"The Night" by Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio: A Bad Dream During the Renaissance
by Alejandro Santana
When the Renaissance comes into mind, do we ever think of it as being a representation of dreams in the human world? Do we liken Renaissance paintings to the motifs presented by Dali’s dreamy landscapes?
“NO!” Maybe that’s your immediate answer because the Renaissance period has always been leveled with the reason and philosophy of the Classical Greeks. Think about it though. Dive deep into Michele di Rodolfo del Ghirlandaio’s “The Night.” Is this a Greek ideal or a dreamy, almost nightmarish, illustration?
A nude woman reclines awkwardly as if she is being forcefully contained within the borders of this oil painting. Her pose is not perfect, nor is her body, at least to classical Greek standards. Her breasts are unsymmetrical, many theorizing because the model had a tumor. She looks down at her body, not to catch the glimpse of the male admirers to whom she would have been displayed. Between the flesh of her leg and her thigh, an owl observes, suiting to the title and ambience of the piece with a dark and stormy sky. Soulless human masks accentuate the nightmarish feeling of the
painting. A young cherub behind the figure does attempt to light a flame in response to the darkness, but surely the night was meant to take over.
What inspired such darkness during the so-called “rebirth” period? As a matter of fact, this painting is an almost exact replica of one of the sculptures that Michelangelo made for the tomb of Giuliano De Medici. Now it would make sense for the woman to be reclining upon the death mask of Giuliano himself. She is the night and with night comes darkness and sleep, an approximation of what death represented. Death comes as a natural phenomenon with the passage of time, which Michelangelo tried to illustrate within the tomb by carving personifications of the night, the dawn, the day, and the dusk. In his painting, del Ghirlandaio places an hourglass to give the idea, but adding that the sands of time eventually do run out for everyone. Del Ghirlandaio recalls Michelangelo’s theme of day and night by sewing into the woman’s headscarf figures of the sun and the moon.
The fact that Ghirlandaio imagines “The Night” to be placed within a stormy landscape, might tell of the sort of dream that de Medici will have in the afterlife. A nightmare. A punishment for his earthly affairs? Within the painting he did leave the prospect of an unavoidable death by capturing the woman’s bodily menace that consumed her from her bosom.
Renaissance thinkers saw dreams as an escape for mankind and as a way to elevate themselves above the Greeks. “The Night” was not an escape though, maybe closer to a prison.
Reference: "The Stuff of Dreams" by Saphora Smith from Apollo Magazine