Art historians generally relate this group of figures portrayed in Michelangelo’s Last Testament fresco to the angels mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and “the seven trumpets given to the seven angels who stand in the presence of God” (Rev 8 : 2).
However, for a particular reason, Michelangelo instead depicted eight angels with trumpets, the odd one out being the angel wearing the purple drape placed on the extreme right of the group. At first glance it appears that this angel has a violin tucked under his chin, but closer inspection reveals the instrument is a trumpet. The double-take was intentional on Michelangelo’s part and yet another reference to Leonardo da Vinci, said to have been an accomplished player of the “lira da brachia”, literally an “arm lyre”.
The sounds emanating from both instruments, the trumpet and lyre, are caused by vibration – a buzzing of lips on the trumpet and pulsating strings on the lyre. This connects to another distinct feature Michelangelo portrayed on his “extra angel” – his golden head of hair which is shaped and coloured to represent a buzzing swarm of wasps or bees.
While none of Leonardo’s eight angels are shown to have any conventional wings to flap or vibrate, the purple wrap around this particular angel is meant to suggest the shape of a bird with one of its wings extended.
The angel is placed facing the “damned man” and his demons with his focus on the horned devil. The angel’s trumpet-cum-horn is also positioned as a device to make a connection with the “damned man” feature.
In my previous post about Michelangelo’s Last Judgement I explained that the configuration of the “damned man” and attached demons was partly inspired by a scene featured in another Sistine Chapel fresco – The Trials of Moses painted by Sandro Botticelli.
However, the attributes mentioned about the trumpeting eighth angel, coupled with others found in the “damned man“ group, were all borrowed and recycled by Michelangelo from another painting by Sandro Botticelli – Venus and Mars, which is now housed in the National Gallery, London.
The models for Venus and Mars are Simonetta Vespucci and Leonardo da Vinci, while the four young satyrs represent Sandro Botticelli and his three brothers, Giovanni, Simone and Antonio. Sandro is the satyr encased in the cuirass generally assumed to belong to the sleeping figure of Mars, the Roman god of war. But compare his chest size and it is very obvious the small, barrel-shaped cuirass was not designed to fit Mars but is a pointer to Sandro’s identity – Botticelli meaning “little barrel”.
Art historian Lightbown explains in his book, Sandro Botticelli Life and Work, that “The poses of Mars and Venus were inspired directly or indirectly by a relief of Bacchus and Ariadne on an antique sarcophagus – one now in the Vatican has been claimed as their direct source.” (see image below)
Botticelli helped paint some of the Sistine Chapel frescoes in 1481, so was this a time and opportunity for him to observe the sarcophagus that would later inspire him to produce the Venus and Mars panel painting?
Another take on this is that his Mars figure may also represent Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in the Duomo Cathedral of Florence on April 26, 1478 – two years to the day after Simonetta Vespucci died in 1476 at the young age of 22.
The relationship between Giuliano and Simonetta was said to have been platonic – a courtly love. On January 29, 1475, Giuliano entered a jousting tournament and carried a standard bearing the image of Simonetta portrayed as Pallas Athene which had been painted by Botticelli.
Lightbown describes the standard and its symbolism in great detail – his source being the Florentine court poet Angelo Poliziano and his poem La Giostra, written after Simonetta’s death – and which in part states that “beneath her helmet of burnished metal […] her hair, elaborately braided and ornamented, fluttered in the wind. She held a jousting lance in her right hand and the shield of Medusa in her left and gazed fixedly into the sun, which shone above her at the top of the banner.”
Lightbown adds that when Giuliano entered the tournament field he was followed by “a great troop of horsemen, friends, relatives, retainers, with three pipers, a trumpeter, and two drummers”. Seemingly this part of Poliziano’s poem was taken up by Botticelli and applied to the four satyrs who can be recognised as horsemen and relatives, even retainers working for the Medici family, as well as pipers and a trumpeter. The reference to two drummers is applied to the two hollow boughs of the tree that Mars rests against.
Simonetta’s “helmet of burnished metal” is worn by the satyr nearest her and tucked behind the lance’s buckle or shield. Notice the sun’s reflection in the helmet and the the gaze of Venus fixed on the highlight. Yes, Venus, aka, Simonetta, is also presented as Medusa whose gaze can turn men into stone.
Later in Poliziano’s poem Mars, aka Giuliano, “sees in a dream his lady Simonetta wearing the armour of Pallas over a gown whose whiteness is itself a symbol of chastity, and protecting her breast against the arrows of love with the head of Medusa, With stern and angry face she binds Cupid to the olive tree of Pallas, plucks feathers from his wings and breaks his bows and arrows. Cupid in tears, calls on Giuliano for compassion and aid. But Giuliano answers that he can give no aid, for his lady wears the armour of Pallas, and his spirits are quelled by the terrible Gorgon head and by her countenance and helm and glittering lance. Then Cupid bids him lift up his eyes to the resplendent sun of Glory, which will kindle the courage in his breast and expel all cowardice from it. Glory descends, despoils his lady of the arms of Pallas, and clothes him in in them. Thus armed he wins the joust.”
(Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli Life and Work, pp 64-65)
There isn’t a Cupid in sight in the Venus and Mars painting but in actual fact Botticelli, punning on his identity as a satyr, is referring to the portrayal of himself as Cupid in another of his paintings, Primavera. It is said that Botticelli held an unrequited love for Simonetta. The Vespucci family were neighbours of his and may have even commissioned the Venus and Mars painting. Poliziano’s mention of Cupid calling on Giuliano for compassion and aid – for protection from the onslaught of Medusa from the fiery arrows of love despatched by Botticelli in the direction of Simonetta, explains why the artist has enclosed himself in the cuirass supposedly belonging to Giuliano.
Notice Simonetta’s “stern and angry face” and the light shining on the face of Giuliano, his eyes lifted up to “the resplendent sun of Glory”.
The name Vespucci translates as “little wasps”, symbolised on the family’s “stemma” or coat of arms, hence the wasps featured buzzing around the head of the sleeping figure of Mars/Giuliano/Leonardo. Wasp motifs also feature on the figure of Venus/Pallas/Medusa/Simonetta as a hair braid and the plaited collar of her gown. The Medusa attributes can be recognised in her hair’s snake tails, and the shield shape of the red cushion under her right arm, similar in shape to a snake head. The protective shield-cum-cushion mirrors the protective cuirass-cum-cushion in the opposite corner of the painting).
So why did Botticelli use the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci to portray the figure of Mars/Giuliano? A terracotta bust of Giuliano de Medici, sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio, is kept at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. It shows Giuliano wearing body armour – a cuirass.
The front displays a Medusa-type gorgon modelled on the face of a screaming Leonardo da Vinci. Instead of snakes protruding from the head it is encased by feathered wings. The NGA suggests that the bust may have been sculpted to celebrate the occasion of Giuliano’s victory in the joust of January 1475. If this was so, it may also explain one of the reasons why Botticelli modelled the figure of Mars/Giuliano on Leonardo da Vinci.
The cuirass connection also points to another scenario – the assassination of Giuliano de Medici. On the day he was murdered in the Duomo on Easter Sunday, 1478, two of his assassins accompanied Giuliano to the Cathedral, supporting him on the way as he was suffering from a bout of sciatica. In reality, the two men with their arms around Giuliano, were checking to see if he was wearing a corset of any kind for protection. He wasn’t. Midway through Mass his assassins struck. Bandini Baroncelli plunged a dagger into Giuliano’s chest and Francesco de Pazzi continually stabbed him after he had fallen. Nineteen wounds were inflicted on Giuliano’s body.
• My next post will show how Michelangelo embedded features from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars painting in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement fresco.