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Triumph and the Rhetoric of Power in Italian Renaissance Art
published, Source, 9, 2, 1990, 7-13

Robert Baldwin

Connecticut College, Box 5411

New London, CT 06320


Triumph and the Rhetoric of Power in Italian Renaissance Art
For Henri Zerner
Given the pervasive imagery of triumph in medieval art, literature, and church ceremony, it is wrong to credit Renaissance Italy with a new focus on Christian triumph. 1 Instead, fifteenth-century Italian patrons, humanists, and artists stripped triumph of its medieval vocabulary, its immaterial glitter, its knightly imagery of crusading, medieval armor, and jousting, its abstract, static enthronement and coronation. 2 Without losing the hieratic qualities inherent in all triumph, the new forms were more dramatic and naturalistic and depended on Roman and early Christian examples. As Patricia Leach has shown, Donatello's David, which reinvented the beautiful, nude hero for religious art, closely paralleled the contemporary Florentine humanistic revival of Cicero's and Lactantius's praise for the divine beauty and proportion of the human body. This rhetoric allowed humanists to reinterpret the Imago Dei not just as a spiritual resemblance, but as a visible, physical similitude, a true image. Such comments came in the new literary genre on the dignity and freedom of mankind. 3 By the time of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, itself the perfect expression of the new Imago Dei, heroic nudity had become fundamental to a new, classically triumphal Christian aesthetic. 4 The dominance of this imagery - at once a style and an iconography - is clear in the Roman High Renaissance avoidance of despicable, "anti-triumph" themes such as the crucifixion. This contrasts sharply to Northern Europe where artists and writers rhetorically elaborated the shameful ugliness and defeat of the Passion. 5 When the suffering Christ did appear in Italian art, as in Michelangelo's Roman Pietà or Sebastiano's Flagellation, it was elevated through physical beauty into an image of resurrectional triumph over carnal disfigurement and death. Occasionally, Italian artists developed a more dramatic, processional imagery of Christian triumph seen in Titian's woodcut Triumph of Faith and in depictions of papal entries. 6 The new drama and naturalism is clear in comparison with the fixed, hieratic images of medieval Christian triumph found in Petrarch's Trionfo dell' Eternità and continuing into Savonorola's Triumphus crucis (Florence, 1497). Savonarola's scholastic image descends anagogically from the uppermost sacred invisibles (the glorified Trinity and Ecclesia) to the cross-carrying, bloody Christ crowned by thorns, to the sacraments evoked by the liturgical instruments at his feet, to Mary, to the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, and church officials below, and finally to the "throngs of numerous enemies who fight the church with all their might". 7 The hierarchies are cosmological, ecclesiastical, eschatological, and artistic, both in the old idea that corporeal images lead the beholder-reader to "the most holy and invisible" things and in the victory of the true images of Christ, Mary, and the sacraments over the "fallen, broken, and crumbling state of the images and statues of the idols" flanking the enemies of the church. 8

In contrast to Savonorola, fifteenth-century papal and curial patrons, especially from Sixtus IV on, adopted a more dramatic, Roman, imperial language of triumph based on the careful study and revival of Roman and early Christian antiquity. 9 The "new" language offered an epideictic rhetoric of praise and blame, triumph and trampling which helped consolidate Roman church power weakened by schism, exile, conciliarism, and threatened by a seemingly imminent Turkish invasion. It was no coincidence that Biondo Flavio began his highly topical Roma triumphans, an exhaustive account of ancient Roman glory, in 1453, the year Constantinople fell to the Turks. 10 On the one hand, this rhetoric adopted the Florentine humanistic praise of human dignity along with its new ethical piety. On the other hand, it relocated the human freedom to ascend toward God from a Florentine civic context of republican citizenship to a generalized individualism inspired by Christian virtues. 11 In this way the church stripped humanism and the dignitas hominis of its politically threatening republicanism which had inspired the expulsion of Eugenius IV in 1434 and the failed revolt against Nicholas V in 1453. The ecclesiastical reformulation of this ethical piety also allowed the church to conflate its own mythology of reformist triumph over monastic and ecclesiastical corruption with its pre-ordained victory over Turks, heretics, and other dissenters. If dignified, human beings, made in God's image, could "freely" restore their soiled Imago Dei through enacting official Christian virtues, so those questioning the absolutism of a corrupt church and papacy, and those calling for the more fundamental reform of institutions, not just individuals, were conveniently identified with the bestial vice and heresy vanquished by a reformed, morally pure, unified, triumphant Church. Given the elevation-trampling dynamic inherent in all triumph, this celebration of man's dignity was inseparable from the destruction of what Savonarola had earlier called the "enemies of Christ and the Church". Savonarola even defended this aspect of triumph as an extension of natural laws. 12 Ironically, he was later burned at the stake for being just such an enemy.

The new Roman Renaissance imagery of Christian triumph is most clear in Filippino Lippi's frescos commissioned around 1488 by the wealthy and powerful Cardinal Olivero Carafa for his private chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. Skilled in the political manipulation of humanist and Christian imagery, 13 Carafa chose an Annunciation surmounted by an Ascension of the Virgin, a Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Heresy (Fig. 1) under a St. Thomas Overcoming Temptation, and various, now only fragmentary scenes allegorizing the Triumph of Virtue over Vice. 14 Here the humanistic imagery of individual ethical reform was appropriated to celebrate the sanctity of St. Thomas and the Dominican Order, the immaculate, triumphantly ascending Virgin, the Roman church, whose eucharistic victory is celebrated in the ornamental decorations on the fictive triumphal architecture, 15 the papacy, here equated with the Lateran equestrian "Constantine" who compositionally "tramples" the heretics at left, and the piously kneeling Carafa in the Annunciation, promised an eschatological triumph by the intermediating Virgin-Church. Thus the sacred and ecclesiastical hierarchies join to offer an infallible doctrine, revealed, as the tablets above Thomas proclaim, "to give understanding to the simple". Here, even revelation becomes the triumphal adventus of an all conquering Logos which rules on earth through Christ's birth and teachings and through their restatement in church doctrine and ritual. It is the book inscribed, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise" which empowers St. Thomas to trample the personification of evil and to subdue the heretics in the foreground. So too the triumphal Logos "arrives" in the fresco of the Annunciation, in the ornamental liturgical motifs, and in the real masses performed in Carafa's chapel.

Linking the triumphs of the Virgin, Church, and cardinal with that of Aquinas, this personal ethical sanctity and submission to the divine Logos was the perfect mask for an imperial church aggressively removing itself from criticism while unifying the simple masses through the "trampling" of revelation and liturgical rites backed up by papal armies. In that Carafa included visual references to his own military triumph over the Turks as papal admiral, a victory celebrated in Rome with a triumphal procession complete with captives and trophies, 16 these frescos celebrated the victory of the church over its spiritual, doctrinal, and political enemies. Its willingness to use military force to ensure triumph is visually reinforced by the armored, mace-wielding man at left, probably Niccolo Orsini, general of the papal army under Innocent VIII, 17 in the architectural use of Roman military ornament, and in the specific urban setting, the Lateran Palace, site of public executions in a city politically controlled by the papacy. 18 To justify this military imagery and to eliminate the potential disjunction between piety and violence, sanctity and brutality, Lippi carefully "praised" the virtuous figures with what Roman humanists would have called a beautiful Imago Dei while "blaming" the heretics with a dehumanizing, swarthy ugliness denoting their remoteness from God and justifying their annihilation. We have already seen how Pius II invoked the beasts of Psalm 90:13 to describe anti-papal conspirators ritually "trampled" beneath his feet. If one remembers Carafa's campaign against the Turks and the eastern origins of these various painted heretics, one sees how Lippi's heretics referred viewers to the more dangerous, contemporary Turkish enemy who continued to be described as subhuman, "a most horrible beast, the enemy of all nature and humanity". 19 Given the papal strategy of holy war as the means to unify all Christians under the Roman church, 20 equations between Turks and heretics, already familiar from the early Christian, Carolingian, and Romanesque periods, sent an increasingly useful message.

In comparison with earlier images of triumphant saints 21 Lippi's imperial, Roman Renaissance vocabulary for triumph reflects an almost unprecedented visual study of classical architecture, costume, ornament, epigraphy, and a heavy, late antique figural style. As such, Lippi`s new language parallels the curial humanist search for authoritative Latin models in epideictic Ciceronian rhetoric, Vergilian poetry, and Vitruvian architecture, all part of the new Roman ecclesiastical triumph. 22 The improved, studied "Latin" spoken by Lippi's frescos, clothed with a material wealth typical of curial commissions, was the same language of power defended by Cortesi a few years later. Insisting in his book on the ideal cardinal that magnificent artistic patronage helped prelates "inspire the fear due to a higher authority" from the "ignorant mob" (imperitam multitudinem), Cortesi even suggested Eugenius IV was overthrown because his modest living had inspired contempt. 23 Similarly intimidating to its viewers, whose simple minds made them particularly dependent on revealed deities and doctrine, the correct and sumptuous Latin form of Lippi's fresco also evokes Italian humanistic ideas about linguistic imperialism and the political power of language. Thus Alberti argued that a Roman emperor
"probably derived from the eminence of that position which he held by fortune's favor, no more power and authority than from his knowledge of the Latin language and familiarity with Latin letters ... It even seems to me that our imperial splendor was not wholly extinguished until the light and the far-reaching influence of Latin and of Latin letters faded away". 24
For his part, Lorenzo Valla insisted, "There is the Roman Empire where the Roman language rules" 25 while Tommaso Inghirami praised Cicero's rhetoric by noting its "magnitude of eloquence which certainly was equal to the Roman Empire". 26 The most vivid image of rhetoric's rule appeared in the Renaissance revival of Lucan's legendary Hercules who used eloquence to overcome adversaries. This inspired the life-size Hercule Gaulois with the four estates chained to his mouth who rose gloriously on a triumphal arch in Henri II's 1549 entry into Paris (Fig. 2). 27 Saturated with military imagery, this entry even included a mock naval battle, the storming of a fort, and the burning of real heretics. 28

Within ten years, Lippi's heavy, late antique Latin was modified by the somewhat different High Renaissance Roman language of power developed by Raphael and Michelangelo, 29 a language at once more graceful, natural and commanding. In a famous letter to Leo X criticizing late antique art, and in particular the sculptures on the Arch of Constantine (which had inspired Lippi), Raphael made explicit the unique configuration of historical, political, aesthetic, and philosophical values which underlay the new Renaissance Christian triumph.

"Of all the arts, architecture was the last to decline. This may be learned from many things, and among others from the Arch of Constantine, which is beautiful and well conceived from an architectural point of view. But the sculptures on the same arch are very tasteless, without art or good design, though the [circular] fragments from the time of Trajan and Antoninus Pius are excellent and of the purest style. The same thing may be seen in the Baths of Diocletian, where the sculptures of his own time are mediocre and poorly executed ... [After the fall of Rome] The fortunes of Rome were then so changed that in the place of limitless victories and triumphs came the humiliations and wretchedness of servitude. It appeared unfitting for those who were conquered and in bondage to live in the grand manner that they had known when they were the conquerors of the barbarian." 30
With the new absolutist and imperial ambitions of Renaissance popes tied historically to ancient Rome, an emphatically Roman language of Christian triumph was clearly needed in place of the non-Roman, medieval modes dismissed by humanistic Renaissance artists as "Gothic" and Northern and lacking any firm ties to nature. As Raphael noted in the same discussion,
"Aside from the weakness of the pointed arch, it [the Gothic manner] lacks the grace of our style, which is pleasing to the eye because of the perfection of a circle. It may be observed that nature herself strives for no other form". 31
Such remarks help us move beyond the purely formal readings of circular works such as Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat and Raphael's Madonna della Sedia, seeing in their triumphantly enthroned Virgins an image of church power analagous to the many portraits of enthroned popes (including Raphael's Julius II and Leo X). While sacred and ecclesiastical hierarchies were not spelled out as explicitly in such princely devotional works as in Raphael's Vatican frescos and Marian altarpieces - note the imperial God and enthroned Virgin in the New York Colonna Altar - it was precisely the disguising of power with human loveliness which gave Raphael's more mature art its unique, still-compelling force. Recent scholarship suggests that classicism appealed as a language to Renaissance princes and popes for its ethical combination of the heroic and the natural; 32 as Cortesi's commented in defending humanist rhetoric, "nature always joins beauty with utility". 33 In so far as humanistic orators and artists selected out from nature its most beautiful forms, their classicism claimed to offer a morally uplifting natural beauty which would inspire audiences to a greater love of wisdom and the Good. Here was a beautiful power and a powerful beauty, a power which was both disguised by the new naturalism 34, and rendered philosophically and ethically defensible (according to new humanistic standards) for its roots in God's creation and its ennobling effect on the beholder. If triumphal imagery was almost always a display of worldly hierarchy and power, the new humanistic interest in antiquity, ethical values, and the natural world offered Renaissance church officials new ways to justify, sanctify, disguise, and extend that power. Renaissance Christian triumph served then to ground a new church absolutism in the irrefutable laws of History, the Good, Nature, and God. Such sanctity also helped legitimize the use of violence as a necessary tool of Christian rule. In 1594, the "Roy tres-chrestien Henry IIII" celebrated an entry into Paris following the bloody wars of the League and the long siege of Paris. In Jean le Clerc's engraving, the violence implicit in so much triumphal imagery is spelled out with a brutal honesty.

1 See the medieval section in my "A Bibliography of Triumph Imagery" in Barbara Wisch and Susan Munshower, eds., "All the world's a stage...": Art and Pageantry in the Renaissance and Baroque, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

2 For this change in royal entries, see Lawrence Bryant, The King and the City in the Parisian Royal Entry Ceremony: Politics, Ritual, and Art in the Renaissance, Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1986.

and Margaret McGowan, Ideal Forms in the Age of Ronsard, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, 121-158.

3 Patricia Ann Leach, "Images of Political Triumph: Donatello's Iconography of Heroes," Ph.D., Princeton University: 1984, 33-43.

4 John O'Malley, "The Theology Behind Michelangelo's Ceiling" in The Sistine Chapel, New York: 1986, 92-148.

5 James Marrow, Passion Iconography in Northern Art of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. Kortrijk: 1979.

6 See David Rosand and Michelangelo Muraro, Titian and the Venetian Woodcut, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1976, 37-54; John Shearman, "The Florentine Entrata of Leo Xth, 1515," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 38, 1975, 136-154; and Charles Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985, 238-246.

7 Translation and original in Staale Sinding-Larsen, "Titian's Triumph of Faith and the Medieval Tradition of the Glory of Christ," Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia, 6, 1975, 319.

8 Loc cit.

9 Andrew Martindale, The Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna in the Collections of Her Majesty the Queen at Hampton Court, London: Harvey Miller, 1979, 47-55.

10 A. Mazzocco, "Some Philological Aspects of Biondo Flavio's 'Roma triumphans'", Humanistica Lovaniensia, 28, 1979, 1-26. Mazzocco notes (p. 4) that the book sought to prod Western rulers into organizing militarily to defeat the Turks.

11 John O'Malley, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome, Durham: Duke University Press, 1979, 123-194.

12 "However, as in Nature every motion consists in moving away from one opposite toward another opposite, the coming into existence of one thing means the vanishing away of another; for anything to grow into being, forces contrary to each other are required so that in the end the better can prevail. We therefore describe the enemies of Christ and the Church and their errors of all kinds as dispelled and eradicated in this world because of Christ's leadership". Sinding-Larsen, op. cit., 320.

13 For Carafa's manipulation of humanist allegory, see Anne Reynolds, "Cardinal Olivero Carafa and the Early Cinquecento Tradition of the Feast of Pasquino," Humanistica Lovaniensia, 34A, 1985, 178-208.

14 Illustrations are in Gail Geiger, Filippino Lippi's Carafa Chapel: Renaissance Art in Rome, St. Louis: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers Inc., 1986.

15 In the triumphal entry of Pius II into Spoleto, he is described as "King Pius, lord of the world" because he carries the sacrament. See William Gray and Harold Faulkner, eds., "The Commentaries of Pius II," Smith College Studies in History, 1936-1937; 22 (1-2), 553. In Savonarola's Triumphus crucis, liturgical objects and Passion instruments are carried by Christ or placed on his chariot. See Sinding-Larsen, op. cit., 318.

16 Geiger, op. cit., 30-31, 104-105.

17 Ibid, 100-102.

18 Geiger, op. cit., 103-106, notes the Lateran as site of public execution but misses its contemporary political significance.

19 Domenico de' Domenichi, "Oratio pro electione summi pontificis," unpublished Vatican manuscript, paraphrased in O'Malley, 1979, 234. See John Patrick Donnelly, "The Moslem Enemy in the Renaissance Epic: Ariosto, Tasso, and Camoens", Yale Italian Studies, 1, 2, 1977, 162-170; C. A. Patrides, "'The Bloody and Cruell Turke': The Background of a Renaissance Commonplace", Studies in the Renaissance, 10, 1963, 126-135; and Robert Schwoebel, The Shadow of the Crescent: The Renaissance Image of the Turk 1453-1517, Nieuwkoop, 1967.

20 O'Malley, 1979, op. cit., 232-236.

21 See the Trecento Triumph of Aquinas in Geiger, op. cit., pl. 40.

22 John F. D'Amico, Renaissance Humanism in Papal Rome, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, 123-143.

23 See Kathleen Weil-Garris and John D'Amico, "The Renaissance Cardinal's Ideal Palace: A Chapter from Cortesi's De cardinalatu," in Henry Millon, ed., Studies in Italian Art I, Rome, 1980, 89.

24 Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, 151.

25 "Romanum Imperium ibi esse, ubi Roman lingua dominatur," from Valla, Oratio in principio sui studii, 1455, cited and discussed in D'Amico, op., cit., 119.

26 "magnitudinem quae par quidem Romano imperio fuit eloquendi," unpublished Vatican manuscript, "Laudatio M. T. Ciceronia per T. Phedrum," cited in D'Amico, op. cit., 134.

27 C. Vivanti, "Henry IV, the Gallic Hercules," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 30, 1967, 176-197 and Marc-René Jung, Hercule dans la littérature française du XVIe siècle. Geneva: Droz; 1966. The woodcut appeared in the official entry book which is reprinted and discussed in I. D. McFarlane, ed., The Entry of Henry II into Paris, Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1982.

28 Ibid, 63-69.

29 Sinding-Larsen, op. cit.; Stinger, op. cit., 235-291; and Jan Bialostocki, "The Power of Beauty. A Utopian Idea of Leone Battista Alberti", idem, The Message of Images, Vienna: IRSA Verlag, 1988, 100-112.

30 Elizabeth Holt, ed., A Documentary History of Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1981, 294. The letter was written between 1515-21 and has been assitned to Bramante and Castiglione as well.

31 Ibid, 295.

32 D'Amico, op. cit., 150-153.

33 "natura semper pulchritudinem cum utilitate ... coniungit," Paolo Cortesi, In quattuor libros Sententiarum... Rome, 1504, cited in D'Amico, 152.

34 Henri Zerner, "Classicism as Power," Art Journal. 47, 1, 1988, 35-36.

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