Five Old and Broken Statues, Models of Perfection

In Michelangelo’s time people were crazy about the past. They worshipped old Rome; they considered it a better world where people were wiser, braver, and more beautiful.

An example:  In 1487, when Michelangelo was a boy, an old Roman grave was discovered with the body of a Roman matron—not the skeleton but the well-preserved body—the miraculously well-preserved and breathtakingly beautiful body.


Stefano Maderno’s Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, Church of St. Cecilia, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license photo by Sébastien Bertrand from Paris, France)

People flocked to see it. They were sure they would see (and when they looked they were sure they saw) a woman far more beautiful than any alive in their days. “She was more beautiful than can be said or written, and were it said or written, it would not be believed by those who had not seen her,” wrote one pilgrim. A Roman matron just had to be a prodigy of beauty and grace, even 1500 years dead*. (From The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt; Rome: the City of Ruins.)

Everyone began collecting Roman antiques. Pope Julius II sent out expeditions of “archaeologists” to dig around and see what they could unearth. All Rome was an Easter egg hunt.

The Roman Forum ( GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 photo by DannyBoy7783 (talk)

Antique statues were found everywhere, some of them really beautiful but all of them venerated.  The Belvedere Venus was found then, and the Ariadne  (for a while  known as Cleopatra); the Laocoön; the Torso; the Belvedere Apollo.  From all over Italy artists pilgrimaged to Rome to see these heavenly discoveries—and imitate them. They were the models of excellence.

Art customers and patrons didn’t have to tell the artists what they wanted. The artists themselves were all under the spell of the new finds.

Botticelli couldn’t think of a better figure for his own painting,  The Birth of Venus, than Praxiteles’ statue, a copy of which he probably saw at the Medici palace.

Medici Venus (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by user:shakko)

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1483-1485)

Many considered the Belvedere Apollo the epitome of beauty.  It showed less body-building than the later, Hellenistic, works like the Laocoön.

Belvedere Apollo (Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares)

To show Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer decided he couldn’t do better than a version of the Apollo.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer

Apollo is tall. Tallness was catchy, both in this and in several of the other great finds; and the Mannerist artists (those just after Michelangelo, himself sometimes considered one) thought they saw in it the secret to elegance, and they began to stretch their figures. Though Michelangelo preferred a more dynamic god, he too saw the benefits of making one that was eight or nine (or ten) heads tall.

He was working in Rome and dropped what he was doing to go and see the Laocoön when it was unearthed.

Laocoön and his sons. Marble copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.

Such was its influence on his work that it is hard not to recall Laocoön’s groaning face and prominent torso in Michelangelo’s unfinished Giants.

Awakening Slave by Michelangelo

The so-called Torso, on display in the Vatican Belvedere villa, also showed him a very powerful way of representing the male nude.

Belvedere Torso (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by F. Bucher)

St. Bartholomew’s hefty torso in the Last Judgment painting seems a sort of painted version of the antique sculpture.

St. Bartholomew on the wall of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

The sleeping Ariadne, whether troubled by a dream, stretching gloriously like a cat, caught in a cute thought, or inviting company, has never left Western art.

Sleeping Ariadne (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Wknight94)

Goya’s Naked Maja, painted two hundred and fifty years after the Renaissance itself was buried, may well be a late version.

Naked Maja by Francisco de Goya

Perhaps you think that many of these poses are so natural that they would occur to any artist with a model in any age. But in art as in science, everything has to be invented before it is considered obvious; perceived and pointed out before it is appreciated. Then only a genius can depart from the original model, and he might not come along for centuries.

* Burckhardt’s source for the story believed the lady wore a wax mask, colored to simulate living flesh.


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, Botticelli, great artists, Greek art, Italian painting, mannerism, Michelangelo, nude, Renaissance, sculpture, stone carving, Vatican. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Five Old and Broken Statues, Models of Perfection

  1. Ken Januski says:

    That last paragraph has a wealth of wisdom in it. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: you bring art and the past alive Swallows! You always make me want to pack up and visit Rome or wherever the subject might be..

  2. ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
    ion v danu says:

    Fascinating! and yes, the thought crossed my mind before reading it in the last paragraph (“…many of these poses are so natural that they would occur to any artist with a model in any age”) It could be true because there is no doubt a pattern of beauty (an interesting study would be to search for the Golden Number – Fibonnacci’s in all this paragons of beauty…) in nature – human body included.

    • 100swallows says:

      Danu: Thanks. Hard to corner that “pattern of beauty”. Those who tried hardest to discover it (I’m thinking of Dürer and Leonardo) didn’t use their findings in their painting–at least the successful ones. The Spanish architect Calatrava says he tries to make his buildings follow a canon of human proportion; but I don’t see it. Art isn’t mathematics, thank God. Every great work is unique and pleases in a way that is always a little mysterious. Anyway, does the charm of a nude have to do with its proportions? Look how those nudes vary in the works of Michelangelo. And both the Apollo and the Laocoön have a magic attraction, but how different their proportions are!

  3. Rich says:

    Hi Swallows, Grüezi.
    Always enjoying your aesthetic and thoughtful blog; and of course your portrait here with the dogs;-)


    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Grüezi! Nice to hear from you again. I’m glad you like the portrait, though I must say I don’t live in that tub any more and I’m having trouble selling it. It’s just one more of the thousands of homes left around after the construction bubble and most are newer and more attractive. You should see the tub I live in now!

  4. Michael Whynot
    Michael Whynot says:

    A very interesting post. I have long been aware of Michelangelo’s study of ancient Greek sculpture, but I had never noticed the close correlation of some of his actual poses to the original Greek poses. I’ve included a link to this post in my blog:

    • 100swallows says:

      Michael Whynot: Thanks. I liked your sentence about Michelangelo hearing the whisper of perfection. But perfection?

      • Michael Whynot
        Michael Whynot says:

        Thank-you, Swallows. And, yes, perfection. Isn’t that what was being sought? Not its actual attainment (which is, of corse, impossible), but the goal of attainment. They were striving to eliminate the faults they saw in nature, in hopes of achieving, as near as possible, an ideal form. And, arguably, both the Greeks and Michelangelo come very near, indeed.

        • 100swallows says:

          Michael Whynot: I didn’t mean to disparage the idea—I know that’s what the Renaissance artists were after. Only that nowadays it is very difficult to preach an abstract like that, let alone to work with it or for it. Vasari may use it as a criterion to judge the artists of his time but it is no longer on the checklist of modern critics. That doesn’t mean one can’t try for it if he hears the whisper.

  5. Michael Whynot
    Michael Whynot says:

    Yes, I agree completely. And not only is it not on most critic’s checklist (or most artist’s, for that matter), we seem to be at a point when the slavish copying of nature is the goal. The imaginative faculty has been sacrificed on the alter of realism and as a consequence we are loosing beauty.

  6. It’s incredible how abstract and modern the St. Bartholomew’s face (eyes and mouth) is done by Michelangelo. You could see also a very strange feature in The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve. Between Eve and the tree trunk you should see a double image (rock/face).

    Here the link:

    Jean-François David –

  7. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    It felt like the old days to read your excellent blog again! All Rome was an Easter egg hunt – your humour made me smile. The glory days of WordPress blogging, I miss it. It was so much better than social media… I have a question though. I remember reading about the archeological find, the beautiful, well preserved body of the Roman woman, but don’t recall seeing any images ever about her? Do we know what happened to the body?

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Erika! Sorry, I only saw your comment now. No, as far as I know, there are no images of the preserved body of the beautiful woman (I wish there were!) nor any mention of what happened to her body that was so well-preserved for 2000 years. Yes, I too miss the golden days of my blog and your fine comments as I published. Soon I will publish the best posts in the form of an ebook. I´ll announce its publication on my blog. Thanks for coming in.

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