Gods and Heroes
James Wehn Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow and PhD Candidate, Case Western Reserve University
In the history of European civilization, the term Renaissance describes a surge of interest in ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, literature, and art that occurred around 1400 to 1600. The Renaissance originated in Italy when scholars began reading and translating long-forgotten classical texts. The advent of the printing press in the mid-1400s helped spread these texts, which in turn influenced humanism, a larger philosophical movement that stressed the importance of individual expression, curiosity about the natural world, and an appreciation of worldly pleasures.
Around the same time, ancient sculptures and buildings were being rediscovered and excavated. Artists incorporated forms from ancient art and architecture into new sculptures, paintings, buildings, and decorative arts. Meanwhile, the development of the print, an invention capable of replicating hundreds of images from a single block or plate, helped disseminate knowledge of classical styles and mythology. Gods and Heroes focuses on this attraction to antiquity, bringing together a group of prints, drawings, and sculptures from the museum’s collection to explore how classical mythology, art, philosophy, and history inspired Renaissance artists and their patrons.
Venus Wounded by a Rose’s Thorn (Left) c. 1516. Marco Dente (Italian, c. 1486–1527), after Raphael (Italian, 1483–1520). Engraving; sheet: 26.1 x 16.8 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund, 1930.581
Adam and Eve (Right) 1504. Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Engraving; sheet: 25.2 x 19.4 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund, 1944.473
At the heart of the exhibition is a selection of works related to Greek and Roman mythology, which provided artists with a wealth of legendary characters and stories to depict all’antica—in the antique style. Marco Dente’s engraving Venus Wounded by a Rose’s Thorn alludes to The Lament for Adonis by the Greek poet Bion (active c. 100 bc). In the poem, Venus—distraught over the death of her lover Adonis—wanders barefoot in the woods, where she is injured by brambles. Although Bion implores Venus to “weep no longer in the thickets,” the poem does not describe this particular moment where Venus pauses to tend a wound. The imagined episode, designed by Raphael, was one of several scenes of Venus in the bathroom of Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena’s apartments in the Vatican Palace. A scholar of classical antiquity and a patron of the arts, the cardinal personally chose the mildly erotic female nudes, a typical subject in bathroom decorations, even for clergymen.
Several works in the exhibition contain the forms of celebrated ancient sculptures. Renaissance artists aimed not merely to copy these statues, but to comprehend the underlying systems used by the ancient masters. In Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve, the German printmaker based Adam’s pose on the Apollo Belvedere, an ancient Roman sculpture discovered in Italy during the late 1400s. However, he constructed the idealized bodies of Adam and Eve using geometry and a mathematical system of proportion loosely derived from ancient models. For Dürer, who mostly depicted Christian subjects, the formulation of theoretically perfect human bodies was a pathway to comprehending the divine. The root of this idea lies in the ancient philosophy of Plato (c. 428–347 bc), who argued that the study of abstract concepts could reveal eternal truths. Dürer recognized that Adam and Eve, created in God’s image, were ideal subjects for exploring this theme. He represented them as he understood them in both artistic and theological terms: moments before eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the couple is still uncorrupted by sin and death, existing in a state of faultless beauty.
The Triumph of Caesar: Caesar Triumphant 1593–99. Andrea Andreani (Italian, c. 1558–1610), after Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431–1506). Woodcut printed on silk, heightened by hand with gold; sheet: 37.6 x 37.3 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1994.102
A highlight of the exhibition is Andrea Andreani’s Triumph of Caesar, a suite of nine chiaroscuro woodcuts presenting a triumphal procession of the renowned Roman general and consul Julius Caesar (100–44 bc). Each section of the continuous frieze shows elements of these pageants, including colossal statues, siege equipment, war trophies, ele-phants, and sacrificial bulls. In this installation, the final scene with Caesar in his chariot is a rare impression printed on dyed silk with hand-applied gold highlights. These luxurious materials evoke descriptions of Roman triumphs by the ancient chroniclers Plutarch (c. 45–120 ad) and Appian (c. 95–165 ad), who each wrote that the hero of honor wore purple robes decorated with gold.
Henri II, King of France, at the Age of 28 1547. Nicolo della Casa (French, active 1543–48). Engraving; sheet: 41.3 x 29.3 cm. In memory of Ralph King, gift of Mrs. Ralph King; Ralph T. Woods, Charles G. King; and Frances King Schafer, 1946.308
Renaissance royals throughout Europe identified themselves as the successors of ancient rulers such as Julius Caesar, and it was common to compare Renaissance princes with these distinguished ancient leaders in laudatory speeches, literature, and art. In commemoration of Henri II’s coronation as king of France (r. 1547–59), Nicolo della Casa portrayed the monarch in an engraving as a valiant Roman general crowned with a laurel wreath. Nicolo’s carefully modeled portrait emulates an ancient relief sculpture, an illusion strenghtened by off-white paper that recalls the quality of weathered marble. The muscular ceremonial armor, derived from antique imperial portraits and figures of Mars, the god of war, creates a powerful and timeless image of the French sovereign. Henri II is at once god and hero, the embodiment of ancient legend in Renaissance art.
Cleveland Art, September/October 2017