27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 18


The Artist As Hero

B Y MICHAEL AYRTON C OME talk of Alexander and some of Hercules L./and they are likely to go on doing so. Such great men as these exercise the enormous attrac- tion of being both archetypes and stereotypes. They fit pat into epic and they are the pattern of what is required of the hero, flawed nobility. Nor can they be dislodged by quirks of fashion, for their glamour is unassailable. Perfection has a far less secure tenure of the world's affections. Raphael and Praxiteles can fall from favour in an age of anxiety. Michelangelo remained un- challenged in an age of optimism. He was not only the greatest, but, to all intents and pur- poses, the first, uncompromising individual in European art to be the victim of his own per- sonality and the first whose individuality ap- peared to be his primary claim to greatness. In this he was the first 'artist,' to be made into a romantic stereotype, in answer to the craving men have for the artist to be a tormented and heroic individual. Who could make a hero of Giotto, for where can he be seen to fail?

Given the greatest talents ever granted to an artist, Michelangelo yet found them inadequate to express his vision; and the humanity inherent in this sense of personal failure relates him to mankind's general condition by reducing. him from the 'divine' status conferred on him during his lifetime. The flaw in his sublimity gives him a kinship with ordinary mortals, so that in him the individual artist's personality is fully and tragically revealed as the stage upon which the whole dramatic action may be played out.

The attraction of this Promethean victim to literary men is natural. They never cease to write about him, where they would leave other great sculptors and painters to the pious mastication of art-historians. Two of the three books under review are by scholars whose other publications deal primarily with literature. Dr. Robert J. Clements* is a professor of Romance Languages whose studies in Renaissance humanism tend to an examination of Platonism, and the late Pro- fessor Georg Brandest was principally celebrated for his Main Currents in Nineteenth-Century Literature. The third book, Miss E. H. Rams- den's two-volume edition of the Letters, § is a major work of piety and gives us for the first time an English translation of the full text of the 480 letters, together with preliminary drafts. To these she has added annotations and copious appendices which provide a framework into which the correspondence itself can be fitted. Matters connected with the people, the projects, the politics and circumstances to which the letters relate are treated with exhaustive scholar- ship in this handsomely produced book. It is only in her introduction to the two volumes that

* MICHELANGELO'S THEORY OF ART. By Robert I. Clements. (Routledge and Kcgan Paul, 70s.) t MICHELANGELO, His LIFE, His TIMES, His ERA. By Georg Brandes. Translated by Heinz Norden. (Constable, 70s.) § THE LETTERS OF MICHELANGELO. Translated, edited and annotated by E. H. Ramsden. (Peter Owen, Iwo volumes, f15 15s.) she allows herself personal opinions and these are naturally very personal indeed. They tend to make her hero too good to be true and this deprives him of a measure of his heroism.

As every theatregoer has his own Hamlet, which differs from any presentation he will actually see, so every student of the subject has his own Michelangelo. Superficially, the differences between one man's Michelangelo and another's seem to join issue on his sexual pro- clivities and his misanthropy. To Professor Brandes, Michelangelo was all terribilta, melan- choly, sombre and a great hater of other men, and this led the professor to make sweep- ing statements in conflict with the evidence. Brandes maintained, for instance, that Michel- angelo had not a good word to say for any other artist and reserved his enthusiasm solely for the antique. 'Nor,' said he, choosing an example, 'is there a trace of evidence that so grave and true a painter as Mantegna left any impress on Michelangelo.' Francisco de Hollanda, however, had it straight from Michelangelo that Andrea's Triumph of Caesar was 'noble' and, furthermore, in this, the second of Hollanda's interviews with the master, the Dialogos em Roma, all manner of Italian artists were praised, and even a Spaniard or two.

In fact, despite the brisk dismissal, by Pro- fessor Brandes's translator, Mr. Heinz Norden, of J. A. Symonds's Life and Works of Michel- angelo Buotutrotti as 'completely out of date,' Symonds's is a better and more complete book than Brandes's. Furthermore, the attempt to bring Brandes up to date is rather inadequate and the book lacks even an index.

Where Brandes was all for Michelangelo in his role as frightener of Popes, Miss Ramsden, although recognising this facet of the master's character, is at pains to emphasise his warmth and humanity and cites him genially at talk with friends and colleagues. This too, of course, rings true. Where both these authors seem to me to flounder is in the matter of Michelangelo's sex- life, which they both reasonably consider to be an important key to his personality.

There are two simple and diametrically op- posed views of Michelangelo's sexual concerns. These were expressed by Aretino, who had him uncovering and covering members of the male sex, and Giovanni Papini, still in some ways Michelangelo's best all-round biographer, who draped the greatest of all masters of the nude in a spiritual loincloth as tight as a chastity belt so far as homosexual impulses were concerned. Profes- sor Brandes had him a woman-hater and quoted him as one who 'feared to be drawn into the abyss of sensuality which murdered his soul,' but allows he made his addresses to young men with sufficient homosexuality to have brought him censure. Miss Ramsden will not have this. `To maintain that Michelangelo had no passion- ate longings, of a physical kind would . . .,' she asserts, 'be to deny the evidence of the poems . . . but equally, to imagine that he ever con-

templated their indulgence or failed to sublimate them would be to disregard the evidence of others. . . .' For my part, poems or no poems, a study of the corpus of Michelangelo's painting, drawing and sculpture leads me to no such con- clusion. As Vasari put it, Michelangelo 'was moderate in eating and coitus,' and I believe him. He hadn't the time for immoderate activity, either social or sexual, nor, one may reasonably assume, had he all that much physical energy to spare, since the practice of both sex and sculpture takes from the same primeval source.

Nevertheless, a creation as potent as Michel- angelo's and an art of sculpture as passionately concerned with the human body as his, could not, in my view, be utterly remote from the sense of touch, directly and deeply experienced, for sculpture is not solely the product of the eye. The empathy so marvellously achieved could not have existed if Michelangelo had totally avoided physical relationships. That he often denied himself may well be the case. His self- discipline was clearly formidable and the in- tellectual disciplines to which he submitted himself were surely of no less consequence than the physical. The force that drove him was vast and the mind that controlled this force joined battle with impulses which, visual, plastic, sextuN or spiritual, tended to be too overwhelming to be encompassed by the arts. A visionary imagina- tion of such torrential power can be channelled only by a mind strong enough to contain it, and it is this struggle, victory perpetually in doubt, that makes his agony so great a drama.

That he both lost and won this struggle self-evident, but that despite the length of hi life, his intellectual and philosophical disciplin remained constant, is the subject of Dr. Clements's book. In the light of his letters, his verse, his expressed and quoted opinions an those of his contemporary biographers, Dr Clements argues that Michelangelo was, fro his youth when he sat at the Medicis' table an conversed with Ficino, Poliziano and Pico dell Mirandola, imbued with the Platonism centra to Renaissance thought. The reconciliation o Christianity and Platonism, which was essentia to the neo-Platonic apparatus, 'was a doctrin sufficiently flexible to receive and contain th a implications of the Reformation and, to som extent, the Counter-Reformation, so that despit the puritanism which Savonarola preached an which played its part in blighting the paga Spring of the Renaissance itself, Michelangel was intellectually equipped to cope with th varying climate of his times. But the hair shi was there and he was early afflicted with tha sense of personal sin which was already preva lent below the brocade in Lorenzo's day an which caused Botticelli to cast has vanities upo the bonfire and learned classical scholars to buried in the habits of Dominican friars.

Dr. Clements elucidates the context of Michel angelo's thought with massive scholarship and i instructive as to his attitude to learning, which despite his scanty formal education with littl Latin and probably no Greek, was a Renais sance attitude. Learning seemed to him, as t many fifteenth-century artists, a matter of grea consequence, and the ideas of Plato, Aristotl Plotinus, Horace, Ovid and Vitruvius, amon others, mattered greatly to him intellectually, jus as the rediscovery of the antique mattered greatl to him formally in sculpture.

But Michelangelo lived a very long time an most of his later life was spent uncomfortabl close to St. Peter's Throne. Enormous pressur were brought to bear by the Catholic Churc militant, menaced as it was by the Luthera threat from the north, and puritanism is usually the substance used to stop the dyke when spiritual bastions are threatened by a flood, of dangerous ideas. Caught in a channel narrowed by this silt, Michelangelo's own flood turned back upon him so that he felt his soul in peril of being driven aground.

Given the impressive structure of Michel- angelo's intellect and assuming that Dr. Clements is correct in his display of its critical and con- ceptual' apparatus, one is still left with the sense of personal failure which is at the core of Michel- angelo's last suffering years. The certezze which had given so rare a splendour of conviction to Florentine art in the fifteenth century had fallen to rubble before his eyes Without those 'cer- tainties,' how Could he be certain enough to complete an image, and is that not why his late sculpture remained unfinished, or was mutilated and abandoned so that the pain it leaves is not only the pain of those who bear up the dead Christ, but the pain of that which did not bear up the aged Michelangelo?

In a chapter called 'The Ordeal of Art, Dr. Clements lays full and proper weight upon Michelangelo's practical problems, upon the be- haviour of his patrons and assistants, his intoler- able family, his money troubles, his poor health and his detractors. It would be absurd to under- rate the effect of these miseries upon his per- sonal life. But by implication we are to assume that it was his lot which gave him pain and made him resigned or alternatively rebellious, whereas to me the ordeal lies deeper. He himself en- gendered the pain in the unfulfilled desire. He was at once resigned to his own inadequacy and Yet rebelled against it, and his unfulfilled desire was to capture in stone a vision beyond even his unsurpassed powers.

The nature of Michelangelo's tragedy, ex- plored and illuminated though it has been by historians, is perhaps best expressed by the sculp- tor who in modern times nearest approaches him. Rodin wrote that Michelangelo's sculpture ex- pressed 'That will to act without hope of success —in fine the martyrdom of the creature tor- mented by unrealisable aspirations.' It is this quality which makes him such an archetype to us, for if a Michelangelo can fail to realise his aspirations, may we not be comforted in our OW n dwarfish failures? And is it not the business of the artist as hero to act, without hope of success, on a nobler scale than we can?