On our trip to Rome this summer, we toured with a company who hires highly informed, educated locals as their guides. Our guide, Alessandra, had a PhD in art and art history and was educated as a youth in a classical school in Rome. She clearly enjoyed telling stories about the artwork, including the history of the art and artists and their techniques and relationships to politics and the Roman Catholic Church. Being under her teachings for just a brief time inspired our affections for art history and the history of the Roman Empire and Catholic Church. This blog is based on what we learned during this four-hour tour/lesson.
The Vatican state was founded in 1929 between an agreement with Mussolini and the Pope. Long before that, in 313 BC, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and had built the original, St. Peter’s Basilica. All of the ancient Basilica, with the exception of the bottom floor, was later destroyed. In the 1500s, the new Basilica, also a shrine to honor St. Peter, was built on top of the ancient ruins of what Constantine originally had created. The bottom floor of St. Peter’s Basilica is ancient historical art and architecture, while the other floors symbolize renaissance, historical art, and architecture. This fascinating mix of ancient, Renaissance, and even modern (side-note: they described “modern” as within the last century!) architecture is found throughout Rome. The great, classical Renaissance artists, MichaelAngelo and Raphael, created some of the most famous works of art displayed in these nine Vatican museums; these museums originally were used to hold Catholic masses and also for the living or business dealings of the Papacy. Michelangelo was working in Rome when Pope Julius II requested that he paint the Sistine Chapel. According to Alessandra, Michelangelo wanted to refuse this request and came to it begrudgingly. Moreover, he was known as difficult and refused to collaborate with anyone. He even designed his scaffolding, which seemed to show his insistence on working independently.
Michelangelo painted the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel in 1508 AD within five years, even though he was trained as a sculptor. In fact, before this request, he had never done the fresco-technique (paint on plaster). Painting on plaster was exceptionally difficult because he could not adjust for error; so, every time he made a mistake, he would have to completely start over by removing the plaster, re-applying it, and starting the paint once again.
Michelangelo was an artistic genius. He created the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with the stories of Genesis, the ancestors of Jesus of Nazarene (painted Nazarene people), and the Apostles. He depicted how God separated light from dark and distinguished the sun, moon, and planets. He began working from the southern part (end, flat part), by creating small figures. There, he painted the Creation of Eden, sin, and the Fall. As he moved along, he painted Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, and Jesus’ return as the Judge who would decide whether humans will go to heaven or be sentenced to hell. Alessandra shared that Michelangelo cared more about spirituality and less about politics, so his paintings often depict a struggle between good and evil or what often appears to be the tension between eternal death or everlasting life.
On the right wall, Michelangelo painted stories of Moses’ miracles; on the left wall, he painted stories of Jesus’ miracles. For example, one painting on the right portrayed Moses and the Ten Commandments and another showed Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. The back wall showed Jesus’ resurrection and Eden at the Fall while the front wall behind the altar showed Jesus as Judge and mankind reacting to judgment. Interestingly, in another area of the museum was a sculpture of the Greek God, Apollo; Alessandra pointed out that the Apollo sculpture had the same facial features as Jesus as the Judge in the Sistine Chapel.
Renaissance art and art history came alive because we learned about it from a scholar and teacher who loved what she was teaching. Being immersed in this culture, engaging with the discussions around the art history as we gazed upon the various works, and pondering the lives of the great artists increased our knowledge and enjoyment of these great works.
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