Michelangelo: The Man, the Myth and the Mystery
by Beth S. Gersh-Nesic
In the room, women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo ...1 "Did you know he was homosexual?," one woman asked this woman in the exhibition Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth. At a time when the average Joe, Jennifer, or Carly knows more about Michelangelo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle than Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) the Florentine High Renaissance painter, sculpture, architect and poet, one would expect plenty of historical information to get the general public up to speed. A short video or slide show about Michelangelo B's astounding production (the Pietà, the David, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, among so many others) in relation to his place in art history (references to other Renaissance immortals--and Ninja Turtle namesakes--Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello) could have transformed this weak show into a substantial holiday treat. While admirably modest in size, Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth fails to educate its visitors adequately in the exhibition space, saving its choicest morsels for he or she who reads the catalogue or seeks out supplementary lectures online. Could it be that the museum/public art gallery has gone the way of coffee cans and Dove bars--trading on well-known labels while skimping on content?
Despite lavish signage and huge photographs, this scholarly collaboration between Casa Buonarroti in Florence and the College of Arts and Science at Syracuse University, too often does not show what it tries to tell. A case in point: Study for the Head of Leda, ca. 1530. Who is Leda and what did Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan look like (so that we might compare these exquisite sketches of a nose and face)? The original painting of Leda and the Swan no longer exists. Completed around 1530, it was mocked by an envoy sent to collect the work for Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Apparently, the fellow left empty handed and Michelangelo gave the work to his assistant Antonio Mini (who may have been the model), along with some drawings and a preparatory cartoon (a full-scale drawing of the painting meant to transfer the outline of the image onto a surface). Mini travelled to France between 1531 and 1532, where the painting found a home, according to art historian Janet Cox-Rearick who traced the painting through a 1683 inventory to the chateau at Fontainebleau, François I's hunting lodge. In another inventory entry of 1691, instructions say "to be burned." Another source Cox-Rearick discovered, from 1699, claimed "...this Leda was portrayed in a manner so vivid and lascivious with passionate love that M. des Noyers, a minister of state under Louis XIII, had it burned."2
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564)
Study for the Head of Leda, 1529-30
Red pencil on paper
35.5 x 26.9 cm
Inv. 7 F
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Fortunately, copies of the painting survive, including one reproduced in the catalogue, attributed to Francesco Brina (National Gallery, London, presented by the Duke of Northumberland in 1838). Other drawings or engravings after the painting (or a copy of the painting) by Cornelis Bos (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Rosso Fiorentino (Royal Academy of Arts, London), and Nicolas Béatrizet (National Museum and Gallery of Capomonte, Naples) also exist, yet none accompanied the wall text.
Nor can we read about the mythological romance between the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta and the god Zeus, who transformed himself into swan to make love to her. What we do discover is this "she" (wink, wink) may be based on a "he." That little tidbit seems less relevant than a recap of Leda's unusual predicament and the outcome: the birth of four children, Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux, two by Zeus and two by her husband. Now that's a juicy story! And clearly X-rated for those times.
The lack of supplementary illustrations also mars an exceptional opportunity to study Michelangelo's drawing of The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1535. The text panel suggests that Michelangelo was influenced by Filippo Brunelleschi's 1401 version, a competition piece to win a commission to design all the panels on the north door of the Baptistery in Florence. However, how the younger Florentine artist had access to this version is not supplied. Brunelleschi's rendition (the loser) and Lorenzo Ghiberti's (the winner) currently belong to the Bargello Museum in Florence. Ghiberti did not design the Old Testament scenes at that time but, instead, two decades later for the east doors of the Baptistry (dubbed the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo himself). All three earlier versions feature the teenage Isaac kneeling on a small box altar, slightly twisted toward his knife-wielding father Abraham, while the angel of God zooms in to save the lad's life, similar to Michelangelo's interpretation.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564)
Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1535
Black pencil, red pencil, ink on paper
48.2 x 29.8 cm
Inv. 70 F
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Michelangelo's bare-chested, vulnerably exposed youth also harks back to his earlier work: one nude in Studies for a Cornice and for the Nudes for the Sistine Ceiling, 1508-09 (unfortunately on view in a different room), and his Rebellious Slave, 1512. A detail of the Rebellious Slave can be seen in the catalogue, thereby sparking this comparison.3
Michelangelo's ability to capture palpable humanity in the presence of divinity distinguishes his inventions from the Early Renaissance masters, such as Donatello, who excelled at transforming the classical nude into biblical heroism. In The Sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham and the angel of God almost rub noses during this climatic moment of affirmation and salvation, which foreshadows the real death of God's only son, Jesus Christ. Here, Michelangelo activates a narrow pictorial space with sacred significance, reminiscent of God extending his finger toward Adam on the Sistine Ceiling.
This knack for transforming the material into the spiritual does not translate well from medium to medium. His iconic 1499 Pietà, reproduced in bronze and on view in the current exhibition, does not convey the transcendent aura present in the magnificent creamy white marble original in St. Peter's Basilica. (A copy of the 1498 contract for the Pietà also appears in the show.)
Other works of art by Michelangelo include sketches of a man in a fur and batwing hat (1503-1504) and three nudes (ca. 1518), plus several architectural designs: a plan for a bastion, 1527-28; studies of Roman monuments, ca. 1518; sketches of blocks of marble for the tomb of Julius II, 1508; a plan for San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, 1559-1560, and a study for a gate (Porta Pia?), 1561. The latter two testified to Michelangelo's activities well into old age. He died just shy of his 88th birthday.
Giorgio Ghisi (Italian, 1520-1582)
Portrait of Michelangelo, 1545-65
26.8 x 21.2 cm
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
So much for "the man." What about "the myth?" Items that celebrate Michelangelo's fame fulfill this criterion: portraits, books, music and memorials (a coin designed by Leon Leoni in 1560-51 and a model for a monument to Michelangelo, executed in 1874). One post-1535 portrait in oil by Marcello Venusti (1515-1579) seems to be a copy of Jacopino del Conte's original. An example of del Conte's work appears in the catalogue, but not in the galleries. Other portraits can be found printed in books on display. Richard Duppa's Life and Work of Michel Angelo Buonarroti, London, 1806, and Ernst Steinmann's Die Portraitdarstellungen des Michelangelo (The Portrait Representations of Michelangelo), Leipzig, 1913, feature reproductions of an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi, ca. 1802.
Art history students already know portraits of Michelangelo as St. Bartholomew's distorted flayed skin in the Last Judgment fresco (1534-41) in the Sistine Chapel, and as the moody Greek philosopher Heracleitus in Raphael's School of Athens (1510-11), in the Stanza della Segnatura, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. These images, so often reproduced in textbooks, viscerally immortalize a face that was on its own not especially distinctive.
Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth may be an exhibition only a purist can love, as the ambiance offers a rare opportunity to commune with the master in an intimate, sumptuous setting. For some, a bargain at $15 through Ticketweb, but for others a tidy sum, given our current economic woes. Caveat emptor.
View a selection of works from Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth.
1T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1917.
2 Dotteressa Pina Ragionieri, Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Art Galleries/University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 104-5; Janet Cox-Rearick, The Collection of Francis I: Royal Treasures (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996).
3 The Rebellious Slave, originally meant for Pope Julius II tomb, was given by the artist to the exiled Roberto Strozzi, who then gave it to François I. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1794.
Hirst, Michael. Michelangelo and His Drawings.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Available for preview at Google Books
Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth is on view at the SUArt Galleries, Syracuse University campus, Syracuse, New York(Telephone: 1-315-443-4097; Website) from August 12 through October 19, 2008, and the Louise and Bernard Palitz Gallery, Joseph I Lubin House, 11 East 61st Street, New York, New York, 10065 (Telephone: 1-212-754-5121; Website) November 4, 2008 through January 4, 2009. Tickets are available at Ticketweb (Telephone: 1-866-468-7619; Website).
Visit the Michelangelo: The Man and the Myth microsite.
From your Guide: Beth Gersh-Nesic is an art history professor, author, art critic and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service which offers tours, lectures and workshops in various venues, including museums, galleries, artists' studios and arts organizations.