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Moses and the Daughters of Jethro

Moses and the Daughters of Jethro

Rosso Fiorentino (1495-1540). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

When Moses was grown up, he knew he was not an Egyptian but a Hebrew. One day, while he was watching the forced labour of the Israelites, he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew. Moses killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. But the matter came to light and Pharaoh tried to put Moses to death.

Moses then fled from Pharaoh and he fled into Midianite, that is Arab, territory. There Moses saw seven girls coming to draw water from a well. Some shepherds came and drove the girls away, but Moses sprang to their help. He even watered their flock. When the girls returned to their father, called in Exodus first Reuel and then Jethro, their father told his seven daughters to call Moses in and to give him to eat. Moses agreed to stay G38

Jethro gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She gave birth to a son, whom Moses named Gershom. Moses looked after the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian.

In Rosso Fiorentino’s picture Moses is a terrifying wild man. Moses has appeared among a group of strong shepherds and his volcanic energy of a berserk is wreaking havoc. A terrible force has taken power over him. This is not a gentle assertion of a gentleman entreating the intruders to leave. And there is fierce resistance. Moses grasps, hits, and delivers blows with his fits. He tears at limbs, throws his opponents hard on the ground. All faces are wrought with terror and anger. Hair stands savagely upright as of wild animals. Movement is intense.

Rosso Fiorentino showed an unusual Moses of power unleashed in a fraction of time. In order to enhance the violence of the erupting Moses, he painted a chaos of interlinked nude titans. All the figures around Moses are in different positions. One is lying with the front of his body to the air, another falls inanimate to the ground so that the powerful muscles of his back are exposed and a third cries out lying on his side. Other men are fighting. Among them and in the centre is the slaying Moses. A fighter runs to the battle with upheaved cloak. Moses’ cloak also is only just tied to his waist, the pieces of cloth whirl around him. Here are antique boxers of Greece clashing into each other.

Rosso painted his whole scene in the colours of flesh, as flesh is the main theme of this picture. It is a very tactile picture, a violent ode to nudity. Nude are even the girls that have come to water their sheep. Yet, in this outburst of energy there is structure since the frame is fixed and its dimensions force discipline. Moses is in the centre; the other bodies are around him in an encircling movement. The bodies are situated symmetrically around his centre and when, like the man on the top left who is joining the scene, the symmetry is broken, another element is added such as in this case the girl on the upper right. To the right stands Zipporah and her sisters, the daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian.

Rosso Fiorentino showed nude bodies so much that his picture is a study of male anatomy in all positions. Rosso painted young men in the full force of their age. They all have powerful muscles. Rosso uses colour to show the tense muscles and light throws shadows on the bodies. These shadows subtly delineate the muscles by the delicate shading of the masses in the same yellow-brown-ochre colour of flesh. This was an old technique of showing volume, denoted by the name of ‘chiaroscuro’ by the Italian painters. The bodies are areas of colour and the lines of the drawing are absent. Zipporah also is all colours, whereby she appears out of light shades.

This artist made a painting that was the anti-theses to everything that was Florentine. Rosso’s figures are built of colour instead of lines. His figures are caught in an instance of violent movement whereas the Florentines preferred static dignity of peerless beauty. Rosso’s bodies are nude but violently nude with strong, contorted muscles whereas the Florentines preferred idealised, graceful, intellectual men. The masses of torsos are intertwined, in confusing linked lines and we know how the rational Florentines preferred orderliness and fixed geometry of triangles and verticals. Rosso gave preponderance to the diagonals and to slanting lines as is necessary to give an impression of movement. The diagonal that goes from the lower right to the upper left holds Moses. The other diagonal goes over the back of a fallen man to Zipporah. Finally, Rosso did not shy away from painting the men’s genitals, which also the Florentine Renaissance painters were often reluctant to depict. Rosso Fiorentino added one last detail different from the pictures before him. All faces of the men are deformed, angry and determined in their rage, bewildered, and in tension as animals’ faces. The faces also follow the first named diagonal only.

The faces in Rosso Fiorentino’s painting of ‘Moses defending the Daughters of Jethro’ are really the faces of madmen, weird and wild. Rosso had already been remarked in Florence for his strange faces. With this aspect also he shocked the Florentines. He had made for instance an altarpiece for Florence’s Ognissanti Church. This was a scene of the Virgin Mary with saints around her. According to Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo Buonasede who commissioned the picture was not at all pleased because the saints resembled demons G46 . Rosso had a hang for the bizarre and fantastic, even though he could paint marvellously inspired portraits of peerless figures of beauty, as other of his works prove.

The ‘Moses defending the Daughters of Jethro’ is a painting that contains in all the chaos of its movement also strong structure. Rosso formed a pyramid and triangle in Moses, standing with wide open legs towards the base of the frame Zipporah thrones above all the movement like the statue of a Venus, in a moment of surprise but apparently transfixed at the sudden violence.

Rosso Fiorentino was in fact Giovanni Battista di Jacopo di Guasparre but he had flowing red hair so he was called the ‘Red One’ or Rosso. He was born in Florence, but he passed most of his life outside his native town so he was called Fiorentino, the one from Florence. He was a student of Andrea del Sarto, the quiet proficient worker of Florence who painted all in delicacy and beauty. The seed of a new art had touched Rosso.

Rosso had seen in 1505 Michelangelo’s cartoons of a fresco destined for the Great Hall of Florence’s Signoria, called the ‘The Bathers’. Michelangelo had proposed to the Lords of Florence to paint this fresco in a contest with Leonardo da Vinci. The Signoria before had asked Leonardo to make a scene of the Battle of Anghiari in the Great Hall, on one of the walls. Michelangelo and Leonardo were not on the best of terms then. The two artists were competitors too and Michelangelo might have been piqued at the honour give by his beloved Florentines to Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo asked for the opposing wall. The Signoria accepted. Michelangelo thus had an idea for another battle between the Florentines and the Pisans, the Battle of Cascina. When his cartoons were finished in 1505 Michelangelo exhibited them in the Dyers’ Hall. Many painters came to see it, among whom the young Raphael and Andrea del Sarto. It must have exerted a very strong influence also on Rosso, for it showed a scene in which the nude Florentine soldiers were bathing on a hot summer day in the Arno River before the battle. It must also have been a very dynamic scene for Michelangelo chose to depict the moment when Donati called out to Captain Malatesta that the Pisans were attacking by surprise.

Michelangelo never realised his fresco in the Great Hall. A catastrophe happened to Leonardo’s ‘Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo had once more experimented. He had discovered a new procedure in fresco technique, in which he used a wax but also in which he had to warm up the paint so that it took in the lime. But Leonardo had to warm up too much below for the heath to reach the top of the fresco, so the wax melted. The paint drooped from the wall G28 . Seeing so much artists’ misery, Michelangelo refused to continue with his own design.

But Michelangelo had exhibited his cartoons and that was enough to create a new style. He had followers such as Rosso Fiorentino. Together with other new elements created by Jacopo Pontormo, this new style is now called Mannerism.

Rosso Fiorentino left Florence in 1523. He went to Rome. Vasari tells in his ‘Lives of the Artists’ that he had not much success in Florence. No wonder when one sees how much he painted in every mode that was alien to the Florentines. Vasari also told that Rosso painted a ‘Moses slaying the Egyptians’, a more appropriate title than our ‘Moses defending the Daughters of Jethro’, for a Florentine called Giovanni Bandini. Still, the work may have been made in Rome the same year, even if it was delivered to Florence and afterwards landed in the Medici collection.

Giorgio Vasari told that Rosso also did not make much good work in Rome. Rosso Fiorentino did not work for long in Rome. He might have stayed longer but he had a bad experience in Rome that shook him terribly. The year 1526 was the year when the German hireling soldiers of Emperor Charles V sacked Rome. Some artists like Il Parmigianino were spared, but Rosso was not treated well. While the Pope and many of his court like Benvenuto Cellini hid in the Castle Sant’Angelo, Rosso was taken prisoner by the Germans and treated very badly. He did not want to stay in Rome after that and started on a long travel without real aim in the north of Italy. Vasari tells that he went to Perugia, then to Borgo San Sepolcro, to Arezzo and finally to Venice. In Venice he stayed with the writer Pietro Aretino. He made a drawing for Aretino and apparently the two, who had equally courtier’s blood in them, could well agree. Vasari tells that Rosso made a drawing of ‘Mars asleep with Venus’ for Aretino and we know how flattered Pietro Aretino could be with gifts of art. It may have been Aretino who pointed out King Francis I of France to Rosso. Aretino knew well Francis and had received already gifts from the king. Rosso left for France.

King Francis was building a new castle near Paris. This was the Palace of Fontainebleau, the architect of which was the Frenchman Gilles Le Breton. Rosso Fiorentino pleased at the court. Vasari wrote that our artist was tall, very handsome, with a grave way of speaking. He was gracious, a very good musician and he had a splendid grasp of philosophy G46 . His outstanding, fantastic imagination, grandeur of composition and poetry of colours, his daring stamina and bravura were exactly what the French king, who desperately wanted to outclass the German Emperor Charles V, needed. Rosso Fiorentino painted many decorations for Fontainebleau in an ornamental style that can still be admired in Francis’ great hall of the palace. But much of what Rosso had painted was torn down after his death in 1540. Another artist who was also an architect demolished whole existing sections of Fontainebleau in an effort to enlarge and modify the palace. Francesco Primaticcio, who was much a competitor of Rosso Fiorentino at the court of Francis I, did this.

If Rosso had not won much praise in Florence and Rome, he seduced Paris. A group of painters revolved around him and also around Primaticcio, so much that these painters are now called ‘The School of Fontainebleau’. Giorgio Vasari mentions the names of the artists who worked at Fontainebleau. These were Lorenzo Naldino and Bartolommeo Miniati of Florence, masters Simone and Claudio of Paris, Il Primaticcio and Rosso, Primaticcio’s pupil and companion Nicolo dell’Abate, Francesco di Pellegrino, Lorenzo Piccardo, Domenico del Barbiere, Luca Penni, Leonardo Fiammingo, Francesco Caccianimicci and Giovanni Battista da Bagnacavallo. Francis I called other artists to his court such as Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci (who died in Francis’ castle at Amboise near the Loire River) and the Florentine jeweller Benvenuto Cellini. Cellini wrote a marvellous autobiography in which he tells of his years in Paris and of Francis I. Cellini did not describe Rosso in such nice terms as Vasari.

We recognise in Rosso Fiorentino’s picture ‘Moses defending the Daughters of Jethro’ a picture of innovation and free revolt against established Florentine tastes. Together with Michelangelo, various painters of Florence drew the technique of representation further on. With Rosso we are far of Pietro Perugino’s and Sandro Botticelli’s refined grace of sacred art. Power and violence entered painting.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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