Monday, October 20, 2008

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

“Immature poets borrow,” T.S. Eliot once said. “Mature poets steal.” Domenico Zampieri or Domenichino wrestled with the giants of the Renaissance but ultimately gave up and embraced their influence. Born October 21, 1581, Domenichino must have looked up countless times at the Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, engraving the famous central scene of God breathing life into Adam. When Domenichino painted The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (above, from 1626), he inserted a clear copy of Michelangelo’s depiction of God trailing clouds of glory. It’s impossible to think that anyone would miss the reference, then or now. Domenichino clearly wants you to know that he loves the work of Michelangelo. Such “theft” isn’t really theft when it’s done in the open. In the Baroque period following the Renaissance, artists such as Domenichino had to choose sides—ignore the previous generation or continue its achievement in a new, fresh way. God clearly comes straight out of the Renaissance playbook, but the rebuke of the first man and woman clearly doesn’t. Michelangelo’s gentle depiction of their banishment from Eden gives way in Domenichino’s version to a more medieval, sinners in the hands of an angry God feel. Mixing the Medieval with the Renaissance, Domenichino brews up his own Baroque concoction.

Domenichino “stole” another figure from Michelangelo’s ceiling in his version of The Cumaean Sibyl (above, from 1610). Domenichino transforms Michelangelo’s brawny version into a more idealized type of beauty, but retains the exotic dress of the original, and maybe even exceeds it. Connecting Domenichino’s work to that of his predecessors brings out not only what he takes but also what he chooses not to take. In this case, you have a figure immortalized by Michelangelo, painted with the delicacy of Botticelli, but with the sensual coloring of a Raphael. Domenichino viewed the Renaissance world as a great buffet table from which he could choose freely and combine at will. Such practice was not only acceptable but encouraged. Students learned by copying from antique statuary during the neoclassicist craze of the Renaissance. Copying from those copyists seemed only natural.

Unfortunately for Domenichino, tastes and standards change. A clear homage one day becomes a pale imitation centuries later. John Ruskin raked Domenichino over the coals in his late nineteenth century writings elevating J.M.W. Turner to the heights based on his originality. Whereas critics once hailed works such as Domenichino’s Diana and her Nymphs (above, from 1616-1617) as beautiful examples of draftsmanship and fanciful painting of the human form, later critics saw only a mimicking of Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas on rendering atmospheric effects in landscapes. Only in the twentieth century did Domenichino regain a minor place in the pantheon of great Italian artists, yet still overshadowed by his Baroque contemporary, Caravaggio. Nicolas Poussin, who studied briefly with Domenichino, championed the master’s work verbally as well as visually—infusing many of his lessons on landscape into his own ethereal, natural worlds. Perhaps some day the pendulum will swing back and Domenichino’s works will no longer be seen as acts of thievery but as acts of devotion to his art.

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