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Giotto and Michelangelo, Artists with Hands of Intellect

Definition of "Artists" by Plato

The Italian Renaissance, the so-called Golden Age of History of Western Art, was one of the richest and most celebrated periods of all time with wondrous feats of Art and Science. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Italy went through tremendous transformations, which overall influenced the course of the Western aesthetic world and human grandeur. Great Italian artists, such as Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) and Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), cultivated their cultural heritage through their artistic discipline and genuine imagination, contributing to the astonishing richness of Renaissance Art from the 14th century to the 16th century. However, how does one define the term "artist"? What does it mean to be a great artist? Does it solely mean someone who creates, aesthetically speaking, beautiful or appealing works of Art? Allegory of Cave by Greek philosopher Plato (429-347 BCE), which is presented in Book VII of his work, The Republic (c. 375 BCE), provides the idea of "artists" since his work analyzes the essence of so-called "artists" or "philosophers" and helps to answer such questions above. In Allegory of Cave, there are prisoners who are chained in a dark cave from their childhood, facing the cave wall with their legs and necks fastened. The prisoners only believe what they see on the wall, which are the mere shadows of objects that are cast by a fire behind them (Wright, 1906) [Figure 1]. However, the story also represents one prisoner, who is freed from the chain and discovers the true nature of reality outside the cave.

Figure 1: Illustration of the Allegory of Cave (Unknown, n.d.).

A group of prisoners who believe the shadows of the objects to be reality represents the state of ignorance or illusion that many people live in, where they perceive only a limited and distorted version of reality. As they have never seen the outside world, the cave becomes their world to live and the shadows become their reality to believe. On the other hand, the freed prisoner in the story is, according to Plato, a metaphorical figure who represents an artist, philosopher, or anyone who seeks to achieve knowledge, wisdom, and truth by making the intellectual journey from ignorance to enlightenment. Once the prisoner gets liberated from the chain and escapes from the cave, he finds real trees, plants, the Sun, and more realities that he had never encountered in his life. This process of enlightenment and the nature of human perception is the path on which people with intellect can travel. Artists and philosophers are among those who acknowledge the distinction between the world of appearances and the world of reality and overcome ignorance to gain the truth beyond the sensory world. Considering Plato's allegory of the cave, the following article will discuss in what ways the great Italian masters of art, Giotto and Michelangelo, became the artists who challenged ignorance and aimed to enlighten the people through their intellectual works of art by representing the real beauty of nature.

Giotto with Hands of Intellect

At the beginning of the 14th century Italy witnessed the appearance of one of the greatest artists, a Florentine painter known as Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337). To discuss the glorious achievements of Renaissance art, it is impossible to ignore the tremendous impact that Giotto brought to the world of art. As the freed prisoner in Plato's allegory of the cave, who discovered the new world outside the cave, Giotto was the artist who invented the new artistic styles, techniques, and even philosophy, marking the beginning of Renaissance Art in the 14th century. Giotto’s discoveries of new perspectives, realistic human figures, emotional depth, and detailed storytelling contributed to a great transformation from the stylized art of his time (Gombrich, 1995). In particular, Giotto's revolutionary naturalism was unquestionably one of the most powerful inventions during his time. Giovanni Bocaccio (1313-1375), an Italian poet best remembered as the author of Decameron (1349), already acknowledged how Giotto's contemporaries were completely struck by the extraordinary naturalism of his work (Hartt, 1994). Giotto often portrayed religious subjects and presented sacred scenes as if they might have happened before the eyes of spectators (Gombrich, 1995). Gombrich, the Austrian-born art historian, highlighted Giotto’s enthusiasm towards realistic depiction as well as the emotional depth of his work:

He did not rest till he had thought it all out afresh: how would a man stand, how would he act, how would he move, if he took part in such an event? Moreover, how would such a gesture or movement present itself to our eyes? (Gombrich, 1995, p. 202)

The frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua are the best examples, showcasing his revolutionary storytelling and realistic approach in Early Renaissance paintings, which were completely innovative. In 1301, Giotto was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker from Padua, to adorn the wall of the Scrovegni Chapel, which was founded as a private place of worship for the Scrovegni family (Hartt, 1994). One of the most fundamental frescoes in the Chapel, The Mourning of Christ (1305) [Figure 2], represents the Lamentation of Christ, a biblical event after the crucifixion of Jesus, where the body of Christ is being mourned by his followers. Giotto's profound emotional effect was revolutionary since his approach was completely different from the traditional representation. In the 13th century, there was less attention to spacial depiction. For instance, The Entombment of Christ (1260) [Figure 3] from the 13th century's Bonmont Psalter, a medieval manuscript by an unknown illuminator, also portrays the scene of lamentation, but the emotional effect is less dynamic than Giotto's. In The Entombment of Christ (1260), the artist did not represent the scene as it might have happened. To fit into the same page, all the figures were squeezed. On the other hand, Giotto’s method was different, as is evident in the distance between the cowering figures in the foreground and St. John with arms outstretched and his body leaning towards Christ’s. Giotto abandoned the conventional method of completely showing every figure. Instead, he primarily focused on a more realistic spatial depiction to create the grief among the cowering figures in the background, whose faces are hidden (Gombrich, 1995). The late-fourteenth-century theorist, Cennino Cennini (1370-1426) remarked that Giotto had transformed the old-fashion art forms into something more comprehensible to everyone (Snyder, 1989), which was completely innovative in his time.

Figure 2: "The Mourning of Christ" (Giotto, 1305).

Figure 3: "The Entombment of Christ" (Unknown, 1260).

Michelangelo with Hands of Intellect

After Giotto marked the beginning of Renaissance Art in the 14th century, Italy became the center of Western Art. In particular, during the later 15th century and 16th century, Renaissance Art developed with the glorious achievements of various Italian artists. Michelangelo was, however, the significant artist who introduced the new philosophy of art-making and expressed his intellectual knowledge through his works. Although best known as a painter who completed the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling at the Vatican (1508-1512), which was commissioned by Julius II, Michelangelo was also a remarkable writer and poet.

Among several poems, Rime (1508 to 1512) is known as one of the most renowned collection of poems that illustrate Michelangelo's interpretation of art-making. Rime is a collection of poems that deeply explores various themes such as love, beauty, spirituality, art, the human condition, and his reflections (Gilbert, 1962). Although Michelangelo did not always date his poems, it is believed that most of the poems in Rime were composed around the time when he was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling from 1508 to 1512. All of the sonnets beautifully represent Michelangelo's philosophical reflections. However, his theory of art-making is precisely highlighted in Sonnet 151, also known as On the Brink of the Void or A Unfinished Sonnet:

Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto ch’un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva col suo soverchio, e solo a quello arriva la man che ubbidisce all’intelletto. (Buonarotti, 1967, p. 161)
Nothing the best of artists can conceive but lies, potential, in a block of stone, superfluous matter round it. The hand alone secures it that has intelligence for guide. (Buonarroti, 2000, p. 96)

This poem has been interpreted as a statement of the Neo-Platonic principle (Burroughs, 1993). Clements argues that Sonnet 151 effectively illustrates Michelangelo's Neo-Platonic state of mind as is evident in his concept of beauty, and his relationship with crafts and works of art (Clements, 1912). Michelangelo's theory is centered around the idea that the sculpture already exists within the block of stone, waiting to be released by the sculptor's chisel (Burroughs, 1993). As a sculptor, Michelangelo was aware that only the sculptors' hands of intellect can reveal what was already present within a block of marble.

Figure 4: Sonnet "To Giovanni da Pistoia" and Caricature on his Painting of the Sistine Ceiling (Michelangelo, 1508-1512).

Michelangelo's Neo-Platonic Theory

Neo-Platonism is the foundation of Michelangelo's artistic creation. In the 15th century, great masters of philosophy such as Ficino (1443-1499) and Landino (1424-1498) spread the teachings of Plato's philosophy at the Platonic Academy in Florence, influencing many artists during the Renaissance (Lu, 2023). Michelangelo was one of the students who was fascinated by Neo-Platonism at the academy. For sculpture, Michelangelo believed in a purely Platonic idea that the creation of the statue meant liberation from the hard stone (Lu, 2023). Among many sculptures, Awakening Slave (1530) [Figure 5], by Michelangelo, is a great example that reflects his art-making theory. Commissioned by Pope Julius II for his monumental tomb, Michelangelo worked on Awakening Slave as a part of a series of sculptures known as The Prisoners or The Slaves. Awakening Slave is the most powerful and expressive sculpture among the other pieces in this series since the figure seems to be struggling to burst out of the marble block in a very realistic and dynamic way. There is unspeakable beauty in the moment that the slave is struggling to free itself from the surrounding mass of stone (Carabell, 1997). Awakening Slave still retains an organic unity with the block, however, this unfinished touch creates the emotional effect that makes viewers feel that the slave is about to come out of the marble (Carabell, 1997). Also, it was his great technical achievement to twist and turn the body of his figure in realistic movement, keeping the outline dynamic, yet restful at the same time. Gombrich emphasizes Michelangelo’s task as a sculptor in his book:

The task he set himself as a sculptor was merely to remove the stone which covered them. Thus the simple shape of a block was always reflected in the outline of the statues and held it together in one lucid design, however much movement there was in the body. (Gombrich, 1995, p. 313)

Figure 5: "Awakening Slave" (Michelangelo, 1530).

Michelangelo's idea of "removing" is, therefore, closely related to the moral teaching from Plato's allegory of cave. For Michelangelo, the forms in which art is embodied include concepts (concetti), images (immagini), and ideas or ideals (idee) (Clements, 1912). He acknowledged that all these elements exist in nature or "art" and they are mere reflections of "beauty" (Clements, 1912). However, this beauty is easily ignored or unrecognized by the human mind. Clements therefore argues that the artist is born to discern and reproduce this pre-existing beauty in nature, or again, in Platonic terms, to match incorporeal with corporeal beauty (Clements, 1912, p. 4). As is evident in Plato's allegory of the cave, the truth of nature is already there and present. The freed prisoner of the allegory is not the one who creates the beauty outside, but the one who discovers the true nature that already exists, and enlightens his knowledge and wisdom. Michelangelo was the artist who sought to liberate the real beauty which was already inside the marble by "removing" parts of it, since he was capable of identifying the true nature in the stone. Therefore, his hands of intellect serve as the attributes that constitute the foundational element of great artists. Artists are not to create beauty, but to represent "already existing" beauty. Michelangelo was clearly one of those who achieved this artistic task.

Bibliographical References

Agoston, L. C. (1997). Sonnet, Sculpture, Death: The Mediums of Michelangelo's Self–Imaging. Art History, 20(4), pp. 534-555.

Buonarroti, M. (1967). Rime di Michelangelo Buonarroti. Einaudi.

Buonarroti, M. (2023). The Complete Poems of Michelangelo: Translated by Joseph Frederick Nims. University of Toronto Press.

Burroughs, C. (1993). Michelangelo at the Campidoglio: Artistic Identity, Patronage, and Manufacture. Artibus et Historiae. Vol. 12, No.28, pp. 85-111.

Carabell, P. (1997). Image and identity in the unfinished works of Michelangelo. Anthropology and Aesthetics, 32(1), 83-105.

Gilbert, C. (1962). Michelangelo's Theory of Art. New York University Press.

Gilbert, C. (2003). What Is Expressed in Michelangelo's "Non-Finito". Artibus et Historiae. Vol. 24, No. 48.

Gombrich, E. H. (1995). The Story of Art (Vol.12). Phaidon.

Hartt, F. (1994). History of Italian Renaissance Art. Pearson Education.

Lu, P. (2023). The Influence of Neoplatonism on Michelangelo and His Works. Journal of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, 11, 155-159.

Snyder, J. (1989). Medieval art: painting-sculpture-architecture, 4th-14th century. Prentice Hall.

Wright, J, H. (1906). The Origin of Plato's Cave. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. Vol. 17, pp. 131-142.

Visual Sources


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Kotono Sakai

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