticated. Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the empire, spoke Chagatai Turkic as his native language. Yet he so admired the Persian language and culture that he sought to emulate all aspects of it in the establishment of his new court. Such an adoption, along with its continuation by his successors, indicates the way in which Mughal emperors tried to rescue their nomadic, cross-cultural heritage from the barbaric label that was implied in their reputation as military conquerors.

To Babur’s credit, his occupation as a warlord had no effect on his introspective tendency and sensitivity toward the natural world. His interest in the native flora and fauna of northern India, for instance, is given great focus in his writings, the most famous of which is his epic autobiography, the Baburnama. While these memoirs chiefly chronicle the advancement of Babur’s military career, they also reveal his thoughtful nature, erudition, and worldliness as someone who organized his Chagatai Turkic prose into Persian sentence structures, interspersed with Persian poems and phrases. Indeed, Babur, devoted naturalist and poetry enthusiast, was no barbarian. Unfortunately, however, his short reign of only four years disabled him from making further strides in the cultural realm.

His son, Humayun (1508-1556), inherited his father’s artistic inclination and showed it to a more significant degree. While his reign was not without its own problems—most notably, his fifteen-year exile—the fact that he found refuge at the court of the Persian Shah Tahmasp proved to be a blessing in disguise. There he saw the running of the Shah’s renowned painting atelier firsthand and was able to replicate it to great success once power was restored to him. When Humayun returned to his court in Kabul in 1549, he brought with him two of the Shah’s finest painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad. As their patron he was attentive to their production processes, and he kept them so close by that he even had them accompany his military campaign when he retook Delhi in 1555. Despite Humayun’s ability to foster artistic talent within his court, however, the distinctive style that would begin to constitute Mughal art only came to light during the reign of his son, Akbar the Great (1556-1605).

Under Akbar’s rule, the Mughal Empire came into a golden age that tripled in both size and wealth. After creating a centralized system of government administration, which unified the state, the empire experienced one of its greatest periods of peace and prosperity. And, as with all golden ages, it also flourished culturally. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Akbar’s art patronage was how it was used as tool of governance. While the diverse ethnic landscape that Akbar’s territory encapsulated initially made it difficult for him to instill a sense of solidarity and loyalty in his subjects, by building an atelier that consisted of over a hundred Indian and Persian artists, who collaborated with one another to create a style of art that combined Indian and Persian visual elements, Akbar successfully fostered a new visual culture that his subjects could find pride in.

Popular subjects in this new mode included Persian fables depicted in Indian landscapes, as well as Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that were rendered in the fine lines and realistic manner for which Persian painting was known. By this time, maritime trade with Europe had also allowed Akbar’s court to become familiar with the Western perspective in art, and as such, pictorial depth gradually became an element of the Mughal style as well. The range of visual material that Akbar’s atelier produced was a testament to the diversity of the Mughal Empire and the inclusiveness with which many of its emperors sought to rule.

Next (part 4/4): Samurai and the Tea Ceremony as a Political Instrument



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October 16, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 2/4)

medicivs.sforza Francesco II Sforza (1495-1535); Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


As discussed in the previous post of this series, the success of the Medici family in securing their position as tastemakers of the Renaissance was an impressive feat, given their low-born status among the feudal elites. But how did they achieve this recognition, over every other prominent family?

Not only was their competition with the established nobility difficult, but their task to turn Florence into a cultural centre proved challenging as well. Far from the picturesque attraction that it is today, Florence in the late 14th century was an unlikely location for such an explosion of artistic genius. Like Giovanni de’ Medici, it was born disadvantaged and poor. Landlocked, it was bereft of any ports, which cut off trade prospects. And, unlike Milan, which was known for its military might, Florence was vulnerable to its occasionally bellicose neighbours because of its weak army. Other city-states seemed to have higher chances of turning out more talent, either because they boasted larger populations, like Venice, or because they had more respected universities, like Bologna and Rome. And yet it was still in Florence that the greatest Renaissance masters were discovered. Why?

Because they were found by a family that truly understood what good patronage meant. During a time when artists were still considered ‘hands,’ the Medici respected their artists individually and cultivated a civic pride that treasured them. Not only did they have an eye for talent, but they also had the managerial skills to nurture it properly: while they demanded innovation and were scrupulous supervisors on the one hand, they were also generous with their artists and gave them enough freedom to fully express themselves on the other.

But all these praiseworthy practices could not be taken seriously if viewed in isolation. Thus, to gain a deeper understanding of how superior the Medici were in fostering artistic growth, we must compare them to at least another leading family that famously patronised the arts: the Sforzas.

We’ll begin with Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), who, when not tormenting his subjects with tyrannical cruelty, supported several Lombard artists, such as Bonafacio Bembo, Cristoforo Moretti, and Vincenzo Foppa. While he was certainly not the most tasteful or interested of the Sforza patrons, Galeazzo’s patronage style is worthy of examination because his account is perhaps the most reliable one. He left behind a long and extant paper trail that provides us with the necessary evidence to properly assess his management abilities. The surviving correspondences between him and the aides who acted as his artist liasons, as well as the exchanges between those aides and the artists themselves, are plentiful and altogether paint a picture of a man who rarely interacted with his artists.

In many ways, he could afford to distance himself and do without the personal selection and supervision of talent because his tastes were so predictable. His surviving commissions, such as the illuminated New Testament in Turin, as well as his stated preferences, show that he consistently preferred the decorative luxury, realistic portraiture, and heavy use of gold that was typical of Lombard painting and sculpture at the time. He was not fond of innovation, as shown by his support of the traditional styles of Bembo and Moretti, and only he used the more creative Foppa in conjunction with the former two. Even the subjects of his commissions were predictable: although two different groups of artists were employed to paint the ground floor chapel in the Castello di Porta Giovia in Milan and that in Pavia, the style and subject matter of the frescoes are virtually identical, depicting the Annunciation, Resurrection, and God the Father against a starry blue background. Still, despite his prescribed preferences that championed the Lombard style, Galeazzo was not entirely unaffected by the Renaissance that was blooming in Florence by this time and liked the Medicean baptistery so much that he intended to copy it for his own memorial church. This plan in itself can be read as an acknowledgment of the status that the Medici had attained as the supreme arbiters of taste.

All of these actions point to an attitude that directly contrasts the Medici style of patronage. Far from predictable, they craved new representational strategies calibrated to the changing times and their personal visions for them. An example of this can be found in a commission by Galeazzo’s contemporary, Piero de’ Medici (1416-1469). When Piero asked Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 to paint the Adoration in the small, private chapel of the Medici palace, he closely supervised the painting’s day-to-day progress and, together with Gozzoli, tailored the religious subject matter to suit his family’s dynastic ambitions under the guise of his spiritual ones. While at first glance the painting seems to mimic any other depiction of the Magi paying tribute to Christ, closer inspections and comparisons with surviving Medici portraits have revealed that certain male figures in the scene were modeled after Piero, his male family members, and their affiliates—some of whom would turn against him in the wake of the painting’s completion. Even Galeazzo, an important ally, is shown riding a white horse next to Cosimo de’ Medici.

Piero’s insertion of himself and his support network into the formula of a well-known biblical scene is both indicative of his own artistic creativity as well as his close involvement in production, which at times verged on micromanagement. And, read in the greater context of his family’s patronage history, these two characteristics demonstrate how personally invested the Medici were in their artwork. Piero’s son, Lorenzo (1449-1492), perhaps most exhibited this quality in his discovery and supervision of many Florentine artists, including Michelangelo, who he handpicked at the age of fourteen.

Even Galeazzo’s brother and successor, Ludovico (1452-1508), who commissioned the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and was far more interested in art than his brother, recognized how skilled the Medici were in managing their art commissions. When searching for artists to paint the great monastery of Certosa in Pavia, he asked his agent in Florence to only consider the artists who had been employed by Lorenzo to decorate his villa at Spedaletto. This request, coupled with Ludovico’s hiring of Leonardo for various projects around Milan, attests to the reliance that aristocratic families like the Sforzas eventually had on Medici discernment.

Although the four examples above only concentrate on the management styles of two members from each family, they sufficiently highlight the characteristic personal involvement of the Medici in their commissions, as juxtaposed with another leading family’s style of patronage. Such devotion to their artists indicates from where the Renaissance artists in Florence drew their strength. Yet it is any wonder still that other patrons did not seek to replicate this management scheme for themselves. Instead, they preferred to hire artists who had already been discovered by the Medici rather than finding and nurturing their own local talents. Above all, the nobility’s gradual dependence upon Medicean taste was symptomatic of their overall deference to that family once the clan had garnered so much influence they could no longer be ignored by high society.

Next (part 3/4): Mughal Art as a Governance Method



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September 1, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage

mariaMaria de’ Medici, Bronzino, 1551

Part 1/4 : Introduction

After coming back from Tuscany, home to Florence and the Renaissance masters, I’ve been thinking about art patronage as a means of justifying newfound wealth. Without the patronage of the Medici family, it is doubtful that Florence would have achieved its status as the cradle and beacon of the Renaissance. Yet the family that was responsible for ensuring its greatness was neither descended from noble stock nor charged with responsibilities of the church—a noteworthy detail, given that the two most traditionally powerful patrons of the arts at the time were the aristocracy and the Catholic institution. Instead, their dynasty was founded on the banking that propelled the patriarch of the clan, Giovanni de’ Medici, to far-reaching financial success. So what reasons, apart from genuine enjoyment, did Giovanni’s son, Cosimo, and his descendants have in being such ardent art patrons?

One likely explanation is in the fact that, as private citizens, the Medicis possessed none of the noble titles needed to impress those with whom they negotiated on behalf of the republic. However, by gracing the city with celebrated works of classic and contemporary art they showed that they belonged in the company of the most important feudal lords. They were supported in this endeavour by the Florentine public, who also sought to promote its leading family based on the understanding that the reputation of their city was tied to the outside honour paid to the Medicis. Painfully aware were the Florentines of their lack of hereditary pedigree, and the pageantry of their artistic projects was in large part an expression of their cultural insecurity.

In short, through their patronage, the Medicis were able to overcome the age-old problem of ‘new money.’ Ever since the notion of taste was invented, the nouveau riche have never had a favourable image among the elites of society, leaving them with the conundrum of how to convince ‘the right people’ that they, too, belong. After all, a reputation as a cultured arbiter of taste is not so easily bought as the items used to advertise a person of great means. This is because ‘taste’ relies upon the exclusivist idea that persons of a higher calibre possess certain trained parts: a trained eye, a trained ear, a trained manner of speech and handwriting, the entire training process to which only few are given access from childhood and encouraged to accept as the only hallmark of respectability.

And so we history buffs are left with a long global history of newly rich members of society seeking to demonstrate their ability to discern the fine from the crude by supporting the arts. As such, this series will explore three cases in which important historical figures from India, Japan, and Italy became benevolent art enthusiasts after their quick ascension to wealth and power.

Next (part 2/4): Medici vs. Sforza Patronage Styles



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July 6, 2016

Jade in Ancient Meso-American & Chinese Funerary Rites


The two images above of the funerary mask of Lord Pakal (603-683 A.D.), a Mayan ruler, and the burial suit of Prince Liu Sheng (c.135-113 B.C.) of the Chinese Han dynasty represent the different ways in which ancient civilisations utilised jade in their funerary rituals. In both ancient China and pre-Columbian Meso-America, jade was revered as not only precious but sacred and reserved for royalty, especially in their deaths.

Several Meso-American civilisations used jade in their funerary practices, including the Olmec (1000-400 B.C.), the late Yucatec Maya (100 B.C-900 A.D.), the Aztec (1000-1521 A.D.), and the Zoned Bichrome Period peoples of northern Costa Rica (300 B.C.-300 A.D.). Figurative jade pieces that have been excavated from Olmec burial sites in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco show that the Olmecs preferred jades of a translucent blue-green quality, while the Mayans preferred bright green ones. Linguistically, as is the case in Aztec Nahuatl, many Mayan languages considered ‘blue’ and ‘green’ the same colour but regarded them as different hues. This provides one reason for why the Mayans painted their gods blue in their temple reliefs, as opposed to the skins of mortals, which they painted red: if ‘blue’ and ‘green’ were the same colour to them, then green jade and blue paint would have served the same purpose of indicating sacredness. The same sacred significance was also placed on Costa Rican jade, however, unlike the Mayans who used jade in both domestic and mortuary contexts, jade in Costa Rica was restricted from personal adornment and used solely for funerary purposes.

The death mask of Lord Pakal was found alongside a trove of other jade adornments when it was discovered in 1952 in a crypt below the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque in Mexico. With the mask found inside the Mayan ruler’s sarcophagus were jade ear-spools, necklaces, and rings. A large jade was held in each hand and another was placed in the mouth, a practice also documented for the Aztec and Chinese.

The Chinese reverence for jade dates back to the Neolithic era and still continues to this day. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), jade cicadas were placed in the mouths of deceased royals as symbols of cyclical resurrection, and jade pigs were placed in their hands. Jade burial suits such as the one above were also made for the nobility, although the type of thread used to hold the jade pieces together differed according to the status of the individual. According to the Book of Later Han (後漢書), gold thread was reserved for emperors; silver thread for princes, princesses, dukes, and marquises; copper thread for the sons or daughters of those given silver thread; and silk thread for minor aristocrats. Amusingly enough, despite the material worth of jade, Emperor Wen of Wei in 223 A.D. apparently ordered the practice of jade suits to be stopped because they attracted tomb looters who would burn the suits to harvest the gold thread.



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June 24, 2016

Metaphysical poetry as explained by Florence + the Machine (part 3/4)


(For the introduction to this series, see here)


“The stars, the moon/ they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark/ No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart”

Paradise Lost largely focuses on the Fall of Man and the loss of privileges that Adam and Eve suffer in the wake of their condemnation. As such, one of Milton’s chief methods of imparting the feeling of hell both on earth and in actual hell is by emphasizing the link between despair, darkness, and the absence of God. The introduction of darkness to Man’s paradisaical world once the Original Sin has been committed is symbolic of Man and earth’s tainted status. In Book IX, after Eve convinces Adam to also partake of the fruit, the pair feel briefly invigorated and flee into a shadowy forest. Upon awakening in the darkness, however, they see the world in a new way and realize that they have lost favour with God, thereby losing Paradise.

“I can hear your heartbeat/ I tried to find the sound
But then it stopped/ and I was in the darkness
So darkness I became”

One of Adam’s first lamentations after his expulsion from Eden is that he can no longer communicate directly with God. Although he is aware of his maker’s presence on earth, he can only offer prayers to an invisible force rather than speak to God, face to face. Adam’s world becomes that much more silent as a result, and he finds himself in anguish over the loss of God’s physical voice.

“I took the stars from my eyes/ and then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back”

In Book X, the archangel Michael descends to escort Adam and Eve out of Eden. After putting Eve to sleep in order to have a private conversation with Adam, Michael comforts Adam with the thought that his separation from God is only as temporary as his life on earth, so long as Adam lives virtuously. Having seen Michael’s visions of how humanity will withstand the forces of evil despite their tendency to sin, Adam then feels reassured that he and his descendants will be able to rejoin their maker in heaven and becomes resolved to endeavor towards that end.

“Then I heard your heart beating/ you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you”

Once Eve awakens from the sleep that Michael induced, the couple is led to the gate of Eden. As soon as they pass through, Michael stands before it alongside other angels, wielding a flaming sword to protect its entrance. Adam and Eve tearfully turn away, hand in hand, and venture out to take their place in their new, impure world. As sorrowful as they are to leave, however, they are assuaged by the idea presented by Eve in Book X that they might not be overwhelmed by the darkness of their new home as long as they remain united and equal in sharing the burden that has befallen them.

Next (part 4/4): The Sonnets of John Donne as set to “All This and Heaven Too”



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