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The Metamorphoses of Michelangelo

ISSUE:  Spring 1992

Although Michelangelo was a real person who fought with his brothers, rebuked his father, chided his nephew, mocked his rivals, ridiculed his assistants, resented his patrons, worried about being cheated, counted his pennies, invested in real estate, became rich, and suffered from kidney stones, he nevertheless exists in our imagination largely as a mythic being. We do not much think of the real Michelangelo, for example, eating with pleasure the marzolino cheese, sausages, ravioli, beans, and choice pears that his nephew in fact sent to him in Rome. Instead we picture him, as his biographers did mythopoetically, partaking sacramentally only of bread and wine.

Michelangelo entered into mythology when Giorgio Vasari wrote his deeply fictional and highly artful biography of him in the Lives of the artists, originally published in 1550 (when Michelangelo was 75 years old)—one of the masterpieces of mannerist rhetoric and one of the few truly great biographies in the history of literature. In the very first sentence of this work, redolent of the Bible, Vasari describes God the Father sending Michelangelo as a spirit into the world to redeem art, bringing light where there was darkness. Vasari’s spacious and magisterial sentence—nearly 200 words long and more than 20 lines in the classic Milanesi edition—is one of the great examples of prose writing in the Italian language, and the reader who wishes to savor this sentence and ponder its artful complexity of form and meaning will want to read it at leisure in the context of Vasari’s entire mythologizing biography.

Suffice it to say here, Vasari’s introductory image of God creating Michelangelo high above in heaven is itself Michelangelesque, for it is subtly and pointedly evocative of Michelangelo’s own grandiose images of God the Creator in the Sistine Ceiling. No less is it evocative of Michelangelo’s identity with God, since, as Vasari says, describing the Sistine Ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo brought light where there was darkness. It is as if in his pictorial prose Vasari had added a new scene to the Sistine Ceiling—God Creating Michelangelo, the new Adam of art. We see this scene in our mind’s eye, thanks to Vasari, as if Michelangelo had painted it.

In his mythologizing mode, Vasari is forever confusing Michelangelo and God. Just before describing the hand of God creating Adam, Vasari observes the role of Michelangelo’s own “divine hands” in the painting of the Sistine Chapel, intending a metaphorical relation between the creative hand of the artist and the divine hand of the Creator. Elsewhere in the biography Vasari dwells on Michelangelo’s divine hands, and this image was to fire Michelangelo’s own imagination. Thus, when Michelangelo dictated his autobiography to Condivi a short time later, he responded to Vasari’s celebration of his hands, embellishing Vasari’s theological conceit.

Telling the story of the Cupid he made in his youth, Michelangelo says that the cardinal in Rome who purchased it wished to learn the identity of the artist who had created such a marvelous work. He sent a gentleman to Florence, the story goes, who, suspecting that Michelangelo was the author of the Cupid, arrived at Michelangelo’s house and asked him for a specimen of his work. Michelangelo then made a drawing in pen and ink of a hand so astonishingly graceful that the gentleman was amazed. He thus discovered the identity of the artist responsible for the Cupid and invited him to Rome. Recognizing that the Eternal City was a very large field in which he could demonstrate his talents, Michelangelo accepted the invitation and traveled to Rome, where he distinguished himself.

Michelangelo’s story is a fiction—a fiction based on an earlier, similar story told by Vasari about Giotto, who was, in Vasari’s eyes, a 14th-century Michelangelo. Giotto, we recall from Vasari’s tale, was asked to make a drawing by the pope’s messenger, and he then drew a tondo or O so marvelous that the pope invited him to Rome, where (like Michelangelo after him) he would excel at St. Peter’s. Michelangelo retells Vasari’s story in a variation, now applying it to himself, turning the O, which is emblematic of Giotto’s own name (in which the double O sound is prominent) into the hand, the divine hand, we might say, that Vasari employed as the emblem of Michelangelo’s creative identity. Both stories, Vasari’s and Michelangelo’s, are fables of origins. In each instance, we have an explanation of how a great Florentine artist was first called to the great city of art. These novelle make graphic and momentous the exact circumstances in which artists were invited to Rome.

In any account of Michelangelo’s metamorphoses in historical fiction, we must pause to reflect on what I have called his autobiography, that is, the life he dictated to Condivi. Although this book has always been recognized as an autobiographical work of which Michelangelo superintended the narrative and although it is much used by art historians as an historical source, it amazingly lies outside the history of literature in general and of biography and autobiography in particular—from St. Augustine to Saint Gertrude Stein. How is it possible that the autobiography of one of the greatest painters, sculptors, architects, and poets of his or any age is virtually ignored in the history of literature?

Michelangelo’s autobiography, like Vasari’s biography, brims with fiction. He pretends outrageously, for example, that he gave to Pope Julius II the very idea of completing the new church of St. Peter’s to accommodate the gigantic tomb that he was commissioned to make of the Pope. His patron was enough of a megolamaniac who himself thought in such a gigantic scale that we do not really need to believe Michelangelo’s claim to have been responsible for the idea of the building. (But since Michelangelo himself was equally a megalomaniac, we suspend disbelief and easily accept his claim.) In Michelangelo’s tall tale, the glorious church (the dome of which he later built) is attributable to himself; Michelangelo is thus the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of this mighty edifice, the heart of Christendom, in saecula saeculorum.

Michelangelo adds that one of the allegorical figures carved for the tomb of the pope, the Active Life, near Moses, is associated with Countess Matilda. Michelangelo had convinced himself that this great benefactress of the Church was also his ancestor. Now, by placing an image connected with her on the tomb of the Pope, he was in a sense infusing this great papal monument not only with the history of the Church but with his own biography, as if the tomb were his own—a monument to his own glory and to that of his family, which had contributed to the very patrimony of St. Peter’s. This was the least he could do since, working on the tomb, on and off, for 40 years, he had given up to it much of his career in art.

Let us consider another fiction in Michelangelo’s autobiography. In a famous episode, when Michelangelo was refused access to Pope Julius, he flew into a rage and fled from Rome. The pope then sent five messengers after Michelangelo to persuade him to return but, when they reached him, Michelangelo both defied them and threatened to have them murdered—or so he says. Fat chance! Michelangelo was in reality a timid soul, who always fled from trouble. Here in his autobiography, however, he appears as a sort of swashbuckling hero in the mold of Benvenuto Cellini, who would dictate his autobiography just a few years after Michelangelo conceived his. Or should we not say that Cellini created himself in part out of the mold of Michelangelo’s bold fictive self?


Failing to appreciate Michelangelo as the author of fiction in prose (not just in poetry), failing to see him as a novelliere, we miss a delicious irony. Michelangelo was forever concealing his origins in art, leaving us scarcely a clue, for example, of how he trained to become a sculptor. He would have us believe that he was self-taught, the source of art in others. All artists in his day, including Vasari, were his students. Once we begin to ponder Michelangelo not just as a poet and artist but as a novelliere, however, recalling the story of the drawing of the hand based on Vasari’s tale of Giotto’s O, we come to see that as a prose author and rhetorician Michelangelo was a disciple of his own disciple Vasari. Irony of ironies—Michelangelo the creator was the creature or epigone of his own protege. In more than one sense Vasari invented Michelangelo!

Even at this late date, in our age of supposed interpretive sophistication, we read Vasari’s biography of Michelangelo as an historical account of events in the artist’s life, failing to recognize just how fictional the biography is. We overlook Vasari’s literary artifice. Let us look again at his dramatic account of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Ceiling. Vasari claims, for example, that Pope Julius II, who was prevented from entering the chapel while Michelangelo was at work, grew so impatient to see the frescoes that he slipped into the chapel in disguise, travestito, in order to have a peek. When Michelangelo saw the pope, not realizing who he was, he hurled planks or tavole down at him from the scaffolding. In this tall tale that reads more like a scene out of a Plautine comedy of the Renaissance than a factual account, the painter emerges as a furious, if not farcical, figure of Moses throwing down his tablets in rage.

In another delightful Sistine story, Vasari (echoing Michelangelo’s account to Condivi) imagines that because he looked up at the ceiling for so long while painting it, Michelangelo could not read letters or look at drawings for some time thereafter unless he held them above his head. This charming fable is worthy of Michelangelo’s own self-mocking poetry, in which he describes himself painting the ceiling with his brain pressed into his neck, his face transformed into a floor upon which paint drips, his skin stretched into a bow. Even if this image of Michelangelo reading letters held above his head is fanciful, we can enjoy it as such and appreciate it as a poetical commentary on the sheer difficulty of painting the Sistine Ceiling, which Michelangelo comments on in a more matter-of-fact way in his letters.

Michelangelo’s mythologized biography has everything to do with origins. If Michelangelo himself claimed to be of noble blood, Vasari also stressed his origins in nature. Emphasizing the fact that Michelangelo was raised in Settignano, which abounded in stone, he tells us that Michelangelo spent many years elsewhere in quarries excavating marble. Vasari thereby relates Michelangelo to a number of other artists of rustic origin and setting, dating all the way back to the shepherd-boy Giotto, who was discovered by Cimabue drawing on a rock with a pointed stone. What Vasari essentially does is to exploit Michelangelo’s activity in the realm of stone—making of him a “version of the pastoral,” albeit the hard pastoral of marble. Poetry took form, poets have always assured us, in a pastoral setting and, similarly, Vasari adds, art emerged in the rustic realm of rock. The idea of Michelangelo’s close identification with nature has persisted. Joshua Reynolds later celebrated Michelangelo’s wildness as part of the sublimity of his art and, echoing him, Kenneth Clark has remarked that in contrast to the works of Michelangelo those of other artists seem tame.

Vasari’s sense of Michelangelo’s identity with stone is based not only on Michelangelo’s sculpture in stone but on Michelangelo’s poetry, which has much to do with the marble of sculpture. When Michelangelo wrote a poem in the voice of his own Night, he thus assumed her very identity in marble, metamorphosing himself into a “being in stone.” Echoing Dante and Petrarch, who were both petrified in love, he followed the earlier Tuscan poets back to the Metamorphoses of Ovid, to the mythological realm in which human beings were metamorphosed from flesh into stone, especially and shockingly in the myth of Medusa. No wonder, recalling Michelangelo’s own Ovidian impulses, modern art historians have sometimes identified him as his own sculptures, including his Moses, David, and uncompleted Slaves, who have come to be seen implicitly as the portrayal of Michelangelo himself emerging from the unfinished rock. Although we speak of Ovid’s influence on art and poetry (including Michelangelo’s own drawings of Ovidian subjects), we overlook the deeper meaning of Ovid in Michelangelo’s biography, where myth is the source of his being in stone. He exists in our imagination as both a mythic and lithic being, like the subjects of Ovid turned into stone. Whereas those beings exist for us in lapidary words, Michelangelo appears to us in real stone, present in the very marbles that he carved—as if he metamorphosed himself into stone.

The Ovidian sense of Michelangelo’s identity is reflected in the thought of his contemporaries, whose imagination, like his own, was saturated with Ovid. It is evident, for example, in The Marbles, written by Anton Francesco Doni, who describes the visit paid to the Medici Chapel by a Florentine and a pilgrim. When the pilgrim beholds Michelangelo’s Dawn, he is stunned by what he sees, stilled into wonder, as if he had been transformed into marble. At this point Dawn speaks, telling how on an earlier occasion, when Michelangelo had visited the chapel with a friend, the companion was so suffused with awe, beholding the Night, that he too was transfixed. Dawn goes on to say that while Michelangelo’s friend was frozen still, Night actually moved, and now Dawn herself moves before the pilgrim regains his senses. The pilgrim observes that, speaking, Michelangelo’s statue had acted as if incarnate, while, frozen still, he himself had petrified. In Doni’s delightful story and story within a story, Michelangelo appears as a type of Pygmalion, since his sculptures are seemingly beings in the flesh who, vivified, speak and move. At the same time Michelangelo’s figures are like the murderous Medusa who transforms her beholders into stone. Doni’s fables thus comment both paradoxically and metaphorically on the creative and destructive powers of art. It is as if the new Pygmalion, Michelangelo, had carved the Medusa.


Michelangelo’s role as a modern Pygmalion is seen elsewhere. In October 1564, some months after the death of Michelangelo, at the time when Vasari was revising his Lives and collecting material on his hero, Vasari received an unsigned letter from Rome, which included a delightful Ovidian fiction. The writer says that long ago, at the time when Michelangelo was carving the Moses and had nearly completed the work, he visited Michelangelo in his home. He suggested to Michelangelo that the statue would be improved if the head were in a different position. Michelangelo did not respond, but two days later when his visitor returned, Michelangelo said to him: “You know, Moses heard us speaking the other day and, in order to understand us better, turned his head.” Going to see the statue for himself, the visitor discovered that the Moses had moved. He noted, however, that above the tip of Moses’ nose there remained a little of the old skin that had been part of his cheek. Considering it nearly impossible, Michelangelo’s friend could not believe what he had seen.

Like Doni’s stories, this novella delightfully comments on the marvelous powers of Michelangelo’s art, on the maraviglia of Michelangelo’s sculpture. It is, however, ambiguous, for although it suggests that the Moses, like the work of Pygmalion, had come alive and moved, the patch of old skin from the cheek still visible above the tip of the Moses’ nose paradoxically implies that Michelangelo, taking the visitor’s advice, had indeed recarved the head of the statue, leaving a trace of its original appearance. Like Doni’s dialogue, the tale of Vasari’s anonymous correspondent comments on the paradoxical character of Michelangelo’s sculpture, which is both a work of art in stone and a living being. With his chisel Michelangelo seemingly turns stone magically into flesh and, with words, Michelangelo’s contemporaries poetically metamorphose Michelangelo into an Ovidian artist, a modern Pygmalion.

Although the novellino of the Moses remains obscure, it played an invisible role in the metamorphoses of Michelangelo. Vasari did not retell it in his revised biography of Michelangelo, but he used it and employed it so subtly that he totally transformed it into another tale. Herein lies another story of Vasari’s artifice. According to our mythographer, after Michelangelo completed his David, the Gonfalonier of Florence, Piero Soderini criticized it, suggesting that the nose was too large. Michelangelo then climbed the scaffolding and, pretending to employ his chisel, dropped some marble dust to the ground. “How’s that?,” he asked. “That’s much better,” replied Soderini. In the end, as in so many of Vasari’s fables, the artist emerges as superior to his critic, who is duped.

Vasari’s story is very different in details and in its main point from the tale of the Moses, but there are clues to their connection. Both stories concern individuals who criticize Michelangelo’s sculptures, suggesting changes in works of great accomplishment, and in both instances Michelangelo in a sense does and does not respond to his critic. The stone above the tip of Moses’ nose particularly captured Vasari’s imagination and, adapting it, he transformed it into David’s nose. It drew Vasari’s attention because, although incidental to the Moses, the nose was central to Michelangelo’s life, a primary anatomical part of his life’s story. As Vasari emphasized elsewhere Michelangelo’s nose was mortifyingly bashed in by a rival artist in a traumatic, central episode of his youth.

The Michelangelo who emerges in the literature of his own time, in the pages of Vasari and Doni, and in the pages of his own autobiography, is essentially a fictional character—a complex of fictive personae confected by Michelangelo himself and by his contemporaries. Biography is a highly complex literary genre, the qualities of which we still do not fully understand. Nevertheless, we can say in the most general terms that although biography represents real persons, it is a branch of imaginative literature in which the subject is transformed in varying degrees by the author’s artifice. This point of view will perhaps give offense to those realists troubled by the seemingly paradoxical proposition that what we call reality is fictive or artificial. They would do well to remember, however, that reality is never delivered to us in biography as raw data, for it is invariably and necessarily given form, form which in different degrees is the product of art or artifice. In the case of Michelangelo, the power and magnitude of his art and ambition were so great and stupefying that his contemporaries were compelled to imagine him poetically as both like God or the Son of God and like Pygmalion, whose works had the transformative powers of the deadly Medusa. As a fusion of such ideas, Biblical and classical, sacred and profane, Michelangelo emerged as himself one of the greatest works of art of the Renaissance, as a literary masterpiece of collective authorship—the complex, poetical metamorphoses of a mortal being into an immortal, mythic figure, whose very identity has everything to do with the idea of art and of art’s relations to life and death.


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