Saturday, July 3, 2010

Michelangelo was Old School

There are probably few representations of Renaissance art more iconic than Michelangelo's sculpture of the Biblical hero David. In the minds of many, David clearly demonstrates the way that the Renaissance revived the subject matter and techniques of classical art after centuries of their having been forgotten.

And there's no denying that David is a masterpiece of Western art, one with far more in common with classical art than with the medieval art that immediately preceded it, thus lending support to the notion that the Renaissance was merely a continuation of the classical era after the thousand year hiccup of the Middle Ages, at least as far as art is concerned. In this popular view, artists like Michelangelo were just picking up where Phidias and Agesander left off, using the same techniques to produce works about the same subject matter their predecessors had done so long ago.

Several years ago, I remember reading some articles about art historians who'd been using modern technology, such as ultraviolet lights and high-intensity lamps, to demonstrate what classical sculpture really looked like in situ. What these historians found was confirmation of something that had been suspected for some time, namely that classical sculpture was not lily white but pigmented, sometimes garishly so (at least to contemporary eyes).

Because of these historians' work, it's now fairly common to see photographs of colored classical sculpture in many art museums. There's of course some debate about precisely how the sculpture was pigmented and whether it was indeed as bright and gaudy as some suggest, but you'll be hard pressed to find an art historian who denies that classical sculpture was painted and that such painting was a common practice throughout the Ancient World rather than an aberration.

In Michelangelo's day, no one had any idea that classical sculpture had been painted. The unearthed ancient statues used as models during the Renaissance, such as Laocoön and His Sons, were devoid of any pigment. Consequently, bare white stone was taken to be part of the classical esthetic, with some artists going so far as to provide justifications for why this esthetic was superior to the medieval practice of painting statuary. As we've learned, though, the Renaissance understanding was mistaken, based upon a misapprehension, albeit a blameless one, for there was no way that someone in the 16th century could have known otherwise.

The Renaissance esthetic, formed from a faulty understanding of classical art history, was a self-conscious one. Many artists were specifically imitating what they believed to be the classical esthetic, using the surviving ancient art that was available to them as exemplars and basing their own works on them. It didn't matter that they had often employed techniques different than those of their classical forebears or that, in addition to Greco-Roman divinities, they also sculpted people and events from Christian lore totally alien to the classical worldview. What mattered was that they were looking back on a distant past and drawing inspiration from it.

Of course, Renaissance artists, no matter how closely they hewed to the past, were not creating "Classical art," because "Classical art" is only something one can categorize after the fact. When Phidias was sculpting the statues for the Parthenon, he was not creating "Classical art." He was simply sculpting. It's only in retrospect that we can see in his techniques and subject matter things that we can later point out as defining Classical art and that later artists can then self-consciously imitate, in the process exaggerating and even ossifying our conception of what is and is not "Classical art."

There's nothing wrong with this process; indeed it's inevitable and very human. Moreover, I doubt many people would claim that David is somehow any less a masterpiece of art because Michelangelo was trying to imitate Classical sculpture in his composition. David's appeal rests not in its faithfulness to a rigid esthetic standard but because it's a remarkable work of art. That it deviates in many ways from "true" Classical art or that Michelangelo was mistaken about the ancient art that inspired him makes no difference whatsoever to one's enjoyment of what he produced -- or at least it doesn't to me.

At the same time, it's good to remember that the moment one categorizes something from the past, one is inevitably simplifying, exaggerating some of its characteristics in order to stress its genuine distinctiveness and downplaying other characteristics that evince continuity with what came before and what came afterward. As I said above, there's nothing wrong with this; it's how human beings think. We like to categorize and divide and put things in boxes marked X, Y, and Z. But, on some level, to name something, whether it be "Classical art" or "old school gaming," is to lie, because, sometimes, hindsight isn't 20/20. Sometimes we view the past through a funhouse mirror.

But you know what? I don't care.


  1. We discussed this when we talked about art in all my ancient history classes, and one of the things I find particularly interesting with the case of painted sculpture is that one theory as to why people stopped painting them is that it was easier to sell plain white stone knockoffs than painted ones. Not saying anything about the OSR there, specifically, but I think it puts an interesting spin on what you're talking about here.

  2. The moral of the story?

    Get out your colored pencils and 'ink' the line drawings in your Holmes and White Box.

  3. I believe there is a fair amount of documentation to suggest that 19th century museum curators also were responsible for bleaching and cleaning ancient statuary to remove the last vestiges of pigment from them... even going so far as to chisel off offending bits (like pubic hair) and replacing penises with fig leaves. Apparently the famous poet Shelley fell in love with an idealized Greece from viewing the marbles in the British Museum and reading the classics... but when he actually finally went to Greece and was confronted with actual Greeks who were swarthy skinned, smelled of garlic, wine and fish and were altogether more noisy, ethnic and human than those cool, white, perfect museum marbles, Shelley apparently became physically ill.

    I wonder if all of us, as members of the OSR, would really "get it" if we could time-travel back to Gary Gygax's basement or Dave Arneson's early Blackmoor games circa 1974 or whatever. Would we be disappointed from having idealized a certain form of the game for so long? (I suspect we have been subject to a fair amount of revisionist history concerning the origins of that game...)

  4. I wonder if all of us, as members of the OSR, would really "get it" if we could time-travel back to Gary Gygax's basement or Dave Arneson's early Blackmoor games circa 1974 or whatever. Would we be disappointed from having idealized a certain form of the game for so long? (I suspect we have been subject to a fair amount of revisionist history concerning the origins of that game...)

    Oh, certainly there's been some revisionism. That was rather my point :) But I think what revisionism there is stems from sincerely looking back on the past and seeing how it differs from the present and then emphasizing those differences, often to the point of exaggeration, rather than from anything sinister. It's important that we realize this, of course, especially when we're talking about history, but, as far as old school gaming goes, I've come to realize that I don't much care whether it's reflective of what Gary and Dave were doing in the early 70s or not. I'm having fun with these old games and that's all that matters to me.

  5. And like those Rennaissance masters, I'd contend that many in the old school harken back to an era that never was.

    When James criticizes my campaign books for having crunch in them, for example, and saying this is a result of me being a "d20 writer", he's remembering a different era than me.

    Loving new classes wasn't invented by d20. *MY* love of classes was instilled in me by Dragon and White Dwarf magazines.

    (Not saying James' comments bother me or weren't fair- the don't and they were- but they are illustrative of how some people's remembrances of the past differ)

  6. Great food for thought.

    Progress is something made by those who value the past.

    I believe that Michaelangelo had an eye to the future as well, but that he needed to find and understand a past that could serve as a foundation for the future he wanted. To me, the OSR is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about the 1970's and 80's. -It's about a desire to understand how things were done before deciding what to do next.

  7. One thing I've noticed about a lot of creative fields these days is a tendency to go from a linear historical categorical progression to a blossoming of a million different styles without a single movement or category holding sway.

    Look at art history, or music history, and the standard narrative forms kind of a conga line of epochs. Classical, then Renaissance, then Baroque, then Rococo, then Pre-Raphaelite, then Modern, then Post-Modern, etc. etc. (over simplified here)

    But nowadays, you can't really say what epoch we're in, 'cos there's so many different people doing different things.

    I think part of what causes the tendency for historians or critics to form these linear histories is that for a big part of history, a very small segment of the population practiced art.

    (Sure folks had their folk music and folk craft, which was pretty pervasive and different in every house, I'm talking about the stuff the upper crust chose to enshrine as cultural "canon".)

    Now, though, thanks to the web, leisure time, and other improvements in technology and culture, every man (or woman) is a movement.

    I think this applies to gaming in the microcosm, going from the days when D&D was it, to now when everybody with a computer and a d20 stuck in their craw can publish their own game system.

    Glorious! The more the merrier!

  8. I really value the thought behind this post, and the completely different spin it puts on "authenticity" from what I've previously understood here. I wish I had something smarter to say about it, but I didn't want to let time, the non-renewable resource of the internet, go by without marking my appreciation, just because I was trying to find something pithy to add.

  9. I highly recommend Nietzche's "The Birth of Tragedy" to expand on some of the thoughts at the beginning of the post. It gives an interesting, quite different slant on the renaissance's return to classicism and subsequent neo-classicism, realism and further artistic movements.

    I wonder what would result from applying the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic to FRPGs.

  10. @Eric: The law/chaos axis of alignment!

  11. This is upsetting. I've read The Agony and The Ecstasy and seen the Charlton Heston movie (which was basically only about the painting of the Sistine Chapel), but I fail to remember anything about the sculpting of the David. (Both works are recommended though.)

    From an art class, I do remember that the David only looks in proportion when viewed from below. Otherwise, it's features are exaggerated.