Commentary Magazine


Why Michelangelo Matters

A recent exhibition in London, Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master, enjoyed the largest advance sale the British Museum had ever known. For a mere 90 drawings—hard to see, unless one got quite close, which was not easy to do in the crowds—the venerable museum attracted more than 150,000 visitors in six months. To prevent the jostling from bursting all bounds, entry was limited; but so great was the demand that, for the first time in its 250-year history, the museum remained open until midnight on Saturdays.

The critics were rapturous. “Nothing short of a religious experience,” intoned the often curmudgeonly Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard. “It will take your breath away again and again,” said a writer in the Sunday Times, while other papers offered encomia like “unmissable,” “astonishing,” “absolutely magic,” “truly staggering.” Much as he liked to be praised, even the gruff Renaissance artist himself might have been taken aback.

A few weeks after seeing the show I was in Rome, where more people seemed to be crowded in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà than in the whole of the rest of St. Peter’s. When I ventured to the Sistine Chapel (assured that this was a quiet season, before Holy Week), the slow-moving line, three deep, started so far away that it took an hour to reach the entrance, and once inside it was barely possible to move. Out of doors the morning had been cold and rainy, but the chapel was hot and humid with the press of visitors. Most of them had given up trying to look at the ceiling: it was just too difficult to keep one’s balance amid the swiveling shoulders and elbows. Instead, while a few gave passing attention to the masterpieces by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and others that graced the walls, just about everyone focused on Michelangelo’s gigantic Last Judgment.

How many had braved the discomfort for that brief moment with the master? The Sistine Chapel, built to what were assumed to have been the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple, covers an area of 5,700 square feet. Without trying to estimate exact numbers, I could see no place where visitors had more than six square feet to themselves, and some had less. In other words, there were at least a thousand people in the chapel on that off-season morning—one part of a steady stream that continued flowing all day long. My guess is that in one week, perhaps in one day, more people arrive to see Michelangelo’s work for themselves than in the entire first century after the chapel was completed.

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Why? What is it, in this age of hype and empty celebrity, that makes the name of Michelangelo so magnetic? One can perhaps understand the draw when Van Gogh or the Impressionists take over a museum. These are the prophets of a modern sensibility: lyrical, colorful, yet with an edge of experimentation and a tinge of revolt. Michelangelo, by contrast, is remote, often deliberately unapproachable, cerebral, scathingly hard on himself (and all around him), and devoted to values, both aesthetic and spiritual, that are now long gone.

Nor has he always ranked so high. To contemporaries, it is true, he was “il divino.” He was also the only living person included in Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari’s collection of biographies of the stars of the Renaissance that became a milestone in forming a historical understanding of art. Vasari regarded Michelangelo as the absolute summit of what had been a brilliantly creative age. After the achievements of Giotto and his followers in the three diverse fields of painting, sculpture, and architecture, “the great Ruler of heaven,” Vasari wrote,

looked down and, seeing these vain and fruitless efforts and the presumptuous opinion of man more removed from truth than light from darkness, resolved, in order to rid him of these errors, to send to earth a genius universal in each art.

For Vasari, Michelangelo’s transcendent abilities in all three fields required the coinage of an entirely new term, genius. No other word sufficed to describe how he towered over all his contemporaries.

Vasari’s verdict endured, but not forever. For Bernini (1598-1680), the dominant figure in sculpture and architecture more than a century after Michelangelo’s death, his great predecessor still represented the standard against which his own work had to be measured. But just 50 years later, the critics and tastemakers of Enlightenment Europe were less impressed. Unlike Titian, who has never been out of favor among collectors and connoisseurs, Michelangelo was not highly regarded in the 18th century. In the Age of Reason, of self-assurance and equipoise, it was the serenity of Raphael, the pastoralism of the Dutch masters, the restraint of a Claude or a Poussin that won the highest admiration. Michelangelo seemed too tormented, too unfulfilled, too emotional.

The turnaround in his status that occurred during the 19th century was as remarkable as the previous decline. This has not been much studied, though in one excellent book the Danish scholar Lene Ostermark-Johansen has shown how the change came about in Victorian England. While pointing to a number of influences and shifts in sensibility, she sees the transformation deriving at root from the then new aesthetic of Romanticism. Great art, according to the Romantics, flowed from emotion and expressiveness. Both were embodied by Michelangelo. Who else conveyed so powerfully the struggle, the independence, the originality, and the power that were the mark of the artist’s calling? In his combination of classical style with personal idealism, he was the equivalent in the visual arts of Beethoven in music. For the 19th century, these were the twin titans of the proud but forceful creative impulse, exemplars of what it meant to be an artist.

But today? We share the values neither of the 16th nor of the 19th century. In particular, although we may appreciate it, we do not feel the religious passion that drove Michelangelo repeatedly to draw scenes of the crucifixion, and to write anguished poetry on the same theme. Decades after the death of Savonarola, the artist said he could still hear that fiery preacher’s thundering voice—testimony to a fear of heaven, and of its awful judgments, that is hardly central to Western consciousness in the 21st century. Nor, in this post-Freudian age, are we much taken with notions of divine sparks, superhuman energies, or the inspiration that Vasari had in mind when he coined the term genius.

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Might it simply be the force of public relations and the promotion of tourism that make the Accademia in Florence, home of the colossal David and the agonized figures of slaves that were intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, or the Pietà and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, essential stopping points for visitors? If so, then why the rush to see the drawings at the British Museum? These, after all, are the most elusive and personal of any artist’s works. Rarely finished, they do not present the coherence or the compelling vision of a completed sculpture or painting. There is neither the texture of stone nor the full color of paint to draw the eye. One could even argue that such quick jottings, generally experimental, and produced in order to solve specific problems rather than to make artistic statements, are as much technical as aesthetic ventures.

This holds even truer in the case of Michelangelo’s rival Leonardo, who left a vastly larger body of work in his drawings (some of which have admittedly become as iconic and as familiar as his paintings) than in any other medium. By contrast, Michelangelo, obsessively secretive about his ideas and intentions, burned the bulk of his drawings; we are left with some 600 out of a lifetime’s production that may have exceeded 10,000 in number. And yet those drawings still exert, as the British Museum exhibition illustrated, a potent appeal. Could it be that, even more so than the attention-grabbing Moses or The Creation of Adam, they give us a keener insight into the nature of his art?

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As one moved from drawing to drawing at the London show, the immediate and overwhelming impression was of a state of constant and acute intellectual restlessness. Michelangelo once boasted that, although he created thousands of figures, he had never repeated himself; nowhere is this boast more triumphantly vindicated than in his drawings. They include a few finished portraits—masterpieces in the elegant exploration of physiognomy and character. But the overwhelming majority were not meant to be completed. They were for the artist’s own use, and (as in the case of Leonardo) their inventiveness is altogether dazzling.

A perfect instance is one of the British Museum drawings—not by any means the most famous, but absolutely symptomatic of the artist’s irrepressible creativity. It depicts the scene from Ovid in which Apollo’s son Phaeton, having gotten his father to allow him to drive the chariot that each day takes the sun through the heavens, loses control. To prevent the world from being incinerated, Zeus hurls one of his lightning bolts, thereby sending Phaeton and the chariot crashing to earth. Youth, horses, and chariot end up in the Po river, while Phaeton’s three sisters and another relative, witnessing the disaster, are transformed into poplar trees and a swan.

It is a scene riddled with problems of presentation: horses, chariot, and Phaeton himself, all turned every which way as they hurtle downward; Zeus and his thunderbolts; the observers in mid-transformation; the stately river Po. In the sky, in motion as he hurls his thunderbolt, is the small but powerful Zeus. Below him, falling helter-skelter, are the central, contorted figures in the drama, Phaeton and his horses. Although their bodies are in bizarre positions, they do not seem unnatural: Michelangelo has imagined them as real living beings falling from a great height. Finally, at ground level, we see the sisters turning into trees, the nascent swan in the distance, and, calmly observing it all, Neptune, symbolizing the Po.

It is as if we are witnessing a burst of ideas tumbling onto the paper before us, and yet somehow it all hangs together. This is exactly the sort of challenge that Michelangelo relished. Indeed, after having tossed off the sketch, he sent it with his servant Urbino to the young nobleman Tomasso de’Cavalieri, of whom he was inordinately fond, adding a note at the foot of the sheet: “If this sketch does not please you, say so to Urbino in time for me to do another tomorrow evening.” (The confidence that he would be able quickly to reinvent the composition is typical of Michelangelo.) Eventually the sketch was to lead to a formal drawing of the scene, but it is above all in this stylus-and-black-chalk “first draft” that we see the vitality and élan that define one aspect of the artist’s spirit.

This endless ingenuity is, surely, one of the secrets of his irrepressible allure. In the exhibition at the British Museum, video screens were set up to show how individual drawings—for instance, of God’s hand in The Creation of Adam—came to fit into the final work of art. In the videos, we saw how the different elements in the first sketches—rendered in varied sizes and from varied angles—slowly blended together as Michelangelo attacked and re-attacked individual problems until the whole took shape. The process was not uncommon among artists of his age, but there is a sharpness of touch, a fascination with the hard matter of reality, and above all a ceaseless questing for new or ideal forms, that are his alone.

Working by himself, chalk or pen in hand—unlike his most famous contemporaries, Michelangelo did not set up a large studio full of assistants but took on just a few pupils—he confronted his small pieces of paper day after day, always to magnificent effect. A brooding figure at the front of Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509), reputedly a portrait of Michelangelo, sums up this image of the fierce and lonely explorer, driven by unstoppable inventiveness and idealism. It is what sets him apart.

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But it is not the only thing. There is also the unmistakable sense of command, the instinctive expression of power. This is not just a matter of personal determination, of a demand for attention emanating in the first place from Michelangelo himself. It is a matter of the potency and vigor that radiate from his creations, and especially from his human figures. The Adam in the painting in the Sistine Chapel may not yet have had life breathed into him, but the strength latent in every one of his muscles and limbs is already daunting. The young David of the Accademia, staring into the distance, supposedly overmatched by Goliath, is on the point of unleashing a massive burst of strength evident in his very sinews. He may represent, as many have argued, the Renaissance ideal of the contemplative conjoined with the active life, but as one looks at his oversized right hand, there is no question as to which of the two dominates. Even the slaves struggling to emerge from their slab of unsculpted marble are distinguished by their forceful physicality. So, too, is the dead Christ of the Pietà, a figure far too large to be so easily balanced on his mother’s lap.

This celebration of the human body, and of the force inherent in its every movement, is another of Michelangelo’s distinctive characteristics. No other artist so unerringly and consistently gives his figures the aura of almost unconscious immensity. In The Last Judgment, power naturally flows from the avenging Jesus at the center of the fresco. But it pours no less naturally from each of the saints who surround him, as it does from the figures condemned to an eternity of punishment; in fact, both heaven and hell seem populated by the top graduates of body-building programs. St. Peter clutching his keys is a massive figure. St. Bartholomew, holding his flayed skin (on which Michelangelo has portrayed his own agonized face), suggests monumental strength. Even the muscles in the arm of St. Catherine of Alexandria seem poised for strenuous action.

Of course, it would be as frivolous to suggest that Michelangelo’s popularity is linked to the contemporary world’s obsession with fitness as it would be to see him as a lodestar of contemporary notions of homoeroticism. But neither is his delight in the human body—more exuberant than that of any other Old Master—irrelevant. To the contrary, it is difficult to name any luminary of the Western cultural tradition more infatuated with the grace as well as with the weight of our fleshly existence, more attuned to our sheer aliveness. In Michelangelo’s art, we humans face the world in our most resplendent physical guise.

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To inventiveness, power, and the joy in physicality, we must add another, complicating element. For Michelangelo, perfection had to be sought, but it could not be achieved. Imagining the story of Phaeton, and then getting it down on paper—this, however extraordinary, was only the beginning. There was no way of solving all the problems the subject posed, no way to reach closure.

Not that this relieved one of the duty to persevere. Rather, human fallibility was a challenge to be embraced. When a relic from antiquity, the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, was unearthed in Rome in 1506, Michelangelo was among the artists who quickly sketched the new discovery. Unlike the others, he grappled for years afterward with the possibilities that ancient sculpture inspired—seeking new ways to depict the human body and to capture strong emotion. The unattainability of perfection required its unending pursuit.

To us, Michelangelo’s work could not be bettered, but he himself was never satisfied. To be sure, he bristled when criticized, and in many of his thousands of letters complained about critics and patrons alike. He was nothing if not proud. But his relentless experimentation suggests that this was a traveler who rarely felt he had arrived. Again and again, even his officially “completed” projects awaited further work. The only major section of the tomb of Julius II that was finished was the Moses; the slaves and captives remain embedded in marble.

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Finally, there remains an element in Michelangelo’s work that, given the others, may seem paradoxical. It is an instinctive sense of composure—a composure that tempers the vigor of his art.

The great power exuded by Michelangelo’s figures is almost always latent, as if holding itself back, or biding its time. Even Zeus, as he flings his thunderbolt at Phaeton, seems barely to be exerting himself. Nor is there any hint of struggle as Phaeton submits to his free fall. Meanwhile, down below, Neptune is the very essence of quiet strength. Though muscled and formidable, he leans placidly on an elbow and watches unmoved as chariot and bodies plunge toward earth. If it seems impossible for Michelangelo to create a feeble or puny figure, the vibrant dynamism of his bodies is nevertheless held in check. They have about them an unruffled quality, as if to show that potential is all. It is this tensile calm, as unmistakable as their inherent vitality, that catches the eye.

But what does the calm signify? Many appealing human attributes were of little interest to Michelangelo. There is in him no room for gentleness; even his babies are tough. Nor is there any place for sweetness or romance. What drew him to antiquity were not the heartwarming moments, such as the love of Orpheus for Eurydice, but rather the agonies, epitomized by Phaeton. Even in his architectural work, the designs have an austerity and an edge that ensure they are never merely decorative. Michelangelo does not allow us simply to sit back and enjoy what he has done. The questions he probes are too urgent; the ideal is too remote; the problems are never fully resolvable.

One could see the effect of this ceaseless quest on the faces of the visitors gathered that wintry morning in the Sistine Chapel. Staring at the damned souls just above eye level in The Last Judgment, they were hardly responding to a scene of joy or delight. Rather, they were coming to terms with an unblinking look into the very nature of human existence. They may not all have shared Michelangelo’s assumption that this existence stands under the implacable judgment of heaven, or that they themselves were part of the unfolding of God’s creation, depicted from its beginnings on the ceiling above their heads to its final day on the wall in front of them. But there was no way for them to avoid an encounter with the basic message that is in all his work, and particularly in every corner of that vast, swirling fresco: for all our potential, we humans always fall short. We are magnificent, but we never fulfill our potential.

In his life as well as in his art, Michelangelo forces us to confront this unyielding truth. More than any other artist, he keeps us searching, and thinking. And that is why he continues to matter.

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