Saturday, May 24, 2014

Il Vaticano - di Nuova

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, 1509
This morning I went back to the Vatican. Until last year I had tried to see the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel for 24 years, and now, the visit has become an annual event. At least, I hope this is the case.  It’s so overwhelming, the paintings so profound and so plentiful, that I find it difficult to describe the experience of walking through the apartments and into the Sistine Chapel. If I can go back once a year, by the end of my life, I might be able to articulate how intoxicating it is to be in the presence of the greatest works of High Renaissance Italian art.
The Liberation of St. Peter, in the Stanza D'Eliodoro - Raphael
Raphael, Stanza dell'Eliodor, 1512-14
This year I went with students and among other colleagues, Tom Henry, who as the Raphael scholar has clearly spent many hours in the Vatican over the years, even going into those papal apartments still in use today. Because of course, Raphael frescoed the walls that house the pope today, including his bedroom. What I loved about listening to Tom as we wandered through this colourful, magical world was his passion for the texturesof life that surrounded Raphael as he worked. It wasn’t just the paintings, but the historical context of their creation that were brought alive, as we wandered through the most hallowed of halls. In this world painting meant something so different to how we know it today, at least, these paintings did. Tom talked of how Raphael was given free reign by Pope Julius II in the Vatican Stanza - Segnatura in 1508-1511, Heliodorus in 1511-1514, Fire in the Borgo in 1514-1517, and Constantine in 1517-1524.The first task for Raphael was to clean the slate: he destroyed all existing frescoes. Raphael was redecorating the apartments, so to speak.
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12
At the same time that Raphael was working in the Segnatura, Michelangelo was down the corridor, on his scaffold, painting the chapel ceiling. Apparently, when the impatient Pope wanted to see the ceiling even though it was only half completed, aware of the radicality of his creation, Michelangelo anticipated reprimand and punishment so he stole away from Rome and all his obligations on a horse in the middle of the night, seeking comfort and refuge, at home in Florence. It reminded me of the struggle over who would own Raphael’s Transfiguration (1516-20), the heavenly wooden panels down the hall in the Pinacoteca. Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici for the cathedral of Narbonne, the altarpiece never left Rome. That is, until Napoleon set the troops out to claim what was rightfully his, no doubt in the middle of the night. And predictably when he died, the Pope wanted it back again — and didn’t much care for the intricacies of ownership law.

Raphael, The Transfiguration, 1516-20
Another difference is the different status of painting in the Renaissance. Tapestry as a medium was more treasured. They cost more to make, and so Raphael was first and foremost a master because he made tapestries. Paintings were more transitory – afterall, as frescoes they were no more than interior decorations in the rich man’s apartments. Five hundred years ago, painting didn’t carry with it the weight of a price that made it impossible to transport, or the call for encasement in bulletproof, alarmed boxes, constraining it to a lifetime on a pedestal from which it would never escape. Art was an everyday object – if it had to be moved, a messenger, probably a young boy would pick it up and put it under his arm, running it across town. And knowing the Italians as I do, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t stop for a drink on the way, leaning the painting up against the bar while he drank.

In the Renaissance, art and artists played such a different role in the cultural life of a city and nation. All the sneaking around in the middle of the night, greedy popes and emperors making no excuses for their methods of “appropriation,” all of it seems a long way from the endless paperwork and documentation involved in the exchange of paintings today, paintings that nevertheless pale in comparison to the masterpieces of the 15th and 16th centuries. And similarly, while Michelangelo feared for his safety, painters today think they should be applauded for their most minimal creativity. Though the Renaissance was a time when art was all about those who paid the money to have it made, and had little to do with the artist as entrepreneur, unlike Michelangelo, Raphael was the greatest entrepreneur. Raphael destroyed ceilings, he disobeyed orders, he was the Damien Hirst of the 16th century. And so, even though he didn’t much care for legalities, the cultural capital of his art and the reverence for the artist was perhaps as great, if in a different way, as it is today.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509
Raphael and Michelangelo may have hated each other, in their fierce competition to be the shining light of the papal dynasty, but whatever their ruses and manipulations, their strategies to get noticed, they had talent. As I stood once again under the most famous ceiling in the world, awestruck at the movement, energy, the sheer technique that enabled this enormous commission to be painted up close, over a period of 6 years, mesmerized by the creative ability that produced this extraordinary work of art, by a man who claimed he was a sculptor, I tried to conceive of how exciting and simultaneously disturbing it must have been on its very first unveiling.
Raphael,School of Athens, 1509
Said to be the brooding Michelangelo with his boots
Both Michelangelo and Raphael completely upstaged every other painter in their midst. Until this point ceilings were stars on a blue background, the walls of a library depicted a standing group portrait of a few learned men. And along came these two geniuses. Not only did they shatter all convention of the ceiling and the library wall respectively, but they completely redefined painting in their time and ever after. Raphael loved women, the good life, excess and attention. Michelangelo was inward-looking, brooding and reclusive, with bad bodily hygiene. And yet the two of them were geniuses that changed everything, forever, when it comes to representation. They belong together.

Raphael, The Transfiguration, 1516-20
As we walked away from the Narbonne altarpiece, The Transfiguration, I felt my heart pull. With some sadness, I felt the separation. I turned around and asked Tom: “did you feel that”? “That” being the sense of loss, the leaving behind a feeling of plenitude, the knowledge and experience of perfection as we turned away from this most beautiful of art works, a beauty that can only be captured by believing that something holy was living inside it. And Tom responded: “mmm, when will I see it again?” It was no different from farewelling a lover. 


Unknown said...

Hi Frances and thanks for taking me back to the time I visited three years ago. It was truly, an awesome experience.
I'm glad you mentioned the tapestries. They were of a standard I had never seen before, or since.
Apart from the wonderful artwork, my strongest memory is of the sheer volume of people moving through, all engrossed and focussed the art.

Frances Guerin said...

Thank you Robbie! Yes, the crowds are something else - I am always so impressed with the way movement through the museums and into the Sistine chapel is organized. It's very efficient don't you think? Given everything else in Italy can be very disorganized.
We should go to Italy together one day -