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Michelangelo : 53 plates in full colour af…

Michelangelo : 53 plates in full colour (original 1969; udgave 1965)

af Nicholas Wadley, Michelangelo Buonarroti,

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler
941224,982 (4)Ingen
Titel:Michelangelo : 53 plates in full colour
Forfattere:Nicholas Wadley
Andre forfattere:Michelangelo Buonarroti,
Info:London : Hamlyn, 1969, c1965
Samlinger:700, Dit bibliotek

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Michelangelo af Nicholas Wadley (1969)


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Nicholas Wadley


Paul Hamlin, Hardback, 1969.

4to. 40 pp. 53 plates in full colour. The Colour Library of Art.

First published, 1969.


[Black and White Illustrations]
[The Plates]

Biographical List of Works
Michelangelo in Contemporary Writings
Notes on the Illustrations


Despite some glaring visual shortcomings, this old volume from the The Colour Library of Art series still has much to recommend it. It is hardly surprising that the colour plates are badly dated by modern standards. Today lavishly illustrated books dedicated to Michelangelo's works are legion and we have been spoiled. In 1969, the things must have been different.

Since the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgement were photographed long before the controversial restorations took place, the plates do have some historical significance if you would like to see how the frescoes looked in the 1960s. Well, the photos make for a shocking comparison with post-restoration reproductions: the colours are unbelievably faded, the loss of detail is enormous. Plate 10 shows the complete ceiling unfolded and it's so drab that it looks almost black-and-white. There are those who prefer Michelangelo’s frescoes, the Ceiling especially, as they were then, claiming that the restoration has transformed them into a garish show that lacks the mysterious aura of the old, dirty and colourless “originals”. I completely disagree.

The part of the plates dedicated to the sculptures is much more enjoyable. From The Madonna of the Stairs (1491) to Pieta Rondanini (1552-64), it spans the whole of Michelangelo's extremely long, varied and productive artistic life. The most famous works are well presented with full-page photos and so are some of the obscure ones (e.g. Bacchus). There is even one photo of the generally completely neglected St Matthew, the only one of the 12 over-life-size apostles commissioned by the city of Florence for their Cathedral in 1503 that was started at all – and remained tantalisingly unfinished. Michelangelo was supposed to fulfil the contract for 12 years, but like all other great projects in his life with the sole exception of the Sistine Chapel it was thwarted by external factors. If you feel like doing some historical comparisons as in the case of the frescoes, you may compare these photos of Pieta with modern ones and decide how much of the damage caused in 1972 by that mentally ill – but death-penalty-deserving nonetheless for that – vandal really was irreparable.

The text of Nicholas Wadley complements the illustrations to perfection and, unlike the text in many a pictorial book on art, it is worth reading. Only the section with contemporary writings is disappointing: too few excerpts, too superficial. The Biographical List of Works is helpful. It contains only the most important events in Michelangelo's life, but otherwise it is quite comprehensive, including a number of lost works. It combines the chronological approach with a most convenient separation according to the different cities, almost exclusively Florence and Rome, where Michelangelo worked. The Notes on the Illustrations are very informative and provide a lot of specific information about the background, the creation and even the subsequent history of the works shown on the illustrations; repetitions with the main text are minimal.

The Introduction, some 15 pages long including several figures, is the main body of text. It is a fascinating and stimulating biographical essay. The stress is on the art rather than on the life, and that’s just fine with me. I don't necessarily agree with Mr Wadley's conclusions, and I think he is occasionally a little intoxicated with his own prose, enough to introduce some eloquent obscurity or academic dryness. But that's the first mark of good writing: it makes you pay attention despite aesthetic and stylistic disagreements (which, after all, are just differences of opinion). The essay is a remarkably comprehensive overview of Michelangelo's life and work and certainly repays careful study.

I think the author tends to attach too much importance on the separation of Michelangelo's creative life to periods according to the Classical influence of ancient Greece. He is perceptive enough to recognise that even in Bacchus, and all the more so in David of course, the Classical ideal is "blended with a very powerful sense of the individual", but he doesn't make a very lucid case how that individuality might be expressed. Kenneth Clark remarked in Civilisation (1969) that “seen by itself the David’s body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world had never known.” Nor was it incidental that Michelangelo, unlike Donatello and Verrocchio before him, chose to depict the young shepherd before the fight. He well knew that the real accomplishment was not the killing of Goliath but the decision to fight him. All this may seem trite and superficial to more sophisticated art lovers, but it is the sort of insight that I find stimulating. Mr Wadley offers this incomprehensible drivel instead:

The lack of tensions expressed by the easily hanging right arm and the relaxing left leg is complemented by the agitated slightly large hands and the exaggerated twist of the head with its knotted hair, creased brow, and alert, serious eyes. The traditional Classical contrapposto* is injected with an expressive restlessness and a sense of potential action and muscular energy which is momentarily dormant.

[There is a footnote explaining, or at least trying to explain, that “contrapposto” is a type of pose much used in ancient times in which “the parts of the body are counterposed around an implied central axis: usually there is a balance between the upper half of the body turned to face in one direction and the lower half in the other direction.”]

I find this baffling on several levels. First of all, was this Michelangelo’s greatest contribution to sculpture? An update of the Greek ideas of “contrapposto”? Second, “a sense of potential action and muscular energy” has been very well known at least since the middle of the 5th century BC when Myron created his Diskobolus. Last but not least, note how analysis imperceptibly merges with description. Now, both are subjective and not always easy to separate, but whatever the merits of the former, it is much preferable to the latter. I don’t need to be told that David’s eyes are “serious” and “alert”. Let me see them; then I’ll decide for myself what they are.

Fortunately for this reader, indifferent passages like the above-quoted are the exception. Much the greater part of the Introduction is a fine piece of writing, showing uncanny ability for subtle mixing of biographical facts with analysis of works and considerable word power that conveys multiple meanings in a very limited space. Mr Wadley has, indeed, a way with words that greatly appeals to me. He describes the Sistine Chapel ceiling as “Michelangelo’s first comprehensive attempt to reconcile Neo-platonic philosophy with Christian beliefs”. The ill-fated tomb of Julius II, a maniacally grandiose project that was to be constantly reworked and scaled down for some 40 years, finally ended as “thoroughly inconsistent in quality, scale, style and vision.” The great projects of Michelangelo’s maturity were, on the whole, “a distressing story of conflicting pressures and practical difficulties”. Marvellously accurate and succinct descriptions! The influence on Michelangelo of the famous statue of Laocoon, discovered in Rome in 1506, and the changed circumstances of his working conditions are perceptively covered thus; I love the phrase “hysterical turbulence”, the finest two-word tag for Laocoon I have encountered so far:

The hysterical turbulence of the Laocoon must have moved him deeply and there is little doubt that its character encouraged his post-Classical development. But the change is also an expression of the disturbed stability of the artist’s working environment. The perfect balance between his need to express and his opportunity to express that produced his early masterpieces no longer existed. From this point on he was increasingly driven by an urgent need to express despite the opportunities, which reached a climax in the emotional intensity of his last works.

This is a fine example of illuminating historical background. The years 1504-5 were the last period of relatively cloudless personal security and professional satisfaction (as much as this is possible for an artist of that order) for many decades to come. Barely 30 years old, with Pieta and David behind his back, Michelangelo was the most famous sculptor of his day. He was commissioned 12 apostles for the Cathedral in Florence, all of them larger-than-life-size, for the next 12 years, “a sculpture contract of almost unprecedented scale”. As a painter, amazingly, he was ranked side by side with Leonardo da Vinci, 23 years his senior, as clearly shown by another awesome commission: a giant fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio as a companion piece to one by the elder master. Michelangelo was young, healthy and supremely gifted, bursting with energy and confidence, not for a moment doubting his abilities to finish both endeavours: “the horizons must have seemed limitless” in the memorable words of Mr Wadley. He started the cartoon for the fresco and ordered marble for the first five statues. Then Julius II, that “terrible pope” (Kenneth Clark), summoned him to Rome and the Florentine projects were effectively shelved for good. Maybe it really was for good. Without the megalomania of Julius II, today we would have had neither Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel nor Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze.

I am pleased to say that Michelangelo’s lifelong preoccupation with the male nude is interpreted in a way commendably free of the usual homoerotic nonsense. Back in 1969, Mr Wadley well knew what many people still fail to perceive even today: to Michelangelo it was the human spirit that really mattered; the nude body was merely his main vehicle of expression, “his sole artistic means whether in terms of sublime idealisation or desolated imperfection.” I do not agree with the author that “facial expression and rhetoric gesture are less important than the inflexions of stomach muscles, the shape of a thigh or the hang of a wrist”, (just consider the facial expressions of David, Moses, and God on the Ceiling; for a highly expressive rhetoric gesture, see the Christ-as-Lucifer figure in the middle of The Last Judgement), but I completely concur that Michelangelo’s “intimate knowledge of this limited field” enabled him to achieve “an extraordinarily wide range of expression”. As for the erotic element, in The Nude: A Study of Ideal Form (1956), another of his thought-provoking books, Kenneth Clark shrewdly observed:

No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.

I think this is wise. But Lord Clark, of course, was perfectly aware that great art, however erotic, provides the receptive human being with much more than sensual thrills. And the relationship between the character of an artist and the art he compulsively produces all his life is not part of the Euclidian geometry. Michelangelo may or may not have had countless homosexual experiences with young and gorgeous Italian boys. All the same, his art has never been overtly erotic, therefore his sexual orientation is a matter of overwhelming irrelevance. But try to explain this to somebody who reads and believes the following book description on Amazon (about Gilles Néret’s volume on Michelangelo in Taschen’s Basic Art Series):

During the Renaissance, several great homosexual artists – from Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli to Michelangelo and Raphael – transformed the history of art, striving for ever closer imitation of nature while shaping it to their tastes. In their art ambiguous beings were born, half man, half woman; female breasts were planted on male busts and a young man's gaze peeped out beneath the eyelids of a Madonna.

You will find nothing like that in Mr Wadley’s Introduction. However opinionated, confused or unconvincing he may be on occasion, he never resorts to cheap sensationalism. That’s saying a great deal.

Some of Mr Wadley’s conjectures are admittedly far-fetched and even fanciful, but they are not to be rejected without the benefit of reflection. The author is clearly aware of the highly speculative nature of his writing when he remarks that “it is not over-romantic to sense something of his frustration, mistrust and anger in the unfinished St Matthew”. What is the foundation of this relatively wild speculation? Tenuous, to be sure, but fascinating. It was Julius II, again, who filled Michelangelo with “frustration, mistrust and anger”. Having commissioned a mausoleum for himself that was to make the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World look insignificant, merely eight months later the Pope, now occupied with very different plans, refused to advance any more money or even to see the sculptor. Meanwhile, Michelangelo had spent all that time in Carrara, selecting marble for those forty figures he was supposed to produce for the mausoleum. It is no wonder that he returned to his work in Florence angry and frustrated. But whether this influenced his art – that is another matter. It’s compelling, if dangerous, to fantasise how such mundane practical matters might have accelerated Michelangelo’s artistic development. Mr Wadley considers St Matthew and the Battle of Cascina to be milestones, works that exemplify a “new sense of writhing energy that is fundamentally anti-Classical”. Ironically, both works were never finished – indeed, they were hardly started – but it says something about the power of Michelangelo’s art that one of his most influential works was a cartoon for the fresco that survived – the cartoon, not the fresco – for some ten years only, from 1506 to 1516.

There are countless other insights into Michelangelo’s life, times and especially art in Mr Wadley’s Introduction and, to a lesser degree, in his “Notes on the illustrations”. The reader who is not intimately familiar with the matter is bound to profit from the author’s erudition. The colour plates haven’t aged well, but neither are they valueless as a visual supplement to the text. The only possible exception are the photos from the Sistine Chapel, so strikingly different than any modern reproductions, but they provide at least a pleasant diversion under the form of comparisons with post-restoration counterparts. The book is still available second-hand at almost embarrassingly low prices, and it’s worth having as a short introduction to the subject. You could certainly do worse.

PS One interesting bibliographical detail. The front cover has a large facsimile copy of Michelangelo’s signature. It is quite legible and it reads “Michelagnolo”, apparently a pet-name variation of the original. It looks very handsome, too: the boards are dark blue, the signature is stamped with golden letters.

Appendix: List of Illustrations

Black and White Illustrations
Frontispiece. Giuliano Bugiardini: Portrait of Michelangelo (detail)
1. Aristotile da Sangallo: Copy of Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina
2. Michelangelo’s copy of Three Standing Figures by Masaccio (pen drawing)
3. Elevation of the side wall of the Vestibule, Biblioteca Laurenziana, San Lorenzo, Florence
4. Plan and section of the Reading Room and Vestibule, Biblioteca Laurenziana, San Lorenzo, Florence
5. The Vestibule staircase, Biblioteca Laurenziana, San Lorenzo, Florence
6. Isometric projection of the Medici Chapel
7. Ground plan of the Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome
8. Copy of Michelangelo’s plan design for St Peter’s, Rome
9. Michelangelo: Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John (black chalk drawing)
10. Michelangelo: The Dream (black chalk drawing)

Colour Plates
1. Madonna of the Stairs (marble relief)
2. Bacchus
3. The St Peter’s Pieta
4. David
5. David
6. The Holy Family
7. Madonna and Child with St John (marble relief)
8. St Matthew
9. View of the Sistine Chapel
10. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
11. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The Deluge
12. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The Fall of Man
13. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The Creation of Man
14. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets
15. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The Libyan Sibyl
16. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Study of the Libyan Sibyl
17. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Jeremiah
18. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Jonah
19. David: Detail of the head
20. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: The head of Adam
21. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: An Ignudo
22. The Tomb of Julius II:
23. The Tomb of Julius II: Moses
24. The Tomb of Julius II: Dying Slave
25. The Tomb of Julius II: Atlas (unfinished)
26. The Tomb of Julius II: Awakening Giant (unfinished)
27. The Medici Chapel
28. The Medici Chapel
29. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Giuliano de Medici
30. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici
31. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Giuliano de Medici: Head of Giuliano
32. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici: Head of Lorenzo
33. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Giuliano de Medici: Night
34. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici: Evening
35. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Giuliano de Medici: Day
36. The Medici Chapel: The Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici: Dawn
37. The Medici Chapel: The Medici Madonna
38. The Last Judgement
39. The Last Judgement: Christ and the Virgin
40. The Last Judgement: The Damned
41. The Last Judgement: The Blessed Souls
42. The Last Judgement: Charon’s Boat
43. The Conversion of Saul (fresco at the Pauline Chapel)
44. The Crucifixion of St Peter (fresco at the Pauline Chapel)
45. The Piazza del Campidoglio
46. The Conservatori Palace
47. The Porta Pia
48. St Peter’s
49. The Florentine Pieta
50. The Palestrina Pieta
51. The Rondanini Pieta
52. The Rondanini Pieta
53. The Deposition (red chalk drawing) ( )
2 stem Waldstein | Aug 17, 2013 |
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