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In Moral Stance in Italian Renaissance Art: Image, Text, and Meaning, Joseph Manca argues that artists of the Renaissance period, used weight and firm, stable posture to express a sense of integrity and moral strength in their subject. The artists conveyed the opposite character with a weak stance and unstable posture. This notion is called gravitas, which artists used to convey narrative and their subjects moral or immoral character. Manca argues that a subject’s gravitas or stance represents the natural world and that this stance is reminiscent of antiquity. Although the gravitas conveys a sense of the objects character, the contrapposto adds to the aesthetic value of the piece as well.
Manca uses many pieces of work to prove his argument. In, Donatello’s Saint Mark, for example, we see how contrapposto reflects personality and human virtue. This was supposedly the first sculpture to use contrapposto since antiquity convincingly. Donatello uses great exaggeration: “with the weight-bearing leg articulated with pipe-like, vertical folds, and the lighter side with a scattered, broken representation of the garments.” Because the object has perfect contrapposto and stance, it is clear to the viewer, that St. Mark was a good man.
To convey the opposite, Manca uses Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden as an example of instable contrapposto and an immoral act. Manca says, “A figural instability appears in both Adam and Eve… the apparent intention of the artist …was to indicate the weakened posture of the humiliated sinner.” There are flaws in Masaccio’s work, which supposedly are intentional. For instance, to convey Adam’s shame, his leg is drawn rubbery. Eve has a “wavering appearance” due to having one foot in front of the other. This painting actually conveys the notion of equating gravitas with morality, because Masaccio chose to paint Adam and Eve in a less than perfect way and chose to paint a strong angel with stable stance, displaying good character.
While Manca’s argument is artist utilize stance based on narrative, Michael Cole’s argument in The Figura Sforzata: modeling, power and the Mannerist body is that artists showed off their ability to convey emotion in their work without regard to narrative. Cole’s argument is that meaning or emotion resides in the folding of the body. He says: “The victor, in these works and in many like them, is a figure who stands, largely vertical but intricately and gracefully flexed. The victim, meanwhile, is discomposed, all joints pushed to their limits.” The medium used by the artists, creates these emotions, it is not the story, which creates the emotions.
Cole explores this notion using Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment as an example. He says: “The problem with Michelangelo’s angels is that they exert themselves (si sforzano); their bearing suggests that the objects they carry are a burden. For Gilio, this means that the sforzi involve a theological error: angels can never exert themselves, because they have limitless strength.” Here, we see that Michelangelo artificially represented the angels—he did not care that he was misrepresenting them; he was showing emotion through body language, without regard to historical context. In the same way, Giambologna’s Hercules and the Centaur displays an emotive instance, however it appears as if Hercules will miss the Centaur with his club. Again, the artist is indifferent to the facts; he only cares about the aesthetic quality and how well he can convey emotions. Cole says, “Marble statues do not exist in order to act things out; they exist to show the quality of the design on which they are based. Artists do not create poses as a means to telling stories; poses are an end in themselves. Bent bodies, whatever their context, read first as demonstrations of artistry; narrative is subsidiary, if not irrelevant.” Here we see an opposition to Manca’s article.
Essay by Alix Greenberg