Charles Scribner III      

art historian, author, editor, and lecturer

































Michelangelo by Charles Scribner III

       If one individual, and only one, could be chosen to epitomize our notion of artistic genius it would have to be Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Not only does he personify the Renaissance Man, but he towers over the entire history of art, just as his youthful David, the marble embodiment of heroic virtue and virility, has towered over Florentines and tourists alike for half a millenium. 

            "Since, in the end, civilisation depends upon man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man." So decreed Kenneth Clark, standing before the fifteen-foot David in an episode of his celebrated televsion series Civilisation.  Who today would disagree? Even during the artist's own lifetime he was deified as "the Divine Michelangelo" by his earliest biographer, the painter-historian Giorgio Vasari, as well as by that great autobiographer--and egoist--of all time, Benvenuto Cellini. 

            At the age of sixty, as Michelangelo prepared to tackle the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, a full generation after he had transfigured its ceiling, he received a new--and unprecedented--title invented especially for him by Pope Paul III: "Chief Architect, Sculptor, and Painter to the Vatican Palace." Clearly the Holy Father had no desire to share with other patrons any part of his Renassance man. Seventy-five years later, his successor and namesake Paul V was to prophesy that the ten-year-old Gianlorenzo Bernini would prove "the Michelangelo of his age,"  the highest compliment the pope could possibly pay the budding sculptor. 

            Like Bernini, his brilliant Baroque beneficiary, Michelangelo was without doubt a prodigy.  Yet unlike the prodigies Bernini and Mozart, the source of his technical prowess has remained shrouded.  Both Bernini and Mozart had professional fathers to instruct them from the time they could walk.  Michelangelo's--too "patrician" to labor and too poor to provide any meaningful support--failed even to offer encouragement to the aspiring artist.  "I sucked in chisels and hammers with my nurse's milk" is the only explanation Michelangelo was to offer in later years.  As an infant he had in fact been farmed out to a stonecutter's wife as his wetnurse.  "A teacher," Henry Adams once wrote, "can never know the full extent of his influence. A teacher affects eternity." That anonymous instructor who first taught Michelangelo to wield a chisel has indeed left an eternal imprint on western art.

            Like Bernini, Michelangelo was destined to live an extraordinarily long and ever productive life--eighty-nine years, almost a decade longer than Bernini and almost two generations beyond the normal expectancy for that time. Yet what if our Florentine prodigy had survived no more than Mozart's thirty-six years?  He would still have left behind a catalogue of masterpieces sufficient to guarantee his preminence in the annals of art.  Among these we would find the Vatican Pietà, the Bacchus, the David, and most of the Sistine Ceiling. The last would surely then be viewed as  his "Requiem," the masterpiece that, reluctantly undertaken, hastened the demise of its creator,  who had protested in vain that he was "a sculptor, not a painter."  (Happily for history, the implacable Pope Julius was unconvinced.)   Even with his life thus abridged, the age of the Baroque could still have dawned in Rome in 1600 on the Carracci's Farnese Ceiling--a century after the Renaissance high noon of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling to which it boldly aspired.

            Vita brevis, ars longa.  In Michelangelo's case, both life and art were long--and of enduring significance. It is nearly impossible to overestimate the influence of Michelangelo on later artists.  While writing my recent books on Rubens and Bernini, the Castor and Pollux of the Baroque age, I found myself constantly invoking the name of Michelangelo--as did those artists themselves in both word and work.  (A biographer of Rodin would say no less.) Annibale Carracci is said to have advised the young Gianlorenzo Bernini to study Michelangelo's Last Judgment for "a full two years" in order to master a firm grasp of anatomy.  Indeed, Bernini's two earliest religious sculptures emulated and reincorporated Michelangelo's Vatican Pietà as, first, a martyred St. Lawrence and then an expired St. Sebastian. Gianlorenzo's first full-scale statue for Cardinal Borghese, in turn, transposed Michelangelo's Risen Christ of Sta. Maria sopra Minerva into Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome.

            Several years later, Pope Urban VIII, who wished to be another Julius II and make Bernini "his Michelangelo," ordered the young sculptor to study painting as preparation for the commission to fresco the benediction loggia of St. Peter's.  In the end, despite Bernini's demostrable proficiency with a brush, the job was given to Lanfranco.  (In a reversal of Michelangelo's fate, Bernini's pope preferred to keep him employed on his papal tomb!) Yet in his major religious works Bernini was to fuse painting and sculpture in a truly revolutionary manner; two popes later, Alexander VII gave him commissions that fulfilled his late career as an architect, just as Paul III had for Michlangelo, who "finished" St. Peter's (but for Maderno's nave, a Baroque coda) and capped it with the world's most influential dome--a worthy successor and rival to Brunelleschi's in Florence. Its Baroque offspring punctuate the skyline of papal Rome while its soaring descendents--both sacred and secular--crown cities worldwide, from London's St. Paul's Cathedral to Washington's Capitol. The latter "surely would have had another name," art historian James Ackerman has noted, were it not for Michelangelo's rebuilding of Rome's Capitoline Hill as the majestic seat of civic government, the Piazza del Campidoglio.

            Under the dome of St. Peter's, Bernini was to fill Michelangelo's evocative void with his dynamic Baldacchino; decades later, he added to the architectonic body of Mother Church those embracing arms of the Colonnade.  Michelangelo did not live to see his dome constructed; its final design, in fact, is the handiwork of his protege Della Porta, who gave it a more elevated, tapering profile than the master had originally intended.  No matter.  I agree with Lord Clark: "We can go on admiring it, and think rather more of Della Porta."

            "He was a good man, but did not know how to paint"--El Greco's appraisal represents the dissenting minority. The founding fathers of the Baroque--Carracci, Caravaggio, and Rubens--owed Michelangelo an incaculable debt, and paid him homage with their brushes.  Poussin, Velazquez, even Rembrandt may be cited among the beneficiaries of "the Homer of painting,"  as the English painter and theoretician Sir Joshua Reynolds dubbed him.  In his last discourse to his fellow academicians in 1790, Reynolds concluded: "I should desire that the last word which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of Michelangelo."  A few years earlier, the German poet Goethe confessed in his Italian Journey that he had become "so enthusiastic about Michelangelo that I have lost all my taste for Nature, since I cannot see her with the eye of genius that he did."  Sir Thomas Lawrence (1819) supplied a more biblical explanation: "God gave the command to increase and multiply before the Fall, and Michelangelo's is the race that might have been."

            Steeped as he was in Neo-Platonic philosophy, which to the Renaissance mind was wholly compatible with a devout Christianity, Michelangelo pictured mankind and divinity alike in idealized human form.  "His people are a superior order of beings," concluded Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Its epitome is, of course, Original Man himself, the naked Adam, that reclining revision of a classical river god on the ceiling who reaches out, languidly, to receive from his Creator the spark of a divine soul.  Yet the artist's mind that gave immortal form to that perfected male was to remain conflicted and tormented, a soul yearning to escape the shackles of human flesh.

            L'amor mi prende e la beltà mi lege--"love seizes me and beauty binds me"--so Michelangelo described in verse, as in stone, his soul's struggle against its earthly chains.  One is reminded of his unfinished marbles, those fleshly forms that barely emerge from the confines of stone.  Surely no artist in history has bequeathed so many unfinished masterpieces.  Yet far from being discounted, those incomplete metamorphoses reveal, as no polished Pietà could ever illustrate, the lifelong psychic conflict that served as catalyst for his unquencheable creativity.  This metaphysical pain was surely the touchstone of Michelangelo's artistic growth. It was the process of creation, not the finely chiselled product, that progressively engaged his fertile imagination.  

            One of the most exciting recent developments in Michelangelo studies has been the overwhelming impact that the newly-cleaned Sistine Ceiling frescoes has had on our eyes and, no less, on our appreciation of the Renaissance master.  After five centuries of grime, candle smoke, darkened varnish and clumsy repainting have been dissolved and wiped away by the Vatican restorers, we may finally view the ceiling once again ablaze with color, no longer "through a glass darkly," as it were, but "face to face."  The inevitable controversy prompted by so dramatic a revelation--and radical reappraisal--of a familiar classic was heated, and often acrimonious, as assorted artists and restorers (but only a smattering of scholars) charged that the Vatican was "destroying" Michelangelo's masterpiece by overzealous cleaning.  The artist and Pope Julius must have thoughly enjoyed the irony from their (respective?) posthumous vantage points. 

            I found myself a reluctant participant in the melee, when in 1985 I became involved in the Wethersfield Institute and the inaugural conference we sponsored (Michelangelo Rediscovered: Most Recent Findings in the Sistine Chapel) on the technical and art historical aspects of the restoration-in-progess. 

            Among the group of passionate protestors was an officer of the National Society of Mural Painters (USA), and a prominent religious artist himself, whose own work displays a stylistic debt to the "old Michelangelo," the proponent of a dim, muted, sculpturesque chiaroscuro, not the brilliant colorist--as we now know--who already anticipated Pontormo and the neon hues of Mannerism.  In an open letter to the Holy Father, which he shared with me, he argued that "irreparable damage is being done to the greatest religious work of art in Christendom" and concluded with this rhetorical flourish: "Just as the many glories of Venice are in danger of sinking beneath the waves, so do the many glories of the Sistine Ceiling now run the risk of disappearing forever beneath a tide of solvents, swabs, and unseeing hands."  He was echoed by a former art critic of Time magazine, who wrote to me in alarm about "the complacently ongoing destruction of a crown-jewel in the creative heritage of mankind." 

            In Italy, the painter Pietro Annigoni, whose own earthy palette and aesthetic had clearly been derived from the grime-permeated ignudi of the Sistine Ceiling, carried the anti-resporation banner.  To the patina of ironies another layer was added: Our initial discussions and films of the restoration took place under an Annigoni ceiling fresco--of inescapably brownish "Michelangelesque" hues--in Wethersfield House in Amenia, New York.  In Annigoni's case, of course, the layers of smoke and grime and dirty varnish were doubly insoluble: they had long since become an indelible part of that 20th-century artist's understanding of the Renaissance master; at Wethersfield,  those reflective shades had been applied to wet plaster, in "true fresco," where they remain today an enduring homage to five centuries of grime.  It should be noted that the most vocal critics were those who had yet to visit the chapel in person and, at the Vatican's invitation, ascend the scaffold to study the restorations up close.  Those who did, almost unanimously, left converted--and in awe. 

            Of course, for some, seeing and believing may never be reconciled.  But for most of us, this recent revelation has been a felicitous one--regardless of the textbooks that will have to be rewritten.  Even the former Communist mayor of Rome (and art historian)  Giulio Argan was unstinting in his praise of the Vatican team across the Tiber.  For those restorers, scientists, and curators the project was truly a labor of love.  I remember at the conclusion of our conference teasing their leader by reversing the charges and accusing him of taking far too much care and time in completing the job.  Surely it could safely be done in half the time? (It was then estimated to take twelve years!)  "But don't you see," he retorted with a wink, "we want to take as long as possible--we'll never have the chance again to savor, up close, each brushstroke of the divine Michelangelo!"  "Well," I said, "you'll find your next controversy when you finally reach the Last Judgment and have to decide whether to remove all those loin cloths added years later by Daniele da Volterra on papal orders!"  (His deep love of art notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine the present pope, John Paul II, undoing the "cover-up" by authorizing the return of Christ and His saints in their original, stark-naked glory.)  Was Michelangelo destined to join Mapplethorpe in posthumous scandal?  Time would tell.

            The answer has appeared in the New York Times just as I write these words [1991].  The headline reads "Vatican Restorers Are Ready for Last Judgment"--to which we may all respond Amen!  Now we read that the "gloomy dark blue and gray" will soon yield " a vast expanse of brilliant blue" (lapis lazuli).  But what of the thirty-some cloths over the genitals?

            "Tests have now shown that in several cases Volterra apparently did not simply paint over the plaster but replaced the plaster or retouched it in fresco, so the colors merged with the original surface.  In either case, the restorers cannot remove the additions.  The Vatican, which was once told publically that the 'genitals and organs of those in ecstasy' were 'more appropriate for the walls of a brothel,' has thus been spared a debate over propriety."

            In the Last Judgment, Michelangelo monumentally gave witness to his lifelong devotion to that earlier Florentine giant--the poet Dante, whose Divina Commedia provides, as it were, the epic prologue to this terrible juxtaposition of eternal punishment and divine bliss.  Conjured up in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, of the Catholic Church besieged and yet defiant, Michelangelo's apocalyptic vision was to have a recurrent impact on artists for centuries to come--from Rubens's tumultuous Fall of the Damned (Munich) to Rodin's towering Gates of Hell (Philadelphia). 


         Dies irae, dies illa,

         Teste David cum Sybilla,

         Solvet saeclum in favilla.


          "Day of wrath, that day of dread,

          as David and the Sybil said,

          will leave the world in ashes dead."     


            As a powerful translation of that ancient hymn, the Dies Irae, into another medium, its ultimate successor and counterpart is, I would suggest, to be found not in the visual arts, but in music--in the great Manzoni Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi.  Perhaps when the restorers' scaffolding has finally come down, some inspired impresario will produce and videotape a performance of Verdi's late "sacred opera"  against the backdrop of Michelangelo's heroic orchestrations of color and contour--the definitive "son et lumière" at the center of Catholic Christendom.  That each masterpiece was the product of the artist's old age is miracle enough.