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Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Renaissance Rat Race

Artists have times, seemingly, when they can't give their work away, and others when they have so many patrons clamoring for their time and efforts that it comes close to driving them mad. Of course, those artists with time on their hands envy those without it, and probably the reverse is true as well. Imagine, if you will, the situation in which Michelangelo must have found himself around 1508, with the death of Julius II, just four months after the completion of the greatest painting ever executed on a ceiling (or anywhere else, for that matter). There was need for the dead pope's oft-postponed tomb, yet there was the pontiff's money-grubbing heirs harping at its exorbitant cost and grandiose dimensions, demanding it be downsized and correspondingly reduced in price while the newly elected, (di Medici) pope in Florence appealed to him to return to his home town to design and build a facade for the family church (San Lorenzo).
The Basilica di San Lorenzo today, still lacking a facade.
In returning to Florence, Michelangelo had to turn down highly attractive offers from the King of France to work in Paris and from the magistrates of Bologna for a statue. When he went to Carrara to select stones for the Medici chapel facade he was dismayed to find that bribes had been paid to the Florentine city fathers to award the contract for the stone to the quarries of Pietrasanta instead. And, as that scheme came to nothing, Michelangelo was ordered back to Rome to complete the unfinished frescoes resulting from the death of Raphael. Before he could become involved in that project Italy became involved in a civil war.  While Rome was being plundered, Michelangelo found himself back in Florence supervising the defenses of the city. It was little wonder he suffered a panic attack and fled the whole mess.

The Medici Tombs, Michelangelo,
San Lorenzo, Florence
Eventually, Michelangelo managed to pull himself together and return to Florence to complete some of his greatest sculptural efforts, namely the de Medici mortuary chapel in the still "facadeless" church of San Lorenzo. Then, when he returned to Rome to fulfill his contract with the heirs of Julius II for an appropriate tomb, he no more than got there than the Pope ordered him to destroy the Perugino frescoes over the altar of the Sistine Chapel, remove two windows, and paint yet another hated fresco, this time of The Last Judgment.  And for his efforts, he was much maligned by the more pious inhabitants of the papal court (especially the Master of Ceremonies), for his proclivities toward nude figures in decorating his holiness' private chapel.  Michelangelo fought back by painting the man's life-size portrait  as Minos in Hades (lower right corner, the first image a pope sees upon entering the chapel). Yet, shortly after the work was done, the controversy reached such a pitched battle that Pope Paul III ordered the offending fresco pulled down.  It was saved only at the last moment when the pope was persuaded that a few strategically placed robes might make the whole thing less offensive. A quite mediocre artist, Daniele da Volterra, was chosen to perform this sacrilege, which he did so ineptly that two hundred years later, a second coat of paint had to be applied to keep the offending genitals in Michelangelo's masterpiece concealed.
The Last Judgment, 1537-41, Michelangelo

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