Painting over the Evidence

Alessandro Farnese, who reigned as Pope Paul III from 1534 to 1549, was a man of exquisite taste and learning.  One need only look at the architects and artists  who worked at the Curia and on his family’s magnificent palaces, villas and gardens:  Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, Vignola and others.  But he was also the pope who finally rallied the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation by summoning the Council of Trent and kick-starting the Counter-Reformation.

However, one particular fresco by Michelangelo, commissioned by Paul III, has been at the centre of lively debate in recent months – ever since the Pauline Chapel reopened last summer – although, as the pope’s private chapel, it is still off-limits to the general visitor.

I’ve mentioned the controversy of its restoration in an earlier post – in particular, leaving the “cockroach-like” nails, which were added much later, probably under Gregory XIII, the Buoncompagni pope (r. 1572-85) – but a recent article by Judith Harris (ARTnews January 2010) offers an excellent overview.

Quoting Antonio Forcellino, restorer and author of lives of Michelangelo and Raphael, and C.L. Frommel, expert art and architectural historian (as well as former director of the Biblioteca Herziana), she writes:

“It is a form of total censorship,” art historian and conservator Antonio Forcellino, the author of biographies of both Raphael and Michelangelo, told ARTnews. “This was the first conceptual work of art in history. Michelangelo was being provocative, saying that only faith, not the nails, can sustain Peter, and that faith is interiorized.”

German art historian Christoph Luitpold Frommel, a member of the international advisory commission on the restoration, told the Italian weekly Il Venerdì di Repubblica that most members of the commission preferred removal of wrapping and nails. “The wrapping isn’t so bad; probably Gregory XIII had it added,” Frommel said. “It’s understandable that popes might not want such a large completely naked man in the chapel, but the nails are very serious.”

Strange though it might seem, the nails used on the cross have their own evolution in art history, reflecting the ancient sources.  Among others, Gregory of Tours (6th cent.) describes how four nails were used to crucify Christ:

“Clavorum ergo dominicorum gratiâ quod quatuor fuerint hæc est ratio: duo sunt affixi in palmis, et duo in plantis” (“De Gloria Martyrum”, I, vi, in Patrologia Latina, XXI, 710).

This remained the tradition until the development of Gothic art in the West in the 13th century and the depiction of a more realistic, suffering and humiliating Christ replaced the triumphant, and often fully clothed, Christ on the crucifix shown in earlier works.  Three nails were used by Giotto and Cimabue, and this required the crossing of the feet and helped to develop the artistic techniques of foreshortening.

However, the final decision on the question of the nails in Michelangelo’s fresco still has to be decided, as Harris reports:

According to Frommel, the commission “decided that the Holy Father would have the last word, but I don’t know if he has yet pronounced on the question and if those nails will remain. I’m still hopeful that, in the end, the pontiff will say that Michelangelo is too important for his interpretation to be modified.”

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