There were more than three official participants in the debate for Veep last week. Besides Kamala Harris, Mike Pence, and Susan Page, a black fly nested on the head of the grim-faced V.P. The insect not only stood out in sharp contrast to the snowy whiteness of Pence’s hair, but it also provided comic relief to his grimness.

Scene stealer

CBS News, citing a LA Times writeup on debate reaction, noted how the fly dominated the news. Even in post-debate discussions the next day, Gayle King of Morning in America observed that the bug landed on Pence’s head at the very moment he was denying systemic racism in the land.

Apolitical animal

It’s worth mentioning that the insect is not partial politically. One flew onto the forehead of Hillary Clinton in a 2016 presidential debate. Which raises a question unasked, unanswered: how do these bugs get into secure, temperature-controlled spaces that strictly limit attendance?

Long-lasting

But wait. These insects have other interests besides politics. Artnet reports that flies have also landed in paintings through history, and in lasting ways. What’s more, they add meaning to pictures, signifying a range of sorry states, like corruption, melancholia, decay of body or soul, and even death. That’s a lot of meaning for a little bug.

Sending messages

So, a fly in a portrait of, say, a nobleman or a man of the church suggests some shortcoming. To hear Artnet tell it, these bugs have a long history in Western art, beginning in the Medieval era when they were believed to come from slime.

Not surprisingly, they were also linked to the Devil.

Mudslinging

You can often spot the insect in the 17th century still life painting, along with a skull to suggest that life is fleeting. If you see them in portraits of clergymen or noblemen, the bugs stand for chicanery. And when you see them in pictures of women, it means she’s wanton.

Showing off

But Artnet points to historians who say that artists don’t use flies as symbols at all, but rather to show off their skill. Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari recounts a story about Giotto, a student of Cimabue, who painted a fly in a painting by his teacher to fool him into thinking there was an actual insect that flew onto his picture.

Cimabue fell for the prank and tried in vain to swat it away.

Finger-pointing

An outstanding example of a fly in art is Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, circa 1450 by an unknown artist. What you see is the black bug sitting on her stark white headdress. And given what Artnet says about insects painted into artworks, you have to wonder if the woman pictured is wanton or just a victim of a show-off artist.

One clue: her family is identified, but she’s not, as if the family commissioned a portrait, but out of disappointment with her, did not allow her name to be included. She is holding a forget-me-not, which adds extra sadness to the portrait. Did the fly on Pence’s head add meaning, too?

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