The Agony of Fury

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While most of my life has been consumed by transcribing my primary source documents for my thesis, I have been trying to devote the weekends to fun cultural activities to get me started on the right foot each week.

This weekend I decided to visit the Prado. As many of you know I give tours of the Prado, not just to friends and family, but also to brave strangers who trust my interpretations of the history of the building and many of its famous works.  However, my route is rather limited, in that we visit the same paintings, which is important for someone who only has a few hours to spend in the museum, but there is a whole lot of other works displayed in the Prado. Therefore, I set out this afternoon to tackle the special exhibits, specifically The “Furias”: Political Allegory and Artistic Challenge on display January 21 – May 04, 2014.

In Spanish “Furias” refers to four specific mythological giants, Tityus, Tantalus, Ixion and Sisyphus. In case your knowledge of Greek and Roman figures is rather lacking like mine I am include a brief history of each figure to give an overall understanding as to why these four men were particularly important in Spain.

Tityus was condemned to having his liver devoured by a vulture everyday for attempting to rape one of Zeus’s lovers. Tantalus was eternally punished to seek food and drink after offering his son as the main course at a godly banquet. Ixion seduced Hera, which left him turning the endless wheel. And Sisyphus was forced to carry a rock to the top of the hill, which promptly rolled itself back down for revealing all of Zeus’s infidelities.

The first representation of these four figures together appeared under the patronage of Mary of Hungary (sister of Charles V). Mary commissioned Titian to paint the four monumental paintings to adorn her Main Salon at her palace in Binche (present day Belgium). An anonymous drawing shows two of the four works placed on the walls during the festivities of Charles V and Felipe II’s visit in 1549.  It is believed that Mary commissioned these works specifically to castigate the four German princes who rose against Charles V and where subsequently defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg.

Before the palace was fully destroyed the works were sent to Spain, a few burned in the palace fires of 1734 and another has been displaced. That leaves only Sisyphus as the only original painting of this commission.

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Sisyphus Titian 1549

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Tityus Titian 1549

Although many works are missing, these four paintings initiated many other series of paintings. The exhibition claims that part of their success as a genre is due to the ability to express the mastery of the human form, by displaying the giants in all different positions; and additionally, the ability to express extreme emotions, particularly attractive to Baroque artists.

Throughout the exhibition I was struck by the similarities between the different works. The first drawing of Tityus is by Micahelangelo and depicts his valor at the moment right before the vulture pecks at his chest. Titian copies this same construction in his own version, which is known from a copy of his original commission, made for a duke (I cannot remember his last name) and that Philip IV preferred his copy and had it exchanged for his own original version, which according to him was rather weathered.  This prototype for the figure of Tityus did not just extend to him, but also to Prometheus who was condemned by the gods for stealing fire. Such an important artistic proof of mastery, Rubens painted a very similar painting of Prometheus for his own home.

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Tityus Michelangelo 1532

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Prometheus Bound, Rubens, 1611-1612

During the high baroque period, the paintings begin to change, not only in the placement of the figures, but also in the rendering of emotions. This was blatantly apparent in the work by José de Ribera. Ribera strips the painting down to its essentials, the figure of Tityus, the vultures and the liver. In this scene the emphasis is no longer placed on showing the male nude, (although still a factor) but rather rendering human emotion and the pain and agony associated with his punishment. One of my favorite parts of the 28 work exhibition was that they included copies of referential pieces. For example there were copies of some of the studies Ribera conducted attempting to capture emotion. These types of inclusions always help me contextualize how the artist dealt with a specific issue and allow me to see the beginning and conclusion of that process.

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Tityus, Ribera, 1632

This theme of paintings traveled back and fourth across Italy, Spain and the Netherlands providing artists of different regions and time periods with ample subject matter to display their personal skill.  Although mainly abandoned by 1700, there are still cultural references to these figures, such as Sisyphus, in the 20th century, by artists such as Frank von Stuck. The figure of Sisyphus has mainly been associated with the worker’s movement by politicians such as Rosa Luxemburg and intellectuals such as Albert Camus. I believe the final quote of the exhibition by Camus well summarizes the importance of these mythical figures: “myths are made for the imagination to bring them alive.”

My original plan was to limit myself just to this one exhibition; however, with the connections to Mary of Hungary, I had to go upstairs to the cloister to see her sculpture by Leone Leoni. This sculpture was mentioned in a conference talk by Cordula van Wyhe, titled: “The fabric of Female Rule in Leone Leoni’s Portrait Sculpture of Mary of Hungary 1555.” It was a captivating lecture that focused on the importance of female patronage represented in her commission of this sculpture. Van Wyhe argued that one could see both aspects of the figure of Mary of Hungary who from one angle appears to be the pious widow and from the other side a strong powerful stateswoman. Accordingly, the dual nature of the sculpture precisely pointed to the dual nature that she wielded as she managed the Low Countries for her brother Charles V and exemplifies how she wanted herself to be seen to the world. I had not seen the sculpture since hearing the talk and wanted to see if I, too, saw these same tensions within the figure of Mary.

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Mary of Hungary, Leoni, 1555

Mary is exhibited in a very unique space of the museum – the reconstructed Jeronimous cloister. This cloister was inhabited by the same order that ran the Escorial and was a favorite of the Habsburg monarchs.  Through subsequent remodels, it was incorporated into Felipe IV’s Retiro Palace. Yet it was all but destroyed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was placed under royal patrimony in attempts to restore the convent, but work was not begun until the remodel of the Prado under the direction of Raphael Moneo (2000). They used the existing Spanish granite stones to reconstruct what part of the interior courtyard of the cloister would have looked like. Here in this room are the various royal sculptures by Leone Leoni and his son Pompeo. The bronze sculpture of Felipe II is as dynamic as that of Mary of Hungary. With interest the bronze of Isabel of Portugal, the queen of Charles V, although resplendent in detail lacks the same didactic quality of the other two works. I wonder if this is because her sculpture was created posthumously, but it is just a hunch.

After such a successful and evocative first two exhibitions I decided to venture to one final destination – the Várez Fisa Gallery.  Don José Lusi Várez Fisa and his wife, Dona María Milagros Benegas Mendía in the beginnings of 2013, donated this collection. The room reflects the works of art that their two families collected throughout the centuries. The ceiling of the room is covered with the wooden inlay that was typical of the early 15th century. The painting on many of the beams is rather decorative and systematic, emulating what I would presume are mudejar designs. That being said the images that are contained on the sides of beams, that are only reflected when you are right under the work are absolutely fascinating. In most of the corners I found dragons heads gobbling people, weapons and other curious figures. Mixed with these images were what appeared to be scenes from the bible, such as the last supper and life of Christ.

Many of the images that are contained in this room are of a religious nature and appear to be altarpieces. My personal favorite was an altarpiece from the 13th century that depicts the life of Saint John the Baptist. It is carved entirely out of wood and the dynamic features burst out of their small niches. I believe that they are carved separately from the background and then nailed into place, which makes it different from Ghibeti’s doors, but the overall sensation is rather similar.

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Altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist, Anonymous, last quarter of the 13th century

What I find most interesting is that the current administration of the Prado is looking to expand their collection by acquiring works from noble families. These works enrich the collection by exemplifying what types of works were commissioned by families and adorned their homes or other privileged spaces, such as churches and chapels.

Finally, with a little art in mind, I am ready to start my last week at the archives!

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