I’ve always had a crush on Michelangelo. Well, since I was 8.
I read his biography at that age (the well-written-if-not-entirely-comprehensive The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone). The fact that he was homosexual never interfered overmuch either (my crushes on dead geniuses tend to have more to do with talent and less to do with any sort of physical consideration).
But I didn’t understand how deep my feelings ran- how preeminent he is in the ranks of my most cherished human virtuosos- until I spent time in
I’m a museum junkie. There is absolutely no amount of museum-hopping that I would consider ‘too much’; by my calculation I spent 12 of 18 waking hours out of every day in Firenze in one museum or church or another. And I didn’t grasp until
I know this because, as I stood in the same room with Michelangelo Buonarroti’s work for the first time in the Cappelle Medicee- surrounded… dominated… diminished… awed… by the figures of Night and Day, Dusk and Dawn, which adorn the tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Medici- I realized that I had adored Michelangelo for more than two decades without ever understanding what it was that made him great.
I stood, staring at Night, looking at the cock of her knee and the tilt of her breasts, the ropes of muscle through shoulder and arm and hip and thigh that tell of hard, heavy toil, and wondered: Is this what Tuscan peasants looked like?
Because, face merely sketched, nowhere as finished as her curved and reclining body- which shows every fold of skin, every jut of tendon- I knew, I knew, that I was looking at a real woman. She had curled like this, twisted like that, turned her face to some Tuscan horizon just so, as the Master pulled her powerful, perfect peasant’s body from its immersion in the creamy stone.
Day, the man, is more potent still, his sinewed body that of a man in middle age, his hands thickening around the knuckles as laborers’ hands are wont to do- as were the mighty hands of the workman who looked back over his shoulder as the sculptor moved his breath and pulse into the stone before him- and turns away. Only his glance over his shoulder shows his face, his unfocused gaze and the heavy, rippling shoulders telling of a fierce and fearful brilliance, a might which must be diffused for any to survive beneath its touch.
And the power- the unbelievable force of the figures- all of them- the towering, overwhelming vitality emanating from these larger-than-life-sized embodiments of the coming of Light and Dark…
They are awesome in the true, unmitigated sense: they cause awe. They cow, they overcome, they overwhelm. Marble, immobile, immortal, they dominate the vaulted space which their creator designed for them until the air you share with them slows and thickens in your lungs.
Michelangelo’s contemporaries- that is to say, his fellow Renaissance geniuses- were so overpowered by his sculptures that they actually invented a new word to describe them, a word still used only in reference his work. To this day in
And his most well-known sculpture? I’ve looked at it a hundred times, admired it each and every time it has crossed my vision or thoughts.
But I was not prepared for it. Had no capacity to understand its perfection, the amazement and fear that would grip me as I gazed at his David.
I come to just below David’s hip- if he were standing on the floor. He is not. Standing 17 feet high, he is on an 8-foot plinth which dominates the skylighted rotunda of L’Accademia, the building built solely to contain him.
He is, in sculptural terms, a colossus, the first to be made since the
Michelangelo, handed the commission when he was 26 years old along with a block of marble that was considered to have been ruined by another sculptor, chose to show his epitome of male perfection as he prepared to hurl the stone that would bring him a kingdom.
David is perfect. Perfect. I walked around him for an hour (much to the consternation of the guards), first nearer, then further. No tendon, no curve, not even a fingernail, is lacking in lifelike detail. Even the corrosion of his shoulders, caused by acid rain when he stood in the Piazza della Signoria, serves only to emphasize the rippling faultlessness of his turning form.
But his face- it was his face that made me understand, all over again, that I had never really seen him before now.
Oh yes, David’s face is as perfect as the rest of him. As beautiful. He is young, features still retaining the planed but rounded softness that young beauties have before their features harden with age.
And he is scared.
You will never really see this in a picture. Oh, you may see those flawless lips compress at the corners, see that matchless brow wrinkle.
But until you have stood first close to him- seen the loosening of the fingers of his right hand as he prepares to swing the stone aloft, the tightening of his left hand on the long, simple strap of his sling as he gazes upon his enemy…
Until you have moved away, in the direction of his gaze- seen the tension in the turn of his body, the piercing gaze of fear and resolution canting up and away over your head, looking at something so much bigger than he is and so fixed in its focus that you begin, after a few moments, to look over your shoulder nervously at a blank wall…
Until you have stood in his presence, felt his anxiety, his courage, his strength- you will not truly comprehend that this perfect, beautiful boy was a warrior.
And in his gaze- his dread-filled, undaunted, determined gaze- you will see the ardent and formidable king he will become.
Who does this?
What kind of artist sculpts the first colossus since antiquity and portrays him not in triumph, but in the mingling of his fear and courage just before battle?
Who would make the symbol of the Republic for which he is sculpting it perfect, but scared and smaller and tense and- human?
Michelangelo Buonarroti, perfector of humanity.
Il Divino, the sorcerer who prisoned Courage and Fear and Beauty and Mourning and Dark and Light in immaculate stone.