AGAIN our quest takes us to Florence, the goal of all inquiry in these later days of art. For long the drama was enacted wholly within her walls, and as later, the scene widens and we make our long excursions with Leonardo and Raphael to Milan, to Rome, to France, we are each time compelled to return to the little city to find the source of the new impulse which energizes the new and ever greater act. We now return for the greatest and the last.
The reverent pilgrim to the shrine of art threads his thoughtful way from the busy center of art out along the Via Ghibellina to the Casa Buonarroti, thinking there to find the closest associations with the life of Michelangelo. He is prone, even, to speak of the place as the “Michelangelo House,” misled by the family name. He is mistaken. The great sculptor never made this his home, and those to whom it owes its name were but unworthy relatives who burdened his generosity. His parental home and the place of his later occasional residence we seek in vain. Yet, strangely enough, we scarcely associate him in our thought with the only place where residence was of special significance to him, a place of perfectly accredited sojourn amid personalities and surroundings that were big with import. That place is naught less than the great Riccardi Palace, the home of the Medici and one of the most splendid palaces ever built. Here in the companionship of chosen scholars, philosophers, artists and poets, and surrounded by art objects of every description, the most gifted son of Florence spent two years of his impressionable youth as a veritable son of the greatest art patron who ever lived.
The circumstances leading to this remarkable experience have been so often narrated that we need allude to them but briefly ; the poverty of the parental home both in material goods and in spiritual sympathy, the father’s pride in his doubtful nobility and his foolish prejudice against all gainful pursuits, his reluctant consent that the boy should be a painter, and his despair when he chose to be a “stone cutter” instead, all this is but a dramatic foil to the splendid opportunity so soon to open before him. All have heard, too, of the brief apprenticeship in Ghirlandajo’s studio, fruitful in spite of its doubtful harmony and its feeble inspiration, and of the teacher’s more than willing response to the request of Lorenzo that the unmanageable pupil should be transferred to Bertoldo’s school of sculpture in the garden of San Marco, where, after a brief apprenticeship, the famous Faun Mask was to attract the attention and win the favor of the great Magnifico. It is less important to narrate again circumstances so familiar than it is to picture clearly to our minds the conditions under which the boy lived in this most remarkable household.
There have been many princely patrons of art, but surely never another like Lorenzo de’ Medici. Other patrons have been free with their bounty, with their friendship and their time, but hardly another has carried his favor to the extent of full family adoption. Such was literally the practice of Lorenzo. Under his roof dwelt in this fullest family intimacy, representatives of those varied branches of art and learning which it was his enlightened pleasure to foster. Each had his room with appropriate belongings and suitable provisions for his wants, even a liberal allowance of spending money. Most noteworthy of all, each had absolutely the privileges of sons in the family, the ruling principle in which was freedom and unconventional intimacy. It was the rule of the household that whoso came first to meals sat next to the Magnifico him-self, and the others following in order of arrival. Such arrangement assured not only frequent access to Lorenzo, but the fullest possible mixing and acquaintance among this remarkable company. When we recall that each of these adopted members of the household was a remarkable man and positive personality, the wonder grows that this supreme master of men should have been able to dominate such a house-hold without repression or conventional restraint.
It was into such a household that this soul-starved boy of fifteen was transferred from the cramped parental household, where a sickly mother, a large group of selfish and worthless brothers, and a narrow and stubborn father found a grievance in his passion for art. From childhood, we are told, he had been beaten for this passion which none of his family under-stood, and which to the end they appreciated only as a means of filling the family purse. No association with the uninspired Ghirlandajo or the old hack, Bertoldo, who guided his studies in the garden, could have prepared him for a transition so momentous.
Among the members of this Table Round to which Michelangelo was now admitted, were men to whom the world is more indebted than its short memory suggests. Such was Luigi Pulci, the raciest of humorists and popular poets, Angelo Poliziano, the most polished classical scholar and finished poet of his time and the highest representative of the humanist philosophy, Pico della Mirandola, the great Oriental scholar, and Marsilio Ficino, the great Platonist, whose dream it was to unite the philosophy of this greatest of Greek minds with the teachings of the Christian faith. Not one of these was without influence upon the youthful Michelangelo, who, with all his ruggedness of character, was at this age like clay in the potter’s hands. When we read his sonnets of a later time, whose grander strains are relieved at times by a touch of the burlesque, we are reminded of this association with Poliziano and even with Pulci. Above all, when we see how Christian themes, which had become in the art of the humanist painters the emptiest of dead forms, now live again with a vaster meaning which transcends all old-time dogma, we are reminded of Ficino and of the favorite discussions in which he was but the leader among this company of the elect. It was characteristic of Michelangelo to grasp the larger truth under-lying the local forms of dogma, and this was precisely what Ficino and the Platonists of the Florentine Academy sought to accomplish. They had at least one convert. Michelangelo, always a devout Christian, was all his life in belief a Christian Platonist, and he has immortalized in his art this much neglected achievement of the Renaissance.
To this wonderful environment of personality we must add the hardly less influential environment of finished art by which the boy was now surrounded. The palace was filled with every variety of art, from the most trifling bric-a-brac to the masterpieces of the greatest artists. There were coins and vases and gems, tapestries and pictures and bas-reliefs ; there were statues in marble and bronze, works of the unknown ancients, and of the great Florentines who had so lately emulated them. Almost every great artist whom we have studied had worked for this illustrious house, and the palace contained reminders of their presence. Among these incomparable suggestions Michelangelo was no passive spectator. It is recorded that the Magnifico himself was in the habit of discussing these things with him, both asking his judgment and expressing his own. When it is remembered that Lorenzo’s patronage of art was as discriminating as it was generous, that in taste and the perception of beauty he was easily first among the wonderful company that he gathered about him, the value of this friendship can be imagined. Was there ever a school like that of Lorenzo ?
But another and a greater teacher was at hand. Already in the second year of Michelangelo’s sojourn in the great palace, Florence was stirred by the voice of the mighty monk who was so soon to be the controlling factor in her destiny. He had been in Florence eight years before, but all unnoticed. In the meantime he had discovered a new power, and Florence a new want. Certain it is that all eyes were now turned toward the most remarkable preacher whom history records. All Florence began to stream to San Marco, and then to the great Duomo, whose vast depths themselves could scarce accommodate the throng of the curious and soon of the conscience-stricken, impelled by that strange hunger which men feel for the words of condemnation and of doom. Is it that only the messenger of condemnation can be the messenger of grace ?
It goes without saying that such a phenomenon would not pass unnoticed in the great palace. If the intellectual alertness and broad tolerance of the Table Round had not insured the newcomer a hearing, the amazing boldness of his allusions to this same palace and its princely head would have insured their lively interest. But we shall quite misjudge the temper of a Ficino or a Poliziano, yes, even of a Lorenzo, if we imagine them moved with petty jealousy or resentment. Tolerance of the most absolute character had long been the fixed rule of this wonderful household, and the masterly skill of Lorenzo made recourse to the dark arts of suspicion and repression both unnecessary and repugnant. Doubtless the monk made him uneasy, but this was but one of a thousand problems which had taxed the skill which it was his pleasure to exercise. Finally, we must not imagine from the furious invectives of Savonarola or from the known moral laxity of the Medicean palace that the attitude of the table or of its head was altogether unsympathetic toward the message that was now thundered from the pulpit of the great Duomo. Doubtless these practical manipulators of men were incredulous as to the feasibility of the universal regeneration so peremptorily demanded, incredulous even as to its entire practicability for their individual selves, but the ideals of the stern monk were not theoretically at odds with those of a Ficino or a Lorenzo. There was a large place for a Savonarola in the hearts of these men, along with other idealists whom they honored. Alas, he seemed to demand a place to the exclusion of all others.
This family of the elect heard Savonarola. It is to one of their members, Pico della Mirandola, that we are chiefly indebted for our knowledge of his power. Beyond question, therefore, Michelangelo was among his hearers. For three years, from the age of sixteen to nineteen, he was under this most potent of influences. During the first of these three years he still dwelt in the great palace, but the master mind was now relaxing its grip. Disease was doing its fatal work, and the head of the table was doubtless often absent from the seat which he was soon to vacate forever. Upon his death, at the end of this first year of the great monk’s preaching, Michelangelo left the great palace to return to the cheerless home of his childhood. Under these changed conditions we can imagine the increasing ascendency of the mighty preacher. It is not simply that Michelangelo was young, and that he was under the influence of a preacher whose power was unprecedented and whose appeal was well nigh universal. There was between the two men a temperamental sympathy, unnoticed as yet, but already clearly indicated, which was soon to be fully revealed in Michelangelo’s master work. Minor points of agreement we note in their instinctive asceticism and their passionate intensity, but new points of agreement rapidly developed. In strange conflict with his Medicean affinities, Michelangelo responded with all the passionate in-tensity of his nature to the stern monk’s appeal for liberty and popular government and for purity in public and private life. This meant beyond question the end of the Medicean rule, and Michelangelo, though still sustaining relations of friendship to members of this illustrious house, ever after appears as a passionate opponent of their rule in Florence. Thus were laid the foundations of the great life conflict which was to play so momentous a part in his later life. Feeling the sense of obligation as strongly as he felt all other things, he could never absolve himself from his obligation to a house whose favor he had thus unwittingly accepted. And, in turn, feeling with ten-fold intensity the need of liberty for the realization of manhood, he learned from Savonarola while yet in his teens, to execrate the family which had been chiefly instrumental in its suppression. The school of Savonarola had supplanted the school of Lorenzo, not undoing its work, for such influences can never be effaced, but changing the earlier perspective and crowning all with its own titanic spiritual ideals.
We naturally look with eagerness among the works of Michelangelo for reminders of this earliest time. They are not wanting, though they are left to tell their own story with little help from contemporary records. The Faun Mask of the Bargello, often questioned, but for no very convincing reason, recalls his first meeting with Lorenzo and his quick and deft adoption of the latter’s suggestion that a tooth or two be knocked out, which won him the invitation to the palace. It is said to have been made for his own amusement from a piece of waste marble begged for the purpose. Probably enough, but back of these surface facts, we may doubtless trace the influence of the arid Bertoldo, that practical craftsman, whose youthful association with the great Donatello and his abject homage to the antique were doubtless responsible for his appointment to this important post. Without contradicting tradition, we may perhaps see in this choice of a subject a suggestion from Bertoldo, whose extant works include a setting of classical bric-a-brac for Donatello’s Passion of the Lord, and slavish copies of battle scenes from degenerate Roman sarcophagi for no purpose whatever.
More significant among Michelangelo’s earliest works is the so-called Battle of the Centaurs (C 439) of the Casa Buonarroti, an unfinished relief which we might again attribute to the suggestion of Bertoldo, did we not know that in this case we are dealing with the greater Poliziano. Just what portion of the Greek myth is here represented is uncertain, and of no consequence. Although a production of Michelangelo’s extreme youth, it is an epoch-making work, holding the place in sculpture which Leonardo’s early works hold in painting. It claims our careful attention.
Reverting for a moment to Bertoldo’s battle scene and to the sarcophagi which suggested it, we note that the traditional field is a long rectangle, that the figures are arranged of necessity on an approximate level, with a tendency to the formation of two or more rows. This arrangement which we may call zone composition, we recall, is identical with that prevailing in painting up to the time of Leonardo, a composition which has advantages as a decoration, but which for the intenser and more vital purposes of the Renaissance, is weak, lacking focus and concentration. This lack of focus would hardly have disturbed a Bertoldo, whose loyalty to the ancients was unquestioning, and who besides never had any-thing to focus. The scheme was doubtless held up as an exemplar to the young Michelangelo who has significantly departed from it. First of all, he has shortened the long rectangle to an approximate square, thus of necessity condensing the scene. This, characteristically enough, is noted by a modern critic, as a defect. The rows of heads may still be traced, the upper row distinctly and the others faintly and with noticeable interruptions. But the longer we gaze, the clearer it becomes that these zones are not the vital thing. Even the upper row, which is continuous in a sense, after all has a prominent head in the center, a less prominent head at each end, and heads in between which sink into lowest relief and withdraw into deep perspective. The prominence given to this central figure is immensely increased by the breaking of the second and lower lines, thus opening a center in which this figure is supreme. The prominence and the majesty of this central figure enable it to dominate the whole composition, which thus becomes a centered rather than a zone composition, a solution of the problem different from Leonardo’s, but recognizing the same need.
The center thus established, the whole composition must be adjusted to it. It will not do merely to make a gap in these rows and thrust in a prominent figure. In this adjustment we have the first proof of the sculptor’s skill. The frame of our picture is square ; the arrangement about the center would naturally be approximately round. The problem is to ” break from the square into the round.” On the left we have a series of masses arranged in perpendicular ; then a youth who leans backward and the axis of whose body thus forms a line slanting outward ; then a figure whose back furnishes another line sloping still more ; then the arm of this same figure which in-creases the angle so that now it beautifully bounds or frames the central picture. The arm of the resisting woman starts the upward slope on the other side, which is continued by arms and heads most admirably arranged, both to express action in all its spontaneity, and to weave the border round the heroic figure that he has chosen to make so dominant. What induced the artist to leave such a masterpiece incomplete, we do not know, but very possibly because he had a vision of better things. Not only a new arrangement, but a new conception of sculpture is manifest in all later work. Not in crowded reliefs but in a few simple figures does he see its possibilities. We cannot pass this youthful work without noticing that it is much more than a study in technique. It is not merely sculpture ; it is art, and thoroughly representative of the temperament later to be revealed in the great ceiling. Here is no fret and fume of little souls ; all is deadly serious, but majestic, dignified. Here at the outset we encounter the same large-souled and life-weary Titans who up until the last, are ever ready at his call. Already he is Michelangelo.
One more work dates from this period, the beautiful Madonna of the Stair (C 440) in low relief, also in the Casa Buonarroti. Nothing can exceed the beauty of this relief, its exquisite and unconventional draperies, the traditional head dress of the Madonna, now flung on with careless ease, the dimpled child at the breast, his pulpy arm bulged out against the mother’s firmer wrist. The realism of the whole is startling. Yet this realism shrouds an idealism which never fails us in the sculptor’s work. This is our first acquaintance with that large-souled creature whose thought so far transcends the homely surroundings and the object of mother love. Is this the ecclesiastical Madonna of the earlier art, with throne and saints and conscious accepted homage ? Nothing could be farther from it than this scene of most intimate privacy, this unconventionality of garb and action. Is this then the nature Madonna, the embodiment of care free mother love and joy? Again the suggestion is remote. It is a new conception, the unconventional and the ordinary made the receptacle of the most extraordinary and exalted meaning.
There is a disposition to assign this to an earlier date than the Battle of the Centaurs, because of its simplicity and its resemblance to the low relief of Donatello, but our artist shows a consciousness of Donatello much later than this, and when we recall that the classical pressure of Bertoldo and Poliziano were strongest in the earlier period and that the influence of Savonarola waxed as theirs waned, we may safely see in this modest work the not unworthy record of the message of the great prophet.
With the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, Michelangelo, then a youth of nineteen, left Florence. What-ever his sympathies with Savonarola, there was little chance that the new condition of things would furnish employment to an artist, and we need not look farther than to his own need and the importunities of his impecunious family for an explanation of his departure. After an unsuccessful search for work in Venice, accident offered the desired opportunity in Bologna, where, in the old church of Saint Dominic stood one of the most remarkable shrines in Italy, begun, as we long ago noted, by Niccolô Pisano, and now waiting, after important intermediate additions, for the finishing touch of Michelangelo. He was first employed to finish an uncompleted statuette upon the top, then other portions, and finally, to carve an angel to match one on the other side, executed by Niccolô da Bari (B 497) a few years before. This work, perhaps the first ever done for pay, marks the culmination of his youthful inspiration. It is best appreciated by comparison with the other of which it is necessarily the pendant. The earlier work was of singular beauty, the childlike face, the curling hair, the charming posture, but some things apparently did not meet the approval of the young Michelangelo. The draperies are very heavy, and the contrast of high-lights and shadows pronounced. In the interest of feathery realism, the wings are ruffled and their curving contour broken. The notch in the bent knee is unpleasantly sharp. All these defects are removed in the companion piece. The truer line of the wing, the softer outline at the knee, show plainly that Michelangelo remembers that the silhouette of his work is part of the outline of the shrine and must have its architectural comeliness. Above all, the softened treatment of the drapery, subdued and casting no sharp edged shadows, a treatment extending even to the face, is an admirable example of decorative subordination, an example unique in Michelangelo’s work.
So far the changes made by Michelangelo are in the interest of decorative adaptation. A glance at the face, however, discloses a change which is susceptible of no such explanation. The face has that large eyed seriousness with its lurking hint of pathos with which the Madonna has more justly made us familiar. The change is in deference to Michelangelo’s temperament which cannot dissociate beauty from this deeper spiritual suggestiveness. It is the noblest of themes in art, but one only moderately adapted to minor decorative works like this. But ungracious indeed must be the man who would press the point in such a presence.
Michelangelo’s absence from Florence was brief, and but for this wonderful record in Bologna might pass unnoticed. He was soon back in Florence where the Savonarola régime seemed established, and relatives of his old-time patrons were found to give him employment with results that interest us little. More to our purpose would be, if we could know it, the record of his thoughts and feelings under the continued influence of the great preacher. If, as we have reason to believe, his attitude was one of increasing sympathy, we can imagine how violent must have been the transition as he found himself in 1496, at the age of twenty-one, in the city which was soon to claim him for its own.
From the first, Rome has been the vortex into which was drawn the talent and resource of the world. From the days of Cincinnatus, Rome laid the world under tribute, tribute of money and of toil, tribute of genius and of power. Always the center toward which these elements gravitated, she was a center in which they were never produced. The long list of Rome’s great men, from the earliest days of the empire, is a list of provincials that contributed their genius to the maintenance of the prestige and power of the Eternal City. Her art was imported, whether made within her gates or not. That which was true in the days of Cesar was as true in the days of Michelangelo. The while producing nothing, she was the goal toward which inevitably gravitated all that the world produced. Throughout the history of the Renaissance, even in that later period when the patronage of Rome was so munificent, not a single artist whose name is worthy of mention owned the parentage of Rome. None the less, not a single artist counted himself fully fortunate unless his career was rounded out by employment in this supreme center.
The opportunity which Michelangelo first found in Rome was one to justify our worst apprehensions. Patrons, broadly recognized as the connoisseurs of art in their day, were in bondage to the antique. Already that little word “classical,” which so many worship and so few understand, held the world in awe. This is no place to define that indefinable word. It may not be amiss to suggest that in the last analysis the thing that awes us in the classical is but a reminiscence of the Greek. The remotest echo of the ideals of Hellas has lent a charm to all that was associated with it, even to the least intelligent age. And this, beyond question, was the reason for the abject worship in which men bowed to the antique. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle that to the minds of the cultured in this day had dimmed the lustre of the New Testament, the charm of Greek oratory, of Greek architecture, and, even more perhaps, the reverence for all things Greek which had never died in Italy from the time of Caesar to the time of Lorenzo, all these gave to the antique a charm which, in the form in which they knew it, was not its due, for the antique as men then knew it was not the Greek but the Roman, a travesty and a caricature of Greek taste and Greek spirit. Where the Greek had Dionysus, his god of Inspiration symbolized by the inspiration of wine, the Romans saw only Bacchus, his counterpart, the god of Drunkenness. Where the Greek saw in the wondrous Aphrodite the symbol of the self-renewing power of nature, pure as the very foam of the sea from which she rose, the Roman saw his Venus, the embodiment of passion and lust. The abject works of Roman eclecticism were the legacy of the Italian Renaissance. Rarely if ever did the artist or the connoisseur of this time see the work of a Greek chisel. Such as revealed in any degree the Greek spirit, were seen through the thick veil of Roman copying, too often but a silly caricature. Yet at no period in the world’s history was the dogma more absolute that art was of the ancients. Poor blind leaders of the blind, these connoisseurs, to whom the fate of Christianity’s greatest artist was for a time entrusted, little dreamed that the feeblest work Michelangelo ever executed was nobler than the best antique they ever knew. The story, possibly mythical, that is told of Michelangelo’s advent to Rome, perfectly reveals the conditions under which he now must labor. He is said to have sent a statue of a sleeping Cupid to Rome as a sample of his work, but the dealer to whom it was entrusted decided to bury it and then to unearth it with the dirt sticking to it, and give it out for an antique. A connoisseur was imposed upon and added it to his collection, nothing doubting its authenticity. The discovery of the swindle won for the dealer the displeasure of his patron, but for the artist the necessary prestige and employment. The employment thus secured was at first of the most dubious kind a Drunken Bacchus, subject chosen by a patron, treated by a Michelangelo ; a marvel of skill but an infamy just the same ; a Kneeling Cupid, again a skillful, enigmatical, uninspired work; and finally, with advancing respect, it won for him greater freedom and an opportunity possibly, at last, to choose his subject for himself. Whether self-chosen or otherwise, Michelangelo at last was privileged to treat a subject congenial to his temperament in-the great Pietà (C 444), now the chief glory of St. Peter’s.
The significance of this wonderful group is so great that every visitor to Rome should make it a subject of study. Probably few things that Michelangelo has done are studied less, and the reason is not strange to seek, for its significance is not of the kind that appeals to the casual observer. It is not, like most of Michelangelo’s works, deeply charged with spiritual feeling. There is no inappropriate sentiment, nor is the work devoid of sentiment. Executed by another sculptor it would be only dignified and solemn, but to those that know Michelangelo’s later work there is a higher height and a deeper depth which the Pietà does not reach.
The Pietà, a name applied, strictly speaking, to a group of two figures, the Mother mourning over the dead Christ, has proved throughout Christian art an almost impossible subject. In addition to the obvious difficulties of expressing the sentiment of a mother on such an occasion, and adequately representing the corpse with proper distribution of emphasis, there are other difficulties which in painting have always been serious and in sculpture insuperable. First of all, there is the question of proper grouping or composition. It is quite a different problem in sculpture from what it is in painting. There is no frame around sculpture ordinarily, unless it be the larger setting of the place in which it is put. But there are other things to consider. First of all, sculpture is made of stone which is heavy and brittle. We are all perfectly familiar with that, and no real sculptor attempts to deceive us on that point. If he could measurably disguise his stone so as to deceive us as to its real character, he would lose more than he gained. This being the fact, and a fact of common knowledge, it follows that whenever we look at a statue we shall have a double consciousness. There will be in the first place the thought of man, woman, or whatever is there represented. This, of course, is what the artist is trying to give us. And there will be a consciousness in the background perhaps, but always there, that this is a stone. Now it is obvious that this latter consciousness ought to be kept in the background. It is not the purpose of the artist to keep us thinking about stone. We must know it and forget it as completely as possible. And the only way we can forget it is that the stone should be treated as stone. It will never do to try hazardous experiments with stone, for that will set us to thinking about the stone. For instance, when an artist carves leaves in stone, it will not do to carve them too thin. The moment he does that, the mind begins to marvel and wonder that stone can be cut so thin without breaking. Now this is not what the artist wants the mind to dwell upon, if he is a true artist at all. If he is merely an artisan, as unfortunately such stone carvers often are, then he will enjoy having us marvel at his skill. But the artist wants us to think about his leaf, not about his cleverness in cutting the brittle stone. So he will not make it look too much like a leaf, but merely the hint of a leaf in stone, with great respect for the character of his stone. That is, to use a technical phrase which is some-times useful, he will avoid natural forms and will make lithic forms, stone forms, forms that will seem to the beholder to be quite possible for stone. It is better to hint at a leaf and not to arouse in the mind the thought of stone and its brittleness, than it is to fully express a leaf and chase away . from the mind all thought about it.
The principle applies with great force to sculpture, especially to groups of sculpture in the round. When we carve a relief upon a slab of stone, the case is not quite the same. If we avoid any extravagant thinness or undercutting, we can arrange the figures as we please, for since they adhere to the background we have no question as to their stability and are not prompted to indulge in such thoughts about them. But if we detach them from the background these problems at once become important. If they sprawl too much, stretching out arms and legs, there is first of all the danger that these will be broken off, as very often happens. But there is a worse danger than that, the danger that we will stop and think about the possibility of their being broken off. Now the artist must at all costs prevent our stopping and thinking about anything except just the thought that he is trying to express in marble. There is always a tendency in the evolution of true sculpture toward an engrossing appreciation of what has been admirably called “integrity of mass,” that is, sculptors like to have their groups bunched well together, broad, stable, solid, and offering a minimum of opportunity for accident and disaster. For one thing, a group of sculpture must never look as though it would tip over. If it does tip over, it and much else will suffer. No matter how well supported, if it suggests to the mind the thought of tipping over, it will banish from the mind the thought of its beauty or meaning.
Now the compactness which is always desired in great sculpture is extremely difficult in the subject we have before us. In the Cathedral at Berne, for instance, there is a Pietà represented quite naturalistically, with the figure of the Christ stretched out prone in a long line upon the floor, and then the Mother standing at the head of the Christ, a straight figure, the picture of despair. But the eye cannot take in this group with any ease at all. Interest is divided between the head of the Christ, which is down at the bottom, and the head of the Mother which is at the top, and the long drawn out figure of the Christ is either quite neglected or sends the eye clear off on a side track. This suggests another difficulty quite different from the first and yet allied to it. Not only do we want the group to be massive and stable because it is stone and has the weight and brittleness of stone, but we also want the group to be so massed that all that is of interest can be seen by the eye at once and without serious effort. We have seen how care-fully Leonardo sought this unified grouping in painting. It will not do for a moment for the artist merely to follow nature. Nature has no such exigencies. Not only are her figures made of something very unlike stone, but she can group and re-group at ease so that momentary deviation from this principle of compactness and visual unity does not trouble us. Living beings keep moving, and tell us through their motion what statues must tell us through repose. An artist may scatter his statues and make them look as though they were running about, but they will not run about, and he will not get the meaning that actual running about might convey. On the other hand, he will lose the meaning that he might secure through concentration and repose.
Whatever Michelangelo’s theories on this subject, he feels the need, and at the same time realizes the difficulty of meeting it. He must have a compact mass, broad of base, and with interest concentrated within the range of a single glance. Yet it is difficult to group a dead man and a living woman in this way. When we stop to think of it, we are startled at what Michelangelo has done. The figure of the dead Christ is placed in the mother’s lap. It is an uncanny thought to translate that back into life. Imagine any possible circumstances in which a woman should hold the body of a man, no matter how beloved, in her lap. To a spectator it would be intolerable, the very limit of the inappropriate and the unpleasant. It is safe to say that such a thing would never happen. Yet by some strange necromancy, Michelangelo has done this without arousing these unpleasant suggestions. How has he done it ?
First of all, he has obviously changed the proportions of the two figures. A man is in general considerably larger and heavier than a woman, yet in this case it is clear that the re-verse is true. The figure of the mother is colossal and that of the Christ relatively small, yet this never occurs to us until we begin to analyze. Michelangelo perfectly knew that he was doing this, and yet seemed to realize that it could be done with impunity. As a matter of fact, it can be done, if the artist is skillful enough, without attracting notice. This the Greek understood perfectly. In the Parthenon Frieze we have men on horseback and men standing by their sides with their heads on the same level, the figure in the one case being twice the bulk of the other. Yet no one ever notices this except as the frieze is made the subject of analysis. It is a thing to be verified at a glance but never unpleasantly noticed. It is hard to tell just why this is possible in art. It is possibly due to the fact that we are accustomed to see the human figure represented in all possible scales, from tiny book illustrations up to heroic sized figures. We acquire the habit of instantly translating them into their usual size in our thought. This habit sufficiently acquired, we are able at last to do it with figures standing side by side. We never look at a picture in a book and say, “What a little man.” We think of him as full size. This advantage is often a godsend to the artist, as in the case before us.
With this difference of proportion, the sense of intolerable burden is greatly relieved, but this alone would not accomplish the purpose. Michelangelo has resorted to another method, which in its subtlety of perception discloses him at once as an artist gifted with every resource. He has clothed the figure of the mother with voluminous drapery enormously massive and heavy. These garments spread out broadly at the base, furnishing the great mass of the group, giving it that breadth and tapering form which is the ideal to suggest to the mind the stability and repose which we long for in the static arts always, and most of all in those whose material is ponderous and heavy. But it is obvious that a woman clothed in very heavy garments could not better bear a weight than if clothed lightly. The garments rather form an additional burden. It is strange that these massive draperies should relieve our mind, which is troubled really only by suggestion drawn from life and not from stone at all. And here is where the juggling of our minds has to be reckoned with. As we said before, when we look at a statue we have a double consciousness. We think man and we think stone. Or rather, if we do not think these things, they are in the back-ground of our mind as perfectly realized facts. They are totally distinct of course. A man is not a stone, and a stone is not a man, but the mind does not entirely distinguish them. If we so build a stable mass with drapery, or no matter what, the mind will have a feeling of stability and assurance as it gazes upon the mass of stone, and that will counteract the feeling of intolerable burden or weight suggested in connection with persons. Michelangelo has splendidly massed his group and given to it what we may call stone stability. Our stone consciousness feels in an instant that this great mass can bear up anything. Our person consciousness is not satisfied, but these two are more or less merged in our feeling, and so the stone draperies that could support a building seem to help the frail woman’s form to bear this heavy burden. Such juggling goes on continually, and the artist who is resourceful continually takes advantage of the stone consciousness to help out the person consciousness, thus deviating widely from nature for the very reason that art is not nature and that the conditions of its expression are peculiar to it.
Certain other things about this remarkable group deserve recognition. The extreme deadness of the figure of the Christ, for instance, the complete relaxation of the muscles where the drooping arm presses against the supporting hand of the mother, the limpness of the whole figure, so difficult to represent where the artist ordinarily has only the living and therefore the unrelaxed model to give him his suggestion. Michelangelo inaugurated the extraordinary practice of studying not only the nude model but the corpse in the dissecting room, feeling that only by this more fundamental knowledge of structure could the artist really appreciate and accurately discern the outer appearance of things. The attitudes, in turn, are marvellously expressive’ if we perhaps except that deeper pathos in the face which we miss only because elsewhere he, and he alone, revealed it to us.
With the completion of this remarkable group, whose mastery is equally apparent in the study of figure and life, and in the perfect knowledge of the demands of his material, Michelangelo’s fame was established for all time. It has been a hardy critic who since that day has dared to challenge Michelangelo’s claim to supremacy in the world of art. Certainly that supremacy was completely granted by his contemporaries. Even the lack that we perhaps feel in the statue was not felt then, for it is only the later Michelangelo that has taught the world to crave something more.
One incidental result of the completion of the Pietà was fraught with consequences so vast for the artist and his subsequent career, as to completely overshadow the intrinsic importance of the work itself. It was this work which attracted to Michelangelo the attention of the newly elected pope, the great Julius II, one of the most remarkable characters of this remarkable age, and one destined to be indissolubly bound up with the artist in the memory of posterity. The relation between these two men and the works which were its result, may best be considered together in another chapter. The relation, however, had its vicissitudes and the resulting commissions suffered serious interruption. It was in one of these interruptions that Michelangelo executed the single remaining work which may be assigned to this technical period, namely, the colossal David (C 448).
The production of this statue from a mishewn and abandoned block of marble has been often narrated and need not be repeated here. The block of marble, which belonged to the city, had been the occasion of numerous previous proposals and had possibly acquired something of the character of a prize or mark of recognition. When Michelangelo, preceded by the fame of the great Pietà, returned to Florence in 1501, there was no hesitation in assigning it to him. The seemingly unfavorable character of the marble added to the fame of his great achievement. He did in fact utilize the possibilities of the stone to the full. We can perhaps best allude in this connection to a remarkable characteristic in Michelangelo’s organization which profoundly affected his work. He seems to have had a remarkable power of visualization. We all have a certain power of picturing from memory or imagination, but these mental pictures ordinarily fall far short of actual vision in definiteness and permanency. They are the source of every artist’s inspiration, but their suggestions are for the most part fugitive and must be held fast by rapid sketches in pencil or wax which are later elaborated, with endless compromise of other visions, to a point where they permit of permanent representation. It is for this reason that so few works of art have the directness and spontaneity of actual experiences. They are compromises between many dim mental pictures rather than the adequate expression of a single mental vision.
Michelangelo seems to have had a definiteness and intensity of mental vision far beyond the normal and approaching to the vividness of actual vision, and this was associated with a visual memory so perfect that a picture once outlined to the mind, he could hold it fast indefinitely. The result was that to a large extent he was able to dispense with preliminary sketches and models and to project his mental vision into the stone as a sufficient guide for his chisel. As he did all the cutting of the marble himself, he not only dispensed with much preliminary labor, but was able to conceive a statue, if not more naturalistic, at least far more unified and harmonious than would otherwise have been possible. It was by virtue of this extraordinary faculty that he was able to see in this misshapen block the figure which so completely utilized its possibilities.
The statue, as is well known, represents a youth in the initial act of throwing a stone with a sling. This attitude is unusual and often misunderstood, simply because the action is unusual and little understood. Learned critics have completely misconstrued it, because they did not, like Michelangelo, watch a boy throw stones with a sling. To analyze that action and show Michelangelo’s conformity to it, would be a profitless task. Hardly more important is the much mooted question whether the proportions of the body are correct. The critic may again be counseled to measure, as the artist did, instead of guessing, as the artist almost certainly did not. Michelangelo never hesitated to depart from nor-mal proportions when he had a purpose in so doing, but he seems here to have had no such purpose, and it is doubtful if he so departed. The artist’s mastery of the science of the nude is confessedly complete, but enthusiasm on the part of the uninitiated is so closely akin to affectation that it is safer to admire in silence.
But conceding the utmost that may be claimed for the perfection of this figure, what of it ? The studio will smile superiorly at such a question. Not to know that the perfect rendering of the human figure is the very substance of art ! Indeed ! But if the mere rendering of the figure is art, Michelangelo, at least, did not think so. Of the hundreds of figures which we have from his hand, scarce one lays emphasis upon the figure as such. Always it is something more, some-thing done, some mood suggested by attitude or act. His figures are infinitely perfect, but they are a mere language for suggesting other and higher things. Into this series of soul revealing figures the David scarcely enters. Beyond the perfect rendering of the figure it reveals to us nothing more significant than a boy’s way of throwing a stone. There are a score of nudes in the Sistine Ceiling that are infinitely greater art, because they are vehicles of great spiritual moods, and not mere studies of figure.
We are not disparaging ; we are explaining. Michelangelo had returned to the most technically expert audience in the world with fame won in other parts. In Florence he had served his apprenticeship, and now, like the journeyman of the olden trades, he had returned to pass his examination as master, before this jury of his peers. The David was a test subject in the work of many artists, Donatello, Verocchio, and others. The David is his demonstration of skill. For a great revelation of prophecy or beauty this is not the place. The David is in art what the thesis for a doctor’s degree is to the great literature of scholarship, merely a demonstration of skill.
The candidate passed the examination. The David in Florence, like the Pietà in Rome, established the sculptor’s fame upon unshakable foundations. These two works mark the end of the first great period in Michelangelo’s career.
They show the culmination of his skill, the complete mastery of the technique of his art. They do not convey to us his great message. Thenceforth it is no longer a question what this man can do ; it is only a question what he will choose to do. That choice was forthwith to be revealed.