Tuesday, November 30, 2010

For the Love of God

The Palazzo Vecchio has been the seat of Florentine government for more than 700 years. It then became the home of the Medici family in the 16th century when the 17 year old Cosimo de’Medici became the new leader of Florence. For Centuries the Medici struggled for wealth and power, they commissioned some of the most important works of art from the Renaissance period and demanded the best that money could buy, only to be met by inevitable death and complete loss of family lineage.

Today I went to see the Damien Hirst piece titled For the Love of God, on display at the Old Palace and was quite frankly, fascinated. I simply could not take my eyes off of the 8,601 diamonds that cover the platinum skull. It was brilliant in every sense of the word, literally and figuratively. I had heard about this piece a few years ago when it was first displayed in the Rykes museum in Amsterdam but realized today that seeing pictures of the piece does not do it justice. It was quite simply amazing.

After  purchasing our tickets we walked into the museum through the normal entrance of the sala di 500,  the room from the 1500’s, complete with Renaissance sculptures by Michelangelo and fresco paintings by Giorgio Vasari. To our right there was a small line where after being met by a security guard and showing our ticket, we were allowed to enter thorough a small side door into a tiny room filled with more paintings from the 1500’s. From there we waited for a second security guard to communicate with the guard in the next room, once she was given the ok, the curtain opened and  stepped into yet another tiny pitch black room where the work is being displayed. It sits in a glass case, which, naturally is alarmed and we were warned not to get too close. It appears as if the skull is floating in mid air, each diamond dancing in the light that shines down directly on the piece from above, we then walked around it where we could see that every crevice of that head is incrusted in diamonds. Amazing. In fact, one’s first reaction may very well be, Per L’amor di Dio!! or For the love of God!! I personally have never seen that many diamonds in my life. 
 Photo courtesy of google images
And even though I was in awe of what was in front of me, I couldn't help but to think, standing inside this immense palace filled with all of this incredible 16th century art work,  of the old adage that you can't take it with you when you die. 

The piece immediately calls to mind the Renaissance scenes of the last judgment with reminders of death scattered throughout the works in the form of skeletons, cautioning people to be good Christians because God is watching and ultimately only He will judge you. It seems that Hirst’s work is a reflection of contemporary society that speaks to our attachment to wealth and beauty with the inexorable conclusion of death.  It is thought provoking and parallels many events in Florentine history such as The Bonfires of the Vanities in which the fanatic monk Savanarola convinced the Florentines that their focus on materialism would lead to an eternity al inferno!  And one must wonder, have we really come that far?

Death is ultimately the conclusion of life and this piece will not let you forget it. Try as you will, it all ends prima o poi. 
Contemporary art in a city like Florence is undoubtedly necessary.The city survives on its inheritance, the old masters did it all and the Medici left it for us to admire, and we all make our living through the thousands of tourists who pass though every year to see it. But what about now? There are many contemporary artists that are forced to compete with what history classifys as art, ignoring the progression and change that has occurred. I have heard many argue that they do not like contemporary art or find no interest in it, but my feeling is that a true art historian or lover of art understands its significance and the important role it plays in present-day society and how art arrived at the point it is today.
The Renaissance was one of the most important historical movements in history.  It was just as much of an intellectual movement as it was an artistic movement.  The Renaissance period allowed us to be who we are today.  It was about educating yourself and forming your own opinion, breaking free from the medieval ideas that life revolved around death and that your only reason for living was assuring your passage into heaven. It was about the freedom to think for yourself and form an opinion regarding the world in which we live.

What was so significant about the Renaissance as an artistic movement is that the artists progressed from the Medieval and Byzantine period, they understood that it was time to move forward and be something different. The Impressionists challenged the ideas and practices of what came before them.  Then there were the Modernists who broke away from the traditional  ideal of art making, the Futurists spoke of the need to break free from the past completely, and the Abstract Expressionists who sought to ‘destroy’ the image entirely. And now we find ourselves searching for the next big thing- well its here. And what an interesting conversation it makes to place the most expensive work of art ever sold by a living artist, (it sold for 50 million British pounds) in one of the oldest buildings in the city which was occupied by the most important family in the history of Flroence and arguably the world who almost single handily funded the entire Renaissance movement,  only to die out and have no one left to carry on the legacy or family name – the connections are fascinating and the dialogue provoking.
 image courtesy of Wikipedia
Art is about progression and how we can respond to what has already been done and how we move forward. Your ability to understand the meaning of the work is not as important as it to understand the importance of contemporary art as a progressive movement.  I myself am not necessarily a fan of the 'image' of a shark cut in half and submersed in a tank of formaldehyde (as an example of other works by Hirst) but I do understand the significance of it and the significance of the artist himself. 

Artists are notoriously classified as poor or suffering for their work, and being misunderstood. As Hirst shows us through this piece, that is no longer the case, nor is it necessary. The artist purchased all of the diamonds himself - it is certainly a far cry from the contracted images of the Renaissance and the fact that the artist was not allowed the freedom of creativity and/or intellectual autonomy, but rather it was a job and based solely on ones technical ability to create an image. Some tried to break free, push the envelope and make statements but it was rarely understood.

There will always be a response to what happened before. The focus is not so much on the image that you are looking at but rather on what the artist is trying to communicate. Art is a language. It always has been. Contemporary art is a form of communication where the artist is allowing you think and decide on your own what you think the story is.  It bares your intelligence in mind, provoking you to think and form your own opinion based on your personal experiences and view of the world around you.  Perhaps Hirst is challenging the viewer in this piece to self-reflect and think about who exactly is your God.

Of course we cannot expect, nor would I suggest that we no longer focus on the history of this amazing city, but I would suggest that we not be so quick to deny the importance and relevance of the contemporary movement in a city like Florence. I believe that it is vital for the future of this city. But not for the thousands of tourists who come to visit every year, but for the young people who live here, to not be expected to take over the family restaurant or souvenir shop but rather to find a way of participating in a discourse with the rest of the world.   Florence in all of its splendor and historical glory can be surprisingly uninspiring at times. For those of us who live here, the Uffizi is amazing, but sometimes we would also like to see something new. Florence must move forward and give a platform to the young and talented artists who are living today. This is a good start.

You can usually find a contemporary art exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi which changes just about every 6 months. I always look forward to seeing the shows there, however it is a rather small portion of the city reserved for contemporary work. They have had some good shows in the recent past which have included one of my personal favorites, Gerhard Richter, and while the current Bronzino exhibit is quite beautiful, I have to say I was slightly disappointed that they decided to use the space to house a Renaissance show.

There are a few other contemporary galleries in the city, and I have noticed a few more popping up here and there as well, and a definite increase in the time that I have lived here. I will be posting links to these contemporary galleries very soon so be sure to check out the details.

The Damien Hirst piece at Palazzo Vecchio is definitely worth a visit if you are here in Florence. If you have seen it I am interested in hearing your thoughts. So drop me a comment below. I’m also including a video here of the artist talking about the work himself, its very interesting to watch especially after seeing the work.

Who knows, maybe you can take it with you when you die after all....

Along with this video there are many others. Here is another that I thought was interesting, yes it starts off in Dutch, but keep watching because the interview with Hirst is in English and he has some interesting things to say about the piece and about being an artist.  You can view the video here.

I'm also including another video on the work on one of my former professors from Art Center College of Design, he has some interesting points about the progression of art and how it creates the contemporary. Check out this interview with John Millei.

Ciao e buona visione!


  1. Not sure why it posted the video twice, but I'm afraid to mess with it. Sorry.

  2. This is awesome. I'm impressed. You keep writing and I'll keep reading.


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