December 13: Buon Giorno, Baroque!

2016/12/13 § Leave a comment

S Andrea

On this date in 1545 the Council of Trent began.

The meeting was called by Pope Paul III as an effort to mend fences after all that unpleasantness with Luther and the cathedral doors and the excommunications and everything, while condemning those actions which could only be understood as heretical.  Imagined as a way to reform the church reasonably, and re-establish its preeminence in the midst of criticism, the Council sparked the most emotive period of Catholic art and architecture.  Accepting some of the Protestants’ protests, the Catholic hierarchy emerged with new rules about such items as priestly behavior and education, but unwilling to abandon certain principles of the faith.  Among them was the position of the saints, which was, in the years following the Council, emphasized to a tremendous degree.  The early Renaissance focus on head-thinking was replaced by Baroque heart-feeling, even gut-wrenching, identification with the saints, whose narratives became best-selling literature.  Believers not only knew the parameters of a saint’s story, they now expected–and desired–to understand them through more visceral means.  Buon giorno, Caravaggio! and Gentileschi! and Bernini and Borromini! and all the other artists and architects who enveloped worship spaces with golden domes, bright-colored marble and filled them with levitating saints and zooming putti, and canvases dripping with ecstatic scene of torture, to draw the faithful into a stirring experience of superlative everything.

Image: S. Andrea al Quirinale, Bernini (Clio’s)

December 04: Barbara the Bodacious

2016/12/04 § Leave a comment


On this day in every year is the Feast of St. Barbara.

St. Barbara is the patron saint of architects and stonemasons.  Her story includes sheep and locusts, a great tower and lightning strikes, teleportation, daughterly spunkiness aimed at an overbearing father, bizarre and violent death, and other great martyrish stuff.  She’s pretty great, and you should probably make a cake for her feast day today, and also study this comprehensive scholarly study of her legend and its cultural significance: Matters of Taste’s Ode to St. Barbara, complete with prayer.

Image: “St. Barbara Crushing her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio (from this source)

November 18: St. Peter’s–Finally, Mostly, Sort of

2016/11/18 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1626 construction was completed on the “new” St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The first church to stand on the site–a plot of land that proper Romans found so undesirable that they let Christians bury their dead there around the tomb of a martyr–was built in the fourth century by Constantine.  1200 years later it  was deemed too dull and un-Roman by a Renaissance pope who ordered its destruction and a new plan drawn up by the brilliant Bramante.  Over the next century, work continued on the church in fits and starts, usually depending on how eager the reigning pope was to glorify the church or line his own coffers.  Lots of architects came and went: some well known (Michelangelo), some less so (Fontana), some who were better off sticking with their day jobs (Raphael).  Finally Carlo Maderno was appointed chief architect in 1603.  It was he who, under the direction of Pope Paul V, finished the fabric of the basilica with the extension of the lengthy nave which served the liturgy better than the Greek Cross proposed by Bramante and reaffirmed by Michelangelo, but which also obscures the view of the dome from any but a far-away view.

Maderno officially finished the church, but plenty of hands have contributed to it since that time.  Most significantly, Gianlorenzo Bernini added major interior sculpture (chiefly the Cathedra Petri and Baldacchino) and the sweeping piazza and colonnade in front.  Much later (in 1936), Mussolini’s architect Marcello Piacentini completed the Via della Conciliazione.  It finally gave form to a broad road for pilgrims that had been considered as early as Alberti–just without the whole Fascist thing.

Image: Maderno, and then some (Clio’s)

November 01: “I Am No Painter”

2016/11/01 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1512 the new paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were first reavealed to the public.

Named for Pope Sixtus V, the Sistine Chapel challenges even the great basilica of St. Peter, its next-door neighbor, for global recognition.  The chapel is a grand enough room all on its own (its dimensions believed to be those of the Temple of Solomon as described in the Bible), and ought to be, since it serves a number of Vatican functions, most famously, the election of popes.  In the late fifteenth century its aesthetic character was improved through Sixtus’ remodeling via the talents of Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, each of whom contributed panels on the side walls. A bit later, Raphael designed a series of tapestries (lost in the general looting in 1527, later recreated from the cartoons in London).  The next pope continued the tradition of ornamenting the blank spaces in the chapel with one of the world’s great mural projects ever.

The most famous decoration in the chapel is, of course, the series of frescoes completed by Michelangelo: the altar end Last Judgement (1535-41) and more famously the ceiling–and if anything can outshine a Michelangelo Judgement, it’s 5,000 square feet of Michelangelo narrative spread all over a ceiling.  Julius II directed the work starting in 1508 (when he was also busy overseeing Bramante’s work on the new basilica).  Over four years (with a significant and long breaking the middle) Michelangelo churned out the ancestors of Christ, prophets and sibyls and a long series of narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis.  Not only is the room justly famous as a whole, but in it Michelangelo created some of Western art’s most enduring, beautiful, stunning, amazing, memorable images, including the Creation of Adam, so famous that one need only see one small portion to know exactly what you’re looking at.

Not bad at all for a project the artist did not seek or want, and ultimately dismissed since, as a sculptor, Michelangelo believed that painting was just not his thing.

Can’t get to Rome today?  Take the virtual tour.

Image: from this source

September 30: Il Papa Terribile, Il Papa Artistico

2016/09/30 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1503 Giuliano della Rovere was ordained as Pope Julius II.

Julius II was one tough customer–you don’t get a nickname like Il Papa Terribile or Il Papa Guerriero by sitting around in incense-filled chapels or presiding over the opening of orphanages.  He waged war against Italian cities and accompanied kings into battle and wheedled his way into the papacy through bribery–his election being one of the quickest in church history.  The beautifully-plumed punctuation on Papa’s Guerrieroness is the Swiss Guard, which he founded, so as to have a standing army (one of Europe’s first).

Julius’ natural ferocity in matters of state was matched by a similarly vigorous campaign of art patronage.  One of the great patrons, ever, he recognized and nurtured the talents of the era’s greatest talents.  Through his encouragement and direction, not to mention access to the Vatican’s very very very deep pockets, the Triumvirate of Renaissance Awesomeness completed some of their most important and breathtaking work for Julius.  For him, Bramante replanned St. Peter’s and began its construction, (and also, then, directed the demolition of Constantine’s basilica, an act that only someone like Julius [but there was no one else like Julius] dared to do).  Bramante also designed the extensive Cortile del Belevdere to house the art collection that Julius inherited from his family (with little tchotchkes like this) and that he continued to enhance during his time in the papacy.  It’s now, of course, the Vatican Museum.  Dissatisfied with the literal offices in which he was to exercise his office, Julius also directed painters to fancify older parts of the Vatican, leading to projects like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura (Raphael also completed this brilliant portrait).  The best part of Raphael’s work at the Vatican is shown above: a collection of ancient and modern genius in a setting designed, probably, by Bramante; a fitting monument to Julius’ monumental achievements as a patron.

Image: “The School of Athens” by Raphael (from this source)

September 28: not a simple thing

2016/09/28 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1586 the scaffolding was removed from the Vatican obelisk.

Egyptians always raised these tall needles in pairs; Roman emperors first decided they could stand alone as swell decorations to mark the spina of a race track; later they were adopted to adorn the centers of plazas (and not just in Rome).  The one at the Vatican, a Fifth-Dynasty granite obelisk, was first moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria by Augustus; in 37 AD Caligula had it moved to a circus in Rome.  In 1586 Sixtus V decided it belonged in the piazza planned for the front of St. Peter’s Basilica, and ordered that it be moved.  But one does not simply move an obelisk.

Over 25 meters high and weighing some 327 tons, the slender monolith is a heavy, fragile thing.  The brain power behind the operation was Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), an eminently gifted architect/engineer from this time that didn’t have the need to separate those two disciplines.  Fontana, who also completed construction on the dome of St. Peter’s as designed by Michelangelo, was skilled with maths and statics.  He engineered a gantry crane and utilized giant pulleys and levers (measuring over 50′) and 40 winches powered by horses, and the labor of some 900 men to lower, move, and re-erect the obelisk at the Vatican, where it remains today.

Sixtus was just getting started with his plan to fix up Rome, so Fontana was then put to the tasks of moving three more: the 24-meter Flaminio Obelisk was taken to the Piazza del Popolo, the Esquilino Obelisk positioned behind S. Maria Maggiore, and the very tall, 32-meter Lateranense Obelisk (originally swiped from the Temple of Amun at Karnak) shuttled over to the Piazza di S. Giovanni in Lateran.  Fontana moved these all into place, apparently with relative ease, and attracting such attention that he eventually published a book on the move of the Lateran Obelisk.  Show off.

Image: what, a Muse can’t enjoy a meme?

September 27: Pater Architectura

2016/09/27 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1389 Cosimo de Medici was born.

It’s not too often that history turns a page as swiftly as it did with the advent of the Florentine Renaissance in the early fifteenth century.  It’s rarer still that the hand that turns the page is so visible–but that is the case with Cosimo de Medici.

Born into wealth and power, Cosimo shrewdly wielded both to create a tremendous familial dynasty.  Architecture was one of the signs of his magnanimity, and as a Humanist he steered architectural projects toward the modern celebration of values from the Golden Age of antiquity.  In Filippo Brunelleschi he found the architect who could manifest Humanist ideals in buildings, realizing a new approach to building that also modernized Florence and gave physical form to its unassailable preeminence.  Together they built San Lorenzo (1419) and the “Old” Sacristy (1421): the primary monuments that conjoined Classical (Florentine) precedent, clear geometry and exacting proportion into a wholly new architecture.

Cosimo (d. 1464) understood the communicative power of architecture and directed Brunelleschi’s genius toward these symbols of the church.  For his own house, however, he hired a second-tier architect to design a much less impressive structure.  Not that the Palazzo Medici is a dump, it’s simply not in the stratosphere of San Lorenzo.  And rightly so: Cosimo was nearly imprisoned, and briefly exiled, by his enemies who (rightly) feared his power.  Knowing that “envy is a flower one must not water,” his own house intentionally failed to live up to the brilliance of the public buildings.  Not only as a patron of great vision and taste, Cosimo thus proved his mettle  as a discerning leader, worthy of the title Pater Patriae, as well as Pater Architectura.

Image: Cosmio at the Uffizi (from this source)

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