16th century Painting in the Gallery of Monsignor Badia in Rome
The great Italian Explorer Marco Polo has created a great mystery in the art world. To date, there are no genuine portraits of this historical figure. There is a medallion portrait on the wall of the Sala dello Scudo in the ducal palace, which has become a kind of type; but it is a work of imagination no older than 1761. How could such a famed and widely known figure have never had a formal portrait painted? The number of possible genuine portraits of Polo are endless, and the possibility for one turning up some day is great. However, a portrait of Polo from a bygone era, genuine or not, may hold just as much value.
The oldest professed portrait is one in the gallery of Monsignor Badia at Rome, which is inscribed Marcus Polus venetus totius orbis et Indie peregrator primus. It is a good picture, but evidently of the 16th century at earliest. The Europeans at Canton have absurdly attached the name of Marco Polo to a figure in a Buddhist temple there containing a gallery of "Arhans" or Buddhist saints, and popularly known as the "temple of the five hundred gods."
From the first printed edition of Il Milione, Marco Polo's account of his twenty-five years in Asia.
Marco Polo was born in Venice in 1254. His father and uncle were merchants. In 1260 they traveled by land to China, where they remained in Kaifeng the eastern capital of the Mongol emperor, Kublai Kahn until 1269. Two years later they returned to China taking Marco with them and arriving at Shang Tu, China in 1275. Marco Polo entered diplomatic corps of Kublai Kahn and carried out missions throughout the empire, even serving as governor of Yangchow. In 1292 he served as an escort for a Chinese princess on a trip to Iran. Once that mission was completed Marco and his family continued on to Venice where they arrived in 1295. The map that provides the background of the souvenir sheet is very much like a two-hemisphere map, Nova Orbis Tabula/Mappe Monde ou Description Du Globe Terrestre et Aquatique, published by Alexis Hubert Jaillot in 1694. The route of the Polos on their journey to Iran and then to Venice is traced in red on the map. Marco Polo died in 1324.
The image of Marco Polo on the stamp on the sheet is from the first printed edition of Il Milione, Marco Polo's account of his twenty-five years in Asia. See the other stamps that were issued by the Vatican with this souvenir. The miniatures on the stamps marking the 700 anniversary of Marco Polo's return from China are from the early 15th century manuscript of Li livres du Graunt Caam (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 264.).
Marco Polo delivers a letter from Pope Gregory X to the Great Khan (folio 220 recto)
The Great Khan dispensing alms to the poor in Cambaluc (folio 244 recto)
Marco Polo receiving the Golden Book from the Great Khan (folio 219 recto)
In Persia Marco Polo listening to the story of the Three Kings (folio 223 recto)
The Italian stamp , issued in 1954 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Marco Polo's birth, shows a portrait of Marco Polo, a flying lion of St. Mark and inscription "Pax tibi Marce [Evangelista Meus], for Venice the city of his birth in 1254, as well as a the dragon pillar of Peking and an inscription in Chinese. The map shows the route of the Polos across Eastern Europe and Asia to China. The stars indicate Venice and Shang-tu the capital of Kublai Khan. Circles mark other cities the Polos visited. From Venice, the first circle marks Constantinople, and the second, Acre. The Polos did not visit both of these places on the same journey (either coming or going), so the map is wrong to that extent. In China the left hand route represents Marco Polo's travels in China. While the right hand route may indicate the beginning of his route home.
Marco Polo's travels in China
Nora Sturges: Adventures with Marco Polo
February 3 – 25, 2006
Nora Sturges has perfected the art of visual narrative. In Travels With Marco Polo, a selection of 19 paintings--few more than a scant square foot in size--she presents complete, beautifully detailed visions of fanciful, slightly askew villages, forests, deserts, and mountains. Though simple in appearance, and almost shockingly tiny, Sturges' work is undeniably high concept.
Marco Polo Writes in His Journal, 2005, oil on panel, 10.75x14 inches
In some particularly tiny works, such as "Traveling in a Direction between NE and E, One Passes through a Country Inhabited by Ascetics," you are playfully invited to imagine yourself as the hero of the story that Sturges presents. In this painting, for instance, the Monty Python-esque hermits in question peer out of beehive-like huts amid a lush green forest. And though you're only looking at a painting in a gallery, there's a palpable sense of discovery, amusement, and wonder to be found in gazing at their pinhead-sized noses.
In the show's titular series of works, a benevolent-looking middle-aged man identified as Marco Polo--ever-changing in hairstyle and anachronistic modern-day clothing, but always inexplicably recognizable--joins you on your travels. Initially inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a novel offering fictionalized accounts of Polo's famous travels, Sturges' paintings deal deftly and humorously with tourism and xenophobia.
Nora Sturges, Marco Polo Avoids a Naked Man, 2002, oil and acrylic on panel, 12 x 8 inches
As you marvel at Sturges' precise brushwork, adept visual puns, and M.C. Escher-esque tangles of adobe buildings, Polo quietly participates in universal tourist rituals. He samples an unfamiliar food, bought from a faceless street vendor, in "Marco Polo Tries Dried Monkey." He massages his tired feet amid purple cacti and wild boar in "Marco Polo Gets a Blister From New Shoes." He reveals his extreme prudishness in "Marco Polo Avoids a Naked Man" by wandering off the blocked path into a patch of briars, wearing shorts, toward a copse of thorny trees covered in beehives. He encounters idol worshippers, friendly villagers, new species of lizards, and blue people. He buys souvenirs. At one point, he's forced to eat large horror film-worthy moths, cutting the creatures up with a fearsome machete.
And, finally, toward the end--you assume--of Polo's travels, Sturges offers "Marco Polo, Cold and Wet," which depicts Polo, defeated, in a lonely desert. Is he crying? What happened to him? Is he going to be OK? These feelings, which come so effortlessly after viewing the entire cycle, are nothing less than a testament to the sheer power of Sturges' deceptively innocent narrative art.
Using humor and echoes of past art styles, Nora Sturges has spent the last five years retelling the story of Marco Polo in a contemporary allegorical setting. Inspired by Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities (where Polo describes to the Kubla Khan the cities he visited on his journeys), Renaissance manuscript illuminations, and Persian and East Asian paintings, Sturges seeks in her Marco Polo's Travels series to tell stories through pictures.
In these small panel paintings, Polo is cast as a classic tourist; he gets blisters from his new shoes, gets lost in inhospitable landscapes, and is forced to try new foods. While the mundane clashes with the idealized historical in these exquisitely executed paintings, the artist is also interested in exploring the broad themes of “xenophobia, tourism, exoticism and cultural difference,” always with a touch of irony.
Imagine a Renaissance painting whose small size, crisply defined forms, and rich colors give it a jewel-like clarity. The painting's human subjects are placed in an idealized landscape that exists in the artistic imagination as much as anywhere in Florence or Flanders. Because of the passage of centuries and the attendant loss of biographical information, we may no longer know who the subjects are or what they're up to in that presumably allegorical landscape.
That's something of the effect you'll get looking at Nora Sturges' oil and acrylic-on-panel paintings in School 33's Gallery II. Sturges is art-historically adept at emulating a Renaissance presentation, but she's no mere mimic. Her whimsical agenda involves placing very modern-looking everymen and everywomen in landscapes where nature has gotten a bit out of control. Armies of insects--some of them alarmingly large--are the norm.
Nora Sturges mixes the fantastic and the commonplace in paintings such as "Marco Polo's Sleeve Unravels
Although Sturges' paintings don't indulge in horror-movie extremes, they convey a tense anticipation of what might transpire at any moment despite the calm, matter-of-fact presentation of bizarrely surreal scenarios. In "Sleeper and Moths," a man sleeps under a blanket on an invitingly pastoral lawn. A couple of big moths sit at his feet, while others swirl around him. In "Woman and Flying Moths," a woman seems completely oblivious to the giant moths all around her. Both paintings suggest a kind of détente, however tentative, has been achieved. Human/critter relations start to get a little out of control in "Ruined Backyard," which depicts moths, ants, and other bugs taking over a lawn chair, birdbath, and bird feeder; in the background, what appears to be a tiny person seeks refuge next to a house. And things really turn messy in "Andrew Wyeth's Car Catching Fire," in which an auto in the foreground appears fine, but another in the distance has burst into flames. There aren't any bugs around to serve as arson suspects, leaving room for suspicions.
Most of the remaining paintings in Sturges' show depict figures traveling through exotic andscapes. In an artist's statement, she attributes the motif to her admiration for Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities, which purports to present the Venetian traveler Marco Polo's accounts of the fantastic places he's been. Sturges' "Marco Polo and His Porter, Lost" depicts the travelers on a garden path with enough bugs to make you wonder if these explorers are heading into trouble. "Marco Polo Gets a Blister From New Shoes" also flirts with danger as the seated everyman figure has taken off a shoe in a cactus-studded, boar-inhabited desert. "Marco Polo Travels Through a Landscape With Snakes" makes you think the explorer might want to explore the option of turning back.
Sturges embarks on an interesting journey in this exhibit but makes the occasional misstep along the way. The Wyeth reference seems too culturally specific in a series that's at its best when showcasing generically modern people, cars, and lawn furniture in otherwise more or less timeless settings. And the series as a whole, while admirably balancing a precious look with perturbing implications, occasionally threatens to slip into preciousness. With its closely spaced buildings and monkey thieves, "Marco Polo Sees Monkeys With Stolen Purses" is suitably unnerving, and yet also verges on cutesy and silly.
Marco Polo's Travels: Recent paintings by Nora Sturges
Nora Sturges, Baltimore Maryland, uses oils and acrylics in a series of paintings on Marco Polo's Travels that will be featured in the Armstrong Gallery. Several years ago Sturges became intrigued with the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino on Marco Polo's travels. Using this narrative as a point of inspiration her paintings are intriguing and mysterious stories that incorporate 21st Century images.
Nora Sturges: Travels with Marco Polo; Artist's Statement
A few years ago I did a painting of Marco Polo bringing back spaghetti from China, and a friend who saw the painting suggested I read Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities. The book is fiction consisting only of Marco Polo's descriptions to the Kubla Khan of the cities he has visited in his travels. Sometimes it is easier to see clearly the formal narrative qualities of a work of writing than of a work of art.
I loved the mood created in this book by the fact that the reader is only provided a series of shifting and clouded descriptions with which to weave a larger narrative. This reminded me of Renaissance manuscript illuminations and the Persian and East Asian paintings that illustrate stories, where the story's text is not present (as is usually the case for the viewer of such paintings in art books or museums). The viewer is prompted by the picture to construct a vague and changing story, a story with the mood of a dream or a half memory.
In my recent paintings of imaginary events in Marco Polo's travels, I am attempting to use a group of paintings in a similar way-- to form an absent story, and at the same time to explore ideas of xenophobia, tourism, exoticism and cultural difference.
In these paintings, Marco Polo is cast as the quintessential tourist; he gets blisters from his new shoes, gets lost in inhospitable landscapes and is forced to try new foods. A wealthy westerner, he is both drawn to and made uneasy by the foreign-ness of the exotic places he visits.
Marco Polo Forced to Eat Moths, 2003, oil on panel, 11x10 inches
Marco Polo Visits the Museum at Soncara, 2005, oil on panel, 11x9 inches
Marco Polo Among Idol Worshipers, 2005, oil on panel, 13.5x8 inches
Marco Polo Sightseeing, 2006, oil on panel, 8.75x12 inches
Marco Polo Commissions Display Cases for his Collection, 2004, oil on panel, 10.25x12 inches
Marco Polo Tries Dried Monkey, 2003, oil on panel, 13x13 inches
Marco Polo at a Restaurant, 2006, oil on MDF, 10x11.75 inches
Marco Polo Shopping, 2006, oil on MDF, 12x8 inches
Marco Polo Reaches Kobiam, at the Edge of the Desert, 2004, oil on panel, 11x13 inches
Marco Polo Writes in His Journal, 2005, oil on panel, 10.75x14 inches
Marco Polo Watches Blue People, 2002, oil on panel, 12x10 inches
Marco Polo Welcomed at Moriana, 2005, oil on panel, 10x12.5 inches
Marco Polo Discovers a New Species, 2004, oil on panel,10.5x12 inches
Marco Polo And His Porter, Lost, 2001, oil and acrylic on panel, 12.5x10 inches
Marco Polo Travels Through a Landscape With Snakes, 2001, oil and acrylic on panel, 10.5x10 inches
Marco Polo Gets a Blister From New Shoes, 2002, oil and acrylic on panel, 9x11 inches
Marco Polo Sees Monkeys With Stolen Purses, 2000, oil and acrylic on panel, 13x8.5 inches
Marco Polo, Cold and Wet, 2004, oil on panel, 8x8 inches
The Marco Polo picture ‘‘Marco Polo Leaving Venice'' mentioned in "The Gift"
The Marco Polo picture mentioned in "The Gift" is not an invention. It is fol. 218 from Codex Bodley 264 at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
It is an (anonymous) English miniature, dated c. 1400, at the beginning of a Marco Polo manuscript entitled "Li Livres du Graunt Caam". The same codex opens with the Roman d'Alexandre.
Marco Polo Leaving Venice
Marco Polo Antonio Giovanni de Varese; Bridgeman Art Library / Villa Farnese, Caprarola, Lazio, Italy / Giraudon
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