Flesh and Blood, Seattle Art Museum’s stellar exhibit of forty artworks from the National Museum Capodimonte in Naples, is a perfectly-presented foray into the very heart of what we call the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Despite its notoriety, the Renaissance continues to inspire speculation, disagreement, even bewilderment. Flesh and Blood speaks to all this while focusing on an indisputable artistic revolution in Italy at this time: a renewed focus on realism and the human body itself as the subject of art.
The works in Flesh and Blood come especially from the massive, storied Farnese collection, which originated in Parma before coming to rest in Naples in the 18th century. With so much work to pick from (at least among the pieces not already committed to other Renaissance shows happening around the world), SAM’s curator Chiyo Ishikawa assembled a breathtaking survey of the body and the society around it in Italy of the 16th and 17th centuries. Flesh and Blood absolutely nails its subject matter—and stabs it, too.
The Birth of “The Rebirth”
Before speaking about the show in depth, it’s worth discussing why we call this period The Renaissance, thanks to a 19th century Swiss historian named Jacob Burckhardt.
Burckhardt did not really coin the term. In 1856, Jules Michelet had published his own essays on the period, referring to it as The Renaissance. But Michelet had not captured the popular imagination the way that Burckhardt would.
When Burckhardt published his 1860 Magnum Opus, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, he acknowledged that he was putting forth what he considered to be a useful framing for a place and time whose turbulence and richness offered far more than he could recount. The Civilization and the praise and critique did more than foster a renewed fascination with the period; it helped shape art history and criticism as disciplines.
Arts historians and critics have since clarified, refuted and expanded upon Burkhardt’s views. The Renaissance is now broken into various periods over three centuries, recognized as occurring variously around Europe, and even scorned by some as birthing modern hubris, egoism and materialism—a dark age of another sort.
Despite some scholarly skeptics in Burckhardt’s own time, his bourgeois readership was transfixed by his passion and peculiar view of the period. For though there was disagreement about what this period actually was and meant, there was a hunger for a cogent vision of history, of progress from darkness—especially when the Renaissance, as they suddenly knew it, reflected their own period of urban expansion, of new wealth toppling old regimes. And what a name! The Rebirth!
But was it really a “Rebirth”? When Petrarch, in the late 1300s, wrote of a coming age of light (versus what people would later call The Dark Ages), what precisely did he presume that people were awaking to? Was it really the same thing that artists in the following years were referencing when they said their works renascere? When painter and writer Giorgio Vasari championed the ‘Rinascita,’ was he thinking periodically? And though artists, architects and poets flourished as despots and popes competed for their talent amid violent subterfuge—were their products truly a rebirth, something new and better?
The Body Politic
When Vasari wrote of a ‘Rinascita’ in the late 1500s, he was politically and materially motivated to distinguish his home, Florence, as the current epicenter of art, not so much other places and times. His praise was specific to painting, too, championing it among the other arts and elevating allies and celebrated artists of the region. In hindsight, he was a more effective arts marketer than painter.
Vasari understood that Florentine excellence was not spontaneously generated in a vacuum, but to his mind it was a pinnacle in the lineage reaching back to art’s prehistoric beginnings. Vasari and his primary patron, Cosimo de Medici, saw art as inseparable from statecraft, especially in its power to educate and ennoble the masses that were flocking to urban centers from the countryside. Artists such as Fra Filippo Lippi, Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo had already been creating ever more lifelike and emotionally charged depictions of the body by the time that Vasari noted the importance of realism to transfix the populace.
As for portraiture, masters like Titian were determining how to reproduce the essence of their subjects, not just create a noble likeness. You can see that in the very opening of Flesh and Blood, especially in Titian’s portrait of the aged Alessandro Farnese (then Pope Paul III) compared with Raphael’s portrait of him as a younger cardinal. The earlier portrait presents Farnese upright and poised with a pastoral view at back. Titian, meanwhile, devoted his power to the hands and face of the aged pope, whom he renders with a sort of weary suspicion around the eyes as the right hand rests upon his purse.
Between the two, one can see how the arc of Renaissance moved on from mere realism to something more expressive, leading into the Mannerist style, which departs slightly from realism to exaggerate the body’s proportions for heightened emotional effect. The saintly, stoic ethos so characteristic of medieval works was giving way to more expressive pathos, and this made the works relatable to viewers in a way that medieval iconography never could be—especially to the masses coming to Florence to work as migrant wage laborers. They’d not be seeing the ruling classes’ collections directly, but they would see select, “ennobling” works in churches and state buildings. Now, we’re seeing them in museums, which is functionally the same thing.
In this ribald Renaissance, agony and ecstasy could be displayed in semi-nude frankness, sensual or violently passionate. You’ll see plenty of it at Flesh and Blood. Titian’s other work is of Danae, sprawled nude and ready receive Zeus into her bed (and herself) as a golden shower. Near that is the sole sculpture in the show: a bronze of a man and woman, inspired by the Rape of the Sabine women, in which one can see the abductor’s fingers pressing into her flesh. The slight exaggeration of the features are indicative of that aforementioned Mannerist style.
There were disputes among artists about whether this sort of exaggeration was appropriate, or grotesque. But the conflict surrounding the arts came from outside the artists and patrons, too. There was, at times, backlash to the decadence, notably from Rome and from religious fanatics like Friar Girolamo Savonarola, who inspired his followers to commit “bonfires of the vanities” that would claim several of Botticelli’s works (by the artist’s own hand). Savonarola himself would eventually burn for heresy, and it’s no coincidence that the old spoilsport was a bit of an historic icon in Burckhardt’s staid time, when the writer chose instead to exalt the old passions—so geographically close to his home in Switzerland, yet so spiritually remote from the society he knew.
That torrid characterization and the kind of works one sees at Flesh and Blood stirred the imaginations of other stoical Northern European audiences, and the fascination is unabating. It goes beyond the fetish for precise technique that sometimes creeps into popular responses to abstract and conceptual art. (E.g. “My kid could do that.”) The competition for Renaissance paintings today is not other paintings, but the ever more lurid, more pathetic spectacle of moving images, which proves that Vasari and Cosimo were onto something when they saw brash, even grotesque realism as a tool for placating the masses at their gates.
This is, to me, one of the reasons Flesh and Blood is so special. Its thematic framing and curatorial choices really shine a light on the era and the burgeoning vision of humanity as malleable and perfectable by mankind’s own artful design, starting with the body itself.
Bodies of Work at Flesh and Blood
It is fair to say that outside of a few iconic images, most of today’s art audiences will see Renaissance masterworks as thematic cues and plot points in movies, or remixed in design rather than in their wholeness. And even when a certain work gets picked up and celebrated, the lens placed on it is specific, even confining or caricatured.
Flesh and Blood has one such masterwork: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” was ubiquitous at the height of the #MeToo movement. This fame is—no pun intended—a sword that cuts both ways; it expands the audience for the work while perhaps necessitating simplistic, generalized narratives about its artist and origins…rather like the idea of the Renaissance itself that followed from Burckhardt’s lionizing.
SAM does her right by including in their activity booth some sections from Gina Siciliano’s recently published graphic novel/biography of Gentileschi. Viewers get some context beyond: “She painted her own rapist getting beheaded.” But even if visitors don’t take the time to read those excerpts, just seeing Gentileschi’s masterpiece “in the flesh” is a reminder that no matter how many times it is memed, or how large one’s coffee table book might be, nothing but the original will truly suffice.
Judith gives Holofernes his due at the center of Flesh and Blood, in a room whose monumental canvases feature the exhibition’s bloodier aspects. As usual for the period, the subjects are religious or mythic in nature. Two examples are The Massacre of the Innocents by Massimo Stanzione and Cain murdering Abel by Leonello Spada. Because The Massacre presaged Christ’s birth, it had been a common subject in Medieval art and remained so even after the Renaissance, as it allowed for artists to indulge in truly affecting brutality and maternal agony. Before the 14th century, however, the event was depicted in a sort of confused panorama, with King Herod (who ordered the slaughter) included to the side. Renaissance artists didn’t all cease from allegory or physically impossible compositions, but they did zoom in on individuals and render them more realistically. Perhaps no one got quite as close to the slaughter, or quite so graphic as Stanzione. The glimpse of a mother in shock cradling an infant’s severed head to one side and a tiny dismembered hand on the ground in the center bring the enormity of The Massacre into horrifying clarity.
Cain and Abel were, of course, another common subject, being The Bible’s first murder (one of the few that its God didn’t approve). Usually, painters rendered the aftermath, or showed a maniacal Cain taking Abel rather by surprise. Spada places his Cain and Abel in flagrante delicto, but…the struggle is not terribly convincing. The artist was a young contemporary of Caravaggio and a touch salacious, so his blatantly homoerotic depiction of dark Cain and fair Abel locking legs was a departure from the formula, but not so surprising in hindsight.
Anatomy of a New Age
Spada didn’t invent that trope of the dark-featured savage and the fair, blonde child of Christendom, but it recalls another social shift at the time: newly minted, pseudo-scientific race theories that would justify the enslavement of dark-skinned peoples and bring centuries of ongoing misery. To own other human beings was still an unquestioned practice in the Renaissance, but the line below which slaves fells was mostly religious, not racial. (I.e. Those outside Christendom were up for grabs.)
Yet, thinkers were also taking their first steps to codify a scientific process and natural law beyond what was handed down in sacred texts. Arts and sciences went hand-in-hand in this account, especially with Leonardo and Vesalius creating detailed anatomies for the first time based on dissections of corpses they carried out themselves. Others were more interested in depicting animal, vegetable and mineral specimens from the ever-expanding world.
One of the more distinct paintings in Flesh and Blood is an example of this phenomenon. Agostino Carracci’s triple portrait of Little Amon, Hairy Arrigo and Mad Peter was long believed to be allegorical—a less than obvious display of art’s journey from primitive origins to refined realism (not unlike what Vasari was proposing). In fact, the three men in this painting and the animals surrounding them were all part of the menagerie of the Farnese court. Furthermore, there was a whole genre of paintings like this.
Arrigo’s lineage could be traced back to the Canary Islands, a family who all had hypertrichosis, covering their faces in hair. Male members of his family were kept as valets in several European courts. As for the other two in the triple portrait, a nano (a little person) was also a common source of entertainment, as was the mad buffone, Peter. Their status as oddities afforded them comforts that many commoners could only dream of, but their position was not truly enviable, as they would always be less than human, inferior. Their portrait was not intended to dignify their state, but to entertain titters and spurious theories by their mere “freakishness.”
For though the Renaissance was setting the stage for Newton and fully dispensing with the geocentric universe, its speculative, Humanistic worldview was categorically anthropocentric…and Eurocentric. The Mediterranean was still quite literally “the middle of the world” as far as they were concerned, and the cabinets of curiosity amassed by the merchant class weren’t just a chintzier version of aristocratic menageries and art collections. These rooms full of foreign carvings, taxidermy, gemstones, coral, insects, etchings, et al were microcosms evidencing a God-created universe, whose natural functions and order could be revealed and then exploited if we just looked in the right places.
It would take Darwin’s Origin of the Species to eventually shove humanity and the god-in-its-own-image from the center to a single, existentially precarious branch. That was first published a year before Burckhardt offered his grand narrative, and the two books are complementary monuments of modernity: grand narratives that ignited whole fields of inquiry, one rooted in scientific observation and the other in a personal window onto history. In the latter case, there is also some nostalgia for a time and place one never knew. Petrarch and Vasari felt it, too, for the classical antiquity before the so-called Dark Ages.
But fortunately, Flesh and Blood’s masterpieces don’t belie a halcyon age to which one might mistakenly want to return. Their red-splattered darkness is a product of a violent time, of decadent oligarchs exerting authoritarian control over fractious states, with ever shifting alliances born solely of self-interest and short-sighted gains, while the poor are used as cannon fodder and grist for the mill. Truly, who in this enlightened age could even imagine such an era?
And yet, on the carefully conserved canvas, the flesh is still supple and the blood is fresh as ever. At least some things never change.