Shrinking Michelangelo

Michelangelo: A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life and Images

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

Michelangelo; drawing by David Levine

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…

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