For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some indented excerpts of “The Hero as Artist,” the fifth chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, after which I offer my comments.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
In the Middle Ages men had been crushed by this [ancient Roman] gigantic scale. They said that these buildings must be the work of demons, or at best they treated them simply as natural phenomena—like mountains—and built their huts in them.
But by 1500 the Romans had begun to realise that they had been built by men. The lively and intelligent individuals who created the Renaissance, bursting with vitality and confidence, were not in a mood to be crushed by antiquity. They meant to absorb it, to equal it, to master it. They were going to produce their own race of giants and heroes.
In what is commonly described as the decadence of the papacy, the Popes were men of unusual ability who used their international contacts, their great civil service and their increasing wealth in the interests of civilisation. Nicholas V, the friend of Alberti and the humanists, was the first man who saw that papal Rome could revive the grandeurs of pagan Rome.
Pius II, a poet, a lover of nature and of beauty in all its forms, yet gave up his life in an attempt to save Christendom from the Turks. Even Sixtus IV, who was as brutal and cunning as he looks in the wall-painting by Melozzo da Forlo, founded the Vatican library and made the great humanist, Platina, its first prefect. Pope Julius II was able by magnanimity and strength of will to inspire and bully three men of genius—Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael. Without him Michelangelo would not have painted the Sistine Ceiling, nor Raphael decorated the papal apartments, and so we should have been without two of the greatest visible expressions of spiritual power and humanist philosophy.
The above paragraphs remind me what Nietzsche said almost at the end of his Antichrist: that without the Reformation and Counter-Reformation these rather pagan popes would have brought Christianity down. Clark continues:
The old St Peter’s was one of the largest and most ancient churches in the western world, and certainly the most venerable. Julius decided to pull it down and put something far more splendid in its place. The first step in this visible alliance between Christianity and antiquity was taken when Julius decided to pull down the old basilica.
The men of fifteenth-century Florence had looked back eagerly to the civilisation of Greece and Rome. They sought for ancient authors and read them with passion, and wrote to each other in Latin. Their greatest source of pride was to write prose like Cicero. But the man who really assimilated antique art and recreated it, with all its expressive power made more vital and more intense, was Michelangelo.
Seen by itself the David’s body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people’s idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness.
And this of course can only remind me of Harold Covington’s extreme contempt for those so-called “nationalists” who watch TV while eating so tasty Nachos that only grow their bellies; always reluctant to come home and fight for the creation of a new nation. Clark continues:
And yet we recognise that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilisation depends of man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.
[His drawing of Battle of Cascina] was the first authoritative statement that the human body—that body which, in Gothic times, had been the subject of shame and concealment, that body which Alberti has praised so extravagantly—could be made the means of expressing noble sentiments, life-giving energy and God-like perfection. It was an idea that was to have an incalculable influence on the human mind for four hundred years.
And this brings us back to Rome, and to the terrible Pope. Julius II was not only ambitious for the Catholic Church: he was ambitious for Julius II, and in his new temple he planned to erect the greatest tomb of any ruler since the time of Hadrian. It was a staggering example of superbia; and Michelangelo at that time was not without the same characteristic. I need not go into the question of why the tomb was never built. There was a quarrel—heroes do not easily tolerate the company of other heroes. Nor does it matter to us what the tomb was going to look like. All that matters is that some of the figures made for it survive, and they add something new to the European spirit—something that neither antiquity nor the great civilisations of India and China had ever dreamed of. As a matter of fact the two most finished of them were derived from antiques, but Michelangelo has turned them from athletes to captives, one of them struggling to be free—freedom from mortality?—and the other sensuously resigned.
People sometimes wonder why the Renaissance Italians, with their intelligent curiosity, didn’t make more of a contribution to the history of thought. The reason is that the most profound thought of the time was not expressed in words, but in visual imagery.
For centuries writers on Michelangelo have criticised Julius for taking him off the tomb, on which he had set his heart, and putting him to work on the painting of the Sistine Ceiling, although he always said he hated the act of painting.
Michelangelo’s power of prophetic insight gives one the feeling that he belongs to every epoch, and most of all, perhaps, to the epoch of the great Romantics, of which we are still the most bankrupt heirs. It is the attribute that distinguishes him most sharply from his brilliant rival, Raphael. Michelangelo took no interest in the opposite sex; Leonardo thought of women solely as reproductive mechanisms. But Raphael loved girls as much as any Venetian.
The convention by which great events in biblical or secular history could be enacted only by magnificent physical specimens, handsome and well-groomed, went on for a long time—till the middle of the nineteenth century. Only a very few artists—perhaps only Rembrandt and Caravaggio in the first rank—were independent enough to stand against it. And I think that this convention, which was an element in the so-called grand manner, became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility; and led, as we now see, to a hideous reaction.
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In the last part of this episode Clark talked about his favourite hero: da Vinci, and in the last sentence he said: “The golden moment is almost over. But while it lasted man achieved a stature that has hardly ever achieved before or since.”
Above, detail of The Annunciation showing only Gabriel.