ENGLISH

Here is the English section of this blog… we are going to talk about some of Michelangelo’s most important works of art, dating back to his sojourn in Rome. I hope that you will like the subjects we are going to talk about!

 

THE SISTINE CHAPEL

Describing the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Giorgio Vasari affirms that this vault is the light of Italian art. Vasari considered the Sistine Chapel as a metaphorical lighthouse, from which a strong unfathomable beam emanates: a light that, according to Vasari, means innovation and experimentalism, two elements that are fundamental in Michelangelo’s works. Not only did he consider and embrace the innovations of his “colleagues” (such as the aerial perspective of Leonardo da Vinci, who considered air an unavoidable element of human perspective and represented it on his canvases as a pale blue mist, that makes the observer distinctly perceive distances and perspective), but he also contributed to the art scene with his own ideas, such as a strong corporeity in all the figures he painted and sculpted. Michelangelo underlined this element to link his works to the neo-platonic theories: the corporeity of figures, both painted and sculpted, symbolizes man’s effort to set himself free from his terrestrial chains; furthermore, by highlighting their beautiful corporeity, Michelangelo wanted his figures to convey the message that an artist cannot deny corporeity, because the Lord created Man in his own image and man’s goal throughout life is to recover the original link of beauty with Him. Michelangelo thought that the human body was beautiful and fascinating because God wanted it to be so: the mission of our bodies is to carry with it the message of beauty and love from God and eventually to set it free from its worldly chains.

The vault of the Sistine Chapel is not merely a beautiful ceiling: it is the synthesis of man’s endeavour to achieve liberation. Michelangelo’s intention was neither to teach us lessons nor to narrate stories, but to lead us on an idealistic journey that links ordinary observers to gigantic characters; this is the very miracle that art alone can accomplish.

Moving to the centre of the ceiling, Michelangelo paints nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. The first rectangular section represents God dividing darkness from light. He is the central figure of the scene, enters it laterally and makes a rotating movement, as if to separate darkness from light.

The second section represents the creation of the stars . This section is particularly interesting, because Michelangelo paints the figure of God twice. The first figure is seen from the front and depicts God creating the moon from the sun with a very peremptory gesture; a very strong wind plays with the Lord’s beard and cloak and highlights the typical thundering expression with which Michelangelo typifies God. The second figure is of God seen from the back; it is slightly smaller than the figure seen from the front, that gives us to understand that Michelangelo gave greater importance to the frontal scene. Not only did the artist give a rotating movement to God’s arms, he also created a rotating scene: the movement of the right-hand figure opens and widens the rotation that the left-hand figure continues and ends.

The third section is dedicated to the separation of water and land. Entering the scene wearing a purple cloak and with His court of angels, God makes the same gesture as in the second section. The real difference between the second and the third section is that in the latter, Michelangelo represents God heading towards the observers with outstretched arms; His expression and the gesture He makes give great solemnity to the whole scene.

The fourth section is dedicated to the creation of Adam: Michelangelo represents the first man on earth receiving the breath of life. He is lying on his back and is looking at God and His angels coming closer to him: Michelangelo conveyed the sense of the first communication of history in Adam’s stretching arm towards God and in his effort to stand up and meet Him. Michelangelo depicted Adam as a young and powerful man, in the early moments after the wakening, propping himself up on his elbow. Michelangelo painted Adam as if he were sculpting him, highlighting chiaroscuros and making his anatomic features as realistic as possible. The artist was able to accomplish this task, thanks to the dissections of corpses and studies carried out in the morgue of the  Church of the Holy Spirit in Florence. While Adam makes his stretching gesture but is quite still on the whole, God and His angels are moving towards him and Michelangelo makes this movement quite evident, by moving God’s beard backwards, as if a strong wind were countering God’s movement. Both the human figures are represented with maximum realism, because Michelangelo highlighted every movement with all the necessary muscular actions, a choice that has its culmination in Adam’s knee and abdomen, both contracted in the instance prior to his standing up.

Many researchers and art historians have speculated on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Several Americans neurosurgeons have recently affirmed that the cloak or cloud from which God emerges is the cross-section of the human brain. The physicians have suggested that Michelangelo may have chosen this particular form, to highlight how God added intelligence to all His gifts to mankind. Many hypotheses have been advanced over the years and many others are probably yet to come: this is the penalty famous artists have to pay and perhaps nobody will ever be able to tell us with certainty which is the correct one. When talking about Michelangelo (and many other artists as well), we enter a fascinating world where all interpretations are correct and wrong at the same time. If we want to enjoy and understand Michelangelo’s works of art, the best thing to do is rely on what his biographers wrote. Otherwise, we could get lost in speculations and lose all pleasure in simply admiring a work of art, that is so important and fascinating because nobody will ever be able to capture its entire meaning.

The fifth section is dedicated to the creation of Eve and Michelangelo represented a sleeping Adam against a seascape. God has already created Eve and now he is observing her efforts to rise to her feet. Eve makes an undulating movement, as she tries to stretch her legs to find her balance and while arching her back to fully stand up: despite the movements her body is making, Eve’s head is already still and concentrated on God’s figure. Vasari affirms that Adam’s sleeping pose is so realistic that one can differentiate sleep from waking just by looking at this fresco.

The sixth section is dedicated to the Original Sin and the subsequent Banishment from the Garden of Eden. Michelangelo painted thse two scenes in the same section, separated by the tree of knowledge of good and evil , that is the centre (both metaphorical and empirical) of both the scenes. From left to right, we can see Adam and Eve reaching out towards the tree, around which a woman-snake is wound; while Adam is standing, Eve is sitting on a rock. At first her body is turned leftwards, but when the snake has convinced her to eat the forbidden fruit, she twists her head and torso towards the tree. In the right-hand part of the section, we see Archangel Michael wielding his sword towards Adam and Eve, while the two, stricken by their sin, move away. Michelangelo’s way of representing this scene is very similar to the way Masaccio (1401 – 1428) portrayed it in his Expulsion from Eden (1424  – 1425). Both the artists represent Adam and Eve as healthy and vigorous, but also bent double with pain. The contrast between their mighty appearance and the stabbing pain they are experiencing is made even more evident by Adam’s grieving and scared expression and by Eve’s ashamed expression as she looks towards Archangel Michael.

In the seventh section, Michelangelo represented Noah’s sacrifice, when after the Flood, Noah built an altar and sacrificed a number of animals to God. Logically speaking, this scene should have followed the Flood’s scene; but since Michelangelo wanted to paint the Flood on a broad and central section, this scene comes before that of the Flood. The scheme of the whole action is based on the arrangement of ancient bas-reliefs and just as in ancient times, the altar is the centre of the scene, while all the figures move around it. Noah is depicted with a red tunic, while his wife wears a green one: her features are a bit coarser than Noah’s and this made art historians think that this figure may have been painted by some of Michelangelo’s assistants.

The eighth section is dedicated to the Flood. The scene is set on two different levels, where people that saved themselves are represented in the first level and the various effects of the flood are represented in the second. Groups of people are trying to reach the shore, while others, who have already reached the land, have collapsed to the ground. In the background, a boat is slowly sinking and a group of people are trying to take cover on a reef. In the distance, some reprobates knock on the Arch’s door seeking shelter from the flood. Michelangelo painted everybody in this scene with tragic and grieving expressions, while the colours he uses vary from dark shades to pale blue. The patchy groups in the scene resemble the structure of Nilotic mosaics, dating back to the Alexandrian age, in which the Nile in flood was represented. It must be underlined, however, that on the whole the ancient mosaics had a harmonious structure and symbolized the harmony between Nature and mankind; the same harmony that was lost during the Flood and the absence of which Michelangelo highlighted.

The ninth and last section is dedicated to Noah’s drunkenness. Michelangelo painted Noah propped up against a pillow, with his three sons standing round him. The observer can recognize Cam from his mocking gesture, as he indicates his drunken father to his brothers; Michelangelo painted Cam with an almost effeminate constitution, that strongly contrasts with his brother’s mighty forms and symbolizes moral slackness.

Michelangelo started painting the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes from the entrance door and finished his job above the apses’ altar. The whole work took four years and thanks to Vasari’s accounts and to Irving Stone (1903 – 1989)’s novel The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961) [based on all the biographical accounts of Michelangelo’s life], we understand how impatient Pope Julius II was to see the vault completed and be able to celebrate mass there. The arguments between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo, both determined and hot-tempered men, are famous in history and most of them were about how Michelangelo was supposed to be paid and when the vault was to be finished. The irritated and repeated argument between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo is famous as well:

“- Yet they told me that this first half was finished”;

– The most important things; but there is still a lot of work to be done”;

– When will you make an end of it?” insisted the Pope, stubborn.

Michelangelo got angry.

-“When I’m finished” he answered, with sharp and abrupt tone. Julius II blushed.

-“ When I’m finished, when I’m finished!” he cried angrily, imitating Michelangelo’s voice. And, raising his stick, he hit Michelangelo on the shoulders. (…)”

    These small dialogues and the ups and downs of Michelangelo’s experience are interesting, at times funny, but also important, because they help us understand how much effort was needed and how many problems had to be faced to create one of the most important works in the history of art.

THE “PIETA'”

Sculpted between 1497 and 1499, the Pietà was Michelangelo’s first commission for an important work in Rome. The commissioner was Jean de Bilhères Lagranlos, French ambassador in Rome for Charles VIII. This statue was to have been placed in the church of Santa Petronilla in Rome and as soon as Michelangelo received this commission, he immediately began looking into how this theme had been previously portrayed. His artistic choice, however, was revolutionary and he decided to represent the Virgin Mary in Her most painful moments, a choice that many artists had made before which nobody had ever carried to the extremes Michelangelo reached.

Inflamed with excitement for this brand new commission, Michelangelo travelled to Carrara to personally choose and purchase his marble block. The marble Michelangelo chose was particularly white and almost transparent; it was really the perfect block, not only for its color and translucence, but also for its solidity as no other block could have resisted the artist’s chisel and would have split.

The Pietà has a pyramidal shape, where the Virgin’s head and Christ’s head and feet are the vertices. Despite this difficult and delicate theme, Michelangelo managed to conciliate tradition and freshness: he placed the figure of Christ on the Virgin’s lap and sculpted the Virgin’s ample robe in a draped fashion. In this way, he created the optical illusion of a dead body sinking into an empty space, i.e. the space between the Virgin’s legs. Even if Christ has already died, His body conveys great dynamism, thanks to His head and right arm tilting backwards and His curved shoulder. This particular position of His arm is created by the Virgin Herself, who is trying to support the weight of Her Son; Her attitude is perfectly natural, if only  Her Son were a baby. A woman as young as Mary would obviously have great difficulties in bearing such a weight on her lap; she should change Her position and maybe move Christ’s body a little. The fact is that Michelangelo chose to depict Mary as if she were lulling a baby, as if she were acting like every mother would.

As we said before, Michelangelo sculpted the Virgin Mary with the features of a very young woman and the reason for this choice was Michelangelo’s deep devotion to the Virgin. He wanted to sculpt the most beautiful and pure woman in history, a woman in which the concepts of beauty and goodness went hand in hand. At technical level, he reached his goal, thanks to the white marble and the many chiaroscuros. Everybody knows the result of Michelangelo’s work: the Virgin Mary is sitting on a rock (which many believe is Mount Calvary) and is holding Christ on Her lap; Her disconsolate look and Her open left hand invite any observer to meditate and exclude from the scene everything but love, emotion and pain.

Once the sculpture was finished, Michelangelo wanted to make it even more beautiful and started the polishing procedure, when every trace of marble dust and even the tiniest imperfections were removed. The result is a brilliance, that makes the statue literally shine and the white marble and its chiaroscuros explain the definition of troppo finito: in fact, the statue seems to have a sort of inner light and this element makes the statue not only perfect, but almost too perfect, exaggerating an adjective that is already superlative in itself but in this case one is forced to make an exception. Furthermore, another peculiar aspect of this work is that it is the only one signed by Michelangelo.

When the statue was finished and presented to the great public, Michelangelo went along so he could listen to the observers’ comments. Although at the time he was very young and still not famous the artist ignored this detail and became really angry when he heard two observers praising the statue and attributing it to the Lombard artist Cristoforo Solari (1468 – 1524). At night, Michelangelo paid another visit to the Pietà and sculpted his signature on the Virgin’s sash. He wrote: MICHEL.A [N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENT[INUS] FACIEBAT, just to remove any doubt as to whose work it was.

THE CAPITOL SQUARE

When designing the layout of the Capitol square, Michelangelo changed its orientation; while originally the square faced the road now known as Via dei Fori Imperiali, Michelangelo moved it to face St. Peter’s church to symbolize the union between Rome’s glorious past and the era of the papacy. Michelangelo drew the plan for the floor so that its grey and white stones formed a star and placed the statue of Marcus Aurelius at the centre of it. Since the Capitoline Hill was very steep, Michelangelo planned a flight of marble steps flanking one side of the hill. In order to widen the visitors’ view, Michelangelo planned the staircase so that its steps grew progressively broader as visitors climbed up them. Furthermore, the twin palaces on either side of the square diverge from the central Palazzo Senatorio and increase Michelangelo’s idea of making a shell-like square, that opens when visitors arrive and is very similar to present-day theatre stages.

Michelangelo added a double flight of steps to the pre-existing Palazzo Senatorio, that highlighted the decorations of the palace’s first floor. The tower of the Palazzo was built by Martino Longhi il Vecchio (1535 – 1591) between 1579 and 1582; this element was linked to the mediaeval model of town halls and slightly deprived Michelangelo’s plan of its modernity.  Vasari affirmed that Michelangelo wanted to enrich the staircase with three statues, respectively representing the River Tiber, the River Nile and Jupiter. This information is particularly interesting, since we know that no statue of Jupiter has ever been placed in the Capitol square. Between the statues of the River Tiber and of the River Nile, the third statue we can admire today is that of the goddess Minerva unearthed in Cori around the same period and as it sits on a plinth above a marble basin it is now known as Fontana della Dea Roma (Fountain of the goddess Rome).

As we already mentioned, Michelangelo designed and arranged the whole layout of the square, including its palaces. Since the Palazzo Senatorio dated back to the Middle Ages, Michelangelo restored it and added to the pre-existing Palazzo dei Conservatori (dating back to the XV century) a new palace, that he called Palazzo Nuovo, that today houses the Capitoline Museums. For the position of the palaces, Michelangelo drew inspiration from the structures of the ancient Greek theatres and multiplied the sense of profundity of the square. In fact, he subdivided each palace’s façade with huge pillars, that created empty spaces between the very entrance of the palaces and the square itself, causing an optical illusion of infinite profundity.

After reading this dissertation, you will certainly have realized what a perfectionist Michelangelo was: his projects were really complex, mostly because he took into account not only the optical effects he wanted to create with his work, but also those that he did not want. This is the reason why Michelangelo himself designed the plinth for the statue of Marcus Aurelius. The plinth and the statue are at the center of the square, both the driving force and the point in which the elliptical effect of movement of the square’s paving terminates.

Michelangelo was entrusted with the task of renovating the Capitol square when he was already old. Little work was carried out during his lifetime and was not completed until the XVII century. When Michelangelo died in 1564,  his few friends undertook the task of completing and carrying out Michelangelo’s project faithfully. Among them there was a young Roman nobleman called Tommaso de’ Cavalieri (1509 – 1587): despite the huge age difference, they became great friends and it is mostly thank to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri that today we can admire one of the most amazing and charming squares in the world.

 

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