Raphael's School of Athens

The Renaissance Book Club

Stately Lion sculpture with Renaissance style
One of the stately lions at the Washington, DC, Union Station, sculptures like this representative of the Renaissance. Image © Saxon Henry.


I’m on the Acela to Washington, D.C., my favorite way to reach the capital from New York City. The dining car is so crowded there is only one seat left—the one across from me. A man approaches to ask if he can take it and I answer, “Of course!” As he settles himself, he says he’s a diplomat on his way to the capital for meetings. He notices I’m reading the sonnets of Michelangelo and I can tell he’s intrigued. He hesitates for a moment, then plucks up the nerve to ask why I’m interested in the great artist’s poetry—the thing for which he is not well known in modern times.


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


I explain that I am going to see an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art showcasing Florentine publishing during the Renaissance. It includes sixteenth-century editions of Giorgio Vasari’s Life of the Great Michelangelo Buonarroti and Jacopo Giunta’s Funeral of the Divine Michelangelo Buonarroti so I am absorbing his spirit through his poems to deepen the experience. Sometimes I can’t believe how geeky I sound—I have grown accustomed to my oddness so I forget how much it startles people until I see a puzzled expression like the one on the man’s face. “That’s quite an unusual exercise,” he says. “Not for me,” I answer.


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


By the time I arrive, the afternoon has turned steamy and I am grateful for the air conditioning in the cab as it ferries me from Union Station to the Arts Club of Washington where I’m staying. It is deserted when I open the door, the interiors lifeless and dim because I am staying out of season. I knew the Club would be closed to social activities when I made a reservation but that doesn’t matter because it’s an opportunity to stay in an historic mansion that was home to James and Elizabeth Monroe just before they moved to the White House as President and First Lady.


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


I drop my bags in the second-floor bedroom I’ve been assigned and make my way down the creaky stairs, anxious to get to the Museum. I soon regret the decision to walk because the thirty-minute trek along Pennsylvania Avenue reminds me how DC’s urban center mimics a sauna in mid-July. Thrilled to finally be in air conditioning, I head straight for the exhibition “From the Library: Florentine Publishing in the Renaissance” that fills an intimately scaled room within the grand expanses of bisque colored stone that make this museum so beautiful.


A fountain featuring Mercury at the National Gallery of Art
A fountain featuring Mercury by an anonymous artist in the main floor rotunda at the National Gallery of Art. Image © Saxon Henry.


The pamphlet that accompanies the 23 volumes filling the display cabinets makes a powerful point: Italy was nota unified state at the time the printing presses were established and there was not even a common vernacular language 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’m ogling are from the late fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries, which boggles the mind.


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


I am 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 thought I would be. Also splayed on a stand behind glass is 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. Two discourses on Michelangelo’s sonnets he delivered at the Florentine Academy in March of 1547 were celebrated for their depth. As I stand looking at the book, I wonder if the guy sitting opposite me on the train would have been surprised to know they discussed Michelangelo’s poetry just as vigorously as they celebrated his art during his lifetime.


Raphael's School of Athens
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.


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 them. Luca Martini sent Michelangelo a copy, and his response to it proves he was truly 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 calls Varchi’s exploration of his poem “a marvelous production,” and adds, “I beg you express me to him in terms corresponding to so much love, affection, and courtesy.”


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


That 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 plastic arts in Due lezzioni. Michelangelo writes 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 tells 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 artists
Giorgio Vasari published many books on artists and art criticism during his lifetime. Early on the books were works of art in their own right.


Showing his scrappy side, which permeates almost every letter of his I’ve ever read, he goes on to say, “If he who wrote that painting is nobler than sculpture understood as little about the others things of which he writes—my maidservant could have expressed them better.” He tells Varchi he won’t write a lengthy treatise because he is an old man who is “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 that he would spend most of them managing the Basilica of St. Peter 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
Eseqvie del Divino Michelangelo – 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 his death in 1564. The slim volume, one of four versions originally produced, was a snapshot of the lavish occasion produced by Cosimo I de’ Medici in Florence.


Michelangelo Letter No 226
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. With each book, the curators who put the exhibition together concentrated on the men who founded the presses.


Di Francia Florentine Publishing
Di Francia – 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 leave the exhibit thinking about the transformation that took place thanks to them—so hard to grasp that there was a time when the printed word didn’t exist. I am glad I have taken the time to see this exhibition celebrating the industry in which I have worked so hard to thrive, and I can’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!


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


The curators of the exhibition recommend several books that could make nice additions to a summer reading list so I thought I would pass them along: Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular Text; Manuscript Culture in Renaissance Italy; and The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. I would also add Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. I’ve embedded them all below.

The Modern Salonnière and The Renaissance Book Club© Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose booksinclude Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page and find her essays on Medium.

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