Art In History Art Blog
In each of the previous posts I have asked the question "What challenge did this artist set himself that sets his work beyond good to great?". Not all my favorite artists have such an ambitious enterprise, but I will show one more; Michelangelo. For me, the remarkable thing about his work is how often he rose above crippling external limitations and turned them into glorious oportunities.
The "David" is an excellent example, especially if we accept the story about its creation. According to contemporary sources, a truley magnificent block of Carrara marble, intended for another sculptor, was tragically damaged in transit, with a chunk broken off in the middle almost to the center of the block. The sculptor for whom it was intended said nothing could be done short of cutting it into two pieces, so the city of Florence turned to Michelangelo and asked him if he could salvage something from the whole block. The result was the "David" and it is magnificent not only in spite of, but also because of the impossible restrictions placed on him by the block. The result is that Michelangelo has produced a classical torso too small for the size of the figure, which is dominated by the head, hands and feet...and the whole is totally convincing.
We can see the same in his works of architecture, in two striking examples. One is the Laurentian Library in Florence, which was built on top of an existing monastery building, and could only be approached through a tall and narrow space which should have defeated any attempt to create a succesful entrance. Michelangelo chose to make a statement of its awkwardness, creating a magnificnet stairway which runs down into the space like a flow of lava, heightening the visitor's sense of the constriction of the space.
At St. Peters basilica in Rome, he had a similar restriction: He was told to salvage what he could of the unfinished structure of his predecessor Bramante, including the four massive piers to support the dome. Bramante, a very good architect, was totally out of his depth with the St. Peters project: surviving designs show a scheme without any strong unifying element, a jangle of too many disparate parts. Michelangelo again turned the limitation into a totally unified and successful design.
It is appropriate that Michelangelo's greatest work in Fresco, the Sistine Ceiling, should offer the same difficulties. Instead of a clear unbroken field for his design, he had a ceiling that was awkwardly long, and broken up along the sides by groin vaults which imposed and arbitrary matrix. I'm not sure that even he has completely overcome the burden of the ceiling's architecture, but certainly he has made many generations of viewers forget about it.
I'm going to end by returning to sculpture, and turning to another mark of greatness. Scupture was always Michelangelo's first and greatest love, and he chafed under the need to work on other projects at the command of his patron, Julius II. Michelangelo believed that each block of stone contained a figure imprisoned in it, which the sculptor needed to bring to light and freedom. The amazing thing is that he did this literally!
Every other sculptor working in stone carves away the most obvious excess, gradually working toward the final surface of the figure. Each successive approximation makes it easier to go further without error. It is clear from the "Unfinished Slave" that MIchelangelo dived right in to the block, stopping within an inch or two of the final surface, without carving away other areas. This is not even possible; how did he DO it? There could be no greater evidence of genius than this remarkable ability to visualize the figure in the stone. Amazing!