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Filippo Brunelleschi is probably not among the names most people associate with the Renaissance, but he should be. He was a true genius and one of the greatest minds around Florence in a time when there were many geniuses. Without his contributions, the Renaissance would have been very different. Brunelleschi (pronounced Bru-nel-less-ski) lived from 1387-1446. He was trained as a goldsmith and entered the famous competition with Lorenzo Ghiberti to create the doors on the Florence baptistry (read that story here). Ghiberti won the commission, possibly because Brunelleschi refused to share the commission. Either way, Brunelleschi went on to change the course of the artistic renaissance in Florence in not one but two enormous ways. Later, he would successfully design and oversee the completion of the enormous red dome on the Florence Cathedral, a structural achievement that was way ahead of it’s time and changed the course of architecture. It could be argued that his greatest achievement was his discovery, or re-discovery, of linear perspective.

Among the cultures of the ancient world, only the Greeks and the Romans had spacial depth in art figured out. That is to say, they understood how to create an image with convincing depth and a painted or sculpted illusion of 3 dimensional space. We know this because we can see it today in works like the Column of Trajan, or the painted villas of Pompeii. During the middle ages, these artistic sensibilities were lost. More accurately, the entire world point of view changed in the middle ages to reflect the church. No longer were artists interested in pursuing perfect depictions of the human body or of the world around them. After 1000 years, artists in Florence were aware that they didn’t know how to create convincing depth in a painting, and they were working hard to develop a system of perspective. You can clearly see this in the work of late medieval and early Renaissance painters. Their pictures have a flat look to them. Just look at this image of Christ being led to his crucifixion. The city in the background appears very small because the figures far off in the distance are the same size as those in the foreground. Also, the parallel lines of the walls do not recede into the distance. It’s an image and a perfect example of the problem facing painters around 1400. How do you make a picture realistic? It seems so simple to us now, but it was a huge problem that took centuries to solve until Filippo Brunelleschi figured it out.

Brunelleschi observed that with a fixed single point of view, parallel lines appear to converge at a single point in the distance. Brunelleschi applied a single vanishing point to a canvas, and discovered a method for calculating depth. In a famous noted experiment, Brunelleschi used mirrors to sketch the Florence baptistry in perfect perspective. He was able to mathematically calculate the scale of objects within a painting in order to make them appear realistic. It was a monumental discovery, and soon artists were using Brunelleschi’s method of perspective to astonishing affects in their paintings. Brunelleschi’s original perspective studies are long gone, but he directly influenced many others. The first known painting to show true linear perspective is Masaccio’sThe Holy Trinity”. In the fresco, a false room has been created on the flat wall of the church using perspective to simulate the architecture.


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Everywhere you look in Venice, you see the symbol of a winged lion, which represents the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. St. Mark was among the earliest founders of the church, the man who wrote down what is considered the oldest of the 4 gospels, the book of Mark. According to tradition, he went to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and founded the first Christian church in Africa. After years of ministry there, he was martyred and buried in Alexandria, where a church commemorating his life and service was built and used for centuries.

So what does this have to do with Venice? If you haven’t watched “Francisco’s Venice” on YouTube yet, you should (linked from the last post). Venice, still early in its history but quickly growing in power as an important center of trade, was in bad need of a patron saint in the 800s. In the middle ages, relics held a special place in the church. A bit of bone or an object connected to a saint lead to vast pilgrimages and increased status. Every established city had a cathedral and a relic, but Venice was still pretty new, built on wooden poles buried in the Venetian lagoon. They wanted a high-profile saint to embody their city, so the Venetians stole one.

Legend says that 2 Venetian traders in Alexandria took the remains of St. Mark and smuggled them out of Alexandria by hiding them in pork, a meat that the Muslim guards wouldn’t touch. They brought them back to Venice, and housed them in a shrine built to St. Mark. Over the centuries, St. Marks has been built up to one of the most elaborate and unearthly cathedrals on the planet. The present building in Venice was dedicated almost 1,000 years ago; twice as old as the St. Peter’s Basilica we see today. Venice was a powerful and ridiculously wealthy trading empire during the middle ages and the Renaissance, and with each conquest elsewhere  statues and columns were taken back to Venice and added to the Basilica. Artists were constantly at work here, adorning the entire inside with mosaics, gold and jewels. For centuries, wealthy Venetians vied with each other in their donations to the continual beautification of the church.

To start with, St. Marks Basilica has a totally different layout than other prominent Italian Cathedrals. It’s design is Byzantine, based on the square shape of a Greek cross in what is traditionally an orthodox form. It doesn’t have a single large dome on the top, but rather 5 smaller mosque-like bulbed domes. Venice controlled all trade between east and west for a long time, so it’s understandable that they borrowed the form of the Churches in Constantinople. One of the most famous features of the church is the Triumphal Guadriga, or Horses of St. Mark. You can see them above the central door and largest arch in the picture above, 4 huge bronze horses. (Today, the ones you see are copies, and the real ones are protected inside the church.) They were brought here from Constantinople in 1204 after Venetian soldiers in the 4th crusade sacked the city. They are old, and were part of a huge Roman complex there since ancient times. Debate rages on if they were made in ancient Greece or as a Roman copy, but either way, they are some of the only ancient bronze statues to survive to today. Napoleon liked them so much that he took them to Paris in 1797, but they were returned years later.

The nickname of St. Marks is Chiesa d’Oro, or the “Church of Gold”. When you step inside you can see why. The entire inside is gleaming with gold and mosaics and the effect is dazzling. Over time, each of the Doges (dukes of Venice) added to the Basilica, making it one of the most eclectic buildings anywhere. The mosaics were added over 7 centuries, so if you look closely many differing styles are represented. At the high altar of the church is the Pala d’Oro, or the “Golden Cloth”. Considered one of the most impressive examples of Byzantine art, the Pala d’Oro is a large panel depicting the life of St. Mark. It’s covered in gleaming gold and contains 1,927 gems. It really is difficult within the Basilica of St. Marks to grasp what you are seeing. While it’s a sacred space dedicated to the patron saint of Venice, it’s also a prime example of how insanely wealthy and powerful the city of Venice was.

An Intro to VENICE

You would be hard pressed to find a place on planet earth as surreal as the city of Venice, Italy. Built on wooden supports in the middle of the Venetian lagoon in the middle ages, Venice rose to become the wealthiest city in the world and a major world power. Venice controlled merchant ships and the exchange of goods for centuries. If there was money to be made, it went through Venice, which is why the city remains today as a jewel among world cities. Because it’s out in the middle of the lagoon, there are no cars and no wide streets, only small maze-like streets for foot traffic and an intricate web of waterways for the many boats. Venice was a city doomed to be left behind with the advance of modern culture. Today, the city has become a real-life Disneyland of sorts, with an economy based almost entirely on tourism. The city is packed with tourists in the daytime, particularly from the enormous cruise ships that dock and unload tens of thousands of passengers.

It’s true that Venice is indeed sinking, but it had always been sinking back into the lagoon. Most Italians live on the mainland, and without a thriving population of working class people to keep it going, Venice has become a surreal mix of fantastically beautiful decay and indescribable beauty. Having been there a few times, I can say that it is certainly a place you need to visit in your lifetime to see for yourself. Going there is expensive and exhausting, but well worth the hassle. I’ll be adding additional posts in the future on key features of Venice, including St. Marks Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace. For now, I highly recommend this great BBC video called Francesco’s Venice. Venice is a city and a history so rich and layered, it is almost impossible to piece it all together. This web series is a great introduction (in 6 parts). Enjoy-

Roman Emperor and wise philosopher king Marcus Aurelius made what turned out to be a very bad decision before his death in 180. He named his son Commodus as his successor. Throughout the entire second century, Rome had experienced long periods of relative peace and prosperity under the 5 good emperors, all of whom where adoptive heirs chosen for their wisdom and ability to rule. It had been over 100 years since the last father/son succession (Titus and Vespasian in AD 79). The decision to make Commodus emperor had long reaching consequences. Many scholars mark his reign as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire.

Commodus was the first emperor who was born during the reign of his emperor father. He was only 18 when he took the throne. Almost immediately, he took a hands-off approach to governing, leaving the daily grind of politics and decision making to his advisors so that he could do whatever else he wanted. I remember seeing the movie “Gladiator” in 2000 when it came out, which depicts Jauquin Phoenix as Commodus. When I saw the movie, I was pretty turned off by how loose the history was for a historical epic. After doing a little research, I was shocked to find out that while the history of the movie is poor and 95% fabricated for storytelling, the craziest of Commodus’ behaviors are well documented. He was a monster who thought of himself as a god (just look at this portrait bust picture here of Commodus as Hercules), and he was obsessed with gladiatorial games and indeed loved nothing more than fighting in front of assembled Rome. Of course, he always won and even killed slaves as a warm up activity. Winning in the arena didn’t make him a hero to the people however… To the Romans, gladiators were among the lowest of the low, so it deeply offended the senators and citizens of Rome to see the emperor stoop to their level. On top of that, he required people to come to the arena and charged them money to see him fight.  Commodus survived a few assassination attempts, and became increasingly paranoid. In his madness, he renamed the months of the year for himself, demanded to be addressed as “Hercules son of Zeus” and wore a lion skin and carried a club on public occasions. On one occasion, he killed 3 elephants, a giraffe and a tiger in the ring. He also cut the head off of an ostrich, walked up into the seats and held the head over the senators,  implying that he could kill them too as he had the ostrich. In 191, another fire destroyed large parts of Rome, including the sacred temple of Vesta and the temple of peace. It was seen as a bad sign to all of Rome, except for Commodus, who saw it as an opportunity to promote himself as the second founder of Rome. He went so far as to re-name Rome after himself. Not surprisingly, he was eventually murdered in an elaborate plot. After 12 years, his reign was done and once again, Rome was plunged into a near civil war over who should succeed.

The year 193 was a rough one for Rome. As in the year 68-69 when Nero’s death sent Rome into chaos and 4 emperors ruled in one years time, Rome again was plunged into uncertainty and bloodshed. As with Nero, the problem was that there was no heir for Commodus. There was a quick move to install a man named Pertinax as emperor. By all accounts, he was a solid candidate as a respected military general and former senator. He only reigned 3 months before he was assassinated by rivals with other ideas. 3 Roman generals were all proclaimed emperor by troops who supported them, and after long peroids of battle between romans, Septimus Severus was emperor. He was ruthless in claiming power. He had the supporters of his rivals killed, including 27 senators. He raised the yearly pay for soldiers, securing their support, even has he waged brutal war in modern day Iraq. He was victorious, and continued to strengthen the military might of the empire. He  took to rebuilding much of what was destroyed in the fire of 191 under Commodus. Here’s what the ancient history says of Septimus Severus:

“He restored a very large number of the ancient buildings and inscribed them with his name, just as if he had erected them in the first place from his own private funds. He also spent a great deal uselessly in repairing other buildings, and in constructing new ones.”

Today, you can see the ruins of these many building projects. The largest is in the forum, the large arch of Septimus Severus that still stands in amazing condition and serves as a gateway into the city center. It was built to commemorate the victories in the Parthian wars in 203. Relief carvings and inscriptions on the arch are still visible. He also built a huge addition to the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, which included bumping out the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Today the ruins are clearly visible at the palace complex. Septimus Severus ruled for 18 years before he died of illness. In his statues, he is made to look a lot like Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius with his regal beard. Those emperors, he was not, but he did succeed in accomplishing much through the use of ruthless power. He learned nothing from history, because he named his sons co-emperors as his successors, saying to them on his death bed, “Be generous to the soldiers, and take no head of anyone else!”.

His sons were Caracalla and Geta, and the only problem was that they hated each other. Caracalla murdered his own brother within 10 months, becoming sole emperor. It was a bad PR move, but Caracalla took his fathers dying advice. He went directly to the soldiers, claimed that he killed his brother in self-defence, and then gave them an even bigger pay raise. With the army behind him, he set about eliminating all of Geta’s many supporters. In the early months of 212, as many as 20,000 people were killed in mass executions. Some courageous romans protested, and they were killed too. It sounds stupid to say it, but Caracalla wasn’t crazy (as Commodus and Caligula were), but rather insanely paranoid and ruthless. He was willing to do anything to have his way and maintain power. The names and likeness of Caracalla and Geta were everywhere on the buildings built by his father Septimus Severus. Caracalla had all references to Geta removed. Just look at this image here, a fresco of Septimus Severus and his family. You can clearly see one of the boy’s faces completely scratched away.

Caracalla was too paranoid to stay in Rome where it was only a matter of time before he would be assassinated. He spent most of his 6 years as emperor on the battlefront with the army, waging war in Germany and in the west. He had raised soldiers salaries 50%, so he had protection- or so he thought.  He was killed by one of his own bodyguards as he went to relieve himself in the woods. A glamourous way to go for a glamourous guy.

Even though he stands with the most tyrannical of emperors, Caracalla’s name marks one of the greatest Roman structures. Most likely begun by his father and completed by Caracalla, an enormous roman bath complex is among the most impressive ruins in all of Rome. To the Romans, visiting the baths was a way of life, both a cleansing ritual and a part of social society. Caracalla’s baths were one of the largest structures ever, originally decked out from floor to ceiling with precious marble and bronze, paintings and sculptures. Of course, those are all long-gone, as is the roof. Still, the shear size of the baths is mighty impressive. More to come on the baths in a later post-

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a true master of the Baroque, and his mark is everywhere on Rome. His tremendously real and impossibly difficult action sculptures of “David”, “Apollo and Daphne”, and “the Rape of Persephone” are found at the Borghese, and his statues and fountains are all over the place, most famously his “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Piazza Navona. As if that weren’t enough, he forever altered and enhanced the visual experience of St. Peter’s Basilica. He spent decades in service of the Catholic Church, and was the logical choice when it came to commissioning the creation of art works to fill such an enormous place.

Let’s start with Bernini’s Baldacchino. St. Peter’s Basilica is shaped like a cross, with the very center positioned over the tomb of St. Peter. This is where the high altar of St. Peter’s is, the literal center of Catholicism. Above the tomb and towering over the main floor of the interior is a huge cloth-looking canopy with shimmering angels supported by 4 spiral pillars 60 feet high. The entire work is made entirely out of cast bronze, and was finished in 1634 after 11 years of work. Traditionally, a cloth canopy called a Baldacchino was carried over the head of the Pope on holy days, so the form goes back long before Bernini. Bernini masterfully designed his canopy to appear both powerful and grounded, yet also intricate and delicate. Decorative tassels hang off of the draped cloth, yet it is all metal. The peak of the cloth supports a towering cross on a sphere, which represents the world saved by Christianity. The spiral columns are called Solomonic columns. In the 4th century, the Christian emperor Constantine supposedly brought spiral columns back to Rome from Jerusalem, claiming they were part of Solomon’s temple. Those columns stood for a thousand years as part of Old St. Peters, and are seen today  built into the supports of the church across from Bernini’s Baldacchino. Bernini took the twisting form of the Solomonic column and enlarged it as the base. It is amazing form in bronze, with intricate leafing and designs from bottom to top. The Baldacchino was an enormous undertaking, and had to be cast in many pieces before being assembled and completed. At the time, it was a controversial. Supposedly, all the bronze, which is of unimaginable value, was stripped from the interior ceiling of the Pantheon and melted down. Of course, most of ancient Rome was pillaged for building material, and St. Peter’s uses a lot of it.

Directly past the Baldacchino at the far end of St. Peters is the “Cathedra Petri”, or “Throne of St. Peter”, completed in 1666. Bernini, along with other architects and artists at St. Peters envisioned a glorious work at the end of the Cathedral to enhance the experience of looking down the central nave past the Baldacchino. The work holds the relic of St. Peter’s throne (which is most likely a chair from the 12th century). Bernini’s design is a much larger symbolic chair that houses the relic, surrounded by large sculptures of the 4 doctors of the church and a towering cloud of bronze angels that bursts out of the columned architecture of the cathedral. The massive work, also in cast bronze, takes up the entire space in the front of St. Peter’s, and is based around a huge stained glass window with a white dove of peace. The dove is 6 feet wide, which is astounding to realize when you view the work. It really puts into perspective just how massive the entire work is. To accentuate the look of glorious light through the window and past the many hovering bronze angels, Bernini has added beams of light also made of bronze strips. The end effect is visually stunning. It is without question one of the most beautiful sculptures in the world. 

One of Bernini’s final masterpieces is his Monument to Alexander VII, which is a much smaller work above an exit door near his other great sculptures. It remains fascinating, among Bernini’s strangest works for what it depicts and the material Bernini uses. He was 80 at the time, and made the work with the help of assistants who completed the figures. Alexander VII, who commissioned the work but died before its completion, is depicted kneeling in prayer at the top. The elderly Bernini most likely worked on the statue of the Pope. 4 figures, personifying Justice, Truth, Prudence and Charity, were designed in drawings and a model and passed on to assistants.The figures are allegorical in their positioning. For example, the figure of Truth, seen to the far right, rests her foot on a globe, specifically on England, where the rise of the Anglican church was a thorn in the side of Pope Alexander VII. The strangest part of the monument is the figure of death, seen as a bronze skeleton emerging from the door. In his hand he holds an hourglass, a reminder that death comes to all and our time on earth is limited. His head and a large part of the upper door are obscured by a large cloth shroud made of precious colored stone. The entire work is really all about contrast. The Pope and the 4 figures are all in white marble, contrasted with the bronze skeleton and the amazingly intricate colored shroud, which has been carved in such a way that the natural pattern of the stone adds to the effect of folded cloth.

Bernini’s greatest contribution to the Vatican is his architectural design for the Piazza San Pietro. Bernini envisioned a huge open space that would enhance the grandness of St. Peters, bracketed on both sides by a curved open colonnade. The structure resembles 2 enormous arms, welcoming people to the Cathedral. The piazza is based around a huge oval, with an Egyptian obelisk at the center. The Obelisk was brought to Rome in ancient times and erected at Nero’s Circus, the huge chariot racing track that stood where St. Peter’s currently does. The obelisk was moved to its current location in 1586, a process which took 13 months. Bernini designed the piazza to surround it. Along the entire top of the cathedral are hundreds of statues of biblical figures saints and created by Bernini’s workshop. The piazza closest to the front of the Cathedral is not a square- rather, the colonnade is slightly narrower toward the oval, which gives the illusion that the church is even more massive from below. Everything about St. Peter’s square is designed to heighten the sense of awe that the viewer has in entering the Vatican. In more recent times, a neighborhood of dense houses stood in the way of St. Peters square, so that when a visitor came around the final corner and into the piazza, the effect was mind-blowing. Today, a huge open road runs all the way to the Castel St. Angelo and the river. Lost forever is the total surprise that visitors felt when they entered the Vatican for the first time.

The sheer amount of work by Bernini in and around Rome and the Vatican is staggering. He truly was among the most prolific and exceptional artists who ever lived. I would encourage you to watch Simon Schama’s Power of Art video on Bernini if you haven’t. Enjoy.


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Rome was governed from the year 96 to 180 by a chain of emperors dubbed the “5 Good Emperors” by Machiavelli. It has been studied and argued for centuries that Rome achieved it’s greatest heights under these emperors, who ruled with absolute power but possessed wisdom and virtue. Each was the adoptive heir of the previous emperor, which seems good evidence that choosing someone other than a full-blooded son to wield unlimited power usually led to a ruler with the people’s concerns in mind. The 5 good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

Antoninus Pius reigned for 23 years, and brought to Rome a prolonged time of peace. His adoptive son was the nephew of his beloved wife Faustina.  Marcus Aurelius assumed the throne upon his death and immediately made his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, a co-emperor. Lucius Verus died only 8 years later after suffering a stroke, leaving Marcus Aurelius sole emperor. Marcus had the heart and sole of a philosopher. He was well studied in the ways of ancient philosophy, and made many writings which have been passed down through time. Known as “the Meditations”, Marcus’ writings paint a picture of his wisdom and his preoccupation with death. Here’s a sample from the Meditations:

“The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just- though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity.”

Marcus may have been wise with a solid understanding of his responsibility  as emperor, but that did not ensure a peaceful reign. After years of peace on Rome’s borders, all hell broke loose in the east and the north, leading to years of war. Marcus himself was on the frontlines for much of it, gone from Rome for a period of at least 8 years without returning. Eventually, the Roman armies secured the borders and won, but at great cost. They brought plague back to the capitol from the east, which raged in Rome for over 10 years. The hardest fought wars were against Germanic tribes to the north. It was here on the that Marcus Aurelius eventually died after years of illness, possibly cancer, in 180 after 19 years in power. More so than any other emperor, and due in large part to his writings which have survived to the present, he has gone down in history as a figure who embodies the best of Rome.

2 important monuments to Marcus Aurelius are found in Rome today. The first is the Column of Marcus Aurelius (also called the Aurelian Column). It stands in a piazza in the heart of modern Rome, not far from the government buildings. It is an impressive structure at 100 feet high. The form mimics that of Trajan’s column, which is found a few blocks away in the forum. Like Trajan’s column, Marcus’ column contains an incredibly detailed sculptural frieze that reads like an enormous spiral comic book. It tells the story of Marcus’ military victories in the north. At one time, it would have had a statue of Marcus Aurelius on the top. That one is long gone, replaced rather strangely with a statue of St. Paul.

The other significant monument to Marcus Aurelius is his bronze equestrian statue, which shows him heroically riding a horse. It’s made of cast bronze. At one point, there were probably many such statues in Rome, and carved bronze pieces also decorated many buildings. Those pieces are all gone forever, scavenged and melted down in the middle ages. “The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius” survives because people in the middle ages believed it to be a statue of the Christian Emperor Constantine (more on him later). The statue was unharmed and has stood for centuries and has only recently been placed inside the Capitoline Museum at the Roman Forum. It’s near the top of the greatest works from antiquity to still survive today. It shows with amazing detail just how talented Roman sculptors were.

Marcus Aurelius was a wise man, known as the philosopher king. It’s surprising and ironic then, that he made such a poor choice for his successor. His son was Commodus, and in choosing him Marcus Aurelius became the first emperor in nearly 100 years to favor a son over an adoptive heir. Commodus turned out to be one of the worst tyrant emperors, grouped with the likes of Caligula and Nero. Like those emperors, he was obsessed with power, demanded to be worshiped as a god, and was eventually assassinated. The reign of Commodus is seen as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. You could say that it began under Marcus Aurelius with his wars in the north, as eventually it was the northern tribes who wore down deteriorating Rome and sacked the capitol. Perhaps more on Commodus later-

For now, here’s another great SmartHistory clip with a more detailed look at the “Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius”. Enjoy-

When most visitors visit the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, they immediately gaze upon the world-famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo. When the ceiling was painted, Michelangelo became something of a god among artists, divine in his talents for sculpture (as seen in his “David” and “Pieta“) as well as painting. It could be argued however, that the front wall of the chapel, which he painted 30 years later, is his greatest masterpiece among many masterpieces. It’s his depiction of “The Last Judgement”, a commonly commissioned subject seen over and over across many painted churches and chapels of the time. It’s also one of the craziest paintings ever, crammed with symbolism a metaphor, all at once stunningly beautiful and disturbing. It’s so loaded with images and meanings that books could easily be written about it. I’ll attempt here to give the basic keys to understanding this astounding painting.

The scene depicts Christ at his second coming, bringing judgement upon the world. He is in the center, seated on a cloud with Mary to his right. You notice right away that this is not a normal looking Christ figure. He is not brown-haired, bearded or dressed in flowing robes. Instead, he is clean-shaven with defined facial features and bulging muscles. He is very much a roman Apollo, certainly a surprise for the Popes chapel.

This was a complex time for the church, and much had happened since last Michelangelo was working at the Vatican. Pope Clement VII was the one who commissioned the painting, and he was the second of the Medici popes. Michelangelo, being from Florence, had a long history with the Medici, the ruling family of Florence. They were the greatest patrons of the arts, but they also abused power and eventually bought the papacy, leading to the great uprising we call the Reformation. 1537 was a tough time with much uncertainty. Protestant armies, fueled by religious hatred of the Catholic church, sacked Rome ten years before, killing, burning and looting. It was a huge turning point, and the church faced crisis. Michelangelo was certainly conflicted, and it shows in the painting. It’s pretty clear though, that Pope Clement VII had humanistic sensibilites and gave Michelangelo creative control. Christ himself is an Apollo figure, while the many other figures are larger-than-life nudes. It’s a complete mash-up of mythological visual language with Biblical subjects, a continuation of what Michelangelo began with on the ceiling as a young man pushed to the extreme.

Christ raises and lowers his arms, giving the entire painting a clockwise swirl motion, and you can read the painting that way. On level with Christ and larger in the image, are saints and martyrs of the Christian faith, seen holding the tools of their martyrdom as in medieval paintings. A shroud of people await judgement, and are either sent to Hell (on the bottom right), or Heaven at the peak. The dead are also raised out of the ground and redeemed in the bottom left.

Lets start with the saints and martyrs. There are many across the center of the painting strangely holding the objects of their martyrdom. St. Catherine is seen with a large spiked wheel on the center right, and St. Lawrence is below Christ on the left holding the grate on which he was roasted alive. The strangest is St. Bartholomew, seen here, who according to tradition was skinned alive. Bartholomew sits perched on a cloud, holding in one hand a knife and in the other, a rubbery, flayed human skin. Stranger still, Michelangelo has apparently painted a self portrait on the skin, perhaps revealing in some way his own creative torment and anguish.

The lower right is Michelangelo’s depiction of Hell, and is one of the strangest, darkest and most fascinating works in art. In the space between Hell at the bottom and the saints above, poor souls sent to Hell are being pulled down by demons. Michelangelo’s devils muscular and human in appearance, but grotesque with animal ears, horns and green, grey and blue skin. What’s worse is that they very much seem to enjoy the pain and torment they are inflicting. One of the most striking is this scene called “the damned soul”, which shows a condemned man at the moment of full knowledge and grief of his upcoming punishment. He cowers in in shame, even as 2 demons drag him downward and a third reptilian creature bites into his thigh. Perhaps one of the few mistakes by the artist is the demons hand around the other thigh, which is not colored gray as the rest of the creature is.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Hell also deviates from a strict Biblical view. He borrows the visual language of Dante from the “Divine Comedy”. We see Charon, the mythological ferryman of the underworld in his large boat. He ferries the newly condemned souls across the river styx to the land of the dead. The souls are terrified as they scramble out of the boat, and Charon raises his paddle like a baseball bat to make them get out a little faster. Demons await the poor souls, dragging them out out and pulling them down. Two demons violently grab a man around the neck with a gaff. In behind the demons are many different small details and demonic faces.

The other figure from Dante is Minos, the mythological king of Hell, seen as the most prominent figure in the bottom right. It’s well documented that Michelangelo faced opposition surrounding his artistic interpretation of the scene and the many nudes, which were all completely nude at the time with the loincloths painted years later (the fresco was restored in 1993, with some of the loincloths removed and others left- just look back at St. Bartholomew to see the convenient piece of cloth). One of Michelangelo’s most vocal enemies was the Pope’s master of ceremonies Biagio da Cesena, who was constantly on Michelangelo about the nudes. Michelangelo responded by painting his likeness as that of Minos, with large donkey’s ears and a snake wrapped around and biting him in a precarious spot. Better yet, it is right above the side door, the most visible spot from ground level. Cesena complained directly to the Pope, who supposedly joked that he had no power over Hell so it would have to remain.

Hell is contrasted on the left of the huge wall with the “Resurrection of the Dead”. A patch of earth opens up as many dead souls return to their earthly bodies and await Christ’s judgement. The deceased figures sit, some shrouded in burial cloths or as ghostly skeletons, between the forces of heaven and hell. In the center of the painting is a large open pit which looks directly into the center of hell. Fire is visible behind the outline of human figures. From underground beside the pit, demons dig their way up to drag the souls down. Two of the figures towards the center, are caught between angels and demons in a tug of war. Those raised to righteousness are pulled upwards by the angels towards the center of the painting and the saints.

Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” is a work that always reveals something new. The figures are so dynamic and so complex in their movements, the entire painting appears to be pulsating with action and energy. Michelangelo was an old man when he made the painting, aware of his own shortcomings and mindful of his own judgement. One of the details I was struck with in seeing the painting with my own eyes was the hellish pit in the bottom center. It is dark and unassuming, but based on it’s placement within the painting the high alter fits directly in front. On top of the alter at the exact center of the front wall and the floor of Sistine chapel was a simple golden cross, which appeared super-imposed over the pit of hell. As a theological parallel, it’s a perfect fit for a theme of judgement. The cross holds victory over the pit of hell and destruction, yet another of Michelangelo’s genius details.

I have only begun to pick apart this amazing painting. I’ll include a great video from Smarthistory here. The video uses a virtual recreation in second life to look at the painting, which I find really dumb. However, the analysis of the painting is really great and the detail images they show are really helpful. Enjoy-

This is the third of 3 postings on features of the Roman Forum, attempting to make some sense of the massive ruin at the heart of Rome. Click here to read PART 1 and PART 2.

The Temple of Romulus

The next building west of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina is the Temple of Divus Romulus, which was built by the Emperor Maxentius not to the legendary founder of Rome Romulus, but in honor of his young son who died. It was dedicated in 309 AD, and like most buildings that are still standing or partially standing today, was converted to a Christian church in the middle ages. It’s one of the most unusual temple structures. Most temples share a similar shape, but this one consists of a small central round structure with 2 side niches. Originally, it had a rounded front facade with areas for statues. Today, the central rotunda remains, as does the original bronze door and columns. The columns are unique, made of a a bright purple rock called porphyry. It’s rare- the columns have been valued at 20 million euros each in todays money. Maxentius apparently wanted only the best to remember his son.

Basilica of Constantine

Emperor Maxentius also began work on the largest building in the Forum in 308, but died before it was done. Emperor Constantine finished the enormous building, which is called the Basilica of Constantine. The interior was vast  and open, supported by 3 towering barrel vaults on either side. Today, the southern half is gone (collapsed in an earthquake in 847), as is the central nave, but the foundation and the northern half remain to show how huge the place was.

When it was built, it was the most advanced Roman architectural achievement.Today, it’s still one of the most impressive ancient structures.The basilica housed the colossal statue of Constantine at one end. Parts of it were found buried under rubble in the Forum, and can be seen at the Capitoline Museum on the Capitoline Hill. The statue was 40 feet high, and was probably taken apart for parts of the statue made of bronze. Today his head, hand, foot, upper arm and kneecap can be seen at the museum. The Basilica with its 3 giant vaults continues to impress. At the Rome olympic games in 1960, they held the wrestling competitions here, quite possibly the coolest venue for a sporting event ever. The space is still used for events, including musical concerts. Attempts are underway to keep what is left of the structure standing, including scaffolding, supports, and a giant cable tied around the back designed to keep it from tipping inward.

The Temple of Venus and Rome

Between the temple of Constantine and the Colosseum on the west end of the forum is what’s left of the biggest Roman temple, the Temple of Venus and Rome. It was huge, 348 by 156 feet and 97 feet tall, with huge columns supporting a large open interior. It was built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century on top of what was once Nero’s villa. It’s difficult today to tell exactly what you’re looking at when you see the ruins. 1 row of columns remain on the south side, and the rounded decorative niche that once stood in the rear center of the inside can still be seen. Since the ruin is right across from the Colosseum, it has often been neglected and used as a convenient open space in the area. It was used as a car park until the 1980s. Recently, it has reopened after 20 years of restoration. Today, the grounds are used on good Friday by the Pope as part of the stations of the cross.

There are many smaller buildings that made up the forum and the surrounding area. Perhaps we’ll come back to them later, but for now, here’s a fantastic video with a computer generated recreation of the Forum. The video highlights many of the specific buildings referred to in the last 3 postings. Enjoy-

The Roman Forum was the center of ancient Rome, and today is one of most complex ruins in the world. In this post I’ll continue to highlight selected important buildings in the Forum. Read part 1 on the Forum here.

Just across the way from the ruins of the temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals are 3 huge columns rising into space, seen in the picture above. They are all that is left of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. It was an important structure for centuries. It was originally built in 484 BC, but reconstructed a few times. These columns are from the rebuilding by Tiberius in 6 AD. In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus. Though it was dedicated a Temple, it served many other functions. It was an important meeting place for senators throughout the centuries. There was also a podium in front of the imposing temple where decrees were read aloud.

The Basilica Julia

Across from the Temple of Castor and Pollux are the foundational remains of one of the largest buildings in the Forum, the Basilica Julia. It was built by Julius Caesar on top of another huge basilica, burned to the ground shortly after in a  great fire and eventually re-dedicated by his successor Augustus 20 years later. The Basilica Julia housed the courts of law and was a space for banking and government offices. It was also a favorite meeting place for ancient Romans, with shops and gathering spaces. It was as big as a football field, 3 stories high with an enormous open space in the center. Ancient accounts describe it as a place bustling with people and noise. The entire outside was built with roman arches and decorated with statues facing the center of the Forum. It’s the place where Emperor Caligula allegedly had money thrown off the roof to the people below because he loved to watch them fight for it.

The Curia Julia

Across the open plaza from the Basilica Julia was the most important government building, the Curia or the Curia Julia, the house meeting space for Roman senators. The Curia burned down and was rebuilt many times throughout Rome’s history. Today, it is one of the only roman buildings still standing in Rome. Last rebuilt in 283 AD, it survives because it was converted into a church in the seventh century.The Curia Julia also bares the name of Julius Caesar, who commissioned its reconstruction but was assassinated before its completion. Augustus also completed the Curia. The building is an example of Roman dimensional precision in architecture, exactly 2/3 as wide as it is long with a hight equal to 1/2 of the combined length and width. The front portico is gone today, and long ago the marble facing was removed from the walls, but the intricate floor survives and is still visible. The Curia has recently been restored, and is fascinating to see.

The Arch of Septimius Severus

Directly in between the Curia and the Basilica Julia stands another well preserved distinct feature of the Forum. The Arch of Septimius Severus was built, as arches often were (see the article on the arch of Titus here), to commemorate the military victories of Emperor Septimius Severus and was dedicated in 203 AD. It’s a huge gateway into the Forum close to the Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Saturn, and remains in good shape today because it was largely buried underground throughout the middle ages when dirt filled the forum. Impressive carvings are seen all the way around it, as well as an inscription on the top. Originally, it was gilded with bronze letters along the inscription and large bronze statues on the top. When Septimius Severus died, his sons Caracalla and Geta became joint emperors. Caracalla eventually had his brother killed and erased his name and image from the arch.

More to come…



In the center of old Rome lies a jumbled mess of broken columns, foundation fragments and crumbled structures overgrown with earth. Occasionally, a row of columns or an arch remain where once the greatest complex of temples, palaces and government buildings stood. It’s called the Roman Forum, and understanding it in it’s present state takes quite a bit of imagination and understanding of what it once was. For centuries, it was the heart of the known world, the place where the greatest empire the world built grand monuments and conducted ceremonies.

It’s sometimes hard to tell now with so many buildings, but the landscape of Rome is hilly. There were 7 great hills within the city of ancient Rome, and others outside the city limits- such as the Vatican hill. The Roman Forum is situated between the Capitoline Hill on the West, the Palatine Hill on the south extends to the Colosseum on the West. Today, there is a large museum on the Capitoline Hill, with many artifacts from the ancient city and a plaza designed by Michelangelo. The Palatine Hill was important to ancient Romans. They believed it to be the spot were Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, eventually establishing Rome on the hill. Excavations continue in the Forum as they have for centuries, and digs on the Palatine have found ancient tools and evidence of an early civilization there. The Palatine is an enormous ruin today of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian and others.

The Forum is in bad shape. Workers are always trying to save what is little is left from further decay. It’s tough to fully understand all that the Forum was just by looking at it today. Even before the fall of Rome, there were earthquakes and fires that periodically leveled parts of the city. Over the centuries, the Emperors replaced decaying wooden structures with marble and other stone (Emperor Trajan), and occasionally leveled buildings built by their tyrant predecessors in order to discredit them (Emperor Vespasian). Each new building is a new layer, leaving traces of what was there first. After the fall of Rome, the city was sacked and plundered. There were more fires and earthquakes and what remained was seen as a total loss in the middles ages. Gradually, dirt filled many places in and farmers even used the area for pasture. Some of the buildings that remained were converted to churches (the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina), or used as a quarry for stone. Today, pieces of precious granite, marble, and carved columns from the forum can be found in other buildings scattered across the city. In more recent times, dictator Benito Mussolini had a huge highway built directly through the Forum called the Via del Fori Imperiali. It was built for big military parades in WWII. Today it’s the busiest road in Rome. It was built directly on top of the Forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva, and today archeologists continue to carefully dig under the street. For all these reasons, the Forum is like a scattered jigsaw puzzle, each piece representing a different moment in history and a specific original function. It would be almost impossible to learn everything about it, so I’ll touch on a few of the most important features of the Forum in this post and a few others.

The Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestals    

The most sacred of buildings to the Romans was the temple of Vesta. It was a small round temple in the forum dedicated the the goddess vesta. The priestesses of Vesta were the vestal virgins, who took a vow of celibacy and lived in seclusion at a huge 3 story 50-room complex called the house of the Vestals.They had one purpose- to keep the sacred fire of vesta burning inside the temple day and night, never to go out.

The fire represented Vesta’s protection of Rome, so it was hugely important to the Romans to keep it going. Being a Vestal meant a 30 year term of total dedication to the temple, with harsh punishments for breaking the rules. If a vestal was found to have broken her vow of celibacy, it was Roman law for her to be buried alive. Today, the you can see the foundation and column bases were the house of Vesta was, and a small section of the Temple of Vesta stands with a few columns. This however, is a modern reconstruction, also made under Mussolini.

Temple of Saturn

Another important structure was the Temple of Saturn. Today, it’s probably the most iconic image of the forum, with 8 huge columns from the original front still standing. It’s the first thing you see when you enter on the Capitoline Hill side, and it remains grand even as a shell of it’s former self. The Temple of Saturn was one of the oldest temples in Rome, dating back to 450 BC. That structure is long gone, rebuilt at least twice after fire. The ruins today are from the year 283, and you can still see the latin inscription on the top- “The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”.

It’s hard to comprehend how grand the Forum must have looked in its heyday. There are many resources online, including an online database were researchers are attempting to digitally recreate the entire forum with all its buildings. You can even find reconstructions of the forum within google earth to better understand the Rome that the Romans saw. I’ll discuss other important features in later posts.