Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Italian: The Masters

The first part of this week's Italian lesson looks at some important aspects of Italy's history and culture. From the Renaissance period of European history come three of the most famous Italians who ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Galileo Galilei. These men were famous for their advancements in art and science, and have had an impact on the way we view the world today.

Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 - May 2, 1519)

Leonardo was a true genius. He was a scientist, artist, sculptor, inventor, mathematician, engineer, and philosopher. Leonardo is the best-known example of a "Renaissance man," a person who is talented in many different fields.

Even today books like The DaVinci Code keep his memory alive through stories about his brilliance and influence.

Leonardo was born in the small town of Vinci in Tuscany. He moved to Florence to become an apprentice to the painter Verrocchio, who taught Leonardo the basics of the arts, and who recognized Leonardo's potential.

In his own paintings, Leonardo shows his mastery of realistic portraits, and setting a tone through the use of light and dark colors. This technique is called chiaroscuro in Italian, and allows the artist to depict the illusion of a light shining from within the picture.

Another technique employed by Leonardo was sfumato which is the blending of light and dark colors to create shadows and give scenes a mysterious effect.

Both techniques are evident in Leonardo's most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa which can today be seen in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.The interesting thing about Mona Lisa is her face, both the half smile expression on her face, and the way her eyes seem to follow you wherever you are in the room.

Aside from his art, Leonardo was also incredibly accomplished in the science of human anatomy. He would sketch extremely detailed drawings of various parts of the human body and how certain body systems worked.

In his notebooks, Leonardo also dreamed up inventions such as a helicopter, submarine, tank, parachute, and many other machines that would not even be built until hundreds of years later.

Leonardo was paranoid about others stealing his ideas, so he wrote in Latin, upside-down, and backwards. In 1994, Bill Gates bought a single notebook of Leonardo's for almost $31 million.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (March 6, 1475 - February 18, 1564)
In the world of art, Michelangelo is considered the ultimate example of a genius. He painted, sculpted, and designed architecture in a way that was revolutionary, and his work is still among the most famous pieces of art in the world.

Michelangelo was born and raised in the Italian city of Florence, and worked there for many years. His first major work was the statue of David from the David and Goliath story of the Bible. It became a huge marble icon of what great sculpture is supposed to be.

The attention to detail, and anatomical accuracy are amazing, even down to the veins on the back of David's hand. The difference between Michelangelo's David and other sculptures of the same theme from different artists is that this David has not yet defeated Goliath. Instead, the facial expression of the statue catches David just as he is about to do so.

Michelangelo also worked extensively for the Roman Catholic Church, and for the Pope, Julius II. His most famous work is his painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Over a huge span of ceiling, Michelangelo painted several scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible, such as Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark. The work took over four years, much of which Michelangelo spent on his back painting above him, and with constant criticism from the Pope.

Besides sculpture and painting, Michelangelo also succeeded in creating great architecture as well. He designed the dome on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the church where the Pope conducts important religious ceremonies. In the city of Rome no building may be taller than the dome of St. Peter's so that it can be seen from anywhere in the city.

When he died, the city of Florence declared Michelangelo the "Master of All Arts."

Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564 - January 8, 1642)
Galileo was one of the most important scientists of the Italian Renaissance, and one of the most important scientists of all time. He developed the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, the concept of gravity affecting objects equally, and the scientific method.

Born in Pisa, Galileo worked as a professor of mathematics, physics, and astronomy in several universities around Italy, especially at the Universita' di Padova, near Venice.

He argued that the current thinking of the world as the center of the universe was wrong, and that ideas of Aristotle about gravity were also incorrect. This went against the very powerful Catholic Church in Italy at the time, and made many people angry.

He was actually taken to court and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Later, only about 15 years ago, the Church apologized to Galileo and agreed that the earth did, in fact, revolve around the sun. Galileo had already been dead for about 350 years by then.

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