My wife, Peggy, and I have been to Italy in December twice, and twice we have relished being able to pop into museums, basilicas, chapels and architectural sites without waiting in long lines, without being jostled by thundering herds of tourists and without being deafened by guides nattering a rat-a-tat-tat babble of different languages. Italy in December is glorious!
I first saw the Sistine Chapel 50 years ago, then a second time 30 years ago. The colors were drab, and the guides talked about Michelangelo’s use of “chiaroscuro”—light and dark. It turned out that chiaroscuro was none of the artist’s doing. Rather it was the result of 500 years of lard, lamp oil, smoke and third-rate attempts at restoration. The 1979-1999 restoration revealed shapes and colors so vivid it was like looking up at a giant comic book, knocking all prior critical analysis of the great artist’s work into a cocked hat. While Peggy and I were in Rome and Florence this past December, we spent a good deal of time with the works of Michelangelo, Perugino, Raphael and Masaccio. On the plane coming home I read Ross King’s masterful “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” along with the magnificently illustrated and informative “Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican.” I became enthralled with these guys. It was an exhilarating break from the world of spam, junk mail and the great do-not-call controversy.
At the same time, it was impossible for me not to think long and hard about these extraordinary frescos in relation to direct mail design. Here was a series of interpretations of the Old and New Testaments so vivid, so arresting, that the viewer could spend a full day on each image, drinking in the characters, the crowds, the colors, the movement and, yes, the inside jokes as the artists quoted each other’s works and painted self-portraits of themselves, often staring saucily out at the viewer while all hell is breaking loose inside the picture plane.