Thursday, March 08, 2012

“Ah, That Renaissance Sunshine”

In a classic Tom Baker episode of Dr. Who called “City of Death,” the ‘city of death’ turns out to be contemporary Paris. (The episode was written by a couple of British guys.)

At one point in the story the Doctor time-travels back to Sixteenth Century Italy to chat with Leonardo DaVinci but DaVinci isn’t home. The Doctor looks at the beautiful Mediterranean sunlight streaming in through DaVinci’s workroom windows and exclaims, “Ah, that Renaissance sunshine!

Chicago is almost five thousand miles from Rome, but as it happens both cities are forty-one degrees north of the equator. We don’t have an inland ocean here in Chicago (although we do have Lake Michigan which is pretty big) but the sunlight, more-or-less, is angled the same as what people see in Rome.

Look— Ah, that Renaissance sunshine was glimmering in my kitchen this morning:

After I started my breakfast cooking, I dried off the cutting board and oiled it up. Every month, around the start of the month, I do maintenance on my wooden cutting board by rubbing mineral oil into the wood, top and bottom. That keeps the water out and keeps the board from warping and fracturing by drying out.

In the sunlight it’s kind of like kitchen art.

I’ve had this cutting board for more than a year and it looks better than new, because the regular treatment keeps it solid and regular use—the little daily knife marks—give it character.

‘Cutting boards’ is kind of a topic on the internet. Some people prefer plastic or glass cutting boards because there’s no maintenance. Other people like the look and feel of wood—and the sound! But, one theory goes, young people prefer plastic cutting boards because young people “can’t be bothered” with any kind of maintenance chores at all, even once-a-month chores. This is what such people miss, the sunlight glistening off the freshly oiled wood.


Paris—that City of Death, to Dr. Who fans—is forty-eight degrees north of the equator, almost forty-nine. So the Sun never rises quite so far above the horizon in Paris as it does in, say, Rome or Chicago. Parisians never really get that Renaissance sunshine.

Yet Paris still is called La Ville-Lumière. Wikipedia has this to say about that:

Paris has many nicknames, but its most famous is "La Ville-Lumière" ("The City of Light"), a name it owes first to its fame as a centre of education and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment, and later to its early adoption of street lighting.

Yeah, so, first the Enlightenment and, then: Street lighting.


In his letters Degas almost never
writes about his use of photography.

The first Impressionist exhibition
in Paris in 1874
took place in a building that once functioned
as Nadar’s photography studios.

Nadar’s photographs influenced painters
because he employed chiaroscuro
and other painterly lighting effects
and his photographs of Paris taken
from above the city in a balloon
captured the city as compositions
of lines, angles and irregular shapes
that reminded artists of strange drawings,
but drawings that they were living within.

A photographer among the artists,
and then street lights among the artists, too,
creating chiaroscuro street scenes
every night all across the city.

In his letters Degas almost never
writes about his use of photography
but many of his friends who watched him work
described in letters and in their journals
his enthusiasm for photographs.


As I type this I am sitting almost five thousand miles away from Rome and a little more than four thousand miles away from Paris. I am five hundred years away from the Renaissance and a little more than a hundred years away from Nadar’s photographs and their influence on the Impressionists.

The sunlight was beautiful in my kitchen this morning.

I took a photograph.

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