ArtOdysseys: In search of Michelangelo
|Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling. All photos property of EuroTravelogue™ unless noted. This photo only: WikiMedia.org.|
Welcome to ArtOdysseys—a new series that combines my love of travel with discoveries in art along my wanderings in Europe. Wherever the road or river may lead, one of my missions has been and always will be to seek out artful experiences through museums, landscapes, architecture and the people. Previously, I have published these posts under ArtSmart Roundtable, however, my odyssey begins anew and with each post, I hope to enlighten and inspire!
|Michelangelo Buonarroti by Jacopino del Conte c. 1535. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Most apropos to the title of this new series is the subject of my first article—"In Search of Michelangelo," one man's odyssey to discover one man's legacy. I'll never forget the first time we studied the Sistine Chapel and the "David;" appearing to me only in textbooks however I was instantly awe-struck and I knew that I needed to depart on my own odyssey to experience the captivating works of Michelangelo. From the "Pietà" to the "David" and from the "Doni Tondo" to the Sistine, his legacy remains unchallenged to this day and I wanted to see it all. It's ironic how life imitates art in this journey, the same journey that Michelangelo traveled in his life—between Rome and Florence—two cities that epitomize and have become synonymous with the name of Michelangelo, would be the same journey I would travel as well. It doesn't get more authentic than this! While it would take volumes to highlight all of his works, I plan to feature the highlights, my personal encounters with his masterpieces. Our odyssey begins!
It is here where we begin our search for Michelangelo, not necessarily in chronological order but the order of my journey and it all started at Saint Peter's Basilica.
Saint Peter's Basilica—Cupola
|Michelangelo's Cupola at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.|
Upon on my approach to the center of Christianity, the dome of Saint Peter's is a beacon to 1 billion Christians around the world. When I first spotted the unmistakable dome, my thoughts raced back in time to my studies of Michelangelo. I knew that my odyssey would start here—Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy.
Did you know among his many talents, Michelangelo was an architect? Appointed Supreme Architect by Pope Paul III in 1547 after Pope Julius II's reign, Michelangelo, 71 at the time, led the effort to complete the basilica. After improving upon Bramante's design for the structural walls that would eventually support the dome, Michelangelo began construction on one of his greatest triumphs—the cupola—the crowning jewel of the basilica that would forever change the skyline of Rome. Sadly, he never lived to see it completed in 1590.
|Interior view of Saint Peter's Cupola.|
Soaring to a height of 448 feet (136 meters), the dome of Saint Peter's continues to evoke awe as you look on high to the elaborate design of its interior, and still further into the illuminated windows of the lantern that frequently reflect "crepuscular rays" or God rays (columns of sunlight broken by shadows)—thus bathing the interior of the basilica in a heavenly light, literally. Be sure to climb to the top for spectacular views of Bernini's Baldacchino over the altar. Then brace yourself for jaw-dropping views of Rome once you're outside. It will take your breath away, I promise! Gaze upon Bernini's elliptical colonnades that open their arms to welcome in Rome.
|Rome unfolds before your eyes when you emerge onto the rooftop after your ascent to the top of the cupola at Saint Peter's Basilica.|
Saint Peter's Basilica—Pietà
|The Pietà inside Saint Peter's Basilica.|
Returning to the inside of the basilica, we find the Pietà. Commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères who requested that Michelangelo create the most beautiful sculpture in Rome for his tomb in Saint Peter's, the Pietà is undeniably the most beautiful sculpture I have seen. It was completed by Michelangelo when he was only 24 years old and although intended as a funerary monument, its impact is undiminished in its relatively new home where it has stood since the 18th century—the first chapel on the right after you enter the basilica. When I first encountered the Pietà, I couldn't help but be overcome by a range of emotions from sheer delight to profound melancholy as my eyes wandered from a grieving Mary to her Son Jesus lifeless and cradled in her arms—an exquisite verisimilitude, a moment of truth rendered by the master Michelangelo evident in Mary's left hand as she gestures to us to behold the ultimate sacrifice made to save man.
|Sistine Chapel in all of its glory.|
Undoubtedly my most anticipated encounter in my search for Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel (awesome virtual tour) and all of the treasures within this formidable fortress. One of the greatest works of art ever created, the ceiling of the Sistine ceiling is Michelangelo's masterful tribute to the creation of the world—from paganism to Christianity—it's all here. Undeniably a moment of euphoria as soon you enter, your eyes are drawn to the ceiling. Suddenly the figures come to life and you're in standing beneath its immense yet intimidating beauty because there is so much to absorb, to study, to understand. In awe, we fall to our knees humbled. The very first time I saw the ceiling, so many mixed emotions stirred within and I silently wept.
|Close-up view of panel 4 - God breathes life into Adam with the touch of His finger. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
|Figures come alive as seen in this view of ceiling after restoration. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
But let's take a closer look at its organization, and perhaps distill what appears at first to be chaos but as we will soon discover, an ordered design. Starting from the altar, above the "Last Judgment," is Genesis. In a series of nine panels across the spine of the ceiling, Michelangelo illustrates "creation" of heaven and earth (panels 1-3); the "rise and fall of man" (panels 4-6); and ending with the "sin of man" (panels 7-9). Surrounding these panels are “Ignudi,” 20 nude male figures who appear contorted but nonetheless, stunning and beautiful! Prophets and Sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah comprise the area around the nine panels and if you look further into the four corner spandrels, you'll see the salvation of Israel. Filling in the remaining lunettes and spandrels on the lowest part of the ceiling are the ancestors of Christ (Eleazar, Jacob, Joseph, Josiah, etc.).
|Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" as seen above the altar inside the Sistine Chapel. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Twenty-four years after he completed the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo returned to paint the "Last Judgment" above the altar albeit this time, his fresco rendered a very different tonality that reflected tumultuous times at the end of the Renaissance—the Sack of Rome in 1527. In striking contrast to "Genesis," the beginning of time, the "Last Judgment" represents the end of time or the end of Christianity with the second coming of Christ when He judges all of mankind and separates those going to heaven (on Jesus' right), and those destined for hell (to His left). It's ironic that the end of the world is the last impression of the chapel before you exit; almost like a warning to be good as you go out unto the world—or else. One figure worthy of mention is Saint Bartholomew who holds his lifeless, almost Dalì-like flayed skin that some scholars believe is a self portrait of Michelangelo. Nonetheless, this fresco is quite stunning to behold.
San Pietro in Vincoli—Moses
After Saint Peter's and the Sistine, I was off to the Colosseum in search of "Moses" in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), named for its relic—fragments of the actual chains that bound Saint Peter during his trials in Jerusalem. But I was here for another reason, to see Michelangelo's "Moses"—a remarkably lifelike and exquisite sculpture of the Old Testament prophet who freed the slaves from Egypt. According to legend, so my guide book stated, Michelangelo was so astonished by his finished sculpture that he struck Moses' knee with a hammer and exclaimed "now speak." This is one piece of marble I just had to see in person.
|"Moses" by Michelangelo decorates the tomb of Pope Julius II inside Saint Peter's in Vincoli (chains). Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
As soon as I arrived, I noticed the church to be quite empty, much to my delight! To think that I had a sculpture of this caliber and with such historical significance all to myself was a thrill indeed. What I loved about San Pietro is that I had the chance to get up close and personal to this extraordinary piece, practically within hand's reach, to examine the chiseled and highly polished features of Moses—took my breath away.
So why does Moses have horns? That's probably the first question anyone asks as did I. As it turns out, it's due to the fact that when Moses returned from this second receiving of the Ten Commandments, he was described in Hebrew as being with "karan ohr" or "rays of light," but depending on the pronunciation of the three consonants in the word "karan," it could be misinterpreted as "horn" instead of "rays of light." Hence, many biblical figures are rendered with horns; and now you and I know why!
Originally intended for Pope Julius II's ill-fated tomb under the dome of Saint Peter's, the statue still decorates Julius' tomb but in a more modest location due to the fact that the Pope's heirs abandoned the prospect of the more elaborate tomb that Julius II and Michelangelo both envisioned. Although a former shadow of its grandiose self, it impresses nonetheless!
Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio)
|Aerial view of Capitoline Hill in Rome. Photo: Google Earth.|
And so my odyssey continues east. Once the ancient capital of Rome and former site of the Temple of Jupiter, Capitoline Hill was one of many of Michelangelo's architectural ventures in Rome. Thanks to Pope Paul III (Pope from 1534-1549), instead of sculpture and painting, Michelangelo shifted his attention to architectural design in the last decades of his life.
|Michelangelo's design for Capitoline Hill. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
By the time of the Renaissance, Capitoline Hill fell into disrepair so Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to transform what was the most important hill in Rome at the time. Michelangelo not only redesigned the layout of the piazza, he added another building to offset the Conservator's Palace (on the right as you enter the piazza), relocated the statue of Marcus Auerlius from San Giovanni to the its center, and reversed its orientation from old Rome (due east to the Roman Forum) to the emerging new city (due west).
|Climbing up Michelangelo's stairway ramp at Campidoglio in Rome.|
Climb up the long ramp of stairs, also designed by Michelangelo, and stand in the center of the piazza. Notice how the terrain is slightly convex to convey a sense of standing on top of the world, and the geometric pattern in the pavement, yes another of his designs although added in the 19th century, appears to be lines of latitude and longitude to enhance the effect of being on top of the world. Directly ahead is the Senate building, also redesigned by Michelangelo with the addition of the river gods, sculptures representing the Nile and the Tiber rivers. During my first visit to Rome, I stumbled upon this piazza after exiting the Roman Forum and so glad that I did. Be sure to take your time here and revel in the fact that the place you're standing is caput mundi!
Florence—imbued with the spirit of Michelangelo
Our odyssey continues north to the Renaissance capital of the world—Florence. The entire city is imbued with the spirit of Michelangelo from the Uffizi and Accademia galleries to San Lorenzo and Santa Croce—his final resting place.
Uffizi Gallery—"Doni Tondo"
|Michelangelo's "Doni Tondo." Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
We begin at the Uffizi with one of my all-time favorite paintings—the "Doni Tondo," the only panel painting ever created by Michelangelo (although there is much debate whether or not two incomplete paintings at the National Gallery in London should be considered). This portrait of the Holy Family, completed in 1508, was painted for Agnolo Doni and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi, wealthy Florentine merchants who typically commissioned their work from Raphael.
Pushing the "edge of the canvas," so to speak, Michelangelo demonstrates bold attempts at new ideas in how he renders the Holy Family and places them in this very nontraditional pose. Look how contorted Mary is as she twists around to grab the Baby Jesus. Note her exposed arms as well. Never before have we seen them presented to us in this manner—reminiscent of the style that Michelangelo painted the Sibyls in the Sistine ceiling if you recall. Could the background nudes be forerunners to the ignudi? Overall, the "Doni Tondo" represents the emergence of Christianity—from its pagan roots, represented by the nudes in the background to the Holy Family in foreground, and poor John the Baptist is in between two worlds and the only one looking at the Holy Family.
Here's a thought. Could the "Doni Tondo" have been a prelude to the Mannerism period of European art? It seems to be filled with some of the same characteristics that define the period: tension, instability.
Accademia—the Prisoners and the David
|Michelangelo's "Captives": L to R: "Bearded Slave," "Atlas." Photo: Courtesy of Accademia.org. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
And this was my second my most anticipated encounter in my search for Michelangelo—the "David." On your approach to this classic beauty, you pass through a hallway of "unfinished" sculptures that he completed in the latter part of his life. Paling in comparison to the beautifully sculpted "David," these figures are nonetheless equally fascinating. Let me introduce you to the four "Captives" or "non-finito" originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II: the "Bearded Slave," the "Atlas," the "Awakening Slave" and the "Young Slave." All appear to be struggling from their prisons of stone. Often overlooked in one's haste to see "David," make sure you stop by these pieces to examine them closely. You'll have a new appreciation for the extraordinary effort it takes to sculpt—chisel marks remain from the hand of the master himself. Astonishing!
|Michelangelo's "Captives": L to R: "Awakening Slave," "Young Slave." Photo: Courtesy of Accademia.org. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
But is this how Michelangelo intended them to be seen? Debated to the point of exhaustion is the fact whether Michelangelo left them in their current state or are they truly "non-finito." We'll probably never know. Upon his death, his nephew Leonardo presented the "Captives" to Grand Duke Cosimo I who installed them in the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace where they remained until 1909.
More on these "prisoners of stone" at Accademia.org.
And now the "David" ...
|Does this really need a caption? The "David." Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Rising high above the throngs of spectators who surround the pedestal like bees to a hive, Michelangelo's "David" is a colossal masterpiece of marble perfection that captures the moment in time when David first glimpses the mighty Goliath. Through his chiseled visage and musculature with protruding veins, you sense the mounting tension coursing through his body as he reaches back to his sling and prepares to slay his fearsome foe! This remarkably lifelike giant, 17 feet tall, is even more incredible when you see it in person. From the pages of my books to experiencing the work in living color, I remained awe-struck as I gazed upon its sheer size—overwhelming in so many respects.
|A replica of the "David" now stands in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy.|
|Close-up view of David's chiseled features on the replica standing in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy.|
Michelangelo completed the "David" in 1504 when he was 29 years old and presented the sculpture to the city of Florence on September 8th of the same year. Originally intended to be one of 12 Old Testament sculptures that would decorate the top of the buttresses at the rear of Santa Maria del Fiore, David's final resting place was outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria where it remained until 1873 when the city of Florence moved the "David" to his new home at the Accademia—the Tribuna completed in 1882—due to weathering and erosion. Here, the "David" is magnificently framed and lit within the ornamental embellishments replete with arches, columns and a dome of light! Unfortunately pictures are not allowed but that didn't bother me actually because I had more time to be "one" with this stunning work of art before me.
Did you know?
|Replica of Michelangelo's "David" at the Piazzale Michelangelo in Oltrarno. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
The statue of "David" inside the Accademia Gallery is actually one of three "Davids" that reside in Florence. There is the replica in the Piazza della Signoria where the original once stood as well as another high atop the hills in Oltrarno in the Piazzale Michelangelo.
While my travels through Florence did not permit enough time to seek out more of Michelangelo's works, I encourage you to visit San Lorenzo where you'll find the magnificent Medici Chapel and the monumental Laurentian Library. The former is the final resting place for Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours and Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino; both of whom are not to be confused with the renowned Medici ancestors whom Michelangelo associated with in his earlier life. However, their tombs look upon the tomb of the more famous Medici family members.
|The Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
|Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemourstest (1526-1533). Photo: Web Gallery of Art. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
Also part of the San Lorenzo complex, the Laurentian Library was designed to house and preserve the incredible collection of Medici books and manuscripts. Michelangelo was faced with the challenge of adding a third floor to an already existing building of questionable stability. Of course, he overcame his challenge and once inside the entrance, a 3-story vestibule leading into the library; you'll revel in the elaborate architectural appointments composed mostly of pietra serena (serene stone) quarried just outside Florence.
|The 3-story vestibule welcomes visitors to the Laurentian Library. Photo: Web Gallery of Art. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
|Santa Croce in Florence—the final resting place of Michelangelo.|
And so my search comes to an end, here in Santa Croce where I finally found my Michelangelo and his final resting place, a magnificent tomb designed by Giorgio Vasari with a bust of the artist at the top and below, allegorical figures personifying Sculpture, Painting and Architecture; all of whom are filled with sorrow at the loss of one of the greatest creative minds to ever grace humanity!
|Michelangelo's tomb inside Santa Croce in Florence, Italy.|
|Close-up view of Michelangelo's tomb: Sculpture, Painting and Architecture personified appear below the creative genius at top. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Know before you go:
- Reserve your Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel tickets in advance to avoid the extremely long queues. Visit Vatican Museum Online Ticket Office for more information. Also, there are a number of guided tours for the best of all worlds—access to the museum and chapel plus the benefit of your personal guide. I personally recommend either Viator.com and Roman Odyssey. There is one special tour I'd like to mention—the Scavi Tour of the Tomb of Saint Peter and the Necropolis below Saint Peter's Basilica. It's magnificent! Check out the Vatican Excavations Office for more information about booking these limited tours.
- Once again, I urge you to pre-purchase your museum tickets. Check out Viator.com for tours that include both museums plus a walking tour of the city centre. I booked a combo tour on my first visit and it was a great introduction to the city and to each of the galleries. Or you can book them separately at any number of Florence-museum-ticket websites including Uffizi.org, Accademia.org, and Weekend in Italy. Be sure your ticket includes a reservation for a specific time to visit. This way, you'll skip to the head of the line and walk right in. One last bit of advice. If you're staying in Florence, some hotels can book your reservations for you and save you the extra money. Be sure to check with them.