Friday, June 24, 2016

The Cardinal's Ceiling

From "Tesoro del Mondo" (Treasure of the World)
Antonio Neri 1590-1600
In the years 1598-1600, newly ordained Florentine priest and alchemist Antonio Neri was hard at work on a manuscript which he titled Tesoro del Mondo (Treasure of the World). [1]  One illustration near the front shows an allegorical map in which six roads all lead to the Vatican at its center. A Latin inscription translates as, "The different ways to Rome" followed by "Qui pot[est] capere capiator 'He that can take, let him take it.' Taken in context, this Biblical reference ( Matthew 19:12) apparently refers to the various alchemical 'paths' leading to the philosopher's stone, but the choice of imagery suggests that Neri spent time in the city of seven hills. [2] It is a tantalizing clue to his travels, although there is no direct confirmation. 

If Rome did figure in the young Neri's itinerary, a visit to Cardinal Francisco Maria Del Monte would have been de rigueur. The Medici family ruled Neri's home region of Tuscany and Cardinal Del Monte was the Medici's informal ambassador in Rome. He was a dedicated patron of the arts, an amateur alchemist, a collector of glass and a trusted successor to Grand Duke Ferdinando in the College of Cardinals. More significantly, he was a close friend and advisor to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio de' Medici ever since that prince was a child.  Del Monte's biographer Zygmunt Waźbiński offers, "It is very likely that Cardinal Del Monte, with his interest in glass, had known then (in 1598) the [future] author [Neri] of L'Arte Vetraria." [3]
Michelangelo Caravaggio, c. 1597
Casino Ludovisi.

As the sixteenth century ended and a new one dawned, Del Monte sheltered the rough-and-tumble painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, whom he set up with an in-house studio and an allowance. However, in 1606, the master of Realism fled Rome after reportedly murdering a tavern waiter over a tennis wager, but not before executing his only known fresco on the vaulted ceiling of Del Monte's own alchemy laboratory. Looking out over Rome, on the panoramic Pincio, in the Villa that later became the Casino Ludovisi and is now known as the Casino dell'Aurora, Caravaggio put his brush to work. According to early biographer of artists, Gian Pietro Bellori, he executed the oil painting on the vaulted ceiling of the small alchemical laboratory (now a corridor) sometime between 1597 and 1600. [4] Depicted in the mural are the three brothers Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto: the masters of the universe. The image is a double allegory of the three basic chemical substances of Paracelsus (salt sulfur and mercury) and the four Aristotelian elements (air, earth, water and fire). Jupiter with the eagle stands for sulfur and air, Neptune with the seahorse stands for mercury and water and Pluto with the three-headed dog Cerberus stands for salt and earth. Jupiter is reaching out to move the central celestial sphere in which the sun (fire) revolves around the earth. [5] 

The villa was a relatively secluded retreat where the Cardinal could entertain guests discretely, including his friend Galileo–Del Monte and his older brother Guidobaldo helped land Galileo the chair of mathematics at the university in Pisa. It would be interesting to hear the astronomer’s comments on Caravaggio's tribute to heliocentrism.


[1] Neri 1598-1600, f.xxviii-v.  (see bibliography).
[2] For more on the alchemical interpretation of this illustration see Grazzini 2012.
[3] Neri 1612.
[4] Bellori 1672, pp. 197-216.
[5] Wallach 1975, pp. 101-112.

* this post first appeared in a slightly different form on 4 July 2014.

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