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A Tale of Two Tassels - Raphael and Holbein in The National Gallery, London

March 3, 2017

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Michelangelo & The Belvedere Torso: A Lifelong Love Affair

The British Museum is temporarily hosting The Belvedere Torso which usually resides in the Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican museum. Since I'm living in London and it's just 30 minutes away (on a cool, red, double-decker bus!) I've been availing myself of the opportunity to go and sketch it. I've also become enamored with it's history and it's impact on Michelangelo and have spent the better part of a week researching them both.

 

The torso is a marble fragment - missing arms, legs, a neck and head - of an ancient male nude and it was Michelangelo's favorite sculpture. So much so that in his lifetime (and with his blessing) it was referred to as, "The School of Michelangelo" because he studied it so exhaustively. The Belvedere Torso so radically affected his own artwork and core-conception of the male nude that scholars say he painted it more than 20 times in the Sistine Chapel alone. He seems to have made a private 'game' of imagining various combinations of legs and arms; using his mind's eye to re-imagine it whole again; in a creative exercise which yielded an almost endless supply of figures he could draw from imagination. 

Believed for many years to be a 1st century BC Greek original, modern scholarship now believes it to be a 1st century BC Roman copy of a 2nd century BC Greek bronze. But those details... 1st or 2nd century BC; Greek or Roman copy; are for PhD's to bicker over... for the rest of us, it's a tour de force of sculpture and a glimpse into the creative process of one of the great masters of the Western canon. 

 

When he arrived in Rome (for the second of what would be many, many sojourns and stays over the next 60 years) Michelangelo was in his mid-20's and riding high on the fame of his sculptures of The David in Florence, and The Pieta; which was already living in Rome. He was being hailed as the greatest sculptor of his age; the greatest since antiquity; and was therefore shocked and insulted when told by the Pope that instead of continuing in sculpture,  he should stop sculpting **for several years** and instead fresco (paint) the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

He was indignant. Michelangelo rightly considered himself an accomplished, respected and sought after sculptor and never claimed to be a painter (although he could do both) and was furious the pope and his advisors (mainly the architect Bramante and his young friend Raphael) could - and ultimately would - stop him from focusing on his first love and primary artistic impetus: sculpting the male nude. After attempting to refuse the job on several occasions, Michelangelo the sculptor was pressed into service, and began preparations for his ceiling designs.

 

 

The Sistine Chapel - then as now - is only a 5 minute walk from the Belvedere Courtyard, where the Torso has resided for fully 500 years (with the exception of a 13 year period when Napoleon stole it and took it to Paris). So Michelangelo had unprecedented access to the Belvedere Torso, and would walk over at various times of the day and evening to study it; to sketch it; and I think - to memorize it. His constant visits and open adoration are what earned it the nickname "The School of Michelangelo." By choosing it as his primary model for a VAST number of figures in the ceiling, Michelangelo found a way to focus on sculpture even when forced to paint.

 

To illustrate how blatantly he borrowed I've prepared a series of side-by-side comparisons. Although Michelangelo clothed his figures in sweeping garments, presumably for theatrical effect, the torsos of the various figures are repeatedly recognizable as that of the Belvedere. He uses the ancient marble sculpture as a springboard into creating new, twisting poses of his own... imagining various combinations of legs, arms, necks and heads. But just beneath the surface, like the sketch still visible beneath a drawing, is the fingerprint of his muse: the Belvedere Torso. 

 

Although it's pure conjecture I believe this was a sort of game he played, while forced against his will to take on a monumental task in which he had little interest. It was a way to focus on sculpture; specifically his favorite kind of sculpture, the male nude; while forced to dabble in paint. To spend years away from his chosen medium at the height of his creative powers must have been heartbreaking.

 

Whatever his reasoning, one of his objectives was to literally people his paintings with the Belvedere Torso as many times as he could. The massive musculature, even on the women, exhibited in the ceiling is not a byproduct of an inability to depict women...  his Madonna in the Pieta is breathtaking... but rather, a fascination bordering on compulsion to paint the Belvedere Torso; especially relevant in the context of being forced to do something he didn't want to do.

 

Ultimately Michelangelo loved and memorized this sculpture enough to not only people the ceiling with it, but to build the entire compositions of both his Sistine Chapel masterpieces around it. The central figures in both the ceiling (Adam receiving the touch of life from God) and the beardless Christ figure in the Last Judgement (the central figure) are both plainly based on the Belvedere Torso.

 

 

The Last Judgement was painted 25 years after the ceiling but it shows the artist's mind still engaged in re-imagining poses based upon the familiar core of the Belvedere Torso. A remarkable fixation on a remarkable statue by an unparalelled artist. How cool is that???

 

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