Censorship & the Vatican: How Daniele da Volterra was forever nicknamed "il Braghettone"

Censorship of art is something we deal with in modern times. Did you know it was something that even Michelangelo had to deal with in his lifetime as well?


Kate Lacivita

8/28/20227 min read

When I was in undergraduate school, one of the first pieces of art history writing that I did (while I was still pursing a studio art degree funny enough) was about censorship in renaissance art work. Specifically, pertaining to The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (1534-1542) located in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Very well known fresco but not very well known that it was altered after it’s completion.

Today I'll be enlightening (rim-shot please) you today on The Last Judgement and how everyone judged the hell out of it once it was completed. In this post, I'll be assuming you, the reader, has a basic knowledge of Michelangelo as far as who he was and what he did as an artist. There are a few key words listed at the bottom of the page to help understanding without me explaining in detail.

To understand where the nickname originates, you’ll need a little background on the fresco itself.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo Buonarroti (b.1475-d.1564) was unveiled in 1542, 30 years after his completeion of the ceiling (1508-1512). Commissioned by Pope Clemont VII shortly before he died (and succeeded by Pope Paul III), it includes over 300 beautifully painted figures in various dramatic and stylized poses. When one looks at this amazing feat today you are held in awe that the majesty of color, form and symbolism. But in the 16th century most had other opinions about it. Although, the painting was already getting heavily scuritinzed before the unvieling even began. Michelangelo was a Florentine painter during the Renaissance. His work was and is full of intellectual secrets, hidden double meanings and straight in-your-face F-Us.

One example of which is the image of King Minos with the face of the pompous and self-ritcheous Biagio da Cesena, the Paple Master of Ceremonies who upon looking at the work in progress publicly stated it was an "orgy of pagan obscenities and heresies." (Blech/Doliner). In return, Michelangelo painted his likeness to that of King Minos (you can learn about the myth of him HERE) in hell. Upon seeing this, Biagio was outraged and begged the Pope to force Michelangelo to remove it. In return the Pope said, "…If you wish to get out of hell, talk to Michelangelo." Obviously even the Pope was fed up with Biagio.

Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Last Judgement. 1534-1564. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Rome. Public Domain. Web.

Another major scandle that arrose from the work was the dipiction of Jesus Christ himself. Beardless, throneless, naked and carved like a greek god; he is the main character of all the figures for obivous reasons. This was not by accident. Housed in the Vatican Museum is the Belvedere Apollo: a Roman copy of a Greek bronze orginally by Locarius in 330-320BCE. Here, you can see the stricking resembilance of this pagan god in the dipiction of Christ. To connect these two ideologies together was against the Bible's teachings and what the Catholic church was trying to get away from. However, it was something that Michelangelo would have seen time and again during his stay at the Vatican Palace.

The Renaissance was full of intellectual, religious and societal progression. The Counter/Protestant Reformation that was spreading all through Euourpe at the time created a schism in the Catholic religion and rule. With the split of the Church of England in 1534 (when the wall was commissioned) and the threat of the German and Ottoman rule was starting to creep it's way into the Italian city states and even Rome. The Pope needed to continue the supremicy of the Catholic rule and ground the "confusion" that was being spread through the faith.

Leocaris. Belvedere Apollo. Roman copy of a Greek Bronze. 330-320 BCE. Vatican Museum, Rome. Public Domain. Web.

Before censorship of 1565

After 1565 censorship

In three parts, the Council of Trent was held in Rome from 1545 until 1563. During this time, the clergy and court of the Pope (cardinals, arch-bishops, etc.) clarified the decisions that the Counter-Reformation were preaching against. One of these doctrines set in place was the condemnenmation of nudity or secular representations in religious artworks. This was not good for the newly 3 year old unveiled fresco right behind the high alter in the most holy of holies—the Sistine Chapel. Many wanted to see the fresco completely destroyed. However, the Pope loved the finished piece so much that is was considered a great masterpiece on the spot. So, a comprimise was made.

~Daniele da Volterra: "The Breeches-Maker"~

Just one year after the death of Michelangelo, Daniele da Volterra (b.1509-d.1566) was assigned to "restore" the fresco in 1565. Volterra was a close friend of Michelangelo, but painted mostly in the Mannerist style. He did not want to do the job against his recently departed friend and colleague, but no one can say no to the Pope. Especially to Pope Pius IV. It is here that Daniele da Volterra forever gained the nickname "il Braghetto" or, "The Breeches-maker.”

Daniele da Volterra. Decent from the Cross. 1545. After 2004 restoration. Cappella Orsini in S. Santa Trinita dei Monti, Rome

Volterra was commissioned to paint over all the nudity with drapery and fig leaves. To make the immodest modest and to clothe the unnatural display of the human figure in such a dignified space. His work was cut short just one year in with the death of Pope Paul III and the election of the new Pope Paul IV. Above in the previous images you can see his work done on King Minos. If you see the fresco as it is today you will see roughly 40 figures still censored or clothed as they were when Daniele da Volterra painted over Michelangelo’s masterpiece. During restoration of the chapel in the 80’s, the question was simple. To make it as it orignially was in 1542 or to keep it as it was after 1565? Yet another comprimise was made; keep some of both so that the story can be told of the history of this great piece.

Daniele da Volterra is a sad example of how one commison would follow him for the rest of his life and afterlife. Although a well established painter in his own right, when researching about this great mannerist you find nothing shy of his "restoration" work. But what about his other works?

Daniele da Volterra. David and Goliath. 1550. Oil on Stone. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domaine. Web.

Michelangelo. David and Goliath. Sistine Ceiling. 1509. Vatican, Rome. Public Domain. Web.

Over the centuries historians, collectors and enthusists have mistaken some of his best pieces as copies of Michelangelo or what are called "workshop" pieces. One such example would be that of the portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti himself. For a long time attributed as a self portrait it is now widely accepted to be that of da Volterra.

One way we can see an artist who has blossomed from his peers is a close look at David and Goliath, the piece by Michelangelo painted on the sistine ceiling in 1509 and the painting by da Volterra of the same name, painted in 1550. One can see a stylistic difference in body movement and color. Volterra shows more drama and movement in the scene than that of Michelangelo. Volterra has twists in the body of Goliath, showing a hard battle that can resemble much of wrestiling scenes on red-figure amphoras of the Greeks. Here, Daniele da Volterra is using Michelangelo as a jumping point to improve the dynamic struggle between David and Goliath; between good and evil.

It is funny to think that he is best known for his touch-ups on The Last Judgement when the fresco found in Cappella Orsini in S. Trinità dei Monti in Rome hangs above the stairs of the great alter. The Decent from the Cross is one such amazing mannerist works of the late Renaissance that deserves to be the crowing achievment in Volterra's first major commission in 1541. After it's restoration in 2004 one can see the amazing color palette and Cangiantismo in full effect. Full of movement and expression the piece captivates the emotion one would feel as they saw the dead Christ be taken down from the cross. All the characters in the scene all point directly to the main focal point: the dead Christ and the fainting Mother Mary down at the bottom left. Clearly Daniele da Volterra knew how to paint more than just coverings of fig leaves and drapery. Even Pope Sixus V loved this fresco so much that he inquired about moving the entire wall to the Vatican so that he may look at it whenever he so pleased. This piece as well was based off of Michelangelo's drawings of one such idea, but da Volterra was able to encapsulate this vision into stunning work of art.

Below is a copy by Marcello Venusi, commissioned by Alessandro Farnese (a cardinal and patron of the arts) who wanted a copy of the wall for his private collections. This is before the "restoration" censorship was made. It is the only painted copy that is known (there are wood etchings and pencil drawings contemporary to 1542)

Marcello Venusti. The Last Judgement after Michelangelo's Last Judgement. 1549. Tempera on Panel. National Museum of Capodimonte, Napels. Public Domain. Web.

There is so much in this one fresco alone to unpack that it is impossible to do in a short blog post. Whole books have been written about this one fresco alone (I’m currently reading two right now!) but this is what I found most interesting for the brief topic skim. I learned a great deal more doing this research about this work more than I did before this post. I would love to do more about this piece as there’s so many things to unpack in it. 300 figures and almost every one of them has a hidden meaning or attribute to them.

A great interview I read about censorship in Religious Europe can be found HERE

Khan Academy is a great resource and online tool that is fun and they have a great section about the history of this piece HERE if you’re interested as well!

This is why I love Renaissance artwork so much. There are so many hidden layers that even after 500 years we are still trying to figure it all out. How crazy is that?

Key Words

Congiantismo is a color blending technique created by Michelangelo, based off the color technique from a century earlier by Cennini called Cangiante. This is when black is not used for shadowed areas, but two different tonal hues, sometimes mixed with white to lighten the color. This was to keep the purity of the color intact and not dull it with brown or black.

A Workshop or master copy piece were paintings/sculptures that are copied from a master-work by students in the master-artists studio or workshop.