In Michelangelo’s Mirror

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Fall of the Giants by Perino

Mention Andrea Doria today and we all think of the cruise ship that famously sank in 1956, killing 52 people. But that ship was named after an admiral who in his day was among the greatest personages of Europe.

Among other things he was the French King Francis I’s admiral general to the Mediterranean (1522) and then the Emperor’s general captain of the Mediterranean (1528). The city-state of Genoa named him its Father and Liberator when he helped expel the French and re-establish the Genoese Republic.

It is in Genoa that the Doria Palace exists to this day, and author Morten Hansen (assistant professor of art history at Stanford University) spends several pages of this book detailing the imagery painted there by Perino del Vaga (1503-1547).

Unfortunately my close study of what he describes here reveals some troubling aspects.

First of all, keep in mind that the premise of the book is about how three artists (Perino, Daniele da Volterra and Pellegrino Tibaldi) imitated the imagery established by Michelangelo in their own works. The first chapter deals with how Perino used imagery from both Michelangelo and Raphael in his own works. While useful, it seems at a stroke to diffuse the focus of the book from Michelangelo’s influence alone.

The image shown in this review is a ceiling painting by Perino from the Doria Palace, entitled Fall of the Giants. It shows the result of a titantic battle between Jupiter, King of the Gods, and the Giants, who attempted to topple him from power. Along the bottom lie the fallen Giants, while Jupiter reigns triumphant with a thunderbolt in his left hand.

Hansen twice relates images in this ceiling painting with previous works by Raphael (Perino was a pupil of Raphael). “A repeated gesture among the giants is the lifted arm raised over the head. Too strange not to call attention to itself, it imitates the gesture of the fallen soldier from the Resurrection in Raphael’s loggia in the Vatican.” The author shows here a drawing by Lucca Penni of the Resurrection based on Raphael’s painting.

In the next paragraph he says the following. “Perino’s gods spread outward from below center as in a floral motif, in imitation of Raphael’s Chigi loggia, the nude Venus being a direct quotation from Raphael.”

Juno, not Venus, in the Fall of the Giants paintingJuno, not Venus, in the Fall of the Giants paintingThis analysis is what I have a problem with. This is supposed to be a book about how the imagery of Michelangelo was infused into the works of Perino. In the description just given, Hansen shows how the imagery of Raphael was infused into the works of Perino. This is not surprising, since Perino was his pupil. The homage to Raphael is interesting, but irrelevant to the thesis of the book.

But more seriously, it is questionable. The symbolic link of the gesture of the fallen soldier seems firm, but the attribution of the Venus in Perino’s work with the Venus in Raphael’s work is mistaken for the simple reason that Perino painted Jupiter’s wife Juno, not the goddess Venus!

Looking to the right of Jupiter in the painting we can see a female figure with her back turned to the viewer. With her left arm she is pointing towards an oval which contains a depiction of the peacock, a bird that was the symbol of Juno as Queen of the Gods. Juno would be very displeased at being compared to Venus! While it is possible that the clothed female figure beside her is Juno, the fact that the nude figure is pointing at the peacock strongly suggests otherwise. At the very least the author should have discussed this attribution carefully.

Hansen does finally get to a comparison between Perino’s Fall of the Giants and imagery used by Michelangelo. “A signature feature of Michelangelo’s painted figures was the pronounced separation of the big toe from the other toes, something that Perino imitated with great effect in the fallen giant at center, whose foot reaches toward heaven.”

Aside from my problem with the attribution of Juno as Venus, Hansen does an admirable job throughout the book at showing how the great master influenced the three painters under consideration. I just wish that more illustrations had been in colour, which would make it much easier for the reader to study the images in the way they were meant to be seen by those lucky enough to view them in person.

The notes and bibliography, consuming 60 pages at the end, are an excellent resource for further research.

In Michelangelo’s Mirror (218 pages) is $94.95 from Pennsylvania State University Press. Visit their website: psupress.org

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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