Nicholas Penny

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

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.

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