In The Presence of Masters

I alluded to something earlier this trip on at least two occasions. First, I said that there are some works that stand out and these works would remain important across parallel universes. Then I said that Bernini’s works really stole the show (not exactly those words). Well it’s time to continue the thought. Bernini and (conceivably) the maker of The Laocoön were masters. They stood out amongst their peers. Today we encountered two more such artists: Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo.

Our first stop of the day was at Leonardo’s The Last Supper. I had reserved these tickets a few months ago because the availability is limited. The piece is degenerating horrendously, and years of poor efforts at restoration, bombing, and other various forms of abuse haven’t helped. It has most recently undergone a 21 year renovation that was completed in 1999 and they are now aggressive about protecting what remains. This means they tightly control the number of visitors, and when you enter you basically pass through an airlock. And no photos.

After reading so much about its general state of disrepair, I expected to find a work that was barely recognizable and disappointing — a work that left me shrugging and saying, “Well I guess I can say I saw it, for whatever that’s worth.” Boy was I wrong. 

Even after such a profound degree of damage and degenration, this is a piece like the Bernini sculptures. It immediately grabs the eye upon entering the chapel, and it holds your attention. It is an absolutely mesmerizing work. This is a piece that you see, and instantly know that you are clearly in the presence of a master. No photos can do justice to the artist’s hand here. It simply must be experienced in person. The 15 allotted minutes aren’t nearly enough, but they are an absolute privilege and I would highly recommend that my readers make plans to see this if they are in the region. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Following The Last Supper, we visited the church next door. It is a lovely church, perhaps even stunning on the spectrum of American churches. In Italy, I seem to wander into a lot of churches that are this nice. Perhaps I’m just lucky, or perhaps this is the local standard, but in any event it was a beautiful church.

From there we moved on to Sforza Castle. I love visiting castles – we just don’t have a lot of castles in the US, and the weight, chill, and age of the structure are all at once both humbling and inspiring. 

Here we find our next master for this post. Progressing through the many halls of the castle, we came upon an unfinished sculpture, but it was quite obviously special, for even among the rough chip marks and the extra arm that hasn’t yet been removed, raw untarnished emotion shone through. This is Michelangelo’s last work, begun and revised but never completed, the Rondanini Pietà. Michelangelo made a number of Pietas, the most famous being the one in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In that piece, we viewers are intruding on an intimate moment of quiet and stillness in which a mother holds and mourns her lost son. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

This time the moment is different. This is a more active piece. The master has captured an instant. Here the mother is catching her son, trying to hold him up, to bear his weight, and to keep his lifeless form from falling to the ground. She is alone in this piece and in this duty, and we want to help her. This is a moment of acute grief, and we feel it with her. The sadness is overwhelming, and the incompleteness of the work cannot shelter us from the pain. 

In reality there probably wouldn’t have been enough stone to complete the work, but the result is a Mary who is thinner, frailer, and less able to support her child. All of this makes the work even more compelling.

Today (and not for the first time this trip) I experienced the works of two artistic masters. Nothing else needs to be said.

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