I’m sorry for not writing this week. Things have been rather crazy at home and work this week, and I’ve not had the time to post. I’m hoping to make things up a bit with this post, as it is on two of my favorite subjects, art and history. This week, I started watching the 2011 TV series Borgia, about the Italian Renaissance Spanish family, the Borgias. I knew something of the family before watching the series, but I must say that this show has seriously peaked my interest again in the Italian Renaissance. I will admit that normally I lean toward the Northern Renaissance in art (this will be a future post), but I also understand the importance of the Italian one, which is the one most people remember because of great artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, da Vinci and others. I have had the good fortune to live in Italy for a few months when I was an undergraduate, and it was amazing. Not only because of the food (which cannot compare at all to American Italian, trust me), but because of the art, architecture and history of this great country. I stayed in Siena for 3 weeks and Florence for 3 months, and traveled around the country as I was able. Although I love Firenze, Rome I think is my favorite city in Italy (although I will admit, I like the food better in Florence). The history and artwork in the Eternal City is just so amazing. You have Roman ruins right next to Baroque palaces, and those are right next to modern buildings. It sounds crazy, but it works. I have been to Vatican City, so seeing it in the show made me think of Michelangelo and all the work he did in St. Peter’s. Granted the show is about 40 or so years before he worked on the basilica himself, but he did do a lot of church commissions, so I figured it would be a good link for this week. Well that and I’m reading a book about his most famous sculpture David, as seen through the eyes of the model he used.
Because I was based in Florence, I was able to see a lot of the work Michelangelo completed for the city, as well as Casa Buonarrotti, where the artist lived and worked during his lifetime. The first time I saw a Michelangelo was in Paris, not Italy. I had gone to the Louvre as part of a summer abroad program in high school called People to People Student Ambassadors. In the Louvre, I saw his Bound Slave and Dying Slave sculptures. I was fascinated by these works of art. I discovered later, as it is explained on this website, that these pieces “were conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the stone, as in his Third Captive piece. By removing the excess stone, the form was released.” The next Michelangelo piece that I saw was in Bruges, Belgium in the Church of Our Lady. This piece was the only one to reside in the northwest of Europe during the lifetime of the artist. According to this website, “The man who would later become pope Pius III (who only ruled 26 days in late 1503) commissioned Michelangelo in 1501 to create a set of 15 sculptures for the Siena cathedral. Michelangelo accepted but never finished the assignment. This finished sculpture was acquired in 1504 by a Bruges merchant, whose family gave it to the city in 1516.” It is a gorgeous sculpture, and as the webpage mentions, the model for this work and the Virgin in the Pieta, must be the same.
Madonna with Child, 1501
When Michelangelo was 13, he caught the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, aka Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was invited to join the household of the family and studied in their sculpture gardens. It must’ve been an amazing place to work and grow up, as Lorenzo’s household was a center for learning and famous humanists and poets of the day congregated at his house. When he was 16, he created the marble relief sculpture of The Battle of the Centaurs. The piece is so full of energy and movement, with the Lapiths and the Centaurs fighting each other, and it seems to come alive when you look at it. This story was taken from a Greek myth, which was told by one of the poets living in the de’Medici palace. For a more detailed description of the piece, please check out this page.
Battaglia dei Centauri (The Battle of the Centaurs), 1490-92
One of my favorite pieces of Michelangelo’s is Moses, from Julius II’s tomb in San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). I have seen it and it is quite impressive, much in the same way that his most famous statue David is impressive (though David is taller, at over 14 ft, the statue itself being 9 ft). It was one of a series of six sculptures completed for Pope Julius II’s tomb, though the original plan was to do over 40 sculptures. Julius II was the pope after the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. Moses is depicted as the great Lawgiver with the Ten Commandments in hand. He has horns coming out of the top of his head, which comes from a misinterpretation from the Bible during the Renaissance. The translation came across as Moses had “horns of light” instead of “rays of light”, in reference to the way Moses glowed after he came down from Mount Sinai, after being given the Ten Commandments by God.
Moses from the Tomb of Julius II, c. 1515
The final work I would like to discuss is another of Michelangelo’s most famous pieces, The Last Judgement. Although the entire Sistine Chapel is gorgeous, this painting was what I had come to see when I visited the Vatican. I had written a paper on the the work for the Italian Renaissance art class I was taking, so I was excited to see it in person. It is enormous, covering an entire wall, and according to this webpage “was the largest ever painted in that century.” The painting, which depicts Judgement Day, also known as the Second Coming of Christ, was proposed by Pope Clement VII and after his death the commission was extended by his predeccesor, Paul III Farnese. It is interesting to note that the artwork was proposed after the French sacked Rome, which was seen as a sort of Judgement Day in and of itself. The painting caused a great scandal when it was revealed due to Michelangelo’s propensity for painting nude figures. I am especially amused by the following quote from Biago de Cesena, the Vatican Master of Ceremonies, who had this to say about the work (as quoted from the previous webpage) “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” Michelangelo had his revenge by depicting Biago as a demon in the painting itself, in the extreme bottom right corner. The nudity, however did not bother the pope until the Council of Trent, who had condemned nudity in religious art, met 24 years after the fresco was completed that and the nudity was covered up by artist Daniele da Volterra (who was later nicknamed Braghettone, or “The Breeches Maker”).
The painting shows Christ the Judge in the center of the painting, deciding which souls will go to heaven and which to hell. Below him, according to this webpage are “angels blowing trumpets and the Archangel Michael reads from the book of souls to be saved. The larger book on the right contains a list of the damned destined for hell.” Michelangelo snuck himself into the painting as the flayed skin held by Saint Bartholomew (how he was martyred) directly belowed Christ. To the immediate right of Jesus is St Peter holding the keys to heaven, and is a portrait of Michelangelo’s patron Pope Paul III. Further down on the right (in the green dress) is Saint Catherine of Alexandria holding the instrument of her intended martyrdom, what is called the breaking wheel or later the Catherine wheel. The bottom right of the painting shows the boatman Charon, who ferried the dead over the River Styx in Greek mythology, is now taking them to hell. The bottom left shows the dead rising again so they can ascend into heaven.
The Last Judgement, 1534-41