Michael Levey on Michelangelo, men and mankind
Through reproduction, if not in reality, the work of Michelangelo is now inescapable. His huge statue of David in Florence and his vast frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome are world famous and have been famous from the time they were created. Disseminated in every form of media, the David has finally shrunk to availability as a fridge magnet. More significantly testifying to the extent of Michelangelo's international repute was the support given to the restoration of the Sistine frescoes by Nippon Television. We still await Vatican support for comparable work on some great Shinto shrine. Yet for all their fame and familiarity, Michelangelo's achievements have often aroused and continue to arouse mixed emotions. Awe and admiration are not always accompanied by affection. One easily sees why. Regardless of its sometimes overwhelming scale, his art seems in its very accomplishment imbued with a chill, imperious, even arrogant air. And although poignancy lurks in his later, sometimes unfinished work, that too can be disturbing, with its sense of the artist's angry, pessimistic struggles for expression amid encroaching old age.
To such ambiguities James Hall is keenly alert. Indeed, his book is fuelled by an urge to probe the complex nature of Michelangelo's art and to account for our reactions to it. Novel solutions to questions previously supposed puzzling, or left uncertain, pepper his pages. So bold an enterprise, so boldly undertaken, is bound to provoke not merely thought but dissent. I would myself dissent from many of his interpretations. But he argues each case lucidly and interestingly, with an impressive array of references, ranging from obscure religious sources to Petrarch and Pater (good to see him favourably invoked). For the purpose of this review, it is important to stress the book's lively, engaging, jargonfree tone, making it accessible to any intelligent reader. Its very assertiveness is bracing and admirable in stimulating examination, or reexamination, of perhaps the most sheerly powerful mind in all Western visual art.
No one can dissent from the book's central thread and theme: that Michelangelo's art is exclusively concerned with the human body, the human body naked and male. He was fortunate to be born into a country and a religious culture permitting his private obsessions to find release in public depiction of a deity who was worshipped in the form of 'man' as opposed to woman a man who could be shown nude and beautiful, though also humiliatingly stripped, dying in agony on a cross. Creation of the first man, Adam, inspired Michelangelo to realise upon the Sistine ceiling a moment of visionary grandeur, a tremendous pictorial thunderclap, eternally resonating. Cramped, derivative and almost timid, by contrast, is the scene of subsequent creation, where from Adam's rib emerges an already suppliant Eve, the first woman.
Michelangelo's attitude to women, as apparent in his art, forms the subject of Hall's first chapter, 'Mothers'. A stony sense detectable in the Madonnas is there intriguingly linked less to the artist's personal psychology than to Florentine literary convention, notably to Dante's Rime Petrose (stony poems). By organising the book into a series of thematic chapters, Mr Hall has sensibly given himself the freedom to concentrate on those works which most excite him. The rich fricassee of bodies that is the Last Judgement fresco gets only cursory treatment, whereas he pauses to make pertinent observations about the never executed painting of the Battle of Cascina, and naturally tackles the major challenge presented by the Sistine ceiling frescoes. However explained, it still remains extraordinary that in the chapel of the Pope Michelangelo could introduce those pairs of naked athletes, the Ignudi, suggesting that his idea of heaven was the lockerroom after a team game.
'Benefactions' is an unexpected title for the chapter discussing the New Sacristy scheme at San Lorenzo in Florence. But Mr Hall offers a fresh interpretation of the famous statues of the two Medici Dukes, as embodying charity: Giulo about to dispense alms, Lorenzo "still weighing up the options ". Neither of those truly stony figures looks to me likely to descend and start dishing out money. Nor do I see the composite character Mr Hall detects in the David statue, with associations of him as "warrior and lover, hero and villain ". Altogether happier appears a later chapter, 'Humiliations', sensitively studying the closelyconnected subjects of the Crucifixion and the Pietà.
James Hall introduces his book with untypical portentousness, asserting that we need to understand Michelangelo, "if we really want to understand our culture". Why Michelangelo more than Mozart, say, or Shakespeare? Such claims anyway smack of popularist, BBCstyle approaches to artists of the past. And, paradoxically, Mr Hall has subverted his claim by demonstrating effectively that serious investigation of human creativity can be rewarding for its own sake.
Michelangelo and the reinvention of the human body is available from Amazon (UK)