Friday, July 29, 2016

The lost frescoes of Santissimi Apostoli.

A music-making angel from Melozzo's fresco

Rome is a city of many lost treasures, fortunately some of them can still be found and reconstructed in their (almost) entirety, it is just the case of what we will discover in this article.

The Piazza Santi Apostoli with the Palazzo Colonna and the Basilica in 1550
Istituto Nazionale di Grafica, Roma

The Basilica of Santissimi Apostoli, the Holy Apostles, is a large church that hosts the bodies of the disciples of Jesus, Philip and James the Less, therefore a titulus apostolorum. It was built in the 4th century by Pope Julius I, it was the only Roman church not to be built on the site of a previous ancient building, although building materials came from the Constantine Baths., the original plan was that of the Apostoleion in Constantinople. During the Byzantine era, under Pope Pelagius I and the rule of Narses, it was reconstructed with a greek-cross plan. Adrian I writes to Charlemagne praising this building for its width and its amazing mosaics. In 1348 it was destroyed by an earthquake and only the two sculpted gate lions survive from that building. 

The 15th century choir of the basilica

The church was restored in the 15th century by Pope Martinus V Colonna, his family had always lived next door and still does. A portico was built in the Renaissance style and so were the nave and apse of the church, the apse was later decorated, under the pontificate of Sixtus IV, with frescoes by Melozzo da Forlì, papal painter, Michelangelo himself who lived and worshipped in the parish, was inspired by the Renaissance frescoes for his Sistine Chapel cycle, Melozzo was also the first to make use of the trompe l’œil technique. The church also hosted other Renaissance treasures, such as the Antoniazzo Romano frescoes (the only Roman Renaissance artist) in the chapel of Cardinal Bessarione, the fragments still exist in the same location.

A music-making angel from Melozzo's fresco

Unfortunately, by the 17th century dump ruined the frescoes and the building itself so much, that in 1702 Clement XI commissioned an overall restoration of the building to architect Francesco Fontano, who died in 1708 and was succeeded by his father Carlo, and then by Nicola Michetti in 1712. The “new” rococo building was consecrated by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724.

Consecration of the Bishop of Padua in 1743 by Benedict XIV. Gian Paolo Panini
Private Collection

Fortunately we can still reconstruct the beautiful fresco that decorated the apse of Santissimi Apostoli because many fragments are located in the Vatican Museums and the Quirinal Palace. Melozzo, pictor papalis, had already worked in Rome under Sixtus IV della Rovere, he painted two altarpieces of the two St. Mark’s (pope and evangelist) for the Basilica of San Marco and a fresco of Sixtus IV for the Vatican Library.

Sixtus IV Appointing Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library, Melozzo da Forlì, 1477
Vatican Museums

The decoration of the apse was commissioned by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere in 1475, the future Pope Julius II, under the pontificate of his uncle Sixtus IV, when Melozzo was pictor papalis. The fresco was innovative for mixing the technique that derived from Mantegna and Piero della Francesca, with the tromp l’œil and the advanced use of perspective, making Melozzo’s style a unique one. The fresco represented the ascension of our Lord, being surrounded by music-making angels and by the apostles, it was inspired from the early Christian mosaics in Rome and especially from that at the basilica of Cosmas and Damian. Melozzo was fascinated by the early style when in Rome and in fact, he also made a mosaic (an unusual technique during the Renaissance) for the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  

Pope Sixtus V declares Saint Bonaventura Doctor of the Church in SS. Apostoli, Giovanni Guerra e Cesare Nebbia, 1590
Vatican Museums

The apostles (now almost completely lost), in the lower part of the fresco, more or less like in the early mosaics had a symbolic role, Peter and Paul, patrons of the city, were located right below our Lord, the disciples buried in the basilica certainly had a place of honour as well and so did Mary, although we are not certain of her location. 

1938 replica of the lost fresco by Melozzo

What we can see today are the figure of the ascending Christ, surrounded by cherubs, now in the Quirinal Palace and the music-making angels at the Vatican museums. Christ is not only ascending, but in this act he is also blessing the earth from the once again gained position of honour in the congregation of saints. 

Christ blessing and cherubs

It is an incredibly exciting image, the cherubs are frenetically glorifying his figure in a turbulent and happy dance, but the also worship him and acknowledge his majesty.

Angels praying in the clouds

The seraphs encircle this bursting of holiness which we have the honour to admire, playing all sorts of Renaissance music, playing the music of heaven and singing to his glory. 

Music-making angels

The work is a total Te Deum, and as we join in singing with angels, archangels, saints and martyrs, so we pray and enter in communion with them while admiring this window into heaven. There are references to the Last Judgement, because of its solemnity and pathos. In fact, it is a whole reference in itself. 
Music-making angels

The figures all belong to the same work, but we can also admire them in their detail, which is incredibly fine, despite the position for which they were designed. The seraphs open actual windows into heaven, and each of them is an independent beautiful sex-less being: angel. 

Music-making angel

Now separated from its context, but thanks to the 18th century prelates, nonetheless saved for the future generations. This is not only a postlude to Piero della Francesca or a prelude to Raphael. This is God's own work and image through the hands of Melozzo da Forlì, a great artist and pictor papalis.


To get an idea of what entering the church would have been like, visit the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and admire the apse with the Antoniazzo Romano frescoes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A magical chamber: the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, which has been the home of the secular power of Florence since its rise in the late Middle Ages hosts several art treasures that represent all the styles in which Florentine masters excelled, Florence has always been the heart of the Renaissance and so I think it is important to analyse the chamber that better represents this style in a glorious way: the Sala del Giglio.

The name of the room derives from the word giglio (fleur-de-lys), symbol of the French crown, which is different from the Florentine one for the absence of stamens, and the blue/golden colours as opposed to red/silver as in the Florentine coat of arms. The decoration was given in honour of France, that at the time was seen as the defender of Florentine freedom. The story of the decoration of the room is even more fascinating though.

The chamber was created by the architect Benedetto da Maiano in 1470/72, the walls should have been decorated with a cycle of frescoes representing illustrious men, symbols of civic virtues.  In 1482 the Signoria commissioned the work to the greatest artists of the time: Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Pollaiolo, but unfortunately most of them did not have the time to commit to such an extensive work once again (after the Sistine Chapel), only Domenico Ghirlandaio succeeded and finished his work: the decoration of one wall of the room. Therefore, the other walls and ceiling were decorated with the fleur-de-lys, it started more like a trick and it ended up being a tribute! In this very room it is interesting to see, below the fresco, the original Medieval windows of the Palazzo before it was extended.

Ghirlandaio's frescoes were executed in 1482, the central scene represents the apotheosis of Saint Zenobi, first patron saint of Florence, and the deacons Eugene and Crescentius and is opened by the two flags of Florence. The scene has a beautiful Renaissance perspective background that opens on a blue sky, we can recognise the Duomo, with Arnolfo di Cambio's original façade. 

The lunettes at the two sides of the central scene represent: Brutus, Mutius, Scævola on the left and Decius, Scipio, Cicero on the right. 

Medallions with portraits of the emperors are in between the painted pilasters that separate the scenes. The whole scene has obvious classical references as this was a very popular fashion during the Renaissance, especially as Florence was seen as the new Rome. In the upper lunette is a sort of Della Robbia style Madonna and Child.

The room has also some other important "details" such as the carved doors with the poets Dante and Petrarch by Benedetto and Giuliano Marzocchi.

In this room there is also Donatello's Judith beheading Holofernes, previously in the piazza and here since 1988.

A hidden gem: The Chapel of Eleonora of Toledo in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio.

Like most other places in Europe that have been centres of power in the past, Florence has two main buildings, now attractions: one that represents the Church Il Duomo and another that represents the secular authority Il Palazzo Vecchio, the latter is perhaps the most amazing civic building in the whole world, hosting an incredible number of works of art that couldn't possibly fit into one post. I have therefore decided to write about one of the smallest, yet, more charming hidden treasures of the whole building: the Chapel of Eleonora of Toledo.

Bronzino's portrait of Eleonora of Toledo in the Uffizi

She was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples and in 1539 she married Cosimo I, the Duke of Florence and first Grand Duke of Tuscany. Perhaps a wedding gift, the chapel, designed by Del Tasso, was created from an extension of the Green Chamber of the Palazzo, the home of the Dukes at the time. The decoration of the chapel was executed by one of the greatest artists of the time, Agnolo Bronzino, the greatest artist who was in Pontormo's workshop. Florence was the leading artistic centre of the time and while Europe was still Gothic, the rest of Italy Renaissance, Florence was having the most refined expression of Mannerism and this chapel is one of the most stunning works in this style.

The frescoes celebrate the Medici dynasty through a unique iconographic scheme based on the theme of the Eucharist, which is Christ being the salvation of mankind. The ceiling evokes the Apocalypse, the central altarpiece represents the Deposition, and like in the Sistine Chapel, but this time on both walls, there are stories from the life of Moses, anticipating Christ's sacrifice. The deposition exalts the link between Old and New Testament and the Eucharistic theme.

The ceiling was the first part to be decorated, as it happens, between 1540 and 1541, in the centre is a representation of the Trinity, the Vultus Trinfons, with a coat of arms "Medici-Toledo", sadly almost-lost. The different parts of the ceiling are separated by festoons and cherubs: Saint John the Evangelist penitent at Patmos, Saint Michael triumphing over the Demon, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata,  Fra Leo and Saint Jerome in penitence. The pendentives are decorated with personifications of the virtues of Temperance, Justice, Strength and Prudence.

The walls are decorated with biblical episodes, in the centre is the altarpiece with the Deposition of Christ, around it are the two parts of the Annunciation: the Angel and Mary. In the upper part are David and Sybil Eritrea. 

The walls are decorated with the scenes from the life of Moses: 

Crossing of the Red Sea

Miracle of the Brazen Serpent

Gathering of the Manna

Miracle of the Spring