Michelangelo stands at the very summit of human fame, or celebrity as we now call it. His position is secure among that very small band of individuals—Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart, da Vinci and so on—who seem to tower over history, much as one imagines the Colossus of Rhodes, and whose status is commonly given a universal, transcendental character.1 Remarkably, he attained this pinnacle within his own lifetime, as a glance at Giorgio Vasari’s contemporary Lives of the Artists testifies, when he was ranked even higher than da Vinci in the genius stakes (though I think it is fair to say that da Vinci has subsequently outdistanced him a little, thanks to helicopters, the Mona Lisa and Dan Brown) and it is probably now close to unassailable as far as the wider culture is concerned, as opposed to the specialism of art history.
Such a reputation is, of course, a decidedly mixed blessing. One downside of it, becoming the object of endless banality, has been fixed forever in a single line by TS Eliot in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.” And it is almost enough to deter one from even attempting to write on the man. Another is the indignity, shared with Van Gogh, of being Irving Stoned (in The Agony and the Ecstasy) and then being played in the film of the same name by Charlton Heston (a fate Van Gogh was mercifully spared) opposite Pope Rex Harrison. Naturally such appropriation by the world of capitalist kitsch has brought with it a corresponding rejection from the avant garde. An elderly and very austere artist friend of mine, a systems painter from the 60s, tells me he detests Michelangelo’s grandiloquence and much prefers Verrocchio. According to Robert Hughes, Barnett Newman once said, “I thought our quarrel was with Michelangelo,” prompting Hughes’s riposte: “Well, bad luck, Barney. You lost”.2
Nevertheless, despite Eliot’s implied warning and despite the vast amount of guff written on the subject, it is precisely this question of Michelangelo’s exalted standing that I wish to investigate in this article, not in order to challenge or undermine it, for as we shall see I basically think it is justified, but in order to help explain it and place it on a less transcendental, more solid, more earthly, more historical foundation. The investigation will focus on, and move between, several related questions: (1) What explanations can be offered as to the causes and nature of Michelangelo’s reputation and his artistic achievement? (2) What is the relation between Michelangelo’s art and history? (3) What is the nature of Michelangelo’s response to that history as seen in his art? Which amounts to offering a certain “interpretation” or way of looking at that art. Obviously no attempt or claim is made to offer complete or definitive answers to any of these questions—one of them alone would require a book—but it is hoped that these tentative and rather speculative observations can nonetheless move the discussion onto more fruitful ground.
The dead end of “genius”
The existing ground is not very fertile. The story begins, of course, in Renaissance Florence with the widely expressed view that Michelangelo’s achievements were attributable to, and explicable in terms of, divine inspiration. How literally this was believed is hard to tell but Vasari spells it out in some detail:
While industrious and choice spirits, aided by the light afforded by Giotto and his followers, strove to show the world the talent with which their happy stars and well-balanced humours had endowed them, and endeavoured to attain to the height of knowledge by imitating the greatness of Nature in all things, the great Ruler of Heaven looked down and, seeing these vain and fruitless efforts and the presumptuous opinion of man more removed from truth than light from darkness, resolved, in order to rid him of these errors, to send to earth a genius universal in each art, to show single-handed the perfection of line and shadow, and who should give relief to his paintings, show a sound judgment in sculpture, and in architecture should render habitations convenient, safe, healthy, pleasant, well-proportioned, and enriched with various ornaments. He further endowed him with true moral philosophy and a sweet poetic spirit, so that the world should marvel at the singular eminence of his life and works and all his actions, seeming rather divine than earthy.3
But unless one believes in this kind of personally interventionist god, this is not very helpful (and if one does, further explanation, certainly of the kind I shall attempt, seems superfluous). Three hundred and fifty years later and the level of analysis had not advanced:
Each supreme artist whom God hath sent into the world with inspiration and a particle of the imperishable fire, is a law unto himself… Michelangelo belongs to the genus of deep, violent, colossal, passionately striving natures; not to like Raffaello…to the smooth…calmly perfect tribe.4
In the second half of the 20th century Ernst Gombrich, unable or unwilling to invoke god, simply substitutes genius and throws up his hands:
The beginning of the sixteenth century, the Cinquecento, is the most famous period of Italian art, one of the greatest periods of all time. This was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, of Raphael and Titian, of Correggio and Giorgione, of Dürer and Holbein in the north, and of many other famous masters. One may well ask why it was that all these great masters were born in the same period, but such questions are more easily asked than answered. One cannot explain the existence of genius. It is better to enjoy it.5
If we are not getting very far in terms of explaining Michelangelo’s existence, maybe we can do better when it comes to establishing the nature of his achievement. We can again go back to Vasari and this time we find not religious mysticism but fairly clearly defined technical criteria:
Design is the imitation of the most beautiful things in Nature in all forms, both in sculpture and in painting, and this quality depends on having the hand and the skill to transfer with great accuracy and precision everything the eye sees to a plan or drawing…and the same is true for relief in sculpture. And then the most beautiful style comes from constantly copying the most beautiful things…
Neither Giotto nor those early artisans did this…But the man who wins the palm among artists both living and dead, who transcends and surpasses them all, is the divine Michelangelo Buonarroti, who reigns supreme not merely in one of these arts but in all three at once.6
Unpick this statement and we find three definite claims:
(1) Michelangelo is supreme by virtue of his technical skill. (2) Technical skill consists in the classical notion of “mimesis”, accurately copying nature. (3) The key thing is to copy, “imitate” beautiful things. That Gombrich, essentially, follows this view can be seen from the fact that he entitles the chapter of The Story of Art dealing with the early 15th century (Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, Van Eyck, etc) “The Conquest of Reality” and that on the early 16th (da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael) “Harmony Attained”, and we must remember that Gombrich spoke for whole generations of art historians in this.
Moreover it is clear that in these claims and in this narrative there is an important element of truth, both about the development of art as a whole at this time and specifically about Michelangelo. I for one would think it close to impossible to stand before the David in the Academia or the Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli—these giant statues carved from single blocks of marble—and not be awestruck at the level of sheer technical skill involved in their creation. Has any human ever lived more adept than Michelangelo in the carving of stone? However, it is equally necessary to question aspects of this account and to reject the notion that it is anywhere near the whole story.
First of all it is necessary to question whether Michelangelo’s prodigious skill in shaping stone (and paint) according to his will was in fact skill in “imitating” nature or representing “reality”. So hegemonic, in Western culture, has been the Renaissance view of these matters and so accustomed have we become to the element of truth in its claims to naturalism (for example, single point perspective and plastic shading) that we generally “miss” or leave unsaid the numerous really obvious ways in which this art is not naturalistic at all. For instance the David is an 18 foot high stone object which does not and cannot resemble in any way—dimensions, colour, texture, mobility—a 6th century BC shepherd boy, of whose actual appearance we have no knowledge whatsoever, and whose very existence is likely mythical. Likewise The Creation of Adam: of what could this possibly be a “naturalistic” or “realistic” representation? Even Adam’s muscles and God’s beard are idealised. When it comes to Jean Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, his simulacrum of a simulacrum with no underlying referent, Michelangelo beats CNN and the Gulf War any day.
But even if we set those sorts of consideration aside, and adopt the conventional usage of naturalism, neither Michelangelo’s own artistic trajectory nor his standing can satisfactorily be accounted for in these terms. On his death bed, aged 88, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “I am dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession.” Yet clearly, as he got older he moved further and further away from “technique” in the naturalist sense and more and more towards a “freer” and more “expressionist” handling of the stone. Compare an early and late work on a similar subject—the Pietà (or Deposition) in St Peter’s, Rome, made in his early twenties, with the Pietà in the Florentine Duomo, made in his eighties.
The first is a technical virtuoso piece, staggering in its ability to render the folds in Mary’s raiment and the veins on the back of Christ’s hand. The second is rough-hewn and “unfinished” and Christ is strangely missing his right leg. Yet to my eyes the later work has an artistic power and merit that far exceeds that of the earlier one. If Michelangelo’s artistic achievement rested primarily on technique and so-called naturalism he would stand with Holbein or Hals not, as he does, with Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Bach.
Thus we are compelled to leave the supposedly safe and objective waters of technical skill for the apparently subjective and dangerous waters of “interpretation”. We have to attempt to confront and deal with what Michelangelo or rather his work is actually saying. For understandable reasons many art historians and critics shy away from this in relation both to Michelangelo and art in general, but some fools rush in where angels fear to tread and there is no doubt some wonderful nonsense has been written on this score. For example, Rolf Schott in the Thames and Hudson monograph on Michelangelo writes:
The pressure of everyday existence has dimmed, for our generation, the memory of mankind’s divine origin. Michelangelo’s work is a visual statement of what the world has lost—the sense of wonder aroused by the mystery of human existence and human form.
As an artist, Michelangelo is impersonal. His visual work tells us nothing about the man himself or his environment.7
These lines make no sense even in their own terms, never mind as an interpretation of Michelangelo. Assuming “the world” once had a “sense of wonder aroused by the mystery of human existence and human form”, when did it have it and when was it lost? Was it around in the High Renaissance for Michelangelo to make a visual statement of it? Is it only our generation that has mislaid it and was this really due to “the pressure of everyday existence”? How can it possibly be true that “his visual work tells us nothing about the man himself or his environment”? If the only thing Michelangelo’s work told us, and it is not, was that the artist was very interested in the male body, that would be of some considerable significance.
The only reason for quoting Schott here (and Gombrich and Symonds) is that it seems to me that such writing, often high-flown but vacuous, sets the tone for how Michelangelo is perceived and received in our culture. Apart from seeing Michelangelo as primarily a “naturalist” the other major difficulty has been caused by seeing him as primarily a religious artist. Obviously he was a “believer”, a sincere Christian, and obviously much of the work was commissioned by the church and had overtly religious themes or subject matter—all of that went with the territory and the time. But it does not follow from this that the driving force of Michelangelo’s art was some pure and lofty spirituality, any more than piety was the dominant quality of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In my opinion there are few artists for whom Marx’s insights that “man makes religion, religion does not make man” and that “the earthly family is…the secret of the holy family” are more apposite and more essential.
Take, for example, the David. This is based on a Bible story but its motivation was thoroughly secular and “political”. It was commissioned in 1501 by the Operai of Santa Maria del Fiore (a sort of committee of public works) on behalf of the new republican government of Florence to celebrate the recent ousting of its Medici rulers and its independence from Sforza Milan and the Roman Papacy. The symbolism is obvious. In that the work also has a “deeper”, more universal reference and resonance this is because it is a humanist statement about “man”. (Clearly any such claim needs to be unpacked and this will be—a little later.)
Then there is the so-called Dying Captive or Dying Slave which now stands in the Louvre. The titles are posthumous attributions, not Michelangelo’s, and the work itself contains no indication that the young man is a slave or captive, except in some metaphorical sexual sense—a “love slave”—or that he is dying except in the sense of an orgasmic petit mort. Charles de Tolnay, an esteemed Michelangelo expert, says he is “a dreaming adolescent shaking off the bonds of sleep” and Charles Sala, following him, but edging a little further, says, “In fact this figure is not dying at all, but rather absorbed in a dreamlike state…somewhere between the languorous sensuality of an adoloscent ephebe and the wistfulness of a captive restrained none too convincingly”.8
These are degrees of evasion. The capacity of art historians not to see what is literally in their faces never ceases to amaze me, for this is blatantly a work of homoeroticism. I do not say that homoeroticism is all that it is about, but it is manifestly its driving force. And indeed the moment one casts aside the taboo and the four centuries old veil of hypocrisy it is manifest that homoeroticism is a major driver of Michelangelo’s art as a whole. Not only is the naked male body overwhelmingly the predominant motif, but there are several works which are not far off being mass orgies of male flesh (eg The Battle of the Centaurs, parts of The Last Judgement) and there are others, ostensibly religious in theme, where male nudes appear, in numbers, with no conceivable narrative or theological justification—there are four frontal male nudes in the background to The Holy Family, and more than 20 in the interstices of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This short piece cannot possibly do justice to the role of homoeroticism in Michelangelo’s work but I raise the issue simply to reinforce the point that religious subject matter does not guarantee or correspond to religious content. And no matter how pious the artist it does not preclude the art serving as a means to express thoroughly earthly concerns.
The revolution of the Renaissance
At this point I need to move swiftly from the negative to the positive, from what Michelangelo’s work was not to what it was. To do so I believe it is essential to see Michelangelo in relation to his times. By his times I do not mean, principally, events but the broader and deeper social forces at work in the society in which he lived. Some major works are occasioned by specific events—Picasso’s Guernica is the obvious example—but Picasso’s cubism and his whole way of painting and representing the world were conditioned by the social relations of capitalism in its imperialist phase, as was demonstrated by John Berger in his book The Success and Failure of Picasso and his article “The Moment of Cubism”. When Hyacinth Rigaud painted Louis XIV, he was painting not just the features or personality of the Sun King but the whole social institution of absolute monarchy. Moreover it is necessary to understand those times, those social forces, in a Marxist, ie historical materialist, way. Only the Marxist theory of history, that is a theory that sets out from the development of the forces and relations of production and their expression in class struggle, is able to identify correctly the underlying forces at work in a society and to which artists in general, but especially great artists, respond.
It is, I suppose, necessary to insist at this point that this methodology is not a reductionist or economic determinist one. The artist—Michelangelo or whoever—is not denied their creativity, originality or personal vision, based on their unique experience. Least of all are they seen as simple vehicles or ciphers for class interests or class ideologies. (It is true that the Althusserian Nicos Hadjinicolaou propounded a view close to this in his Art History and Class Struggle, but this not the kind of Marxism or the kind of art history I propose.) The artist is an individual human being who not only reflects the wider society but actively responds to it, often critically, but what the artist responds to has to be part of the analysis and, generally speaking, the greater the artist the more profoundly they will engage with the deep social forces, rather than just superficial appearances, of their moment in history.
In the case of Michelangelo the best starting point for grasping his situation is a quotation from Frederick Engels in what may seem an unlikely location, namely the Introduction to The Dialectics of Nature. Engels is discussing the birth of modern science, not art, but it remains extraordinarily relevant:
Modern natural science dates, like all more recent history, from that mighty epoch which we Germans term the Reformation, from the national misfortune that overtook us at that time, and which the French term the Renaissance and the Italians the Cinquecento, although it is not fully expressed by any of these names. It is the epoch which had its rise in the last half of the 15th century. Royalty, with the support of the burghers of the towns, broke the power of the feudal nobility and established the great monarchies, based essentially on nationality, within which the modern European nations and modern bourgeois society came to development.
In the manuscripts saved from the fall of Byzantium, in the antique statues dug out of the ruins of Rome, a new world was revealed to the astonished West, that of ancient Greece: the ghosts of the Middle Ages vanished before its shining forms; Italy rose to an undreamt-of flowering of art, which seemed like a reflection of classical antiquity and was never attained again. In Italy, France, and Germany a new literature arose, the first, modern literature; shortly afterwards came the classical epochs of English and Spanish literature…
The dictatorship of the Church over men’s minds was shattered; it was directly cast off by the majority of the Germanic peoples, who adopted Protestantism, while among the Latins a cheerful spirit of free thought, taken over from the Arabs and nourished by the newly-discovered Greek philosophy, took root more and more and prepared the way for the materialism of the 18th century.
It was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants—giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning. The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations. On the contrary, the adventurous character of the time inspired them to a greater or less degree. There was hardly any man of importance then living who had not travelled extensively, who did not command four or five languages, who did not shine in a number of fields. Leonardo da Vinci was not only a great painter but also a great mathematician, mechanician, and engineer…. Albrecht Dürer was painter, engraver, sculptor, and architect, and in addition invented a system of fortification… Machiavelli was statesman, historian, poet, and at the same time the first notable military author of modern times. Luther not only cleaned the Augean stable of the Church but also that of the German language… The heroes of that time had not yet come under the servitude of the division of labour, the restricting effects of which, with its production of onesidedness, we so often notice in their successors. But what is especially characteristic of them is that they almost all pursue their lives and activities in the midst of the contemporary movements, in the practical struggle; they take sides and join in the fight, one by speaking and writing, another with the sword, many with both. Hence the fullness and force of character that makes them complete men.9
This passage, without mentioning Michelangelo’s name, nonetheless fits him like glove, even down to the building of fortifications which he did for Florence in 1529. The key points are: (1) that the Renaissance is part of the birth of capitalism, or more precisely an episode in the transition from feudalism to capitalism; (2) that the transition from feudalism to capitalism is a lengthy and complex international process (not a series of separate national processes).
Capitalist production and capitalist social relations develop, at first slowly, within feudalism—in its interstices, as Marx put it, primarily in the medieval towns—and its social bearers, the bourgeoisie (originally the burghers or “townsmen”), are literally the middle class, subordinate to the feudal nobility, who are the dominant class, but superior to the peasants, artisans and fledgling proletarians or wage labourers. The bourgeoisie develops economically and culturally before it achieves political, ie, state power. The fairly prolonged period in which bourgeois power more or less rivals that of the aristocracy sees the rise of the absolute monarchs who raise themselves above the contending classes, playing them off against each other but ultimately preserving the old feudal regime. The bourgeoisie’s conquest of state power and establishment of full-blown capitalist states involves a series of struggles, revolutions and wars, in which there are victories and defeats, steps forward and steps back, over several centuries. The most important victories are the Dutch Revolt of 1568-1609 (and establishment of the Dutch Republic at the end of the 16th century), the English Revolution of 1642-7, the American Revolution of 1774-6 and the French Revolution of 1789-93.
The French Revolution, together with the contemporaneous Industrial Revolution in Britain, is decisive. The bourgeoisie will now rule the world though mopping up operations continue well into the 20th century.
The place of Florence in the early part of this story has been extensively documented by Frederick Antal in the first chapter of his classic study Florentine Painting and its Social Background:
The great economic power of Florence…grew up chiefly in the 12th century and expanded during the 13th and 14th centuries to dimensions unparalleled elsewhere in Italy or indeed Europe. Its foundations were threefold: the textile industry, the trade in textiles and other products, and banking… In all these industries it was no longer the master-craftsman but the capitalist entrepreneur, who disposed of the wares to the customer… The industry of Florence, particularly the cloth industry and the international trade connected with it, was undoubtedly the most important enterprise of an early capitalist character in the whole of the later Middle Ages… The same Florentine citizens who were the world’s greatest industrialists and merchants were also its chief bankers.10
This was the economic foundation of the Renaissance, Early and High, and it should be noted that the association of artistic “golden ages” with periods of spectacular wealth is common in the history of art—Venice just after Florence, Antwerp and then Amsterdam in the late 16th and 17th centuries, Paris in the 19th and early 20th, New York after the Second World War and even, in a small way, London in the 1980s and 1990s, are all examples. Arnold Hauser puts it thus:
The new artistic culture first appears on the scene in Italy because this country also had a lead over the West in economic and social matters, because the revival of economic life starts here, the financial and transport facilities of the crusades are organised from here, free competition first develops here, in opposition to the guild ideal of the Middle Ages, and the first European banking system arises here, because the emancipation of the urban middle class takes place here earlier than in the rest of Europe.11
Properly to outline the interconnections between this economic development and the specific art of Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Ucello, Donatello, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli and so on is beyond the scope of this article, but certain general features can be outlined. The most fundamental thing is that this art of the 14th and 15th centuries achieves—I’m tempted to say wins or forges for you can see it developing painting by painting, artist by artist—the three-dimensional space, within and behind the picture frame, within which can be depicted urban and rural spaces, solid objects and, above all, human actions and human personalities. This is an optimistic art characterised by “freedom and effortlessness of expression…grace and elegance” which serves as a visual accompaniment to the rise of humanist philosophy.12 The sense in which the work of Leonardo, Raphael and the younger Michelangelo constitutes the culmination of this process is clear.
Overall the birth of capitalism in its early stages (and this is true in Italy, in the Netherlands, in England, in America and in France) is experienced by the mass of people, and especially the middle and lower middle classes, from which most artists and intellectuals spring, as a massive expansion in human freedom, a liberation from the restrictions, bonds and superstitions imposed by the church and the feudal aristocracy who were, of course, close ideological and practical allies, and thus a huge emancipation of the human personality. Two works by Michelangelo, the David and The Creation of Adam, express this more clearly, more powerfully and more beautifully than, perhaps, any others in European history.
As we have already noted the David was commissioned as a work celebrating political liberty in a quite definite sense, but just as Picasso’s Guernica was painted in response to a particular war crime but has emerged as a statement about the crime of war in general, so the David has been pretty generally read as a statement about “man”. The “perfection” of the body and its sheer scale guarantee that is seen as a celebration, but there is more to it than that. Unlike his predecessors in sculpting this subject, Donatello and Verocchio, who show David after the defeat of Goliath with the giant’s head at his feet, Michelangelo shows David before the battle, thus providing a basis in the narrative for David’s frowning forehead and making it a work which looks to the future in anticipation of the decisive struggle.
Moreover the David is not in fact in “perfect” proportion; the head and hands, especially the right hand holding the stone, are slightly too large and this has the effect of making David a brain as well as a body and a doer and maker as well as an object of desire. Thus what the David celebrates is not “man” as he is, but a vision of the whole man that he has the potential to become. As Gramsci says, “in putting the question ‘what is man?’ what we mean is: what can man become? That is, can man dominate his own destiny, can he ‘make himself’, can he create his own life?”.13
The Creation of Adam depicts the moment god brings Adam to life but visually it is Adam, not god, who is the “star” of the painting and indeed of the whole Sistine ceiling. This is very much a humanist creation. The predominance of this panel over all the others, visually as well as in historical reputation, is both because of its content (the “moment” of creation) and because it is the panel with most sky and therefore most light, and because of the clarity of its forms in their semi-symmetrical composition. This semi-symmetry also hints at the potential always latent in the biblical notion of god creating man in his own image, namely the materialist (Feuerbachian, then Marxist) reversal whereby man creates god in his own image. But “man” who creates god is “man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again” (Marx) and the god he creates is a dream, an idealised fantasy of what he might become. When god (Michelangelo) creates man he creates him as a young man in his prime, and when man (Michelangelo) creates god he creates him as a wise and benevolent old man.
The possibility of a homoerotic reading of this scene is, or should be, obvious. God and Adam yearn for each other. But this homoerotic element actually contributes to the “universality” of the image. In Michelangelo (and up to now I have simply reflected this without comment) the male figure/”man” represents or “stands for” humanity. This could hardly be otherwise in such a male-dominated society, and was indeed general practice, at least linguistically, until well into the 1970s. However, when I look at Adam (and this also applies, though less strongly, to the David) I think Michelangelo’s homoeroticism has “softened” his depiction. He is a beautiful, but not a macho, man. There is Hegel’s profound dialectic of master and slave at work here. The slave is freer than the slave owner. Mankind is represented by the despised gay man.
History’s door slams shut
However, as we move from the Sistine ceiling to the wall behind the altar, ie The Last Judgement, we enter a different emotional world. The frescos on the ceiling participate in the same humanist optimism as Leonardo or even Giotto before them. The Last Judgement is a work of extreme anguish. Only a quarter to a third of the fresco, the top least visible part, shows those raised up by Christ to heaven and no particular attempt is made to depict their eternal joy. Two thirds of it focuses on the torments, mainly mental, of the damned. Hauser writes:
It is no longer a monument of beauty and perfection, of power and youth, that arises here, but a picture of bewilderment and despair, a cry for redemption from the chaos which suddenly threatens to swallow up the world of the Renaissance…
bq. The Last Judgement…is the first important artistic creation which is no longer “beautiful” and which refers back to those medieval works of art which were not yet beautiful but merely expressive.14
Nor is The Last Judgement a one-off. All Michelangelo’s major artworks that follow it—the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter frescos, the Florentine Pietà, and his last work, the Rondanini Pietà, share a similar gloomy, perhaps tragic, atmosphere. By Renaissance standards these pieces might be judged wanting—they are not beautiful depictions of beautiful things, and they certainly lack “perfection” or “harmony”—but I think they are among his finest art. I see affinities here with the Shakespeare of King Lear and The Tempest, and the Rembrandt of The Jewish Bride and the late self-portraits.
The question, however, is what produced the profound change in mood. For those disposed to the biographical approach to art history there is an obvious answer: the onset of old age and the approach of death. And there is clearly some truth in this, especially in the case of the Rondanini Pietà, on which he was working to within days of his death. It cannot, however, be anything like the whole story because, as Hauser has shown, Michelangelo’s shift in style is part of a much wider shift in style in Italian and to some extent, European art—the move to Mannerism. We need therefore to look again to the wider society, to history.15
What happened between the ceiling (1508-12) and the wall (1535-41)?
Lots of “events” certainly. Many great artists died: Botticelli, da Vinci, del Sarto, Giorgione, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Corregio, as well as Holbein, Durer, Grünewald and Bosch outside Italy. In 1512 Cardinal Giovanni de Medici with the aid of papal troops restored Medici rule in Florence, ending a period of republican democracy under Piero Soderini (and Niccolò Machiavelli). In 1527 the forces of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V defeated Rome and sacked the city, after executing one thousand of its defenders.
Faced with this development, the citizens of Florence seized the opportunity to overthrow their Medici rulers for the second time (the first was in 1494) and to re-establish their republic. Michelangelo rallied to their support and in 1529 accepted a commission to design the city’s fortifications. But Pope Clement VII made a deal with Charles V to use the emperor’s troops to recapture Florence and return it to Medici hands. In 1533 Alessandro de Medici was created Duke of Florence, bringing an end to the republic and inaugurating 200 years of hereditary Medici rule. The sacking of Rome and the defeat of Florence effectively bring the Renaissance to an end (except for the late Titian in Venice).
While all this is happening in Italy, Luther has launched the Reformation in Wittemburg in 1517 and this has led to the German Peasant War of 1525, in which Luther sided with the aristocracy in ferociously crushing the peasant revolt he had himself called forth. In response to the Reformation came the Counter-Reformation: humanism was eclipsed, and Pope Paul III revived the Holy Inquisition (1542) and convened the Council of Trent (1545) to repel the Protestant threat. And, most importantly in the long run, the opening up of the Americas, following Columbus, combined with the Ottoman threat in the eastern Mediterranean, following the fall of Byzantium, moved the economic centre of gravity of Europe from the Mediterranean to the north west and the Atlantic Seaboard.
But it is not so much the events as their wider import that is crucial here. Let us recall that it was Florence’s (and Italy’s) role as pioneer of capitalism in Europe that was the economic and social foundation of the Renaissance. Then let us also recall that Italy did not at all maintain its leading position, economically or socially. Italy did not produce a bourgeois democratic revolution, did not make the transition to a fully fledged capitalist state, did not even find the “leader” that Machiavelli called for in The Prince to unify the nation, until the Risorgimento in the mid-19th century and consequently experienced centuries of relative cultural decline—Giotto, da Vinci and Michelangelo gave way to Canaletto and Canova—while economic and cultural supremacy passed north to the Netherlands and England.
The early 16th century was thus a crucial turning point in the history of Italy, and also Germany as Marx and Engels were to explain, and therefore of Europe and the world. It was one of those moments when the door of history begins, tantalisingly, to open, inviting us to step through into a golden future, only to slam shut in our faces. The closest parallel I can think of is the 1920s and 1930s when the hopes aroused by the Russian Revolution were dashed and ended in the nightmare of Stalinism and fascism. Michelangelo’s late works were produced in the early modern “Midnight of the Century” (the phrase is Victor Serge’s). In fact the next major wave of the struggle, the international struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism, was only a couple of decades and a few hundred miles away—the Dutch Revolt began two years after Michelangelo’s death—but neither he nor anyone else could possibly have had any sense of this at the time.
This raises the question of how much of the history I have been talking about Michelangelo would have been aware of and how it would have influenced his work. Clearly, he could not have been conscious of the terms that I have been using (feudalism, capitalism, bourgeoisie, etc) at all—this kind of analysis only becomes possible with Marx. Moreover, Michelangelo was a professional artist who depended, to live and to work, on commissions from Medicis and popes and who, in order to survive, had often to keep his counsel and sometimes make his excuses and leave. But we do know where his sympathies lay.
We know that the young Michelangelo was sympathetic to Savonarola, the Dominican priest and popular democrat who led Florence from 1494 till he was deposed by the pope and the Medicis and burned at the stake in 1498. We know that he was often in conflict with his Medici and papal masters and that he supported the Florentine Republic of 1527, leaving the city in disgust when Medici rule was restored. We know that in later life his “platonic” friendship with Vittoria Colonna in Rome involved much discussion of “Lutheran”-type ideas, which were regarded as heretical by the papacy. He would therefore most certainly have been sensitive to the changed political, moral and cultural climate. After all it resulted in the painting over of the genitals in The Last Judgement on the orders of Pope Paul IV in 1559!
But it so happened that Michelangelo produced, during these years, a series of major works, among the greatest in his whole output, which express with exceptional intensity this moment in history. These works are the so-called “slaves” or “captives”. The first two, the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, both from 1513, are still close on form and spirit to David and Adam. But then between 1519 and 1533 came Atlas, the Young Slave, the Bearded Slave and the Awakening Slave, who in age, size and physique are nearer to the Christ of The Last Judgement. They were all intended for the tomb of Julius II whose centrepiece was to be the awesome Moses, and they are all left “unfinished”. Their unfinished character gives rise to one of those art-historical disputes that has not been, and probably cannot be conclusively resolved. Why are they unfinished? Are they unfinished because Michelangelo was obliged, by circumstances beyond his control, to leave them that way? Did he consciously, or unconsciously, choose not to finish them? In which case, are they really unfinished? If he really wanted to produce finished work, why did he not finish one of the series before starting on the next? My personal inclination is to believe they were deliberately left as they are because they are so powerful that way.
Anyway, conscious or unconscious, intended or unintended, the effect is the same—four giant figures struggling for freedom from the stone but still held captive by it. And they do not just capture the essence of that moment. They also make a powerful statement about human history and the struggle for human emancipation as a whole. For today, nearly 500 years later, we are still slaves fighting for our freedom, and still gripped by the rock of class society, alienation and “the muck of ages”.
Now the question posed at the beginning of this paper—on what does Michelangelo’s status as a giant of human history and culture rest—has received an answer. It is by no means a comprehensive answer—many aspects of Michelangelo, such as his architecture, and many of his works—have been neglected, but hopefully it grasps the main point. In his work as a whole Michelangelo expressed, more than any other artist, the hope and the dream of the Renaissance, and the despair and misery of the betrayal and crushing of that dream. And as always the art that penetrates most deeply into, and responds most powerfully to, the social relations and forces of its time is also the art that achieves the greatest “universal” appeal and validity.
1: Images of all the works referenced in this article can be found at www.abcgallery.com/M/michelangelo/michelangelo.html
2: For what Newman actually wrote on the subject see Newman, 1992.
3: Vasari, 1991, p414.
4: Symonds, 1911, voume 2, p174
5: Gombrich, 1978, pp217-218.
6: Vasari, 1991, pp277-278, 280.
7: Schott, 1975, p7.
8: Charles de Tolnay, cited in Sala, 1995, p170.
9: Engels, 1883.
10: Antal, 1948, pp11-13.
11: Hauser, 1999, volume 2, pp9-10.
12: Hauser, 1999, volume 2, p7.
13: Gramsci, 1971, p351.
14: Hauser, 1999, volume 2, p105.
15: Hauser, 1965, especially pp4-16.
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