Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, commonly now simply called Michelangelo, was born on this date in 1475 in Caprese, now a commune (called Caprese Michelengelo) in Tuscany. Let me first dispense with the idea that Michelangelo was an Italian artist, as he is almost universally styled. This is a ridiculous anachronism. Italy as a nation did not exist until the 19th century, and, therefore, “Italian” is a purely modern term embraced by revolutionaries such as Garibaldi, but absolutely not pertinent to the 15th and 16th centuries. At best we might call him Florentine since in Michelangelo’s time Caprese was part of Florence.
I don’t need to give you a big song and dance about Michelangelo. I’ve referred to him many times in posts here. I’ve been to Florence and Rome to see many of his most famous works, and I recommend doing likewise. Otherwise there are plenty of “experts” to read and images online to keep you busy.
As demonstration of Michelangelo’s unique standing in his day, he was the first Western artist whose biography was published while he was alive. Two biographies were published of him during his lifetime; one of them, by Giorgio Vasari, proposed that he was the pinnacle of all artistic achievement since the beginning of the Renaissance. Perhaps a tad overblown, but fair enough. In his lifetime he was often called Il Divino (“the divine one”).
Apart from his art he was also a prolific writer and poet. So, I’ll start there with a few quotes. He is famous for having said on several occasions, in different ways, that his job as a sculptor was to reveal the statue latent in the stone:
Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
Michelangelo was, likewise, rather humbly self deprecating:
If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.
I’ll disagree. Yes, he worked exceptionally hard; but his genius is, nonetheless, evident. I could work for 100 years, a thousand times as hard, and never produce anything approaching what he did. Furthermore, there was a passionate fervor to his devotion to his work:
There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.
As tribute to the great man I’d like to focus on one piece, his final sculpture known variously as the Deposition, the Florence Pietà, the Bandini Pietà or The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Its various names derive from the fact that art historians have argued for centuries about the scene depicted. Michelangelo worked on this piece between 1547 and 1553. There are four figures: the dead body of Jesus, newly taken down from the Cross, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, and a hooded man who could be Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. It is generally agreed that whoever this man it is meant to be, it is actually a self portrait of the aging Michelangelo. I find the identification with Joseph of Arimethea plausible because the scene has the effect of a deposition from the cross to my eyes, and Jesus was being taken to Joseph’s tomb. However, Nicodemus is also recorded as being present at the deposition and was conventionally portrayed as hooded. The identification with Michelangelo himself is not insignificant, however. One can see this sculpture as an act of pure devotion, with Michelangelo himself caring for his savior. After all, Michelangelo meant it to be his own tomb decoration according to Vasari.
Vasari noted that Michelangelo began to work on the sculpture around the age of 72. Without commission, he worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. Vasari wrote that he began to work on this piece to amuse his mind and to keep his body healthy. After 8 years of work, Michelangelo attempted to destroy the piece in a fit of frustration. Vasari gives several reasons why Michelangelo tried to destroy the sculpture:
Either because of defects in the marble, or because the stone was so hard that the chisel often struck sparks, or because he was too severe a judge of his own work and could never be content with anything he did. It is true that few of his mature works were ever completed and that those entirely finished were productions of his youth. Such were the Bacchus, the Pieta of the Madonna della Febbre [in Saint Peter’s], il Gigante [the David], at Florence, and the Christ Risen of the Minerva [Santa Maria sopra Minerva], which are finished to such perfection that a single grain could not be taken from them without injury. Michelangelo often said that, if he were compelled to satisfy himself, he should show little or nothing. The reason is obvious: he had attained such knowledge in art that the slightest error could not exist without his immediate discovery of it. But once it had been seen in public, he would never attempt to correct it, but would begin a new work, for he believed that a similar failure would not happen again. He often declared that this was the reason that the number of his finished works was so small. He gave the broken Pieta to Francesco Bandini. While it was still in Michelangelo’s house, the Florentine sculptor, Tiberio Calcagni, inquired after a long discussion why he had destroyed so admirable a performance. Our artist replied that he had been driven to it by Urbino, his servant, who urged him every day to finish it. Besides, a piece had broken off the arm of the Madonna. This and a vein which appeared in the marble had caused him infinite trouble and had driven him out of patience.
Upon receiving the piece, Bandini asked a young apprentice, Tiberius Calcagni, to restore it. Calcagni used models provided by Michelangelo himself to base his repairs on. In his restoration, Calcagni reattached the limbs of Mary Magdalene, the Virgin’s fingers, Christ’s left nipple, Christ’s left arm and elbow, and Christ’s right arm and hand. The only thing that was not reattached was Christ’s left leg which Michelangelo specifically asked to be left off. This request has led to a number of speculations about the inadvertent sexuality of the pose which Michelangelo subsequently detested.
Calcagni caused controversy with the changes he made to Mary Magdalene’s face. It has been noted that prior to the destruction, Mary Magdalene’s face reflected the pain shown on the Virgin’s. The change in her face altered the overall tone of this work. She was no longer in complete anguish but instead was now disassociated from and seemingly uninvolved in the scene. The sculpture stayed with the Bandini family in Rome until 1671 when it was sold to Cosimo III. Cosimo III brought the piece to Florence where it went around from museum to museum for a while. It currently resides in the Museo dell ‘Opera del Duomo, which I find to be something of a problem. Should it not be on Michelangelo’s tomb, as he originally desired? Or would this be seen as counter to his desire to destroy the work?
Vasari noted that Michelangelo had no interest in food, so finding a celebratory recipe is a challenge. Michelangelo was known to have appalling table manners, eating rapidly because he saw eating as time wasted away from his work. As a compromise I’ve settled on pappardelle, very broad, flat noodles originating from the region where Michelangelo was born. The name derives from the verb “pappare”– “to gobble down,” which seems massively appropriate given the way he ate. Also, papparele on a plate remind me of the delicate folds in the draperies of Michelangelo’s work. Fresh papparele, which are the best, are 2 to 3 centimeters (3⁄4–1 in) wide and may have fluted edges. They can be sauced in all manner of ways. There are tons of local recipes for papparele in rich meat and wine sauces, but these seem inappropriate. I suggest the following:
First, make your own pasta. I give a good recipe in the Hints section of this blog. You may be able to buy the pasta readymade, but it is not easy to find, even in Italy, and it is not usually made with egg.
Second, decide on a sauce. For me the most delectable, and simple, is a butter sauce with fresh porcini. Chop the porcini coarsely and sauté them gently in ample butter over medium-low heat. Cook the papparele to al dente in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water. Drain the pasta, but reserve a little of the water. Toss the pasta in the butter and porcini mix, adding a touch of the water as needed. Serve in a deep, warmed serving dish with a garnish of finely shaved Parmesan cheese. Then gobble it down. I do.