Michelangelo and the Language of Art
by David Summers
Princeton University Press, 658, 68 illustrations pp., $16.50 (paper)
This big book is first of all a study of the concepts Michelangelo might have brought to the making of paintings, sculpture, and architecture. It is an attempt to reconstruct that level of the artist’s intellectual universe which he or, if not he, his friends could have put into words. The enterprise is the grand and romantic one of entering into Michelangelo’s self-critical consciousness.
Michelangelo left no treatise on art of his own, though he had it in mind to write one. Not very many of his poems or letters offer propositions about art either. David Summers’s first resort is therefore the writings on art that came out of his milieu, and he makes particular use of the incomplete Treatise on Perfect Proportions by the sculptor Vincenzo Danti, which he sees as reflecting Michelangelo’s views rather directly—and more effectively than Vasari, Condivi, Francisco de Hollanda, and others who claim to report Michelangelo’s sayings. This focus on Vincenzo Danti is one of the innovations of the book. Danti moves through it like a sort of articulating bellwether.
Rather little is known even about what Michelangelo had read. It seems the sure list consists mainly of Dante and commentators on him, some of Petrarch, the Bible, some of Savonarola, and Benedetto Varchi’s dispiriting two Lezzioni on art and on Michelangelo himself. There are also clear reflections in Michelangelo’s sayings or writings of Vitruvius’ On Architecture, the sections on art in Pliny’s Natural History, Castiglione’s The Courtier, Alberti’s treatises, Della Pittura and De Statua, Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Symposium, and perhaps one or two other things. The reflections do not all seem of a kind to entail first-hand knowledge, but David Summers is bullish about Michelangelo as a reader and, in particular, believes he read Latin “fairly well.”
It is from this base that he sets out to place Michelangelo in relation to the sophisticated discussion of art that certainly went on around the Renaissance workshops—that “lively discussion and debate,” as he puts, it, “in which the precepts of practice were expanded by speculation and relevant erudition.” But at the same time he is concerned to maintain his and Michelangelo’s independence from “Renaissance art theory,” a delusively tidy sub-genre of Renaissance polite literature. For he is clear that the systems of the art treatises do not fit Michelangelo at all well. Apart from anything else, they are mainly of the second half of the sixteenth century, post-Michelangelesque rather than Michelangelonian. This point is very well made.
This being so, it is sensible, David Summers feels—and he is surely right—to look closely at the terms Michelangelo used or might have used about art, rather than to work from statements of a systematic and prescriptive kind. Through the individual words, the categories of artistic visual interest, we may get a real sense of the mind involved in the making of Michelangelo’s art:
Renaissance artists—including Michelangelo—thought …