Updated: Mar 10, 2020
”The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” - Michelangelo Bounarroti
The first week of March marks birthdays of two great Renaissance artists - Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Bounarotti. Sandro was born on the first day of March and Michelangelo was born on its sixth day. Both of these great artists have created works of art that are of immeasurable value, but in their creation they did not simply express feelings and thoughts and as such, their art was not a result of mere expressionism. Their art embodied and yet at the same time, created philosophical ideals. The Renaissance ideals of humanism, classicism and Neoplatonism took form in their art. With their art, they celebrated the ideal human. That ideal human was a manifestation of the noble characteristics. That human is a being who has chosen reason to rule over his senses and human who's spiritual beauty is in harmony with his outer beauty, for his body is in perfect shape and health as well. This human is poised, virtuous and brave but honors and cherishes the finer delicacies of life such are sciences, arts and beauty. As opposed to view that human existence is sinful at its source, these artists celebrated human in his greatness - as the carrier of reason and consciousness. A being bestowed with these unique gift is to behave and live giving justice to them. A human being is simply to be beautiful in every aspect - the body, the mind, the spirit. The Beauty that is spoken of here is not mere sensory appreciation, but a philosophical principle, according to which Beauty is the clearest face of Divine. Neoplatonist philosophy was at the core of these ideals and the great Medici family supported the Florentine Platonic Academy. The Medici were patrons of many great artists at the time, however, the Platonic Academy dissolved with the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492.
Michelangelo and the Human Form
"Add beauteous art, which, brought with us from heaven, Will conquer nature;--so divine a power Belongs to him who strives with every nerve. If I was made for art, from childhood given A prey for burning beauty to devour, I blame the mistress I was born to serve." - "Beauty and the Artist", Michelangelo Michelangelo lived during a time when the Italian peninsula was facing many problems and instabilities. Considering the circumstances, Michelangelo had to move from his native Florence to Bologne and eventually to Rome. He went back to Florence in order to work on Laurentian Library, but he finally died in Rome. Michelangelo was naturally a sculptor, not a painter, even though his frescoes are among his most famed work. In many of his words and in almost every biography of his written, it was clear that Michelangelo preferred stone to brush and color. He believed marble and stone could express the majesty of human form in a way canvas could not. The speculations suggest that he even sneaked into a morgue in order to study corpses and through them learn the human anatomy to its smallest detail. Considering the incredible detail of his sculptures, the story does appear plausible. ”The best artist has that thought alone which is contained within the marble shell; The sculptor's hand can only break the spell To free the figures slumbering in the stone.” Probably from the moment he was sculpted, Michelangelo's David became the ideal of the masculine beauty. David's long and lean muscles, beardless face, thick hair and Roman nose came to define the beauty of masculine form in its youth. The beauty of the masculine form in its senior age perhaps is best seen in Michelangelo's work with prophets - their larger muscles, big beards and postures show wisdom, confidence and conviction brought about by age. Even though Michelangelo preferred to sculpt masculine forms, he sculpted a few feminine ones as well. One thing that can be observed in all of his work is that his humans are an example of health and strength, there is nothing frail, nothing fragile in any of his work. What does then, Michelangelo's work tell us? Especially in then age of indulgence? When our plates are filled with food that fills the stomach but does not nourish the body? In the age when any objective principle of beauty is seen as oppressive and in the age when even the existence of ideal is considered violence? Michelangelo's work, in all of that noise, brings an important message and that is the message of what human body is capable of doing and how it is capable of looking. It is a reminder that ideal exists, so we could devote our lives to something beyond serving our appetites all the time. To have a beautiful and healthy body, to have a learned mind, to have a beautiful soul and spirit takes time and sacrifice. The high aim is not simply an oppression, violence, hate towards anything, rather it is faith and love. It is faith in human potential and in its greatness. The one who sets the aim low does not believe humans capable of reaching it. The ideal exists not to oppress but to lead us towards something higher, something noble, something that is more celestial and less of a beast.
Sandro Botticelli lived and worked before Michelangelo did and was one of the most significant, if not most significant representatives of Early Renaissance. He, like many other artists of his city at his time, was under the patronage of the Medici family. Botticelli is probably best known for his iconic painting of Venus, in which she stands on a shell, born out of a sea, holding her long tresses against her body. The Hora of spring and wind god Zephyr stand on her sides. Just like David became an ideal for masculine beauty, the Botticelli's women (Venus, Flora, Simonetta) became the ideal of feminine beauty. It became such a deep part of Western ideal that there is even such an expression as "Botticelli beauty", usually used to describe a woman of gentle, soft and non-aggressive features that can be observed in Botticelli's paintings. Characterized by flow and rhythm, Botticelli's paintings carry within them a perfect form. However, the beautiful form is not the only part of it. Being under patronage of Medici, Botticelli's paintings came to become an expression of Neoplatonic ideas. In both his "The Birth of Venus" and "Allegory of Spring", Botticelli draws distinctions between the celestial and earthly. According to the aforementioned philosophy, the human beings stand between beasts and celestial beings, and they can either move towards being more of celestial nature or more of beastly nature. The dynamic between the two appear in these paintings.
Both paintings, "The Allegory of Spring" and "The Birth of Venus" have Venus as the central figure. In "The Allegory of Spring", on the right, Zephyr chases Flora, turning her into Spring with his breath. On her left, three graces dance and Mercury plays with the clouds. Venus in the middle represents the Humanitas or the goodwill. She distinguishes between material (on her right) and spiritual (spheres), she is also the one who elevates the material towards the spiritual. Similar ideas can be read from "The Birth of Venus" as well. A similar theme can be seen in the painting "Athene and Centaur", in which the goddess of wisdom holds the cenotaur by his hair. Centaur is a symbol of lust and Athena holding his hair represents the victory of wisdom and reason over lust and appetites. Plato argued that contemplating physical beauty allowed the mind to discover spiritual beauty. In both cases, when gazing at the beauty of Venus, at the beauty of color and form, the beauty of the art should allow and help the individual to understand the deeper, spiritual beauty. Botticelli's art and philosophy reminds the humanity that in order to find the meaning, the spiritual awe, one does not have to seek constantly in the skies, somewhere in the distance, but rather that it is enough to look at the beauty of the world that is spread all around and allow it to elevate us and bring beauty to our own selves.
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