When Tommaso de' Cavalieri and Vittoria Colonna received one of Michelangelo's gift drawings, they were getting some- thing novel. The highly finished drawing conceived as an end in itself and presented as a token of affection or esteem... more
When Tommaso de' Cavalieri and Vittoria Colonna received one of Michelangelo's gift drawings, they were getting some- thing novel. The highly finished drawing conceived as an end in itself and presented as a token of affection or esteem had no real precedent in artistic practice, belonging instead to other modes of social exchange and communication, such as gift giving and letter writing.' As Alexander Nagel has ob- served, the ostensible privacy and intimacy of this new form allowed for a unique degree of freedom of invention and interpretation.2 The drawings that Michelangelo produced in the mid-1530s in particular represent an exercise of artistic license that encourages an equally flexible interpretative response. They tend to be allegorical in nature, treating familiar myths or evoking a classicizing fantasy world whose out- lines seem familiar from the work of an earlier generation of artists such as Andrea Mantegna, even if their precise meaning has eluded art historians.
II Sogno (or The Dream, Fig. 1), generally dated to about 1533, traditionally has been viewed as an allegory of virtue and vice, an interpretation that seems somewhat limiting in light of the complex imagery of the work and the circum- stances of its production and reception. Letters from both Cavalieri and Colonna to the artist testify to their intense engagement with Michelangelo's drawings, reporting hours spent gazing at the works and the use of mirrors and magnifying glasses for their closer examination." Taking such evidence as my guide, I want to look at the Sogno not as an instantly apprehensible allegory of virtue and vice but as an image to be meditated upon, a work whose pleasure derives from its endless unfolding of meaning, affording the viewer delight in returning to it again and again.
While it is impossible to recover the intimate, subjective experience of the drawing's original recipient, the Sogno's iconography makes its meaning accessible to the less initiated viewer. The traditional interpretation of the work responds to that iconography, but I believe it falls short of the multifaceted nature of the image. In the pages that follow, I will argue that the Virtues and Vices are certainly at play in the Sogno, but as part of a more complex program that alludes to melancholia, dreams, love, desire, and creation. In blending these themes together, Michelangelo provides pictorial form for contemporary ideas about artistic inspiration and creation by inventing a visual language that complements and enhances a textual discourse on divine inspiration. The image challenges its viewer to untangle multiple threads of meaning and reweave them into a coherent whole, joining the artist in the making of meaning.
At the center of Michelangelo's Sogno, a male nude perches precariously on an open box filled with masks. His upper torso twists to his left as he leans on a sphere for support. He turns his head in the opposite direction, looking upward and over his right shoulder to watch a winged creature descend from above. Considerably smaller in scale, the body of this heavenly visitor is silhouetted against the empty upper zone of the sheet as he floats down, head first, toward the nude. He extends his right arm to direct a trumpet at the nude's forehead, inflating his cheeks to sound the instrument. The trumpet pierces through an arc of smaller figures, many of them fragmentary, that encircle the nude. This arc of forms is rendered with a lighter touch, producing a sketchy effect that contrasts with the heavily worked body of the nude, yet the figures remain legible. Among assorted disembodied heads, we find figures that embrace and kiss while others do battle, drink, or sleep.
Despite its relatively complex imagery, the Sogno seems to have presented few challenges to its readers. Since the seventeenth century, the drawing has been understood as an allegory of the human soul awakened to virtue from vice.4 This reading originates with Hieronymus Tetius, a seventeenth-century visitor to the Palazzo Barberini. Viewing a painted copy of the Sogno, Tetius identified its central seated youth as the human mind, his winged counterpart as an angel, and the cloud of figures surrounding the pair as representations of the Vices.5 His interpretation was en- dorsed, expanded, and applied to the original by Erwin Panofsky in the twentieth century." Subsequent readings have amplified and refined Panofsky's analysis, and few, if any, have challenged it.'
At least eleven copies of the Sogno exist-in paintings, drawings, prints, and ceramics-yet none is entirely faithful to the original.8 The copyists' adjustments concentrate on the figures and heads arranged in an arc around the central nude, reducing their number and altering their appearance (Figs. 18, 20). Though faintly drawn and clearly subordinate in the original, in the copies they are as fully realized as the main figure and appear to be of equal significance. The copies thus shift the balance between the nude and the figures that surround him, a crucial change that invites misreadings of the original, as the secondary figures emerge from the mists of Michelangelo's drawing to become the apparent focus of the work and the key to its interpretation. But the copies also clarify the drawing, their interventions providing evidence of contemporary response to the Sogno and its imagery.
The central pair of figures, carefully described and finished, is clearly the focus of the original drawing.9 Situated at the center of the sheet, the fully articulated nude youth and his winged companion are highlighted through contrast with the sketchy and incomplete forms arrayed about them. The otherwise empty upper zone concentrates attention on the body of the descending visitor, pulling the viewer's eye along his headlong plunge to reach the youth. The box beneath the nude thrusts him forward, creating a foreground space be- hind which the misty arc of figures appears.
Because of his idealized form and contact with the heavenly creature above him, the seated youth generally is believed to represent the human soul.10 But the presence of a recognizable attribute and the pose of the figure imply a more precise identity. The youth leans on a large sphere bisected by a line, a detail that suggests it represents the Earth. Some copies of the Sogno, in fact, depict the sphere as a globe, complete with continents. This prominent prop, originally an attribute of the geometer, is familiar from the iconography of melancholy (Figs. 2, 6).11 Traditionally signifying the melancholic's aptitude for geometry, in the Sogno the globe has other potential meanings. Simultaneously representing Earth and instability, it may signal both the melancholic's elemental affiliation and the emotional volatility that characterizes the temperament. The dependence of the Sogno's central nude on the globe strongly suggests that the figure is a melancholic.
You May visit to have information about Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer at Metropolitan Museum and to read first part of the Maria Ruvoldt's essay to click below link.
How did Michelangelo's religious beliefs influence his work? Discuss his religious life in relation to his work, particularly his later work, with specific reference to the impact of the Counter-Reformation.
Michelangelo's Last Judgment was not as well received by religious figures as it was by artists and it inspired considerable controversy with the onset of the Counter-Reformation in the 1540s. The Council of Trent, which organized the Counter-Reformation, decided in 1563 to prohibit the use of the nude in religious art, and Pope Pius IV followed up on this edict by hiring Michelangelo's follower Daniele da Volterra to paint drapery over many of the nudes in the Last Judgment. Although Michelangelo's public response to criticism from Pope Paul IV was vehement, his poems reveal that his personal response to these matters was less certain. The Protestant and Counter- Reformation attacks on Michelangelo's art were partly responsible for prompting an increase in religious piety in Michelangelo. This newfound piety accounts in large part for Michelangelo's turn from art to architecture later in his life.
Michelangelo's increasing melancholy and preoccupation with spiritual salvation also prompted a change in his art. His final pietas represent a kind of personal offering to Christ, an expiation for the artist's own feelings of sexual guilt and spiritual uncertainty. Michelangelo's Rondanini Pieta, although mutilated, is a profound expression of his emotional and psychological state late in his life. The elongated figures, dislocated and almost grotesquely contorted, offer evidence of Michelangelo's deep spiritual crisis and anxieties about dying.
Discuss the intellectual and spiritual conflicts evident in Michelangelo's work, and how these relate to High Renaissance ideals, particularly those of Neoplatonism.
Michelangelo is perhaps the artist most representative of all the aims and ideals of the High Renaissance. His influential and eclectic body of work epitomizes the interior conflicts and paradoxes of the period. The lofty aspirations of the High Renaissance artists could only go so far before they transformed themselves into something quite different. With its combination of Classical and Christian myths and forms, Neoplatonism was already contradictory, and Michelangelo's art embraced many of these contradictory themes. His sculpture depicts the human form as an intensely conflicted, physically tense body, frozen in time but full of energy, seemingly ready to explode. Michelangelo apparently viewed the human body in light of his own body, with guilt-ridden, contradictory feelings–on the one hand, he viewed it through the lens of Classical and Renaissance humanism, which viewed the body as a divine and noble form; on the other hand, he viewed the body in light of his own repressed homosexuality, as a prison for the soul and its free expression.
How did Michelangelo's homosexuality affect his art, his poetry, and his psychological understanding of himself?
Discuss Michelangelo's long and complicated relationship to the Medici family. Did they play a positive or negative role in his career?
How are Michelangelo's architectural achievements similar to his sculpture? How are they different?
What is the relationship between the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Last Judgment altarpiece? How does the latter represent a change in Michelangelo's spiritual perspective, and how is that change communicated?
What is meant by High Renaissance? Discuss this style's departure from and similarities to the Early Renaissance, as well as its effect on the artist's social and cultural role.