Civilisations, Episode 5: The Triumph of Art

Civilisations Episode 5
Picture Shows: 'Madonna di Loreta', Caravaggio (1606) – located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church of Sant'Agostino, Rome, Italy. Image Credit: BBC/nutopia.

Despite the title, this episode didn’t feel like a triumph. It felt the most lacklustre of the series so far.

This time Simon Schama investigates the influence of the Renaissance on both eastern and western cultures. These include attempts to outbuild the biggest dome in the world at the time, the Hagia Sofia, by Mimar Sinan with his Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and Michelangelo with St. Peter’s Basilica. Both of these buildings, despite being from different religions, are both very similar in style and were built around the same time.

Following on from this we have the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who bronze statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa looks directly towards a copy of a Michelangelo’s David. Meanwhile more private artworks were being made in Lahore which lead to the construction of great mausoleums like the Taj Mahal. We also witness the influence of the Renaissance on later artists like Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Velazquez and Rembrandt.

While there were some interesting points in this episode, the narrative of this edition didn’t seem to gel as well as Schama’s other outings. Maybe it was to do with the theme of the Renaissance, and it felt like the western art seemed to still be dominant, especially as the examples of private eastern art seemed closed off.

Having said this, there were still some nice sections, especially when talking about Cellini’s statue of Preseus, which Schama comments is constantly ignored because it is so close to the copy of David. However, the story of how the statue came to be made, and the fact that the head of Medusa is placed in the direction so it gazes at David, forever turning him into stone, is a great one.

Civilisations is on BBC Two on Thursdays at 21.00 and the entire series is on iPlayer.