Take That, Michelangelo!

3 Mar 2014

Unlike the plein air painter who wrestles with his or her subject, Old Master artists struggled with each other. It was a game in a way (but a serious one), to find ways to outdo each other in technique, or invention (concept), or complexity and scale. In this way art advanced, in the sense that achievements piled up so long as people more or less agreed on what qualified as "good," "better," or "best." These qualities weren't just about realism--making a picture that was a convincing depiction of a subject--but about the full arsenal of what goes into a work of art: decorum, meaning, expressiveness, energy, composition, and ultimately Beauty.

After Titian’s painting and Michelangelo’s drawing of Tityus

After Titian's painting and Michelangelo's drawing of Tityus

The ways in which artists evaluated each other and themselves can be most apparent when we see different artists tackle the same subject. In the sixteenth century the titans Michelangelo and Titian stood for two opposing camps, disegno and colore (see my previous post--How to Rival the Old Masters), but that doesn't mean each didn't keep an eye on what the other was doing. Michelangelo seems to have been his own rival--worried more about exceeding himself than anyone else--but Titian was concerned with being both the painterly painter everyone knew him as as well as a master of the human form like Buonarotti. So if Michelangelo tackled Tityus (a variant of the theme of Prometheus, punished by Jupiter for his hubris by having an eagle peck out his liver daily) in a drawing for his friend Tomasso dei Cavalieri, Titian painted for Philip II a Tityus/Prometheus that was powerful, twisted, and perilously perched upside down, and did it with bravura brushstrokes. Take that, Michelangelo.

After Prometheus by Rubens

After Prometheus by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens came along decades later, an artist intent on rivaling, and synthesizing, all the great Italians. So he started on his Prometheus painting probably from a print (reversed) of Titian's painting, but then ratcheted up the realism (the eagle painted by the stupendous Frans Snyders) and the vertigo. When I visit this painting in Philadelphia I want desperately to sit down (sadly not an option in the gallery). My drawings after Michelangelo's drawing, and Titian's and Rubens' paintings, hopefully make this emulative chain clear. The question is, would we do next if we wanted to trump Rubens?

After Bernini, Aeneas and Anchises

After Bernini, Aeneas and Anchises


After Raphael, detail from The Fire in the Borgo

After Raphael, detail from The Fire in the Borgo

The great sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini was always haunted by painting. Since he could sculpt marble like a master almost from the time he could hold a chisel, rivaling sculpture was not a big challenge for him. But painting, now there was a different plateau. In his early commissioned work for the Borghese, Aeneas and Anchises fleeing Troy, he started from Raphael's great fresco of The Fire in the Borgo, taking the father perched on his son's shoulders from the painting and adapting it for his purposes. By translating one medium into another, he wanted to enrich what sculpture could do--multi-figured, expressive, dynamic works--and which could stand in competition with painting, and also show painting what it could not do--multiple viewpoints, a lifelike turn of light and shadow over forms. Artists rivaled both by going beyond the limitations of any one artist's work--combining two opponents as did Rubens--and stretching their media by drawing on the ideas perpetuated in other media. No artist loses in this game, but art wins.


David Mayernik is an artist, architect, professor, and author of The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture (published by Ashgate, 2013).

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Gihan Zohdy wrote
on 9 Mar 2014 8:05 PM

David, please let us have more articles by you in publications on art, especially on capricci.