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.
Liebert either omits or deflects certain traits of character in Michelangelo that tend to personal power. Among them I cite the artist’s ability to build himself a millionaire’s fortune, and his manipulative cunning in dealing with others. The former deserves closer study than it has yet received. Michelangelo’s sources of income and energetic investments should be investigated by an economic historian with an art historian in tow. As to his cunning, Michelangelo is at all times adept at bending people to his own ends—patrons and financial advisers, servants and fellow artists, and lovers no less. A recent review by Frederick Hartt cites a hitherto unpublished love letter to Michelangelo from a young man “of tender years.”4 Hartt points out that the implied liaison coincides with the documented if somewhat mysterious relationship between Michelangelo and young Febo di Poggio and with Michelangelo’s ardor for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Such triplicity puts one in mind of Michelangelo’s habit of dispersing his money among several Florentine banks. It’s safer that way.
Then there is the question of Michelangelo’s pride. The obsequious servility Liebert discerns in some of the letters seems to me a needed respite from haughtiness. Much of it is dictated by epistolary convention, often ironically exaggerated. Pope Clement VII is supposed to have said, “When Michelangelo calls, I always ask him to sit down, because I know he will anyway.” The report may be inauthentic, but incidents of a similar drift document nearly every period of Michelangelo’s life, even his dealings with the redoubtable Julius II. Liebert’s notion that “groveling” was “a predisposition in Michelangelo’s psyche” strikes me as wholly mistaken.
The other half of Liebert’s “twofold purpose” is to seek the deep meaning of Michelangelo’s art. And this meaning is invariably found to be an unconscious expression of a character trait induced by trauma. Though Liebert respects Michelangelo as a thinking man, the method he has chosen hardly allows the artist’s created images to be significantly informed by thought or decision. Their deep meaning must be a lapse.
To confirm the displacement fantasy, for example, Liebert looks for, and finds throughout Michelangelo’s oeuvre, sorry neglected selves growling at preferred siblings. Such are the Gemini at the hatching of Helen (in engravings based on the master’s lost design); such is the departing St. John in the Doni Tondo (at the Uffizi); and such again is the Child of Promise in the Creation of Adam (on the Sistine Ceiling). It is now commonly recognized, and not doubted by Liebert, that as God’s famous finger alerts the first man, his other forefinger lights on the shoulder of the Christ Child, so that God’s ambidexterity spans the redemptive history of the race from first to Second Adam. This much is conceded to the painter’s conscious intention. However, says Liebert, “for Michelangelo, the idea of parenting figures caring for one child carried with it the expectation of their neglecting the other.” Liebert therefore describes this other child as “barely noticed,” marked by “fear and abandonment,” and “in danger of slipping off.” There is, of course, no such danger. And as for the Child’s propensity to escape notice, I find Michelangelo’s underhanded prolepsis of the Incarnation at this moment of Genesis remarkably apt.
More ominous and truer to psychobiographical method is Liebert’s claim that the artist’s imagery projects a fantasy of punitive mothers and vengeful sons. The orphaned young Michelangelo, we are told, must have internalized the “view of his mother as a Medea.” And the proof of this fantasy is discovered in the Taddei Madonna, a marble tondo from the artist’s late twenties, in the making of which “fear of danger from a murderous mother…was the controlling unconscious force….”
The tondo displays a winsome Madonna, seated low in the traditional humility posture. She faces—and gently parries—an over-eager little St. John who proffers a goldfinch, symbol of the Passion, to the young Christ. The latter scampers away, overstepping the Virgin’s thigh, and twists back again. Playfully or in earnest, the Child in its human nature seeks safety, but is recalled by curiosity—or if mysteriously meant, by the understood vision which the bird’s spread-eagled body foreshadows. Nothing here insinuates a Medea. What then does Liebert see in this Christological idyll to make it sinister?
Nothing. But he is inspired by a remark of Panofsky’s (repeated by Tolnay and others) to the effect that the Tondo Taddei exploits an antique motif—“the posture of the Infant Jesus being derived from the little boy [in a Medea sarcophagus] stepping over the fragment of a column.”5 Liebert takes this alleged derivation to have been “persuasively established,” and applies his discovery of “a previously untapped potential for understanding” Michelangelo’s work. He reasons that the artist would not have used an antique motif simply for its formal adaptability; but that it “probably struck dominant unconscious chords in Michelangelo,” so that he must have elected its original meaning. In the present case, modeling Mary’s son on Medea’s, Michelangelo was unconsciously equating the Virgin herself with the terrible filicide—“compelling evidence of the strength and influence of Michelangelo’s unconscious struggle with the theme of a murderous contest between mothers and children.”
In view of the gravity of the charge, Liebert’s “compelling evidence” had better be reconsidered. Leaving aside the question whether any Medea sarcophagus was available by 1504, or whether Michelangelo’s Christ Child is sufficiently like the sarcophagus child to qualify as a dependent, we merely ask whether anyone in the sixteenth century could have correctly identified the mythological subject of a Medea sarcophagus—as we do by reading museum labels. To this question, which Liebert has failed to pose, the answer is No. The mythologies on Roman sarcophagi, those of Medea and Orestes especially, required centuries of perplexed scholarship to decode. The former appears in two mid-sixteenth-century prints, neither of which reads the depicted events with reference to Medea. As late as 1693, the foremost authorities in the field, Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, mistook the compressed iconography of a Medea sarcophagus for scenes from the Proserpine story (see illustration on next page); as did Bernard de Montfauçon in 1722.6 Until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Euripides had achieved enough popularity to suggest the right reading, the sense of a Medea relief remained inscrutable, like a hieroglyphic inscription. Yet Liebert has the young Michelangelo discern its true subject fifty years before Euripides’ Medea appeared in Latin translation and almost three hundred years in advance of all classicists.
The same objection invalidates Liebert’s recourse to an Orestes sarcophagus, on which, he believes, Michelangelo drew for the Sistine Ceiling fresco of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve; Adam’s defensive gesture being “virtually copied” from that of the matricidal Orestes pursued by the Furies. By this gestural likeness, “the theme of [Michelangelo’s] own matricidal impulses” is said to be “demonstrated.” But the author has neglected to notice that the fending-off gesture in the sarcophagus is not made by Orestes, but by the old nurse—a guiltless crone—at the sight of the murdered Aegysthus. Nevertheless, Liebert insists on locating the deep meaning of Michelangelo’s fresco—by way of a misconstrued Roman sarcophagus whose subject was unidentified—in the Oresteia. And though he acknowledges that Aeschylus’ trilogy was not yet translated from the Greek, and that Michelangelo’s familiarity with it is unlikely, he can write:
Michelangelo’s turning to the Oresteia lends strong support to the conclusion that his unconscious source of inspiration for the motif of the Expulsion was the unresolved and unneutralized residue of the murderous impulses he harbored toward his abandoning wet-nurse and mother.
Meanwhile, the Blessed Virgin continues to serve the author as the butt of Michelangelo’s rage, and this brings us to the Last Judgment. Here Liebert defers to the work of Richard and Edith Sterba—“the first to explicate the interaction of Christ, the Virgin, and Saint Bartholomew in terms of ‘the most important conflict in [Michelangelo’s] troubled soul: the aggression against the rejecting mother and the condemnation with which his Superego met this aggression.’ ” In the fresco, the bald, white-bearded figure of St. Bartholomew holds a flayed skin—displaying the artist’s self-portrait with its characteristic flat nose and short, curly black hair. For the Sterbas it is nonetheless St. Bartholomew with whom Michelangelo identified; and they see the Apostle pointing the knife that had flayed him at the Madonna,
as if he indicted her for all the martyrdom and injustice which he had to suffer from her in his childhood and, through her, throughout his life…. The intensity of the reproaches has struck her so hard that she moves nearer to the Savior and half hides behind him for protection and her face she turns away in shame and guilt.
Liebert finds this reading congenial (“at the deepest level, as the Sterbas propose, the artist’s indictment is against the mother”) and he quotes the sequel: “Bartholomew, who stands for Michelangelo, is punished for his reproachful attack on the mother of God. This accounts for the pronouncement of severe condemnation by Christ under which Bartholomew is cringing.”
Is it possible? Has a half century of psychoanalytical exploration of art availed only to reduce the greatest Renaissance fresco to the compass of a family tiff, where son snaps at Mom and gets his comeuppance from Dad—the rest being mere eschatology? Liebert writes as if religious experience, anxiety about salvation, the meditating on Christian mysteries, could never deeply engage a man of the sixteenth century. Michelangelo’s faith has no place in his psyche, and the Christian content of a Michelangelo work is routinely dismissed as masking profounder symbols. Indeed, one senses impatience with the whole subject—no other way to explain the careless abuses of Christian terminology that bestrew the book’s pages. The issue here is an unconscious resistance to Christian subject matter, an attitude that estranges the author from the content of Michelangelo’s art.
Central to Liebert’s conception of Michelangelo’s psyche is a supposed “absorption in the Ganymede fantasy.” The artist, we read, chose the myth to appropriate the rewards of eternal youth received by the beautiful Ganymede in recompense for sexual surrender to Zeus. Surely this fantasy is another of the author’s gifts to his subject. His assertion that Michelangelo’s work includes “a lifelong series of variations on the myth of Ganymede” is simply false. And his Ganymeding of the artist’s relations with patrons rests on a disregard of the role of patronage in Renaissance culture.
The most Jovian of Liebert’s several characters playing Zeus to Michelangelo’s Ganymede is, of course, Julius II. For the first time in art historical literature, the scene shifts, in Liebert’s book, to Michelangelo’s bedroom, the occasion being the aged artist’s account to Condivi of the Pope’s initial enthusiasm for the Tomb project of 1505. Condivi’s text (1553) tells how eagerly His Holiness watched over the project, to the point even of visiting the sculptor’s quarters—called interchangeably casa or stanza. These quarters had been set up close to the corridoio, the elevated passage that still links the Vatican Palace with the Castel Sant’Angelo. And we read that the Pope had a ponte levatoio constructed to enable him to make his visits without publicity, or, as Condivi says, privately—segretamente. One would expect such a covered gangplank or drawbridge to have been hammered up in a day. But here is Liebert’s account:
There is…no record of Pope Julius’s undertaking construction of a draw-bridge so that he might easily be able to visit the artist’s bedroom. The circumstance also seems unlikely in the extreme. Therefore, we must assume that at seventy-eight, when fantasy and true recollection merged in this anecdote, what is recorded is Michelangelo’s vestigial wish….
Perhaps so, but how did the bedroom get into the text? By mistranslating “dal corridore alla stanza di Michelangelo.” For a stanza is not a camera da letto; in older Italian it can mean room, or suite of rooms, but it more often means residence or abode. The injection of the word “bedroom” so as to add sex to the old artist’s memoir suggests that the fantasy at hand is not Michelangelo’s. The mistranslation is needed, however, to prepare Liebert’s case that the relation between Pope Julius and Michelangelo was continually threatened by “an element that both men were defending themselves against—the eruption of strong unconscious homosexual impulses toward each other.” It is hard to see what such conjectures accomplish, beyond giving the book its consistency.
The above, fairly typical, instances of misreading indicate that the factual ground on which Liebert bases his diagnosis hardly exists. But the problem is not primarily one of spurious evidence or slanted interpretation. It seems to me that his attempt to psychoanalyze Michelangelo is inherently self-defeating. For the imperative to find confirmation for an unverifiable diagnosis within the artist’s creation demands that the most carefully pondered symbolic structures be treated as one might treat a slip of the tongue. And yet Liebert appears to know better. “It should be emphasized,” he writes in the introduction, “that works of art are not to be equated with either neurotic symptoms or dreams.” True enough, but who needs the warning? Not the thousands who daily gaze at the Sistine Ceiling; they know that they are looking at something other than a pathological symptom or private dream. Liebert’s caution can be meant only for those so immersed in psychoanalytical theory that they are tempted to class the creative act with the dream and the symptom, since all three are supposed to thrive on repressed, primitive thought; all three are “manifest expressions of latent and conflicted dark motives.”
So the author is trapped. Protest as he may that great art resolves unconscious conflicts and “sublimates unacceptable drives,” Liebert’s program constrains him to make precisely the artist’s work testify to the reality of those conflicts. What evidence after all would there be for Michelangelo’s dread of murderous mothers unless his Madonnas supplied it? If the works furnished no proof, the whole enterprise would collapse. Liebert, therefore, must search Michelangelo’s imagery for symptoms of unacceptable drives left unsublimated and unresolved. Accordingly, throughout the book, unconscious compulsions, overruling the artist’s intention, are “a major determinant.” Unrecognized by the artist, they “continually dictated many of his artistic solutions.”
We are offered a Michelangelo so captive to his unconscious that he succumbs time and again to inappropriate artistic solutions. For it is inappropriate for Michelangelo to have depicted Christ at the Creation of Adam as ill-housed and “bewildered”—just because the unwitting artist’s own sense of displacement prevailed while he worked; inappropriate again to have let the Last Judgment collapse on a three-way family altercation, for which “the rest of the close to four hundred figures largely serve as a supporting cast.” And since the artist’s assignment was to project the eschatology of the Church on the altar wall of the Pope’s chapel, it was entirely inappropriate to have St. Bartholomew out to knife the Madonna, with a retributive Christ dispatching his own Apostle to hell—and all this because the artist’s alleged oral deprivation in infancy continued to fester.
Such are the results of Liebert’s findings: the deep meaning of Michelangelo’s work resides in successive failures to satisfy the requirements of a subject. And so implausible is this result that the author must periodically deny the drift of his book. He reminds himself that the “essence of Michelangelo’s genius” is the ability “to cast aside individual neurosis”; or that the quality of that genius is “attributable to the extraordinary strength of his ego, which enabled him to utilize, master, and resolve conflict in forms that transcended his unrelenting obsessions.” This sounds right; yet whenever the author, instead of delivering general proclamations, expounds what he thinks Michelangelo actually did, we are shown a psychoanalyst’s patient, an artist whose ego lacked the strength to transcend private obsessions—one who was near-blinded by them.
That impulses from the depths of the psyche feed into works of art is not in doubt; they probably affect most human actions. But artists, if they are any good, preside over their work with eyes open, and no one more so than a Renaissance fresco painter. Therefore, if the analyst finds, in one Michelangelo work after another, that “the defensive aspects of the sublimation are incomplete”—if he finds much of the imagery incompatible with conscious intention—he should take warning, retrace his steps.
Liebert did not. And while his program leads him again and again to find neurosis accountable for the artist’s creations, his contrary protestations sound like attempts at exorcism, as though to banish a sense of transgression. “To say that [Michelangelo’s] own neurosis was responsible for his art would be to parody psychoanalytic theory,” he declares. In the context of the book he has written, this truism becomes a self-accusation more stinging than anything a reviewer might say.
June 28, 1984
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. ↩
“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. ↩
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. ↩
Renaissance Quarterly, 36 (Summer 1983), p. 250. ↩
Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1939; Harper & Row, 1962), p. 172, n. 3. ↩
The two engravings are reproduced in Giulio Bonasone, an exhibition catalog written by Stefania Massari (Rome, Calcografia, 1983), figs. 66, 67. And see Guntram Koch and Hellmut Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage (Munich, C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1982), p. 7, for the baffled seventeenth-and eighteenth-century scholarship confronting Orestes and Medea sarcophagi. ↩