Room 38 is intended to celebrate the fortuitous moment where three of the greatest artists of the age converged together in Florence. When the present configuration of Room 38 was unveiled in 2018, Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt stated, “the new installation replaces the display of isolated masterpieces side by side with the principle of dialogue among works, artists and their patrons, urging visitors to discover and to explore the artistic interaction among the great masters of the past. That is why a third figure has entered the scene, a painter whom dialogue with Raphael has restored to his proper place as a major artist in his own right. Fra Bartolomeo (1473–1517) was a Dominican friar in San Marco and a very close friend of Raphael with whom, from the moment the latter arrived in Florence in 1504, he forged an intense and extremely fruitful relationship that visitors will now be able to explore further through the paintings on display.”
The centerpiece of Room 38 is clearly Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Doni Tondo (c. 1506-1508), to which an entire wall is dedicated. It is the only known finished panel painting done by Michelangelo and is considered by some art scholars to be the most important work created in the 16th century.
Based on the timing of the work, scholars believe that it was commissioned by the Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni to celebrate either his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi or the birth of the couple’s daughter Maria. Doni is the only patron aside from the Pope to obtain works by both Michelangelo and Raphael. (Doni’s commission from Raphael, discussed below, also appears in Room 38).
Michelangelo began work on the Doni Tondo after the unearthing of the celebrated Greek sculpture known as the Laocoön in January 1506 (now displayed in the Vatican Museums).
The influence this statute had on Michelangelo’s style cannot be overstated. After Michelangelo saw Laocoön and His Sons, the body-heroic permeated throughout his works, including the Doni Tondo. For instance, compare the pose of the nude behind the Holy Family in Michelangelo’s Tondo with the son to Laocoön’s right:
The influence can also be deduced in the posture of the Holy Family itself, which wraps around itself in an eerily serpentine manner reminiscent of the Laocoön. Moreover, the Holy Family is depicted as though they themselves were Greek statutes, which, at this time, was highly unorthodox. (I would be remiss if I did not mention that Michelangelo hated painting as an art form and believed himself to be a student of the – in his opinion – higher art of sculpture. In fact, Leonardo famously criticized Michelangelo’s painting, stating, “You should not make all the muscles of the body too conspicuous … otherwise you will produce a sack of walnuts [un sacco di noce] rather than a human figure.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017)).
Michelangelo takes his unorthodox depiction of the Holy Family even further by omitting their typical halos from the picture; allowing Joseph, as opposed to Mary, to hold baby Jesus; and discards the traditional contemplative, diminutive pose in favor of a dynamic scene, i.e. a story that has been captured in motion. Indeed, Michelangelo is playing with traditional themes and tropes, but twisting – both literally and figuratively – them into his own unconventional style.
Although much debate has occurred over the purpose of the nudes in the background of the Doni Tondo, the general scholarly consensus is that they represent the pagan ages, when men were naked in their ignorance. With the nudes behind the wall is a small boy who can be identified as St. John the Baptist based on his dress. (St. John is typically depicted dressed in furs, symbolizing his sojourn into the wild). St. John is known as the Harbinger of Christ, and therefore, because he was born into the pagan world (before Christ), he remains behind the wall. Another interpretation that has been put forward is that the ignudi are disrobing in order to be baptized, which also would explain John the Baptist’s presence, although not his depiction as a small child. Finally, I would like to note that the frame of the Tondo was likely designed by Michelangelo himself. It depicts Jesus and the four evangelists.
In addition to the Doni Tondo, Agnolo Doni also commissioned portraits of himself and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi Doni. These portraits, however, were commissioned from Raphael, who was working in Florence at the same time as Michelangelo. (In fact, Michelangelo felt an intense rivalry with Raphael, who he saw as the new “up and comer.”)
Raphael’s early work, like these portraits, owes much to Leonardo da Vinci. You can see Leonardo’s influence in the posture of the sitters, the setting of the portraits, as well as the depiction of the subject’s psychological state through his/her movements.
Raphael mimics Leonardo’s treatment of his sitter’s hands, using the hands to tell the story. Indeed, Maddalena’s hands are decked out in jewels, demonstrating her wealth and social status. Moreover, Raphael depicts his sitters at half-length in front of a balustrade and against a landscape, just as Leonardo places Mona Lisa. Rather than adopt Leonardo’s style in toto, however, Raphael departs from Leonardo’s teachings to enhance the brilliance of his patron’s jewels. He achieves his effect by eschewing Leonardo’s techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumatura. The jewels depicted on both of these portraits convey separate meanings, which would have been well recognized by contemporaries. For instance, rubies alluded to vitality; sapphires to wealth; pearls to purity; emeralds to fertility. The emerald jewel is actually set in a unicorn, which alluded to chastity. Thus, by placing the emerald in the belly of unicorn, Raphael symbolized that Maddalena, as a chaste and faithful wife, will provide her husband with a legitimate heir.
The portraits were once a diptych, and thus each has a drawing on its reverse side. Both drawings are based on episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem that proved popular among the so-called Renaissance men. The episode depicted on the reserve of Agnolo’s Portrait is known as “The Flood,” which tells the story of Jove’s destruction of most of humankind via a flood (very similar to the Judeo-Christian story of Noah). This episode correspondences to the one depicted on the reserve of Maddalena’s portrait, which tells the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who is allowed to survive the flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha, who were unable to have children, were allowed to survive the Flood by the Gods, and then they restored life to humanity. These episodes are believed to be the work of Raphael’s colleague, whose identity remains unknown.
Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch(Madonna del Cardelino), painted in 1506, also shows traces of Leonardo’s influence, whose own depictions of the Madonna and Child were typified by their simple yet intimate settings. This work was allegedly a wedding gift for Raphael’s friend, a merchant named Lorenzo Nasi. It is known as the Madonna of the Goldfinch because the scene depicts the Christ Child stroking a goldfinch, a symbol of his passion. According to legend, while Christ was carrying the cross upon which he was to be crucified, a goldfinch plucked a thorn from Christ’s head, splashing Christ’s blood on its chest, and from that time onwards, goldfinches have had red spots on their chest to commemorate the Goldfinch’s mercy. Interestingly, goldfinches have since ancient times been used to depict a person’s soul, which many ancient peoples believed would fly away after death.
Like Leonardo’s Madonnas, Raphael’s Virgin does not sit atop a throne as was typical up until this time, but atop a rock, creating the conceit that nature is her throne. Through this allusion, Raphael makes the radical statement that divinity is in nature and surrounds us all. Like in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, the viewer is meant to recognize St. John the Baptist based on his fur loincloth while the Christ child is depicted naked, emphasizing his human nature. St. John, Christ, and the Virgin are grouped together in a pyramid, as though they are one form, yet each figure retains his/her individuality and purpose (St. John as the Harbinger, Christ as the Savior, and Mary as the Mother). Raphael pirated this formula from Leonardo, who likewise depicted the Holy Family as separate pieces of a single unit, creating depth and balance within the work.
Raphael also chose to depict Jesus contrapposto, a posture that a child would never naturally take, thereby alerting the viewers of his innate wisdom. In the past, artists would indicate Christ’s wisdom by depicting the infant as a small man, as the Maestro del Bigallo did in his Madonna Enthroned, supra.
Fra Bartolommeo is the final of the three artists showcased in Room 38. As his title implies, Fra Bartolommeo was a Dominican Friar and lived and worked in the monastery of San Marco, in the manner of his direct predecessor Fra Angelico. Like many other Florentines of his time, Fra Bartolommeo was capitative Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand preacher who took Florence by storm and gained enough power and influence to send Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, into exile. Fra Savonarola had such a hold on Fra Bartolommeo that Bartolommeo retired from painting for a time based on Savonarola’s teachings against much of the artistic world. Yet, to many’s surprise, Bartolommeo once again took up the brush six years after Savonarola’s execution to paint The Vision of St. Bernard (c. 1504), which Bernardo del Bianco commissioned for the Bianco Chapel in the Badia Fiorentina.
The scene depicts the moment recalled by St. Bernard, who was too weak to perform a homily when the Virgin appeared and gave him the strength to write it. Behind St. Bernard stand Saints Barnabas and Benedict, whose presence is likely due to St. Bernard’s adherence to the Benedictine Rule.
Like Raphael, Fra Bartolommeo was clearly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci. Each of the figures interact with one another and respond through their expressions and hand gestures, thereby conveying to the viewer their inner emotions. Fra Bartolommeo has also employed Leonardo’s techniques of sfumato (the blurring of contours and edges of figures because the eye does not see hard lines when it processes the real world) and contrapposto. Absorbing Leonardo’s innovative style, Fra Bartolommeo added his own radical take on painting religious scenes as regards his portrayal of the Virgin Mary. Prior to this work, the Virgin Mary was typically portrayed as a passive figure that was usually seated, whether that be enthroned as before the High Renaissance or seated in nature as Leonardo and Raphael chose to place her, and disinterested. Here, however, Fra Bartolommeo depicts the Virgin as an active participant in the scene. This change may be explained by the theory of the Immaculate Conception, which was gaining traction at this time due to the Church synods at the Councils of Basel and Trent. A common misconception is that the Immaculate Conception related to Mary’s conception of Christ via the Holy Spirit, but it actually is a reference to St. Anne’s conception of Mary, who, according to the Immaculate Conception doctrine, was without sin since the moment of her conception and was therefore a worthy vessel for Christ. (Although starting to be generally accepted at this time, the doctrine did not become official church doctrine until Pope Pius IX issued the bull known as the Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854).
The Green Rooms were opened in 2014 on the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. Perhaps surprisingly to some, given that these rooms were opened to celebrate Michelangelo, the Green Rooms actually house works from Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, it was the ancients that inspired Michelangelo, giving him the insight into the human form that had been lacking prior to this time. In fact, while Michelangelo was busy painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the famous Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso, were unearthed. The impact of these sculptures on Michelangelo is evident in his work in the Sistine Chapel.
It is therefore fitting that Rooms 33 and 34 were opened on the anniversary of Michelangelo’s death to celebrate his life and work.
Room 33 is dedicated to Greek Portraits, most of which came from the Medici collection. The room is set up to mimic the genre of decoration known as uomini famosi (“famous men”) that was so popular during the Renaissance. In these types of cycles, each individual depicted was intended to inspire the viewers (usually the ruling elite) to a higher standard of behavior and governance. The idea was that with the uomini famosi looking upon individuals, those individuals’ actions would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc.
Room 34 is dedicated to the many sculptures that are of the type that would have been in Garden of San Marco. The Garden of San Marco was created by Lorenzo de’Medici to allow young artists to practice drawing and painting ancient sculptures. Sadly, it no longer exists, but it was where Michelangelo would have studied and worked as an up and coming young artist. (Allegedly Lorenzo de’Medici gave the young Michelangelo the key to the Garden so he could study the ancient sculptures whenever he so wished). Although those sculptures have since been dispersed, the pieces in this room evoke the same atmosphere that surely must have been felt in the Garden itself. These works are Roman copies of Greek marbles dating from the fifth to the third centuries B.C., some of which were intended to decorate ancient Roman residences. Also located in this room are memorials stones and altars of Greek origin, which have been unearthed in Rome.
One relief, the Processional Scene from the Ara Pacis, is a copy of the Processional Scene on the south side of the Ara Pacis, purchased, along with several other friezes, by Ferdinando de Medici at the end of the 16th Century.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) was commissioned by the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, and completed in 9 B.C. The altar celebrated the “peace” that Augustus had supposedly brought to the Roman Empire. I think the Gauls and the Germanic tribes would dispute the term “peace,” but with Augustus, the major civil wars where Romans fought Romans did come to a respite. The Altar was presumably used for blood sacrifices to the Roman gods (not human sacrifices though – the Romans very rarely practiced human sacrifice; in fact, only a few known occurrences of Roman human sacrifice are recorded, and those occurred only during times of great upheaval, including during the Second Punic War when Hannibal invaded Italy).
The frieze in Room 34 shows Romans in traditional religious garb processing towards the physical Altar itself, as if they were about to participate in a religious rite themselves. The figures in this relief are members of Augustus’ immediate family, including his son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa (the hooded figure in the center of the piece). Agrippa is performing the role of high priest. Some scholars believe that the veiled woman to Agrippa’s left is Liva, Augustus’ wife. By placing his family on the monument, Augustus was proclaiming his dynasty and the death of the Republic. Unfortunately for Augustus, siring a dynasty proved a little problematic. It was his step-son Tiberius who inherited the role of Emperor, not a blood relative as Augustus had initially wished.
The animation and individualism of each figure demonstrates the high point of Roman sculpture that had been achieved and that was only to be achieved (at least in western Europe) once again during the Renaissance.
Another relief located in this room is a depiction made during Hadrian’s reign, i.e., 2nd Century AD, of an animal sacrifice.
On the right side of the relief are corinthian columns while on the left side of the relief are ionic columns topped with tympana. The victimarii, who are identifiable via their naked torsos and limi (plural of limus, which was a type of loincloth worn by the slaves who handled the animals during a sacrifice) have led the sacrificial bull to the victimarius known as the popa, who stuns the animal with an axe while another, known as the cultrarius, holds the sacrificial knife, known as the culter.
Also located in this room is the Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone (AD 160-180), the front of which depicts a scene from the Greek myth explaining the origins of the seasons.
According to this myth, the god of the underworld, Hades (whose counterpart in Roman mythology was called Pluto) came across a young girl playing in the fields, with whom he immediately fell in love (although as the name of the sarcophagus implies, it was more likely that he fell in lust). This young girl was Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter (i.e., Ceres). Upon deciding that he wants to marry Persephone, Hades travels to Mount Olympus (where the gods lived) to ask his brother Zeus, king of the gods (and Persephone’s father), for her hand in marriage. This request puts Zeus in a pickle: he felt that he could not deny his brother, but he knew that Persephone’s mother (and Zeus’ sister) Demeter would absolutely be against the marriage so he answered equivocably, neither saying yes nor no. Hades took this non-answer as permission and laid a trap to capture Persephone so as to elude her mother.
Of fair-tressed Demeter, Demeter holy Goddess, I begin to sing: of her and her slim-ankled daughter whom Hades snatched away, the gift of wide-beholding Zeus, but Demeter knew it not, she that bears the Seasons, the giver of goodly crops. For her daughter was playing with the deep-bosomed maidens of Oceanus, and was gathering flowers—roses, and crocuses, and fair violets in the soft meadow, and lilies, and hyacinths, and the narcissus which the earth brought forth as a snare to the fair-faced maiden, by the counsel of Zeus and to pleasure the Lord with many guests. Wondrously bloomed the flower, a marvel for all to see, whether deathless gods or deathly men. From its root grew forth a hundred blossoms, and with its fragrant odour the wide heaven above and the whole earth laughed, and the salt wave of the sea. Then the maiden marvelled, and stretched forth both her hands to seize the fair plaything, but the wide-wayed earth gaped in the Nysian plain, and up rushed the Prince, the host of many guests, the many-named son of Cronos, with his immortal horses.
“The Homeric Hymns.” Trans. Andrew Lang. Apple Books.
Demeter eventually discovers that Hades has kidnapped her daughter and demands Zeus order Hades to return her. But, once again, Zeus equivocates and decides that if Persephone has eaten anything while in the underworld then she has to remain there. When Persephone is questioned about her eating habits while in Hell, she claims that she has been so distraught that she hasn’t eaten a thing. It turns out, however, that she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Therefore, Zeus decided that Persephone must stay in Hell with Hades for six months of the year, and she may return to her mother for the other six. During Persephone’s stay, her mother falls into a depression and refuses to allow anything to grow (hence fall and winter), but when Persephone is back with her mother, everything grows in abundance.
The sarcophagus itself demonstrates the moment Hades grabs Persephone from among the flowers. Here, the goddess Athena, identifiable by her helmet and shield, is shown trying to save Persephone while the goddess of passion, Aphrodite tries to stop Athena by grabbing her shield. Athena and Aphrodite represent the two warring sides of the story: the passion of Hades and the virginity of Persephone (Athena was renowned for her virginity).
The scene takes on a cosmic importance as the chariot tramples the goddess of the earth, Gaia, demonstrating death’s ultimate triumph over everything in the world.
The other sarcophagus in this room is known as The Sarcophagus Depicting the Labours of Hercules, which dates from AD 150 to 160 (slightly older than Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone, supra).
Six of Hercules’ Labours are depicted on the front of the Sarcophagus; from left to right there are: (1) the Nemean lion; (2) the Lernean Hydra; (3) the Erymanthean Boar; (4) the Hind of Cerynea; (5) the Stymphalian Birds; and (6) the stalls of King Augeus. As the story moves from left to right, the youthful, beardless Hercules moves through his own life and ages right before the viewers’ eyes, reiterating the Roman ethos that life is fleeting, but a man may live on through the glory of his deeds. The Sarcophagus is missing its lid, which is where the other Labours were likely depicted (the back of the Sarcophagus is blank).
The Hall of Geographic Maps had been closed to the public for more than twenty years, but it has been recently reopened after a 700 thousand euro restoration. The Medicean (the Medici family was ruling family of Florence) geographer Stefano Bonsignori designed the original room and Ludovico Buti frescoed with geographical renderings of Medici Tuscany, including Florence, Siena, and Elba, around 1589. Cartology, or the making of maps, formed a key pillar of Medici propaganda and myth-making. Indeed, the renderings of Florence and the hard-won colonies of Siena and Elba, conquered during the reign of Cosimo I, represent the the Grand Duchy’s place within the history of the universe and cosmos, a persisting preoccupation of the Medici dynasty.
It was intended to house Grand Duke Ferdinand’s collection of scientific instruments, thereby emphasizing the connection between science and art. These scientific instruments, many of which were commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinand himself, were works of art in and of themselves. The Medici family believed that both art and scientific knowledge conferred political power and prestige and so became prominent patrons of both. Copies of several of those instruments are housed here; the originals have been transferred to the Florence Museum of the History of Science, also known as the Galileo Museum. One of the copies housed here is the cosmographer Antonio Santucci’s armillary sphere, known as, straightforwardly enough, Santucci’s Armillary Sphere. (Santucci also made a copy of the sphere for King Philip II of Spain, which can be viewed today in the main library of the Escorial Monastery, outside of Madrid, Spain). The word Armillae in Latin can be translated as “rings.” Each ring represents a prong of the Aristotelian universe.
Another copy located in the Hall is the great terrestrial globe made by Egnazio Danti for the Palazzo Vecchio. Danti was the first “Cosmographer to the Most Serene Grand Duke,” appointed in 1562 to the new institutional figure.
The room was meant to represent Ptolemaic cosmography, i.e., the union of cosmography proper, i.e., the sky/heavens (Santucci’s Armillary Sphere), geography (Danti’s terrestrial globe), and chorography (Buti’s frescoes), as expressed in Ptolemy’s Geographiké Uphégesis.
Room 17. Stanzino delle Matematiche
The Mathematics Rooms or Room of Military Architecture was once known as the “Hermaphrodite Room” because it once housed the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, an ancient sculpture that caused a sensation in the Renaissance due to its sensuality (now located in the Louvre, in Paris, France).
The original room was dedicated to military architecture, as devised by the diplomat Filippo Pigafetta. In a letter to the Grand Duke Ferdinando, Pigafetta wrote:
The place devoted by Your Highness to keep the devices of military architecture (principal part of the science of warfare) was missing to the perfection of your Galleries, where so many other arts with their artificers are found, and it being certain that Your Serene Highness is well furnished with instruments for drawing and measuring by sight, both in the sky and on earth, and models for hoisting the heaviest weights with ease, and inventions as well as various devices and texts pertinent to the aforesaid Architecture, it was well worth to assign them a room where they could be placed, not only to demonstrate their utility but also to be displayed to visitors.
Filippo Pigafetta, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 137.
Giulio Parigi painted the frescoes in the first bay of the ceiling, which celebrate mathematics. Each frieze depicted an invention and/or discovery of antiquity, including the Pythagorean theorem, Ptolemy’s cosmographic system, Euclid’s geometric elements, Archimedes’ inventions, or a contemporary application of mechanics, including the wheel crowned with sponges, the pile-driving and excavating machines used in building the Port of Livorno, and ships, nautical charts, and the compass. Many of these contemporary scenes were sketches depicting the actual machines themselves, as they were held in the Medici collections.
Since the War with Siena, military engagements were no longer thought of as chivalric art, but as a mathematical science, based in part on the emergence of firearms. No longer was a military man exalted for his skills in hand-to-hand combat, but now needed to possess the knowledge of “military architecture” in order to be able to win at a distance. That is not to say that strategy and mathematics had not been a part of warfare prior to the 16th century; indeed, one of the most famous mathematicians, Archimedes, earned much of his fame due to his defense of his native city Syracuse against the invading Romans in the 3rd century B.C. But with the advent of firearms, compasses, and other such advances in military technology, the need for a general to understand ratios between weight and range of cannonballs, the geometry of fortresses, navigability of the oceans, etc. was greatly increased.
For what pertains to warfare, nothing is required but practice in the mathematical sciences, that is, cosmography, geography and topography, mechanics and perspective, as well as a good knowledge of civil and military architecture with excellent skill at drawing and a good understanding of arithmetic, because with the practice of these alone, and through the live voice of intelligent and practice persons, he [Prince Lorenzo de’Medici] can easily learn everything that a good soldier needs to know.
Ranuccio Farnese to Christina of Lorraine, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 140.
The new warfare was based on engineering and new technologies including compasses, plumb levels, and surveying compasses, which invariably led to a collectors frenzy over such items. This room once housed the geometric and military compasses that Galileo had dedicated to Cosimo I in 1606 and the telescope that had been used to reveal a new image of the universe in 1610, which relaunched Copernicus’ understanding that the Earth travelled around the sun, not the other way around.
Now, this room houses 19 small marble and alabaster Roman arts dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD, statues in marble and Bronze by Tuscans from 16th to 19th centuries, 24 bronze statuettes by Flemish sculptor Willem van Tedrode, and a bronze by Lombard Leone Leoni.
Room 18. The Tribune
Perhaps one of the more well-known rooms in the Uffizi, the Tribune was constructed during Francesco de’Medici’s reign to display the Medici’s ever-growing horde of treasures. Architect Bernardo Buontalenti deigned the room in 1584.
The room is in the shape of an octagon because it was Christian belief that the number eight was a heavenly number while the room’s high vault symbolizes vault of heaven, the venetian glass windows symbolize the cosmos, and the floor, which is in the shape of a flower, symbolizes the earth. In fact, artist Jacopo Ligozzi painted animals and plants along the base of the walls to reinforce the floor’s symbolism. To symbolize water, Buontalenti designed the cupola to be encrusted with over 6,000 mother-of-pearl shells whereas he designed the red velvet walls to symbolize fire and the lantern at the top of the cupola to symbolize air. Thus, the messaging of the cosmos, so important to the Medicean propaganda, is physically built into the Tribune.
The Tribune was also supposed to evoke the spirituality of a chapel. Indeed, its very name, Tribune, was appropriated from Catholic parlance: a tribune (Tribuna in Italian) is the semicircular domed end of a basilica.
The star of the Tribune is undoubtedly the statue known as the Medici Venus (Cleomenes, son of Apollodorus), which entered the Tribune in 1677.
The Medici Venus was allegedly found near the Trajan Baths, in Rome. The statue is a 1st century B.C. marble copy of a Greek bronze. Traces of the paint that once adorned the marble can still be detected. Although many people think of Greek and Roman statues as quintessentially white, they were actually painted with highly pigmented colors, which were rubbed off over the thousands of years spent combating the elements. The Medici Venus is no exception. For a riveting commentary on the Medici Venus and the nude as depicted in art in general, watch Mary Beard’s two-part series, The Shock of the Nude.
Once the home of multiple Leonardo’s, Room 15 of the Uffizi was recently renovated to house Hugo van der Goes’ well known work, the Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1477-1478).
The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari for the main altar of Sant’Egidio, a church connected to the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Portinari was intimately connected with Santa Maria Nuova because the hospital was founded by one of his ancestors in 1288. Astonishingly, Santa Maria Nuova remains an active hospital to this day and is one of the oldest active hospitals in the world. It is believed to be the hospital where Leonardo da Vinci performed his innovative experimental dissections of human cadavers.
Tommaso Portinari managed the Bruges branch of the Medici bank (located in modern Belgium) where he had access to artists who were operating outside the direct influence of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike their Italian counterparts, northern artists used oil paint as their main medium, as opposed to tempera mixtures. Oil paint took longer to dry than tempera, allowing artists to blend their colors more effectively. Moreover, due to its translucent nature, oil paint enables light to penetrate each layer of paint and reflect those layers back to the viewer, similar to what happens when light enters a prism or a diamond.
Compare the Cardinal of Portugal Altarpiece (left) with the Novitiate Altarpiece (right). The Cardinal’s altarpiece was done in oil paint while the Novitiate was done in tempera. As you can see, the Cardinal’s has a softness to it, which can be attributed to the superior blendability of oil paint whereas the figures in the Novitiate appear more solid and statuesque.
Because of the profound differences seen in oil paint, the Portinari Altarpiece caused a sensation when it finally arrived in Florence in 1483. Indeed, it was to fundamentally change the trajectory of the Italian Renaissance, inspiring famous artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael to use oil as their main medium.
In addition to his use of oil paint, Van der Goes was known for his acute attention to detail, complex landscapes, and superb lighting. Northern artists like Van der Goes were also well known for the extensive use of iconography. Indeed, the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece is rife with symbolism.
For instance, the abandoned clog by Joseph’s feet communicates to the audience that the figures stand on holy ground; the flowers in the forefront symbolize the impending Passion and humanity’s salvation. In the vase on the right, the seven blue columbines symbolize the seven sorrows of Mary while the three red carnations symbolize both the three bloody nails as well as the holy trinity. Moreover, the glass of the vase symbolizes Mary’s virginity, as St. Bernard notes:
“Just as the brilliance of the sun fills and penetrates a glass window without damaging it … thus, the word of God, the splendor of the father. entered the Virgin chamber and then came forth from the closed womb.”
Meiss, Millard. “Light as Form and Symbol in Some Fifteenth-Century Paintings.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 3, 1945, pp. 175–181. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3047010. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
The vase on the left symbolizes purity (the white flowers), royalty (the purple flowers), and Christ’s passion (the red flowers) and is particularly noteworthy because it indicates a vibrant trade with Spain; indeed, the vase is what was known as a Spanish albarello vase, a luxury item only available in Bruges due to its status as an international trade hub. The flowers held in the albarello vase not only symbolize Christ’s qualities, but also provide a link to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, the hospital to which Sant’Egidio was connected because the flowers are herbs and ointments typically used by apothecaries. Moreover, the vases were strategically placed to look as though they were sitting atop the altar once the altarpiece had been installed in its intended location. Placing flowers in front of holy images is a common practice.
Behind the vases is a sheaf of wheat, lying parallel to the Christ child. When the work had been displayed in its intended place above the altar, both Christ and the sheaf would be parallel to the altar, which held the holy communion. According to Catholic rites, the bread blessed during mass transforms into the actual body of Christ. Thus, the placement of Christ parallel to the wheat parallel to the altar with the holy communion visually translates this transformation, know in Catholicism as Transubstantiation.
The entire scene is permeated by angels, who are generally dressed in rich priestly vestments that were common at the time this work was produced. Many of the angels are crowned, and indeed one in particular is crowned with an interesting coronet made out of coral reef. This coronet is likely intended to be an amulet against evil; at the time, red marine material was believed to drive away evil spirits. In fact, such evil does indeed linger over the entire scene in the form of an angel shrouded in black, believed to be (by some scholars) the devil, who of course, was at one time an angel. It is a reminder that the devil always lurks nearby no matter the setting.
In the background of the main panel are the very same shepherds who appear before Mary and Jesus in the foreground. Depicting figures twice to show continuous movement within a single work, a technique known as continuous narrative, was well known in Florence prior to the influence of northern painting, but what sets northern continuous narrative apart is Flemish artists’ ability to use light in such a way as to denote different times of day in a seamless way.
The side panels were actually painted later than the central panel, and so they possess some stylistic differences than the central panel. For instance, the side panels are darker and have less spatial depth.
The right wing of the triptych depicts Portinari’s wife, Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, kneeling next to their daughter, Maria Margherita. Behind the patron’s family stand (in exaggerated stature to denote their importance) the name saints of Maria Maddalena and Maria Margherita, Mary Magdalene and St. Margaret. The saints, however, are transposed: St. Margaret is not standing behind her namesake, but instead is directly behind Maria Maddalena. Her positioning behind the mother of Portinari’s heirs is likely meant to emphasize St. Margaret’s role as the patron saint of childbearing. In fact, studies of the painting have demonstrated that the two saints had been positioned behind their name sakes, but the artist changed his mind and transposed them. The original positioning of the saints explains St. Margaret’s red cloak and loose hair, attributes typical of Mary Magdalene, not St. Margaret.
Maria Maddalena is depicted wearing a necklace of pearls, symbolizing purity, a diamond, symbolizing strength, and a ruby, symbolizing charity.
This necklace is believed to have been actually owned by Maria Maddalena, rather than the artist’s invention, because it appears in another portrait of Maria Maddalena and her husband.
Moreover, it is believed to be the necklace Tommaso Portinari was forced to sell to settle his debt to the Medici; debt he incurred by causing the bankruptcy of the Medici bank he was charged with operating.
On the left side of the panel kneels Portinari and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello. Behind Portinari stands his namesake, St. Thomas the Apostle (identifiable by the spear he holds in his hand), and behind the boys stands St. Anthony the Great, Antonio’s namesake saint. St. Anthony is a plague saint, and therefore has links not just to the Portinari family, but also to the hospital.
The link to childbearing is referenced in this panel as well, via the background scene wherein Joseph tends to a pregnant Mary as they travel to Bethlehem to register for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
Northern artists such as Hugh Van der Goes had a massive impact on their Italian counterparts as their work began to drift southward. To emphasize this link, the Uffizi placed Van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece next to Botticini Francesco’s Tobias and the Three Archangels (c. 1470).
In this piece, Botticini sticks to the contemporary conventional iconography of the once well known Biblical tale of Tobias and the Archangels from the Book of Tobit. The Book of Tobit is found in the Old Testament Apocrypha (i.e. the collection of works that the Church fathers decided, for one reason or another, to leave out of the accepted Catholic canon). The story is about a young boy named Tobias who is sent by his father Tobit, a blind and devout man, to collect a debt from a family member. Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the Archangel Raphael, who, unbeknownst to Tobias, has taken on the appearance of one of Tobias’ relatives. When bathing on the road, Tobias is almost swallowed by a fish, but Raphael tells him to catch it, which he does. They extract its heart, liver, and gall. Its heart and liver were subsequently used by Tobias to kill demons haunting his future wife and the gall was used to cure his father’s blindness. Because of this story, Raphael was linked with travel and merchants, and the legend eventually morphed into the concept of guardian angels in the 16th century.
But, why did Botticini include the other two archangels, who were not mentioned in the original story? (Michael holds the Sword of Victory and the archangel Gabriel holds the lily he gave to Mary) One scholar has argued that the purpose of the depiction is not to tell the story, but to invoke the idea of guardian angels, and what could be better than having three guardian angels accompany you on your travels?
Botticini was fascinated by this story, painting at least seven versions over the course of his life. In fact, a year or so after this commission, in 1471, Botticini became a member of the confraternity of the Archangel Raphael of the church of Santo Spirito, the church for which this particular version was commissioned.
The last work in this room is Ghirlandaio’s The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus (1479). Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi, known as Ghirlandaio, is primarily known for his narrative frescoes. Flemish influences can be seen in his minute attention to details, but although influenced by the Flemish school, Ghirlandaio never experimented with oil paint, sticking instead with the more traditional egg tempera mixture.
This altarpiece was made for the high altar of San Giusto alle Mura, a church dedicated to St. Justus of Lyons, thus the appearance of a St. Justus in the lower left corner of the work. The pictured St. Justus, however, is not Justus of Lyons, but Justus of Volterra, who was sometimes confused and/or conflated with Justus of Lyons. We know that the pictured Justus is the Bishop of Volterra due to the scene depicted in the predella, discussed below. The saint opposite Saint Justus is Saint Zenobius, a patron saint of Florence. Standing above the Saints are the Archangel Michael, dressed in his conventional armor, and the Archangel Raphael, holding his healing ointment.
Gold is used throughout the piece, but Ghirlandaio did not use the typical gold leaf technique. Instead, he painted thin layers to achieve the shining effect.
Notice the unique frieze of the wall and the Madonna’s throne. It is encrusted with sapphires (symbolizing modesty), rubies (symbolizing charity), emeralds (symbolizing beauty), and pearls (symbolizing purity). Moreover, the Virgin’s broach is a large oval sapphires, surrounded by pearls, clearing marking her as dogmatically virginal.
The baby Jesus holds a crystal globe topped by a pearl encrusted cross. The globe had been a symbol of kingship for centuries, since both the Roman and Byzantine times. A common misconception is that the globe symbolizes the Earth. Problematically, the ancients believed the Earth to be flat, and so they would not have used a globe as a symbol for the Earth. Instead, the globe symbolized the cosmos and universality to the ancients. The added cross references Christ’s spiritual kingship and spiritual universality. The material of the globe, rock crystal, was believed to have healing powers due to its reflective ability. It was also linked with the Baptism of Christ and his incarnation.
Moreover, the globe is a typical attribute of St. Michael, the archangel. Therefore, the globe held by Christ suggests a privileged relationship between the two. The pearls in his girdle remind us of Michael’s angelic chastity, also linking him with the Virgin Mary. Michael, therefore, functions as an extension of both Christ and the Virgin.
The predella, which some scholars believe Ghirlandaio’s younger brother Davide had a major hand in producing, features well-known events from each of the depicted figures’ lives. For instance, the first panel, beneath the archangel Michael, depicts Michael fighting the rebel angels who sided with Lucifer prior to Lucifer’s ultimate defeat.
Next, the panel beneath St. Justus depicts him with St. Clement, offering bread to soldiers. According to Christian belief, the citizens of Volterra was starving because the city was under siege by the Vandals. St. Justus and St. Clement prayed for help, and the city’s granary was miraculously filled. Then, the saints, in accordance with the Christian maxim “if thine enemy hunger, feed him” (Romans 12: 20), gave bread to the Vandals. After such kindness, the Vandals ended their siege and left the city in peace. Ghirlandaio’s depiction slightly deviates from the traditional story, wherein the saints throw the food over the city walls. Ghirlandaio’s version, however, was likely easier to depict and had the added bonus of emphasizing the saints’ bravery.
The center panel depicts Mary’s marriage to St. Joseph, thereby emphasizing Mary’s centrality to Catholic faith. Ghirlandaio depicts Joseph’s branch blossoming, which designated him as Mary’s future husband, and to the left of Joseph, one man is depicted breaking his own branch in frustration at his loss.
To the right of Mary’s marriage is the depiction of the translation of St. Zenobius’ body from San Lorenzo to il Duomo. During the translation, the funeral bier touched a dead tree, and it burst to life. Behind the procession, you can see the Baptistry and the Campanile.
Finally, the panel beneath St. Raphael shows the popular Renaissance subject of Tobias and the fish, discussed above.
To give you some idea of how the altarpiece would have looked, I’ve arranged it as it was intended to be seen below:
Rooms 10 to 14 once served as the upper part of the Medici theatre, but they are now filled with works by one of the Medici’s favorite artists: Sandro Botticelli. The rooms’ design as we see it today is a recent renovation, completed only in 2016. The rooms are meant to trace Botticelli’s development as an artist, which has been typically divided into three major stages: those works where the influence of his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi, are still evident, those works that were commissioned during his time as a Medici client, and those works that reflect the mystical crisis of the late 1490s. All of his works, however, are defined by elegant lines, elongated, weightless figures, and a certain disregard for anatomical correctness, putting him somewhat at odds with the general movement of 15th century Renaissance art.
One of his first known works, Madonna della loggia (c. 1466), is based on the Byzantine iconography known as Glykophilousa (“Sweet kissing”), wherein the Virgin and Christ’s face are lovingly caressing.
The painting takes its name from the loggia near which Christ and his mother appear to be resting.
Another of his Madonnas, Madonna of the Rose Garden (1469-1470), so named for the pink roses seen behind the Virgin and Child, is a rather conventional Madonna and Child.
Some scholars argue that Madonna of the Rose Garden was completed around the same time as Botticelli’s Fortitude due to the similar backdrop of a coffered arch, but others argue that it was created prior to Fortitude based on the slant of the floor. Indeed, in the Madonna of the Rose Garden, Botticelli strictly adhered to a technique known as central perspective, which allows artists to create three dimensional space on a flat surface. Problematically, however, the blind adherence to the technique causes the floor in the Madonna to look sloped rather than flat. Whereas, in Fortitude, Botticelli was willing to fudge the perspective a bit to make the floor appear more natural.
Regardless, the works are compositionally similar, albeit one secular, the other religious. Botticelli’s choice to place Mary within a rose garden was likely due to Mary’s titles as the “Mystical Rose” and “The Rose without Thorns,” which allude to her immaculate conception. According to Saint Ambrose, the Garden of Eden contained roses without thorns, but upon the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the roses grew thorns. Because according to Christian belief, Mary was born without sin, i.e. she was immaculately conceived, she is a rose without thorns; thus, Botticelli’s use of the rose motif. Mary is also depicted holding a pomegranate, a device Botticelli would continue to use throughout his career to symbolize the Virgin’s fertility as well as Christ’s Passion.
The St. Ambrose Altarpiece (The Converted Sisters) (c. 1470) is Botticelli’s first known altarpiece. Its name is a misnomer, however, because St. Ambrose is not depicted. It was, however, transferred from the convent of Ambrogio to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1808 (and from the Galleria to the Uffizi in 1946), which may have given rise to its name. Its other name, The Converted Sisters, was derived from the theory that it was from the convent of the Converted Sisters, but this theory has since been proven wrong.
The saints depicted in this altarpiece are Mary Magdalen (not pictured), John the Baptist (not pictured), Cosmas (not pictured), Damian, Francis, and Catherine of Alexandria. They are positioned, for the most part, according to late Medieval conventions, with Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist on the Virgin’s right (in the place of honor). St. John is placed closer to the Virgin than Mary Magdalene due to his role as the precursor to Christ and thus his appearance in the historical record before Mary Magdalene as well as his gender, which was considered superior by both the artist and (at least the male) contemporary viewers. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored on the Virgin’s left side, with St. Francis of Assisi standing closest to the Virgin and St. Catherine on his right. According to convention, however, St. Catherine, should have been placed ahead of St. Francis due to her closer proximity in time to Christ, leading art historians to believe that the altarpiece was intended for a Franciscan-linked location, which would explain his elevation over St. Catherine. That intention would also explain why St. Francis is depicted holding a reed cross, usually an attribute of St. John, and likely introduced here to emphasize St. Francis’ role as St. John’s successor.
The inclusion of Saints Cosmas and Damian have also led scholars to believe that the piece was either commissioned by a member of the Medici family or by the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries, both groups of which Cosmas and Damian were patron saints. Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (some sources claim twins). They were closely linked to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”). Moreover, Cosimo de’Medici, the founder of the dynasty, and his twin brother (who died young) were named after the two saints, making them the patron saints of Cosimo as an individual in addition to their role as his familial patron saints.
The influence of Lippi can be made out in the work’s overall composition as well as in the figures’ expressions:
But, scholars also believe that Botticelli was working under a new teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio (also teacher to Leonardo da Vinci), or at least working within Verrocchio’s orbit, because Fra Lippi had left Florence before the production of this altarpiece. Thus, this piece also reflects Verrocchio’s influence as well, evident in the metallic nature of the robes as well as the figures’ statuesque stances.
Portrait of a Youth with a Medal (1470-75) was once owned by Carlo de’Medici, the illegitimate son of Cosimo “il vecchio” de’Medici, but it is not clear who the sitter may be. Although the most likely candidate seems to be Botticelli’s older brother Antonio based on the sitter’s middle class clothing and his work as a goldsmith, denoted by the coin he holds in his hands, copies of which Antonio would have cast himself while working at the Medici court. Moreover, some art historians have noted the resemblance of the sitter to known self-portraits of Botticelli himself, which would lend credence to the belief that the sitter is his brother. Other possible candidates include Piero de’Medici, a youthful Cosimo de’Medici, or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, yet one would expect if the sitter was indeed a Medici, he would have been depicted in the resplendent garments more typical of an upper class family.
What we do know about this picture is that it demonstrates Botticelli’s leadership in contemporary portraiture. Prior portraiture was constrained by the traditional profile pose of the sitter, as exemplified in ancient coins depicting Roman emperors. Botticelli and several other innovative artists began picturing their sitters in three-quarters view, in the example of the Flemish. In fact, Flemish influences had fully penetrated Florentine thought. Compare the background of this work with that of Botticelli’s Florentine teacher, Fra Lippi:
Lippi’s is mystical and fantastic while Botticelli’s is steeped in realism and naturalism, which would become the new norm for portraits. Moreover, Botticelli painted the sitter’s hands, which typically were not included in portraits, but, obviously, the hands are necessary to exhibit the medal, so whether this was deliberately innovative or simply a means to an end is unclear.
The medal itself depicts Cosimo il Vecchio and is inscribed with the words “MAGNUS COSMUS MEDICES PPP,” meaning Cosimo de’Medici the Great, Primus Pater Patriae (First Father of the Fatherland). It is a cast made of pastiglia, not metal, and was either cast from the actual mold that made the real medal, which was cast between 1465 and 1469 to commemorate Cosimo, or from an impression of an already existing medal. To insert the pastiglia into the painting, a hole was cut in the panel, and the cast was affixed to it, making this work a multimedia piece. The medal is held over the heart, an organ associated with memory and sense impressions, and emphasizes the break from tradition and the beginning of a new age by juxtaposing the ancient Roman portrait with the new Renaissance style portrait.
And what could be more emblematic of the Renaissance than one of Botticelli’s best known works, La Primavera (1477-82). La Primavera was commissioned for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a member of the junior branch of the Medici family, on the occasion of his marriage to Semiramide Appiani in 1482.
It was the largest secular painting done in the Renaissance to date; the prior large scale representations of secular subjects were generally confined to tapestries woven in France and Flanders, which some art historians have argued explains the two-dimensional feel of La Primavera and the lack of linear perspective. Like those tapestries, the scene is sprinkled with flowers upon a dark grassy field.
Unlike most secular tapestries, however, the scene Botticelli chose to depict is thoroughly classical in nature. It is believed to be the story of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind, and the nymph Chloris as retold through multiple sources including, most famously, Ovid’s Fasti. According to the story, Zephyrus kidnaps Chloris, who, at Zephyrus’ touch, transforms into Flora, the latin goddess of the spring, and then marries Zephyrus.
[T]his is what the goddess replied to my questions (while she speaks she breathes from her mouth spring roses): ‘I who am called Flora used to be Chlōris. … ‘It was spring, I was wandering. Zephyrus caught sight of me. I began to leave. He pursues, I flee, he was stronger. ‘Boreas, having dared to carry off a prize from the house of Erechtheus, had given full right of rape to his brother too. The violence, however, he made up for by giving me the name of bride, and I have no complaint in my marriage-bed. ‘Spring I enjoy always, always the year is full of bloom, always the tree has leaves, the ground has fodder. I have a fruitful garden in the fields that are my dowry; the breeze warms it, it’s kept moist by a spring of clear water. This my husband has filled with noble flowers, and he says to me, “Goddess, have control of the flowers.”
Ovid, “Fasti,” Trans. Anne Wiseman & Peter Wiseman.
To modern viewers, the depiction of what really amounts to a violent sexual encounter would not be the most ideal of wedding gifts, but to Botticelli’s contemporaries, it served as a fitting conceit for marriage in 15th century Florence. At the time, women had little to absolutely no choice in husband, just like Flora. Once married, women, like Flora, were supposed to bring forth new life. Notice that no fruit nor blossoms are present in the upper right hand corner of the painting; it is only when Zephyrus touches Chloris and she is transformed into Flora that the trees begin to bear fruit, a nod towards fertility. Moreover, the Zephyrus is placed in front of two laurel trees (laurus nobilis), a reference to bridegroom, Lorenzo (Laurentius) di Pierfrancesco. Allegedly, the goddess Flora is a portrait of Giuliano de Medici’s mistress Simonetta Vespucci, although recent scholarship has questioned that assumption.
To the left of the Chloris/Zephyrus scene is Venus and her son Cupid, flying above her while firing his arrow of love, eyes covered to denote love’s blindness.
Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ winged courier Cupid runs in front. And all along the path that they will tread dame Flora carpets the trail of Zephyr with a wealth of blossoms exquisite in hue and fragrance.
De Natura Rerum V.737, Lucretius.
The trees around Venus act almost as a halo, radiating from her figure to create a semi-circle embracing her. Some scholars argue the clearing in the trees represent wings, and one even went so far as to claim that the clearing was a depiction of human lungs, signaling the recent phenomenon of human dissection increasingly practiced by Renaissance artists.
To the left of Venus and Cupid are the Three Graces. The Three Graces were a very popular subject in the ancient sculpting world, as it allowed an artist to show three different vantage points of the human body at once.
Mercury, the leader of the three graces and the messenger of the Gods, is also present; he is identifiable via his winged shoes and his caduceus (staff with serpents winding around it). Mercury was associated with the month of May, due to his mother, Maia, hence his inclusion in a picture depicting the spring. According to Virgil, he was also associated with dispersing the winter clouds: “Shepherding the winds before him with his want, he swam through the murk of the clouds.” Aeneid IV, 242-46.
Nourishing Venus comes, companion to her sister, and is followed by the little loves; Flora offers welcome kisses to her eager husband (Zephyr); and in their midst with hair unbound and bared breasts dances Grace, tapping the ground with rhythmic step.
Poliziano, Angelo, “Rusticus,” as translated by Miles J. Unger in Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’Medici.
Scholars have identified at least 138 species of different plants that have been accurately portrayed, one of which is an orange tree. Oranges were linked with Medici family, and in fact, oranges were commonly known as mala medica or palle medicee. Allegedly, this link had its roots in the belief that an orange grove located in the garden of the old Medici palace could foretell the family’s fortunes. If the orange grove blossomed, so too did the family, but if the orange grove failed to bear fruit, it was said that bad things were in store for the Medici.
Interestingly, the overall composition of La Primavera is likely based on Buonamico Buffalmacco’s Triumph of Death.
Like the figures in La Primavera, the figures here are in an orange grove, standing on meadow punctuated with flowers. Above the figures, winged putti hover, just as Cupid hovers over the gathered figures in La Primavera. Similarly, no fruit is in the top corner (albeit the left-hand corner) of the trees, closest to the figure of death, who is approaching the gathering from a violent scene into a peaceful event – reminiscent of winged Zephyrus, who moves from the violent rape into the peaceful marital scene. Thus, Primavera begins with violence, while The Triumph of Death ends in violence. The theme of each piece is obviously drastically different, but the similarities in the composition are striking.
Interestingly, Flora and Zephyrus feature in Botticelli’s other large-scale secular painting, the Birth of Venus.
e drento nata in atti vaghi e lieti
una donzella non con uman volto,
da zefiri lascivi spinta a proda.
gir sovra un nicchio, e par che ‘l cel ne goda.
and within, born with lovely and happy gestures, a
young woman with nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth.
Poliziano, Angelo. Stanzas Begun for the Joust of the Magnificent Giuliano de Medici, as Translated by David Quint.
The title, Birth of Venus, is actually a misnomer, as the episode does not depict Venus’ birth, but instead depicts Zephyrus and his wife Chloris/Flora blowing Venus towards the coast of Cyprus where she is greeted by a young woman, whom scholars believe is either one of the Graces or one of the Horae (also known as the Hours). Behind the Hora, there is an orange grove, but no blooms, indicating that Venus’ arrival is necessary for fertility. This work is first recorded by Giorgio Vasari, who described it as having been owned by the cadet branch of the Medici family since the mid-15th century, which makes sense as the scene depicts oranges, an emblem of the Medici family.
I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments….
Homeric Hymns VI 1-6.
The figures themselves are inspired by classical statues, such as the Venus de’Medici, a Hellenistic marble statue owed by the Medici family and of a iconographic type known as the Venus Pudica (“Chaste Venus”). For an in depth discussion of the Venus Pudica, I highly recommend Mary Beard’s two-part documentary series, The Shock of the Nude.
Despite its classical nature, the overall composition of The Birth of Venus borrows from the scheme commonly used to depict the Baptism of Christ.
Like St. John the Baptist, the Hora steps forwarded with her right arm raised. There are two figures to the left. Venus and Jesus stand still in the center. Thus, rather than a break from gothic tradition and a “rebirth” of so-called lost arts, the Renaissance was really about the fusion of the holy and the profane, the emphasis on community and the elevation of the individual, and science and the arts to create something startling and completely new.
In 1560, the Duke of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici (later Grand Duke of Tuscany), commissioned the construction of the Uffizi to house magistrates, seats of the Florentine guilds, and judiciary offices. It is from this function that the building derived its name (“Uffizi” means “Offices” in English). To design and supervise the new building project, Cosimo commissioned Giorgio Vasari, who, for the last several years, had been restructuring and decorating the Palazzo Vecchio, Cosimo’s newly adopted ducal residence. Describing his design for the new building, Vasari is said to have proclaimed:
After Vasari’s death in 1574, the project was finished by Bernardo Buontalenti.
Cosimo’s son and heir, Grand Duke Francesco I, opened the first museum exhibition of the Gallery in 1581. The ceilings of the Gallery were decorated with what was known as “grotesque” motifs, which were inspired by the paintings of the Domus Aurea (Emperor Nero’s former home) and reflected those in the recently renovated Ducal Apartments in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The collection of works built up over successive Medici dukes, each acquiring and adding new pieces to the Gallery. Ferdinando I transferred the Jovian series (a collection of portraits) from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Gallery. This collection was mixed with the Aulica Series, a collection of portraits of the principal members of the Medici family, which was commissioned by Francesco I. The dowry of Vittoria della Rovere, Ferdinando II’s wife, included several Titians and Raphaels that ended up in the Gallery. Cosimo III, the son of Ferdinando II and Vittoria della Rovere, appointed Paolo Falconieri as the curator of Gallery and obtained papal permission to transfer ancient statues from the Villa Medici in Rome (including the Venus of the Medici, the Wrestlers, and Arrotino) to Florence.
Ultimately, Gian Gastone de’Medici died in 1737 with no heirs, and so the Medici family lost their hardwon Grand Duchy of Tuscany to Francesco Stefano di Lorena (the son-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI). (Gian Gastone was too ineffectual a ruler to secure the title for his closest male relative, Don Carlos, later King Charles III of Spain, who ceded Tuscany to the Holy Roman Emperor in return for the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily). Although Gian Gastone lost the title, his sister, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici, did manage to hold on to the art collection. But, as it happens, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici also died with no heirs. Prior to her death, she declared the collection to be “public and inalienable property,” thereby ensuring that it would remain intact and in Florence.
Francesco Stefano’s successor, Pietro Leopoldo di Lorena opened the gallery to the public in 1769. Between 1842-1856, Leopold II commissioned 28 statues for the niches of the pillars on the square. These statues were of Tuscan figures dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century.
Room 1. Transition from the 12th Century to the 13th.
This room contains works from the second half of the 12th century through the 13th, i.e. the oldest Tuscan panel paintings that the Uffizi owns. For instance, the 432 Cross of the Uffizi (named for its catalog number) is likely the oldest panel painting owned by the Uffizi (c. 1180). It was painted by an unknown Tuscan artist likely born before 1200.
The panel depicts Christus Triumphans (“Christ Triumphant”), as opposed to Christus Patiens (“Christ Suffering”). Images of Christus Triumphans depict Christ on the cross, but Christ is awake, stoic and without pain. There is a hint of stylized blood falling from where the nails pierce his skin (Christ’s wounds are known as the Stigmata), but otherwise Christ is alive and has therefore triumphant over death. The spiritual has triumphed over the physical.
The apron (i.e. the scenes that run along Christ’s body) is read from top to bottom, left to right. They depict Christ’s Passion: (1.) Christ washing the feet of the apostles; (2.) the kiss of Judas (the moment Judas identifies Christ to the Roman soldiers, who arrest him and eventually crucify him); (3.) the Flagellation (the moment Christ is whipped by the Romans); (4.) the Via Dolorosa (the journey to Calvary, the mountain upon which Christ is crucified); (5.) the Deposition from the Cross (the moment the apostles take Christ’s body down from the Cross); (6.) the Lamentation (the moment the Virgin kisses her son Christ, as he is being placed in his tomb); and (7.) the Resurrection.
Compare the 432 Cross with the later 434 Cross, also known as Crocifisso con Storie della Passione di Cristo (c. 1240):
Christ in the 434 Cross is clearly suffering: his eyes are closed; his brow is furrowed; his body is being pulled down by gravity. This change can be explained by the rise of the Franciscan mendicant order, a religious order that focused on Christ’s humanity and his physical form. Franciscans’ emphasis on Christ’s humanity renewed interest in his suffering on the Cross.
The blood dripping from the Stigmata in the 434 Cross is thicker and less stylized, more human. The new emphasis on Christ’s humanity was a tool that allowed Christians to feel more connected to Christ and gave Christians the ability to empathize with his suffering in order to become closer to God.
Like the 432 Cross, the 434 Cross’ apron also depicts stories from Christ’s passion: (1.) The Sanhedrin Trial (the moment Jesus is brought in front of the Jewish Elders, who send him to Pontius Pilate); (2.) The Mocking of Christ (the moment Jesus is blindfolded and beaten); (3.) The Flagellation, as explained above; (4.) the Via Dolorosa, as explained above; (5.) The Deposition, as explained above; (6.) The Entombment; (7.) The Resurrection (the moment when Jesus’ women followers find his tomb empty; and (8.) The Appearances (the moment when Jesus appears to his apostles).
Unfortunately, the terminals of this Cross (i.e. the traditional depictions that would usually be on the ends of the Cross have been lost.
Also in this room is a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (c. 1230) painted by an anonymous artist known only as the Maestro del Bigallo.
Room 2. Giotto and the 13th Century.
Since the 1950s, Room 2 of the Uffizi has housed Italian works dating from the 13th century. This room has been dubbed the Sala delle “Tre Maestà” due to the three most famous Madonnas Enthroned of the 13th century. It is these three Madonnas that many art historians harken back to when discussing the origins of the Renaissance and why it began in Florence. The first of the three is Cenni di Peppi’s 12.5 foot Santa Trinita Maestà (c. 1290-1300). Cenni di Peppi, known as Cimabue (translated as “Ox-headed” or “bullheaded,” perhaps indicating that Cimabue was hotheaded or had an aggressive personality; indeed, Dante places him among the proud in purgatory in his Divine Comedy), is viewed as the dividing line between the “old” Byzantine school of art and the “new” European tradition.
The reason for this thinking is epitomized in Cimabue’s Maestà of Santa Trinita (destined for the main altar of its eponymous Vallombrosian church in Florence). This altarpiece fuses the traditional Byzantine style with the emerging naturalism of the Gothic. For instance, Mary is positioned as the Byzantine Virgin Hodegetria, an iconographic depiction of Mary wherein she simultaneously holds the baby Jesus and points to him, indicating that he is the salvation of the world. This depiction is also known as Our Lady of the Way, a title derived from the Greek word “Hodegetria,” translated as “she who shows the way.” It was modeled after a famous icon allegedly painted by St. Luke himself. Also typical of Byzantine paintings is Cimabue’s use of damascene, i.e. the inlay of gold within the robes of the Virgin and Child, the golden background, which was used to signify that this scene took place out of time, and the symmetrical and repetitive figures, and the solemn expressions of the angels. Moreover, the blues and pinks of Mary’s robes are reflected in the wings of the angels, symbolizing her status as Queen of Heaven. But, unlike previous renditions of this subject, Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Maestà is constructed so as to look as though the throne is receding into the background, thereby hinting at the new developments in art that were to become prominent among Florentine painters.
The Christ Child gives a blessing and is adorned with his cruciform nimbus (“ringed cross”), a halo inscribed with a cross. The cruciform nimbus was used to identify figures of the Holy Trinity, especially Christ, in early Christian/Byzantine art. Each bar of the cross in this particular halo is comprised of three dotted lines, symbolizing the dogmas of the trinity, the oneness of God, and the two natures of Christ. Christ’s overall posture, with his right foot propped up, reflects that of his mother, whose right foot is also propped up on a ledge.
Below the scene are several Old Testament prophets, whose placement allude to their role as the foundation of the Church. From left to right they are: Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah. The prophets also serve a typology role; typology was a common theme in Christian art where an Old Testament figure was paired with and served as a harbinger of a New Testament figure. For example, Jeremiah’s three days spent inside the whale was seen as the precursor to Christ’s three days in the tomb; Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and God’s staying of Abraham’s sacrifice was a parallel to God’s sacrifice of his own son and his resurrection; David’s triumph over Goliath alluded to Christ’s triumph over Satan; and finally Isaiah, like Christ, was to be sacrificed by his father and then saved by God. Moreover, the scrolls in the prophets’ hands also serve as the foundation of the Church, reinforcing the notion that the worshippers and God’s message is part of an all-encompassing plan, as well as foretell the Mary’s role as the Mother of God.
The expressive depiction of these Old Testament prophets as well as detailed personalization in the other figures had not been seen prior to this time. Compare the visages between those in this piece with those in a piece from only 20-25 years earlier.
The faces in the Cimabue are more natural while Saint Veranus’ face (in the altarpiece on the right) seems more fitted to a cartoon. Moreover, notice the differences in spatial depth. The Cimabue creates three dimensions via foreshortening of the angels near the front of the throne while the Saint Veranus altarpiece looks flat. Noticing these differences, Vasari wrote:
Cimabue’s innovations were picked up by his (probable) student, Giotto di Bondone, who went even further and replaced the Byzantine style with a greater sense of naturalism, rediscovered the lost art of perspective, and introduced the concept of narrative painting.
In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim-
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.
Dante's Purgatorio XI, 94-96 (Mandelbaum Translation).
Judging from Dante’s words in his Purgatorio (written around 1314), it is clear that Giotto’s innovative techniques are not only appreciated by us and art historians, but were acknowledged as groundbreaking by his immediate contemporaries.
That very obligation which the craftsmen of painting owe to nature, who serves continually as model to those who are ever wresting the good from her best and most beautiful features and striving to counterfeit and to imitate her, should be owed, in my belief, to Giotto, painter of Florence, for the reason that, after the methods of good paintings and their outlines had lain buried for so many years under the ruins of the wars, he alone, although born among inept craftsmen, by the gift of God revived that art, which had come to a grievous pass, and brought it to such a form as could be called good. And truly it was a very great miracle that that age, gross and inept, should have had strength to work in Giotto in a fashion so masterly, that design, whereof the men of those times had little or no knowledge, was restored completely to life by means of him.
Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing
It was around this time that people’s attitudes towards art was changing as well. During the Medieval period, artists were considered skilled laborers akin to stonemasons or metalworkers. After the advent of Cimabue, however, artists were becoming celebrities. Lorenzo de’Medici even organized a monument to Giotto to stand in the Duomo. Prior to that time, monuments had only been erected for military and literary heroes. Art was, in short, becoming art.
The fascination with Giotto continued well after his death. Indeed, Vincent van Gogh once said of Giotto: “Giotto touched me the most — always suffering and always full of kindness and ardour as if he were already living in a world other than this. Giotto is extraordinary, anyway, and I feel him more than the poets: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.” Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo van Gogh, as translated by The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Although Giotto is best known for his tower (pictured left), his Ognissanti Maestà (c. 1310) illuminates the reason for his fame.
The Ognissanti Maestà derives its name, in part, from the positioning of Mary in a throne (maestà is the Italian word for majesty), and in part from its intended location, the Church of All Saints (Ogni is the Italian word for “each” or “all” and so ognissanti may be translated as “all saints”) where it was to be hung above the Umiliati Altar. Due to the position of the Umiliati Altar, it is believed that the altarpiece is meant to be seen from the right, and indeed, if you look at the piece from the right, it takes on a new sense of depth and spatial awareness that it only hints at when viewed headon. It is this spatial awareness that Giotto reintroduced into panel paintings that helped launch the Renaissance and earned him his fame.
Giotto also strayed away from ornamental details to focus on the naturalism of his figures, giving each a different expression full of human emotion. He abandoned the use of stark outlines to define his figures, instead opting for shadow and the graduations of light, thereby ensuring that his figures appeared solid and real. For instance, look at the subtle curve of the cushion that Mary sits atop. The curl of this cushion emphasizes Mary’s presence; her body actually interacts with the other elements of the painting and has an effect on them. He also eschewed the traditional use of damascene to depict light and instead used lighter tones of blue to suggest shifting appearance of light.
Comparing the angels in the Cimabue with the ones in the Giotto, they are placed to fill the space whereas the angels in Giotto appear to stand one next to another in real space.
As for the iconography in this work: Jesus is depicted giving a blessing with his right hand and holding a rolled parchment, a symbol of wisdom, in his left. The white, blue, and gold of Mary’s robes are reflected in the coloring of her throne (as is the red of Christ’s gown); the white alludes to her purity, the blue as her role as Queen of Heaven. The red of Christ’s gown alludes to his passion. The angels at the foot of the throne are offering both roses and lilies. The roses allude to charity, Christ’s passion, and Mary herself, who was and is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns). The lilies allude to purity. The angels on either side of the throne hold a crown and a pyxis, alluding to the human nature of Christ and therefore his ultimate sacrifice. The many saints depicted surrounding the throne allude to the painting’s intended location, All Saints in Florence.
The last Maestà in this room is known as The Rucellai Madonna (c. 1285) by Duccio di Buoninsegna, a painter from Siena. It is the largest painting on wood from the 13th century known to date and was commissioned for the Santa Maria Novella by the Florentine confraternity Compagnia dei Laudesi, a lay fraternity dedicated to singing devotional hymns to the Virgin. Its name was derived from the chapel owned by the Rucellai family where it hung at the end of the 16th century. Like Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna, this altarpiece is meant to be viewed from the right.
Also like Giotto’s Maestà, the Rucellai Madonna fuses traditional Byzantine aspects (the gold lettering and the construction of the figures’ solemn faces) with the innovative techniques of Cimabue, including the distribution of light and shade to create depth (a technique known as chiaroscuro), draped fabrics, and the foreshortening of objects to make them appear closer to the viewer, seen here in the throne and the slight angle of Mary. Behind Mary, angels hold a banner, emphasizing her status and honor.
This piece, specifically the angels holding up the throne, was likely inspired by the Belle Verrière window located in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres.
Room 3. Sienese Painting of the 14th Century
Like Room 2, Room 3 was designed and curated during the 1950s. It documents the transition from the 13th century fusion of Byzantine and Gothic into the 14th century “fairytale” esque style, which emphasized courtly elegance and romanticism via multicolored fabrics, elaborate flooring and marble overlay, and increased use of gold leaf. The main proponents of this style were Simone Martini, his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, and the Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro.
Simone Martini, sometimes known as Simone Memmi due to his relationship to Lippo Memmi, worked in Avignon, where he met Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, the Italian poet who is often credited as the source of the modern Italian language. Petrarch wrote of Simone:
Per mirar Policleto a prova fiso
con gli altri ch’ebber fama di quell’arte,
mill’anni non vedrian la minor parte
della beltà che m’àve il cor conquiso.
Ma certo il mio Simon fu in Paradiso
onde questa gentil donna si parte;
ivi la vide, et la ritrasse in carte,
per far fede qua giù del suo bel viso.
L’opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo
si ponno imaginar, non qui tra noi,
ove le membra fanno a l’alma velo;
cortesia fe', né la potea far poi
che fu disceso a provar caldo et gielo
et del mortal sentiron gli occhi suoi.
Petrarch, Canz. 77.
Had Policletus seen her, or the rest
Who, in past time, won honour in this art,
A thousand years had but the meaner part
Shown of the beauty which o'ercame my breast.
But Simon sure, in Paradise the blest,
Whence came this noble lady of my heart,
Saw her, and took this wond'rous counterpart
Which should on earth her lovely face attest.
The work, indeed, was one, in heaven alone
To be conceived, not wrought by fellow-men,
Over whose souls the body's veil is thrown:
'Twas done of grace: and fail'd his pencil when
To earth he turn'd our cold and heat to bear,
And felt that his own eyes but mortal were.
As Translated by Major Robert Macgregor.
Had Polycletus in proud rivalry
On her his model gazed a thousand years,
Not half the beauty to my soul appears,
In fatal conquest, e'er could he descry.
But, Simon, thou wast then in heaven's blest sky,
Ere she, my fair one, left her native spheres,
To trace a loveliness this world reveres
Was thus thy task, from heaven's reality.
Yes—thine the portrait heaven alone could wake,
This clime, nor earth, such beauty could conceive,
Where droops the spirit 'neath its earthly shrine:
The soul's reflected grace was thine to take,
Which not on earth thy painting could achieve,
Where mortal limits all the powers confine.
As Translated by Susan Wollaston.
High praise coming from one of Italy’s foremost writers. Although the portrait Simone painted for Petrarch is lost, his Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333), which he worked on in partnership with Lippo Memmi, may just as easily be described as “one, in heaven alone to be conceived.” The piece was commissioned for the altar of St. Ansanus in the transept of the Siena Cathedral to pair with Duccio’s Maestà, discussed above (it is likely that Martini trained under Duccio).
Like Duccio’s work, this piece emphasizes fluid lines, which give the figures elongated, wiry silhouettes, reminiscent of calligraphic play of line. On one side of the work is the martyr Ansanus (a patron saint of Siena), who bears a banner with Siena’s colors (not pictured here). On the other side is another martyr, who some have identified as Maxima, the wet nurse of Ansanus, or Margaret (the inscription identifying her as Judith has been proven incorrect and not part of the original work). Gabriel points upwards towards the incarnation of the Holy Spirit with one hand, and in the other, he holds an olive branch, a sign of peace. His rippling cloak conveys motion, alluding to both his startling arrival as well as the tension it has caused; indeed, Mary is depicted as recoiling from her unexpected visitor. The vase of lilies at the feet of Mary symbolize her purity.
The Latin streaming from Gabriel’s mouth states, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (“AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM”), and the rest of the prayer is embroidered in Gabriel’s robes.
Martini was interested in colorful patterns, but it was his decorative details that really took off, prompting the development of the school known as the International Gothic, the subject of a later post.
Room 4. Florentine Painting of the 14th Century.
While 14th century Sienese painting was typified by courtly elegance and otherworldly grandeur, 14th century Florentine painting continued, and further developed, Giotto’s 13th century innovations (naturalistic figures, luminosity, and spatial awareness). The major players here include Taddeo Gaddi, Gaddi’s son Agnolo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, Pacino di Bonaguida, Giottino, and Giovanni da Milano.
Lippo di Benivieni’s altarpiece (c. 1315), although not found in Room 4 because it was acquired as part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, is more properly discussed among its 14th century Florentine brethren.
Not much is known about Lippo di Benivieni, aside from the fact that he was working in Florence during the 14th century. His skill, however, can be appreciated in this altarpiece.
The expressions, produced via shading, are much more realistic and three dimensional than those produced during the 13th century, although they do retain the austere solemnity of the Byzantine tradition. Lippo also used shading to give three dimensions to the Bishop’s collar, which gives depth to the painting not seen in prior art.
It was Bernardo Daddi, however, who was considered the leading painter in Florence at this time. Daddi was a student of Giotto and like his teacher, he sought to portray his figures as realistic as possible. To do so, he combined Giotto’s innovations with stylistic features from the Sienese school. Daddi’s first dated work is the Triptychwith Virgin and Childbetween St. Matthew and St. Nicholas of Bari (1328) depicts the Virgin Mary with St. Nicholas of Bari on the right and St. Matthew the Evangelist on the left. The work was commissioned by Nicholaus de Mazinghis, which explains St. Nicholas’ appearance in the piece. In the tondos above each figure is Christ giving a blessing.
Daddi’s San Pancrazio Polyptych was likely painted after this Triptych, sometime during the 1330s. (The San Pancrazio Polyptych is mistakenly identified as an Agnolo Gaddi by Vasari).
The Virgin and Child are the principal image, and they are surrounded by St. Pancrazio (who eponymous Church was the home of this altarpiece), St. Zenobius, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. Reparata, and St. Miniato (from left to right). The predella contains images from the life of the Virgin, demonstrating Daddi’s skill in miniaturist painting. It Daddi’s figure of Mary, however, that demonstrates Giotto’s influence:
The similarities between the thrones is remarkable: each decorated with inlaid marble, each with a delicately decorated ciborium (canopy of state), each surrounded by angels, and each with roses and lilies at the foot of the throne. Yet, the differences between the two are equally astounding. In Giotto’s version, the angels piously face Mary and Jesus, but the angels in Daddi’s version are interacting with each other, creating a narrative image rather than a simple icon to be worshiped. This theme is reflected in the depiction of Mary and Jesus; the Mary and Jesus in Giotto’s version face the viewer, directly connecting with him or her while the Mary and Jesus in Daddi’s version face each other, establishing the mother-child relationship while Baby Jesus reaches towards a flower held by his mother. Rather than a simple icon to be mediated upon or worshipped, Daddi’s version gives human context and emotions to his figures, indicating a move towards the Renassiance and, later, Mannerism, a style focused intensely on emotion.
Also part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, but is better discussed here is Agnolo Gaddi’s Virgin and Child with Ten Angels and the Saints Benedict, Peter, John the Baptist, and Miniatus (c. 1380). Interestingly, this altarpiece is actually a combination of two separate works by Gaddi. The side panels were likely meant for the church of San Miniato in Florence, while the central panel featuring Mary enthroned was a separate piece.
As in this altarpiece, Gaddi’s compositions were characterized by harsh colors, varied visages, and curvilinear contours. To the direct right of Mary is John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint, recognizable via his animal skin tunic. Next to John is Prince Miniatus, Florence’s first martyr while to the left of Mary is St. Peter, holding a book inscripted with “DOMINE TECUM PARATUS SUM ET IN CARCEREM ET IN MORTEM IRE” (“And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death”) (Luke, 22:33). Next to him is St. Benedict, identifiable via his white tunic, which would have been worn by the Olivetan Benedictine monks who lived in the Florentine Benedictine monastery from 1373.
Unlike Daddi’s work, this altarpiece seems to revert back towards traditional motifs: Mary’s throne is flat, evoking the feeling of a casket rather than a chair. Although the two angels in back are interacting, the majority of the figures either look towards the viewer or towards the Christ child in adoration. Moreover, the faces of the figures seem rather generic, harkening back to Byzantine work.
A more recently rediscovered artist, known as Giottino because he was one of the most talented followers of Giotto, painted this final piece known as the Pietà di San Remigio (1360-1365).
Mary is holding her son’s head while two other women kiss the stigmata, the wounds caused during Christ’s Passion, on Christ’s hands. Standing behind Christ and the mourning women are Saints Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and John the Evangelist (not pictured). The women kneeling on the left is one of the patrons of the work. In contrast to the other figures, she is depicted on a smaller scale and wearing contemporary Florentine dress. The work was commissioned for the Church of San Remigio. It is considered a masterpiece due to the expressions of the figures and its psychological insight into the figures’ suffering.
Francesco de’ Medici, Duke Cosimo’s eldest son, commissioned Giorgio Vasari to design this room, located off the Hall of the Five Hundred. Francesco used it as his study as well as to house family heirlooms, as was typical at the time (during the 16th and 17th century, collecting and categorizing objects was in vogue, influenced, no doubt, by the beginnings of the scientific revolution). Each side of the room was designed to resemble one of the four elements, which then corresponded to the items held within each built-in cabinet. The doors to those cabinets were also designed with the particular cabinet’s contents in mind, decorated with Biblical, mythological, or historical events that corresponded to its inner treasures.
The room’s apotheosis is the vault, which depicts Nature handing a stone to Prometheus. Nature’s handoff of the stone demonstrates the convergence of science and art (two of Francesco’s passions) because, it is assumed, Prometheus will transform the stone into a beautiful gem. Prometheus is depicted holding a flaming branch because it was he, according to the greek writer Hesiod, who gave man the secret of fire. Zeus retaliated by chaining Prometheus to a mountain and ordering an eagle to eat Prometheus’ liver, which would then regrow every night only to be eaten the next day. For men’s punishment in Prometheus’ scheme, Zeus allegedly created women.
 even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age  without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them. And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good;  for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed. So it is not possible to deceive or go beyond the will of Zeus: for not even the son of Iapetus, kindly Prometheus,  escaped his heavy anger, but of necessity strong bands confined him, although he knew many a wile.
Hesiod. “The Complete Hesiod Collection.” Acheron Press edition.
It seems Hesiod did not have much luck in his love life.
Surrounding the center fresco is a typical 16th century cosmogram (i.e. the four elements, the four qualities (cold, damp, hot, dry), the four humours (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric), and the four seasons).
The Quartiere Degli Dei Terrestri
Also next to the Hall of the Five Hundred are apartments that were dedicated to housing guests of the Medici. In light of this function, Cosimo I commissioned Vasari to decorate the rooms with typical ducal trappings of power. Vasari did just that – and more. Rather than simply celebrate ducal power, the rooms serve to equate the Medici to “Dei Terrestri” (“earthly gods”).
Indeed, each room is dedicated to one of the Medici heroes, with frescoes celebrating major events of his lifetime. Each of these lower level rooms, however, corresponds to the room located directly above, which was dedicated to a mythical god and/or hero (the “Dei Celetri”). Through this linkage, Vasari mythologizes Cosimo’s more famous ancestors, elevating them to Dei Terrestri.
Room of Cosimo il Vecchio
The first room is dedicated to Cosimo il Vecchio (also known as “Pater Patriae” or “father of the nation”), arguably the most famous member of the Medici Family and Duke Cosimo’s namesake. Vasari decided to focus the room on Cosimo’s return from a year long exile in 1434.
The ceiling fresco depicts throngs of Florentines meeting Cosimo as he returns to Florence, a depiction which would seem more appropriate for a triumphal return from battle rather than a return from exile. By emphasizing the people’s happiness over Cosimo’s return, however, Vasari refocuses the story on Cosimo’s popularity with the people rather than on the treason of which he was found guilty.
How did the Pater Patriae get himself exiled from the nation he had allegedly birthed? To understand, it is important to note that Florentine politics were rife with violence, internal conflict, mistrust, and petty jealousies. Indeed, Cosimo’s exile can be boiled down to one faction’s animosity towards the Medici’s increasing wealth and power. Rinaldo degli Albizzi and his conservative allies had been in control of Florence’s government for four decades when the Medici family was just beginning to assert its power. As the Medici attained more wealth and supporters, known as amici (translated as “friends”), tensions with the Albizzi grew. It all came to a head in 1429 when hostilities broke out between Florence and the city of Lucca. Albizzi and his conservatives favored a full blown war with Lucca while the Medici and the amici cautioned against it. The Albizzi won out and Florence went to war, which turned out to be a fiasco. As the costs of the war began mounting, Cosimo’s bank loaned the city money to cover the shortfall, eventually loaning Florence so much money that one third of the city’s debt was financed by the Medici bank. The result of this debacle was the people’s loss of confidence in Albizzi and an increase in respect for the Medici, who, as the Medici propagandists argued, had counseled against the war yet still risked financial ruin for the good of the republic to ensure its victory.
To avoid losing any more power and perhaps to save face, Albizzi tried Cosimo for treason, alleging Cosimo had prolonged the war for his own financial benefit. Cosimo was found guilty and subjected to exile, which, to Albizzi’s horror, was overturned after the election of a majority of amici to the Signoria. In an about-face, the newly elected Signoria brought Cosimo home and exiled Albizzi and many of his allies, purging the government of all those opposing the Medici and allowing Cosimo to take full control of the government. And so began the Medici’s tight hold on Florentine government (aside from a couple more periods of exile).
To improve their social standing both within Florence and without, the Medici family portrayed themselves as “renaissance men,” i.e. patrons of the arts, sciences, and culture. Vasari sought to capture Cosimo’s renown for artistic patronage in the painting below, Cosimo the Elder Surrounded by Literati and Artists, painted by Marco da Faenza (a collaborator to Vasari).
Here, Cosimo il Vecchio is depicted surrounded by key artists of his time, including Marsilio Ficino, Donatello, Filippo Brunelleschi, Luca della Robbia, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, many of whom he had commissioned numerous artworks.
Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Show Cosimo the Elder the Model for the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Marco da Faenza. Cosimo il Vecchio is also credited for building the family church, San Lorenzo.
Room of Lorenzo il Magnifico
The next room is dedicated to Lorenzo il Magnifico, Cosimo’s grandson. Lorenzo’s father, known as Piero the Gouty, delegated much of the family authority to Lorenzo due to his poor health, Moreover, he was not as politically astute as his father or son, thus his lack of a room.
The second day after [my father’s] death, although I, Lorenzo was very young, being only twenty years of age, the principal men of the city and of the State came to us in our house to condole with us on our loss and to encourage me to take charge of the city and of the State, as my grandfather and my father had done.
Lorenzo de’Medici, Ricordi
In contrast to his father, Lorenzo operated on an international stage, thereby expanding the family’s influence beyond the bounds of Tuscany. It is therefore fitting that the ceiling in this room depicts foreign dignitaries presenting Lorenzo with gifts, including lions, Barb horses, jewels, and a cardinal hat, which was given to his son Giovanni, the first Medici to become pope.
Lorenzo was a living representation of the Medici’s move from solidly middle class stock to nobility. Indeed, Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini, came from an ancient Roman family, a match which was notable both for the bride’s foreignness and for her blue blood. Moreover, Lorenzo successfully lobbied for a cardinalship for his son, Giovanni de’Medici (later, Pope Leo X). With Giovanni’s cardinal’s hat, Lorenzo’s son was now a prince of the church, giving him the same status as any lay prince. Lorenzo had elevated his family from its commercial roots to nobility (via his wife Clarice), then royalty (via his son Giovanni).
This [hat] was a ladder enabling his family to rise to heaven.
Lorenzo also continued his grandfather’s patronage of the arts and sciences. In the painting to the right, he is depicted sitting amongst such humanists as Pico della Mirandola, Politian, Marsilio Ficino, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo Bruni. Indeed, Lorenzo himself was an amateur philosopher and poet.
Interestingly, in both of these rooms, Vasari depicted Cosimo and Lorenzo in strikingly similar poses to that taken by Roman Emperor Constantine in the Aurelian Relief known as Liberalitas (located on the Arch of Constantine in Rome), further strengthening the link of the Medici to royalty/power. In the Liberalitas, Constantine is shown distributing money and protection to Roman citizens. So too, Vasari’s designs proclaim, Cosimo and Lorenzo distributed money and protection to the artists and intellectuals that surrounded them.
Room of Leo X
In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.
Pope Leo X’s motto, taken from Psalm 120
Pope Leo X was born Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo il Magnifico. He became a cardinal at thirteen (at this time it was common to be made a cardinal prior to attaining adulthood and even prior to taking holy orders) and was eventually elected to the papacy in 1513 (at age 37), taking the name Leo X (after the Florentine lion).
The piece below captures Pope Leo X’s visit to Florence in 1515. The procession into Florence was led by eighty mules and was rumored to have over 3,000 participants, including mace-bearers, squires, valets, secretaries, lawyers, ambassadors, cardinals, archbishops, and trumpeters.
Since the pope had left Rome to go to Bologna to meet the king of France … Leo decided that on the way he would pass through Florence to show his homeland the glory and grandeur God had vested in him, after so many different vicissitudes.
Unfortunately, the rooms dedicated to Clement VII, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, and Cosimo I are not open to the public, as they are used as the offices of the mayor of Florence, so I don’t have any pictures, but I can tell you about them.
First, there is a room dedicated to Clement VII, the second Medici to hold the papal throne, who was elevated to the cardinalship by his uncle, Pope Leo X. He was elected to the papacy in November of 1523, and it was under his papacy that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome and the advent of the Protestant reformation. He, however, was the one responsible for installing the Medici as Dukes of Florence in the person of his illegitimate son, Alessandro de’Medici, via his alliance with Charles V, who had recently taken over the city.
The next room is dedicated to Giovanni delle Bande Nere, Cosimo I’s father. Giovanni was a commander in the papal army, serving under both his cousins Leo X and Clement VII. He died, likely from gangrene, after being wounded during a skirmish against Imperial troops. Upon Giovanni’s marriage to Maria Salviati (granddaughter to Lorenzo il Magnifico), the two branches of the Medici family were reunited.
Finally, Cosimo I dedicated a room wholly to none other than Cosimo I, thereby including himself among the legendary Medici heroes. A clear indication of how highly he thought of his political prowess.
Cosimo I became duke after his cousin, Duke Alessandro, made himself highly unpopular during his short-lived reign as Duke of Florence. Indeed, he was assassinated by another Medici cousin, Lorenzino, in January of 1537. Rather than install Alessandro’s illegitimate four year old son as duke, the Florentines promoted Cosimo as Alessandro’s successor. Charles V agreed and invested him with the duchy. It was Cosimo who lobbied Pope Pius V to grant the Medici the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, a royal elevation from the (“simple”) dukedom of Florence.
The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is likely the most well-known of the artworks housed by the Vatican Museums. The chapel itself was named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (whose name should be familiar from the painting Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library mentioned in “The Vatican’s Picture Gallery“), who built the Chapel in 1483. The architecture of Chapel hints at the violence of the fifteenth century: the walls are extraordinarily thick, the windows are narrow slits (presumably to drop boiling oil on invaders without exposing the defenders to counter-attack), and the building itself has battlements. Pope Sixtus commissioned the greatest artists of his day, including, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo, to fresco the walls of the Chapel with scenes from the life of Moses and of Christ.
Pope Sixtus’ nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, however, was the one who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now-famous ceiling. Michelangelo actually tried to get out of the commission because he identified as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II, however, was not known as il papa terribile for nothing; he forced Michelangelo to take up the commission despite all of Michelangelo’s protests.
To complement the already frescoed walls, Michelangelo looked to St. Paul’s division of history, which divided the whole of human existence into three stages: (1) The Book of Genesis, which represented the history of man ante lege (i.e. before law); (2) Moses, who represented the history of man sub lege (i.e. under law); and (3) Christ, who represented the history of man sub gratia (i.e. under the disposition of grace).
Because Numbers Two and Three of St. Paul’s Division of History were already represented on the walls, Michelangelo determined to fresco the ceiling with the Book of Genesis. The design includes nine stories from Genesis that run down the middle of the ceiling.
The central panel of Old Testament stories is bordered by alternating lunettes and human figures. The lunettes (which look like small triangles) contain pictures of Christ’s ancestral lineage as recounted in the New Testament.
The figures that are placed in between each lunette alternate between Sibyls and Prophets. (Sibyls were popularized in ancient Greece, and they were believed to be oracles that spoke prophecies imparted to them by the Gods.) Below each figure is a plaque identifying whom the figure represents.
Now that we have been oriented, let’s look at the work in more detail, starting with the central panel. The central panel is divided into nine episodes found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. These nine are subdivided into three groups of three, each group telling an origin story. Starting from left to right: The Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, and The Sacrifice of Noah relate to the origin of evil; The Fall of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, The Creation of Eve, and The Creation of Adam relate to the origin of man; and the Separation of Land from Sea, The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, and The Separation of Light from Darkness relate to the origin of the universe. Although at first glance, it seems that Michelangelo scheme is backwards because he starts with Noah and ends with the origin of the universe. The reverse order, however, is intentional. The Drunkenness of Noah is the imperfection of man, but as the viewer moves towards the alter towards the Eucharist, he/she moves closer to purity of spirit and so too the figures depicted on the ceiling. Moreover, each scene holds the promise of redemption: The Drunkenness of Noah is the mirror image of the Eucharistic wine that becomes Christ’s blood. The mocking of Noah by his sons reflects the mocking of Christ during his Passion. The Flood reminds the viewers of the Covenant with God, which is fulfilled with the birth of Christ. The Birth of Eve from the rib bone of Adam echoes Christ’s fatal wound beneath his rib.
The first section that Michelangelo painted was the Flood (the second panel from the left), which is evidenced by the overwhelming amount of action within that piece as compared to the more figure-focused scenes that were created later. To depict the Flood, Michelangelo shows figures in the bottom corner of the scene struggling to get to dry land, hampered by their worldly possessions. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are not the central figures, but are physically and emotionally in the background. As I said, the scenes telling the story of Noah relate to the origin of evil and therefore the focus is on evil.
Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.
Notice the muscular figures depicted in these works? Well as Michelangelo was working, the Romans discovered the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting the snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso. These sculptures informed Michelangelo’s portrayal of the human form while painting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, especially those figures known as the Ignudi. The Ignudi sit in the four corners of each episode, symbolizing antiquity to link the Church with the illustrious Roman past.
The contorted, stressed muscles of the figures are a staple of Michelangelo’s depiction of the human body. The external tension of the figures hint at the inner turmoil of man, who is constantly at war with himself in an effort to shed his earthly flesh and desires.
As mentioned above, the central panel is surrounded by alternating Hebrew Prophets and Greek Prophetesses (known as Sibyls). If you are wondering why Michelangelo painted pagan oracles on the ceiling of the most famous Roman Catholic Chapel, you aren’t alone. Some historians argue that early Jews and Christians appropriated the tradition of sibylline prophecies because such had a storied and ancient reputation. Through the appropriation of this tradition, historians argue, early Jews and Christians were able to give their nascence religions legitimacy and authority within the pagan world in which they operated. It is also believed that the sibyls predicted the coming of Jesus. Again, connecting the Church to the ancient past.
So much more could be said about this room; in fact, many articles and books have been written on the topic. What is in this post is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that I have at least piqued your interest in some of this art.
While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.
Rome is a huge city, packed with tourists – even in the off months – and in light of that, today’s post is simply about “Ancient Rome.”
The most iconic attraction in the old part of the city is the Colosseum, which is actually not the building’s true name. The real name of the Colosseum is the “Flavian Amphitheatre,” but it became known as the Colosseum due to the giant statue of Roman Emperor Nero that stood next to it (Colossus is derived from the Greek word for “giant statue”).
The Colosseum was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian (the first of the Flavian Emperors), who had no blood right to the throne, and his son, Emperor Titus. As part of their campaign for legitimacy, they built the Colosseum on the former Emperor Nero’s private boating lake. Thus, the Flavians could boast that they were “reclaiming” the land for the people by giving the people bread and circuses. The Colosseum is 160 feet high, almost a third of a mile around, and could accommodate 50,000 people. This amphitheatre was unique in that it was round, rather than the traditional semi-circles used by Greek theatres. It was possible to build a round structure because of the use of Roman concrete, an innovation not known to the Greeks. Silly Greeks. The vestal virgins (see, infra) actually got their own special box so that they could come and watch the games. Although one would think watching half naked men fight to the death would not be considered virginal.
Gladiators occupied a blurred social space in the Roman hierarchy. Typically from the lower classes, gladiators were revered by the Romans for their “Roman-like” qualities and became celebrities. Some gladiators would eventually win or earn enough money to buy their freedom, thereby achieving the “rags to riches” archetype. Giving slaves and lower classes this hope helped to keep them in line. Basically, this process was the predecessor to the myth of the “American Dream.” But, in AD 404 gladiatorial games were banned, then in AD 523 wild animal fighting was banned. Thus, ending (without answering) the hard question of gladiatorial social status.
Located nearby the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine (AD 312), which was built to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius (a “pretender” Emperor). Before the final battle against Maxentius, Constantine converted to Christianity allegedly due to a vision. The Arch was hastily built, and in fact incorporates multiple statues from other earlier buildings, including part of a battle frieze as well as figures of prisoners from the Forum of Trajan, several Hadrianic roundels, and eight Aurelian panels.
The next major site that people typically want to see is known as the Forum. The Forum was originally used as a necropolis (i.e. cemetery), and subsequently was the site of the Battle of Lake Curzio, a battle between the Romans and the Sabines, before it became the center of Roman life. It was eventually abandoned and buried, becoming a grazing area known as Campo Vaccino and then a quarry, although some temples were saved from dereliction because they were repurposed as Churches. It was during the beginning of the Republic that the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of the Dioscuri were built (509 BC), and during the 2nd century, the four basilicas were built, including the Basilica Aemilia, which was built by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 179 BC, but burned down during the sack of Rome in AD 410. It is possible to still see melted coins in the pavement from when it burned. Also here is the Basilica of Constantine, only one third of which remains today (it once spanned a space the size of a football stadium), and at the far west end stood a huge statue of Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor), the remains of which are now housed in the Capitoline Museum.
Several temples dedicated to past emperors remain in the Form. For instance, the Temple of Antoninus Pius & Faustina was built to honor Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina.
The Temple of Romulus was probably dedicated to the son of Emperor Maxentius (and not the mythical founder of Rome). It was a circular brick building with bronze doors. In the 6th century, it was converted into a church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, which likely is why it survives to this day, and it now houses an 18th century Neapolitan presepio (the nativity scene). Also located here is the Temple of Julius Caesar, which was built on the spot where Caesar was cremated in 44 BC.
The temples not dedicated to former emperors include: the Temple of Vesta, Ancient Rome’s most sacred temple. This temple was circular to mimic a farmer’s hut (typical of where the “ideal” Roman and his family would live), and it housed a fire (Vesta was the goddess of fire), which was tended by the Vestal Virgins. It was said that if the flame ever went out, Rome would fall. The six Vestal Virgins lived in The House of the Vestal Virgins. The virgins were chosen from noble families before they reached the age of 10, and each served 30 year terms. The Vestals were so revered that they got their own box seats at the Colosseum, and those virgins who successfully fulfilled their terms were given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Those who dared to break their vow of chastity were buried alive, which seems to me like an overreaction. But, you know, gotta make sure that those girls tend to that fire.
The Temple of Saturn now stands as the most prominent of the ruins in a fenced off area between the Forum and the Capitoline Hill. The ruins date from 42 BC, but historians think there was a temple on this sport as early as 497 BC. Saturn was the mythical King God of Italy, who ruled over an Italy in which there was no slavery, personal property or war. Every year between December 17th and 23rd, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, where the social order was turned upside down to recreate this fantasy world. (Sounds eerily similar to England’s May day.)
Meanwhile, the three slender fluted columns are now what is left of the Temple Of Castor and Pollux. It is one of the city’s oldest, built in the 5th century BC to commemorate the Roman victory over the Tarquins. According to legend, after the final battle against the Tarquins, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, Jupiter’s sons, watered the horses at this spot. As a symbol of Rome’s republic, The temple was often used as a meeting place of senators, and its front steps served as a podium for free speech.
The Temple of Venus and Rome was designed by Emperor Hadrian and was purportedly the largest and grandest in Rome. It was dedicated to Roma (the personification of the city) and to Venus Felix (who was thought to be the ancestor of Rome, through her son Aeneas). [There are excellent views of the Colosseum from this Temple]
Also located in the Forum is the Arch of Titus, which commemorated the AD 70 Roman victory over Judea. It was during this war that the Romans burned the Temple down and enslaved over 50,000 Jewish people, who were forced to build this arch as well as the Colosseum, a reminder of the dark underbelly of the Roman Empire. If you look closely, you can see the Jerusalem Menorah carved into the Arch.
This Menorah was stolen during the war and taken back to Rome as a “trophy.” Although usually tolerant of other cultures and religions, the Romans were unable to cope with the Jewish religion due, in part, to what the Romans saw as secretive rituals. The so-described secretive rituals bred suspicions of sedition and dissension, especially when the Jewish religion preached of a coming apocalypse that would overthrow the world powers. This, obviously, did not sit well with the current world powers. Even more troubling to the Romans, however, was the “new Judaism” that had recently begun springing up around the Roman Empire. This new religion was more threatening to the Romans because it allowed non-Jews to convert and join, which meant that distinguishing the converts from typical Romans would be impossible. This new phenomenon was later coined “Christianity.”
The Curia is a 1937 restoration of Diocletian’s Curia. Diocletian changed the way the role of emperor worked by ritualizing imperial power. It was he who divided the cities into units called “dioceses,” which the Church later adopted.
The Rostra is best known for being the site of Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech after the assassination of Caesar. It was a dais where speeches were given to the public. Its name comes from its decoration with ship’s prows, known as “Rostra” in Latin.
The Arch of Septimius Severus was built in AD 203 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of good ole Septimius Severus; the reliefs depict the emperor’s victories in Parthia and Arabia. Originally the inscription across the top was dedicated to Septimius and his sons, Caracalla and Geta, but Caracalla murdered Geta and removed his name (what is it with Romans killing their brothers??). You can still see the holes where the name was removed.
Trajan’s Market was a complex of shops on five levels (with the 5th level acting as a welfare office that delivered the corn dole). The street that ran through the market, Via Biberatica, was named after the drinking inns that had lined it. The market was built by Emperor Trajan and his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, in the 2nd century AD.
The next major location to see is The Palatine Hill was the home of the wolf that saved Romulus and Remus. She lived in a cave that became known as the Lupercal. In 2007, archaeologists found a vaulted sanctuary that is thought to be the cave that the early Romans believed was the Lupercal, and traces of mud huts have been found that date back to the 8th century BC. The Palatine became the place to live during the Imperial Era; in fact, Augustus was both born on the Palatine (63 BC) and established his imperial residence there. We get the Italian word “palazzo” and the English word “palace” from this Hill. Interestingly, it was on the Palatine and during the 16th century, that the Farnese family built the first private botanical gardens in Europe. The Imperial Forums were built between 46 BC and AD 113. The Forum of Caesar, was built as part of Julius Caesar’s massive building campaign, which was eventually finished by Emperor Augustus. Part of the building included a temple to the goddess Venus Genetrix (from whom Caesar claimed descent). The temple contained statues of Caesar and Cleopatra as well as of Venus, but all that remains now is a platform and three Corinthian columns. The Forum of Augustus was built by Emperor Augustus, in conjunction with the temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), which he had promised to build if he won the Battle of Philippi against Brutus and Cassius in 41 BC. As a clever propaganda move, the statue of Mars that was placed in the temple resembled Augustus. At least half of this Forum is hidden below Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Other emperors imitated the Caesars and built their own shrines to themselves. A Temple of Peace was built in honor of Emperor Vespasian, but was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt during the 3rd century as the Forma Urbis Romae. Later, the Emperor Domitian built a piazza to connect the Forums with the Temple of Peace, but he died before he could complete the work, and his successor, Nerva, turned it into the Forum of Nerva. The Forum of Trajan was used for military encampments and to perform judicial procedures. Trajan’s Column stands behind his Forum. The column was inaugurated in AD 113 to celebrate two campaigns in Dacia, (modern day Romania) and is decorated with scenes from the campaigns. Trajan’s ashes were placed in an urn in the hollow base of the column. Allegedly, Pope Gregory the Great prayed to God to release Trajan’s soul from hell because he had been moved by a scene on the Column depicting Trajan helping a woman whose son had been killed. God appeared to the Pope, telling him that the Emperor had been rescued from hell, but that the Pope was not to pray for any more pagans. When Trajan’s ashes were exhumed, his skull and tongue had remained intact and proceeded to tell those who had exhumed him that he had been released from Hell. Due to this miracle, the land surrounding the column was declared scared and the column was spared from destruction. The statue of Trajan at the top, however, was replaced with one of St. Peter in 1587.
The last major site that I’m going to talk about is the Capitoline Hill. Allegedly, Saturn founded a settlement on this hill before the foundation of Rome, and interestingly, archeological evidence does indeed suggest that the hill was inhabited before the traditional date of the founding of Rome (753 BC – a date most historians also find fault with…). Because of its steep incline, it was chosen as the city’s main stronghold despite the fact it is the smallest hill. The Hill is now home to the Capitoline Museum, which is located in the Piazza del Campidoglio. In 1536, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to design the Piazza del Campidoglio because of an upcoming visit from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but the piazza wasn’t actually finished until the 17th century.
Also located on this Hill is the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, which was dedicated to Optimus Maximus Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (the “Capitoline triad”). Construction began during Tarquinius Priscus’ rule, but was not completed until the reign of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. It was rebuilt in marble after the fires of 83 BC, 69 BC, and AD 80. The square in front of the Temple was known as the Area Capitolina, where a number of temples dedicated to minor deities, as well as other religious buildings, statues, and trophies were placed.
The Temple of Juno Moneta was built in 344 BC in fulfillment of a promise made by L. Furius Camillus during the war against the Auruncii. According to Legend, Juno’s sacred geese warned the Romans against a Gallic siege, inspiring the temple’s moniker “Moneta,” from the Latin word “to warn.” The name began to be associated with the nearby mint, and as a result, the term “money” was coined. HA! I really didn’t mean for that to be a pun, but bravo, Haley, bravo. My subconscious has bested me yet again.
The Temple of Veiovis was discovered in 1939 during an excavation under the Piazza del Campidoglio. Veiovis was the youthful God of the underworld derived from the ancient Italic version of Jupiter. The temple is located in the same area where Romulus allegedly extended hospitality to fugitives from the greater Latin area in an effort to boost Rome’s population. It was consecrated in 196 BC by Consul Lucius Furius Purpurio during the war against the Gauls, and it was dedicated four years later, in 192 BC, by Quintus Marcius Ralla.
The Capitoline Museum is housed in two palazzi, dei Conservatori and Nuovo (façades designed by Michelangelo). The Museum was founded in 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated several bronze statues to the Roman people. During the mid 16th century, other works of sculpture were placed in the Campidoglio, and in 1538, Pope Paul III requested that the Lateran (the first Roman Church) buy the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. During the second half of the 16th century, Pope Pius V decided to “free the Vatican from ‘pagan’ images” and donated works deemed pagan to the Museum. The Museum was not opened to the public until 1734, when Pope Clement XII inaugurated it following his acquisition of the collection of statues and portraits of Cardinal Albani, making the Capitoline Museum, the world’s first public museum. Be sure to check out the view from the Caffetteria dei Musei Capitolini (apparently they have really good coffee as well, which I think we will absolutely need to get through this day without drifting off; also when do we say no to coffee).
The Palazzo dei Conservatori’s first floor houses classical statues, the second floor houses the Renaissance paintings, and on the ground floor there is a room just off the courtyard that houses a collection of Egyptian statues found where there was once a temple to Isis. A tunnel links the Palazzo with the Palazzo Nuovo, where more classical sculptures are on the two main floors, and it takes you past the 2nd Century BC temple dedicated to Veiovis and the Tabularium, the Roman public record office, built in 78 BC by Consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus. [One of the best views of the Forum is from a window in the Tabularium]. The most notable statues in the dei Conservatori are:
The Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, which was probably commissioned in AD 176 as a tribute to the Emperor’s triumphs over the Germanic people. It was forced inside after the City noticed serious corroding issues and a copy was made to stand in the original’s place. Unlike other statues of Roman emperors, which typically were idealized, this statue is very lifelike.
The Lupa Capitolina: The twins Romulus and Remus were added later (probably in the 15th century) by Antonio Pollaiuolo. The wolf itself can be traced back to Etruscan or Mango-Greek workshops in the 5th century BC, and therefore, originally the wolf had nothing to do with the Roman Foundation Myth.
Spinario: a 1st century bronze of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot.
Bernini’s Bust of Medusa: based on Ovid’s descriptions of Medusa, Bernini captures Medusa during the transitory moment of her own metamorphosis into marble after she was tricked into looking into a mirror. Ugh. Gives me the heebeegeebees just thinking about having snakes as hair. I know I’m a Slytherin and should be super cool about snakes, but no. Just no. And we all know how Bryan feels about snakes…It’s like dealing with Indiana Jones over here.
The Pinacoteca is home to two Caravaggio’s:
St. John the Baptist (1602), which was commissioned by the Mattei, a noble Roman family and supposedly inspired by the Ignudi of the Sistine Chapel; and
Gypsy Girl, which legend has it that Caravaggio painted this girl as a statement that art could depict real life, not simply copy classical models.
Most of the works in the Palazzo Nuovo are Roman copies of Greeks. Romans did not have very active imaginations, as is evident from their appropriation of Greek gods, art, scholarship, and pretty much everything else. These works include:
Capitoline Venus: a sculpture of Venus emerging from a bath;
The Faun: found at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, the work is sculpted in marble and is a copy of a Greek original. (Emperor Hadrian had a thing for anything and everything Greek);
The Foot of Constantine I was once part of a 40 foot (no pun intended) tall statue of Emperor Constantine I, but only it, a hand, and a few other body parts have survived;
Wounded Warrior (Monnot, 18th century); and
The Gaul: this sculpture is of a wounded Gaul and was probably commissioned to celebrate the Roman victories over the Galatians. It was thought that it was a sculpture of a gladiator, and as such, it inspired Lord Byron’s “The Coliseum”:
AND here the buzz of eager nations ran, In murmur’d pity, or loud-roar’d applause, As man was slaughter’d by his fellow-man. And wherefore slaughter’d? wherefore, but because Such were the bloody Circus’ genial laws, And the imperial pleasure.—Wherefore not? What matters where we fall to fill the maws Of worms—on battle-plains or listed spot? Both are but theatres where the chief actors rot.
I see before me the Gladiator lie: He leans upon his hand—his manly brow Consents to death, but conquers agony, And his droop’d head sinks gradually low— And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one, Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now The arena swims around him—he is gone, Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.
He heard it, but he heeded not—his eyes Were with his heart, and that was far away: He reck’d not of the life he lost nor prize, But where his rude hut by the Danube lay, There were his young barbarians all at play, There was their Dacian mother—he, their sire, Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday— All this rush’d with his blood—Shall he expire And unavenged?—Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!
But here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam; And here, where buzzing nations choked the ways, And roar’d or murmur’d like a mountain stream Dashing or winding as its torrent strays; Here, where the Roman millions’ blame or praise Was death or life, the playthings of a crowd, My voice sounds much—and fall the stars’ faint rays On the arena void-seats crush’d—walls bow’d— And galleries, where my steps seem echoes strangely loud.
A ruin—yet what ruin! from its mass Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear’d; Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass, And marvel where the spoil could have appear’d. Hath it indeed been plunder’d, or but clear’d? Alas! developed, opens the decay, When the colossal fabric’s form is near’d: It will not bear the brightness of the day, Which streams too much on all years, man, have reft away.
But when the rising moon begins to climb Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there; When the stars twinkle through the loops of time, And the low night-breeze waves along the air The garland forest, which the gray walls wear, Like laurels on the bald first Cæsar’s head; When the light shines serene but doth not glare, Then in this magic circle raise the dead: Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.” From our own land Thus spake the pilgrims o’er this mighty wall In Saxon times, which we are wont to call Ancient; and these three mortal things are still On their foundations, and unalter’d all; Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill, The World, the same wide den—of thieves, or what ye will.
Also located on the Hill is the Tarpeian Rock, which is named after Tarpeia, the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a Roman soldier who defended the Capitol in the 8th century BC Sabine War. The Sabines bribed Tarpeia to let them up on the Capitol, claiming that they would give her “what they wore on their shield-arms.” Typically, Sabines wore gold bracelets and jewelled rings on their left hands. True to their word, the Sabines crushed Tarpeia with their shields, literally giving her what they wore on their shield-arms. They were unsuccessful in overrunning the Capitol though because the Sabine women interceded. From then on, the Tarpeian Rock was used as a place of execution – traitors and other criminals were thrown over the sheer face of the rock.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli (at least the 6th century) is the church of the Roman Senate. It occupies the space that was once the Temple to Juno, and its 22 columns were taken from various other ancient buildings. The Church’s ceiling commemorates the Battle of Lepanto (1571), and the frescos in the first chapel on the right were painted by Pinturicchio and depict St. Bernardino of Siena. The church is most famous for an icon, known as Santo Bambino, that is made from olive wood and said to have healing powers, but the original was actually stolen in 1994, and a replica is now in its place.
Finally, the Mamertine Prison is located beneath the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami church, this was (according to legend) where St. Peter was imprisoned. Also, the valiant and resilient King Vercingetorix was executed here, after he was defeated by Caesar, who had to encircle his first wall with a second wall to defeat Vercingetorix’s stronghold. (To hear a great podcast about this moment in history, check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History).
We visited three distilleries and a cooperage (where the barrels are made). This was my second whiskey tour (I did the bourbon trail with my fiancé a couple of years ago). So I was already semi-familiar with the distillation process. For those who aren’t, I’ve tried to sum it up in a diagram – Distillation Process.
Our first stop was Glenlivet, or “Valley of the Smooth Flowing One.”
Glenlivet officially began distilling in 1824 (although it had long been distilling whiskey illegally prior to that date). Whiskey distilling started in the Speyside region with tenement farmers, farmers who did not own the land, but instead worked it and paid a percentage of their income to the individual who did own the land. Many times, the percentage was rather high, and the farmers started to distill whiskey to make some extra cash – free of taxes. Additionally, due to its remote location in the Highlands, it was easy for farmers to hide their illicit behavior from the customs office.
In 1824, however, legislation was passed to allow whiskey distillation, and George Smith, the founder of Glenlivet, was the first in the Glenlivet parish to get his distiller’s license. For this, he was harassed by his neighboring distillers and was forced to carry a pair of pistols for the rest of his life.
George Smith’s son had been studying the law when his father died. He gave up his law career to move home and run the family business. His law degree informed how he ran the business. For instance, it was under his leadership that Glenlivet fought a protracted legal battle over the Glenlivet trade mark, giving Glenlivet the right to be called “THE” Glenlivet. For those of us who are Ohio State fans, you know how important the “THE” can be.
Next was Glenfiddich, or “Valley of the Deer.”
“Few men have built their own distillery with their own bare hands. But that’s exactly how William Grant started writing our story.”
During the summer of 1886, William Grant and his children built, by hand, what was to become the Glenfiddich Distillery. Unlike many other distilleries, Glenfiddich actually has its own cooperage on site. The triangular shape of Glenfiddich bottles was instituted in 1961. And in 1963, Glenfiddich was the first Scottish Whiskey to be actively promoted outside Scotland.
Before visiting our last distillery for the day, The Macallan, we stopped at Speyside cooperage.
Speyside cooperage was founded in 1947 by the Taylor family. It is the largest independent cooperage in the United Kingdom. It also has branches in Alloa, Kentucky, and Ohio because much of the wood it uses to make barrels actually comes from former bourbon barrels. Under United States law, bourbon may only be aged in virgin barrels; thus, after one use, the barrel cannot be used again – at least not to make bourbon. So many bourbon distilleries will sell their barrels on to other whiskey distilleries.
But, like Bourbon, oak is the only wood that can be used as casks because oak prevents seepage of the whiskey while still allowing the whiskey to “breathe.” The ability to breathe also produces what is known as the “angels’ share,” i.e. the whiskey that evaporates.
The coopers at Speyside still use all the traditional methods and tools to make the casks.
Finally, we went to The Macallan, which just opened its new distillery this summer. It was breathtaking in a very modern sense.
The original name of the area was “Maghellan”, comprised of two Gaelic words: “magh”, meaning fertile ground and “Ellan”, from the Monk St. Fillan.
The Macallan was founded by Alexander Reid in 1824 on a plateau above the river Spey in north-east Scotland. In fact, to ensure that the river Spey continued to provide The Macallan Distillery with pure water for its whiskey, the Distillery bought up much of the land that surrounds the river. Unlike Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, Macallan does not use a Scottish cooperage; instead, they import their barrels from a cooperage in Spain.
Ultimately, my favorite was Glenlivet. Although I have to admit, my forever favorite will always be Jameson. And not just because it’s one of my cats’ names.