Why It’s not the Size of the Rod that Matters (and Why I can’t stop Talking about Giotto)
While having dinner the other night with a friend who is also in the “business” (by which I mean art history of course), I told him that I just couldn’t stop blogging about Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel. His sympathetic response was that mine was an obvious dilemma as “there is so much to say about Giotto and the chapel!”.
In reality, it’s not that there is so much that I have to say, as it is how much Giotto actually did!!! He is the artist; I am the critic. But unlike most critics, I do not project the frustration caused by my own artistic impotence upon those with talent. Instead, I try as best I can to fittingly extol them and to share their genius with the world (see blog – What does Michelangelo have to do with me?).
So, let’s see how far I get before I think that you will stop reading…. and I come to grips with the fact that I will probably have to write at least another blog about the G-Man (see Giotto) in order to get it all in (poor me).
The great ones do indeed make it look simple. Thereby, if the beguiling simplicity of Giotto’s art is the meter by which to measure his greatness, he might just possibly be the most innovative painter in history.
In the highest tier of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto depicts scenes from the life of the BVM as recounted in the 13th-century The Golden Legend written by an Italian named Jacobus de Voragine. The story recounts how the BVM’s eventual parents, Joachim and Anne, were well advanced in age and childless (see O.T./Abraham and Sarah).
The fresco cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel is the world’s first-ever motion picture, and like every great movie, it begins in dramatic fashion!
“Expulsion of Joachim”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
The opening subject is the Expulsion of Joachim (above). One immediately recognizes Joachim’s advanced age by his full head of white hair (see “keep it simple”). After years of faithfully offering sacrifices to God, the high priest finally pulls Joachim aside and says basta (see “enough”), informing Joachim that his childless state was obviously indicative of God’s indifference to his pleas. The priest then proceeds to expel Joachim from the temple. The theatrical gestures and expressions of the characters immediately set the tone of the scene, and I can almost hear the sad, wailing cello music in the background as poor Joachim clutches his sacrificial lamb like a teddy bear (see silent movie). And to really add salt to the wound, Giotto adds a “life’s not fair” juxtaposition. While old man Joachim is being expelled, a young man (see full head of brown hair) is being blessed within the temple walls, probably after informing the priest that his wife was expecting!
“Joachim Going out into the Wilderness”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
In the next scene, a dejected Joachim goes out into the wilderness (above). His emotional state is clearly discernable (see “down in the dumps”) through his hanging head and the most primal and instinctive of gestures when we are under stress or duress – clasping one’s mid-section. Not to mention that he is clearly oblivious to the celebratory yelping of Fido as his gaze goes right past the dog. But how do we know that Joachim is not always melancholic? By that most timeless of expressions in the eyes of the inside figure of the pair who greet Joachim, who “shoots a look” at the other as if to say, “Oh, boy. What’s up with him?”
Now, if I am the director of this movie, a caption would appear at the bottom of the scene that reads,
MEANWHILE, BACK IN NAZARETH
and we would cut to the next scene – the Annunciation to St. Anne (below). Suddenly, we are reminded of the other protagonist of the story – St. Anne – who is at home doing what all virtuous women do while their husbands are away – that is, spinning yarn (see don’t look at me, I’m just telling the story). And while the angel is inside announcing to Anne that she is with child, the female figure in white to the left of the door, who is also apparently virtuous as she too spins yarn, stops mid gesture and her eyes turn to her left as she eavesdrops on the conversation.
Annunciation to St. Anne, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
So more than just telling the story of the BVM, Giotto goes to the trouble of socio-psychological commentary on human nature – i.e., BOY ARE HUMAN BEINGS NOSY!!!!
Now, for the next few scenes – the Dream of Joachim, the Meeting at the Golden Gate, the Birth of the Virgin, and the Presentation of the Virgin – see my last blog “Dante and Giotto’s Ugly Children”
The next three scenes instead represent my absolute favorite sequence of paintings in the history of art (see, “the best part of the movie”).
The BVM grew up to be so beautiful and virtuous that all the respectable “unmarried men of the house of David” desired her hand in marriage. But just which one was deserving of her? God informed the temple priests that all potential suitors should present themselves at temple with a rod (see phallic symbol). These rods would be collected and blessed, and whichever rod distinguished itself from the others, the respective bearer would win the hand of the BVM in marriage. One man was particularly fond of the BVM but thought that he was unworthy of such a young maiden because of his advanced age – see Joseph – and was unsure whether or not to present his rod. Giotto begins the visual sequence with the Presentation of the Rods (below).
“Presentation of the Rods”, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
We can clearly identify the younger men by their dark hair, while the haloed Joseph on far left has the George-Clooney salt-and-pepper look instead.
The next scene instead depicts the Watching of the Rods (below), in which, essentially, nothing happens. So why would Giotto waste precious wall space on “nothing”? He did so in order to create suspense.
Believe me when I tell you that no other 14th- century painter was concerning himself with suspense!!! Most of them were still simply struggling to make people look like people in their paintings!!
“Watching of the Rods”, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
The final scene – the Marriage of the Virgin Mary (below) – depicts the dramatic finale of the story. In the end, Joseph did not present his rod. He instead remained at the back of the temple with his rod in hand, when it suddenly burst forth into bloom as a lily grew out of it and a dove descended upon it. And so, Joseph was clearly the man designated by God to be the husband of the BVM. Notice how the other suitors react. The one to the left of Joseph in blue is angrily crying foul. It looks like he might want to take a closer look at Joseph’s magic rod… The figure to the left of him in orange is actually breaking his rod – and you can interpret that however you like.
“Marriage of the Virgin”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
The nuance of this particular legend was by no means lost on its contemporary audience. In Taddeo Gaddi’s (see Giotto’s student and godson) later rendering of the same subject, arguably the most humorous figure in the history of art appears (below). In the lower left-hand corner of the scene, a young man dressed in a yellow robe walks with nothing less than a sapling on his right shoulder (see detail below). Clearly, the moral to take away from this painting is that it is not the size of the rod that counts, it’s the magical powers….
Stay tuned for more Giotto in my next blog about cinematic themes in the “Life and Passion Christ” in the Scrovegni Chapel!!!
“Marriage of the Virgin”, Taddeo Gaddi, 1330, Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy
Dante and Giotto’s Ugly Children
After Dante was exiled from Florence in 1302, one of the cities that he visited was Padua. His good friend Giotto was busy painting the walls of my favorite decorative space in the world – the Scrovegni Chapel.
“Scrovegni Chapel”, Giotto, 1303-1305, Padua, Italy
In addition to being the first painter to successfully reintroduce naturalism into medieval painting (see last blog “Giotto and the return to naturalism”), Giotto was also allegedly a rather virile man, having possibly fathered as many as 8 children.
One day, while Dante was hanging around the chapel watching his friend paint, he asked Giotto why his painted figures were all so beautiful, while his children were all so ugly. Giotto’s quick response was that he painted his figures by day… and made his children by night!!!!
Now, if a buddy and I were throwing back a couple of beers on a Friday night, this type of talk could at the least be tolerated. But one does not expect Dante Alighieri (who was no real looker himself, see above) and Giotto di Bondone, two of the greatest artists that our species has ever produced, to be slinging “tavern talk” back and forth. Regardless of whether the exchange ever actually took place, the meaning of the anecdote is clear – that this type of “regular guy” or popularist philosophy is clearly reflected in the art of both men.
Dante revolutionized medieval literature by writing his great epic trilogy, the Divine Comedy, in the vernacular – or the language spoken by the ordinary people of a particular region, which in the case of Dante, was Tuscany.
Most people misinterpret this fact as meaning that more people could therefore read the Divine Comedy. This was, in fact, not the case as the literacy rate of Medieval Europe remained staggeringly low. But it did mean that more people could understand the Divine Comedy at a time when nearly everything was written in Latin. If the literate 3 or 4 out of every 10 people read to the illiterate remainder in Latin, it would make no difference as the remainder did not comprehend Latin either. But if they were read to in the Tuscan vernacular, then they could understand, and suddenly literature no longer belonged exclusively to the clerical caste.
And as Dante did in literature, so too did Giotto in the visual arts, as he made biblical stories seem human by introducing what I call the “Visual Vernacular”.
“Meeting at the Golden Gate”, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
In his Meeting at the Golden Gate, Giotto has Saints Joachim and Anne, parents of the BVM (see Blessed Virgin Mary), celebrate the news of Anne’s pregnancy by hugging and kissing. This might seem like rather predictable reaction to the modern viewer, but not so in the medieval world. In fact, years later, Giotto’s pupil and godson, Taddeo Gaddi, painted the same scene in Florence. But before painting the two saints engaged in a hug and a kiss, he asked the archbishop of Florence for permission. And that permission was denied!
The thought of saints kissing was considered indecent. So instead of doing what would be most natural for any couple upon discovering that after long years of waiting, their life-long dream of having a child had come true, Gaddi’s saints celebrate by rubbing forearms and bumping halos! (see below)
“Meeting at the Golden Gate”, Taddeo Gaddi, 1333, Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence
So why was Giotto able to get away with it? To start with, he was not the type of personality to ask permission first. But I also believe that it was because Giotto’s story of the BVM was such a human one, that viewers may have forgotten that the characters were actually holy.
“Birth of the BVM”, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
I also find that the older I get, the more I appreciate Giotto. In his Birth of the Virgin Mary, notice how the elderly St. Anne reaches enthusiastically towards her larvae-looking newborn daughter. A detail that is not lost on any husband, including myself. After having twice witnessed my wife go through hours of excruciating labor, which, I am convinced, would kill any man, I also saw all the pain and fatigue magically disappear as our children were respectively put into her arms.
At the bottom of the painting, we see a midwife clearing out the gunk from the BVM’s nostrils. The importance of such a detail should not be overlooked.
This is the birth of the BVM that we are talking about. One imagines that she flew out of Anne’s womb with full superpowers at the ready!
Instead, Giotto gives us just an ordinary birth, the details of which, if he had indeed fathered 8 times, would have been familiar to him. This includes the exchange in the doorway to the left where the girl outside seems to be asking the midwife inside that eternal question – boy or girl!
And lastly, in his Presentation of the Virgin, instead of showing a confident and assertive miniature woman strutting up the temple stairs as if they were a catwalk (as most artists before him did), Giotto instead shows us a timid and unsure adolescent whose reassuring mamma nudges her up those scary steps.
Terrifying memories of my own first days at kindergarten come flooding back, as I seem to recall the use of a crowbar to detach me from my mother’s legs…
And again, I find myself forgetting that Giotto’s paintings are actually about gods and saints, who seem to be just as imperfect as you and me. As a good friend of mine once said, you only have to be human to appreciate Giotto…
Giotto and the Return to Naturalism
“Ognissanti Madonna”, Giotto, 1310, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
In my last blog (HOW A LITTLE MAN CHANGED THE WORLD: ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI), I discussed how St. Francis of Assisi was responsible for changing world perception in medieval Europe and paving the way for an eventual revolution in the arts. Therefore, if it was not social or religious tradition that was hindering visual artists from representing the world more faithfully and accurately, what was it?
It was a technical limitation. To put it simply, that after 700 years of alien madonnas and man-children in art, artists had forgotten how to make things look real!
The analogy that I use to illustrate this point with my students is the recent move to eliminate cursive handwriting from elementary school curricula. The results of which I experience first-hand as my six-year-old son can neither write nor read in cursive. Clearly, if we stop doing something, it does not take very long before we forget how, in fact, to do it.
It was clearly a matter of supply and demand, and in the Byzantine world, there was little demand for naturalism.
Byzantine-style “Madonna and Child”, Unknown Artist, c. 1250, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The philosophy of Byzantine art was that if the BVM, as I like to call her (see Blessed Virgin Mary), appeared as a regular woman, her importance might not be properly impressed upon viewers. But if the BVM resembled E.T. (see “call home”), then it would be easier for the faithful to accept her as a goddess. A formula that has been employed since the dawn of visual imagery – that the less natural something looks, the more supernaturally it is perceived.
Baby Jesus was actually the more difficult of the two to resolve, as Catholics maintain that Jesus is God. The thought that Jesus/God was born the way we all were – see “the diaper thing”, see “the spitting up on oneself thing”, see (my personal favorite) “the potty-training thing” – was thought to be completely inappropriate.
And so Byzantine artists adhered to the homuncular theological belief that maintains that Jesus was born a perfect-little adult; essentially implying that from the moment of birth, Jesus Christ could drive a car, he could watch R-rated movies and that he could consume alcohol…
Such a theory might seem foolish to us in the 21st century, but it was a very effective way to render Christian subject matter more divine in the Middle Ages.
That is, of course, until artists like Giotto appeared. In his Ognissanti Madonna, painted in 1310 and located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Giotto began to effectively reintroduce naturalism, by simply using nature as both his model and inspiration.
In his painting of Mary, Giotto clearly shapes Mary’s legs under her dark drapery, suggesting that there is a human form under the drapery. Usually, Mary appeared like a paper cut-out doll, where body and drapery were one and the same.
Detail from “Ognissanti Madonna”
More importantly, Mary’s breasts are modeled as well and push up against her tunic, so that more than just a human form, it is a female form that Giotto is depicting.
For the first time in seven centuries, Mary’s femininity has been restored!
Notice also the physical contact between “mommy” and “junior”. In most Madonna and Child images of the time, Mary simply points at Jesus as she does in Cimabue’s (see Giotto’s teacher) version of the subject, like some sort of blinking neon arrow rhythmically reminding us to “Pay attention to him, pay attention to him…” (see “Eat at Joe’s…)
“Madonna and Child”, Cimabue, 1285, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Instead, in Giotto’s painting, Mary holds Jesus’ right leg with her right hand, and wraps her left around his waist. If you look carefully, you can see the tips of fingers under Jesus’ left arm. In one painting, Mary comes across as a human, as a woman, and as a mamma! It was very simply a revolution in the history of art.
Of course, the baby is by no means to most babyish-looking baby you have ever seen (see goatee!). But there are some important infantile characteristics in the child, such as the overall proportions, the general pudginess, and, perhaps most importantly, the rolls of baby fat at the neck and wrists of the child. Having simply figured out how to render the illusion of baby fat at the beginning of the 14th century is in and of itself a revolution!
Clearly Giotto’s is not anatomical painting, but it was the foundation upon which the next five centuries of Western painting would be based.
Stay tuned for my next blog where we shall discuss how Giotto so effectively applied naturalism to his narrative paintings, and how he earned my nickname “The Alfred Hitchcock of the 14th century”!
How a Little Man Changed the World: St. Francis of Assisi
Whenever I am standing in front of Giotto’s Madonna and Child (1310 CE) in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy and discussing the naturalistic innovations introduced by the artist, I ask my students why it took so long for Medieval painters to reacquire the ability to depict subject matter in a realistic manner. The logical answer that I usually get is that artists were afraid of being punished by the church. That depicting Christian subjects as mundane and human might somehow be seen as blasphemous in a still-very-Byzantine world where Madonna’s usually looked like aliens and Baby Jesus regularly appeared with a receding hairline and five o’clock shadow.
As clear-cut an explanation as this may seem, I remind everyone that by the time we see changes take place in art, it usually means that they have already taken place in society. That the socio-philosophical game-changer of the medieval world was not an artist, but a spoiled-rich-kid from Assisi named Giovanni di Piero Bernardone, who had been nicknamed “Francesco” by his dad in honor of the lucrative business dealings he had had with textile merchants from France, known as the franceschi. After living the first have of his life in the proverbial “Fastlane” – fast cars, fast women – this second-most-penitent of penitent saints (see Mary Magdalene) had a life-altering conversion involving a talking crucifix (i.e. Jesus) in a dilapidated chapel outside of Assisi that told him to “rebuild his house which had fallen into ruin”. From that point on, Francis, the Catholic Church and the world would never be the same.
In addition to establishing one of the most important Catholic orders in history for both frati (brothers) and soure (sisters), upon whom he imposed the same vow of poverty he himself had taken; actively and passionately preaching the message of the gospels throughout the world; succoring the poor, hungry and sick – particularly lepers (see Jesus); and inventing the Christian tradition of the Christmas creche, Francis also managed to change the world. The greatest revolutionary in Western civilization since Jesus Christ (as I like to call him) suddenly began to offer an alternative existential reality to Medieval Christians – one in which the natural world was a direct reflection of the goodness of God. Since the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE), the Catholic (or Latin Christian as it was called) Church had preached and enforced a transcendental world view. One in which anything that was not God – or otherworldly – was evil. This included the natural world around us that was considered material and therefore nothing more than distraction and temptation luring souls off the path of righteousness and salvation.
Francis instead claimed that the natural world was given to us as a gift from God, and was therefore not only good, but imbued with God himself. Nature should not be shunned and ignored, but celebrated and revered. And moreover, human beings were not here to dominate and control nature (see Genesis 1:26), but to live with it in harmony. Man was no more important than the ant and no less than the elephant. Francis did not use the word “ecosystem”, but had the word existed in the 13th century, he would have. And even as malaria and tuberculosis caught up with him late in his life and robbed him of his sight, Francis began to ecstatically sing the praises of nature in verse in his famous “Canticle of the Sun”. The sun and fire became his brothers, the moon and water his sisters (see 1960’s commune…). Diving into frozen lakes and rolling around in thorn bushes brought not pain, but instead pleasure afforded by nature, according to Francis (see “either you’re holy or you’re crazy…).
Not surprisingly, within a half century of his death in 1226, artists like Cimabue, Dante and Giotto appeared, and each reflected the little giant’s philosophy in his respective art. Cimabue, the first artist to begin to attempt to break from the abstraction of Byzantine art, painted what is still today the earliest-known portrait of the saint in the lower basilica of Assisi (see above). Dante, who was the first author to publish in the vernacular (see The Divine Comedy), described St. Francis as rising like the sun out of Assisi, in a world that was otherwise black and gloomy, in Canto XI of his Paradiso. And, of course Giotto, who was a lay member of the Franciscan Order, who best embraced the saint’s message in what I like to call his “visual vernacular” style of painting, where saints look and act a hell of a lot like regular people and their world looks pretty much like our own. And even a much more contemporary saint has kept Francis’ legacy alive when Saint JPII made St. Francis of Assisi the Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979 (see “climate change doesn’t exist…”, help us St. Francis!!!)
…But I digress… so if it wasn’t fear of punishment by the church, why did it take so long for artists to figure out how to make things look like they do in the natural world?
Stay tuned for my next blog and find out!!!
I’m sure the suspense is killing you…
Loving Michelangelo to Death
I think few people today remember how radically different the Sistine Chapel ceiling looked before its restoration in the 1980s. I do. I remember seeing the dark, grimy pre-restoration ceiling when I was about 8 years old, and then the chromatically-miraculous cleaned ceiling in 1993. In fact, I try to make it a point to remind those who I bring to the chapel how lucky they are to be able to see the ceiling the same way Michelangelo did before his death in 1564 and the first application of varnish was applied to the ceiling shortly thereafter. But I also point out that as obfuscating as that dark varnish was, it encapsulated the ceiling and protected it from centuries of candle soot and pollution. Now that that varnish is gone, what is left to protect Michelangelo’s sublime frescoes?
In 2010, the then director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, ominously warned that there were too many visitors to the Sistine Chapel. Four years later, he went on to “hope” that the annual number of visitors to the chapel would not exceed 6 million, which is what he described as the “sold out” parameter for the logistical capacity of the museums. But then, in 2016, there were, in fact, more than 6 million visitors; while in 2017, under the direction of the first-ever-female director of the museums Barbara Jatta, an average of 27,000 people per day visited the chapel during peak tourist season, which, in the case of the Sistine Chapel, seems to be all year round. It is kind of alarming though when the director of a museum claims that there are too many people visiting his/her museum, but then does nothing about it. The reason, one would imagine, is the revenue created by such staggering numbers when the cost of admission to the museums (including reservation fee) is EUR 21,00/person.
So, who cares how many people enter the Sistine Chapel? Well, we all should, and a lot! What most people don’t realize is that we ourselves are the biggest threat to works of art. A single person produces 17ml of moisture and 350,00 Joules of body heat per hour (roughly the same amount of heat as a 100W light bulb). Now multiply those figures by the 27k people walking through the Sistine Chapel daily, and what you have is an enormous microclimate bomb that stresses and deteriorates the very plaster frescoes that make the chapel so famous. Not to mention the fact that we are also carrying atmospheric pollutants, pollens, and other harmful substances on our clothing, skin and hair, which we then release into the chapel and which also contribute to the degeneration of the paintings. I am not a restorer, but I do know enough of them to know that with the present volume of visitors, there might not be anything left to visit in a not too distant future.
The Vatican has taken some important conservatory steps. In 2014, the Sistine Chapel received a new LED lighting and climate control system. Yet, these are a far cry from the precautions taken elsewhere for important works in relatively small buildings. In Milan, no more than 25 visitors every 15 minutes pass through a series of hermetically sealed doors that maintain constant temperature and humidity in order to view Leonardo’s Last Supper. In Padua, visitors to the climate-controlled Scrovegni Chapel are limited to 25 every 20 minutes and watch a video in a large deionization chamber while walking on a special carpet that cleans their shoes as they pass through sealed doors that finally lead them into the chapel. Such precautions might seem extreme but may very well become the norm in world where we are literally loving our art to death!
Florence Cathedral and the Beauty of Boredom
The cathedral of Florence (1296-1468CE) is not only the defining architectural monument of the city, it is also one of the few that has free admission. Combined with the breathtaking quantity of white, green and pink marble decorations on the exterior of the church, it is not surprising that each day long lines form to visit the interior of this great building. But upon finally entering the church, most visitors are disappointed. The rather austere brown and white interior, although enormous in scale, contrasts strikingly with the highly decorative exterior. Expressions such as “That’s it…”, or adjectives such as “somber”, “sober”, “sparse” or even “boring” are those most often used to describe the ascetic interior. Often times, people even ask “Is it finished?”, hoping to find some rationalization for their disillusionment. Yet, if a visitor was to look deeper and beyond simple superficial ornamentation, he/she would discover that boredom can be both beautiful and profound.
More than an unsuccessful Gothic-style church, Santa Maria del Fiore (which is the cathedral’s proper name) should be described as a proto-Renaissance church as regards its interior design. In Florence cathedral, architecture is both function and decoration. Francesco Talenti, who was the architect of the cathedral interior, was, what we call in the business, “an architect’s architect”. He believed that if the interior walls were covered with painting or sculpture decoration, that one would no longer admire the “dignity of the wall”, but what is on that wall instead. Not only does this resulting bi-chrome brownstone/stucco pattern foreshadow Brunelleschi’s grey stone/stucco interiors at his great basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, but so too does Florence cathedral’s use of a proportional scheme. The central nave bays of the cathedral are perfect squares with 17.15m sides, while the side-aisle bays are rectangles, which areas are half of the nave squares. While technically pointed – and therefore Gothic in style – the nave arches have such wide bases that they seem to be tending towards semi-circular – and therefore Renaissance – in shape. Such un-acute arches defeat any structural advantage inherent in pointed arches. What’s the point of building pointed arches with such large bases? In other words, it’s pointless to build pointed arches in such a way (bad puns intended!)
Moreover, the general lack of decoration in the nave allows the visitor to move unhindered and undistracted – a sort of architectural metaphor for the terrestrial journey of life – towards the great octagonal crossing space below Brunelleschi’s majestic dome. Upon arriving, the visitor has entered into the main liturgical space of the church, with the high altar located at the very center of the crossing space and surrounded by an octagonal marble choir. And if the nave of the church symbolizes the journey of life, then the crossing space represents the spiritual destination – heaven/chi/nirvana/bliss – however one wishes to define it. This heaven is represented not only architecturally in the form of the dome, but pictorially in the great amount of decoration below it. From Della Robbia’s glazed terracotta reliefs above the sacristy doors, to the celebrity-designed stained-glass windows by the likes of Uccello, Donatello, and Ghiberti, and culminating in Vasari and Zuccari’s nearly 35,000ft2 of fresco decoration representing the “Last Judgement” that adorns the interior surface of the dome, one nearly forgets that the space that led them to this point was almost entirely void of decoration, and that sometimes, “boring” can be beautiful…
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Met
If you have not had a chance to visit the exhibit on Michelangelo’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum Fifth Avenue, New York, I would highly recommend doing so before the show’s closing on February 12, 2018. Over eight years, the curator of the exhibit, Carmen Bambach, has achieved the impossible in bringing together 133 of Michelangelo’s drawings. The opportunity to view and enjoy so many drawings in a single venue is perhaps more rare than most celestial phenomenon. Moreover, the chronological arrangement of the drawings allows the visitor to explore the great artist’s personal and professional life in a unique way.
From his early days as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio, to his learning from and self-measuring against the great masters of the early Renaissance such as Giotto and Masaccio, to his artistic apotheosis with works such as the St. Peter’s Pietà, the David, and the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the drawings are not only beautiful, but also biographical. Moreover, those drawings displayed in the exhibit associated with specific works of art allow us a “behind-the-scenes” look into the conceptual process of artistic creation. In the case of certain preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel, it literally feels like you are looking over the Michelangelo’s shoulder as he dreamed up his majestic compositions.
I not only had the great privilege of visiting the show several times on my own, but also the honor of receiving permission to lecture on the exhibit to several of our academic tour groups. (For more information and upcoming events in the US, see https://rockyruggiero.com/events/)
Although a majority of the drawings in the exhibit come from the collections of the Uffizi Gallery and the Casa Buonarroti Museum in Florence, Italy, they are very rarely displayed in their native city. Only the Casa Buonarroti consistently displays Michelangelo’s drawings, albeit only six at a time, and in constant rotation for reasons of conservation. While scholars such as myself are granted special permission to view drawings in these collections upon request, they are generally kept out of the public eye due to the damage caused to the delicate and often fragile drawings by continual exposure to light. So while students and tourists can enjoy the paintings, sculptures and buildings of the Renaissance in Italy, Renaissance drawings remain a forbidden fruit.
This Italian reality only adds to the special importance of the drawings exhibition at the Met. That such a great quantity of extraordinarily high-quality drawings by an artist of the caliber of the “Divine Michelangelo” is on display for an exceptional three-month period is perhaps a nearly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
See them now, because you may never see them again…
When the Light of the World Went Out
Most of modern Western culture derives from ancient Greco-Roman civilization. From our political structure, judicial system, language, philosophy, art, architecture and even sports, Western society is very much a product of the ancient Greek and – because the Romans imported most of their culture from Greece – Roman world.
Well, that world ended in the 5th century CE. Whether because the Roman Empire imploded because it dared to control too much of the world; or because, in history, as in nature, all things eventually run their course, by 476CE the Western Roman world was no more. The effects of this catastrophe were devastating. The first global infrastructure disappeared in the Western world, and with it just about everything that defines a civilization – politics, society, culture, economics, communications, religion and art. According to St. Gerome, when the city of Rome was sacked in 410CE, “The light of the world has gone out.”
Whenever a power structure collapses, a power vacuum is created. This very simply means that no one is in charge. No direction means no organization, and no organization means chaos. A chaos made worse by the fact that displaced barbarian hoards (see the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns) that had participated in no small way in Rome’s collapse saw the opportunity to very simply rape, pillage, and plunder the Roman world without restraint. Their attention was focused mainly on Roman cities, where a majority of the material wealth was concentrated. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of these cities abandoned urban centers and sought safety in the relative isolation of the countryside.
Soon these barbarians became the rulers of the western world, and although they adopted the customs and religion (which by that time was Christianity) of their Roman predecessors, tribal feuding made any kind of political or economic stability impossible. And so Western Europe entered into what historians once called the “Dark Ages” (today known as the “Early Middle Ages”). But on Christmas day, 800 CE, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Romans” and the first seeds of the Renaissance were planted. Charlemagne began to reestablish political and economic stability for much of Western Europe. An aristocratic political structure would now control European lands and rid them of the brigands, thieves and pirates that plagued them. Suddenly, it was safe to travel again, and therefore, also to trade again.
Around 1000CE, a sort of “Commercial Revolution” began in Europe (mainly in Italy) as a new merchant class was born. To facilitate commerce, these merchants began to migrate back into abandoned urban centers, and the city was reborn. Merchants were empowered by their own economic success, and, much as socially well-established Americans do today with services such as ancestry.com, they began to look into their past in order to better define their present reality. It was the 14th-century poet Francesco Petrarca (better known as Petrarch) who first began to write about and celebrate the marvels of the ancient Roman world whose ruins still testify to the jaw-dropping ability of the Romans to build on scale commensurate with their greatness. By the late Middle Ages, as Italians began to realize the grandeur of their ancestors, they began to whisper, “Once we were Romans.” During the Renaissance, that whisper would become a resounding cry.
What does Michelangelo have to do with me?
Let’s be honest, in the eyes of most people, art history is a rather trivial subject. There is little need for it in our everyday lives and modern culture. The traditional method of teaching art history (dark room with an asthmatic slide projector, never-quite-clear-enough slides, and a monotone monologue by an unseen lecturer with an over-inflated vocabulary) has only perpetuated this belief, as it relegates both the subject and the importance of art to the past – dead men, therefore dead art. But if this were the case, how can we explain the fact that more than 25,000 people per day crane their necks to catch a view of the Sistine Ceiling in Rome, Italy; or that more than 5,000 per day stand with mouth agape in front the statue of David in Florence, Italy. These numbers tell us that “Michelangelo has a lot to do with me,” as millions of people spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours in order to travel to places such as these, which have become our modern sanctuaries and cultural idols. Secular tourism in a way has replaced religious pilgrimage.
But why? Did all these people study art history? Do they all want to harvest the fruits of their studies by finally standing in the shadow of Michelangelo’s genius? The answer is instead that they really don’t know why they traveled all that way. Someone or something told them “you just have to see it!” That “someone or something” is our collective consciousness, which is very much aware of what “we” – as a collective species – are capable of achieving. There is a little bit of all of us in that ceiling. That 17ft.-tall nude guy with the slingshot is a reflection of all of us – of what we all can be.
There is a little Michelangelo in all of us, and there is a lot of us in Michelangelo. Michelangelo was not 100ft. tall. He could not fly. He did not have any cool super powers or electronic gizmos. Michelangelo ate, drank (little and badly), laughed, cried and made a hell of a lot of money during his career. Michelangelo di Ludovico di Buonarroto Simoni (better known as Michelangelo) was a human being just like you and me. Who knows, maybe even a little less human, as he wasn’t the nicest guy to ever wear a codpiece, you know.
So why am I picking on Michelangelo? (I guess I am a little bit). Because I am using Michelangelo as a symbol of art history, mainly because he is probably the most famous artist to have ever walked the earth. My “hero assassination” is simply an attempt to emphasize his imperfect humanity. And even though Michelangelo is dead, humanity is not. Therefore neither is art. Art is everywhere in our world. From the most mundane objects such as cereal boxes, to the super chic runways of the fashion world, to the big screens of Hollywood, art dictates the aesthetic. Art is beauty, even when it’s ugly. From the clothes we wear, to the car we drive, to the house we live in, the look of it all is the result of centuries of men and women who were put on this earth to create beauty. Styles change, but beauty is eternal.
Art is a gift to all of us. A tremendous gift that few of us can express, and that fortunately the rest of us can enjoy. To ignore or dismiss this gift would be nothing less than tragic.
Venice, la Serenissima
The traditional foundation date of Venice is March 25, 421CE, 11 years after the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth, and 55 years before the last western Roman emperor, ironically named Romulus Augustus, was deposed. In 452CE, a second barbarian invasion led by Attila the Hun caused a mass migration of refugees onto the islands of the Venetian lagoon in search of safety. These islands offered refuge to the seafaring Italic people since the landlocked central-Asian barbarian invaders had little practicality with seamanship. The salt flats of the lagoon also offered a lucrative economic potential, as salt was a vital commodity for preserving food. And so the two most fundamental aspects of Venetian society were established – sea power and commerce. Through the 6th and 7th centuries, further barbarian invasions caused additional influxes of refugees onto the lagoon islands. Collectively, these islands formed a loose association of communities with no clear socio-political nucleus. Evidence of this is found in the Latin name of Venice, which is a plural noun – Venetiae.
As early as 526CE, Venice had submitted itself to the rule of the Byzantine Empire in exchange for protection and exclusive trading rights throughout imperial territory. In the 8th century, this ideal marriage ended in a rather messy divorce. The radical imperial decree of “Iconoclasm” that was issued in 726CE by Byzantine Emperor Leo III, which essentially ordered the destruction of all icons and holy images in his domain, marking the definitive separation between Latin (today Roman Catholic) and Greek Christianity. Under the encouragement of Pope Gregory II, the imperial provinces of Italy rebelled. The Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna was assassinated, his provincial governors put to flight, and local communities began to choose their own leaders. The islands of Venice chose Orso from Heraclea, who was given the title of Dux (duke). In Venetian dialect, the term would become “Doge”, and the office would continue unbroken through 117 successors and for 1000 years.
As independent Venice grew in importance and began to understand its prominent role in the geopolitics of the time, as liaison between east and west, it needed one last bit of legitimacy; something that would symbolize its divine destiny as the Christian successor to the Roman Empire. That something was an important holy relic. According to Venetian legend, at the end of the 1st century CE, while St. Mark was traveling from Aquileia to Rome, his ship momentarily set ashore on the then uninhabited islands of the Rialto. An angel then appeared to Mark and spoke the now famous words, “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus, Hic requiescet corpus tuam.” (“Peace to you Mark, my evangelist. Here will your body rest.”) This legend would be the pretext for one of the most famous incidents of grave robbery in Christian history. In 829CE, Venetian merchants in Alexandria stole the body of St. Mark and smuggled it back to Venice in a crate full of pork products in order to dissuade suspicious Muslim guards whose curiosity was aroused by the sanctimonious odor permeating from Mark’s body. In 832CE, the first basilica of St. Mark was begun in order to house the relic. Mark was not Peter (who is buried in Rome), but the body of an actual evangelist would more than suffice, and his symbol – the winged lion – marked all Venetian endeavors and is ubiquitously displayed throughout the city.
In 870CE, the Venetians turned to reforming their political structure. The doge would no longer be appointed, but instead elected by a senate, which, in turn, was in part elected by a Great Council. Venetian government was considered to be the perfect constitutional balance of monarchy (doge), oligarchy (senate) and democracy (Great Council). So perfect in fact, that the Venetian constitution was considered to be a gift from God. This first Christian republic would become the longest-lasting republic in history, surpassing even the ancient republics of Greece and Rome (not to mention our own meager 241 years of US history), enduring for nearly a millennium. In Venetian history, there were no great men like Pericles or Caesar, or traumatic political crises that formed its historical memory. It was, as it still calls itself today, La Serenissima – “the most serene republic”.