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 the book makes it. In my own opinion, the statue is a perfectly nice Florentine sculpture of the second quarter of the sixteenth century, and has no connection with Michelangelo beyond the general reflection of him that all sculptors then betrayed. In fact, most of the comparisons of detail, when not too vague for comfort, seem to bear out this explanation. The only thing left to wonder, then, is at what point it struck someone as a splendid idea to turn it all into a popular splash, and, when it did, why it wasn’t done more thoroughly. The anti-climax inside the cover perhaps only gains its full irony, to the scholar who unexpectedly finds himself on his own ground.
Michelangelo the Painter has only 14-inch pages but weighs ten pounds. Its function is to provide color plates of all the paintings, including two in the National Gallery in London which in most people’s opinion are not by Michelangelo. Apart from these, it shows the round panel in the Uffizi in Florence and the three sets of frescoes in the Vatican in a very thorough way. Thus for the Sistine Ceiling there is a separate plate for each scene, and for each prophet and sibyl. The nudes are shown only in a small sampling, but all of them are included, four by four, in the plates showing the scenes next to them. Then there are separate plates for the small gold medallions and for more than half of the windowframe scenes of the ancestors of Christ. All this is presented in a sober sequence, occasionally broken by a closeup also shown as a sample.
The question whether these color reproductions are good embarrasses me. I would say they are pretty good, better than average, but I would also say that reviewers commonly give verdicts on color reproduction quality much too cheerfully. I don’t believe my colleagues remember any more than I do the particular tint of green or violet of a robe seen months or years ago. Anyway, the color camera records the color in a particular light, which is the photographer’s flood light, so the frequent complaint that a reproduction is over-bright or garish is unfair; the camera saw a brighter color than we otherwise are shown. What can be established, and isn’t often enough pointed out, is that color reproduction handles some things much better than others. What it does well is, obviously, that which is similar to the page of colored ink. Therefore it is better at reproducing small things (reviewers keep discovering than details are better reproduced than wholes), two-dimensional decorative surfaces with unshaded local color areas (Matisse does better than Courbet), and shiny or glossy objects (jewels and stained glass). The Sistine Ceiling is therefore about the worst possible problem: it is enormous in scale, highly modeled in three-dimensional suggestion, and with a non-shiny surface like unglazed earthernware. On these tests the photographer shows up very well—his details and wholes do not contradict each other—and so does the bookmaker, who has provided a heavy matt paper. The seriousness and skill are only marred by the cropping of some edges, and by a problem of printing and reducing scale: when two areas of very different color are adjacent, they have a sharp border and don’t blend. But even though the details are still the best (the head of the Persian sibyl is breathtaking), the whole effect is modest, neat, and reasonable, and only the implications of the book’s scale and price are sensational.
The text is equally matter-of-fact and serious. The author has written a good deal on Michelangelo, and now summarizes his views in an attractive way, saying nothing new, but crystalizing a visual approach. His emphasis is on the way in which the modeled massiveness becomes expressive. However, it is in Mariani’s text that this book by Fernanda de’ Maffei. It has been translated word for word by someone—luckily, for him, anonymous—who doesn’t know the subject. The effect is extraordinary. This is in part due to the intellectual tradition based on German idealistic philosophy in which Mariani is operating. It uses a lot of abstract words in precise, technical senses that are not retained by the same words in English. This is not an uncommon problem for translators of Italian art historians. But the more serious problem is on a far cruder level. “The proposition seems to have been confirmed by a particular.” The practiced reader may know that that sentence means: “The hypothesis seems to be confirmed by a detail.” The “Farnese fund” should be the Farnese collection; “it is next to the big drawings” should be “it is most similar to the big drawings”; the arm “bears the traces of a ‘repentance’ ” means that it bears the traces of a revision. “The grand manner was aspired.” “He worked on successive sectors at a time when each contained three or four figures” seems to be rational but untrue. It means: “He worked on successive sectors at one time, each of which contained two or three figures.” When the translator doesn’t know an English word, he cutely uses the Italian in quotes, as if to say that this is one of those untranslatable subtleties, or else he doesn’t even realize that he should translate. Monaco in Italian is our Munich, El Greco the “young candiotto” is a “young Cypriot,” the “Arazzi cycle” is the cycle of tapestries; “we find ourselves before a painting of surprising intentions, almost ‘luministici’,” which could be rendered literally, as could “this ‘corale’ melancholy world.” If this is extreme hastiness, mere sloppiness produces “a trumeated tree” and “this excurtion” and “dominated by seventy.” They seem to be the product of a handwritten manuscript being interpreted by a printer working letter for letter, not knowing the language, and not followed by proof-reading. The words intended were truncated, execution, severity. A volitive head, a statuary drawing, expressivity, sculptoreal distinction, trepidant care—this book is indeed, as the translator describes something else, “crammed with limitless prose.”
What produces this result is all too easy to say because it happens in many books. The translation is hired out to an Italian, perhaps at hourly rates, because the printing is done in Italy, because the plates are done there too. The package is then bought by an American distributor, who either doesn’t read the text or assumes that the buyer won’t. After all, it’s a coffee-table book, to be thumbed through, and it merely has to have a text. If this keeps happening, it’s not the fault of reviewers. I am only one of many who have been complaining about this for a long time. The practice continues because American distributors allow it to happen, and it is a token of cheapness. The publication of this hundred-dollar item would seem to provide an excellent occasion for it to stop.
August 20, 1964