February 2019

LOVE IN HISTORY: The Expression of Love in Mannerist Italy

     As the great artistic works of past eras, classics such as Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago are memorable for their celebration of triumphant love and life, conflicted with the negative forces of raw pain and loss. Such conflict was particularly heightened by the Italian Mannerist artists, such as Michelangelo. Michelangelo captured the essence of purity rather than sensuality in his reproduction of Classical themes -- beauty and triumph. The focus on love in Renaissance Italy continued with the same obsession seen in French medieval literature and sculpture. Why and how did such rawness transform traditional themes with which earlier artists had worked?

     Transformations came about due to cultural shifts that literature and politics played out during the onset of world war and disease, especially during theReformation and Counter-Reformation. In particular, the Renaissance period was marked by voyages of exploration far and wide, when the Aztecs and the Incas ruled the Americas; Europe, Aragon of Castile, Henry VII, Louis XII, and Maximilian I. By about 1400, the human condition had so adapted to loss and death that it replaced chivalric notions of men and women as heroic troubadours who chanted sadly about love with powerful political figures. What did develop in Italian visual culture was a universal yearning for the world to be a safe haven once again. It was an age where Italy experienced little peace both within and beyond its borders, yet remained united enough to fend off her most malevolent enemies. The Church challenged scientific knowledge, which led to censorship in art.

     After 1475, Michelangelo displayed this transformation unlike any other in the past, despite his father's notions that artists were a hopeless bunch. Much of the credit for Michelangelo's early start as an apprentice with Ghirlandaio is owed to his friendship with de Medici patrons and popes. Michelangelo soon changed his father's opinion, as his works ruptured traditional concepts established by earlier works and forever re-shaped Italy's artistic culture, especially how artists and artworks were perceived, experienced, and even owned. Consequently, artistic expression included a wider spectrum of grandiose versus microcosmic emotions, as earthly with divine, nonchalance with passion, and loss with victory. All were reinforced within a broader scope of message, tone, and color. Above all, censorship by the Spanish popes was Michelangelo's greatest conflict, often concealed within his works.

     For example, Michelangelo focused on conflict and reconciliation, setting opposing concepts side by side on canvas. The Doni Tondo clashed with the mild expressions and ordered, harmonious relationships between space and form in earlier artists' masterpieces. Michelangelo defined elements loosely, charged with intense emotion and energy. His first sculpture, Bacchus, reveals a striking contrast between idleness and intent focus. On the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo playfully reconciles knowledge with innocence by placing God and Adam side by side. An early, low relief sculpture, Madonna of the Stairs, exposes Michelangelo's strong ties to the stonecutters who raised and wet-nursed him. Michelangelo had little interest in painting, as he considered it feminine and inferior. Sculpture was Michelangelo's key interest in artistic expression.

     If Michelangelo ever felt restrained by his stingy and unappreciative patrons, he certainly made up for it by encouraging his colleagues and guiding them to become all they could be to celebrate their creative genius and independence when it came to setting a price. This was especially true in the case of the young Cremona painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Michelangelo's widowed friend, Vittoria Colonna, the first female poet to publish in Italy. Colonna's religious poetry had an esoteric influence on Michelangelo, who mended his ways and became reverent. By 1541, Michelangelo's vision in The Last Judgement becomes expressive with furor, profundity, and a vibrant spirituality. It is in this work that Michelangelo's pre-occupation with pain and loss becomes transparent.

     Mortality, grief, and pain were the foundations of Michelangelo's expression in other later works as well. In 1547, Michelangelo sank into despair after the death of his beloved friend, Colonna. Where Colonna had inspired Michelangelo's spirituality in paint, other friends inspired Michelangelo's poetry throughout his later years. Love and death continued to be consistent themes in Michelangelo's poetic compositions. Of his three hundred sonnets, madrigals, and quatrains, thirty were dedicated to Cavalieri, the centre of Michelangelo's affections; message stressed Michelangelo's love for Cavalieri. Additionally, after the death of Michelangelo's young pupil, Cecchino dei Bracci, he was further inspired to compose forty-eight funeral epigrams dedicated to dead loved ones.

     Therefore, the theme of love was continually paired with grief and loss throughout the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance periods, with a push to facilitate clarity in message to all members of society. Humanist and feminist issues were voiced by the most influential thinkers and artists of Europe, and established a continued trend that defended the education and independence of men and women everywhere.