Michelangelo and Bernini

Robert Mileham wrote:

I mean no disrespect for either of these two great sculptors. They, like Beethoven and Mozart, are pillars of our western art. Nevertheless I have reservations especially about Michelangelo. Neither an academic nor even well read in Art History I am a simple sculptor with strong but malleable views.
If you were an alien with no prejudices, no foreknowledge of these sculptors would you believe that Michelangelo’s David and Pieta were by the same artist?

But, Robert, our art isn’t for aliens. Culture is an accumulation of thought and works humans have come up with over the centuries–one builds on another. It is the meaning man has given his circumstances: education is “foreknowledge”.
I don’t know what you mean to imply here. Why shouldn’t the two works be so different? Creating always means experimenting.

If you knew the story of David and Goliath and were asked which of the two Michelangelo was trying to depict; using reason only, who would it be?

Only reason? But reason would have to take into account the facts one knows about the story and also the way the figure of David had changed into an icon of patriotism or independence. Michelangelo was more concerned with that symbol than with the actual story of the boy and the giant. And also with his own idea of beauty and the greatness of Man.

If you did not know what the Pieta was meant to depict, honestly would you believe it to be a Mother and Son subject?

But you do know what the Pietà is meant to depict–there’s no way out of that. The alien is just ignorant.

In the first I would argue that he is huge; facially very ugly and anatomically wrong (head and hands too big).

I understand that you mean to be the alien arguing here and not yourself. I’m sorry the little green fellow would get scared. You would have to explain to him that artists sometimes make colossal figures because humans are impressed by size. And if he is put off by the face, tell him it is Michelangelo’s unique conception of a beautiful, dramatic, face, but that some humans like you find it ugly. And explain that getting the anatomy “right” is a fine aim but that there are higher ones.

In the second, even if Mary had borne Jesus at the age of 16 she would have been approaching 50. The actress Sarah Barnhart was also a sculptress and produced this extraordinary work. Surely the great pillar of Renaissance sculpture could have come somewhat closer to the emotion framework Frank Lin mentions. I do not deny, it is very beautiful and moving but for a different story.

Michelangelo, taking that subject, found a way of sculpting a beautiful girl’s face and a beautiful nude and a reverie of beautiful folds. But he also managed to create a mood of great sadness. That’s at least a nine out of ten. Mere illustration anyone can do.

Now the first book of Samuel, chapter 16 vv 12 describes David ‘of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look too.’ Judging by the number of intimate relations he subsequently had with women, how could we possibly doubt that? How also could we think that Michelangelo would have missed this? He was well able to create beautiful male faces!
Michelangelo’s attempts at sculpting women are a laugh, they are men with breasts.

Hey, Robert, judging by the number of intimate relations old Rasputin had with women, you’d think ugliness was the secret. Actually, I always thought David’s is as beautiful a face as any human ever made, though I wouldn’t choose beautiful if I had to pick just one word. The dramatic element–the frown, those rolling eyes, that glance–takes it out of the contest with quiet, classical Greek beauty. In any case, I don’t see how you could call such an idealized face, one with such regular, symmetrical features, ugly? Whereas, I do see how one might call Bernini’s David’s grimacing face ugly.
I don’t laugh at Michelangelo’s women figures. I always thought the Dawn and Night monsters, whatever sex they were, were of an otherworldly beauty.

Bernini’s work, like Mozart seems to pour out of him, unlike his great predecessor he does not destroy his work (does he?), or even cross anything out! He is streets ahead of him in animated action. Who could miss St Theresa’s passionate emotions either?

Bernini had greater natural facility–no doubt about it. In that he was like Mozart. But let’s not blame Michelangelo for his frustration. Admire one for the miraculous gift from heaven, the other for his hard work and suffering.
It’s true: no one could miss Theresa’s passionate emotions–Bernini saw to that. I agree that the figure is very successful but the patron watching the “show” from the wing is downright corny. That is the danger of trying to portray suffering or religious fervor by showing the blubbering face and the hanky. The viewer sees what is meant but keeps his distance, which is dangerous for the whining figure. Dangerous because it is too close to the comical or disagreeable. The exaggeration of Baroque art is its limitation.

It is not so much a matter of who is best, the guy who comes after is always at an advantage, he or she knows what they have to surpass. In their own way they were both ground breakers of sorts.
(On a more technical point, I understand that Michelangelo believed in carving from one block of marble where Bernini used multiple blocks joined together facilitating more difficult poses.)

There is such a difference between sculpture modelled and sculpture carved. Michelangelo was a stone sculptor and his designs are made with the compactness and hardness of stone in mind. Though Bernini was also a stone sculptor, he was so good that he treated stone as if it were NOT stone–as if it were wax or clay. They talk about the mystery of Michelangelo’s carving technique; much more interesting, more mysterious, is Bernini’s. How could anyone carve, for example, that Daphne without breaking the marble everywhere? Bernini was freer in stone than anyone who came before him. And so he began imagining figures with outspread limbs and other cantilevers and unsupported frills. This was previously considered (and still is) sculptural folly, mainly because stone breaks.
There is also the difference in each man’s conception of a powerful design. Michelangelo made his out of a triangle, a circle, a square. Bernini, freer, broke out of those constricting shapes.

Robert: Thanks for this. Your own sculpture is wonderful. I especially liked the sprightly nymphs.

Robert’s blog: http://dorsetsculpture.blogspot.com/


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Baroque, Beauty, Bernini, great artists, Michelangelo, Renaissance, sculpture, stone carving and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Michelangelo and Bernini

  1. Thank you so much for replying so fully. Despite being so well argued, I think we will have to agree to disagree over some of this but I very much enjoyed the exchange. May I add you to my list of art blogs Swallows?

  2. 100swallows says:

    I enjoyed it too, Robert. You made me think more about these important matters. When you feel like it, we’ll do round two, OK?
    I’d be happy to be on your blogroll–thanks. Want to go on mine?

  3. erikatakacs says:

    I think the Beethoven and Mozart comparison is appropriate. But how can anyone possibly say which one is better? Everyone has their personal favourite, but better? I bet those who prefer Bernini, can stare at their favourite just as long as those who swear on Michelangelo’s David.
    And if someone asked me what piece of music would be the best to represent mankind in space, I would probably pick a composition by Bach! :)

  4. I look forward to a round two. I will try and make reply tomorrow! I would be honoured to be on your blogroll, thank-you.

    Which work of Bach would you pick erikatakacs? I think I would go for the double violin concerto, assuming that to represent mankind as a whole it would have to be a secular work or you would have trouble with the other two thirds of the world’s population; or religious grounds as well as cultural ones! Has anyone ever composed a medley of world music? Interesting project..

  5. Frank Lin says:

    Robert, so your dislike of Michelangelo is due to his physical skills or is it philosophical? I’m still not entirely clear on this.

  6. Frank, no no not dislike for him. I don’t care for David much though. It is of impressive size certainly and that is one reason why I think it is not suposed to be David at all. I think some of his other work is much better, I will explain in the morning, it is 2.09 am over this side of the pond, I have been working late, I don’t get disturbed so much at night!

  7. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Why would you choose Bach’s music? It does go well with the triangles and other rational clues those engineers sent along with the spacecraft. All the point and counterpoint entertainment. Maybe that is good. I’d take along my Mozart for me and the hell with the ETs.

  8. Swallow wrote
    Our art isn’t for aliens….Why shouldn’t the works be so different? (Pieta and David)

    I think this rather proves my suggestion that Michelangelo was able to illustrate accurately (!) beauty and ugliness.

    Not withstanding the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I know how difficult it is to portray beauty in sculpture especially in the face. Imagine we take a beautiful woman or good looking man and remove her/ his eyelashes, eyes and hair, abandoning the former and replacing the latter two with, bronze, or marble as best one can using only shadow to induce the form and pupils or eyes.
    But Michelangelo knew how! He proved it in the Pieta. Many of his works depicting the popular subject of the time ‘Madonna and Child’ look as if they were the same model (or perhaps his recognisable style).

    I have a number of books on Michelangelo. I was ‘turned off’ him as a child of eleven when my parents returned from a holiday in Italy praising him in god like terms and showing me the pictures of his works. Being a little dyslexic, I am influenced by pictures and read only things that interest me!

    I will go on the record here saying that I wholly believed that I was alone in the world with any criticism of the great Michelangelo. Even books on Rodin will constantly refer to ‘his wonderful influence’. So before starting to write Round Two Swallow, I thought I had better look at some more works and see if I could illustrate my ideas with some pictures, or, oh dear, even be forced to fall in line and agree with you!

    To my amazement (and somewhat delight) I discovered in chapter one of James Hall’s book (ISBN 0-7126-6789-X) the following:

    1. Mothers
    I am no connoisseur: but that it is a disagreeable, a hateful picture, is an opinion which fire could not melt out of me … here is the Blessed Virgin, not the ‘Vergine Santa d’ogni grazia piena’ but a Virgin, whose brick-dust colour face, harsh, unfeminine features, and muscular, masculine arms, give me the idea of a washerwoman. . .’

    Anna Brownell Jameson, the Doni Tondo, in The Diary of an Ennuyee (1865)1

    This is no maternal Mary (there is no such thing in Michelangelo). Heinrich Wolfflin, the Doni Tondo, in Classic Art (1899)

    ONE OF THE MOST original and controversial features of Michelangelo’s work is the way in which he represents women. No other great pre-twentieth-century artist has depicted them in such a consistently `unfeminine’ way. Ever since Lodovico Dolce argued in the mid-sixteenth century that Michelangelo interpreted every figure, regardless of gender, in terms of the heroic male nude, critics have argued furiously over the implications of this claim, often in relation to his so-called anatomical excesses which gave rise to exaggerated musculature.

    Hostile critics tend to think that Michelangelo’s women are muscle-men in drag, and that his blind spot in relation to gender difference is symptomatic of an artist who was obsessed with power to the exclusion of grace. Favourable critics might sometimes try to defend him against this accusation by picking out a few images of women that they find alluring: the women in the lunettes of the Sistine Ceiling, or the allegorical figure of Dawn in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo in Florence.’ But more often than not they do not dispute the matter very urgently. Rather, they insist that in art the sublime – or the grand manner – is far more important than the ‘merely’ beautiful.

    I, Robert, do not accept this, beauty is paramount where beauty is intended by the artist. In the Pieta, I argue that Michelangelo was capable of capturing beauty and it was intended. David was supposed to be a good looking chap and to me he is not. So it is down to the beholder Swallow! I think he intended it to be Goliath not David.

    That is the first question replied to, seven to go!

    PS I like washerwomen! I can’t get the images on here to help explain and make it a bit more interesting so I have put the pictures on my blog with a link back here for text!


  9. I am an author on a book about Michelangelo and his work (A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome, 2008), and I know both Michelangelo and Bernini intimately. I’ve been reading this argument with some interest, and I’d like to weigh in on a few points:

    1. David: 100Swallows is correct in arguing that Michelangelo intended for David to be a political statement not just a pretty piece of art. In the political climate of the early 16th century, Florence, the city for whom David was sculpted, had gone through political and religious turmoil — including Savonarola’s “bonfire of the vanities.” David is a symbol of strength and virility for a city that had been through 10+ years of death and turmoil. THAT’s why, unlike Donatello, Michelangelo portrays David as a grown man.

    2. As for his face, hands, and the rest… first, it is clear that he is DAVID, not Goliath because he is holding a slingshot and a stone. If you know the Biblical story, you know that these are David’s weapons. As for the proportions: David is intended to be seen from across the piazza. Remember, the sculpture originally stood in the Piazza della Signoria (where the replica stands today). It was intended to be seen from afar — looking across the piazza standing as a defensive beacon in front of Florence’s seat of the government. The exaggeration of his hands, then, makes them more visible from a distance. Truly, the effect is much different even standing at the back of the Accademia (where the sculpture is housed now) — but to imagine standing across the piazza … well, you must keep the intentions in mind.

    As for David’s face: he looks like a Greek or Roman god. That’s what Michelangelo had been studying. Compare David’s face to the great antiquities known at the time — he fits right in. Given the fascination with antiquities at the time, this is unsurprising. It is often said that the ancients gave their sculptures life but Michelangelo gave them souls.

    3. As to the Pieta: here again there is a problem in how the piece is displayed. It was designed to sit on the floor of St. Peter’s so that the natural light coming in from the windows (and this was the OLD St. Peter’s basilica, not the building we know now) would fall on the sculpture in a much different way here. I must credit Dr. William Wallace for pointing this out, but if the light came from windows above, Mary would have a veil of shadow over her face, and the viewer’s attention would be drawn to Jesus laying in her lap.

    As for her youth and beauty: Michelangelo himself addressed this topic. Remember that she is the Virgin Mary and is a holy figure. In fact, as he aged, Michelangelo became more of a Marionist (devoted to the Virgin Mary). He said that her beauty and youth come from her sinlessness. He attributed ugliness and age to the sins we each commit. That’s part of why many of his figures are not model-perfect. He painted and sculpted real faces of people who he saw (male and female).

    4. As to Bernini’s superior skill: I think you are comparing apples to oranges here. Bernini’s work comes after Michelangelo’s. His methods had the benefit of Michelangelo’s work. Additionally, he did work with multiple pieces of marble whereas Michelangelo worked with single pieces. But the biggest difference between the two is their intention. Michelangelo worked with a very different esthetic. He learned from and imitated the ancients. He is a Renaissance artist. Bernini was a century later. The world had changed. Interests had changed. And art had truly changed. To compare the two on a purely aesthetic level is to argue about taste, not skill.

    Respectfully yours,
    Angela Nickerson
    author of A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome (Roaring Forties Press, 2008)

    Visit me:

  10. I am intrigued at the question Michelangelo vs Bernini but as Angela says it is, in the end, a matter of taste. (Taste was once described as the murder of Art. Do not ask me who coined that and it is not true is it?). As I implied before how can you choose between Beethoven and Mozart or lots of others for that matter.

    I am not an academic; I have not done the research. I rely only on my personal observation, my personal experience and my intuition as sculptor.

    Angela, I have great respect for one who has done the ground work, but you have not convinced me.

    1. For the political environment I wonder if this is not a red herring. Yes he had to make a statement on behalf of a patron and Florence but even if it was named David, officially David it’s a disaster as an illustrative representation of David the Biblical character.

    2. Like the business of Caravaggio’s ring see here, I can see no sling or stone for certain. There is no other clue to who it is supposed to be if you take a proper judicial view of it. ‘The slingshot he carries over his shoulder is almost invisible’ says one internet site. Not true but I will accept that he might be holding a stone in his right hand, so he is left handed? I am not convinced that he has a slingshot over his shoulder going down his back, far too long to be a the weapon of a sling, even a specialist one. (see new photo)

    3. I agree, this David is not a pretty piece of sculpture, it is an ugly bit of PR. That is why I do not think it fits the David title. It matters not that anyone viewing a sculpture from any distance or at an angle using only the naked eye should need to alter in any way the proportions of any part or parts of the anatomy for aesthetic reasons as is sometime suggested elsewhere. Anyone of Michelangelo’s artistic skill would not have done that. Body parts are not important to portray power, it is body language that counts, take a look at your man over there, Mr. Bush, he has worked that out. Large hands and large head indicate a genetic ‘problem’ not power. The hands of this David are about one third too big for the body excluding the head. The head is one to six and seven eights in proportion from chin to crown in height, and one to six and five-eights in proportion to mass of body. The ‘average adult’ is one to eight in the general population according to the medical evidence in Europe in 1969. This makes him the same proportions as a ten year old in heads NOT A GROWN MAN. I could not find any data on sizes of hands! My view is that this is a mistake in proportion and nothing else.

    One story I read was how Michelangelo found this block of Marble that a contemporary and made an inappropriate hole in and managed to procure it for himself. Clearly a very large and fine block, he saw its potential as a male figure. Judging by the volume of male figures he did in his life time this was probably his favourite subject. He has also a fondness for a particular ‘face’ which includes an exaggerated straight long nose and very deep bridge reoccurring in many of his works both male and female. Could this be your Greek influence, Angela, no, I think not, he was the sort of guy judging by his work to do his own thing.

    As this block was big and quite exceptional he was careful in the execution of his pointing (carving). He was after all human and intelligent. With carving you can’t ‘rub out’. If you make an error (as he did from time to time – well documented) you will have to make the sculpture as a whole smaller, or start on a new block! Hands are the most difficult part of the anatomy to paint, draw, sculpt. Heads, or perhaps the faces are the most important. Great care was probably taken to ensure that these two areas were made big so they could be made smaller at a latter stage if it ‘looked wrong’ or proportions were wrong. You can’t add to Marble. (Well you can but that’s another story!)

    What is all this about the lighting of the Pieta? Lighting is so important to the success of a sculpture that yes he would have composed it with this as a primary factor. But what has that to do with the age of Mary? He clearly made her young and beautiful and his own reasons for doing so are fine, he was indeed a devout Catholic with a slightly different orientation. The point I am making is his ability to portray beauty. The David he has portrayed is ugly and grotesque just as he intended i.e. ugly frightening Goliath-like ogre; and to crown it all (if that is the right expression), he has not been circumcised as all good Jewish boys would have been surely?

  11. rich says:

    That looks like a long thread you have opened here, Swallows.
    First a subjective impression – just fancied me to be Goliath:
    Which one of the two opponents I’d prefer to face? Bernini’s or Michelangelo’s?
    I would rather prefer Bernini’s. That calm, composed resolve, the whole look and outlook of Michelangelo’s figure looks to me like an incredible act preparing to happen; a human being on the verge of outgrowing himself! Bernini’s “action statue” would almost look helpless in comparison, if I were Goliath it would look less threatening. But that’s just a subjective impression.

    You made me re read Delacroix’ diary, Swallow. I’ll try to render in short a rather lengthy observation on Michelangelo by the master. I thought it fits the subject:

    It starts with a walk in the countryside in Champrosay on a splendid morning, as he says, where he observes a giant oak and the difference in looking at the tree from afar and when he reaches and looks at the huge branches from below, remarking a certain disproportionatedness, so to say, looking from so close an angle. So he is astonished by this unevenness in comparison with the perfect harmony he observed from afar and he starts a comparison between the ancients and their perfect works never lacking in proportion, and Michelangelo with the incongruities and unfinished parts he notices there, which he says irritatingly DO enhance the impression of the finished and perfect parts.

    “His paintings it seems to me” Delacroix says, “do not show that kind of imperfection to such a grade. I often thought of him more as of a painter than sculptor, even if he may have said otherwise. Unlike the ancients, he did not work with masses in his sculptures. They always look as if he had drawn an ideal outline of them first, like a painter does. One might say his figures and groups show themselves from a single angle only – that’s where we have the painter. That’s why, if one changes one’s point of view, one finds distorted limbs, incorrect planes and spacings, in short, all the mistakes one does not find in ancient works. Nothing surprises us as giant or exaggerated with those antiques. One has to stand on a par before these wonderful creations – it is we who give them their greatness by our own reflection and assign them the high place they deserve.

    Michelangelo astonishes us, stirs and fills us with a certain bewildered admiration, but soon one discovers those disturbing irregularities that stem from a work done in too much haste due to the impetuosity with which he went at it, or it was sheer exhaustion that befell him at the end of a work that turned out to be impossible to finish. The latter often shows in an undeniable way.

    Even if his biographers don’t tell us that he often lost his pleasure at the end, it shows in those unfinished parts, in feet sticking in the pedestal, in missing material. That all shows that the sore point of his work lies more in the way it was conceived and executed, and less in the dissatisfaction of a genius trying to reach the highest, stopping short and not daring to take the final step. It is very probable, that his conception was vague and indefinite and that he had to count too much on the moment’s inspiration for the development of his idea and that he often stopped, discouraged: for the simple reason that he had given all and just couldn’t give some more.

    …phew…and I wanted to keep it short….

  12. 100swallows says:

    My, my, Robert, how you come in slugging!
    You say that though the figure might have been called a David, even by Michelangelo, it is not a David but a Goliath. Your evidence is that it is big and “ugly” and without any convincing signs of Davidness. The alleged sling it holds is no sling, and no one can see a stone in the right hand.
    The face is intentionally ugly because it was meant to be intimidating and the entire figure is unintentionally ugly because of mistakes in proportion. Is that it?

    You say: I am not an academic; I have not done the research. I rely only on my personal observation, my personal experience and my intuition as sculptor.

    But when you are dealing with historical matters, those are not enough. You must go to the sources. Couldn’t you read the two biographies of Michelangelo written in his time? They are the horse’s mouth. Best would be for you to read his letters and poems too, but to start with, the biographies will show you at least what stories and facts everyone has had to deal with these 500 years. Common sense and intuition and personal experience aren’t enough here, especially if you want to speak about Michelangelo’s intentions.

    Look: Michelangelo’s biographer and friend, a Florentine, whose book Michelangelo himself read or at least praised for a while, calls the figure a David and says it “was intended as a symbol of liberty for the Palace, signifying that just as David had protected his people and governed them justly, so whoever ruled Florence should vigorously defend the city and govern it with justice.”
    The new ruler of Florence, Soderini, not only ordered this giant one but another smaller bronze David for himself.

    You say: For the political environment I wonder if this is not a red herring. Yes he had to make a statement on behalf of a patron and Florence but even if it was named David, officially David it’s a disaster as an illustrative representation of David the Biblical character.

    Do you mean to imply that Michelangelo fooled everyone, including the Gonfaloniere? That he pretended to be doing a David and let the figure be called a David but really sculpted a Goliath? This is very homespun conjecture, Robert. Michelangelo was a republican, you know. He was in sympathy with the “freedom” of Florence. You might try to argue that since he was a former Medici employee and maybe foresaw that he would be one again, he was trying to keep his options open.
    (There is one bit of evidence I’d pass on to you if I wanted to help with your argument, which I don’t. Condivi, Michelangelo’s other biographer, writing with the approval of the artist, does not call the figure David but Gigante, which he says is how his contemporaries referred to the figure. After talking about the Gigante, Condivi says that Soderini ordered a small David. He surprisingly does not say a SMALLER David. He seems purposely to avoid calling the big figure a David. But that doesn’t mean that he considered it a Goliath, of course, nor that he considered it ugly.)

    You say: Like the business of Caravaggio’s ring see here [?], I can see no sling or stone for certain. There is no other clue to who it is supposed to be if you take a proper judicial view of it. ‘The slingshot he carries over his shoulder is almost invisible’ says one internet site. Not true but I will accept that he might be holding a stone in his right hand, so he is left handed? I am not convinced that he has a slingshot over his shoulder going down his back, far too long to be a the weapon of a sling, even a specialist one. (see new photo)

    It is true: the indicators that this is the Bible story are really insufficient. Bernini piled them on—not only a believable sling and stone but the lyre the King played and the lionskin he wore. Unlike you, I think it is clear that Michelangelo wanted to sculpt a beautiful nude—proud, wonderful Man (because unlike even the angels he could choose his own destiny), and that he kept anything that was not that nude down to a minimum, basically to keep it out of the way, to keep it from covering any part, however small, of the beautiful body. There is another probable David by Michelangelo in the Bargello Museum, which people call an Apollo because he seems to be drawing an arrow out of a quiver. I think (only MY intuition, which I have learned to distrust) this is another example of Michelangelo’s keeping the identifying facts down to a minimum. He was interested in that wonderful pose and left its “explanation” to the viewer’s imagination.
    What IS the strap the Giant is holding ? Where is Goliath’s sword?
    It IS strange that David should be left-handed. I never noticed that.
    And it’s true–David is uncircumsized!

    You may call the face ugly of course and for your demonstration you certainly found the ugliest, the meanest view of it I ever saw. Who ever saw those pimples? And that ugly twist of the neck? As a sculptor you know that’s not fair. Every figure has a best side and one or more than can be kept in the shadow.

    The same can be said of that Christ of the Pietà. No one would recognize that hatchet face, nor should they because the group was meant to be seen from the front and at a distance, and if Angela is right, in a particular light. Actually, the Pietá is a deep relief. You don’t look at a relief from above. Angela’s explanation about the Virgin’s youth is Michelangelo’s own, as recorded by both his biographers.

    Robert: I have to stop today. Another day I’ll jump into the ring with you again when I’m not so tired. I do appreciate your comments. It is nice to have found someone who takes these matters so seriously. I’m glad we brought Angela here too, to give us her expert comments. What fortune to be in Italy all the time and to be able to visit the great works constantly!
    And now I want to thank Rich for his very interesting comment, which just came in.

  13. 100swallows says:

    Hi Rich: Yes the thread is too long and I don’t know what to do. If we keep adding to it fewer and fewer people will even read what we write. And then there is the time factor. I actually had to choose between writing this comment or a new post.I wonder how long you spent on your latest. Or Robert, his.
    This is a blog after all, not a forum. Yet the subject is a good one and we three (and Angela, surely) could go on for pages.
    I am going to read your comment now but there is no time to write my comment on it. Be patient. I already saw some really good things there.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Angela: Welcome! I’m glad to have an expert’s comments on Michelangelo and Bernini. And yours are concise and right on.
    This morning I had intended to write some comments to you but now I only have time to thank you and wish you success with that new book.
    What luck you have (if it is luck) to be able to see the works by those two artists frequently–and to spend time in heavenly Italy!

  15. 100swallows says:

    Whoops, Frank, I almost forgot to thank you too. I wonder if Robert answered your question?

  16. 100swallows says:

    rich: I have to say that those are some of the most interesting and original remarks on Michelangelo that I have ever read. I must think about them now for awhile. I had never read Delacroix’s diary. Danu had been telling me about it too. Thanks a lot.

  17. rich says:

    Yes! Promise keeping it short in future.
    The original diary is in French, obviously, but I had to translate from a German version… so don’t know what all gets lost by translating a translation.
    Lost in Translation…

  18. 100swallows says:

    Robert Mileham writes:
    I agree, this David is not a pretty piece of sculpture, it is an ugly bit of PR. That is why I do not think it fits the David title. It matters not that anyone viewing a sculpture from any distance or at an angle using only the naked eye should need to alter in any way the proportions of any part or parts of the anatomy for aesthetic reasons as is sometime suggested elsewhere. Anyone of Michelangelo’s artistic skill would not have done that….

    Oh, come on. That’s not true. You must have noticed, Robert, that you need to thicken the limbs of your outdoor figures, especially large ones, because the sky somehow makes them look skinnier than they are. That’s just one example. I keep trying to imagine David’s hand smaller, to see how that would affect the look of the figure but I can’t decide. But it is unthinkable that Michelangelo would have failed to consider the view from below, as well as from a distance.

    In any case, if I understand right, you hold that Michelangelo purposely sculpted an oversized hand and head with the aim of making the figure grotesque—ugly—since it was not a David but an ornery Goliath.

    I can’t go along at all. That’s just too far out.

  19. Brenda says:

    It has always been my impression that the word “Gigante” referred simply to the large block from which Michelangelo sculpted his colossal David. I believe the stone itself was reputed to be unworkable because of a previous botched attempt by another sculptor to carve it. I think no one was willing to tackle it for 20 years or so until Michelangelo came along. I see nothing remotely grotesque about the statue. Exaggeration of certain features would be necessary considering that it was intended to be viewed from street level. Look at the colossal head of Constantine.

  20. ivdanu says:

    I`ll try to be short: I`ve enjoyed much of this post and commentaries, swallows. for me, this is a controversy about the beauty (pretiness, prissiness) and the beauty (expressivness) and well, for me expressiveness (the so called ugliness could be very expressive) has the upper hand over prettyness. Correct proportions? Common! I would always prefer the somber sad expressiveness of Michelangelo to the prissy Virgin spinster orgasm`s of Bernini (a great technician, ok).

  21. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Danu. Basically I’m with you. There are those two kinds of beautiful (unless you just call one pretty and the other beautiful). Though don’t you be so unfair to Bernini (prissy spinster orgasms!).I guess one is supposed to have learned from all this that you shouldn’t compare great artists. But I may never learn, at least as far as sculpture goes.

  22. 100swallows says:

    Brenda: Condivi says this: “After he had done these things [the Pietà in Rome], Michelangelo was forced to return to Florence to attend to his family affairs; there he stayed for some time and made that statue known to all as the GIGANTE, which still today [1553] stands at the end of the platform in front of the door at the Palazzo della Signoria.”
    Vasari, however, calls it a David.

    As to the block, both biographers say it had been botched by an artist and was considered worthless. My Hellmut Wohl notes say that it was originally roughed out in 1464, before Michelangelo was born, by Agostino di Duccio. If Condivi is right, di Duccio is the one who spoiled it. In 1476 it was offered to another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, who died the next year. It lay around in the Office of Works until Michelangelo came along.

  23. So sorry, I will be brief!

    You suggest that sculptors have made thick limbs for aesthetic or optical reasons, you mentioned sunlight.

    It is true for structural reasons; sculptors have sometimes made legs or more in particular ankles thicker especially in Marble. (Weight versus strength). The addition of a log or tree helped. Horses were a big problem before the advent of stainless steel armature in the case of bronze.

    Rodin and Maillol are famed for thick ankles. I do not agree that a sculptor needs to alter the ‘ideal’ figure with exaggerated limbs or organs to improve their aesthetic value.

    Light is always a problem, like farmers and the weather, it is never right unless you can control it. Direct sunlight in southern Europe will cast vicious shadows. The super bright sky will affect viewing in silhouette for anything. But at other times of day or when not silhouetted viciously or in Northern Europe where ‘light’ is softer it can be an asset.

    Some academics in the past have got things wrong; Ruskin, HG Wells and Professor Reinhold Hohl just for a start. A great friend, a super successful artist for whom I have made lots of moulds and waxes told me that in her early days when learning the ropes she was advised by an old sweat in the business ‘tell ‘em wrong’.

    Years ago I was suspicious of this old blurb about altering body parts for various reasons (light being one of them) and did my own checking in our gentler light in England. To be fair to you, it was difficult to find marbles outside so I was forced to rely on pictures, works in the V & A, British Museum, Tate, etc. Some works were intended for outside and some inside and location intended was uncertain! Lots were plaster copies of famous works. Canova’s Three Graces was one I looked at closely in the V&A, with video, photos and tape measures. I was watched with great suspicion! I might put their faces on Youtube one day!

    Was it Bernini who said how important it was that a sculptural work should be viewed from all angles? Where a weaker side is obvious the model or pose is often the culprit not the competent sculptor. There may be a best side but the sculptor should never accept a bad side. Some times a profile of a face is better than the front view, this has a lot to do with lighting. Sometimes a neck looks too long from one side and too short from the other!

    David; head and hands too big, fact; don’t know why but the other suggestion is straight error nothing to do with sun light. Head to body ratio is a ten year old.

    I thought we would have to agree to disagree Swallow, but it has been fun and worth the re-think. Please don’t get cross with me.

  24. 100swallows says:


    I found these remarks on thickening limbs for outdoor sculpture in Edouard Lanteri’s guide to sculptors. Do you know his book? It is full of nineteenth-century workshop techniques and secrets.
    Lanteri isn’t the last word on sculpture, of course, and there’s no reason why you should accept his word on anything, having acquired your own experience. And I see you have really investigated the matter. But I find what he says to be true.

    “I have found, from personal experience, that, in the case of a statue that is to be placed in the open air, especially if it is to form a silhouette against the sky, it is absolutely necessary that the thin parts of the horse, the four legs, should be strongly built up, that is to say that they should be bigger than they are in nature, for the strong light devours, so to speak, the outlines and diminishes the volume of the limbs….
    “It is so in sculpture for all works destined to stand out against the sky; all the parts which are detached from the principle mass, such as an arm, a leg, etc., must be strengthened in their volume, under penalty of appearing meagre when the work is once in place, and especially so if it is to be cast in bronze, for the sombre hue of the metal reduces still more the volume of the forms.”
    (Modelling, by Edouard Lanteri, Chapman and Hall, Ltd., London, 1902)

    I don’t mean to give this as a reason for David’s big hand. A possible one is that its exaggerated mass balances off the mass of the other hand and sling better than a correctly-proportioned hand would, especially as seen from below. It acts as a counterweight—a sort of carpenter’s plumb— hanging heavily at the end of the long arm (but not to Michelangelo’s eye long enough ) and helps pull down the right shoulder and accentuate the inclination of the torso as against that of the pelvis.

    The examples you have found to show thin ankles and thin limbs are very good for your case. But I find some of the figures downright anorexic and not very appealing.

    No need to apologize for any of your comments. They are leading deeper into the heart of sculpture than any made up to now, for which I am thankful to you.

    I don’t understand your friend’s advice to “tell ’em wrong.” Is that like the advice Epstein’s French drawing teacher gave him–something like: a strong wrong line is better than a weak correct one?

  25. Thanks Swallow. This guy was Rodin’s teacher; so that is probably why Rodin did such thick ankles! I thought it might just be a French thing!

    This book is considered a classic by many so I will procure one on Tuesday as I am going to Alec Tiranti who stock it. I have seen it before on the shelf but chose other books which do not mention this as you have described it.

    If I posted up some pictures of real anorexia, you might wish I hadn’t! It is a desperately sad condition.

  26. 100swallows says:

    Robert: I don’t know if you can learn much from Lanteri. If, for example, you are already so proficient at making molds that you do them for other artists, then you have found your way and Lanteri’s “secrets” will strike you as merely curious, not useful. I bought his book years ago when I was starting out and had no teacher, and I learned a lot from it. At the time here in Spain they still sold Thomson’s Anatomy too and I did everything those two nineteenth-century teachers advised. Both books are so “dated” that they are fun to read only to crawl into that old lost world.
    How those two would have suffered if they had lived to see the twentieth century!

    As an old teacher of sculpture Lanteri is disgusted at students’ lack of discipline and scientific method and you can just hear the scowling old guy huff as he walks around the classroom and corrects their work. He rubs away a clay collar some student has started for his bust : “What’s this nonsense! We’re here to do heads, not clothes! You’ve spent precious time monkeying with that collar and your bust you began without even taking your measurements!”

    At the front of Lanteri’s book there’s a letter by Rodin flattering his old master and telling him how much he owed to him. Don’t think the work of Rodin has much to do with his, though. You won’t learn anything about Rodin from this book—only what he ignored.

    Lanteri’s own portrait-busts of his colleagues at the university are spectacular—you will see. And he is full of wise observations. But I could never make with his method a statue that I liked: measuring all the time. Much of what he teaches is done by foundry technicians today and with modern materials. But I made molds his way, with fish glue and bluing for the first layer and ropes with wedges and the rest, and I felt triumphant when they came out.

    Enough on Lanteri. When you said you would buy the book I wondered if you would be disappointed. I guess the best are Lanteri’s observations, many of which I haven’t seen anywhere else. You don’t agree about the thickened limbs. I’m sure you will object to many more.

  27. Before I get that book and I find I have to rethink every thing Swallow, I thought I might post a couple of pictures of Sir Alfred Gilbert.


  28. Swallow this book makes fascinating reading. As you say above it is very dated but much of it is not only true it has been put into words! I just found out, not in words but in practise. Of course his attitudes are very 1900 (i.e. pre, dare I say it, Picasso) reflecting the teaching my grandfather would have had. There are fascinating opinions and many rules (of composition etc.) which one would not accept these days. It is also interesting how detail he has gone into things having first said how unimportant they are! But I can’t find the reference to thickening of the limbs you mention. He does talk of ‘spaces of rest’ which I find intriguing. From the diagrams he is effectively filling in sharp areas of form, crevices in the chest, arms and that very ‘ticklish’ bit on each side of the torso above the hip (strangely there doesn’t seem to be a proper anatomical name for it).

    One thing that really does not fit for me is the edict that Michelangelo made about rolling a work down a hill. Even Rodin failed that one!

    Thank you for introducing the book; I should have studied years ago but I suppose I was a little prejudiced when I first saw it.

  29. Pingback: bernini sculptures | Lasts information

  30. Pingback: bernini sculptures | Hottags

  31. L. Eddy says:

    In art history, I was taught that Michaelangelo was applying Brunelleschi’s formulas of perspective to the statue in light of its hight. Viewed at a relatively close distance where the average person would see detail clearly, the statue towers a good four yard above the viewer. The exagerrated sizes helped the statue look correctly proportioned from that angle. While a photographer today may climb stairs or a ladder to look David in the eye, the common man of renaissance florence could not.

    • 100swallows says:

      L. Eddy: Thanks. See the comments following this post for more opinions on this subject. The fact that few people have noticed the exaggerated size of David’s right hand proves that Michelangelo’s bold method of correcting the distortion of perspective was right.

  32. justme22 says:

    I notice Robert Mileham wrote: The David he has portrayed is ugly and grotesque just as he intended i.e. ugly frightening Goliath-like ogre; and to crown it all (if that is the right expression), he has not been circumcised as all good Jewish boys would have been surely?

    I am neither an academic nor an artist, just someone who enjoys art & art history, especially Italian Renaissance, and having stumbled on this I hope you don’t mind my putting in my 2 cents regarding the above observation.

    I’ve just started to read a fascinating book titled The Sistine Secrets by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner. From the title I was a bit skeptical, that it might be something like Dan Brown, but it’s not so at all. It is scholarly, fascinating and fun to read and by the time I finish the book I think I will see Michelangelo’s works, and certain others, in an entirely new light, which is the authors’ goal.

    The authors briefly made the same observation about the David’s uncircumcised state, but that did not bother them at all even though at least one of them is Jewish. As we know, Michelangelo was educated in the Medici palace alongside the young Giovanni and Giulio, both of whom became popes – Leo X and Clement VII – and their teachers were some of the brightest intellectuals (and by the way scholars of Hebrew history, culture and esoteric teachings) of the time – Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, and Poliziano… So we can’t say Michelangelo didn’t know that David was supposed to be circumcised. The simplest explanation according to this book is that Michelangelo probably never saw a circumcised member – and did not want to portray one and risk it being incorrect. Also at the time the Inquisition was going on and he didn’t want to be charged with promoting Judaism or with heresy. Also, the statue was supposed to represent the Florence republic (virtues of strengh, bravery, freedom, etc.) not the Jewish community. And by the way, Michelangelo’s David is not ugly, it’s just that he was given idealized noble greco-roman features (but maybe I find them handsome as I am Italian born myself)and he is caught in a moment of intense concentration and focus as he prepares to do what he has resolved to do. The size of the head, the hand you have already discussed and I thank you for those explanations.
    PS, also worthy to note regarding the Mich-Bernini blog that Bernini used his own face as the model for his action-shot David. I’m not sure if that was mentioned in that blog. I should go back and read it. Thanks.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, justme22. I can’t add anything to the circumcision question. You’d think that if Michelangelo forgot about that detail and one of those intellectuals told him the statue was “wrong”, he’d have set up the scaffolding again and hurriedly circumcised David with his chisel, just as he had “corrected” his fawn after Lorenzo said some teeth ought to be missing in such an old animal. He must have wanted an uncircumcised man, perhaps for the reasons you (those authors) gave. Have you noticed that the slit at the tip of the glans is horizontal instead of vertical? I can’t explain that one.

  33. Pingback: David: Michelangelo’s Best | The Best Artists

  34. Pingback: Michelangelo’s Women and Men | Robert Mileham

  35. Bob Giles says:

    Bernini was so much better. The way he sculpts woman was magical. I’ve always thought the Michelangelo Medici tomb woman was a guy with tits. And the Pieta? I’ve seen many that have more feeling. I’ve seen sculpture all over Italy for decades and Michelangelo was just another guy doing it. He’s sold as a product because of the Church and that ceiling.

Leave a Reply