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 the gift still remains to be fully evaluated.
Three of the subsequent chapters are devoted to The Conversion of St. Paul, and only one to the Crucifixion of St. Peter, as if the author had responded with particular immediacy to the psychological drama which transformed Saul into Paul. For what lifts this book above the common run of art books is the sense of personal involvement, the wish to make us share a personal experience. The heading of chapter five, “The Included Self,” refers to Michelangelo’s identification with the dramatis personae; it could also be used as a description of the critical approach favored by Mr. Steinberg. He avoids the cool detachment of formal analysis deriving from Wölfflin no less than the more recent trends of iconology in which the work of art sometimes disappears behind a web of learned references. There is a good deal to be said in favor of this approach, which brings to mind nineteenth-century critics such as Ruskin or Walter Pater. After all, Michelangelo did not paint to provide seminar fodder; he demands a response and what else can such a response be if not personal? But it would seem from the preface that the author aims higher. He seeks a synthesis of all these approaches.
I have tried not to avoid the responsibilities of interpretation, though my symbolic readings tend to be interfused with what used to be called “formal analysis.” That term no longer seems helpful. In Michelangelo’s pictorial structures, “form” and “content” are not to be pried apart. Only in the narrowest sense do his depicted scenes illustrate their pre-given subjects; as the artist’s conceptions materialize, they engender new meanings, engage wider, deeper registers of significance. The sweeping curve of a leg—St. Paul’s right leg in the Conversion—makes a melodious line, but as it aims at the city indicated by Christ, it also foretells, visibly, where Paul is to go. Linear rhythm, dramatic posture, imminent destination and destiny—all collapse together in the unique visual substance.
Precisely because the issue of method raised here by the author is important it seems a pity that he illustrates it by so unconvincing an example. The city of Damascus appears indeed near the horizon at the right-hand edge of the fresco, which shows, in the center, St. Paul thrown from his horse. It is a matter of opinion whether the shape of the leg of the saint lying on the ground can rightly be called a “curve,” let alone a “melodious” line, but to describe this short imaginary line as “aiming” at the city seems eccentric. The calf does not point there, neither does the foot. But why should the theme of the fresco require such pointing? It is true that the apparition of Christ, according to the texts, commanded Saul to go to Damascus, but he was going there in any case, and the command referred not to the destination but to the way the saint would be healed of his sudden blindness. Moreover anyone who wanted to follow the “line” in the direction of distant Damascus would find his searching eye interrupted by a turmoil of figures.
The way the author interprets form and content of one of these may serve as a further illustration of his procedure, though the intricacy of the argument is likely to tax the patience of the reader. Briefly, he discerns among the terrified bystanders one man who has fallen to the ground. Though he is only partly visible between the legs of a soldier Mr. Steinberg wants us to recognize in his posture the attitude of a recumbent classical river-god. It is a formula which was undeniably influential in the Renaissance, though its exact relevance is not easy to determine, since one can hardly lie on the ground with the upper part of the body raised without remotely echoing this pose. The author also finds it reflected in the prostrate figure of St. Paul, which thus becomes a counterpart to the one he had disentangled from the human knot.
The pattern of two recumbent river-gods confronting each other leg-to-leg reminds him of a pair of such statues which had been brought to the Capitoline hill during the Renaissance, the very hill that Michelangelo was to transform into the Capitol. He thus finds in the configuration an “allusion” to the Campidoglio group which is “unlikely to be gratuitous or inadvertent.” “More probably,” we read, the master
was again thinking on several levels—but one is staggered by what his thinking implies. Was Michelangelo invoking a visual parallel by which to make present to the beholder, along with the moment of Paul’s vocation, an image of the political heart of Rome? Was he anticipating the historic sequel to the moment depicted? Paul of Tarsus, proud of his Roman citizenship, is being appointed Apostle unto the Gentiles, and with a specific mission for Rome…. If Michelangelo was not being thoughtless, he was visually linking the converted Paul with his last destination.
Nor is that all. We learn that since the fresco occupies the eastern wall the Capitol might be imagined to lie in that direction. Actually a glance at a map will show that the Capitol lies pretty far to the southeast of the Vatican, but whether or not this deviation matters, we are presented with a text by Pope Innocent III dating from some 350 years earlier, exalting Peter and Paul, both martyred in Rome, as the twin guardians of the city. Few readers may be expected by this time to remember the beginning of the argument, which rests on the similarity of an only partially visible member of the crowd to the formula of a river-god. I am not exaggerating here, for strangely enough Mr. Steinberg retracts his other equation of St. Paul with that formula in a subsequent chapter. There he rightly calls the comparison between the pose of St. Paul and that of river-gods “unproductive.”
No river-god figure in sixteenth-century painting or sculpture sustains such precarious disequilibrium. Paul’s supporting arm is too acutely bent and retracted to steady the toppling mass of the torso. Moreover, the figure turns to us frontally, so that its forward falling, accentuated by the impetuous advance of the helper, is aimed at the spectator. These two distinctions, the sudden imbalance and the frontal address, are without precedent, and they charge the figure with new meaning and urgency.
The description shows Mr. Steinberg’s gifts at their best, and so does his further analysis of the counterpoint of attitudes which underlies the composition. It is within this context that he draws attention once more to what he still calls the “yoking of the two ‘river-gods’ into a single bi-partite motif,” and though there is an element of overstatement in this description we can easily grant that Michelangelo here as elsewhere used the time-honored device of mirroring variation to give unity to his groupings. But if the episodic figure of the man on the ground really reflects the pose of the saint who does not resemble a river-god, what becomes of the Roman Capitol re-enacted or evoked somewhere on the road to Damascus? Was it not a mirage, a fleeting association by the author solidified with the help of illustrations and quotations which have nothing to do with the work in front of us?
Mr. Steinberg knows that he is vulnerable to the criticism of overinterpreting Michelangelo’s paintings, and in his preface defines his position before-hand.
I am aware of the position that frowns on excessively free speculation at the expense of the Masters. But there are, after all, two ways to inflict injustice on a great work of art; by over-interpreting it, or by under-estimating its meaning. If unverifiable interpretations are rightly regarded as dangerous, there is as much danger of misrepresentation in restrictive assertions that feel safe only because they say little.
What he demands of his interpretations is merely that they be “probable if not provable,…make visible what had not previously been apparent; and that, once stated, they so penetrate the visual matter that the picture seems to confess itself and the interpreter disappears.”
These are important criteria, but it is to be feared that they are insufficient. For the author may well underrate the power of projection and suggestion which makes us all read into a picture not only meanings but shapes. It is difficult to illustrate this point without appearing to be frivolous, but the risk must be taken for the sake of the methodological issues raised.
Suppose someone were struck by the fact that the book under review was published in England by the Phaidon Press, originally named after Plato’s Phaidon, the dialogue in which Socrates in prison expounds his faith in the immortality of the soul. Is it not strangely fitting that the frescoes painted at the time when Michelangelo’s thoughts turned increasingly to death—as can be documented from his poetry—were associated with the particular work of Plato whose thoughts on beauty had previously obsessed him? And once we discover this connection, are we not entitled to look in the composition for the shape of the signet of the Phaidon Press, the Greek letter Φ ? I refrain from carrying the illustration further, though the circle with the vertical axis would lend itself quite well to such an exercise. It must be resisted precisely because once we have “fused” such meanings and forms it becomes difficult to separate them again, and before we know where we are we have imposed on a great work of art a reading which is hard to get rid of.
It is for this reason that I cannot agree with Mr. Steinberg that—to put the matter simply—under-interpretations are as bad as over-interpretations. The first keeps the work intact, though it may fail to exhaust the inexhaustible; the other lodges itself in the mind and distorts our experience for ever after, even if we refuse it credence.
Hence the responsibilities of the critic seem to me greater even than those of the historian. It is easy to ignore a misguided historical explanation, it is less easy to restore a work of art to its pristine form once a persuasive critic has run it through his mill. The critic should therefore look upon his interpretation much as the performing artist, musician, or actor does or should. In interpreting a symphony or a part in a play we want him first of all to strive to carry out the creator’s instructions rather than to impose his own reading. He need not fear that this act of submission will deprive his performance of life or interest. The notations of music or of literature can never be so complete as to leave no scope for a personal element. The same is true of the visual arts where what I have called “the beholder’s share” is equally needed to turn the brushstrokes into an image. We cannot but call in conjecture at every level, whether we estimate the depth of the stage, the fall of light, or extrapolate from the position of the immobile figures their movements and their states of mind. To look is to interpret. We cannot lay down a limit beyond which the critic must not go, provided always he respects his text. But we have a right to know what kind of meaning he thinks he has uncovered.
As far as the criticism of literature is concerned this point has recently been made once more with particular force by Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., in his book, The Aims of Interpretation (University of Chicago Press, 1976). He has given good reasons for confining the term “meaning” to the intended meaning of a text, reserving the term “significance” for other aspects. The situation may be a little less clear-cut in the visual arts, but it would still be helpful if we could be told every time what exactly is implied in a proposed interpretation. Are we to regard it as a hypothesis about the artist’s conscious intention or about the artist’s unconscious? Is the critic speculating about motivations or goals? In other words, is he offering us an explanation of what made the master do this rather than that, or is he trying to tell us what meaning the artist wanted the beholder to find in his work?
There is a chapter in Ruskin’s Modern Painters, entitled “Of Imagination Penetrative,” which includes a celebration of Tintoretto’s painting of the Crucifixion at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. It culminates in the interpretation of what Ruskin considers the “master stroke” of the painter: “In the shadow behind the cross a man, riding an ass colt, looks back at the multitude, while he points with a rod to the Christ crucified. The ass is feeding on the remnants of withered palm leaves” (Ruskin’s italics). These palm leaves, Ruskin conjectures, are those with which the same crowd that demanded the death of Jesus had greeted him but five days earlier when he was entering Jerusalem on an ass. There was no better way, in Ruskin’s view, of reminding the beholder of the reasons for the crowd’s behavior, their rage and disappointed pride.
Here is an interpretation which, though not provable, is probable in the sense that Tintoretto would certainly have known the story of the Passion and the events of “Palm Sunday,” and though Ruskin may have overemphasized the episode in his joy of discovery we can fit it into our reading of the picture without strain.
Thus, whether or not we accept Ruskin’s interpretation—and I find it convincing—its implications are clear. It seeks to establish the intended meaning of the episode. There may have been other thoughts and associations in Tintoretto’s mind as he painted this passage—he may have liked or disliked donkeys, or may have had guilty memories of having once fed the palm leaves of Palm Sunday to an ass. But even if we could ever know the exact mixture of motives which led to the painting of the episode it would not add to our understanding of the work—though conceivably to our understanding of the painter.
Mr. Steinberg’s unformulated premise is that the two cannot be separated. He adheres to that expressionist conviction which C.S. Lewis has dubbed the “personal heresy.” It is a heresy which pervades much of contemporary criticism, but I believe it to rest on a confusion between the cause, the purpose, and the meaning of an utterance. There may be any number of shades linking the one to the other, but the critic must still try to keep them apart.
A story told by Vasari about Michelangelo is a case in point. We learn that while he was at work on The Last Judgment the Pope’s master of ceremonies objected to the nudity of the figures, whereupon the painter took his revenge and portrayed his critic as Minos in hell, caught in the coils of a serpent; here both the cause and the meaning are clear, but our understanding of The Last Judgment remains unaffected by our knowledge of this private joke.
When Mr. Steinberg speaks of “levels of meaning,” however, he has a different model in mind. Something like Freud’s model of the dream in which the manifest surface meaning must be peeled away to reveal the deeper and “ultimate” meaning. What he himself calls his “musings” about the meaning of the inclusion of possible self-portraits in the fresco of the Crucifixion of St. Peter makes it even more desirable to clarify this issue than does the earlier example of the alleged allusion to the Capitol. For there are two figures in the fresco which have been seen as likenesses of the master, one an old man in a resigned attitude, close to the foreground, and one a beturbaned head in the background, close to the Roman commander of the executioners. Since the commander has a handsome classical head the author is tempted to see in the juxtaposition a self-accusation of the aged master who regretted having served classical beauty rather than the Faith. He therefore interprets the whole composition as the “descending graph of Michelangelo’s destiny that runs, from his early idolization of pagan beauty and art,…down to his own self again…from his own denial of Christ to his present contrition.” I have omitted, for brevity’s sake, the “formal analysis” of the elements linking the two images and explaining the author’s claim that “the work’s ultimate meaning flows in the geometry of its structure.”
Mr. Steinberg himself calls this reading “beyond proof or disproof,” but it is not proof one would like to be offered but documented analogies. Not for the inclusion of self-portraits in narrative paintings, but for the kind of sublime punning with forms of multiple meaning which this book so frequently postulates and finds. Vasari tells us of Michelangelo’s private revenge, but why does he never refer to any work of art of his or any other age in which the postures and actions of figures in a story are so cunningly devised that they also convey a topographical allusion, as we are expected to believe of the fallen men in the Conversion of St. Paul, or of any such painted autobiography as the descent from an earlier to a later self? To be sure Vasari missed certain things and was altogether not a very profound man, but he knew Michelangelo quite well and admired him unconditionally. Moreover he loved iconographic complexity, as his comments on his own fresco cycles testify.
Is it not more likely that Mr. Steinberg’s desire to bring the work close to his twentieth-century audience has made him approximate Michelangelo to artists of our own time whose creations may indeed resemble dreams where personal and public meanings interpenetrate? But history is about the past, not the present, and for all its intensity and all its erudition this reading of the works leaves many lacunae for the historian to fill. Two of them may be mentioned: one, concerning the Conversion of St. Paul, relates to the interpretation of the fresco’s subject matter, the other, concerning the martyrdom of St. Peter, supplements the author’s observation about its historical position.
Mr. Steinberg’s reading of the Conversion centers emphatically on the event on earth. He refers to “our knowledge of what it means to be divebombed on an open beach” to give immediacy to the sudden apparition of Christ in a desolate landscape, and he sustains this mood throughout the description of the writhing saint and his panicking companions. The angels surrounding the figure of Christ, by contrast, are only perfunctorily described, as in the unexplained remark that “the angelic hosts play a celestial charade.” But it is unlikely that Michelangelo wished us thus to subordinate his vision of heaven to the drama on the ground. For this vision may well be intended to be that of St. Paul himself. In the second Epistle to the Corinthians (Chapter XII) St. Paul speaks of such a vision in terms so enigmatic that they have engaged the commentators ever since. “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth); such an one caught up to the third heaven…how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
It has always been accepted that the experience here described was that of St. Paul himself, though when exactly it happened fourteen years before the writing of the epistle was and remains uncertain. Nor was it clear what the saint meant by the Third Heaven, and whether or not he identified it with Paradise, which is also mentioned. St. Augustine, in his De genesi ad litteram, devoted a long chapter to these puzzles; but whatever their solution, Paul was regarded as the saint who had been vouchsafed a vision of heaven—the “Third Heaven” being (in Dante and elsewhere) the special abode of Love. Here is a clue which seems to be worth pursuing, for whether or not Michelangelo wished to telescope Paul’s visionary experiences into one, he certainly did not want us to disregard the realm of love and of grace which opened up before the apostle—a sphere, admittedly, which is less in tune with twentieth-century sensibilities than the cruel blinding.
In describing the Crucifixion of St. Peter Mr. Steinberg starts auspiciously by explaining what must have made Michelangelo decide to depart from the traditional type which shows the saint immobile, hanging upside down from the cross. In fact Michelangelo assimilated the scene to a less static prototype, not mentioned by Mr. Steinberg, that of Christ’s Procession to Calvary. It is here that we first encounter that wheeling movement with figures arriving from the back of the scene on the right and turning away from the beholder on the opposite side, with the large cross forming the pivot of the composition. The type was adopted by Raphael in his painting now in Madrid known as Lo Spasimo di Sicilia, which was engraved by Agostino Veneziano and shows more than one suggestive parallel with Michelangelo’s work, including, perhaps, the group of women in the foreground. But strangely enough one also feels reminded of an earlier version of the theme, an engraving by Martin Schongauer, the artist whose Temptation of St. Anthony Michelangelo is reported to have copied in his youth.
Admittedly such a correspondence is also beyond proof or disproof, because whatever echoes there may be have been fully transmuted into Michelangelo’s personal idiom. And yet it could be argued that in attending to this historical dimension we learn more about the work itself than in following Mr. Steinberg’s suggestion that “the strange wheeling motion of the executioners” should again be regarded as a “topographical cue.” “It is as though these men, acting under a superior compulsion, were tracing the circular plan of the monument that would commemorate the site of the crucifixion”—Bramante’s Tempietto to which Philipp Fehl had drawn attention in an interesting study of the topography of the fresco.
A word needs still to be said about the illustrations to the text, for they are no less original and no less erratic than Mr. Steinberg’s readings. Their great merit is that they skillfully keep the works discussed before the reader, almost as if he were watching a television screen. Not counting the plates there are in the text ten illustrations of the whole area of the Conversion of St. Paul taken from various angles, and ten details of incomplete views. One would not want to grumble about such lavishness except for the fact that there are strange omissions. In an interesting survey of the renderings of the subject before Michelangelo, the author illustrates eight examples, but not the Baccio Baldini engraving of c. 1465 over which, as we read, “Michelangelo must have lingered with special affection” as it “anticipates the general scatter effect of Michelangelo’s composition with men protecting their ears as they run.” A niello dependent on this engraving is singled out in a note as presenting an even closer precedent, but not illustrated either. More surprising, perhaps, is the detailed discussion of the figure of a kneeling workman probing the hole into which the cross of St. Peter is to be lowered, without mention or illustration of the master’s drawing for this figure in the British Museum; for that matter another drawing in the Ashmolean Collection and the fragment of a cartoon in Naples might also have figured in this monograph.
Very likely the author felt that these would have delayed or impeded the sweep of his argument. There is no denying the sweep. He has produced a book to be reckoned with—but a dangerous model to follow. In putting it aside one feels like having attended a performance of a Shakespearean play by one of the star directors of our time who will grip and exasperate you in turn but will, at any rate, send you back to the text.
January 20, 1977