Where's Willy?

At tonight’s meeting of my writers’ workshop fellow member Cleve Moffet came up with a wonderful ‘exercise’. Daniele da Volterra was an artist of considerable renown in his own lifetime, but he is now chiefly remembered for having painted prudish underpants on all the nude figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (earning himself the nickname ‘Il Braghettone’, or ‘the breeches painter’). You can read Cleve’s account below (‘read the rest of this entry’), for he has kindly allowed me to host it on my blog. It is yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction. Cleve sent the following caveats and observations, but they do not detract from his witty account: ‘Let me warn you, though, that while the circumstances of poor Daniele da Volterra’s humiliation are true, I cannot vouch for the veracity of the sequence of popes I mention; they may be off by a decade or so. As for the figure of 117 for the male nudes that is only my approximation after a cursory inspection of the distant ceiling. Vasari was one of D. da V.’s many admirers, closing his Life of him with the words, “Daniello [Daniello Ricciarelli is the name he was born with] was a man of good character, but neglected everything from his devotion to art, and was a melancholy and solitary man.” Which must have made him all the more sensitive to ridicule.’

WG May 2, 2011

I will have to leave it up to posterity; I can only hope that they get it right. How fragile is fame! For many years I was the pupil, acolyte and intimate friend of Michelangelo and my best works were even attributed to him. The name of Daniele da Volterra was spoken of far and wide with admiration and I received commissions from bishops and princes for the decoration of many chapels and palaces. I had every reason to believe that my artistic immortality was assured.

And then came Pope Paul IV with his qualms about Sistine Chapel. A few idle theologians and petty underlings dared to question the great Michelangelo’s masterpiece, whispering that the male nudes were too nude, that the eyes of innocent worshippers below should be protected from the sight of all those unapologetic genitalia. The murmurs swelled to a chorus of indignation under Paul IV and Pius the V. The magnificent, the terrifying Giudizio Universale was the principal target of their wrath. The only solution, his vicious critics insisted, was to tear it down or obliterate it, paint it over again in accordance with correct doctrine and notions of decency.

The Council of Trent, meeting in January 1564 agreed and ordered that the work be “amended.” This ambiguous term left the way clear for compromise, and here’s where I come in. I was chosen – that is, ordered — to conceal the uncovered and prominently displayed penises of those heroic males, both the devils and their victims. No one told me how I was to hide the shocking appendages. It was up to me. I naturally thought of the traditional, Biblically sanctioned fig leaf, but I was told it would not be theologically sound by our modern 16th century standards, the leaves being associated with our first parents just after they had sinned.

Of course, most painters faced with this moral quandary had simply resorted to fortuitous drapery to disguise intimate aspects of the men and women in their pictures; indeed, Michelangelo himself had often done so. Finally, pressed to comply with the orders I had been given I decided that a pair of modest short pants or breeches would be the most satisfactory solution to a problem created not by the artist, by the genius of Signor Michelangelo, but by the prurient curiosity of his censors. It should be noted, furthermore, that all of the penises depicted are in a state of quiescence. Not one of the gentlemen on the ceiling shows the least sign of being aroused by the flames and flagellations of Hell.

And now that I have carried out the orders of my superiors, have supplied each and every one of these 117 shameless males with underwear, I am being viciously ridiculed by a later generation who consider my work nothing less than ridiculous. Because I painted over offending penises and testicles with what they call in dialect brache, they have given me the idiotic nickname of Il Braghone. And so now here I am, Daniele da Volterra, destined to go down in history as the supreme pharisee. It is an injustice that I can only hope will be rectified if not now then posthumously.

Cleve Moffet