Episode 31: Michelangelo

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In the next episodes, we will look at several artists of the Renaissance whose work reflects the principles of “Idealism,” although it was often expressed in Christian iconography.  (The changing attitudes of the Church toward “Platonism” is a whole subject in itself, one that I will take on in the future.)  It is easy to see the appeal of Idealism to artists: it provides an embrace of beauty not typically found in religions, and elevates it to a status as inherent in the Good.  Seeking beauty, which is what an artist does, is therefore seeking the divine, although many artists are content to stop far short of it.  And like anything else, the creation of art can become a tool of the ego, used to bring attention to the artist, rather than the existence of beauty itself.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1475-1564

Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1475-1564

But this was never the case with Michelangelo, about whom Emerson said: “He was not a citizen of any country ; he belonged to the human race ; he was a brother and a friend to all who acknowledge the beauty that beams in universal nature, and who seek by labor and self-denial to approach its source in perfect goodness.”  Michelangelo would no doubt be totally indifferent to Emerson’s essay–or this one–since his concern was never with his own reputation, but only with how he could better express the beauty of spirit he saw in nature, and especially in the human form.  All his life he was a student of how the soul was expressed through the body (his motto in late life was “Ancora imparo,” “I still learn”) which earned him the right to be a spiritual teacher first, an artist second.

An advantage in featuring prose writers as proponents of the Ideal is that they can tell you, explicitly, that they are Idealists.  With poets, as we’ve seen with Shakespeare, we may have to infer it, and with painters or sculptors the connection can become further hidden.  In the person of Michelangelo, we have the case of a visual artist who also wrote poetry, so the link becomes more evident.  As John Symonds says in the introduction to his translation of Michelangelo’s sonnets,

Nothing is more clear than that Michael Angelo worshipped beauty in the Platonic spirit, passing beyond its personal and specific manifestations to the universal and impersonal. This thought is repeated over and over again in his poetry; and if we bear in mind that he habitually regarded the loveliness of man or woman as a sign and symbol of eternal and immutable beauty, we shall feel it of less importance who it was that prompted him to this or that poetic utterance.¹

(I think this is also all that needs to be said on the distraction of his sexual orientation.)

We know that Michelangelo was exposed to Plato by the best.  As Linda Murray points out,

Title page of Vita di Michelangnolo (sic) Buonarroti, by Ascanio Condivi (1525–1574)

Title page of Vita di Michelangnolo (sic) Buonarroti, by Ascanio Condivi (1525–1574

The young Michelangelo seems to have impressed Lorenzo (de Medici) since, as both Condivi and Vasari record, he took him into his household and brought him up with his own two sons, so that Michelangelo had the advantage of at least two years of surroundings which included the humanist Poliziano, tutor to Lorenzo’s children.  The foundations of his Neoplatonism and classical interests were laid here, under the influence of Poliziano and other celebrated humanists  who visited the Medicean court: Marsilio Ficino, translator of Plato and source of the Platonic inspiration in Michelangelo’s later work; Cristophoro Landino, commentator on Virgil and Dante, and another link the the Neoplatonic chain of thought; Pico della Mirandola, humanist, profound scholar of Plato and Aristotle, and the man who attempted to reconcile the Bible with Platonic philosophy.²

What was the exact influence of this education on Michelangelo will probably never be known, but he certainly possessed a single-mindedness of purpose that few other artists then or since have exhibited.  He was driven to work long hours without food or sleep, and was solitary and often anti-social in his behavior.  He was paranoid, arrogant and combative.  He maintained no studio and few assistants.  All he was went into the work.

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-99

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-99

Michelangelo, David, 1504

Michelangelo, David, 1504










Everything he put his eye and hand to revealed his love of beauty; sculptures, paintings, architecture.  They seemed to flow from him like breath. His early works such as the Pieta and David are astonishing in their mastery and simplicity.  There is no showing off, no flourishes that take the attention away from the emotional statement.  Here is the calm sorrow of a mother contemplating the mystery of a son who is dead and yet lives.  Here is the fearless inner stillness of one who knows he is joined to The One.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

His verse is not so fluid; he is reaching for Beauty, but not quite grasping it.  To quote Symonds again, “Michael Angelo has the obscurity of a writer whose thoughts exceed his power of expression, and who complicates the verbal form by his endeavour to project what cannot easily be said in verse.”³  Two examples will serve.

XIV. First Reading.


Da che concetto.

When divine Art conceives a form and face,
She bids the craftsman for his first essay
To shape a simple model in mere clay:
This is the earliest birth of Art’s embrace.
From the live marble in the second place
His mallet brings into the light of day
A thing so beautiful that who can say
When time shall conquer that immortal grace?
Thus my own model I was born to be—
The model of that nobler self, whereto
Schooled by your pity, lady, I shall grow.
Each overplus and each deficiency
You will make good. What penance then is due
For my fierce heat, chastened and taught by you?

Although the immediate dedication is to Vittoria Colonna, we can hear the appeal to the source of his “nobler self,” that which radiates “immortal grace.”  It brings to mind Plotinus’ analogy of our being our own sculptors, “If you do not as yet see beauty within you, do as does the sculptor of a statue that is to be beautified: he cuts away here, he smooths it there, he makes this line lighter, this one purer, until he disengages beautiful lineaments in the marble.”4

XXIX. Love’s Dilemma

I’ mi credetti.

I deemed upon that day when first I knew
So many peerless beauties blent in one,
That, like an eagle gazing on the sun,
Mine eyes might fix on the least part of you.
That dream hath vanished, and my hope is flown;
For he who fain a seraph would pursue
Wingless, hath cast words to the winds, and dew
On stones, and gauged God’s reason with his own.
If then my heart cannot endure the blaze
Of beauties infinite that blind these eyes,
Nor yet can bear to be from you divided,
What fate is mine? Who guides or guards my ways,
Seeing my soul, so lost and ill-betided,
Burns in your presence, in your absence dies?

Like so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, this one, addressed to the “peerless beauties blent in one,” is about the times when we feel alienated from it.  We have lost the ability even to see “the least part of you,”  because we have “gauged God’s reason with (our) own,” that is, we try to “understand” noesis with dianoia, in the terminology of the Divided Line.  Although Michelangelo may have sometimes lost this connection, he never mistook the one for the other.

Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, ca. 1540

Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, ca. 1540

So we have a case of a man who was not content with the riches and fame that his talent commanded.  He was not impressed with popes and kings and other artists.  He felt kinship only with those who shared his love of beauty, such as Vittoria Colonna, to whom he dedicated many of his sonnets.  Whether he continued to read Plato or Plotinus I can’t say, but it’s obvious to me that he lived his life in the realm of the Good, and filed a lifetime of reports that continue to speak to us after 500 years, and which always will.  We have the case of a man who knew, as did Diotima, that  “in that com­mu­nion only, behold­ing beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but real­i­ties…, and bring­ing forth and nour­ish­ing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immor­tal, if mor­tal man may.”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹John Addington Symonds, trans., The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti

²Linda Murray, MICHELANGELO (WORLD OF ART), Thames and Hudson, 1980

³Symonds, op. cit.

4The complete analogy, as seen in Episode 10, “How can one see the beauty of a good soul?”  Withdraw into yourself and look.  If you do not as yet see beauty within you, do as does the sculptor of a statue that is to be beautified: he cuts away here, he smooths it there, he makes this line lighter, this one purer, until he disengages beautiful lineaments in the marble.  Do you this, too.  Cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one radiance of beauty.  Never cease “working at the statue” until there shines out upon you from it the divine sheen of virtue, until you see perfect “goodness firmly established in the stainless shrine.”