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Michelangelo – The agony and ecstasy of a Genius

The agony and ecstasy of a Genius

The text below is the excerpt of the book Michelangelo, written by Eugene Müntz, published by Parkstone International.

Michelangelo was a complex, well-rounded artist of many talents who surpassed all his 16th-century peers. However, he was also born into a period favourable to the full forceful deployment of his genius thanks to the spadework of his predecessors. He was also a moody loner and workaholic. Very pious and spiritual, he was not immune to Savonarola’s fundamentalism and it influenced his oeuvre. The Last Judgment neatly illustrates the torment of an artist at death’s door. His many over-muscled macho nudes reflect homosexual tendencies which troubled him deeply and if Renaissance Florence tolerated this sexual orientation, the Vatican did not, thereby further aggravating his inner conflict.

Michelangelo-The Last Judgment
Full view of The Last Judgment, 1536-1541. Fresco.
Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

He also was lucky to experience first hand the wealth and freedom of the city’s elite and their lifestyle. The Popes, the Medici, and other prominent families were perfectly suited to their role of art patron, essentially driven by motives of vanity or pleasure for its own sake. This explains the high degree of trust and intimacy in the bonding between artists and their patrons. Of course, artists buttered their bread with commissions and even Michelangelo had to bend to their wishes – witness the tomb of Julius II that went unfinished over some forty years, plus the protracted renegotiations with his heirs.

Michelangelo-David
David (detail), 1504. Marble, height: 434 cm.
Galleria dell’Academia, Florence.

Since Michelangelo’s time, ‘Medici’, ‘Renaissance’, and ‘Florence’ are inextricably anchored in the collective mind. The Renaissance heralded the rise of reason. It was the triumph of logic, perfection, beauty, and the quest for ideal values. This was the context into which Michelangelo evolved and he would revolutionise art in the 16th century. The Renaissance was no exception to the inevitable bell curve of rise, zenith, and decline. Moreover, the foundation of schools responded to the need for rules and authority symptomatic of any institution that has topped out. As creative drive started tapering off, it was replaced with a set of rules and guidelines. A huge gap arose between the ancient guilds with vested interests or religious obligations and the new academies that were asserting their right to legislate standards for good taste. The Florentine school was founded in 1563 and headed by Vasari. The Renaissance started into the down-slope as Mannerism was getting into its upswing. Generally admitted to be a decadent form of Italian Renaissance art, Mannerism is the baseline for the start of the Late Renaissance. Mannerism took a tangent into France where it evolved into French Classicism.

Michelangelo- St Peter’s Basilica
View of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, Rome, 1546-1564.

In the late 15th century, Savonarola fought lust and libertine morals in a bid to steer Florentine civil society and the clergy back into acceptable standards of morality, a task that fell to the Vatican in the last half of the 16th century. Early in that century, Julius II wanted to tear down St Peter’s Basilica and commissioned Bramante to rebuild it, a project he financed through sale of indulgences only to attract all the fury of Martin Luther. In 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses threw Catholicism into a crisis which became the Reformation. Paul III responded by convening the Council of Trent in 1534 that launched the Counter-Reformation. By 1563, the Council had hammered out a decree for a cleaner church and government. Meanwhile, the Society of Jesus was founded as an arm of the papacy and it enabled development of a new emotionally charged art form called ‘Baroque’ or ‘Jesuit’ art. It thrived throughout the 17th century and was intended to stimulate a mystical approach to God (the term ‘Baroque’ first appeared only in the 19th century). Baroque is the art of sensory overload: it is a mix of wild imagination, boldness, eccentricity, luxuriant decors, hallucination, and sensuality. Michelangelo himself initiated this with his contorted torsos, action poses, and wide palette of colours. Based in Rome, Baroque became the official style of the Counter-Reformation; two leading artists of this period are Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Despite Bernini’s high reputation, King Louis XIV and his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert abandoned a costly project to have him rebuild part of the Louvre in Paris that had caught fire – after the artist had come to France. Cost aside, neither Frenchman wanted an art style that matched Vatican blessing and the French sovereign did not like to share the spotlight. As a result, Baroque never took hold in France but then again this art style disorients the ration-based balance-seeking Cartesian mindset of the French anyhow. Baroque is too playful and perhaps even pathologically imaginative.

19th century France was anti-Classical and anti-Baroque, even if Théodore Géricault did not hesitate to paint his Radeau de Méduse (1819) right after returning there after a month spent studying Michelangelo’s works in Florence. The intertwined bodies in that work distinctly recall those of Michelangelo. Finally, Auguste Rodin stands out as a worthy spiritual heir of Michelangelo, Bernini, and Antiquity. Like Michelangelo, Rodin became famous in his lifetime after dropping out of the Beaux Arts, the French national art school. Undaunted, he scraped together his art education single-handedly through long sessions at the Louvre Museum studying Michelangelo’s Slaves and the works of Antiquity – he, too, had a photographic memory. There is also the strong likeness of Rodin’s Man with a Broken Nose to Daniele da Volterra’s Portrait of Michelangelo based on the death mask. Like Michelangelo, Rodin aslo developed an affinity for muscular macho males in the nude. He left works unfinished, including his Bronze Age, which he abandoned in Brussels in 1875 to head for Italy early in the following year. He arrived in Florence in the midst of celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo’s birth right after inauguration of the Casa Buonarroti, entirely dedicated to the hometown hero’s works. Already 36 years old, Rodin was very impressed that the works he saw were the products of someone so young. He pored over the Medici Tombs, Bargello, and Accademia before continuing to view the masterpieces of Antiquity in Rome and Naples. It is fair to say that Michelangelo was Rodin’s master. They both manipulated body movement to enhance the expression of emotion and emphasise musculature. Upon his return to Paris, Rodin went back to Bronze Age and we find he demonstrates the same sort of feisty drive that inhabited Michelangelo. Rodin’s unfinished Gates of Hell recalls Michelangelo’s style in several ways. His Thinker instantly connects to the Pensieroso. However, Rodin’s style is sufficiently personal for him to escape classification as an imitator but the Michelangelo touch is arguably implicit in Rodin’s oeuvre. Both sculptors triggered advances in modern sculpture, both were haunted by the search for perfection in the human body, and their works burn with inner rage. Both became famous in their lifetime, secured the esteem of their peers, and made a fortune.

Michelangelo’s oeuvre is classified as Florentine Renaissance art under the Medici and Baroque under the Popes. He has become an immortal legend while his brilliant and prolific oeuvre continues to ride on the momentum of 500 years of worldwide acclaim.

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