Orientalizing Fraud and the Sistine Chapel Frescoes: Annius of Viterbo and Michelangelo


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  • Speaker: Benjamin Braude, Department of History, Boston College
  • Host Department: History of Art
  • Date: 03/15/2013
  • Time: 2:00PM

  • Location: 180 Tappan Hall, 855 S. University Ave.

  • Braude lecture image
  • Description:

    The notoriety of Annius of Viterbo, aka Giovanni Nanni, as a successful fraudster, has distracted historians from appreciating his legacy.  His anthology of forgeries, Vetustissmi Auctores (Most Ancient Authors) published in 1498, rewrote ancient history.  He was an early promoter of Christian Hebraism, and his elevation by Pope Alexander VI in 1499, to become his chief theological advisor, signaled his influence in Rome.  After his death in 1502, his fabrications continued reverberating through the sermons of his devotee, the most respected preacher in Rome during the first third of the sixteenth century, Cardinal Egidio.   

    Totally unrecognized has been his contribution to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes, completed 500 years ago.  Michelangelo's older brother was a Dominican colleague of Nanni in Viterbo, and Nanni’s follower  Cardinal Egidio was close to Michelangelo's patron, Pope Julius II.  One distinctive aspect of the frescoes is their unprecedented attention to the story of Noah. Nanni’s Most Ancient Authors gave a central role to Noah, claiming that he was the source of the secular authority of the papacy—Nanni dubbed him the first Pontifex Maximus—and the ancestor of all Europe's dynasties.  Trumping the Donation of Constantine, this tale was eagerly received in Rome to reinforce the political and military agenda of Julius II.  Dominating one-third of the chapel ceiling, Michelangelo's Noah frescoes reminded Europe's rulers and their diplomats who entered that the Holy Father was (like Noah) their worldly father as well.  Nanni and Michelangelo also countered the rise of the Ottoman dynasty.  Nanni had asserted that Christian Rome—not the Muslim usurpers—was through Noah the true heir of the lore and mysticism of the ancient Near East, pagan and scriptural.  Accordingly, Michelangelo filled the chapel with Orientals: the Israelite ancestors of Jesus, sibyls, and prophets.  

    Benjamin Braude teaches courses on the Middle East and on European-Middle Eastern relations. In addition to those interests, his research also focuses on religious, racial, and ethnic identities in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim culture. Currently he is completing Sex, Slavery, and Racism: The Secret History of the Sons of Noah, which examines the construction of attitudes toward color and identity from the ancient Near East and the classical world to the present. More broadly, he is interested in post-national conceptions of historiography. He has been a visiting professor at the École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales in Paris and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

    This event is co-sponsored by the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Program, Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, and Department of History.