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A Florentine Ornament

Continuation of: The Crown at the Piazza

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.

The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”– Alexander Graham Bell

All those days when David remained engulfed within the scaffolding following itsdelivery at Piazza della Signoria on May 18, 1504, it was guarded round the clock. Meanwhile, a case of influenza virus had broken out in Rome which quickly spread all through Italy and beyond. In effect, it lasted for several months and on its visit to Firenze, about 90 per cent of Florentines caught on to cough and fever while few died from it.

On June 8, 1504, David was placed at the Ringhiera – at the spot where until then Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes had stood (1). A few days ago, Judith was taken off its pedestal and temporarily set on the ground within the Palazzo where it remained until it’s installation in the Loggia on May 10, 1506.

According to a book, an Order to prepare the marble pedestal for David was given to II Cronaca and Sangallo only by June 11, few days after David was installed. This indicates that David was placed on a plinth and the Order for pedestal implied only additional reinforcement of outer casing to the plinth to sustain the weight of David already on it.

In the days following the installation and it’s unveiling to the public on September 8, 1504, Firenze had days steeped in religious and cultural tradition. They celebrated the Festa di San Giovanni (Feast Day of St. John the Baptist), their Patron Saint, on June 24.

On August 10, the Florentines celebrated Festa di San Lorenzo (Feast Day of San Lorenzo) followed by the folkloric event, La Festa della Rificolona (Festival of the Paper Lanterns) on September 7, then a recently initiated tradition observed on the eve of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin when Tuscan farmers and mountaineers carrying lanterns gather at the Piazza (transforming Piazza Santissima Annunziata into a giant market for their produce) fronting the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Firenze to celebrate the birth of the Madonna by singing hymns.

All through these days, Michelangelo was engaged with the finishing touches to the sculpture which remained surrounded by scaffolding. While the work on the pedestal also progressed, it was reportedly during this time David was provided with the sling, tree-stump support, and a victory-garland.

During one of these days Piero Soderini (Piero di Messer Tommaso Soderini, 1450-1522)(2),Florentine gonfaloniere di Giustizia who held Michelangelo in great esteem,  thought David’s nose too thick and shared this observation with its creator. Giorgio Vasari relates about this occurrence in his book, Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori. Knowing that Soderini’s point of view from beneath David still within the confines of the scaffoldings prevented him from seeing properly, Michelangelo, who didn’t want to prolong a satisfactory response to the remark of Soderini who had contributed in no small measure to the development of Florentine art, mounted the scaffolding to the level of David’s head and pretended to chip away at the surface of David’s nose with his hammer and chisel while letting drop some marble dust concealed in the hollow of his palm. Soon after, leaving the surface of the nose untouched, Michelangelo looked down and said to Soderini: “Look at it now.”

Soderini appeared pleased: “I like it better. You have given it life.”

The unveiling of David was specifically done on September 8 which marks the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in whose honour Santa Maria del Fiore, the ecclesia maior of Firenze is dedicated – the edifice upon which David was originally meant to be put up.

In reality, the ecclesiastical and civic authorities have seen another righteous opportunity to honour the Virgin who is widely respected as a mediator between God and the Florentines – a belief once echoed by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) as well, and that, looking further back, one could notice that the cornerstone of Santa Maria del Fiore was also laid on September 8, in 1296.

Unlike the happy-with-his-triumph posture of the elegant and slender David depicted in the statues by Donatello (1386-1466) and in Andrea del Verrocchio’s (ca. 1435-88) clothed version of David holding a short sword at a negligent angle; the pose and composition of the David by Michelangelo heralded a stately grandeur and dignified solemnity.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520) came to Firenze in 1504 after the installation of the David – during the time when a galaxy of eminent artists were congregated there amidst an artistic atmosphere caused by the potent rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Raphael was one amongst the first to study the David (3) – the symbol of freedom and dynamism of the Florentine republic.

On a professional perspective, the sculpture looks different close up than it does when viewed from the ground. From the ground, one can see the rigid and turgid tendons of the neck – the sling resting on his shoulder – the forehead furrowed with threatening wrinkles, his flared nostrils and, that defiant look as David measures the distance of his antagonist – to throw the slingshot from the accuracy of his hand. At close up, the furrowed brows protrude from the forehead and there is variation in the gaze direction of the two eyes – all optimised for visual effect.

On that note, one could visualise Michelangelo’s great ability to look at things – of how he could take a thing in mind, turn it over and see so many facets and focused on the desired shape to carve out of the block of marble. A quote attributed to Michelangelo summarised his work: I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.”

While Michelangelo’s public sculpture remained outdoors for 369 years (4), by and by, it attained great prominence not only as one of the most historically and aesthetically significant sculptural works of the Renaissance but also turned itself into the second symbol of Firenze, next to the fleur-de-lis (giglio bottonato, the official emblem of Firenze).

With La Pietà in Rome and David in Firenze, Michelangelo’s pre-eminence was established as a sculptor. Even though he was accepting commissions for work even while working on David, (5), the latter half of 1504 saw Michelangelo, at the behest of Piero Soderini, embark on the creation of historical compositions on the wall of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Signoria (Vecchio) (6) where Leonardo da Vinci was already engaged in the design of another cartoon on the opposite wall.

As it turned out, this work was left unfinished by Michelangelo early in 1505 having opted to proceed for his second journey to Rome at the invitation of Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513, pope from 1503)

Earlier, on August 12, 1502 while the work on David was in progress, Michelangelo was given a commission to make a copy of Donatello’s David within six months. This bronze figure was meant for Pierre I. de Rohan (Pierre de Rohan-Guéméné, 1451-1513), son of Marie de Montauban and Marechal de Gié, who greatly desired to own it. Rohan was highly favoured at the court of popular King Louis XII (Le Père du Peuple/Father of the People, 1462-1515) of France. Naturally, Signoria was eager to comply since an alliance with France was considered of the highest importance for the Florentine Republic. 

During the next two years, while the bronze-casting of the statue was done with the assistance of special master, Benedetto da Rovezzano (Benedetto Grazzini, 1474-1552), unforeseen developments in France occasioned Pierre de Rohan to fall into disgrace having been charged with treason in 1504 after he became Duc de Nemours in 1503 as a result of his marriage with Marguerite, heiress of Armagnac and a sister of Louis d’Armagnac (1472-1503), Duc de Nemours.

Eventually, Florimond Robertet (1531-67), the Secretary for finance who was influential with King Charles IX (third son of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici) was afforded the mental pleasure as well as spiritual benefit from this sculpture. After 1566, Robertet placed it in the courtyard of his Château de Beauregard, near the city of Blois until more than a century later, it was removed to Château de Villeroy (Villa regis), Sète (Cette), owned by great art lovers Nicolas IV de Neufville (1543-1617), Seigneur de Vlleroy and his wife Madeleine de L’Aubespine (1546-96, poet and lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici), from where it eventually disappeared. The only evidence left of this sculpture is a fine pen-and ink drawing by Michelangelo

Besides Michelangelo’s tomb at the Franciscan Basilica di Santa Croce, scattered around his city of Firenze are several of his creations. And what tribute more graceful and intimate to the memory of Michelangelo could be conceived than to visit and appreciate the creations of Michelangelo in the delightful radiance of Florentine ambiance? Ascribed to his atelier are: David at the Galleria dell’accademia; the Medici tombs at Basilica di San Lorenzo; mallet and chisel works at the Casa Buonarroti and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; Tondo Doni in the Galleria degli Uffizi. Then, there is the site of his fortifications at San Miniato.

Although monuments, museums and galleries aren’t the only reason to visit Firenze, a stay in Firenze is incomplete without a look at the original David of Michelangelo. Its heightened reputation since its installationbefore Palazzo Vecchio overlooking the Piazza della Signoria, the center of political life in Firenze, has influenced successive generations – blazing a trail of appreciation amongst kings and emperors, dukes and marquise, knights and counts, scholars to the general public.

Of David’s influence, a book relates a diary entry of Ukraine-born ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) mentioning about how he allowed French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to photograph and sketch him in nude to create a sculpture inspired by Michelangelo’s David. Then there were those who considered David a provocatively sexual portrayal of idealised male beauty. Sometime after its completion, Michelangelo was disgusted to witness a fig-leaf attaining a new use on a certain part of his David which remained unrectified until the early years of the 20th century.

A plaster cast (six metres in height) by Florentine cast-maker Clemente Papi based on the original statue of David presented by Leopold II (1797-1870), the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857 to Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria; 1819-1901) was outfitted with a plaster cast of a fig leaf of appropriate size and hung at a certain place with clips during early years.

Then again, not to anyone’s surprise, there were also those contemporary rivals who squared their shoulders and detested the talent of Il Divino.

Foremost amongst such high-handers of malcontent tracking Michelangelo quietly and silently as a snake sloughing off its skin, was Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560), son of a famous goldsmith and the prospective creator of Hercules and Cacus (Ercole e Caco), whose impending efforts to outdo Michelangelo Buonarroti would generally ricochet to strike back on himself – but that’s another story…. Jo

This concludes PART ONE.

Notes:

  1. Commissioned by the Medici as a metaphor of their rule in Firenze, Judith and Holofernes was a freestanding companion figure to Donatello’s David. The original is presently in Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio.
  2. Piero Soderini was appointed as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia for life August 1502 following completion of the regular two month period as Gonfaloniere.
  3. A Study of Michelangelo’s David by Raphael (during 1504-08) is at the British Museum in London.
  4. Although the sculpture was periodically taken care of and its surface waxed many times during its long exposure to all injuries of rain and frost, the left arm of David was broken by a huge stone during the popular riots of 1527. Giorgio Vasari relates how he and friend Cecchino Salviati gathered the scattered pieces, and the arm was restored in 1543 under the care of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), first Grand Duke of Tuscany. As related in a book, there is photographic evidence suggesting that David was slightly moved forward from its original position in early 1870s to align the pedestal with the new stairs of the Palazzo. Upon David’s removal to Galleria dell’accademia in Firenze on July 31, 1873, the space where it stood at Piazza della Signoria lay empty for almost 37 years.
  5. Due to lack of space, this series of posts cover only selected creations of Michelangelo in its chronological order. Thus, Madonna of Bruges (c. 1501-04) and some other works are omitted.
  6. The frescoes created by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci depicted Florentine victories in the battles of Cascina (Florentine victory over Pisa in 1364) and Anghiari (Florentine (League of Italian states) victory over Duchy of Milan in 1440). Michelangelo discontinued this work when he left for Rome to fulfil the commission granted to him by Pope Julius II (1443-1513) to do frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and to design the pope’s tomb. A fine copy from Michelangelo’s cartoon of Cascina by Aristotele (Bastiano) da Sangallo is at the Earl of Leicester Collection at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England and a Study for Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari is at Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Crown at the Piazza

Continuation of: Rise of the Brave Shepherd

Work is love made visible – Kahlil Gibran

Long before the Medici was ousted in 1494 and Firenze declared a republic, the biblical hero David had been reckoned an emblem of Florentine enthusiasm for republicanism. Now that the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David was almost completed, and since its placement on a buttress of Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) has been abandoned, an appropriate place where David should be permanently installed has to be determined.

The meeting convened by the Consoli of the Arte della Lana on January 25, 1504 at the audientia of the Opera del Duomo in this respect was attended by about thirty participants – selected crème de la crème from the great Florentine community of contemporary painters, sculptors, architects, Signoria, etc., – many men of acknowledged abilities brought together under one roof !

The relevant Minutes existing in the archives of Duomo reveals identity of attendees such as artists Cosimo Rosselli, Leonardo da Vinci (1), Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi (2), Piero di Cosimo, Pietro Perugino, Andrea della Robbia, Lorenzo di Credi, Davide Ghirlandaio, Simone del Pollaiolo, Bernardo della Ciecha, Giovanni Piffero (father of Benvenuto Cellini), wood-carver Francesco Monciatto; architects Giuliano da Sangallo and Antonio da Sangallo, L’araldo di Palazzo/the chief herald of the Signoria Francesco Filarete, who was the first speaker, etc (3).

The proposals and deliberations, which reflect the possibility of prior examination of the almost completed sculpture by the participants before this meeting, projected the most prominent locations favoured for David’s installation:

  1. at the west façade which is the front of Il Duomo facing Piazza di San Giovanni (see above illustration showing the image of David superimposed on the proposed spot);
  2. at Il Duomo, the edifice upon which David was originally meant to be put up;
  3. at the spot where Donatello’s bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes (4) stands on Piazza della Signoria. This is one of the two spots suggested by the chief herald of the Signoria – the other spot being, in the courtyard of the Palazzo;
  4. in the shelter of the middle bay of the Loggia dei Priori (Signori/Lanzi) (5) so that due to its centralized location, one can walk around it. Alternatively, place it unobtrusively against the rear wall within a black niche. While placement against the rear wall in a niche would shelter the sculpture from direct exposure to open air, David’s appearance would be limited to frontal view and his gaze obstructed by the frame of the niche. Leonardo da Vinci was in support of this sheltered middle bay subject that David’s presence would not cause hindrance to State ceremonies or to the priors when they wished to convocate the people;
  5. at the arch of the Loggia dei Priori facing Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio) where there was a staircase specially reserved for the Priors. Placement under the middle arch of the Loggia (see item 4 above) was not favoured since it would obstruct the order of whatever ceremonies conducted there by the Signoria and Priors;
  6. in the inner courtyard of the Palazzo rather than in the Loggia (see items 4 & 5 above) where the statue could not be seen in its entirety and would be susceptible to injury from scoundrels. Besides, the floor of the Loggia may not be strong enough to hold the weight of David;
  7. spot where the Marzocco (6) stands at the northern angle of the ringhiera (or rostrum) before the Palazzo;
  8. Inside the new Sala del Consiglio Grande (frequently called Salone dei Cinquecento) on the first floor of the Palazzo della Signoria.
  9. the choice should be left to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Other opinions sounded were: a) somewhere in the vicinity of the Palazzo – a choice favoured by the Signoria; b) at the steps of the central arch of the Loggia.

At length, with the absence of a vote, it was resolved, in par with sculptor’s conception and execution of the work, to have his David installed on the left of the principal entrance of Palazzo della Signoria (Vecchio) immediately beneath the tower. There it would act as the symbol of Signoria, the governing body of the republic.  It was an irresistible idea. Rain, frost or shine, David ought to do well there.

The proposals and deliberations of the Meeting of January 25 gave birth to various opinions and interpretations as to the sculpture’s bodily features, the location for installation, it’s positioning (especially, David’s gaze in the direction of Rome), based on the prevailing political climate typical of the time, etc. Amongst such interpretations, there are suggestions that David’s position in front of Palazzo Vecchio was already considered way back in 1501 and the Meeting of 1504 was held just to rally public acceptance to legitimize David‘s separation from the Duomo where it was to be originally installed on a buttress of the north tribune.

Before long, disputes arose about how best to safely transport the massive sculpture from behind Il Duomo over to the selected spot. On April 1, 1504, the commission to undertake the preparation and transportation within a month was assigned to Simone del Pollaiolo (II Cronaca/The Chronicle One, 1457-1508), the last great architect of the Quattrocento who had long enjoyed his dignity. A tall order, but where II Cronaca is concerned, by no means impossible.

The commission for the above assignment excluded the contractor from responsibility in case of any accident in transit. To be sure, follow ups were also issued on April 28 and on April 30 in which the delivery destination of the sculpture suggested was interpreted as the Loggia which could mean only as an off loading location. Furthermore, two supplementary issues also demanded attention: a) the removal of Judith and Holofernes for re-installation at a new location; 2) to prepare a suitable pedestal to install David at the chosen spot.

On May 14, 1504, in consonance with the arrangements drawn up by Giuliano da Sangallo and his brother Antonio da Sangallo, the colossal marble sculpture, duly enclosed in strong wooden frame, was taken out of the work-shed inside the courtyard of Opera del Duomo behind the east end of Santa Maria del Fiore for its onward transportation to Piazza della Signoria, under the supervision of II Cronaca. They had to break the wall above the gateway to let it pass out of the work-shed where Michelangelo created it in an atmosphere shrouded in secrecy.

David was secured with ropes to remain suspended vertically within the timber frame-work of stout beams and planks in order to ensure that it was properly defended against any transit lurches and vibrations. The consignment was then slowly moved out by way of fourteen movable wooden greased rollers (which were changed from hand to hand) and windlasses. The concept of keeping the figure upright was hardly a strange sight in Tuscany where cows, bulls and horses are transported standing up.

Other than the assistance proffered by Michelangelo, Baccio d’Agnolo, and Bernardo della Ciecha, more than forty male workers were roped in as manual labour with workflow benefits for transportation of Il Gigante (David) through the mapped out route of some less than 550 meters to south which was levelled, secured and kept on watch and guard. Barring an incident en route, of stone pelting at night by four youths with intent to harm the sculpture, at mid-day on May 18, they had an arrival at Piazza della Signoria, the area of many civic festivities, where Palazzo Signoria (Vecchio), with its lofty tower, imposing bulk, and gloomy grandeur, is located.

Documents related to end May 1504 indicates that the sculpture, enclosed within the wooden framework, was still standing nearer to the Judith where it was originally off-loaded on May 18. The fact remains that more delay in the installation was inevitable since the work order to remove the Judith was issued only ten days after David was delivered at the Piazza, and only then it became clear where David will be permanently situated.

Follow on: A Florentine Ornament

Notes:

  1. Leonardo da Vinci was engaged in painting Mona Lisa during the period of events depicted above, having started the work by October 1503 or early 1504 in Firenze;
  2. Filippino Lippi didn’t live long to witness the installation of David on June 8 since death stole him on April 18, 1504.
  3. Source for images of Andrea della Robbia, Cosimo Rosselli, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, Giuliano da Sangallo, Simone del Pollaiolo and Baccio D’Agnolo: commons.wikimedia.org
  4. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes depicted the story of Jewish heroine Judith in the Apocryphal Old Testament book in her name. In her imperturbability, Judith went into the tent of Holofernes, general of Nebuchadnezzar and cut off his head, thus saving her native town of Bethulia. Generally perceived as a Medici symbol (as defenders of Firenze) for it was commissioned (undocumented) by their family for their garden at Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Judith and Holofernes was transferred and placed on the ringhiera in 1495 as symbolical of liberty after Piero de’Medici (1472-1503, the eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) was driven out of Firenze where he tried to restore his former honours few times. It was deemed erected under an evil constellation and believed to be an omen of evil and unfit where it stands. This was a favourite erotic subject and painted in Italy by Andrea Mantegna, Giorgione, Giulio Romano (Giulio Pippi), Pellegrino Tibaldi, Titian, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and others.
  5. Before the middle of the sixteenth century, there were no statues in the Loggia. It was during Pietro Leopoldo’s (1747-92, Holy Roman EmperorLeopold II) reign as Grand-duke of Tuscany (1765-90), when he first began to fill up the interior of the Loggia with sculpture.
  6. An ancient Marzocco or Lion of Firenze, the legendary guardian of Florentine Republic, occupied that spot in 1377, nearly on the same spot where the present lion, a replica of Donatello’s Marzocco, sits. The original by Donatello is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello.
  7. 148 years ago, it was on July 31, 1873 when the real David of Michelangelo left Piazza della Signoria for its four days journey to the shelter of Accademia di Belle Arti.  

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Rise of the Brave Shepherd

Continuation of: M as in Michelangelo

Work is love made visible – Kahlil Gibran

From September 13, 1501 until the first half of 1504, Michelangelo was industriously engaged in sculptural works related to his Gothic treatment of David, the young shepherd from the tribe of Judah who rose to become a hero of Israel. It was also during the autumn of 1504 when the traditional trinity of great masters of that period: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520), were all present in Firenze. Think of that!

During the above span of time, three popes reigned over the Catholic Church in Rome. Following the death of Pope Alexander VI (Roderic/Rodrigo de Borja, 1431-1503, pope from 1492), Pius III (Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, 1439-1503) took over the pontificate on September 22, 1503. Sadly, his untimely death on October 18, 1503 marked his reign as the shortest papacy in the history of the Church. Thereafter, the ten year pontificate of Julius II (Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513) commenced on November 1, 1503 following the shortest conclave in the papal history.

Even as Michelangelo worked to create David in a specially constructed wooden shed expressly erected to shield his work from prying eyes, he was sporadically attending to prearranged contract works agreed in 1501 with (pope-to-be) Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to execute fifteen small size marble statues of male saints, over a period of three years, to decorate the Piccolomini Chapel in the Duomo di Siena, the city where Cardinal Francesco was born.

Besides other works, Michelangelo was also preparing to work on Tondo Doni (Doni Madonna), his first panel painting, ordered by the wealthy Florentine Agnolo Doni (1474-1539) either for his wedding in 1504 to noblewoman Maddalena (1489-1540) of the powerful Strozzi family or for the birth of his first daughter in 1507.

Historically, the biblical hero David (c. 1035-970 BC) in the face of all odds had defended his people and governed justly as a king who helped found the eternal throne of God. He has been much honoured in the history of the Jewish people ever since his duel with Goliath which is narrated briefly in 1 Samuel 17 of the Old Testament. Erecting a statue of this heroic personality was considered as a bringer of good omen for the future of Firenze. David would also symbolize the reality that the rulers of Firenze would defend the Republic with courage and govern it conscientiously.

As the narration in 1 Samuel 17 goes, when war again broke out between the Israelites and the Philistines and they were confronting each other across a valley between Shochoh and Azekah in Ephesdammim, shepherd David, the twenty-three year old youngest son of the Bethlehemite Jesse had come forward and dared to accept the challenge of Goliath (the Philistine of Gath) to any one from the Israelite ranks to come out and fight him. In the encounter which followed, the giant Goliath of six cubits and a span in height encased in complete armour and wielding weapons fell to the earth after having been hit on his forehead by a smooth stone shot from the sling of David after which he had quickly severed Goliath’s head with the giant’s own sword.

Michelangelo’s preference for muscular young men evidently dominates his art since they appears to be his ideal for beauty. The initial sketch Michelangelo prepared depicted the brave shepherd David standing with his foot planted on the head of Goliath. This was found unsuitable owing to the inadequate size and quality imperfections of the block of marble which was already worked upon on by earlier sculptors.

To that end, the design and composition, proportion and orientation Michelangelo had in his mind for his David had to be remodelled which prompted him to prepare another wax model which became the catalyst for the profile of his sculpture of David which he created at the wooden shed at the courtyard of the workshops belonging to Opera del Duomo.

Given that David was part of a dozen of statues of prominent Old Testament characters originally intended for placement along the borderline surrounding the outside of the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, it has to be viewed from below. And so, some parts of the body featured in disproportionate size apparently don’t hang together.

I could imagine the attention given for the articulation and balance based on the classical contrapposto pose David should adopt and of the clothes he should wear or not. To suit the shape of the block of marble, the left arm has been bent to touch the sling on the shoulder as against the originally extended arm Michelangelo envisaged.

Here he has adhered to his life-long theory of ruling out add-ons to the block of marble. By making the slingshot barely visible over David’s shoulder, Michelangelo has implied that cleverness underlined the young shepherd’s victory rather than sheer force.

In February 1503, when the sculpture was half finished, the Consuls decided that Michelangelo be paid in all 400 golden florins, including the stipulated salary. A major concern then was the ambiguity in the location chosen to install the sculpture. The intended location had to be ruled out considering the feasibility of lifting such a mammoth figure to the height of the buttresses of the Cattedrale. Nevertheless, at a headlong pace, Michelangelo brought David to perfection and almost had the sculpture completed before the learned Consuls met on January 25, 1504 to finalize where David would be best installed.

Follow on: The Crown at the Piazza

Note: For close study, some images featured above pertain to the replica at Piazza della Signoria.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

M as in Michelangelo

Continuation of: The Florentine Mystique

Memory is the guardian of all things – Cicero

A lifetime of passion for art had intensely taken root in Michelangelo (Michelagniolo, March 6, 1475 – February 18, 1564) since he entered the sculpture garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, January 1, 1449 – April 8, 1492). Noting his talents, Lorenzo saw in the teenager a promising student of sculpture who would one day bring honour to Firenze.

Born to Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarotti Simoni and his wife Francesca at Castello di Caprese, Michelangelo’s desire for art had grown in him long before 1488 when he was nurtured among the stone quarries of Settignano in the care of a stonemason and his wife. Undoubtedly, his allure for art had kept on its steadfast progress during his apprenticeship as a painter with Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) who had returned from Rome only few years ago after painting in the Sistine Chapel between 1482 and 1484 for Pope Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere, 1414-1484, pope from 1471).

Young Michelangelo’s first two marble works, Madonna (Madonna della Scala) and the Battle of the Centaurs, were executed during his formative years under Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1420-1491), Donatello’s pupil and keeper of the statues and sculpture in the Medici gardens of San Marco.

It was here Il Magnifico Lorenzo maintained many fine art treasures he collected for the good school of Painters and Sculptors he founded – similar to the “Accademia Leonardi Vinci”, the school of arts (1) connected with Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) established during his Milanese stay from 1482 until the fall of Duke Lodovico (Il Moro) Sforza (1451-1508) in 1499.

What a marvellous idea to spread all those priceless collections of antiques out where Michelangelo could look around with child-like wonder and delight. It was here that his fellow-pupil young Pietro Torrigiano (ca. 1472-1522/8), moved by envy or driven by pride, broke Michelangelo’s nose and was obliged to flee from Firenze having earned the hatred of the Florentines (2). 

Taken into Lorenzo’s household, Michelangelo enjoyed the privilege of a room, a place at Lorenzo’s dining table with his sons and swathed in the opportunities to absorb culture from the Medicean circle until Lorenzo’s untimely death at his country Villa at Careggi in April, 1492 – which almost brought to an end the true golden age of the Italian Renaissance.

Sometime after Michelangelo’s return to his father’s house following the death of Lorenzo, a problem become apparent after Piero de’ Medici (1471-1503), the eldest son of the deceased Lorenzo, took over leadership of the Signoria. Young, haughty, chivalrous, and rather despotic in his views, interest in the affairs of the State which even in an abbreviated form seldom came out of Piero. Successively, for reasons attributed to the political developments, in 1494, the Medici was expelled from Firenze – declaring them traitors and rebels. The efforts of the Medici to regain their power in Firenze would succeed only in 1512 when Giuliano de’ Lorenzi de’ Medici (Giuliano II, 1478-1516) was brought in from Venice to head the Signoria, but shortly thereafter, Firenze would turn into a papal dependency.

Unable to remain neutral in the above developments, Michelangelo left Firenze and stayed at Bologna, after a brief stint at Venice. Upon his return to Firenze in 1495 when the political climate has improved, he was among those who were consulted vis-à-vis the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of Palazzo della Signoria which Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) proposed to enlarge to accommodate the new government of the people following the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici from Firenze.

A marble Sleeping Cupid Michelangelo fashioned during this time was eventually sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio which paved the way for him to proceed to Rome in June, 1496. In there, following the creation of the life-size drunken Bacchus, on August 26, 1498, he earned the commission to execute a Pietà for Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas (Cardinal di San Dionigi), the French ambassador at Rome who desired a suitable monument for himself in Rome by the hand of the famous Michelangelo.  

This classic work in marble, when finished was placed in the circular chapel dedicated to Santa Maria della Febbre (Our Lady of the Fever) of the old Basilica di San Pietro (3) which was at that time still standing.

The future spacious Piazza San Pietro surrounded by vast semi-circular colonnades which the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo, designed in front of the Basilica (1656-1667) was then covered with a cluster of small constructions and pathways. La Pietà,as the Italians call the group,earned Michelangelo great fame and fortified his reputation as “Il Divinio” (The Divine One) among the artists of his lifetime.

With the completion of La Pietà (1498-1499), the world had witnessed the creation of two classic masterpieces within the span of a few years – the other being The Last Supper (Cenacolo), the marvellous wall-painting Leonardo da Vinci probably begun in c. 1495 on the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the monastery of Dominican friars in Milan and finished in 1498.

At the age of twenty-six, Michelangelo returned to Firenze where he would be a resident till 1504. By then, many changes had taken place in Firenze – it was now devoid of the divinely ordained preaching of Girolamo Savonarola who had eventually faced excommunication followed by implementation of his death sentence when he was hanged and burned on May 23, 1498 – bringing to an end the story of medieval Firenze.

Michelangelo was now ready to take on the offer of the powerful Consuls of the Arte della Lana, the Operai of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore of Firenze. They proposed to him to fashion, complete and finish to perfection a colossal male statue out of a huge block of marble conveyed from Carrara to Firenze many years ago.

The Arte della Lana who owned this block of marble had once offered it in vain to Donatello, the favoured architect of the Medici.  Afterwards, a certain Maestro Simone da Fiesole had commenced work of a huge figure on it but left his work unfinished. Even though Giorgio Vasari was misinformed to name “Maestro Simone” as the sculptor who spoiled that block of marble, it was Agostino di Duccio (1418-81) who upon his return to Firenze from Perugia in 1463, entered the Guild and commenced work on this block of marble which he shortly quit for unknown reasons. A decade later, Antonio Rossellino (1427-c.1479), best known for his Madonna reliefs, gave it a try which didn’t reach anywhere.

Sculptor Andrea Contucci (Andrea dal Monte Sansovino, ca. 1467-1529) who had entered into the guild in 1491 had sought to secure this block to carve a statue by augmenting it with additional pieces of stone. (4) But Arte della Lana preferred to hear Michelangelo’s stance in the matter before they acceded to Contucci’s request. 

Furthermore,they had also consulted with Leonardo da Vinci when he returned back from Milan in the summer-time of 1500. But curiously enough, their efforts to rope him in were in vain, although Leonardo had retired to Firenze in quest of better fortune and finding little or no work of interest to engage him here was seeking employment in the service of Cesare Borgia (1476-1507) who was then cherishing reconstruction of a kingdom of Central Italy under his headship.

As for Michelangelo, this block of marble quarried years before his birth, was just the sort of thing he was aiming at. He was only pleased to accept the commission which was first signed on August 16, 1501: to undertake the Contractual work from September 1501, and complete it within the term of the next two years.   

Michelangelo’s acceptance of the commission gave an atmosphere of hope to Arte della Lana which also guaranteed a good monumental sculpture out of the block without the addition of several pieces.

Follow on: Rise of the Brave Shepherd

Notes:

  1. In 1531, Baccio Bandinelli founded a school of arts in the quarters granted to him in the Vatican besides another in Florence in c. 1550. Then again, it is Giorgio Vasari who founded the first proper Academy of Fine Arts in Firenze in 1563.
  2. In 1519, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) refused Pietro Torrigiano’s invitation to accompany him to England for the one reason that the impolitic Torrigiano had broken Michelangelo’s nose. During 1511-18, Torrigiano had worked on the double tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and the tomb of Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, in Westminster Abbey in England.
  3. The ancient chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre (St. Mary of the Fever), older than the Constantinian Basilica,  was originally built as a mausoleum which was converted into the sacristy south of the new Basilica di San Pietro Rome in 1506.
  4. Andrea Sansovino (Andrea Contucci) would in turn obtained commission for the Baptism of Christ for the Battistero di San Giovanni of Firenze by 1500 but left it unfinished by leaving for Rome in 1505 to work on the marble wall-tombs (1506-09) of Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza (1455-1505) and Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere (1434-1507) at Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Florentine Mystique

Continuation of: The Greek Connection

Wherever you go, there you are – Confucius

Mindful walking during daytime is a pursuit we engage in whilst we are in Firenze. Such legwork on days of less tourist frenzy not only helps to face fewer hustle and gearbox but also inspires to look around through the eyes of Love. Getting out and about here would reward one the opportunity to reflect on the barometers of a community that was fashioned by this architecture of mediaeval characteristics – originated from the various strange phases of Florentine history.

Unlike passeggiata, the Italian tradition of taking an after-sumptuous-meal leisurely stroll for fun, socializing or for health reasons, an observant visitor on easy-going walks around the streets and piazzas of this City of Flowers proffer a distinctive Italian atmosphere and colour.

Since olden Italy was divided into small States and constantly at war with each other.  On that note, the dwellings of great families were generally composed of a double wall of strong stone masonry to turn them into strongholds. And so, some of the greatest architectural achievements in Firenze of that period were houses so outsize they were considered as palaces.

The mediaeval characteristics are much evident in Firenze’s piazzas, courtyards, gardens, open arcades, etc. Distinctive features of the buildings reveal deep-set windows protected by heavy iron grills, arches, porches, and curves that express feeling in design.

While the roof line below the terracotta is adorned with heavy, ornamental cornice, the walls are divided into sections with vertical pilasters and horizontal strips of mouldings. The street front has the popular round-headed windows while the ground floor windows, smaller in size, are appropriately defended with barred grills.

In the photographic viewpoint, there are fabulous shots of varied angles all around which includes after-rain puddle reflections and curious modern day sights.

There are numerous Tuscan Romanesque arches, frescoes on the walls, decorative street lamps, old horse tethering wrought iron rings on the walls, bas-reliefs on lintels, iron holders on the walls for torches to illuminate the street, etc (1).

In the architectural point-of-view, the kind of marbles, including Carrara marble, and other materials for construction and architectural adornment used all around here are of varying characteristics.

Of the two main types of sandstones, pietra forte, the fine-grained, brownish-yellow sandstone of considerable resilience is the primary material and used widely as well as in the construction of prominent edifices such as Basilica di Santa Croce, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Maria Novella, Palazzo Vecchio, etc.

At Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, pull focus and take another look up at the Cupola of Filippo Brunelleschi (1379-1446). Pietra serena, the silvery grey sandstone much favoured by Brunelleschi, is used widely there – particularly at the three girdling belts of the Cupola.

All this may seem rather nostalgic pictorials of old architecture and ornate details and may seem looking backwards. Better still, we understand Città di Firenze clearer as our perspectives evolve to the realisation that the splendour and flair of the past goes with you at every step in Firenze, which the illustrious Dante Alighieri praised as ‘La bellissima e famosissima figlia di Roma’ (3).

Follow on: M as in Michelangelo

Notes:

  1. Some of the cast iron piazza/park bench supports, lamp-posts, sewer covers, are still marked with Fonderia delle Cure – Giovanni Berta in Firenze (likewise in Rome), relates to the earlier century.
  2. Pietra serena: Mainly used as ornamental, art, architectural decorations, etc, pietra serena or pietra di macigno is an elegant variety of calcareous sandstone composed of sedimentary layers of different colour. Because of its good mechanical strength it is used also at Cappella dei Pazzi and Cappelle Medicee. The archives of the Opera del Duomo will be of much use to those interested more on this subject.
  3. La bellissima e famosissima figlia di Roma: Beautiful and famous daughter of Rome.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Greek Connection

Continuation of: A Procession of One

Each day is a little bit of history – José Saramago

Firenze, the name Florentines love to call their city in Italian is used by us only during our visits and in our writings. Like the ancient Florentines did, between my wife and I, we call it in its older and most beautiful form: FIORENZA, because she flourished exceedingly and was the Flower of all Italian graces. Fiorenza has music to it for those who listen in the pleasantness of old tradition. 

The imposing sculpture of Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus at Piazza della Signoria depicts Hercules holding the hair of Cacus, the giant kneeling in defeat before him, while he held a club in his right hand, the famous weapon he had cut for himself in the forest of Nemea.

I have always looked at this Renaissance sculpture in a wholesome way – certainly not in awe of it. Short of any pretention as a scientific expert on Arts or scholarly expert of Greek antiquity, I prefer to merit it as nothing less than an admirable work although it can be said that the artist’s projection of strength is mere bulk.

Conversely, in what I have scrutinized and thought of this sculpture aside from the comments and reactions of its onlookers I came across at the Piazza della Signoria, one can hardly disregard the many serious, biased, cultivated kind of art-writings from Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) down to our modern day scientific art critics which strengthen one’s conviction that the sculpture lacked that exceptional magnetism that could turn the heads of onlookers and fixate their attention on it. 

Although Hercules clad in the skin of the Nemean lion is a popular image; he is often represented naked as he is portrayed here by Bandinelli: a powerful upper body with rigid set of shoulders, short necked, head smaller in proportion to full muscular limbs, a curling beard which does not mar the serious expression from the general area of his face. One could note a similarity of those features on sculptor Giambologna’s (Giovanni da Bologna, ca. 1529-1608) Hercules slaying the Centaur Nessus (1599) displayed few feet away under the right-hand arch of the noble Loggia dei Lanzi (1).

Installed as a pendent to Michelangelo’s biblical hero David (popularly called Il Giganté), the naked Hercules parallels the stark nakedness of David who stood with his body’s weight resting on right leg, his gaze divulging an inner anticipation for the next course of action to take. Taken together, the nudity depicted here bespoke of the period when nude studies of male figures was the norm for gods, heroes and even renowned mortals.

Very early on, nude and partially nude artworks based on antique characters have shown their presence in Italy. It took wider popularity with the rediscovery of art of ancient Greece and Rome. In effect, the Greek sculptors’ main interest was to portray man at his idealized best since man was particularly considered as the noblest measure of all things to them – undifferentiated from the gods they conceived in man’s likeness. The representation of Gods, warriors and mortals in heroic nudity was the sculptors’ open admiration for the perfectly formed male body which is hardly a sensual aspect in the society of a time where athletes openly workout in scant clothes for events like Olympics.

Hercules being a favourite hero and symbol of the Florentine Republic, it’s hardly surprising to come across many such representations in Firenze. One cannot ignore the Trecento Florentine Seal which bore the image of Hercules since about 1281, as a testimony to the familiarity of Hercules in the Florentine culture.

Since we usually rent apartments for our Florentine visits in the vicinity of Piazza del Duomo or in the area between Il Duomo and Piazza S. Marco, we cannot avoid touching upon Piazza del Duomo almost every day of our stay in Firenze.

The group of ecclesiastical buildings which form the center of Firenze comprise of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo); the octagonal Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni) (2) and Campanile di Giotto (belfry tower).

Il Duomo was named Santa Maria del Fiore in reference to the lily (the emblem of Virgin Mary) in the red shield of the Republic, which indicates the tradition that Firenze was founded in a field of flowers. This edifice was built on the site of the cathedral dedicated to S. Reparata who, at the tender age of 12, had undergone martyrdom in Cappadocia during the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius in 3rd century AD. From 680 to 1298, she was the primary patroness of Firenze, following which the city was placed under the tutelage of Virgin Mary and S. John the Baptist. According to a legend, Santa Reparata itself was erected on the ground occupied by the parish church of San Salvador. Subsequently, when Santa Reparata was raised as the parish church, the Baptistery became pro tempore the Cathedral for a few years.

At Piazza di S. Giovanni, it’s delightful to remember Lorenzo Ghiberti’s (1378-1455) artistic works on the gilded doors of the Baptistery situated across from Il Duomo. Ghiberti most likely cast it in a process the French called, encirage, using the same enormous furnace in his workshop in Via Sant’Egidio, nearly opposite Santa Maria Nuova, where he had created the Northern Gates. Taking in the astonishing beauty of these celebrated doors of the Eastern Gates, Michelangelo once praised them as fit to be “the Gates of Paradise.”

On the southern side of the Baptistery was a representation of Hercules amongst the eight depictions of virtues belonging to the 28 gilded bronze reliefs on Andrea Pisano’s (ca. 1270-1348/9) bronze door, probably the earliest in Firenze (3). Another representation from the workshop of Andrea Pisano is the relief of Hercules and Cacus (Lower register No 2: Social Justice) on the eastern side of the Campanile di Giotto which supposedly occupy the site of a small oratory of S. Zenobius, the first bishop of Firenze. 

Follow-on: The Florentine Mystique

Notes:

  1. Loggia de’ Lanzi is so called from the Swiss lancers who were placed here by Grand Duke Cosimo I.
  2. Although the date of Baptistery is lost in uncertainty, legend has it that theedificewas supposedly erected in 589 by German-born Theodelinda (Theudolinde, 570-627), daughter of King Garibald of Bavaria and queen of the Lombards who was devoted to the Christian faith of the Catholics. In about 1229, works under Jacopo de’ Lapi took place to level the ground around Baptistery and replace the old brick pavement with stone. A book relates the occasion as: “At that time the Baptistery stood at a higher elevation than afterwards, and at the base were steps. Around the building were ranged Roman sarcophagi, which were used by Florentine families of distinction for internment, as well as for monuments, when the entire Piazza between the Cathedral and Baptistery constituted the cemetery of Florence.”
  3. Since December 2019, all three sets of bronze and gold doors of the Baptistery are displayed next to one another at the Sala del Paradiso of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore after completion of the restoration project began in 1978 by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Firenze.

 (© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

A Procession of One

Continuation of: Distant Fire, Delightful Gleams

There are certain things in life one feels to be good and beautiful and must hunger after them. Throughout the 15th century Italy (1), it had become fashionable for men of wealth, influence and of the church to decorate their premises with fine arts of those derived from the classical Greco-Roman cultural heritage – collections primarily of Greek art from finds in mainland Italy and Sicily.

It is no small matter how much the architectural and artistic achievements of the ancient Greeks have set its effects on the Western culture in general. The renewed interest in the classical past and in the grammar of Greek architecture came not only with the progress in trade and banking activities of both Venetian and Genoese families in the Aegean, but also from the steadily growing awareness and appreciation in Western Europe for Greek literature. While, amongst other aspects, this was fostered by the printing of Greek type initiated by Aldus Manutius (ca. 1449-1515) in Venice’s Sant’Agostino neighbourhood, it also spearheaded an increase in the influx of visiting scholars between Western Europe and the Greek lands.

The taste for art collecting per se aroused far reaching expectations for a brilliant coterie of sculptors, painters, and goldsmiths which occasioned burgeoning of an imposing series of reproductions of Greco-Roman art, etc.

On an equal par with Genoa, Milan and Venice in northern Italy, Firenze of that time was one of the richest, liveliest regions of varied economic activity. Primarily a manufacturing centre with booming export trades, its principal foundation of wealth lay in the cloth industry. Furthermore, the Medici Bank which ranked as the biggest and most respected financial magnets of Europe was a prestigious laurel to Firenze’s singular privilege as the top most banking centre.

Mindful of the historical personalities of the wealthy merchant families of Firenze, foremost amongst men from the long line of bourgeois Mediceans includes: Cosimo de’ Medici (Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici/Cosimo the Elder (Pater Patriae, 1389-1464), his grandsons: Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo il Magnifico, 1449-92), Giuliano de’ Medici (1453-1478) (see profile pictures on the title card (2)), and counting two of their family popes: Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1475-1521, pope from 1513), and Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, 1478-1534, pope from 1523). As Mediceans, theirs was a procession of one – all too princely a Medici to neglect their great patronage for all kinds of arts and science. 

Essentially, the Medici transformed art’s status to “fine arts”. There is some modern-day appraisal that this view could be a myth created by the Medici themselves. Then again, to appreciate the many-sided aspects that could outshine this view, of course, one should go to Tuscany and Italy on the whole. Where better to do it than there?

The Medici’s endeavours helped to remove the impediment on opportunities at hand for their contemporary sculptors, painters, architects, and thereby enriched their earnings, career success and recognition. Above all, they paved the way for most of the artisans to demonstrate their brilliant talents and expressions through so many artistic treasures of the Renaissance. One such personage was Baccio Bandinelli (Bartolommeo di Michelangelo Bandinelli/Brandini, 1493–1560).

Baccio Bandinelli was one amongst the most favoured by the House of Medici which included the great maestro Michelangelo (Michelagniolo di Lodovico Buonarroti (1475-1564), Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, ca. 1386-1466), Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1440-1491), Giuliano da Sangallo (Giuliano Giamberti, 1443-1516), Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Ca. 1444-1510), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) amongst others.

Being one of Firenze’s principal mannerist sculptors, it was Baccio Bandinelli who created the sculpture: Hercules and Cacus(1525-34) which stands guard on a pedestal on the right side of the portal of Palazzo Vecchio while, a marble replica of Michelangelo’s David (1501-04) (3) stood in pride of place on the other side along the old Ringhiera (4).

Follow-on: “The Greek Connection” (Part 3)

  1. The term Italy in this write up refer to the country as a whole since Italy finally became a unified nation-state only in 1871;
  2. Picture credits of Title header: Source: commons.wikimedia.org: From left:

1) Ritratto di Cosimo il Vecchio – Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder by Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557) – Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze;

2) Ritratto di Lorenzo Il Magnifico Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari  (1511–1574) – at Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze; 

3) Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) – at Accademia di Belle Arti G. Carrara, Bergamo

3) This substitute of Michelangelo’s David was created by sculptor Luigi Arrighetti (1858-1938) with Saul Fanfani (1856-1919) and installed here in June 1910. The original David (installed in May 1504) was removed in 1873 to the shelter of Galleria dell’Accademia Firenze to avoid further weathering and damage. A bronze cast of David by Clement Papi (1803-75), can be seen at Piazzale Michelangelo, Firenze, where it was on view from September 13, 1875

4) Only the remnants of the original Ringhiera of the 14th century remains after its removal in 1812.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Distant Fire, Delightful Gleams

I have come where I have long desired to be…. – Charles V

Within the wide Piazza della Signoria and its Loggia dei Lanzi (1), the open-air museum on the southern side, there are many sculptural art from a time when Arts enjoyed extensive prosperity in Firenze (Florence), Italy.

This area was frequently bustling with activity before the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic took over globally and triggered significant precautionary restrictions such as traveller mobility, health-related formalities, border closures, travel bans, etc.

As in the case of Italy, the world’s fifth-most visited destination, the crisis inflicted a heavy toll on its tourism, plunging it into the worst recession since World War II. But the recent popular expression, “Even George Clooney doesn’t come anymore with this pandemic,” is now giving way to optimism among the population as there are efforts to reopen the country to tourism from June forward owing to the progressive easing of restrictions and the awaited EUDCC (EU Digital COVID Certificate) Gateway for safe movement between countries.

Being constant visitors, Firenze is always linked to our minds with summer and sunshine. When the blue Tuscan sky is magically clear or whenever we do not entertain any intention to swap Firenze (its palaces, monuments, galleries and piazzas, etc) for a full-field investigation of the towns and cities nestling in the hillsides of Tuscany, this here is one of the places where we often spent time during the Florentine leg of our visits.

A certain pleasing ambiance prevails at this sprawling Piazza with its public-space displays which are more conducive to us for serious reflection than just to sit elsewhere in Firenze and people-watch – even though, at times, with the pleasure of listening through earphones to the delightful masters of Italian opera: Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35), Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), or Giacomo Puccini (1858 –1924), in their home settings.

Compared to the public squares of Firenze such as Piazza del Duomo, Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza della Repubblica, the show-place of Firenze is Piazza della Signoria. This is reputedly the place where almost all the Florentine history probably has passed.

Adding to its plus side are all those strenuous sculptures executed with the most delicate mastery, as well as the great “Neptune” fountain (Fontana del Nettuno/il Biancone) of Bartolommeo Ammanati (1511-92). In many instances, it leaves distinct impressions and memories on the visitors.

During high tide of visitors in the Piazza, few may fail to notice an inscribed circular plaque on the pearl grey Pietra Serena (2) paved pavement which marks the spot of the Cimento di Fuoco, the ordeal of fire on May 23rd, 1498 when Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) was hanged and burned.

Before the Loggia became a day-to-day controlled area for certain hours following an episode of vandalism to the marble statue of Pio Fedi’s “The Rape of Polyxena” (3), we used to sit on the left stone-terrace that runs between the two Corinthian columns, closer to the lion by F. Vacca (4), one of the two colossal marble Medici lions which flank the entrance of the Loggia.

The imposing Palazzo Vecchio loomed to our right. Its principal doorway with an overhead decorative fronton is conspicuous in the center of the two “termini” posts, which formerly served as supports to the chain to bar the entrance.

From where we sat, it was easier to clearly admire the topic of my present write-up located on our right side of Palazzo’s entrance: the white marble sculpture of the most celebrated of all the heroes of antiquity in the Renaissance’s colourless view of the Classical nude: Hercules.

Continued in Part 2: “A Procession of One

Notes:

  1. The loggia was variously known as Loggia dei Priori, Loggia della Signoria, Loggia dei Lanzi, Loggia di Orcagna, D’Orcagna – not necessarily in this order. By Benci di Cione and Simone di Francesco Talenti, the Loggia (1376-82) was originally designed to shelter the Signoria from adverse weather conditions during civil and religious ceremonies or to accommodate the Priori for their convocations of the people. In contemporary times, it suits as a venue for Live Orchestra concerts, etc.
  2. Pietra Serena: Sandstone typical of Florentine Renaissance architecture and building mainly extracted from the hills of Settignano and Gonfolina area/Lastra a Signa, in the northeast and in the west of Firenze.
  3. Pio Fedi’s “The Rape of Polyxena” (1865/6) depicts Achilles receiving Trojan princess Polyxena when she offered herself for the return of her brother Hector’s body. Having secured Polyxena in his left arm, Achilles’ sword is raised to beat Queen Hecuba, who is desperately trying to protect her daughter. The dead person under Achilles’ feet is the corpse of Prince Hector.
  4. The right lion is of Grecian origin brought from Rome together with the 6 antique sculptures placed against the inner wall.
  5. This is for Carina, my travel companion and wife, who understands perfectly what ‘dedication’ means.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Christmas Always Comes Up Trumps

Christmas is different from what it was more than 100 years ago… yet it is much the same. At length, Christmas celebrations have become more and more elaborate – hiked up by the gravitational pull of commercialisation that might even lead us to believe that Walt Disney invented Santa Claus.

But the traditional oldies are there to fall back on: the Christmas Eve, the traditional Holy Mass, shining stars, cribs in Nativity scene, Christmas trees, angels, decorations, greenery, fairy lights winking and blinking, carols, songs, dances, gifts, wining and dining, stuffed poultry and plum pudding, white-iced cakes, Christmas & New Year greeting cards…..and then there are the candles calling attention to the legend of medieval times when lighted candles were placed in windows as a welcome to the Christ child, to show that there was a place in the home for Him.

As I wrote in my previous posts, I have had many Christmas memories from my childhood and one of my few flights of fancy is to allow them to flood me every now and then – especially during Christmas time. They are like Christmas decorations saved from Christmas to Christmas, and more added each year.

The joy of those carefree Christmases! Still and all, Christmas was something inside me – a singing in my heart. As if Mr. Charles Dickens might call at any time, our ritual of Christmas does not change. Each year there is much the same routine. The excitement spread over weeks as the star is hung, the crib is made, the Christmas tree erected hung with baubles and other decorations, and friends and relatives came in to visit.

The clever old Santa, with rhythmic, booming sounds and a certain sense of dignity will show up in the evenings without his sleigh, his eyes, exuding geniality and delight, peeping through the eye holes on his mask. He was accompanied by dancers and singers few of whom can’t carry a tune in a steam shovel. It’s all very Christmassy.

One of the neighbours of our traditional house was a family with three men good with their hands and easy-to-make notions. They are linked in my mind with stars and cribs. Two-to-three weeks leading to Christmas Day, these men and some of their friends, real no-nonsense workers, devoted their afternoons to create very low-cost and small-scaled Christmas trimmings for selling locally.

As it drew near to Christmas and there was no school to worry about, I sometimes went over to watch them create stars and cribs using bamboo. Their vibes was so grand that they could all laugh at the same things. Once the bamboo was cut vertically into sticks of required lengths, both surfaces are buffed finely to obtain smooth texture before they are tied into shapes of stars and cribs. The roof of cribs was thatched with hay.

Most of their exquisite works, some even varnished for glossy look,  are sold at Michael’s shop at the junction by our street and in the evenings people oh’d and ah’d looking up at the cribs and lighted stars on display for sale.

One of the most amusing was a wonderful Christmas in the 70s when our family made a beautiful Christmas tree. It stands out most vividly in my mind. Approximately 6ft. tall, it was bedecked with all the delicate sparkle associated with Christmas decorations. Given that the pine and fir (species grown as fresh Christmas trees in Europe and elsewhere) were not readily available potted at that time, a similar species (possibly, Araucaria Heterophylla) was acquired.

Set upright in base made of wooden pieces, the plant was decorated with gold and copper paper, gold and red ribbons, sequins, bugle beads, gold streamers, crepe paper strings, cardboard cylinders, fairy lights, etc., to create that jingle-bells effect. Copper and gold was kept as colour scheme to indicate the sparkle of the festive occasion. Few years saw us using a tree with branches cleared off its leaves as a substitute when the right plant was unavailable. Always the charming note is that the decorated Christmas tree, ablaze with tiny lights, represents the spirituality of Christmas.

The matter of substitute mentioned above brings to my mind the letter of a woman published in an old magazine about her great-grandmother who was a colonist passenger in a ship from Europe bound for Australia more than 160 years ago. As the narration goes, everyone was looking forward to spend Christmas in the new land and ladle great helpings of Aussie hospitality.

But, sweet suffering grief, on the Christmas Eve all were disheartened to learn that the ship was still hundreds of miles away which meant – no Christmas tree. Then again, did anyone there hear the angels in Heaven sing? When the children gathered in the saloon for their gifts, they were surprised to find a little tree with real leaves.

Assuming that the ship will be delayed and Christmas would be spent at sea, the ship’s carpenter had made the tree. Upon sailing from Cape Town, he had sowed parsley seeds in a box filled with sand (from ship’s ballast) and sawdust. Having kept out of reach of salt spray, the crew took turns to water it using their daily allowance of drinking water. As Christmas neared, the parsley had grown luxuriantly. From the firewood the carpenter carved out the stem and the branches on which the parsley leaves were tied. The tree was adorned with tiny candles, tinsel ornaments and white sugar for ‘snow’. A Christmas tree was born!

True to the Christmas ideal, how wonderful the ship’s carpenter had made his finest effort and shared his decorated Christmas tree to swell the hearts of strangers and friends. Indeed, Christmas, just as it always does, triumph after all. Merry Christmas, Jo

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Catch – as – Catch Can

Excitement is soaring for high-class racing action in Dubai where horses are a passion. This excitement is hardly surprising in the Arabian Peninsula – the region from where the pure-bred Arab stock had emerged to become lauded as the oldest of the world’s recognised breeds – their influence in creation of the Thoroughbred generally acknowledged all over the world.

A land of startling contrasts, Dubai of United Arab Emirates, has, years on, offered a sparkling calendar of interesting equestrian pursuits and leisure activities such as courses for riding skills, show-jumping, dressage, polo, horse riding trips, etc, through its various clubs and stables. The Dubai World Cup (DWC) 2017 will take place on Saturday, March 25 at Meydan Racecourse where the 2017 DWC Carnival is underway.

As for me, UAE is the region in which I had flown in the most number of times, for short visits and transit – like drive traffic, all stop and go, since I very often flew with regional Airlines from the early-nineties – a silent witness to the city’s astonishing growth to today’s modern metropolis, Dubai (which I was told is a mixed Farsi and Arabic word meaning literally, two sides of the water. I have also heard its meaning being referred to the Hindi words “Do – bhaee” (Two – Brothers)! Few documents may exist before 1799 when the local inhabitants were primarily engaged in fishing and harvesting pearls. But at the creek of Dubai, one can still see the big wooden dhows and smaller, short-keeled sambuqs.

Of the many activities complementing the Dubai World Cup is a Solo Show by Said Atabekov, the internationally renowned Uzbekistan born contemporary artist, who now lives and works in Kazakhstan.

Titled “66 Lbs”, Atabekov’s show featuring photo, video and site installation, can be viewed at Andakulova Gallery (Unit 18, P4 Level, Damac Park Towers DIFC) in Dubai during March 06th – May 12th, 2017. What attracted me to this show is not simply because it featured horses.

With a good number of original “sporting art” also bolstering our love of arts, paintings of sedate hunting or race horses are not alien to our house. From the horse’s first appearance in a convincing anatomical form in an Assyrian bas-relief of the seventh century BC, at length, it has been an inspiration in all forms of arts and later in literature for the majesty and grace of this spirited animal “par excellence”. Over time, many terms sprang out of its name: horse-radish, horse-parsley, horse mushroom, iron horse, pale horse, white horse, brazen horse, wooden horse, Trojan horse, horse bridge, horse-power, horse trading, …..

The largest physiques of horses I have come across, to name but a few, are the set of four horses (Triumphal Quadriga) at Basilica di San Marco in Venice; the wooden horse inside il Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione; Donatello’s equestrian statue of Gattamelata on Piazza del Santo (both in Padua); and such other statues in many piazzas and squares in Europe.

According to classical mythology, Poseidon created the horse. Indeed, from the domestication of the horse, possibly by the tribes of the steppes flanking the Caspian Sea thousands of years ago, the horse has been the friend and companion of man, prized for his beauty, loved for his docility. Eaten, sacrificed, worshipped, it gradually became a means of transport, communication and of horseback conquest in the heroic age. As a story goes, in the early centuries before Jesus Christ, when the Greeks colonised Southern Italy and brought in thousands of horses, the luxurious people of Sybaris trained all their horses to dance to the sound of music – of flutes in particular. Then again, there was also a time when some were addicted to the atrocious practice of sacrificing live horses to their gods or bury them with their masters.

The show’s distinctiveness is the bridge the artist has built between the past and the present with strong images that resonate with tradition – with emphasis on the ancient nomadic game of Kokpar of Kazakhstan. A primitive version of polo, played in two considerably different forms: tudabarai and qarajai, the game Kokpar  has two (or more) teams on horseback competing to pick a headless goat carcass off the ground (zamin-gir) without dismounting or snatch it from someone else at full gallop (chakka-gir) and carry it over the goal line. Usually, the credit for best horsemanship, strength and courage goes to the winning team.

Being aware of this as I am – it is gross the way it sounds. But the element of my main interest in this equestrian sport, part of the cultural backbone of some countries, is merely the nomadic tradition and the strict set of rules it accentuates. According to this solo show, the mandatory weight of the animal carcass used for the game which is fixed as 66 Lbs – hence, the title of this Show.

The Kazakh horses are traditionally an ancient breed originally bred in that region and are exceptionally hardy and competent to withstand extreme climatic conditions. Kokpar (known in a variety of names or simply as “catch-as-catch can”) of the Central Asian countries is one of the games fostered not only out of necessity – but also for recreation as well. The game, which probably owes it origins to the period of reign of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (B: 356 BC – D: 323 BC) or Genghis Khan (B: 1162 – D: 1227) of the Mongol Empire, or to the Turkic-Mongol people, is part of the contests devised to provide, in times of peace, excitement as well as to retain fitness, readiness and skill of horse and horsemen for sudden deployment in unexpected wars. Such activities also aided to counter their boredom resulting from specific exercise in one place.

Specialization in such games enabled the noblest horse and its valiant rider to attain mutual equilibrium as one unit – as can be visualised in the artistic depiction of half-man and half-horse – the fabulous centaur of Greek mythology – the fusion where man dominates mentally and dictates the strategies taking advantage of the obedience, physical strength and exceptional memory of the horse – a feat attained from the animal owing to kind and patient training.

Whereas, in the mounted folk game of Kokpar, known in Afghanistan as Buzkashi (buz, a goat and kashidan, to pull) (Mongolian baz-kiri), the goat (or calf) carcass is the objective for the contesting buzkashi riders (chapandazan) who to carry it off to a “goal”.

The 51-year old artist Atabekov has captured the vibes and thrill of Kokpar by actually riding amidst the two teams of powerful masculine participants on powerful horses – his camera mopping up their emotions, vanity, endurance and the intensity of their action in all its complexity.

The mayhem of lurching, rearing, bumping, kicking, biting, leering, cursing in the midst of dust, noise and sweat as it happens when they engage in grapple from each other in fierce competitive spirit, sometimes (unintentionally!) hitting out at the opponents (not at their horses) with their camchin (buzkashi whip with wooden handle). In his relentless effort, the artist has endeavoured to draw attention of the viewer to the game and spirit of Kokpar and the national sport of Kazakhstan.

Back to you…soon. Jo

The concluding instalment of this two-part serial will follow.

Notes:

  1. The horse in the title header is one of those stationed by the Colosseum of Roma, Italy
  2. My thanks are particularly due to Karen Fernandez, Andakulova Gallery, Dubai for her interest and the pictures and in-put on the artist.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)