At the age of 23, an up-and-coming artist from a small Tuscan village in Italy received a contract, for a sculpture he'd yet to chisel into a masterpiece.
“It shall be more beautiful than any work in marble to be seen in Rome today,” the Vatican demanded in 1498, one year before the artist finished the task, “and such that no master of our own time shall be able to produce a better.”
Up to the challenge, a young Michelangelo Buonarotti gave his signature.
More than 500 years later, the Pietà—Michelangelo's life-sized statue depicting the Virgin Mary, holding in her lap the dead Jesus Christ—sits elevated, behind bulletproof glass, inside St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Rome.
“I think many people would agree, [the Pietà] is absolutely gorgeous,” said art historian Dr. Michelle Paluch-Mishur to an audience of intrigued patrons at on Tuesday night. “If I were viewing it [up close], I would meditate on the deep, deep sadness of Mary, as the body of her son is laid out on her lap.”
During her lecture Michelangelo: Evolution of a Renaissance Sculptor, Mishur discussed the life, times and sculptures of the master artist, famous for such artwork as The Creation of Adam and the Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici.
The lecture was held in honor of the Vatican recently loaning out an official copy of the Pietà to a Chicago-area church.
“This lecture is very close to my own research interests,” Mishur said, recalling the time she spent in Italy, researching the works of Michelangelo and other masters. “I consider Italy to be my second home; really, my home of homes.”
The Anatomy of Being
Italian or not, today, it takes a team of six to eight men, using powertools, to recreate a statue by Michelangelo, whose process would often take years, Mishur noted. And that's after he'd taken months to select statuario-quality marble from a nearby quarry.
When it came down to it, though, it took more than Michelangelo's talented hand to craft, what he saw as, the human being in his or her natural state.
“Michelangelo did not use a mathematical approach to the human body,” Mishur stressed, pointing to the drunken stance of the statue Bacchus or the long legs of the Virgin Mary in the Pietà. “He based the form on nature, but he was not interested in copying nature verbatim. He frequently takes license with...proportion.”
Seeking a more realistic interpretation of human beings than artists before him, Michelangelo received permission to study unclaimed human remains at the Santo Spirito Hospital, Rome. During this period of the Renaissance, scientists, Leonardo Da Vinci among them, dissected and first started mapping the human body, a practice the Roman Catholic Church rarely allowed.
“If you really want to show naturalistic looking musculature,” Mishur continued, “you have to understand how the organs relate to sinuous bones, muscles and skin; and you need to study the body inside and out.”
With his new-found understanding of the human body, Michelangelo produced works almost identical to the human form.
The well-defined cheeks, supple lips, elongated arms and legs, and facial expressions, many bearing thought instead of overwhelming emotion, show beings complex in design.
And like Pablo Picasso's Guernica or Francis Bacon's Screaming Pope, many pieces by Michelangelo are symbolic of the political and religious atmosphere of their time, one where civic pride was sculpted into roughly 17 feet of marble muscle.
Stone Cold Intellect
A monolith of marble, weighing more than 6-tons, sat idly in the cathedral works of Santa Marie Del Fiore in Florence, Italy.
It was quarried 10 years before Michelangelo was born; and after collecting dust for over 30 years, the marble finally took shape at the hands of the young master.
“We see this image so much in various kinds of pop art configurations,” Mishur said of the statue David, arguably Michelangelo's most political piece, “that we tend to lose the original.”
Too valuable to leave to the elements, the marble was transformed in a darkroom of artistic expression.
“When he received the commission, (Michelangelo used) very elaborate scaffolding and drapery” to veil the nude figure he was sculpting, Mishur elaborated. “He probably presented them with his ideas depicting David. He probably was not nude in the initial studies.”
When the statue was complete in 1504, the public was most likely surprised, she said, “but they wouldn't have been repulsed.”
“Remember,” she added, “at this time we're working with the philosophy, 'Man is the measure of all things.'”
As time rushed forward, the statue—which stood in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence, until 1873—became a leading civic symbol for the newly independent city-state.
The statue's longer head and arms compensate for the height of the structure; they also compensate for the distance David had to throw his legendary stone at Goliath.
But what David imparts on its viewer is vulnerability hidden by sheer masculinity. It's the “tension in the face,” the intellect of man conflicted, that drives the piece.
“The wheel is turning,” Mishur said, as she pointed to David's arched brow, worrisome eyes and ruffled hair—something we can all understand.