Passion For Art

The Death Of Italian Art Brought About By People In Power Losing The Ability To See

The Death Of Italian Art Brought About By People In Power Losing The Ability To See

The effects on papal collections brought about by The Council Of Trent 1545 “If before the Last Judgement we are dazzled by splendour and fear, admiring on the one hand the glorified bodies and on the other those subjected to eternal damnation, we also understand that the entire vision is deeply permeated by one light and one artistic logic: the light and logic of the faith that the Church proclaims by confessing: I believe in one God … creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” (from the Homily pronounced by the Holy Father John Paul II on 8 April 1994). The mighty composition, painted by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, is centred around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment preceding that when the verdict of the Last Judgement is uttered (Matthew 25:31-46). His calm imperious gesture seems to both command attention and placate the surrounding agitation. It starts a wide slow rotary movement in which all the figures are involved. Excluded are the two upper lunettes with groups of angels bearing in flight the symbols of the Passion (on the left the Cross, the nails and the crown of thorns; on the right the column of the scourging, the stairs and the spear with the sponge soaked in vinegar). Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgement. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict. Some of them can be easily recognized: St Peter with the two keys, St Laurence with the gridiron, St Bartholomew with his own skin which is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo, St Catherine of Alexandria with the cogwheel and St Sebastian kneeling holding the arrows. In the centre of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets. On the left the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven (Resurrection of the flesh), on the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. Finally, at the bottom Charon with his oars, together with his devils, makes the damned get out of his boat to lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent. The reference in this part to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is clear. As well as praise, the Last Judgement also caused violent reactions among the contemporaries. For example the Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said that “it was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame and that it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns” (G. Vasari, Le Vite). The controversies, that continued for years, led in 1564 to the decision by the Congregation of the Council of Trent to have some of the figures of the Judgement that were considered “obscene” covered. The task of painting the covering drapery, the so-called “braghe” (pants) was given to Daniele da Volterra, since then known as the “braghettone”. Daniele’s “braghe” were only the first and in fact others were added in the following centuries. Such censorship spelt the end for Italian art In 1643 the British parliament, during its war with King Charles I, brought in an act to control books. John Milton was incensed and wrote his tract Areopagitica, defending free speech. What he asks parliament is: do you want to be like Catholic Italy with its stultifying censorship? Milton knew what he was talking about. He had travelled to Italy, spoken with its intellectuals. He quotes a real example of a papal “imprimatur”, or permission to publish – one of four papal licences that appear at the beginning of Galileo Galilei’s book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. As Milton knew, the imprimaturs sanctioning Galileo’s book turned out to mean nothing. Soon after it was published in 1632 he was tried in Rome by the Inquisition, threatened with torture, and terrorised into retracting his defence of the heretical theory that the Earth is in orbit around the sun.Milton knew these facts because he had met Galileo, “grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought”. Talking to Galileo and other Italian authors, he was proud to find they looked to England as a land of freedom, and was disturbed by their bleak analysis of “the servile condition into which learning among them was brought; that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits”. Milton’s claim that censorship and religion killed the Italian Renaissance contrasts with modern intellectuals’ readiness to doubt democracy, and even envy those who live in totalitarian regimes. In the 1970s, western writers wondered aloud if censorship was a creative goad for Czech novelists and poets. Today, we hesitate to defend free speech unequivocally and respect its religious enemies. The thing is, Milton was right. The Italian Renaissance was killed by the counter-reformation. It is a disturbing historical example of what can happen when religion gets its own way. Yet to see this, we need to see how Galileo himself was a Renaissance man – not a dry scientist, but one who was formed by Italian Renaissance art. Galileo was the first person to practise the scientific method, never accepting any theory until it was confirmed by experiment. In the 16th century Copernicus hypothesised that instead of being at the centre of the universe, the Earth went round the sun. But Copernicus didn’t offer any evidence; that came in the 1600s when Galileo made a telescope – not the first, but the best thus far – and turned it on the sky. He discovered sensational things: that the moon has a rough surface like the Earth’s, disproving the medieval belief that celestial bodies are “perfect”; that Jupiter has moons, suggesting that the Earth with its moon is merely an ordinary planet. The subversive implications of Galileo’s observations were obvious. After he published his illustrated report The Starry Messenger in 1610, he had to work in dialogue with the church. He was so famous he negotiated at the highest levels. Galileo got permission – contested at his trial – to explain the Copernican theory, so long as he did not endorse it. He wrote his 1632 Dialogue, too, in a way that formally obeys the church, giving the Copernican view through the mouth of a speaker who is answered by a champion of God’s intelligent design. And yet his true beliefs blaze through. The defender of church-sanctioned philosophy is called Simplicio, “simpleton”; the book that brought the Inquisition down on Galileo is an act of deliberate transgression, dripping with contempt. The fate of Galileo is one of the iconic stories of modern times. We think of it as a story about science. But in Renaissance Italy, there was no separation between art and science. Artists were at the forefront of scientific research – Leonardo da Vinci championed experiment a century before Galileo, and even anticipated, without a telescope, his observation that light reflected off the Earth illuminates the moon. Galileo refers to Da Vinci’s Precepts on Painting, which means he had access to Da Vinci’s notebooks. He praises Raphael and Titian, and uses Michelangelo as an image of the mystery of creation. Galileo’s science is itself visual. What is his great innovation? His use of the telescope. He put visual observation at the centre of science. His book The Starry Messenger tells its news in pictures, with engravings of the moon based on Galileo’s watercolours. It has pages full of pin-point black engravings of stars. You can see it on display next to Da Vinci’s notes at the British Library. And this week an exhibition opens at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, The Starry Messenger, which takes Galileo’s book as a starting point for an exploration of cosmic imagery in art. Galileo was an art lover – and when he came before the Inquisition in 1633, he was prosecuted by other art lovers. The centrality of this story to the world of baroque Rome has been censored from cultural history. Galileo was confronted by the Barberini family, patrons of Bernini, of the florid ecstatic style of the baroque. Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, commissioned Bernini’s Disney excesses that give the finishing touch to the interior of St Peter’s; and it was this Barberini Pope who took personal offence at Galileo’s Dialogue, believing some of Simplicio’s words parodied him. Which they doubtless do. When Galileo was silenced, you could see this as the triumph of the baroque way of seeing the world over the scientific tradition of the Renaissance. Look at Roman baroque art in this light. Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is an image of the universe: those blades of gold light that shoot from heaven manifest a divine truth that irradiates awkward evidence. Galileo’s ideas initially fascinated painters; Guercino depicts a telescope in his picture of the Sleeping Endymion. But with the condemnation of Galileo, art rejected science. The frescoes of counter-reformation Rome, overwhelming in their abundance and trompe l’oeil cleverness, create fictions of a divine universe, a mystical conception of space and time. Baroque Rome is fantastic – but it killed Italian art. The effervescence of Bernini led nowhere. The art of baroque painters owes nothing to observation, nothing to that loving examination of the visible that makes the art of Da Vinci or Titian, and the science of Galileo, so alive. Baroque art looses itself from nature and, for a moment, that is liberating – but compare any of it with the Renaissance and it is a fall. There is an exception. Caravaggio died just before the appearance of The Starry Messenger. His art is connected uncannily with the science of Galileo. Caravaggio restates, in his shocking art, the Renaissance scientific depiction of nature. (In fact, it seems very likely that he used some kind of lens or camera obscura, as David Hockney argues in his book Secret Knowledge.) Caravaggio helps us understand how Christians felt when Galileo proved the Earth was nothing special. In his Boy Bitten by a Lizard in the National Gallery, a street kid is investigating some fruit. The reflection of – apparently – a window and door in the glass vase alludes to optics, and makes me think of telescopes. The boy’s curiosity leads to a nasty discovery. I can’t help seeing the boy as a scientist, an investigator of nature. He explores the real world of tangible things, just as Galileo did – and finds something that makes him recoil in pain and horror. In 1633 Italy pulled back in fear from Galileo’s evidence that the Earth did not stand still at the centre of the universe, that celestial bodies were not perfect, that it looked very much as if our world was just one body among others. Nowadays, the knowledge a religious world view has to confront is even more unsettling, yet we live in a new baroque age of extravagant, and violent, religious assertion. We have lessons to learn from the way religion, as Milton saw, “damped the glory of Italian wits”.

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February 24, 2010 - Posted by | Articles | , , , , ,

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