Rule No. 1 when dealing with visionary Renaissance artist Michelangelo was that criticism would not be well-received. When the Papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena — the 16th century version of Tipper Gore — complained that the excessive nudity in The Last Judgment was unsuitable for the Papal chapel, it was game over for the prudish da Cesena.
He just didn't get it that Michelangelo's genius was that he could paint the human form in so many different positions and, next thing he knew, the artist had painted da Cesena into the hell corner of the fresco (along with the rest of the damned) as Minos, judge of the underworld, sporting foolish donkey ears and wrapped in a snake that was targeting his groin. When he tried to tattle and have it removed, the Pope told him something to the effect of, "Sorry, I have no jurisdiction in hell."
Today we can't travel to the Sistine Chapel in Rome to see all the nudes as originally painted by Michelangelo. After his death artist Daniele da Volterra was hired to chisel away the genitals of the more controversial vignettes and cover them with loincloths and vestments. The good news is that art aficionado Cardinal Alessandro Farnese saw the writing on the wall and commissioned a copy of the fresco, which Michelangelo approved, to forever preserve the artist's vision.
We can see that copy — painted by Marcello Venusti — at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in "Michelangelo and the Vatican: Masterworks from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples." There's also an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi that depicts the original nudity and it's interesting to know that, at the time, patrons could purchase sections of the 10-sheet engraving and reassemble the work at home.
These objects are displayed in a grand hall that includes a replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel suspended above. For those who fear cramped necks, the curators have installed a pair of upward-facing mirrors that seem to sharpen and magnify the colorful masterpiece that shows hundreds of scenes from the Bible, including Adam and Eve, the Great Flood, stories from the Book of Genesis, and the ancestors of Christ.
The most amazing narrative in the "Michelangelo and the Vatican" exhibition is the legacy of Farnese, a voracious collector of antiquities who later became Pope Paul III. He was controversial in that he took a mistress, fathered children, and was a strong believer in nepotism. But it is exactly because of his appreciation for the arts and the passing of property down to subsequent generations that the amazing Farnese Collection has been preserved at the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples.
The five-room exhibit, which unfolds like a book and is supplemented by MFAH's holdings (one of which was acquired just two weeks before the opening), features paintings, drawings, cartoons (large-scale drawings done in advance before painting a fresco), sculpture and prints.
History and architecture junkies will find much to swoon over, from a massive aerial view etching of the Eternal City of Rome to Michelangelo's small scale model of the dome for Saint Peter's Basilica.
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Also fascinating is an 180 degree video of the Pauline Chapel within the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (a stop traditionally not on the itinerary for visitors) and a cartoon fragment by Michelangelo that was used in preparation for the painting of The Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel.
Michelangelo's prowess in sketching the human form resulted in his also creating drawings for other painters, and visitors will see Michelangelo's Cartoon of Venus Kissed by Cupid side by side with a later oil painting of the scene by Hendrick van der Broecke, Venus and Cupid.
There are several other exciting exhibits concurrently at MFAH and they've arranged for some deeply discounted special offers for those who have not yet ponied up for a membership. Be sure to check out "Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India," a magnificent explosion of color, wealth and pageantry (through August 19).
"Michelangelo and the Vatican: Masterworks from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples" runs through June 10, 2018, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org, free to $23.