Friday, July 4, 2014

Del Monte's Ceiling

From Treasure of the World
Antonio Neri 1590-1600
In Antonio Neri's 1598-1600 manuscript Treasure of the World, one illustration shows an allegorical map in which six roads all lead to the Vatican at its center. A Latin inscription reads, "The different ways to Rome" followed by "Qui pot[est] capere capiat" which translates to 'He that can take, let him take it.' ( Matthew 19:12). This bit 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, 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. Del Monte was the Medici's informal ambassador in Rome; a dedicated patron of the arts, amateur alchemist, collector of glass, trusted successor to Grand Duke Ferdinando in the College of Cardinals, and significantly, he was a close friend and advisor to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio since the prince's childhood.  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 author of L'Arte Vetraria."  
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 waiter over a tennis wager, but not before executing his only known fresco on the 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, Del Monte established his laboratory. According to Bellori,  Caravaggio executed the oil painting on the vaulted ceiling of the small alchemical laboratory (now a corridor) sometime between 1597 and 1600.  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, and the four Aristotelian elements. 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.  

 The villa was a relatively secluded retreat where the Cardinal could entertain guests more 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.

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