Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

For the last few months, I've limited my reading to materials to get ready for my tour of Europe, which starts today.  This morning, I finished Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King.  There is entirely too much information in the book for me to get it all in one blog post, especially with the time constraint of a plane to catch.  So, here's the post on the first half of the book.   

Michelangelo was 15 when he began to study sculpture, 21 when he was commissioned to do the Pieta, and 29 when he sculpted the 17' high David.  Up to this point, he had been a sculptor.  In 1504, he and Leonardo da Vinci were hired by Florence to fresco opposing walls in the Palazzo della Signoria.  The two artist did not like each other.  Both artists created their cartoons (templates) for the fresco, but Michelangelo never started his fresco due to being called to Rome to work by Pope Julius to work on a sculpture for his tomb.  Leonardo began his fresco using an experimental painting method that did not work.  Hence, neither of these frescos exist.

After going to Rome to sculpt Julius's tomb and even ordering the marble, Michelangelo's task set by Julius was changed to work on the Sistine Chapel.  Julius's uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, built the chapel in 1477.  It is the chapel used for the papal conclave to elect a new pope.  The building's proportions match the Temple of Solomon.  In 1480, Lorenzo de Medici sent a team of painters, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel.  At this point, a fresco of blue sky with gold stars was painted on the vault.  Due to unstable foundation soil, the building shifted causing cracks and gaps in the ceiling fresco.  One of Pope Julius's projects was the repair and restoration of his uncle's chapel.  He commanded Michelangelo to remove the old ceiling fresco and repaint it with scenes from the Bible.  Michelangelo was not happy with this commission, because he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.  In fact, he was only known to have painted one work prior to this and had very little experience in the difficult medium of fresco.  When he began work on the first scene, The Flood, he made an error that required that he scrap away over one month's work and start over.  The area left after the scraping, which shows a group of people huddled under a tent, is the oldest part of the ceiling paintings.

For subject matter, Michelangelo chose Old Testament prophets and the ancestors of Christ for the spaces around the vault.   Not all of the spaces were filled with Biblical subjects.  There are some figures from pagan history.   For the vault, he chose numerous Genesis scenes.  His total work would encompass more than 150 separate paintings including more than 300 individual figures.  The estimated number of preparatory drawings is over 1,000.  Michelangelo was a follower of Savonarola, whose teachings of judgement and punishment influenced Michelangelo's choice of subject matter.  

During the years that Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel, he dealt with numerous outside stresses.  Pope Julius spent most of the time warring against the French and other Italians.  Michelangelo's family gave him no end of grief.  His father had been disappointed, to say the least, with Michelangelo's choice of profession, but he had no qualms about living off the proceeds of his son's work.  In fact, a couple of times, his father took money from Michelangelo's bank account without permission.   As if these problems weren't distracting enough, a rival artist, whom Michelangelo did not like, was hired to fresco the pope's apartments in the Sistine Chapel while Michelangelo frescoed the ceiling.  This artist, Raphael, was a beautiful, charming, extroverted ladies man, while Michelangelo was a misanthrope who rarely bathed.  Michelangelo was so screwed up about women that he wouldn't even use women models.  I find this strange, considering that he was so interested in verisimilitude that he dissected corpses to see how the body was made.

Michelangelo became much more comfortable and proficient in fresco as the work progressed, in fact, working free hand sometimes and working so fast he left bristles in some of the paint.  There was a point when the ceiling was about half finished when the scaffolding was dismantled to be reinstalled under the remaining half.  This was the first time that anyone, including Michelangelo, had been able to view the frescos from the floor.  After this viewing, Michelangelo changed his technique to include fewer, but larger, figures.  Once you know this, you can look at the ceiling and see exactly where this change occurred.    Many fascinating facts remain, but I've got a plane waiting on me, so I'll have to finish later.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Little Whitman for a Bad Day

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth....

Walt Whitman

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Two novels by Sarah Dunant

     Recently I have read two novels by Sarah Dunant:  The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan.  The first novel is set in Florence during the Renaissance, and the second in Venice during the mid 1500s.  While I learned some history and other interesting and unusual facts from both novels, I did not love either one.  Both times, at about the midpoint of the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish.  I’m not sure why, but neither book really captured me.  I liked The Birth of Venus better just because I enjoyed the plot more.   In the Company of the Courtesan had too much personal detail about the life of a courtesan and about the relationships between men and women.  (Guess the title should have been a hint to me--duh.)   Both novels did a good job of making me feel like I had been to another time and place. 

Some of the interesting facts I learned from the novels:

Wealthy Florentine families had their own chapels in their palazzos, and they hired artist (some famous and some not) to paint frescos in them.

I learned about how frescos are painted, which I am not going to explain here.

In order to keep the family wealth intact, only the first son was allowed to marry.  His new family stayed on in the family palazzo, and the family wealth and business were his.  The other sons had choices including:  university studies for law degrees, military service, and the priesthood, among others.  I guess this surfeit of unmarried, perfectly healthy men explains the thriving courtesan trade.

Florentine families could only afford dowries for their first and possibly second daughters.  One of the other daughters might be allowed to stay at home and serve as the governess for her married brother’s children.  The other daughters were sent to convents with or without their consent.

Noble girls and women were not allowed to go outside unattended.  They were not allowed to speak to unrelated men except in family-controlled situations.

Women were not allowed to be artists, regardless of their talent, but there was at least one situation in which a nun painted the fresco in a chapel at her convent.

In 1528, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, sacked Rome.  Many Romans fled to other Italian cities as refugees.

Venice was built on islands in a lagoon and has a combination of canals and alleys cutting through it.  A fondamenta is a street beside of a canal.

The Jews in Venice were confined to a ghetto and were used as bankers by the other Venetians.

Venice called itself the most serene republic, La Serenissima.  It was ruled by nobles, who elected a leader called a doge.  The doge was a noble.  He ruled at the pleasure of the nobles until he died.  To prevent one family from becoming the ruling family, when a doge died, his family was excluded from the next doge election.   The laws of the republic were enforced by the Council of Ten, which consisted of ten judges, the doge, and some noblemen.  They tried, convicted, and sentenced anyone accused of breaking laws.  Some of the laws regulated political and religious beliefs, so some people were executed for being on the wrong side of the government and/or the church.  Sometimes people were executed by drowning.  

The doge lived in the Doge’s Palace, where the government meetings, including trials, were held.  The prison holding accused criminals was also in the Doge’s Palace.  Along the outside facade of the palace are many statues.  One of the statues in the palace is a lion with his mouth open.  If a citizen wanted to accuse another citizen of breaking the law, he could write his accusation on a piece of paper and put it through the lion’s mouth.  

Venice served as a way-station for trade between east and west for many years.  This made her a rich city, but with the discovery of a trade route around Africa, her importance and wealth began to wane.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

Finding an enjoyable new mystery series is always an unexpected pleasure.  It’s sometimes especially hard for me because I don’t like to read about graphic violence or sex, and I can’t read anything too scary without having nightmares.  (I realize that last sentence makes me sound like either a prude or a ten year old, neither of which is true.)  Back to the point, I’ve discovered a new mystery series that I think I’m going to love.  The Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis is set in ancient Rome, so not only do you become immersed in a good plot, you also learn about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans.  The first book in the series is called The Silver Pigs, but it’s not about the oinking kind of pig.  The “good guy” characters are likeable, which is a requirement for me to really like a book.  I might enjoy a book or learn from it without liking the characters, but I find it difficult to rate a book a favorite if I can’t feel something positive about at least some of the characters.  Didius Falco is my kind of person:  good without pretense or piety, witty, sometimes sarcastic, and more than a little cynical.  The main female character, Helena Justina, I also like.  She’s left behind the life and marriage that were planned for her by her father because it was not the life she wanted, but she suffers silently for this break with conventionality. Throughout the book, I was pretty sure I knew who the villain was, but this plot transparency didn’t matter, because I was enjoying the other aspects of the book so much.  One interesting note:  until I was almost finished reading and looked at the author’s bio page, I thought the author was a man.  I’m not sure why; the book just felt like it had been written by a man.   I won’t have time right now to read the second book in the series, Shadows in Bronze, but it will definitely go on my To Be Read list

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King

Sometimes, upon reading the last sentence of a book, I feel like I need to start again at the very beginning.  In the case of Brunelleschi’s Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King, so much new-to-me information was presented that I feel like I don’t remember even a tenth of it.  One of the more straight-forward new pieces of information was that the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence took nearly 200 years to complete.  Besides the obvious technical challenges presented, the city of Florence had to deal with wars and plagues several times during the construction.  None of the people in charge of construction, including Brunelleschi, were trained architects.  The original planner’s model for the dome collapsed under its own weight.  Good thing he didn’t build the real one.  Many domes and towers of the time did collapse due to errors in planning or materials.  Obviously, we’ve never heard about them.  The whole building process of the cathedral sounds like a cobbled-together, seat-of-your pants operation.


Brunelleschi was a clockmaker and goldsmith, turned amateur painter, sculptor, and architect.  His father wanted him to be a notary.  Maybe father doesn’t always know best.  He built a model for the dome and won the competition to build it but didn’t have any recorded plans of how to build it.  The dome would be massive, on a scale of things just not done at that time.  Before even beginning on the dome, Brunelleschi spent 13 years, off and on, in Rome.  Rome had become a less-than-important, small city at this point, all its glory buried under years of rubble and rubbish.  People went there on pilgrimages, but at the insistence of the church, ignored the classical, pagan past and its ruins.  “To such pious Christians these ancient ruins were so much heathen idolatry…..  Antique images that had survived a millennium of earthquakes, erosion, and neglect were therefore deliberately trampled underfoot, spat on, or thrown to the ground and smashed to pieces.”  (p23)    Chalk up another instance of forward-thinking for the church.  Brunelleschi spent his time in Rome digging in ruins, studying the ancient art and architectural techniques.  He also re-discovered the mathematics behind perspective in art.


Eventually, Brunelleschi begins to work on the dome.  He will build two domes, nested one inside the other, without using the traditional wooden centering scaffolds.  The masons he hires will be expected to supply their own tools, their own food, and their own drink everyday.  Depending on how high up they are working, they will either be drinking wine or watered-down wine. God knows I would need wine to work up that high.  At least then you might not know if you fell.   They will not be allowed to descend during the day.   Brunelleschi will also be responsible for managing these myriad men without the convenience of standardized time – so no punching in and out.  Some of these men will die on the job – no OSHA, no workers comp, no health insurance benefits.  You get hurt, you and your family don’t eat.    None of them, including Brunelleschi, really knows if what they are doing will work.


Brunelleschi had to invent and build the lifting devices (hoists and cranes) he needed as the job progressed.  He had to intuit this knowledge.  The ancients had known these maths, but they had been lost during the Dark Ages and were not rediscovered until after he had already built his machines.  His hoists and cranes outlived him.  They were not removed from the dome until after his death.  In addition to the machines, he somehow figured out to lay the bricks in a herringbone pattern so that one row would support another as the bricks were being laid, and he had the dome built with a nine-tiered circular skeleton as support.  Even after the dome was finally completed, a massive lantern for the apex had to be designed and built.  This lantern required a different kind of hoist, which, of course, Brunelleschi invented and built.  The book has a great section describing how this lantern was used as a giant sundial and how the knowledge gained from this use improved navigation maps that were used by Columbus, but you’ll have to read the book to get all that.  I’m too tired to interpret it for you.


At the end of the book,  Ross King writes, “Indeed, in height and span the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore has never really been surpassed….  Not until the twentieth century were wider vaults raised, and then only by using modern materials like plastic, high-carbon steel, and aluminum….” (p163) 


And all this was accomplished by a short (5’ 4”), ugly, stinky, uneducated, secretive, suspicious, petty little unassuming Florentine man.    Short people rule.

Less Sure About Less

" And at fifty, Less muses drowsily, you're as likeable as you're going to get." I experienced a strange transitio...