Duel for Eternity: Michelangelo and Da Vinci

Artistic rivalries between geniuses usually produce wonders. Bernini and Borromini, Brunelleschi and ghiberti, Mozart and Salieri…how about Michelangelo and Da Vinci? Here is the story:

“In 1504, soon after the marble David was complete, Michelangelo had been hired by the government of Florence to fresco one wall of a council room inside the Palazzo della Signoria. The opposite wall was to be decorated by another Florentine artist with an equally illustrious reputation, Leonardo Da Vinci. Then aged fifty-two, Leonardo held the field in painting, having recently returned to Florence after almost two decades in Milan, where he had painted his celebrated Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie. These two men –by far the most renowned artists of the age –were thereby thrown into direct competition.

The artistic duel (between Michelangelo and Da Vinci) was made even more compelling by their well-known dislike of each other. The surly Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo, meanwhile, had made it clear that he had little regard for sculpture. “This is a most mechanical exercise,” he once wrote, “accompanied many times with a great deal of sweat.” He further claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant adobe of painters. All Florence awaited the outcome.

(…) Michelangelo was commissioned to pain The Battle of Cascina, depicting a skirmish fought against the Pisans in 1364, while Leonardo was to illustrate The Battle of Anghiari, showing a Florentine victory over Milan in 1440.

After toiling in great secrecy for several months, both emerged in early 1505 with the fruits of their labors: full-size chalk drawings that revealed, in bold strokes, the overall design of their compositions. There to 1,100-square-foot drawings caused an outbreak of almost religious fervor in Florence. Tailors, bankers, merchants, weavers, and, of course, painters –all flocked to Santa Maria della Novella, where the two cartoon were displayed together like holy relics.

Michelangelo’s cartoon features what would become his trademark: muscular nudes in frantic but graceful gyrations. He had chosen to illustrate a scene leading up to the battle, when a false alarm was sounded to test the readiness of Florentine soldiers as they bathed in the Arno, resulting in a mad scramble of naked men onto the riverbank and into their armor. Leonardo, on the other hand, concentrated on equestrian rather than human anatomy, showing mounted soldiers battling for a fluttering standard.

Transferred in color to the walls of the Hall of the Great Council –a vast chamber supposedly constructed with the help of angels –these two scenes would have created, without doubt, one of the greatest artistic wonders of the world. Alas, after such a promising start, neither fresco was ever completed, and the duel between these two famous sons of Florence, each at the summit of his powers, failed to come off. Michelangelo’s fresco, in fact, was never even started. No sooner had he finished the magnificent cartoon than, in February 1505, he was ordered to Rome by the Pope to sculpt the Pope’s tomb. Leonardo made a tentative start on The Battle of Anghiari, but his experimental method of painting failed drastically when the colors began dripping from the wall. Chastened by this humiliating failure, he lost his appetite for the work and soon afterward returned to Milan.”

From ‘Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling’ by Ross King

Even though we cannot enjoy neither the frescos nor the original cartoons, we can still admire some original preparatory sketches as well as two reproductions of the full cartoons by different artists:

Rome: The ‘ne plus ultra’ of Art

There is something larger than life about Rome, something that transcends the grandeur of ‎its monuments and the vastness of its piazzas. The Eternal City lives up every inch to its ‎reputation, and you wouldn’t need a map because wherever you set your look, there would ‎be something unearthly enough to leave you awe-stricken: art becomes a way of being, ‎architecture seems to descend from heaven, and the inanimate matter becomes flesh and ‎blood at the touch of alchemist-sculptors. ‎

On earth as in heaven, everyone likes good drama. Who better that Caravaggio, Bernini, ‎Raphael and Michelangelo to capture snapshots of the divine through their paintbrushes, ‎chisels and fingertips? ‎It’s a drama of the senses, a glimpse of eternity.

Gazing, contemplating, savoring the works of the old masters, the inevitable question ‎becomes: how can we bear our present mediocrity? I spent only a weekend in Rome, ‎walking endlessly and –at times- aimlessly, as if by the force of some inner tide. My thoughts ‎outpaced my vision as I experienced an intense aesthetic anxiety. There is no way I can ‎describe this, no storyline and no logical thread to follow because beauty has a language of its ‎own. This is why I will only share some impressions and reflections:‎

Standing at one of the highest viewpoints inside the Colosseum, I eventually noticed how it ‎resembled one huge sundial as the sun moved slowly, as if ashamed to shed light on the ‎horrific history of human brutality in this place.

At the Pantheon, apart from paying respects to Raphael in his resting place, one can visualize ‎how Brunelleschi once stood here with a dropping jaw as he contemplated a seemingly ‎impossible architectural feat. He had no idea people would experience the same awe gazing ‎at his own dome in Florence years later.‎

Three Caravaggios in just one chapel at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi; three ‎masterpieces of chiaroscuro by the master of tenebrismo. The works are so spellbinding that ‎the Church had to put a banner asking visitors to watch for their belongings: Caravaggio ‎hypnotizes the viewer, doing half the job for the lurking pickpocket. Caravaggio…the Saint of ‎Pickpockets!‎

Simon Schama once described Bernini as sly. One look at Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers ‎at Piazza Navona is enough to confirm this impression: The Nile, represented by a reclining ‎man, stretches his arm and turns his wrist in a gesture that suggests he is trying to avoid ‎something disturbing. He faces the Baroque Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone erected by ‎Bernini’s archrival, Borromini. In short, the Nile cannot stand Borromini’s poor quality! ‎Coincidence or conscious metaphor?‎

St Peter’s would have been –artistically- just another mammoth basilica, if it was not for ‎Michelangelo’s Dome, his Pieta, and Bernini’s imposing Baldacchino. The interior is, ‎nevertheless, one of the least inspiring places in Rome.‎

All the Baroque exuberance and extravaganza of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria ‎cannot possibly distract you from Bernini’s masterpiece: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. She seems ‎to defy gravity, her ecstasy/orgasm lifting her beyond time and space; a realm that only ‎Bernini is capable of immortalizing in the memory of marble.‎

Luckily, some of the best things in life are for free! La Pietà, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, ‎Caravaggio’s ‘The Calling of St Matthew’…Rome is generous to art lovers.‎

The Vatican Museums offer a crescendo narrative that takes you from Roman masterpieces ‎like Laocoön and His Sons, through Renaissance and Baroque wonders, and all the way to the ‎shockingly vivid frescoes of the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms). Then comes God ‎himself, emanating from the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Like in Florence, nothing ‎can prepare you for the first encounter with this whirlwind of prophets, angels, saints and ‎sinners that draw you into a world of biblical dimensions.‎

I left the Vatican with mixed feelings, but mostly a sorrow that is very difficult to understand: ‎All my life I had dreamt of contemplating these masterpieces, experiencing their ‘halo effect’ ‎in first person. These artworks had always held a promise of enchantment that I had always ‎imagined and fancied. Now that I have finally filled my soul with their magic, I realize I have ‎just witnessed the very limits of human talent, the boundary of artistic skill. It doesn’t get any ‎better than this because Rome, like Florence, is the ‘ne plus ultra’ of art.‎

My lecture in Rome: Pathways for the Mediterranean Future

Yesterday I gave a speech in Rome at the Annual Scholar’s Conference organized by ‎the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. The Conference this year was dedicated to ‎discussions, workshops and lectures presenting ‘Perspectives of the Mediterranean’. ‎Over 100 participants engaged in a great learning experience thanks to the excellent ‎organization, including high profile keynote speakers and highly skilled scholars; and I ‎had the chance to lecture on two alternative development pathways for the Euro-‎Mediterranean region, namely a regional creative economy and a mapping of regional ‎ecosystems in terms of economic and social opportunity costs.‎
These two pathways tackle two key issues for our Mediterranean future: one is cultural ‎diversity; the other, biodiversity.‎

I would like to share a short story that I used as an intro to set the scene for my lecture; ‎a story about a man called Filippo Lippi:‎

‎“Filippo was a Renaissance painter of the Quattrocento (the 15th century in Italy). His ‎name might not ring a bell to many outside Italy; after all he is not Giotto, Raphael or ‎Botticelli. ‎

When he was a young man, Filippo was kidnapped by Barbary pirates and taken to the ‎Maghreb, before he was finally set free. This experience marked him, and it shows in ‎some of his artworks, like the Barbadori Altarpiece in which, if we zoom in, we would ‎see pseudo-kufic writing on the mantle of the Virgin. It is a decorative motif that is ‎meant to imitate the Kufic script used sometimes in writing Arabic, but it is not Arabic, ‎and it is most definitely not writing at all to start with. ‎

Filippo Lippi had captured only the aesthetic quality of the Arabic writing, rather than ‎its cultural essence. In addition to paintings, Pseudo-Kufic motifs were also used in the ‎decoration of several Mudejar palaces in Spain and Norman palaces in Sicily, among ‎other places. The story about Filippo Lippi was related to us by Vasari, a famous artist ‎and art historian, and I use it as a metaphor on what both shores of the Mediterranean ‎have been doing repeatedly: approaching the Mediterranean question in a way that ‎emphasizes the style rather than the substance.”‎

Finally, my sincere thanks to Dr. Frank Habermann and Patrizia Ianiro from the ‎Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes for the great effort and dedication. Congratulations for an ‎excellent Conference. ‎

Barbadori Altarpiece - Filippo LippiFilippo Lippi - ZoomThe Italian Centre of German Studies

The Endless River: Floydian Soundscapes

Indulging in the bewitching soundscapes of Pink Floyd 20 years after…The Endless River should leave no one indifferent. It has been so many years since the fans last savored the band’s High Hopes and Co., and finally the much-awaited revelation is here.

The English band that had shaped Progressive Rock in the 1970s took a long break since their last album, The Division Bell. Many things have happened ever since, including the painful fact that Richard Wright whose imprint had electrified albums like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Meddle, has passed away. Earlier in the 1980s, Roger Waters had left the band in a move that, to many, meant the end of Pink Floyd. It was not the case, even though his departure marked a before-and-after.

Gilmour’s tunes are as sweet as ever, his solos are mature and hypnotizing. Mason is perfect, if somewhat discrete. Together, they offer a full spectrum of sounds that range from their early psychedelic feel and all the way to New Age and even jazzy flavours. These are two legendary gentlemen that still rock. Gilmour is generous to the fans, his music seems to flow effortlessly and is unmistakably his.

The video tracks that come with the iTunes album are an extraordinary plus…where else can you see the last recording sessions of Richard Wright?

But there is one thing that I do not like about The Endless River: it’s not intriguing. Musically, it’s a triumph; conceptually, not so. It lacks the ‘landscape’ quality of tracks like Echoes, the explosive genius of ‘The Trial’, the intensity of ‘Time’. Moreover, the lyrics and song titles are a bit cheesy. Gilmour and Mason are first class musicians, but it takes Waters (as in, Roger Waters) for an album to become epic. Nevertheless, it’s not fair to bring Waters into the picture now.

Gilmour and Mason, masterful as they are, show exceptional ‘craftsmanship’ proper of their age and their experience, their music is carefully composed with little or no room for whims or spontaneity. The best part is that you can always forget about this review, play The Endless River, and surrender to the current.