When Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint his personal library, one of the four frescoes he completed, The School of Athens, includes Michelangelo leaning on a makeshift table writing poetry. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

Saluting the Renaissance Book Club

This essay celebrating the first printing presses during the Renaissance in Florence, Italy, is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.

Saluting the Renaissance Book Club 

The National Gallery of Art beyond a fountain, photographed from the sculpture garden. Image © Saxon Henry.
The National Gallery of Art beyond a fountain, photographed from the sculpture garden. Image © Saxon Henry.

The Acela was packed, the dining car so crowded there was only one empty seat. A diplomat on his way from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., asked if he could take it and I answered, “Of course!” Jacket off, briefcase on the table, he began to explain his mission in the capital. Stopping mid-sentence when he noticed I was reading the sonnets of Michelangelo, he asked, “Why are you interested in the great artist’s poetry, the thing for which he is not well known?” 

Renaissance-era books on display at the National Gallery of Art. Image © Saxon Henry.
Renaissance-era books on display at the National Gallery of Art. Image © Saxon Henry.

I told him I was on my way to see an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art showcasing Florentine publishing during the Renaissance, and among the books I would see were sixteenth-century editions of Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo and Jacopo Giunta’s Funeral of the Divine Michelangelo Buonarroti. “I am taking Michelangelo with me through his poems,” I added. “That’s quite an unusual exercise,” he said. “Not for me,” I responded. 

The front of the Arts Club of Washington. Image © Saxon Henry.
The front of the Arts Club of Washington. Image © Saxon Henry.

By the time the train pulled into D.C.’s Union Station, the afternoon had turned steamy and I was grateful for the air conditioning in the cab as it ferried me to the Arts Club of Washington where I was staying. It was deserted, the interiors lifeless and dim, because I had reserved a room out of season when the Club is closed to social activities. This didn’t matter because I was in awe that I could stay in a historic mansion that was home to James and Elizabeth Monroe just before they moved to the White House as President and First Lady.  

Plaque in front of the Arts Club of Washington declaring it was once the home of James Monroe. Image © Saxon Henry.
Plaque in front of the Arts Club of Washington declaring it was once the home of James Monroe. Image © Saxon Henry.

I dropped my bags in the second-floor bedroom I had been assigned and made my way down the creaky stairs, anxious to get to the Museum. I soon regretted the decision to walk because the thirty-minute trek along Pennsylvania Avenue served as a reminder that DC’s urban center mimics a sauna in mid-July. Thrilled to finally be in air conditioning, I headed straight for the exhibition “From the Library: Florentine Publishing in the Renaissance,” which filled an intimately scaled room within the grand expanses of bisque-colored stone. 

Paolo Giovio’s book on the most important writers of the Renaissance included Petrarch. Image © Saxon Henry.
Paolo Giovio’s book on the most important writers of the Renaissance included Petrarch. Image © Saxon Henry.

The pamphlet that accompanied the 23 volumes filling the display cabinets made a powerful point: Italy was not a unified state at the time the printing presses were established and there was not even a common vernacular among the various regions of the peninsula at the time. In spite of these disparities, presses were popping up in every city and in many of the smaller towns throughout the country. The books I ogled were produced during the late-fifteenth through the early-seventeenth centuries. It boggled my mind that printed works had survived for so long.

Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo, one of the Renaissance books on display at the NGA. Image © Saxon Henry.
Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo, one of the Renaissance books on display at the NGA. Image © Saxon Henry.

I was just as impressed with the early edition of Vasari’s exploration of Michelangelo’s life and of the thin booklet published to commemorate the artist’s funeral as I imagined I would be. Also splayed on a stand behind glass was Due lezzioni by Benedetto Varchi. He was one of the scholars who recognized the value of Michelangelo’s poetry while the man was still alive. Varchi delivered two discourses on Michelangelo’s sonnets at the Florentine Academy in March of 1547, calling them out for their depth. As I stood looking at the book, I wondered if the guy sitting opposite me on the train would have been surprised to know that during Michelangelo’s lifetime, his poetry was discussed just as vigorously as his art was celebrated.

When Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint his personal library, one of the four frescoes he completed, The School of Athens, includes Michelangelo leaning on a makeshift table writing poetry. Image courtesy WikiMedia.
When Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint his personal library, one of the four frescoes he completed, The School of Athens, includes Michelangelo leaning on a makeshift table writing poetry. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

Varchi’s interest in Michelangelo’s sonnets became known to the artist soon after the talks took place because a book was published containing one of the discourses. Luca Martini sent Michelangelo a copy, and his response to it proves he was touched: “I have received your letter, together with a little book containing a commentary on a sonnet of mine. The sonnet does indeed proceed from me, but the commentary comes from heaven.” He called Varchi’s exploration of his poem “a marvelous production.”

Letters of Important Men – “Due lezzioni” by Benedetto Varchi is open to the section of letters he exchanged with major Renaissance artists like Michelangelo. Image © Saxon Henry.
“Due lezzioni” by Benedetto Varchi is open to the section of letters he exchanged with major Renaissance artists like Michelangelo. Image © Saxon Henry.

This introduction led to a deeper connection between Varchi and Michelangelo, which gave the scholar the opportunity to include the artist’s views about whether sculpture or painting should claim a higher standing in the arts in Due lezzioni. Michelangelo wrote his response to Varchi’s question in a letter that illustrates how deeply he thought about his endeavors as an artist: “I used to think that painting derived its light from sculpture and that between the two the difference was as that between the sun and the moon.” He told Varchi that being prompted to engage in the exploration had helped him to clarify his opinion: “No painter ought to think less of sculpture than of painting, and similarly no sculptor less of painting than sculpture.”

Giorgio Vasari published many books on Renaissance artists and art criticism during his lifetime. Early on, the books were works of art in their own right. Image © Saxon Henry.
Giorgio Vasari published many books on Renaissance artists and art criticism during his lifetime. Early on, the books were works of art in their own right. Image © Saxon Henry.

Showing his scrappy side, which permeates almost every letter of his I have ever read, Michelangelo goes on to say, “If he who wrote that painting is nobler than sculpture understood as little about the other things of which he writes—my maidservant could have expressed them better.” He also told Varchi he wouldn’t write a lengthy treatise because he was an old man who was “almost numbered among the dead,” a refrain he used often in closing his correspondences during this period in his life. Considering he lived for another 17 years after he wrote this and he would spend most of them managing the St. Peter’s Basilica project, there appears to have been a bit of the melodramatic in him. This isn’t surprising given all of the papal politics he endured. In fact, I would say he’d earned the right!

Eseqvie del Divino Michelangelo was one of four books produced to celebrate the life of Michelangelo at the time of his death. Image © Saxon Henry.
Eseqvie del Divino Michelangelo was one of four books produced to celebrate the life of Michelangelo at the time of his death. Image © Saxon Henry.

The big splash made by the printing industry during his lifetime helped to broaden Michelangelo’s renown. Varchi’s book was first published in 1550, the same year Vasari published his Le Vite.  Being able to see such early editions of both of these titles was remarkable, as was studying the book printed to commemorate Michelangelo’s death in 1564. The slim volume, one of four versions originally produced, was a snapshot of the lavish occasion produced by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in Florence.

A letter Michelangelo wrote to Messer Luigi del Riccio is one of many letters he wrote that have survived. Image courtesy the British Museum.
A letter Michelangelo wrote to Messer Luigi del Riccio is one of many letters he wrote that have survived. Image courtesy the British Museum.

During the magnificent funeral rights, a number of honorary creations were on display, including a cycle of paintings illustrating scenes from Michelangelo’s life. One of these depicted him absorbed in writing poetry. It is a testament to humanity that this printed piece remains, as so many other important works from so far back in time have not survived. Presenting the details for each book, the curators who put the exhibition together concentrated on the men who founded the presses rather than the authors or the subjects they chose, which made the experience even more historically meaningful for me because it was these men who were responsible for bringing these stories forward.

This book celebrating the life of the French King Henry IV, who was married to Marie de’ Medici, was produced at the time of his death, the etchings by Aloys Rosaccio. Image © Saxon Henry.
This book celebrating the life of the French King Henry IV, who was married to Marie de’ Medici, was produced at the time of his death, the etchings by Aloys Rosaccio. Image © Saxon Henry.

I left the museum thinking about the transformation that took place thanks to these early printers; about how hard it is to grasp that there was a time when the printed word didn’t exist. When I returned home, I pulled my copy of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists from the shelf and marveled that I was holding it in my hands given how long ago it was first published. I couldn’t help but wonder how those men who founded the earliest printing presses would feel about our ability to self-publish through print-on-demand now. I bet it would have blown their minds just as fully as it had mine to have studied the books they published so long ago, their contributions to the posterity of the written word so important.

A detail of Raphael’s fresco "The School of Athens" that includes Michelangelo leaning on a makeshift table writing poetry.
A detail of Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens” that includes Michelangelo leaning on a makeshift table writing poetry.

Saluting the Renaissance Book Club © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promiseand Four Florida Moderns.

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