Sunday, July 28, 2019

Apollo part 3

This is the third part of a four part series.
You can read the first part here,
and the second part here.

Warring fanatics throughout the 16th and 17th centuries almost destroyed Europe in bloodshed on a scale that would not be seen again until the 20th century.  The historic unity of Western Christianity shattered as people gladly murdered each other and burned down each others' homes in the name of Christ.  That brief reconciliation of irreconcilable Classical culture and Christianity during the High Renaissance seemed such a quaint thing as armies marched across Europe singing hymns.  Apollo, dragooned into playing the role of Christ by Christianity beginning in the 3rd century, now found himself rudely booted out the the Church.  Protestants wanted nothing to do with some ancient pagan deity that carried the taint of pederasty.  Catholic clergy who once saw themselves as custodians of the Classical legacy (and would do so again later in the 17th century) discarded Apollo, toppling his statues and planting the Cross on his pedestals.  As Christianity tore itself apart, Christian Apollo became impossible.
But the world was not done with Apollo yet.  This age of religious warfare saw the modern nation state begin to emerge out of the carnage; new larger states based on shared national identity and ruled over by powerful absolute monarchs.  The power of these new monarchs rested not on historic feudal legacies, but on national allegiance.  They were kings and queens of nations, not of loose collections of feudal estates and clerical dioceses whose cooperation they needed to rule.  The King of France was not just the French king, but King of the French, all of them.  The god of light and of all things done in light found himself recruited to a new role of chief metaphor for the power and glory of new national monarchs.

Apollo the Sun King

Guido Reni remains mostly known for sometimes treacly religious paintings, but one of his finest paintings is a Classical subject.

On the ceiling of the Casino or garden pavilion of the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, Guido Reni painted this magnificent fresco of Aurora goddess of the dawn leading the sun chariot of Apollo over the eastern horizon.  Women who personify the hours of the day accompany Apollo's chariot in a beautifully rhythmic composition that moves from left to right.  Reni painted a very classicizing painting recalling the reliefs on the Roman sarcophagi in the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese who commissioned Reni's painting.  This picture breaks with the drama and theatrics of so much early Baroque art.  There are no sudden and violent contrasts of light and dark, no odd points of view, no attempts to stretch the line between art and reality, no theatrics. 

A detail shows Apollo radiant and glorious once more as the fiery passions of Reformation and Counter-Reformation still rage at the beginning of the 17th century.

Reni was a brilliant colorist who used the contrast between warm and cool colors to express the arrival of the dawn light at the break of day.  Aurora goddess of the dawn occupies the terminus between the warm light of the sun and cool blue of the lightening earth.

The beautiful landscape in the lower right corner waiting for Apollo's light.

Apollo would drive his solar chariot across palace ceilings to glorify kings and princes.  Apollo in his role as the sun would become their favorite metaphor for power and glory.

Baroque art served throne and altar so well because it was an art of spectacle.  It was not about holding any mirrors up to real life.  Baroque art then, like Hollywood now, tried to make stories as vividly real as possible to the point where the line between life and art becomes stretched if not quite broken.  As the special effects wizards of Hollywood make the creatures of popular imagination seem to fly off the screen at us, so the artists of the Baroque made the Hosts of Heaven seem to break through the ceiling of the church and rain down on our heads.

Among the greatest of all Baroque spectacle mongers was Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and architect.

Bernini was just 24 years old when he set the Apollo Belvedere in motion, chasing Daphne the unwilling object of his love.  He completed it in 1625 when he was only 27.  This was one of 3 major statues executed for Cardinal Scipione Borghese for the Villa Borghese where this sculpture still stands in the room for which it was intended.  Bernini transformed the sculpted monument into theatrical spectacle, and the young prodigy made a spectacular debut with this amazing statue.

Bernini treats a free-standing sculpture as though it was a painting of the story.  It's a brilliant composition where rapid movement from left to right comes to abrupt stop.  He tells the whole story in a single sculpture and remains remarkably true to the letter and spirit of Ovid's version in The Metamorphoses.  Apollo, smitten with with love for the daughter of the river Peneus by Cupid's arrow, chases her almost breathing down her neck so close he pulls up toward her.  Daphne flees his advances smitten by Cupid with an arrow of repulsion.  At the very moment when Apollo catches up to her and reaches out to grab her, she screams and calls out to her father for help and instantly changes into a laurel tree. 

Apollo looks with surprised disappointment as he witnesses her transformation.  At the very moment when he thinks he's won, he sees that he's lost her forever.

From this angle, we can see Apollo's had as he reaches around to grab her and finds only tree bark.

Daphne's toes become roots.  Bark encloses her form.  Her fingers and blowing hair turn into tree branches.   The virtuoso carving of the details of her transformation is breath-taking, and part of the sculpture's poetry.  As Apollo marvels in astonishment over Daphne's transformation, then so do we as we walk around the statue.  Apollo for Bernini is neither a god nor a metaphor for anything, but a dramatically jilted lover.
Baroque art's capacity for vivid and dramatic storytelling finds one of its most superlative examples in this statue.  Church and State used these dramatic and spectacular qualities of Baroque art to influence public opinion; to make the guiding narratives of throne and altar seem as vividly real and alive as possible.


The Baroque era placed Apollo firmly in the heavens as an image of the sovereign prince's power and glory.  This happened at a time when the heavens were an issue.  Ptolemy's model of the the earth as the fixed center of a cosmos made of turning crystal spheres became over time the Church's divinely ordained cosmic system.  That system faced unprecedented challenges by scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries who noted that it didn't survive the test of evidence.  Out of those skeptical challenges arose the Scientific Revolution culminating in Newton demonstrating that the physical laws that govern motion on earth also govern the motions of the stars and planets; that comprehensible natural law drives the cosmos and not divine intervention.  Apollo played the full role of the sun across the ceilings of Baroque palaces surrounded by personifications of the hours, the seasons, and the planets.  Apollo fully merged with ancient Helios to light the world, to keep the hours and seasons, and to guide the planets.  As the power of the sun reached to every corner of the earth to warm and sustain life, to govern the cycles of weather, to keep time by dying in the west and rising again in the east every morning, so the political power of the national monarchs shone into every corner of their realms from frontier to frontier sustaining and governing life within.

France found itself riven with religious conflict in the 16th and early 17th centuries.  Beginning with Henry IV, the king became the focus of unity for a country badly divided by religious warfare.  The idea of Absolute Monarchy making the national monarch the sole source of all power in the realm arises out of this desire to unify France around national allegiance to the king.  In 17th century France, the most ambitious projects of art and architecture came not out of the Church, but the State.  France built immense and lavish monuments to proclaim the power and glory of the king.

The preeminent monarch of the 17th century, King Louis XIV of France, would use Apollo in his role as god of the sun as the emblem of his reign.

King Louis XIV drafted Apollo into the French civil service to work as a metaphor for the king's power and glory.  No other king in Europe -- and few others in the world -- demonstrated his considerable power more spectacularly than Louis XIV did in the Palace of Versailles built just outside of Paris.  The size and grandeur of this place reduced Apollo's mottoes of "Know Thyself," and "Moderation in All Things" to quaint irrelevance.  The health and sanity that Apollo stood for did not interest the king.  Louis much preferred Apollo in his role as god of light, god of the sun.  Apollo the sun god plays his role as metaphor the the Roi du Soleil throughout the palace.

The front of the Palace of Versailles facing toward Paris looking into the Cour Royale, Cour d'Honeur, and the Cour de Marbre.

The main gate to the Cour d'Honeur and the heart of the Palace.

The face of Apollo in the sun graces the main gate of the Cour d'Honneur.   He appears in this form everywhere in the Palace of Versailles.

The long project of early French history to consolidate power in the king at the expense of the provincial nobility arrived at its climactic triumph in the reign of Louis XIV.  Clerics such as Cardinal Mazarin and Bishop Bossuet along with bourgeois such as Colbert created the absolute monarchy of Louis' reign.  The king ruled over a national army and a national civil service to do his will from frontier to frontier of the realm; the first fully integrated modern nation-state.  Through his government, his power shone like the sun putting every corner of the realm in his light.

A gold medallion of King Louis XIV on one side, and the king as the sun whose light and power reach every part of the world on the other.

The king dressed as Apollo for a court masque.

The State Apartment was a series of seven rooms all in a row used for various public functions of the king. These were rooms whose architecture, painting, and sculpture in true Baroque fashion united around the theme of the attributes of a particular Classical god and how they applied to the king.  This is the Salon d'Apollon, the Chamber of Apollo with a ceiling painted by Charles de la Fosse.  The Salon d'Apollon served as the king's throne room beginning in 1682.  A huge wood and silver throne stood in this room until Louis XIV had it melted down to pay for the Nine Years' War.  Thereafter, a series of gilded chairs served as the throne.

The king received important guests, delegations, made pronouncements, passed judgements, and did the public business of state beneath these paintings by Charles de la Fosse.
In the central panel a magnificent Apollo drives the chariot of the Sun at dawn led by Aurora.  Bacchus, Flora, Ceres, and Saturn representing autumn, spring, summer, and winter accompany him.
Surrounding the central panel are episodes from Antiquity intended to reflect upon the king's ambitions and duties including Vespasian building the Roman Colosseum, Augustus building the Port of Miseno, and Alexander the Great showing clemency to the Indian prince Porus.

The sculptor Francois Girardon puts the Apollo Belvedere to work again, this time in a sculptural group of showing the god attended by the nymphs of his mother Thetis.  This sculpture was moved and modified many times in the 17th and 18th centuries as the palace gardens changed and expanded. 
Apollo looks less like a champion athlete, musician, and god of prophecy than he does a prince born to rule attended by servants.

Bernini's bust of King Louis XIV in the Salon de Diane, an idealized portrait of the king making him the image of a perfect monarch and of Apollo.

The Garden Front of the Palace of Versailles, the central block containing the royal apartments.  The windows along the middle floor on the facade, the main floor , belong the the Hall of Mirrors.

The Hall of Mirrors is the largest single room in the Palace behind the royal bedchambers and facing the gardens to the west.  The Salon de la Guerre and the Salon de la Paix bracket the Hall on each end.  Seventeen mirrored arches on the east wall stand opposite seventeen arched windows facing the gardens in the west taking in the direct sunlight of the late afternoon and early evening.  The 357 mirrors along the east wall were the most expensive part of the construction of this room.  Venice held the monopoly on the very difficult process of manufacturing mirrors at that time.  The Palace imported Venetian craftsmen to make the mirrors.
The architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart built the Hall in 1678 - 1684 to replace an open terrace that once connected the Apartments of the King and the Apartments of the Queen.  Hardouin-Mansart turned the main floor of the Garden Front into a single gallery from end to end, tearing down rooms that formed part of the royal apartments to create the Salon de la Guerre and the Salon de la Paix that both served as new grand entrances to the respective royal apartments.  Between them is the 239.5 feet long Hall of Mirrors.  Louis' principle court artist Charles Le Brun took charge of the painted cycle on the vaulted ceiling of the Hall.  Le Brun proposed to the king a cycle about the god Apollo since the main feature of the room is the sunlight coming in the Garden windows and reflecting off the mirrored walls.  The king rejected this proposal and a second cycle about Hercules.  The king decided to make the cycle about himself, about his military victories, and that is what we see today.

The central panel of the ceiling cycle of the Hall shows Louis usurping the role of Apollo as the the sun, shining light throughout his realm and vanquishing the enemies of France in the shadows.


Not everyone in the 17th century was so impressed by Apollo's magnificent parade across the palace ceiling.  The Spanish had very little taste for the Maniera Magnifica created in Italy and turned into the official state style in France.  Diego Velazquez takes a subject of the Grand Manner and despoils it of its grandeur.  Apollo tells Vulcan of the adulterous affair between Venus, Vulcan's wife, and Mars the god of war.  Velazquez shows us the rising rage of Vulcan and the shock of his assistants set not on Olympus, but in a blacksmith's shop in Seville.  Apollo god of light appears here as a simpering snitch.


Apollo is grand, dramatic, and even silly in Baroque art, but he's not taken very seriously.  Among the most independent of all Baroque artists was Nicholas Poussin, the son of French peasants who spent most of his working life in Rome.  Poussin deliberately separated himself from the crowd pleasing theatrics and spectacle of Baroque art and tried to restore something of what he considered the intellectually demanding thoughtfulness of the Classical tradition.  He didn't care about wowing the crowds so long as he could get at that kernel of truth. Sir Kenneth Clark once described Poussin as "a fighting highbrow."

The ideal landscapes of Poussin like this painting appear bucolic and happy until we look at them closely.  Et in Arcadi Ego; "And I am here even in Arcadia," death reminds us.  I can't think of any landscape in real life that is so perfectly constructed, whose every sequence across the picture surface and back into pictorial space is so gratifying.  The progression from the foreground hillock to the peak in the background is a series of easy and inevitable steps.  Everything has its compliment; the group of men in the foreground has its echoes in the groups of buildings and the groups of trees.  The dying tree on the left has its formal and dramatic compliment in the living tree in the middle distance on the right.  The fate of the dying tree appears in the stump on the right that likewise answers the arced form of the dying tree. The world Poussin paints has an internal harmony that the real world apparently does not.  But the dramatic struggle of life and death fills this ideal landscape as much as any real one.  Harmonious it may be, but there are signs of death and misfortune spread throughout.
It was against this Neo-Stoic backdrop that Poussin tried to restore something of Apollo's seriousness of purpose at the very moment when modern science in its infancy just started to replace the old language of metaphor and personification with a much more literal minded view of the world.  Poussin was the last truly great poet in that ancient classical mode that transformed abstract concepts into living beings.

Poussin objected strenuously to the sensationalism of Baroque art.  Its reliance on spectacle discouraged serious thought and genuine emotional engagement, Poussin believed.  

To our eyes, Poussin's early version of the story of Apollo and Daphne disappoints compared to Bernini's more spectacular version showing Apollo just catching up to Daphne, reaching around to grasp her only to feel tree bark and discover that he's lost her.  Bernini's version follows Ovid's telling of the story much more closely.
Poussin discards both the spectacle and the sensuality of Bernini's version of the story.  Instead, Poussin concentrates on the tragedy of the story.   Ovid's stories of the love between mortals and immortals usually end in death for the mortal and grief for the immortal.   Poussin shows us the cost of this dramatic tale.  Daphne's repulsion from Apollo leads to her death effectively; she turns into a laurel tree and is no more.  Apollo's uncontrollable attraction to her, goaded by an arrow from Cupid fired in revenge for an idle boast, leads to loss and grief.  The river god Peneus loses his daughter and suffers the worst grief of any parent.  Poussin paints the story without the alluring sensuality that other artists of the time such as Rubens, Annibale Carracci, and even Caravaggio would give it.  That would distract from the tragedy and the emotional participation Poussin requires of us.

In this painting, Phaeton begs his father Apollo to take the chariot of the sun out for a joyride.  Dark foreboding fills this painting and writes itself on Apollo's face.  We know, and all the immortals know how this will end in a colossal car wreck that will set much of the world on fire and cause Jupiter to strike Phaeton down with a thunderbolt to save the earth from total destruction.  Apollo knows that he will lose his son.  The gods who represent the seasons, Flora for spring, Bacchus for fall, Saturn for winter, and Ceres for summer share in that foreboding.  Ceres looks up anxiously while Saturn, his face in shadow, plays a doleful tune on his pipes.
Poussin sets these acutely sensitive characters in a twilit realm of poetry.

For Poussin, Apollo plays the role of inspiration for great works of poetry first and foremost.  Apollo is the source of inspiration and the origin of the arts in so much of his work.  Beginning with this painting usually known as The Inspiration of the Lyric Poet, Apollo bids a poet to drink deeply from the spring of Castalia, home of the Muses, one of whom looks over Apollo's shoulder.  Poussin would return to this subject again on a larger and more ambitious scale.

Poussin's painting of Parnassus, a variation of Raphael's painting in the Vatican.  Poussin probably made this painting to be an homage to the poet Gianbattista Marino.  The ancient poets drink from the Spring of Castalia, seen in the painting personified as a nude young woman.  Nine poets (I presume the same canonical Nine of ancient Classical poetry in Raphael's Parnassus) drink from the waters of inspiration in the presence of the Nine Muses and Apollo enthroned who offers a laurel branch.
Poussin makes a very beautiful if somewhat ceremonial variation on Raphael's famous painting in the Vatican.  The senior tenured literature faculty gather in the grove for an honors ceremony presided over by the college chancellor. 

Poussin painted a much more ambitious and serious painting of inspiration, a large painting that now hangs in the Louvre.  Apollo dominates the center of the picture.  His much larger than life size shows his divinity.  However, Apollo is not the focus of the picture, the poet on the right is.  The poet apparently does not see Apollo.  Apollo points to the poet's manuscript and the poet starts as if he has a sudden moment of inspiration.  A flying putto raises laurel wreaths over the poet and his work.  Apollo's right foot rests on a stack of worn old books, the works of great poets gone before.  A putto stands next to Apollo's foot carrying a worn volume with one hand and another laurel wreath in the other.  The brightest and most splendid figure is the Muse on the left resting her right hand on a flute.  The whole scene takes place in a laurel grove at twilight, the most evocative time of day.
Poussin composes the painting to suggest the meter of epic poetry; a  b-a-b-a-b structure in the figure group, and a b-a-bb-a rhythm in the background trees.

Poussin made Apollo the subject of his last painting in 1664.  Poussin delivered the painting to Cardinal Camillo Massimo who commissioned it with a contrite note apologizing that he was simply too ill to finish it.  Poussin died the following year in 1665 leaving the painting unfinished.

This painting now in the Louvre shows the story of Apollo and Daphne in a way that is as far removed from the spectacle of Bernini's sculpture as one could imagine.  Poussin shows not Apollo's pursuit of Daphne at the dramatic climax, but the events that lead up to the chase as described by Ovid in The Metamorphoses.
In Book I of the long poem, Ovid tells the story of Apollo's swift victory over Python, a huge serpent devastating the countryside with his arrows.  Returning victorious, Apollo encounters Cupid stringing his bow.  Apollo laughs at so small a child trying to string an adult's weapon.  Cupid gets his revenge by shooting into Apollo a sharp arrow tipped with gold to inflame his passion for love.  He then aims another arrow tipped with lead into the heart of the nymph Daphne to stir in her nothing but revulsion for Apollo and for love.  She embraced her father, the River Peneus, and begged him to make her a perpetual virgin; a wish her disappointed father granted.  When Apollo spied her in the forest, he fell instantly in love with her.  Daphne feeling nothing but repulsion for Apollo and what he was offering took off running through the woods.  Apollo pursued her and just as he was about to catch her Daphne cried out to her father for help and was changed into a laurel tree.
Daphne was Apollo's first love, and her story follows a passage in Ovid's poem that describes the continuous creation of life:
As though one body of earth were alive,
Half dead, so in all things
And in a single body, half motionless,
Inert yet half alive.  As heat and water
Become one body, so life begins; though fire
And water are at war, life's origins
Awake discordant harmonies that move
The entire world.  Therefore when fires
Of newly wakened sun turned toward earth
Where waters still receded from her sides,
All living things in multitudes of being
Became her progeny once more.

This painting describes more than the origins of a frustrated love, it is a painting about a theme that always preoccupied Poussin's paintings, the struggle between life and death.  Poussin makes a poetic meditation on this conflict using the language of allegory and personification.  He does not make a philosophical argument so much as articulate poetry out of experience.
Poussin in this painting divides the composition into two with the halves conversing with each other.
Above is the left half of the picture showing Apollo seated beneath a laurel tree that indicates Daphne's tragic destiny.  Before him, Cupid shoots the lead tipped arrow of repulsion toward Daphne.  Poussin chose the moment that Cupid, insulted by Apollo's boast, sets up the conflict.  Apollo sits already struck by Cupid's golden arrow, with love for Daphne.
So far as I know, Poussin is the only artist to combine stories in the same image to help expand upon the meanings and consequences of actions portrayed.  Draped in the laurel tree above Apollo is the body of the Python just slain by Apollo.   Above Python's corpse, a young woman sits among the tree branches.  Anthony Blunt identifies her as Melia, a nymph associated with the fertility of trees.  She looks directly toward Daphne echoing Apollo's gaze.  In the background appears a herd of cattle recalling Apollo's days as a herdsman for Admetus as penance for slaying the Cyclopes.  Some ancient retellings of the story by Callimachus and Apollodorus describe the cattle and goats under Apollo's watch dropping twins and producing more offspring than ever.

The right half of the painting shows Daphne on the lower right corner embracing her father Peneus as though pleading with him to remain a virgin.  Daphne meets the gaze of Apollo with closed eyes.  She reclines on the ground with her father surrounded by other nymphs of the forest.  That dark wood appears behind them.   A pair of shepherds in the forest discover the body Narcissus, dead from falling in love with his own reflection and forgetting all else.
While sky and distance appear in the left half of the picture, the right half is the enclosed darkness of the forest.
The darkness and the presence of Narcissus indicates that this is the side of death, of love wasted on impossible phantoms, of love spurned in perpetual virginity.

This painting is far more than an illustration of a comic episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Apollo humiliated by Cupid after boasting at the boy's expense.  Poussin creates an effect in this painting that sharply differs from the light hearted and even mocking tone of so many ancient authors who told and retold this story.  Much more is involved and at stake in Poussin's retelling of this story as expressed by the solemn and even melancholy mood of this painting.  Anthony Blunt in his great monograph on Poussin discusses this painting at length, joining it to the poetic/ philosophical writings of Tommaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno.  Poussin was the last and greatest artist to make Apollo an embodiment of spiritual meanings and natural forces.  He plays his role as the god of light, and of a metaphor for power very differently from the paintings, sculptures, and decorations of the Palace of Versailles.  Apollo in Poussin's painting stands for the sun, for light, for life itself in its perpetual struggle with its opposite, darkness and death.  Poussin uses the natural cycles of water and moisture to help explain the meaning of the story.  Ovid himself at the beginning of his telling of this story points to the contrast of moisture and dryness.  The nymph seated in front of Apollo wrings water from her hair; the sun associated with water and life.  Narcissus' corpse in the woods creates the image of dryness, sterility, and death.  Poussin gives that everlasting conflict between life and death a monumental grandeur, not simply in the figures or the telling of the story, but in the very structure, the architecture of the painting.  As in all of the best work of his maturity, Poussin uses the Golden Section ratio in the placement of the large portions of the painting; for example, the true division of the two halves is not in the center of the painting, but indicated by Cupid's bow and Melia's elbow, the invisible contour that closes the square of the left half of the painting.  Poussin positions the horizon line not in the center of the canvas, but following proportions described in the Golden Section.  The painting has an internal harmony that reality apparently does not have.  Poussin the true believing Stoic, made his work not to be a refuge from life and its sorrows, but to teach us how to regard and think about them.  In that sense, Poussin points to the future role of Apollo and what he means for generations of artists to come.  Poussin painted epic and lyric poetry even while the dawning Scientific Revolution would put an end to the language of allegory and personification forever.   Paul Cezanne admired and emulated the pictorial architecture of Poussin's work bringing it into the modern age to help articulate modern experiences.  Mondrian and other great abstract artists of the 20th century would likewise try to create something Apollonian out of modern experience without Apollo ever appearing in their work.

Some details from Poussin's last painting.

Apollo seated beneath the laurel tree gazing toward Daphne.  Mercury steals his arrows, a mysterious episode that appears in no known work of ancient literature.

Cupid fires his arrow at Daphne.

Daphne embraces her father Peneus, a river god.

The herd of cattle with the sunlit landscape in the distance.

The shepherds coming upon the body of the dead Narcissus in the forest.

The nymph seated before Apollo wringing her wet hair.

Poussin points toward another future for Apollo in this engraved title page for a collected works of Virgil, as a personification of achievement and high culture.  Apollo holding his lyre crowns Virgil for the glory of a life's work, as indeed the god once inspired epic poets like him in Poussin's great painting in the Louvre.

An even more bland version of the Apollo Belvedere plays just that role of god of achievement and high culture in this allegorized portrait of the singer and composer Marcantonio Pasqualini by Andrea Sacchi from 1641.  Apollo, fresh from his cruel victory over the satyr Marsyas, crowns Pasqualini with the laurel of victory as the musician plays a kind of standing harpsichord decorated with what appears to be Daphne turning into a laurel tree.
Apollo will become the god of official high culture up until the end of the 19th century, and the object of a lot of hostility from the creators of modern aesthetics.

Apollo the Sun king makes his last and one of his most magnificent appearances on the ceilings of the staircase and the Kaisersaal of the Residenz of the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, a cycle of paintings by the last great master of Baroque spectacle Giovanni Batista Tiepolo.  Tiepolo made his paintings from 1750 to 1753, over 60 years after Newton published his Principia Mathematica launching what we would recognize as modern science and technology.

The ruling Prince-Bishop of Würzburg Karl Philip von Greiffenklau built a huge new "residence" larger than the city's cathedral and the castle of his ancestors combined.  He commissioned the great Rococo architect Balthasar Neumann, formerly a military artillery engineer to design his new palace including its two most important public rooms, the grand staircase and the Kaisersaal, an immense oval room where the Prince-Bishop held audience.   Prince-bishops combined the office of diocesan bishop with that of the ruling prince in a single person.  They were left-overs from the old Holy Roman Empire and were most commonly found in the German speaking world, though there were French and Flemish prince-bishops.  Cologne, Bremen, Münster, and Salzburg were all ruled by prince-bishops.  But the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg wanted his palace to outshine them all.  He hired one of the last great Venetian painters Tiepolo to paint the ceilings of the two most important public rooms in his Residence.  At great expense to the Prince-Bishop and his subjects, Tiepolo brought his very large family workshop to Würzburg to work for him.

Tiepolo covered the immense ceiling over the grand staircase from the ground floor to the public rooms on the main floor with a huge allegory of the planets and the four continents, including America, that continent mentioned nowhere in ancient literature or (more troubling) in Scripture.

The planets revolve around the sun in this allegory (perhaps, but not likely, a concession to Copernicus).  Apollo plays the role of the sun standing in a blaze of glory complete with rays and a rainbow.  Other Classical deities play the planets and the activities and ideas that they represent.  Along the tops of the walls, firmly on the earth, are America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.  It's a complicate allegory of princely rule and the spread of Christianity and superiority of European civilization.  As with so much Baroque art, the allegory gets lost on us as we thrill to the ballet in the clouds taking place over our heads.

It is almost impossible to see the whole ceiling in a single glance.  There is no one point in the room where the whole ceiling cycle spreads out before us.  Tiepolo paints his fresco with out piecemeal and changing points of view in mind.  As in most other painted Baroque ceiling ballets, apparent height and remoteness from us indicates importance and hierarchy.  Apollo stands at the very top on a rainbow with Mars in shadow below.  Attendants on other clouds to the right bring his horses and chariots at his summons.

Apollo standing in the radiant sun holding a small bronze statue perhaps symbolizing the Classical civilization of Europe summons his horses and chariots to ride across the sky in the next room at the top of the staircase.

The great oval room of the Kaisersaal in the Prince Bishop's palace in Würzburg.

Apollo takes his last ride across the heavens in this splendid ceiling by Tiepolo.  This post began with the deliberate classical restraint of Guido Reni's Apollo and Aurora, and now ends with the same subject in probably the last great Baroque spectacle ever painted.   Tiepolo's Apollo makes a glorious sunset before the very idea of kings, princes, and prince-bishops becomes challenged and made obsolete by the revolutions that created the modern world.  That world already was taking shape as Tiepolo made this painting, and as the Prince-Bishop built his palace.  Tiepolo's frescoes are a last splendid gasp of an ancient order of the world that was about to pass away.

Apollo the Sun King, glorious Apollo as metaphor for kings and princes for all his splendor ends up a hollowed out figure.  The blazing sun of his power and glory blotted out so much of his former life and complexity.  Rulers of emerging nation states took no interest in the young arrogant god described in ancient stories who learned the civilizing virtues of self knowledge and restrained passions the hard way through bitter experience.  Still less did Apollo the embodiment of excellence achieved through fair and worthy competition impress them.  Political Apollo banished Apollo the desiring object of desire even more thoroughly than Christian Apollo ever did.  Those Apollos riding their sun chariots across the ceilings of Baroque palaces are sexually frigid despite their nudity. The harmonious internal agreement of idea and forms that Apollo stood for would outlast the god himself.  The ever more ruthless and scheming rulers of the emerging modern world would have found Apollo the vindictive prince who murdered Marsyas and the children of Niobe much more congenial.

The coming modern era would dissolve Apollo in an acid bath of combined irrelevance and conservatism.  In the act of destroying Apollo, modern generations would recover some of his former life and complexity.

Thomas-Francois Dalibard successfully extracting electricity from lightning, 1752

"Why should we fear Jupiter's thunderbolt when we have a lightning rod."

By the end of the 18th century, Apollo had to make his way through a world that no longer believed in gods or thought in allegories.

No comments: