My classmates and I moved back to the Mount this month! The start of a new semester brings its own personal reflections and excitements, and in my case, this semester has me reminiscing about the beginning of last semester. Instead of catching a ride with my parents back to the Mount, last semester began with a taxi ride from the Florence airport by someone who spoke another language, into a city that I had never seen. Coming home to the Mount feels both nostalgic and new, in its own way.
Hanging some posters of Florence reminded me that I had not talked about some of the works of art I had encountered in Europe, and now is just a good a time as any! Just about every work of art I knew about beforehand had interesting details that I had not heard before. So let’s learn something new. These are the intriguing facts that I learned about The David, The Sistine Chapel, and The Pietà.
Let’s start with the David, and something we all know about it. This marble statue is very tall. But how tall, exactly? And does its height have any significance? Let’s look at a text found in the Bible, 1 Samuel 17:4, “A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span.” This passage comes from the Hebrew Bible; six cubits and a span equates to about 9’9”. The Greek Old Testament, however, puts Goliath just under seven feet. The Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the Romano-Jewish scholar Josephus, put his height at 6’9”. Why is this significant, you might be wondering. The David, by Michelangelo, stands 17 feet tall. Here, Michelangelo relays how influential courage is to our perception of an individual. By his conviction, David rivals the giant.
But why 17 feet? Why such an unusual measurement? Bear in mind that Michelangelo was methodical, more so than we might expect in an artist. He commonly imbued his artwork with subtle yet discernible religious symbolism. David was much shorter than this statue of him, but by how much? Or, more realistically, what would the average height of a man be during Michelangelo’s time? Richard Steckel, in a study published in the journal Social Science History, determined that men between 1300-1500 were, at most, one to two inches shorter than the average height of a man today. This will be important in a moment.
I visited The Gallery of the Academy of Florence (Galleria dell’Academia) with some friends the first time I saw The David, and the second time I went alone to spend more time looking at it. I overheard a tour guide in front of me tell her group, “If three of you stood on each other’s shoulders, you would be just about David’s height.” She then described how Michelangelo carved the David to be about three times the height of an average man, three being a holy number in the Christian faith. How cool is that!
The David went from being a purely religious symbol to a political one in the city of Florence. The David was placed in the Palazzo della Signoria after its completion. Originally, it was intended to stand on top of the Florence Cathedral, but those plans eventually fell through. During its construction, David’s stare had no more meaning than to display courage in spite of impossible odds. After the Medici family was exiled from Florence in 1494, the Florentine state became a republic, in control of its own destiny. But the Florentine Republic was threatened by rival city-states who, at the time, held greater political and military power. The David, though not originally intended to be interpreted this way, became a powerful symbol for the Florentine people to overcome insurmountable odds. The positioning of the David in the courtyard made his stare point directly to Rome, another symbolic message gleaned by Florentine citizens. It all serves to show that context can greatly influence the way that we interpret art.
The Sistine Chapel
I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Vatican along with everyone in our group. The trips that our program organized for the whole group were to Rome and Venice, and we had one whole day allotted to St. Peter’s Basilica. We had a Papal Audience with Pope Francis, then spent the rest of the day on a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and The Sistine Chapel. Having been inside the Chapel, I can say that it is as incredible as everyone says it is. I could have spent an entire day just looking at the frescoes on the walls.
One detail I learned about the paintings in the Chapel is that they were not all created by Michelangelo. Very often, the ceiling and The Last Judgment overshadow the other artists who contributed to the room’s aesthetic. Some of the greatest artists of that period were commissioned by the Papacy, including Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose workshop Michelangelo apprenticed in at an earlier age.
But let’s talk about the ceiling. Originally, it was decorated with a royal blue night sky and yellow-white stars above. This was to be redesigned at the request of Pope Julius II, who undertook the complete overhaul of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. He was looking for a series of paintings on the life of Jesus, but Michelangelo made an executive decision and told the Pope he would like to paint the beginning of the Old Testament. Interestingly, too, Michelangelo was reluctant to accept the commission because he considered himself a more capable sculptor than a painter.
Here’s another little bit of trivia: what is the number one cause of damage to the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling? Is it flash photography? If you go to any museum here in America, or in Europe for that matter, you will be told to turn off the flash on your phone. All cellphones are prohibited in the Chapel; you can even be escorted out if you’re seen with one. While flash photography damages paintings, it’s not the number one cause.
The Chapel welcomes five million visitors each year, roughly 25,000 per day. What about the temperature of the room with that many visitors, as more people shuffle in? With that many people entering and leaving, the windows on top of the ceiling were usually left open for most of the day. The greatest cause of damage to the ceiling was a combination of factors: quick increases in temperature, humidity, automotive exhaust and other pollutants, as well as bacteria that came from visitors who lived all across the world. After the ceilings were restored in the 1980s, the windows were permanently closed and an air-conditioning system was installed to keep the Chapel at precise temperature and humidity levels.
Like The Sistine Chapel, I only had the chance to see The Pietà once. The best translation for the Italian word pieta is pity, although the term lamentation is also widely used, which is important for the first fact I learned about this work: Michelangelo made more than one pieta. Later in his life, he created another statue with Jesus in a similarly counter-posed position, but in the arms of Joseph of Arimathea instead of Mary. I highly recommend looking for it online, it is another excellent statue that’s located in the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) in Florence.
Another interesting, uncommonly known fact about the Pietà is that it was the only work Michelangelo ever signed. Giorgio Vasari, the famous sixteenth century art historian, detailed why Michelangelo signed this statue in his Lives of the Artists. Apparently, after the statue was put on display, onlookers began attributing its creation to Gobbo, a contemporary of Michelangelo’s from Milan. To fight the rumor, Michelangelo returned that night and chiseled his name on the sash of Mary’s gown. He immediately regretted this decision, and would for the rest of his life.
Related to this fact is a secret signature that was later discovered on the Pietà. The marking was only found after the statue was attacked by Laszlo Toth in 1972. Toth jumped over the railings on Pentecost Sunday and vandalized the statue with a hammer, damaging Mary’s nose, cheek, left eye and her left arm. After the statue was reconstructed, the letter M was discovered on her left hand.
If you’d like to know more about Renaissance art, I have written about some famous works on the webpage at emmitsburgartsscene.wordpress.com, with small essays about other works of art I saw abroad soon to come!
ENJ: September, 2016