Michelangelo and the Language of Art 
by David Summers.
Princeton, 626 pp., £26.50, February 1981, 0 691 03957 7
Show More
Bernini in France: An Episode in 17th-Century History 
by Cecil Gould.
Weidenfeld, 158 pp., £12.95, March 1982, 0 297 77944 3
Show More
Show More

When, in the early hours, Michelangelo completed carving his name on the band which passes between the breasts of the Virgin in his first Pieta (the one now behind bullet-proof perspex in St Peter’s), he was surprised by a nun who took him for an intruder. Reassured, she begged for some marble chips, which the sculptor, touched, gave her. In return, she made him a frittata, which he ate on the spot. The prominence of this signature provides, as has long been recognised, startling evidence for the new status of the artist in this period – the sculpture declares itself ‘a Michelangelo’. But the nun wanted the chips not because they were associated with a genius but because they were associated with the Holy Family: she had, in fact, suggested that he give her some marble from Christ’s wound. Michelangelo’s sculpture certainly could appeal to unsophisticated worshippers. They have, for centuries, kissed the extended foot of his Risen Christ – the part Michelangelo was least happy with and which connoisseurs least admire.

More perhaps than any earlier artist working on buildings, public monuments and large-scale frescoes, Michelangelo worked with a limited public of the giudiciosi e intendenti in mind. This emerges clearly from this study of the ‘words and concepts used by Michelangelo and his contemporaries to discuss his art’. Vasari does mention that sometimes, as a favour, Michelangelo supplied a certain Menighella who made paintings ‘for peasants’ with ‘simple’ drawings. It would be fascinating to know what these looked like and what Vasari meant by ‘simple’ (the passage is not discussed in this book), but the implication seems to be that his usual style would have been wasted on such a public. We know that he despised the sort of realism in which Flemish painters excelled and which, he is supposed to have said, women were particularly liable to admire. He intended to appeal at a higher level. His ingenious subversion and witty inversion of the ‘rules’ of architecture could never be mistaken for ignorance of them (and this made his example especially dangerous). The same applies to his departures from orthodox iconography, which were admitted to be learned, but also sometimes criticised as obscure.

To this day, no truly convincing explanation for the allegories of the Medici Chapel has been advanced. Some of his paintings also present difficult problems. Who, for instance, are the athletic nudes elegantly arranged on the very architectural rocks in the middle distance of the Holy Family painted for Angel Doni? And who on earth (or in heaven) are the nude youths, the ignudi, who play so large a part, or at least take up so much space, on the Sistine Ceiling? They do have something, although not much, to do, supporting the relief medallions adorned with Old Testament episodes and some fat swags of oak-leaves and acorns (emblems of the family of the patron, Pope Julius II). It is the sort of job that is hard to reconcile with the serious meanings which have been attached to them – by Sydney Freedberg, for instance, who had the very beautiful and intelligent idea that they represent ‘creatures of the pagan, classical, pre-Christian world, who are half-conscient of the meaning of the history they attend and the prophecy they oversee’. It is also the sort of job which would usually have been performed by putti. And if they were four years old rather than 18, there would be no controversy about them. Indeed, few have bothered to consider as anything other than ornaments the putti in equally active and varied poses on the thrones of the prophets and sibyls on the same ceiling.

I would agree with Summers, who supposes that the ignudi have an ‘ornamental significance’, and also that there is resistance to this because ‘ornament, visual or rhetorical, runs counter to one of the most deeply and confidently held articles of modern taste, and we have lost – or rejected – the language for taking it seriously.’ In Michelangelo’s lifetime there were critics who felt that such an exhibition was more appropriate for a garden loggia than for a chapel: Pope Hadrian VI is even said to have considered the ceiling as a stufa (a ‘sauna’ would be the best translation) full of nude males. But these were exceptional reactions. This book helps persuade us that the ignudi were not only admired, but were intended to be admired, rather like a succession of brilliant similes in a poem which do nothing to advance or amplify the narrative or argument.

By being ornamental in this sense they were able to be meaningful in others which Michelangelo may not have been fully conscious of and which are hard to put into words. There is no discussion here of the respectable channels provided in the Renaissance for the sublimation of homosexuality, nor of the metaphors then available with which a celibate might dramatise his struggle to overcome desire. Of Michelangelo’s twisting youths in general, Summers writes: ‘The purity of their serpentine movement implies that they are alive from within ... they live and move in perfect grace.’ Maybe. But some of them – most obviously, but not only, the Slaves which he began to carve for the tomb of Julius II – seem troubled. It is as if the mind (or the soul) was uncomfortable in its ‘bodily clothing’. More commonly, the life ‘within’ seems only partially active – in one way or another, ‘awakening’ is the theme to which Michelangelo returned most persistently.

‘If Michelangelo was not a philosopher,’ Summers writes, ‘he was an extraordinarily thoughtful and literate artist, a “learned” artist.’ No one would contest this, but the relationship between what Michelangelo might have read and what he must have heard discussed with what he carved and painted is inevitably very hard to define. Summers discovers in the Physiognomonica, attributed in the Renaissance to Aristotle, that a clouded brow ‘signifies self-will (audacia) as in the lion and the bull’, and then hints that this may be why Michelangelo portrayed David frowning. But surely an explanation would only be needed if David, who is waiting for the big kill, was not frowning. Summers also wants to believe that someone introduced the young Michelangelo to the 12th Olympic Discourse of Dio Chrysostom. He even suggests that this work moulded the young sculptor’s ‘character and aspirations’, and all because he detects some faint echoes of it half a century later in a letter Michelangelo wrote to the poet Varchi.

To be fair Summers is usually cautious. He does not wish to suggest that ‘Michelangelo spent his evenings perusing Aristotle and his commentators,’ but he would claim that Michelangelo’s thinking on certain matters was nevertheless profoundly Aristotelian, for ‘over the centuries the reading of Aristotle and his commentators had modified and shaped the language in which the activities of the soul were discussed.’ Elsewhere he writes: ‘The ideas of Ficino seem indeed to have helped shape the vessel into which Michelangelo’s experience poured, and thus to have helped shape that experience itself.’ Then he is tempted: Ficino’s writings might also ‘be expected to have provided part of the content of the vessel’. But he draws back, for, after all, Ficino’s ideas are ‘themselves closely related’ to a tradition ‘starting forward from Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio’.

The trouble is, of course, that we know very little about what Michelangelo read: Summers is painfully aware of this. It is also hard to be sure of what he said. Condivi’s biography is a valuable source and clearly reflects Michelangelo’s own views, but some of these views were misunderstood (to judge from the almost indecipherable annotations in a first edition published by Ugo Procacci). As for Francisco de Hollanda, a Portuguese painter whose Dialogues on Painting feature Michelangelo, Summers concedes that he must have garbled what Michelangelo said. He may also have invented some of it. But even if we could be sure of what Michelangelo did say, it is hard to be sure what he meant by it. His utterances, Vasari pointed out, were notoriously oracular.

There are times when Summers seems desperate to detect some reflection of Michelangelo’s thought. Vasari, for instance, praised Michelangelo’s Bacchus because he had skilfully made the figure slightly effeminate. Summers points out that this is similar to the praise bestowed by Pliny on Polykleitos for mixing in his statues elements of boyhood with manhood and manhood with boyhood. This is astute, but Summers then leaps to the conclusion that Michelangelo ‘may have vied with Polykleitos’ in creating the statue. He makes this leap because he thinks that Vasari’s account of the statue may reflect Michelangelo’s own account. But there is no good reason to think that it does.

Another example is provided by Condivi, who tells us that Michelangelo loved nature in all its variety – beautiful horses, dogs, plants, woods and mountains. Surely we don’t have to believe in this any more than we do in the happy marriages mentioned in modern obituaries. We can easily accept that he did love mountains, especially rocky ones. He placed the most beautiful model cliffs and quarries under the feet of his statues (in place of the dumplings favoured in Antiquity). But the grass in the Doni Holy Family is perfunctory, his few trees appear to have human musculature and the Sistine acorns resemble female breasts. He seems to have liked monsters with frightening teeth and necks and tails long enough to knot, such as appear in the frame of the Doni Holy Family and in his drawings for armour and capitals (grotesque inventions about which Summers writes very interestingly), more than any beautiful creature he might have seen. ‘He has traced no flowers, like those which Leonardo stars over his gloomiest rocks,’ wrote Pater. ‘No forest-scenery like Titian’s fills his backgrounds, but only blank ranges of rock, and dim vegetable forms as blank as they, as in a world before the creation of the first five days.’ Condivi must, in fact, have been defending Michelangelo against the claims made for the very rivals Pater mentions – Leonardo and Titian, who would have given so much more attention to the Garden of Eden.

From all the varied beauties of nature, according to Condivi, Michelangelo took something, as the bee collects honey from different flowers and as the ancient artist compiled a likeness of Venus from the different parts of many mortal models. This cliché tells us something about how the imaginative process tended to be characterised in the Renaissance, but it does not help us to understand Michelangelo, nor would it do so even if we knew that Michelangelo had solemnly dictated the passage. As it happens, other, more philosophical ideas were available to justify (or, as Summers supposes, to condition) his almost exclusive preoccupation with the human figure in general and the nude in particular.

If this very long, very learned and very ambitious book sheds less light on Michelangelo than it seems to do, it does nonetheless generally succeed in explaining ‘the significance of words and phrases central to the contemporary discussion of Michelangelo and his art’, the ways in which Michelangelo was defended – indeed, the framework of Renaissance art theory in general. Its organisation is labyrinthine, and its argument broken, but it is rewarding as well as frustrating, chiefly because it represents such a heroic attempt not to think in contemporary terms.

Michelangelo has always been recognised as a genius, but genius, as Summers shows, was not understood by Michelangelo’s contemporaries in the way that it is today. It is not the arrogance of the signature upon the Pieta, nor the freedom with which he interpreted his subjects, nor even the way he treated his patrons, so much as his supposed fascination with the non finito, with the struggle to create, which marks Michelangelo as a ‘modern’ genius. The evidence, however, suggests that Michelangelo considered his unfinished works to be failures, and to his contemporaries, and in his own eyes, he was a genius despite them.

If Michelangelo’s own standards were too severe, those of his admirers today are not. The thronging thousands who daily strain to ‘take in’ the Sistine Ceiling (stiff-necked ladies receiving a bit at a time in the mirrors of their powder compacts) are less attracted by the Last Judgment on the wall, but few dare point out that there are, in all this welter of flying and falling figures, only one or two which strike the eye and possess the memory as do all the prophets, sibyls and ignudi on the ceiling. Neither Jacopo Sansovino nor Pierino da Vinci nor Giovanni Bologna was a genius comparable with Michelangelo, but Sansovino’s Bacchus and Pierino’s Rivergod (in the Louvre) are far more successful, as well as more attractive, than Michelangelo’s Bacchus (to which, however, they are indebted), and the David, although now the most famous sculpture, and perhaps the most photographed object, in the world, is not a figure one can compare for grandeur with Bologna’s bronze Neptune.

The extraordinary fame of the David is not much more than a century old. It depends, to some extent, upon a biographical interest in Michelangelo’s art. The David is considered, that is to say, as a spiritual self-portrait. This approach to Michelangelo is now impossible to escape. When we look at his unfinished slaves we flatter ourselves that we sympathise with his troubled spirit, and, in his late devotional groups, the errors, or revisions, help us to feel that we are participating in the ‘creative process’ – for some, perhaps, they seem, like stammers in a prayer, to be proof of ‘sincerity’. Works of art were not looked at in this way in the 16th century.

Bernini’s genius, which dominates the 17th century more completely even than Michelangelo’s dominates the 16th, cannot be given a modern interpretation, and his work (with the exception of his portrait of his mistress, at which he was said to have flung a chisel in a fury) has never attracted much biographical interest. An accomplished actor, he sometimes assumed the pose he wanted for his sculpture and asked an assistant to draw it; we also know he studied the expression of his David from his own face – no one would suggest that it was a self-portrait, however. There are no dark stories told of Bernini such as those which Vasari relates of Michelangelo. He was proud and passionate, but never ‘impossible’; highly devout, but never, it seems, withdrawn or melancholy; at home at court; content to delegate to a large studio. His utterances were not oracular and his ideas on art, unlike Michelangelo’s, were quite simple, although always pungently expressed.

He agreed with his sternest critics that common nature should not be imitated, but corrected by reference to the finest antique statues. By insisting on the importance of the French Academy acquiring plaster casts of these statues he probably did more than any other artist to ensure that drawing from the cast became a standard part of institutional art training all over Europe. The French Academy should also have a supply of beautiful living figures. Why not buy Greek slaves since they had good bodies? He had found that Levantines made good models. In order to imitate flesh, and facial expression, in white marble, an equivalent to colour had to be found. After all, Bernini continued, a man covered in flour is a stranger to his friends – and would seem stranger still if his eyes could be coloured white. Besides, we say of those who turn white in a faint that they do not look themselves. In conversation, as in art, Bernini startles us – in this case, to make us recognise the ‘magic’ of great sculpture.

In biographies Bernini often appears as a conjuror, as when he employed fire and water in his plays, raised the heavy obelisk above the fountain in Piazza Navona, or improvised a machine for batting paper balls which made sounds like those of a fountain in the Vatican. The music of this latter fountain was needed to help the Pope to sleep, but the fountain had broken down and could not be fixed by his bedtime, so this was an important toy. However, there were aspects of architecture which Bernini felt to be beneath him. To bother with them personally, he explained, would be like the King of France giving an audience to a poor widow over a matter of a few pence. He did claim, on the other hand, of his bust of Charles I, that he had taken ‘as much care for the packing as studye in making of itt’. He was worried to learn that it was generally covered with a silk bag which could so easily catch on a curl of hair ...

Our best source for Bernini’s opinions, perhaps the most vivid account ever kept of the daily life of a great artist, is the diary made by Fréart de Chantelou, Bernini’s companion and translator during his visit to France in 1665. It is not only of interest for art-historians: it sheds much light both on the King and on Colbert, and on the court which the latter kept in motion around the former. At last a modern, scholarly edition is in preparation – almost ready, it is rumoured. There is also room for a popular edition consisting of selected passages with a commentary. Gould’s Bernini in France is not that. Although he does quote some substantial passages, he tends to paraphrase and much is lost, some of it important – including the detail of one of the most moving and fascinating episodes.

On 25 July Bernini inspected Chantelou’s own set of paintings by Poussin illustrating the Sacraments (the set now on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland). There were curtains in front of most of them and they were uncovered one by one. Some were taken from the wall and carried to the window. The old Italian got down on the floor and changed his spectacles to examine these more clearly. Chantelou tells us how the compositions were considered and then individual figures admired in turn. He even mentions specific figures which were particularly praised. He preserves Bernini’s exclamations in Italian – ‘Che Silenzio!’, for instance (which is not something that can often have been said in front of Bernini’s own creations). He also notes Bernini’s concern that the high priest in the Marriage of the Virgin was not obviously attired as such. This is evidence of Poussin’s unorthodox iconography and of the importance Bernini attached both to decorum and to narrative clarity. Equally alien, as a critical reaction, is Bernini’s comment, after a long and silent scrutiny of the Extreme Unction, that the experience left him feeling stunned and speechless, as he did after hearing a great sermon. And there is much else of interest, including Bernini’s final observation that his own achievements now seemed like nothing. Gould reduces the entire episode to one sentence. If he felt short of space, he could have abbreviated his own reflections on why Bernini admired Poussin. That Bernini should have done so most readers will probably find less puzzling than Gould supposes.

Bernini announced to Louis XIV that he had made the journey from Rome, despite his old age, because of his desire to meet so great a monarch. Privately he admitted that Padre Oliva, the General of the Jesuits, had made it clear that it was his business to go, even if it killed him. Not long before the Papacy had endured the most ignominious diplomatic humiliation by the French. For years the French had attempted to secure Bernini’s services and now they were desperately keen to make him the architect of the new palace which was to complete the Louvre. He thus became an immensely valuable political asset. Great credit would accrue to the faction that got him to go, just as it would to a minister who fixed a multi-million pound arms deal between squabbling super-powers today. The political circumstances were admirably summarised long ago by Francis Haskell in Patrons and Painters. Gould should read this book more carefully. He alleges that it propounds the crazy theory that ‘Bernini’s mission was planned by the French as a further means of humbling the Pope.’

Bernini’s bust of Louis XIV, executed during his stay in Paris and documented by Chantelou in superb detail – most of which is kept by Gould, by the way – was unanimously applauded. But his plans for the Louvre were never executed. And by the time he left France his persistent refusal to be impressed with what he was shown (his reaction to the Poussins was exceptional) had begun to irritate even the courtiers who admired him most. An unintended consequence of his visit was the impetus that it gave to the development of a national school of architecture in France, and to a generation of artists who, despite the great influence of Bernini (a few aspects of which Gould describes), were not overawed by his example, and who, despite their close contacts with Rome, formed a self-consciously French school.

As soon as Bernini’s long-awaited equestrian statue of Louis XIV arrived in Paris in 1685, it was deplored. The King himself, when he saw it at Versailles, wanted it pulverised (instead, Girardon turned it into a Marcus Curtius). Rudolf Wittkower had the brilliant idea that the sculptor’s decision to give the King a radiant smile rather than the usual commanding frown may have caused offence. It is surely also important that the statue desperately needs a high rocky base and a low viewing point, which, when first unpacked, it could not have had. But there is something else which art-historians should consider. The King of France, as Bernini himself had the cheek to tell him, had remarkably good taste considering he had not been to Italy. Perhaps he was right to be disappointed. Perhaps the statue really was misconceived, a sublime idea which, when coarsely executed by assistants and magnified in scale, appears grotesque. Gould must be commended for boldly declaring as much. It should be possible to admire Bernini – and Michelangelo – without admiring everything they did.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 4 No. 7 · 15 April 1982

SIR: Michelangelo’s acorns on the Sistine ceiling remind Nicholas Penny of women’s breasts (LRB, 18 March). Professor Frederick Hartt, who had an iconographical axe to grind, has seen them as eucharistic grapes. It is notoriously easier to see things if you want to see them and it is therefore with some trepidation that I report that I have always felt these acorns (particularly those on which the ignudo to the left above Jeremiah leans) to be, rather, a magnificent illustration of why the Romans used he same word (glans) to denote both an acorn and a penis. My trepidation is increased when I recall something I am told Freud said about the symbolism of cigars – that there are times when a cigar is just a cigar.

Roger Jones
London WC1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences