To the Editors:
There are a number of serious flaws in Mr. Creighton Gilbert’s review of Michelangelo’s Lost St. John (The New York Review, Aug. 20). The first is the implication that the book was a “popular splash” and “a sensation” tied in with the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. Quite the contrary is the case. As indicated in the Preface, research and thought on the possibility of this attribution go back some twenty years, and three years was spent on writing the text alone. Thus it is only a coincidence that the book appeared this year.
In the second place, Mr. Gilbert takes exception with the oversize format and “dazzling completeness of illustrations,” as if the modern techniques of art publishing were inappropriate for demonstrating an attribution. The large format was deliberately chosen to make possible this visual presentation, and I see nothing incongruous in this approach to complement a text which Mr. Gilbert rather captiously passes off as “nothing more or less than an ordinary learned article from an academic journal.”
It is perhaps true that any mention of Michelangelo’s name in connection with an hitherto undocumented work is certain to arouse doubts; but only the most petrified academicism would consider such a discovery as an impossibility. How about the Bruges Madonna?
In addition, Mr. Gilbert implies that the author’s modesty in “only introducing the possibility [of the attribution] for debate” detracts from her conviction. Actually, the publication is an invitation for debate, and I should like first of all to ask Mr. Gilbert exactly what are his reasons for stating that “the statue is a perfectly nice Florentine sculpture of the second quarter of the sixteenth century”? Can he be more specific? Can he name a sculptor of this period with idiosyncracies of style and workmanship that can be associated with this statue? Can he explain the incontrovertible familiarity with cameos in the Medici Collections? Can he name any “Michelangelesque” statue of the second quarter of the sixteenth century that is less “Mannerist” than this statue? And what about the precedents for this seated St. John? Can he point to any prototype?
Henry A. LaFarge
New Canaan, Conn.
Creighton Gilbert replies:
Mr. Henry La Farge (who provided the preface of Michelangelo’s Lost St. John) writes that the review of it contains “a number of serious flaws.” He proposes four, in four paragraphs, and these may be considered in the same manner.
The first is the review’s “implication” that the book has the quality of a popular splash, which must be wrong, he says, because the research on it took twenty years. The implication is entirely Mr. La Farge’s. The review was so far from labeling as popular the content of the book, which is what the research produced, that it called it similar to a learned article, and contrasted it with the external format, which is a popular splash. Therefore the existence of the latter cannot be called into doubt by pointing again to the existence of the former. My actual statement, that the external format suggests a sensational discovery, is not disputed by Mr. La Farge.
The second serious flaw is that the review “takes exception with” (sic) the oversize format. That is incorrect; the review simply mentions that the format is oversize. I happen to like large formats. There is no basis in the review for the inference Mr. La Farge draws. I did take exception to the poor quality of the reproductions, but he does not go into that. The other point in this paragraph is that I “captiously” called the content a learned article. In fact, I described it simply as being one, neither favorably or unfavorably. I actually like learned articles, and often write them. What I did complain of was that this learned article was unconvincing, but Mr. La Farge does not bring that up. Evidently the reader of Mr. La Farge’s letter who did not check back to the review (the usual pattern) would get a fairly unreal notion of it.
Third, the review reported that there is “no definite case” of a lost sculpture by Michelangelo being rediscovered. (It did not call it “an impossibility,” the straw man of Mr. La Farge’s letter.) Anyhow the reviewer is wrong, because of the Bruges Madonna. The story of the Bruges Madonna is interesting. It is still today in the same niche in the same church where it was installed in the early sixteenth century. It is mentioned in published reports there up to the late sixteenth century, and there is then silence until the late nineteenth when they resume. But there does seem to be one intermediate event, its theft by Napoleon. Presumably it was stolen because it was regarded as a Michelangelo, even though the attitude was not then being recorded in writing. We can’t be sure, but it seems fairly likely, and it was definitely not brought forward after being hidden or called the work of someone else, the usual forms of rediscovery. That is why I said there was “no definite case.” Actually Mr. La Farge would have a somewhat better basis with the London Madonna.
The fourth paragraph, in its earlier part, is somewhat difficult to understand. It reports as the review’s opinion that the author’s handling of her proposal as a matter for debate “detracts from her conviction.” Well, it does so detract: when she says she is only introducing the possibility for debate, her conviction seems less, and I don’t know what flaw is being proposed. But it is very possible that when Mr. La Farge wrote conviction he meant to say convincingness. In that case her modesty does indeed reinforce her convincingness, and not detract from it, but it does so by reducing the claim that this is a Michelangelo. And I did not imply anything else. I only regret that my disagreement with his opinion seems to have bothered him to the point of inarticulateness.
The rest of the letter is a series of questions addressed to me. It seems possible that these are merely rhetorical, that I am not really expected to answer them but be devastated by such points, since it would be odd for Mr. La Farge to want the opinions of someone marred by serious flaws and linked to the most petrified academicism. But let us take them at face value. They can be boiled down to: if Michelangelo didn’t carve this work, who else can possibly be the carver, and in what locus of habits of work can he be found? This very question is a standard retort after a claim of attribution to a great master has been rejected. The claimant says, if there is no other artist proposed, mine must be the one. But it is a fallacy, since we know that many sculptors worked in the period whose works and methods are today not known to us. No, I don’t know who made this, as I did imply, but I’m sure it wasn’t Michelangelo, and Mr. La Farge has set forth no data to alter that deduction.
Tolnay's Michelangelo December 3, 1964