Talking of Michelangelo

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"In the room, the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo…"
        --T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock"

After a three hour train trip from Naples, we arrived in Florence and settled into the 3110 ArtHotel, which was located on the second and third floors of an Art Deco building not far from downtown. The building had an old fashioned elevator, the kind with cage doors that you have to close by hand. I grew up with those, in the prewar buildings of New York, and I like them. Our room was small but comfortable, with the usual arrangement of a key card you had to leave in the slot to turn the power on. Since we had two keys, we could send one of us out to get something, while the other stayed comfortably in the air conditioning… absolutely necessary, since it was pushing 105F during the time we were in Florence!!

Our guide met us at the hotel. Her name was Regina and she was Austrian by origin. She’d moved to Florence decades ago, married a Florentine man, and was still clearly in love with the city. We had been booked for a walking tour of the city as well as a visit to the Accademia gallery, but because of the heat we told her we’d prefer to skip the walking tour and just do the Accademia, which was indoors.

Regina was distressed, and looked for ways she could give us our full time without keeping us outside for half the day. She talked to our driver, and finally suggested that after the Accademia, we might go in the van to the Piazzale Michelangelo — a viewpoint just across the Arno River, where it was possible to see most of Florence at once.

J and I were delighted, and agreed at once. That sounded perfect. We could still see the city, but we’d be in the air conditioned van on the way there and back, and when we were outside it would be sitting still instead of walking.

Not that I had to worry about walking anyway! My travel agency had located a city tourism organization which would let me borrow a wheelchair for our three-day stay in Florence, so long as I left a €150 deposit. I’d get it back when I returned the chair.

After we collected my wheelchair, we set out for the Accademia, a few blocks away. J pushed my wheelchair over the teeth-rattling cobblestones until we got inside and the ride finally smoothed out. While we waited in line for admission to the gallery, Regina explained to us what her plans were for the tour.

“The Accademia was created for one artist: Michelangelo,” she explained. “It contains six sculptures, five of them by Michelangelo and one by somebody who was trying to imitate his style. There are also a lot of paintings by various artists who wanted to look like Michelangelo’s style. We’re going to skip the paintings completely, if you don’t mind. They don’t matter. The sculptures matter, and I want to concentrate on those.”

J and I were intrigued. We had already had tour guides who chose to limit their (and our) attention to certain aspects of the subject, but never to just six individual pieces. But she clearly had a plan, and we had already figured out that in the history of Italian art there was Michelangelo and then there was everybody else. We wanted to know more about him. We agreed to skip the paintings and concentrate on the sculpture alone.

The first sculpture we came to was the only one which wasn’t by Michelangelo. It was by a Flemish artist who, Regina explained, had come to Florence because he was a Michelangelo fanboy, and he wanted to show that he could make sculpture just like the master. He was called Giambologna, the Italianate shortening for the name Jean de Bologne, and the fact was he absolutely couldn’t make sculpture just like Michelangelo at all. He was good, and the sculpture in the Accademia — a plaster preview study of a work he did later in marble, called The Abduction of a Sabine Woman — was impressive in its own ways. But it wasn’t like Michelangelo’s work. It couldn’t be, for many reasons… not least because Michelangelo never did plaster previews in the first place. He worked directly from the marble.

Giambologna’s The Abduction of a Sabine Woman

Giambologna’s Abduction was, however, sculpture done in the round… a form Michelangelo frequently used, in which the piece was designed to be seen from all different angles, and to look different from each angle. It contains three human figures. The bottom figure is a Sabine man trying to attack the middle figure, a Roman man, who carries the top figure, a Sabine woman, in his arms. All three are twisted at the torso, another Michelangelo-esque piece of styling. It was used to keep the eye moving… sliding around the edges of the sculpture till you follow it all the way around and back to where you began.

Regina pointed out to us that Giambologna had never intended to make this sculpture represent an abduction… of a Sabine woman or anybody else. The woman’s posture shows that. She isn’t fighting or opposing the man who carries her — instead, she’s ecstatic. This was an elopement. But the fashion of the time was for every sculpture to be a scene from either biblical or ancient Graeco-Roman mythology. So he had to find a scene to name it after, and the Sabine abduction was the nearest he could think of. It was officially titled accordingly.

The Abduction was an impressive sculpture, no doubt about it. The twisting bodies that carry your eye around it is the best thing about it, but it’s also got real faces that show expression. And we were fascinated by how it looked completely different from each angle — you could see totally different aspects depending on which side you were standing on. That was, of course, the point of sculpture in the round, and it was one of the things Michelangelo also focused on a great deal. In this respect, Giambologna did nearly as well as the master.

In other ways, not so much. For one thing, it has an ugly iron rod on one side, holding up the weight of the figures. That wasn’t uncommon in the sculpture of the time (though usually in marble; it was less frequent to need it even in the plaster model!), but it still sticks out like a sore thumb. Michelangelo refused to use them. He designed his pieces, whenever possible, so that they were naturally enough balanced that they didn’t need supports. When he couldn’t do that, he would make the support part of the design, like the tree stump behind the figure’s leg in the David. It was intended to help reinforce the strength of the one marble leg on which the weight of the entire statue rests…. but it’s designed so that it isn’t at all obvious that it’s there as a structural component more than as an aesthetic one.

The most frustrating thing Giambologna did, to my eyes at least, in the Abduction of a Sabine Woman, was also a common fault in the sculpture of the time: he didn’t really know where most of the muscles live in the human body. He could get the obvious external ones right, like the deltoids and biceps, but in the core, for example, everything is all mixed up wherever.

This wasn’t really his fault, of course. Very few sculptors knew where the muscles were inside. There were no charts or internal models to study from the way there were when I did my massage training — people studied from cadavers or not at all. And cadavers were strictly off limits to any artist who didn’t have the pull of Lorenzo de Medici backing him. Giambologna, who was neither a truly great artist nor a native of Florence, certainly had no such pull.

But Michelangelo had. He was trained in the Medici school for young sculptors, and became a protege of the family from there. When Lorenzo the Magnificent slipped a small Franciscan-run mortuary an enormous sum of money to look the other way while his prized sculptor did a spot of grave robbing, they took it with gratitude and didn’t ask questions.

This meant that, when we got on to Michelangelo’s own sculpture, we saw the biggest difference between his work and nearly everyone else’s: he knew where everything lived in the human body and they didn’t. As a massage therapist, I know a fair bit about where everything lives in the human body myself. It was a surprising amount of fun to go around the Michelangelo statues, murmuring to myself as, one by one, I named the specific muscles he carved into the stone.

And we did move along to Michelangelo’s own sculpture shortly. The next group was a collection of unfinished pieces called Michelangelo’s Prisoners.

Originally, these were intended for the tomb of yet another Pope, in this case, Pope Julius II, the same one who hauled Michelangelo into the Sistine Chapel project later on. At this point, Julius wanted something enormous for his tomb, with forty life-sized human statues on it. As money ran down, however, the project was cut down to a somewhat more reasonable size, leaving Michelangelo’s statues with nowhere to go.

Whether or not they were also still only half finished is subject to debate. Some people think they were unfinished by happenstance and then exhibited that way in order to show the viewer Michelangelo’s working style in mid-process. Others believe Michelangelo deliberately left the statues unfinished, in order to show humanity in an everlasting process of attempting to free itself, without complete success, from the bonds of physical reality — the mortal clay of our bodies.

Whichever was his intent, the four statues show Michelangelo’s style, used by no other major artist of the time, of carving from the living rock. He didn’t make a plaster model first the way Giambologna did, because until he had met the right piece of rock, he didn’t know what exactly he was going to be carving from it! He went to the quarries, selecting his blocks of marble with his own hands, and then worked directly on them with his chisels. No preparatory designs; no roughing out…. the chisels sometimes went directly down to the level of the figure’s marble skin.

Nobody else did that. It was considered insanity, because you could ruin an incredibly expensive block of marble (not to mention the last two years of your own work) with one stroke, if it went a fraction too far. But Michelangelo did it. He trusted himself to get it right… every time.

Which, incidentally, he didn’t quite achieve. There were a couple of very faint chinks in the occasional surface, where a chisel grazed just faintly beyond the edge of the ‘skin’ of the figure. All it did was to make the human figure look more human, with the occasional irregularity in their skin the way real humans have.
Geniuses can turn even their mistakes into art, it seems.

We spent another half hour or so on examining the Prisoner statues. Michelangelo was known for his comment that he never creates when he sculpts… he just unpacks the statue that’s already located inside each block of marble. I could well believe it, looking at the Prisoners. Each of them looked as if the man inside were in the process of being, slowly, freed from the marble — one of the reasons they’re called the Prisoners in the first place.

Unpacking human figures from the rock must be a weird experience. If you think about it a moment (and we thought about it a lot in the Hall of the Prisoners), you realize that the sculptor can’t begin in any normal position. He has to start with knees and elbows — the bit parts of the body that stick out farthest. If he starts further inside, he can’t move back outward again… the rock has already been taken off, and he can’t put it back again.

This is, of course, one of the biggest reasons why most artists didn’t freewheel it. They made full sized models before they ever touched the stone, so that they didn’t mess up a valuable piece of marble by cutting off parts they were going to need later. Michelangelo could see the whole statue, there waiting in the rock for him to unpack it, clearly enough that he never had to worry about making a mistake like that.

Do you begin to see why none of the Giambolognas of the Renaissance world could actually imitate Michelangelo’s style, however badly they wanted to? Michelangelo’s style was a direct result of Michelangelo’s methods. And Michelangelo’s methods were far beyond the ability of pretty much anyone else to attempt, much less to rival him with them.

All this while, as we made our way slowly down the Hall of Prisoners, the Grand Finale was waiting at the far end of the room. Standing ahead of us, in a naturally lit niche made specially for it, was the David.

If the Pieta we saw in Rome isn’t Michelangelo’s best loved work, it has to be the David. It has certainly always been my favorite, and I kept sneaking peeks down the hallway while we were examining the Prisoner statues. David dominates the room.

Michelangelo’s “David”

This isn’t particularly surprising, when you realize that not only his space, but this entire gallery was designed especially for him. The David was originally planned to go on the exterior of the Florence Cathedral, in a niche, the way so many biblical figures are often placed. But after it was made, the people of Florence took to it as a symbol of their city — the little shepherd boy who defeated Goliath was a popular image for the residents of a small city which had to find its own difficult way in a region dominated by Rome.

So instead of being put on the Cathedral, the David was placed in front of Town Hall. And there it stayed, from 1504 until 1873. By that time, it was starting to show small cracks from stress, and they wanted to put it in a more sheltered position. So they asked the Accademia di Firenze to house it. And they built it its very own space. Because the statue was designed to be seen outdoors, they set it up in natural light, under a glass roof. And because it had been designed to be placed in an arched niche on the side of a church (but was still built complete in the round, because Michelangelo never got so sloppy as to ignore the backs of his statues even if they were never expected to be seen), they compromised: it has an arched niche, so it can be seen from down the hall in the way it was originally intended. But when you get into the immediate area of the statue, you can still walk all the way around it, and see the back as Michelangelo sculpted it.

J pushed my wheelchair through the crowds, which were very kind about parting for us, and we looked up from the foot of the David at maybe the most perfect stone human being ever made.

You could immediately tell that this sculptor had spent time cutting up dead bodies. I started ticking off my musculoskeletal anatomy class notes, naming every specific muscle that I saw. Being a massage therapist adds a whole new dimension to Michelangelo’s sculpture… I swear I could have given a complete assessment of David’s muscle tensions by the time we’d made our way all the way around.

Regina explained to us that, in addition to everything else impressive about the David, Michelangelo hadn’t been able to make it in his usual way at all. He hadn’t chosen the block of stone the way he normally did — it had been chosen by the commissioners and then actually started by two different artists! Both of them failed. But both of them left a marked block of marble; one which Michelangelo, when he was called in to take over the project, was stuck with. Complete with all the choices those earlier sculptors had made about pose and design.

And in the end, none of it matters. David is still the most perfect stone human being ever made. As with Michelangelo’s other pieces in the round, you can walk around David 360° and every angle shows you something new. The face, which looks so calm and resolute if seen from the turned profile where the niche presents it, has the furrowed eyebrows of stress and anticipation when you come around to the right and look at it head-on. The sling lies limp down the back, but the rock is gripped in taut fingers. You can count the ridges of skin at the knuckles of the bare toes.

Regina chose the correct approach. We looked at only six statues, nothing else. But every one of them led up to the David; and by the time we reached him I felt as if I understood enough about Michelangelo’s work in general and the way that particular statue was made in particular to appreciate it in ways I hadn’t even guessed were possible when I first entered the building.

The Accademia remains perhaps my favorite experience in our entire trip to Italy. Six statues, a great deal of new understanding, and finally the most beautiful stone human in the world.

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