Roving thoughts and provocations

The Worldly Temptations of Lucas Cranach

Ingrid D. Rowland

Galleria Borghese

The phrase “Renaissance man” tends to conjure up images of Italians in tights, like Leonardo da Vinci, or that tireless fifteenth-century self-promoter Leon Battista Alberti. Yet the real early modern masters of a thousand arts seem to have come from parts farther north. Peter Paul Rubens was famously both a student of philosophy and a diplomat as well as painter, but no artist may have diversified his talents as widely as the elder Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), mayor of Wittenberg, tavern keeper, and, more than incidentally, court painter for more than half a century to the Electors of Saxony. Cranach is best known now, as he was in his own day, for his paintings of women—impossibly long-legged coquettes with catlike eyes and purring expressions, one of whom, a Venus clad in nothing but a red velvet hat and a gossamer veil, is the centerpiece of a special exhibition being staged this winter within the permanent collection of Rome’s Borghese Gallery.

Blind Libel

Garry Wills

Robert Draper, who did the extensive interview-cum-article about Sarah Palin in The New York Times Magazine, still has good sources in her camp. On that basis, he told the Daily Rundown show on MSNBC that Palin timed her morning statement on the Tucson tragedy to play against the president’s anticipated speech later that day. The setting and solemnity of her presentation were manipulated to show who could be more “presidential,” she or Obama. That is a measure of her aspirations and arrogance.

Obama’s Finest Hour

Garry Wills

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service—and, yes, heroism—in the country.

Denis Dutton, Intellectual Entrepreneur

Robert Cottrell

AP Photo/Martin Woodhall

For a man of his age and background—a non-techy, 50-something, university professor—Denis Dutton was a crucial few years ahead of his time in understanding the Internet. He saw its potential as a publishing platform. (He was also an early publisher of e-books.) He anticipated information overload. With Arts & Letters Daily, he identified a market for what media people now call “curating,” which is to say, selecting and recommending content for a particular audience. All this was at a time when the Web was still, by and large, a morass of dial-up connections and bad typography in need of a decent search engine. (In 1998, Google was still in a garage.)

American Tragedy

Larry McMurtry

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Murderous rampages of the sort that occurred Saturday outside a grocery store here in Tucson may retain some power to shock—twenty people shot down right up the road from where I write—but for me, at least, they have lost all power to surprise. Arizona is after all a state where it’s possible to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and many do.

The Unexpected Pleasures of Jan Gossart

Andrew Butterfield

Albertina, Vienna

Before it closes on January 17, I urge readers to rush over to the exhibition of Jan Gossart at the Metropolitan Museum to experience its unexpected pleasures. A Netherlandish painter of the early sixteenth century, Gossart (c. 1478-1532) is little known except by historians, yet deserves wider attention. He was one of the first northern painters to travel to Rome to study and possibly the first Netherlandish artist to make paintings of mythological subjects, bringing to northern Europe a new appreciation of classicism and Italian art. The exhibition at the Metropolitan emphasizes the painter’s interest in secular narratives, voluptuous nudes, and his remarkably beautiful and complex portraits, as well as mythological and Biblical paintings.

Lost Rituals, Found Poems

Christopher Benfey

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was a child growing up in a drab college town in Indiana, our family received an annual New Year’s visit from a vivid woman named Erika Strauss. Erika was related to the Jewish foster family, originally from Berlin, with whom my father, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, spent the war years in England. Afflicted with almost total deafness as a teenager, Erika had also fled Germany and spent the war trapped in occupied Holland. There, she survived by pretending to be a demented deaf-mute in the household of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.

The high point of Erika’s visit to our house was the old European New Year’s ritual known as “Bleigiessen,” or lead-pouring, for the performance of which, by candlelight, Erika wore a bright gypsy kerchief about her unruly red hair. With a pair of tongs, she held a small tin cup filled with bits of lead over a hot burner. When the lead had liquefied, she poured it, with a quick flip of her wrist, into a pot of cold water. There, the molten lead assumed strange, spidery shapes. These Erika would interpret, like tea leaves, with one batch for each of my two older brothers and one for me.

Pakistan: When The State Loses Control

Christian Caryl

AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

In his great book of reportage on the revolution in Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes that mysterious tipping point when a demonstrator loses his fear of the Shah’s security forces and refuses to listen when the once all-powerful police order him to step back. Suddenly, all involved realize that the power of the state to cow people into obedience has been broken. I was reminded of that episode by the tragic January 4 murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, by a member of his own security detail, in a public shooting just a mile from the presidential palace in Islamabad. As with Kapuscinski’s demonstrator, the killing seemed to mark an epochal shift in the political landscape—though here the poles are reversed. In the case of modern Pakistan, it is now the tyranny of fear that is reaching into the heart of the political system. It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink.

The End of the Medvedev Revolution?

Amy Knight

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti/AP

Since a Russian judge sentenced former Yukos oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to thirteen and a half years in prison on December 30, many commentators have viewed the outcome—after a 22-month trial that openly flouted judicial standards—as a major setback for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. After all, a little more than a year ago, Medvedev gained international attention for vowing to institute the rule of law in Russia and make foreign investment in Russia a top priority, and there had been growing speculation that he might begin to take on the entrenched interests of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. For the moment, those hopes seem dashed. In the long run, however, the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev may hurt Putin more than Medvedev as the two rivals position themselves for the 2012 presidential contest.