The game of “Soap Bubbles”
By Giulia Venturini
«Homo bulla est» (Erasmo da Rotterdam)
The motto of Erasmus of Rotterdam inspired by a sentence from Varrone, gave rise to the iconography of Homo bulla, widespread in the first half of the sixteenth century. The protagonists are puttos intent on blowing soap bubbles, unaware of being condemned a little more than the iridescent spheres produced in their game. The representations of Homo bulla are fully part of the category of Vanitas, didactic images in which the reference to fragility or evanescence, through elements such as cut flowers, crystals and soap bubbles, recalling the inevitability of death and the frailty of the earthly things. The Allegory of Jan Brueghel the Younger is very rich in this sense, in which many objects are depicted in the ephemeral joys of the senses.
The art of soap bubbles
The National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia, until 9 June 2019, faces this issue for the first time, traditionally related to the artistic genre of still life and vanitas. The exhibition, entitled Soap Bubbles. Forms of utopia between vanitas, art and science, curated by Michele Emmer, professor of Mathematics at the Sapienza University of Rome and Marco Pierini, director of the National Gallery of Umbria. The inspiration for the exhibition comes from a text by Michele Emmer, in which the interrelations with mathematics, painting, physics and architecture are explored.
«It’s a project that Emmer and I had in mind for a long time», says director Marco Pierini. «It was a great dream. A dream with many faces», adds Emmer. «It is difficult to find a “game” that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, like soap bubbles». In fact, the exhibition presents itself as an interdisciplinary initiative that, parallel to the historical and artistic path, also tells of the birth of the scientific, physical and mathematical interest in perfect soap bubble models. Starting from a book by Isaac Newton, from the Oliveriana Library of Pesaro, in which the English physicist describes in detail the phenomena that are observed on the surfaces of the soap suds, to arrive at the current experiments through the aid of computer graphics. In fact, the review highlights the importance that bubbles have played in all contemporary science, and how these latest discoveries, in turn, continue to inspire contemporary artists and architects in their creations.
The exhibition itinerary
The itinerary consists of around sixty works, loaned by the most important national and international institutions: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Accademia Galleries in Venice, the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery in Washington and the Museum of Hermitage of St. Petersburg.
The masterpieces cover a long period of time ranging from the sixteenth century with Hendrick Goltzius, passing through the seventeenth century, in which the puttos becomes more and more a contemporary child. You will have to wait for the eighteenth century to meet real genre scenes, in which the allegorical aspect almost tends to disappear, as in the young man portrayed by Fra Galgario. The presence of the bubble in nineteenth-century painting is not thinning out, important in historical Romanticism with Pelagio Palagi, then increasingly at the center of scenes of daily life or portraits; in fact Bubbles by John Everett Millais is famous, when the bubbles became the image of Pears soaps.In the twentieth century this theme is declined in an original way, opening up a new perspective: in 1964 Günter Zint decides to document in West Berlin the life of a child who, among the games of childhood, becomes a witness unaware of the dramas of history. Not even the first decades of the current century have managed to escape from soap bubbles, which become a true model for light architectures, such as the Watercube in Beijing.Symbol of the fragility and transience of human ambitions, soap bubbles have fascinated not only the generations of artists who were amazed by those plays of color that move on surfaces, for their luster and lightness, but continue to fascinate the visitors who walk through the blue halls of the National Gallery of Umbria.