Saturday, May 26, 2018

Michelangelo and Pope Paul III Background Story - Michelangelo and the Vatican Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples - Essay


"...his unwavering belief that Michelangelo was as much saint as genius, 'infused with divine grace,' can be tiresome..."


Michelangelo and Pope Paul III Background Story - Michelangelo and the Vatican Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

On the topic of Michelangelo, always begin with Vasari.  Admittedly, Vasari's unwavering belief that Michelangelo was as much saint as genius, “infused with divine grace,” can be tiresome nevertheless with Vasari there are treasures to be found.

Here is an example: Not long before Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel’s The Last Judgement, his patron Pope Paul III asked a sanctimonious Vatican bureaucrat named Biagio da Cesena what he thought of the painting. Biagio replied it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should be depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.

Predictably, the comment annoyed Michelangelo, so he took revenge by painting Biagio’s portrait in the lower part of the composition, among “the heap of devils in hell,” portraying him as Minos with ass’s ears and a foul serpent wrapped around his loins. No amount of pleading with Michelangelo or the Pope succeeded in getting the figure removed.

Framed against Vasari’s narrative, Michelangelo’s below-the-waist placement of the serpent in Biagio’s portrait tells me the artist’s personality was more complex than Walter Pater insinuated when he borrowed from Dante to describe an individual who “willfully lived in sadness.” Yes, the genius was plagued by sadness, also excessively cantankerous and devout, but he seems to have had a sense of humor.

I’m partial to another tale by Vasari for its glimpse of papal officiousness: Pope Paul III brought ten cardinals with him to Michelangelo’s house to commission the fresco. Ten! What a splendid sight it must have been, that many puffed-up Princes of the Church in robes. Did the cardinals walk through the mud to 8 Macel de Corvi? It’s more likely they rode in coaches, or perhaps palanquins, which meant their bearers walked through the mud, although I’ve read that Paul III enjoyed strolling around Rome to inspect his building projects. After groveling before the Pope, Michelangelo surely kissed the hands of all ten cardinals.

When Paul III saw Michelangelo’s preliminary drawings for The Last Judgement he insisted the artist paint the chapel fresco. For thirty years he had harbored the ambition of Michelangelo working for him, and he would arrange for Michelangelo’s other projects to be over with, and after all he warned, he was the Pope. Persuaded, Michelangelo agreed to paint The Last Judgement.

Soon after the fresco’s completion, Marcello Venusti made a large-scale copy of "The Last Judgement." Thank the gods he did. It wasn’t long before subsequent popes with little appreciation for art and hysterical objection to nudity condemned the fresco as vulgar and dickered with it. Pope Paul IV for example, a blindly orthodox dogmatic lunatic who said he would burn his own father if caught practicing sodomy or other heresies, called the fresco a “stew of nudes” and told Michelangelo to re-paint, he refused. In 1564 Pius IV hired Daniele da Volterra to make the fresco more proper, and for painting loincloths on nude figures Volterra came to be called “il braghetonne” (the britches maker). The fresco was filth, thought several other popes who ordered further over-painting, so it turns out Venusti’s copy is the reason we know Michelangelo’s original images, his nude Saint Peter for instance and his nude Saint Catherine.

Remarkably, you can see Venusti’s 1549 copy of "The Last Judgement" in Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s exhibition Michelangelo and the Vatican: Masterworks from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples which closes on June 10. Hurry! “Just a few days left,” the Museum has been reminding us.

"Michelangelo and the Vatican" features 40 artworks from the 16th century, many of which were commissioned or completed during the papacy of Pope Paul III. Except to say that Titian’s 1543 portrait of Paul III is so beautifully articulated one expects His Holiness to bark orders, I won’t discuss the drawings, cartoons, paintings, sculpture, and prints by Michelangelo and his predecessors and successors, including Raphael, Rubens, Tintoretto, and Titian. Others have done that. Instead I want to give a tiny bit of background on Paul and Michelangelo, because it’s so bloody interesting.

Was Paul III pleased with the completed "Last Judgement" fresco? Hell yea. Paul was overwhelmed by the beauty of its vigorously modeled Mannerist style nude figures in motion, as well as its spiritual message of salvation and damnation which served Counter-Reformation purposes. According to biographers, at the time the fresco was unveiled in 1541 the Pope fell to his knees and cried “Lord, charge me not with my sins when thou shalt come on the Day of Judgement.”

Divine judgement was a relatively recent concern. Worldly young Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had lived a princely lifestyle with his mistress and four or five children, and through brilliant nepotism had managed to elevate his extended brood. However, before becoming Pope he became acutely aware of the fact that the church was at risk of going down the toilet if something wasn’t done to reform it internally and to counter the Protestant Reformation. So he discontinued carnal relations and otherwise cleaned up his act, “abandoned his most questionable secular habits,” is how Christopher Hibbert put it.

Paul III’s pontifical challenge was two headed. Internally things were rotten, the selling of indulgences was one of many corrupt ecclesiastical practices that needed to be addressed. Equally appalling were assaults from the outside, consider Luther’s scathing rants that the Roman church and papacy were whore and antichrist, and Henry VIII’s unspeakable challenges to Rome’s supremacy, indeed Paul would excommunicate corpulent Henry when he stole all those monasteries. Particularly vile had been the 1527 sack of Rome. The attackers were mercenaries from Spain and Naples, along with “Lutherans,” all hired by Charles V to steal Papal territory. Unpaid and starving, they pillaged Rome’s churches and palaces, robbed papal tombs, stole relics, tortured, raped, slaughtered, and decimated the population. Unprecedented savagery.

Art played a part in the Pope’s reform. In the same manner that he convened the 1545 Council of Trent to hash out clerical misbehavior and Protestantism, Paul III commissioned art such as "The Last Judgement" to inspire doctrinal devotion. He followed with the Pauline Chapel’s frescos, "Conversion of Paul" and the "Crucifixion of Peter" in which Michelangelo painted his own face onto Peter. The Museum’s exhibition features a large scale preparatory drawing of Roman soldiers for the "Crucifixion of Peter."

Chapel frescoes aside, Paul III and Michelangelo collaborated on architectural projects, which in my opinion helped to make Rome eternal, or at least the place to which I’ll always return even if it’s a pain in the ass. Push aside the fact that Paul III was a ruthless warrior, no different from Julius II and his other medieval predecessors, and overlook the fact that exalted architecture is indisputably a power symbol. Paul’s taste in architecture was remarkable. By his request Michelangelo reconfigured the design of St. Peter’s majestic dome and apse (related engravings are in the Museum’s exhibition), Paul had made Michelangelo official Vatican architect.

I’m more moved by their secular projects. Michelangelo’s design for the Farnese Palace is both imperious and human. There is a grand fussy aura to its classically styled courtyard arcade and colonnaded atrium, but features such as the lion faces along the cornice make it approachable. And if the Farnese Palace’s ornately carved marble coat-of-arms with papal tiara is the most pretentious plaque in Rome, arguably this is because Michelangelo was designing Rome’s largest private palazzo.

In due course they focused on the Capitoline Hill, where the ancient Temple of Jupiter had stood, and the artist’s design for it surpasses in beauty the Farnese Palace. Michelangelo designed Piazza del Campidoglio to be monumental, yet feel intimate. Every time I enter the square and see the three palaces, stairways, fountain, equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, and the elegant oval and star pavement design, I can understand why H. V. Morton called it the most perfect spot in Rome.

Quick word about papal grandiosity. Pope Julius II, a predecessor of Paul III, could be a demanding son of a bitch, and when Michelangelo refused Pope Julius’s request to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it wasn’t his kind of art the artist whined, Julius’s forcefulness which included threats to throw him off the scaffolding frightened Michelangelo into completing the project, which when completed brought the High Renaissance style of painting to perfection in Rome. Unbridled hubris is good. It caused Julius to commission Rome’s most important architectural monument, the Renaissance-era St. Peter’s constructed over Constantine’s 325 AD St. Peter’s basilica, which was why Paul III and Michelangelo had a dome to design. In the same vein, self-glorification inspired Julius II to finagle possession of two of the Vatican’s most important marble sculptures from antiquity, "Belvedere Torso" and "Laocoön and His Sons," this second one a primary source of inspiration for Michelangelo.

The story of Michelangelo witnessing the 1506 excavation of that ancient marble statue after Felis de Fredis discovered it in his vineyard on the Esquiline Hill is worthy of being repeated. Bewitched by its sculptural treatment of writhing struggling muscular nude figures wrapped by a serpent, Michelangelo spent the rest of his life artistically responding to it with carved and painted male nudes. Worshipful of beauty as well as splendor, Pope Julius II understood what had been found in the vineyard, two seconds after "Laocoön’s" discovery the Pope strong-armed it away from Fredis in exchange for a pension, and presumably a tomb in S. Maria in Aracoeli, which turns out to be the same church in which Gibbon claims he got the epiphany to write "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

I thank Christopher Hibbert for his story about Julius ordering a procession to carry the statue through the streets of Rome, bedecked with flowers, with church bells ringing and a choir singing. Don’t miss the irony in papal pageantry over snatching for his collection the most valuable pagan sculpture in the ancient world.

Although not known for grandiosity, I once encountered a pope. Heading to Perugia, I stopped in Rome to see the Scavi which is the excavated archaeological site under St. Peter’s which contains the saint’s tomb and an immense ancient Roman necropolis, and can be visited if you make a reservation. While I waited to enter the Scavi, Swiss Guards began to make official noises, and I heard someone say “they do that when the Holy Father is nearby.” There he was, a few feet away, Pope John Paul II, seated in the back of a sedan, his face bent toward the window, his hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. Stunned, I pointed my finger and blurted “holy shit!”


Image - Tiziano Vecello, called Titian, Portrait of Pope Paul III, 1543, oil on canvas, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples. Courtesy of MFA,H.

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