Tag Archives: Michelangelo

Let Your Eyes Ascend

Sistine Chapel Ceiling (detail) — Vatican Museums


It had never before occurred to me that the sound that demands silence is understood in all languages.  A guard in the Sistine Chapel was enforcing the No Talking rule and hundreds of tourists instantly complied — for a few seconds.  Then the buzz  began again, as we all stared in amazement at one of history’s monumental artistic achievements.

Michelangelo rightly considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter, which is one reason he was reluctant to accept the commission (demand) of Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the ceiling of this building.  It had originally been built in the 1470s at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV.  The involvement of Sixtus is why it’s known as the Sistine Chapel, in case you were wondering.

The building had undergone some renovations due to structural flaws; Michelangelo started in on the new ceiling in 1508.  There were problems:  For one thing, he had relatively little experience with fresco.  That technique involves applying paint to wet plaster, so the artist and his assistants had to estimate how much plaster they thought they could paint before the surface dried.

Another issue was even more basic:  How do you work on a large horizontal surface that is 60 feet above the floor?  The easiest approach would have been to build scaffolding towers, but the pope and cardinals wanted the floor to be clear so they could continue holding their meetings in the chapel.

Michelangelo figured out a way to bolt the scaffolding into the side walls; he and his assistants climbed up to their perch and did that marvelous work while leaning backward.  The first half of the ceiling — the eastern side — was completed in 1510.

When that scaffolding was taken down, Michelangelo was dissatisfied with the result.  There were too many figures in the panels, he felt; from the floor they appeared small.  When you visit the Sistine Chapel, you’ll notice that the figures in the other end, starting with the iconic “Creation of Adam”, are larger.

You’ll also notice that it’s not easy to find a spot from which to view the ceiling; you have to tip your head back to the point of toppling over.  Other tourists around you are pointing up to the ceiling, a gesture that I felt was unnecessary.  Seriously — if you’re in the Sistine Chapel, you really don’t need to be shown that there are paintings on the ceiling.

There are also paintings on the walls, including some by eminent artists like Boticelli and Ghirlandaio, who was Michelangelo’s teacher.  By far the most impressive wall painting, though, is the massive “Last Judgment” behind the altar on the west end, which took Michelangelo several more years to complete.  In total, he did over 12,000 square feet of fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  When you see it you can’t help but exclaim, in spite of the guards’ best efforts to shush you.

If you’re planning a visit, it’s helpful to know that in addition to the prohibition against talking, no photography is permitted in the Sistine Chapel.  And, as the website of the Vatican Museums says, access to the Sistine Chapel “is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately.”  In other words, they won’t admit people who are exposing shoulders or knees into a room full of paintings of naked saints and sinners.

Ancient Nightmares

Laocoon Group, Vatican Museums

When you were a student, did you ever have a nightmare that the final test for some class was that day, and you hadn’t studied for it?  Yeah, me too.

  Friends who are actors have told me about a similar bad dream that is common to their profession:  they are about to go on stage and don’t know any of their lines.

There are other nightmares that are not occupation-specific, but are widespread.  There’s the one about feeling lost or trapped; there’s that awful one about falling; being chased or attacked is another common one.  And of course there is the nightmare in which you are naked in public.  (For all I know, strippers may have the opposite nightmare — a stuck zipper prevents them from getting naked in public.)

Any one of those is bad enough, but consider the multiple nightmares of the famous sculpture known as The Laocoön Group.

The central figure is a guy named Laocoön (pronounced Lay-AWK-oh-on), who, according to legend, was a Trojan priest.  He had already annoyed the gods with some misdeed, but then he suppposedly warned Troy against taking in that wooden horse left on the doorstep by the Greeks.  For that he was punished by either Apollo or Poseidon, depending on whose version of the story you accept.

Even a brief glance at this large marble sculpture makes clear what form the punishment took, and what constitutes the most obvious nightmare:  Laocoön and his sons were crushed by two giant sea serpents.  Yikes!

The sculpture group is attributed to three collaborators from the Greek island of Rhodes — Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus.  Most scholars date it to the first century B.C., but about a hundred years later it showed up in Pliny the Elder’s inventory of stuff at the palace of the Roman emperor Titus.

How did it get from Rhodes to Rome?  That’s unknown, but that was Laocoön nightmare #2:  “Huh?  Where am I?  How did I get here?”  And then… he disappeared until 1506, when the sculpture group was dug up in a vineyard, where it had apparently been buried for many centuries.  Tell me that’s not a nightmare.

Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo out to have a look at the statue as it was being unearthed; the artist reported back, “Wow!” (in Italian, of course).  So the pope said to the man who found Laocoön, “How much you want for it?”

Soon thereafter, the sculpture group was relocated to the Vatican; Laocoön and sons now find themselves naked in church — nightmare!  When they were discovered, each of the figures was missing arms or hands, and over the centuries since 1506, various artists have attached replacement parts (they’re-experimenting-with-me nightmare).

After his conquest of Italy in 1799, Napoleon had The Laocoön Group carted off to Paris (that could be the nightmare about being chased or attacked).  The British removed it from the Louvre in 1816 and returned it to the Vatican.

That’s where we encountered Laocoön and sons some years ago.  Their tortured expressions are all the more memorable because of the contrast with other sculptures from antiquity, most of which have faces so serene, they look like they never had a nightmare.  Of course, even if those Hellenistic statues hadn’t studied, it was a lot easier to bluff your way through the Chemistry final back then because there were only, what, four elements:  earth, air, fire and — wait, give me a second, I know this…

Art Attack

Michelangelo, "The Deposition" c. 1550 (photo by Sally Reeder)

If you have spent any time in art museums, you may have noticed that some of the Greek and Roman statues are not anatomically correct.  Limbs and heads are sometimes missing, and male nudes have been — ouch! — neutered.  Some of that is perhaps due to careless handling over the centuries (“Whoops, dropped Dionysus down the staircase.  Oh, well.”), but some absent body parts resulted from deliberate acts of destruction.

Conquering soldiers or enforcers of public modesty have been the culprits in many instances, but damaged artwork is due to other kinds of damaged people as well.

Rembrandt’s monumental painting “Night Watch” was attacked three different times in the 20th century.  The first assailant, in 1911, was an unemployed cook who claimed he did it to call atttention to his inability to find work.  The job offers didn’t exactly pour in after that, incidentally.  In 1975, Wilhelmus de Rijk slashed it with a bread knife, later explaining that he was on a divine mission.  The most recent attack was in 1990; sulfuric acid was sprayed on it, the New York Times reported, “by a man who was believed to be mentally disturbed.”  Oh.

The Mona Lisa has been victimized more than once, but in one instance (1956) a homeless man threw a rock at it; he said he hoped to be put in jail because he was cold and had no place to go.  He got his wish, and La Gioconda sustained no significant damage.

“The Pietà” by Michelangelo was not as fortunate when a man named Laszlo Toth produced a hammer and began whacking away at one of the world’s most beautiful sculptures in 1972.  The face and neck of Mary were chipped; her forearm fell to the floor, which caused fingers to break off.  Toth hit the statue 15 times while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!”  During subsequent questioning by police, he also said he was Michelangelo.  Neither of those claims proved to be true.

A painting by Diego Velázaquez that is known as “The Rokeby Venus” was attacked in 1914 at the National Gallery in London.  The perpetrator was a suffragette named Mary Richardson, who said that she took a meat cleaver to the painting as retaliation for the arrest of her colleague Emmeline Pankhurst on the previous day.  At her trial, she said that it was a protest against the British government for “destroying Mrs. Pankhurst”.  In an interview decades later, though, Mary Richardson said she slashed the painting of a relatively discreet nude woman because she didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”

The only art vandal who may have had some justification for his act was the man who began smashing a Michelangelo sculpture called “The Deposition”, also known as “The Florentine Pietà” (see photo).  The attacker was Michelangelo himself, who was still working on it at the time.

Possibly a flaw in the marble caused it to break — Christ’s left leg is missing.  Or perhaps Michelangelo was simply dissatisfied with how it was taking shape; whatever the reason, he flailed at it in frustration.

A servant stopped him before he could destroy it completely, and it was eventually finished by another artist.  To his credit, Michelangelo did not try to shift the blame by claiming to be Laszlo Toth.

Geniuses at Rest

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

The woman did not seem particularly remorseful about her blunder.  She and her mother were driving around Italy, she told me matter-of-factly, and couldn’t find a highway exit sign for Florence.  They kept driving, missing the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s finest art.

Apparently it hadn’t occurred to either of them that the Italians are under no obligation to provide signage in English; in their own language, they call the city Firenze.  These American tourists passed many signs along the Autostrade that would have directed them to Firenze, but they were looking for Florence, dammit!  That clueless woman’s experience illustrates one more reason to at least have a glance at a guidebook before you travel.  Even if she had managed to stumble onto Florence, without guidance she probably would have missed one of its treasures.

I knew about the Uffizi Gallery, of course, with its peerless collection of Italian paintings.  The Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David stands, was already on my must-see list as well.  If I hadn’t done some pre-trip research, though, we might have missed Santa Croce (pronounced CRO-chay).  It is a basilica built by the Franciscans in the 14th century that became the Florentine version of the Pantheon in Paris, or Westminster Abbey.  In other words, it is the final resting place of some world-renowned Italians.

Just inside the front door of Santa Croce, on the right aisle, is the tomb of Michelangelo.  Legend has it that he personally selected his burial site, so that when tombs burst open on Judgment Day, the first thing he would see is Brunelleschi’s marvelous Dome.  Unfortunately, what Michelangelo would probably see first is the creepy marble sarcophagus that held his mortal remains — it was designed by Giorgio Vasari, whose work blights churches and museums throughout Italy.

Next to Michelangelo’s tomb is a monument to Dante, although he isn’t actually buried here.  His remains are in Ravenna, but the Florentines had anticipated relocating him to Santa Croce; in the 1500s they even made a generous contribution (bribe) to the Pope to effect the transfer.  Didn’t happen.

A bit farther along the right aisle is the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, a diplomat and philosopher of the 16th century.  He is now chiefly remembered for the addition to our language of the adjective Machiavellian, applied to behavior that is unscrupulous and sneaky.  On Judgment Day, he’ll be joining a lot of other politicians.

Closer to the altar is the grave of composer Giachino Rossini, who wrote many operas, including The Barber of Seville, and whose William Tell Overture achieved immortality in the 1950s as the theme for a TV show called The Lone Ranger. It’s also possible to see a Rossini tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; he was interred there for about a decade before his remains were relocated to Santa Croce in 1887.

The left wall has tombs of a number of Italians who were once famous but aren’t so much anymore.  A notable exception is near the door, opposite Michelangelo:  Galileo is buried there.  As with Rossini, he had also been entombed elsewhere following his death; it was with some reluctance that Catholic authorities allowed the famous heretic a Christian burial at Santa Croce in 1737.

One of these days I hope to get around to posting some notes about the many other splendors of Florence, but in case you’re headed for Italy soon, I wanted to give you a heads-up about Santa Croce.  And if you’re driving, don’t forget — for some reason, the Italians insist on calling it Firenze.

Two Michelangelos

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599)

One lived to be almost eighty-nine; the other died before he turned forty.  One thought of himself primarily as a sculptor; the other was a painter.  Both were named for St. Michael the Archangel.  Neither was someone you’d want as a guest at your dinner party.  What they lacked in social skills, however, they made up for with creative talent:  the two Michelangelos were among the finest artists that Western Civilization ever produced.

The one you know by his first name (pronounced MEEK-uh-LAN-gel-oh by Italians and some art critics) was Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Born in 1475, he was the principal artist of the High Renaissance.  He was 23 years old when he carved the incomparable Pietà that flanks the entrance to St. Peter’s.  ( We overheard an American tourist point it out to a traveling companion, calling it “that Michelangelo thing”.)  He was 26 when he began chipping away at a block of Carrara marble, revealing the David who had been hiding in it.

Although he excelled at carving stone, Michelangelo was also a painter; he taught himself fresco techniques to do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He was an architect as well, and even wrote some poetry.  Incidentally, he died in 1564, the same year Shakespeare was born.  If you’re putting together a list of the all-time greatest artists, write in Michelangelo Buonarroti at #1.

Somewhere near the top of that list is where the other Michelangelo also belongs.  He is not usually known by that name, or his surname, which was Merisi.  He is commonly referred to by the name of his hometown, which was Caravaggio.

If the Renaissance was about the return to classical idealism and the discovery of perspective, you could say that Caravaggio ushered in realism and the discovery of light.  His paintings are done in high contrast — strong light and dark shadows; you Art History majors will remember the term for this approach is chiaroscuro.  For those of you who weren’t Art History majors, the technical jargon doesn’t matter.  Just stand in front of Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew or Crucifixion of St. Peter and marvel at the way he “lit” the scene, and the way he captured the key moment in the drama — what photographers sometimes call “the peak of the action”.

In the early seventeenth century, contemporary audiences were shocked by Caravaggio’s use of ordinary people with dirty feet and callused hands as models for saints.  They were also shocked by his terrible behavior.  From 1600 on, he was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities, brought up on charges ranging from wounding a soldier to throwing a plate of artichokes into the face of a waiter.  In other words, if Caravaggio was living now, he’d be regularly featured on the E! Channel.

In 1607 he got into a brawl over a disputed call in a tennis match and wound up killing a guy.  He fled Rome, hiding out in Naples and Malta and Sicily.  His only hope was to get the pope to grant clemency, so he arranged a trip back to Rome.  At a place called Porto Ercole, Caravaggio literally missed the boat, collapsed of a fever, and died a couple of days later (July 18, 1610).  That probably came as a bit of a relief to the people who knew him personally, but subsequent generations of painters studied his work and said “wow”.  As the eminent twentieth-century art critic Bernard Berenson wrote of Caravaggio, “with the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.”

OK — so let’s go back to my hypothetical list of the all-time greatest artists.  I’ve already admitted my bias toward Caravaggio; who do you think is worthy of a Top-10 ranking?  Nominations are welcome in the Comments section.  Just to get you thinking… What about Diego Velázquez?  Bernini?  Pieter Bruegel?  Vermeer?  Albrecht Dürer?  Picasso?  Renoir?  Or, what the heck — the woman who painted that mural in your den?