Florence and Livy’s History of Rome: What’s the connection?

Titus Livius (Livy) is a household name in the Classics canon. Born in 64 or 59 BC, Livy is famous for writing an impressively long history of Rome — from the mythical founding of the city in 753 BC up to his own day — called the Ab urbe condita (‘From the Founding of the City’). The text is a mainstay of the UK Classics curriculum whether in translation, as a set text, or as the basis of adapted Latin passages in textbooks such as Latin to GCSE and Latin Beyond GCSE.

Left: Engraving of Livy after Nicolas Beatrizet, c. 1582. Right: Florence, Italy.

So what’s the connection between the city of Florence and Livy’s Ab urbe condita? Florence was a key site of transmission and reception for classical texts throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Here are 4 ways in which the city, and some well-known Florentine citizens, played a role in the textual tradition and visual reception of Livy’s history.

1. Livy and Petrarch

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was born in 1304, to parents who had been exiled from Florence. Petrarch was a poet, scholar and admirer of antiquity and it is largely thanks to him that we have Livy’s Ab urbe condita in its current form. In fact, Petrarch has been described as ‘the deciding factor in carrying the tradition of the Ab urbe condita from the Middle Ages over into the Renaissance.’¹

Petrarch sought out and compiled manuscripts containing Livy’s fragmented text into a collection that became the most complete of his time, totalling thirty books. It wasn’t until 1527 that five more books were discovered, taking us up to the number we have today. Petrarch wrote a letter to Livy, as if to a long-lost friend, telling him: ‘We know that you wrote one hundred and forty-two books on Roman affairs. With what fervour, with what unflagging zeal you must have laboured; and of that entire number there are now extant scarcely thirty.’²

Detail from Piero Strozzi’s illuminated copy of the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita.

How did so many of Livy’s books go missing?Firstly, due to its monumental size, it was condensed into summaries or ‘epitomes’ even during antiquity. As mentioned in an epigram by Martial: ‘Huge Livy has been slimmed down to a few volumes / My bookcase hasn’t room for all of him.’³ Post-antiquity, the Ab urbe conditajourneyed in multiple manuscripts via divergent channels through to the Middle Ages. Many parts were damaged, lost or forgotten along the way. The work that Petrarch did to assemble and critically annotate Livy’s surviving books influenced the way it was read by later scholars and paved the way for its entry into libraries and schools.⁴

2. Livy and Histories of Florence

Livy’s Ab urbe condita and certainly the first ten books (which had the clearest and most untroubled textual transmission) influenced the creation of histories or ‘chronicles’ of Florence. In particular, Florentine writers seized the opportunity to engage in similar myth-making for their own city, from its legendary origin up to their own times.

The earliest is the Nuova Cronica by Giovanni Villani in the 14th century. He was inspired by a personal pilgrimage to Rome and, in his own words, “[by] reading the stories and great doings of the Romans, written by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Titus Livius… and other masters of history.”⁵ Villani claimed that Julius Caesar ordered the building of Florence in 70 BC and that Fiesole was founded by the Trojans.

Later, Leonardo Bruni wrote an ‘official’ History of Florence in Latin (Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII) which was published by the governing Signoria in 1442. He rejected fables about Trojan foundations and instead argued that Florence was originally an Etruscan settlement and later a military colony under Sulla. Livy, Virgil and Pliny the Elder had all written about the Etruscans’ wars with Rome. Bruni used these sources to imply Etruscan (and therefore contemporary Tuscan) superiority within Italy.

Photo of Florence by Pedro Mealha

3. Livy and Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, but he also wrote a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita. The text is known as the Discourses on Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) and was written and published in the 16th century.

Machiavelli explores the notion of Republicanism, which had enflamed earlier humanists and Florentine citizens with glorified ideas about tyrant-slayers. Informed by his own experiences in the Florentine political system and his reading of Livy’s history, Machiavelli maintains that the founder of a Republic must obtain absolute power if the regime is to last.

4. Livy and Renaissance Artists

But Livy’s text was not only known to educated men and women of the Renaissance. Stories from Livy also flourished in 15th century domestic artwork in Florence. This is suggested by the surviving evidence of cassoni (‘wedding chests’) and spalliere (‘decorated backing boards’) painted with scenes from Livy’s history about women such as Cloelia, Virginia, Tarpeia, Lucretia and the Sabine women. As well as those about men, such as Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge, Mucius Scaevola and Coriolanus.

Detail from Story of Lucretia attributed to Sandro Botticelli, cassone or spalliera panel, c. 1496 — 1504.

These pieces were often commissioned for newly-wed couples and the subject-matter depended on the intellectual and moral interests of the patron(s). Domestic art not only reflected the popularity of stories from Livy in Florence, but also served as a method of its visual transmission. As Jillian Robbins notes, ‘Tuscan domestic painting was instrumental in making themes from the Ab urbe condita a familiar and almost ubiquitous presence.’⁶ It is only later, in the 16th century, that we begin to see stories from Livy’s Ab urbe condita depicted in large scale paintings, such as those by Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani.

Detail of Story of Mucius Scaevola attributed to The Florentine Master, cassone panel, c. 1480.

References

[1] G. Billanovich, ‘Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 14, №3/4, 1951, p. 182.

[2] Petrarch, ‘To Titus Livy’ in Fam., XXIV, 8.

[3] Martial, 14.190.

[4] See Footnote 1, p. 176.

[5] D. R. Kelley, ‘Renaissance Retrospection’ in Faces of History, 1999, p. 137.

[6] J. C. Robbins, ‘The Art of History: Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and the Visual Arts of the Early Italian Renaissance.’, 2004, p. 113.

How to Stay Creative to the End of Your Life

How to Stay Creative to the End of Your Life

The incredible productivity of Paul Klee’s later years

Insula dulcamara (1938) by Paul Klee. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Source Wikimedia Commons

Bythe time he died, in 1940 at the age of 60, Paul Klee was one of the most famous artists of his generation. He had worked at the Bauhaus and could count such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius as his colleagues and friends.

Despite his eventual accomplishments, Klee struggled to find commercial success as an artist. During his 20s and into his 30s, he sold only a handful of works, and when he exhibited the reviews were often unfavorable. The upkeep of the family home was the achievement of Paul Klee’s wife, Lily, who gave piano lessons whilst Paul made art and looked after their son, Felix.

And even when his his reputation was established, Klee’s final years were fraught with adversity. Not only was his health deteriorating as a result of scleroderma, but the wider cultural and political climates in Switzerland (where he was born and where he lived for the last years of his life) and Germany (where he built his career) were becoming ever more unstable.

And yet, the last years of Klee’s life would prove to be some of the most productive and inspired of his career.

Early inspiration

Much of Klee’s enduring creativity was rooted in a two-week trip he took to Tunisia in 1914. He kept a dairy of his time there, and through these notes Klee’s growth as a painter can be mapped.

He painted as often as possible during his time in Tunisia, mostly watercolour sketches that could be made quickly and on-the-spot. It was during this trip that he noted his famous declaration: “Colour possesses me,” he wrote. “It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.”

The working-holiday would inspire Klee for many years afterwards, and as far ahead as the 1930s he continued to makes paintings that referenced his experiences in Tunisia.

View Towards the Port of Hammamet (1914) by Paul Klee. Source Wiki Art

Late-life adversity

Klee eventually established himself as one of the foremost artists of his generation, most especially in Germany. Yet the rise of the Nazi party forced him to leave the country and his teaching post at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, which had been smeared as a stronghold of Jewish artists.

Not Jewish himself, Klee was nonetheless singled out for attack: “Then that great fellow Klee comes onto the scene,” wrote one Nazi newspaper. “He tells everyone he’s a thoroughbred Arab, but he’s a typical Galician Jew.”

The consequences of the derogatory Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition held in Munich in 1937 were just as damaging, particularly to an artist who remained acutely self-conscious and self-critical. The exhibition, in which Klee had 17 works included, was an attempt by the Nazi Party to ridicule modern artists and purge them from German culture. Slogans painted on the walls of the gallery — such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul” and “Nature as seen by sick minds” — were intended to stir up further revulsion among the visitors.

With the diagnosis of his illness and the deterioration of conditions in Germany, Klee began to feel hopeless and exhausted. During 1936, at the height of his unrest, his output amounted to just 25 works.

But in the following few years, these numbers would rise remarkably.

Monitoring productivity

Klee was an avid record-keeper of his own output. He carefully catalogued his paintings and drawings with a numbering system that monitored the volume and order of works as they were produced, year on year.

This catalogue was consistent with Klee’s working methods, which relied on a distinct aspect of order, a framework of regulatory practices that made innovation more forthcoming. According to his colleague Lyonel Feininger, Klee’s studio was a “carefully ordered confusion.” He preferred to work on several paintings at once, surrounded by earlier drawings that would offer guidance in a process of constant self-reflection — some from the Tunisia trip.

Klee’s innovation would survive his most difficult year because he had nurtured a process of perpetual growth. Some years before, due to a split in his teaching duties, Klee occupied two studio spaces in two separate cities. Felix recalled how his father “Traveled between Dessau and Düsseldorf, again spending alternate bi-weekly periods in each city, and since he had two magnificent work rooms in each city, he delighted in the half-finished ‘children’ that awaited him each time in whichever studio he was away from.”

One of Paul Klee’s final paintings, Death and Fire (1940). Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Source Wikimedia Commons

Inspiration accelerating

In the last years of his life, Klee adapted to his illness by making works that were simpler and larger in design. He deepened his affinity with hieroglyphic-style motifs, producing paintings that left behind formal and spatial depth in favour of a more direct, ideographic gesture.

His paintings from this period remain some of the most vital and beguiling creations in modern art. I wonder, from where did he get his sense of ferment and hold on to it so urgently? How did he stay inspired?

In 1937, Klee created 264 works; in 1938 the number nearly doubled to 489; in the last full year of his life, 1939, he made more individual pieces than in any year previously, at 1,254.

He expressed his excitement to his son, Felix, at the time: “Productivity is accelerating in range and at a highly accelerated tempo. […] Twelve hundred items in 1939 is something of a record performance.”

Klee was always building on past achievements, often re-using sketches and half-finished compositions as the basis for new paintings. Inspiration of this kind is intimately related to growth. A person travels, sees, listens, learns, reads and endures. In Klee’s case, there was also an internal growth happening within the body of work. The process — a type of harvest — gathers material, but it also leaves material behind. To refine is to learn and in doing so, evolve one’s sensibility.

Paul Klee’s innovation stayed vibrant to the end. His creativity was unceasing because he never let the sense having arrived overtake him. Search and growth were essential aspects of his practice, one complimenting the other, neither of them fully complete — always half-finished.

The words on Klee’s tombstone ring the same truth, “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, For my dwelling place is as much among the dead, As the yet unborn, Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, But still not close enough.”

Paul Klee’s gravestone. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Why Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo is a Masterpiece

Also known as the “Holy Family” or the “Doni Madonna”, this rare piece is the one and only intact wood panel painting of Michelangelo from the year 1507 to have survived to this day. Among Michaelangelo’s other works, this one is quite peculiar. It is shaped in the form of a ‘tondo’, which is Italian for ‘round’. This is a shape that has constantly been associated with the renaissance period of domestic ideologies.

Looking at the painting, Mary is the most prominent figure in the composition, taking up much of the center as she appears to be sitting/kneeling directly on the grass ground. Above her, Jesus depicted as a young toddler, and Joseph can be seen. Joseph appears to be in the middle-ground of the painting, between the Holy Family and the background. Behind the Holy Family is a noticeable horizontal slab that somehow divides the whole piece into two particular sections while at the same time including an image of a boy whom experts believe to be John the Baptist. Behind John, the Baptist are five naked men whose physiques are heavily emphasized which appear to be aesthetically proportioned and built as seen in the way their bodies are curved, the texture of their skins, and the way they resemble entities from earlier times or even mythological eras. At the farthest part of the artwork behind the 5 men, it shows a somewhat mountainous ridge as the painting’s distinct background. Proceeding to the artwork’s circular frame — tondo, there are 5 noticeable three-dimensional head figures which are believed to be a figure of Jesus, two prophets, and 2 civilians. Another element found in the circular frame of the artwork is the carvings that can be seen around it. These carvings are in the form of crescent moons, stars, vegetation, and lion heads which somehow shows the story of the (Agnolo) Doni, the patron of Doni Tondo, and (Maddalena) Strozzi family which can be seen throughout the rest of the frame. All in all, these are the aspects that are easily noticed when looking at the Doni Tondo.

As a way to further discuss what the Doni Tondo really conveys, let us first discuss the different noticeable elements and principles of arts that are inherent to the piece. Initially, we can see how the value of the colors of the Holy Family’s clothes greatly differs from the other elements of the piece giving the viewers an idea of where to look. The use of olive green, light blue, light pink, orange and dark blue somehow provide contrast on the color used for the skin of John the Baptist and the 5 men alongside the mountainous ridge. The element of value is also shown as a way to provide a sense of depth in the piece. This can be noticed when we compare how vivid the colors are in the elements in the foreground compared to the background. The colors present somehow exhibit a triadic harmony since the piece plays with the colors of blue, green, and orange. In addition to the colors, we can see how the different textures were really shown in the Doni Tondo. This is shown through the difference in appearance of the silk-like cloth used by the Holy Family and the rough, natural texture of the soil and foliage. This could also be seen through the cloth of the Holy Family which is somehow smoother in appearance compared to the cloth used by John the Baptist. This element of texture also contributed to the sense of depth present in the piece as the elements found in the background appear to be less smooth than the elements in the foreground. The element of shape is subtly incorporated within the piece. Geometric shapes could be seen when evaluating how the pieces of elements were placed. For example, the heads of the Holy Family actually form an inverted triangle and in evaluating their arrangement, it also leads us to an upright triangle having its base parallel to the legs of Mary going upwards converging towards the head of Jesus and Joseph. Organic shapes are also present in the forms of the leaves found on the ground and the mountainous ridge found in the background.

Proceeding in the principles of arts found in Doni Tondo, we will immediately notice how Michelangelo used the principle of balance towards the whole piece. He successfully used all the negative spaces behind the Holy Family through the inclusion of John the Baptist and the 5 men in the piece. Notice that the number of people behind the Holy Family is not divided equally but they are positioned in an asymmetrical manner while still promoting a sense of balance. Given that the Doni Tondo is a tribute to the Holy Family and the birth of Christ, the principle of emphasis was obviously used to highlight a specific aspect or image of the Holy Family that is somehow different from the common images that we see of them. This specific aspect or image will be discussed later on. Another principle that could be seen in Doni Tondo is scale and proportion. Knowing that the piece is composed of a foreground and a background, the use of scale and proportion is highly observable when looking at the size of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary compared to the size of John the Baptist and the 5 men, including the mountainous ridge which simply suggests the sense of depth that is present in the artwork. In terms of the principles of harmony, unity, and movement, these can be seen in the two parts of the piece which is the foreground and the background. In the foreground, the elements used in the Holy Family promote a sense of harmony and unity as shown in the colors used, the contrast present, and how they are shaped which is somehow reflective of an upright triangle. The movement present within the Holy Family either shows that Mary is getting Jesus from Joseph or the other way around. In the background, we can see how the use of monotonous colors worked and provided a harmonious feeling with the help of how they are placed horizontally or side by side with each other. The movement present in the background somehow suggests that the 5 men are discussing as seen in the way their heads are tilted towards each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist’s movement as seen through the way his body is oriented and his head tilted suggests that his attention is focused on the Holy Family.

According to Gibson (2001), “Every real form attests to an ideal form which it more or less resembles, the idea of which, however, it never perfectly actualizes.” Evaluating the Doni Tondo, it seems that Michelangelo is trying to portray a different aspect of how we, as humans, should perceive the Holy Family. Contrary to the usual images of the Holy Family that we commonly see which incorporates elements of holiness such as halos, subtle suggestions of perfection, and a sense of serenity. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo gives us a more human approach in picturing the Holy Family. In Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, he depicted the Holy Family in the most natural and human form they can be — without the halos and the majestic glow. We can see how playful and human the image of a baby Jesus was portrayed as he appears to be climbing up the shoulders of Mary. On the other hand, Mary appears to be a complete contrast of the images usually incorporated into her. In this piece, she is depicted as a physically adept woman which is actually logical since she helps Joseph in his woodworks. Joseph is given the chance through this piece to actually show how much he is focused and serious in raising Jesus as his son. The way he supports Jesus’ back and the way he looks at him with so much attention suggests a sense of fatherless at the end of Joseph.

References

  • Barolsky, Paul. “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and the Worshipful Beholder.” SOURCE: Notes in the History of Art 22, no. 3 (2003): 8–11.
  • Buzzegoli, Ezio (December 1987). “Michelangelo as a Colourist, Revealed in the Conservation of the Doni Tondo”. Apollo: 405–408.
  • d’Ancona, Mirella Levi (1968)
  • Gilson, Etienne. Forms and Substances in the Arts. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2001.
  • Michelangelo, Doni Tondo. (2020, July 27). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://colourlex.com/project/michelangelo-doni-tondo/

Ann Treboux

Why Michaelangelo’s Women Were So Manly?

Deconstructing the reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts”

Night by Michelangelo. Her sturdy contoured legs and her left breast looks misshapen and stiff. Source-Public Domain

Michelangelo wrote in one of his poems, “I’m ugly.” He believed he did not meet societal beauty standards.

Despite this, he spent his entire life in pursuit of sublime perfection.

Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. It exudes the aesthetics of high Renaissance art and the technical prowess of Greek sculpture.

Giorgio Vasari, described the statue’s perfection in an essay in 1550 — “For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.”

But when it comes to Michelangelo’s women — why do they seem to be imperfect and apparently masculine? Why does the female anatomy seem unladylike?

Let’s deconstruct the possible reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts.”

Night (Left) and Dawn (Right). Source-Public Domain

Consider Michelangelo’s Night. A nude reclining on the sarcophagus at Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici’s feet. The woman has an angelic aura but as we slide down, her body looks muscular. For instance, her left breast looks misshapen and stiff.

As we move further down, she has sturdy contoured legs.

Definitely, a mismatch between her divine face and the rest of her body.

On the other hand, Dawn, Michelangelo’s other masterpiece seems to have curvy bosoms but she has a muscular physique too.

Erwin Panofsky, a contemporary art historian said, “Dawn was a young woman’s easily life — softened yet firm, full of vigor and energy, not yet hardened by life. Panofsky even uses the word virginal to describe her. In direct opposition, then, there’s Night.

Panofsky says that Night’s body has been distorted by childbirth and lactation.”

Similarly, if we take a closer look at the Sistine Chapel and analyze female prophets from the twelve apostles, you might be convinced that Michelangelo represented women with androgynous attributes.

Imagine Cumaean Sibyl with her gigantic body and hefty biceps. Although Libyan Sibyl’s face looks ethereal, her physique resembles an Olympian.

Cumaean Sibyl (Left) and Libyan Sibyl (Right)

Delphic Sibyl (Left) and Persian Sibyl (Right) in Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo illustrated the female prophets as monumental as their male prophets but something was clearly off with the female bodies.

Why Michelangelo’s women were so unwomanly?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael
  • Jill Burke, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says that during the Renaissance period, nude female models were not readily available. It wasn’t considered appropriate for a female to be nude in front of an unknown painter.

And so, a painter like Michelangelo who literally witnessed anatomical dissections first hand might not have imagined a woman’s figure very well. While this is the most accepted theory, Burke contradicts herself.

Raphael, Michelangelo’s contemporary counterpart painted St. Catherine of Alexandria with a curvy body, supple bosoms, and a sensual aura. How did Raphael know how to paint a woman?

  • Another theory that seems relevant is the patriarchal nature of the Renaissance period. Historian Thomas Lacquer has written, “there was only one canonical body and that body was male.” This means that a male prototype was the most superior and everything else was considered imperfect.
  • Historians have argued at length that Michelangelo was naturally inclined to male bodies. So, in response, to portray a beautiful woman, he’d simply design her to appear as close to a man as possible. This does not mean he was misogynistic. In fact, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s official biographer, wrote that he had a close relationship with his mother and a devoted relation with a widow named Vittoria Colonna. He might not have been sexually attracted to women but it’s highly unlikely that he despised them.

Medical justification of the sculpture ‘Night’

In November of 2000, a letter was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine by a physician named James Stark. He visited Medici Chapel in Florence with an art historian Jonathan Katz Nelson. And just like others, he was drawn to the weird appearance of Night, especially her left breast.

The excerpts from Stark’s letter.

“I found three abnormalities associated with locally advanced cancer in the left breast. There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple… These features indicate a tumor.

These findings do not appear in the right breast of “Night” or in “Dawn,” another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo.

We suggest that Michelangelo carefully inspected a woman with advanced breast cancer and accurately reproduced the physical signs in stone. Even if he did not see the disease in a model, he could have studied the corpse of a woman; moreover, autopsies were legal at that time.

Given that Michelangelo depicted a lump in only one breast, he presumably recognized this as an anomaly. Many doctors in his day could probably diagnose this condition in a woman.

Historians of breast cancer agree that the disease and its treatment were discussed, often at length, and described as cancer by the most famous medical authorities of antiquity and by several prominent medieval authors.

For these reasons, there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer.

If Michelangelo indeed depicted “Night” as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel of life and death, and further help us understand his study of the female body.”

References-
1. The Problem of Michelangelo's Women
2.Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1
3. Nine times history's greatest artists made bad artworks

Ann Treboux

How Fresco Painting Works: Art Fundamentals

A difficult technique with unique artistic results

Detail from ‘Creation of Adam’ (c.1512) by Michelangelo. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he not only held his posture of standing with his head craned backwards, with his arm raised for hours at a time, but he also had to work in the technically challenging medium of fresco.

Fresco painting has two supreme qualities: the first is that it involves applying paint onto freshly laid plaster, meaning it is apt for large murals that cover entire walls — or in the case of The Sistine Chapel, an entire ceiling too.

Annunciation (1440–42) by Fra Angelico. Fresco. Museum of San Marco, Florence.

The second quality of fresco is that it must be made with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again. This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear-sighted designs.

One of my personal favourite series of fresco paintings is at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where the artist Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s living quarters with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These paintings are fine examples of the power of fresco: uncluttered, compelling and immediate.

The reason for speed is because with fresco painting the pigment is applied to fresh plaster whilst it is still damp. The word fresco is Italian for “fresh”. The artist must therefore work quickly to complete the apportioned section of plaster before it dries. The pigments, which are made by grinding dry-powder colour in pure water, are painted whilst the plaster dries to become a permanent part of the wall.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424) by Masaccio. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

In order to achieve this, the artist must plan out the stages of the painting carefully, dividing the image into appropriate sections.

If you look at the image shown here, of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, you can see how the wider work would have been split into days.

With each day, a thin layer of wet plaster called the intonaco (Italian for ‘plaster’) is applied to the area to be painted. The artist must work within the plaster’s curing time — a day’s work, or a giornata in Italian.

If you look closely, you can see the dividing lines between each section of giornata. A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours, perhaps as much as nine or ten, giving the artist time to complete a single section in a day.

The fresco mural technique has its origins in antiquity, going back at least as far as the Minoan civilization, as seen at Knossos on Crete. It was also widely used by the ancient Romans as decoration for important rooms.

Over time, two alternative fresco techniques emerged. Up until the age of the Renaissance, the secco method tended to be more prominent. In this method, the paint is applied onto plaster that is already dry. Essentially, this is painting directly onto wall. Usually the pigment is mixed with a binding medium — either egg white or lime —to act as the glue. It is an easier method but has the drawback that the pigments are not completely absorbed by the plaster and may flake in time.

Cross-section of late-medieval fresco painting. Image by author.

The second method is known in Italian as buon fresco or “true fresco” and results in a more durable finish. Many of the outstanding fresco works of the Renaissance were made using this technique.

In this method, a coat of rough plaster (arriccio) is applied to a stone or brick wall. Once dried, the artist makes a preliminary drawing onto the wall. This initial drawing is reinforced with red paint (sinopia) to give a more finished quality to the sketch.

The purpose of the sinopia underpainting is to flesh out the planned image before the final coat of plaster is applied. It makes it easier to plan for the various days to come, and also allows the commissioning patron a chance to see the work and give their approval.

A ‘sinopie’ for a fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco (1290–1341). Museum of Sinopie, Pisa.

Finally, a smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is applied to as much of the wall as will be painted in that session — at which point the artist gets to work.

Since the wetness of the plaster naturally changes over the course of the day, the artist must dilute their paint with water to keep the same tone across the giornata. Once dried, no more buon fresco can be painted on that area. If mistakes have been made, it is not unusual for the whole section of plaster to be removed and then repainted the following day. The alternative is to add finer details using the secco method.

Fresco paintings have a particular look and feel. As the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented with the plaster. The surface texture is dry and opaque, giving rise to an appealing chalky feel, since the paint is an integral part of the wall surface.

When put to best use, the fresco effect can be lively and expressive, with bold designs and well-defined figures. When a fresco occupies an entire wall space or sometimes the whole interior of a building — as in the decorations for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua by Giotto — then the results can be spectacular.

Scrovegni Chapel (1304–06) by Giotto. Fresco. Padua, Italy.

Ann Treboux

My Poor Ass: Michelangelo Wrote a Poem About How Much He Hated Painting the Sistine Chapel

OCTOBER 19, 2021

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, or the artist known as Michelangelo (there’s no record of him answering to “Mike”), is perhaps the most celebrated Renaissance artist of all time. Among his many works, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome remains his grandest accomplishment.

And he was a nervous wreck about it.

Michelangelo had come into renown as a sculptor and considered painting the 12,000 square feet of the ceiling beyond his capabilities. He was wrong, of course, but the artistic anxiety caused him considerable distress. He even made sure the first portion of the ceiling, The Flood, was tucked away and largely out of sight in case he messed it up. He famously worked 65 feet in the air on custom scaffolding, and after four years of effort from 1508 to 1512, the physical toil of craning his neck upward was apparent. (He did not, as is sometimes thought, paint while lying down.)

To relieve some of the emotional tension, Michelangelo took to poetry. He wrote an Italian sonnet in 1509 expressing his frustrations over tackling such a formidable project, with years of toil ahead of him. The work, sent to friend Giovanni da Pistoia, reads:

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Fortunately, he persevered, and his work in the Sistine Chapel has been a source of inspiration and awe for 500 years and counting—an artistic feat that may never be duplicated, and one well worth the sacrifice of his poor ass.