Friday, September 07, 2012

Michelangelo, Fast Learner

I've been watching/listening to some lectures on the life of Michelangelo by a guy named William Wallace, otherwise unknown to me, from Wash U. They're wonderful, in the sense that I thought I knew a bit about Michelangelo but he is telling me a lot of things I never thought about before. He also has an engaging stage presence: not at all academic in style, you get the feeling he could be running an art-restoration boutique on the south side of the Arno; maybe even a sculptor himself except that his hands aren't big enough and his name doesn't end with a vowel (well okay, yes it does end with a vowel but you know what I mean). Come to think of it, I'll bet he did try his hand at sculpture somewhere along the line; how else to explain his alert understanding of the problems that a sculptor must be up against?

But set that aside.  My immediate point is an insight, startling to me at least, about how an artist develops.  Right or wrong, I like to think of art as a craft.   How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the muppets aslk?  Prrr-actice.    Charlie Parker played setup routines over and over again, faster and faster, in every different key,all day and all night.  Verdi staged something like a dozen operas (depending on exactly how you count) before he did the major leagues.

Yet here's the thing: on Wallace's account, Michelangelo's best work comes almost out of nowhere. He didn't have a standard apprenticeship.  There isn't much by way of Michelangelo juvenilia.   He did come "of good family," though exactly what that can mean seems difficult to calibrate at this remove. Whatever: he did the Bacchus when he was 21-23.  Before he turns 25, he has finished the Pietà--destination #1 for so many tourist-visitors to St. Peter's.

And finally--tastes will differ, but if I had to put together a list of five works of art from any medium that have to be preserved, I'd have to include the Michelangelo's David, now in the Accademia in Florence.  I remarked to Mrs. Buce that it must be the best statue ever.  She said I must be wrong but I haven't heard her suggest to better.  Anyway, Michelangelo started work on the David when he was 25 (and finished before he was 30).  As Wallace rightly observes, the one fit companion for the David is Shakespeare's Hamlet--he who says:
What a piece of work is a man!  How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension  how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Perhaps the only place where Wallace disappoints in all this is the question of how Michelangelo kept getting all these commissions. Amazing that he, as a young nobody, got the commission to do the Bacchus in the first place.  As Wallace explains, the Cardinal who commissioned the Bacchus didn't like it, and rejected it. Wallace shows convincingly how we must accept it as a great work; but he also shows how unsettling it is, how easy would be for a donor not to like it. Yet virtually as soon as he had suffered rejection fot hhe Bacchus, he is able to lay his hands on the commsion for what became the Pietà.

Michelangelo finished both the Bacchus and the Pietà in Rome. From thence he proceeded back home to Florence where nobody knew him as an artist, nor anything about his early achievement. Yet here he was able to get still more commissions, including the one for what seems to me to be the greatest sculpture ever.  Well connected and well protected but still, an amazing career.  And there's this:


Jimbo said...

I majored in political science in college and later became a development economist but my college minor was art and my compulsion from childhood was graphic arts. Michelangelo and all the other had enormous talent but what i understand is that there is an absolute compulsion for art that partly derives from how you literally perceive the world. I see the world figuratively as well as (in my day job) analytically. It is a very difficult world to reconcile and accounts, I think for a lot of political satire and YouTube type art that appears today since conventional art is suppressed by the oligarchy.

marcel said...

I was singing that tune in my head as I read the verse, before paging down to see the embedded video. I'd never made the connection between Rado/Ragni and Shakespeare before.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

David was a boy. Moses was a man. That is all.

MER said...

I remember seeing the Pieta at the 1964 World's Fair. Interesting info

Buce said...

Scrooge, that's deep.