Thesis: Time Traveling Art Historian Book Chapters

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¶ … Travel in Art

Time traveling art Historian Book Chapters

Travels in artistic time: Ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, the Islamic world

Early Roman recycled art

I begin my time-traveling journey through art history where all roads lead -- to Rome. There stands the triumphal Arch of Constantine, built to honor the great emperor. In Rome, it was common to build these stone structures to commemorate great battles and leaders. Here the Arch is made from bleach-white stone, a square hollowed out into three arches. Constantine's commemorated victory took place over the leader Maxentius during the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Constantine entered Rome victoriously, and the Roman Senate awarded him a triumphal arch in return (Seindal 2003, p.1).Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and it was said that before the battle, he saw a vision of a cross, and heard the words: 'by this sign you shall conquer.' However, the arch still has a great deal of architectural and stylistic resonance with previous pagan Roman structures -- much like the Roman emperors who had ruled before him, Constantine still loved pomp and circumstance. The arch as a whole is decorative rather than functional.

Like the triumphal arches that preceded it, this Arch uses symbolic images in relief to show the value of its intended honoree. As well as Constantine's glories, it also illustrates the previous triumphs of Roman emperors and leaders such as Marcus Aurelius' victory over the Samaritans. Demonstrating continuity with past leaders and Roman values was still very important to the Romans, even during the later years of the empire -- perhaps more so than ever before. But there may be a practical reason for the sculptural recapitulation of the glories of many of the emperors that had lead before Constantine: there was a scarcity of materials, so reusing the physical relics from previous monuments enabled a speedier construction as well as a way to create a sense of continuity between past and present. However, emphasizing a lack of creativity and funds can be taken too far -- the specific selection of particular old monuments to reuse was clearly strategic. "Many parts of the decorations of the Arch of Constantine are taken from other monuments erected by earlier emperors: Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, who were known already in the time of Constantine as the Good Emperors. That the reused parts come from precisely these emperors is definitely not a coincidence. Constantine wanted to be likened to them" (Seindal 2003, p.2). All three emperors were noted for their military victories, great philosophy and service to Rome, or both. As well as depicting historical victories, there are also symbolic depictions of the great piety these emperors showed to the gods. This illustrates once again the balance Constantine was trying to strike in his regime -- on one hand, he was reconfiguring Rome under new leadership and faith, but he also saw himself as fulfilling and upholding an earlier, better legacy and past for which there was great nostalgia.

The central inscription reads: "To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine Maximus, Pius Felix Augustus, since through divine inspiration and great wisdom he has delivered the state from the tyrant and all his factions, by his army and noble arms, the Senate and the Roman People, dedicate this arch decorated with triumphal insignia" (Seindal, 2003, p.3). These words indicate how the Arch of Constantine is intended to be a stirring work of political propaganda, yet beautiful and awe-inspiring. To command a triumphal arch signified a leader's power in Rome. The Arch of Constantine is a testimony to both the jingoism and the grandeur of Rome.

Many see the arch as inferior to previous Roman triumphal arches, because of its more blatant political focus and the lack of naturalism in the new figures. There are many distorted perspectives and figures that are intended to be symbolic, rather than realistic in nature that clash with the older forms of physical representation. Overall, "the change in artistic style when compared to the earlier works is clear. The Hellenistic naturalism of the classic imperial period has given way to a much more symbolic approach. Persons and monuments are no longer shown in their normal sizes and proportions as dictated by perspective and depth in the composition. Instead the sizes of the figures are dictated by the importance of each person, the emperor being physically bigger than the dignitaries, who in turn are bigger than the commoners" (Seindal 2003, p.2). This distortion of perspective in sculpture to communicate a symbolic truth would be used later on to convey other ideas during the medieval and modern period, of course, and this work of architecture remains critically significant to the ages for that reason, even though the power of Constantine is no more. "Emphasis is less on 'this is Emperor Constantine,' and more on 'this is the Emperor'…Only the emperors are shown frontally, while the others face towards them in symbolic submission." (Seindal 2003, p.2).

Chapter 2: The glory that was Florence

I speed forward in time, remaining in Italy, but traveling to an equally tumultuous time, politically. I arrive during the age of the Renaissance. There is Michelangelo's sculpture David. There his David stands as an interpretation of a Biblical figure crafted in a classical style of stone representation. One question to ask, in looking at this celebration of what makes the human physique so glorious: would we know this is David, were it not for its title? This statue does not depict a traditional hero, with obvious symbolic accoutrements to suggest that this is the Biblical king, other than David's small slingshot. This work looks more like a Roman or Greek statue in the perfection of its anatomy, in keeping with Michelangelo's artistic philosophy and his age's fascination and reinterpretation of antiquity: "Michelangelo breaks away from the traditional way of representing David. He does not present us with the winner, the giant's head at his feet and the powerful sword in his hand. Rather, he portrays the youth as tense with a sense of gathering power immediately preceding the battle. Perhaps he has caught him just in the moment when he has heard that his people are hesitating, and he sees Goliath jeering and mocking them" (Statue of David by Michelangelo, 2009, Statue.com). The statue, although large, is perfect in its proportions, unlike the distortion marking earlier works, such as the Arch of Constantine's later reliefs or the more grotesque medieval and gothic figures that immediately preceded the rebirth of interest in human anatomy during the Renaissance.

In the sculpture, Michelangelo's interpretation of David is that of a young man still in the process of 'becoming' a hero -- also in contrast to the celebration of military glory in the Arch of Constantine. Yet David, commissioned by the powerful Medici family, was created for a political purpose, to symbolize the Florentine city's upstart greatness in relation to other Italian city-states. But Michelangelo's portrait is not simply warlike. David is both a man and a hero, and the work transcends its original purpose because of the beauty of the composition. David's body language suggests he will triumph, against all odds, which the commissioners of the statue hoped to communicate to their rivals -- but not only Florentines draw inspiration from this idealized vision of male perfection, stillness and motion.

The stance is a classical one designed to emphasize beauty, not belligerence: "Michelangelo places him in the most perfect contraposto, as in the most beautiful Greek representations of heroes. The right-hand side of the statue is smooth and composed while the left-hand side, from the outstretched foot all the way up to the disheveled hair is openly active and dynamic. The muscles and the tendons are developed only to the point where they can still be interpreted as the perfect instrument for a strong will, and not to the point of becoming individual self-governing forms" (Statue of David by Michelangelo, 2009, Statue.com). In other words, David does not live to be a warrior or to show his will alone -- he has the intelligent face of a thoughtful young man, the king he will become, and his muscles are not like that of a strongman's, but a living, kinesthetic being. Even the hair seems lifelike -- the balance between realism and idealism is what makes this work so quintessentially Michelangelo, quintessentially in the spirit of the Renaissance.

Even though it was a nude: "once the statue was completed, a committee of the highest ranking citizens and artists decided that it must be placed in the main square of the town, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Town Hall. It was the first time since antiquity that a large statue of a nude was to be exhibited in a public place. Strength and Wrath were the two most important virtues, characteristic of the ancient patron of the city Hercules. Both these qualities of passionate strength and wrath were embodied in the statue of David," but… [END OF PREVIEW]

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