Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Michelangelo and the Indignities (and Opportunities) of Aging

Emily A. Fenichel

Michelangelo began complaining about his age in the 1520s, when he would have been in his late 40s and early 50s. For example, in October, 1525, the artist declared, “I’ll always go on working for Pope Clement with such powers as I have, which are slight, as I’m an old man.”

Although he was already fairly old by the standards of the 16th century, Michelangelo could not have known that he would go on to live nearly 40 more years. By the time he was a truly old man, he had amassed a laundry list of physical ailments that plagued him, which he lists in a ca. 1550 madrigal. He bemoans the state of his body – “some bones and string inside my leather bag” – and his face, which “has a shape enough to terrify.”[1] Michelangelo goes on to talk about the physical infirmities that come with age – from an annoying sound like a cricket in his ear all night, to his constipation, to the fact that he has to get up in the night to urinate. Interestingly, he doesn’t stop at his body in his list of complaints. He expands them outwards to encompass the ramshackle state of his home and the annoyance he feels with his neighborhood, where folks feel free to leave “carcasses of cats” in his home and “gigantic dung-heaps” on his doorstep.[2] The whole madrigal sounds like an old man who sits on his porch complaining at the neighbors and yelling at children to get off his lawn.

Once you get past the crotchety tone of the poem, Michelangelo’s madrigal holds important clues for the art of his late period. The poem nests physical experience – from the neighborhood, to the house, to the body in which the artist feels trapped. He describes smells, sounds, feelings, pains, and all other manner of experiences that we might describe as somatic – that is, deeply engaged in the experience of the body. In my book, Michelangelo’s Art of Devotion in the Age of Reform, which explores the last 23 years of the artist’s life, one of the persistent themes is how Michelangelo’s relationship to the body changed as he aged. The madrigal is an encapsulation of a shift that happened between 1541 and 1564 in the artist’s thinking and work.            

We are used to associating Michelangelo with the body, specifically with representations of male nudes. They were, for most of his career, the primary vehicle he used for religious and philosophical expression. Think, for example, of the tumbling, writhing, muscular bodies that dominate the altar wall of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo has translated the chaos of the end of days into a seething mass of humanity swirling around a brawny Christ who has returned as judge. Amid the chaos, the individual beauty of the bodies reassured viewers that their earthly bodies would be discarded in favor of new, perfected, and divine ones in heaven.[3]

Or, at least, that was what was supposed to happen. Instead, contemporary commentators recoiled at the acres of nude flesh on display in the Pope’s chapel. They worried about the corrupting influence those bodies would have on women and children. Writers and theologians alike questioned the painting’s ability to bring souls to God. They also questioned Michelangelo’s personal faith – what kind of Christian would create such a work? The reaction highlighted the fact that Michelangelo’s artistic investment in the male nude as an expressive vehicle for complex ideas was increasingly untenable the religious atmosphere Counter-Reformation Rome.

Scholars have long recognized 1541 as an inflection point in the history of religious art. Michelangelo’s fresco prompted debates about what art should be allowed in church spaces and how best to create decorous art that would bring souls to God. Michelangelo’s reaction to this criticism, however, has not been considered. My book aims to correct that lacuna by exploring the artist’s religious art from 1541-1564.

What I found was that the artist’s relationship to the body in his religious art shifted dramatically after the unveiling of the Last Judgment and the ensuing controversy. By the time he composed the madrigal quoted above, he had begun to experiment with new drawing techniques that both dematerialized the drawn body of Christ on the Cross, but simultaneously invested in the lived, bodily experience of the viewer. Using repeated lines and a lead white wash, Michelangelo was able to communicate movement and time in his drawings. In sculptures, Michelangelo focused on relating something of his own religious and artistic experiences to a viewer. He would often leave evidence of his sculpting behind, prompting viewers to think about the artist’s own body moving through space and encouraging them to follow his path, taking in the sculpture from multiple angles.  In other words, Michelangelo’s complaining about the infirmities of his age were part and parcel of his way of thinking differently and experimentally about the bodies he created on paper or in stone. No longer exterior sites of artistic perfection, they became places to experiment and to encourage a somatic, bodily experience.

This is only one of many ways that Michelangelo’s art became more experimental in his old age. In my book, I explore his relationship to nascent religious movements, such as the Jesuits and the spirituali, as well as his collaborative religious works with younger artists such as Daniele da Volterra and Marcello Venusti. I also consider how the artist’s own public persona as a religious artist shifted during the period, as well as his private religious practices. From bodies to prayer to collaboration to poems to meditation, the artist’s late period is among the most fascinating and understudied of his entire career.

Michelangelo's Art of Devotion in the Age of Reform by Emily A. Fenichel
Michelangelo’s Art of Devotion in the Age of Reform by Emily A. Fenichel

[1] This is poem number 267 and the translation is from: James Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 453.

[2] Saslow, Poetry of Michelangelo, 452.

[3] Hall, Marcia B. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: Resurrection of the Body and Predestination.” The Art Bulletin 58, no. 1 (1976): 85–92.

About The Author

Emily A. Fenichel

Emily Fenichel is Associate Professor of Art History at Florida Atlantic University....

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