Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Coffee with Michelangelo: Davids, popes, and frescoes

The "Coffee With" series humanizes cultural icons from the worlds of art, entertainment, music, and philosophy by creating Q&A sessions in which their voices are channeled in an intimate, conversational format. I grabbed the Mozart, Marilyn, Groucho, and Michelangelo volumes for perusal, but today I'm going to focus solely on the latter personage. For I have just returned from a trip to Florence and Rome, cities where his masterworks in sculpture and painting were for me the absolute highlights. The visceral thrill of being able to behold in person and do a 360 around the magnificent statue of David is truly incomparable.
Once available for all to marvel at in the central Piazza della Signoria, it now commands a place of pride in the Accademia museum, where it is protected from the elements (at left is an inferior copy that now inhabits the square). No photos allowed, although they wouldn't do it justice. Neither are pics permitted in the fantastic Bargello museum, which hosts a plethora of sublime sculptures, including a Bacchus, Apollo, and Madonna and child by Michelangelo, as well as two Davids by Donatello. (I did subvert the strictures once, however, by taking advantage of a missing panel in the antique glass windows and nabbing the shot below from the inner courtyard. My Ipad-wielding traveling companion is responsible for the surreptitiously obtained Donatello photo.)
Visits to the Vatican Museums and St Peter's in Rome have risen exponentially since the advent of Pope Francis, and the premises were mobbed. Going with a tour group expedites access, but inhibits one's ability to linger and dwell on rooms or items of particular interest. Despite the somewhat suffocating crowds, despite the guards' continued injunction to silence, and despite the irksome refusal of many ugly Americans to obey same, I found the experience of viewing the Sistine Chapel up close and personal as awe-inspiring as gaping at the David. I had avidly perused the Vatican's virtual tour (available here) in the past, but being in the actual space and viewing it as Michelangelo intended was something else again. He seemed to have poured every artistic resource of his being into designing and executing that vast panorama of Old Testament history. I did inspect some of the panels (e.g., the creation of Adam and Eve) and other elements (Sybils & Prophets) with binoculars, and the impact was staggering. And the Last Judgment was, as the French say, incroyable!
 Here's a pertinent excerpt from Coffee with Michelangelo:
We're standing in the Sistine Chapel and we're looking up at the two greatest frescoes of all time— both painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Not so loud. This is a place of worship.
(Whispering) Sorry Maestro. Despite these amazing achievements, you always insist that painting is not your profession.
It's certainly true that I learned the basics about painting in the Ghirlandaio workshop, and assisted on some of their frescoes and altarpieces. But once I'd gone to the Medici sculpture garden I always thought of myself as a sculptor. I signed my letters "Michelangelo, sculptor." My conviction that sculpture was my profession intensified when I was diverted from Pope Julius' tomb to paint the Sistine Ceiling. In truth, I was also trying to protect myself in case I failed, which many influential people thought I would—Bramante, the architect of the new Saint Peter's, said I wouldn't be able to paint foreshortened figures. Foreshortened figures were the least of my worries. I'd never painted a fresco on my own before, and no one else had painted a ceiling fresco of such scale and ambition. My fresco replaced a decorative painted canopy of stars on a blue background, painted by an anonymous artisan. You can understand why they kept things simple: the vault measures around 45 x 128 feet, has various kinds of curved surfaces, is not entirely regular, and rises over 60 feet above the ground. I stood on a gantry to paint aided by lamplight, arching my back, sticking my butt out, getting spattered by drips of paint. Most of the work— except for preparing the surfaces, grinding pigment, and painting the trompe-l'oeil architecture—was done by me alone. I badly strained my eyes and my neck. The physical and mental exertion nearly finished me off.

Michelangelo, Sculptor surveys his most important works in this medium and has many beautiful photos—the next best thing to being there. 

1 comment:

  1. In Michelangelo's own words:"I have already grown a goitre in this drudgery--
    As water does to cats in Lombardy...
    Which forces my belly to hang under my chin.
    I feel my beard skyward, and memory
    On top of my coffer, and my chest like a harpy's;
    And on my face all the while the brush
    With its dripping makes a rich pavement."
    He ends the sonnet with his assertion that he is not a painter--which no one in the world would agree with.
    I imagine the response of Giovanni da Pistoia to have been something like, "Well, do the best you can. We have faith in you."
    I'm glad you're back to share these things with us. So many things to see and so little time!