Commentary by Hovak Najarian
In the early eighteenth century baroque art gave way to a lighter, more delicate version called rococo (from the French: rocaille – shell-work, pebble-work). Rococo tended to be ornate, frivolous, florid, and was associated with court life in France; it also tended to reflect the gap between the working class and the wealthy elite. Social differences were among factors that led ultimately to the French Revolution at the latter part of the century.
At mid eighteenth century the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii brought renewed interest in the life of ancient Romans and elements of classicism began to reappear in art. While Napoleon Bonaparte was in the military, he admired and identified with Roman courage and after becoming Emperor of France in 1804, he placed artists in key positions to promote and portray traits such as moral strength, honor, and sacrifice for one’s country. Art became serious business; classicism returned and rococo came to an end. During the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, this latest manifestation of classicism – called “Neoclassicism” – spread throughout Europe and America. The style was not limited to subject matter with moral messages but also included portraiture and other interests.
One of the practitioners of neoclassicism in Italy was Luigi Ademollo. He was born in Milan and received his art training there but while in his mid-twenties, he set out for Rome and then settled in Florence. During, and following the Renaissance, wealthy bankers and commercial traders in Italy built palazzos for themselves and were like princes. Their palaces contained large surface areas and artists, who often were regarded as decorators, received commissions to fill the walls with paintings. Ademollo established a reputation as one of the foremost fresco artists of his time and received commissions for work throughout Italy. In the early nineteenth century he was asked to paint murals for the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. The Transportation of the Ark of the Covenant Containing the Tablets of the Law (detail shown above) was painted for its chapel. Ademollo’s mural in its entirety is an extensive painting that seems to have a “cast of thousands.” Some of the people are onlookers and others are part of a long trail that is following the Ark as it is being transported.
The Ark, which in Hebrew means box or chest, was made from acacia wood and covered with gold; it contained the stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. On top of it was the “mercy seat” made of pure gold and on it were two cherubim facing each other; their wings covered the top of the Ark entirely. [In depictions of the Ark by other artists, the cherubim often are sculpted in the round, not in relief as depicted here.] The Ark was not to be touched and, according to instructions, it was to be accompanied by priests and carried with gold covered poles on the shoulders of Levites. A billowing cloud is filling the scene as burning incense is being carried in a large censor while people following the Ark are caught up in the drama of the procession. To the right (not shown in this detail) are a group of men holding an ox that later will be sacrificed.
In this mural the architecture and manner of dress is in keeping with neoclassicism but during the early nineteenth century there were romanticists who were fascinated with North Africa and the exotic Near East. Romanticists often sought drama and action in their subject matter. [The spirit of Romanticism is exemplified in the motion picture, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”] Although Ademollo is called a neoclassicist, “Transportation of the Ark” has elements of romanticism in its dramatic appeal.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian