Battle of the Centaurs (marble, 90,5 x 90,5 cm) 1490-92
Buonarroti House, Florence
This is Michelangelo’s first and only high relief. What is it about?
Why, the famous battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs at the wedding feast of Hippodamia and Pirithous, as told in Book 12 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Vasari calls it “The Battle of Hercules with the Centaurs”).
Never heard of that battle?
Michelangelo himself wasn’t too clear on it. It was Politian, a learned Humanist at Lorenzo de Medici’s palace, who told him about it and fired his imagination. Michelangelo was about 17 years old.
“Igitur, Domine?” Politian asked him after telling the story. Bits of Latin kept coming out when Politian spoke. The Humanists were all Latin scholars. “ What do you think?—could you illustrate THAT in stone—in petra, in marmore? You could put in lots of men in different postures and give them a classical touch.”
He pointed to one of the Roman sarcophaguses in Lorenzo the Magnificent’s garden, with beautiful scenes of mythical battles in high relief. “Can you do as well as that?” he asked the boy. Politian could think of nothing deeper or more “artistic” than sculpture like that. And Michelangelo picked up his admiration. That’s what teachers hand down.
And when the relief was far along, Michelangelo showed it to Politian, who sighed with joy. “That’s almost as good as the old craftsmen would have done it,” he told Michelangelo, who may have beamed or burned, depending on how much of the praise he felt was being given to him. He was proud of the relief and treasured it all his life. Geniuses often find themselves early. Here already was Michelangelo’s subject—the male nude—carved with wonderful precision and knowledge.
Politian told him to keep working: he thought he saw in the lad’s relief a touch of an old Muse. Or an angel—he thought they were probably the same thing with different names; though he preferred to call the being a Muse.
The Michelangelo scholar Ludwig Goldscheider says this about the relief: “The details…are not very clear; it has neither been agreed which of the figures are Centaurs and which are human; nor which are the men and which the women. Wöfflin maintained that there was not a single female figure in the relief, whereas Symonds believed that the central figure was female. According to Justi, however, this central figure is the Centaur Eurytion, while Knapp thinks it is either Hercules or Theseus.”
It’s a very ambitious project for a 17 year old, and it’s great to see one of his early works. The composition is very, very good. I like that the figures are not well-defined, and that -although still very young- even the great Michelangelo erred here and there. The twisted figure in the front seems anatomically incorrect. Overall impressive, no wonder he was proud of it all his life. Thanks for sharing.
An ambitious and beautiful work for the young Michelangelo. We tend to idolize and romanticize the great artists. Your post makes Michelangelo more human and accessible. Maybe not above a little forgery to pay the bills? Check out this post:
The sincerest form of flattery…
Thanks for the story. I tend to forget how much I love classical art.
Thanks, madsilence. Here’s a post of mine on that. See the comments afterwards too.
Can you see any women there, erika? I see a woman’s lower back in the figure those two guys in the front are grabbing. But the hero in the center of the relief has more hair than she does. And isn’t that a woman the fellow on the upper left is trying to reach?
madsilence, it’s hard to believe the Laocoon was done by Michelangelo. I agree with your reasoning, swallows. Why on earth would he not recognize a masterpiece like that as his own. I think his desire for glory was bigger then his desire for money.
Now, this scholar who came up with the forgery idea, could be after sensationalism for her own reasons. I don’t recall what exactly was, but I’ve seen her name come up recently regarding something else sensational.
Swallows, you may be right, but who knows. The figure on the upper left appears to be a woman, her hairdo suggest that and her arm. The rear of that figure you mention appears to be that of a woman too.
I’m not a Reaissance art scholar by any means, but Dr. Catterson’s argument was persuasive. I believe the topic was her dissertation subject. Her presentation was enthralling, the circumstantial evidence overwhelming. I wish I could share more of the details with you. After her presentation I did some research and was surprised to find Vasari corroborated stories of M’s shenanigans. Of course I may choose to believe the worst because it makes the artist more human. Swallows, your arguments have validity as well. It’s unfortunate we can’t carbon date the statue.
The wedding relief is an attractive piece & would like very nice in my living room. I recently met an artist, an MFA graduate, who traveled to Italy to learn stone carving skills. Apparently the skill is not taught often in the US.
Thanks again, madsilence: This whole thing serves Michelangelo right because he did try to cheat (or at least impress people with his ability to forge and imitate), even as a kid. And then there was the Cupid scheme. I wish I had heard Catterson’s presentation, though I would be hard to convince. Besides those other reasons (and how many does one need if they are good?), there is the one of style. I don’t think the Laocoön really looks like a Michelangelo. The realism is too refined. In fact, the work looks more like a Bernini than a Michelangelo. I can’t believe Michelangelo would have been able to repress his powerful artistic personality so completely and for so long in order to carve the work.
That’s another thing: the marble–is it Greek–Parian? Of course Michelangelo could have found six big pieces of antique marble lying around somewhere.
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