Tag Archive: Medici


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-

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The Medici were the greatest patrons of the arts and the godfathers of Florence. Their patronage had helped to bring about a great revival of culture in Italy, called the Renaissance. Perhaps there’s no greater sign of just how powerful the Medici were than the life of Giovanni da Medici. In the middle of great turmoil in Florence after the departure of Savonarola and the exile of the family, Giovanni, who was prepared from childhood to take a place in the Catholic church, was elected Pope. He changed his name to Pope Leo X, and made fateful decisions that had huge consequences for the church and the entire western world. The Medici had basically bribed other cardinals to vote Giovanni to the Papacy, and Leo swiftly placed family members in high places to benefit the family, including his brother who became a cardinal.


Pope Leo and his higher ups promptly partied as if there was no cost involved. He is often quoted for saying to his brother Guiliano,  “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He had elaborate feasts every night, and hosted large celebrations in Rome, including a parade where he rode on the back of a white elephant. Being a Medici, he was fascinated with the ideas of humanism so popular in Renaissance Florence, and he brought this perspective to the Vatican. He had few limits when it came to dishing out money, and soon enough, he had more or less bankrupted the church. To compensate, he authorized the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper, priced affordably to anyone who wanted one, that granted forgiveness of sins and entrance to Heaven. They could also be bought on behalf of dead family members, to assure their escape from punishment.

For Martin Luther, a German monk, that was the final straw.He was furious and posted his 95 theses, disagreements with the church, on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. It was the start of the protestant reformation, and touched off a firestorm of controversy. Luther contended that grace came through God alone and not through the Pope. Similar reformers had been burned at the stake for questioning the church in the past, but Luther persisted, gaining momentum and starting a movement that swept over Europe. It’s an extremely complex history whose consequences are still felt and argued over today. Leo’s response was to fight back with all the threats he could as Pope, but the damage was done. He died rather suddenly in 1521 of illness. His successor Pope Adrian VI, did his best to respond to the protestant reformation, but also died, after less than 2 years as pope.

Leo’s cousin, Guilio de Medici, was destined to become another Medici pope. He chose the name Clement VII, and inherited a nearly impossible situation. His papacy was defined by monumental struggle that was tearing the church and Europe apart. Eventually, fanatical enemy troops, fueled by religious hatred of the church, arrived in Rome. Clement fled to the Castel St. Angelo, where he held out for 6 months. Eventually, he bribed his way out and fled. Called the sack of Rome, it was a truly terrible event. The enemy armies pillaged the city, killed and raped, and Rome would never be the same. The resistance spread to other cities too, including Florence, where Michelangelo had to go into hiding. After some time, Clement returned to Rome and the long process of rebuilding began. The sack of Rome marks the end of the Renaissance and the a turning point for the popes. Their place as supreme power and authority has never been the same. One of his last acts was to commission Michelangelo, then in his 50s, to return to the Sistine Chapel and paint a massive scene on the front wall of “The Last Judgement”. It’s one of the most amazing works of art in the world, and I’ll talk about it extensively in a few other posts.

It was the greed and corruption of the Medici popes that finally crossed the line and broke the church. Still, Leo X, Clement VII and many other corrupt popes throughout the ages are an indicator of just how strong and engrained the Christian religion is. That it would survive to its present state, in spite of so many disastrous detours and power hungry people with other motives, is truly a miracle. As for art and culture, a movement called the counter reformation or catholic revival came in the years after Clement, and altered the attitudes of the church and created what we have today.

I highly recommend that you watch the PBS series on the Medici. Part 1 and Part 2 are linked here. Part 3 is below, and does a great job at telling the crazy story of Leo X, the Medici Pope.

Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John on Fiesole) was a Dominican monk and painter who was probably born in 1395 and died in 1455. He is one of the great Renaissance artists, a significant painter who made great contributions to art. His work is an essential link between the gothic look of the middle ages and the Renaissance. What sets him apart is his exceptional skill with a brush and his deep devotion to his Lord. All of his paintings are of Christian subjects. Florence in the Renaissance was a place bursting with humanistic ideas. Artists were increasingly fascinated with mythological themes from antiquity at a time when the churches control over culture remained strong from the Middle Ages. Consider Donatello’s “David” from the 1440s- also made in Florence, the first free-standing nude sculpture since ancient times, yet also a biblical subject.

Contrast that with Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, who maintained the high church or gothic subjects of the middle ages while infusing them with quiet grace and emotion. To him, painting these scenes was an act of devotion to God, so much so that according to Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists” from 1550 he could never handle a brush without fervent prayer and could not paint a crucifixion without tears streaming down his cheeks. Says Vasari- “It is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” For this reason, he is called Fra Angelico, “the Angelic Friar”. He was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 as the patron saint of Catholic Artists.

For all the great advances of the Renaissance, Fra Angelico remained a humble and devout friar and turned down opportunities to move up within the order. Instead, he devoted himself to a life of prayer, service, and painting. It’s pretty clear to see from his work that he viewed the 3 as 1 and the same. The work above is one of many Fra Angelico scenes of the “Annunciation”, the moment that the angel Gabriel reveals to the virgin Mary  that she will give birth to the savior. Check out this link to see another Fra Angelico “Annunciation”. He paints his subjects supremely delicate in a typical Italian structure, which makes use of perspective to show depth to the vaulted porch (Perspective was still a very recent innovation at the time, developed in Florence by Brunelleschi and put to use by Masaccio). The faces and the drapery still appear very gothic in nature, but the entire work conveys a sense of quiet holiness common to all Fra Angelico paintings. He is not interested, as many other Florentine artists were, in challenging the rules and pushing the boundaries of art. Rather, he is continuing the tradition of medieval Christian art with tremendous talent and excellence. His works are built around an uncommon and profound simplicity that enhances the biblical narrative of his paintings.

One of Florence’s great artistic treasures is the Convent of San Marco, a few blocks north of the Duomo. It’s far less crowded than other museums, and is filled with Fra Angelico’s frescos. It was newly built in 1436 and Fra Angelico was among the friars who moved in. As a talented painter, moving to Florence meant that he was surrounded by the greatest patrons of the arts. The story is that Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence and godfather of the Renaissance, kept a cell for himself at San Marco in order to have a quiet place to retreat to. It was there that he encountered Fra Angelico, and urged him to decorate the place. There are 45 frescos in all, decorating each of the individual rooms and areas of the hallway.

Each fresco is designed to enhance the act of devotion and worship. They take the rounded shape of the vaulted ceilings in each room and contain minimal backgrounds in the paintings. giving the illusion of the painting as a window into another room. Many of the scenes, such as the crucifixion and the annunciation, are repeated. Here we see “The Transfiguration” from cell 6, which shows the glowing Christ on the mountain flanked by the hovering heads of Moses and Elijah on his right and left. At his feat, the disciples shield their eyes and bow in reverence.

Like Michelangelo 60 years later, Fra Angelico was summoned from Florence to Rome by the Pope in order to decorate the walls and ceilings of the Vatican. The room is a small chapel named after Pope Nicholas V, and is on the Vatican tour today. It was not long after completing this that Fra Angelico fell ill and died while in Rome. Today, San Marco is a tremendous place to visit to see the best of Fra Angelico’s work. The cells have been restored in the last decade and are bright as they originally where. One of the cells was home to Savonarola decades after Fra Angelico, and his personal items are still there. There is also a great museum in the basement which includes many small wooden altarpieces by the artist. Fra Angelico has been in the news as recently at 2007, when a woman in Great Britain revealed 2 small paintings on wooden panel from her attic, purchased by her father for 100 pounds each in the 60s. As it turns out, they are both missing pieces to a larger Fra Angelico altarpiece and they sold for millions. Today, they are at San Marco too. Here’s a great youtube clip that shows many of Fra Angelico’s paintings in  great color and detail.

The story of the Medici is truly fascinating. The family of bankers became the rulers of Florence, and through their patronage brought about the Renaissance and  changed the western world forever. It was Cosimo de’Medici who first took control of Florence, commissioning the completion of the great red dome of the Florence Duomo by Brunelleschi. Part 1 of the Medici film concerning Cosimo is found here.

When he suddenly died, his son Lorenzo took charge. He would become known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”, as he brought about some of the greatest works of art ever through his patronage. It is staggering how many great artists and thinkers came out of Florence at this time, and considering how small Florence is they must have been elbow to elbow with each other. One of the most important Renaissance painters that came about under Lorenzo deMedici was Sandro Botticelli. It was Botticelli who created the first overtly pagan images at a time when the church of the middle ages was still large and in charge, an act that would never have happened had Lorenzo not relaxed the attitude of the city toward ancient “non-church” ideas. This sort of attitude resulted in enormously free creativity in art, as well as in writing and in the sciences. All of it was happening in Florence.

The greatest painting in Florence today is in the Uffizi gallery, once the offices of the Medici palace (the word uffizi means Offices). It’s this painting here by Botticelli from 1486, called “The Birth of Venus”.

 

The painting is a true masterpiece of Renaissance art. In it, the mythical goddess Venus is blown into the shore on a shell and received into the world on land. The story from mythology is far more detailed (and downright gross but you’ll have to research that yourself). The image is a true celebration of beauty, an exercise in pure pleasure on the part of the artist. Botticelli elongates the figures, adding to their grace and movement. Just look at Venus’ neck… super long, yet he makes it work. Until this time, feminine nudes just weren’t very common, except in images of Adam and Eve from the garden. Here’s a great short video that picks the painting apart:

We must remember that the church in the 14 and 1500’s still held enormous sway even in free-thinking places like Florence, and the reception towards such images as “the Birth of Venus” and Donatello’s “David” was still highly controversial. This painting was a private commission from Lorenzo deMedici, as were many other revolutionary works. Public attitude was another matter. Enter the radical Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1490, Savonarola came to Florence. He took residence at San Marco (where his monastic cell is still seen today) and began preaching firey sermons about the last days. To a zealous preacher like Savonarola, Florence was filled with evidence of the devil’s work. Free-thinking was everywhere, as were symbols of vast Medici wealth. He saw they entire city going straight to hell, and made sure that everyone heard the message. He claimed to have the gift of prophecy, and foretold that Lorenzo would die soon (as it turns out, he was right). Savonarola must have been a very persuasive preacher, because he soon held the city in his hand. Even Botticelli, the painter or beautiful “pagan” paintings, fell under his spell. The Medici had no choice but to flee the city and Savonarola took charge of Florence in 1494. He set about cleansing the city and returning it to God.

He held an enormous public burning in the Piazza della Signoria that came to be called “the Bonfire of the Vanities”. Florentines came to cast all kinds of evils into the flames, including books and manuscripts, symbols of wealth, jewelry, ancient relics and statues, cosmetics, fine clothing, mirrors, musical instruments and many priceless works of early Renaissance art. Botticelli cast his own paintings into the flames. No one knows how many works were destroyed by the artist himself, but it must have been truly gut-wrenching for him. His work was his life, yet he feared- as many Florentines did- for his eternal soul and had no other choice. Over the next few years,  public opinion turned on Savonarola. The city was used to Medici wealth and all the benefits it brought, something Savonarola wanted no part of. Eventually, things got so bad that the city revolted, and Savonarola himself was burned at the stake in the same spot as the bonfire. The entire episode was a black eye on the city and took years to recover from. The Medici returned, but under very different circumstances.

Please take the time to watch part 2 of the Medici film, called “The Magnificent Medici”. It is a great movie on all that was discussed here, and really brings to life this crazy time in Florence. Enjoy-

 

 

The Italian Renaissance didn’t come about by accident, and it’s also no coincidence that Florence was at the center. Today, the city of Florence remains a monument to the Renaissance and all the great artists and thinkers that city produced. If you look closely, you can see the crest of the Medici Family sculpted into the sides of buildings all over Florence, it’s telltale mark a shield with circles on it. The story goes that it represents the military might and resolve of the family with a dented shield, but really it shows coins. The Medici were a family of wealthy bankers who became politicians and ruled Florence from the late 1300’s to the 1730’s, with more than a few hiccups in there. It’s a complicated piece of history that proves essential in understanding all the great things that came out of Florence.

Back then there was no unified Italy as there is today, only a series of city states. The Medici became the ruling family of Tuscany with Florence as the capitol, and set out to make their kingdom great. The cultural grasp of the middle ages was still very much intact. It was the Medici who relaxed the strict rules of the church and turned Florence into a place where humanistic and artistic ideas could flourish. They were great patrons of the arts, so it’s not surprising that Florence became a place where art and culture exploded after a thousand year hiatus. Over their reign, they changed the face of Europe, produced the greatest artist and thinkers, and became so rich and powerful that there were 4 Medici popes. Their story is a complex tale of power, greed, wars and conflicts.

I highly recommend that you watch this series on the Medici. It’s from 2004 and is by far the best film on the Medici, plus it does a fantastic job incorporating the work of significant artists, architects and thinkers. It’s long (4 parts at 1 hour each) but it should be considered essential viewing before going to Florence. This first segment follows the rise of Cosimo De’Medici and the beginning of the Renaissance, including the building of the giant red dome on the Church of Santa Maria Del Fiore by Brunelleschi, the biggest Dome since the Pantheon in ancient Rome . (We’ll get to climb it, so learning about it’s construction is key.) The film also discusses the sculptor Donatello and his shocking sculpture of “David”, which we’ll talk about in a later post.

Please take the time to watch it- Enjoy.

Michelangelo’s David

Shortly after finishing the Pieta, the young Michelangelo returned to his hometown of Florence and began work on a commissioned statue  of David. The stone was an enormous piece of white Carerra marble that Michelangelo would turn into one of the world’s great sculptures. It took him 2 years to complete and would become the symbol of Florence. “David” is huge at over 17′ high, and weighs 6 tons. Originally the statue was designed to go on top of a ledge high on the Florence Duomo, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. For this reason, Michelangelo masterfully altered David with a larger upper body and enormous hands so that when viewed from below looking upward, it would appear perfectly proportional. Still, these adjustments are so perfectly made that you almost would not notice in looking at the statue strait on. When it was done, it was far too heavy (and impressive) to be lifted high up onto the Cathedral, so it was placed in the Piazza Della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the city center. It immediately became a smash hit and a symbol of Florence.

There’s a greater political message behind the statue as well. When Michelangelo returned from Rome, Florence was an uneasy place to be, still reeling from a uprising that sent the ruling Medici family into exile. A radical monk name Savonarola had come to Florence as the Renaissance was in full swing, and he was horrified with what he saw. The strict morals and rules of the middle ages where gone, and humanism was all the rage. Savonarola was a fierce preacher and he began his work of returning Florence to God. He also turned out to be quite convincing, as he gained a lot of followers. Long story short, Florence was thrown into chaos as more and more people rejected the Medici and ideas of humanism before starting a huge bonfire in the Piazza Della Signoria and burning gambling tables, humanistic books/literature, statues, paintings, anything considered pagan. Not long after, the Florentines revolted against Savonarola and burnt him on the same spot and the Medici returned. It was a sad episode that challenged the city to it’s core. David represents a new attitude. He is huge, muscular, confident and obviously quite unashamed. He is a biblical character but also the embodiment of the classical greek idealized nude figure, a strong symbol of humanism and independence. In short, he represented everything Florence wanted to be in a time of turmoil.

Today, a copy stands in the Piazza to take on acid rain and pigeon poo while the original is in the Academia Gallery down the street. We’ll see at least 2 copies of the David in Florence alone, and maybe a few others elsewhere. Last year, a lightweight plaster copy was temporarily placed on top of the cathedral to see Michelangelo’s original intent. Here’s a picture of that:

Much more on Michelangel0, Florence, and Savonarola to come-