Monday, October 01, 2012

The Bruges Michelangelo

Mr. and Mrs. Buce took a jaunt out from Brussels to Bruges yesterday. It was not a huge success. Bruges has a lot of lovely stuff but even though off the beaten track it has gone touristy and even now, two weeks into Fall, it is pretty well stuffed up with--well, with folks like us. How dreary.

Still, we accomplished our main purposes, which was to take a look at the "Madonna of Bruges" by Michelangelo. By my understanding this is the only Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime and I surmise it is the only major Michelangelo outside Italy today. It's certainly an impressive piece of work, probably better than any competitor could have accomplished in his lifetime. Yet here's the thing: this is the guy who, already in his 20s, had produced the Vatican Pietà and the Florentine David along with a half a dozen other works of considerable merit. Compared to these--that is, compared to himself--I'd say Bruges Madonna is something of a letdown. The child figure is distinctive from earlier depictions on the same theme--almost a kindergartner, standing almost apart from his mother, squirming. The face does seem a tad small for the giant head. Seen from the viewer's right, mother and child do form a set. From the left, they seem almost detached, as if two statues.

The bigger puzzle is the mother. She is almost entirely static, as if a piece of furniture--as if, you might say, she was carved in stone. Coming from the man who gave us the Pietà, this has to have been intentional. The one thing no one will believe is that Michelangelo did not know how to carve a living Madonna.

Intentional, but I'd say still that doesn't quite work. And slowly I suspect I am getting to the point. Apparently Michelangelo produced the statue on commission for an Italian buyer, but somehow wound up selling it instead to a customer far away. Could it be that Michelangelo himself saw that it was not up to his standard, and that was best shipped off to the boondocks where his critics would never find it? 

Just askin'.  Anyway, I'd say that insight itself was worth the price of the trip.

Fun footnote: I see that in 1944, the retreating German occupiers packed the statue in mattresses and smuggled it back to the fatherland in a Red Cross lorry. Even in extremis, it seems, they weren't above a bit of grand theft.

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