Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Competition at the core of greatness

The fact of the matter is this...competition between artists drove the best art in Italy. There are many great stories about how the artwork was vastly improved when there was a competition to earn the commission. The most famous is likely Brunelleschi v. Ghiberti for the Gates of Paradise. Ghiberti went on to win. The result was two of the most beautiful doors in the world. The loss drove Brunelleschi to create the dome of Florence at the mother church.

Michelangelo competed mostly against himself. At times his competition against other artists was real. He very much wanted to create the pendant for his David, but that commission went to a better aligned artist named Bandinelli. He created his Hercules and Cacus; A marvelous work, but would Michelangelo have done better?

The ebb and flow of political alignment surged through Italy’s power base. Who knew the right rich and powerful patrons? What did the Pope want? Who was whispering into the ears of the decision makers to control who earned the work? This is the basis of many decisions. The entire political structure worked from who you knew, being a courtesan, and raising up the identity of your friends. It is very much like today. Is it any wonder that the Ivy league has so many successful alumni? Is it entirely due to their intelligence (which we cannot fully ignore) or is it that the majority of students come from rich and powerful families who are very well connected?

Bernini and Borrimini are two great examples of how the powerbase worked in Rome. As noted in earlier posts Bernini was very well liked and connected. Borrimini wasn’t liked and the decision makers didn’t like working with him due to his difficult nature. Borrimini didn’t do himself any favors being so disagreeable. There were times, however, when Bernini was out of the circle.

Bernini had an embarrassing failure at Saint Peter’s when his bell towers didn’t have the right foundational support and had to be ripped down. This was a lot of egg on his face. Imagine a world without TV or newspapers as we know them today to spread news. Gossip was king and it could ruin people. It drove Bernini into a category of failure he wasn’t use to at all. This lack of divine light on Bernini opened the door for Borromini to win some important commissions. The powers that be are fickle and if you don’t stroke the right people bad things happen.

Pope Innocent X wanted to decorate Piazza Navona. His family home was on the Piazza along with his family church. Borromini was a respected (although disliked) architect/engineer. The pope asked him to pipe water into the Piazza using some of Ancient Rome’s springs and aqueducts. He successfully did so for the Pope. Then Pope Innocent X wanted a fountain to raise the caliber of the Piazza to Papal standards and change it from a market to a socially graceful Piazza worthy of a Pope. Borromini dreamed up the design of the fountain being built with the four major rivers of the world and went so far as to draw sketches to illustrate his vision.

Bernini was still out of favor, but his allies worked with him to bypass his ill-favor and help him win the commission anyway. At a dinner party with the Pope the model built by Bernini was placed so that the Pope would see it as he walked from room to room. See it the Pope did and fell in love with the design. This was a risk taken by Bernini’s ally and Bernini himself. The commission was given to him. Think of poor Borromini. He built the pipes to bring the water to Piazza Navona, came up with the design, and still lost the commission. Why? Bernini had people working with him behind the scenes and put him in a position to win at every turn.

You always attract more bees with honey. (That would have been a great metaphor if the Pope came from the Barberini family :)). The point of this is simple, the art of Italy is even more beautiful if you understand what happens behind the curtain and that it is always better to be graceful and fully understand who is making the final decision where commissions are concerned.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Borromini - Looking in from the outside.

Borromini – Looking in from the outside

It is quite a strange thing; the power of relationships and who you know carries you much further than raw ability and talent. Take Franceso Borromini for example. He was quite literally a much better trained architect who understood the mathematics and technology behind creating some of Rome’s most beautiful churches, yet he remains relatively unknown to the throngs of tourists that besiege Rome every year. Why? He didn’t play the game. Bernini, on the other, hand was a master courtesan who capitalized on relationships and won the majority of the best commissions during his lifetime even if that meant stealing them.

Borromini was literally despised by the powerbase of Rome. He was irrational, didn’t listen to what the patrons wanted, and was a stubborn man, who thought he and he alone knew best. It put him into a position that forced him to look into the world of art from the outside hoping to win work over better positioned artists with lesser ability, but better connections.

During his lifetime he was trained as an architect by Carlo Maderno and had the privilege of working on Saint Peter’s in Rome. He worked alongside Bernini on the project with Maderno in charge. The two architects were rivals through and through and during their lifetimes pushed each other to even better achievements. Bernini’s came easily where Borromini’s came with a struggle. That is to write that Borromini’s work came easy because he was a masterful architect, but his disagreements in design and execution with his paying patrons and other architects forced him to bitter arguments and disagreements almost daily.

It has been written that Borromini’s work came from his soul. He was a devout Catholic and his devotion was delivered in his architecture. One of his best works is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. It was built for free by Borromini for the religious order of Barefoot Trinitarians. The dome of the church is a sight that should make any itinerary. Borromini uses some core geometric figures as a religious metaphor: the triangle and the circle. The triangle represents the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The circle represents the eternity of God.

“These figures and images are everywhere in San Carlo(ino), and they reach their figurative and literal zenith in the dome itself. Looking up from the center of the church, a visitor sees a dove, its wings outstretched, enclosed in a triangle, which in turn is surrounded by a circle. Borromini placed a potent symbol of God surrounded by the Trinity and the Infinite at the pointin the church closest to Heaven. It is a stirring reminder of the order’s and Borromini’s faith.”

The others of his most famous works are Saint John Laterano and Saint Agnes in Agony. Saint John is the official church of the Papacy in Rome. This was a huge commission for Borromini. Saint Agnes was done for the Pamphili family and Pope Innocent X.

During the work on Saint John a worker was found murdered and Borromini took the brunt of the blame. The Pope had to intervene to insure that his punishment wasn’t too severe so he could continue work on the project. He didn’t commit the murder, but it was on his watch. Saint Agnes is eternally harassed by Bernini from his fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. The statue with his hand being repelled by the church and covering his face is said to be Bernini’s final argument against the work of Borromini. Whether it is true or not remains a mystery. You should decide for yourself when you visit the Piazza.

Borromini, after a long and difficult life, fell on his own sword. He died alone and unloved. His works are his children and his gift to us. It is who you know not what you know that leads to success and a life of leisure.

Be sure to visit San Carlo, Saint John, and Saint Agnes in Rome to experience a delightful view of a master’s mind and what comes of raw ability in spite of a lack of powerful friends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shakespeare couldn't make this stuff up!

Gian Lorenzo Bernini is one of Italy's most famous artists. He has created some of the finest works, for the finest families, at some of the finest locations in Rome. He was truly a courtesan. His connections to powerful families earned him commissions he, by rights, shouldn't have earned. That isn't to write he wasn't worthy, but inexperienced in certain specialties like architecture.

Most people are aware of his competition with the lesser connected Borromini. This stemmed from Borromini being the superior architect. Even so, Bernini often won commissions over Borromini due to his connections. It really comes down to who you know.

During the Barberini Papacy Bernini could do no wrong and won any commission he wanted due to the Pope pulling strings or hiring him outright for work for the Church. More on his connections in a different post. This post is about love and murder.

Many people know about the pain of love, the agony of love, the kind of love that drives us all insane. It forces us to do things we wouldn't otherwise dream of doing. This is true even for a genius like Bernini. You can't make this stuff up...the great Bernini was caught up in a love triangle that Shakespeare would envy.

Bernini by his own admission was a man who had "great inclination to pleasure." Bernini was having an affair with Costanza Bonarelli who was married to Matteo Bonarelli, one of Bernini's assistants. Bernini was open about his affair. Some think she was the model of Divine Love for Pope Urban's tomb.

Bernini heard a rumor that his brother Luigi was also having an affair with his Costanza. One day, Bernini lied to his brother stating that he was going to the country. Instead, he went to Constanta’s house to spy on her and to see if his brother would show up. Sure enough he saw his brother leaving Costanza's house, with her kissing him as he left.

Bernini followed his brother to St. Peter's and attacked him with a crowbar. He ruthlessly beat him intent on killing him. It is likely a combination of being humiliated as well as the love he felt for Costanza. Luigi escaped with two broken ribs and a hell of a beating. It doesn't stop here. The next day Bernini ordered his servant to go to Costanza’s house and cut her with a razor. Bernini wanted to insure that she wouldn't appeal to another man. The funny thing is Bernini was mad that she cheated on him, but he was having an affair with a married woman and was shocked when she strayed even further? In her bed Costanza was cut with a razor. Bernini once again attempted to attack his brother with a sword. He escaped into Santa Maria Maggiore.

The Pope intervened and lessened the charges. Bernini was forced to pay a fine. Luigi left Rome and was replaced at St. Peter's as a superintendent on the commission. The Pope absolved Bernini due to his excellence in art.

A bust of Costanza is now in Florence. It is thought that Costanza's likeness was used in Bernini's Medusa at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mannerism, The Rape of the Sabines, & Giambologna

One of the first works of art to be started and complete without a patron. This beautiful sculpture is at home in the Loggia of Florence. It has a prominent spot at the front right. With its twisting figures, raw emotion, and grace it is a proud pendant to the Perseus of Cellini.

The sculpture was created by Giambologna. It is named the Rape of the Sabines, but it didn't start out that way. Giambologna was a student at the Art Academy in Florence and wanted to prove his technical skill with multifigured sculpture and complex narrative. This was only allowed because he was a student who was to learn the art of sculpture free of direction and traditional convention. This is the painting that, more or less, kicked off Mannerist sculpture.

First how the sculpture landed in the Loggia. When Giambologna completed his masterpiece Cosimo I's son Grand Duke Ferdinand I saw it and decided then and there that it should be added to the Loggia. This was a huge deal. Consider the artwork and sculpture of Florence and you'll get a sense of how important it was to even be considered for placement in the Loggia.

The powerbase of Florence discussed what the work repressented...what was the narrative of the work? A few things came to mind. First, it was considered to repressent Andromeda, the wife of Perseus, to tie it to Cellini's work and complete the narrative theme of the Loggia's statues. That didn't really fly. I'm not sure why since it would have worked. Raffaello Borghini, a member of the Academy, offered the Sabines as its narrative and it stuck.

The story of the Sabines is about the founding of Rome. The Roman's needed more women to grow the Eternal City's population. As the Romans often did they took what they needed from neighbors. This is no different. They took the Sabine women by force (they did ask first, but were denied) and brought them back to Rome. The statue repressents the sacking. It isn't actually a statue of rape, but it does conjur up the image rather well.

This is one of the more photographed statues in Florence due to its location in the Loggia. The next time you see it in a photoalbum you can tell them the artistic and historical story.