Book review: “Michelangelo” by Stefanie Penck, translated by David Aston

There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo, many running to several hundred pages. I own several of them.

Stefanie Penck’s Michelangelo, published in 2005 by Prestel, has only 95 pages of text and images, yet it’s a rich addition to the literature.

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The book is chuck full of sumptuous reproductions of the great artist’s paintings and images of his sculptures and architecture.

Consider this photo of Mary’s hand holding the dead Christ’s shoulder from the Pieta. It’s a wonderful picture that captures the rich, supple, tender feel that the sculptor gave to the flesh of Jesus in the straining arms of his mother.

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This can’t be marble.

Reckless and terrible

Penck, a German art critic, has room for only about 11,000 words in this book, and she uses them well.

On her first page, for instance, she goes right to the soul of the man who was a master sculptor, painter and architect — a man with “a reckless and terrifying vigour, a terribilita, which drove him to ever greater heights with each new project.”

Reckless vigor at the service of great talent. Penck writes that Michelangelo’s first major work, created when he was 15, was the Madonna of the Stairs:

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[The bas relief] is invested with an almost majestic solemnity that transcends everyday life….The Virgin’s alert, prophetic gaze into the indeterminate distance provides a strong contrast to the averted profile of the Christ Child, who has peacefully fallen asleep at his mother’s breast.

“The stone yields up…”

A year later, Michelangelo sculpted another bas relief, but on a much different subject and with a much different result, Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs. In this work, Penck notes, Michelangelo was already taking the almost mystic approach of a kind of partnership with the marble under his hands and hammer:

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The way the figures seem to emerge from the stone manifest the idea that underlay all his subsequent works — it is not he artist who imposes his vision, his concetto, on the stone but the stone that yields up to the artist what already lies within it.

“Imagined the prophet annoyed”

Great artists transcend their age, of course. But Michelangelo is one of those rare artists who transcends art. His works are part of the visual language of billions of human beings, many of whom think of themselves as having little to do with art.

Take his Moses from the Tomb for Julius II. Penck writes:

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Even Freud devoted a whole essay to this sculpture, in which he analysed mainly the phenomenon of movement. He imagined that the prophet was annoyed by the unbelieving Israelites and was having to contain himself in his rage in order not to smash the tablets with the Ten Commandments tucked under his right arm.

Or you can look at that image and see an athlete’s giant hands. Or the massive authority of the pose.

Or Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.

“A huge surface”

Penck notes that, in his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos, carried out from 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo employed a complex architectural framework to keep the multitude of stories from sloshing into each other.

He used none, however, more than a quarter of a century later when he painted The Last Judgment on the towering wall behind the altar in the chapel.

Note Michelangelo's extensive use of architectural elements to space out the stories on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (right) and the use of none in the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the chapel.

Note Michelangelo’s extensive use of architectural elements to space out the stories on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (right) and the use of none in the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the chapel.

Finished in 1541 after five years of work, The Last Judgment covers 2,400 square feet — “a huge surface that is held together solely by the up and down movement of the numerous figures.” Penck adds:

The absence of an architectural frame reinforces the impression that the picture is not contained within the side walls of the chapel but that the side walls end at the altar and the fresco therefore theoretically continued into infinity.

Monumental and subtle

M --- judgmentsmallerIt is a monumental work if there ever was one, but also one of subtle emotional intensity. Penck writes:

The whole fresco is fraught with an intense human angst, torment, despair and guilt that seems directly inspired by Dante’s Inferno.

It seems fitting that Dante and Freud have a place in this short look at Michelangelo’s life and work.

Perhaps the world could use yet another Michelangelo book — one, not so short, that would look at how other greats from across the spectrum of human activity have interacted with and been touched by the work of this amazing artist.

Patrick T. Reardon

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