Michelangelo, Please Don’t Decorate

“I know Michelangelo carved wonderful figures,” you might say. “What was he like as an ARCHITECT or a decorator?”
The Medici Chapel was built under his direction, his design. What stands out?

For one thing, his statues DO NOT. They don’t seem to be given the place of honor in the chapel. The architecture—the wall decoration—all those niches and Corinthian columns and thick moldings—seem to think they are what people come to look at.

The best statues in the world are treated almost as one more triangle in the general compassing off of the wall, which does not highlight them or make much reference to them. They could be removed from the chapel without doing any harm to the general design. They look merely added on after the chapel wall was dressed with rectangles and pillars and moldings. And the three figures on the adjacent wall—the Virgin and saints—actually look abandoned. They sit there like three odd figurines on a shelf, spaced to cover the shelf as best they can.
In spite of all its decoration, the chapel seems somehow empty, emptied. There’s nothing in all those niches. The spaces framed by the rectangles are bare wall. It looks as though someone had looted the place and carried off all the statues but Michelangelo’s seven.

What the devil? Didn’t Michelangelo know how good his figures were? Did he really consider them secondary to the general wall design—like an architect but not a sculptor?

The real star of the show in that chapel is the prodigious marble carpentry. It must have astounded marblers even in those times used to marvels. The walls are covered with the Renaissance’s version of Gothic vegetation. What is that? Dozens of identical rectangles (windows or niches), capped with triangular or curved entablatures; sham columns with their flutes; scrolls and marble moldings and decorative masks and geometrical patterns. The marblers must have worked for years. Notice the hundreds of little balls and identical masks and other laborious decoration running along the walls and behind the statues. The precision of the carving and the setting up is as amazing, almost, as Michelangelo’s work. There you see the immense infrastructure that supported the Renaissance works of art. The artisans and craftsmen were legion in the old Italian cities and the standards of workmanship were almost inhumanly high. How could they have been so perfect? Wasn’t it all slavework, though paid slavework? They worked under Michelangelo’s orders—was he a slavedriver?

Now maybe, for the first time, you feel tired of those neat projections of the mind, those a priori shapes that organize the mess of nature: the circle (modified to an oval), the rectangle, the square, and the triangle. For the first time you wish the circle were broken and the rectangle bent. You see the limits of Renaissance art. You see how oppressive it can get. You long for the simplicity of the old Greek buildings or even the earlier Tuscan ones, or then the unpredictability and variety of Gothic decoration.

This Medici chapel is the opposite of a Gothic one. The one is all brutal mathematical precision and architectural motifs without any message other than order. The other is a thicket of vegetable forms, rough, improvised figures, and story telling. The one bows (and scrapes) to reason, the other to feeling. The one is the city, the other, the woods. Now that you are in the city—wasn’t the woods a nice place?

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