Art has always been intertwined with politics, and not just as an illustration of kings’ victories and special relationship with gods. Ever since Pericles was falsely accused of embezzling gold on Zeus statue by the sculptor Phidias, art has been used to drive home a political point or vouch for a political agenda, often becoming propaganda of the worst sort.
One of the most striking examples of Propaganda vs. Art can be found in Florence, right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, or city council.
The context of David is inspiring. In 1494, the Medici were ousted from Florence for the second time. Four years later, Savonarola, the crazy revolutionary who kicked them out was hanged and burned at the stake (hanging can be an act of kindness sometimes), becoming a flaming example of the principle that it is always better to be the sheriff’s deputy, who is not shot. Two more years passed before the republican government commissioned 26-year-old Michelangelo to do a sculpture of David, as a symbol of liberation from the Medici. The joke was that the marble block used for David was given to another artist over 40 years before the events by the founding father of the Medici Family, old Cosimo Medici.
Michelangelo’s David, calm, yet tense; ready to fight, yet peaceful; not looking for enemies, but watching out for them was meant to look at bad guys with its stern eye and at Florence’s people with its just eye.
People say David looks different if you observe his face from the left or the right side, but I am not sure.
What I think truly happens is that David looks different in different lighting:
You see, David is a tad less menacing when the sun rises and lits up his face.
Alas, bad guys happened to be in Rome at the time, so David was placed to face south (1504), and the effect was largely lost.
Michelangelo was a genius sculptor, but a guy of questionable loyalties. He stayed loyal to the city, but not to his temporarily defeated benefactors. The Medici brought him up, fed him from their collective palm and kicked ass of his offenders. The youth who broke Michelangelo’s nose was [afraid to be] trashed so hard he flew all the way to England (where he made a career sculpting for English kings. Next time you go to Westminster Abbey, have a look at Henry VII’s tomb. It’s that guy’s job).
Michelangelo created a symbol of freedom (from the Medici) and free human spirit, that would dominate art history books for centuries to come, and then went on to work on the tomb of Julius II, the Pope who waged the most idiotic military campaigns, and commissioned the most famous Renaissance paintings, frescoes and sculptures. Michelangelo left Florence for Rome, and his David was watching him go with glowering eyes and creased eyebrows.
Were Michelangelo feeling himself forever in debt to the Medici, he wouldn’t be able to go beyond propaganda, most likely resorting to the usual way of showing David, that is, after the battle, with the head of Holofernes in his hand. Being loyal to his art only, Michelangelo captured the moment when David decided to go to battle but had not yet gone there. It is the resolve to fight that matters, not the victory itself.
The republican government wanted Michelangelo to do a Hercules statue, to entertain the 5-metre David with a bit of company. David would be a symbol of spiritual strength, and Hercules would stand for brutal force. Two giants were also thought to provide a better (and more convincing) view to Florence’s visitors.
But Rome offered to Michelangelo so much more, and the commission went to a sculptor who thought of Michelangelo as his rival, even though Michelangelo had never cared about rivalling back. The artist’s name was Baccio Bandinelli and his most famous act was stealing a bit of Michelangelo’s carton from the Palazzo Vecchio when no one was looking. But at that time the republican government had so much on its hands, the project didn’t go beyond small-scale wax models.
The Medici – unlike the Lannisters (those who watched the Game of Thrones series would know them well) – were lax about paying their debts but were never late to collect them. The new pontiff, Leo X, being a brother of Lorenzo il Magnifico couldn’t stand the sight of a republican government rummaging the family palazzos. In 1512, he brokered a deal with Spain to have a Medici ruler reinstated.
The new old rulers liked the sculpture of David. It could easily be reinterpreted into a symbol of liberation from the republicans. So, David remained where he was, as resolute as before.
Some ten years later, around 1523, and under another Medici Pope, Clement VII, the decision on the Hercules sculpture was finally delivered: it was meant to become a symbol of Medici’s return to power in Florence. The Hercules was given green light, and in 1525 a huge marble block was delivered to the workshop of the sculptor who got the order from the republican government but turned out to be a Medici loyalist, the same Baccio Bandinelli.
Yes, it could take 2 years and more for a major decision to be processed into action at the time. A month to reach the right ears and be signed off by the right authority. Then two weeks to reach the marble quarry. Then X months to find a proper block of marble, with X being virtually any number. Then a month or two to transport it to Florence. Bureaucracy was easy then!
Bandinelli was a very good sculptor in what today is known as the “small form”. When Bandinelli went wide and large, it would usually turn out pretentious and grotesque. Two years later, in 1527, by which time Bandinelli had got as far as carving out Hercules’s torso, Rome was sacked by German landsknechts and Clement VII got imprisoned by the Spanish King. By the way, were Clement not such a poor politician, England would be still Catholic. He didn’t grant the divorce permission to Henry VIII only because he was afraid of the King of Spain’s reaction to a relative being thrown out of her queendom.
Republicans in Florence decided it was the right moment to throw out their Medici ruler (Ippolito de Medici, mainly famous for groping teenage Catherine de’Medici in the garden, right before she was engaged to the French king and shipped over to France to become their Queen), along with all the Medici loyalists. Bandinelli had to go. His half-made Hercules had to stay, for without his legs carved out, he obviously couldn’t walk and must have looked like a victim of mafia cement justice ready to be plunged into a river.
The marble block with the top half of Hercules sticking out was given back to Michelangelo by the new republican government, who decided that it was not going to be the pro-Medici Hercules any longer, but Samson, slaying the Philistines, and, metaphorically, very anti-Medici.
Alas, being responsible for Florence fortifications, Michelangelo had too much on his hands to do anything but brushing the dust on this unlucky marble during the 2-year republican revival.
And then, in 1530, with Clement VII being freed and an ally, the Spanish King decided to demonstrate his goodwill to the Pope by terminating the Florentine Republic once and for all. Florence was sieged, taken, and the Medici reinstalled.
The new ruler, Alessandro de Medici (who actually spotted the previous ruler Ippolito groping Catherine in the garden and squealed on him to Clement VII) remembered the half-finished marble.
Bandinelli was returned and asked to continue working on the monument that was to show now not only Medici’s return but also their leniency towards their enemies. Repent, and be forgiven.
That was Bandinelli’s chance to get equal to Michelangelo. But his lack of talent and political agenda didn’t allow him to get even close. He desperately wanted the Medici to like his creation. Michelangelo never really cared about the likes or wants of his patrons.
In two years, Bandinelli finished the project. It was placed next to David and unveiled in 1534.
This is Hercules and Cacus. The latter was a brute who lived near one of the hills on which Rome was later founded, stole cattle from decent folk and wouldn’t say no to a lunch on human flesh. He was also believed to be able to breathe fire. Hercules strangled Cacus in a way that he couldn’t breathe in to breathe out, and thus defeated the monster.
Here, Hercules is shown with the defeated enemy at his feet. The future household name for gyms and military aircraft waits for Cacus to beg for his life with promises to “never again be a bad boy”. Hercules demonstrates leniency while the club in his hand subtly implies what can happen otherwise.
Otherwise, a lot of unpleasantries can happen, with some of them begging for the sign “18+”.
Bandinelli got a load of money, land, and whatever else Alessandro de Medici could bestow upon him. But people started laughing at this “sack full of melons” the moment it was unveiled and keep wondering ever since if steroids were invented by an unknown Renaissance genius as well. One brute beat up the other brute because the former was physically stronger than the latter, which shows in the size of their muscles. Period. The propaganda of the worst sort.
Today, it is just a reminder of Michelangelo’s genius, with Bandinelli name known to Renaissance art historians and a few art geeks like myself.
Juxtaposed against Michelangelo, Hercules helps to better appreciate a real masterpiece. It is also a reminder to artists who contemplate selling their talent to the rich and powerful. Talent can’t be sold without being destroyed.
If you want to see more of Hercules (and the one that is actually attributed to Michelangelo by some historians), you simply have to click on “A willie SHALL NOT be used as a handrail!”.
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