MEMS Lecture Series: "Orientalizing Fraud and the Sistine Chapel Frescoes: Annius of Viterbo and Michelangelo"
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.