Almanac Art: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Delight of Context

 

On an ordinary street Claire and I went to a mostly forgettable Milanese church.

 

We’ve been to many spectacular places of worship in Europe but this one’s façade had less charisma than a suburban supermarket. Italy has a chain of these called Pam. I think this is funny.

 

Our visit wasn’t even really about the church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, but the nearby refectory.

 

The Mona Lisa is the star of the Louvre art museum, and the Queen Sofía National Museum Art Centre in Madrid is famed for Picasso’s anti-war satire, Guernica. But these are dedicated galleries, and within them we expect masterpieces.

 

Increasingly, I’m interested in the context of experiences, and the more unlikely the circumstances, the more compelling. One of the world’s great paintings, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is on the dining room wall.

 

These unremarkable circumstances are remarkable.

 

 

 

The story of this magnum opus is as distinctive as the painting itself. Located next door to a medieval kitchen, Da Vinci finished it in about two years. The thinking behind it being on a refectory wall is that the monks would feel a divine connection with this painting of Christ at supper while they, in turn, gobbled their bread and stew. Unsurprisingly, The Last Supper suffered extensively from steam, smoke, and soot. And probably, if truth be told, cabbage odour.

 

Where the feet of Jesus should be in the painting is now a door, knocked through a few centuries’ ago because, you won’t be surprised to hear, the monks wanted better access to the kitchen. Later, Napoleon used it as a stable. It recently endured a twenty-year restoration.

 

As he was mastering the use of a single vanishing point our expert guide (she was terrific) told us that Da Vinci hammered a nail into Christ’s temple (ouch, irony!) and radiated string to assist with the perspective.

 

Apparently, the table at the centre of the painting wouldn’t have actually fitted in the portrayed room at Mount Zion, but there’s significant captivation as Jesus announces his looming betrayal. Da Vinci shows this with each disciple’s face and action a psychological revelation.

 

Despite the intolerable yelling from fellow visitors, it was extraordinary, and I felt privileged to see it. It speaks to my ignorance, but I was unaware that on the opposite wall is another painting, called the Crucifixion. We weren’t encouraged to view it.

 

The entire site was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing during WW2 and The Last Supper is conservatively valued at half a billion dollars.

 

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On another Italian back street is an art gallery and the beige walls suggest a warehouse. There are fresh smatterings of graffiti by the entrance. We’re in Florence.

 

Claire booked our Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze tickets months ago and these were so tight that we could only get separate entrance times. Getting lost on our way, we clarified directions with a local and ran, backpacks a-jiggling, to make our 8.45 timeslot.

 

Got there. Seconds to spare!

 

Just like the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan we went through airport-style security at the door and then rushed to the famed exhibit.

 

The first glimpse is arresting.

 

Among many ironies is that this version of David is indeed a Goliath. I’m confident that Michelangelo was entirely aware of this when sculpting his subject. Standing over five metres tall it’s inside a roped fence and so it’s impossible to stop beneath the marble colossus and feel fully shadowed.

 

Immediately, I’m drawn to the massive hands and feet. David’s head is also immense and each of these, I’d suggest, indicates Michelangelo’s faith in human gifts. Communicated with Renaissance calm and intellect, the artist presents his subject with optimism and awe while reminding us of our potential for creating good.

 

Of note is the small genitalia which I reckon is emblematic of a modern, evolved masculinity. This is predicated on enlightened thoughtfulness that is freed from narrow constraints of sexual prowess. Michelangelo might be saying that regardless of David’s physical heroics we should look deeper for inspiration and ideals.

 

Most agree that David is presented in a theatrical moment: just as the youthful warrior has reached a momentous decision to go into battle against his larger foe. The statue weighs over six tonnes but emits a sense of almost celestial light, youthful beauty, and weightlessness.

 

Claire and I returned later to gaze again upon this most vital sculpture before continuing with our Florentine day.

 

 

 

 

 

You can read more from Mickey Randall Here

 

 

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About Mickey Randall

No, instead I get out my Volleys, each with the inescapable hole, just by the little toe. What if someone bought a pair of Volleys and they didn’t develop these holes? The absence of holes would itself make a psychological hole.

Comments

  1. Grand stuff Mickey. Planning a day trip to Florence from our week in Bologna in July (if the place isn’t still underwater by then). “The Last Supper” looks a must do, but dunno if I can plan that far in advance to get tix for Big Dave (he looks like the Big Ram in Goulburn).
    Chopping bits of (what became regarded as) masterpieces was not uncommon. I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam many years ago, which houses Rembrandt’s huge “The Night Watch” (3.5×4.5 metres). When the locals moved it to the Town Hall in 1715 they had to chop out two blokes on the left and the top of the arch – to fit it in.
    Those blokes must have felt like Kevin Costner in “The Big Chill” whose debut scenes were cut out and he only remains as the shrouded stiff on the mortuary table that inspires the class reunion.

  2. Rick Kane says

    Great stuff MR, as usual. Context is everything as you note in many wry observations, including one that made me snort me laugh – the one about cabbage odour.

    The Italian trip that Clare and you have enjoyed has been fantastic to observe through your splendid writing and snaps. What a way to experience the place and some of history’s finest art pieces.

    Your essay and in reference to the importance of context, reminded me yet again of Umberto Eco’s stunning set of essays from Travels in Hyperreality. Apparently, there’s a wax museum somewhere in the US that has replicated many great historical art pieces as wax figurines. Including the Mona Lisa. More American have seen the wax figurine than the actual painting. And the majority of those who have seen Mona as wax believe that is the real art piece and the painting is a replica.

    Cheers

  3. Colin Ritchie says

    Excellent Mickey. One of my great joys of my overseas travel was time spent at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. I nearly cried walking into the the Van Gogh room, the vivid and brilliant colours of his paintings so brilliant and profound in their concept and creation. Also, the Degas room blew me away as well, the subtle pastel colourings within the context of the works has to be seen to believed. To view such ground breaking art all in the one place was absolutely sensational.

  4. Thanks PB, Rick and Col for your thoughts.

    Travel is surely one of the great joys of life and given that going pretty much anywhere from Australia is a big chore this heightens the appreciation for what awaits.

  5. E.regnans says

    Love it, Mickey.

    I’m not a big one for travel – logistics and effort required are a little beyond my comfort zone.
    But when I have travelled, context has been Everything.
    I think of Place de Concorde in Paris, the Abbey Road zebra crossing, Dublin post office, bombed-out ruins of Dresden, Uluru and any sunset at Ubirr.
    As always, we live in our own stories.

  6. Ian Wilson says

    Fantastic Mickey. My best mate Greg was utterly blown away by the statue of David during some travels pre-Covid. Looking forward to getting there next year in full retirement. Like Col I will never forget Musee D’Orsay and the Van Gogh’s. There were a couple of self portraits that were instantly recognisable and so beautiful I was in an altered state! There was only a thin wire at knee level protecting me from touching the painting and I reckon the guards in the the control room were having a laugh at an imbecile like me gushing on the floor below. Cheers

  7. Yes, Mickey, I too was taken aback by the sheer enormity of David.

  8. Er- ‘we live in our own stories’ is simple but profound truth. Thanks.

    Ian- altered state! This, too, is a travel aspiration.

    Thanks Smokie. In recent weeks I’ve been having a conversation with many folks, inspired by the opening to a Bill Bryson book: If you could only have the culture of a single country which one? Apart from the cuisine there’s a good argument for England (Bryson’s pick) but I’d have Italy right up there, save for pop music, at which they’re inexplicably terrible.

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