Friday, February 01, 2008

Art Review | 'Michelangelo, Vasari and Their Contemporaries'

Artistic Muscle, Flexed for Medicis

"The Punishment of Titius" by Poppi, Uffizi

The New York Times
Published: February 1, 2008

Michelangelo was a terrible kvetch. His back forever ached; popes were slow with the paychecks; the local food was always an insult, a disgrace. No one worked half as hard as he did, and slacker artists made him nuts. “Draw, Antonio; draw, Antonio; draw and don’t waste time,” he scrawled on a sketch he gave to a lackadaisical young pupil and studio assistant, Antonio Mini, in 1524.

He gave Mini many drawings — two trunks full, according to one account — as he did to several other pretty men he taught. You’ll find a choice example from the Mini cache — a stormy, swirling study of a muscular male leg — in “Michelangelo, Vasari and Their Contemporaries: Drawings From the Uffizi” at the Morgan Library & Museum. That sketch is just one of 79 16th-century Florentine works, shaped into a thematic exhibition that would give even the fault-finding master scant cause for complaint.

"The Capture of Vicopisano" (circa 1563-65) by Giovanni Stradanus, Uffizi

For Michelangelo drawing was the most practical and personal medium; it was a laboratory, a diary, an end in itself. If you could do a perfect drawing, he came to think, why bother to turn it into a painting or sculpture? Perfection in any form was the goal. One of the most famously perfect drawings he made, “Bust of a Woman, Head of an Old Man and Bust of a Child,” is in this show.

Of the three figures, the woman is the most vivid and polished. With her chiseled features bordering on masculine, her breast-baring gown and horned helmet of braids, she blends Renaissance neo-Classicism with proto-Mannerist fantasy. She looks completely at home in the mannerist phase of our own postmodernism, and was hugely influential in her time. Everyone wanted to make art this good and this strange.

“Bust of a Woman, Head of an Old Man and Bust of a Child” by Michelangelo, Uffizi

The matter of influence is important. It is one reason that 16th-century Florence is usually cast in art history books as something like the Age of Michelangelo and the Michelangelettes, or Michelangelini if you prefer, referring to the many students and emulators who toiled in his shadow. The title of the Morgan show seems to echo this interpretation, though the curator, Annamaria Petrioli Tofani, a former director of the Uffizi in Florence, has done something more interesting. Through her selection of artists she has drawn a picture of Florentine art not as a heroic, strictly top-down hierarchy but as a collective endeavor. This was exemplified by the decorative plan organized by Giorgio Vasari for the Palazzo Vecchio, the hulking fortress-palace in the center of Florence that had been city hall since the 14th century and later a Medici residence.

Heroes come first, though. Among them was Jacopo Carucci, called Pontormo (1494-1556), who zealously scrutinized Michelangelo’s work, then took it in a new direction — away from a reliance on natural forms — to create an intensely personal, conceptual style known as Mannerism. In Pontormo’s hallucinatory altarpiece of the Entombment at Santa Felicita in Florence, mourning figures float around the body of Jesus like a funerary wreath of pink and blue clouds. We are in the zero-gravity realm of mind and spirit, not on earth.

"Male Figure Seated on a Stool" (1555–65) by Giorgio Vasari, Uffizi

At the Morgan two side-by-side studies of a seated male on a single sheet of paper illustrate the transition between these realms. The figure in red chalk on the right looks grounded enough; the figure in black chalk on the left, though, is a snarl of snaking lines. It’s as if Pontormo were drawing a constantly moving model and trying to record each motion in an overlaid stop-action sequence. We don’t see a solid figure; we see the vapor trails of moving atoms.

Pontormo was a difficult character who ended up living in paranoid isolation. But for art as a record of neurosis, nothing quite compares with the work of his exact contemporary, Giovan Battista di Jacopo, known as Rosso Fiorentino, or the Redheaded Florentine, who all but erased the line between spirituality and satire.

A Rosso drawing of the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints is a brittle, twisting affair of posturing figures in a depthless space. It looks the way Gesualdo’s music sounds. It could be sincerely devotional; it could be a satire of devotion. More peculiar still is a presumably secular image of a nude woman sketched on an oddly cut sheet of paper. Is she pregnant, or just out of shape? Or does she represent a foreign, Gothic standard of beauty? (Dürer was hot in cinquecento Florence.) And what act or thought has prompted her look of languidly shocked distress?

Michelangelo's drawing of a leg, Uffizi

We’ll probably never know, just as we’ll never know where piety ends and devilry starts in Rosso’s religious art, or what led to his death, reportedly a suicide, in 1540.

With younger artists, like Bronzino (1503-72), we are in a more consciously stylized Mannerist phase. The subjective energies that charged the drawing of Rosso and Pontormo are all but gone. In their place we have the chilled, expensive exquisiteness of a court art. A Bronzino drawing of a buff male nude might as easily have been based on a sculpture as on a live model. It appears to be made of stone rather than flesh.

What links all of these artists is patronage. Each of them at one time or another worked for the Medici family, the ruling dynasty of Florence. And each of them, early or late, contributed to the decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio. And by focusing on this link Ms. Tofani transforms the show from a survey of Uffizi treasures into a concentrated historical essay, one in which Vasari (1511-74) assumes a leading role. Vasari is best known now for his “ Lives of the Artists,” the series of biographical essays that supply much of our firsthand knowledge of Italian Renaissance art from Giotto onward. But he was admired in his day as a cultural polymath, a painter, architect and writer who was also an entrepreneurial art-world insider.

Rosso Fiorentino's depiction of the Virgin and Child, Uffizi

He was a familiar type, one common in New York today. Professionally and socially ambitious, he made his way with shrewd judgment, acquired sophistication and engaging but dissembling charm, the charm of a back patter who is also a backbiter. His artistic talents were broad but thin, made up of well-schooled expertise and a knack for imitation. Because he lacked originality, he could mold himself to the needs of any patron, and he became house artist to rulers of the era.

It was largely for his connections that Cosimo I, the Medici grand duke of Tuscany, hired Vasari in 1555 to bring some order to the decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio interior. With a handpicked crew of artisans, Vasari began replacing the accumulation of older, piecemeal works — Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Pontormo and Rosso had all contributed to the palace — with a unified visual program that was essentially a walk-in piece of Medici propaganda.

Vasari was also a chief painter of the new scheme, and an entire wall of the Morgan’s gallery is devoted to his drawings, some for the Palazzo Vecchio. They range from sketches for an allegorical ceiling design to a swooning study for an altarpiece to a worked-up image of the young Cosimo dressed in Roman armor and lording it over his political foes.

"Male Nude Seen from Behind" (1540–46) by Bronzino, Uffizi

To see so many Vasari drawings — there are 14 — makes for an interesting study in personal style, mostly because none is apparent. You can tell a Pontormo or Rosso at a glance. To scan a dozen Vasaris is to see a dozen artists, all related, all slightly different, some more imaginative than others.

This also applies to the selection of drawings by several artists who worked under Vasari on the Palazzo Vecchio, in the majestic civic halls or in the Mannerist jewel box called the Studiolo. Some of these artists are familiar to even beginning students of art history. Alessandro Allori, who had studied Michelangelo’s work in Rome, is one; Santi di Tito, leader of an anti-Mannerist, return-to-naturalism movement, is another. His murmurous art — a sketch of a sleeping child is as soft as a lullaby — stands out in a room of operatic voices.

Not all the artists display such assurance. Girolamo Macchietti (1535-92) had a fabulous hand, but could made mistakes. In his study of a male figure made for the Studiolo, the left leg is, to my eye, slightly off; it doesn’t quite belong to the body it’s attached to.

Vasari's depiction of the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi

Michelangelo, of course, would have spotted this in a flash and delivered a rebuke. (Draw, Girolamo, draw!) And he might have had problems with another Michelangelino, a whippersnapper named Francesco Morandini (1544-97), known as Poppi, at least until he saw the drawing titled “The Punishment of Titius” in the Morgan show.

It is Poppi’s copy, exacting, almost stroke for stroke, of a drawing that Michelangelo had done decades earlier, in 1532, as a gift for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, his inamorato at the time. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but copying is also a form of love, as Michelangelo knew. “Poppi?” you can almost hear him say, “He’s young. He’s got a lot to learn. But the kid’s all right.”

“Michelangelo, Vasari and Their Contemporaries: Drawings From the Uffizi” runs through April 20 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, (212) 685-0008;

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