Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

500 years of ecstasy

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was all in a day’s work, he thought!  Commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he rolled his sleeves, flexed his muscles, lay on his back and began his mammoth task.  With a passion fraught personality, he worked incessantly for 4 1/2 years. When he was done, Michelangelo had completed one of the greatest art works that has thrilled and amazed mankind for 500 years.
Last week the world celebrated the 500th birthday of one of the supremely sublime sites known to man, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, just outside Rome.  This landmark may not be that impressive to Egyptians, children of the most ancient civilization, boasting of art works thousands of years old. Western civilization is but a fledgling in comparison.  For European art however, it is an unparalleled feat, almost an eternity, and it must seem just that to all Italians celebrating this august occasion, proud of their Renaissance and its influence around the world, since its inception.
The Renaissance began in the enchanting city of Florence in 1300, after a long, dark and dreary period of virtual cultural death, aptly called the Middle or Dark Ages. While such darkness existed in Western Europe, life was brighter in other parts of the world like China, Byzantine Europe and the Arab Age of splendour. The Renaissance finally reached Europe. It was an age of awakening, of adventure and curiosity. Europeans displayed a new spirit and a flourish of interest in the arts. Renaissance artists gained the respect and admiration of emperors and popes.
Italy’s location on the Mediterranean gave it a unique advantage as a centre for trade, and its new affluence encouraged the growth of learning, culture and the arts.  The Italian Renaissance reached its highest point in the 1500s, a period known as the High Renaissance.  Florence was ruled by the Medicis who helped make it one of the most stunning cities, which in turn gave birth to some of history’s supreme artists, among them Buonarotti Michelangelo.,
Born in 1475 in Caprese, just outside Florence, to a respectable Florence family, Michelangelo was a bright and eager child, strong, witty and very artistic.  He moved to Florence at age 12 and became apprentice to a popular painter of the time, Domenico  Ghirlandajo.  It was sculptor Donatello however, who had the greatest influence on him, as well as his friend and competitor Leonardo Da Vinci.
In 1505 Pope Julius ll, a patron of the arts, ordered a tomb that was to include 40 marble statues.  Michelangelo was enthused at first.  He took pains to be splendid, but after completing a few statues, he soon lost interest.  Pope Julius, who possessed as sweeping an imagination as the fiery artist, gave Michelangelo a more practical assignment---to paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
With sheer brute force, an abundance of faith and a desire to achieve greatness, 28 yr. old Michelangelo began to tackle his arduous task in 1508.  Once completed it became the greatest art ever produced in the Western world.  The frescoes tell the story of the creation of the world in 9 scenes, 3 scenes each of God creating the world, of Adam and Eve and of Noah and the flood.
Once viewed, its stately magnificence is graven in one’s memory forever!
The Medici rule of Florence soon turned off the rebellious artist, who moved to Rome and devoted more time to poetry and architecture.  After 70, he showed an even wider range of interests and capacities. Later works such as “the Last Judgment” and “La Pieta” were less complex in design, expressing the marvelous simplicity of nature, but it is his earlier works that remain more popular, because their impact is immediate, emotional, moving and exciting.
Michelangelo came to life on the big screen some 50 years ago, in the form of Charlton Heston, an actor known for portraying historic figures, such as Moses, Ben Hur etc. The movie was based on the Irving Stone’s best-selling novel “The Agony and the Ecstasy”.  Directed by Carol Reed, it depicted a powerful picture of the Renaissance master, his complex nature, his rebellious spirit and all the passion and tension that went into the creation of Art’s masterpiece.
Little did the Vatican know then that the ceiling of their little ‘capella Sistina’, decorated by a young painter, would become the ultimate site of their church, one of the best loved works of art known to man.  Today the Vatican watches  in dismay as their pride possession is threatened with decay and destruction.  With more than 20,000 visitors daily, 5 million annually, the capella is showing signs of weary age and strain.  Air –pollution and human congestion portend “an unimaginable disaster” to their Renaissance jewel.  Italian art critic Pietro Citata has launched a severe attack in a series of articles in his “Corriere della Sera”, against the Vatican authorities, pleading with them to save Micheangelo’s tour de force.
Citata’s cry for help has been joined by millions of art lovers, who hope that Vatican authorities will act in time to save one of the greatest works of art made by human hands and divine inspiration, so that it can endure for another 500 years of wonderment and ecstasy!    

“God help the Minister that meddles with Art.”
Lord Melbourne,  (David Cecil)(1779-1848)

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