Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Grand Tour

The Renaissance “arose within a maelstrom of enormously potent political, economic, and social change,” writes Angela K. Nickerson in A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome, Roaring Forties Press’ newest addition to their ArtPlace Series. “In Italy, the winds of change transformed a collection of warring principalities and city-states into a continent’s mercantile and cultural powerhouse.” Within that whirlwind, Michelangelo and his revolutionary talent helped shape Renaissance Rome and continues to haunt the Rome of today. Nickerson, an international tour guide who is married to a Roman, conveys a sense of the power Michelangelo’s spirit still holds over locals and tourists today. Through photos such as the scene above of newlyweds strolling through the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo in 1538 (and completed by Mussolini, of all people, in 1940), and text providing a full sense of Michelangelo’s world in context, Nickerson leads us through the genius’ Rome and sheds new light on familiar sights.

As with the other volumes of the ArtPlace series (such as Laura McPhee’s A Journey into Matisse’s South of France, which I reviewed here), Nickerson’s book seamlessly interweaves the genres of biography, art history, and travelogue into a convenient, practically portable package. For the art lover hoping to walk in the steps of Michelangelo, maps such as the one above give the general lay of the land to supplement more detailed maps. The numbers on the map correspond to passages in the text that give a full explanation of the site’s importance, as if you had an experienced tour guide such as Nickerson at your disposal. Such maps allow you to see how Michelangelo borrowed from such ancient sites as Hadrian’s Mausoleum (aka, Castel Sant’Angelo) and the Arch of Constantine inspired works such as his tomb for Pope Julius II. As Nickerson writes, “civic and religious authority have always mingled” from the Caesars to the Popes. Michelangelo’s art often bridged both those worlds.

Nickerson cuts to the heart of Michelangelo’s art and its continued influence on Rome with the simplicity and concision of the book’s neat graphic of Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sidebars offer additional tidbits of history and culture that flavor the main narrative, such as the tangent pointing out how Pope Leo X decreed that indulgences be sold in March 1517 to finance the continued construction of Michelangelo’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica, thus outraging Martin Luther and igniting the Protestant Reformation. Rather than the classic picture of Michelangelo as the isolated genius, Nickerson paints a full-blooded picture of the artist as a force rippling throughout his environment, out into the world, and even into the present day. Snippets of Michelangelo’s sonnets and personal details such as his dealings with family and assistants bring Michelangelo down from the famous scaffolding and down to Earth to mingle with us even now. Reading Michelangelo’s sonnet on painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling (“My beard toward Heaven… I am bending like a Syrian bow”), you recover the man buried beneath the myth.

The photography of A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome will make you want to travel there again and again. All the greatest hits are there, but also lesser known and lesser seen works such as The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (secluded away in the Pauline Chapel, the pope’s private devotional space) and The Florentine Pieta (above), in which Michelangelo casts himself as Nicodemus mourning over the fallen Christ. Whereas other travel guides will touch on the art and cultural history of Rome and Michelangelo’s role, A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome connects the dots that a true art history lover yearns for. Knowing that Michelangelo had the dome of the Pantheon in mind when constructing that for Saint Peter’s Basilica adds a whole new dimension to the appreciation of both places. Nickerson’s book is the perfect cure for Stendhal Syndrome, that overwhelming sense of beauty that can strike when surrounded by genius in the heart of Renaissance Rome. A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome literally maps out your journey and hands you the tools to take in the majesty of Michelangelo’s achievement. With the coolness of a delicious gelato (con panna, of course), Nickerson eases your Roman fever and frees you to experience the many flavors of Michelangelo and his Rome.

[Many thanks to Roaring Forties Press for providing me with a review copy of A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome and for the images from the book.]


skippy said...

Great review! I can't wait to get a copy before my next trip (armchair or otherwise).

Bob said...

Thanks, Skippy.

If you make it to Rome, be sure to have a gelato for me. San Crispino's the best, although it's hard to find. Perche Non (Italian for "Why not?") runs a close second.

Bon voyage,