Renaissance recycling: Perseus as Medici avenger

October 23, 2010

"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.

Recommended Reading:
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!

Francis Haskell's History and its images is a superb exploration of the the history of art, with a true emphasis on history. Edgar Wind's Pagan Mysteries in The Renaissance is the definitive guide to understanding classical imagery in renaissance art


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent piece, Hasan! I have also fallen for the reductive idea that Renaissance art was "nothing more" than a rediscovery of ancient art/motifs. Now that you articulate it, I can see how almost insulting that is. Yes, the classically-influenced artists appropriated some themes and styles but OF COURSE they made it their own and to satisfy their own agendas! I love how you help me expand my understanding (as little as it is) of this period in art!

Unknown said...

Thanks for expressing that Vicky!

I often wonder how younger students are introduced to the Renaissance these days. I don't know which is worse, Dan Brown or Giorgio Vasari!

They should all read Edgar Wind of you ask me :)


Alberti's Window said...

Great insights. I agree - it is important to look at the surrounding artistic periods which have influenced periods like the Renaissance.

I have a theory that there is a cyclical nature to art: the same styles keep getting recycled (and the styles often cycle in the same order, too). For example, one can find tons of similarities between the serene High Classical (Greek) style and Early/High Renaissance art. Both of these styles were followed by a period which favored more dramatic movement and compositions (the Hellenistic period (especially in Pergamon)) and the Baroque period in the 17th century. It's interesting to see how history repeats itself, even in terms of artistic style!

Unknown said...

I really like that cyclical theory M! I'm starting to think along the same lines - especially after seeing the Fayum portraits.

I think this cyclical nature however may have been possible because the first iterations of the cycle were not adequately preserved - hence the greater role of classical sculpture in influence renaissance painting - the best example of this being the contrapposto pose.

Of course discoveries like Nero's Domus Aureus helped nudge things along too, particularly in Raphael's case. It wasn't until he got to Rome that his imagination was truly set alight by classical themes.

One can only imagine what art will be like 500, let alone 2000 years from now!

Kind Regards

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...