Masks by Michelangelo

Sublime, sublime. Didn’t Michelangelo ever try to be funny?

Here are two grotesque masks that Michelangelo used as decoration on the cuirass (armor) of his great marble figure of Giuliano de’ Medici:

Giuliano de Medici  See a large version here)

Perhaps they are Medusas—faces meant to frighten the enemy. Yet, because they are so silly, perhaps they were supposed to be insulting as well. Insulting?

The Renaissance idea of funny wasn’t like ours. Many jokes and stories were triumphantly mean. The man who was superior or felt himself superior pulled a good one over his enemy and then insulted him, mocked him. “[Already] in the Middle Ages we read how hostile armies, princes, and nobles provoked one another with symbolic insults, and how the defeated party was then loaded with symbolic outrage,” says Jakob Burckhardt in his study of Renaissance wit.

By Renaissance days, when many were trying to become great heroes and personalities, this victory wit had become popular. Italy was full of beffe and burle—clever tricks and remarks to put the other guy down or stamp on him when he was underfoot.

Today these do not seem very funny, though a mask like this one (not by Michelangelo) might make us crack a smile:

Could mockery have been the aim of this mask by Michelangelo on the keystone of the Porta Pia in Rome?

The three masks by Michelangelo are taken from Ludwig Goldscheider’s unsurpassed Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, first published in 1953 by Phaidon Press, Ltd.


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5 Responses to Masks by Michelangelo

  1. ivdanu says:

    I don’t think Renaissance invented that much in the field… The Tragedy and comedy masks are Greek and Romans… And the meanest the joke, the better, in antiquity, Renaissance and today… I think…

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, they look like gargoyles to me. I looked up the term in Wikipedia, there are some pics of gargoyles very much like these.
    I love Michelangelo’s, they’re very cool.

  3. 100swallows says:

    erika: but gargoyles are water spouts: they had a function. And anyway, they try to be funny or fantastic. What do you think Michelangelo intended with his masks? Were they only curious ornament? Do you think he thought they would make you smile? The ones on the cuirass must have been to provoke or intimidate–there was a tradition of Medusa heads on weapons. Weren’t these men roaring like a lion?

  4. 100swallows says:

    Danu: I know Michelangelo took the idea from old Rome and Greece. I only wondered whether they were merely an exercise in design–a curious fantasy;or whether there was a point to them that I miss.

  5. erikatakacs says:

    My understanding was gargoyles were originally used as waterspouts, but later, in mediavel times, they were also used as ornaments on buildings and churches- and they were called chimera.
    Both gargoyle and chimera were grotesque, mythic, fantastic creatures. You might be right about what Michelangelo intended them for. I find them beautifully grotesque but they don’t make me smile.

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