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Shrinking Michelangelo

Michelangelo: A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life and Images

by Robert S. Liebert
Yale University Press, 447 pp., $35.00

Francesca di Neri di Miniato del Sera died when the second of her five sons was not quite seven years old. It is the thesis of Dr. Liebert’s book—the most ambitious attempt yet made to psychoanalyze a long-dead artist—that her desertion of the young Michelangelo determined forever the artist’s character and, “at the deepest level,” his art.

The facts mustered to support this hypothesis are necessarily sparse. Michelangelo was born (1475) into an impoverished household of decayed Florentine gentry. As custom prescribed, the infant was put out to nurse—with a stonemason’s wife in a village three miles away, where the family owned a small farm. What other children this wet nurse had, whether indeed any were living, we do not know. Unknown too is the date of the child’s return to the parental home, where Michelangelo would have found his mother absorbed in raising his younger brothers. The stage was set for sibling rivalry and, in Liebert’s script, for a fantasy of displacement that would ever after plague the artist’s unconscious. Of Donna Francesca, after her death from unknown causes at about twenty-six, no more is heard.

The boy’s childhood, then, may be read as a record of multiple deprivations: removal from a nurturing surrogate mother; losing out in competition for maternal attention; and the culminating bereavement which, according to modern theory, the child would have invested with rage and guilt. “On the basis of clinical work,” Liebert writes in an unfootnoted passage central to his approach, “we may infer that the six-year-old Michelangelo believed that his mother died because of his rageful thoughts and feelings, stemming largely from his early experiences of traumatic abandonments and sibling displacements.”

The author is a practicing psychoanalyst with a firm faith in psychoanalytic theory as a method of historical investigation. His chosen task is to explain “why Michelangelo was the person he was,” and his procedure is to deduce from Michelangelo’s presumed early sorrows a complex of adult character traits. Letters, poems, drawings, and biographical data are interpreted to confirm what the diagnosis predicts; and select works by the master—more often certain treacherous details within them—are adduced as further evidence of malaise. If the argument fails to convince, it is not only because the factual base is precarious, but because the demands on us are too slight. In the end, we are asked only to nod along with a syllogism: cruel deprivation in early childhood produces adult neurosis; Michelangelo was so deprived; Liebert’s argument follows.

The enterprise seems most successful in the chapters that concentrate on biography. One gives a clear-headed discussion of Michelangelo’s relations with young men, another examines his rare encounters with women. Here, as in some observations on Michelangelo’s other connections—with relatives or fellow artists—the author discerns constant elements in a behavioral record that had previously seemed more episodic.

But the character that emerges is deeply flawed. Liebert’s Michelangelo lives in “fundamental uncertainty concerning the integrity of his body” (which prohibits orgasm with a partner). He suffers from a sense of abandonment, and a lifelong inability to tolerate rivals. Fantasizing a condition of servitude, he dreams of exalted descent to replace his true origins, and he longs for omnipotent paternal surrogates, while harboring repressed matricidal impulses, combined with besetting guilt and regressive yearning for symbiotic union with the maternal breast.

The symptomatology raises a number of qualms, beginning with the author’s tendentious language. Liebert believes that the regressive yearning just mentioned explains, among other puzzles, the sculptor’s overlong stays in the marble quarries, since “at the deepest level of unconscious thought, the marble face of the mountain represented the maternal breasts.” But “the union with the dead mothering one” brings with it an “unleashing of the impounded rage connected with the sense of abandonment so early in life.” Accordingly, the quest in the quarries for the perfect stone block becomes a

venting of Michelangelo’s rage at the oral and maternal deprivation to which he had been subjected. In contrast with the farmer who works the earth’s surface by agricultural means to yield nourishment, Michelangelo had to attack this obdurate and intransigent material with sharp and harsh weapons….

This is troubling; the simple truth that the sculptor’s imagination conceives the stone block as matrix becomes, in Liebert’s prose, a pathological symptom whose cause is traced to oral deprivation in infancy. For such deprivation we have no evidence whatsoever. The boy, for all we know, may have had a good time at the dugs of his foster mother. In later years, Michelangelo recalled with good-humored affection the aptness of her being a stonemason’s wife. But Liebert’s polemic needs an enraged Michelangelo. He therefore equates breast and marble so that the stone, “obdurate and intransigent,” serves to indict the ungenerous bosom. This in turn motivates the sculptor’s aggression. The progress of Michelangelo’s chisel becomes a sadistic retaliation. And what of the artful contrast Liebert draws between the sculptor’s mayhem and the farmer who, in his goodness, eschews hurtful tools in favor of “agricultural means”? Even the wicked plow in the furrow is spared for the sake of an invidious comparison. Can the heuristic claims of psychobiography survive such rhetoric?

Some of Liebert’s characterizations of Michelangelo rely on distorted facts, as when he speculates that Michelangelo was compensating for his disappointment over his actual family by inventing what Freud and Rank called a “family romance.” But Michelangelo’s aspiration to noble origins was not a foundling’s fantasy, since it never involved a rejection of his own clan. On the contrary: just as his father and uncle had opposed his adolescent inclination to sculpture on the grounds that so mean a craft would dishonor the Buonarroti, so the seventy-year-old Michelangelo, living in Rome, was distressed to learn that his younger brother Gismondo had taken up farming. In his social pretensions he followed his father. Writing to his nephew (December 4, 1546), he offered to buy for his relatives an imposing house in Florence “since we are, after all, descended from a very noble family.” And, he continued, “get Gismondo to return to live in Florence, so that it should no longer be said to my shame that I have a brother at Settignano who trudges after oxen…. One day, when I’ve time, I’ll tell you about our origins.”

These origins, Michelangelo thought (mistakenly, as it turns out), reverted to one Simone da Canossa, podestà of Florence in 1250—and Canossa was a great name. The claim has a period ring: as every upstart in Michelangelo’s day gentled his pedigree, aping the Hapsburgs’ boast of direct descent from Hercules, so the artist gloried in a fancied connection with the counts of Canossa; in this respect, at least, he was well-adjusted. Yet, since the house of Canossa included the great Countess Matilda (d. 1115), Liebert deftly observes that “Michelangelo appropriated as his own ancestor a woman who was both powerful and long-lived—a dramatic contrast to the reality of his own mother and maternal surrogate.”

Why would Liebert turn Michelangelo’s mild case of status-seeking into an intrapsychic conflict over his lineage? Because he is leading up to the artist’s frescoes of the genealogy of Christ—some eighty-odd ancestor figures fringing the Sistine Ceiling. These figures Liebert (wrongly) regards as substandard, and his plan is to blame their supposed inadequacy on Michelangelo’s “conflicted feelings about his own ancestry.”1

As Liebert presents them, the artist’s character traits are, by and large, pathological—they cry out for therapy. And since crippling afflictions alone would be irreconcilable with Michelangelo’s capacity for performance, Liebert from time to time praises the strength of the master’s ego, his courage and unwavering vision, his powers of sublimation, “the fluidity of his fantasy life and mental organization,” his “capacity to master and transform his tormented inner drama into art,” and, above all, his imagination—“the glorious arena of his life…where beauty reigned and anything was possible.”

These are deserved compliments, but they do not come from the analyst’s shop. Given the author’s commitment to childhood trauma as the source of Michelangelo’s character, we are left to wonder at the etiology of those compensations. How deep-lodged in the psyche were they? If we assume the enabling gifts to have been more than a tempering overlay, if we work from them backward to the unknown in Michelangelo’s infancy, we are prompted to fabricate an alternative childhood experience no less plausible than the Liebertine artifact. We would begin with Freud’s famous dictum: “He who has been the undisputed darling of his mother retains throughout life that victorious feeling, that confidence in ultimate success, which not seldom brings actual success with it.”2

Freud was here speaking of Goethe, covertly perhaps of himself. But if we reverse the proposed causal connection, inferring beneficent mothering from a son’s proven self-confidence, then the dictum applies as well to Michelangelo in his teens, twenties, and thirties. Was ever a youth more abundantly blessed with “victorious feeling”? The young Michelangelo was sublimely sure of his powers, disdainful of lesser talents. At thirteen, he found Master Ghirlandaio unfit to learn from, and mocked the efforts of fellow students until young Pietro Torrigiani (who grew up to become a good sculptor) dealt the arrogant boy such a blow that Michelangelo’s nose—more precisely, the cartilage at the rhinion—caved in for good. But some time after, Michelangelo painted the Manchester Madonna (National Gallery, London) and there bestowed the likeness of his disfigurement not only on the beautiful angel at right—but on the Madonna herself. (See illustration on this page.)

Other instances of the young Michelangelo’s self-assurance are his “faking” an antique Sleeping Cupid to prove his parity with the ancients, when it was axiomatic that antique excellence could not be matched; contracting at twenty-three to deliver a monumental Pietà that would be “the most beautiful work in marble now to be seen in Rome”; and then, still in his twenties, returning to Florence to hew the colossus we know as the David from a botched marble block pronounced useless by experts.

Invincible confidence governs the young Michelangelo’s dealings with patrons—whom he wants rich and powerful, not, as Liebert believes, to play Zeus to his Ganymede, but because only power and wealth could support the scope of his projects. There can be no question that Michelangelo’s early self-image was that of a conqueror. And if, psychogenetically, such a self-image presupposes, in childhood, the blessings of a favorite parent—which we know Michelangelo’s dismal father withheld—why then the boy must have got it (like Goethe and Freud) from his mother.

Hence my counter-hypothesis. Recalling a tag misattributed to the Jesuits—give us a child until six years of age and we have him for life—I note that Donna Francesca had Michelangelo with her for six years and nine months. And from the evidence of his feats of valor, I propose an alternative to the deprivation romance: that she must have regretted the custom of putting a child out to wet-nurse; must have reclaimed him after, say, fifteen or eighteen months; then proceeded to cherish him for over five years, and, at her death, bequeathed the care of him to two doting females who were part of the Buonarroti household but who get no mention in Liebert’s text—the paternal grandmother, Alessandra di Brunaccio Brunacci (1409/10–1494), who lived until her talented grandson was nineteen, and his uncle’s childless wife, Cassandra di Cosimo Bartoli (married 1474, died 1530). All honor to these two women who, in my brash speculation, continued to treat the boy, against minimal competition from his four dullard brothers, as the “undisputed darling” he had been to Francesca.3 And we might guess that this experience of favoritism implanted in young Michelangelo an unrealistic expectation of privilege which, in adult life, in the collision with a sovereign will as unbending as his, incurred a rude shock. But not until he was almost forty does his confidence crack. Only then do we note its first slackening and the hardening of his tragic self-image. And by that time his projected life’s work, the Julius Tomb, was crumbling beyond hope of repair.

  1. 1

    Michelangelo’s ancestor figures are “the generations of Christ” named in the opening words of the Gospels. Male and female, young and old, they wait as the holy seed within them ripens toward the coming of the Messiah. The artist would have had to lose all control if Liebert’s description of them as “lost souls” (they include Abraham, Jesse, David!) had any validity. Fortunately—and not surprisingly to the observant—the current cleaning of those “wretched ancestors” reveals again their uncanny splendor.

  2. 2

    A Childhood Recollection from Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit” (1917), translated by C.M.J. Hubback in On Creativity and the Unconscious (Harper & Row, 1958), p. 121.

  3. 3

    I am amused to find myself warming to my counter-hypothesis as I write. I now see Donna Francesca riding out to Settignano three times a week to cosset her boy; see his cadets one by one packed off instantly to the wet nurse, so that, in the family bosom, Michelangelo had good Francesca pretty much to himself; and as he went on to outshine his dim siblings, it is they, poor fellows, who need our sympathy.

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