Sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is probably the most famous artist ever to live, and his most famous works all depict man as a beautiful creature made for great things and deserving to rejoice in his own majesty. The heroic male nude was Michelangelo's lifelong preoccupation: Its most celebrated expressions are his fourteen-foot-tall marble David, which occupied the most prominent place in Florence's Piazza della Signoria for over three hundred years before it was moved indoors to the Accademia, and his painting Creation of Adam, which is the showpiece of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes in the Vatican. The sheer physical beauty of David and Adam is unsurpassed, so that one wonders if people looking at them today see anything more than ripped abdomens and peerless proportions.
For Michelangelo, however, the body's beauty is the way into the soul. Rippling sinew bespeaks spiritual force; the breadth of chest and the contour of hip sketch a human endowment that is far richer than flesh alone. The heroic demonstrates what is possible for man and displays the full extent of his reach. Beauty of this order makes demands on the beholder. Rainer Maria Rilke ends his poem on the Belvedere Torso -- a mutilated but superb remnant of a male figure in marble from the first century -- with the sternest yet most joyous of imperatives: "You must change your life." Rilke was exhorting his readers not to up the weight on their bench presses but to live nobly.
Michelangelo, for his part, observed of the Belvedere Torso, "This is the work of a man who knew more than nature." Nature and antiquity were touchstones for Michelangelo. At least for a time, his supreme ambitions were to make something more beautiful than nature and to excel those artists of classical antiquity who showed it could be done.
From these ambitions emerged Michelangelo's most renowned works, which have come to embody the Renaissance. Reverence for and pleasure in the grandeur of man are Renaissance hallmarks. "Men can do all things if they will," declared Leon Battista Alberti, another Italian of many talents. Jacob Burckhardt's pathbreaking 1860 history, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, is an inspired elaboration of Alberti's motto. Burckhardt shows the multiform vitality of a time that elevated individual greatness -- artistic, intellectual, military, political -- above all else. Michelangelo, who seemed able to do anything he willed, was -- along-side Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli -- as great a man as the Renaissance produced.
Greatness is often a far cry from goodness, but, according to a new biography, Michelangelo was as good as he was great. James Beck's Three Worlds of Michelangelo takes the artist up to age thirty-eight and the completion of the Sistine ceiling. A professor of art history at Columbia, Beck writes "A handful of individuals in the history of Western culture have evolved into universal symbols for the entire civilization. They are, in effect, the civilization."
In today's academic world, which has no place for great men, these are fighting words, and it takes audacity even for a tenured professor to write them. To suggest, in addition, that such achievements might be the work of a man who should be called civilized -- that is, decent, humane, self-restrained, moral, good -- is to invite contempt. Everyone, inside and outside academia, knows that men of genius are ruthless, irascible, unloving, and demonic. Michelangelo's own reputation places him among that crowd, as a prototype of the Romantic artist-hero. Beck has his work cut out for him as he tries to rehabilitate Michelangelo's character.
To his contemporaries, Michelangelo was known for his terribilita, an untranslatable word that refers to both the awesome splendor of his work and the monumental crankiness of his life. Beck agrees entirely that there is terribilita in abundance in Michelangelo's art, but he prefers to think that the man who made such works was utterly different from the works he made. His Michelangelo was a thoroughly good man: devoted to his father and brothers, tender and loyal to friends, generous to fellow artists, chaste even in the face of strong erotic temptations, homosexual or heterosexual or both. For the most part, Beck makes a convincing case; the terribilita business, however, does not go away so easily.
The incident that really made Michelangelo's name as a terribile was a set-to he had with Pope Julius II. The pope had commissioned Michelangelo to make him a tomb like nobody else's; the artist's design contained some forty full-size sculpted figures, and he was bold enough to assert that the tomb would be the most extraordinary work of art ever made. Making it, however, proved more difficult than drawing it. When Michelangelo returned to Rome after eight months in the marble quarries of Carrara, he went to the pope in order to be reimbursed for delivery of a shipment of stone; the pope left him cooling his heels for a week, until finally a guard told him that he had been ordered not to admit him. Michelangelo told the guard that if the pope ever wanted him, he should look elsewhere than in Rome; the next morning, Michelangelo headed back to Florence. Papal couriers overtook him on the way, and presented him with a letter from the pope ordering him back to Rome. Michelangelo refused to go. It would be six months before Michelangelo asked the pope to forgive his stalking off. The tomb was never completed in anything like the planned form.
Beck argues, not without cogency, that Michelangelo left Rome out of fear that Julius had lost interest in the tomb, which was true, and that his life was in danger, which was not true. However, Beck's contention that Michelangelo simply behaved like "a cautious, sensitive person worried about his security and his career" is too much to swallow. It is far more likely that fear and anger both played their part in this episode, as Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo's sometime apprentice and his first biographer, remarked in Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors. By all accounts but Beck's, Michelangelo was a hothead. Vasari related that when someone -- possibly Pope Julius, in disguise -- sneaked into the Sistine Chapel as Michelangelo was still working on the ceiling, the painter hurled planks from the scaffolding down at the intruder.
On another occasion, the pope impatiently demanded to know when Michelangelo would finish the ceiling, and Michelangelo impatiently responded, "When I can, Holy Father." Furious at this insolence, the pope struck Michelangelo with a staff, and told him he would make him finish the job soon enough; however, Vasari wrote, Julius presently thought better of his outburst, and sent an emissary to the artist with an apology and a handsome sum of money "to calm him down, as he was afraid that he would react in his usual unpredictable way." Michelangelo forgave the pope, with a genial laugh, but he was not always so forgiving.
Pope Paul III's master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, observed of Michelangelo's nearly completed Last Fudgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel that, with its numerous nude figures, it would look better on the wall of a tavern or a bathhouse. Taking revenge as only an artist can, Michelangelo painted Biagio's face on the figure of Minos, Prince of Hell; a pair of ass's ears appear on the unfortunate churchman's head and a snake coiled about his legs clamps its mouth around his penis.
So Beck, who calls his book "an interpretation of the personality of Michelangelo," gets the proportions wrong in portraying his hero; his Michelangelo is positively swollen with goodness. Vasari, on the other hand, acknowledged his master's flaws and still honored him as the best of men: God "determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, behavior, and in every endeavor, and he would be acclaimed as divine."
Where the human and the divine meet in Michelangelo's art, both the glories and the limitations of the human condition are revealed. The Creation of Adam shows the recumbent man and the deity virtually in parallel, and it is plain that Adam is made in God's image; yet there can be no mistaking who is master here. God is both tender and fearsome; His extended, life-giving right arm is like a lightning bolt that strikes with the utmost delicacy. Adam is as yet mere inert matter -- already beautiful but lacking vital force -- about to receive a soul. One discerns the immeasurable distance between Creator and creature in so slight a detail as their hands, which do not quite touch. Adam's outstretched arm looks as powerful as God's own, but it is limp-wristed, and his fingers are diffidently curled. The tip of God's right index finger, by contrast, is the focus of a masterful energy that gathers strength in a long diagonal and is discharged in a commanding gesture: Fiat homo. It is a gesture that can destroy as well as create. One sees it in a subsequent panel on the ceiling, as the angel wielding a sword drives Adam and Eve from Paradise. Human magnificence owes everything to God, and, once that truth is forgotten, man is never far from coming to grief.
God, too, partakes of that grief. The drawing of the Crucifixion that Michelangelo did in 1539 for Vittoria Colonna, a saintly widow whom he loved with ardent purity and whom Burckhardt calls "the most famous woman of Italy," is the finest rendering of Christ on the Cross done during the Renaissance. Painted by Cimabue and Giotto and Grunewald, sculpted by Ghiberti and Donatello, Christ just hangs there, dead: The Resurrection may be coming, but for now there is only death -- decorous and peaceful in Donatello's portrayal, gruesome beyond description in Grunewald's, but death in any event. Michelangelo's drawing, in which Christ is alive, depicts not only Christ's triumph over death but also the human struggle with life at its most frightful.
Michelangelo's Christ is tortured and haggard, but he is, nevertheless, unbroken. Brawnier than David, he looks as though he could wrench himself free of the nails. He twists his suffering body to relieve the terrible weight, yet he remains the image of heroic endurance. He casts his eyes toward heaven in agonized supplication, as a man, but in certainty of ultimate victory, as God. Most Renaissance crucifixions emphasize the defeated humanity of Christ, and leave his triumphant divinity to the viewer's pious imagination; Michelangelo's Christ suggests the promise of salvation, but also demonstrates the virtue most necessary for men as they struggle to be saved: fortitude. All men are to be strengthened by Christ's display of human strength. This Crucifixion is Michelangelo's subtlest heroic portrait: Human magnificence, exemplified by God become man, consists of the divine life good men will enjoy after death and the ability to endure the worst earthly trials undefeated.
Yet Michelangelo could not escape the fear that even heroic strength may not be enough; that fear is evident in the sculptures of the dead Christ that he carved in the 1540s and 1550s: the Florentine Pieta and the Palestrina Pieta. These are as different as can be from the signature piece that he made in his youth. In that early Pieta, Mary holds the dead Christ on her lap almost without effort; the effect is of an unearthly serenity.
In the Florentine Pieta, three people -- the Virgin seated, Mary Magdelene kneeling, and Nicodemus standing -- labor with all their might to keep the broken body of Christ from falling to the ground. A long, arcing, inexorably descending line runs from Christ's neck along his torso and thigh; his left arm plunges straight down from the shoulder; Mary's thigh and Christ's lower leg form a diagonal aimed sharply toward the earth. No human strength can long resist this downward pull; no human burden is heavier than that which man bears for having put God to death. In the Florentine Pieta, the holiest of human beings are on the verge of collapsing under the weight of human sinfulness. What, then, about the sinner? Not necessarily the wicked, but the good man with the usual failings -- what must he feel?
The answer is to be found in Michelangelo's poems. His poems can be so gnarled and knotty that even Italian editions provide paraphrases for the reader's benefit. Poets as great as Words-worth and Rilke have undertaken translations and given up. One is especially grateful then that John Frederick Nims, the author of eight books of poetry, former editor of the renowned magazine Poetry, who recently died at age eighty-five, saw the project of translating Michelangelo through to the end. In some 300 poems, mostly sonnets and madrigals, about 250 of them written during the last thirty years of his life, Michelangelo explored many aspects of the human condition, but always returned to what he considered its most significant feature: man's distance from God.
Much of Michelangelo's poetry can be characterized as thoughtfully erotic. Love, profane and sacred, is the predominant theme; passion provokes reflections on what sort of beings we are that we should have such feelings. Many of the poems are addressed to the hand-some and brilliant Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri, whom Michelangelo met in 1532, when he was fifty-seven and Cavalieri twenty-three. others are addressed to Vittoria Colonna, and some to an unknown "lady beautiful and cruel." There are flashes of exuberant carnality, as in his aching to holdmy long desired sweet lord, / in my unworthy but eager arms, for ever. There are moments of disenchantment and even disgust with sensual pleasure, its core of ash and gall. There are intimations of love that transcends the strictly personal and lifts one heaven-ward: Drawn to each lovely thing, my doting eyes. / Drawn to its heavenly destiny, my soul. / Both with the one same goal, / no way, but in treasuring loveliness, to rise.
But, ultimately, all those lovely things get in the way of the poet's deepest longing, which is for God. In these poems, the greatest artist of the human body finds himself wishing he were not encumbered by a body of his own. Reminding one of John Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, threeperson'd God," Michelangelo's sonnet "I wish I'd want what I don't want, Lord, at all" shows the poet's desire that God's love transform him into the kind of man who loves God as he should, without distraction or compromise.
Even art comes to seem a distraction, perhaps one fatal to the soul: Painting and sculpture soothe the soul no more, / its focus fixed on the love divine, outstretching / on the Cross, to enfold us closer, open arms. Life is short, and art is long; but eternity is a great deal longer, especially if you happen to be damned.
Michelangelo's own severity might seem unconscionable, miserable, or even mad; and one is relieved to find that Michelangelo continued to work on his sculpture almost to the last day of his long life. Still, the truth remains that one of the most remarkable of men found human magnificence simply not enough.
Jacob Burckhardt writes of the atrophy of religious feeling among the "intellectual giants" of the Renaissance: "The need of salvation thus becomes felt more and more dimly, while the ambitions and the intellectual activity of the present either shut out altogether every thought of a world to come, or else caused it to assume a poetic instead of a dogmatic form." Of Michelangelo, precisely the opposite was true. In this crucial respect, he was not a man of his time and place, but rather discovered in himself a need common to men of every time and place. And the answer to his need made even the David seem a slight thing.
Algis Valiunas is a writer living in Florida.