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Side notes
A countercultural reading of social influencers

The evolution of the sibyl

 Evoluzione della sibilla  DCM-001
07 January 2023

During a recent visit to the Vatican Museums, I stopped to admire the Sibyls, thinking to myself, are they still signs for today’s times? Moreover, do similar figures exist in the contemporary world?

There is something like an evolution from the Sibyl of Erithrea, a classical form of Madonna, in the cathedral of Orvieto, to the “sibyls of today”, namely those who are referred to as influencers. In myths, a sibyl is the female counterpart of the prophets, in that, unlike the other seers who were divinely inspired; she prophesied the future without inquiring. Her prediction is ambiguous and is formulated in riddles as in the oracles; their nature was known to all.

The Cumaean Sibyl, who led Aeneas into the underworld after his arrival in Italy and predicted the great future of the city of Rome, also played a significant role for Pope Alexander VI and Michelangelo.

In the Borgia flat in the Vatican Museums, we find six monumental rooms decorated by Pinturicchio in the wing built by Nicholas V - the Hall of the Pontiffs. In the oldest part, dating back to Nicholas III, is the Hall of the Sibyls, in which the twelve figures - depicted in three-quarter-length busts together with as many prophets - are painted in the lunettes of the ceiling. Sibyls and prophets clutch a fluttering scroll in their hands in which a prophecy foretelling the coming of Christ is depicted. It is surprising that Pope Alexander placed the sibyls next to the prophets and did not distinguish Christian faith and pagan mythology; instead, he gathered everything into a space dedicated to the sciences of man and the world.

In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted several Sibyls that had gained popularity in antiquity. They all seem to be concentrating and almost intellectual in their behaviour and books, and scarcely in ecstatic poses, since divination, unlike oracles, occurred in ecstasy. In the sibyls, we can correctly see how inner ecstasy develops in the body in relation to space and time. The first, most beautiful, Delphic Sibyl at the entrance sits elegantly in her niche, as an ancient symbol of her cave or rupestrian opening. However, we see that every single sibyl leading up to the altar protrudes more and more from their niche, even bursting outwards and projecting herself into the room with her body, showing the large open book as a sign of divination, while her beauty and especially her clothing come to the fore. We know that Michelangelo became the stylist of the Libyan Sibyl. He invented the pink, slightly puffy bodice and undergarment, and over it, he reworked the orange tones of the undergarment and exterior. People would have been fascinated to see the models and their magnificent dresses.

In Italy, in the 16th century, depictions of sibyls were widespread. For instance, in the Oratorio del Gonfalone or Raphael in Santa Maria della Pace, but no one like Michelangelo shaped the sibyls as models as he did. That is why I thought of today's influencers. They are women who, with their beauty and taste, not only set the tone for fashion, but almost go as far as to predict the future for young people.

People follow them. These women are rich, famous and show how, according to them, one should behave, how one should dress, and how one becomes famous. Even though he portrayed the Cumaean Sibyl as old and ugly, Michelangelo is a prophet in this sense: he understood that great power lies in behaviour, beauty and fashion. A contemporary example could be Jenn Im, the fashion blogger and designer, widely known thanks to YouTube, with more than three million followers with whom she shares all kinds of advice.

There are many people who from a young age have turned social media marketing into an opportunity to be independent, to create their own brand with hard work, discipline and a pinch of passion.

by Yvonne Dohna Schlobitten