Memento Mori by Giovanni Martinelli
In the art world, usually the themes of artworks are inclined with things that are beautiful or blissful. This type of theme has become prevalent because many art enthusiasts would rather obtain a piece of art that has a carefree and luminous quality with hopes that it would be exuded in real life – beyond the two-dimensional surface. However, during the dark ages, plagues and death were widespread conditions which have taken the lives of many people. This situation paved the way for artists to depict the darker side of life in paintings. In Europe, epidemics were the main cause of death for many individuals whether commoners or from the high society. Painters used this as an opportunity to capture the dark and gloomy sentiments of people.
One of the artists that have emerged as a great Baroque painter who have become famous for his moralizing allegories was Giovanni Martinelli. Unfortunately most of his early works were not able to be preserved leaving his life in Arezzo, Italy to be undisclosed. Only his move to Florence at the “house of Jacopo Ligozzi” in 1963, were properly documented (Kren and Marx). It was in the early part of the 17th century that Florentine painters started to reject the influences of “stylized elegance of Mannerism” and they shifted to the natural and “narrative clarity” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Martinelli had a humble beginning in the early part of his career as a painter. Initially, he made frescoes for the church which was commissioned by religious officials. But by mid 1630s, he gained more popularity that resulted to more clients particularly with wealthy private individuals. Then, he joined the prestigious institution of the “Academia del Disegno” (Kren and Marx). It is in this stage where he began to delineate from the style of Santi di Tito of incorporating “shimmering and sharp colors.” From this moment on, Martinelli’s art style was compared with other Florentine painters such as Anastagio Fontebuoni and Filippo Tarchiani. Most of his paintings centered on the provocative use of images with didactic messages (Worcester Art Museum).
Memento Mori is a masterpiece of Martinelli that employed a creative approach in portraying death. It is an impressive and at the same time flamboyant depiction of an inevitable event in everyone’s lives whether poor or rich. The term Memento Mori when translated means “Remember, you shall die” (Worcester Art Museum). It is a direct way of saying that in life, nothing is permanent even existence. For some, this painting is considered as an “old-fashion allegory, as didactic as a medieval sermon.” Despite its traditional surface, the painting still evoked a powerful and realistic notion about life (Cotter).In the painting, there are four well-dressed individuals, a semi-visible male figure and a shocking skeleton with an hour glass on its hands. The men and women are adorned with seemingly expensive clothes because of the design and the intensity of the colors of their garments while the other male figure shadowed by the dark lighting could be a servant. The overall effect of this composition reminds viewers that the unexpectedness of death is inescapable and everyone is vulnerable from its force (Nigrosh).
In a closer view, the Memento Mori has artistic elements and principles of design evident in the painting which can provide various clues on its narrative as well as its significance to humanity. The painting is set on a dining area of an affluent individual due to the presence of elegant dining chairs, high-end silverwares, colored glassware and a decadent fares. Among the five individuals, the man on the right side near the skeleton is the one to be afflicted with death. His body gesture is clearly noticeably different from the others. He leaned forward while the others were leaning backwards away from the skeleton. This movement only signifies that the subjects were horrified by the presence and surprise visit of the skeleton which represents mortality. Another element that openly illustrates the emotions of the main characters of the painting is their facial expressions. At a glance, viewers can already surmise the pervading mood in the painting which is shock and fear. It seemed that the thoughts of the subjects can be easily read through their facial and body movements. For the male figure on the right with his right hand pointing to himself while the left hand was stretched out grasping the end of the table combined with the open mouth, raised eyebrows and wide eyes demonstrate his disbelief that death is fetching him. Meanwhile, the lady in striking red dress with both hands clasped in front of her chest with a tilted head towards the man who is about to die shows that she has the strongest affinity with the man on the right which suggest that they could have a closer relationship compared with the others. On the other hand, the other woman and the man holding a musical instrument looked worried and astonished but their emotions were not that intense in contrast with the other three figures. Lastly, the other male figure on the left corner behind the shadows also has a strong sentiment. His position in the painting implies that he could be the servant. More so, his seemingly uneasy facial expression of uneasiness suggests that he had already experienced or witnessed the arrival of death which is a common scenario with the underprivileged.
Overall, Memento Mori shows that death sees no social or economic class. Everyone is equal in the eyes of death. It is irrelevant if an individual dies in a lavish house or in a dingy alley. What is more important is if that individual has lived his or her life to the fullest. Moreover, Martinelli have ingeniously crafted an aesthetically pleasing artwork and a didactic story. Through the dramatic expressions of human figures and the symbolical items in the painting, Martinelli was able to successfully convey his artistry and at the same time the reality of life.
Cotter, Holland. “Desperately Painting the Plague.” 29 July 2005. The New York Times. 9 February 2009 <http://travel.nytimes.com/2005/07/29/arts/design/29cott.html?_r=1&pagewanted =all>.
“Florence and Central Italy, 1600–1800 a.d.” (2009). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 9 February 2008 <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/09/eustc/ht09eustc.htm>.
“Giovanni Martinelli.” (25 September 2005). Worcester Art Museum. 9 February 2008 <http://www.worcesterart.org/Hope/martinelli_detail.htm>.
Kren, Emil and Marx, Daniel. “Martinelli, Giovanni.” (1996). Web Gallery of Art. 9 February 2008 <http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/m/martinel/index.html>.
Nigrosh, Leon. “Hope and Healing at WAM.” (May 2005). The Pulse. 9 February 2009 <http://www.thepulsemag.com/Culture/hopehealing.html>.