Denton Jaques Snider.

Music and the fine arts; a psychology of aesthetic online

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Michel Angelo felt that he was living in a
great historical epoch, at a nodal point in his'
country's evolution. The Italian City-State
which had shown such a turbulent, but on the
whole a fruitful life, and especially had de-
veloped the Fine Arts was passing out of ex-
istence; his native Florence during his time
was manifesting the last convulsions of a dy-
ing social and political order. One alterna-
tive was Italy's rule by non-Italians — Span-
ish, French, German — each of whom was
grasping after some part of the land of
beauty, or the whole of it would not be re-
fused. The other alternative was the restor-
ation of Rome with all her political and ar-
tistic glory and authority — which was spe-
cially the ambition of Pope Julius II, the
patron of Raphael and Michel Angelo along
with a cohort of lesser artists. The central-
ization of the greatest modern Art at Rome
was a success, but the political part of the
program did not and could not win. The


ablest politician of tlie time, tliis same Pope
Julius, died, and not long thereafter Italian
unity was smitten to fragments both from
the outside and from the inside. In such a
tumultuous environment of clashing institu-
tions Michel Angelo was born and passed
his days; the Titanic contortions of his Art
were those of his time, his city, his nation.
The struggles and wrenchings of the bare
human figures in his famous Florentine car-
toon represent indeed an episode in the cam-
paign against Pisa, but also far more; they
hint of Florence stript naked in all her fu-
rious conflict and effort to preserve her in-
stitutional world against the assaults of the
age. So the Florentine citizen would feel as
he looked at the picture; so Michel Angelo
must have felt when he poured the full in-
tensity of his own civic spirit into the stal-
wart muscles of those soldiers. To be sure
there is a touch of humor in the situation
which also has its meaning in relation to the
Florentine populace.

The artist was a republican cast in the
mould of the old Florentine Citv-State: to
that form of government was given his heart.
He showed his devotion to his communal
ideal M'hen he fought against the return of
the Medici, and defended Florence by his
engineering skill. But he felt the rent in his


allegiance, which rent lay also in the time.
He owed much to his early patron, Lorenzo
dei Medici, and was grateful ; but that Medi-
cean House he knew^ to be the destroyers of
his city's liberty. Still the scission within
did not stop here. He recognized the need
of Italian unity, and this he saw to be pos-
sible only through the political supremacy
of the Pope, which was of course inconsistent
with the autonomy of his dear City-State,
Florence. Thus Michel Angelo was tossed
internally and externally between the two
chief political tendencies of the time, commu-
nal freedom and papal absolutism. The re-
sult was he veered from one side to the other
spiritually and artistically; now he gives his
Art to the service of the Republic, now^ to
the service of the Papacy. Hence came his
many restless careenings and shiftings be-
tween Florence and Rome, he is continually
going from one to the other and then back
again. To be sure he had work in botli
places, but that is not the secret of his fluc-
tuations, for he had enough to do in either
city, if he "would have stayed. His insti-
tutional soul was torn in twain, having two
opposing, yea warring ideals, civil liberty
and national unitv. For forty years of his
best life he kept flying between the two
homes of these deepest principles of his


being, for they could not then be reconciled
in Italy, or even in Europe, He first visited
Eome in 1496 at the age of twenty-one,
and remained there at work some years;
then the old longing for his native commun-
ity must have seized him, and he hastened
back to Florence, where he executed his de-
fiant David, while at Rome he had sculp-
tured his dead Christ on the lap of the
Mother (his famous Pieta). Finally in 1535
when at the age of sixty he returns to Rome
and stays there to the end of life, though his
corpse was brought back to Florence in ac-
cord with his request where his tomb is still
to be seen. Sometimes he ran away from
both places, and went to other cities for
short seasons; he even thought of quitting
Italy, and for years he was banished, cer-
tainly M'ith his own will, to the quiet of the
marble quarries of Carrara.

Michel Angelo was an institutional man,
otherwise he could not have been the artist
of his age. He communed with the world-
historical Spirit of the time, and felt the
fierce dualism of that Italian period, be-
tween whose two main representative cities
we have just shown his fluctuations. Such
was the institutional see-saw which tore his
soul and of course passed over into his Art.
To him in this mood the world was fit only


for damnation, which he painted with such
terrible energy in his Last Judgment. But
it is our opinion that in the final period of
his life there was a recovery from this deep-
ly negative condition and a restoration into
new harmony with the Divine Order. But
of this change we shall take some account

It is recorded that Michel Angelo Buon-
arroti was born March 6th, 1475, of good bur-
gher stock, with claims to a remote strain
of nobility, at Caprese in the Florentine ter-
ritory. He was sent to a school at Florence,
but never got so far as to learn Latin. It
is said that his early pastime took chieflj^ to
drawing pictures. After some parental op-
position he w^as put in the workshop of Gliir-
landaio, a famous painter of that time, and
still known through his works. This was
in 1488. The boy must have seen many sa-
cred pictures already, for Florence was full
of them, and thus he had become acquainted
with the general content of the Christian
Mythus. Also he had learned the use of col-
or and had helped his master in some fres-
coes. Both his cotemporary biographers
(Vasari and Condivi) adduce examples of
his wonderful precocity in drawing which
seems to have been his first and greatest
original gift, and which he deemed the



source of all liis Arts, Late in life lie is
reported as saying: "The science of de-
sign, or of line-drawing, is the source and
the true essence of Painting, Sculpture, Ar-
chitecture, and of every form of representa-
tion as well as of all the Sciences. Some-
times when I meditate upon these topics, it
seems to me that I can discover but one art
or science, which is design, and that all the
works of the human brain and hand are ei-
ther design itself or some branch of that
art." This is a very significant statement:
Michel Angelo's germinal art, the genetic
center of his genius was design, in which he
showed a unique excellence from the start.
Recollect his brief thrust against Titian :
This man cannot draw.

Now follows a great new step in the art
education of the youth, who one day comes
to the watchful notice of Lorenzo dei Med-
ici, under whose patronage he begins to study
Sculpture and the antique. He quits the
painter Ghirlandaio after about a year's ap-
prenticeship, and for three years he lives
in the Medicean Palace which had become
a large museum of artistic treasures. Here
Michel Angelo reveled in the plastic shapes
of Greek and Roman Art. But the oppor-
tunitv was still greater. He sat at the same
table with a number of the most learned men


of the Renaissance, from wliose talk lie
caught lip a knowledge of the Greek Mythiis
as well as its application to Art and Poetry.
This he absorbed with such sympathy that
it became an integral part of himself, and
took its place at least for many years along-
side the Christian Mythus in his work and
in his soul. Moreover he appropriated a
good deal of Greek Philosophy, especially
the Platonic idealism, which almost might be
called the atmosphere of the Medicean court.
Especially in Michel Angelo's poetry the
flashes of the Platonic idea occur often.

In 1492 his patron Lorenzo died and he
returned for a while to his father's house.
He showed his classic bent by trying his
hand at a statue of Hercules, which is lost.
Lorenzo's son Piero took him back into the
palace, but he was evidently no longer at
home there, for Piero was both tyrannical
and incompetent. So Michel Angelo fled and
went to Venice and Bologna. Moreover,
fierce conflicts had risen within Florence
and without, which resulted in the expulsion
of Piero and the elevation of Savonarola,
the moral reformer and preacher, to the
practical headship of the State. Soon after
Michel Angelo was again in Florence (1495)
where he made two statues of marble, the
small Saint John and the famous Sleeping


Cupid (both still shown hut of questionable
authenticity). At any rate the remark may
be made that Sculpture is in these two cases
employed for both the Christian and Hea-
then Mvthus.

Savonarola was now in the height of his
power, which, from religious and moral, had
become political. There is good evidence
that he produced a great effect upon Michel
Angelo, as he did upon the entire city. He
was an elemental character, wherein he
shows a deep affinity with Michel Angelo.
But the preacher was a volcano of mighty
words, while the artist was a volcano of co-
lossal forms, both of them often bitterly de-
structive with lurid Hell-fire, speech-painted
in the one case, color-painted in the other.
Still Michel Angelo could not accept the
whole of Savonarola, who had assailed the
Heathen culture and art of Lorenzo's time.
Probably the political turn of affairs did not
please the friend of Lorenzo on the one side
and of the old Republic on the other. Be-
sides the plastic artist was not ready to give
up his Classic Mythus and its Art. At any
rate we find Michel Angelo rather suddenly
quitting Florence in 1496 and going to Rome
where his first stay lasted for several years,
and where he was able to give full rein to his
artistic bent, in both directions, Heathen


and Christian. There is no doubt that he
felt more freedom under the Pope than un-
der Savonarola. The Renaissance was in
full tide at Rome, while it had encountered
a temporary reaction at Florence. The lit-
tle stories told about this change of the ar-
tist's residence may be true, but do not
touch the heart of the matter.

We are now brought face to face with a
problem which it is very necessary to settle,
but which we have found not easy of solu-
tion. This concerns the order in which we
are to arrange the movement as well as the
products of Michel Angelo's prolonged,
varied and busy life. He was within a few
days of eighty-nine years old when he died,
and he had shown a very changeful career
both as to his habitations and his w^orks : how
can it all be put together so that the best
survey be obtained.^ On the whole we shall
follow the artist as he develops through the
three Arts of design, so he himself calls
them, namely Sculpture, Painting, Architec-
ture, each of which dominates a period of
his life in succession. To be sure he learns
and practises all three together; still we
shall find that each of these Arts becomes in
turn the dominant factor of what we shall
call a period of his total creative achieve-
ment. Three such periods we shall note in


their order, tlioiigli exact limits in time can-
not be insisted upon.

I. The Artist as Sculptor. The earliest
works of Michel Angelo which have come
down to US are pretty evenly divided be-
tween Christian and Heathen subjects — Ma-
donna, xVngel, Saint on the one hand, Greek
deities, such as the Apollo and Eros, and the
fighting Centaurs on the other. But the im-
portant fact now is that all these themes,
both Christian and Classic, are done in mar-
ble. Painting seems to be quite eschewed.
Such a fact shows the early persistent at-
tempt of the artist to express himself in
Sculpture alone, his strongest bent is to re-
store antique Art, yet with added content.
His artistic spirit at this time he has ex-
pressed in one of his sonnets: ''The great-
est artist can conceive nothing which the
marble does not contain within itself;" but
he adds, ''it needs a hand obedient to
thought to draw it forth from the marble."
Thus Sculj^ture is regarded as the universal
Art, if the genius is on hand to make it uni-

During his first stay at Eome Michel An-
gelo produced two famous works which are
characteristic of his double theme, Heathen
and Christian, set forth in his one Art of
Sculpture. The first is a statue of the God


Baccliiis wreathed around the head with
bunches of grapes, and holding in his right
hand and leering at a cup of wine of which
he has already taken too much but proposes
to take more. It is a typsy young God,
"about eighteen years old," says Condivi,
Michel Angelo's Boswell; beside this tall
shape, or a little behind it, is carved a small
tricksy Satyr, goat-legged, who seems to be
secretly poking fun at such a drunken deity.
The technical merits are acknowledged to
be of a high order. It is certainly a repro-
duction of the Greek. wine-god, and may be
deemed a youthful effervescence of the ar-
tist, in his twenty-second or third year, a
sort of orgy in the Bacchantic Art of old
Rome, of which there was and still is a ^reat
abundance. The statue is not far from be-
ing Michel Angelo himself intoxicated with
the antique, and self-portrayed with a de-
cided dash of realism.

In the most striking contrast to the ex-
uberant fullness both of the flesh and the
happiness of the Heathen God Bacchus, is
a Christian work of the same Roman period :
the sorrowing Mother holding the emaciated
dead Christ on her lap — an artistic group
best known by its Italian name, Pieta. A
very famous piece of marble and set up in
the most prominent edifice of Christendom,


which edifice is also Michel Angelo's work
essentially: it is placed in St. Peter's at
Rome, in a little chapel on the right not far
from the front entrance; but it is so badly
lighted that a good picture will show most
of the details better than the original. There
is little or no bodily suffering here, no an-
guish or contortion, though there be sorrow,
through which, however, an inner rising sun
begins to shine. The body of the Christ is
not rigid or cramped, though meagre of flesh.
He appears in deep sleep with relaxed limbs ;
especially the left arm thrown gently across
the Mother's lap must be alive. This is not
death but rather the death of Death, the rise
into a new Life out of the old. The face
shows some lines of outer affliction, but they
are radiant with a deeper joy which trans-
figures the whole visagQ with what may be
called blessedness. I cannot help thinking
that Raphael had this model before him
when he painted the face of Christ in his
Transfiguration; certainly Daniel da Volter-
ra, pupil of Michel Angelo, was ecstatically
inspired by it in his picture known in Rome
as the Descent froifi the Cross. Such are the
three most accepted, and, we may say, most
transcendently celestial Christ-faces in
Christendom (we can hardly include that of
Lionardo in the Last Swpper).


The countenance of the Mother in this
same work, as she looks on her dead Son is
likewise that of joy breaking through the
cloud of sorrow. She recognizes before her
the mortal one rising through mortality
into immortality. Not only does her face
show this recognition, but the peculiar ges-
ture of the left hand can have only such a
meaning, seeming to say: There! behold
him! He is not dead, but liveth! Here we
may see the deeper spiritual unity of the
work : both these faces have a common char-
acter in manifesting a divine other-worldly
blessedness bursting through and transfig-
uring the heaviest sorrow of this w^orld.
Such is the revelation brought down from
the highest sources by Michel Angelo in this
work of Christian Sculpture, of which it
may well be deemed the supreme master-
piece. A lofty mediatorial work of Art for
the folk of its faith who behold it and accept
its mediation: each individual has to travel
the same path of mortality and rise even
through the gateway of death to immortal-

Still the limit of the Art we feel; we al-
most long for the heart's red gush into col-
or. The white impassive marble stays cold
to the last in spite of all devices ; the mate-
rial contradicts its content, whv preserve so


miicli soul-warm love in ice? Sculpture is
here pushed into the deepest breach with
itself; it seeks to make the ever-changing
iridescent inner world into a changeless
blank outer shape "marble-smooth and mar-
ble-cold." Did not Michel Angelo, Titanic
limit-breaker that he was, feel himself strug-
gling against his Art's confinement? We be-
lieve so, and that from now on he shows a
change, he must move toward a more tracta-
ble and more internal material. Still he
does not propose to give up his dear Sculp-
ture, the first darling of his artistic heart.
In 1501 Michel Angelo quits Rome the
papal and autocratic, also the desperately
corrupt under Borgia, and returns to Flor-
ence for a fresh whiff of republican air.
Moreover Savonarola, the enemy of the
Heathen culture and of its Art, had been
hurled from supreme power to death, the
moderate party had taken his place in the
State, and a new artistic restoration had be-
gun at Florence, which had thus become
again congenial to the self-banished artist.
Family affairs are also assigned by his bi-
ographer for this return. At any rate he
hastened back to his native city and was
soon at work on his colossal statue of Da-
vid, which is still to be seen in Florence. It
was paid for by the municipality, evidently


being regarded as a communal work, which
character it undoubtedly shows, as it looks
a huge image of defiant Florence, ready to
face her larger-sized foes, papal, imperial,
Medicean. The youthful heroic David tri-
umphing over the giant Goliath had been a
favorite with former Italian artists, for in-
stance, Donatello and Verochio. But Michel
Angelo changes Scripture, David is the real
giant, while his antagonist is not portrayed,
unless in David's tense-drawn forehead,
which indicates brain-work, calculation di-
recting this considerable display of brawn —
all of which suggests a just compliment to
the Florentine beholder. Much fault has
been found with the proportions of this stat-
ue. Also the motive of the work has been
discussed with no little variety and some as-
perity of opinion. Its excessive realism has
been praised or blamed according to the
viewpoint of the critic. Concentration of
mind and body upon some outward foe is
here expressed with patriotic vigor, for this
body stands ever ready as the guardian of
Florentine liberty. In spite of its modern
touches, the statue has its kinship with the
Greek athlete who was such a favorite in an-
cient Sculpture. But his athletic action is
directed against the enemy of the country,
and thus has a strong institutional appeal
for the witnessing people.


Other less important works of this time
we shall pass over and hasten to his cartoon
of the battle of Pisa which has been already
touched upon in our account of Lionardo,
who was Michel Angelo's competitor in dec-
orating the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Both these supreme artists of Florence and
of all time were engaged in a duel of Paint-
ing, which has become in this Art a pivotal
event, and their battle of cartoons was more
picturesque than even their pictures. It was
in this work that Michel Angelo showed how
much more he could do in Painting than in
Sculpture, hence it may be deemed his point
of transition from the Plastic to the Graph-
ic Art. He had already run against the boun-
daries of Sculpture and felt the confinement
of his limit-transcending genius. Still such
feeling was doubtless more or less uncon-
scious. But the battle of the cartoons called
forth all his latent graphic powders and re-
vealed himself to himself so that he must
have been aware of the next step in his des-
tiny. Accordingly we may see him in these
fragmentary sketches — all that is left of his
complete work — breaking out of his narrow-
er sculptural into his much freer and larger
pictorial consciousness.

The cartoon was begun in 1504, but was
interrupted by a visit to Rome, as usual,


from which he took flight back to Florence,
as usual. Staying again in the latter
city, he finished his cartoon during the year
1506, when it was exhibited to the public
with extraordinary huzzahs from both the
people and the artists. Says Vasari, a some-
what later cotemporary, in his description :
Nude men bathing in the Arno during the
summer heat are suddenly summoned to
arms by the approach of the enemy. The
soldiers rush out of the river to jerk on their
clothes as quickly as possible. All sorts of
attitudes with a prodigious display of bulg-
ing muscles : one man wrestling with his
shirt, another putting on his pantaloons,
some bent down, others rising and buckling
on their armor, with grimaces and contor-
tions of the lips. Some picked up their gar-
ments and weapons and ran stark naked
into battle line. "All in the air foreshort-
ened with full conquest of every difficulty,"
says artist Vasari.

Now it must have become evident to Mi-
chel Angelo that Sculpture with its solid
bodies grouped ever so skillfully could not
achieve such results as these. Far greater,
therefore, is the associative power of Paint-
ing, requiring, surface, line and point mere-
ly for its presentation of the human shape,
which thus is easily united or even fuses of


itself, with other shapes. But the sculptured
body is on the whole refractory to associa-
tion, being so materially individualized,
when compared with Painting. Now Michel
Angelo can depict the masses of humanity
grouped on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
But his hero David has to stand solitary
while the Cartoon shows the people them-
selves to themselves, surprised indeed, yet
rallying with desperate energy to the call
of the country. So the Florentine folk saw
an image of itself in the work and greeted
its humerous counterpart mid inextinguish-
able laughter. The artist happily seized
upon the bathing scene with its sudden ex-
citement as a means for getting nude fig-
ures and throwing them into the most varied
and violent contortions. On this side the
Cartoon is sculpturesque, its shapes seem
a plastic multitude turned into a picture.
The few figures of it still to be seen show
the statue transformed into the lined sur-
face. It was a mighty outburst also in the
soul of the artist who set forth his spirit
breaking loose in every stressful figure of
the picture, and in the whole of it as well.
Each muscle has the bulge of bursting stren-
uosity, and is by itself a sort of Michel An-
Such is what we deem the first period of


his career with its nodal turn into Painting,
of which turn he became conscious through
the triumph of the foregoing cartoon. It
should be added here that Michel Angelo has
left many unfinished statues, which have
been brought to light in various places. We
look at these half-chiseled shapes with a
peculiar interest as showing the struggles
of the man with the limits of his Art. In
our view he often found that Sculpture
could not adequately express his conception,
though he may not have thought that way
himself. His gigantic personality seems
stamped the stronger just on the line where
he quits his marble form as something un-
finishable. The infinite in him cannot fully in-
dividuate itself in Sculpture, and so he
pushes even unconsciously for a more ade-
quate Art.

II. llie Artist as Painter. Incontesta-
bly the greatest works of Michel Angelo lie
in the field of the graphic Arts, not of the
plastic. His two colossal associative Paint-
ings in the Sistine Chapel are not only his
best, but probably the best; the frescoes of
the Ceiling (1508-12) we place at the begin-
ning of his pictorial period, the Last Judg-

Online LibraryDenton Jaques SniderMusic and the fine arts; a psychology of aesthetic → online text (page 25 of 32)