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Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Drunkenness of Noah, 1509, Fresco, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Giovanni Bellini

Drunkenness of Noah, c.1515, Oil on canvas, 103 x 157 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, © Besançon, musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie; Photographie Éric Châtelain

Bernardo Cavallino

The Drunkenness of Noah, c.1640–45, Oil on panel, 41 x 37.7 cm, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Inv. no. (CTB.1994.3.2), Photo: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza / Scala / Art Resource, NY

The Abuse of the Body

Comparative Commentary by

Aesthetically, these three depictions of the Drunkenness of Noah can be seen as telling in a nutshell the story of early modern art in Italy. In the Renaissance, this art was polarized between the linear, disegno-centred art of Florence (Michelangelo) and the Venetian apotheosis of colorito and surface effects; later, in its Baroque phase, Italian art reached eccentric extremities of composition, drama, and chiaroscuro.

However, one can also consider these three paintings as fascinating examples of very different ways to tell the biblical story: as a physical confrontation of athletic bodies in action; as a contemplative rendition of suffocating family discord; or as a dark, low-life dispute.

The story that is here interpreted in images may be read as a pseudo-historical, or indeed mythological, justification of racism: it suggests the idea that there is a difference in moral value, and consequently a justified divergence in social status, between ethnic or racial groups of people; and that the source of this hierarchy is to be found in an ‘original sin’ of one ancestor and, conversely, in the noble behaviour of other forefathers.

Artists could choose to emphasize this sort of interpretation by depicting Noah’s sons as physically dissimilar from each other, and thus as visually representing different human groups in the writers’ and readers’ present; or they could remain focused on the literal fact of Ham, Shem, and Japheth being brothers, and thus logically of the same general human ‘type’.

Our three artists by and large chose the latter option, although they do hint at a difference of appearance between the ‘good’ brothers and the ‘bad’ one: Michelangelo Buonarroti through hairstyle; Giovanni Bellini (curiously) by age, but also the visible signs of temperament; and Bernardo Cavallino more metaphorically by differentiating the painting technique—in particular sharpness of contour—with which the brothers are represented. None of the painters, however, directly reacted to the explicit racial distinction of the text as many early modern artists did—for instance, when depicting the three Magi adoring Jesus as representing different races and thus humanity as a whole.

Who is the main protagonist of the biblical story? The scriptural text lets Noah verbally formulate the crucial meaning of the episode (Genesis 9:25–27), and the scene’s traditional title also mentions solely the father. In painting, however, the narrative priority is treated in different ways by Michelangelo, Bellini, and Cavallino.

The Florentine artist includes Noah twice in his fresco, and Ham, while positioned closer to the picture plane than his brothers, is visually marginalized by being the only person whose face we cannot see.

The Venetian painter made all family members equally visible but, perhaps with particular empathy (being himself by then an old man), made Noah the visual focus of the composition through lighting, painterly texture, and a somewhat unnatural posture.

And the Neapolitan similarly positions the father in the foreground and concentrates the light on him, while making him less obviously accessible to our gaze by the initially confusing extreme foreshortening—it is Ham who, active and expressive, becomes the dynamic focus of the scene. The latter son is blocked behind a tree trunk, but is nonetheless depicted in movement toward our space as viewers, thus giving him visual prominence.

Particularly interesting is the treatment of Noah’s nudity in the three paintings, as the solutions adopted here are completely divergent and through subtle variation interpret the original text differently.

Michelangelo’s Noah is entirely naked, and his posture, with its antique overtones, connotes nobility and divinity even in this supposedly degrading situation. The full nudity draws our attention away from the old man’s genitals as these become no more than a detail in a surprisingly athletic and muscular body (Noah is reportedly 600 years old at that point!).

Bellini and Cavallino prefer partial nudity, but make diametrically opposed choices as to which parts to cover and which to display. The former exposes Noah’s body to our gaze but makes sure Japheth has just had enough time to hide his father’s genitals and save his honour. While Noah here is not as classically idealized as Michelangelo’s, he is reasonably respectable. More than a century later, Cavallino covers most of Noah’s body but not his pubic area; he thus deprives the venerable old man of any trace of nobility and makes him a banal drunkard just like those one could presumably encounter in the streets of Naples.

 

References

Davis, Stacy. 2008. This Strange Story: Jewish and Christian Interpretation of the Curse of Canaan from Antiquity to 1865 (Lanham: University Press of America)

Goldenberg, David M. 2003. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

——— . 2017. Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham (Berlin: De Gruyter)

Whitford, David M. 2009. The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications (Farnham: Ashgate)

Next exhibition: Genesis 10:1–32 Next exhibition: Genesis 14:1–17