Michelangelo - Sculptures
Michelangelo's sculptures are all marked by his genius, which gives to the actual marble an importance of expression that no cast, no copy can render. The sight of the actual work, even to one who knows it well by the photograph, engraving, or the cast, is a special sensation like that of the quality of a voice in music, untranslatable by another.
For a Roman gentleman by the name of Gallo, in 1497 Michelangelo made the Bacchus which is now in Florence, at Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Bacchus, a realistic study of a young drunkard, reveals the artist's fondness for a momentary movement, the passing of one action into another.
At the age of twenty-four, the young Michelangelo was to imagine and execute with marvelous skill one of the most important statues of the world, unrivalled in the union of profound feeling and esthetic bloom of beauty. His friend Gallo obtained for him the order for what is called Pietà, the Virgin with the dead Christ on her lap, which was to be made for the French Cardinal of St. Denis. This was promised within a year, and carried out as promised (finished in 1499), and guaranteed also by Gallo to be the finest marble "which Rome today can show, and that no master of our day shall be able to produce a better." The business engagement of Gallo was carried out even in that particular of a work superior to all others. The statue has still for us the solemn charm which surprised the Romans at the end of the15th Century.
The extraordinary knowledge acquired by the youth is felt in the beautiful body of the Christ, not copied, but studied from nature. The helplessness of death is represented without its harshness; the tenderness of feeling which the face and gesture of the Mother express, seems carried into the very body of the Son; and the sculptor’s idea of strength which has made him give to the Madonna a form capable of lifting and carrying the grown man, recalls or suggests the fact that he is still a child to her. We know that Michelangelo purposely gave to the Virgin greater youth than could be true or was habitual in art. It was an expression of human feeling that he justified by the exceptional purity of mind of the mother, which, according to his habit of thought, now slowly forming, was told by the body. The reasons given by artists for what they do are but fragments of many thoughts; the sure feeling conveyed is still that of the mother and child. With his entrance, then, to his twenty-fifth year, Michelangelo had become an important master. Still, sculpture was not what affected the public mind at that date, and it is unlikely that his own people really understood that in this work was the promise of the culmination of Italian art.
On his return to Florence in 1501, he started the work on the colossal David. This was made out of a great block of marble owned by the Board of Works of Santa Maria del Fiore, which for a century had remained useless, owing to its having been badly blocked out by the sculptor of that date; so that its shape was an unpromising one from which to get out a human figure. Michelangelo made out of it what we know as the David, getting it out so exactly without any piecing that on the top of the head and on the base some vestige of the rough surface still remains, left purposely as a sculptor’s mark. He finished it on the 25th of January, 1504. Many famous citizens were called together to decide, in Florentine fashion, where it should be placed, which was left at length to Michelangelo himself, who decided for the right side of the entrance of the old Palace. Among the names of the voters were: San Gallo the architect, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, David Ghirlandaio, and the father of Benvenuto Cellini.
As with all Michelangelo's sculptures, David also carried a symbol. His was a popular symbol of Florence as champion of a small, free community against the tyranny of greater powers. It is an ideal of courage and youthful confidence in a righteous cause, embodied in a figure carefully adjusted to the naturalistic view. The extraordinary power of assimilating study and skill as a workman have made it possible for the young sculptor to carry out together the conflicting impression of a young man, not fully grown, with head and hands too large, yet of a heroic form, and an energy fired by a great duty. The action, as was loved by Michelangelo, is momentary. The hand holds the piece of wood on which the sling is hung, easily, not grasping, but gently feeling for the proper hold. The sling runs round the back and its centre, filled with stone, is held with the left hand poised on the left shoulder, ready to be loosed. This movement, then, allows the expression of the face to be an important part of the whole story. The statue is too well known to say more; it is one of the great statues; the knowledge implied and the execution are both extraordinary, and yet one feels, somehow, that the youth of the artist is embodied in the youth of the statue.
The great love of Michelangelo was the tomb of Pope Julius II., which was never finished the way Michelangelo intended, as he had to constantly stop his work in order to accomplish numerous other tasks. The monument as we have it expresses just what has happened. It is a fragment or a makeshift for what could not be.
Michelangelo's sculptures have a life of their own. Still, we see the great Moses of the tomb out of its destined place. Important as it is, we shall never see it right, for it was to be but one small part of a great arrangement that we will never know exactly.
In 1527, Michelangelo returned to a troubled republican Florence, and worked on the fortifications of the city in anticipation of the attack meant to reinstate the Medici. In 1530, the city was captured and sacked, and Alessandro de' Medici reinstalled as the ruler. However, being under Pope Clement protection, Michelangelo was able to continue his work on the statues of the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo. But he was driven "by fear rather than love" as Condivi says.
Speaking of Michelangelo's sculptures in the Medici Chapel, Condivi notes that "none of these statues have ever had the last touch, though they have been carried out in such a way that the excellency is apparent, nor does the unfinished part injure the absolute perfection of the work." These are the great statues of Italy, rivals of the Greek, equal or above anything man has done.
They are known by names: The Thinker (Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino), Dawn, Day, Evening, and Night. The Dawn perhaps belongs to happier days; but we do not know exactly when the others were projected, in intention or in sketches, from the sculptor’s thought.
They are all charged with some abundant meaning, inexpressible by words, and that all this meaning is terrible, even in its most gentle expression, becomes evident when we turn toward the unfinished statue of the Virgin and Child, whose lines and motion are emphatic, as was Michelangelo’s habit; for he kept always to Savonarola’s idealization of Mary as the Prophetess.
There the meaning is evident—an intention of love and peace. The statue of the Duke Julian is apparently at peace; he even fingers the money in his hand in a careless way, but there is unsatisfactory success in the face and powerful body. He is not apart from the anxiety of mind that we discern under the shadow of the great helmet which hides the face of the other prince.
Whatever form the artist's thoughts may have taken during this work, whatever contempt he may have felt for the two princes whom he knew, and for whose mean or worthless memory he was engaged in building a record of art, Michelangelo's sculptures are showing that he never departed from the dreams of beauty.
The beautiful bodies, their splendid movements, the nobility of
their make, even the imaginary faces of the two princes, are among the
most lovely creations of man; it is we who are called upon to supply
some hidden meaning, all through the beauty of expression. There is no
need of calling up the meaning which a soul that hated meanness and
brutality might well have carried in his mind; nor of the lesser
feelings of civic animosity in a man who had struggled for another ideal
of the State. The thought of Life, divided into days, beginning in the
dawn and ending with night, and of Eternity beginning with Death, is
sufficient. But no hope is carried in the endless round of the divisions
of the Day. One might pursue this feeling even into the details of the
architectural forms, which are used as a background for the figures and
the tombs. They do not suit the strict architectural mind any more than
the sculpture suits the professional sculptor, but the whole appearance as you and I look at
it together is a page to challenge the powers of any architect to