1 November 2023

1 November

Sistine Chapel ceiling revealed

All Saints’ Day chosen to show off Michelangelo’s work

Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were unveiled for public viewing for the first time on this day in 1512.  The date of All Saints’ Day was chosen by Pope Julius II, who had commissioned Michelangelo, because he felt it appropriate to show off the frescoes on a significant festival in the Catholic Church year.  The frescoes, the central nine panels of which depict stories from the Book of Genesis, have become one of the most famous works of art in the world, the image of  The Creation of Adam rivalled only perhaps by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for iconic status.  Yet Michelangelo was reluctant initially to take on the project, which was first mooted in 1506 as part of a general programme of rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica being undertaken by Julius II, who felt that the Sistine Chapel, which had restored by his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, ought to have a ceiling that carried more meaningful decoration than the gold stars on a blue background of his uncle’s design.  Michelangelo, only 31 or 32 at the time, regarded himself as a sculptor rather than a painter.  Read more…


Pietro da Cortona – painter and architect

Outstanding exponent of Baroque style

Artist Pietro da Cortona was born Pietro Berrettini on this day in 1596 in Cortona in Tuscany.  Widely known by the name of his birthplace, Cortona became the leading Italian Baroque painter of his time and contributed to the emergence of Baroque architecture in Rome.  Having been born into a family of artisans and masons, Cortona went to Florence to train as a painter before moving to Rome, where he was involved in painting frescoes at the Palazzo Mattei by 1622.  His talent was recognised and he was encouraged by prominent people in Rome at the time. He was commissioned to paint a fresco in the church of Santa Bibiana that was being renovated under the direction of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1624.  Then, in 1633, Pope Urban VIII commissioned Cortona to paint a large fresco on the ceiling of the Grand Salon at Palazzo Barberini, his family’s palace. Cortona’s huge Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power marked a watershed in Baroque painting as he created an illusion of an open, airy architectural framework against which figures were situated, creating spatial extension through the medium of paint.  Read more…


Annibale Bergonzoli - soldier

Commander who was both decorated and imprisoned by the British

The military commander Annibale Bergonzoli, who served the Italian army in both world wars and led an Italian expeditionary force supporting General Francisco Franco’s nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, was born on this day in 1884 in Cannobio, a town on the shore of Lago Maggiore. Bergonzoli had the distinction of being awarded a medal for bravery by the British during World War One only to be held by them as a prisoner of war after being captured during World War Two. As a boy, Bergonzoli always had a taste for adventure. He completed a 1.5 mile (2.4km) swim across Lago Maggiore at the age of seven. He enrolled at the Military Academy of Modena, graduating with the rank of sub-lieutenant in 1907. He joined the Royal Italian Army in 1911 and was immediately sent to take part in the Italo-Turkish War, helping to take control of the areas of the Ottoman Empire in Libya that became known as Italian Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, as well as some islands in the Aegean Sea.  He remained in Libya for some years after the conflict. Read more…


Genius who could bring marble to life 

Sculptor Antonio Canova was born on this day in 1757 in Possagno in the hills near Asolo in the Veneto.  He became famous for creating lifelike figures, possessing the ability to make the marble he worked with resemble nude flesh. One of his masterpieces is the group, The Three Graces, now in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.  Canova’s father and grandfather were both stone cutters and his grandfather taught him to draw at an early age.  The noble Falier family of Venice took an interest in Canova’s talent and brought him to the city to learn his trade in the workshop of Giuseppe Bernardi.  Canova also studied anatomy, history and languages and later moved to work in Rome. His first big success was his funerary monument to Clement XIV, which was inaugurated in the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli.  The sculptor travelled to France and England and when he returned to Italy was made Marquis of Ischia and given an annual pension.  He died in Venice at the age of 64 and was buried in Tempio Canova in Possagno, the town of his birth.  Canova’s heart was interred in a marble pyramid he had designed as a mausoleum for the painter, Titian, in the Frari church in Venice.  Read more…


Giulio Romano – artist and architect

Painter from Rome left his mark on Mantua

Giulio Romano, who was the principal heir to the artist Raphael and one of the most important initiators of the Mannerist style of painting, died on this day in 1546 in Mantua.  He is most remembered for his masterpiece, the Palazzo del Te, built on the outskirts of Mantua as a pleasure palace for the Gonzaga family, which was designed, constructed and decorated entirely by him and his pupils.  The artist had been born in Rome some time in the 1490s and was given the name Giulio di Pietro di Filippo de’ Gianuzzi. He was known originally as Giulio Pippi, but later was referred to as Giulio Romano because of where he was born.  Giulio was apprenticed to Raphael when still a child and worked on the frescos in the Vatican loggias to designs by Raphael. He also collaborated with him on the decoration of the ceiling in the Villa Farnesina.  He became so important in the workshop that on Raphael’s death in 1520 he was named as one of the master’s chief heirs and he also became his principal artistic executor, completing a number of Raphael’s works, including the Transfiguration.  His own works from this time, such as the Madonna and Saints and the Stoning of St Stephen, both completed in 1523, show he had developed a highly personal style of painting.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford

There was an epic sweep to Michelangelo's life. At 31 he was considered the finest artist in Italy, perhaps the world; long before he died at almost 90 he was widely believed to be the greatest sculptor or painter who had ever lived (and, by his enemies, to be an arrogant, uncouth, swindling miser). For decade after decade, he worked near the dynamic centre of events: the vortex at which European history was changing from Renaissance to Counter Reformation. Few of his works - including the huge frescoes of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the marble giant David and The Last Judgment - were small or easy to accomplish. Like a hero of classical mythology - such as Hercules, whose statue Michelangelo carved in his youth - he was subject to constant trials and labours. In Michelangelo: His Epic Life, Martin Gayford describes what it felt like to be Michelangelo Buonarroti, and how he transformed forever our notion of what an artist could be.

Martin Gayford has been art critic for the Spectator and the Sunday Times, and Chief European Art Critic for Bloomberg.  Artists he has written about included David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Constable, Van Gogh and Gauguin.  He lives in Cambridge, England.


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