In an earlier post I explained that Giorgio Vasari, in his painting of the Battle of Marciano, portrayed Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as two musketeers standing side by side.
I revealed in another post how Vasari placed references in the scene to Leonardo’s painting, Lady with an Ermine, and also intimated that other works attributed to Leonardo were referenced, namely the Mona Lisa and the Salvatore Mundi.
One painting for sure that Vasari utilised in the battle scene was Leonardo’s Annunciation.
I was intending to use this post to explain the connections Vasari made to The Annunciation, but having examined Leonardo’s painting in more detail, I shall delay on that and instead reveal some surprising embedded elements not normally recognised with what is said to be the earliest extant painting produced by Leonardo.
Botticelli had knowledge of the underlying detail. He made reference to it in the Uffizi version of The Adoration of the Magi. So did Vasari in the Battle of Marciano.
Having identified one of the musketeers in the foreground of Vasari’s Battle of Marciano fresco as representing Leonardo da Vinci, and linking this likeness to Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I can now reveal further evidence that the soldier pouring powder into the barrel of his musket is portrayed as Leonardo.
The identification is linked to Leonardo’s painting known as Lady with an Ermine. The woman is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The painting is dated 1489-91 and is now housed in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.
The ermine or stoat excretes a strong, musky odour when excited. Musk scents were used to ward off more unpleasant smells. For instance, burnt gunpowder can smell like rotten eggs caused by sulphur dioxide gas. Vasarai linked the word musk with musket and borrowed elements from Leonardo’s painting to illustrate the connection in a novel way.
Wikipedia describes Musk as “a greasy secretion with a powerful odour, produced in a glandular sac in the abdomen of a male musk deer and used in traditional medicines and formerly in the manufacture of perfumes… It has a substance of a reddish brown colour, and when fresh the consistency of honey.”
This colour description can be recognised in the clothes of the two musketeers. The red vent and honey-coloured trim on the woman’s sleeve can be likened to the similar colours and vents on Leonardo’s pantaloons, while the white leg of Michelangelo, the soldier alongside Leonardo, can be matched to the colour of the ermine or stoat, the vents as secretions.
Leonardo’s musket is another representation of the ermine’s long body (the barrel) and short legs (the stock). The trigger is shaped as the ermine’s rounded ear. The woman’s black beads around her neck can be interpreted as a mix of black powder and musket balls that Leonardo is pouring down the throat of the musket.
Notice Leonardo’s hand gripping the musket’s barrel and his two cropped fingers. The hand appears to be shaped as a heart and the trimmed fingers as blood vessels entering the heart.
Here Vasari has not only referenced drawings of the heart made by Leonardo, but connected the shortened fingers to the left hand of Cecilia Gallerani hidden beneath her right arm. This feature is not very clear on the original painting and I’ve lightened the area in the reproduction alongside. Perhaps Cecilia’s right hand can be interpreted as having her hand on her heart.
The study and placement of hands was important to Leonardo in his work. Vasari knew this and highlighted another example of “by the hand of Leonardo” in this group of two musketeers. More on this in a future post.
• The name Gallerina connects to the word “galleria” or gallery. The long barrel of the musket, or the long body of the ermine, can be linked to read “long gallery”, the famous kilometre-long corridor designed by Giorgio Vasari that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Patti. At the time of its construction the meat market of Ponte Vecchio was moved to avoid its smell reaching into the passage. The Uffizi Museum section of the Vasari Corridor houses some of its famous paintings.
Just why did Giorgio Vasari embed so many bearded look-a-likes in his Battle of Marciano fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio? A clue can be found in a similar motif, the rows of round-helmeted soldiers lined up as peas in a pod, appearing to be cast from the same mould. Musket balls, maybe?
The musket-ball motif can link to the two men firing muskets in the section of the painting I pointed out in my previous post, the “Sons of Thunder”, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Leonardo is depicted as one of the many bearded look-a-likes.
That Leonardo is placed shoulder-to-shoulder with Michelangelo is for a reason. Vasari has utilised a similar motif from one of the most famous fresco scenes in the world – The Creation of Adam – that forms part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo.
In making this connection Vasari revealed, quite intentionally, and confirmed in another section of the Marciano fresco, that Michelangelo’s portrayal of God is, in fact, Leonardo da Vinci!
The angel portrayed behind God’s right shoulder is Michelangelo. Another artist portrayed in the “pod” is Sandro Botticelli. Here, Michelangelo, like Vasari, referenced paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo to create this scene, and I shall explain more about this in a future post.
“God created Man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.…” (Genesis 1 : 27), which explains the bearded men motif in the Vasari fresco, all made in the image of God.
But was Vasari pointing to another scenario, and two more famous paintings associated with Leonardo: the Mona Lisa, and the portrait of Christ known as Salvatore Mundi?
Some art researchers have hypothesised that Leonardo is the model for both paintings – “male and female he created them.”
Now the sun’s gone to hell And the moon’s riding high Let me bid you farewell Every man has to die But it’s written in the starlight And every line in your palm We’re fools to make war On our brothers in arms
This scene from the Battle of Marciano, frescoed by Giorgio Vasari on the East wall of the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, is said to cover an earlier fresco by Leonardo de Vinci depicting the Battle of Anghiari.
At that time Leonardo was battling with another artist, Michelangelo, who had been commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina on the opposite West wall. The two artists did not see eye to eye. Both were critical of each other’s work and seemingly verbally aggressive to each other. And yet both were blessed with amazing artistic talents. Brothers in arms so to speak.
Vasari depicted both men in several ways in his Marciano fresco, even as brothers in arms, matching them to the brothers James and John, who Jesus referred to as “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3 : 17).
In the clip below, Vasari portrays Leonardo (left) and Michelangelo as musket men standing side by side – “Sons of Thunder”. Notice the plumes on their helmets continuing their personal battle. Leonardo’s plume is portrayed as an ape, a reference to his claim that monkeys and humans are close cousins; Michelangelo’s plume is portrayed as an aggressive cockerel, a subtle reference to the uncompromising display of genitalia on his famous statue of David (who battled against Goliath) and other works of nudity that were later covered over after Church authorities deemed them offensive.
This narrative of twinning and covering up extends to other parts of Vasari’s painting. More on this in a future post.
In a post made last month, I pointed out the Dante death mask feature on the peak of a cavalryman’s helmet. A similar feature appears on another rider’s helmet and is meant to represent the head of a faun, the sculpture that Michelangelo is said to have made as his first piece of work in the garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Head of a Faun is a lost sculpture by Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo, dating from c. 1489. His first known work of sculpture in marble, it was sculpted when he was 15 or 16 as a copy of an antique work with some minor alterations. According to Giorgio Vasari’s biography of the artist, it was the creation of this work that secured the young Michelangelo the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
“[Michelangelo] set himself to counterfeit from a piece of marble an antique head of a Faun that was there, old and wrinkled, which had the nose injured and the mouth laughing. Michelagnolo, who had never yet touched marble or chisels, succeeded so well in counterfeiting it, that the Magnificent Lorenzo was astonished; and then, perceiving that, departing from the form of the antique head, he had opened out the mouth after his own fancy and had made a tongue, with all the teeth showing, that lord, jesting pleasantly, as was his wont, said to him, “Surely you should have known that old folks never have all their teeth, and that some are always wanting.” It appeared to Michelagnolo, in his simplicity, both fearing and loving that lord, that he had spoken the truth; and no sooner had Lorenzo departed than he straightway broke one of the teeth and hollowed out the gum, in such a manner, that it seemed as if the tooth had dropped out. And then he awaited with eagerness the return of the Magnificent Lorenzo, who, when he had come and had seen the simplicity and excellence of Michelagnolo, laughed at it more than once, relating it as a miracle to his friends.”
Can it be a coincidence that both cavalrymen are almost identical in facial features? Other riders in Vasari’s painting of the Battle of Marciano are also closely matched with these men as if they are made from the same mould? What could be the reason for this? Was Vasari insinuating that Dante’s death mask and the faun mask, were replicated at times? Certainly the Dante mask displayed in the Palazzo Vecchio and pictured above is a plaster copy. The Head of the Faun was the property of the Bargello Museum in Florence, but looted in August 1944 by Nazi troops.
“Counterfeiting” or emulating, or copying, is a theme that appears throughout the Marciano battle scene. Take, for instance, the repetition of files of soldiers in the painting, and Vasari’s mention of Bandinelli copying Michelanglo’s cartoon, and Daniele Volterra adapting some of Michelangelo’s drawings for his own use. Vasari, himself, also relied on portraits painted by other artists as references in his work.
Pairings and couplings are a significant feature of Vasari’s Battle of Marciano fresco. In a previous posts I pointed out the pairing of Dante Alighieri and Virgil, his guide through the Divine Comedy’s first two parts, Inferno and Purgatorio.
Another pairing is the artist himself, Giorgio Vasari, the knight featured in the bottom right corner of the frame with his head turned to the viewer. He applied a second identity to the figure, the sculptor and painter Baccio Bandinelli; the connection being that Vasari was once a pupil in Bandinelli’s workshop.
“It was at this time that the cartoon of Michael Angelo in the Council Hall was uncovered [depicting the Battle of Cascina], and all the artists ran to copy it, and Baccio among others. He went more frequently than any one, having counterfeited the key of the chamber. In the year 1512, Piero Soderini was deposed and the house of Medici reinstated. In the tumult, therefore, Baccio, being by himself, secretly cut the cartoon into several pieces.
“Some said he did it that he might have a piece of the cartoon always near him, and others that he wanted to prevent other youths from making use of it; others again say that he did it out of affection for Lionardo da Vinci, or from the hatred he bore to Michael Angelo. The loss anyhow to the city was no small one, and Baccio’s fault very great.”
Seemingly Michelangelo never forgot this act of vandalism and Bandinelli’s continued malice against him and others. Years later, when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, he made sure that Bandinelli’s “crime” was recorded in the fresco, and in a similar way Vasari later represented his tutor as a second identity applied to a single figure.
In a previous post I explained how Michelangelo referenced his feud with Leonardo da Vinci. I wrote:
“…Michelangelo never actually put paint on the wall, although he did complete cartoons in preparation, as he was summoned by Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the Last Judgement. Leonardo did start to paint but encountered technical difficulties with the materials he used. It is said that because the paint or wall coating was mixed with a wax substance parts of the fresco eventually started to slide down the wall. Leonardo abandoned the project and returned to Milan.
Michelangelo was more than aware of Leonardo’s misfortune and continued the feud by referencing in a most unusual and abiding way in the Last Judgment fresco what had happened to his adversary.
Seated on a cloud at the feet of Christ is the bulky figure of St Bartholomew. He is one of many muscular men in the scene. Leonardo didn’t have a good word to say about Michelangelo’s figures. He once described them as looking like sacks of walnuts. Hence Bartholomew holding his flayed carcass, devoid of body parts and looking like an empty sack of walnuts. Michelangelo even went to the extent of painting his own face on the carcass, distorted and seemingly slipping downwards. An obvious reference to Leonardo’s failed fresco sliding down the wall and a retort to the cutting remark made two decades before about muscles and walnuts!”
Michelangelo also likened the carcass to the cartoon he prepared and laid over the wall on which he was commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina, later mutilated and cut into pieces by Bandinelli. So how does this connect to the figure of St Bartholomew? Bandinelli’s birth name was Bartolomeo (Bartholomew) Brandini.
A further connection made by Michelangelo was the second identity given to the figure of Bartholomew, that of Pietro Aretino, an influential writer and critic, and a “lover of men” who declared himself a sodomite since birth. Considered by some to be a blackmailer, he criticised the Last Judgement fresco in an open letter dated November 1545, and reminded Michelangelo he had promised to send him some of his drawings. This request may have been made in an earlier letter sent in January 1538. Michelangelo completed the Last Judgement in 1441.
Aretino wanting drawings by Michelangelo paralleled the desire of Bandinelli copying and eventually cutting up the cartoon drawings prepared for frescoing the Battle of Cascina. It is theme that Vasari links to two other identities portrayed in his Marciano battle scene – Daniele Volterra and Tommaso dei Cavalieri – shown below.
Volterra (left), a close friend of Michelangelo, was the painter assigned to overpaint and cover some of the nude features in the Last Judgement fresco. He also utilised many of Michelangelo’s drawings to produce some of his own paintings, most notably The Descent from the Cross frescoed in the church of Trinità dei Monti, Rome. (More about this and how it connects to Vasari’s Battle of Marciano fresco in a future post).
Tommaso Cavalieri, the figure with his right hand raised, was the platonic lover of Michelangelo. They first met in 1523. Michelangelo was 57 years old at the time; Tommaso, about 20. Vasari wrote about four drawings which Michelangelo produced and gifted to Cavalieri, two of which were a pair: “…a Ganymede rapt to Heaven by Jove’s Eagle, a Tityus with the Vulture devouring his heart…”
The name Cavalieri connects with the cavalier on the horse mounted by the dual identities of Vasari and Bandinelli. Features of the vulture and eagle are paired on the representation of Cavalieri. Face on is the moustache and beak features (the peaked hat). Tommaso’s left shoulder is shaped as the yellow beak of an eagle and points to the devoured heart in the shape of a red shield. However, in Michelangelo’s drawing it is the vulture who devours the heart.
So how are Tityus and Ganymede depicted? They are paired as the bloodied kneeling figure, face down on the ground. The figure also represents another pairing: Aeneas from Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Michelangelo.
This detail is taken from the bottom right corner of the Giorgio Vasari fresco that depicts the Battle of Marciano displayed on the East wall of the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio.
Vasari erected a wall in front of Leonardo’s commission so as not to paint directly onto the earlier battle scene, but in doing so, and in order to preserve and pay tribute to the polymath’s abandoned fresco, he embedded cryptic references to the Battle of Anghiari on this corner section of his own own fresco.
The scene also makes reference to Michelangelo who was also commissioned to paint a battle fresco on the opposite wall in the Hall of Five Hundred around the same time Leonardo started working on the Battle Anghiari. The two artists were seen to be competing against each other – there was no love lost between the pair – and so, in a sense, it can be said they were also engaged in battle with each other and themselves.
As it was, Michelangelo never actually put paint on the wall, although he did complete cartoons in preparation, as he was summoned by Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the Last Judgement. Leonardo did start to paint but encountered technical difficulties with the materials he used. It is said that because the paint or wall coating was mixed with a wax substance parts of the fresco eventually started to slide down the wall. Leonardo abandoned the project and returned to Milan.
Michelangelo was more than aware of Leonardo’s misfortune and continued the feud by referencing in a most unusual and abiding way in the Last Judgment fresco what had happened to his adversary.
Seated on a cloud at the feet of Christ is the bulky figure of St Bartholomew. He is one of many muscular men in the scene. Leonardo didn’t have a good word to say about Michelangelo’s figures. He once described them as looking like sacks of walnuts. Hence Bartholomew holding his flayed carcass, devoid of body parts and looking like an empty sack of walnuts. Michelangelo even went to the extent of painting his own face on the carcass, distorted and seemingly slipping downwards. An obvious reference to Leonardo’s failed fresco sliding down the wall and a retort to the cutting remark made two decades before about muscles and walnuts!.
In Vasari’s corner scene the figure on its knees represents both Michelangelo and Leonardo.
Leonardo is also represented in the figures of the two men cowering beneath the horse. A second identity Vasari applied to the bearded man with his hand outstretched Is Tommaso Cavalieri, a friend of Michelangelo. The second identity of the man looking up at the horseshoe was also a friend of Michelangelo – Daniele da Volterra.
I shall explain how Vasari pieced these identities together in a future post.
This post presents more details about Vasari’s marriage scene between Henry, Duke of Orleans, and Catherine de’ Medici, and how it was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting.
The male and female mythology figures, Saturn and his consort sister Ops, placed at the right edge of Vasari’s picture, simulate the pairing of Zephyr and Chloris in Primavera, with one head turned and another looking down, except the male and female roles are reversed. Their disguised identities in both paintings are Leonardo da Vinci and Fioretta Gorini. Yes, Fioretta appears more than once in each work, and there are several references to Leonardo embedded in both, too.
A third level of identities given to the pair is Adam and Eve. This introduces another painter into the scenario, Michelangelo, and is a pointer to one of the ceiling scenes he painted in the Sistine Chapel. I shall post about this connection at another time.
Michelangelo appears in Vasari’s marriage scene and is placed at the extreme left of the painting, depicted as the Archangel Michael – hence the arch shape of the frame next to the figure. Note also the frame’s arch connected to Saturn and Ops, and how it corresponds with the arched trees and figures of Zephyr and Chloris in Primavera.
That representations of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are placed at opposite walls of the frame is also a pointer to the occasion when both artists were commissioned to paint battle scenes on opposite walls in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred which was later extended and decorated by Giorgio Vasari.
So just how did Michelangelo translate features from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars painting to the ‘damned man’ in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement fresco?
The four satyrs (Botticelli and his three brothers) teasing and tempting the sleeping figure of Mars – aka Leonardo da Vinci – form the group of three demons clinging to the ‘damned man’ alongside the trumpeter in the purple drape.
Michelangelo mixed and matched the features. For instance, his ‘extra’ angel with the trumpet represents the satyr sounding the conch into Leonardo’s ear, except that in this instance the trumpet’s bell end is directed to an alternative orifice.
The recipient is the smirking grey-coloured demon poking out his tongue and with both arms wrapped around the legs of the ‘damned man’. As in the Venus and Mars painting, he represents the middle of the trio of satyrs with their arms wrapped around the lance.
The Botticelli conch is symbolic of female genitalia and so the satyr can be understood as blowing ‘sweet dreams’ into Leonardo’s ear, his head ‘buzzing’ with thoughts from the humming sound of the nearby wasps . The wasps are a symbol of the Vespucci family and the woman of his dreams facing Leonardo, Simonetta Vespucci. Michelangelo echoed the sound of the buzzing with the group of trumpeters. The golden hair of the ‘extra’ angel is shaped and coloured to represent a buzzing swarm of wasps. His trumpet extending into the rear end of the grey demon can be deduced as a sting-in-the-tail feature.
The ‘extra’ angel (notice the lion face impression on his back) represents Leonardo da Vinci, and the colour of his purple drape coordinates with the rose tinted blanket beneath the Leonardo figure in the Venus and Mars painting.
Leonardo wears a pink or rose colour cloak with a winged sleeve in another Botticelli painting, the Uffizi version of The Adoration of the Magi. Notice also Leonardo’s bird-like stance.
The purple drape is also shaped in the form of a bird with an extended wing. Michelangelo has paired this with the bird-shaped white cloth covering the sleeping Leonardo. Note the bolt pressing down on the fluted tail. This is a reference to Leonardo portrayed as a fallen angel, “like a bolt of lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18), or perhaps from his failed attempt at flying that seemed like a bird falling out of the sky. A ‘fallen angel’ motif representing Leonardo can be found in another Botticelli painting, The Birth of Venus, and also as a winged Medusa-type face on the breastplate of the terracotta bust by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting Giuliano de’ Medici.
As explained in the previous post, Simonetta also represents Medusa, the woman whose gaze can turn people into stone. Has this happened to the sleeping Leonardo? Notice the head of the middle satyr supporting the lance is turned to gaze at the Medusa figure. This explains why the demon gripping the ‘damned man’s legs is the colour of stone, except that his right hand isn’t. Could this suggest the process is ongoing or possibly a device to question why?
The answer can be found by looking at the demon from a different perspective. When rotated 90 degrees to the left, the hazy cloud which the demon is facing takes on a dreamy shape representing the head of Medusa in Botticelli’s painting. It’s also another pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the painting and the ‘sfumato’ technique he perfected in his own work, where tones and colours are blended to produce soft, vague edges and outlines.
Understanding Botticelli’s satyrs as creatures of temptation helps identify the green creature biting into the ‘damned man’s‘ thigh. It represents the Botticelli satyr whose face is hidden under the helmet and the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve to bite and eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
The fruit is the circular shape formed behind the head of the serpent’s coiling body, similar to how the shield or buckle is formed out of the shaft of the lance. Truth is represented by the straight lance. The serpent’s lies and hidden deceit – represented by the helmet covering the satyr – is translated as the serpent’s twisting shaft behind the ‘damned man’.
From this it can be determined that Michelangelo’s ‘damned man’ group also typifies the ‘Fall of Man’, the exit from Paradise into a world of lasting temptation and sin. So where is Eve, the woman who first conversed with the serpent? She can only be the dreamy cloud shape of Medusa, and the woman sat opposite Leonardo with snakes in her hair.
Michelangelo depicted the fourth satyr, Sandro Botticelli himself, as the horned demon with the walnut-shaped back, gripping the ankles of the ‘damned man’. In the Venus and Mars painting he is shown encased in a cuirass that serves as a cushion for the resting Leonardo.
So what could be the reason for Michelangelo depicting the ‘extra angel’ as Leonardo, yet also doubling up as a tormentor – an angel in disguise perhaps, or even a possible falling angel? Another take on the four figures attached to the ‘damned man’ is they represent what is known as the Four Last Things in Christian eschatology – meditating on Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This descending sequence is matched by Michelangelo’s placing of the four demons.
The green serpent represents the time in the Garden of Eden when Death came into the world; the stone-colour figure gazing at the faint and hazy Medusa represents Judgement – “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (1 Cor 13:12); The ‘extra’ angel attached to the trumpeters and set aside from the ‘damned man’ represents Heaven; and the horned demon that is ready to receive the ‘damned man’ represents Hell.
The Venus and Mars painting can also be considered from another religious viewpoint, a reference to the biblical and erotic Song of Songs. From a Christian perspective the poem reads as an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Church. Botticelli depicted the leaning figure of Venus in his painting of the Birth of Venus as Ecclesia (the Church) for which the model was Simonetta Vespucci.
Very likely, Chapter 5 of the Song of Songs inspired some of the visuals in the Venus and Mars painting … “I come into my garden, my sister my promised bride, […] I gather my honey and my honeycomb […] friends […] I sleep but my heart is awake […] my love, my dove, my perfect one […] I have taken off my tunic […] I have washed my feet […] Then I rose to open to my Beloved, myrrh ran off my hands, pure myrrh off my fingers, on to the handle of the bolt […] My soul failed at his flight […] I called to him but he did not answer […] My beloved is fresh and ruddy […] His head is golden, purest gold…
Two decades earlier Michelangelo made other references to Leonardo da Vinci when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. More about this in a future post.
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.
Moses, a man by now, set out at this time to visit his countrymen, and he saw what a hard life they were having; and he saw an Egyptian strike a Hebrew, one of his countrymen. Looking round he saw no one in sight, so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. On the following day he came back, and there were two Hebrews, fighting. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” “And who appointed you” the man retorted “to be prince over us, and judge?” Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened. “Clearly this business has come to light” he thought. When Pharaoh heard of the matter he would have killed Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and made for the land of Midian. And he sat down beside a well.
This passage from Exodus 2 : 11-15 is referred to in a panel titled “The Trials of Moses” on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel. It was frescoed by Sandro Botticelli and assistants sometime in 1481, about sixty years before Michelangelo completed The Last Judgement Painting on the Chapel’s altar wall.
Botticelli’s portrayal of the Exodus account highlights Moses overpowering the “man who was in the wrong” while the other fighting Hebrew is depicted being comforted and led away by the female figure dressed in blue. Moses is also featured fleeing for the land of Midian.
Michelangelo picked up on the Leonardo association in Botticelli’s fresco and recycled some characteristics to include in his own portrayal of the polymath in The Last Judgment painting – the figure generally referred to as the Damned Man.
Although contemporaries, Leonardo and Michelangelo were far from being bosom pals. Michelangelo, apparently a more sensitive soul, reacted to any form of adverse criticism of his work, and Leonardo placed Michelangelo among the group of painters whose muscular figures he described as looking like a sack of walnuts or a bundle of radishes.
Seemingly, Michelangelo never forgot this slight against his work and some two decades later portrayed Leonardo as the Damned Man – inferring that misjudgment of others can lead to condemnation and downfall of oneself.
In their studies of anatomy both artists dissected corpses to further their knowledge about the workings of the human body. Leonardo is particularly noted for his meticulous anatomical drawings of body parts. Late in his life, Leonardo claimed he had dissected more than thirty corpses.
The flayed skin associated with the martyrdom of St Bartholomew shown in the Last Judgment fresco, features a distorted self-portrait of Michelangelo looking down on the Damned Man. The carcass represents an empty sack, devoid of body parts, a sack empty of walnuts and radishes. Michelangelo has translated these body parts into the figure of Leonardo and the three demons dragging him down to Hell, along with some of the features Botticelli incorporated in his depiction of Moses and the two Hebrew men at odds with each other.
For instance, the green serpent coiled around the upper legs of the Damned Man and biting into his left thigh muscle is akin to some of the snake-like features embedded in the green cloak wrapped around the two figures of Moses.
The horned demon weighing down the Damned Man is meant to mirror Botticelli’s version of the Hebrew on his back, his cloak shaped to represent a shell (see here for explanation of shell connection). The back of Michelangelo’s demon is also shell-shaped and its wrinkled surface represents the shell of a walnut.
The demon’s two horns mirror the horn-shape features protruding from the hair of the grounded Hebrew. The horns are also refer to the light that shone from the face of Moses (represented as horns) after he had received the Ten Commandments, most notable in the sculpture of Moses made by Michelangelo for the tomb of Pope Julius II and completed in 1545.
The Hebrew’s left foot and claw-shaped hands can be paired with the central demon’s extended leg and claw-shaped foot, coloured red to portray the toes as radishes.
The demon’s head looks down on the upended demon, as the head of Moses looks down on the upended Hebrew. However, the central demon’s arms are wrapped around the calves of the Damned Man in a similar way the figure of the woman wraps her arms around the upper body of the second Hebrew. Notice also how his left hand is raised to his head in a manner the Damned Man has raised his left hand – the difference being that the second Hebrew can see his opponent with both eyes while the Damned Man is portrayed seeing out of one eye only, perhaps indicating the limit he sets on judging the work of others.
Another incident between the two men also likely stayed with Michelangelo and probably explains the placing of the Damned Man figure in the Last Judgement painting. When Michelangelo had completed his famous giant sculpture of David, a committee was convened to decide on where the work should be placed. Several artists were part of the 30-man group, including Leonardo de Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.
In his book, The Flights of Mind, Charles Nicholl states:
“Leonardo’s opinion about the placing of David is recorded in the minutes of the meeting. ‘I say that it should be placed in the Loggia’ – the Loggia dei Lanzi, opposite the Palazzo Vecchio – ‘as Giuliano has said, behind the low wall where the soldiers line up. It should be put there, with suitable ornaments, in such a way that it does not interfere with the ceremonies of state.’ This opinion, shared by Giuliano da Sangallo but counter to the general view, already expresses an antagonism, a deliberate refusal to be impressed. Let this oversized statue be sidelined in a corner where it won’t get in the way. The true wish expressed is the sidelining of the sculptor himself: this awkward, intrusive genius. Further nuances of umbrage may have arisen in relation to that earlier Florentine David, sculpted by his master Verrocchio, for which the teenage Leonardo is said to have been the model: now, forty years on, this new David outmodes that image of his own youthful promise.”
The Damned Man is part of but set aside from a group of figures that represent the Seven Deadly Sins. In this group we can recognise the form of some of the angels striking down the deadly sinners in similar fashion to Botticelli’s Moses raising his sword and striking down the Hebrew “who was in the wrong”.
To the right of the Damned Man Michelangelo has portrayed a sinner with his back to the viewer akin to the figure of Moses fleeing to Midian after it became known he had murdered an Egyptian and attempted to cover up his crime by burying the corpse in sand.
So which deadly sin does the Damned Man represent? Most likely Envy, and perhaps even Sloth, as Leonardo had a reputation for not completing many of the works commissioned to him.
Both Botticelli and Michelangelo portray the two Hebrew men as two natures of man, or even Leonardo, as good and evil in conflict. Michelangelo’s Dammed Man is not shown beaten down by any heavenly angel as the sinners portrayed alongside, but instead is weighed down by a reflection of his misplaced judgement and envy of others.
This image shows detail from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco painted between 1536 and 1541 on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
I have circled two areas of interest. The upper part depicts a muscular St Bartholomew, said to have been martyred by being skinned alive, hence the skinning knife seen in his right hand and the flayed carcass held in his left hand. However, the face depicted on the carcass has been identified as that Michelangelo. It even shows his broken nose.
The second area of interest shows a man in a sitting position being dragged down to Hell by creatures from the underworld. He is usually referred to as The Damned Man or The Damned Soul. He has never been clearly identified although one commentator, Daniel B. Gallagher, writing for the New York Arts journal, has suggested the figure is a “quasi self-portrait, a tortured Michelangelo [who] assumes the role of someone who has gained the world but forfeited himself.”
For sure, there is a relationship between the distorted portrait of Michelangelo featured on the flayed skin and The Damned Man figure, but my understanding is that the man depicted weighed down by evil spirits is not another portrayal of Michelangelo, but of his rival Leonardo da Vinci.
Last month, I pointed out that one of the identities Botticelli applied to the Primavera figure reaching up to touch the clouds is the painter Filippino Lippi who, at the time, was part of Botticelli’s workshop and a team of painters engaged to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
The photograph below showing scaffolding and people in the Chapel erecting a temporary display of Raphael’s tapestries on the lower section of the walls gives an idea of the height the artists from Florence had to work at when painting frescoes at the level above the curtained section.
So Botticelli’s portrayal of the figure with his arm raised can also be understood as a depiction of Filippino Lippi perhaps painting a cloud formation in one of the frescoes. His comfortable stance with hand on hip and right arm flexed is balanced, almost statuesque, and reminiscent of the contrapposto style of figure developed by Ancient Greco-Roman sculptors and revived during the Renaissance. It also points to the identity of another Florentine artist, the sculptor Donatello and his famous bronze of the biblical figure of David.
By coincidence this scenario later connects to yet another artist and sculptor from Florence – Michelangelo who, almost 50 years later, was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and just a few years after he had sculpted his own and probably more famous version of David.
Sometime during the four year period painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo complained of his physical discomfort and burden in a poetic letter to a friend. He illustrated the poem with a sketch very similar to the stance of the figure portrayed by Botticelli in his Primavera painting. It would not be surprising that Michelangelo at some time may have had access to view and study the painting and had knowledge of its many narratives, even that the reaching figure represented Filippino Lippi.
The mention of Donatello also points to the Primavera figure being portrayed as Giuliano de’ Medici. Both men were entombed at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, and Lorenzo connects to the name of Giuliano’s brother who is portrayed as yet another of the figure’s identities which I shall explain in my next post. Chapels and churches is another theme to be found in the Primavera painting.
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den– As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be– Which drives the belly close beneath the chin: My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. My loins into my paunch like levers grind: My buttock like a crupper bears my weight; My feet unguided wander to and fro; In front my skin grows loose and long; behind, By bending it becomes more taut and strait; Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow: Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye; For ill can aim the gun that bends awry. Come then, Giovanni, try To succour my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
In my previous post about the Primavera I pointed out a connection between the painting and one of the frescos produced by Botticelli for the Sistine Chapel. In fact, the Primavera is linked to the series of wall frescos in more ways than one as they feature several notable Florentine dignitaries and artists in some of the scenes. So what could be the reason for this?
In 1478 Giuliano de’Medici, the brother of Lorenzo the Magnifico, was assassinated while attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence. His brother was also attacked but survived. A bloodbath of retribution followed when the conspirators, members of the Pazzi family and associates, were slaughtered and executed. It is said that Pope Sixtus IV approved of the plot to overthrow the Medici family from power, but not their killing. A month after the event Sixtus IV excommunicated Lorenzo and others and placed Florence under interdict, forbidding Mass and Communion.
It wasn’t until December 1480 that some semblance of peace ensued between Lorenzo, Florence and Sixtus IV, when a dozen distinguished Florentines travelled to Rome for a pre-arranged public ceremony that saw them plead for forgiveness from the pope for any perceived errors by the Republic. Lorenzo was not among the group. However, in an act of diplomacy and personal reconciliation, he later arranged to send artists from Florence to assist with producing frescos for the walls of the Sistine Chapel: Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli, along with assistants from their workshops including Filippino Lippi.
Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugini, Rosselli, Signorelli and Lippi are all referenced in the Primavera painting, as is Sixtus IV. One notable Florentine artist at the time, Leonardo da Vinci, was not among the group of painters engaged to fresco the Sistine Chapel, although he is depicted in two of the panels. Reference is also made to Leonardo in the Primavera. From these connections it becomes clear that there is more to understand of the mystery associated with Botticelli’s Primavera other than a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences.
I mentioned in an earlier post that an underlying narrative in Primavera is the religious period of Lent, meaning “spring season,” and that Lent is a time of reparation and renewal. I also pointed out here that the foremost identity of the figure normally recognised as Venus is that of the Virgin Mary. She has many titles attributed to her, one being Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower – the name given to Florence Cathedral known as the Duomo, hence one of the reasons for the dome-shaped backdrop to the figure.
Before the building and naming of the Santa Maria del Fiore, there were two other cathedrals built on the site. The first was dedicated to St Lorenzo (Lawrence), the second to St Reparata. Both saints connect to the Primavera, Lorenzo as a name linked to Lorenzo de’Medici who probably commissioned the painting, and Reparata linked to the narrative of Lent and reparation. The theme of restitution echoes the time when the 12 representatives of Florence repaired to Rome seeking forgiveness for the Republic’s past errors, and also to further reparation made with the work carried out later by the Florentine artists in the Sistine Chapel.
The question if often asked why the central figure is positioned further back than than those placed either side. But is she? The woman measures the same height as the other figures. A clue to the answer can be found in the pairing of Chloris and Zephyrus. Is the god of the east wind lowering or lifting Cloris? In the Virgin Mary’s case she is being lifted or raised above all others, and assumed into Heaven. She represents the Assumption, and this feature has a connection with the Sistine Chapel.
Covering the whole wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel is a fresco illustrating the Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo between 1535 and 1541. However, the wall was originally frescoed by Pietro Perugino in the early 1480s showing the Assumption of the Virgin. It also portrayed Pope Sixtus IV kneeling among the group of Apostles. The Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, on her feast day of that name, August 15, 1483.
• One of the most intriguing pieces of iconography in the Primavera painting is the arch formation of branches behind the Virgin. It represents multiple connecting narratives which I shall explain in my next post.
Leonardo da Vinci, a master of ‘sfumato’, described the painting technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”.
The detail above is from Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus in which he makes several references to Leonardo, the sfumato technique being one. Here we see the smoke drifting from the side of the mountain in the direction of the Cupid figure.
But Mantegna amplifies the connection to Leonardo by applying the transition effect of the smoke to form a soft and partial image of the polymath’s head, notably an eye and his mouth. To see this the painting has to be rotated 90º.
At this angle we can see Leonardo has his eye on the Cupid figure. It is meant to represent a young boy who forms part of a relief scupture known as the Madonna of the Stairs (c.1491), an early work by Michelangelo when he was about 15 years old.
Mantegna also matches the boy appearing to have a shortened leg, the effect of climbing stairs. The steps in Mantegna’s version are created by the rocky indents, profiled to suggest the facial features of a lion – and another reference to Leonardo.
Step by step, Michelangelo became the new sensation in Florence, while Leonardo, the god of transitions, moved out beyond the focus plain of Florence and headed North to Milan for a new beginning.
Transition is a major theme of Mantegna’s Parnassus painting.
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