Son of God

Brigid Brophy

  • Michelangelo by Robert Liebert
    Yale, 447 pp, £25.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 300 02793 1
  • The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse edited by Stephen Coote
    Penguin, 410 pp, £3.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 14 042293 5

The heavenly ruler looked down, noted the inadequacy of Giotto and his successors and decided to dispatch Michelangelo to earth, there to demonstrate perfection in no fewer than four arts (drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture) and thus redeem mankind from errors of taste. So runs the exordium of Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo. It would not surprise me if Vasari got this conceit from the source that provided much of his biographical information – namely, Michelangelo. Dr Liebert, a psychoanalyst, discerns that during his last twenty years Michelangelo ‘increasingly and deeply identified himself with Christ’. Certainly he inclined to treat Popes as vicars of Michelangelo. It may well be his own account of his mission, given narrative form by the fantasy underlying it, that Vasari recorded as a mini-myth which is in essence a de-Christianised and non-blasphemous version of the myth of the incarnation.

Dr Liebert remarks that, after the Angel Bearing a Candelabrum which he sculpted when he was 19 or 20, Michelangelo’s angels lack wings, with the exception of the angelic figure in the curious drawing known as The Dreamer. A naked young man sprawls dreamily. In the air above there hovers – upside down, almost vertical, wings spread – a smaller and rather chubby naked figure, blowing a trumpet downwards in the direction of the sprawler’s ear. The overt iconography, Dr Liebert reports, is regularly interpreted as the trumpet of fame awakening the dreamer. (I am put in mind more of early mornings in households where the parents believe their children to be music-making angels.) The angelic figure’s wings are those of an eagle, and that makes Dr Liebert connect The Dreamer with the ‘presentation drawing’ (whose finished state is now known only through copies) of the rape of Ganymede that was one of Michelangelo’s love gifts to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, the handsome upper-class man of 23 whom Michelangelo fell in love with when he was 57 and whom he remained friends with for the rest of his long life.

Dr Liebert does not adduce a point which I think must lie quite near the heart of this nexus: the fact that Michelangelo (or Michelagnolo in the earlier form) was himself named after an archangel. He was so christened, according to Vasari, ‘as being of a divine nature, for Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jove at his birth’. This surely is the handiest and likeliest route for Michelangelo’s fantasy to have taken in transforming him variously into Jove’s boy-snatching eagle, the eagle-winged trumpeter of fame in a drawing that seems both to state and to fulfil Michelangelo’s ambition, a messenger sent from heaven to set a good example (if the mini-myth is indeed of Michelangelo’s originating) and the son of God.

Michelangelo was wet-nursed by a stonemason’s wife and later jokingly (to Vasari) ascribed his skill at sculpture to ‘sucking in chisels and hammers with my nurse’s milk’. If he observed the usual pattern of his time and his social class (downstart, to adopt a Shavian word, upper-middle), he will have been taken away from his nurse when he was about two. Then he was, as it were, again bereaved of a mother: his real mother died when he was six. To these experiences Dr Liebert traces the stony untenderness of Michelangelo’s madonnas and indeed of his female figures in general, as well as his tendency to render the iconography of Christ in images borrowed from that of Dionysos, the born-again god who had to be tended by nurses because his mother died before his (first) birth. Dr Liebert contrasts Michelangelo’s dourness with the more serviable character of Raphael, who, unusually for the period, was not put out to nurse and who, he might have remarked, also bore an angelic name. This has to remain, however, on the level of an interesting but not particularly pointed observation, presumably because dourness did not vanish from humanity when the custom of wet-nursing did – which was not, incidentally, until after the weaning of Queen Victoria’s children.

Michelangelo’s descent from the family of the Counts of Canossa Dr Liebert takes to be a ‘family romance’, an infantile fantasy in which one’s real parents are replaced by figment parents of higher rank, invented by Michelangelo and passed on by him to his two contemporary biographers, Vasari and Ascanio Condivi. He associates the supposed fantasy with Michelangelo’s lacklustre depiction, on the Sistine ceiling, of the ancestors of Christ, a theme that he thinks ‘merged with his own confused and conflicted feelings about his own ancestry’. He suggests that Michelangelo’s reason for picking the Canossa family as his supposedly fictitious ancestors was to link himself with the Countess Matilda, who ‘dominated Tuscany from 1076 to 1115’, and equip himself with a female ancestor who, in contrast to his real wet-nurse and real mother, ‘was both powerful and long-lived’.

This should, I think, be more firmly marked than it is as speculation. ‘Research has revealed,’ says Dr Liebert, ‘that no such tie to the Canossa line existed. Rather, Michelangelo’s ancestry can be traced back only to ... 1228.’ That is to attribute more to ‘research’ than it can perform. If it cannot go back beyond 1228, how can it be sure that no tie of earlier date existed? The possibility is not closed that the story is true or, even if not, that there was some plausible reason for believing it. As a matter of fact, the 1975 Michelangelo exhibition at the British Museum included a document that suggests that Michelangelo’s Canossa contemporaries accepted the story as true: a letter of 1520 in which Count Alessandro da Canossa addresses Michelangelo as his kinsman and invites him to come and meet his family.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, the source of any conflict Michelangelo felt about depicting the ancestors of Christ could more correctly, I think, be located in his identification with Christ. St Matthew’s Gospel traces Christ’s lineage to the royal house of David and beyond, but it does so through his putative father, Joseph; St Luke and Christian doctrine insist that his true father was of yet higher rank. The Christian myth is the classiest ‘family romance’ of all.

For the most part, Dr Liebert marks his speculations very fairly as such. They are not, however, very exciting speculations. His is a rather foursquare ‘psychoanalytic study’, unlikely to disturb anyone’s feelings or, indeed, many people’s conception of Michelangelo. He describes the personal terms of Michelangelo’s relationships with artists whom he influenced, such as Sebastiano del Piombo, but he does not discuss either the causes or the effects of Michelangelo’s dominance, let alone the validity of his quasi-deification by Vasari, surely the most successful tastemaker in history. Neither does he quite hack out of his densely detailed material and put on display to the reader the paradox of Michelangelo, a homosexual who probably, though there is no conclusive evidence either way, never went to bed with anyone and who, like some puritan and self-punishing Odysseus binding himself to the mast, chose to make his chief subject-matter the nude male body – which he rendered sometimes piteous and always impressive but never beguiling.

Honourably, Dr Liebert avoids reductionism, and he confesses that where, as in architecture, a visual art does not deal in figures and stories psychoanalysis cannot easily find a way in to the artist’s unconscious material. He gives explanations of the psychoanalytical concepts he alludes to, he sketches the political background to Michelangelo’s relations with patrons princely and papal, he works conscientiously through the major items of the oeuvre in more or less chronological order and, where art historians are not agreed on the chronology, painstakingly reports their different views: ‘Gould (1974) ... proposes that the panel was painted ... in two periods ... Levey (1970) favours dating the work at the beginning of the second Roman period ...’

This carefulness makes it all the odder when, in a rare and clumsy excursion into rhetoric, he says: ‘Not the David that has stood as the pride of Florence in the Piazza della Signoria since the beginning of the 16th century nor any other achievement was ever experienced by Michelangelo as sufficient to discharge his family obligation during his father’s lifetime.’ What now stands in the Piazza as the pride of Florence is, of course, a copy, the original having been removed to the Accademia in 1873. Indeed, in the photograph in the book you can see the panelling on the wall behind it.

The impression of more plod than inspiration is backed up by the publishers, who present a slab of book ten inches by seven by one and a half, in which the plentiful photographs are reproduced, not very well, between regular white margins. The result looks like a respectable ‘art book’ designed thirty years ago. The pin-striped book production does not, however, preclude eccentricity. The Laocoön statue is reproduced both on page 138 and on page 171 – in, moreover, exactly the same photograph, though at its second showing it is printed a little larger. The nearest the book comes to the tricksy is on the jacket, where one of the two standing-up Slaves from the Louvre is reproduced in a photograph that irrefragably makes him appear to be taking off his vest.

Neither does the much truer respectability of Dr Liebert’s approach to his subject preclude some wobbles in his sense of history – or perhaps just in his conception of the readership he is addressing. Michelangelo is sent to ‘a specially selected grammar school (the equivalent of our high school)’; he says one thing in the draft of a letter and another in ‘the letter that was actually posted’; Bacchus is ‘the Roman name of the Greek god Dionysus’, a statement that is correct and yet not correct, since Bacchos is one of the god’s Greek names; and television epic seems just round the corner when Dr Liebert writes of ‘the hurly-burly of life in the Renaissance’. The Renaissance has nothing on the hurly-burly of Dr Liebert’s language. ‘Sculptured’, the form he regularly uses, I take to be acceptable North American for ‘sculpted’, but I do not believe the idiom exists in which ‘to apprentice’ is intransitive (‘Michelangelo first arranged for him to apprentice in a large shop’). As for ‘the transferral of his early childhood quest for nurturance’, I have tried but I cannot detect in it an ounce of content that would have been missing had Dr Liebert written simply of the transfer of his quest for nurture.

Michelangelo must now be one of the world’s most famous homosexuals. Given the probability that he was a perpetual virgin, this seems quite an achievement – testimony perhaps to the transparency of art or perhaps to the ineffectualness of abstinence. Twenty years ago Ms Bette Davis’s autobiography scathingly said: ‘I wonder how Michelangelo would have sculptured and painted today? Would all that beauty and nobility be sacrificed to the grafitto, John Loves John?’ (This passage seems to confirm that ‘sculptured’ is a standard form, though I doubt if the same is true of its spelling of ‘graffito’. Quite what it is scathing I cannot tell.) Last year, when Orbis produced their visually excellent Annotated Oscar Wilde,[*] Wilde’s reference (in his essay on Thomas Griffiths Wainewright) to presumably Hellenistic statues of hermaphrodites ‘that we can still see at Florence and in the Louvre’ was given the hilariously wrong annotation: ‘The hermaphrodite statue in Florence is Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Gallery. The ones in the Louvre are the Fettered Slaves, also by Michelangelo ...’

And now here is Michelangelo again, not this time misrepresented (unless the translations by J.A. Symonds are a touch too graceful) by five poems, two of them addressed to Tommaso, in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, an anthology of, according to its editor, Stephen Coote, ‘poems by and about gay people’. Dr Coote defends the ‘homosexual’ in its title a little half-heartedly, saying that ‘homoerotic’ (Dr Liebert’s word for the same thing) ‘might be the proper term here’ but dismissing it as ‘both unfamiliar and rather pompous’. The word ‘homosexual’, which Dr Coote dates to 1869, is certainly a monster in the technical, mythological sense (the sense in which Wilde called hermaphrodites monsters) inasmuch as it consists of a Greek head on a Latin torso. It has, however, the merit not only of familiarity but of comprehensibility. If you crudely translate its components, you get ‘same sex’, which correctly conveys the general idea, but if you do the same to ‘homoerotic’ you get ‘same love’, and goodness knows what idea that can convey. Dr Coote’s selection, which is chronologically ordered, comprehends everyone you might, after considerable searching, expect, including Sappho, Katherine Philips and James Kirkup (represented by two poems and a note simply stating why the text of the blasphemy-case poem is not printed), and some (to me at least) surprises, such as Wordsworth, Alcuin, Edmund Waller and Sir John Waller (‘b. 1917’). Dr Coote has the good sense to take his chunk of the Iliad from Pope’s translation and his Virgil from Dryden’s. The Virgil consist of the Eclogue about Corydon, which makes it a pity that Byron’s representation does not stretch to the Don Juan stanza that ends:

But Virgil’s songs are pure, except that horrid one
Beginning with ‘Formosum pastor Corydon’.

The anonymous limericks are a bore, as rude limericks often are, presumably because they insist on giving usually phallic point to a form that more easily takes to surreal inconsequence. Still, the book as a whole is a splendid collection and nothing less than a virtuoso triumph for Stephen Coote, who not only gives it a sensible and informative introduction, free from gay chauvinism, but, where an acceptable translation is lacking, whether for the Greek Anthology or for Rimbaud, supplies it himself.

[*] Edited by H. Montgomery Hyde: 448 pp., £15, October 1982, 0 85013 346 9.