April 10, 2004
florence trip ~ 8 april 2004

Today was a museum day. We had a guide, Simone, take us through the highlights of the Accademia (where Michelango's David stands forever looking off in the distance, contemplating the upcoming battle), and the Uffizi (old Italian for "Office"). Ironically, in my studies of modern art in college, Greenberg's school of art criticism concentrates on the turn away from perspective and figurative art to the two-dimensional, stylized and gestural; whereas the transition from the medieval to Renaissance is the opposite, moving from non-perspectival, flatness of Byzantine iconography with no shadows and no sense of depth--no sense in their religious imagery that Christ or the Virgin Mary might be mortals that we can connect to emotionally--to Giotto's early 14th Century Madonna Enthroned hints of shadows in the draping of the Madonna's robes, and of breasts, and the first intimations that these are more than icons, abstractions staring from the candlelit recesses of a medieval church.

Thus Brunelleschi's "discovery" of perspective began drawing figures out of the flatness of a painted medium, allowing subsequent artists to dissociate images from the iconographic, allowing depth both figuratively and psychologically as paintings allowed their subjects to become more human. Witness Fillipo Lippi's Madonna and Child with Two Angels--the Madonna, exquisitely beautiful (a fallen nun no less as Lippi who was raised by monks ironically had a habit of seducing pretty nuns), exquisitely real, holding a baby who looks like a real baby surrounded by angels that no longer float abstractly in the air, but are grounded.

Of course, Michelangelo considered painting inferior to sculpture, and his work is preeminently humanist, with David representing a non-Christian Classical theme, ambivalent in gesture and expression, his sling at rest--about to be used? or in laxity after use? To place his sculpture in context, one has to remember that the practice of the day was to make plaster models of a sculpture and use a special device to triangulate points in a piece of marble to guide the chiseller. In essence, the final step of sculpting marble was a mechanical, rather than an artistic process. Michelangelo abhorred the idea of treating marble as a blank medium and sought to chisel or reveal directly from his blocks the "essence" of that piece. For instance, the block of marble from which David emerged was known as Il Gigante. A challenge in Carraramarble; sixteen feet high, impossibly narrow, filligreed with cracks; the victim of a half-hearted attempt by Agostino di Duccio; refused by Da Vinci. In Michelangelo's mind, David was living inside the whole time.

This is actually the second time I've seen David, and he seems more ambivalent a gesture than the first time. Seemingly relaxed, but the tensile character of his right leg, the veins throbbing from his right forearm and hand, the trace of jugular, he really seems ready to spring into action for all the relaxation of his pose, which perhaps really is a pose.

In the Uffizi, we saw, among the aforementioned Giotto and Fillipo Lippi, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera.

Posted by erich at April 10, 2004 03:53 PM
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