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On Michelangelo’s Mind

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 and talked among themselves about what they were doing and…such thinking and talking was an indispensable element in the definition, development, diffusion—even the cogency—of the art style they all practiced…. In order to arrive at such categories—and in order to understand Renaissance artistic intentions—it is necessary to learn the language of those intentions.

Summers’s book is therefore, first, a discursive dictionary to the language of Michelangelo’s intentions.

It is divided into two parts, the first and larger called “Fantasy,” dealing with ideas pertaining most to artistic invention; the second called “Order,” with ideas pertaining more to artistic arrangement. In thirty-five articles the book treats of terms, or occasionally issues, found in or about Michelangelo. Some of the more important terms of “Fantasy” are: fantasia itself, movement and ornament, license, design, difficultà, “scattered beauty,” idea, terribilità. Some of the more important in “Order” are: ordine itself, qualitas, giudizio dell’ occhio or visual discretion, movement again, and proportion. The general form of the book is a little like an eighteenth-century Dictionnaire philosophique, but not arranged alphabetically. This means that it defies summary but not that it lacks shape. It is progressive in detail: fine threads of preoccupation run from one article to another.

To take a fairly simple example, one of the words David Summers educates us in is terribilità—the sense of daunting talent Michelangelo’s public valued in his art. He discusses first its close relation to another term of the time, difficultà. He goes through its applications by Renaissance critics to Michelangelo and also other artists, distinguishing several different shades of use or, as he prefers, meaning. He then goes back to a Greek antecedent, the word deinotes, a term in rhetoric, making particular use of Hermogenes of Tarsus. Hermogenes’ exposition seems to him very close to what Renaissance people saw in Michelangelo: deinotes is grandeur of style, forcefulness and variety of expression, and more. He then discusses the way in which the term conflates actor and action: both style and man are liable to be terribile. He seems to believe that Hermogenes’ Peri ideon had an immediate presence in people’s minds, and gives facts about its availability in manuscript, print, and translation.

Most of the terms have more complex sources than this. Six pages on qualitas—like many of the terms, it is found in Vincenzo Danti rather than in Michelangelo—involve us in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cicero’s Academica, Varro and Antiochus, Ficino, and Castiglione’s Platonist Bembo. Danti had said: “True measure depends on quality.” David Summers glosses “quality” to carry many connotations—inter alia a distinction between essential and affective; the union of active and passive; form as opposed to matter; the soul as opposed to matter; microcosm.

If Michelangelo and the Language of Art is first a dictionary to the language of Michelangelo’s intention, it is secondly a series of essays in what sometimes looks like a loose-weave “history of ideas.” In many of his thirty-five articles David Summers excerpts from the ancestry of a concept a long way back, often from the Middle Ages and classical antiquity. It is to this that much of the book’s uncompromising length is due. (The main text comes to about a quarter-million words—though it is so well written that it does not feel fully that long—and there is much additional material in 120 fine-print pages of notes.) And this fusion of contemporary and historical meanings makes for a difficulty.

Summers presents very sharply the problem of the relation of, on the one hand, the reference of a word at a given moment and, on the other, its history. He states his position as follows:

When Michelangelo spoke or wrote in ways that can ultimately be followed to one great thinker or another, it is very likely that in many cases he had not been reading that author, just as many of us feel secure in the discussion of Freud or Marx even though we have read little of either. In large part Michelangelo’s utterances must be supposed to have arisen from philosophical ideas at the level at which they had been absorbed into literature, cultured discussion and, more basically still, into the usages of language and life.

Again, rather more strongly:

Although he may be supposed to have known at first, second or third hand any of the authors we shall discuss, much that was essential about his thought must have welled up from what might be called a proverbial level of his language and the language of his art—a formative level which, while it ultimately may have had higher cultural origins (and might therefore easily assume more literate form on occasion), was used with the unselfconsciousness of functional language.

This is worrying. Someone whose taste in language theory is as timid as this reviewer’s must feel a notion like “proverbial level of language” infringes important distinctions between (1) the diachronic array of historical uses of a term, and (2) the synchronic range of current senses of a word in one culture, and (3) the reference of a word in a particular use. If one does not maintain such distinctions, more or less, then almost any old idea in the classical tradition has a ticket entitling it to sitting room in every Renaissance character’s mind.

The fact is that the materials for the prehistory of the aesthetic ideas of the later Renaissance are superabundant, and during the last generation have become almost dangerously accessible. Most of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts on art have been published in modern editions now, indexed or keyed for concepts in one way or another. Then, with a decent thesaurus and the index to Migne’s Patrologia, with the indices of terms in the last volumes of nine or ten big affairs like de Bruyne’s Études d’ésthétique mediévale or Bernard Weinberg’s History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, or—a terrible snare into which David Summers did not fall—the index volume of Heinrich Lausberg’s Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik, one can locate a vast repertory of aesthetic use of a word in one long afternoon. What then?

The analogy with the semi-knowledge many of us have of Marx and Freud may be about right for many Renaissance people’s knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, but where does that put Hermogenes of Tarsus, let alone Geoffrey of Vinsauf? And anyway does the current demotic use of “ideology” or “ego” really embody the actual Marxian or Freudian senses of those terms? If Michelangelo is to be thought of as knowing all those folk at least “at third hand,” what precisely does that mean? Usually, I think, it would mean that somebody told somebody who told Michelangelo about them, but that does not seem what David Summers claims. From the senses of the word “structure” in use at this one moment, 1981, how many are in play if I speak this year of the “structure” of a picture?

In thinking about art, a man knows what, having used his mind on it, he knows; and he says, in a way delimited by the context and by his intellectual universe, what he says. This is a narrow view, perhaps, but it seems the only safe view for a historian. I have to declare this position, because it causes me a running problem with this book which other people with wider views may not meet. The problem is that I am often not clear about the status of whatever idea David Summers is offering us—from Aristotle or Geoffrey of Vinsauf or even Ficino. Is it an idea which is to be seen as actively present, in that inflection, in Michelangelo’s mind? Or just in the mind of one of Michelangelo’s friends? Or is it an idea that is an interesting part of the prehistory of a Renaissance idea? Or is it an idea that David Summers feels appropriate to Michelangelo’s art?

It is no more than fair to say now that, if one’s voice has become rather shrill, this may be less from uneasiness about this book than from a piercing fear of what its rationale would produce in less fastidious hands. What the art historians are liable to do with a method such as Summers’s hardly bears thinking about. There have been signs that things are ripe for a wave of academic silliness about the “language” of art rather like the one that hit and nearly destroyed iconographic studies some years back, when hunting for iconographic meaning was carried to absurd lengths. David Summers’s view of words and ideas seems to me wrong, but I also think his book is extremely good if seen as something rather different from his own account of it.

For there is a principle of selection here. Summers is approaching all these materials with a fine constructive prejudice about what is useful and what is not. He prefers this term to that term, this class of source to that class of source. For instance, he gives more attention to fantasia than to inventio; to sources in philosophy and poetics than to, say, books about manners or physical science; and, within philosophy, to metaphysics than to dialectic.

On what basis is he making these choices? Not on any principle that can be derived from the history of ideas itself. The basis is quite clearly a conception of what Michelangelo’s mind was like, and this conception grows out of Summers’s experience of Michelangelo’s art and the ideas that help him to understand it. And if I said that he should have included more on inventio and less on fantasia, more on the dialectical tradition of qualitas and less on the ontological, more on Agnolo Firenzuola’s manners book on aria and less on Petrarch’s poems, I would be wrong. Inventio, dialectic, and Firenzuola on aria would be less suited to Summers’s genuinely interesting conception of Michelangelo. In other words, his choice of texts and ideas and terms is a kind of oblique art criticism.

Here I should mention that David Summers is the author of some articles* on and around Michelangelo that were among the most penetrating pieces of historical art criticism to be published in the 1970s. These articles took much of their sharpness from exactly the kind of explanation of period concepts that he is documenting so elaborately here. I think the rationale of this book is his judgment about the critical relevance to Michelangelo of this or that term or idea. He seems to be choosing this rather than that because one can do things with it critically.

Yet surprisingly little of this big book is spent on applying the elements of its elaborate apparatus to Michelangelo’s art itself: we are not often shown that they work. In the occasional pages where he does use the terms he has been defining to discuss a piece by Michelangelo—the Bacchus and the St. Matthew, for instance—the results are marvelous. Here, for example, is the style of his account of how the unfinished St. Matthew is like an exploratory drawing in three dimensions, marble disegno, representing a provisional arrangement of the figure that would not have been retained in a finished version:

…as might be expected in a relief only a few steps removed from the initial drawing on the face of the marble block, the plane of the shaft upon which the St. Matthew is cut strongly governs the presentation of the principal parts of the figure; certainly the head of the figure would have to have been recut at a point deeper within the marble, and in anticipation of this the contour of the nose is tentative, echoing into the block; the right leg of the figure is similarly tentative and could have taken many forms….

…Movement is achieved through means closely based in disegno; the pursuit of grazia through disegno and giudizio is carried out of the virtual sphere, the illusionary realm of painting, into three dimensions. Stone itself is thus enlivened by maniera, and furia of execution and expression are inextricably intermingled.

If one mutters about these pages being so few, it is not because of one’s knowledge that he does it so well—he has no obligation to go on giving us what we have liked—but because it seems a necessary component of what he is attempting here. He surely needs to legitimize both the balance and the quantity of the historical apparatus he has put together by establishing its critical fertility. The apparatus has no internal authority.

When one cannot—and usually one cannot—demonstrate directly the presence of an idea in Michelangelo’s mind, the only real argument left is that it is necessary to the art. The best argument for Aristotle’s ideas on symmetry or Geoffrey de Vinsauf’s on illusion being actual in Michelangelo’s mind, on however proverbial a level, would be that knowledge of them helps one to see things in Michelangelo that one had not seen before. So the reader must either take David Summers’s choices on trust or—as I believe is the best way to read the book—take them as an odd sort of tangential art criticism urging the reader to be an active critic himself. It is up to the reader to test the ideas to see how much they help him understand Michelangelo’s work. (For this he will need another source of illustrations than this book. The Princeton University Press has kept the cost down to a most creditable level, given the book’s size and excellent printing. The reasonable price we pay for this is sixty-eight dim figures on thirty-two plates.)

In any case, it is this book, not three other smaller books easier to review, that David Summers has chosen to write. As it stands, it is so much better—more perceptive, intelligent, and ambitious—than most books on art that I have felt uneasy about stating one of the uncertainties I have about it: to do so may give an unbalanced impression. And in a book this long there are many individual good things I have not mentioned. One of them is an excellent account of Renaissance notions about the proportions of the human body.

So Michelangelo and the Language of Art is rich enough to read profitably in a number of different ways. One can use it as a speculative lexicon of Michelangelo’s intention. Or one could read the book as a set of informal essays on some elements in the background of a mixed bunch of aesthetic concepts that were in circulation during Michelangelo’s time. Or one can read it as idiosyncratic and indirect criticism of Michelangelo’s art by someone very perceptive about Michelangelo indeed. It is the most interesting book on Michelangelo I have read.

  1. *

    Particularly “Maniera and Movement: The Figura Serpentinata,” in The Art Quarterly, XXV (1972), pages 269-301, and “Figure come fratelli: a Transformation of Symmetry in Renaissance Painting,” The Art Quarterly, N.S., I.i. (1977), pages 59-88.

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