Monday, February 13, 2006

Renaissance Love of Ancient Art

Ema Land
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

“The Renaissance…which was only one of many results of a general excitement and enlightening of the human mind…the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and the imagination…”
~Walter Pater, The Renaissance

The period of the Renaissance was a rebirth of classical culture and a return to artistic ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance emerged out of the ashes of the Middle Ages where art and architecture was commissioned strictly for the glorification of God. Art in the Renaissance period was intended to invoke memories of ancient art and sculptures. Artists during this period focused on the technique of ancient sculptures and art and mimicked the ancient figures in their own paintings. Giorgio Vasari, in his book Lives of the Artists, explains that the “arts of antiquity provided a model of excellence which had been debased by what he referred to as the ‘barbarian’ style of the Middle Ages” (Paolett 26). Vasari thought perfection in art occurred when one could reproduce forms in a natural manner, similar to the art of ancient Greece and Rome. The return to natural depictions of humans and landscapes was at the heart of the Renaissance.

Before the Renaissance classical art was neither appreciated nor revered. Much of the ancient art we see today littered Rome, but instead of being glorified the art was considered simply ruins. The idea that some of the pieces, such as the Apollo Belvedere, Belvedere Torso and possibly the Laocoön, were above ground before they were taken by the papacy and displayed is remarkable (Barkan 1-2). What about the 16th century ignited this desire to glorify ancient art? During the Renaissance the display of ancient artwork by the papacy was a symbol of the Church’s rise over paganism as well as a symbol of the imperial nature of the papacy. The idea of using art as a tool of propaganda occurred during the Baroque period as well when the Popes incorporated ancient obelisks into their fountains and statues as a symbol of the Church overthrowing pagan values.

The Renaissance flourished in Rome because of the papacy. Popes during the Renaissance were among Italy’s largest patrons of the arts and hoarded all of the rediscovered art as well as commissioned some of the finest artists of that period. 1420, papacy of Pope Martin V, marked the beginning of Rome as a Renaissance city and of absolute papal rule. Pope Martin V was not a patron of the arts, but laid the government structure, authoritarian papal rule, that made Rome the capital of the Renaissance. After Pope Martin V came Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) then Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) both known for their renovation of the city of Rome. Under their papal rule the medieval streets of Rome were widened and crumbling buildings restored in the Renaissance style. During the renovation, many ancient monuments were torn apart and reused as building materials (“Rome" Encyclopædia Britannica). The destruction of ancient monuments can clearly be seen when viewing the remains of the Roman Forum. At the same time that many sites were being destroyed the upheaval of the land meant that many ancient statues were unearthed. Under the papal rule Pope Julius II, a patron of the arts, many of the unearthed statues were given a home in the Vatican.

Pope Julius II was a patron of the arts before he became Pope, but as Pope he was able to use art as part of his reform platform, opposing the self-indulgent lifestyle of the previous Pope, Alexander IV. Julius II chose his papal name, Julius, to invoke memories of Julius Caesar and the Roman imperial model of rule. His first action was to focus on transforming the Vatican (Paolett). One of his first renovations was to bring together the medieval living quarters with the summerhouse, the area that merged the two is called the Cortile del Belvedere. The Cortile del Belvedere acted as a formal garden, a place to show art, as well as a space for theatrical displays. Today the Cortile del Belvedere consists of two courtyards, the Cortile dello Pigna and the Cortile delle Statue. .The Cortile delle Statue, a small octagonal courtyard, has been remodeled by Simonetti, but still fulfills its original purpose which was to display Pope Julius II’s collection of Roman and Hellenistic statues (Hersey, 97-101). Among the collection of statues are the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere, and the Belvedere Torso. In addition to housing these statues, the Cortile delle Statue acts as an entrance to the Villa Belvedere Bramante. During his papacy, Pope Julius II, tore down the Old St. Peter’s Church and created the new St. Peter’s as well as commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. Renaissance art flourished because of art patrons like Pope Julius II (Paolett).

During the Renaissance there was a return to the study of ancient art. The Renaissance was a response to the Medieval period of art where bodies could not be seen and the imagination was stifled. When Pope Julius II began to collect ancient art it signaled that antiquity could not only be studied, but also copied. Some of the most skilled Renaissance artists studied pieces like the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere, and the Belvedere Torso and depictions of these sculptures appear in Renaissance art.

The Apollo Belvedere was glorified because of his incredible angelic beauty and softness. Artists, such as Michelangelo and Bernini (later on), modeled some of their sculptures and paintings after Apollo. The Apollo Belvedere is a second century AD Roman copy of a fourth century BC bronze sculpture done by the Greek sculptor Leochares. The sculpture is thought to have been found near the San Pietro in Vincoli and when Guiliano della Rovere was cardinal of that church, the Apollo Belvedere was housed in the gardens there (Brown, 236). The statue was moved to the Cortile delle Belvedere, in 1511 AD, by Pope Julius II. The Apollo Belvedere is a sculpture of the young God Apollo, nude with a chlamys hanging about his neck. His leg is resting against the trunk of a tree, which would not have been there in the original bronze, and he has a quiver of arrows on his back. In his hand is what appears to be the remains of the bow he was probably holding when he was first sculpted. His body is not muscular, there is only minimal muscle definition attributed to the time period he was replicated from (Havelock). Apollo’s face is beautiful, unlined and serene, framed by a mass of perfectly arranged curls.

The Apollo sculpture is one of the most revered antique sculptures because of the sheer beauty of the piece. Schiller describes the piece as indescribable by any mere mortal because of its “celestial mixture of accessibility and severity, benevolence and gravity, majesty and mildness” (Hersey 103). J.J. Winckelmann has a similar comment about the Apollo Belvedere “Here is the consummation of the best that nature, art and the human mind can produce” (Havelock). When this statue was moved to the Vatican it was viewed and replicated by many artists of the time. The Apollo in Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura is modeled after the Apollo Belvedere. In Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, Apollo is modeled after the Apollo Belvedere. The beauty of the Apollo Belvedere drew many artists to him, but the anguish of the Hellenistic period, the Laocoön era, had a great effect on many artists of the time.

The Laocoön was one of Pope Julius II’s last additions to the Cortile delle Statue, first of July 1506, but became of the most popular pieces to live there. The statue was unearthed 14 January, 1506 above the ruins of the Golden House of Nero in Rome and may have been a piece in Nero’s collection after it was brought to Rome. When the Laocoön was unearthed in 1506 artists of that time, including Michelangelo, came to watch it being unearthed The Laocoön is a Greek sculpture from the Hellenistic period that depicts the priest Laocoön and his twin sons, Antiphantes and Thembraeus, being strangled by sea serpents. Pliney the Elder attributes the Laocoön to three sculptors from Rhodes: Agesander, Athenedoros and Polydorus. The sculpture is the original piece, not a Roman copy, and dates somewhere between 42 and 20 BC, the Hellenistic period. The Hellenistic period is known for its vivid depictions of pain and suffering (Harkan 2).

The story of the tragic death of Laocoön has been debated. There are two stories to explain the death of Laocoön: either the Laocoön angered the God Apollo by breaking his oath of celibacy and while preparing to sacrifice a bull on the altar of the God Poseidon (another God he had offended), he and his sons were strangled by the sea serpents, Porces and Chariboae, sent by Apollo. The other story is that Laocoön offended Poseidon by warning the Greeks of the strategy of the Trojan horse and Poseidon punished him for speaking. The Hellenistic piece received much attention because of the expert marble work and the horrific emotions portrayed by the statue. In Virgil’s story the Aeneid he describes the death of Laocoön and his sons:

“and first each serpent enfolds in its embrace the youthful bodies of Laocoön’s twin sons and with its fangs feeds upon the hapless limbs. Then [Laocoön] himself, as he comes to their aid, weapons in hand, they seize and bind in mighty folds; and now, twice encircling his waist, twice winding their scaly backs around his throat, they tower above with head and lofty necks. He meanwhile strains his hands to burst the knots, his fillets steeped in gore and black venom as he lifts to heaven hideous cries (Hersey, 105).”

When viewing this piece, the agony described by Virgil is etched in every line of the work.

The Laocoön piece sparked much discussion because the right arms of Laocoön and one of his sons’ were missing. Pope Julius II wanted a new arm to be made in order to complete the statue. He attempted to convince Michelangelo to create the arm, but Michelangelo refused. The first known restoration of the statue was done by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, who chose to model the arm in a triumphal position reaching up towards the heavens (Hersey, 105-107). In 1957, the arm was found in a field and reattached (Vatican Tour Guide). The original arm was not in the position Montorsoli thought, but actually similar to that of Michelangelo’s musings: the arm positioned with the hand resting behind the head as a sign of death. During the Renaissance the idea of repairing ancient sculptures was common and the decision to “fix” or “finish” a piece occurred frequently.

The body of the Laocoön’s can be seen in the artwork of important Renaissance painters like Michelangelo and Titian. Michelangelo mimics many of the characteristics of this piece in his paintings and sculptures. He used the Laocoön in his works: Saint Matthew, the Sistine ignudi and in later works of the crucified Christ. Titian is another artist who depicts the Laocoön in his works: Crowning with Thorns, Christ is depicted as Laocoön (Hersey). The sculpture of the Laocoön sculpture appealed because of the raw emotion and horror depicted through the marble. The pain and anguish could be used in depictions of Christ and martyrdom in order to appeal more to the pathos of the viewer.

The Belvedere Torso is another piece housed in the Cortile del Statues that received a plethora of attention during the Renaissance because of the muscular sculpting of the body and the fact that the only remains of the statue is the torso. The Belvedere Torso was found in the Campo dei Fiori in the workshop of a cobbler, who is said to have been using the torso as part of his workbench. When the torso was found, it was immediately taken by Pope Julius II to the Vatican. “The Torso Belvedere, sublime in its fragmentariness, has stood as the (literal) embodiment of an art based on inward struggle” (Barkan 2). Because this piece was incomplete, it sparked the desire in some to figure out who the torso belonged to. On the Belvedere Torso’s left leg there is a fur with two paws showing. Hercules is always depicted with fur and therefore there is a general consensus that the torso belongs to Hercules. Because the fur appears to be leopard some have speculated that it might be the god Dionysus, but Dionysus was never depicted as a muscular God and therefore the theory of Hercules seems to ring true. The Belvedere Torso was appreciated because of the unanswerable questions about its past as well as a beautiful depiction of a muscular male torso.

One of the aspects of the Renaissance that is very interesting is their desire to piece together antiquities by restoring, copying and studying ancient art. Not only was art restored and copied, but verses and books were written about the pieces, discussions held, all to understand more about these works. Today I do not think that we would choose to add an arm to a work where it was missing or reattach a nose unless the original piece was present or there was a drawing of the original. By choosing to complete a piece the artist is giving new meaning to the sculpture. The idea that this was not only allowed, but encouraged by the papacy, may give one the impression that the Church wanted to push their own agenda on a sculpture. Not only could they turn an ancient piece into a symbol of the Church, the papacy could also add to the sculpture and make it their own.

During the Renaissance the appreciation and study of classical art was revived. The papacy collected and showed the classical art, their control over antiquity meant that art that was once hedonistic could be appreciated. Without the Church classical art could not have been viewed or replicated, but by using ancient art as a symbol of the power of the Church over paganism and the non-Christian past, antiquities were given a new propagandistic power.

Barkan, Leonard., “Unearthing the Past: Archeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture”. New Haven, 1999.

Brown, Deborah. “The Apollo Belvedere and the Garden of Giuliano della Rovere at SS. Apostoli.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 49 (1986): 235- 238.

Havelock, Christine M. “Hellenistic Art: The Art of the Classical World from the Death
of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Actium.” W.W. Norton & Company. New York, 1981.

Hersey, George. “High Renaissance Art in St. Peter’s and the Vatican.” The University of
Chicago Press. Chicago, 1993.

Paolett, John T. and Radke, Gary M., “Art in Renaissance Italy.” Laurence King
Publishing. London, 1997.

"Rome." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 29 Jan. 2006.

Tansey, Richard G., “Art through the Ages, 6th Edition.” Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Inc. San Francisco, 1975.