So said Nelson Mandela. As my studies in Florence continue, I find myself in agreement.
Take a look at this image and, as you do, be aware of your immediate responses to it.
So, what do you see? Does this image make you feel anything? For me, I get both an intellectual and an emotional response. The side of my brain being regularly exercised by my lectures on the High Renaissance recognizes this as the face of Michaelangelo’s ‘David’. I bring to mind facts about its provenance, production, historical reception, along with practical information about how and where to see it. But the other side of my brain responds emotionally. Actually, this work does not affect me emotionally as much as many others do, but David’s face suggests emotions, conflicting ones at that; this is a youth of undoubted courage, steeling himself for battle and recognising a detested foe, but isn’t there a hint of apprehension, perhaps even fear, in that penetrating gaze?
Art, in the widest sense of the word, and also, one of my other passions, classical music, can and should be enjoyed both with the head and the heart. But note this; the facts are universal and available to all, but the emotional response is yours and yours alone, unique and very special. I encourage you as you look at art and listen to music to nourish and cherish that response; it is a most wonderful thing to enjoy!
I find the knowledge I am accumulating during my studies is greatly enhancing the aesthetic experience of looking at the art on display. And being here in Florence allows the perfect opportunity to do just that. When I read about Michaelangelo studying the medallions in the Medici palace sculpted by his beloved Donatello, I realised that I had never noticed them on my visits there. No problem; pull on a pair of shoes and a jacket and it’s a five minute walk from my apartment. And there they are, for all to see, free to all!
And studying these I can see the influences there, in particular the muscular athleticism that would come to characterise Michaelangelo’s art. Standing among the antique sculptures in the Medici gardens I realised that the young Michaelangelo probably stood exactly where I was, looking up in awe.
Sometimes acquiring information can make you aware of art works or even art forms that were previously hidden to you. During our visit to the Bargello sculpture museum, the lecturer alluded to the sculpted works on the Baptistery, facing the Duomo. Now it is well known that the doors there, the ‘Gates of Paradise’ by Ghiberti, are among my very favourite works; I have stood literally for hours before them. But I had never looked up and, sure enough, when I did there they were!
This is ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Andrea Sansovino.
Also during our visit to the Bargello, we touched on Mannerism. This is a style of work which followed on from the High Renaissance and about which I know little. Our lecturer introduced us to the style known as ‘figura serpentina’; sculptors moved away from the style known as ‘contrapposto’, such as seen in ‘David’, to a form where the body rotates first one way then the other in a serpentine fashion. This hallmark should help us to identify Mannerist works he told us.
He also encouraged us to study sculptures in the round, taking the time to walk slowly around the piece and seeing how the work changes from each angle, revealing different aspects of its making and meaning to you.
So, ever the willing student, at the end of our lecture I returned to one of the works we had studied, Michaelangelo’s ‘Bacchus’ and did just that.
Later that evening I went to the Loggia dei Lanzi to see a work by the Mannerist sculpture Giambologna, ‘the Rape of the Sabine Women’. I had looked at this work before but from only one position and ignorant of ‘la figura serpentina’. And when I walked around the statue I saw the twisting forms of the figures from a whole new perspective.
And yet, despite being better intellectually prepared to appreciate the work I had no emotional response. Perhaps strange given the subject material. But that’s just how it was, no need to understand or justify. We feel what we feel.
This contrasts starkly with what happened in our lecture on Michaelangelo when we studied his work in St Peter’s in Rome, the ‘Pieta’. I have never been to see this work, never even been to Rome, but when our lecturer put up a slide of the work I felt, not for the first time, sheer joy at its sublime beauty. And I was not alone; throughout the class there arose murmurs of appreciation and exclamations of wonder.
What happened next was more astonishing. I was unaware that the work had been attacked with a hammer in 1972 and badly damaged, sustaining disfiguration to the face of the Madonna and the detachment of her arm. We were shown the following images.
I felt grief almost as a physical pain and we as a group all reacted in shock and outrage. It was almost as if these were images of a human victim of a heinous assault. Our lecturer paused and fed that back to us, causing a degree of embarasssment. That, he reassured us, is the power of art. That is why we should, indeed we must, seek its majesty and beauty to enrich our lives.