Étiquette : poetry
Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command. An inquiry into the key events and artistic achievements that created the Renaissance. By Karel Vereycken, Paris.
If there is still a lot to say, write and learn about the great geniuses of the European Renaissance, it is also time to take an interest in those whom the historian Georgio Vasari condescendingly called « transitional figures ».
How can one measure the contributions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder without knowing Pieter Coecke van Aelst? How can we value Rembrandt’s work without knowing Pieter Lastman? How did Raphaelo Sanzio innovate in relation to his master Perugino?
In 2019, an exceptional exhibition on Andrea Del Verrocchio (1435-1488), at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., highlighted his great achievements, truly inspiring outbursts of great beauty that his pupil Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) would theorize and put to his greatest advantage.
The sfumato of Leonardo ? Verrochio is the pioneer, especially in the blurred features of portraits of women made with mixed techniques (pencil, chalk and gouache).
The joy of discovery
Leafing through the catalog of this exhibition, my joy got immense when I discovered (and to my knowledgne nobody else seems to have made this observation before me) that the enigmatic angel the viewer’s eye meets in Leonardo’s painting titled The Virgin on the Rocks (1483-1486) (Louvre, Paris), besides the movement of the body, is grosso modo a visual “quote” of the image of a terra cotta high relief (Louvre, Paris) attributed to Verrochio and “one of his assistants”, possibly even Leonardo himself, since the latter was training with the master as early as age seventeen ! The finesse of its execution and drapery also reminds us of the only known statue of Da Vinci, The Virgin with the laughing Child.
Many others made their beginnings in Verrocchio’s workshop, notably Lorenzo de Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Piero Perugino (Raphael’s teacher) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher).
Coming out of the tradition of the great building sites launched in Florence by the great patron of the Renaissance, Cosimo de Medici for the realization of the doors of the Baptistery and the completion of the dome of Florence by Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Verrocchio conceived his studio as a true “polytechnic” school.
In Florence, for the artists, the orders flowed in. In order to be able to respond to all requests, Verrocchio, initially trained as a goldsmith, trained his students as craftsman-engineer-artists: drawing, calculation, interior decoration, sculpture, geology, anatomy, metal and woodworking, perspective, architecture, poetry, music and painting. A level of freedom and a demand for creativity that has unfortunately long since disappeared.
The Ghiberti legacy
In painting, Verrocchio is said to have begun with the painter Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). As for the bronze casting trade, he would have been, like Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello and Pollaiuolo, one of the apprentices recruited by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) whose workshop, starting from 1401, over forty years, will be in charge of casting the bronze bas-reliefs of two of the huge doors of the Baptistery of Florence.
Others suggest that Verrocchio was most likely trained by Michelozzo, the former companion of Ghiberti who said up shop with Donatello. As a teenager, Donatello had accompanied Brunelleschi on their joint expeditions to Rome to investigate the legacy of Greek and Roman art, and not only the architectural legacy.
In reality, Verrocchio only perpetuated and developed the model of Ghiberti’s « polytechnic » studio, where he learned the art. An excellent craftsman, Ghiberti was also goldsmith, art collector, musician and humanist scolar and historian.
His genius is to have understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him « sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings ».
The ten disciplines that he considered important to train artists are grammar, philosophy, history, followed by perspective, geometry, drawing, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine and anatomy.
You can discover, says Ghiberti, only when you managed to isolate the object of your research from interfering factors, and you can discover by detaching oneself from a dogmatic system;
Anticipating the type of biomimicry that will characterize Leonardo thereafter, Ghiberti affirms that he sought:
Ghiberti, who was familiar with some of the leading members of the circle of humanists led by Salutati and Traversari, based his own reflexions on optics on the authority of ancient texts, especially Arabic. He wrote:
Deliberately ignored (but copied) by Vasari, Ghiberti’s Commentaries are a real manuel for artists, written by an artist. Most interestingly, it is by reading Ghiberti’s Commentaries that Leonardo da Vinci became familiar with important Arab contributions to science, in particular the outstanding work of Ibn al Haytam (Alhazen) whose treatise on optics had just been translated from Latin into Italian under the title De li Aspecti, and is quoted at length by Ghiberti in his Commentario Terzio. Author A. Mark Smith suggests that, through Ghiberti, Alhazen’s Book of Optics
Ghiberti’s comments are not extensive. However, for the pupils of his pupil Verrocchio, such as Leonardo, who didn’t command any foreign language, Ghiberti’s book did make available in italian a series of original quotes from the roman architect Vitruvius, arab scientists such as Alhazen), Avicenna, Averroes and those european scientists having studied arab optics, notably the Oxford fransciscans Roger Bacon, John Pecham and the Polish monk working in Padua, Witelo.
Finally, in 1412, Ghiberti, while busy coordinating all the works on the Gates of the Baptistry, was also the first Renaissance sculptor to cast a life-size statue in bronze, his Saint John the Baptist, to decorate Orsanmichele, the house of the Corporations in Florence.
Lost wax casting
However, in order to cast bronzes of such a size, the artists, considering the price of metal, would use the technique known as “lost wax casting”.
This technique consists of first making a model in refractory clay (A), covered with a thickness of wax corresponding to the thickness of the bronze thought necessary.
The model is then covered with a thick layer of wet plaster (B) which, as it solidifies, forms an outer mold. Finally, the very hot molten bronze, pored into the mold it penetrates by rods (J) provided for this purpose, will replace the wax.
Finally, once the metal has solidified, the coating is broken. The details of the bronze (K) are then adjusted and polished (L) according to the artist’s choice.
This technique would become crucial for the manufacture of bells and cannons. While it was commonly used in Ifé in Africa in the 12th century for statuary, in Europe it was only during the Renaissance, with the orders received by Ghiberti and Donatello, that it was entirely reinvented.
In 1466, after the death of Donatello, it was Verrocchio’s turn to become the Medici’s sculptor in title for whom he produced a whole series of works, notably, after Donatello, his own David in bronze (Bargello National Museum, Florence).
If with this promotion his social ascendancy is certain, Verrocchio found himself facing the greatest challenge that any artist of the Renaissance could have imagined: how to equal or even surpass Donatello, an artist whose genius has never been praised enough?
This being said, let us now approach the subject of the art of military command by comparing four equestrian monuments:
- Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline square in Rome (175 AD) ;
- Paolo Uccello’s fresco of John Hawkwood in the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (1436);
- Erasmo da Narni, known as “Gattamelata” (1446-1450), casted by Donatello in Padua.
- Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio in Venice (1480-1488).
Equestrian statues appeared in Greece in the middle of the 6th century B.C. to honor the victorious riders in a race. From the Hellenistic period onward, they were reserved for the highest state figures, sovereigns, victorious generals and magistrates. In Rome, on the forum, they constituted a supreme honor, subject to the approval of the Senate. Apart from being bronze equestrian statues, each one is placed in a place where their troops fought.
While each statue is a reminder of the importance of military and political command, the way in which this responsibility is exercised is quite different.
Marcus Aurelius in Rome
Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 A.D., into a noble family of Spanish origin. He was the nephew of the emperor Hadrian. After the death of Marcus Aurelius’ father, Hadrian entrusted him to his successor Antonin. The latter adopts and gives him an excellent education. He was initiated early in philosophy by his master Diognetus.
Interested in the stoics, he adopted for a while their lifestyle, sleeping on the ground, wearing a rough tunic, before he was dissuaded by his mother.
He went to Athens in 175 A.D. and became a promotor of philosophy. He helps financially the philosophers and the rhetoricians by granting them a fixed salary. Concerned with pluralism, he supported the Platonic Academy, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Garden of Epicurus and the Stoic Portico.
On the other hand, during his reign, persecutions against Christians were numerous. He saw them as troublemakers – since they refused to recognize the Roman gods, and as fanatics.
Erected in 175 A.D., the statue was entirely gilded. Its location in antiquity is unknown, but in the Middle Ages it stood in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine, and the Lateran Palace, then the papal residence.
In 1538, Pope Paul III had the monument of Marcus Aurelius transferred to the Capitol, the seat of the city’s government. Michelangelo restored the statue and redesigned the square around it, one of the fanciest in Rome. It is undoubtedly the most famous equestrian statue, and above all the only one dating back to ancient Rome that has survived, the others having been melted down into coins or weapons…
If the statue survived, it is thanks to a misunderstanding: it was thought that it represented Constantine, the first Roman emperor to have converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century, and it was out of the question to destroy the image of a Christian ruler.
Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known.
But the presence of a defeated enemy under the right foreleg of the horse (attested by medieval testimonies and since lost), the emperor’s gesture and the shape of the saddle cloth, unusual in the Roman world, make us to belief that the statue commemorated Marcus Aurelius’ victories, perhaps on the occasion of his triumph in Rome in 176, or even after his death. Indeed, his reign (161-180) was marked by incessant wars to counter the incursions of Germanic or Eastern peoples on the borders of an Empire that was now threatened and on the defensive.
The horse, while not that large, but looking powerful, has been sculpted with great care and represented with realism. Its nostrils are strongly dilated, its lips pulled by the bit reveal its teeth and tongue.
One leg raised, he has just been stopped by his rider, who holds the reins with his left hand. Like him, the horse turns his head slightly to the right, a sign that the statue was made to be seen from that side. Part of his harness is preserved, but the reins have disappeared.
The size of the athletic rider nevertheless dominates that of a powerful horse that he rides without stirrups (accessories unknown to the Romans). He is dressed in a short tunic belted at the waist and a ceremonial cloak stapled on the right shoulder. It is a civil and not a military garment, adapted to a peaceful context. He is wearing leather shoes held together by intertwined straps.
The statue is striking for its size (424 cm high) and for the majesty it exudes. Without armor or weapons, eyes wide open and without emotion, the emperor raises his right arm. His authority derives above all from the function he embodies: he is the Emperor who protects his Empire and his people by punishing their enemies without mercy.
The fresco by Paolo Uccello
In 1436, at the request of Cosimo de’ Medici, the young Paolo Uccello was commissioned to paint a fresco depicting John Hawkwood (1323-1394), the son of an English tanner who had become a warlord during the Hundred Years’ War in France and whose name would be Italicized into Giovanno Acuto.
Serving the highest bidder, especially rival Italian cities, Hawkwood’s company of mercenaries was no slouch.
In Florence, although it may seem paradoxical, it was the humanist chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) who put Hawkwood at the head of a regular army in the service of the Signoria.
This approach is not unlike that of Louis XI in France, who, in order to control the skinners and other cutthroats who were ravaging the nation, did not hesitate to discipline them by incorporating them into a standing army, the new royal army.
The humanists of the Renaissance, notably Leonardo Bruni (1370-1440) in his De Militia (1420), became aware of the curse of using mercenaries in conflicts and of the fact that only standing army, i.e. a permanent army formed of professionals and even better by citizens and maintained by a state or a city could guarantee a lasting peace.
Although Hawkwood faithfully protected the city for 18 years, his ugly “professionalism” as a mercenary was not unanimously accepted, to the point of inspiring the proverb “Inglese italianato è un diavolo Incarnato” (« An Italianized Englishman is a devil incarnate »).
Petrarch denounced him, Boccaccio tried in vain to mount a diplomatic offensive against him, St. Catherine of Sienna begged him to leave Italy, Chaucer met him and, no doubt, used him as a model for The Knight’s Tale (The Canterbury Tales).
All this will not prevent Cosimo, a member of the humanist conspiracy and a great patron of the arts, returning from exile, from wanting to honor him. But in the absence of the bronze equestrian statue (which had been promised to him…), Florence, will only offer him a fresco in the nave of Santa Maria del Fiore, that is to say under right under the cupola of the Duomo.
From the very beginning, Paolo Uccello’s fresco seems to have stirred quite a controversy. A preparatory drawing in the collections of Florence’s Uffizi Museum indicates the commander, more armed, taller, and, with his horse in a more military position. Uccello had originally depicted Hawkwood as « more threatening », with his baton raised and horse « at the ready ».
A recent ultraviolet study confirms the fact that the painter had originally depicted the condottiere armed from head to toe. In the final version, he wears a sleeveless jacket, the giornea, and a coat; only his legs and feet are protected by a piece of armor. The final version presents a less imposing rider, less warlike, more human and more individualized
In the dispute, it was not Uccello who was considered faulty, but his sponsors. Moreover, the painter was quickly given the task of redoing the fresco in a way deemed “more appropriate”.
Unfortunately, there is no record of the debates that must have raged among the officials of the church fabric (Opera Del Domo). What is certain is the fact that in the final version, visible today, the condottiere has been transformed from a warlord running a gang of mercenaries, into the image of philosopher-king whose only weapon is his commanding staff. At the bottom of the fresco, we can read in Latin: “Giovanno Acuto, British knight, who was in his time held as a very prudent general and very expert in military affairs.”
The position of the horse and the perspective of the sarcophagus have been changed from a simple profile to a di sotto in su view.
If this perspective is somewhat surrealistic and the pose of the horse, raising both legs on the same side, simply impossible, it remains a fact that Uccello’s fresco will set “the standards” of the ideal and impassive image of virtue and command that must embody the hero of the Renaissance: his goal is no longer to “win” a war (the objective of the mercenary), but to preserve the peace by preventing it (the objective of a philosopher-king or simply a wise head of state).
As such, one might say that Uccello’s fresco announces the “paradigm shift” marking the end of the age of perpetual feudal wars, to that of the Renaissance, that is to say to that of a necessary concord between sovereign nation-states whose security is indivisible, the security of one being the guarantee of the security of the other, a paradigm even more rigorously defined in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, when it made the agapic notion of the “advantage of the other” the basis of its success.
One historian suggests that the recommissioning of Uccello’s fresco was part of the « refurbishing » of the cathedral associated with its rededication as Santa Maria del Fiore by the humanist Pope Eugene IV in March 1436, determined to convince the Eastern and Western Churches to peacefully overcome their divisions and réunite as was attempted at the Council of Florence of 1437-1438 and for which the Duomo was central.
Interesting is the fact that Uccello’s fresco appeared at around the same time that Yolande d’Aragon and Jacques Coeur, who had his Italian connections, persuaded the French king Charles VII to put an end to the Hundred Years’ War by setting up a permanent, standing army.
In 1445, an ordinance was passed to discipline and rationalize the army in the form of cavalry units grouped into Compagnies d’Ordonnances, the first permanent army at the disposal, not of warlords or aristocrats, but of the King of France.
Donatello’s “Gattamelata” (1447-1453)
It was only some years later, in Padua, between 1447 and 1453, that Donatello would work on the statue of Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443), a Renaissance condottiere, i.e. the leader of a professional army in the service of the Republic of Venice, which at the time ruled the city of Padua. An important detail is that Erasmo was nicknamed “il Gattamelata”.
In French, « faire la chattemite » means to affect a false air of sweetness to deceive or seduce… Others explain that his nickname of “honeyed cat” comes from the fact that his mother was called Melania Gattelli or that he wore a crest (a helmet) in the shape of a honey-colored cat in battle…
The man was of humble origin, the son of a baker, born in Umbria around 1370. He learned to handle weapons from Ceccolo Broglio, lord of Assisi, and then, when he was in his thirties, from the captains of Braccio da Montone, who was known for recruiting the best fighters.
In 1427, Erasmo, who had the confidence of Cosimo de’ Medici, signed a seven-year contract with the humanist Pope Martin V, who wished to strengthen an army corps loyal to his cause with the aim of bringing to heel the lords of Emilia, Romagna and Umbria who were rebellious against papal authority.
He bought a huge suit of armor to reinforce his high stature. He was not an impetuous fighter, but a master of siege warfare, which forced him to take slow, thoughtful and progressive action. He spied on his prey for a long time before trapping it.
In 1432, he captured the fortress of Villafranca near Imola by cunning alone and without fighting. The following year he did the same to capture the fortified town of Castelfranco, thus sparing his soldiers and his treasure.
Those who were unable to grasp his tactics, accused him of being a coward for “running away” from the front-line, not realizing, that on a given moment, this was part of the tactics of his winning strategy.
He was a prudent captain, with a very well-mannered troop, and he was careful to maintain good relations with the magistrates of the towns that employed him. He obtained the rank of captain-general of the army of the Republic of Venice during the fourth war against the Duke of Milan in 1438 and died in Padua in 1443. Following his death, the Venetian Republic gave him full honors and Giacoma della Leonessa, his widow, commissioned a sculpture in honor of her late husband for 1650 ducats.
The statue, which represents the life-size condottiere, in antique-style armor and bareheaded, holding his commanding staff in his raised right hand, on his horse, was made by the lost-wax method. As early as 1447, Donatello made the models for the casting of the horse and the condottiere. The work progresses at full speed and the work is completed in 1453 and placed on its pedestal in the cemetery that adjoins the Basilica of Padua.
Brilliant for his cunning and guile, Gattamelata was a thoughtful and effective fighter in action, the type of leader recommended by Machiavelli in The Prince, and which appears in the sixteenth century by François Rabelais in his account of the “Picrocholine wars”.
Not the brute power of weapons, but the cunning and the intelligence will be the major qualities that Donatello will make appear powerfully in his work.
Contrary to Marcus Aurelius, it is not his social status that gives the commander his authority, but his intelligence and his creativity in the government of the city and the art of war. Donatello had an eye for detail. Looking at the horse, we see that it is a massive animal but far from static. It has a slow and determined gait, without any hesitation.
But that’s not all. A rigorous analysis shows that the proportions of the horse are of a “higher order” than those of the condottiere. Did Donatello make a mistake and make Erasmo too small and the horse too large? No, the sculptor made this choice to emphasize the value of Gattamelata who, thanks to his skills, is able to tame even wild and gigantic animals. In addition, the horse’s eyes show him as wild and untameable. Looking at him, one could say that it is impossible to ride him, but Gattamelata manages it with ease and without effort.
Because if you look at the reins in the hands of the protagonist, you will notice that he holds them in complete tranquility. This is another detail that highlights Erasmus’ powerful cunning and ingenuity.
Next, did you notice that one of the horse’s legs rests on a sphere? If this sphere (which could also be a cannonball, since Erasmus was a warrior) serves to give stability to Donatello’s composition as a whole, it also indicates how this animal of gigantic strength (symbolizing here warlike violence), once tamed and well used, allows the globe (the earthly kingdom) to be kept in balance.
Having told you about the horse, it is time to know more about the condottiere.
He has a proud and determined expression. The baton of command, which he holds in his hand, delicately touches the horse’s mane. The baton is not just a symbolic object; he may have received it in 1438 from the Republic of Venice.
Unlike Uccello’s fresco, Gattamelata is not dressed as a contemporary prince of commander, but as a figure beyond time embodying both the past, the present and the future. To capture this, Donatello, who takes care of every detail, has taken an ancient model and modernized it with incredible results. The details of the protagonist’s armor include purely classical motifs such as the head of Medusa, taken from Marcus Aurelius, in Greek mythology one of the three gorgons whose eyes had the power to petrify any mortal who crossed her gaze.
Although the helmet of Gattamelata would have allowed to identify him at eyesight, Donatello has discarded this option. With a helmet on his head, he would have been the symbol of a bloodthirsty warrior, rather than a cunning man. Even better, the absence of a helmet allows the artist to show us a fearless commander whose fixed gaze shows his determination. With the figure slightly bowed and legs extended, the sword in its scabbard placed at an angle, Donatello gives the illusion of an “imbalance” that reinforces in the viewer’s mind the idea that the horse is advancing with full strength.
Art historian John Pope-Hennessy is emphatic:
As a result, Gattamelata is not a remake of the “classical Greek or Roman sculpture” of a hero with a sculpted physique, but a kind of new man who succeeds through reason. The fact that the statue has such a high pedestal also has its reason. Placed at such a height, the Gattamelata does not “share” our own space. It is in another dimension, eternal and out of time.
Some thirty years later, between 1480 and 1488, Andrea del Verrocchio, after a contest, was selected to make a large bronze equestrian statue of another Italian condottiere named Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475).
A ruthless mercenary, working for a patron one day and his rival the next day, he served from 1454 the Republic of Venice with the title of general-in-chief (capitano generale). He died in 1475 leaving a will in which he bequeathed part of his fortune to Venice in exchange for the commitment to erect a bronze statue to his honor in St. Mark’s Square.
The Venetian Senate agreed to erect an equestrian monument to his memory, while charging the costs to the widow of the deceased…
In addition, the Senate refused to erect it in St. Mark’s Square, which was, along with St. Mark’s Basilica, at the heart of the city’s life. The Senate therefore decided to interpret the conditions set by Colleoni in his last will and testament without contradicting them, choosing to erect his statue in 1479, not in St. Mark’s Square, but in an area further from the city center in front of the Scuola San Marco, on the campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
Although Verrocchio had started working on the project since 1482, it remained unfinished at his death in 1488. And it is, not as Verrocchio wished, his heir Lorenzo di Credi who will cast the statue, but the Venetian Alessandro Leopardi (who lost the contest to Verrocchio), who will not hesitate to sign it!
If the horse is in conformity with the typology of the magnificent horses composing the quadriga overseeing the Basilica of Saint Mark of Venice (Greek statuary of the IVth century BC brought back by the crusaders from Constantinople to Venice in 1204) and of the horse of Marcus Aurelius, its musculature is more nervously underlined and traced. Objectively, this statue is ideally more proportionate. There is also more fine detail, a result of new pre-sculpture techniques, making the work captivating and realistic to look at.
The sculpture overflows its pedestal. According to André Suarès quoted in The Majesty of Centaurs:
His baton of command is even metamorphosed into a bludgeon! But since it is not Verrocchio who finished this work, let us not blame the latter for the warlike fury that emanates from this statue.
Venice, a vicious slave-trading financial and maritime Empire fronting as a “Republic”, clearly took its revenge here on the beautiful conception developed during the Renaissance of a philosopher-king defending the nation-state.
On the aesthetic level, this mercenary smells like an animal. As a good observer, Leonardo warned us: when an artist represents a man entirely imprisoned by a single emotion (joy, rage, sadness, etc.), he ends up painting something that takes us away from the truly human soul. This is what we see in this equestrian statue.
If, on the contrary, the artist shows several emotions running through the figure represented, the human aspect will be emphasized. This is the case, as we have seen, with Donatello’s Gattamelata, uniting cunning, determination and prudence to overcome fear the face of threat.
Leonardo’s own, gigantic project to erect a gigantic bronze horse, on which he worked for years and developed new bronze casting techniques, unfortunately was never build, seen the hectic circumstances.
Finally, beyond all the interpretations, let us admire the admirable know-how of these artists. In terms of craft and skill, it generally took an entire life to become able to realize such great works, not even mentioning the patience and boundless passion required.
Up to us to bring it back to life !
- Verrocchio, Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020;
- Donatello, John Pope-Hennessy, Abbeville Press, 1993;
- Uccello, Franco and Stefano Borsi, Hazan, 2004;
- Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26;
- Monumento Equestre al Gattamelata di Donatello: la Statua del Guerriero Astuto, blog de Dario Mastromattei, mars 2020;
- La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Charles Avery, Livre de poche, 1996 ;
- La sculpture de la Renaissance au XXe siècle, Taschen, 1999;
- Ateliers de la Renaissance, Zodiaque-Desclée de Brouwer, 1998;
- Rabelais et l’art de la guerre, Christine Bierre, 2007.
- The Greek language project, Plato and the Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, jan. 2021.
By Karel Vereycken, april 2020.
The Triumph of Death? The simple fact that the heir to the throne of England, Prince Charles, and even the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have tested positive to the terrifying coronavirus currently sweeping the planet, tells something to the public.
As some commentators pointed out (no irony) it “gave a face to the virus”. Until then, when an elderly person or a dedicated nurse died of the same, it “wasn’t real”.
Realizing that these “higher-ups” are not part of the immortal Gods of Olympus but are mortals as all of us, brings to my mind “The Triumph of Death”, a large oil painting on panel (117 x 162 cm, Prado, Madrid), generally misunderstood, painted by the Flemish painter Peter Bruegel’s the elder (1525-1569), and thought to be executed between 1562 and his premature demise.
In order to discover, beyond the painting, the intention of the painter’s mind, it is always useful, before rushing into hazardous conclusions, to briefly describe what one sees.
What do we see in Bruegel’s « Triumph of Death« ? On the left, a skeleton, symbolizing death itself, holding a sand-glass in its hand, carries away a dead King. Next to him, another skeleton grabs the vast amounts of money no one can take with him into the grave. Death is driving a chariot. Below the charriot some people are crawling on their knees, hoping to remain unnoticed.
On the right, at the forefront, people are gambling and amusing themselves. A skeleton playing a musical instruments joins a prosperous young couple engaged in a musical dialogue and clearly unaware that Death is taking over the planet.
The message is simple and clear. No one can escape death, poor or rich, young or old, king or peasant, sick or healthy. When the hour comes, or at the end of all times, all mortals return to the creator since “physical” death triumphs over all of them.
American thinker Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019), in his speeches and writings, used to remind us, with his typical loving impatience: all human wisdom starts by a personal decision to acknowledge a fact proven without contest: we are all born and each of us, sooner or later, will die. So far, our bodies have all been proven mortal.
The duration of our mortal existence on the clock of the universe, he reminded, is less than a nanosecond.
Therefore, knowing this boundary condition of our mortal existence, we, each of us, have to make a personal sovereign decision: how will I spend the talent of my life ? Will I spend that talent chasing the earthly pleasures of the flesh, or dedicate my life to defending the truth, the beautiful and the good, to the great benefit of humanity as a whole, living in past, present and future ?
In 2011, in a discussion, LaRouche explained what he meant by saying that humanity has the potential to become an “immortal” species:
I live; as long as I live, I may generate ideas.
These conceptions give mankind a chance to move forward.
But then the time will come when I will die.
Now, two things happen: First of all, if these creative principles,
which have been developed by earlier generations,
are realized in the future, that means that mankind is an immortal species. We are not personally immortal;
but to the extent that we’re creative, we’re an immortal species.
And the ideas that we contribute to society
are permanent contributions to the human society.
We are therefore an immortal species,
based on mortal beings. And the key thing in life is to grasp that connection.
To say that we’re creative and die,
doesn’t tell us the story. If we, in our own lives, who are about to die,
can contribute something that is permanent, which will outlive our death, and be a benefit to mankind in future times, we have achieved the purpose of immortality.
And that is the crucial thing.
If people can actually face, with open minds, the fact that we’re each going to die—but look at it in the right way,
then we are impassioned to make the contributions,
to discover the principles, to do the work that is immortal.
Those discoveries of principle which are immortal, which pass on from one generation to the other. And thus, the dead live in the living;
because what the dead do, if they have done that in their lifetime, they are alive, not as in the flesh, but they’re alive in principle.
They’re part, an active part, of human society.
LaRouche’s outlook, the “moral” obligation to live a “creative” existence on Earth in the image of the Creator, was deeply rooted in the philosophical outlook of both the Platonic and the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose happy marriage gave us the beautiful Christian humanism which, in the early XVth Century, ignited an unprecedented explosion, on a mass-scale and of unseen density of economic, scientific, artistic and cultural achievements, later qualified as a “Renaissance”.
In Plato’s Phaedon, Socrates develops the idea that our mortal body is a constant impediment to philosophers in their search for truth: “It fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense, so that, as it is said, in truth and in fact no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body” (66c). To have pure knowledge, therefore, philosophers must escape from the influence of the body as much as is possible in this life. Philosophy (Literally “The love of wisdom”) itself is, in fact, a kind of “preparation for dying” (67e), a purification of the philosopher’s soul from its bodily attachment.
Also the Vulgate’s Latin rendering of Ecclesiastics 7:40 stresses: « in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin”. This passage finds expression in the christian ritual of Ash Wednesday, when ashes are placed upon the worshippers’ heads with the words: “Remember Man that You are Dust and unto Dust You Shall Return.”
Is this a morbid ritual? No, it is a philosophy lesson. Christianity itself, as a religion, cherishes God’s own son made man, Jesus, for having renounced to his mortal life for the sake of mankind. It put Jesus’ death at the center. And in the XIVth century, Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), one of the leading intellectuals and founders of the Brothers of the Common Life, wrote that every Christian should shape his life in the “Imitation of Christ”. Both Nicolaus of Cusa (1401-1464) and Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) were powerfully influenced and trained by this intellectual current.
Erasmus’ personal armory was the juxtaposition of a skull and a sand-glass, referring to death and time as the boundary conditions of human existence.
In 1519, his friend, the Flemish painter and goldsmith Quentin Matsys (1466-1530) forged a bronze medal to the honor of the great humanist.
On one side of the medal there is an efigee of Erasmus and a Latin inscription informs us that this is “an image taken from life”. At the same time we are told in Greek, « his writings will make him better. known »
The reverse side of the medal shows solemn inscriptions surrounding an unusual image. At the top of a pillar that stands in rough, uneven ground, emerges the head of a young man with a stubbly chin and wild, flowing hair. Like Erasmus on the other side of the medal, he seems to have a faint smile upon his face. On either side of the head are the words “Concedo Nulli”– “I yield to no one.” On the pillar is inscribed Terminus, the name of a Roman god who presided over boundaries. Again bilingual quotations surround a profile. On the left, in Greek, is the instruction, « Keep in mind the end of a long life. » On the right, in Latin, is the stark reminder, « Death is the ultimate boundary of things. »
Adapting as his own motto “I yield to no one”, Erasmus took the great risk of using such a daring metaphor. Accused of intolerable arrogance by his sycophants, he underlined that “Concedo Nulli” had to be understood as death’s own statement, not his own. And who could argue with the assertion that death is the terminus that yields to no one?
Mozart, Brahms and Gandhi
Centuries later, the great humanist composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was the exact opposite of a morbid cynic. Revealing his inner mindset, Mozart once said that the secret of all genius, was love for humanity: “neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius”.
But on April 4, 1787, Mozart wrote to his father, Leopold, as he lay dying :
I need hardly tell you how greatly I am longing
to receive some reassuring news from yourself.
And I still expect it ; although I have now made a habit of being prepared in all affairs of life for the worst.
As death, when we come to consider it closely,
is the true goal of our existence,
I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind,
that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me,
but is indeed very soothing and consoling !
And I thank God for graciously granting me
the opportunity (you know what I mean)
of learning that death is the key
which unlocks the door to our true happiness.
I never lie down at night
without reflecting that –young as I am– I may not live to see another day.
Johannes Brahms 1865 German Requiem, quotes Peter 1:24-25 reminding us that
“For all flesh is as grass,
and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.
The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.”
Also Mahatma Gandhi, expressed, in his own way, somthing similar, about how one has to live simultaneously with mortality and immortality:
« Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever. »
Memento Mori and Vanitas
Just as Hieronymus Bosch’s (1450-1516) painting of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” (Prado, Madrid), where the great Dutch master uses the metaphor of naked humans incessantly chasing delicious fruits, calls on the viewer to become aware of his close-to-ridiculous, animal-like attachment to earthly pleasures and calls on his free will and his sens of humor to free himself, Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death” painting, on a first level, is fundamentally nothing else than a complex Memento Mori (Latin “remember that you must die”).
With this painting, Bruegel pays tribute to his intellectual godfather’s motto Concedo Nulli, that is, as Erasmus did in his writings, Bruegel paints the ineluctability of death, not by praising its horror, but with the aim of inspiring his fellow citizens to walk into immortality. In the same way Erasmus’ « In praise of folly » was in fact an inversion of his praise of reason, Brueghel’s « Triumph of Death » was conceived as a triumph of (immortal) life.
For the Catholic faith, the aim of a Memento Mori was to remind (and eventually terrorize) the believer that after death, he or she might end up in Purgatory or worse in Hell if they did not respect the Church and her rites. With the invention of oil painting in the early XVth century, panel paintings of this genre for private homes and small chapels were considered aesthetic objects crafted for the sake of religious and philosophical contemplation.
Hence, starting with the Renaissance, the Memento Mori painting became a much demanded artifact, re-branded in the following centuries as “Vanitas”, Latin for « emptiness » or « vanity ». Especially popular in Holland and then spreading to other European nations, Vanitas paintings typically represented assemblages of numerous symbolic objects such as human skulls, guttering candles, wilting flowers, soap bubbles, butterflies and hourglasses.
A first source is of course, the famous designs and woodcuts executed by Erasmus intimate friend and illustrator of his “In Praise of Folly”, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), for his satirical “Dance of Death” (1523), which –breaking with the way the “Dance macabre” was used before by the Flagellants and other madmen to desensitize the population in order to push them into a fatalistic retreat of the outer world– introduces the new philosophical dimension that Bruegel will develop.
The close-to-embarassing anamorphosic representation of a giant skull in Holbein’s work « The Ambassadors » (1533), demonstrates his profound understanding of the Memento Mori metaphor.
Erasmus’ friend Albrecht Dürer‘s engraving « Knight, Death and the Devil » (1513), or his « Saint Jerome in his study » (1514) (with skull and hourglass) are two other examples.
Bruegel and Italy
Ironically, Peter Bruegel the elder has always been presented as a painter of the Northern School who was completely closed to the “Italian” Renaissance.
The reality is that while rejected the transformation of the Renaissance into a form of mannerism in the XVIth century, he took most of his inspiration directly from two Italian Renaissance sources.
First, of course, the image of Death riding a horse, and even a group of persons such as the young couple engaged in their musical embrace, appear incontestably as taken from the Triumph of Deat”, a vast fresco from 1446 which decorated the walls of the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo, Sicily. Bruegel’s trip to Southern Italy is a well documented fact.
The second source, which undoubtedly also inspired the painter of the fresco, is a series of allegorical poems known as “I Trionfi” (“The Triumphs”: Triomph of Love, of Chastity, of Death, of Fame, of Time and of Eternity), composed by the great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, most likely following the “Black Death”, a pandemic outbreak which, starting with the 1345 banking crash, decimated a vast portion of the population of Europe.
Petrarca’s genius was precisely to offer to those terrified with the very idea of having to face their physical mortality, a philosophical answer to their anxiety.
As a result, his Trionfi became rapidly popular, not only in Italy but all over Europe. And for most painters, working on Petrarca’s themes became part of their common repertoire.
To conclude, here is an excerpt (English) of the poem, where Petrarca blasts the mad lust of Kings and Popes for wealth, pleasure and earthly power. In the face of death, he stresses, they are worthless. Petrarca’s wording fits to the detail the images used by Bruegel in his painting The Triumph of Death :
(…) afar we might perceive
Millions of dead heap’d on th’ adjacent plain;
No verse nor prose may comprehend the slain
Did on Death’s triumph wait, from India,
From Spain, and from Morocco, from Cathay,
And all the skirts of th’ earth they gather’d were;
Who had most happy lived, attended there:
Popes, Emperors, nor Kings, no ensigns wore
Of their past height, but naked show’d and poor.
Where be their riches, where their precious gems,
Their mitres, sceptres, robes, and diadems?
O miserable men, whose hopes arise
From worldly joys, yet be there few so wise
As in those trifling follies not to trust;
And if they be deceived, in end ’tis just:
Ah! more than blind, what gain you by your toil?
You must return once to your mother’s soil,
And after-times your names shall hardly know,
Nor any profit from your labour grow;
All those strange countries by your warlike stroke
Submitted to a tributary yoke;
The fuel erst of your ambitious fire,
What help they now? The vast and bad desire
Of wealth and power at a bloody rate
Is wicked,–better bread and water eat
With peace; a wooden dish doth seldom hold
A poison’d draught; glass is more safe than gold;
Whether Bruegel, who saw undoubtedly the fresco in Palermo during his trip in the 1550s, had read Petrarca’s poem remains an open question. It can be said that many of his direct friends were familiar with the Italian poet.
In Antwerp, the painter was a frequent guest of the Scola Caritatis, a humanist circle animated by one Hendrick Nicolaes, where Brueghel met poets, translaters, painters, engravers (Cock, Golzius) mapmakers (Mercator), cosmographers (Ortelius) and bookmakers such as the Antwerp printer Christophe Plantijn, who’se renowned printing shop would print Petrarca’s poetry.
Also in Antwerp, indicating how popular Petrarca’s poetry had become in the Low Countries and France, the franco-flemish Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594) published his first musical compositions, including his madrigals on each of the six Trionfi of Petrarca, among which the « Triumph of Death ».
All evil, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) hoped, can give birth to something good, far bigger and superior to the evil that provoked it. Therefore, we can hope that the current pandemic breakdown crisis will lead some of the leading decision-makers, with our help, to reflect on the sens and purpose of their lives. The worst would be to return to yesterday’s “normalcy” since that kind of “normal” is exactly what drove the planet currently to the verge of extinction.
At last, it should be stressed that in the same way Lyndon LaRouche, by his ruthless (Concedi Nulli) commitment to defend the sacred creative nature of every human individual, contributed to the enduring immortality of Plato, Petrarca, Erasmus and Bruegel, it is up to each of us to carry even further that battle.
Long time ago
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock
As waiting for Godot,
My watch, watched the clock
The hour arrived at last
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock
Melancoly was past
Eternal joy had struck