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The National Gallery Podcast

Episode 83

Natalie Haynes on Guercino's sibyls, Jonathan Jones on falling in love in the Renaissance, plus 17th-century socks and sandals.

12 min 9 sec | September 2013

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. We begin with some female prophets from antiquity who aren’t all they seem – the Sibyls. The National Gallery recently acquired a magnificent depiction of the Samian Sibyl by the great 17th century painter, Guercino, to add to the master’s equally imposing Cumaean Sibyl already in the Collection. Who were these oracles?  They feature in many ancient texts, including Virgil’s Aeneid. Were they anything like the bookish beauties Guercino imagines them to be?  To provide some answers the classicist, writer, broadcaster, and one-time stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes came into the Gallery.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now first and foremost, who were the sibyls and what did they get up to?

NATALIE HAYNES: Women who are in theory divinely inspired by the gods to offer predictions of the future. But like all predictions of the future in the ancient world they are tricksy. It’s very important that you remember this because they can’t be trusted. So there’s quite a famous story of a king sending messengers out to all the oracles that are available in the ancient world and he tells them all to ask the oracle what he’s doing at this exact moment and only one of them – I think Delphi – gives the right answer, which is that he’s boiling a tortoise (I am of course not joking) and so at that point he goes, ‘well this oracle is the right one’ and he then gets them to ask the question, if he invades will he win, basically… and the oracle replies, ‘a great empire will be destroyed’. And he goes, ‘quids in, let me go for it’ and of course it is his empire which is destroyed. Ha ha ha! The oracle takes you down again.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now this as you say, this is Guercino’s version of the Cumaean sibyl and she’s looking very neat and tidy… she’s got these beautiful robes on… she’s got a turban over her rather lovely hair. She looks quite a nice character. Does that fit with the ancient version of what sibyls were about?

NATALIE HAYNES: She is quite wholesome, isn’t she, although the pages of her book are a little bit… maybe she’s been reading them in the bath, do you know what I mean… they’ve gone a little bit curly round the edges, so perhaps she’s a bathing sibyl.
But no, she does look very respectable compared with Aenaid 6 when we find the sibyl there… one, she lives in a cave (this is crucial), two, the cave has – I think – a hundred entrances, so a hundred voices of the sibyl, responses of the sibyl can bounce back out at you and when she’s sort of inspired by the voice of God, then her colour changes and her face changes, her hair becomes disheveled and she becomes taller and she obviously operates in this inspired moment in a kind of place between god and man. She is acting as a bridge at that moment, so she takes on a sort of physical guise which is not wholly human at that point, and this sibyl looks extremely human… she looks very respectable… the fabric that she’s wearing looks like silk, doesn’t it… it’s really sheeny and expensive and nice, so this is not a woman who lives in a cave, I’m going to say, and plus I don’t know how you’d get those earrings in if you didn’t have a mirror.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And for women in the ancient world, was being a sibyl a good career option do you think?

NATALIE HAYNES: You know I think it might not have been too bad actually. I think basically you live in a cave, so it depends how sort of camping-ish you are and then you chew some leaves and purport to be inspired by the Gods, say a few quite random things, occasionally write down a sort of gnomic utterance here and there in your sibylline oracles, which are considered incredibly valuable by the people around you and then I think you can pretty much do what you like. Certainly for the Greeks, women often had these very secluded existences, you know they’re kept… if you’re an Athenian wife in the fifth century you’d be kept in the women’s quarters of your home… you would never go out other than with servants and your husband, so you’d have a very isolated existence really, so I’m not sure it would be too bad being a sibyl. As long as you didn’t mind the cave-dwelling, I think it would be ok.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Natalie Haynes, talking about Guercino’s Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto which hangs alongside his Samian Sibyl with a Putto in Room 32.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): If you arrive via the main entrance in Trafalgar Square, the first room you’re likely to come across is Central Hall… a gallery devoted to sixteenth century portraits from Northern Italy. Italian artists of that period worked hard to evoke their sitters’ presence as vividly as possible… which makes experiencing their intensely alive paintings en masse a little like walking into a historic costume party in full swing. The handsome subject of Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Young Man seems particularly keen to catch our eye. He leans his chin on his left-hand, staring out at us disconsolately. Jonathan Jones – author of The Loves of the Artists: Art and Passion in the Renaissance – finds this rather mopey wannabe Romeo fascinating. He told Cathy FitzGerald why.

JONATHAN JONES: Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Young Man always pulls me up as one of the most loveable paintings in the National Gallery. He’s wearing incredibly ornate garments… the colours are lovely – we don’t always think of portraits as great colour paintings, but this one has this beautiful dark green in which he’s clad… silken… green silk-satin. And then there’s white fur in which the texture is wonderfully captured. So he’s clearly a wealthy youth who is very aware that he’s posing for his portrait, let’s say… it’s a slightly theatrical portrait. Basically there’s almost a humour to it, that’s just kind of really likeable.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And so in your book – The Loves of the Artists – you talk about this painting as encapsulating a cultural shift that happens around the sixteenth century and in terms of the idea of love.

JONATHAN JONES: Basically in the Renaissance you have an intense culture of love… love as a kind of secular religion… you know, it’s lust, it’s longing, it’s very much of this world. But it’s also about looking inward, about the experience of love as a tenderness, a longing, a suffering, and of course it’s about the self…

CATHY FITZGERALD: So it becomes a very introspective emotion.

JONATHAN JONES: Yes, like this young man. I mean the young man in Moretto da Brescia’s painting – on his cap badge there’s a motto, ‘Alas, I desire too much’, which does seem to me to suggest again, love, and that he’s longing for what he can’t quite have. You know it’s love as something which is frustrating and a passion for life, really which cannot be fulfilled because it’s so vast. So the paradox is – and again this is the paradox of love itself perhaps – is that it’s an idea… love’s an idea… and in the Renaissance it very much is, you know, a convention, but then it becomes a reality as well. So while in some ways the painting seems quite funny – his pose seems quite contrived – what he’s saying, through his cap badge, through his motto, ‘Alas I desire too much’, is actually a universal statement about the human condition which is deeply moving. It sums up what I love about the Renaissance actually which is that they recognize the human condition not in a kind of dry, philosophical way… you know other great cultural moments often tend to produce these cogent philosophies, whether it’s Plato in ancient Greece or Karl Marx in the nineteenth century, whatever… all these people with answers. What’s great about the Renaissance – they didn’t actually have any fixed answers, they were just interested and fascinated and curious, and I think this young man is on a voyage of discovery. And that’s the point, it’s a voyage of discovery… discovery of the world and of the human.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Jonathan Jones. You can find Moretto’s Portrait of a Young Man on display in the Gallery’s Central Hall.

Jonathan Jones will be talking about his love of the renaissance at a special event at the National Gallery on the 20th of September. Details at

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): It's said that travel expands the mind…. but as a wonderful portrait of a globe-trotting Earl by Anthony van Dyck shows, it can also influence your choice of clothes. Leah Kharibian met award-winning costume designer and Director of the School of Historical Dress, Jenny Tiramani, to find out more.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Jenny, this is a big, nearly three-metre high portrait, and it shows William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh as a vigorous, if rather portly man, in his fifties looking up at a parrot in a palm tree that’s just been pointed out by a turbaned serving boy, below. But that’s all really rather incidental, because it’s Feilding’s wonderful red outfit that really captures our attention and we know that Feilding had been in both India and Persia a couple of years before this picture was painted in 1633-4 and I was wondering – is this an oriental outfit that he’s wearing?

JENNY TIRAMANI: I’d say it’s a sort of fusion outfit actually. It’s a mixture between Asian garments and Western garments. He’s wearing a shirt which really looks like a Western white linen shirt to me, with a very elaborately, possibly embroidered collar that comes over the top of what I would call similar to European man’s night jacket at this period
and the trouser is much more Asian, but the upper body garment is more of a Western garment to me. It’s got buttons and button holes and button holes are pretty Western.


JENNY TIRAMANI: At this period, I think yes. It would be more common if this was a truly Asian garment for it to have buttons and loops if that was the fastening… or to have ties.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So the button holes are very Western, the shirt is very Western, he’s got these Indian pajama trousers, but he’s wearing what looks to me, I have to say Jenny, like the ultimate fashion no-no of socks and sandals. Is that what he’s wearing on his feet?

JENNY TIRAMANI: No, he’s not, he’s wearing a really normal pair of men’s European shoes with a heel, and tied at the front… the latchets or straps come from the heel and tie at the front of the vamp. It’s perfectly normal and I think he’s wearing a pair of silk stockings matching the colour of the silk outfit, this lovely carnation pink, but I think it’s the combination of the two that’s so incongruous and makes him look slightly peculiar. I think he would cause some interest and he would look very different if he was in Western society walking around wearing this. But he is in an Eastern landscape, so presumably he’s trying to depict himself as a memory of where he was on his travels. But he would have looked very odd to an Eastern eye I think as well.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So he’s a bit odd and eccentric all round?

JENNY TIRAMANI: A little, yes. But you know he seems very comfortable with himself, doesn’t he… in the sense that he doesn’t look like he cares, really.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: I think that’s the best way to be isn’t it, about one’s fashion?

JENNY TIRAMANI: Yes, yes indeed. Confident.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Jenny Tiramani, talking about van Dyck’s Portrait of of William Feilding, on display in Room 31.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting this month don’t forget we’re open 10 till 6 daily and till 9 on Fridays, or you can get a closer look at all the paintings online at

Until next month, goodbye!