A Short Primer on Art History

It’s nearly impossible to look through a textbook without finding some sort of artistic illustration to aid the understanding.  In many books, the authors and editors draw upon art from the past to better explicate some points.  This here is a basic overview of a small number art styles (Granted, nearly all of them European) and how to recognize them:

Best known as the art of antiquity, it would adhere to standards of beauty in the form and the harmony of the art.  Michelangelo’s David, while not from the Classical era, is the ideal representation of a Classical sculpture.  Essentially, the artwork would depict the human form in the most ideal state of aesthetic beauty for the time.  The goal would be to make it so that nothing could be added or removed from the sculptures and images that would not make it worse.  Buildings would be symmetrical, using straight lines whenever possible and typically would follow the golden ratio for the Greek standard of mathematical beauty.  Artists of the 1600s and 1700s would strive to recreate the perfection of the Classical masters during the Neoclassical movement.

Medieval artwork that originated in the 1200s.  Much of it was built around Christian religious iconography, the era is most characterized by its architecture.  The Cathedrals and extensive decoration for the insides and outsides of the Cathedrals define the Gothic art style.  Stark and simplistic, Italian Renaissance writers named the Gothic style was after the barbarian Goth tribes who destroyed the Roman empire, even though the Goths had nothing to do with the art style.  Since the Roman art style was highly regarded in the Renaissance, the Gothic title served to criticize “ugliness” of the non-Classical structure of the buildings and artwork.  Typically Gothic architecture contains a high vaulted ceiling, a technical marvel of the time.  In art, Gothic forms would typically contain very little movement, limited use of perspective and served as a focal point for worship.  The image below is a good example of classic Gothic artwork:

Babies always looked a little weird in this period.  The golden ring around the people’s heads typically signify their religious significance or if they were saints.

File:Rothenburg ob der Tauber 2011 St Jakob 002.JPG
The above image is from Reimenschneider’s Altar of the Holy Blood in Rotemburg, Germany.  The entire thing is carved out of wood.  When he completed the altar, the artwork was considered to be so detailed and full of expressive movement that the townsfolk of the city commissioned a second artist to do a different altar.  The belief was that no man could be so accurate and precise when carving, so Reimenschneider must have made a deal with Satan to create the masterpiece.


The true turning point of the art world, the Renaissance meant “the rebirth”.  It was the perfect storm resulting from the Crusades, the Black Death, Genoese success in trade, and schisms in the Church.  The influx of new ideas during the Crusades served to highlight the backwardness of the European continent, bringing back astonishing inventions, unexpected ideas, and stories about the wealth and beauty of the Muslim nations.  The Black Death striking in the 1300s served to both reduce the ranks within the Church and to remove the public trust in the Church’s capacity to ensure salvation.  Recent expeditions to the Orient caused the rise of über-wealthy merchants in several regions, creating patrons who were not linked directly to the Church itself and would spend money on non-iconographic paintings and sculpture.  Lastly, the Church itself had just ended the Avignon era, where disagreements over theology led to a portion of the Papacy in the Vatican to up and leave, forming their own Papacy in Avignon, France.  Again, the public approval in the Church was at a record low, leading to a growth of scientific ideas and art, hailing back to the Pagan interests of the ancient Greeks.  In their striving to be more like Aristotle and Euclid and such, the Renaissance era became the first stepping stone towards the modern era.  Use of oil paints and perspective within art allowed images to be more realistic than ever before, and patronage from wealthy merchants and rulers allowed art to explore areligious zones it had not been allowed to venture in the centuries before.

Baroque artwork took off in the 1600s as a response to Protestantism and the Renaissance.  While the word Baroque most nearly means “imperfect pearl”, the word is now used to refer to anything overtly ornate and decorative. The Catholic Church began to patronize the art as a means of showing the splendor and grandeur of their faith, arguing that art should be a means of evoking Religious feeling and emotion.  The autocrats and merchants of the era saw the style as the perfect medium of declaring how much wealth they had.  The style, called garish and contradictory by some, attempted to put art on every surface it could be put on.  The castle in the city of Dresden and Versailles were perfect examples of the Baroque era, jamming sculptures and gilding into every surface that it could be jammed into.

Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors, oddly enough, starving French citizens thought this kind of extravagance was enough to warrant a revolution.

I’m making Art History a new category.  I’ll get to the other fun stuff later (Dadaism, if you have never seen it, was made famous from a French dude who put a fake name on a urinal and called it “art”.  People were either astonished by the inventiveness of his breaking of the meta or they were offended by his tacky hack-work that he claimed he could make art by declaring it as such.)





Taxes: They Were Worse in the Past

Defoe explained it in his book, The Political History of the Devil.  He wrote that one could be sure of two things:  Death and Taxes.  Nearly every single discussion of political anything will eventually strike gold (ha.. gold standard, get it?) and shift to a discussion of taxation.  It’s everywhere, it’s in religion, it’s in government, it’s in pop culture, and it’s most definitely in history.  Al Capone was snagged on it, Robin Hood is famous for it, the American experience started with a couple pennies being added to each case of tea.  There are however, some very strange and lesser known taxes that existed.

Vespasian’s Golden Shower:
Back in the first century of Rome, Emperor Nero came up with a tax on urine.  The idea was that commoners and wealthy alike would produce it and it would be piped away into cesspools for sanitary reasons.  What Nero decided to place a tax on was the use of the cesspool urine.  Since it was a readily accessible acid, urine has been used for laundering, bleaching, tanning, and dozens of other chemical processes.  In Rome, the heavy woolen togas would be washed several times in an ammonia laden sludge of urine and soaps to keep them white and “clean”.  Nero taxed the fullers who would gather urine used in the cleaning process and tax their usage of the liquid.
While Nero’s tax did die out during his reign, when Vespasian took over in 70 AD, he did everything in his power to right the sinking ship of the Roman economy.  Vespasian placed oppressive taxes on most things that he could, including urine.  The story goes that his son, Titus, came to him one day disgusted about his scheme.  Vespasian held a gold coin aloft and told Titus to smell it.  When Titus answered that he smelled nothing, Vespasian replied, “but it comes from urine..”  which is thought to be the origin of the phrase “Pecunia non olet” – “Money does not stink”.  It is a Latin phrase that postulates that the origin of money has no effect on its worth, that blood money is as good as pee money.  The French actually named their public urinal areas Vespassiannes after the Emperor.

Viking Blackmail:
In the year 991, Ethelred the Unready, King of England, had his military splattered by Viking invaders.  He took the advice of his Archbishop and simply paid the Nordic raiders with 10,000 pounds of silver.  Ethelred was again accosted by the Vikings in 994 when Sweyn Forkbeard and Olav Trygvasson sieged London.  Ethelred stopped the Viking attacks by simply paying them an awe inspiring amount of silver, enough to convince the hardened sea raiders that it was actually economically in their interest to simply extort the British rather than to raid them.  Over the next twenty years, Vikings would show up and strong-arm the Brits into paying them with silver out of fear of a Viking raid, a tribute that was known as the Danegeld.  The Vikings would show up, sac a city and then request a huge sum of silver to resume the peace.  They would hang out for a couple years, then whenever a Scandinavian king felt like he needed to fund another fleet, he would beat the war drums, sail an imposing number of bearded, ax wielding warriors to the British coast and blackmail them into sending silver.
There are even rune stones in Norway that commemorate the success of a king who could extort two or three Danegeld transactions out of the English.  Archaeologists have literally found more English pence from that era in Scandinavia than they have found in England.  The currency of England was being siphoned out of them so fast that there was more of it in Viking hands than in English ones.

Peter’s Modernization Methods:
When Peter I of Russia was trying to modernize his country, he did everything he could to forcibly press Russia into the modern world of 1698.  He brought in western scholars, western clothes, western music and dance, but perhaps his most humorous decision: he tried to get Russian men to follow western European standards of keeping themselves closely shaven.  He implemented a tax on all men who had a beard, forcing them to pay the tax or cut it off.  Those who did pay the tax would get a small silver or copper coin with an image of the Russian Eagle on one side and a small beard and mustache on the other.  Each side was accompanied with a phrase, “The beard tax has been taken” and “the beard is a superfluous burden”.  You can even buy a replica beard coin for about $8 now if you want to own a piece of taxation and beardly history.

Beard Tax Token, 1705 A beard tax is one of several taxes introduced throughout history on men who wear beards. In 1705, Emperor Peter I of Russia instituted a beard tax to modernize the society of Russia following European models. Those who paid the tax were required to carry a “beard token”. This was a copper or silver token with a Russian Eagle on one side and on the other, the lower part of a face with nose, mouth, whiskers, and beard. It was inscribed with two phrases: “the beard tax has been taken” and “the beard is a superfluous burden”. However, Peter the Great was not the first ruler to impose a beard tax upon his subjects, in 1535, King Henry VIII of England, who wore a beard himself, introduced a tax on beards. The tax was a graduated tax, varying with the wearer’s social position. His daughter, Elizabeth I of England, reintroduced the beard tax, taxing every beard of more than two weeks’ growth.
In Soviet Russia, Beards wear you.




Beard Taxes. England had one too:

Buy your own Beard tax token: