Magazine article The Spectator

The Wet Nurse of Michelangelo, a Pictish Queen and a Highland Beauty

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wet Nurse of Michelangelo, a Pictish Queen and a Highland Beauty

Article excerpt

This week I had intended to write about the Rusbridger-Brittain affair, which is developing into the gravest scandal in the history of the Guardian. But I am expecting the arrival of material which will open up an important new aspect of the business, so it will have to wait. Besides, I have been thinking about sculpture, because Taki has given me, to keep in my London garden, a superb copy of August Rodin's male nude, `The Age of Brass' (1876). Last week I showed it to one of our leading sculptors, Leonie Gibbs, and was fascinated by her reaction. She did not just look at it, she went up to it and felt over every inch of it with her hands, running her fingers lightly over its corrugations, to test its incisions, crispness and quality. Eventually, after this lengthy and intimate examination, she pronounced it `fine and sensitive', and I was mightily relieved.

I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not thinking about, looking at, or indeed creating, drawings and paintings: I learned to feel deeply about them long before I could read. But I came to sculpture late. At his art school, my father taught modelling in clay - it was an important part of the curriculum - and he collected china figures. But, apart from denouncing Jacob Epstein (`that monster'), I do not recall him ever discussing sculpture. He did not despise it, he saw it as simply something an artist might do if, unhappily, he could not draw well enough to paint.

This was not Michelangelo's view, of course, at least to begin with. His wet nurse was the wife of a stonecutter of Settignano. Michelangelo told Vasari, 'I sucked in with my nurse's milk the chisels and hammers with which I made my sculptures.' According to the earlier Life by Condivi, written under the Master's supervision, Michelangelo was made a sculptor not by nature but by his nurse's milk:

Il latte della nutrice in noi ha tanta forza che spesse volte, trasmutando la temperatura del corpo, d'una inclinazione ne introduca un'altra, dalla naturale molto diversa.

This, seemingly, is what Michelangelo himself believed. He thought a kind of miracle had directed him into the highest of the arts, and when he first came to Rome he asked that letters be addressed to him as `Michelangelo, Sculptor'. But later, being a wise man, he changed his view, and refused to take sides in the fierce debate between painters and sculptors about their paramountcy. Responding to Benedetto Varchi's paragone questionnaire in 1547, he wrote that he once thought carved sculpture the highest form of art, but he now realised that all arts were equal and alike as `daughters of disegno'. How right the Master was! And it is precisely this disegno which is scarcely taught in many of our art schools today, and has been repudiated by the Royal Academy itself in staging its barbarous Rosenthal/Saatchi exhibition.

All the same, sculpture was Michelangelo's first love. He carved in masterly fashion while quite a child. There is a famous work by Emilio Zocchi, now in the Pitti, `The Boy Michelangelo Carving the Head of a Faun' (1888), the child so small he can barely handle the mallet and chisel. I came to sculpture in my fifties, first by buying a few pieces, then by having my head done by that great man Gerald Laing, one of the few artists alive who understand all the half-forgotten sculptural technology of antiquity and the Renaissance. …

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