Friday, January 19, 2007

Michelangelo memo makes $576,000

Memo written by Michelangelo in 1521 about the account for his carving of the Risen Christ with his autograph on the second line. [Photo Sothebys Lot 18]

New York USA - Three handwritten sheets of paper bound in a red and gilt morocco album sold for $576,000 at Sotheby's New York on 11 December 2006.

Two of the sheets featured sixteenth century popes Clement VII, a Medici born out of wedlock, and Julius III, who scandalised polite society by making his seventeen year old Parmese boyfriend a cardinal and then apparently decorating his home at the Villa Giulia with frescos of putti playing with each other's genitals.

The third and most important of the sheets, described by Sotheby's as ultra rare, was a 1521 memorandum by Michelangelo about his carved marble figure of the Risen Christ carved for the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Opera in Rome, noting payment of 200 ducats (approx £32,000 in today's money) to Michelangelo for the commission, and his payment of 7 ducats to Pietro Urbano and Federigo Frizzi to install and finish the piece.

Michelangelo was commissioned by Bernardo Cencio, canon of St Peter's, and noblemen Mario Scappucci and Metello Vari delli Porcari, to carve:
A figure in marble of Christ as large as life, nude, standing, bearing a cross, in whatever attitude the said Michael Angelo thinks good, for the price of two hundred gold ducats of the Camera . . . which he promises to place in the Minerva in whatever position the before-mentioned shall approve; and at his own expense to make a niche where the said figure is to be placed . . .

The nude male form had only been used for important Renaissance sculpture twice before, both times for the biblical figure of David. The first effeminate nude David was by Donatello in 1440, followed by the muscular giant David in Florence by Michelangelo in 1504. Justification for the nakedness was that David, the bible implies, had removed his clothes to don some armour which was too heavy, so he removed it. Similarly for Jesus, the bible implies that he too must have been naked. Was the nakedness a genuine artistic quest for classical realism? Or was it that Michelangelo loved young men, as did his art-loving mentors, both secular and religious? Perhaps the best give-away into the deeper feelings of the artists is that the male nude was always beautifully portrayed while the female nude was not. Females tended to look like men with added breasts. Was the Florentine Renaissance art world completely dominated by gay men? Probably.

The the city of Florence set up 'The Office of the Night', a judicial board in charge of prosecuting acts of sodomy. Michael Rocke, author of 'Forbidden Friendships', used their texts to reconstruct Florentine homosexual history and stated that in Florence, with a population of approximately 40,000 people, nearly 17,000 men were charged with acts of sodomy during the seventy years that 'The Office of the Night' existed.

Back to the main story. He started in the summer of 1516 and stopped again when, unluckily and unusually for Michelangelo, a black vein was discovered in the white statuary Carrara marble which would have disfigured Jesus' head. Eventually a new block of marble was found, blocked out and finished enough to be taken to Rome, in 1521, by Pietro Urbano, Michelangelo's favoured young and impetuous assistant.

Pietro thought he could improve his master's work, and after doing mischief was dismissed in disgrace. 'I must inform you that he has spoiled the marble wherever he touched it,' wrote Sebastiano del Piombo to Michelangelo. 'In particular, he shortened the right foot and cut the toes off; the hands too, especially the right hand, which holds the cross, have been mutilated in the fingers. Federigo Frizzi, a Florentine sculptor of repute, in whose judgment I have greater confidence than in my own, says the hands seem to have been worked by a biscuit-maker, not wrought in marble, but kneaded by some one used to dough. I am no judge, not being familiar with the method of stone-cutting; but I can tell you that the fingers look to me very stiff and dumpy. It is clear also that he has been peddling at the beard; and I believe my little boy would have done so with more sense, for it looks as though he had used a knife without a point to chisel the hair. This can easily be remedied, however. He has also spoiled one of the nostrils. A little more, and the whole nose would have been ruined, and only God could have restored it.'

The transfer from Urbano to Frizzi irritated Urbano. 'Pietro shows a very ugly and malignant spirit after finding himself cast off by you. He does not seem to care for you or any one alive, but thinks he is a great master. He will soon find out his mistake, for the poor young man will never be able to make statues. He has forgotten all he knew of art, and the knees of your Christ are worth more than all Rome together. I am informed that he has left Rome; he has not been seen for several days, has shunned the Court, and I certainly believe that he will come to a bad end. He gambles, wants all the women of the town, struts like a Ganymede in velvet shoes through Rome, and flings his cash about. Poor fellow! I am sorry for him since, after all, he is but young.'

In Florence Michelangelo, who was affected by the turn of events and had a lot of respect and affection for Vari, offered to completely redo the sculpture. 'He was at this time,' wrote Condivi, 'in a despondent frame of mind, unable to apply himself to anything, or, when so doing, working without enthusiasm.'

However, the benefactors were very pleased, and the figure of Christ Risen was received rapturously by the masses. So much so, their perpetual kissing of the right foot required a brass sandal to be made to stop the marble being completely worn away. Vari said that he was entirely satisfied with the statue. He regarded and esteemed it 'as a thing of gold'.

The Christ became very famous. Francis I had it cast and sent to Paris, to be repeated in bronze. What is more strange, it has long been the object of a religious cult.

The nakedness of the resurrected Jesus in the garden of Gesthemne became a topic of religious and philosophical discussion at the time, and the Dominicans wanted Latin truth and realism rather than Germanic mysticism. Although not explicitly stated in the bible, the assumption was that, since the linen shroud with which his dead body was encased was found in the cave after the resurrection, he must have been naked when discovered by Mary Magdalene.

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote:
There way of testing the health of Christianity is to examine Michelangelo's Risen Christ. Note whether Christ is wearing a loincloth. If Christianity is healthy, there is no loincloth. If Christianity is experiencing one of its turns for the worse, there is. Michelangelo did not intend his Risen Christ to have a loincloth. The first time I saw the sculpture, in 1975, Catholicism was progressive and the Risen Christ stood naked, and his impact was profound. Next time I visited, Christ had acquired a bronze loincloth with no fastenings, baroque style. The ghastly loincloth was manufactured many popes ago, and it comes on or off depending on the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy. Today, the artist's 500-year-old vision is again considered too progressive and shocking for the modern worshipper. The fake loincloth has been slapped back on. [Sunday Times 23 April 2000]

Art historian Leo Steinberg wrote:
Michelangelo’s Risen Christ portrays Jesus shortly after the Resurrection. In a style reminiscent of the artist’s David, Christ stands fully nude, his arms wrapped around a small cross. While the nudity is disconcerting, Michelangelo is using the brazenly naked body of the risen Christ to make a particular theological point. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that Jesus lived as the second Adam; where the first Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. By leading a sinless life, embracing a sacrificial death, and finally being raised from the dead, Christ reversed the effects of the fall, conquering the penalty of sin, and removing the curse of shame. Biblically, the taboo against nudity was inherited as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, who previously lived together “naked and not ashamed.” After the fall, God killed animals to make clothes and cover their bodies. Therefore Christ, as the triumphant and perfect Adam, is able to stand naked without shame. In Michelangelo’s sculpture, Christ’s resurrected nakedness also provides a foreshadowing of the reality he will bring upon his return—where the resurrected bodies of the faithful will again dwell together without sin, and consequently, without shame, literally and profoundly shameless. [The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion]

In Michelangelo's time another fiery Dominican held sway: Girolamo Savonarola insisted on strict cleanliness and purity, was excommunicated, and preached against vanities bred in a world of hypocrisy, domination and greed. In 1497, Savonarola organised a giant bonfire of all those things that proclaimed vanity - masks, gowns, gluttonous consumption, art that portrayed nudity - in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Even Botticelli threw what might have been some of his greatest works onto the 'Bonfire of the Vanities' as it came to be known. Michelangelo did not join this purging extravagance. But the fad was short-lived and Savonarola and two fellow monks were put on another bonfire in the same square the following year.

The head of the Dominican order was Thomas Cajetan, who was the Roman cleric who met and condemned Martin Luther, and sent Henry VIII the news that Holy Roman Emporor Charles V would not permit Henry to divorce Charles' aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Charles and Henry then fell out and England switched sides in the war against France at the meeting with Francois, where the two courts were dressed so fabulously it became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Catejan was a follower of Thomas Aquinas, a classical realist, theologist and saint, who loved clarity and subtlety of thought, and was repulsed by Germanic and Slavic mistiness and formless mystification. The Latins believed in natural reason and realism, and disliked irrational romanticism of thought. Hence the naked Jesus, a simple concept imbued with meaning, but not understood by the church nor the world of art.

Risen Christ by Michelangelo with knees 'worth more than all Rome together'. It is located in Santa Maria sopra Minerva next to the headquarters of the Dominican Order in Rome. The brass or bronze perizoma, or drape, is not original. [Photo Web Gallery of Art]

Risen Christ without the perizoma. Unknown film clip and commentary [Encyclopedia Britannica]

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