“There can be no doubt that Michelangelo was sent into the world by God as an exemplar for thoses who practice the arts, so that they might learn from his behavior how to live and from his works how to perform as a true and excellent craftsman.”
— Giorgio Vasari, in his book Lives of the Artists (1550)
Varsi’s famous work both lionizes and sanctifies Michelangelo as “an artist of sublime intellect, infused with divine grace and knowledge.” Vasari also created many of the legendary myths of a saintly man and beatific artist who lived only for his art.
I, too, believe that we may draw direct lessons from the scope of the life and work of Michelangelo. Although not setting these entries within any numerical order to avoid a false sense of hierarchy, I maintain the foremost lesson we must remember is that Michelangelo was a working artist and thus connects to our own personal artistic experiences. I have developed a deep affinity with Michelangelo in the process of working on these posts.
This is the third installment of “Lessons from Michelangelo.” If interested, you may find Part One here, and Part Two here. There is an overview about the Sistine Chapel that originally inspired the series here.
Michelangelo Lesson: Exalt the Passion of Observation
“My soul can find no staircase to heaven unless it be through earth’s loveliness.”
“From such a gentle thing, from such a fountain of all delight, my every pain is born.”
“Nature did all things well.”
Michelangelo paid special observation to the big vistas as well as the smallest details. Apprenticed to the painter Ghirlandaio at the age of thirteen, he remembered the careful study of the fish market to heighten details in his assignments at this busy and commercial shop. Before he was twenty, he asserted that he researched anatomy directly with scientific dissection of corpse, the absolutely forbidden by church doctrine.
Michelangelo drew with an obsession and from a compassion for beauty of the human form. He was constantly observing humanity along with his immersion in the studies of the wonders of classical antiquity. He reveled in the sublimity o the sensuality of interaction of human bodies.
Although the grandeur of his monumental figures are astonishing, they are rooted in meticulous, daily observations of life, heightened by the originality of his vision and imagination.
We can elevate our level of observation of all the senses and from all sensations that the world offers us in splendor. Dust off the sketchbook and carry it on all your many journeys. Visual art is not merely an optic manifestation, but springs forth and expresses a deep involvement in all aspects and facets of life.
Michelangelo Lesson: Seek Spirit
“The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection.”
“I regret that I have not done enough for the salvation of my soul…..”
“True art is made noble and religious by the mind producing it.”
Michelangelo did not work for personal glorification (though he was very cognizant and careful of his artistic reputation.) The only time he signed a work was the “Pieta” in Saint Peter’s in Rome. The youthful proclamation carved on the ribbon of the Madonna when he was 23 years old read: “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence Created This.” (He later regretted this boastfulness.) Nor did he create strictly for his patrons (he frequently changed the scope, scale and timing of his contracts.) For him, art was a ecstatic path to explore his sense of the sublime and the divine for the refinement of his earthily life and for the development of his soul.
Michelangelo was a pious Christian who was scornful of dogmatic doctrine. He disdained false priests and the folly of warring popes. During a time religious absolutism, Michelangelo studied texts that would have been considered heretical, with the technical risk of his soul, not to mention the real possibility of a death sentence.
Michelangelo was exposed to ‘neoplatonism’ during his youth at the de’Medici villa, an art school overseen by Lorenzo the Magnificent. After the medieval shop system of guilds, this atmosphere full of opportunity of intellectual freedom, to research ‘forbidden’ subjects and to question doctrine was a heady mix.
Michelangelo believed in the Neoplatonic notion that physical beauty is manifested by noble spirit. He was also influenced by the crossing of Medieval beliefs and assumptions with Renaissance sensibility of forms, space and light. We can often see this dichotomy in his work with its poignancy of spiritual struggle combined and counted with the expression of the exaltation of the human spirit.
Consider how you might approach this the compassion of spirit with the emergence of beauty in your work. How might you express the underlaying understanding of our time with intuition and imagination?
Michelangelo Lesson: Concentrate Your Artistic Identity and Endeavors
“Michelangelo, the sculptor” (how he signed his important painting contracts and his letters.)
“….sculpture (is) the lantern of painting, and that between the one and the other (is) that difference between the sun and the moon.”
Although he exceeded in many disciplines, Michelangelo always professed he thought of himself as a sculptor rather than a painter, or some hybrid of approaches. He constantly disclaimed his profession of painting, even though he is now considered one of the greatest painters in the history of European art. In the opinion of many, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel comprises the greatest masterpiece of Western Art. He recommended that all painters keep their work rigorous by doing sculpture. He asserted sculptural stone craving demanded more refined artistic judgement than painting and required the reality of hard work.
Most artists believe their discipline is the most difficult and demanding. I believe that as artists, we need to commit to a discipline in order not to devolve into dilettantism. We have to dedicate ourselves to our work and not dabble. I do not speak of those who have cobbled their singular approach from a combination of many artistic approaches, disciplines and traditions, but of those those who try to follow too many paths at the same instant. Michelangelo expressed himself in many areas of creativity, but always held to his identity as a sculptor.
Michelangelo Lesson and Counter-Lesson: Take Care of Your Artist
“I feast on wine and bread, and feasts they are.” “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.”
Michelangelo was not good at self-care. He was full of dynamism and energy coupled to an anxious demeanor and despair. A workaholic who undertook herculean tasks, he was haunted by a pernicious perfectionism.
His hygiene was notoriously poor during an era when daily cleanness was not paramount. He thought of himself as aged and old half-way though his long life. During the last forty years, he contemplated, mediated, nearly obsessed with death. He sacrificed almost his entire income for sculpture and for his family and lived in the squalor of extreme privation in that period of few creature comforts.
Michelangelo was terrible at time management. he entertained unrealistic perceptions about the amount of time, sheer effort and costs of his commissions. He overcommitted his time and never completed many of his contracts. The most notorious example is the “Tomb of Julius !!,” the papal patron of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The original design called for 40 larger-than-life states, several reliefs within an archituecturally detailed structure to be completed within five years. But within the span of forty years, he produced only ten sculptures — four of which are considered unfinished.
He mania for perfectionism is cited as the reason that even though he lived a long life, was a compulsive drawer and philosophical scholar, that we have remarkably scare resources of his private work. Two days before he died, he stoked two big bonfires in the courtyard of his studio. When they entered the studio after his death, there was not one piece of paper to be found. Some maintain that he wanted control of his legacy by not leaving anything that did not meet his elevated standards. Others propose the concept that he burned his heretical studies to protect his friends and family from being themselves consigned to the flames of various inquisitions.
And yet for all his crankiness and moodiness, Michelangelo was beloved by his friends, who cared deeply for him. There are many stories of his attending parties with other artists and of hosting celebrations where they all would play games that involved drawing.
As artists, we need to take care of ourselves in order to take care of our art practice and work. Overworking workaholism, pesky perfectionism, not eating healthfully or sleeping sufficiently will diminish the exaltation of our art.
Michelangelo is an enigma and a beacon. There are many aspects and questions that can never fully be answered, discovered or explored about his work and his life. There is always something new to learn. That is one of the marks of greatness.