The Torment of Saint Mike

John Haber
in New York City

Michelangelo's First Painting?

James Hall's Michelangelo

What were you doing at age twelve? If you trust your own memories, you need a more skeptical biographer.

Maybe you were putting off homework and parents, while dreaming about your kind of adulthood—with just the right mix of fashion, rebellion, and a cool smart phone. If you were Jane Austen, you were already satirizing romance and high society, in plays for family and special friends. If you were Jackson Pollock, you were learning card tricks and trailing your parents around the west, with your first paintings years away. If you lived in the Italian Renaissance, you were about to begin an apprenticeship. No proof of genius needed or expected. The Torment of Saint Anthony attributed to Michelangelo (Kimbell Art Museum, c. 1488)

If you were Michelangelo, you knew you wanted to become an artist. According to the Met in 2009, in fact, you had already become one. You were also not all that far from an adolescent male today—into scary adventures and flying superheroes. "Michelangelo's First Painting" exhibits a small but polished painting of The Torment of Saint Anthony. Instead of the calm, courage, gravity, and apprehension of David or the Creation of Adam, it shows the saint up in the sky, carried by a pinwheel of nine fantastic devils. It is as if Jane Austen spent her childhood copying Star Wars.

Does that explain how Michelangelo turned early Renaissance ideals into the High Renaissance? Did his larger-than-life art really traffic in superheroes? I shall offer my own answers, but meanwhile James Hall calls his 2005 book Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, and he takes the scale of Michelangelo's sculpture as a central problem. He sees mostly unhappy fantasies and a man largely apart from his time. Somewhere between the two—the preteen warrior and the dark side—a real history of the Renaissance is waiting to emerge. (A related article looks at yet another supposed early Michelangelo, but with emphasis instead on the politics of attribution.)

A leap of the imagination

According to more than one source, Michelangelo saw The Temptation of Saint Anthony, an engraving by Martin Schongauer from the early 1470s. Ascanio Condivi says that he saw it in 1487, thanks to an artist friend. Giorgio Vasari says that Michelangelo saw it in 1488 or 1489, after entering the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio had a print collection, and it served as part of an artist's education. Both biographers report that the young Florentine liked it enough to try his own hand.

Sure enough, a painting after Schongauer turned up in 1830. It impressed almost no one, and most books on Michelangelo or the Renaissance do not even bother to dismiss it. Still, tradition calls it a work from the school of Ghirlandaio, already a link to the artist. In July 2008, it went up for auction in London, and the Met undertook a thorough cleaning. As with any cleaning of old varnish, the colors grew warmer and brighter, and parallel strokes of light model a rock in the foreground—much like the hatch marks in an early Michelangelo drawing. For the Met, all this adds up to a genuine Michelangelo, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth purchased it in May 2009.

Now New Yorkers can judge for themselves, with a display at the Met. According to Keith Christiansen, the Met's curator of European paintings, the "burden of proof . . . is with those who would deny it." And he makes that burden as hard as he can. The show includes the print by Schongauer, an influential German artist, but in facsimile. It does not reproduce any of Michelangelo's paintings, and it has no loans at all that might shed light on his early years or the birth of the High Renaissance. It does not even include the Met's holdings by Ghirlandaio.

No one can prove or disprove something like this anyway. Born in 1475, Michelangelo undertook just three other paintings apart from fresco, all at least ten years after Saint Anthony. A Madonna and Child with Angels dates to about 1497—and he never finished it. Known as The Manchester Madonna, even it had little acceptance until recently. Then came the Entombment, also in the National Gallery in London and also an unfinished painting. His single completed panel painting, a Madonna and Child known as the Doni Tondo, dates to 1503.

The evidence aside, proof does not come easily. Does cleaning make the painting look masterful? That can build a case for Michelangelo, or it can ruin one. He was only twelve, and he had little or no training. Or does the painting now look even more like a bad graphic novel? If you did nothing at age twelve that has you ashamed today, you should be ashamed of yourself.

When it comes down to it, art attribution has little to do with proof. I have tried to explain how this works for A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, possibly by Jan Vermeer—and also on recent loan to the Met. In brief, one starts with signed paintings, documented sales, and eye witnesses, and then one has to authenticate them. Carbon dating can give pigments a point in time, the choice of materials can pin down an artist's methods, and x-rays can give them a history. All these help give a sense of the artist's style, and then one can compare known works with others. In the end, as Christiansen says, it takes "a leap of the imagination."

Attribution, education, and advocacy

Does it even matter? Who cares who painted Saint Anthony, so long as his torments are real? Of course, it matters to market value. It matters to specialists, too, for whom telling Michelangelo from an unknown artist is a labor of love. It matters to most people as well, since genius now looms over this small painting like a halo. But why listen to any of this, as Peter Carey puts it, and not just "look as if your life depended on it"?

It matters for the same reason that art takes words. Seeing is more than just looking. Each new understanding changes what one knows about past discoveries. Attribution works the same way. Together looking, interpreting, and describing create a story. A work's life story never ends, even after the artist dies.

With The Torment of Saint Anthony, the Met wants to change what one knows about a twelve-year-old Michelangelo. And that means changing what one knows about an adult Michelangelo. As you could probably tell at the start, that is exactly why I do not believe a word of this. I rather like the painting. I just do not consider it by Michelangelo. Before retelling the story, though, how good is the evidence?

Condivi, a mediocre and largely forgotten artist, met Michelangelo only in 1545, and it says too much to call him a close student. The older artist was notoriously unsociable. When the first scene in the Sistine Ceiling started to fall apart, he fired everyone and completed the rest himself. Early biographies also have the biases of idolatry, not unlike claims for Michelangelo as a child prodigy. Vasari describes Michelangelo going to the market to look at fish, like the scales on Saint Anthony's devils. He is creating a myth about the artist as independent observer and creator, faithful to no authority but nature.

Since Saint Anthony has been around since 1830, without earning much respect, just what has changed? It looks a little better, and x-rays show that the artist moved a devil's tail, but that says nothing about who moved it. The cross strokes in a Michelangelo drawing may have more to do with his working in pencil. The hatching on the rock in the painting may just copy the parallel marks of an engraver's tool, from the print. Anthony's pudgy hand may resemble hands in Michelangelo's early sculpture, from almost the exact same years as that of Tullio Lombardo, but not all that much. Besides, clumsiness in the sculpture goes with the subject matter, plump little boys, and the difficulty of carving in marble.

Christiansen here serves not as an educator, but as an advocate. To make a sloppy exhibition worse, he does not present competing opinions. He rarely does. Scholarly views of the early Renaissance, from Giotto to Jan van Eyck, keep changing, but the Met never admits to controversy. A show of art in Lombardy has trotted out a supposed Caravaggio that no one in his right mind takes seriously, and even a possible Velázquez portrait has got an upgrade. Somehow, anything that passes through the Met, even a Duccio, takes on greater importance.

Devilry and weight

I find it hard not to see institutional and career motives. The Met had a stake in this painting, from cleaning it right on the eave of its entering the market. Besides, a former director believed in it when others did not. In sum, those who question institutions and experts have a point, and critics should keep questioning. Still, questioning means questioning a story—and telling new ones. Whose story, then, is Michelangelo's?

Back when literacy was far rarer among artists, he went to grammar school. The family had destined him for business, but he snuck away often enough to convince his father to apprentice him. Even so, he lasted at most two years with Ghirlandaio, and he is not associated with a single workshop commission. Not only did he fail to complete a painting until the Doni Tondo in 1503, but he often disdained painting as inferior to sculpture, taking such models as Donatello and saying that he had imbibed sculpture with "his mother's milk." When asked to undertake the Sistine Chapel, he protested that he was not a painter.

He also claimed to despise northern painting. He saw its naturalism as fit only for "women and children." Yet with Saint Anthony he supposedly takes just that as his model, down to the details of fish scales and serpent tails. He works and reworks them, too, all at age twelve. And he supposedly mixes tempera with oil, rare in Florence of the 1480s, and he did not use oil again until 1503. Even the resplendent colors that have emerged in cleaning have more to do with the north than with the electric hues, light flesh tones, hard edges, and saturated highlights of Michelangelo's known paintings on wood.

The real Michelangelo at twelveSaint Anthony and his tormenters hover weightlessly in a circle, in two dimensions over a vast landscape. Yet in every known work Michelangelo thinks like a sculptor. He emphasizes weight and depth, and he derives them from the human form and from antiquity, but with an unimaginable leap from minor classicists like Antico in Mantua. In that early pencil drawing, the hatch marks give weight to man's back, copied from Giotto. An early sculpture has a little of the riot of Saint Anthony, but with cherubs like those of The Manchester Madonna, and it mimics a Roman sarcophagus. From the early Entombment to late sculpture, Jesus descends as if in slow motion, and the background remains unseen.

Tellingly, Michelangelo shares his more usual bright colors and massive human form with the Met's Ghirlandaio, of Saint Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ. Unlike in Ghirlandaio, however, Michelangelo's mass carries emotional and moral weight. Only in the Last Judgment does anyone defy gravity, and the only depths in its landscape are the depths of despair. In Saint Anthony, in contrast, the devils are more entertaining than terrifying, and Anthony looks more quizzical than afraid. I cannot ask for emotional maturity from a twelve-year-old. Still, Michelangelo's acquaintance with the uncanny runs deep.

The discovery of new work by a great artist always has its appeal. So does the discovery of an anonymous artist in Ghirlandaio's workshop, with shared training but a very different temperament. Suppose, however, that someone else painted this over fifty years later, based on the Michelangelo's growing legend and on what a copy after the Northern Renaissance should look like. It would explain the use of oil, the colors, the fish scales, and a sailing ship that Pieter Bruegel might have known—but that Schongauer's print omits. It would explain the sheer blue of the air over undifferentiated hills, typical of Mannerist painting, whereas Michelangelo knew Schongauer only from an engraving. Most of all, it would suggest how art history creates and renews its myths.

Reinventing what?

Whatever the myth, surely Michelangelo stands fully within the Renaissance? If one could know him at twelve, and if one could discover influences from Germany, one would be seeing steps toward the High Renaissance in Italy. James Hall has other ideas. In Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, he wants to undermine "too firm a conviction that [his] art is essentially timeless." However, his attempt to recover the artist's quirks makes him anything but a figure of his time.

Hall divides his career into chapters, each a kind of who-done-it. What makes Michelangelo's Madonnas so remote, and why does Jesus turn his back even on his mother? What accounts for such colossal sculptures, the brutal clarity of their human anatomy, or the crowded Sistine Ceiling? Hall takes the qualities that make Michelangelo a paradigm of the High Renaissance—his figures fully in the round, his realism, his larger-than-life scale, and his sense of a transcendent reality. From just this growing "powerful spatial and emotional presence," as Howard Hibbard puts it, Hall makes the artist stranger than anyone knew. Giorgio Vasari casts Michelangelo as the hero of his Renaissance Lives, but why does Vasari's art owe more to Raphael?

Hall proposes a tormented idealist, at once obsessed with the body and repelled by it. He links the gargantuan to the monstrous and crowds to disorder. For Michelangelo, he argues, even a Biblical hero shares humanity's fallen nature, while even the saved at the Last Judgment have only a "pyrrhic victory." He has Michelangelo's proud, brooding gracelessness on his side, too. The artist banished assistants partway through the Sistine Ceiling, hid his progress from real and imagined rivals, and spent much of his life on grand funerary monuments that he would never complete. He faced a stony, recalcitrant world and an art ever on the edge of formlessness. In the book's best chapter, Michelangelo's influence comes into its own only centuries later—with those, like Rodin, intending to disown it.

To the artist's, Hall adds gracelessness of his own. He finds Jonah "interesting" as books of the Bible go. Lingering Briticisms, such as a comparison of figures on the Sistine Ceiling to "bollards," do not help either. The few black-and-white illustrations, grouped as inserts, work best if one knows the art by heart. Chapters are too selective to offer a companion to Michelangelo. In some, I cannot swear that I ever did locate the promised resolution.

Past scholarship gets a passing dismissal rather than serious engagement. Chapters often hinge on a work's resemblance to a little-known motif by an obscure hand, with no effort to show that Michelangelo—or his audience—cared. Hall quotes the artist's poetry, but detached from the artistic and philosophical vocabulary of its day. He assimilates Michelangelo's homosexuality to a Christian distaste for heterosexual appetites. He also drops hints that might make for a fascinating study, if only he had written it.

Like the Met, Hall has part of the story about a hugely popular but complex artist, but not all of it. In the Sistine Ceiling, Hall sees the torpor and a consciousness of loss that others often miss, but not the spatial and expressive energy that influenced so many. In Michelangelo's scale, he sees an artist's struggles with his own dark emotions, but not the demands of patrons and architectural settings. Hall helps dig Michelangelo out of myths partly of his own making—the titan, the scientist before his time, the recluse, or the noble failure. Still, Michelangelo reinvented the body not just for himself and preteen culture, but for others as well.

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"Michelangelo's First Painting" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 7, 2009. James Hall's Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body was published in 2005 by Farrar Straus & Giroux. The book review originally appeared with more in 2005 on the Renaissance, but this brings my material on the artist together. A related review looks at an installation of photographs of the Sistine Chapel, another at Michelangelo drawings.


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