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Art, Optics and Astrology in the Renaissance

The great thinkers of the Renaissance believed in astrology, and that belief is reflected in their art, architecture and their sense of the world.
Mary Quinlan-McGrath, a professor of art history at Northern Illinois University, detailed the importance of astrology to Renaissance thinkers in an address to the Newberry Library weekly colloquium on 10 April 2013.
Quinlan-McGrath was also introducing her new book, “Influences: Art, Optics, and Astrology in the Italian Renaissance,” recently published by the University of Chicago Press.
Quinlan-McGrath is a long-standing research fellow at the Newberry Library. When researching this book, she found the ancient tomes in the Newberry archives were more useful than the local scientific resources she consulted.
Showing photographs of the Villa Farnesina near Rome, she recounted, “While I was working on my dissertation at this villa, I saw this room ful of stars, constellations and people looking down at you.”
“I went to the Adler Planetarium to see if they could set the sky back and read the horoscopes that I was sure were in this,” she related. That didn't reveal what I needed to know, but there are fabulous books in the Newberry from this period telling you just how to do this.”
She found that much of Renaissance art was guided by astrology. Certain star scenes were though to induce good health or protection, for instance, and people’s personal horoscopes might be included in the murals in their homes. The ceiling of the Sala dela Mappomondo in Villa Farnese, in Caprarola, Italy. For more photos of this building, see: Villa Farnese

Even buildings had horoscopes. The Villa Farnesina was built by a Renaissance banker who began its construction on a particular day evoking the founding of Rome.
It’s not hard to see how people in the Renaissance thought that the light from the sky had a real physical influence on them.
People who lived near the sea related the tides to the movements of the moon, Quinlan-McGrath noted. People felt the power of the sun in sunburns, and travelers noted how people living in northern regions were much lighter colored than people living to the south.
“They had a notion of universal radiation,” she stressed. “We radiate because a person leaves a warm spot behind on a stone bench.”
Noting that the Bible starts with "let there be light", Quinlan-McGrath said the Renaissance thinkers had a understanding that a primary light preceded the creation of the sun and the moon. “As the prime light is inserted in matter and spreads out from it,” she explained.
The effect of the night sky was also perceived more strongly when even urban eyes saw the heavens undimmed by modern light pollution. [Editor’s Note: Also, Renaissance scholars lived 150 years before anyone had a clear concept of the distances to the sun and the planets.] “Savonarola complained that more people believed in astrology than in God,” Quinlan-McGrath noted.
Scholars of the time used the terms astrology and astronomy interchangeable, and in many cases, Sir Francis Bacon, for example, used the term astrology to mean what we understand as the science of astronomy today. Noted religious leaders like Savonarola condemned astrology while famous scholarly minds like Albertus Magnus defended it.

A beautiful example is the ceiling of the Sala della Cosmografia (Map Room) of the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, Italy. This palace was rebuilt into its current form by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1560s and 1570s, and the Map Room is one of its most stunning features.
Most visitors are taken by the maps on the walls showing the knowledge of the word’s geography in the 1570s, but Quinlan-McGrath was most taken by the ceiling. It was a lavish display of constellations and signs of the zodiac, and she was certain it has astrological significance.
She found the key in the Newberry’s archives, a book of horoscopes for the Farnese family published in Venice in 1552.
Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was the grandson of Pope Paul III, who was born with the same name. The pope had four illegitimate children, and he looked after his offspring by appointing his two grandsons as cardinals only two months after he became pope in 1534. At the time of the appointment, the younger Alessandro Farnese was barely 14 years old.


Quinlan-McGrath’s analysis soon proved out her theory that the ceiling has an astrological function. Most of the ceiling is a beautiful rendering of 48 constellations and signs of the zodiac. But in one corner of the scene is a dramatic figure of Jupiter hurling a lightning bolt, and in the opposite corner a bolt seems to have knocked Phaeton off his horse-drawn chariot.
The appearance of Jupiter is a key one. Quinlan-McGrath’s research shows that Paul III appointed his grandson on the day that he choose because he believed the position of Jupiter on the boy’s birth chart indicated this as the will of God. “The planet’s position was 14°13’ away from the Midheaven,” her book explains. “ . . . Paul’s astrologer, Luca Gaurico, wrote that the position of Jupiter as the cardinal’s birth meant that he should become a cardinal when he was ‘14 years, two months and 15 days old’.”
What’s more, Jupiter in Scorpio, the zodiacal position at Alessandro’s birth, appears in other art on the property in frescoes of the nearby villa of a friend and relative, and in four frescoes around the Map Room.
The figure of the falling Phaeton shows the target of Jupiter’s lightning bolt strike at the first-magnitude star Achernar. It highlights the horoscopes of Cardinal Alessandro’s grandfather, his father and his brother.
“Pope Leo X’s vault in Vatican has a similar astrological vault,” Quinlan-McGrath.

Plato and Aristotle, with Plato carrying the "Timaeus" dialog.

She finds another indication of the concept of astrology in the Renaissance in the middle of Raphael’s painting “The School Of Athens” in the Vatican. At the center are the figures of Plato and Aristotle, and Plato is carrying his Timaeus dialog.
In Timaeus, Plato stresses how the movement of the heavens gave mankind the cycles of day and night and seasonal changes that led to the concept of mathematics and the quest to determine the order of the cosmos. Study of the skies, Plato insisted, led to the development of all intellectual disciplines.
The 16th Century art historian Giorgio Vasari said the group of men at the lower right of the scene are, “. . . are some astrologers, who have made various kinds of figures and characters of geomancy and astrology on some little tablets. . .”
“There is also a figure that is stooping to the ground, holding in its hand a pair of compasses, with which it is making a circle on a tablet: this is said to be the architect Bramante, and it is no less the man himself than if he were alive, so well is it drawn,” Vasari adds. “Beside a figure with its back turned and holding a globe of the heavens in its hand, is the portrait of Zoroaster.”
“Vasari was right, after being beated up for many, many years,” Quinlan-McGrath said. “It is a coordination of astrologers, astronomers and scholars” 

The "Astrologers," according to Vasari. A self-portrait of the artist, Raphael, appears as the second head from the right among the standing me, looking toward the viewer.


Picasso's inspiration for his "Monument for Richard J. Daley"?

The Art Institute of Chicago is presenting a special exhibit on Picasso and Chicago through 12 May 2013. A feature of the exhibit is Picasso’s 1965 sculpture “Monument for Richard J. Daley Plaza.” As far as the subject of the huge steel work, about the only thing that people can agree on is that it’s not Richard J. Daley. Many people think of it as a horse, and many think it’s the head of a woman.

The exhibit includes a newspaper clipping from the time of the opening that has a better suggestion. A visitor to Picasso’s studio in southern France had noted that the famous artist’s constant companion in his studio was a large Afghan Hound.

You be the judge.


Photo on right is from Google Images

Photo on left is from Google - MindJunks