Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Laocoön: Bandinelli vs. Michelangelo

I guess the Renaissance artist Baccio Bandinelli has been on my mind lately. I realized that somehow I managed to bring up Bandinelli in each of my classes this past week - including my ancient art class!

To be fair to myself, I better say that I didn't stray too far on a tangent with my ancient art students. I was discussing the classical statue Laocoön (1st century BC) with these students and happened to mention Bandinelli's Laocoön (1520, shown left). It is not surprising that Renaissance artists (and patrons) were interested in copying the Laocoön sculpture, because the classical sculpture was unearthed in 1506. Bandinelli's sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio dei Medici and originally intended as a gift for Francis I, the King of France. It appears that Cardinal Giulio dei Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII) liked the sculpture too well to part with it, since it eventually ended up in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici.

Anyhow, I especially think Bandinelli's sculpture is interesting because the central figure has an extended arm above his head. When the original, classical Laocoön was discovered, the figure's right arm was missing. Bandinelli believed that the arm was extended, and other artists (such as Sansovino) ended up following this same idea for their copies. Michelangelo, in contrast, felt that the originally arm probably appeared bent. Bandinelli and Michelangelo were life-long rivals, and this difference in opinion is just one example of the opposition and tension between these artists. (I should say, though, I think Bandinelli felt the rivalry more than Michelangelo, although letters to Michelangelo (see here and here) indicate that he was keenly aware (curious?) of what Bandinelli was doing.)

Anyhow, Bandinelli's proposal for the Laocoön arm came to be generally accepted. I think this general acceptance came about because Bandinelli ended up creating a wax cast of the arm for the original sculpture. Additionally, he received the prestigious commission to make the aforementioned sculpture for Guilio Cardinal de Medici. No doubt Bandinelli relished the fact that he received these invitations instead of Michelangelo.

To add insult to injury, Michelangelo had been present the day that the Laocoön was unearthed in Rome. No doubt Michelangelo felt a certain affinity and connection with the classical sculpture. Scholars have even noted that Michelangelo's figure of Christ in the Last Judgment (Sistine Chapel, 1537-1541, shown right)) was inspired by the classical Laocoön (and note that Christ's raised arm is bent!).1 Perhaps Michelangelo felt like he was getting "the last Word" with Bandinelli by including that visual reference in his fresco?

Either way, Michelangelo finally got validation in the 20th century (ha - as if Michelangelo needs more validation in the art world!). In 1906 a bent arm was discovered in Rome, and in the 1950s it was generally accepted that this was the arm which had broken off of the Laocoön composition. The current restoration of the classical statue shows a bent arm. So it looks like Michelangelo was right all along.

Do you know any more stories about the rivalry between Michelangelo and Bandinelli? Vasari records that Bandinelli tore a cartoon by Michelangelo into small pieces (you can see Aristotile da San Gallo's copy of the cartoon, which depicted the Battle of Cascina, here). I know that the topic of rivalry and Bandinelli's jealously are of interest to many scholars. If you know of any other stories - do share!

*Some readers may remember that I touched on this Laocoön topic last year. If you're interested for a little more information (and some links), see here.

1 Michael P. Kemling, "Michaelangelo's 'Last Judgment': The Influence of 'Lacoon and His Sons,'" (University of Georgia, 2003, available online here). For the discussion of the figure of Christ specifically, see Chapter 2.