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Will the Real Michelangelo Please Stand Up?

By July 27, 2008

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Image ; used with permission

Hot on the heels of the wildly successful Gates of Paradise tour, another must-see exhibition will shortly head to the U.S. from Florence. Michelangelo: The Man and The Myth is coming to Syracuse University facilities, first to the SUArt Galleries, on the campus in Syracuse (August 12-October 19, 2008), and then to the Louise and Bernard Palitz Gallery in New York City (November 4, 2008-January 4, 2009). As well as displaying some fabulous works by the Renaissance master in quantities seldom seen, it also serves, by showing a few of his contemporary artists' portraits of the sculptor, to trot out some truths about Michelangelo the Man.

A smaller version of the upcoming exhibition, entitled The Face of Michelangelo, is wrapping up its viewing at Casa Buonarroti, a property that Michelangelo bought in 1508 and in which Buonarroti family members lived. It remained in the family until the last collateral descendant, Cosimo Buonarroti (1790-1858), deeded the house and its contents to the city of Florence. It has operated as a museum since 1859. As you would suppose, there is no one more intimately acquainted with Michelangelo than Pina Ragionieri, Director of Casa Buonarroti, author, curator and co-organizer, with Gary Radke (scholarly advisor and professor of fine arts in The College of Arts and Sciences at SU), of Michelangelo: The Man and The Myth. In the Discovery News article on the exhibition The Face of Michelangelo, Dr Ragionieri was quoted:
    "Movies have always portrayed Michelangelo as an attractive, good-looking man. On the contrary, he wasn't handsome at all ... Most of all, he was perfectly aware of his ugliness and did not want to be portrayed. Indeed, he left no documented self-portrait."
Any Michelangelo scholar will tell you that "he wasn't handsome" is a kind and generous understatement. Michelangelo had small eyes, narrow lips, a scraggly beard that refused to look nice (let alone luxuriant) and ears that stuck out unattractively. His dominant facial feature was his nose, badly smashed by a punch from fellow Medici-sponsored art student Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528) when Michelangelo was 17. Though his nose healed, it never had the initial benefit of being reset and ended up a disfigurement. Michelangelo also stood about 5' 2" and weighed 100 pounds (in fairness, all muscle and sinew) sopping wet. If physical characteristics weren't sorry picture enough, his utter lack of attention to clothing and bathing were somewhat legendary. In short, our Michelangelo was a fashion disaster with b.o.

That he so clearly knew he was outwardly unappealing leads to interesting speculation, at least for me. For one thing, the Italian High Renaissance, with its emphasis on the idealized human form, would have made for a tough time in which to grow up homely. Especially in Florence, where beauty in male youth was so celebrated. In a town full of swans, Michelangelo was an ugly duckling who evolved into an ugly duck. It is very, very tempting to play amateur psychoanalyst and theorize that he poured every ounce of painful self-awareness into some of the most heroic male figures ever sculpted, painted or drawn. It is also unsurprising, in this light, that he never created a self portrait and largely managed to evade other artists who wanted to capture his likeness.

"Camera shy" as he was, a funny thing happened over the centuries. Artists who'd never seen him firsthand started tweaking his appearance, reinventing this revered Master and reinterpreting his looks based on his work. As a result, Michelangelo was progressively portrayed as more tall, more attractive and more (much, much more) attentive to personal hygiene than eyewitness accounts warrant--and all of this reached its apex when movie-star handsome, 6' 3" Charlton Heston played Michelangelo in the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy.

What does this mean to us, today? Probably something about not judging books by covers, though, really, we haven't evolved that much as a species in the past 500 years. I'd hope this new exhibition might enable art fans to view Michelangelo in a slightly more well-rounded light, but don't know if that will happen, either. The only thing I can say with certainty is that no one who is able to get to Michelangelo: The Man and The Myth should miss his or her chance to do so.

Image credit:

Attributed to Marcello Venusti (Italian 1512/15-1579)
Portrait of Michelangelo, after 1535
Oil on canvas
36 x 27 cm
Casa Buonarroti, Florence


July 28, 2008 at 4:20 pm
(1) beth says:

Did not know that about Michaelangelo’s physical appearance. It does rather cast an interesting light on his body of work… or should I say the bodies of his work?

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