Allegory of the Night

6 November 2013



ALLEGORY OF THE NIGHT,   Oil on wooden panel.

by Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio (Florence, 1503 – Florence, 1577)

It is assumed that he painted this between 1553 and 1555.


The museum at the Jardin du Luxembourg is holding an exhibition of Renaissance art on the subject of sleep, dreams, reveries and nightmares.  This was quite fashionable at the time because it gave artists and their wealthy patrons carte blanche to indulge in their own fantasies, away from religious themes.  Dreams were not limited by reality or the church, and gave eroticism a socially acceptable framework.

‘Allegory of the Night’ was inspired by Michelangelo’s celebrated sculpture, and bears witness to the great influence this master had on other artists.  What the photograph can’t show you is that the surface is as smooth as enamel—an effect that can only be achieved on a flat painting surface like metal or wood.  Panel painting remained common until the end of the 16th Century in Italy, and was only gradually replaced by stretched canvas, which is rough by comparison.  Linen had many lumps and bumps and by its very nature gave birth to a freer style of brushwork.

What is immediately striking in this work is the skin tone of a luminous ivory.  Peasants at the time were working in the fields and became tanned.  Only the wealthy could afford to stay indoors and be protected from the sun.  And has it not always been thus?  What the wealthy can do is what becomes fashionable—hence the fascination with a pearly white complexion.  Or dazzling white breasts, as they are so often referred to in early literature.

And talking about breasts—no woman, not even in 16th Century Italy, would have had two protrusions so close to her armpits, with a large flat plane across her chest.  One can only wonder what would have given rise to that particular fashion in painting.  It was the look of the times, and can be seen in works by artists as broad-ranging as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein.

Historic considerations apart, I myself am always looking at the use of colour whenever I am faced with a work of art.  It is interesting to note how the red in the left top corner attracts your attention and then leads your eye down to the subject’s feet; from there to the lips of the man’s face on the ground, and from there to her headgear.  It’s a circular motion, which invites the viewer to go round and round in an endless loop—an effective composition because it directs the eye.

What’s the woman dreaming about?  The putto in the background is about to light a lamp, so we can assume that it will be daytime soon.  Is this a dream before the moment of waking up?  What is it with all the men’s heads?  Ex-lovers?  Enemies?  Power figures?  Her relationship with any of them is not exactly of a sensuous nature.  Only the owl, symbol of the night, is close to her, and together they embody the ‘Allegory of the Night’.

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