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Michelangelo's 'rock'

The Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museums
The Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museums

If it were not displayed in the center of the room, it would be easy to overlook this broken, battered, and scarred chunk of rock. That would be a mistake. The Belvedere Torso is one of the few original Greek sculptures left.

Michelangelo thought it was so beautiful that when the Pope asked him to restore the statue, Michelangelo refused to alter it in any way. This chunk of rock taught him more than any human teacher could. By the time he was in his late 20’s, Michelangelo had surpassed every living sculptor, and the only way he could continue to improve was by studying the work of the ancient Greeks.

Even though it is signed, we don’t know anything about the sculptor, Apollonios son of Nestor, or even for sure what the statue represents – Hercules is as good a guess as any.

Take a mental picture of this statue. You’ll see it again in Michelangelo's painting of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

(excerpted from the forthcoming Hand Crafted Walks in Rome & the Vatican)

You never know what you might find on a train…

Almost 40 years ago, an Italian factory worker on his daily commute home found two paintings on the train he riding in. He thought they looked quite nice, and so he took them home and hung them on the wall in his kitchen. Turns out, they had been stolen from a collector's home in London. One was by Paul Gauguin, the other by Pierre Bonnard, and they're valued at over $10 million.

Renoir's shocking reds

Several of Renoir's portrait paintings have a soft, pastel background with mottled colors. It's always reminded me of something you'd see as a backdrop in a senior class photo, circa 1979. But the paintings weren't always this way. Renoir, like many other Impressionists, loved the color crimson lake, or cochineal. In an age that pre-dated synthetic oils, this brilliant red color was achieved with extracts from the bodies of certain insects. Unfortunately, it also fades rather quickly.

Researchers in Chicago have produced a visualization of how they think a Renoir could have looked before its colors faded.

Madame Leon Clapisson

How much of the way we see art today is a product of time? In a similar vein, one of Rembrandt's most famous paintings, The Night Watch, is actually titled The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq.It was not a night scene at all, but a group heading out in broad daylight. Rembrandt used a heavy varnish that yellowed and darkened with age, which eventually gave the (mis)impression that the painting was of a night scene, and which gave the painting a new name, as well.

The Night Watch

When the Sistine Chapel was first revealed after a decades-long restoration, many people were outraged. Instead of the soft, muted, almost sepia-toned images they knew as Michelangelo's art, the ceiling was covered with stunningly bold, bright colors. That was, in fact, Michelangelo's style, there was just no one alive who knew it prior to the restoration. The softening and browning of the colors had been a gradual process, a slow, steady deposit of candle wax, incense smoke, pollution and body oils over hundreds of years. All the restorers had done was clean the surface of the ceiling, to reveal the unfiltered colors beneath.

Sistine Chapel

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