Benvenuto Cellini presented King Francis with a design for his fountain at Fontainebleau.
“It’s very nice,” said the King, “but I don’t understand it.”
“Yet the King knew what kind of man I was,” says Cellini. “He added that he was well aware that I hadn’t worked like the kind of fool whose art had a certain amount of grace but was completely devoid of significance. At this I prepared to explain, for having pleased him by what I had done, I wanted to please him with what I had to say.” Then comes Cellini’s explanation, which pleased the King so much he “praised me to the skies”.
Benvenuto was a willing lecturer; he was certainly capable of inventing long justifications and rigamaroles on the spot.
But every great artist of the time had to be able to give a verbal dimension to his work. Look at the MEANING Michelangelo [re-worded by Giorgio Vasari] gave the beautiful figures of his tomb for Pope Julius:
“All around the outer side of the tomb were…figures… which supported the first cornice with their heads; and each of these figures had fettered to it, in a strange and curious attitude, a nude captive standing on a projection of the base. These captives were meant to represent all the provinces subjugated by the Pope and made obedient to the Apostolic Church; and there were various other statues, also fettered, of all the liberal arts and sciences, which were thus shown to be subject to death no less than the pontiff himself, who employed them so honourably. On the corners of the first cornice were to go four large figures, representing the Active and the Contemplative Life, St. Paul, and Moses…; and at the summit, completing the structure, were two figures, one of which was Heaven, smiling and supporting a bier on her shoulder, and the other, Cybele, the goddess of the Earth, who appeared to be grief-stricken at having to remain in a world robbed of all virtue through the death of such a great man, in contrast to Heaven who is shown rejoicing that his soul had passed to celestial glory…”
Michelangelo’s second tomb design as drawn by Herbert von Einem
It is easy to understand that Pope Julius was pleased with the spectacular design. But the explanation alone might have won him over.
An explanation was a sine qua non part of the design in those days. The artist couldn’t get away with a smile and a “Why, it means anything you want it to mean.” No figure could simply stand on its beauty. It had to play a role.
Years later another king, the great Louis XIV of France, ordered an equestrian statue from Gianlorenzo Bernini. The king’s minister told Bernini to make it like his statue of Constantine in the Vatican, but not a copy of it. “Not to worry,” Bernini wrote back to him. “My Constantine is entranced by the vision of The Cross above him and King Louis will be in the attitude of majesty and command.”
True. But aren’t they riding the same horse?
Bernini’s Constantine and his clay model for the equestrian statue of Louis XIV
That Constantine statue was actually a high-relief—it was attached to a giant stone curtain.
The Louis XIV figure had to be free-standing.
Problem: How do you make a rearing stone horse? You can’t have a thousand kilos of marble up in the air unsupported.
No problem for Bernini. He went home and modelled a rearing horse with a rock under its belly.
And he hammered out a MEANING for the rock.
“That’s the Peak of Virtue. The Divine King Louis, like Hercules before him, came to a crossroads down below. There he had to choose between the Primrose Path or the Rocky Climb. He chose the difficult one and now here he has reached the Peak, which is the Temple of Virtue or Glory.”
Would the King think this was a bit far-fetched, a little too fawning? No, not Louis XIV, who was out for La Gloire. The French royal family, as everyone knew, was descended from Hercules Gallicus and Louis was the modern version of the Hero.
Bernini’s statue was finished only after his death and by the time it reached the French court tastes had changed. No one liked Bernini’s exuberance and all the Baroque fuss anymore. The statue was first stored away and then finally given to a French sculptor to update. He turned Louis into the Roman hero Martius Curtius but he wasn’t very successful. Now the dirty old marble stands in a corner of a garden at Versailles behind a bush.
Bernini would no doubt be able to come up with a nice moral for what happened.