Michelangelo the Master, in All His Glory

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

SILENZIO! Silenzio!" With this cry a major-domo in the Vatican repeatedly hushes the murmuring hundreds crowded in the Sistine Chapel, gazing at the great Last Judgement on the altar wall, or upward at the ceiling with its evocations of the acts of God that separated order from chaos and created Man.

"Silenzio!" is a reminder that this chapel is not an eighth Wonder of the World, but a holy place in which Mass is celebrated and Christians recall their most profound beliefs; moreover, on the death of a pope, it is in this place that the cardinals gather to elect his successor, a procedure that in its spiritual way echoes the physical creation of Adam, man's first experience of the divine.

Both the decoration of the ceiling and the Last Judgement are the work of Michelangelo, the first executed in his mid-thirties, the second in his early sixties. Between them lie no other paintings, for though these two monumental schemes are the greatest paintings the world has ever known - or will know - Michelangelo did not think of himself as a painter, but primarily as a sculptor. Between 1512, when he finished the ceiling, and 1536, when he began the Judgement, lie the famous sculptures we know as the Risen Christ, Night and Day, Dawn and Evening, Giuliano and Lorenzo de Medici, the several Slaves, Moses and others, some finished, some almost so, and others so far from finished that they may seem to offer only the first emergence of an unresolved idea from the half-hacked stone. And we must throw into the melting-pot of this quarter-century the political, physical and emotional events of Michelangelo's life, the turbulence of affairs throughout Italy, the Sack of Rome, the Siege of Florence, the fall and restoration of his Medici patrons, his moves from Rome to Florence and from Florence to Rome, the deaths of his father and favourite brother, and the pressure of conflicting commissions that prevented him from completing the most grandiose funerary monument of the Renaissance, the tomb of Pope Julius II. And too, in terms of architecture - the third string to his bow - his designs for the aborted facade of the church of San Lorenzo and the almost completed Laurentian Library in Florence. And add yet more - the halfhidden longings, the spiritually affectionate asexual relationships he formed, his homosexuality blighted by religious beliefs so passionately held that he could have been the most selfabnegating of hermits.

Taking all this into account it must seem extraordinary that Michelangelo felt able to return to painting even as a mere skill after so long, and that he could and did was to a great extent due to his reliance on drawing in all the art forms that he practised. Drawing was his daily habit; he drew in preparation for all the more substantial forms of art, the final plotting and planning stages preceded by the preliminary accumulation of individual ideas and observations, dependent on the most cursory of notes and on the most detailed and diligent of studies.

Of this wide range only some 600 survive, a sixth of which are currently included in an exhibition at the British Museum that is, like the Sistine and Medici Chapels, something of a religious experience. The whiff of incense and the screeching of castrati play no part in this - indeed the strict order in which the visitor is conducted from the very early drawings to the very late, a band of dates on the walls constantly reminding him of chronology and whereabouts, with all the logical machinery of academe lending pace and interval to the business of instruction, must at first suggest that this is, above all things, a good oldfashioned lesson in the history of art, but by the end of it the visitor knows that it has been far more than this - that he has seen into the soul of Michelangelo and that the exhibition's subtitle, Closer to the Master, is entirely justified. None can understand or interpret Michelangelo unless we recognise the extent to which the mysticism of Catholic faith coloured his beliefs and work, for his faith took him far beyond the conventions of observance and into the realm of Counter-Reformation intensity. …

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