The discovery of the world and man in the art of the Renaissance

Apl. Prof. Dr. Michael Rohlmann teaches General Art History at the University of Wuppertal

"In Italy people live very directly in and with history in the old city centers. From the Renaissance, large picture cycles have been preserved on the walls of chapels and palaces, surrounding us on all sides, allowing us to enter, as it were, a designed art world", begins Michael Rohlmann, who has taught General Art History in the Faculty of Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal since 2012. Early experiences of Italy shaped his enthusiasm for Renaissance art. The aesthetic experience is initially in the foreground, because, he says, that was a completely new experience for him, which he hardly knew from his hometown of Cologne, devastated and fragmented in war and reconstruction. "Art of the distant past can be felt there not as rapt exhibition decor in museums, but as a walk-in living space."

The discovery of the world in art

At the University of Cologne, Rohlmann studies art history, classical archaeology, and medieval and modern history, receives a scholarship through the German Academic Exchange Service, and spends two years at the Università degli Studi di Firenze. He is completing his doctorate on Old Netherlandish panel painting in 15th-century Florence, in which, he says, the world and people would be rediscovered. "This is what Renaissance works of art reflect to us in paintings. After all, it is not just an ideal world of forms from antiquity that has been 'reborn' there. In Flanders in the early 15th century, a new naturalistic painting technique was invented for precious, small oil paintings. Down to the tiniest, finest details, the world with all its materiality seems to be captured in pictures. This mobile painting on transportable wooden panels conquered all of Europe." In the early Renaissance, Italy adopted this admired standard of good painting culture as a coveted collection import and developed it further. "In the years around 1500, the great, fixed murals of Italy, with their clarifying, idealizing ideals of beauty that exaggerate natural phenomena, with their emotionally moving narrative art, were able to conquer European taste for Italian bellezza and permanently replace the fashion model of Flanders. To see the frescoes, you had to travel to Italy," Rohlmann explains, "Rome became for centuries the great study destination for young artists, even from the north."

The Bibliotheca Hertziana - Max Planck Institute for Art History

For a total of ten years, the Cologne native worked in various positions at the Bibliotheca Hertziana - Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome, a very special institution in the heart of Italy. "More than a century ago, Henriette Hertz, an art-loving Jewish woman from Cologne, donated a German research facility on Italian art history in Rome," he reports, "the funds coming from a fortune made in the chemical industry. This German research funding abroad was later taken over by the Max Planck Society. It was certainly a late consequence of romantic longing for Italy. Henriette Hertz had acquired the former palace of a painter from the late 16th century for this purpose, above the Spanish Steps." Already this painter wanted to know after his death, needy Nordic art students admitted, knows Rohlmann, so that the art historians at the Hertziana until today are in a sense also heirs of the great Nordic artist journey to the south. "I spent more than ten years at this institute as an assistant, fellow, institute assistant, Otto Hahn Medal awardee, and private scholar," he explains. During this period, he says, he has thematically traced the European history of the development of the Renaissance between North and South, step by step. "At the beginning, as a dissertation, was the study of that Flemish art import to Italy that was so successful in the 15th century and the reception and use that these paintings experienced in the South. Then the path led me via the study of the Florentine early Renaissance finally to the Rome of Michelangelo and Raphael and its European networking and impact. Thus, the own biography between North and South played again and again with my fields of research, as it were a lived and scientifically processed pan-European transfer."

Habilitation on the Sistine Chapel

In his habilitation, Rohlmann deals with the pictorial decoration of the Sistine Chapel under Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, and Leo X. About the significance of this Vatican gem in art history, he says: "The Sistine Chapel was once the liturgical center of Christendom, the holiest place on earth, where the pope and the curia held solemn masses and high-ranking visitors to Rome marveled at the pope's majesty. One was supposed to feel transported to heavenly spheres during the sacred celebrations." To that end, he said, the pictorial decoration played a large part in this staging. "For more than half a century, the great masters of the 15th century, then Michelangelo and also Raphael, contributed to this competitively. What emerged was perhaps the most momentous and dense field of aesthetic experimentation in the history of modern art. We owe Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes how Europe was to imagine God and creation for the next centuries." There, history is told in a high, lofty style, Rohlmann explains; people learned from Raphael's designs for the tapestries of the Acts of the Apostles until the 19th century. "Not only Italian art history, but European pictorial memory was decisively shaped by this cosmos of figures."

Leonardo's "Last Supper" as a reproduction in original size in Dalheim Monastery

Not everyone interested in art has the opportunity to view these world-famous works of the Renaissance on site, but smart exhibitors now offer adequate solutions. Currently, a large exhibition is scheduled for this year in the Dalheim monastery. Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" as a guest at Dalheim Monastery in Westphalia. From May 11 to November 21, 2021, the Dalheim Monastery Foundation will present 'Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper' one of the most famous works in art history as a monumental reproduction in original size. "'Leonardo's "Last Supper" is, after all, preserved in Milan only as a horrific ruin and can be visited in an oppressive, disturbing way only for a few minutes and a lot of money," says Rohlmann, "this is where the old, large painted copies of the 16th century can help." While they would give a better impression of the original's erstwhile composition, the connoisseur knows, he continues cautiously, "they ignore its conceptual attunement to the size, function and appearance of the monastic dining room where the Milanese monks dined together in the face of the sacred, biblical meal painted by Leonardo himself. They were to feel as a community at Christ's table following the fraternal apostles and psychologically explore their roles in this group cohesion." In this context, the scientist refers to a description of Goethe, which the latter made into a print reproduction. "Whoever reads it will learn to admire Leonardo's work even in imperfect likeness."

Students get to know originals

The accomplished art historian also tries to introduce students to historical originals in his teaching in Wuppertal. "I try to combine teaching in the university in front of imperfect reproductions - as often and as well as I can - with experience and exposure to originals," he says. "For twenty years, first from Cologne, now from Wuppertal, I have taken students every semester to the great collections of Europe, to the original contexts of works of art from Seville to Petersburg, from London to Palermo. In and from the traces recognizable today, I also try to make visible on site the past, submerged worlds of the past." Rohlmann is well aware of the sometimes costly excursions, which he defines as an absolute luxury and continues, "much deeper and more intense are the insights gained on site!" Perhaps one can understand the present Europe, its problems and multiformity better in such a way, he explains. Especially in Wuppertal, in the subject of art, one senses a more direct aesthetic, more immediate access of the students than is often the case in the academic discipline of art history.

The discovery of the world in art is an incentive in teaching

Regarding the most important works of the Renaissance in the history of art, he says: "They are the famous antiquities of Rome, brought back to life in the Renaissance from the tomb of oblivion, the Laocoon, the Apollo, Torso and Venus; then, of course, Giotto and Jan van Eyck, the Florentine Historia and the Venetian Poesia. This certainly includes the Sistine Chapel, as well as more Raphael than Dürer. One may regret this aesthetically or educationally, depending on one's taste. But we still have to face this past, so long dominant in the history of art, if we want to see through our imprint, values and dreams."
Rohlmann sees his task in Wuppertal as preparing young people for the next generation and concludes: "The fact that many of the Wuppertal students themselves will later use their experience and knowledge to teach in schools in front of the future generation, where they will have to pass on creativity, aesthetic education and sensual intelligence and thus contribute to the future of all of us, is for me an incentive, an obligation and a reward."

Uwe Blass (Interview on May 5, 2021)


Apl. Prof. Dr. Michael Rohlmann teaches General Art History in the School of Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal

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