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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Michelangelo buys Figs, parts 1896 - 1899

1896.  Michelangelo made only a few adjustments to the original design. He multiplied the basic design in its width by a small fraction, which caused the patterns to fall in the proper order, but he left unchanged the proportions for the length of the church.

1897. This slight change could not be detected by eye. Another change he made was to eliminate all of the white and off-white marble in the design, substituting very light gray tints of granite, which is a much harder stone. He pointed out to Indaco that white marble, although strikingly beautiful in a floor when first installed, soon become dark and dingy with ground in dirt.

1898. Indaco knew quite well that the granite and porphyry stones Michelangelo was using in the floor, was superior in every way to the marble he had planned to use, but his budget for the entire project would not have been enough to pay for even the outside edges of the design, much less the entire floor. But Michelangelo had reached that point in his career where it was unnecessary for him to take into consideration either the cost of the materials or the time required.

1899. All the time I was telling the church what had happened between Michelangelo and Indaco she kept casting occasional glances at the floor under her feet. What I was in the process of telling her constituted the entire explanation as to why the floor of the church’s church was in such pristine condition, and also why it had needed almost no restoration over the past many centuries.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1892 - 1895

1892. Actually, the Holy Fathers took great delight in hearing stories about how Michelangelo had rebuilt the home of some poor man to Vitruvius’ specifications, some simple man whose job it was just to move bricks from one place to another at the beck and call of the masons.

1893. So when the head foreman received his instructions to assemble twenty workmen to work in Indaco’s church first thing in the morning, they gathered for the task without hesitation. When the warehouses of the Vatican in which all the building materials were stored for the facade of Saint Peters received orders to pack up such and such expensive stone specifically for floor mosaics and to load them into carts they obeyed without question.

1894. That night Michelangelo returned to the church with the figs. He found the building locked up, and the candles extinguished. He pounded on the door and after a long wait, a wait in which the great man fully was able to feel his previous fault, Indaco opened the door to him and a few minutes later they got "verso il basso per l'ottone dei chiodini."

1895. During the night Michelangelo and Indaco tore out as much of the floor as possible, concentrating on those portions that were the most embarrassing, and when morning came they received the help of twenty of the Vatican stonemasons who arrived ready to work on the project. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1888 - 1891

 1888. The neighborhood Michelangelo was walking through that evening looking for figs was familiar to him because, being the workingman’s district, many of the laborers who worked under his direction rebuilding Saint Peters for the Pope lived there. He also had lived there years ago, and so, in his search for the figs he made a few stops calling on his foreman of the stone-cutters, and the supervisor of stores and supplies for the Vatican.

1889. It should be kept in mind that at this time, late in Michelangelo’s life, he was entirely in charge of the rebuilding of Saint Peters. For this enormous labor he accepted no payment at all. The Vatican had for years, even centuries, been plagued by graft and corruption in its various huge building projects. A big church was looked upon as an endless source of income for architects, masons, and stone layers, and this tradition of never bringing to completion the big edifices goes back to the time of the cathedrals.

1890. It was the advent of Michelangelo that put an end to this problem. Perfectly pure and honest in himself, there was no way for anyone to take advantage of his position, and added to that, he could not be gotten around with false information or the exaggeration of problems because he was more knowledgeable about any of the work of his subordinates than they were.

1891. When jealous contemporaries attempted to criticize him to either the Pope or the Cardinals they turned a deaf ear to the critics, or turned them out altogether pointing out that Michelangelo was saving the church thousands of ducats every year, so it was pointless to level any criticism against him. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1883 - 1887

1883. But it was a rigid geometric pattern of intersecting octagons, and in order for it to look perfect the octagons had to complete themselves ending at the exterior walls. The interior walls also fell on another of the octagons. As it was the pattern ended clumsily right in an awkward slice of the overall design. 

1884. Because of this mistake of measurement, the floor he was laboriously cementing down with iron like indestructible materials was just over four feet off of the proper centering, if you take into account the size of the interior wall and the width of the exterior hallway. When Indaco reached his center guideline he should have noticed that he was already off by close to two feet, but his chalk lines were faded by being trod upon so often that he overlooked it.

1885. As his pattern approached the interior wall and the completion of his job he discovered his mistake with a rush of cold terror. It was the sort of mistake to permanently ruin the poor church’s interior. To install the floor when all the materials were fresh was a difficult project, but to remove it once it was set was nearly impossible. It was shortly after Indaco realized his mistake that he heard Michelangelo’s knock on the door and went to answer it.

1886. Michelangelo stood in the doorway out in the dark, looking over Indaco’s shoulder into the dim candle lit interior of the church. His eye took in the pattern of the inlaid floor and after a few seconds he said, “The resources of the Vatican itself may be insufficient to rectify the mistake you have made here Indaco, but we must set to work fixing it as soon as possible.

 1887. But first allow me to go off and buy us some figs somewhere so as to refresh ourselves, and then we will get - verso il basso per l'ottone dei chiodini.”*
* Down to the brass of the tacks. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1879 - 1882

1879. Although upset by being rejected by his good friend, Michelangelo did nothing about it for several months. He heard that Indaco had been hired to replace the floor of a small unimportant church somewhere in a poor section of Rome. Later he heard that the project to replace the floor was nearing completion. Then he found out that Indaco had run into some unforeseen difficulties and was having enormous problems with his floor and, as a result, was in legal difficulties.

1880. Michelangelo was overcome with curiosity and went to the church in question late at night and, seeing the interior illuminated with numerous candles, pounded on the door. Indaco opened the door of the sanctuary and seeing who it was, immediately began to push the door closed but Michelangelo prevented this by inserting his foot in the way.

1881. Indaco did not want his old friend to enter, not because of the previous slight involving the figs, but because he did not want the great man to see the idiotic and stupid mistake he had made with his inlaid floor, a mistake which threatened to ruin his life and his reputation and turn him into a laughingstock of the artists of their  community.

1882. Indaco had laid out an extremely complex black and white marble mosaic floor utilizing motifs found often as fragments in Roman ruins. The mistake he made was to measure the space of the floor from the outside wall on the eastern side over to an interior wall on the western side. Beyond the interior wall on the western side was the three feet of the space of a hallway, and then the other exterior wall.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Michelangelo Buys figs, parts 1875 - 1878

1875. The artists of the time, in awe of Michelangelo, sought constantly to have a passing word from him, or the slightest recommendation which could make of destroy their careers, but L'Indaco snubbed him, and would not return his calls. This disturbed Michelangelo.

1876. To be sought out by the high and mighty and other great artists writers and poets was one thing, but to lose his connection to his roots, to simple people who know how to laugh unrestrainedly at stupidities, was a great loss to him. Never forget that Michelangelo was short, rather ugly, with a flat broken nose, and he was not always a home in polite aristocratic society, as was Leonardo, who was considered one of the most handsome and charming men of his day.

1877. But here we must depart from what Vasari had to say, and I must confess that even my speculation about what Michelangelo felt about L'Indaco is a bit of conjecture. But for the rest of this story we have the authority of Professor LaDuch, whose veracity need not be questioned, although A. Kingsley Porter has this to say about the story I am about to tell you.

1878. Porter says, “This story on its face seems to have little but unconscious humor to recommend it. However, the entire subject is so involved that it is impossible to speak about it with any confidence.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1871 - 1874

1871. Although the church had heard of Vasari, and his biographies of the renaissance artists, she had never heard of any L’Indaco, so I got up his biography on my iPad and read it to her. I quote just the portions of his story that relate to Michelangelo, and you will perhaps notice its rather archaic style, although the wonder of it is that a biography written in 1550 can be so readable despite the run-on sentences.

1872. Vasari, from the life of L’Indaco: Now seeing that, as has been said, Michelangelo used to take pleasure in this man's chattering and in the jokes that he was ever making, he kept him almost always at his table; but one day Jacopo wearied him as such fellows more often than not do come to weary their friends and patrons with their incessant babbling, so often ill- timed and senseless; babbling.

 1873. I call it senseless, for reasonable talk it cannot be called, since for the most part there is neither reason nor judgment in such people and Michelangelo, who, perchance, had other thoughts in his mind at the time and wished to get rid of him, sent him to buy some figs; and no sooner had Jacopo left the house than Michelangelo bolted the door behind him, determined not to open to him when he came back.

1874. L' Indaco, then, on returning from the market square, perceived, after having knocked at the door for a time in vain, that Michelangelo did not intend to open to him; whereupon, flying into a rage, he took the figs and the leaves and spread them all over the threshold of the door. This done, he went his way and for many months refused to speak to Michelangelo.

Richard Britell

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1867 - 1870

1867. I suppose you are familiar with the wonderful biographies of the renaissance artists that Vasari wrote. That book, or series of books, is the best known, and almost our only source for the biographies of all the great, and also all the lesser-known artists of the period. It was Vasari who first understood the importance of the anecdote when telling an artist’s story. Serious scholars dismiss the anecdote as irrelevant but they do so at their peril.

1868. Art and art history in the past was the entire province of a specific set of individuals. In ancient Egypt  it was the Pharaohs, in the Renaissance it was the church and the priests, in the 20th century it was the wealthy collector, and today it is the tourist. It is the tourist who generates the great energy of current art enterprises, it is for him that all the modern deformed, crooked melting sorts of museum buildings are being built.

1869. It is to the tourist who, as a rule, knows nothing of art, that the anecdote is directed. This is all he cares about. You can be quite sure that for him van Gogh would be unknown if he had not cut off his ear. This importance of the personal detail Vasari understood from the beginning, and he provided almost every one of his biographies with a suitable, memorable anecdote.

1870. One of Vasari’s biographies is about an obscure artist named L'Indaco. Today L'Indaco is almost entirely unknown but the detail he gives us is one of the most important of the time. L'Indaco was a personal friend of Michelangelo. He was neither intelligent nor talented but the great man enjoyed his company and often had him to dinner. Vasari tells us that Michelangelo preferred the company of buffoons and low people and that is what he was like when not at work.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs. parts 1859 - 1862

1859. I don’t need to tell you how perfect the coffee was, if you have ever had coffee prepared by a four hundred year old church you know quite well what I am talking about. As for the Anisette Toast, it was just the same as my Grandmother always had on hand: slightly stale so that it became the perfect texture when dipped into the coffee.

1860. While the church was in the kitchen of her church I began to think about all that she had said about the fate of the small churches, and the vagaries of the tourist trade. I am actually of the opinion that it is not the actual objects of art that are so important to the tourist traffic as the anecdotal stories attached to those objects that really matter to the average tourist.

1861. For example, I once came across an especially large and impressive church in Rome called the Lateran Basilica. On the steps was a person addressing a throng of people. He was talking about how the foundations of that church dated from Roman times and that it had been continuously revised and rebuilt. He explained in detail how a certain architect was asked to submit plans to the Pope for a reconstruction and that his plans were rejected.

1862. But the rejected architect was undaunted; he so believed in his plans that he argued with the Pope. He had the audacity to argue with the Pope! He won the argument and the Pope accepted his plans. From that story I understood something important. We must all go and argue with the Pope, and we must win our argument. I never even bothered to enter the church; I didn’t want to disturb that feeling. I walked away saying to myself, “I want to have an argument with the Pope, right away.”

Richard Britell

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1863 - 1866

 1863. I decided to point out this fact to the Church. She had explained to me that she was going to go inevitably out of business because she was a Roman church without any art with which to compete with the other churches that were so well endowed with every sort of artifact. I set out to explain to her how the fact that nobody knew anything about her interior could be turned to advantage, if one considered the anecdotal story to be what was important, and not the artwork itself.

1864. It just so happened that the church interior had one very strikingly beautiful feature and that was a mosaic-inlaid floor composed of various intricate geometric patterns. A great many Roman churches have these mosaic floors, a typical feature that goes back to Roman times, but this floor was exceptional no only for the perfection of its design, but also for the wonderful state of its preservation. I began, on the spot, to make up a story about the floor.

1865. “I have a good friend in Paris” I said, “His name is Professor La Duch, pronounced, “duck”. He has been researching these mosaic floors, and he has uncovered some very interesting information that explains the beauty and preservation of your mosaic floor.

1866. After he told me about this floor I made a special point to stop here to see it, and that is why I am here today. The story involves Michelangelo, and a little known bricklayer, painter and all-around mason who used to often assist Michelangelo on his architectural work at Saint Peters.

Michelangelo Buys Figs, Parts 1855 - 1858

1855. Absolutely not. They want to surreptitiously snap a picture with their phone of the Pieta, and later that morning take another picture of the Sistine Chapel, so that they can post it to their Facebook page, and their friends can “like” it and be reminded that they are in Rome today, and are going to Madrid at the end of the week.

1856. The point is that the Vatican uses those famous works of art to generate a steady stream of cash, accumulating endless amounts of money because of the population on the world’s intense desire to travel and to see famous things, and go home and impress their friends with their good fortune. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, or the purpose those works of art were created to serve. It is one thing only, the economic engine of the tourist trade.

1857. When Christ does return, his first job is going to be, to whip the tourists out of the temples, where they have no legitimate business. But meanwhile, without them, churches like myself are destined for destruction, unless we can contrive some way to get those tourists to file in here and have a look at something mentioned in a guidebook published by Fodors. 

1858. I found the conversation of this Church so interesting that I was delighted when she invited me into an interior room just off of the kitchen of the institution, and asked me if I would not like to sit down and have a cup of coffee with her. She disappeared into the kitchen, and I sat down at a small table. Soon she returned with a small try on which was one of those very old-fashioned tin coffee pots the French used long ago and two very antique cups covered with very fine tiny brown cracks, and some Anisette Toast.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1851 - 1854

1851. Small churches like myself must pay for our own expenses or else our diocese forces us into bankruptcy. The Church is as ruthless about this as any fast food franchise. It is the small neighborhood churches that are all closing because the little old ladies in their black dresses who were always our mainstay have all died or gone away.

1852. It is true that we could print up a little brochure and claim, which is true, that our foundation is that of a small Roman Temple. We could also say that a wooden church was standing on this site in Medieval times, and that it burned down and was rebuilt several times. We could claim that the present structure dates from the renaissance, and the facade was remodeled by an unknown Baroque architect, but what would be the point of all that.

1853. Almost every structure in Rome can make the same claims to have illustrious ancestors in the ground under the floors of their cellars. One block from here you can buy a pizza in a little shop, and on the walls they have cemented thirty fragments of a Roman temple they dug up in their cellar when they replaced their sewer pipes. No, claiming to have Caesar’s bones in the cellar is of no advantage here in Rome, because your next-door neighbor is sure to have the cracked skull of Caligula.

1854. What matters today is the famous works of the old masters in the churches of the city. And mark my words, this is in no way a religious matter. People come by the millions to have a look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, and do you think it is because of the compassion to be seen in Mary’s face, or the curious way Mr. Buonarroti carved Christ’s whiskers, whiskers that reinforce somehow the serene expression on his dead face.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Michelangelo Buys Figs, parts 1847 1850

 1847. To be specific, just look at a gargoyle on a medieval building carved by a man who had a real fear of Hell, and a real desire for Heaven. And compare it to a gargoyle on an American Art Deco Skyscraper and note the difference. The modern gargoyle frightens no one, because it has been transformed into a meaningless symmetrical decoration, often cast and mass-produced for use multiple times on many different facades.

1848. Such then was the interior of the church, spiritual in its overall effect, and ingenious in its details. The church, aware of its neglected beauty, began to say something in praise of itself. 
 “My interior,” she began, “although not of note in any art history book is actually a very fine example of early Baroque workmanship.

1849. “No famous sculptor or architect is known to have a hand in its construction, but we were fortunate that the standards of the time were so high that modest structures like myself benefited by the tenor of the times.” I could see that what the church was saying was obviously an apology for the dreadful condition of her exterior. Sensing my concern about the exterior by my silence, she continued.

1850. “I must admit,” she said, “that the wonderful condition of my interior is simply a result of my poverty. When we are forced to do repairs it is always only the exterior we spend our limited resources on, and the interior is never attended to. Years ago there was always enough money for my repairs but in this present age, unless a church has a resident Caravaggio painting, or some sculpture by Donatello, it is very hard going