posted on 18/11/20
The webinars will be broadcast live, initially, and then be available to subscribers for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series. Each will last 30–35 minutes and Michael will answer questions at the end. The subscription is £75 per device for the series. Maybe it could also solve a Christmas present conundrum.
Renowned for his erudition, enthusiasm and wit, Dr Michael Douglas-Scott is one of MRT’s most frequent lecturers and tour leaders. His speciality is the Italian Renaissance, and these talks are the outcome of forty years of observation, research and cogitation on some of the most fascinating questions in art history.
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At face value, there is nothing unfamiliar about the works we will be considering in this series of talks. They are among the most 'iconic' in the canon of Italian renaissance art and architecture. All of us will have seen them many hundreds of times in books, calendars, postcards, on television, and now on the internet. Some of us have been lucky enough to come face to face to face with them.
But their familiarity conceals one of the sources of their continued fascination: they stare back at us across the centuries with an interrogation mark suspended above them. With an enigmatic smile, they remain uncaptured, fundamentally strange, foreign to us. Many of the key masterpieces of the Italian renaissance endure as unsolved mysteries, asking us more questions than we can answer now or probably ever will be able to.
One of the central questions, as with Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, is one of meaning: what is their precise subject matter and what exactly is going on in these pictures? But meaning to whom? We the modern viewers, or those for whom these works were commissioned? This takes us to the second problem: who commissioned these works and why? What was their original function? Palladio’s ‘Rotunda’ is among the most famous buildings in the world, yet categorising it is difficult: is it really a villa in the accepted sense of the word?
The Renaissance is usually considered to be a period of secularisation, but Christianity remained key to nearly all its central developments, including the emergence of landscape painting, as luminously demonstrated in Bellini’s ‘St Francis in the Desert’ in the Frick Collection, New York. Some of the central innovations of the Renaissance had nothing to do with the revival of ancient Greek or Roman culture, especially the printing revolution, which had a profound and permanent impact on the visual arts right across Europe.
The Renaissance has come to be associated with geniuses (usually Florentine) like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but how did they acquire their immortal reputations? In both their cases they failed to deliver what was requested of them on an embarrassingly large scale, or produced works of such sublime oddity, like the ‘Mona Lisa’ and the ‘Dying Slave’, that they are identified with their creators rather than with what they were supposed to represent or the function they were meant to serve. The mortal woman Lisa Gheradini has long since been transformed into Leonardo’s almost supernatural image of womanhood, and Michelangelo’s ‘Slave’ into a canonical ideal of male beauty. They have become works of art in their own right, eternal 'masterpieces'.
Finally, has what we have considered to be 'civilisation', fostered by the Italian Renaissance in its synthesis of Christianity and ancient philosophy as set out in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’, become a lost cause, the standard image of an assembly of irrelevant dead white men eternally arguing over ever-more-redundant issues, before an army of baffled tourists being harried to the Sistine Chapel by Vatican guards? Are the values presented in renaissance art of purely historical or anthropological value now, or do they still speak to us and our 21st-century condition, with urgency and meaning?
Although one of the most beautifully enchanting paintings of the Italian Renaissance, we still do not really understand this picture. All of the figures in the composition have been identified with near certainty but how they all fit together has not been finally resolved. Was there a 'programme' given to Botticelli, and if so by whom? Can the picture be decoded as an 'allegory', that is a symbolic story or favola? To what degree does it reflect the cultural values of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his Medici circle of humanists and neo-platonic philosophers?
Michelangelo was among the first artists to be considered more-than-human, indeed 'divine'. How did he achieve this reputation given, in comparison to God, his extraordinary rate of failure in completing his projects? This is especially true of the central failure of his life, the tomb for Pope Julius II, which he acknowledged to be a 'tragedy'. There are six major statues, two in the Louvre, Paris, and four in the Accademia, Florence, which were intended for this monument. Why are they all unfinished and how did their state of incompletion contribute to, rather than detract from, Michelangelo’s immortal reputation? What do they tell us about his creative process?
Piero della Francesca’s reputation was only revived in the twentieth century after well over four hundred years of neglect. Yet he was not only one of the greatest painters of the fifteenth century but also one of its greatest mathematicians. He wrote a treatise on perspective in painting which remains a classic, one copy dedicated to the ruler of Urbino, Federico of Montefeltro. He famously portrayed this highly-civilised, hook-nosed soldier-ruler and it may be for him that he painted the ‘Flagellation’. But this is by no means certain, nor is the date or purpose of this enigmatic picture. Who are the three men pictured on the right of the scene and how did Piero use perspective to generate meaning as well as mystery in it? Is there just one lost 'meaning' to be unearthed here?
Andrea Palladio built many villas for Vicentine and Venetian noblemen but none is better known than the ‘Villa Rotonda’ just outside Vicenza. Yet this is the least typical of his villas as it is neither fish nor fowl, that is neither a 'villa suburbana' near town to be visited for the day for pleasure nor a 'villa fattoria', the centre of an agricultural farm and intended for economic production and revenue. Palladio himself did not know how to classify it in his highly-influential ‘Four Books of Architecture’ of 1570. Its patron was an odd clergyman called Paolo Almerico who sold his family palazzo in town to live here all year round. But how could that have worked, especially as its central dome was open to the elements during his lifetime? Was this a practical dwelling or an uncomfortable architectural statement of perfection?
Among the many jewels of the great collection in New York that is the Frick, Giovanni Bellini’s ‘St. Francis in the Desert’ stands out. The major part of the panel is given over to a northern Italian landscape of great beauty. In its stands St. Francis, hands outstretched and mouth open in front of his cavernous hillside retreat. Is he uttering his 'canticle to the sun' as he looks upwards, or is he receiving the stigmata from the top left-hand corner of the picture? If the latter, where is the winged Seraph, or indeed the companion of St. Francis at La Verna, Brother Leo? Bellini was among the great landscape painters of the fifteenth century but it was a landscape full of God’s presence in nature, as witnessed by St. Francis, rather than teaming with nymphs and satyrs or the pretty shepherd folk of the pastoral idylls that became the stock-in-trade of Venetian painting from the early 1500s onwards.
The ‘Mona Lisa’ is perhaps the most famous painting in the world but it is worth stopping and asking ourselves 'why so?'. Very few of us have been able to scrutinise its visual subtleties in any depth given that it is almost unviewable in normal visiting hours at the Louvre and that most people who do queue to see it immediately turn their backs on it and take a 'selfie' on having finally reached their sacred destination. It is by no means the best of Leonardo’s female portraits but that raises the issue: is it really a portrait? There can be no doubt that this started as a representation of a particular Florentine woman, Lisa Gherardini, but did it end up that way? Her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, never took possession of it and it ended up, much altered and reworked, in Leonardo’s possession at his death at Cloux in France in 1519. What had the picture turned into by then and why is it more than ever today such a universal, internationally recognisable, icon?
One of the many ways in which the 'Renaissance' owes nothing to classical antiquity is that it witnessed the 'printing revolution', a relatively modern technology. In the Western world largely originating in fifteenth-century Germany in the mechanical reproduction of both text and image, by 1500 Venice had taken a European lead, certainly in the production of printed books. There was considerable interchange between Venice and Nuremberg and Albrecht Dürer visited the lagoonal city twice. One of the Venetians he sought out on his first visit was Jacopo de’ Barbari, the probable artist of the masterpiece that is the huge woodcut bird’s-eye view of Venice of 1500. This was financed by a Nuremberg merchant called Anton Kolb who obtained the first 'copyright' for a surviving printed image. Why did Venice become the centre of this information revolution and who would have purchased an object like this one and where would they have put it? Where and what was this new market for multiple, black-and-white images?
Think of the 'High Renaissance' in early sixteenth-century Rome and you think of Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael. Raphael was painting the 'Stanza della Segnatura' in the Vatican Palace from 1509-11 just as Bramante’s new St. Peter’s was going up and Michelangelo was completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The 'Stanza della Segnatura' was then the private library of Julius II and it was for this room that Raphael painted the 'School of Athens'. This title was not given it until much later but it quickly established itself as a classic, not merely because of its normative style but because it presented an idealised and harmonious image of the Western philosophical tradition and the compatibility of this with Christian belief. This was hardly a new idea but reached a pinnacle in Rome before the death of Raphael in 1520. Has the confidence expressed by Raphael in this synthesis between religion and reason survived the secular shocks of the Lutheran reformation, the sack of Rome in 1527, the counter-reformation, the scientific revolution, the enlightenment, modernity, globalisation, feminism, post-colonial shaming and mass digital culture? Has the ‘School of Athens’ fallen victim to time and become an embarrassing reminder of a lost Western 'civilisation', another puzzling curio in the dustbin of world history?