Mexico City. Photo by Coral Saucedo

Marlowe's Kit

This is only the beginning of Marlowe’s knowledge. He possesses a fantastical power to name the things of the world – an astonishing vocabulary of plants, fashion and interior design. Sherlock Holmes’s knowledge of the smallest distinctions of the surface world is explicitly won by study and neo-academic forms of research, yet to Marlowe it comes unmediated, unexplained, as if from within. ‘A rather too emphatic trace of chypre hung in the air,’ he notes. He detects the scent of eucalyptus trees and wild sage. He names wild irises, white and purple lupin, bugle flowers, columbine, pennyroyal, desert paint brush, begonias, acacia, winter sweet peas, poinsettia. In one short passage in The Big Sleep he identifies juniper logs in a fireplace, walnut in the wainscoting, and a dozen kinds of hardwood in the parquetry, ‘from Burma teak through half a dozen shades of oak and ruddy wood that looked like mahogany, and fading out to the hard pale wild lilac of the California hills’. In The High Window, while hiding behind a curtain, overhearing a powerful hoodlum and his wife discussing how to make the death of the man she has murdered, and whose corpse is in front of them, look like suicide, Marlowe manages to note that she ‘wears pale green gabardine slacks, a fawn-coloured leisure jacket with stitching on it, a scarlet turban with a gold snake in it’. He also speaks Spanish.

Photo by Bobby Doherty. Food Styling by Michelle Gatton. Prop Styling by Noemi Bonazzi.

… when I was about 14, I threw a dinner party for some girlfriends from school. It was my first time serving Caesar salad, and I was totally old-school: I rubbed the bowl with garlic and mixed in the egg yolks and everything else before tossing in the lettuce. I didn’t make my own pasta; I just bought great fresh pasta from the Italian markets in New Haven and used it for the fettuccine Alfredo. At the time, all I would eat was fettuccine Alfredo — but no parsley on it …

Missy Robbins, chef of Lilia, first dinner party (ca 1985). Menu: Caesar salad, Fettuccine Alfredo, Ice cream from Ashley’s Ice Cream in New Haven.

Heroes in a half-shell

Michelangelo loathed Leonardo. It’s clear from their work why they might not have got along. Michelangelo’s hard-edged line, even in painting, was sculptural, and deliberately antithetical to the softened atmospherics that Leonardo pursued. But the animus was also personal. Michelangelo, then in his mid-twenties, was gruff, hardworking, ill-kempt, and, by his own account, celibate, because of what appears to have been his severely repressed and spiritualized homosexuality. At one point, he insulted Leonardo on the street, with a taunt about the bronze horse that had been left unfinished, reportedly leaving Leonardo standing red-faced. The witness to this incident found it worth noting that Leonardo, ever beautiful in his person, went around Florence in a rose-pink tunic, and it is irresistible to infer how irritating Michelangelo must have found the older artist, with his peacock clothes and his perfumed air, and with what now amounted to an entourage of swankily dressed assistants.

Leonardo seemed to delight in adding fuel to the fire. Some months before Michelangelo was commissioned to paint alongside Leonardo, in early 1504, there was a meeting to view his nearly completed statue of David and to decide where in the city it would stand. All the important artists in town were present—Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi (child of the artist-monk and the nun)—but Leonardo alone objected to the figure’s exposed nudity, and pronounced the need for “decent ornament.” A tiny sketch he made on the spot shows the statue with its offending member neatly hidden by what Isaacson describes as “a bronze leaf.” It’s hard to believe that the man whose notebooks contain a section, “On the Penis,” in which he argues against “covering and concealing something that deserves to be adorned and displayed with ceremony” was truly offended by what he saw. Yet his objections prevailed. The genitals of the marble colossus were covered, and stayed that way for some forty years.

It isn’t hard to imagine the defiant mood in which Michelangelo set about producing his rival cartoon for the Council Hall. Instead of a battle scene, he depicted a whole troop of naked, twisting, posing, and extremely well-muscled men, who are caught bathing in a river just as the battle alarm sounds. (As Jonathan Jones notes, in “The Lost Battles,” this work, like Leonardo’s, quickly became a school for younger artists.) But, before Michelangelo could begin to paint, the Pope summoned him to Rome for another commission. Leonardo had seen enough to comment on certain artists who made figures so conspicuously muscled that they resembled “a sack of walnuts.”

… it is no small burden to possess something as valuable as Joni Mitchell’s talent, and it meant that this girl from the Canadian prairie would be in the world, whether she liked it or not. All she needed was her lyrics, preternaturally analytic, wry, and shrewd; her chords, largely self-invented, a kind of calligraphy of the moods; and her voice, which modulates from patter to rue to rhapsody in a single phrase. In concert, she sometimes trained her attention on a single listener in the front row, casting the stranger as the vivid “you” of a song who in real life may have been Sam Shepard, James Taylor, or Leonard Cohen. The best pop music is often preening and shamanic. Mitchell’s is almost always about what two articulate adults mean, or once meant, to each other.

Mitchell writes about emotional information: who controls it, and how it is squandered or hoarded, withheld or weaponized. This requires some reconnaissance, which for Mitchell involves falling in and out of love, over and over—not so much a research method as a form of self-surgery. Her songs report on those lessons, which are, in an instant, in performance, happily forgotten. She is always thinking about the ways in which calculation fails, as guile yields again and again to innocence.

During the glory days of the Apollo project, a young astronomer who analysed Moon rocks at a university laboratory fell in love with my friend Carolyn, and risked his job and the national security to give her a quantum of Moon dust.

‘Where is it? Let me see!’ I demanded at this news.

But she answered quietly, ‘I ate it.’ After a pause she added, ‘There was so little.’

From Dava Soble, The Planets (2005)

Genesis Belanger at Mrs.

This clip finally liberated

Prince, “A Case Of U” (1983)

Early paper maquettes used to explore elevation and shadow affordances in the Material Design system. From California: Designing Freedom, at the Design Museum, London through Oct 17.

Listening to John Ashbery

Ashbery tells the story of the genesis of his poem “Pyrography,” commissioned by the Department of the Interior with a deadline of one day (another poet had been commissioned but not produced a work) for an exhibition of American landscape painting at the Smithsonian. Ashbery at first demurred but then agreed to write the poem when told what the fee was. When he turned it in, officials in Washington felt taxpayer dollars were better spent elsewhere. It’s too bad that happened because the opening lines have a strange patriotic beauty:

Out here on Cottage Grove it matters. The galloping
Wind balks at its shadow. The carriages
Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak.
This is America calling:
The mirroring of state to state,
Of voice to voice on the wires,
The force of colloquial greetings like golden
Pollen sinking on the afternoon breeze.
In service stairs the sweet corruption thrives;
The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.