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.
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
|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
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.