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August 10 2011

The Medicis: money, myth and mystery

They were a family of Florence bankers whose riches powered the Renaissance, yet their art ignores the material world. Why?

In the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London, the founding masterpieces of modern art are arrayed in all their splendour. The modern idea of art – our belief that artworks deserve to be taken seriously not as mere decorations or religious icons but unique displays of imagination and intellect – began in Italy in the Renaissance. The city that was most self-conscious about this new idea of art in the 15th century was Florence, and here in the Sainsbury wing you can see some of the glories of that place and time: the Pollaiuolo brothers' Saint Sebastian, Fra Filippo Lippi's Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Mars.

These artists had something important in common, beyond the fact that they all worked in 15th-century Florence. All of them had close ties with one family: the Medici. The Annunciation panel by Lippi actually comes from the Medici palace, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo painted decorations for this domestic temple of the arts. Botticelli was a Medici protege, who portrays himself among the men of this famous lineage in his Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi.

The Medici are among the most renowned art patrons in history, and with good reason. But here's a fascinating thing: they are also among the architects of the modern economy. They were the greatest bankers of their age, and the Medici bank pioneered crucial aspects of modern finance. They were "foreign exchange dealers" who enacted a "transfiguration of finance", points out the financial historian Niall Ferguson. When we look at Botticelli's Venus, we are looking at money.

An exhibition at the Strozzi palace in Florence this autumn (24 September, to be precise), called Money and Beauty, will explore this very contemporary aspect of the Medici. This timely show proposes, according to the press release, to "show how the modern banking system developed in parallel with the most important artistic flowering in the history of the western world". It sounds riveting. But there is one aspect of the relationship between art and money in Medici Florence that is deeply enigmatic.

In the Sainsbury wing, you can easily see the fruits of Medici largesse. But what you cannot see, what in fact you rarely find in Florentine Renaissance art, is a brass-tacks portrayal of merchant life.

The Medici chose to have themselves portrayed not working at the bank, but in the robes of the Magi. They commissioned paintings not of the marketplace, but of mythology. There is a glaring contrast between the art of Renaissance Florence, with its passionate recreations of classical myth and history, and the raw realism of northern European portraits of businessmen. Hans Holbein's portrait of a merchant surrounded by the instruments of his trade has no equivalent in the art associated with the Medici family. Why is that?

An answer may lie in the history of the family itself. The Medici bank was brought to the forefront of the European economy by Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, who died in 1429. His son Cosimo was the richest man in Europe. Yet Cosimo did not earn his honorary title "Father of his country" through financial brilliance. He was given it because he used the wealth of the family business to reshape Florentine politics. That obsession with politics grew until the most powerful and charismatic Medici of all, Lorenzo the Magnificent, let the bank decay while he concentrated on running the Florentine state.

It's a strange irony that Renaissance Florence was built by capitalist innovation, but went out of its way to make money invisible in its art. Politics, not money, dominated this city's culture. The ultimate beneficiary of Medici patronage was Michelangelo, who shared both the Medici instinct for making money and the Medici determination to ignore it. His Moses really has loftier things than money in mind.

The absence of financial imagery in Florentine Renaissance art may even explain why the city went into cultural decline after 1529. The later Medicis completed the change from merchants to aristocrats and even royals. As they made themselves Dukes of Tuscany and intermarried with European royal families, the art and architecture of Florence gradually lost its edge. The moral might be that if money makes art, snobbish disdain for money can kill it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 13 2011

Artist biographies: more than just cheap gossip

Snooping into the personal lives of great artists and authors isn't just a guilty pleasure – it brings their works to life

Do the biographies of artists – where they came from, who they loved, what they looked like – matter? Or is our obsession with putting a face, a name and a personal story to a great work of art just a distraction from truly engaging with it? Can artistic biography ever be more than cheap gossip?

Philip Roth probably speaks for many writers when he scorns the biographers who search for keys to the work in the creator's life – a standpoint scathingly conveyed in his 2007 novel Exit Ghost. The artists Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly presumably agree with him as both have sought to keep their personal lives remote. For any serious creative artist it must be galling to think that works produced in the calm of the study or studio will be picked apart for personal meanings.

And yet there is no stopping the telling of stories about great art. Oxford historians working on 16th-century coroners' records have just recently added to the sparse and treasured stock of anecdotes about the life of William Shakespeare. The death by drowning of a child whose surname is a variant spelling of Shakespeare – names were spelt in all sorts of ways back then – may be the inspiration for Ophelia's death in Hamlet: a family story, perhaps, resurfacing in his work.

Only a few such tantalising personal details of Shakespeare's life exist, yet this does not stop literary critics trying to reconstruct a life from which to make sense of the works. Nor should it. The fact is that art is a communication between human beings, and to imagine the author as someone who once lived a flesh-and-blood existence may be fundamental to any serious reading of it. The alternative view, that art exists in Byzantine perfection beyond anecdote, smacks of sterile pretension. This is why people started telling tales about Shakespeare centuries ago, and still do.

While Shakespeare is a spectre somewhere within his dramas, other great creators make the connection of art and life explicit. The Italian medieval poets Dante and Petrarch led the way in putting their lives into their art. Both write of their deep love for a named woman – Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura – in a way that was to shape new ideas of the artist as an individual with particular affinities, desires and pain that must be told. Michelangelo transfers this personal voice to visual art, and his voice is more idiosyncratic than those of his medieval literary predecessors. It was not until the Romantic age that Michelangelo's precocious individuality was taken up as a norm and ideal right across the arts.

Was Romanticism a decline in art? Does it infect us to this day with a vulgar need to know the singer as well as the song? To think so is a basic misunderstanding of the place of art in life. Only if we want art to be a kind of courtly decor can we yearn for a return to the pre-Romantic era when artists hid in the background and the consumers of their works took centre stage. The Romantic belief in the expressive nature of all art is the only attitude that truly values creative genius. To search out anecdotes about Shakespeare is not to trivialise him, but to revere him properly. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 03 2011

Michelangelo's naked courage

A small sketch from Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina will go under the hammer in July. But why did he portray a scene of conflict with a drawing of nude men?

It is said that the last fragments of Michelangelo's great cartoon, or full-scale preparatory drawing, of The Battle of Cascina were treasured – in the 1560s – by a gentleman of Mantua, or that artists tore it to shreds scavenging for souvenirs, or that a malevolent vandal destroyed it on purpose. Whichever it was, within a few years of its creation, the cartoon was gone. Yet this vast drawing was regarded by some contemporaries as the greatest of all Michelangelo's works – greater even than the Sistine ceiling, claimed one witness. He worked on The Battle of Cascina from 1504 to 1506, but never painted it on the wall it was planned for in the Great Council Hall of the Florentine Republic.

The cartoon is long gone, but, like a miracle, one of Michelangelo's smaller sketches for his great battle picture has emerged from a private collection and is to be auctioned at Christie's on 5 July. What a thing. It is a gnarled and sensually grasping study of a naked man's back and buttocks. Michelangelo was about 30 when he drew these furrows of flesh, capturing the power of a man's body with an eye and a hand that are so strong yet so tender.

How is this a drawing for a battle scene? Where's the battle, where are the weapons, the armour, in The Battle of Cascina? Michelangelo, or someone who understood him extremely well, found in a Florentine chronicle one of the few episodes in medieval warfare that involved mass male nudity. In 1364 the Florentine army, at war with Pisa, camped at Cascina by the river Arno and, because it was a hot summer day, the men got undressed and went for a swim instead of constructing fortifications. When the alarm sounded they all had to rush out of the water and go to arms. It is this moment of intense drama, with nudes heaving themselves out of the river and rushing in all directions to grab clothes and weapons, that Michelangelo chose to depict. The nude to be sold at Christie's is one of his ideas for what blossomed into a spectacle of contorted figures.

In my book The Lost Battles, I tell how Michelangelo designed The Battle of Cascina in direct competition with Leonardo da Vinci who had been commissioned in 1503 to represent The Battle of Anghiari in the same hall. Their competition is crucial to understanding why Michelangelo turned a battle scene into a bathing scene. He was fiercely competitive and needed to outdo Leonardo. It became a contest not of skill, in which they were both beyond compare, but imagination and originality. Leonardo, the older artist, was already famous not just as a gifted painter but a truly original mind: his ideas and fancies were valued. I believe that in drawings such as the one going under the hammer in July, the young Michelangelo set out his claim to a similar kind of personal, unique vision – and he does it by putting his private self on public display.

One male nude – Michelangelo's David went on view for the first time in 1504 – may be considered an homage to classical Greco-Roman art. A vast drawing that glories in multiple male nudes in the unlikely context of a battle flaunts a blatant personal passion. In designing his army of nudes, Michelangelo made his homosexual desires visible to everyone in Florence. It was a staggering act of courage in a world that severely punished sodomy.

Michelangelo is famous for being brave – defying a Pope, working in arduous conditions under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His heroism is not a myth. He was driven to be defiant, to assert and risk himself in a way utterly unlike most artists before the Romantic age behaved. This drawing is not just a treasure of art, but a document of courage. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 26 2011

Why war has spring in its step

The timing of the Taliban prison escape reminds us that war and springtime have been linked in art for centuries

News that 480 Taliban prisoners have escaped in time for this year's "fighting season" in Afghanistan is hardly something to be taken lightly. But the fact that this war has a fighting season is a strange reminder of the dark side of springtime. For centuries, before mechanised conflict, the seasonal nature of war was a familiar fact, recorded in famous works of art.

Paolo Uccello's early 15th-century painting The Battle of San Romano is a joyous depiction of war. It captures the brilliant colours and dramatic display of medieval chivalry in a bouncing carnival of tubular armoured bodies, hovering banners and prancing horses. In modern terms it is a lie, as any glorification of battle must be. But it is historically simplistic to dismiss the culture of chivalry, with its treatment of war as a beautiful game, as cynical. They simply saw things differently in those days. Uccello weaves a spell of martial spectacle. The way he does it is to root war in the landscape of Tuscan spring and early summer.

The Battle of San Romano was fought by Florentine and Sienese armies on 1 June 1432. In the three paintings that narrate this Florentine victory, Uccello stresses the seasonal delights of nature. Dogs chase hares across the fields; great round fruits glow orange among dark leaves on the trees, just as they do in Botticelli's Primavera (Spring).

The same abundance that graces Botticelli's allegory of spring proliferates in Uccello's pageant of battle. War is associated with the vitality of spring: it is a lusty natural rite in The Battle of San Romano.

Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina, by contrast, portrays a battle out of season. A 14th-century Florentine army was headed towards the enemy city Pisa on 28 July 1364. The war season had run into the heat of full Italian summer: instead of joyous springtime pilgrims, the soldiers were sweaty and faint inside their heavy armour. So they stripped and jumped in the river Arno for a swim – only for the alarm to be sounded. Michelangelo depicts the naked soldiers jumping out of the river. Where Uccello's vision of war might seem complacent, Michelangelo's is anxious and tense. The season is wrong, spring's promise has decayed into summer fever (the Florentine commander was apparently suffering from malaria). Nothing about war is comforting.

Perhaps a deeper change lies behind Michelangelo's image. When he designed it in the early 1500s, artillery was changing warfare. It was starting to be about guns rather than chivalry. Displays of banners and knights meant little when the cannon fired. Michelangelo portrays a new age when war can come at any time, and death obeys no rituals. Yet in the unique and difficult landscape of Afghanistan, it seems that ancient habits still apply. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2011

Leo Steinberg obituary

Art historian and critic known for his elegant investigations of Renaissance paintings

Leo Steinberg, who has died aged 90, was one of the most brilliant and original art historians of his generation. He wrote as persuasively about the great Renaissance masters as he did about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His best-known work was The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983).

I was lucky enough to meet Leo in 1955, and over the decades we continued to see each other – in New York, where he lived for most of his adult life, or on his visits to London. He was impatient of small talk or gossip; conversation was always about particular works of art, which he would discuss intensely. What he said was charged with a sense that art was of overwhelming importance: "anything anyone can do, painting does better".

That passionate involvement with a specific work, and the intelligence which fed it, made him not only an engrossing interlocutor but also a dazzling lecturer (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, tickets for his lectures sold out on the day they went on sale). He was invited to deliver the prestigious Mellon lectures at the National Gallery in Washington DC (1982) and the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University (1995-96).

He was a devoted teacher, concerned about his students, whose careers he followed. From 1961 to 1975, he was professor of art history at Hunter College, in New York, and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was Benjamin Franklin professor until his retirement in 1991.

Though firmly identified with the New York art scene, Leo was born in Moscow, where his father, Isaac, a distinguished lawyer, was briefly Lenin's minister of justice. Isaac's radical views (he wanted to shut down all prisons) soon led to his dismissal and emigration to Berlin after threats of assassination.

Leo's childhood in Berlin left him with a barely noticeable German inflection to the otherwise impeccable English formed in his adolescence, since the arrival of the Nazis forced another displacement – to London. There, he finished his schooling and studied sculpture at the Slade. He moved to New York with his family soon after the end of the second world war.

In New York, he worked as a freelance writer and translator, studied philosophy and taught life drawing at Parsons school of art. He embarked on a doctoral thesis at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. His study of the diminutive and intricate Roman baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed by Francesco Borromini, set out the formal devices employed by the architect to engage the passerby's unsuspecting attention.

While working on his thesis, Leo published criticism in arts magazines and became the most articulate spokesman of the rising New York School of painters. His early advocacy of Rauschenberg and Johns was committed but jargon-free, and he was one of the few critic-historians whose essays were eagerly read by artists for their clarity and elegance. His criticism was collected in a book of essays, Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art, in 1972.

But for all this involvement, he was not really acquisitive and lived rather frugally. In 2002, he donated his collection of 3,200 prints (mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, but also works by Picasso and Matisse) to the museum of art at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1986 he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship (known as the "genius" grant).

He continued to be prolific, writing with equal enthusiasm about Pontormo and Picasso. The examination of a work was never approached on merely formal terms – although he was a painstaking analyst, always meticulous in his attention to detail, to the way brushwork was used to fragment or to mould space; he would even investigate the implications of words pasted on the printed scraps of collages (treated as abstract patterns by most art historians) in his search for clues to the artist's intention.

Leo was impatient with any criticism which merely analysed the object presented to the spectator, since what really interested him was why the artist had wanted to do it in the first place. This is the key to The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. The book is concerned with what Leo termed "ostentatio genitalium", the display of the genitals which often figured in devotional paintings or engravings of the Renaissance and which had been "tactfully overlooked for half a millennium". He argued that the prominence of Christ's genitals was a presentation of incarnational theology explicit in the sermons and pious literature of the time, in which the blood shed at the circumcision is considered the first offering of the redemptive sacrifice.

It was the embodying of an idea which historians, oscillating between prudishness and pornography, found embarrassing or far-fetched. The book was received with bemused deference at the time; however, it has recently been reprinted with an account of the controversy and has transformed our understanding of Renaissance art, while his reading was confirmed in an appendix to the book by the Jesuit theologian John O'Malley.

Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were the artists who preoccupied him in his later years; Michelangelo's sculpture of the naked Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, to which the church added a loincloth, was one of the key works discussed in The Sexuality.

His book Michelangelo's Last Paintings, on the frescoes of the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina, in the Vatican, appeared in 1975. In 2001, he published Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper, a subtle re-examination of the most famous of Renaissance frescoes, in which he pointed to the combining of the forewarning of betrayal and the institution of the Eucharist which followed it.

When I visited him last year – we both knew we might not meet again – he dismissed the matter of his health in the first few minutes, but for an hour and a half we talked of Michelangelo's Doni Tondo, a circular painting of the holy family, in the Uffizi, Florence. We discussed the affectionate embrace of the figures, and the naked youths who people its background. He was writing an extended essay on the painting and thought that he would leave it unfinished, a fragment.

Leo was twice married, first to Dorothy Seiberling and then to Phoebe Lloyd. Both marriages ended in divorce. In his later years, he was much helped by a devoted assistant, Sheila Schwartz. He is survived by his nephews and nieces.

• Zalman Lev ("Leo") Steinberg, art historian, born 9 July 1920; died 13 March 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 05 2011

Bridging the gap

The Muslim world's influence on the Italian Renaissance was real but peripheral – in the age of Michelangelo and Leonardo, it was dangerous to cross the Mediterranean's cultural divide

At the beginning of the 16th century Michelangelo – he confided, much later, to his pupil Ascanio Condivi – was invited by the Turkish rulers of Constantinople to go to this fabled city of the eastern Mediterranean and build a bridge. But Michelangelo refused to go to Istanbul, as it is called today, because it would betray his Christian faith. At the time, by Condivi's account the year 1506, he had good reason to flee Italy. He was in dispute with one of his employers, Pope Julius II, a very scary man. Michelangelo could avoid the Pope's rage by escaping Christendom itself, but that was too high a price for this deeply Christian artist.

His rival Leonardo da Vinci was seemingly more tempted. He appears to have been consulted about the bridge project by the same Turkish emissaries who later approached Michelangelo. Designs for the bridge survive in his notebooks and a document in the archives in Istanbul shows him invoking Allah and offering to work for the sultan. Other notes exist that depict him dreaming of the east. But still, he never appears to have gone to Istanbul or anywhere else east of Rimini.

I tell this tale to titillate and to warn. The point of it is that neither of them ever did go to the east. They stayed at home. It would be easy to imagine an exhibition or book weaving the spellbinding story of Leonardo in the lands of Islam – but it never happened. This particular thread between east and west is broken.

The relationship between the Italian Renaissance and the world of Islam is fascinating. Many believe the Renaissance was begun by encounters between eastern and western learning when Greek scholars fled the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Personally I think this is a hoary old cliche, but more deeply, the medieval roots of the Renaissance are tangled with very real Arab influences, which include modern numerals, the optics of perspective and the sensual tales of the Arabian Nights.

In recent exhibitions, catalogues and history books, there has been a trend to take this a lot further. Encounters, exchanges, and cultural hybridisations have been given such prominence that they are almost presented as the true nature of the Renaissance. This is a mistake, and one that identifies a phenomenon by its peripheral features – as if you said all that mattered about Britain was its coastline, and ignored the stuff in between. The vogue for exhibitions that focus on, say, the journeys of Venetian painters to the Turkish court is a laudable liberal response to the cultural conflicts of our world since 9/11. Let's emphasise not the bloody religious wars of the past, but the dialogues and exchanges. Sure – let's do that – but not at the expense of the truth.

In reality, Renaissance culture was too internally creative to attribute its central achievements to imports. Take the story of silk. In his major book The Economy of Renaissance Florence, the historian Richard A Goldthwaite explores the nature of medieval Italy's trade with the east. He analyses a process of astonishing innovation. Italian merchants in the middle ages began by importing silk goods from Islamic countries to sell on to the barons and burghers of northern Europe. Then they started to produce their own silk. Finally they became exporters of fine silk goods to the east – they turned the tables. This resonates with Renaissance art. When 16th-century painters depict eastern carpets, what does this amount to? Rendering such intricacies in oil paint is just another visual challenge for the artist. But the skills that a painter such as Holbein shows off in this way are not themselves shaped by trade from east to west.

For better or worse, the Renaissance is actually the period when Europe started to make internal leaps and bounds and to strike out, with curiosity but also aggression, beyond its own shores. In 15th-century Florence a citizen returned from the east, where he had been living. He was dressed in Turkish robes, an exotic spectacle. But this was no adventurer returning with magical tales. In fact he was a conspirator who had tried to assassinate Lorenzo de' Medici, ruler of Florence. He was captured in Istanbul and dragged home to die. When he was hanged he was still wearing his Turkish robes, and the corpse was portrayed with great attention to this costume by the young Leonardo da Vinci. Why was this criminal hanged in Turkish dress? Merchants from Florence visited the east continually. But this man was shown by his garb not just as a traveller or trader but as a traitor to Christendom. Trade was one thing, assimilation another. As Michelangelo knew when he turned down the Turkish bridge project, it was not safe to cross the Mediterranean's great divide. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 16 2010

Michelangelo's penis battle

My love for microhistory inspired me to uncover Leonardo da Vinci's attempt to shroud the greatest nude statue ever

So, I gave the last talk in the 2010 tour of my book The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance, at the National Gallery the other day – which in my eyes was a bit like ending it at the art critics' Wembley – and in the middle of the talk, I found myself recommending a book: someone else's. Since I have offered the same bibliographic recommendation to other audiences at book festivals, perhaps I should take the opportunity of what I promise is my last book-related posting of the year to recommend to you the very same beloved work.

It is called Montaillou and its author is the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. It came out in English in 1978, and is still available in paperback. This is my idea of a magical and liberating history book because it breaks down the barriers of time and space. It allows us to meet, as living and speaking human beings, a rowdy and fascinating company of 14th-century French villagers. Normally such people vanish completely from the historical record. The peasants of Montaillou have names, and their personalities can be glimpsed, because they were interrogated by an inquisitor hunting down the last traces of the Cathar heresy.

I fell in love with this book in the 1980s when I was getting ready to read history at university. I also fell in love with the genre of "microhistory" that it made famous. Today there is a vast field of popular writing about history. But before that, there was microhistory. What I realised while working on The Lost Battles was that the simple, humane project of history books like Montaillou – to bring to life the texture of everyday reality in another place, another time – is actually what I want to do for art and artists.

Thus, a crucial chapter of The Lost Battles is based on a transcript of a meeting that took place in Florence in 1504 to decide where Michelangelo's newly carved David should be put. Artists including Botticelli, Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci were at this meeting and their words were recorded word for word by a clerk. Gold dust! In the transcript, Leonardo says the statue needs "decent ornament" – which I take to mean it needs decently covering up, for only in recent times has the notion of decency lost its connotations of Christian modesty.

Since the book's publication in April, no reviewer has disputed this reading of Leonardo's recorded words. Indeed it seems so natural that you may think I got it from some other book – but in fact this obvious reading of Leonardo's speech has been assiduously avoided by art historians who, I suppose, did not want to mention penises and great art in the same sentence.

So, I can claim to have brought a bit of microhistory to light. Great artists are people, too. And in this miraculously preserved bit of his real speech, Leonardo da Vinci is caught out spitefully attempting to emasculate the greatest nude statue in the history of the world. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 24 2010

How I finally warmed to Michelangelo's rival

I once used every cliche about neoclassicism to smear Canova's sculptures. In Venice's Museo Correr I was left eating my words

I have finally got Antonio Canova. It just goes to show that almost anything negative you write about venerated artists – the ones who long ago earned their place in the world's memory – is likely to be stupid. It seems to me that for years I have used Canova, the late 18th- and early 19th-century neoclassical sculptor whose nude statue of Napoleon stands in the Duke of Wellington's house in London, as someone to knock around a bit. If I wanted to praise Donatello's sculptures, it was convenient to contrast their energy with the calm of Canova. Every cliche you can apply to classical art – that it is "chilly", "frozen", "still" – has, I fear, been used by me about poor Canova.

Recently, in the Museo Correr in Venice, I had the tasty experience of eating my own words. Terracotta models for famous works by Canova, including Cupid and Psyche, are hauntingly displayed there in grand rooms near full-fledged marble statues. One of the prototypes is Canova's design for a monument to Titian: an awe-inspiring relief of a pyramid with mourners entering its sepulchral door. Unbuilt in the sculptor's lifetime, this structure from a dream or a nightmare now stands in the church of the Frari in Venice, erected by his own pupils as a memorial to Canova himself. To me it is also the cenotaph of neoclassicism – the resting place of this ambitious and intense vision of moral greatness.

It is true that Canova is stiller, more poised, than his predecessors in Italian sculpture. But that is the logical direction for artist in the wake of Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini. He rivals that triumvirate of supreme sculptors, while his art is a modern reaction against them: his Theseus sits on the Minotaur's chest in triumph, deliberately rejecting Michelangelo's portrayal of David in the moment before action. Where Michelangelo and Bernini give us energy, Canova gives us climax – a choice that lends his art a very modern melancholy. In satisfaction there is always a little death. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 15 2010

Berlusconi government dispute with Florence over ownership of David sculpture

Government lawyers produce nine page document as 'conclusive' proof that the sculpture belongs to the state

A fierce row has erupted over the ownership of Michelangelo's David between the Italian state and Florence, the city where the masterpiece is on display.

A symbol of the Florentine Republic's defiance of its enemies, including Rome, when erected in 1504 at the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, Michelangelo's portrayal of the slayer of Goliath has remained a mascot for proud locals long after the unification of Italy.

But after delving into centuries-old archives, two lawyers commissioned by the government of Silvio Berlusconi have produced what they call conclusive evidence that the renaissance masterpiece belongs not to Florence, but to the Italian state.

In a country where local loyalties often triumph over national pride, the reaction in Florence was fast and furious, starting with the mayor. "With all due respect to Roman lawyers," said Matteo Renzi, "the unquestioned documents in the possession of the city and the state are clear: David belongs to Florence."

In a nine-page document, the legal team from Rome argues that the state of Italy, not the city of Florence, is the legal successor to the Florentine Republic, which funded the purchase of the sinuous, sling-bearing David that Michelangelo daringly carved from an awkwardly sized block of Carrara marble that had lain unused in Florence for decades.

Claiming that the lawyers in Rome had "nothing better to do in August" than seize statues, Renzi cited his own historical research. "When Rome became the capital of Italy, a decree in 1870-1 assigned Palazzo Vecchio and all it contained to Florence, including David," he said. "David is ours, that is what the documents state."

Not according to the lawyers, who note that the paperwork related to the handover of the palazzo makes no mention of David "even though by this time it had acquired an enormous symbolic value". Additionally, when David was put on display at Florence's Accademia gallery in 1873, the city asserted no rights to the sculpture. A year later, the report adds, the then mayor of Florence even claimed David belonged to the Italian government when he billed Rome for the cost of moving it.

Renzi, a rising star of the Italian centre-left said he was unswayed and would demand a face-to-face meeting with culture minister, Sandro Bondi, a published poet who has dedicated some of his work to Silvio Berlusconi.

After surviving an attack in 1991 from a hammer-wielding visitor who damaged toes, before it benefitted from restoration work in 2003, David is today worth €8m (£6.5m) in annual ticket sales, which to Renzi's irritation is pocketed by the government, along with revenue from other Florence museums including the Uffizi Gallery, for a total of €30m according to Italian daily La Repubblica. The government has meanwhile failed to make good on repeated promises to provide special funding to protect Florence's heritage, the mayor claimed.

Earlier this month, Renzi said he would bill Rome for the scrubbing off of graffiti left by bored tourists waiting in the long queues to see Florence's collection of renaissance marvels. "The state takes the money from the visits to the Uffizi and to see David but does not clean up. The city is entitled to be cleaned," he said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 02 2010

Does great art make you ill?

Scientists are to monitor the vital signs of tourists in Florence after they see works of art – to test if Stendhal syndrome exists

There's only one problem with an attempt by Italian scientists to test the reality of Stendhal syndrome, the condition of being so overcome by beautiful works of art that you actually swoon, or at least go weak at the knees.

It was first recorded by the 19th-century novelist and art critic Stendhal in Florence, and so scientists are to monitor the vital signs of tourists in Florence after they see works of art. Their mistake, I fear, lies in their choice of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi as the test site. In the 15th century, when it was built as the town house of the Medici family, this was truly a place to make you pass out. It held an overwhelming ensemble of great works, now scattered around the world, with notable treasures in London.

Later the palace belonged to another family as the Medici made themselves Grand Dukes of Tuscany and inhabited more grandiose Florentine buildings. Today, much of it is occupied by government offices and only vestiges of its beauty endure – admittedly including Gozzoli's fresco of the journey of the Magi. This is a delightful work but not, I think, in the Stendhal syndrome category.

It would be much more effective to put the heart monitors at nearby San Lorenzo, where anyone with a soul emerges stupefied from the sublimely dark and disorientating architecture of Michelangelo's Laurentian library. That really can discombobulate you.

But seriously – can great art have a physical effect? My recent holiday was in Venice, rather than Florence. It has its own, different beauty – more colouristic, molten, and dreamy. I think the answer is yes. The beauty of Italian art has a concentrated perfection and transcendent sensuality that is incredibly addictive. I still feel a bit strange almost a week after coming back from Venice – like a stranger on the traffic-perfumed streets of central London, pining for the Bellinis (meaning the paintings of Giovanni Bellini – we didn't get to Harry's Bar).

Even though I suspect the scientists may have set up their gear in the wrong place, they are surely on to something. There is something dangerous about great art. That is what makes it great. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 19 2010

Leonardo's nightmare of war still haunts France

Traces of Leonardo's lost painting The Battle of Anghiari survive in a chateau in Burgundy – as a reader of this blog alerted me

I'd like to thank one of our regular participants on this blog, Lee Woods, for alerting me to a powerful example of French Renaissance art and a spectacular depiction of the horrors of war. Lee accurately observed here a couple of weeks ago that a painted chamber of grand proportions in the Chateau d'Ancy-le-Franc in Burgundy is strongly reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's lost painting The Battle of Anghiari, with which I am somewhat obsessed. He has now photographed the French work and you can see from his pictures that it is a fierce, darkly ecstatic, fantastic vision of life as warfare.

The fresco depicts the ancient Battle of Pharsalus as a naked struggle of men and horses, a swarm of bodies in sepia monochrome – a strange and disturbing spectacle, in short. I'm grateful for Lee's discovery, as I had not seen this particular interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's battle painting. It contains explicit echoes of the vicious scene the Tuscan polymath started to paint in the Great Council hall in Florence in the early 1500s: a warrior leans forward to stab a man who has fallen to the ground, a man grasps at the long lance that is wounding him. These details are derived from Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari. In the nudity and muscularity of the figures there are echoes, too, of Michelangelo's rival Battle, planned for the same hall in Florence.

How do such echoes of two lost Florentine masterpieces resurface in a French chateau in the middle of the 16th century? The missing link is the royal palace of Fontainebleau, which was decorated in homage to Florence, under the leadership of the Florentine émigré Rosso Fiorentino. The paintings in Ancy-le-Franc are the work of this same Fontainebleau school.

It's plain from The Battle of Pharsalus that these artists were under the sway of Leonardo and Michelangelo's rival designs of battles for the Great Council hall, which made Florence – said the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini – "the school of the world". Certainly, Florence was the school of France. No other transmission of Renaissance Italian art was quite as direct or as lofty. It began when Leonardo himself emigrated to the Loire.

Art is full of mysteries, hidden connections, subterranean influences. The battle paintings of Leonardo and Michelangelo literally passed into conspiratorial darkness as the drawings for them were torn up and stolen by young artists. Leonardo da Vinci's nightmare of war kept returning, as it does in this Burgundy chateau, to haunt European history. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 17 2010

Old Masters are not always what they seem to be

An exhibition of fakes at the National Gallery throws a new light on artistic authenticity

The prospect of paying to see a collection of fakes would be enough to put most art lovers off their Botticelli. However, the National Gallery is preparing just that. In a bold move it is pushing ahead with an exhibition aimed at uncovering the seldom told truths of faux masterpieces within the art world (including cases of mistaken identity), having itself been duped on several occasions.

Forged paintings originally believed to have been created by, among others, Holbein and Dürer will count among the exhibited works. Whether or not this will encourage a spate of similar offerings by other galleries in the pursuit of transparency is another matter. What's certain is that, as technology improves and our ability to decipher the style of a Michelangelo from a Granacci becomes more refined, more fake works will be uncovered. In 100 years an estimated 20% of all museum works may well be attributed to a different artist.

As well as the financial implications for curators and dealers, will the art lover be more suspicious, faced with the supposed authentic artefact? Perhaps, though, few works of art bear an exact resemblance to their early beginnings. The passage of time inevitably alters the colouring, as does exposure to light. Even painstaking restoration is rarely able to faithfully recapture the nuances of a masterpiece's early days, particularly for older works where the colours are no longer available. So what's real? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 14 2010

Michelangelo at the Met?

If former Met expert is right, value of painting would soar from £400,000 to at least £150m

A painting which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought from Sotheby's in London 40 years ago has been declared a Michelangelo by one of the world's foremost scholars of the Italian Renaissance.

Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness has long been attributed to the workshop of Francesco Granacci, a Florentine Renaissance painter, but hardly a household name today. Now Everett Fahy, former head of European paintings at the Met, has hailed it as the work of the Renaissance genius. Evidence found in the imagery and the underdrawing, the sketch beneath the painting, has led him to conclude that Michelangelo painted it in 1506, two years before he began work on the Sistine ceiling.

The Met bought the painting at Sotheby's London for about £60,000 as "close circle of Francesco Granacci". Today, as a Granacci, it would be worth perhaps £400,000. As a Michelangelo, its value would be at least £150m.

Granacci (c 1469–1543) is represented at the National Gallery in London and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, but he is a barely more than a footnote in art history and is best known for his friendship with Michelangelo (1475–1564). Six years older, he introduced the great painter-sculptor to the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1487 and he briefly assisted on the Sistine Chapel.

The Met's picture, painted in oil, tempera and gold on wood (75.6cm x 209.6cm), depicts Saint John the Baptist, flanked by several figures including Christ's disciples, against a rocky landscape. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1958. Art experts, including those at the Uffizi in Florence, had long observed that the Met's Saint John was "superior" to Granacci's other Saint John paintings. Now Dr Fahy believes he knows why. In a phone call with the Guardian he confirmed that he thinks it was the work of Michelangelo.

"I am confident that the only artist capable of making this splendid painting was Michelangelo," he told ARTnews magazine yesterday, ahead of publishing his 65-page study in the Italian scholarly journal, Nuovi Studi.

Although he had worked at the Met for many years, he had a "eureka moment" when he looked at the painting once again. His eye was drawn to the rocks, arranged as if in a quarry. He thought immediately of the quarry at Carrara and recalled how Michelangelo complained of having to spend so much time there, overseeing the rough-hewing of a marble block that he needed to take back to Rome for the Pietà in Saint Peter's. He went on to find comparable Michelangelo imagery. He points to the pose of the standing figure of the Baptist – his right leg forward and his right arm raised – and relates it to two Michelangelo drawings of male nudes in the Louvre in Paris. One of them has been linked to his David, his marble masterpiece in Florence.

He also found analogies with the nude male figures in the Doni Tondo in the Uffizi, which echo the poses of some of the figures in the Met's picture.

Infrared images of the underdrawing done for his research by the Met's conservation department convinced him still further that, at the very least, Michelangelo drew the composition.

Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby's Old Master Paintings Worldwide, said the painting was catalogued "in accordance with current scholarly opinion". He noted that Philip Pouncey, in 1970 arguably the foremost connoisseur of 15th- and 16th-century Italian art, was a Sotheby's director involved in the sale.

He added: "Questions of attribution relating to paintings produced at this period are often under review. Any new attribution for this particular panel will no doubt be a question which leading scholars will wish to consider and discuss." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 09 2010

Prince of darkness

Four hundred years after the artist's lonely death, James Hall returns to the city where Caravaggio made his name

The Vatican has just lent its greatest counter-reformation altarpiece, Caravaggio's Entombment, to the artist's anniversary exhibition in Rome, but it would be surprising if Pope Benedict XVI made the short journey to the Quirinal Palace to enjoy the show. It's not so much that the artist was a homicidal genius denounced by near-contemporaries as an anti-Christ who had come to destroy painting – Caravaggio received a papal pardon for his capital crime, and most art crimes are a matter of aesthetics, which are debateable. It is more that he first made his name in Rome by creating the sexiest boy pictures ever made. Several were commissioned by a cardinal who, like the artist, may have been a pederast, while others were acquired by another cardinal (the pope's nephew) who was probably homosexual.

It is 400 years since the squalid, lonely death of Caravaggio, and the one-time fugitive from justice and serial malefactor is now revered as a supreme cultural hero. As with Van Gogh, Pollock and Bacon, Caravaggio's fame is fuelled by the seeming symmetry between his tempestuous life and his raw, revolutionary art. He is routinely called the first modern artist. Fifty years ago an art historian said anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Caravaggio's contribution to civilisation lay somewhere between Aristotle and Lenin; now we could throw in Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born into a prosperous family in the small town of Caravaggio, near Milan. His father Fermo worked as a builder and architect. Caravaggio was apprenticed to a former pupil of Titian in Milan, but left for Rome in 1592. A pilgrimage to the Eternal City to study modern and ancient masters was de rigueur for an aspiring artist, but Caravaggio may have left after a brush with the law. In Rome he was a dogsbody, moving between studios, barely eking out a living, with some of his pictures sold on the street by hawkers. He specialised in portraiture and a novel north European genre: still life.

The prevailing period style is now known as mannerism – busy, diffuse compositions featuring idealised figures in complex pseudo-Michelangelesque poses; saccharine colour schemes; plunging perspectives. But by the end of the century Roman art was becoming marginally more naturalistic, with a greater emphasis on clarity, cogency, human drama and emotion. Caravaggio both created and exploited this taste for naturalism. His breakthrough came with freshly coloured and luridly lit genre paintings with one or more half-length figures of imposing scale. They were modelled from life using friends, lovers, street-people, gypsies, prostitutes – and his own swarthy self. These low-lifers co-existed with dazzling still lives. Caravaggio's iconoclastic credo was that it is as difficult to paint a good picture of flowers as it is to paint figures. He caught the eye of the supremely cultured Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte – a lover of music and alchemy, and friend of Galileo – who made him a salaried retainer.

A stunning sequence of single, seated good-time boys interacting with prominent still-life elements are a double-edged homage to his great namesake Michelangelo Buonarrotti. These sybarites could almost be Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling ignudi brought down to earth, fashioned from high-blush flesh and blessed with dirty fingernails. Whereas the ignudi hold or marshal bunches of acorns (papal symbols) and make movements that are sublimely indeterminate, Caravaggio's own semi-clad figures knowingly proffer or pose with fruit and drink, implicating the viewer. Two represent Bacchus, the wine god.

Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1593-94) is gently moralising, mildly titillating. A curly-haired, plump-lipped boy with a white rose in his hair reaches forward to grab some cherries and gets nipped by a lurking lizard on the middle finger of his right hand: the would-be biter of (forbidden?) fruit gets bitten. His white, toga-style shirt peels off from his right shoulder, which has jerked upwards into his cheek, seemingly dislocated by the shock. Raking light from the upper left slaps his shoulder and face. What sweet sadism! The lizard bite (neither poisonous nor dangerous) serves to intensify rather than jeopardise the boy's beauty, by opening up his face and torso and by exposing a charming vulnerability that elicits amused and erotic compassion rather than revulsion. His flailing fingers pluck the air like those of the sultry boy musician in The Lute-Player (1595-96) painted for Del Monte. Both seductive and scary, these haunting creatures are ancestors of what the gay writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini called ragazzi di vita – boys of life.

Caravaggio's transformation from a stylish genre painter whose works were prized by cultivated connoisseurs to a great and popular religious dramatist is as sudden as it is unexpected (at a much lower artistic level, it's as if Jeff Koons morphed into Francis Bacon). Caravaggio's first church contract, for three pictures on the life of St Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel, was signed in July 1599, thanks to Del Monte's string-pulling. It was unveiled a year later to huge acclaim, and Caravaggio never again lacked for prestigious church commissions, even after his flight from Rome in 1606 having killed a man in a sword-fight. He painted only two more genre pictures. Wherever he went, local artists aped his style.

In The Calling of St Matthew, the main action, as in all Caravaggio's pictures, is uncomfortably close. It takes place at the front of a shallow stage blocked off behind by a dark featureless expanse (in this case a wall). Caravaggio still uses fashionably dressed figures who could have stepped out of one of his genre scenes, yet their pretensions are stripped bare by men with a different dress code, and armed only with light.

Matthew the foppish tax-collector sits at a table counting his money or gambling with rakish male friends and colleagues. At stage left, Christ and Peter have shuffled in, shoeless and dressed in drab togas. They're an odd couple. Peter stands weak-kneed right in front of Christ, practically pushing him to the wall. Of Christ, we glimpse only the noble head, a bare foot and raised right hand, which points in the direction of the fashionistas. This hand is strangely floppy (the limpest of the three pointing hands in the picture), and is an allusion to the languid hand of Michelangelo's Adam. It is surely meant to be like the hand of a spear thrower relaxed after release, for a blade of light passes diagonally overhead, angling towards its target of Matthew's face. The ambushed victim points quizzically to himself, as if to say: "Who, me? Why me?"

Caravaggio is justly regarded as the master of chiaroscuro, creating mood, emphasis and relief by contrasts of light and dark. This was part of his Milanese heritage, for Leonardo da Vinci had lived and worked there a century earlier: Caravaggio would have studied his Madonna of the Rocks altarpiece, now in the National Gallery. But whereas Leonardo tried to soften the transitions, Caravaggio's contrasts of colour and light are aggressively hard-edged, almost heraldic in their geometrical clarity and frontality, and played out over dark, skyless backgrounds. Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez were all profoundly influenced, just as, more recently, were countless photographers and film-directors.

The bold immediacy of Caravaggio's Roman pictures owes as much to his method of painting directly from the live model at speed without making preparatory drawings. He incised the main outlines into his darkly painted grounds. For his multi-figure compositions he may have created tableaux vivants in a blacked-out studio, using lamplight (as re-enacted in Derek Jarman's film Caravaggio and Simon Schama's Power of Art). The National Gallery website informs us that Caravaggio's technique "was as spontaneous as his temper". Yet little is left to chance or rushes of blood. These are not snapshots. Most gestures and poses are slow and ritualistic rather than instinctive or off-the-cuff.

Unlike the Venetians, who had pioneered painting from the live model, Caravaggio rarely selected perfect specimens. This perceived lack of idealisation was the most controversial aspect of his altarpieces: for some, it exemplified the counter-reformation insistence that art should give the unvarnished truth in as forceful a manner as possible; but for artists such as Poussin, Caravaggio had gone too far and tried to destroy art by flouting decorum. Several altarpieces were rejected or criticised by the authorities, but the rejects were instantly snapped up by private collectors. Rubens persuaded his employer, the Duke of Mantua, to buy The Death of the Virgin (1601-03), rejected because the Virgin looked too dead and was reputed to have been modelled on a drowned prostitute. Yet Rome's poor seem to have appreciated seeing themselves centre stage. When the Madonna of Loreto (c1603-06) was unveiled, with its bedraggled pilgrims (one with filthy feet) praying before the Virgin and child, it was noisily applauded.

Some of Caravaggio's proletarian imagery, and especially the flaunted dirty feet and furrowed brows, do come close to caricature. The rejected altarpiece in the Contarelli Chapel of St Matthew and the Angel (destroyed in Berlin in 1945) is a brilliantly silly example. Matthew is a balding, burly, illiterate peasant with Artexed brow and dirty feet, one of which dangled over the altar; the casual intimacy of his relationship with the angel who guides his writing hand doesn't help matters. It was immediately bought by a wealthy friend of Cardinal Del Monte's, who paid for Caravaggio to paint a more decorous replacement that resembled the suave and educated tax-collector in the Calling.

The "proletarianism" and sardonic humour of so much of Caravaggio's Roman work must owe something to the Accademia della Val di Blenio, founded in Milan in 1560. This was an anti-establishment wining and dining club dedicated to promoting a fabricated dialect that was claimed to be the ancient language of Swiss wine porters working in Lombardy. Members wrote burlesque literature in the rough-and-ready dialect, and in 1568 Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, a painter friend of Caravaggio's first teacher, was appointed "Abbot" of the society. In St Matthew and the Angel, and in many other religious works, Caravaggio has resurrected, as it were, the ancient dialect of biblical wine porters.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Caravaggio was everyone's whipping boy – not just an iconoclast, but a heretic and even an atheist. John Ruskin saw nothing but "horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin". Of course, these vices have come to seem like exciting virtues to modern audiences, with one scholar praising Caravaggio's "derisive irony" as though he were the father of Duchamp, Dada and the spaghetti western.

When confronted by the vast tarpaulins of darkness that envelop Caravaggio's late works, painted as he scurried around Naples, Malta and Sicily, one does wonder how far he believed in personal salvation. The spotlighting of his great New Testament figures is forensic: it freezes and targets rather than transfigures (he would have loved laser sighting mechanisms). The professionalism of the executioners – and the lack of ministering angels – is spine-chilling. David with the Head of Goliath was painted soon after Caravaggio had been disfigured by assassins in Naples, and not long before his death from malaria during his desperate rush to Rome for a papal pardon. The great shepherd boy holds up the bleeding head as nonchalantly as Caravaggio's own Bacchus held out a glass of red wine (Goliath's head may be a self-portrait). This David is not in the least bit perturbed or moved, as some critics have claimed: his decidedly phallic sword blade presses against his own groin.

Caravaggio's art can be best understood as representing a "Machiavellian moment". He lived in an age when the term Machiavellian had become common currency, often as a term of abuse. But it was still granted huge explanatory force: the St Bartholomew's day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572 was attributed more to Machiavellian political manoeuvrings than to religious ideology. The metronomic intensity – and, to some extent, monotony – of Caravaggio's work stems from that fact that he is as interested in the natural and political history of religion as the spiritual history. His David is a narcissist, opportunist and realist before he is a prophet and author of the penitential Psalms. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Art and politics

Whoever loses the general election next month may take solace in reading about art and politics in 16th-century Italy

All political careers end in failure – who said that? – but they do not all end in torture. Whoever loses the general election, the pain will be spiritual, not physical. Armed men will not seize David Cameron (let's assume a Labour win) and subject him to exquisite physical pain in the dungeons of 10 Downing Street.

But that was how the political career of poor Niccolò Machiavelli ended, slightly less than 500 years ago. In 1512, Spanish troops that were sent to restore the Medici family to power in Florence sacked the nearby city of Prato, slaughtering troops who had already surrendered and sending streams of refugees through the gates of Florence.

Machiavelli worked in the Chancellery of the Republic these soldiers came to crush. He helped his boss, Piero Soderini, escape, was suspected of conspiring against the new regime and was tortured. He was allowed to live, but excluded from political life, driven into very early retirement at his farm outside the city. That was where he wrote his great book The Prince – which is at once a fantasy of the power he lost, and a dark exposure of tyranny's secrets.

My book The Lost Battles is about the politics as well as the art of Renaissance Italy: the "lost battles" it tells of are not only vanished masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo but the lost battle to defend republicanism in 16th-century Florence. Both stories came together when Michelangelo designed brilliant fortifications to defend the last republic during the siege of Florence in 1529-30.

So I was aware over the last few months of the probable irony that my tale of political defeat in 16th-century Italy would appear round about the time of a general election, with its drama of victory and defeat.

Republicanism is a political tradition the loser might take consolation in reading about this summer: from classical times to the Renaissance, it always seemed doomed to fail. In the first century BC, the Roman republic was replaced by autocratic rule; when Renaissance intellectuals such as Machiavelli revived its ideas, they revived the pessimism of its history, too, as told by Tacitus and as witnessed by Cicero. In his bust of Brutus, the diehard republican Michelangelo commemorates tyrannicide, but when he carved it he was already living the life of a defeated political actor, albeit a successful artist: for the last 30 years of his life, he refused to ever go home to Medici Florence. Defeat hurts. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 30 2010

Leonardo v Michelangelo

Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo – who was the greater artist? A close look at their two masterpieces offers clues – but in fact the truth had already been established in an extraordinary competition

People are pushing at my back and trying to shove me aside, so they can pose, smiling, in front of the most famous smile in the world. Every photographic device the 21st century can invent, from the slenderest mobile phone to the most phallic telephoto lens, is being raised above the crowd to point at the woman isolated in her glass box. Her twilit painted world is jarred by flashbulbs as if by lightning.

This is the Louvre, in March 2010, and there are no prizes for guessing what painting is causing the fuss on this ordinary day. It seems, every time you see the Mona Lisa, crazier. As I cling to the crash barrier to stare as hard as I can, I can't deny it's a bit bizarre to see a painting idolised like a star at a movie premiere. But in truth, this is wonderful.

Here is a painting that is five centuries old – a relic from history, some would say. And yet it gets more visitors, from more places, than any modern work of art. This isn't to denigrate today's art, only to marvel at the timeless and universal genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Inevitably, the very fame of the Mona Lisa incites disappointment – having a pop at it is a critical vice – but I happen to believe she's worth every bit of adulation. The crowd is right.

If you were to look for an analogy with the fame of the Mona Lisa, the pushing and noise, only one other work of art comes close. Just as people make a beeline through the Louvre to find Leonardo's masterpiece, so do they queue right along a street in Florence, on a hot summer afternoon, to get into the Accademia gallery. The graffiti on its walls – "Don't bother, it's just a big statue" – doesn't put us off.

Two artists and two Renaissance wonders: Michelangelo's David and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Centuries after they were created, these are surely the two most renowned artistic objects in the world. They seem almost mirror images of one another – or rather, positive and negative: the woman who sits smiling, the man who stands grimacing.

That is no coincidence, because they were created at the same time, in the same city, by artists who were direct rivals, watching each other as intently as Matisse would one day watch Picasso. David and the Mona Lisa are monuments to a competitive standoff as direct and public and frenzied as today's Turner prize. It was the original and ultimate art competition, the Genius prize.

Over time, it became Michelangelo's habit to leave marks of the chisel on his works (the only signature most of them bear), as if his living, straining actions were fossilised in the chipped, unpolished surface of the marble. Entire works look like this: unfinished conundrums. Others are divided in their nature, with beautiful lifelike limbs and anguished faces bursting from pillars of stone, raw as it came out of the mountain. But there are no marks on the perfect youth. No chisel wounds blemish the masterpiece that made Michelangelo's name.

Luna was the Roman name for the quarry of Carrara, whose marble is as white as the moon's shining disc. The block Michelangelo stood in front of in 1501 had come from the quarry years before, had been "badly begun" by a semi-competent sculptor in the busy workshops of the cathedral, and then left there unwanted for 40 years. The tools with which the 26-year-old proposed to hew this massive lump of stone into a human shape were hammers and chisels, rasps and files and scrapers, and a wooden bow like an archer's whose string you could pull back and forth to rotate a drill.

With this simple technology, he had to excavate slowly into the 13ft-long marble slab, negotiating the clumsy damage done by its previous assailants, hoping his labour would not be wasted and that he would find the perfect limbs, the breathing sternum, the keen gaze within. The work was dusty, sweaty, back-breaking and secret, done behind partitions in the cathedral workshop so no one could spy on his measurements with the dividers, or watch him drill heart-shaped pupils into the statue's stone eyes.

It is impossible to picture this labour as you approach David today in the Accademia gallery; inconceivable, really, how he got from toil to miracle. Other works by Michelangelo may call attention to the struggle of creation – you walk towards the tall hero down a long avenue of unfinished bodies, striving to be liberated from formless stone – but this hero of youth is as absolutely himself as are any of the people walking around his plinth.

Stand far back, and his outline is a sharp drawing, as if Michelangelo had confidently mapped the shape in the air with pen and ink. The face, turned almost 90 degrees to look to the left, with its triangle of a nose, mountain outcrop of an overhanging brow and florid hair flying out into space, forms a scintillating profile. The proportions of the body are, from this distance, mathematically graceful. The measurement from the hair on the head to the fusillade of hair above the penis appears identical to that from genitals to toes. You can almost feel the weight of the body gracefully shifting on to its right foot, as the figure easily inclines its left knee forward, rolling its ribcage on top of its stomach to move its centre of gravity.

As you approach, this harmonious silhouette stays in your mind, yet also dissolves into glances and momentary impressions. The ridges and tensions of the immense chest high above you – the statue is more than twice the height of a living person, still higher because of the tall plinth – drink in nuances of shadow so that, up close, David is richly shaded: the belly button a pool of darkness, the nipples and ribs collecting delicate grey-greens. At his side hangs his gargantuan right hand – out of proportion, you suddenly realise, not just in scale but in the mesmerising, exaggerated attention to detail the sculptor lavished on it: those veins throbbing in the marble, those knobbly knuckles and wrinkled skin on the vast thumb.

Once you recognise the strangeness of this hand, the beautiful body Michelangelo has carved becomes still more alive. This, you start to comprehend – although actually you sensed it from that very first view along the avenue – is not some chilly, perfect nude. It is mobile, active, keen-eyed. The hand is the most radical instance of a quality that all David's parts possess: they are separate and slightly at odds with each other, like characters in a play. The statue may be finished as a work of art, but what it portrays is unfinished: a body still growing and changing. David contradicts himself even in his grace, because to be alive is to be contradictory.

Where David displays every muscle, his rival is respectably swathed. Her only action is to smile – to use what the anatomist Leonardo described coolly as "the muscles called lips". She is both mortal and goddess, smiling archaic personage and merchant's wife. Her pose has an eternal inevitability, as if she contained within her a serpentine column, revolving heavenward in a perfectly calibrated spiral: this effect of torsion means she is in energetic motion even as she sits still in her chair. The relief of shadow on her strong features gives her feminine beauty a masculine counter-life. She is a hall of mirrors, a shrine of paradox. Those who see the Mona Lisa's reputation as exaggerated are refusing to see how formidable her mixture of classical perfection and dreamlike ambiguity actually is; how much is in that smile.

The Mona Lisa dwells in a painted atmosphere so thick she might be suspended in tinted liquid. Reality melts in her world. Mountains dissolve, roads wind to nowhere. The power of this painting owes a lot to the strangeness and universality of its landscape, which feels like some kind of conclusion about the nature of life on earth.

Her portrait is drawn with shadows. The darks that deepen her features are so bold, you can lift them off and reproduce them as a black template. These shadows have the effect of diminishing the distance between foreground and background; the colours of the landscape bring it forward as her shadows draw her back. This heightens the psychological and poetic sense that somehow she contains grottoes and rocky recesses within her.

The tenebrous voids that darken her beauty make us unconsciously recognise that we cannot interpret this as merely a portrait with a landscape in the background. The vista beyond her, with its coiling road, arched bridge, rocks, rivers, lakes, mountains and sea, is as much part of her as she is.

The Mona Lisa – "Mona" or "Monna" being short for "Madonna", the reverent way to title a married woman in 16th-century Florence – started life as a portrait commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, a textile manufacturer and merchant who had business dealings with Leonardo's notary father. But the picture of Francesco's wife that Leonardo showed his fellow-citizens in 1503 must have looked very different from today's unfathomable mystery. She must have looked like a real woman.

Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa for years – perhaps until close to the end of his life. He never let the painting go, never handed it over to Francesco and Lisa del Giocondo. The poplar-wood panel was with him when he died. Leonardo's long and loving work – that and the smoke of time – created the dream picture we see today; it is impossible to see this as a "portrait" in any normal sense. As her obscurities deepened and her landscape ramified, so Lady Lisa was transfigured into a being of myth and fable.

Yet Leonardo's rhapsody really did start out as a portrait of a Florentine woman, and what amazed the first people who saw the picture was its brilliant verisimilitude. This, surely, is where she mirrors the lifelikeness of David who, though an ideal character from the Bible, was so closely observed in his anatomy that he seems almost to move.

"In this head, anyone who wanted to see how art has the power to imitate nature could easily understand it; for here were counterfeited all the minutiae that it was possible with subtlety to paint . . . the eyes had the lustre and moisture always seen in life . . ."

So wrote the artist and critic Giorgio Vasari in 1550, going into raptures for the curve of the Mona Lisa's eyebrows, the graceful nose, the mouth that "seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh". I feel the same way, standing under what seems the animate stone form of David.

Art in the 21st century happens in the glare of publicity and fame. New art is a public event, a media circus. It was like that in Renaissance Italy, too. Leonardo's new portrait got people talking when it was still just a sketch. The installation of Michelangelo's David in front of the city's government palace in 1504 suddenly unveiled a new star, nearly a quarter of a century younger than Leonardo but in the same incredible category of human genius. Their new works were self-evidently similar not just in quality, but in appearance and theme. The human individual had never been portrayed so convincingly before. The Mona Lisa's first admirers said she was so lifelike, there seemed to be a pulse in her throat; thus with David's almost-beating ribs. The power of these objects, then and now, is to seem alive.

Both are classical; that is, harmonious and proportionate – the two most absolute Renaissance assimilations of the Greek style. Yet both have a quirky strangeness that takes them beyond that heritage, into the richness of the human. As to which is greater . . . can we give an answer? Contemporaries could not, so they decided to take it further.

The Florentine government set up a formal competition between the creators of these startling works. Both were challenged to translate their individual figures into multi-figured history paintings – to splurge their creativity on the grand scale of frescos. We might think it absurd to look at such supreme human treasures and ask which artist is best – but that was what the Florentine republic tried to establish, by getting them to work at public expense on competitive battle paintings, Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina, for the Great Council Hall of the civic palace. In inventing these vast compositions, both artists went beyond the public perfections of David and the Mona Lisa to create what are arguably their most personal, and tantalising, works. Known today only through traces and memories after the original designs were torn apart, the painted images covered over by later works, these lost battles still burn the imagination. They added another layer of originality to the wonders we still admire in the Louvre and the Accademia.

By 1506, after two years of the competition, the city of Florence was confident it knew who was the best artist, the ultimate genius. The prize was nothing so small as money. It was to decorate Rome itself, to define the look of the Vatican and shape the future of art. Meanwhile the loser left Italy, crossing the Alps to sulk in France, taking his most famous painting with him . . .

Today, she smiles enigmatically at her swarm of fans. It is a strange defeat.

The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance, by Jonathan Jones, is published by Simon & Schuster on Thursday, £25. To order a copy for £19.05 including free UK mainland p&p, go to or call 0330 333 68467 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 06 2010

'If only he could draw!'

Michelangelo's astonishing 'presentation drawings', lessons in art technique for a young aristocrat he adored, tell pagan stories about men and love. The exhibition at the Courtauld is the most important ever devoted to them, writes James Hall

One of the most common complaints made about today's artists is their apparent inability to draw. In matters of art, no question is more decisive, more majestically final, than: "But can he/she draw?" In a melodramatic hatchet job on Francis Bacon, Picasso biographer John Richardson recently claimed that Bacon's "graphic ineptitude" was his Achilles heel: "Tragically, he failed to teach himself to draw."

The pro-life-drawing movement is one of the most lasting legacies of the artistic Renaissance in Florence, for it was here that disegno (design or drawing) was enshrined as the source of all visual competence. The first art academy, founded in Florence in 1563 on the urging of Giorgio Vasari, was called the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, and the curriculum centred on drawing of the live (and dead) model, and of approved artworks that would enable the aspiring artist to "correct" nature.

Michelangelo, a compulsive drawer whose most exquisite creations are the subject of a major exhibition at the Courtauld Institute Galleries, was being typically Florentine when he asserted that "Design, which by another name is called drawing . . . is the fount and body of painting and sculpture and architecture and of every other kind of painting and the root of all sciences." The preliminary drawings of artists are here seen as essential to the advancement of learning as the technical drawings made or commissioned by mathematicians, engineers, doctors and scientists.

The technical similarities between drawing and writing also added hugely to the former's allure and status. Florence had the highest literacy rates in Europe, and was justifiably proud that Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio had established Tuscan as the pre-eminent Italian tongue. Artists wanted to share in that prestige, and establish the visual arts as a major liberal art. The two pre-eminent Tuscan draftsmen, Leonardo and Michelangelo, were also the most literate, and their sketches are interspersed with texts written in an elegant, calligraphic script. Michelangelo's drawings are interspersed with his own poems, and extracts from the Tuscan greats. Later collectors of drawings concurred: they bound them into books and kept them in their libraries. It is no accident that literature-loving England has the greatest collections of old master drawings, including those by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo furnishes us with the first and most famous "but can he draw?" anecdote. Vasari reports how they both visited Titian's temporary studio in Rome, and were confronted by a steamy nude painting of Danaë being inseminated by Jupiter in the guise of a shower of gold. Her pose derives from Michelangelo's sculpture Night in the Medici Chapel. Michelangelo, having praised Titian's colour and style, regretted that in Venice painters did not learn how to draw methodically from the start of their careers – what a great artist Titian would have been if only he knew how to draw!

Vasari smugly adds that if the artist "has not drawn a great deal and studied carefully selected ancient and modern works, he cannot by himself work well from memory or enhance what he copies from life". Here, priority is given to "intelligently" drawn line over "instinctively" painted colour, and this became an article of faith for all future art academies: the first director of the French Académie Royale, founded in 1648, asserted that, without drawing, painters would not rank any higher than colour grinders, the lackeys who prepared pigment.

Yet Michelangelo's attack on Venetian painting points to a serious flaw in the argument. One can compile an extremely impressive list of great (and mostly unliterary) artists who got by nicely without bothering unduly with drawing. They displayed not so much graphic ineptitude as indifference. Giorgione, Titian, Caravaggio, Hals, Velázquez and Vermeer seem to have painted directly on to the canvas, just incising or brushing in a few outlines. Indeed, drawing as a major artform has been in spasmodic but continuous decline since the 17th century: most drawings by great artists after about 1850, including Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, are barely worth exhibiting and are of interest only to specialist scholars. Bacon represents the rule rather than the exception.

The aesthetic and intellectual highpoints of academic drawing are Michelangelo's so-called "presentation drawings", created in the early 1530s as pedagogic gifts for the young Roman aristocrat Tommaso de' Cavalieri, who was learning to draw. Using largely pagan subject matter, and made using red or black chalk, they tell moralising tales, mostly about men and love. They are Michelangelo's most highly finished and elaborate drawings, and as technical and imaginative feats have never been surpassed. The Courtauld exhibition, expertly curated by Stephanie Buck and with a substantial catalogue, is the most important ever devoted to them.

The "divine" artist, then in his late 50s, had fallen in love with the teenage Cavalieri, who was famously beautiful, refined and (for his age) cultured. Michelangelo's feelings were reciprocated, and so he sent rapturous love letters and poems (several manuscripts are included), and drawings which his young protégé copied and commented on. It is the greatest correspondence course ever conducted. Drawing had become a respectable pastime for Italian aristocrats. In Castiglione's famous conduct book The Courtier (1528), drawing lessons are recommended – drawing enables us to appreciate the beauty and proportions of living bodies and the whole of the natural world, as well as to make maps for warfare.

Although Michelangelo was evidently homosexual, it seems unlikely his relationship with Cavalieri was ever consummated. The evidence suggests he was for the most part celibate, and in 1529 he had held high rank in the short-lived republican government of Florence, which was ardently anti-sodomite. The affair was conducted openly, with the drawings and poems being shown immediately to friends and to members of the papal court, and to artists who copied the drawings. Indeed, it was not uncommon for an aristocratic youth to have an older man as a mentor and even "platonic lover" – a term that had been coined by the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino. In Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love (1474), written for Michelangelo's first patron, Lorenzo de' Medici, the relationship between an older man and a boy had been given the most exalted status:

"Among lovers beauty is exchanged for beauty. A man enjoys the beauty of a beloved youth with his eyes. The youth enjoys the beauty of the man with his Intellect. And he who is beautiful in body only, by this association becomes beautiful also in soul. He who is only beautiful in soul fills his bodily eyes with the beauty of the boy's body. Truly this is a wonderful exchange. Virtuous, useful, and pleasant to both."

The man receives supreme sight-food; the boy, supreme soul-food.

Ficino, a famous teacher, believed that the teacher-pupil relationship should always be based on mutual love. Turning to the visual arts, he insisted that whoever loves works of art and the people for whom they are made "executes [them] diligently and completes them exactly". This is the formal framework within which Michelangelo and Cavalieri's relationship is conducted. Ficino insisted that such relationships should not have a physical component (look and listen but don't touch or lust). Yet Michelangelo's poems, letters and drawings leave us in no doubt that he was often straining at the leash. In one poem, Michelangelo dreams of a day when he can hold Cavalieri for ever in his "unworthy yet ready" arms; then, more masochistically, he wishes his own skin could be flayed and made into a gown and shoes to be worn by his beloved. He wouldn't be allowed to teach this way today.

At the Courtauld, we can see all three versions of The Fall of Phaeton, a story highlighting the dangers of youthful hubris. The first drawing carries a note along the bottom whose modesty is amazing when we consider Michelangelo was at the height of his powers and prestige: "Messer Tommaso, if this sketch does not please you, say so to Urbino [Michelangelo's servant] in time for me to do another tomorrow evening, as I promised you; and if it pleases you and you wish me to finish it, send it back to me."

It seems the first version didn't get Cavalieri's complete approval (and Michelangelo was probably already dissatisfied), because the final version is more tightly structured and elongated. Phaeton was granted a single wish by his father Apollo, and chose to drive the chariot of the sun. When Phaeton lost control, Jupiter struck him with a thunderbolt to save the earth from incineration. Michelangelo made a vertical triptych shaped like an isosceles triangle, with Jupiter astride an eagle at the top, Phaeton tumbling spectacularly from his horse-drawn chariot in the middle, and his weeping sisters being transformed into trees at the bottom. All the figures are nude, and the whole intricate mise en scène presages Christ's casting down of the damned in the Last Judgment (1534-41).

The Courtauld is staging this exhibition both because the British Museum bizarrely excluded the Cavalieri drawings from its Michelangelo exhibition in 2006, and because the Courtauld owns one of the most compelling, known as The Dream. Its focal point is a lithe male nude perched on an open-fronted box. He leans back against a large sphere, signifying the world, which he clasps. Inside the box are a selection of different theatrical masks, suggesting deceptive and illusory pleasures. In the hazily sketched background is a heaving semi-circle of interlocking figures representing six of the seven deadly sins – Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Wrath, Envy and Sloth. The central male nude must signify Pride, yet he is being awoken from his deluded state by a trumpet-blast from an angelic winged boy, who has swooped down from the sky.

It's ostensibly a picture concerned with spiritual rebirth, but this reading is qualified by the explicitness and ingenuity with which Michelangelo has depicted the sinners – above all the Lustful, who spring up from the curve made by the dreamer's torso and thigh. There are two heterosexual couples, one nude and in flagrante, with the man's penis exposed; the other semi-clad and kissing (with the woman dominant). Michelangelo also depicted a huge erect phallus held by a hand emerging from clouds, and a graffiti-style penis. A naked man seen from behind, beneath the unattached members, may allude to homosexuality.

The penises were mostly erased by a subsequent owner of the drawing, and we know about them from a print made after the drawing, which is shown nearby. Here, too, Michelangelo seems to be straining at the leash, revelling in the power of the penis just as he denounces it. Like St Augustine in the Confessions, he may have muttered to himself: "Grant me chastity and continence, Oh Lord, but please, not yet."

The term "presentation drawing" – a finished drawing made as a gift – was devised by the great Michelangelo scholar Johannes Wilde (1891-1970), who taught at the Courtauld and was directly responsible for its acquisition of the Seilern collection, which included The Dream. There have since been many contrived attempts to trace a lineage for Michelangelo's presentation drawings in earlier Renaissance art, but beyond a few portrait heads or modest figure studies, there are no directly comparable drawings, and certainly not enough to suggest the existence of a genre.

I believe the only real precursors and indeed the inspiration for Michelangelo's drawings for Cavalieri were the enigmatic mythological prints made by artists such as Mantegna, Marcantonio Raimondi and especially Dürer, which were often given away as gifts. In terms of their range of mark-making and finesse, Michelangelo's presentation drawings for Cavalieri are the first drawings to surpass Dürer's prints, which were widely admired in Italy. In the past, many scholars claimed that Michelangelo despised this "minor" reproductive artform, but he must have been thinking a great deal about prints because he planned to publish a (never-completed) illustrated treatise on movements and gestures. The exhibition runs with this idea, and gives a starring role to Dürer and print-making.

The most risqué section of The Dream must have been informed by a very different kind of print, because in the 1520s the first illustrated pornography books were published – Marcantonio's I Modi (The Positions) with each of the 16 images accompanied by an obscene sonnet by Pietro Aretino, and Perino del Vaga's less explicit Loves of the Gods. The pope banned I Modi "since some of these sheets were found in places where they were least expected" (Vasari), and it seems inconceivable that Cavalieri (who collected prints) had not seen them, because otherwise Michelangelo's mini-Modi would have been too shocking.

The painstaking mark-making of the Cavalieri drawings is also found in a series of images of Christ made for the devout aristocrat Vittoria Colonna in the late 1530s, which she studied with a magnifying glass. But after that, Michelangelo turns his back on precision, perfection, beauty, control. In a parallel display, the Courtauld is showing its black chalk drawing Christ on the Cross (c1555-60), made when Michelangelo was in his 80s. It is defiantly anti-academic. Each line is drawn and then redrawn, so that Christ's slumped body becomes a quivering, boneless mirage, flayed and frayed, a crumpled cloak that a tramp might wear. Fra Angelico supposedly wept every time he painted a crucifixion, and Michelangelo's tremulous technique implies that he drew with and through tears. Michelangelo's younger self would surely have said: if only he had learned how to draw!

Michelangelo's Dream is at the Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (020 7848 2526) until 16 May. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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