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

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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

A New Bonfire of the Vanities

My friend Margaret Perry over at Ten Thousand Places sent me an article last evening about a rather bizarre form of protest taking place in Italy at the moment.  The director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples has begun burning works of art from that collection, to complain about government funding cuts due to financial austerity measures. This is being done with the support of the artists involved, and took place again today.

This kind of excessive, histrionic behavior is not the exclusive purview of the left, as students of art history are well aware. The reader may have heard the term “bonfire of the vanities”, which refers to a practice that was particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Preachers would invite their listeners to bring sinful objects, or objects which might lead one into sin, to a public place. These objects would be burned, as a sign of contrition and repentance.

The most infamous exponent of this practice, though he himself did not invent it, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). For a brief period at the end of the 15th century, Savonarola established what was effectively a right-wing theocracy in Florence, at the very height of the Italian Renaissance. It was perfect timing for him, given that the ruling Medici had been banished for their excesses and heavy-handedness in ruling the Florentine people. Of course, what replaced them arguably turned out to be even worse, in what came to be almost a trial run of the Reign of Terror in France three centuries later.

Savonarola sponsored numerous bonfires of the vanities during his period of influence over Florence, but perhaps the most famous was the one which took place on Mardi Gras in 1497, when hundreds of works of art, books, and other objects were burned in the Piazza della Signoria, the large square in front of the city hall. During this conflagration, and in the ones which preceded it, we can assume that many bad things were destroyed, which were indeed occasions of sin for some people: objects associated with gambling, pornography, drunkenness, and so on. Yet many beautiful things which were not evil in themselves were also destroyed, including secular works by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, as well as Greek and Roman antiquities, musical instruments and compositions, and works of poetry, drama, and literature.

True, not everything was destroyed that could have been; some objects remained out of the hands of the contrite artists who created them, or the mobs which Savonarola sent about the city finding this sort of kindling were not able to locate as many of these things as they might have liked. Imagine the loss to Western Civilization for example, if Botticelli’s iconic “Birth of Venus”, or his glorious procession of Greek gods in “La Primavera” had been destroyed, as they surely would have been if Savonarola had gotten his hands on them. Yet we do know that the great painter Fra Bartolomeo burned just about everything he had painted that was not of a sacred subject, and the loss to our culture of secular work from the hand of this brilliant draftsman is an incalculable one.

I have always loathed Savonarola, not because he was actually wrong about many of the excesses of the church and society in his day, but because of his arrogance and his methods, particularly with regard to encouraging the destruction of art.  It strikes me that something similar is going on in Naples at the present time.  The thinking behind Savonarola’s actions, and that behind the actions of the Casoria gallery, appear to be quite different, superficially. The former is ostensibly about conversion from sin, while the latter is about government funding of the arts. Yet ironically enough, both are expressions of personal vanity on the part of those advocating these extreme measures.

Rather than being what he ought to have been, an inspiring, fiery preacher, with a sense of his own personal humility as a created being and remembering his vow of religious obedience made before God, Savonarola set himself up as the ultimate arbiter of Christian orthodoxy, which he must emphatically was not. In the process of consolidating his temporal power and encouraging his followers to adhere more closely to his personal cult, he fostered a kind of reverse iconoclasm, where the only acceptable art was Christian in nature. And as devout a Christian as I am, I cannot imagine a world without portraits by Sargent, landscapes by Corot, still lifes by Zurbarán, and so on. The result was a cultural disaster, more designed to show the personal power of Savonarola over his subjects – who later rebelled and executed him – than to encourage a universal good.

In the case of the Casoria gallery, a museum director who genuinely cared about the art under his care would not be setting that work on fire, were he in fact acting selflessly in this matter. I suspect that this sort of stunt does nothing to tug on either the heart- or purse strings of the average, rational Italian citizen. The man in the street probably finds most of the type of art shown at the Casoria rubbish anyway, and is more concerned about not being able to pay his rising utility bills, or that his children cannot find a job, given the poor state of the economy at present.

These actions on the part of the Casoria are a perfect embodiment of the maxim against cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Chances are a pencil-pushing, number-crunching government bureaucrat in Rome, who has to make decisions about budgetary matters for a living, is not someone who is going to care very much if some ugly works of art are burned in the street by a publicity hound in Naples. If the goal is somehow to hold the Italian government hostage until it finds more money which it does not have, then I suspect a great deal more art will be burned at the Casoria before something is done.

At the end of the day, this bizarre publicity stunt is a new, fully secular incarnation of the age-old bonfire of the vanities as practiced by Savonarola and his regime. The stated intent of the old practice was to encourage the sinner to reform his life; the stated intent of the new is to encourage funding of the arts: both are good ends in and of themselves. Yet the means by which these ends are being sought say more about the egos and desire for personal fame of those coordinating these efforts, than about the causes which they claim to be advocating.


“The Execution of Savonarola” by Unknown Artist (1498)
Museum of San Marco, Florence.