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Talking of Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s Last Paintings: The Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace

by Leo Steinberg
Oxford University Press, 64 pp., $45.00

When the International Historical Congress met in Rome in 1955, members assembled in the Vatican to listen to an address in Latin by the Pope, after which they were accorded the rare privilege of entering the Paoline Chapel with the frescoes which are the subject of Professor Steinberg’s book. I well remember an eminent historian seeking me out in some excitement and asking me incredulously: “Are these really by Michelangelo?” They are, and one can only hope that this welcome publication will spread the news outside the narrow circle of specialists.

Though they are mentioned with due reverence by the master’s first biographers they never entered the public consciousness to anything like the same degree as most of his other creations. There are intrinsic reasons for this comparative neglect, sensitively analyzed by Mr. Steinberg, but there is also the contributory factor that they have always been out of bounds to ordinary art lovers and tourists (it used to take six weeks to get permission for a visit). Perhaps by way of consolation earlier accounts stressed their poor state of preservation. Jacob Burckhardt’s influential Cicerone (1855), for instance, says that they were disfigured by a fire and so badly lit that they are better studied from engravings. According to Mr. Steinberg their first full restoration (around 1934 and again in 1953) “revealed the original surfaces in surprisingly good condition” though we also hear that the results were not uncontroversial. A study of the sixty-four large plates (twenty-four in color) with many striking and informative details suggests that, by and large, we can trust what we see, and we must be grateful to the author and the publishers for bringing these enigmatic works so close to us.

Mr. Steinberg is a splendid advocate and a very good writer. We learn from his preface that he had written the script for a one-hour film on the chapel for CBS television in 1965 and that some of the ideas incorporated in the present text were first voiced in that program. There is indeed a sense of drama in his presentation which should make his text also accessible to readers who do not normally read the historical introductions to picture books. The first chapter, “The Artist Grows Old,” provides the biographical setting with a moving and concise flashback recounting the tangled tragedy of the tomb for Pope Julius II, a burden from which the master had at long last been released in November 1542. The second chapter, “The Fame of the Frescoes,” describes the reaction of critics to the frescoes and skillfully relates their reappraisals to certain intellectual trends of the twentieth century—a bias for the creations of aged artists (where a reference to Beethoven’s Late Quartets would have fitted in), and the desire to clear the style of “Mannerism” from the taint of decadence and affectation. Thanks to these trends in the tides of taste the author can describe the Paolina frescoes as “Michelangelo’s gift to the twentieth century,” but he rightly feels that the gift still remains to be fully evaluated.

Three of the subsequent chapters are devoted to The Conversion of St. Paul, and only one to the Crucifixion of St. Peter, as if the author had responded with particular immediacy to the psychological drama which transformed Saul into Paul. For what lifts this book above the common run of art books is the sense of personal involvement, the wish to make us share a personal experience. The heading of chapter five, “The Included Self,” refers to Michelangelo’s identification with the dramatis personae; it could also be used as a description of the critical approach favored by Mr. Steinberg. He avoids the cool detachment of formal analysis deriving from Wölfflin no less than the more recent trends of iconology in which the work of art sometimes disappears behind a web of learned references. There is a good deal to be said in favor of this approach, which brings to mind nineteenth-century critics such as Ruskin or Walter Pater. After all, Michelangelo did not paint to provide seminar fodder; he demands a response and what else can such a response be if not personal? But it would seem from the preface that the author aims higher. He seeks a synthesis of all these approaches.

I have tried not to avoid the responsibilities of interpretation, though my symbolic readings tend to be interfused with what used to be called “formal analysis.” That term no longer seems helpful. In Michelangelo’s pictorial structures, “form” and “content” are not to be pried apart. Only in the narrowest sense do his depicted scenes illustrate their pre-given subjects; as the artist’s conceptions materialize, they engender new meanings, engage wider, deeper registers of significance. The sweeping curve of a leg—St. Paul’s right leg in the Conversion—makes a melodious line, but as it aims at the city indicated by Christ, it also foretells, visibly, where Paul is to go. Linear rhythm, dramatic posture, imminent destination and destiny—all collapse together in the unique visual substance.

Precisely because the issue of method raised here by the author is important it seems a pity that he illustrates it by so unconvincing an example. The city of Damascus appears indeed near the horizon at the right-hand edge of the fresco, which shows, in the center, St. Paul thrown from his horse. It is a matter of opinion whether the shape of the leg of the saint lying on the ground can rightly be called a “curve,” let alone a “melodious” line, but to describe this short imaginary line as “aiming” at the city seems eccentric. The calf does not point there, neither does the foot. But why should the theme of the fresco require such pointing? It is true that the apparition of Christ, according to the texts, commanded Saul to go to Damascus, but he was going there in any case, and the command referred not to the destination but to the way the saint would be healed of his sudden blindness. Moreover anyone who wanted to follow the “line” in the direction of distant Damascus would find his searching eye interrupted by a turmoil of figures.

The way the author interprets form and content of one of these may serve as a further illustration of his procedure, though the intricacy of the argument is likely to tax the patience of the reader. Briefly, he discerns among the terrified bystanders one man who has fallen to the ground. Though he is only partly visible between the legs of a soldier Mr. Steinberg wants us to recognize in his posture the attitude of a recumbent classical river-god. It is a formula which was undeniably influential in the Renaissance, though its exact relevance is not easy to determine, since one can hardly lie on the ground with the upper part of the body raised without remotely echoing this pose. The author also finds it reflected in the prostrate figure of St. Paul, which thus becomes a counterpart to the one he had disentangled from the human knot.

The pattern of two recumbent river-gods confronting each other leg-to-leg reminds him of a pair of such statues which had been brought to the Capitoline hill during the Renaissance, the very hill that Michelangelo was to transform into the Capitol. He thus finds in the configuration an “allusion” to the Campidoglio group which is “unlikely to be gratuitous or inadvertent.” “More probably,” we read, the master

was again thinking on several levels—but one is staggered by what his thinking implies. Was Michelangelo invoking a visual parallel by which to make present to the beholder, along with the moment of Paul’s vocation, an image of the political heart of Rome? Was he anticipating the historic sequel to the moment depicted? Paul of Tarsus, proud of his Roman citizenship, is being appointed Apostle unto the Gentiles, and with a specific mission for Rome…. If Michelangelo was not being thoughtless, he was visually linking the converted Paul with his last destination.

Nor is that all. We learn that since the fresco occupies the eastern wall the Capitol might be imagined to lie in that direction. Actually a glance at a map will show that the Capitol lies pretty far to the southeast of the Vatican, but whether or not this deviation matters, we are presented with a text by Pope Innocent III dating from some 350 years earlier, exalting Peter and Paul, both martyred in Rome, as the twin guardians of the city. Few readers may be expected by this time to remember the beginning of the argument, which rests on the similarity of an only partially visible member of the crowd to the formula of a river-god. I am not exaggerating here, for strangely enough Mr. Steinberg retracts his other equation of St. Paul with that formula in a subsequent chapter. There he rightly calls the comparison between the pose of St. Paul and that of river-gods “unproductive.”

No river-god figure in sixteenth-century painting or sculpture sustains such precarious disequilibrium. Paul’s supporting arm is too acutely bent and retracted to steady the toppling mass of the torso. Moreover, the figure turns to us frontally, so that its forward falling, accentuated by the impetuous advance of the helper, is aimed at the spectator. These two distinctions, the sudden imbalance and the frontal address, are without precedent, and they charge the figure with new meaning and urgency.

The description shows Mr. Steinberg’s gifts at their best, and so does his further analysis of the counterpoint of attitudes which underlies the composition. It is within this context that he draws attention once more to what he still calls the “yoking of the two ‘river-gods’ into a single bi-partite motif,” and though there is an element of overstatement in this description we can easily grant that Michelangelo here as elsewhere used the time-honored device of mirroring variation to give unity to his groupings. But if the episodic figure of the man on the ground really reflects the pose of the saint who does not resemble a river-god, what becomes of the Roman Capitol re-enacted or evoked somewhere on the road to Damascus? Was it not a mirage, a fleeting association by the author solidified with the help of illustrations and quotations which have nothing to do with the work in front of us?

Mr. Steinberg knows that he is vulnerable to the criticism of overinterpreting Michelangelo’s paintings, and in his preface defines his position before-hand.

I am aware of the position that frowns on excessively free speculation at the expense of the Masters. But there are, after all, two ways to inflict injustice on a great work of art; by over-interpreting it, or by under-estimating its meaning. If unverifiable interpretations are rightly regarded as dangerous, there is as much danger of misrepresentation in restrictive assertions that feel safe only because they say little.

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