The Hundred-Dollar Misunderstanding

Michelangelo’s Lost St. John: The Story of a Discovery

by Fernanda de’ Maffei, preface by Henry A. LaFarge
Reynal, 40, 112 plates pp., $15

Michelangelo the Painter

by Valerio Mariani
Arti Grafiche Ricordi (Milan), 151, 86 plates pp., $100.00

The four-hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s death on February 18 1564 has been marked only in mild ways, chiefly by some very large books. Even these have been brought into existence as the result of several coinciding stimuli, including the Pietà at the World’s Fair and the success several years ago of The Agony and the Ecstasy. The best tribute to Michelangelo, I suppose, is the way he survives all the tie-in gimmicks, no matter how inept or vulgar. The typical tribute, it seems, is a work of collaboration, in which the pure or learned is preserved inside a jazzy package: thus Irving Stone’s splicing job on the Speroni translation of the letters, thus the Pietà among its blue lights, thus both of these books.

It would be extraordinary to find a lost sculpture by Michelangelo. There is no definite case of its having happened at any time. But, according to the first of these two books, it finally has occurred. a statue carved by Michelangelo in his youth, mentioned by his first biographers, but not seen since, is identical with one recently shown in New York. Thus anyone who accepts this statement believes that a sensation has taken place, and that is exactly the spirit in which this book is published. It has pages fifteen inches high and a dazzling completeness of illustrations. But it is odd that nothing about the book quite justifies that tone. The plates are half-tones of extremely varying quality. Some are very bad indeed, with blacks that aren’t deep but only smudgy, or with too much contrast, or very fuzzy. In general they look as if they had been enlarged after being planned for a smaller scale. The text is even more out of harmony. Instead of being sensational, it is nothing more or less than an ordinary learned article from an academic journal, offering a long series of comparisons of details for the inspection of professionals. It is pedestrian and does not succeed in making its case. The author is a qualified scholar, who has written a book on the eighteenth-century Venetian painter Guardi. In the last paragraph she tells us: “In conclusion I wish to repeat that these researches are meant as an offering to scholars.” Besides emphasizing the intramural, non-sensational intention of her prose, that sentence is also an elementary coded way of saying to the rest of us specialists: I am not asserting that Michelangelo carved this statue, but only introducing the possibility for debate.

A similar view can be traced in the Preface by Mr. La Farge. He rolls off a list of names of distinguished experts, the first two “did not commit themselves,” the next two “were immensely impressed,” and the next “considered it of the greatest importance.” What this means is that at the most they were not ready to back it, and at the least were merely being polite. In fact the claim is never made definitely except insofar as the title of …

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