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The Atelier of Rivals: Giovanni da S. Giovanni, Il Magnifico, and Michelangelo

4 Jun 2014

Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras almost always received their formation in another, established artist's atelier. In a busy atelier there would be several young aspirants, and they would be eager to compete with each other as much as they were expected to collaborate toward realizing the master's projects. As they matured, they would mostly want to free themselves and establish their own mastery; so they would want to launch themselves by rivaling the master as well. This competitive atmosphere, as the ancient Greek writer Hesiod had said, "is good for mortals." It pushed artists to get better--and, in their world, there was a reasonable amount of consensus about what "better" meant--and it progressively improved the state of the arts generally. The emulative tide raised all boats.

Lorenzo the Magnificent Judges Michelangelo's Faun, drawing.

Lorenzo the Magnificent Judges Michelangelo's Faun, drawing.

Florence's Pitti Palace houses several museums, the most famous being the Palatine Gallery with its remarkable collection of Raphaels, Andrea del Sartos, and many others. But on the ground floor is a much less visited treasure, the Museo degli Argenti--the Museum of the Silver--with a collection of the Medici dukes' precious objects. The rooms that house the museum were the palace's summer apartment, on the cooler north side of the building and facing quiet gardens. In one of those rooms Giovanni da San Giovanni and his team were called in to fresco a cycle illustrating the Medici's Golden Age of artistic patronage under Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Lorenzo Welcomes the Muse Urania to Florence, drawing.
Lorenzo Welcomes the Muse Urania to Florence, drawing.

Giovanni da San Giovanni isn't well known today, but he should be; he was a consummate painter, capable of intimate cabinet pictures in oil or large frescoes that synthesized the best of the Florentine masters who preceded him. Because of that sense of his heritage he was the ideal painter to illustrate a by then century-and-a-half-old Golden Age. The cycle shows the Muses being driven off Mount Parnassus and finding a home in Florence. In one of the later scenes Lorenzo passes judgment on Michelangelo's youthful bust of a faun. A whole team of young artists looks on, from the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to Pietro Torrigiano, the aspiring sculptor who in a fit of jealousy would break Michelangelo's nose.

While the room is spectacular, and Giovanni and his team's work diverse but harmonious, there is a sense that almost too much reverence for the past is being shown, as if the Golden Age was never to return, and all one could hope for was a skillful retelling of its story. If one of the enemies of emulation is lack of respect for the past, another may be too much: unless we continually push the bounds of what we're capable of, we're stuck in an infinite loop of repetition.

--David


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