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Michelangelo’s David and Piéta Rondanini

by Jacques Tcharny

The most powerful sculptor in history is Michelangelo (1475-1564). This is evidently recognized by the vast majority of connoisseurs. His work consists almost entirely of Carrara marble statues.

Nowadays, it is fashionable to consider the “Unfinished” to be the ultimate in sculpture, whatever the era considered.

For Michelangelo, this has consequences in “the salons where we talk” … Not always wisely. This attitude affected the mindset of the anonymous viewer: falsely, artificially and without personal reflection.

If no one disputes that the two most extraordinary creations of the artist are the Pieta (1498-1499) of Saint Peter of Rome and the David (1501-1504) of the Gallery of the Academy of Florence, some argue that all the same, they suffer from a defect: they are too finished, too perfect, and that, ultimately, the Piéta Rondanini (1552-1564) is well worth them by its unfinished appearance, wanted by Michelangelo.

Nothing is more wrong! This is a blatant lie to anyone who has studied closely the material that makes up these three works: marble.

(- Having been in Carrara to prepare my expert thesis in marble sculpture (1989/90), I was received as such at the National Company of Experts, then as customs assessor. So it is the marble expert and technician who writes this article).

The truth of the marble

First of all, you have to differentiate marble from alabaster. Alabaster, a calcium sulphate, is scratched with a fingernail, not marble, of any origin. Alabaster exhibits varying transparencies in refraction, marble does not.

The word «marble  » is of Greek origin, meaning: “brilliant”. Its density is around 3.2. Marble is a natural calcium carbonate, consisting mainly of calcite crystals. Light penetrates there to a depth of two or three centimeters and refracts on the crystals. We call crystal the basic building block of marble: its elementary atom in a way.

It is this refraction of light that made its success: it irresistibly attracts the human eye. What a quality polish can, incredibly, accentuate.

Carrara marble is easily recognized from classical Greek marbles (Hymettus, Paros or Pentelic): very homogeneous its crystals are all the same size, rather average, they are identical in all directions and refract similarly. Greek marbles are made of large crystals, often different, they are oriented in various directions, refracting in various groups. For those who are used to it, the differences are obvious.

Michelangelo only worked with direct carving, without a practitioner, without focusing. The creative act is done by removing material: the artist has the technique thoroughly, while the desired result is perfectly clear in his mind.All you have to do is remove the marble matrix that prevents the work from appearing … Obviously, that is easier said than done … Except for a sculptor of the caliber of Michelangelo!

Let us reassure the reader: at this level of skill and creative ability there are few elected. Michelangelo presided over this small cenacle …

At the origin of David by Michelangelo

The David (1501/1504) is a marble sculpture 434 cm high (514 cm with the base). It is made of a block of statuary white Carrara marble which, as its name suggests, is particularly suitable for sculpture.

It is exceptional that the inspiration of the sculptor seeks a subject to illustrate in the Bible. David’s struggle against Goliath is a famous episode from the Old Testament.

This disproportionate fight leaves little doubt about the identity of the winner, because the forces involved seem unequal: the young shepherd David facing the giant Goliath. The Bible describes the latter as a colossal monster of about three meters carrying spear and armor.

This damned Philistine provoked the Jews by challenging them, for forty days and forty nights, to find a man who would agree to this duel. Sent by God, the Shepherd David picks up the thrown glove. He stands naked in front of the monster.

With “the Lord’s support”, using his slingshot he throws a large stone in his face. Guided by God, it sinks into the skull of the collapsing colossus. David then cuts off his head. The young man will become the second king of Israel.

Back to the past

One peculiarity distinguishes this apparently spoiled block of marble from all the others: it had been roughly sketched by Agostino di Duccio (1463/66), who quickly proved unable to rough it. The block was therefore abandoned in a corner. Antonio Rossellino seized it in 1476, to give up immediately in front of two difficulties: the block presented innumerable veins which undermined its compactness, and it was very narrow. In addition, a breach was visible on its right. Michelangelo used it to dig the space between the torso and the right arm.

A period document states: “the block is badly trimmed and lies on its back“. It had to be straightened before any attempt to create a sculpted subject.

The statue, exposed to the elements in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, was damaged during the fighting of 1527 between the Republicans and the Medici: a projectile hit it and broke its left arm into three pieces. These three parts were recovered by Vasari and Salviati.

The restoration of the work, by order of Cosimo de Medici, reigning duke, took place in 1543.It was only in 1873 that it was moved to a protective place. The sculpture was installed under a dome in the heart of the Academy gallery, specially built to receive it. Several slaves were added to him, planned for the tomb of Julius II but which were never completed by the artist. They form like an alley which leads to David.

Unfortunately, the toes of the right foot are very corroded. The sculpture has a phenomenal effect on the viewer, whether he sees it for the first time or for the hundredth time.

Analytical description of the sculpture

The artist shows David a slingshot (leather thong serving as a slingshot) in his left hand, the upper part of which rests on the left shoulder. It is seized in the seconds preceding the confrontation.

His face is turned to the left: he therefore shows his dextral profile. Her nose, regular and straight, has two nostrils so naturally hollowed out that the work seems to breathe.

Let us observe attentively the expression of the face as the power of the gaze: it is the moment when the young shepherd decided to face the personified evil that is this abhorred Philistine. Concentrated, he will grab his weapon and kill him by hitting him in the forehead.

The physique of the young man, as expressed by the statue, is that of an athlete of perfect virility. He is male perfection. The left leg is a little longer than the right, making it easier to balance the thrusts associated with the density of the marble.

His positioning, in slight contrapposto (2 *), reflects feelings of violence and hatred, dominated by the biblical hero in his quest for revenge: calm can be read on his face. A calm sustained by an epic breath visibly of divine origin: the young shepherd is the hand that God has chosen to destroy the abominable barbarian.

Given the density of marble, the weight of the body resting on the left leg requires support to stabilize the statue: it is the tree stump cleverly camouflaged behind this leg.

The shepherd has no hesitation and will fulfill his destiny as a savior, literally “possessed by God“: only a miracle can make David triumph over his mortal enemy. Let us observe David’s bushy and questioning eyebrows: he knows that his life depends only on his faith in God, the master of his destiny.

The young man’s gaze is frank, resolute, direct. Despite everything, you think you read a question deep in his eyes: “would I be able to win?” “.

The mouth is very lively with its dubious pout, while the chin, not too pointed forward, is surmounted by a dimple which accentuates its truth.

The work is well balanced, harmonious. This is a resounding achievement given the starting state of the block. David rises magnificently in height, while taking possession of his surrounding space, creating an intermediate zone where the telluric power radiating from the inside of the statue interacts with the images that the beholder’s amazed eye perceives.

This state of affairs is the result, consciously, of the artist’s will in his “fight with the angel” which constitutes his art and his state of mind.

The feeling of the observer is violent: David is in the moment which precedes his march to the confrontation.

The precision of the details of his musculature is infinite. We would waste our time trying to make a census.

The visible veins of his gigantic hands have no equivalent in the long history of sculptural art, the muscles are of incomparable truth. The hair, curly and provided of this biblical Adonis (3 *), is perfect.

The right arm is at rest. The hand tied to the body is ingenious: thus no risk of breakage or of falling to the ground, because the downward thrust is avoided.The face, idealized, is the reflection of the soul it carries within it: an image of God offered to the eyes of Humanity.

In sculpture, there is no possible comparison with this timeless vision that Michelangelo offers us. It is a positive archetype, an apology for faith in human destiny. In his youth the artist displayed enthusiastic optimism about the future of the human race.

At the cross road

It was not until his meeting with the poet Vittoria Colonna that Michelangelo developed in him pessimistic tendencies which made him take other paths than those of his youth.

Michelangelo’s homosexuality is notorious. But that did not prevent him from falling madly in love, platonically, with Vittoria Colonna, who had such an influence on him that the duality good-evil and the salvation of his soul will be the fundamental questions he will ask himself in his old age.

This universal masterpiece amazed contemporaries, fascinated by what they saw, only understanding that they were looking at something that transcended and surpassed them. This sculpture then became a transparent allegory of the virtues of Florence, until the return of the Medici in 1527. It was not really understood until the end of the nineteenth century. It was from this time that it was considered the most extraordinary sculpture of all time.

The spiritual depth of the created subject is evident to us today: its intrinsic truth explodes in the fascinated gaze of the beholder. Beyond a facade realism (the profession of the sculptor), beyond a silent introspection of the character and temperament of the man represented (the talent of the sculptor), beyond the individual genius of the sculptor ( his “Terribilita”), in the unknown lands of artistic creation, the leaven of a psychological and intellectual alchemy is united with an eye capable of representing the intangible and with a hand of unlimited competence, allowing the access to the quintessence of what art can give: to be the image of the destiny of a civilization, here that of the Renaissance, like the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, or Guernica by Picasso for the twentieth century.

 The Piéta Rondanini is a sculpture in statuary white Carrara marble, 195 cm high, kept at the Sforza castle in Milan. It is the last work created by the artist, on which he worked from 1552 until his death in 1564. It has remained unfinished.

It is considered to be linked, even the outcome, of the spiritual tear experienced by the artist in his later years, following his entry into the circle of Vittoria Colonna.

Michelangelo then affirmed “to completely renounce the world and to transfer all his thoughts to God” (1 *)

It is undeniable that the sculptor had become, literally, crucified by the idea of ​​his eternal salvation. It was a complete upheaval in his mind and, as a consequence, in his worldview. Which, unfortunately, included his art.

The only parts almost finished are the legs, as well as the right arm of Christ which is completely detached from the mass of marble. The lengthening of the legs is excessive, giving the sculpture a marked mannerist character. They are slender and especially the angle they form is hateful. Aesthetically this is a total and unacceptable misconception.

The feet are poorly formed and, worst of all, their insane length forced the sculptor to thin the plinth where they came into contact with it. The artist could not plane the other parts of the plinth at the same level: the base would no longer have been able to support the weight of the sculpture, given the density of the marble. It would have yielded, causing the fall of the statue.

Piéta Rondanini

The result is a disaster for the horrified eye of the beholder, who has witnessed the downfall of the artist. Similar errors with Michelangelo? How is it possible ? What is happening then?

To understand it, let us refer to the right arm. It is more successful than the legs: almost believable position, finesse of the execution … But then why is it detached from the mass of marble? Let’s take a look: the upper part comes to an abrupt end, like a stump. The shoulder is too far away, the arm will never reach it! The space between them is empty: the piece of marble that should have been there has disappeared …

Michelangelo was unable to create this arm according to the body. His mental vision of the statue, he was powerless to transfer it into reality. And what had to happen happened: the fragment of marble, overworked, reduced to fittings, became too thin, unable to support the weight of the arm despite the artist’s attempts to recover it. In the end there was nothing in its place!

Hence the incredible position of this pretty piece of marble, isolated, that is the arm … To reduce the risk of breakage, a metal bridge has been installed between the body and the arm …

As for the body of Christ, it is too long, but since it is only a sketch, like that of the Virgin, this becomes secondary. The heads are not even sketched.

We wanted to see in the positioning of Jesus and his mother, as if nestled against each other, the artist’s desire to merge them. In fact, this impression is due to the artist’s inability to individualize them.

This idea of ​​the bodily fusion of mother and child is indicative of a psychic state known to psychoanalysis: it is oedipal. Which says a lot about the minds of the majority of artistic analysts of the past century …

It is just as impossible to ignore it in art history: throughout the Middle Ages we witness the rise of the cult of the Virgin. This is so true that, in the end, Mary is the same height as her son, whom she faces on many eardrums or church decorations.

It has also been claimed that the purity of forms and the ascending rhythm of the work were combined in a kind of lyrical synthesis that is unique in its kind.

It’s ridiculous and stupid: no rhythm, no lyricism, no purity emanates from these forms or everything is confusion, or nothing is believable, or everything is creative impotence. As for the upward side, we dream: there is no ascent, no descent, or spirit, but only proof of the creative impotence of an old man.

Look at the David and you will see it: in Michelangelo the creative power, the spiritual energy, comes from within the sculpture, radiating life outside. Here, no spirit animates the volumes, everything is inert, dead. The feeling is terrible but real: the light cannot refract properly on the calcite crystals because it diffuses over a rough surface. This is the truth of marble: it does not forgive mistakes or approximations.

The Piéta Rondanini is the work of a senile old man trying to survive. It’s heartbreaking.

Thank goodness all of the artist’s other work is extraordinary. The vast majority of them have come down to us. They show us fantastic works in which the spirit of a unique, incomparable and unmatched artist blows.

(1 *) Anthony Blunt: Artistic Theory in Italy from 1450 to 1600, 1956
(2 *) Contrapposto involves one leg remaining straight and fixed while the other is presented in motion.
(3 *) The cult of Adonis is of oriental origin: in Aramaic Adonis means “Monsignor”, in modern Hebrew it is “Mr.”

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