Renaissance Tales – III: Savonarola and Botticelli

They call him the Prophet of Doom, a man whose fanatical discourse seemed completely out of place in XV-century Florence, a city completely transformed and re-invented through the minds and spirits of Renaissance men like Dante, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and others. Florence became the undisputed centre of humanist learning, the essence of which was challenged by one man: Savonarola.

The man who started humanism at a young age and was on his way to studying medicine eventually underwent a radical change, becoming a preacher. Sadly, he succumbed to his imperfections and fears, and launched a ruthless attack against all the values of Renaissance, condemning the revival of pagan traditions and ideals, and threatening the people of Florence with a divine punishment for their loose morality.

As he criticized the Medici and all the power structures in the community in the name of religion and social justice, his sermons became more appealing to the masses, and his audience base became broader. His ‘visions’ became more scary and his status grew steadily as he managed to stop the King of France from ruining Florence, having met him as part of a delegation dispatched by a terrified Florence.

Then started the processions that he sent to collect what he deemed ‘objects of vanity’: jewelry, mirrors, wigs…but also poetry books, paintings depicting mythological subjects…they were all collected. In February 1497, the sky of Florence turned black with the ashes of all these objects, burned in a huge bonfire known in history as ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. The scene seemed to defy all logic, dealing a strong blow to the progress that Renaissance Florence stood for. Even more scary was the influence that he exercised even on the most refined of minds: how about Botticelli sending some of his paintings to the Bonfire?!

Then came the fall as Savonarola committed the classical mistake: attacking the Vatican and the Pope. The Pope responded aggressively, preventing him from preaching and threatening the entire city. Savonarola had insinuated at his ability to work miracles, but when put to the test he seemed confused and attempted an escape. A failed one.

Imagine this: in 1498, people gathered to witness yet another bonfire at the Piazza della Signoria. This time, it was Savonarola and two companions burning, accused of heresy (among other things). The river Arno carried away the ashes, but not the memory: a commemorative plaque marks the site of the execution, and a high tower (that of Palazzo Vecchio) cast its shadow, sealing the victory of the Renaissance refinement.

Renaissance Tales – II: Ghiberti, Brunelleschi & Masaccio

Renaissance Art had to start somewhere; it had to find inspiration in someone. This somewhere happened to be Tuscany, and the ‘someone’ was a group of extraordinary artists that revolutionized art after Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto had paved the way.

It’s 1401 AD in Florence. Something was about to happen, and the world of art the way we know it would never have been the same without it happening: an incident would spark the genius of two of history’s greatest artists, while a third artist would be born. Together, these three artists would be the holy trinity of Early Renaissance Art: Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Masaccio.

Masaccio was born in 1401, and it took him only 27 years (that is, till he died) to leave a lasting legacy that would inspire generations of artists to follow, breaking away with the ‘maniera greca’ and painting bodies of mass and volume, all subject to strict application of perspective. His ‘Trinity’ is the perfect examlpe.

If perspective is the game, then Brunelleschi is most definitely the name. Having rejected a shared commission with Ghiberti to sculpt the bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistery, he decided to dedicate himself to architecture. The result: while Ghiberti spent 48 years sculpting two pairs of immortal doors, one of which was described by Michelangelo as the ‘Gates of Paradise’, Brunelleschi used his skill to lift 4 million bricks over 50 meters above the ground level –without buttresses or ledges- to build the mammoth dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Cathedral.

Not far from the scene, Brunelleschi’s friend, called Donatello, was ‘sculpting his way’ into glory through his bronze ‘David’, the first freestanding nude figure since antiquity. David stands triumphant, having slain Goliath. It comes as no surprise that Florence identidied itself with the Biblical hero, who used his wits to beat the physical strength of Goliath, just like the city itself had taken a quantum leap ahead of its more powerful enemies and rivals by focusing on a field in which it was sure to trumph: art, culture and humanist learning.

Renaissance was born, having its first overwhelming ‘monuments’ and masterpieces already dominating the streets, piazzas and churches. The cityscape of Florence has changed once and for all.

Florence Cathedral Dome - BrunelleschiTrinity - MasaccioGates of Paradise - Ghiberti

Reniassance Tales – I: Thou shalt be Art (Intro)

Would it be an exaggeration to say that, in Masaccio’s Trinity, the most valuable and important nail in the painting (even more than those bearing the weight of Christ on the cross) is a nail that you cannot see but whose mark remains visible over 600 years after? What nail am I talking about? It’s a nail he used to render a realistic perspective, for which many historians regard him as the first proper Renaissance painter.

The nail used by Masaccio to mark the vanishing point in his ‘Trinity’, the egg cracked by Brunelleschi to win the competition for building Florence’s legendary dome, the chalk used by Giotto to paint his sheep on a rock: a nail, an egg and a piece of chalk, mundane objects that, otherwise, would be of no particular interest to art historians and enthusiasts, but without which incredible masterpieces would never be possible. Art gives life to the mundane, makes it history, just as 4 million bricks became the dome of Florence at the hands of Brunelleschi.

It was in Rome that Bernini (Baroque) stood in front of a mirror one day, contemplating an unthinkable deed. He was already decided. He wanted to sculpt the face of a man suffering excruciating pain, he wanted this to be as real as real could be. Probably all Rome must have heard him scream as he held a burning piece of charcoal while looking at his own face in the mirror. The expression was imprinted in his memory and, eventually became immortalized in marble: the bust showing his self-portrait as a ‘Damned Soul’.

How many other ‘moments’ of pain and passion must have gone unnoticed and undocumented? How many strokes of genius did it take Nature to fear to be conquered by the likes of Raphael and Rembrandt? and as someone once said, what kind of world would we have inherited if it hadn’t been colored by the likes of Botticelli, Gozzoli and Michelangelo?

Art, at times, is a baptism of the mundane. The artist, in his capacity as creator, considers an object, and thinks: Thou shalt be art. Or he contemplates the moment and decides: thou shalt mark history.

Trinity of MasaccioDamned Soul - BerniniThe Procession by Gozzoli

Tales of al-Andalus: Lecture Review

Last Thursday, I gave a lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) for the second year in row. Coinciding with the anniversary of the surrender of Granada (the last Islamic Kingdom in al-Andalus) in 1492, this year’s lecture, titled ‘Tales of al-Andalus‘, offered a different perspective and some fascinating details:

A saint from the Orient is re-invented as the ‘Arab-Slayer’ (Santiago Matamoros)…
A man flees persecution in Baghdad only to revolutionize the cultural scene in Cordova (Ziryab)…
An Andalusi envoy to the Vikings enchants their queen (Yahia al-Ghazal)…
A group of 3,000 moriscos give up on farming and turn into pirates in Morocco (in Salé)…
Rebels exiled from Cordova found an Andalusi republic in Alexandria then another in Cyprus (9th century)…
A man from Toledo lays the foundations for the glory of Timbuktu (Ali ibn Ziyad)…
Ibn Khaldun sees the orange trees at the Alhambra and forsees the fall of al-Andalus (14th centrury)…
The stories told presented a potpourri of moments, events and encounters that define the ‘human condition’ in al-Andalus, a ‘paradise lost’ for some, a ‘poisoned paradise’ for others.

Among the questions asked following the lecture were the following two questions:

Why is it that the Arab World never witnessed anything similar to the Andalusi refinement again in history?
Why weren’t the Arabs of Andalusi origin granted the ‘right of return’ to Spain?

Questions and answers apart, lecturing at the Library is always a rewarding experience. Even more rewarding was the visit to some extraordinary places in Alexandria, but that’s another story. Many thanks to the BA team for the kind invitation and for making this event possible.