Tag Archives: Michelangelo

The Renaissance, still a work in progress

If there ever was a sign that the Renaissance remains a work in progress, it could be the current efforts to complete Michelangelo’s design work on  the facade of Florence’s San Lorenzo Basilica. Construction  delays are not so unusual, but  this one has been going on now for  nearly 500 years.

Florence’s mayor, Matteo Renzi, wants to change that. He’s advocating completion of the long-abandoned work on that plain Jane facade almost everyone is accustomed to.

While the interior of the church remains one of the most magnificent in Italy,  the exterior is  decidedly ordinary with crude  masonry.  That was not the intention back in 1515 when Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to design a facade. Those Renaissance brick layers didn’t even bother to scrape away the excess mortar and smooth out the gaps between the blocks.

Michelangelo made some sketches and built wooden model, but the Pope halted the project before incurring the expense of hauling in the blocks of white marble from Carrara.

Instead of completing the facade, the Pope decided to use the money to build  a magnificent mausoleum for his own Medici family relatives’ remains. Today, you’ll the Medici Mausoleum attached to the rear of the church.

This would not be the first time a facade was added to one of Florence’s major churches hundreds of years after it was completed. The multi-hued pink and green marble face of the main cathedral, Santa Maria Fiore, otherwise known as “The Duomo”, was added to the structure in the 19th Century. This facade was in a gothic revival style what would have appalled Renaissance era Florentines.  To this day, the public reception of that  facade reception remains mixed, some saying it reminds them of a zebra in striped pajamas.

So,  it shouldn’t be too surprising. idea of restarting the facade project is  being beset with some controversy. Some people are not comfortable with the change. The design for San Lorenzo and  may be true to the Renaissance and may be 500 years old, there’s no denying that the church’s present appearance is its historical appearance.

No longer would the square in front of the church have quite thesame feel as it did in Michelangelo’s time.  Then again, it could be gratifying to see whatwould have been one of Michelangelo’s most significant works  brought to completion.  It could end up reminding us just how much the of Renaissance remains in play in our times.

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That madness and art thing

Madness is that low-hanging fruit in the Eden of our art and literary history.

I was going to save that line for the next in a series improvisational prose poems I want to do, but that will have to wait. The truth is that I’m not ready to do the poem today. Perhaps tomorrow. I have what we called in Journalism school, “more reporting to do” here. So, even if there is a poem in that, today I’m doing the non-fiction prose thing. Journalism. That is, reporting on Humanity’s long and sometimes misguided tradition of yoking madness with creative output.

Here goes: Van Gogh cut off his ear.

No, wait, everyone’s heard that story. Besides, the meme is problematical here. This narrative of madness-induced creativity reminds us that it sometimes ends with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The madness stopped Van Gogh’s paintings from coming. Hemingway never completed the short piece Jack Kennedy asked him to write for an inauguration reading. Old Robert Frost filled in with a reading of The Gift Outright. Same problem with Silvia Plath’s suicide, but not before she went to the trouble of letting us know that her affliction impeded her art, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time,” she said. “When I was crazy, that’s all I was.” So much for the crazy romanticizing.

Who else? Ezra Pound? He lived a long life, thanks in part to his madness having saved him from execution for treason. Some said it was feigned.

No, lets do this: There was a Florentine painter who claimed he could see a city or landscape in phlegm and blood stains. That’s crazy, no? He found these compositions on a wall that the sick and dying had coughed and spat upon. His neighbors talked, saying he lived more like a beast than a man. They could not help themselves from thinking that there was a connection with the half-human figures in the paintings.  Ever since then, men and women  have come and go talking about the madness of Piero di Cosimo, 1452-1521.

Novelist George Eliot was among those who talked. After living in Florence in the 1860s, Eliot could not resist writing a historical novel about Florence. Perfectly understandable, of course. While she was writing her Florence novel, Romola, she could not resist giving Piero di Cosimo a crazed speaking part, tossing into the game some colorful madman eccentricities. A girl comes to Piero’s door with a basket of boiled eggs. Piero got to where he would only eat boiled eggs. He was so afraid of fire, he never cooked. He made one exception to that rule. He had to boil glue to seal the oils on his paintings, so he braved the fire for that, and while doing so he set out another pot to boil fifty eggs at a time. I particularly like the toads in Eliot places in his living room, and also the rabbit and roosting pigeons.

Before saying more about Piero di Cosimo, lets dig a little deeper into the history of this tradition of linking this madness thing with art and creativity.

Socrates, proclaimed, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, and are utterly eclipsed by inspired madmen.” Is this like, if you’re normal, don’t even bother? Stick to sales or accounting.

Poe bragged about being so touched. “Men have called me mad,” he said. “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”

Freud was in the game. After observing the body language of Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture in Rome, the doctor diagnosed the sculptor as laboring under a repressed rage against his patron Pope Julius II. Freud saw all that in the positioning of Moses’ marble foot, along with the way Moses fingers his beard. That sounds like a stretch, but it did turn out that Michelangelo eventually unleashed that rage on Pope. He nearly brained Julius with scaffold planks that he tossed from his high perch in the Sistine Chapel.

Coincidence or not, Sigmund Freud published his analysis of Moses-Michelangelo shortly after reading Giorgio Vasari’s artist biographies. Vasari was commenting at length on the peculiarities of many of the artists’ personal behavior. That was in the Sixteenth Century. Freud was writing about Michelangelo’s rage in 1914.

More recently, there’s the case of Martin Ramirez too. After being confined for decades in a mental institution, Ramirez became the poster boy for  artistis mental illness.  In 2008 a New York times article declared  Ramirez  “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”  Ok, he is good. Got that.   Now get this, the Wikipedia article on Ramirez leads with a line that reads, “Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) was a self-taught artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California.” See, Ramirez here is not an artist who happens to be mad, but a madman who makes art.

"Courtyard" by Martin Ramirez

We also have the poets weighing in their verse. Like Freud, some of them look at the art, and then think they see something of the artist’s mind.

Jean Valentine’s 2009 chapbook , Lucy, includes a poem called “Outsider Art”, about  Ramirez  and his art. In this case, Valentine acknowledges a whole lot more of the artist who happens to be insane, and gives him a place in our shared humanity. In the context of the rest of the chapbook, the Ramirez poem is among other poems thematically linked to “Lucy” a protohuman hominoid who died three million years ago. If Lucy is one of us, so is Ramirez.

Poet John Stone brings us back once last time here to Piero di Cosimo with “Forest Fire”, a meditation on the Cosimo painting of the same name. Just by making the painting the object of a poet’s attention, we are lead to wonder if “Forest Fire” has anything to do with Piero’s pathalogical fear of fire, or the beast-like nature that Giorgio Vasari claimed had strayed increasingly to the feral side over the course of his life. We wonder what, if anything, in the picture came out of the Rorschach visions of phlegm stains on a sickroom wall?

"Forest Fire" by Piero di Cosimo.

Vasari said Piero lived more like a beast than a man. Beast?  These words have lead to speculation about the Painting, “Forest Fire.” How can you help that when the painting is filled with beasts, one of which includes a pig with a half-human face, and a person with deer-like features.

Look here. Stone walks us back to a beastly primal myth time when people and animals were more alike. Lucy’s time, perhaps. The stories and pictographs of Native Americans sometimes speak of a myth time “when people and animals were not so different.” Stone observes in the painting:

A human snout
floats in the face of a swine.
A bearded man-deer nudges his doe.

Stone says all of them are “being” and because of the fire these beings are “being” driven out as the fully-formed humans discover the uses of fire. This brings on end of Eden and it’s low-hanging fruit. And so, Stone’s poem concludes with the expulsion:

…like God, Di Cosimo
conjured up a reason
to take it away.

–RS

(Thanks to Stefano Sandano, of Romanguide.com for passing along his take on Freud’s Moses of Michelangelo)

This post is dedicated to all my writer and poet friends who I met in those crazy days at the “Writers Asylum”.

David’s Broken Arm

During an anti-Medici rebellion on April 26, 1527, rioters occupied Florence’s Palazio Vecchio while soldiers battered the doors. The occupiers threw furniture off the parapets to repel soldiers on the ground. A bench tumbled down and struck the left arm of the statue of Michelangelo’s David, breaking it off in three pieces.

Giorgio Vasari, 16th Century biographer of the artists, tells the story. The pieces remained on the ground for days while fighting continued in the Piazza della Signoria. That is, until two boys worked their way through the brawling mob and soldiers to gather up the pieces. While most modern accounts say a new arm was carved and reattached to David, Vasari’s account claims the pieces were eventually reattached to the sculpture with copper nails.

Vasari also claims he was one of the two boys, “…who chlldren as they were, advanced into the Piazza without thinking of the dangers to which they thus exposed themselves, and from the midst of the soldiers on guard they gathered up the three pieces of that arm…”

The sculpture was eventually moved indoors to the Accademia in 1873, so the David that now stands besided the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy.

Other mishaps against the original include the following:

1512 damage to the base by lightning

· 1813 Broken finger on right hand.

· 1843 Broken toe.

· 1991 A disturbed Italian artist attacks the toes on the left foot with a hammer, saying he had been instructed to do so by La Bella Nana, the exquisitely beautiful model who posed for the 16th Century Venetian painter, Paolo Veronese.