Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael:A triumvirate for the Cinquecento.

Five hundred years ago three of the greats of the Italian High Renaissance were all still alive. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raffaello Santi (known as Raphael) are generally recognised as the key figures of the movement that fundamentally altered the course of European art.

So it was nice that the National Gallery had put on a small (one room, just eight works), free show of celebrated pieces by the three of them. It felt quite festive to be amongst the hordes in the National Gallery between Christmas and New Year looking at devotional artworks, even for an atheist like myself. I don't see any problem in enjoying religious art, the architecture of churches or mosques, or gospel music whilst not subscribing to the core belief. In my world view the things being celebrated are all man made anyway.

Certainly Raphael's Saint Catherine of Alexandria can be enjoyed purely for its artistic merits, the rich blues, reds, and green of Cath's drapery as she leans against the wheel that she was later to be martyred on by the pagan emperor Maxentius for refusing to, at first, denounce her Christianity, and later, for rejecting his marriage proposal by claiming she had sworn her virginity to Christ himself. In Raphael's painting her skyward gaze suggests she's looking towards a heavenly light and Raphael adapted her from a now lost Leonardo design for Leda and the Swan and Michelangelo's unfinished sculpture of Saint Matthew which tidily brings together all three artists.

Raphael - Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1507)

Raphael - The Ansidei Madonna (1505)

Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483 and trained in Umbria. He moved to Florence in his early twenties and he was only 22 when he painted the Ansidei Madonna, one of the works that made his name, and came under the influence of Leonardo (31 years his senior) and Michelangelo (closer to Raphael's age than Leonardo's but still a full twelve years older than the younger man). Raphael and Michelangelo's friendship would later dissolve when they both found themselves in Rome competing for commissions from whichever Pope was installed at the time.

The Ansidei Madonna was painted as an altarpiece for one of the chapels of the church of San Fiorenzo in Perugia. The Virgin is flanked by Nicholas of Bari (who was later sanctified as Saint Nicholas and believed to be the inspiration for Father Christmas - see, told you this was festive) and John the Baptist who gazes up at the cross and points to Christ in a gesture not dissimilar to that of Raphael's Saint Catherine.

Where the Ansidei Madonna can seem to modern eyes a bit instructive, a trifle hectoring even, that's not an accusation you could make against the Madonna of the Pinks. Forget it's Mary and Jesus and it's just a sweet painting of a mum and her child that if you leave aside the fashions of the time and the gift of carnations to a child (obviously before the advent of fidget spinners and tablets) could have come from any time in history. Raphael's mastery of light and shade here could be seen as a precursor to the masterful handling of chiaroscuro that Caravaggio popularised nearly a century later as the Baroque era followed the Renaissance years.

Raphael - The Madonna of the Pinks ('La Madonna dei Garofani') (about 1506-7)

Leonardo da Vinci - The Virgin of the Rocks (about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8)
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous names in all art history and though there were only two of his works on show at the National Gallery exhibition they gave an idea of the range of the man and his work. This is a man, after all, who's been called the father of palaeontology, the father of ichnology, and the father of architecture as well as being variously credited with inventing the helicopter, the parachute, and the tank. Writing later in the 16th century, after Leonardo's death aged 67 in the French market town of Amboise, the celebrated Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari can barely conceal his love of the man.
In Volume 1 of Vasari's Lives of the Artists he writes "in the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art".
Steady on, old boy. Get a room. It's tempting to mock this man-crush as a bromance from the time before those words were invented but truly Leonardo was a very special talent, a polymath for the ages and one it's hard to imagine the modern world could ever create again. That said, his Burlington House Cartoon, technically brilliant though no doubt it is, is rather dull and dry to look at. It's got Christ blessing his cousin John the Baptist and Mary sat on the lap of her mother Saint Anne but why it's been rendered in charcoal rather than paint is something of a moot point. Normally this would suggest a preparatory sketch but the curators are insistent that this is a finished work in its own right. I think it's mainly been included here as it's considered an influence on Michelangelo's Taddei Tondo half a decade later.
No such problems with The Virgin of the Rocks. Just the background alone is an absolute delight, the monumentality of the rocks and the deep blue of the water surrounding it draws the viewer's eyes away from the cast of the painting which, as ever it seems, include Mary, Jesus, and the Baptist. Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael weren't the only big three in High Renaissance art
Leonardo da Vinci - The Burlington House Cartoon (about 1499-1500)

Michelangelo - 'The Manchester Madonna' (about 1497)
If you thought Vasari was going a bit OTT with Leonardo you want to read what he's written about Michelangelo, it sounds like he's creaming himself:-
"The benign ruler of heaven graciously looked down to earth, saw the worthlessness of what was being done, the intense but utterly fruitless studies, and the presumption of men who were farther from true art than night is from day, and resolved to save us from our errors. So he decided to send into the world an artist who would be skilled in each and every craft, whose work alone would teach us how to attain perfection in design. Moreover, he determined to gift this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behaviour and in every endeavour, and he would be proclaimed as divine".
Back in the real world Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born to a family of bankers in Caprese in the Republic of Florence in 1475 and very talented though he was it seems likely that if he was both 'perfect' and 'divine' as Vasari claimed he might have at least finished all his paintings!
Both The Manchester Madonna (Christ looking at a book that may or may not foretell his death) and The Entombment (Christ now dead and being held up for contemplation before being buried and, of course, this definitely happened, eventually reborn) contain figures that were never completed and, in the latter case, remain only in outline. It's actually quite an interesting way of getting a grasp on how Michelangelo, and presumably his contemporaries, used to work, how they built up their pictures.
The curators seem eager to accentuate what they call the 'very sculptural' nature of Michelangelo's work and this seems to be because their proudest addition to this neat little show is Michelangelo's The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (yep, those guys again). Better know as the Taddei Tondo (because it was made for a Florentine patron called Taddeo Taddei and because it's more or less round and the Italian word for a circular art work is a tondo). It's the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in the whole of Britain and it's usually housed somewhere, in the vaults I'd wager, in the Royal Academy so the National Gallery are making good on this loan from their neighbour a full kilometre across town.
This time Jesus's gift isn't some carnations but a goldfinch (rumours he'd have preferred a Scalextric are unfounded at time of going to press) to symbolise his later suffering which is just what every kid wants but, hey, he was the son of God so he could deal with it. It's said the figures in this sculpture are inspired by the way Leonardo built up his paintings and in that, more than anything else, it was a worthy addition to an educational and moderately entertaining afternoon in the National Gallery. I wasn't quite as excited by the works as Vasari was back in the day but then who could be?

Michelangelo - The Entombment (about 1500-1)

Michelangelo - The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Taddei Tondo') (about 1504-1505)

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