Impressions of Florence, and of Michelangelo

It is difficult to be in Florence and not have one’s head full of lofty thoughts: it’s the city of Dante and Michelangelo, after all. And it is equally difficult to be in Florence and not get fleeced, for it is also, traditionally, a banking city, a city for making money. You have paid to see the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo? Yes, of course you have. You don’t come all the way to Florence without seeing some of Michelangelo’s most astounding sculptures. But if you think that ticket entitles you to walk into the basilica, then think again. Well, I thought again, and, since I was there, I figured I might as well pay a bit more to enter the basilica. That library in the San Lorenzo is of Michelangelo’s design, and is reputed to be very beautiful, and naturally, I was keen to see that. So I bought my ticket, and headed for the library. But no – my ticket is for the basilica only: you need to get another ticket for the library, sir. And so on.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to carp about the money. Although, I do admit I couldn’t help thinking of Rome which we had visited about three years ago, and where entry to all the various churches, even the St Peter’s, was actually free. Admittedly, you paid to see the Sistine Chapel, but if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, say, or the great Caravaggio paintings in the San Luigi dei Francesi, you just walked in. Perhaps I should be praising Roman generosity rather than moaning about Florentine commerce. For, after all, those extra euros did not inhibit the loftiness of thought to which the rightly fabled Florentine art all too easily gives rise. Well, perhaps they did a little, but only a little: I like to think, at least, that I am not as mean and as petty as my opening paragraph may perhaps have suggested.

Michelangelo-David

For how can one stand before Michelangelo’s statue of David, graceful and noble and suffused with what I can only describe as a sort of radiance, and not have Hamlet’s paean to mankind going round one’s head? What a piece of work is Man, indeed! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and all the rest of it. In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God. But then, afterwards, intoxicated with such lofty thoughts, I find myself in one of the many tourist tat shops (which, despite my loftiness, I love), and spy a postcard picturing a close-up of the genitals of this same noble David, with dark glasses sketched in at the base of the penis, and the upturned mouth of a smiley face drawn across the scrotum. I doubt that even as a sniggering dirty-minded schoolboy I would have found this particularly funny. All that loftiness seemed suddenly deflated, and not in a manner I found myself comfortable with – although, I suppose, those of a more cynical frame of mind than mine may perhaps differ on this point. How was it Hamlet’s speech ended again? Ah yes – Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.

That afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, reading a book. (Yes, it was Dante, since you ask.) A middle-aged man and an elderly lady walked up to the café, and he asked her, in English, if she would like to sit outside. “No,” I heard her reply, “it smells too much of people.” I am sure I didn’t mishear her. There was no reason to think the remark was directed specifically at me: I was not the only one sitting outside, and neither was I the one nearest them, so there was no reason to take offence personally. Naturally, I tried to construct a story to go with this lady’s rather extraordinary comment. Of course, she could simply have been very eccentric and very rude. But I pictured to myself a much younger lady, with a formidable mind and a keen aesthetic sense; she had loved art, and had always promised herself a visit to Italy, to see some of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance; but the years passed by, as they do, and now, in what is merely early old age – her mid-sixties, perhaps, only a few years older than I am now – she has been diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. And, in the shadow of this impending tragedy, her dutiful son is fulfilling her lifetime’s dream, showing her around Florence while her weakening mind is still capable of taking it in.

Of course, I could have got a few details wrong. Indeed, my entire story could be utter nonsense. I do not insist on it. But I was, I admit, rather moved by my own construction. And that strange line she spoke – “it smells too much of people” – kept resonating in my mind. Let me kiss that hand: let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.

MediciMadonna

The next day, we were at the Medici Chapel. I wasn’t thinking about the expense, honestly: I was grateful just to be there. At the altar of this chapel was a Madonna and child, with the upper part of the child’s torso turned towards the Madonna – contrapposto, as I believe such twisting of the body is known – and the Madonna herself wearing an expression of infinite sadness. This Madonna seems already to be anticipating her part in the Pietà, when the twisting baby now upon her knee would become so cruelly transformed. Of course, foreknowledge of tragedy in depictions of Madonna and child is fairly commonplace, but this sculpture seems drenched in a sorrow that appears to overwhelm everything else. To my eyes, anyway. But maybe that lady I had encountered the previous day was still in my mind.

On two opposite walls of the chapel, facing each other, are the two Medici tombs, for Lorenzo and Giuliano, two relatively minor figures (historically speaking, that is) of that famous family. In niches on the wall above the two tombs are highly stylised and idealised sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano. But it’s the monumental figures immediately on top of the tombs that take one’s breath away. On Giuliano’s tomb, there are figures representing Night and Day; on Lorenzo’s, there are similarly two figures, this time representing Dawn and Dusk. Four times of the day, four phases of our existence: birth, life, old age, death. There is about Michelangelo’s work an intense ingrained seriousness. In his younger days, he had sculpted a Bacchus (now in the Bargello Museum in Florence), depicting a young man holding a cup of wine, with a glazed, vacant expression on his face, and, quite clearly, unsteady on his feet. It remains a quite delightful celebration of inebriation, one with which, I admit, I can readily identify. But such youthful frivolity was far behind Michelangelo now (as I fear it also is with me): his mind had now moved on to other regions – regions that ordinary mortals such as I cannot perhaps inhabit too long without feeling a bit giddy.

Michelangelo-night

Night is a sleeping woman – but whether she is sleeping serenely or uneasily, it is hard to say. On the one hand, she leans her head rather precariously upon her hand; but then again, the expression on her face appears undisturbed. Her body is not that of the fresh and young maiden: this is the body of someone who has borne children. And yet, there is also a certain beauty to the body – not the untouched beauty of youth and its vacancy of expectation, but the beauty of one who has lived, of one who has experienced life’s fitful fever.

michelangelo-day

Day is frankly terrifying. He is a giant, titanic in strength. The legs are crossed, the upper part of his torso turned away from us towards his left, and the head turned back again to his right over his shoulder – the entire form twisted in a sort of double contrapposto. (I don’t know if that is a proper term, but since I have now written it, it might as well stay.) The head is unfinished, whether deliberately or otherwise I do not know, and its rough, inchoate texture seems to heighten a sense of menace. And throughout that body, the muscles are taut, tense, stretched to the utmost, straining at the very limits of what is possible. His left arm is folded behind his back, with veins on his forearm bulging prominently. There is nothing here of the grace and the radiance of David: what we have instead is a sense of raw concentrated strength, and also, I think, a fury – a fury at having reached the limits of the physical, and of striving vainly but defiantly to transcend them.

michelangelo_dusk

All passion seems spent in Dusk. This is a man who had once been as strong and as powerful as Day, but those muscles are now sagging. As with Day, the legs are crossed, but now, there is a sense of resignation in the posture. His flaccid penis lies almost apologetically upon his thigh, and the head, also in a somewhat unfinished state, seems held up with effort. The battle has been fought and lost, and there is little dignity in defeat, except, perhaps, what dignity there is in a weary acceptance.

Michelangelo-Dawn

And there’s Dawn, a nude woman, graceful in posture, but with an expression of intense sorrow upon her hauntingly beautiful face, recalling the sorrow on the face of the Madonna with the infant Christ upon her knee. This is Dawn born with the foreknowledge of what is to come: vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose – themes of an embittered heart, or so it seems.

But I don’t know that Michelangelo’s heart was embittered, as such. Certainly the Michelangelo who sculpted these figures was a very different Michelangelo from the young man who had sculpted David, and who, in the Vatican Pietà, had found a transcendent beauty even in death and in grief. These astounding figures in the Medici Chapel seem to me the work of a deeply troubled man, a man disturbed by the smell of mortality, but not a man who turns away from that smell in disgust.

In his old age, Michelangelo turned back to the theme of his first great triumph – the Pietà. There are three late Pietàs, all unfinished, one disfigured (by himself, in a fit of divine dissatisfaction), and another of doubtful provenance. This last, known as The Palestrina Pietà, is in the Accademia in Florence, and, whoever the sculptor may have been, it is a moving work: in contrast to the youthful Pietà in the Vatican, Christ’s body here is vertical, and Mary, standing behind him, is striving  to hold up the weighty, inert mass. The very last Pietà, known as The Rondanini Pietà, is in Milan, and I have only seen it in reproduction: once again, the thrust is vertical, with Mary standing behind Christ, striving to hold up the body. But individual features are removed, and the two bodies seem almost to merge into one. Michelangelo here seems intent upon removing anything that is not essential, leaving behind only the essence, a sort of abstraction, of those themes of death and of grief that appear to have haunted him so.  Seemingly, he was working on this right up to the day of his death, aged 89.

Michelangelo Pietà Bandini

And there is a there is a third unfinished Pietà, known as The Bandini Pietà, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo had worked on this for some eight years in his 70s, but, for reasons still subject to scholarly debate, in 1555, aged 80, he took a hammer to it. Much of it has been reconstructed from the broken fragments, but Christ’s left leg, presumably beyond repair, is missing. And the figure of the Magdalene, under Christ’s right arm, was finished by another hand. It shows: competent though the Magdalene is, compared to the intense expressivity of the rest of the group, it is, frankly, rather bland.

Here, once again, the figure of Christ is vertical, and Mary, here crouching, is trying desperately to hold up the inert mass of his body. Her face is close to his, and the propinquity is more than merely physical. Christ’s right leg zigzags across the lower part of the group, while his left arm, reconstructed from the broken fragments, hangs loose and twisted, its once powerful muscles now incapable. Above these two figures is the hooded figure of Nicodemus (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), leaning forward, and looking down upon this desolate scene with the utmost compassion. I do not think I have seen a visual depiction of mortality and of mourning that is quite so powerfully affecting as this.

One cannot, as I say, remain on these heights for any length of time without beginning to feel giddy. This may have been an emotional world that Michelangelo no doubt inhabited every day, but ordinary mortals like myself need to climb down after a while to the lower slopes. Maybe go into a café, and not mind that it smells too much of people.

Of course, there is much, much more to see in Florence. We were there for five days, but that’s hardly adequate. Merely looking at a painting or a sculpture for a few seconds, or even for a minute or two, and then passing on, is like listening to music in the background while doing something else: it’s not quite taking it in. One really needs a lifetime to truly absorb all the riches. But we all have our lives to get on with: one takes in what one can in the time one has, and is grateful for the opportunity of doing so. Yes, I had my head filled with lofty thoughts; and some very troubling ones too.  But then, I need that glass of Chianti. And – I won’t hide it – something a bit lighter, perhaps, than Dante.

5 responses to this post.

  1. All I can say is – what a lovely piece this is.

    Reply

  2. The line from Lear seems to suffuse the remaining text with its deep, pitying emotion. Any line from that play always leaves me gasping for the reality it transports me from, though (as do many from Hamlet).

    What I really wanted to say, though, was, firstly, that your use of such quotations is gentle, unintrusive, fluent, and masterful; and, secondly, that you almost had me there with you. No envy, though: just delight in your immersion and admiration. Thank you.

    Reply

  3. Posted by David Gouldstone on October 11, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    A marvellous piece of writing. Thank you. Made my day.

    By chance, I’m in Italy at the moment and this afternoon visited S Maria della Neve, in Pisogne, with frescos dating from exactly the same time as Michelangelo was working on the Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel. To say that they pale in comparison is an understatement. I’ve written a little about them here (though I’m afraid I can’t rise to your powers of observation and reflection):

    http://www.icknieldindagations.com/2019/10/frescos-in-s-maria-della-neve-pisogne.html

    Reply

    • Thank you very much for this. I had not known about the Santa Maria della Neve before and will certainly investigate further. From the pictures in your blog post, they look remarkable. Not Michelangelo, perhaps, but then, what is? This is the problem with short visits – you focus on the greatest heights, but miss out on heights that are no doubt lesser, but which are wonderful stuff nonetheless. Ah – if only I could wander round Italy at my leisure … for about a few years or so! 🙂

      Reply

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