Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Michelangelo's Revenge

Biagio da Cesena   |   seidenadvertising.com
Last month, after I posted about the trompe l'oeil aspects of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling, I was inspired to reread Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, the best-selling biography of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement — the altar wall directly below his ceiling — almost 30 years after he finished the ceiling. While Pope Julius II had commissioned the ceiling and intended Michelangelo to paint the wall, Pope Paul III was on the papal throne when the wall was actually painted.

Pope Paul III   |   wikipedia.org
Julius II and Michelangelo were continually at odds, in part because they were so alike in their temper and stubbornness. But Paul III, who had been a part of the Medici court — as Michelangelo had — liked, respected and supported Michelangelo.

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When Pope Paul III heard that Michelangelo had finished the top part of the wall and was removing scaffolding, he came immediately to see the progress. His reaction was to fall to his knees and pray. The Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, had also come to view The Last Judgement, and his reaction was to call it disgraceful! Da Cesena thought the multitude of nudes were sacrilegious, and he predicted that the wall would someday be destroyed.

Pope Paul III was astonished and angry, and he said that he'd excommunicate anyone who touched the wall.

Biagio da Cesena   |   seidenadvertising.com
Almost immediately, Michelangelo had an assistant stucco the lower right corner of the wall, and he painted da Cesena as Minos, the judge of Hades. Word got back to da Cesena and he demanded another visit, with the Pope in tow. Here, I quote from Irving Stone:

"You see, Holy Father," cried the Master of Ceremonies, "the report was true. Buonarroti has painted me into the fresco. With some kind of repulsive serpent for my genitalia."

"It's a covering," replied Michelangelo. "I knew you would not want to be portrayed wholly naked."

"A remarkable likeness," observed the Pope, his eyes twinkling. "Michelangelo, I thought you said you could not do portraiture?"

"I was inspired, Holiness."

Biagio da Cesena hopped up and down on either foot as though it were he instead of his picture standing over the fires of hell.

"Holiness, make him take me out of there!'

"Out of hell?" the Pope turned surprised eyes on the man. "Had he placed you in purgatory, I should have done everything in my power to release you. But you know that from hell there is no redemption."

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Biagio da Cesena and his followers did launch a campaign which eventually resulted in many little drapes to be added to Michelangelo's figures by another artist, Daniele da Volterra. Thereafter da Volterra was known as "Il Braghettone," or "the breeches maker."

Here's a quotation I found from Michelangelo; it could well be in reference to Biagio da Cesena:

21 comments:

  1. Hello Mark:
    Such an intriguing story. But, as always, one is so overcome by the power and force of Michelangelo's work. One look at the 'portrait' of da Cesena is enough to convince one that one is in the presence of something truly great.

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    1. Hello, Jane and Lance:

      Apparently this is a very close facial likeness of da Cesena, who was known for his very prominent buck teeth. Da Cesena need not have posed, for his image was burned into Michelangelo's mind.

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  2. All that talent AND a sense of humor :-)

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    1. The words, "Don't tread on me!" come to mind.

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  3. I love a bit of artists' revenge and Michelangelo gave it out in spades capturing Monsignor Biagio da Casena forever wearing donkey ears and other rather unpleasant happenings. The old Pope obviously had a keen sense of humour with his quick retort.
    I think that it is important to remember that Michelangelo did not want to paint the chapel - he said I am a sculptor and not a painter, but the Pope was more important and influential so he had no choice.
    Did you know that Michelangelo painted his own face on the sack of skin being held by St. Batholomew - St. Batholomew of course was flayed alive - ghastly deeds.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,

      Irving Stone does in fact mention Michelangelo's self-portrait as the flayed skin. Michelangelo painted it after portraying da Cesena and in response to an attack from someone who was trying to blackmail him (it seems that everyone either admired or attacked him). As he painted his flayed self, and alluding to his portrait of da Cesena, Michelangelo said to his assistant that at least people would see that he was even-handed.

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  4. We can be so overawed by Michelangelo's art that stories like this restore a human perspective. Michelangelo shows the fine-tuning of his wit here--surrounding da Cesena's with all those monstrous faces makes a stronger editorial comment than if he had just distorted da Cesena's own image.

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    1. Hello, Parnassus,

      Yes, I love the fact that all the surrounding monsters are clearly subservient to da Cesena, and the creature at his shoulder ready to do his bidding.

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  5. Interesting and intriguing post, Mark. I love this sort of thing. In many ways Michelangelo is such a mystery figure. But I do remember reading Irving Stone's book....Hmmm, maybe it's time for a re-read. I haven't read Stone in many years. Thanks for reminding me.

    Luckily, Pope Paul III had good taste in art AND a sense of humor.

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    1. Hi, Yvette,

      As I composed this posting, it occured to me that the restorers of the Last Judgement might have had a conversation centering on whether or not to remove the drapes from Michelangelo's figures (I'm sure it would have been possible). But of course, da Volterra's painting is part of history, too.

      Michelangelo had known several popes decades before they reached their throne, and one gets the sense that he was as much a Vatican fixture as they were.

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  6. I liked this post, especially having seen this spectacular and somewhat frightening painting a few times. Your post reminds me of a similar piece of revenge taken, I believe, by either Sir John Vanbrugh or Giovanni Pelegrini, during the decoration of the interior of Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Here the housekeeper who was making life miserable is painted as one of the three ugly Fates, cutting the lengths of thread that represented life!
    I must add here though that I am fairly certain this is at Castle Howard but I may be mistaken.

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    1. Hello, Kirk,

      I hadn't heard that story, but you can be sure that I'll try to track it down. Incidentally, I have combed the internet looking for additional images of da Cesena, and Michelangelo's rendition seems to be the only one that has survived. No doubt that's true for the difficult housekeeper as well.

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  7. Hello Mark, Taking a second look at this post, it struck me that knowing the back story to Michelangelo's depiction of da Cesena and the other demons in hell really brings to life the saying, "The devil is in the details".
    --Jim (at Road to Parnassus)

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    1. And as I study the demons around da Cesena more carefully, I realize that buck teeth abound!!

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  8. I didn't know Michelangelo had such a sense of humor. Revenge, indeed! Thanks for another interesting post, Mark. Between your post and Rosemary's comments, I've learned a bunch here.
    Cheers,
    Loi

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    1. Hi, Loi,

      Thanks for your kind comment! Michelangelo not only had a good sense of humor, but he was also quite a learned man, in large part because Lorenzo the Magnificent brought him into a small circle of scholars and oversaw his education. In whatever spare time he had, Michelangelo also wrote many sonnets.

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  9. What a great post. I loved reading the conversation between the two. Imagine having an ego big enough to argue with the Pope. If I ever got a phone call from His Holiness asking "hey, can you do a little paint job for me?" I already know the answer. Hell yeah!

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    1. If I were the Pope, Alan, you can bet you'd get that call.

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  10. Good to see the banter on this post! Great one , as usual Mark. You are covering some of my favorite topics!

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    1. Hi, Theresa - The more I read about the Last Judgement, the more I am convinced there are hidden messages yet to be discovered.

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