Thursday, January 17, 2013

Michelangelo - Giant Among Giants

Michelangelo For Me

The Giant Among Giants -- 1475-1564

That's a self-portrait on our left of Signor Buonarotti -- Signor Michelangelo Buronarotti -- a detail from his great monumental sculpture The Florentine Pieta. Michelangelo portrayed himself as Nicodemus in the act of lowering Christ from the cross, this Deposition begun before the year 1550. In that same year, the French traveler Blaise de Vigenere saw the artist at work and wrote: "He had passed his sixtieth year, and although he was not very strong, yet in a quarter of an hour he caused more splinters to fall from a very heavy block of marble than three young masons in twice or thrice the time. No one can believe it who has not seen it with his own eyes. And he attacked the work with such energy and fire that I thought it would fly into pieces. With one blow he brought down fragments three or four fingers in breadth, and so exactly at the point marked, that if only a tiny piece of marble more had fallen, he would have been in danger of ruining the whole work." It is a quotation by a contemporary which for me perhaps best expresses the passion I see behind all of Michelangelo's work.
Though I've stood and studied, on many occasions, all of Michelangelo's four Pietas -- the most famous one, and most known and loved by the public, at St Peter's Basilica, Rome, executed when he was 24 years old; the Florentine Pieta now at the Museo del Duomo, Forence; the Palestrina Pieta, after 1555, in the Accademia di Belli Arti, Florence; and the Pieta Rondanini, 1555-1564, at Milan's Castello Sforza -- my favorite has always been the Florentine Pieta.
I first saw the Florentine Pieta in 1950 while living as a graduate student in Firenze. The monthly subsistence check from the Veterans Administration (under the GI Bill of Rights for World War II vets) did not go very far, and during that time of La Miseria in Italy, most buildings, including the impoverished pensione where I lived, were without heat. When not at school, I did what the Italians did to keep warm -- went into the streets, walked the city, lingered in sunny piazzas.
Most days, on return from these long hikes, I stopped at the Duomo, that great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, only two short blocks from my room in Via Ginori. I could rest, delay return to the room (even colder than the Cathedral), and of course, look again on the great treasures of art within that architectural marvel. For me, the finest treasure was Michelangelo's Deposition or Pieta, at that time standing in a dark side chapel. Visitors could not enter the chapel, the light was very poor, but even restricted viewing revealed the strength and sorrow of the masterful composition. Denied access to the chapel, I could not study the marble from the side or back, but came to know every line, contour, expression of its front. Some days, by tricks of light entering the chapel or the reflection of candles, I detected golden rays moving over its surface. On rare occasions, these rays would touch the face of the dead Christ, or of Nicodemus lowering Him from the cross. Eventually, daily visits to the Pieta became something I had to do -- even when Spring arrived and the weather turned warm. If anything kept me from it, the day was somehow not complete.
Firenze, of course, provided the finest opportunity for familiarity with other Michelangelo works. The Accademia housed the great David and the unfinished Prisoners (sometimes referred to as Slaves) struggling to free themselves from the marble. In the same hall with the Prisoners was the Palestrina Pieta, compelling, infinitely sad. During breaks from classes, I could go to the Rotunda, look again on these marvels. Five minutes from my pensione was the Medici Chapel with its magnificent sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, the Medicean Madonna and the great tomb groupings of Day and Night, Dawn and Evening. My treks about the city took me to the Bargello, where several of Michelangelo's youthful works -- the Faun's Mask, a smaller and softer David, the imposing Head of Brutus, the bas-relief tondo Madonna with Book, and a drunken Bacchus -- display the genius which Lorenzo de Medici recognized while the artist was still a teenager. And there was Casa Buonarotti, where Michelangelo once lived, and which still today shelters his reliefs The Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna on the Steps. At the Uffizi Gallery, one could study the only existing easel painting ever finished by the master, his Holy Family.
Limited funds prohibited extensive travel during my year of graduate study in Firenze, and I saw little of Italy other than the city and, occasionally, nearby Tuscan towns. But subsequent visits to Italy have always led me, intentionally or not, to more works of Michelangelo. Once in Bologna, visiting a friend at the monastery of San Domenico, I was surprised to find in the chapel, statues of Proculus and Petronius, and the Kneeling Angel with a Candlestick, previously known only through reproductions in art books. I also "happened across" the four statues of the Piccolomini altar, attributed to Michelangelo and assistants, in the Siena Cathedral. At Castello Sforza in Milan, I saw the Rondanini Pieta, unfinished, abstract, tortuous, a testament to the fact that he was working on it in the days before his death during his 89th year. In Rome, I sought out the Risten Christ in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva -- poorly stationed and lit, but the strong and expressive face of the Savior was luminescent in the darkness. And in Rome, of course, one goes again and again to the Vatican, and -- despite the crowds -- always stops before that first and most acclaimed, most loved of the four Pietas. I've seen strong men weep in its presence.
The Sistine frescoes today -- after the long-term meticulous cleaning, freed from centuries of dirt and grime -- are newly glowing glories, even to those of us who've gazed on them countless times over half a century. For me, more than ever, Michelangelo's figures and forms on ceiling and altarpiece, though masterfully painted, are sculptural, endorsing his lifelong insistence that he was not a painter but a sculptor.
In Paris, I went to the Louvre to see as much as possible, in limited time, the famous masterpieces of that renowned museum. But when I stumbled into the gallery containing Michelangelo's The Dying Captive, I found it difficult to move on.
But I haven't seen it all yet, and particularly not one of the greatest works, the Moses. On three different occasions on three different visits to Rome, I went to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli determined to finally see this celebrated marble. Each time, the church was closed. Photo reproductions convince me it's a "must," I can't really claim knowledge of Michelangelo without studying this monumental, significant work. If rationale is needed for still another return to the Eternal City, that's one for me.
My love for the works of Michelangelo -- and of the man, because his works are the man -- could be threatening to my appreciation of other painters and sculptors, other genres of art. Could be, but isn't, as I continue to stand in awe beore so much which other masters have given us. Perhaps another lesson from Michelangelo, who's taught me so much. Afterall, wasn't he the first to exhalt the work of Ghiberti, to name that artist's superb doors of the Baptistery in Florence "The Gates of Paradise." Even so, enamored of all that's good in art, I esteem Michelangelo above all others. My Giant of Giants.
Decades after I'd completed graduate work (sometime in the Seventies, I think), I read that the Forentine Pieta had been moved from Santa Maria del Fiore in Firenze to the Museo del Duomo, just behind the cathedral, in the shadow of the great dome. Remembering my visits to the cathedral to visit the sculpture, remembering mystical moments before it, I was disappointed to learn of the move. But I've seen it many times in subsequent years, and the new location is excellent. The Pieta stands on a spacious staircase landing, brightly illuminated with natural light from an adjacent window, imposing and arresting as you first view it from the bottom of the staircase. And what a thrill to ascend the staircase, slowly approach that wonder in marble. The landing is large enough to allow one to circle the sculpture, view it closely from front, sides and back, observe the rough chisel marks, that characteristic conclusion so often seen in his late work, the insistence that once the form was as he wanted it, Michelangelo felt no need to "finish," "polish" the work. And the dim golden glow I'd once observed in the dark cathedral now floods the entire sculpture, as the stone itself is of that hue.
Italians have told me that Michelangelo carved this Pieta for his sacophagus. True or not, his portrait in the figure of Nicodemus shows not only tender compassion for the dead Christ but an intense yearning for oneness with God. I can't stand before it without contemplating the words spoken by Michelangelo on his deathbed: "I regret that I have not done enough for the salvation of my soul and that I am dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession."


Emily Walsh said...

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