"The Italian Renaissance was in reality, harsher, gaudier and hybrid - this is a time we should view not with blind reverence, but with delight, understanding and clarity." -Bettany Hughes
In a time and place not too distant, an introduction to Renaissance studies consisted of the dictum that it was a glorious period resurrecting antiquity from the depths of the dark ages. I myself was acquainted to the period in this fashion. Many years later, I am quite convinced this introduction did me a great disservice!
The biases of writers such as Vasari, Voltaire and Gibbon were not mentioned, the laudatory passages of Burckhardt and Roscoe took front stage. As one looks at the history of art in a broader scope, trying to understand what went before the Renaissance - we get to understand this period not as a rebirth of classical learning, but simply just one wonderful step in a series of wonderful steps in the cumulative history of art across the globe.
The traditional view of the Renaissance as the apex of art needs to end. Modern students, at least in some parts of the world, are now privileged to a more open minded approach to the study of this era.
In my recent travels to Florence, the anachronistic nature of classical symbols really hit home. Staring at the Birth of Venus, I saw within the beauty of Botticelli's goddess the embodiment of Medici commercial ambition, where Pagan themes were not being reborn, but recycled into something different. In my mind, the word rinascimento has now firmly been replaced with riciclare!
First century depiction of Perseus & Andromeda from Pompeii
Looking from one work to the next, and being struck by this undercurrent was a memorable experience. I eventually left Florence not just with a sense of glee at having some wonderful works of art - but also with a sense of how it is imperative to look at this period as it sits between the art of preceding eras, leading toward the modern era. I eventually realised I had been doing this at an unconscious level, from my posts looking at antiquity and then quickly shifting forward to the digital techniques of the modern era.
Here is a wonderful example, indeed one of the most famous examples of the re-purposing of a classical motifs to suit the powers of the day.
Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus and The Head of Medusa(1545-1554) was hailed as a masterpiece as soon as it was unveiled. Reading Cellini's unique and somewhat disturbing autobiography, one realises how much of an arduous task it was to create. It is indeed a delightful work - made particularly interesting by the nuances and fine details. The craftsmanship in principal structure and the pedestal betray Cellini's deference for a goldsmith's precision as opposed to the brute hewn majesty of Michelanegelo's David.
The intricate beauty of the Perseus pedestal. This is a copy - the original being in the Bargello.
There is a curious interplay between David and Perseus I had not previously noticed. David was created to sit astride a church, but eventually ended up in front of the Palazzo Vecchio - the seat of the Florentine republic, later usurped by the Medici. A copy now occupies the original's place, and seems to directly stare at Cellini's Perseus in the Loggia Dei Lanzi.
Sitting near Cellini's Perseus, you'll notice a familiar face staring towards you
The Loggia dei Lanzi
Perseus, the Greek hero who slew the Gorgon Medusa and rescued Andromeda was appropriated by the Medici as a symbol of their new Ducal power. We are told the concept for Cellini's piece was suggested by Cosimo I de' Medici himself.
This depiction of Perseus can be found in the remnants of a Roman villa at Stabiae, near Pompeii
In the Uffizi, tucked in among Leonardo, Botticelli and Raphael you will see this wonderful piece by the (reportedly) eccentric Piero di Cosimo. I say reportedly because Vasari is our source, whose exaggerations of artists' eccentricities are increasingly under question. This initially looks like a St. George Slaying a Dragon variation, but closer examination will reveal it is a classically themed work. This was painted for the Medici in 1515, meant as a celebration of the Medici domination of the 'monster' of the Florentine Republic. Some of the colourfully dressed onlookers on the right are supposedly Medici family members and allies.
A similarly themed but somewhat more nebulously depicted work is by Vasari himself, and occupied Francesco I de' Medici's curious antechamber, the Studiolo - which you can read my post about here. The piece depicts Perseus freeing Andromeda. Its presence in the private study of the Palazzo Vecchio highlights that its function was not purely decorational. Again, pagan motifs were being re-purposed to toot a political horn.
Vasari's Perseus rescuing Andromeda
For a slightly different, less politicised look at Cellini's masterful bronze, I refer you to this recent post at Simon Abrahams Every Painter Paints himself, a wonderful new site/blog looking at artists self portraiture in a fascinating, visual way. I loved the use of click through animations on this site - something I have been thinking about for 3PP in future.
Also, for those wanting a more detailed look at depictions of Perseus in art ranging from antiquity to the modern era, this series of posts by classicist R Greaves at Matters Arising is a fabulous resource.
These two titles are a great start to understand the use of pagan motifs in Renaissance art, and then look at the broader scope of how history impacts on image making. I'd like to thank David Packwood from Art History Today for the heads up on the Haskell title. Cheers David!