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…

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