Michelangelo's Last Judgment Barnes Critique Essay

1767 words - 7 pages

As we read through the third chapter of "The Last Judgment and The Critics" from Bernadine Barnes's Michelangelo's Last Judgment - The Renaissance Response, it is striking to see the two completely opposite views on the fresco by the sixteenth century critics, where " those who approved of it saw it as the height of Renaissance art; those who disapproved saw it as an unsuitable use of art" and that "it was censured as the work of an arrogant man, and it was justified as a work that made celestial figures more beautiful than natural" (71).

The Last Judgment dealt with an especially evocative subject, and Michelangelo engaged viewers by creating highly imaginative scenes tempering fear with hope and by referring to contemporary events. The painting's original, elite audience--the papal court and a handful of distinguished lay persons--was sophisticated about art and poetry, almost exclusively male, and orthodox in its religious beliefs. That audience later broadened and included artists allowed into the Chapel to copy Michelangelo's work. These artists helped to create another, less sophisticated audience; one that knew the fresco only through reproductions and written descriptions. The response of this latter audience eventually prompted the church to censor the painting.

Although the copies might not seem as incomparable and important as the original fresco itself, the responses to the fresco deduced from the copies made most of the critics change their perspectives on the fresco. For instance, Pietro Aretino, "the quintessential Renaissance man of letters", responded to the fresco "beginning before the fresco was finished, and ending thirteen years later", in which "Aretino's interest changed from an apparent desire to collaborate in the design, to lavish praise of the finished result, and finally to sharp criticism" (74). The reason for the dramatic change in Aretino's criticism is debatable, but what is true is as Barnes points out, that Aretino "was acutely aware of the audience response - he changed not only the content of his own writings but also their style to appeal to different groups" (74). Aretino never got to see the fresco but derived his interpretation from the copies, and in order to make his writing more dramatic, put down his own expectations of the fresco rather than the real content, "filling in imaginative and dramatic details" (75). As the copies of the fresco reached the public and the public responded to the nude figures in the fresco with vehemence, Aretino changed his criticism from an attitude of appreciation to an attack on the display of nude figures as non-religious. In his appreciation, the work was so deified that he stated that the work is almost perfect: "you bind within the outlines of the bodies (the human bodies in the fresco) the end of art" (77). Then what other explanation can there be, other than for the sake of fame and popularity among the public, that Aretino later on took a counter side on...

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