Every country tries to find an image that its people can believe in and unite around. Britain recently decided to become an island in its own right instead of a “Continental” country, tied mainly to the European Union. Japan, meanwhile, still seems caught between its manufacturing past and a perceived need to rebrand — with the help of the 2020 Olympics — as a successful knowledge economy.
The Italians experienced such a dilemma many hundreds of years ago, which was one of the factors that led to the Renaissance. One way of looking at the major cultural movement is as an attempt to give Italy — then divided into various small statelets dominated by the German Holy Roman Empire — a confident new image that they could hold up against their “Gothic” master North of the Alps.
A vital part in this major cultural rebranding was played by Michelangelo Buonarroti, the immensely talented artist and sculptor, whose works represent the acme of Renaissance art. He is the subject of the latest exhibition at the Shiodome Museum, “The Genius of Michelangelo — Majestic Renaissance Architecture.”
This is centered around sketches and letters sourced from the Casa Buonarroti, a museum created by the artist’s great nephew in a house that was once owned by Michelangelo himself.
Between the downfall of Rome and the Renaissance, Italy was very much a land of ruins, downtrodden and frequently invaded. The genius of artists and architects such as Michelangelo was to find inspiration in these very ruins for a new potent aesthetic based on the past. It is interesting that they were empowered in this project not only by ambitious city states, including Florence, that were keen to assert their independence, but also by the Catholic Church, which embraced the pagan aesthetic of ancient Rome and even its celebration of the nude form.
Michelangelo was clearly fascinated by the nude form, as his work on the Sistine Chapel reveals. This exhibition tries to recreate the experience of visiting this ultimate masterpiece with vivid projections, showing the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the great wall painting of “The Last Judgement.”
But what of actual original works by the artist himself? There are several preparatory sketches of varying quality, including a rather detailed one of the Cumaen Sybil for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
There are also many architectural sketches, revealing the Renaissance obsession with the classical past, and even a small section on how this influenced Japanese architects.
But the rebranding of Italy — and the Catholic Church — that the Italian Renaissance achieved was perhaps too successful, helping in some way to trigger something much bigger than Brexit: the exit of much of Northern Europe from the domination of the Catholic Church.
“The Genius of Michelangelo: Majestic Renaissance Architecture” at the Shiodome Museum runs until Aug. 28; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Wed. panasonic.co.jp/es/museum