Tag Archive: Renaissance


http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/index_sistina_en.htm

Please, do yourself a favor and check out this link above- the official Vatican virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. It’s in great detail and gives a great impression of what it’s like to be there, minus a few hundred people pointing and the museum guards yelling at people to be quiet. Enjoy!

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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.

Here’s one of the best video clips on perspective from James Burke. It’s a little outdated, but the content and explanation of Brunelleschi’s discovery is great. 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-

CIMABUE and GIOTTO

When did the Renaissance begin, and who began it? Historians have debated this for a long time and still do. Most seem to agree though, that in art Florence was the place. The Renaissance didn’t happen over night. It took a few centuries to arrive at Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli and Raphael, and it took the work of many others to influence those figures. Before the Medici took control of Florence and became the financial force behind the high Renaissance, other factors were gradually changing the trends of medieval Europe. In the 1200s, there was a renewed interest in ancient texts that were kept at monasteries. Slowly, the ideas of humanism were being rediscovered.

Two significant Florentine artists stand at the crossroads. Most historians view Cimabue (pronounced Chee-ma-boo-ee) as the last of the medieval masters, and his pupil Giotto (Gee-otto) as the first great Renaissance master. It’s maybe a little too convenient to say that these 2 artists alone are the bridge between a huge cultural shift, but their work does show significant clues to the changes in artistic thinking. Let’s start with Cimabue.

Cimabue lived from 1251-1302 and was a great painter of christian art. Not much is known about his life at all, but a few of his paintings remain. There was a very specific look to art in the 1200s. Paintings were flat with little or no depth and figures had a highly stylized look. Many medieval painters instituted a stylized black line to outline figures, and had a limited understanding of accurate body proportion. By Cimabue’s time, artists were paying more attention to the look of the real world, and there’s a change in the look of figures. Cimabue’s paintings show subtle changes that represent the start of something new. Here’s his famous Crucifix. We can see that his Christ is elongated but somewhat less stylized. There are shadows on the edge of his torso and limbs that demonstrate Cimabue’s attempt to show that the body is 3-dimensional. Jesus even has a slight green hue to his skin. You can feel the coldness of death in the painting.

Cimabue’s pupil was Giotto, who lived from 1266-1337. Giotto broke significantly with the traditions of medieval art, painting bodies and drapery with intense shadows and a feeling of depth. He also infused his figures with a newfound emotional depth. His most famous works are found in Padua in the Scrovegni Chapel from 1305, where Giotto decorated the walls and with vividly colored frescos. One of them is this panel, called the “Lamentation”. In it, the dead Christ has been removed from the cross and is mourned. As you can see, there’s some significant changes in the shadows of the figures. In particular, Giotto paints drapery and clothing with precision- you can easily sense the shape of the bodies undernieth. Most impressive are the weeping faces, which are incredibly expressive and enhance the feeling of sorrow and despair. Even Heaven itself is crying in anguish, seen in the weeping angels circling the sky. Giotto was to become a very influential painter, leading later artists to push artistic innovation further.

Today, you can see Cimabue’s crucifix and a painting by Giotto at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, which also houses the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli  and Michelangelo among others. The best place to see their work is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where Cimabue and Giotto both have large wooden alter piece paintings of the Madonna and Child. They serve as a great way to compare and contrast the differences of these 2 painters at a time of significant change in the world of art. Here’s a great video that compares those 2 pieces in detail. Enjoy-

The Baptistry in Florence, more officially called the Baptistery of St. John, stands in the plaza directly in front of the Florence Duomo and is much older. Workers began building it around the year 1050, and until the late 1800s every Catholic in Florence was baptized here. For Florentines in the Renaissance it had been around so long and was such an important structure that many believed it to be a converted temple originally built by ancient Romans. It’s a special building because it holds so much history and was the site of a major commission in the early Renaissance. The result of this commission forever changed the art world.

The years in between 1329 and 1400 were rough. A little thing called the Black Death swept across Europe. The bubonic plague is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population, as many as 75 million people. Florence went from 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. It left Europe in political and economic chaos and took a century to recover from. By 1400, the city was finally ready for a new commission, and the call went out for entries. The doors on the south end of the baptistery had been completed by Andrea Pisano in 1329 (before the plague), and are still seen today. The powers that be wanted to install a new set of impressive gilded bronze doors on the north end of the baptistery. Artists had to submit a bronze panel of “Abraham Sacrificing Isaac” to win the cities biggest prize. 2 artists submitted panels that clearly stood out among all the rest. Both sculptors were in their early 20s at the time: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Here’s Brunelleschi’s panel, and here’s an explaination  of it:

“Brunelleschi’s work is by far the more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion., like nothing that had ever been created before. His Abraham is a tall, powerful figure, grasping a frail Isaac along the jawline with his left hand, the father’s thumb under the boy’s chin to better expose the neck, or perhaps to cut off the flow of oxygen so that his son won’t feel the fatal blow. In his right hand, Abraham holds the knife, driving the blade forward with such forceful commitment that the angel sweeping down from the sky must grab his wrist to stop the sacrifice. The story literally bursts out from the panel, breaking the boundaries of the Gothic quatrefoil within which it is supposed to be contained, just as Brunelleschi burst through the boundaries of the Gothic art with his creation.”  -(Robert Paul Walker from his book “The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance”)

Here’s Ghiberti’s panel:

“Ghiberti’s panel is more elegant and more beautiful. His Isaac is a perfectly modeled classical nude while his Abraham is a smaller, more graceful man, his left arm wrapped around the boy’s shoulders while his right hand holds the knife hovering in the air, as if he has not yet made the decision to strike. The angel floats above them, open palm over Abraham’s well-coifed, curly hair, no need to grab the father’s arm but able instead to stop him with a word. The whole scene plays out against an exquisitely cascading mountainside, all neatly contained within its quatrefoil boundary. Whereas Brunelleschi’s piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful image of reality, Ghiberti’s demonstrates masterful perfection of the art,a s remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival.” -Paul Robert Walker

Both artists had turned in extraordinary panels, and the committee couldn’t decide which was best. The story is that they called both artists together and asked if they might be willing to work in tandem on the doors. Brunelleschi was the one to refuse, saying that he would gladly concede the project to Ghiberti rather than work with anything less than full creative control. The project went to Lorenzo Ghiberti. It was a huge victory for him and a humiliating defeat for Brunelleschi, who was left with nothing after so much work and anticipation. It was the aftermath of this competition that got the creative snowball rolling in Florence. Ghiberti would spend decades completing not just the north doors (seen here to the left), but a second set of east baptistry doors, a work so impressive that Michelangelo studied them and dubbed them, “the gates of paradise”. It was Brunelleschi however, who would make the bigger leap forward, inventing a system for perspective and revolutionizing painting while completing one of the most daunting and difficult architectural projects in the world: the building of the giant red dome on top of the Duomo across from the baptistry.  I will have more on these two amazing artists in later posts. For now, here’s a great side by side comparison study on the “Sacrifice of Isaac” panels. Enjoy.

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 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.

To greater appreciate the work we’ll see across Italy, you need to understand the technique of fresco, or painting on wet plaster. Today the technique isn’t exactly standard in the art world. Fresco is time-consuming and difficult. It requires a ton of prep time, specific materials, an in-depth knowledge of the process, and a very confident brush stroke. Today, we have astounding works by Raphael and Michelangelo in brilliant color because of fresco. That’s because with fresco, the paint is absorbed by the wet plaster and becomes part of the wall. Once the wall was prepped and wet plaster applied, the artist had a matter of hours to apply the paint before it dried. If mistakes were made or segments dried, they would have to be chipped off with a chisel and started completely over (Michelangelo did this more than a few times in the Sistine Chapel). Take into consideration that Michelangelo was also 70 feet off the ground on scaffolding working by candlelight with his neck craned back for 4 years- paint and plaster dripping onto his face and into his eyes, and it’s even more impressive. The main thing to understand about fresco is that a big work is made up of many parts and if you could see the surface up close you would see tiny seams, each section a day that the artist worked. By counting them we can figure out how long the process took.

Here’s a few videos on fresco- The first is a video on Michelangelo’s technique (with the audio really off- sorry)

This second video shows a current painter working in fresco-

The Sistine Chapel is jammed packed with figures and symbolism. In painting, everything you see is a deliberate act on the part of the artist, so for centuries people have wondered at Michelangelo’s intent and all that is up there. In recent years (especially since “the DaVinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” phenomenon) books and articles have popped up with all kinds of claims about coded images on the ceiling. There are things that Michelangelo hid, especially on “the Last Judgement” wall, but many of these claims seem a real stretch. One of the most popular and hard-to prove claims concerns the famous center panel of the ceiling, “The Creation of Adam”. It is widely speculated that Michelangelo, Leonardo, and other Renaissance artists performed human dissection on corpses to understand the inner workings of the body (this would have been totally taboo at the time). Some have taken notice at the strange shroud that surrounds God and the angels on the right, and theorized that Michelangelo has copied the exact shape of a human brain, complete with the brainstem. It may just be a crazy coincidence that the shape matches so closely, but what if Michelangelo in his own hidden way portrayed God and his infinite knowledge (and also the triumph of the human mind)? Is it true? We’ll never know, but it is fun. You be the judge…

The Italian Artistic Renaissance was a monumental movement that forever changed the western world. The ideas of the Renaissance demonstrate a significant cultural change from that of the middle ages, and it’s important to remember that of course it didn’t happen overnight. It began slowly and grew gradually in Florence from the late 12 hundreds with artists like Cimabue (pronounced Chi-ma-boy) and his pupil Giotto (widely considered the first great Renaissance master), and lasted until the mid 1550s with Michelangelo and Raphael as the greatest masters. That’s a period of 250+ years- longer than America has been a country. It seems everywhere you go in Italy (particularly in Florence and Rome) you are likely to find little churches that still contain the work of artists from this period. There are many artists who are not the household names today, but still were important artists that made advances in artistic thinking and passed those discoveries onto the next generation of artists. When you look at works of art and analyze their context and content, you can often spot similarities.

One of the most important painters of the Renaissance is Masaccio. He died at 26 years old and only 4 works of his survive, but in that time made huge advances in art that greatly impacted later artists. He is the first painter to use true linear perspective in a painting. For a century, artists had been trying to create a system for perspective without success. Masaccio established the use of a horizon line and vanishing point to create the illusion of 3-dimensional depth on a wall in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The work, made in 1427 and called “The Holy Trinity”, depicts God the Father and Christ directly above a skeleton, symbolic of Adam and the death of man being conquered by the Trinity. Setting the subject aside, the figures reside in a false room painted to match the vaults in the rest of the church. The bottom of the work is 6 feet off the ground- so standing below, the illusion of a real room is created. It was seen as a huge triumph.

 

Just across town is the Brancacci Chapel, just a block from the monastery we’ll be staying at. Inside are large frescos by Masaccio. They were recently cleaned in the last few decades, and are as bright and impressive as ever. One of the scenes in these paintings is Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden”, a highly influential work that other artists no doubt knew about and learned from. In the work, Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and realized their nakedness. As a result, sin has entered the world and they are being escorted out of the garden of Eden by an angel wielding a large sword. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed. Eve is trying to cover herself and crying and anguish, while Adam can only hide his face a weep. These figures are not the stiff and emotionless figures of paintings from the middle ages. Their pain is evident. In the painting, Masaccio has used some stunning lighting effects. The bodies of Adam and Eve are much more lifelike than those of previous painters.

 

How influential was Masaccio? We can tell by looking at other depictions of the “Expulsion” from other artists. It’s not at all unusual to see an artist pay homage to a previous one by borrowing the visual language of that artists interpretation. It’s not an act of copying, but rather a subtle gesture of gratitude. The first example is from Fra Angelico (which means “Angelic Friar”), a devout dominican monk who was also an astounding painter who lived in Florence the around same time as Masaccio but survived a while longer. We’ll learn lots more about him later and we’ll see many of his works at San Marco in Florence. Here’s his painting from 1430-32 called the “Annunciation”.

In the work, Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be giving birth to the Christ child. She also receives the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove). Through her son, God will redeem humanity from the sin of Adam and Eve. Fra Angelico strangely places Adam and Eve in the background to make the theological significance of the moment complete. His Adam and Eve are clothed, but also ashamed and bewildered as they are escorted by an angel in an orange robe with a sword.

The most fitting tribute to Masaccio and his far-reaching influence is on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. There, between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo chose to borrow directly from the painting that was among his favorites in Florence. Have a look at his amazing “Expulsion” scene, one of 9 panels from the old testament on the ceiling:


Adam and Eve are shown in a before and after scene, reaching for the forbidden fruit and banished as a result. Michelangelo’s figures are large and exceedingly muscular, painted as a true sculptor might paint them. In the banishment, Michelangelo also portrays a humiliated and naked Adam and Eve, and an angel in orange with a sword, only this sword it at Adam’s throat, which really drives home the serious consequence of Adam’s action.

Part of what makes studying art so complicated is the vast reach of artistic influences and the way they manifest themselves in different work. It’s also what makes art history so insanely interesting if we’re willing to dig deeper and look for similarities like these… much more to come on Florentine painters and the Sistine Ceiling.

There is a very interesting episode that happened in Florence in 1503. By then, the Renaissance was in full swing and Florence was the place to be. Leonardo Da Vinci was there, a highly respected master then in his 50s. Michelangelo was also there, much younger and gaining fame after recently completing his “David” and “Pieta”. What we must understand is that most of these Florentine artists didn’t care for each other- they were all in competition for the best commissions and  sole title of “greatest artist”. This was a huge benefit to the world of art, because the competition only made the masters push themselves harder. There’s a great article HERE that explores an interesting theory: that Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and Michelangelo’s “David”, arguably the 2 greatest works of art in the world (made the same year in Florence), were made in response to such competition and awareness of other artists. It’s an interesting thought- both are total opposites in every way when you think about it.

There was however, an infamous artistic duel that took place between the 2 greatest masters in 1503. Both were commissioned to paint murals of historic battles at the Florence palace, on walls directly across from each other. Today, all that exists are Michelangelo’s drawings of his proposed wall and a copy of Leonardo’s drawing later made by Rubens. Here they are:

Rubens copy of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari"

Michelangelo's drawing for the "Battle of Cascina"

The remaining text describing the competition is an article from HolidayCity’s Flash Travel website:

“In a closely-knit community as Florence, the two artists had crossed paths a number of times before, and had developed a strong dislike of each other that would rapidly become legend. There are many anecdotes describing their encounters, the cutting remarks said in each other’s presence, the snide comments tossed off at each other’s backs. They were two lions competing for space in the confines of the city, and all who knew them took note and waited for the outbursts. A few men did more than wait, eager to take advantage of the rivalry. Piero Soderini, the recently elected Gonfaloniere, was one of them.

The Commissioning of the Artists

In 1503, Soderini commissioned both artists to work, side by side, on the walls of the newly built Council Hall, with instructions to create two masterpieces depicting victories the Florentine Republic had achieved over its rivals. Leonardo was to paint the Battle of Anghiari (pictured above), immortalizing the war with Milan; Michelangelo was to paint the Battle of Cascina, commemorating an episode in the war against neighbouring Pisa.

Soderini has good reason for commissioning this work: the competition took place at a time when Florence was experiencing a rebirth of its identity as a Republic, and the spirit of civic pride was strong. Lest anyone think that the commissions were accidental, the contract the Gonfaloniere had drawn up specified the artists were to work ‘in competition with each other’, in order to push them both to produce their best works. The city fathers fully expected their leading artists to produce masterpieces of patriotic grandeur, as well as the entertainment of a public rivalry; unfortunately, they were destined to be disappointed.

Working on the walls

Leonardo progressed further than Michelangelo did; he at least managed to put up the cartoon, or the initial drawings, on the walls of the hall. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s own innovations did him in, as he attempted to use a new painting technique disastrously combining plaster and oils (based apparently on a recipe by roman writer Pliny the Elder). Michelangelo never got past the drawing stage (pictured right), though his tardiness might have been due to the fact that he was commissioned a year after Leonardo.

What the finished works would have been like will never be known, but from the cartoons and studies both artists prepared, the final forms can be guessed — and they would have been magnificent. There was little similarity between the works: the styles of the two masters were as different as night and day. Leonardo was known for the shadowy softness and ambiguity of his work; Michelangelo was rapidly becoming known for imbuing his work with a sense of vibrant energy and dynamism. These sketches were the first representations of war from either artist, and were arresting for the way they captured the emotions of the figures portrayed. Leonardo’s sketches captured the unbearable heat of the battle, in a horrific clash of desperate men and screaming horses; Michelangelo’s drawings showed the bizarre ordinariness and chaos swirling around the edges of the battle, as complacent soldiers were caught by the attacking enemy while bathing in a stream. Contemporary artists were astounded and proclaimed that both works would be masterpieces — when completed.

The Quiet End to the Competition

Unfortunately, despite their many differences, both artists had one devastating trait in common:neither were very good at finishing anything they started. This fact was well known about to da Vinci — he had left too many commissions hanging in the past to be able to escape the assessment. What would only later become evident was the Michelangelo, already a difficult, strong-willed and temperamental man, would also develop the same habit. The unkind might even suggest that he picked up the habit from Leonardo. It is more likely to be due to the unusually high number of commissions he accepted in this period of his life, which made it inevitable that he leave some uncompleted.

Ultimately, however, the halt in the competition was due to changes in political fortunes: In 1504, the Pope called Michelangelo to Rome to begin work on some previously commissioned pieces; Leonardo soon turned his attentions elsewhere; and most irrevocably, in 1512 Soderini was overthrown by a Papal army and the Republic fell. In those circumstances, continuing work on a painting dedicated to the glories of the Republic would have been somewhat imprudent. After 1530, Republicanism was a dead hope in Florence, and when Vasari deliberately painted over the remnants of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, he was removing all traces of the Republic, and its ideals.

So ends one of the greatest ‘What If — ’ episodes of art history. The only remaining traces of what might have been masterpieces from two celebrated artists of the Renaissance are painted-over walls and fragments of copied and uncompleted drawings. The legendary battle between Leonardo and Michelangelo never reached its culmination as the city fathers desired. Its failure is one of the greatest losses to the cultural history of the city; but its ghost still haunts the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, conjuring up undying visions of the glory that might have been.”