Michelangelo, God’s Architect is well illustrated, but the truth is that not one of Michelangelo’s creations can be conveyed easily in a photograph. The Sistine Chapel ceiling dazzles our eyes so dynamically because it curves in a gentle arch. David is meant to be seen from every direction, but the camera can provide only one. Without standing inside the Laurentian Library and the Medici Chapel we can never truly feel the way Michelangelo has shaped these enclosing spaces by the careful arrangement of solid columns, statues, cornices, and consoles. But his late projects present, if anything, a steeper challenge. St. Peter’s is larger than our senses can grasp even when we are standing beneath its massive dome; there is no way to reproduce that disconcerting three-dimensional discomfort on a comfortably sized page. More interesting, and infinitely more moving, are the ways in which Michelangelo’s last two statues—that ravaged Pietà now in Florence and another, equally battered Pietà in Milan—strike right through to the soul by some magical trick of the old man’s chisel. It doesn’t matter that they are both unpolished ruins; Michelangelo has passed beyond the idea of completion to single out a universally recognizable instant through an instantly eloquent detail.
With the “Bandini” Pietà in Florence, it is the figure of Nicodemus, and his solicitous embrace; by carving his own portrait into the elder’s face, Michelangelo has turned his act of creation into a way of caring not just for his figures and the people they represent, but also for the viewers who take the time to stay awhile in their presence. Through his art, Michelangelo, in the person of Nicodemus, has taken on the burden of caring for us. He cares as fiercely as Caravaggio cares, actively, irresistibly, and he shows his care by letting us experience his pain as a pledge that he, in turn, will honor ours. David, completed when the artist was about thirty, presents humanity in the magnificence of youth, pride, and vigor. These late sculptures present nothing so much as the stubborn endurance of love in spite of everything: weakness, injustice, and death itself.
Michelangelo’s last statue, another Pietà (the “Rondanini”; see illustration), shows a tiny, muscular Virgin Mary holding the slumped, elongated body of her son. Their faces are barely sketched. Jesus has a free-floating extra arm, the remnant of a previous composition; Michelangelo vandalized this work as he had vandalized his previous Pietà. It hardly matters. What survives, and what no photograph can reveal, is the tension a master sculptor can pack into the Virgin’s sturdy legs, riveted to the ground as she sustains this unbearable burden, and the iron grip of the arm she has flung around her son’s corpse. She could be Atlas holding up the world, and indeed Michelangelo’s faith told him that in that moment she was clasping all of human salvation to her heart. She is a scrappy little Italian mamma performing the task of a Titan. And she will never let go.
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