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Last updated: March 20, 2008 03:50 AM


Guido Cagnacci, or, How I Became Intergalactic Minister of Arts & Culture

© 1998-2003 Rick Horowitz All Rights Reserved Worldwide
This story is copyrighted! Enjoy, but do not steal my work!

"Ohhhhhh........," I rubbed my head. "Where in the world am I?" The irony of that question would be some time in making itself known to me. The last thing I remembered was sitting in O'Hungry's in Old Town, San DiegoEarth.

"Earth?" you ask. Now you may be thinking "where else would you be?" As I was later to find out, some questions you just don't want answers to. It turned out that O'Hungry's was a "collection station" for a group of extraterrestrial scientists who traversed the universe in search of what they euphemistically called "Unpronounceable Alien Word," or "specimens." They set up O'Hungry's much like we set medfly traps. A brief study of our planet had shown them it was not uncommon for some of us to go into such places, imbibe particularly noxious and, fortunately—from their point of view—anesthetizing fluids. They noticed that if we told fantastic stories afterwards, none of the others of our species would believe us.

I did not, of course, know all of this until much later, after I had won their confidence and, I might add, had given them a new respect for our species.

You may be wondering just how I accomplished this feat. Well, wonder no longer: the purpose of this story, after all, is to answer just such a question, in the hopes that should the reader ever find him- or herself in a similar situation, they will know just exactly what to do.

You've probably already surmised that when first taken by the alien scientists, I was not in my most functional state. They took advantage of this situation to deposit me in a specially-created illusion. They had (correctly, I think) realized that I might not at first be overly calm to find myself a prisoner of intelligent poikilotherms intent on "understanding" me. I was well aware of how our own scientists gain an understanding of life forms on our planet. Therefore they had created a mirage of sorts, and when I awoke, I was perhaps only slightly less alarmed to find myself in a medieval castle.

I shall skip over some of the more mundane details of my adjustment to my new situation (some of them are, after all, a bit embarrassing) and explain to you just how it came about that I found myself once again a free and undissected man.

In creating the illusion, the aliens had made a copy of an old castle. I cannot tell you which one it was—I'm a medical transcriptionist and know little about castles! Furthermore, I was allowed free run of the castle, as there was no escape; even if I could have found a way out, where would I go? The castle was full of the most interesting collection of paintings and statues I had ever seen. Little did I realize a painting was to be my salvation!

I had once taken a class in Art History at Fresno State. Passing the course required that I visit a museum and write about one work of art. I was joyfully surprised to find that very piece in this castle-illusion! Done with oil on canvas, it was one of the largest works in the whole castle, measuring 90 1/4 by 104 3/4 inches. I knew the artist had lived between 1601 and 1663, so I guessed that I had somehow ended up in the 17th century. I further assumed I must be either in Northern Italy or Austria, as he had been in Rimini, Venice, and at the Imperial Court in Vienna. (Of course, these assumptions were wrong!)

In order to study me closely without alarming me, the aliens had made themselves to look like people in the castle might have looked. One of them, finding that I spent a lot of time in front of the same painting, pretended to be the castle's resident artist and engaged me in conversation about it. (His name turned out to be Unpronounceable Alien Name. In part it was his ignorance of art which finally helped me realize I was in an illusion.)

"You seem to like this particular painting," Unpronounceable Alien Namesaid.

"Yes, I once saw it at the Norton-Simon."

"Norton-Simon?" Of course he had never heard of it. Alien scientists, like earth scientists, know little about culture and class.

"It's a museum in Pasadena, California."

"This particular painting is called Martha Rebuking Mary for Her Vanity. It is attributed to Guido Cagnacci. My studies in Art History told me that he is also known as Guido Canlassi."

"Interesting," he replied, "I have an ancestor back, by that name." Later, after the charade was dropped, he told me more about his ancestor; his name, Unpronounceable 
Alien Name 2, actually sounds more like "Canned Lettuce," but these aliens had difficulty with accents.

He asked me to tell him more about what I knew of this particular work and, as I had nothing more pressing on my schedule, I obliged.

"Well," I said, "first of all, this is, of course, a religious work, probably commissioned to hang right here in this very chapel." The castle was very large and had its own, not unimpressive chapel for the people who lived there and the peasants who worked the surrounding lands. "Although a religious work, it deals with no specific instance recorded in the Bible from which it is derived...."


"Yes, you know: The Holy Writings?" I was beginning to wonder about this "man."

"Oh, yes...of course!"

"As I was saying, the scene depicted here does not actually occur in the Bible, but there is a similar incident in which Martha was busily playing the hostess, while Mary seemed to be idly sitting at Christ's feet. Martha wanted Christ to rebuke her, but he would not. Also, there is at least one other reference which may indicate that Mary was a prostitute who would have been quite vain and perhaps had fine clothing. At any rate, we know this is Mary because of certain symbols associated with her: Her hair and unguent jar. It was Mary who was forever anointing Christ with oil or washing his feet with her tears and hair. As you can see, while Martha rebukes Mary, an angel takes the opportunity to 'rebuke' a devil with his stick in a parallel scene behind them. Just so you have no trouble understanding which woman is the rebuker and which is the rebukee, you might find a hint in the positions of the figures. See how both Martha and the angel are on the right, while Mary and the devil both occupy the left? It is interesting to note that, especially in Medieval times, the left was frequently associated with evil; the right with good. Furthermore, the bodies of Martha and the angel are both just about upright, but slant at the same angle, while Mary and the devil are both in prone positions. I saw an x-ray of this painting which showed that the devil had first been painted with both feet on the ground in a position not unlike the angel's. Perhaps Guido deliberately revised it to provide a more consistent visual linking between the two 'conversations.' Not only that, but Martha seems to be pointing to the devil as if to say 'is that how you want to be?" And, in what I think may be the most important link, Martha and the angel are wearing almost the same face!"

"That is interesting! You sure seem to know your stuff!"

"Well...I don't know...the hard part is to tell it all to you in the allotted space." This time it was Unpronounceable 
Alien Name's turn to be puzzled. "Anyway, I wanted to compare this painting to others treating the same theme, but I was unable to find any which were even close. I do know that this artist was influenced by another Guido—Guido Reni—and by the Caravaggisti, other great painters of the Baroque tradition to which Cagnacci belongs. Reni was known for his 'refined sensibility and pious sentimentality.' My girlfriend didn't like the artist's use of space—too crowded she thought. I myself don't like a lot of open space, however, which is why I normally favor Flemish painters like Bruegel, I guess. I do think, however, that he has not done the best job of showing depth. He seems to have used what I would call 'indistinctness' to bring depth to the painting: the jewelry in the foreground (symbolic of Mary's vanity, by the way: as also her clothing, which is so fine as to even appear to be from Cagnacci's own period, rather than from the same period as the other figures!) is crystal clear, the principal figures in the foreground are also very sharp in the tradition of North Italian realism and the 'naturalism' of Caravaggio. However, as you near the background, the details become less distinct, as though we are to believe they are 'fading into the distance' which might not otherwise exist in the relative flatness of this interior scene. Perhaps the view through the door to the right was another attempt to literally 'open up' this otherwise tight space. As you can see, the blurriness and loss of detail in the two figures exiting to the right approaches an appearance of Impressionism, a later development."

"Speaking of those figures, what do you think that thing in her hand is? It looks like a urine speci—I mean, some kind of liquid."

I pretended not to notice his little slip. "I don't know; I never was able to find out anything about that when I studied the painting. But here is another interesting point, and one which really makes this painting impressive: the lighting coming through the window. This is a quite intriguing way to illuminate the interior of the room. The lighting in this painting can probably trace its influence back through Caravaggio to Savoldo's St. Matthew and even to Geertgen tot Sint Jans The Nativity done in about 1490! Notice how well it models the figures—even shapes the muscles of the devil's back—to give us the proper three-dimensional representation."

"This artist obviously knew his art history," said Unpronounceable Alien Name, getting into the spirit of analysis. "All these things add up to make a fascinating piece of art: The dramatic lighting which was characteristic of Reni, Caravaggio and all the way back to Sint Jans; his abilities at rich intricacy and the more naturalistic approach of North Italian realism; his judicious use of symbols to show us that this is a representation of Mary and Martha; his duplication of the theme and connection of the principals—make this a magnificent study—as I said, it all adds up!"

"Yes," I replied. "But my ability to observe and analyze details extends beyond painting. I realize that I'm not really in a medieval castle and you cannot possibly be who you represent yourself to be, with your constant slips of the tongue, your lack of sufficient knowledge of these times in which you want me to believe you live, and that strange accent. So what's the real story?"

"Your knowledge and powers of reasoning are indeed amazing. We have apparently grossly underestimated you."

And so this is the condensed version of how my life was changed simply by taking Art History in college. The aliens were so impressed with my understanding that they revealed everything to me and asked me to sign on as "Minister of Intergalactic Arts & Culture." So, when you're trying to decide what classes to take next semester, remember: "When Art History students talk, aliens listen."

© Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005 Unspun™. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.