The Genteel
December 12, 2017
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Rose Balston

If the second Friday evening of the month finds you in London, forego the bright lights and intoxications of contemporary pleasures for a sliver of Art History. Rose Balston, founder of Art History UK, runs Art Shots - themed short tours of the treasures within the National Gallery - which, as the name suggests, are quick (lasting just over an hour), potent with knowledge and extremely enjoyable.

I joined the October Art Shots, which used five paintings to examine Man, a measure of all things? The Florentine Renaissance. Rose explained that in 14th century Florence, "the dark medieval, twisting and winding streets" experienced a cultural boom caused by wealth from the wool trade, victors arrogance following a war with Milan and a hankering for all things Roman (due to the mistaken belief that the Baptistry was a Roman temple). This self assurance led to the belief that "man was a measure of all things".

The more realistic the art is, the more we respond to it...and we believe in it.

We started in front of the oldest painting in the National Gallery - a pre-renaissance Florentine altarpiece, The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes, painted in the 1260s. Rose pointed out the lack of realism in the figures, which were more symbolic icons, to pray to,  than human studies, reflecting the pre-renaissance lack of interest in the nude and the body: "it was considered to be a temporary vessel". She told us the stories of the surrounding narrative scenes: Saint Benedict rolling around in the bushes as self punishment, St. Margaret being eaten and expelled by the dragon and an angel lifting John the Evangelist out of a tub of boiling oil.

Wandering almost two centuries onwards, we stopped by Masaccio's The Virgin and the Child and found the Renaissance absorption with man taking effect; there is perspective, depth and realism. Rose indicated the tangibility of the grapes that the infant is suckling (representing the blood of Christ) and the comparative complexity of the figures' faces. Use of space is further pursued in The Baptism of Christ. This 1450's panel was created by Piero della Francesca using pigment mixed with egg on poplar and is complex in its application of mathematics. Rose demonstrated the shapes of space, how they were representative (a merging of a square and circle indicating the joining of people and heaven in Christ) and that the numbers of people depicted may also be a nod to the golden ratio (the mystical number also known as the divine proportion).

We momentarily left religious art and visited Botticelli's Venus and Mars where Rose's vibrancy bubbled over: "they've just been bonking and Mars is ex-haus-ted". This mythological painting, a manifestation of the Florentines' zeal for all things Roman, was probably made to be put on a wedding chest and Rose described it as a mischievous portrayal of the fact that "love is WAY better than war". Ending at "probably the most valuable painting in the gallery", Leonardo's The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, we marvelled at how far the Renaissance had enhanced the study of anatomy. "The more realistic the art is, the more we respond to it...and we believe in it," says Rose.

Rose herself is a bit of an art history enigma - there's none of the whisper of the "elbow patches" branch of historians. Her love of art and weighty knowledge is accompanied by irreverence, joie de vivre and a mastery of storytelling that makes paintings jump to life. She is also the perfect person to explore the wonders of ancient Florence with; after studying History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, Rose headed to Europe first to trail her favourite Baroque artist Velazquez through Spain but then to spend four years leading Art History tours of Italy. The evening ended with a very British supper of fish, chips and lashings of red wine in the "secret tearoom" of a Soho pub. If you think that art history is fusty, I challenge you to spend an Art Shots with Rose Balston. The evening will transform you.

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