When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.

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The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)

Trapped in A Box: Michelangelo Doodles in Florence

One of the joys of keeping up with the fields of art history and architectural preservation is that there are always amazing new discoveries cropping up to continue to educate and enlighten.  As my regular readers know, although I did study at Sotheby’s in London following undergrad and law school, I do not at present work either in the art world or the building trades.  Nevertheless, I have had a lifelong fascination with both areas of study, and I share that fascination with my readers, in the hope that it will encourage you to become more interested in our shared Western cultural history.

The other night while watching the culture program on France24 – with the lovely and always-stylish Eve Jackson – there was a report on a rather fascinating bit of technology aiding art restoration in Florence which caught my attention.  To be fair, there is always some such effort going on in Florence, since the city is absolutely crammed full of important buildings and works of art.  Yet this particular effort struck me not only for its significance, but also because of its admitted Indiana Jones aspect, which I suspect would appeal to my readers.

Throughout much of his working career, Michelangelo was quite in demand as what we might call a gravestone carver to the One Percent.  Even if you are not familiar with art history, you may have seen the classic 1965 Charlton Heston/Rex Harrison film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, which recounts the story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, and the often-stormy relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II.  The pope had hired Michelangelo to carve a rather grandiose tomb, but pulled him off the project to decorate the ceiling of the chapel, much to the artist’s dismay.

However this was not the only prominent memorial which Michelangelo was commissioned to work on and left unfinished.  In the “New Sacristy” in the Medici Chapels of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, Michelangelo began work on monumental tombs for two members of the ruling Medici family, but only completed six of the sculptural elements, including the magnificent statues of the Duke of Urbino and the Duke of Nemours.  Their portraits are admittedly idealized, but they display a kind of languid, muscular elegance that is very different from the often rather overly bulky male and female figures Michelangelo tended to produce in both paint and marble.

Despite the fact that the Medici had nurtured him as a young artist and were some of his most important patrons, Michelangelo held republican political sympathies.  In 1527 he joined in an uprising against the Medici which temporarily drove the family out of Florence and restored the Florentine Republic; subsequently he himself was put in charge of designing greater fortifications for the city to try to keep the Medici out.  When the family returned to power in 1530, the artist quite naturally found himself on their most-wanted list, with a bounty was placed on his head.

Needing a place to hide, Michelangelo concealed himself for about six weeks in, of all places, a crypt space located underneath the very Medici Chapel he had been working on.  “I hid in a tiny cell,” he later recalled, “entombed like the dead Medici above, though hiding from a live one. To forget my fears, I filled the walls with drawings.”  Miraculously, during restoration work on the Medici Chapels in 1975, that very cell, a little windowless room beneath the New Sacristy, was rediscovered.

Exactly as described by the artist himself, the walls of the room are covered in drawings which clearly came from the master’s hand.  Among the fifty or so identifiable sketches, one can see elements from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, some working ideas for sculptures he was preparing for the tombs above, a possible self-portrait, and many other doodles.  No doubt frightened, ill, and recognizing he might be captured and executed at any time, Michelangelo simply continued working as best he could.  Thus this remarkable space gives us something of a glimpse into the mind of an artist suffering under great anxiety, yet still wanting to express his inner creative impulse.  They hold great psychological insight in much the same way that the great Francisco de Goya’s haunting “Black Paintings”, executed on the walls of his home in Madrid as he descended into madness, would also do three centuries later.

After their discovery in the 1970’s, people were allowed to descend from the New Sacristy in the Medici Chapels to see these unique drawings, but because of their location in a subterranean room with no ventilation, they soon began to deteriorate from all the moisture and other effluvia carried in by visitors.  It was also realized that there were bodies buried under the floor of the room itself, which were releasing decomposition gases and thus had to be exhumed and re-buried elsewhere.  Because of the poor state of preservation, the authorities of the Basilica eventually decided to seal the room at the end of last year, until a restoration plan could be approved.

Now, thanks to modern technology and new media, more visitors than ever will be able to see these unique examples of Michelangelo’s work.  Although the room containing the original sketches will remain closed to the general public, visitors to San Lorenzo will be able to have a virtual “visit” to Michelangelo’s old spiderhole, and examine high-definition images of his graffiti for themselves, on kiosk stations set up for this purpose both at San Lorenzo and at the nearby Bargello Museum.   This will ensure that scholars and restoration experts will continue to have access to the work as needed, while visitors will be able to examine this art for themselves, without actually destroying these priceless treasures in the process.

The juxtaposition of history, art, and mystery in this story is precisely what makes the study of great art and great buildings so exciting.  And once again we are presented with an example of how new technology is making these fascinating elements of our Western cultural history even more accessible to people than ever before.  While Michelangelo himself might not have wanted thee whole world to stare at his graffiti, we are very fortunate indeed to be able to have, in this one, small room, a piece of architectural, artistic, and indeed political history preserved for future generations.

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One of the walls in Michelangelo’s hiding place beneath the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence

Raise Your Glasses

Today is the anniversary of the death of Jacobo Sansovino, who was born in Florence in 1486 and died in Venice in 1570. You may not be familiar with his name, gentle reader, but because of one single piece of art he created, he helped spur on the development of the Renaissance in Western Art, which of course had a far greater impact on world history than simply serving as decoration.  In one sculpture, Sansovino helped convince his contemporaries that not only had they managed to rediscover the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, but in fact they were reaching the point at which they would be able to surpass those who had come before them – and for this he certainly deserves a memorial toast.

In 1510 Sansovino was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, for the Florentine aristocrat Giovanni Bartolini.  It was to be placed in a niche in the classically designed gardens of the latter’s home, the Palazzo di Valfonda, alongside statues of other gods and heroes from Greek and Roman mythology.  Fortunately for us, ever since the sculpture was later acquired by the Medici family, it has been housed in a museum for many centuries.  If the statue had been left outside, what makes this particular sculpture so special might very well have been lost, as a result of exposure to the elements.

When the work was completed in 1512, it astonished viewers because of a single factor, which may not be apparent unless you think about what you are looking at.  We see the figure of a nude young man, crowned with a wreath made out of grapevines.  He is striding forward, while at his lower right a small faun is trying to snatch a cluster of grapes from his hand.  All of this seems very ordinary at first, if we have seen Greek and Roman sculptures before.  Yet what is truly remarkable about this particular piece is that the figure of the young god holds his left arm aloft, bearing a drinking vessel, and that left arm has no visible means of support.

Up until this time, sculptors were extremely reluctant to attempt this type of carving in stone, since they had little or no remaining evidence from the past that such a thing could be done successfully.  Typically, when they were carving limbs that would be held away from the body, ancient sculptors would carve the arms of their statue separately and attach them later, since the weight of the heavy marble arms and the lack of support would tend to cause this part of the sculpture to crack and fall off, were it carved from a single block.  For example, in the famous example of the now-armless “Venus de Milo” in The Louvre, on the right side of the torso one can see a hole, which originally held a metal strut to support the now-vanished right arm of the statue, carved separately and attached later in situ.

Moreover, not many patrons would be willing to pay for such a feat, which would likely end in failure.  In a lightweight material such as wood, where things could be hollowed out or pinned together, gravity was not such a significant issue, but when it comes to stone, its heavy weight can be its undoing.  Thus it was considered so difficult and risky to attempt to carve a statue with an arm held aloft in a single piece of carved stone, that until Sansovino made this bold attempt most sculptors – including Michelangelo – simply avoided the challenge altogether.

The arm alone is not the only innovation however,  for here Sansovino is not simply copying his artistic forebears.  He is portraying a classical subject in stone, of course, which would have been familiar to the ancients, but there is a more natural sense of motion and fluidity in the body than one would often find in classical sculpture.  Admittedly this is not a universal observation, and there are notable exceptions, particularly from the Hellenic period.  Yet here we have a sense of movement in the pose of the figure, and indeed of boldness on the part of its sculptor, to create a sense of liveliness caught in a split second, rather than portraying someone standing still or at rest, which is what Classical sculptors tended to do.

In his later career Sansovino moved to Venice, where he became an engineer and a brilliant architect, helping to spread the aesthetic ideals of High Renaissance Florence and Rome to that city.  In fact, this native Florentine became so beloved by the Venetians, that when he died he was buried in the great Basilica of San Marco.  Yet this single work from when Sansovino was only an up-and-coming artist in his mid-20’s, competing with dozens of other young sculptors in the artistic hotbed of Renaissance Florence, can be admired not only on its own merits, but more importantly as part of a whole.

Achievements such as this in the arts, sciences, literature, and so on, had a profound impact on the thinkers and writers of the Renaissance.  These people became convinced that they were on the right track to achieve an even greater civilization than the ancients, to whom they had previously felt so inferior.  As we are all aware, in the end this change of attitude had a profound impact on the entire history of humanity.

“Bacchus” (detail) by Jacobo Sansovino (c. 1510-1512)
The Bargello, Florence