Michelangelo, Moses San Pietro in Vincoli

i have come to love michelangelo although not without a fight. i probably shouldn’t see it as a dichotomy, but i have always been a davinci fan. there is something about davinci and his work that is more refined, more sensitive, more atmospheric, more enigmatic for me. michelangelo on the other hand embodied a quality that came to be known in the quattrocento as “terribilia”, a godlike wrath, strength, or sublimity. i have been studying Michelangelo’s Moses at the Julius tomb in Rome, which i think is the perfect embodiment of the qualities Michelangelo possessed and revered; it is full of potential energy and power and wrath. It is that kind of spirituality, a very male kind. I think it’s not the David but the Moses that better represents what Michelangelo was really all about. the David is just about sex for me. when i saw it, i was awestruck and supremely impressed by its beauty and power. but it is a sexual, almost visceral beauty that does not have the same kind of inner power and humanity that the moses has. i think the david is more about the body as an object. i can easily imagine michelangelo obsessively, aggressively sculpting the marble block five times his size it in a fit of creative sexual energy. he always preferred sculpting to painting. i hate to get too freud about it, but what is more masculine than a gigantic phallic block of really really hard glistening rock being attacked by tools?

it is obvious that Michelangelo loved men, as evidenced by countless male nudes he painted and sculpted throughout his life. i mean REALLY loved men. he kept painting naked men on the ceilings and walls of churches, then ten years later the priests would have to hire other painters to put swatches of clothes over their privates. people today talk about the sistine chapel as this archetypal work of art, a masterpiece, but can you imagine someone getting away with that now? “father, i would like to paint about fifty naked men on the ceiling of your church.” you can’t even do it with a sharpie in the basement bathroom, let alone get paid by the pope for it. in the sistine chapel there are many biblical figures, and some “ignudi” which really have no function or relation to christianity. they are just an excuse to cram a few more naked dudes up there.

When Michelangelo did sculpt or paint a woman, she was essentially a man with awkward breasts hanging from the pectoral muscles like shriveled coconuts on a tree. Either he had never actually looked at a woman’s body with any real interest, which i find hard to believe for such an intensely observant artist, or he just could not bring himself to represent a woman in the way a woman really appears. the only woman he ever loved or cared about he loved because she seemed to him a man in a woman’s body. i have at times found it difficult to wrap my head around this kind of apparent sexism.

it is of course impossible to separate myself from contemporary views about homosexuality and sexism; those sorts of words and concepts simply did not exist in the quattrocento. it was taken for granted that the male was the superior gender, and a man loving another man or boy in a platonic or neoplatonic or even sexual way was as natural as beginning a family at thirty is for us today. all of that i can accept. but it is so difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that you could be so enamored with the ideal of one gender that you would be completely blind to the other.


Quick sketch of the David from life

the only way i can come close to understanding it is to think about how i see women.  in the same way that michelangelo’s men represented human potential and creative power and the divine and all of these other things, the female form often functions that way in my art and in a lot of art. i think most artists have a bit of a gender bias that shows up in the work. but take someone like DaVinci, who was working in this area around the same time as Michelangelo, and must have met him a few times. if moses or the david is michelangelo’s quintessential work, the mona lisa is davinci’s of course. they say that DaVinci was “homosexual” too, but i think that word must fall very short of summing up the way Davinci actually saw men and women and sexuality. i do not know much about the Mona Lisa, but then that is what is so appealing anyway–it is full of the mystery and atmosphere and sensuality that DaVinci could so easily cast onto his subjects.

Dante the writer, who was well known to both Michelangelo and DaVinci at the time, once wrote that in order to make a good portrait, the artist must become the subject. it might be an obvious thought but in any artists very best work you find their own qualities reflected in their subjects be it portraits or landscapes or abstract works or even still life’s or songs. i may never understand or represent “terribilia” the way Michelangelo did but i think i understand his essential humanism; i can see god in people, and i see creative power as divine.

after nearly a month, i have only three more days here in florence. i will miss this city. before i leave i am hoping to go the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo and i may even bring them drawings or flowers. i hope to watch one more sunset on the arno river while experiencing one more flavor of gelato.