History, origins, recovery: Michelangelo and the politics of art

Portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da VolterraHistory, origins, recovery: Michelangelo and the politics of art

By Joost Pieter Keizer

PhD Dissertation, Leiden University, 2008

Abstract: My dissertation considers the origins of High Renaissance art as a response to the volatile political and cultural change that marked the years around 1500 in Florence. It serves to bridge a diaspora that marks High Renaissance studies as a whole since the days of Heinrich Wölfflin, one that separated stylistic change from political, social and religious change.

The book takes the works that Michelangelo produced for the Florentine Republic between 1501 and 1506 as a case study in an artist’s engagement with art’s political function. That function had become a topic of debate by the late fifteenth century, witnessed by a decline of artistic commissions and the burning of existing works of art. That debate was part of an organized campaign to reverse Florentine culture in the eighteen years after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494 – also the years in which older scholarship locates the origins of High Renaissance art.

In works like the David, the Doni Tondo, the Saint Matthew, and the Cascina Cartoon Michelangelo found creative solutions in response to the issues of “history,” the “origins” of creativity and the “recovery” of older systems of representation – solutions that made the balance of political meaning shift from the what to the how of representation.

When Michelangelo returned to Florence from Rome in the early spring of 1501, he returned to a city that had not yet recovered from a profound artistic crisis. The number of commissions for painting, sculpture and architecture had been dropping for over half a decade; signs of recovery were shimmering on the horizon, but a full restoration of a once glorious artistic culture was not in sight. Many artists had fled the city to seek economic refuge elsewhere, and with the deaths of Verrocchio in 1488, Bertoldo in 1491, Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1494, Piero Pollaiuolo in 1496 and Antonio Pollaiuolo in 1498, it must have seemed like a certain era had come to an abrupt end. That the last decade of the fifteenth century in Florence witnessed the ceding of one artistic idiom to another in the first decade of the next century is an idea familiar to us. It can be found in Renaissance surveys from Heinrich Wölfflin to the present but was, of course, really born in Vasari’s Vite, where the years around 1500 mark the transition from the Second to the Third Età.

Michelangelo often features as the protagonist in these histories. In the pre‐dominant writing of our field, he is seen almost single‐handedly transforming the styles of representation practiced by a past generation of Florentine artists, inaugurating the era we now call the High Renaissance. And although recent writing makes an effort to deconstruct the artist’s dominance in our definition of sixteenth‐century painting, the focus on Michelangelo, at the cost of other practicing artists of the period – save, perhaps, for Leonardo and Raphael – is one that finds some historical validation: his name features prominently in contemporary chronicles, histories of the city and family, in ricordi and ricordanze.

Click here to read/download this thesis from Leiden University

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