Night by Michelangelo

Night (Notte) by Michelangelo (a Wikigallery public domain photo)

She is of white marble and rests on the tomb of Giuliano de Medici in San Lorenzo Church, Florence.

“What can I say of the ‘Night’…? Who has ever seen a sculpture of any period, ancient or modern, to compare with this? For in her may be seen not only the stillness of one who is sleeping but also the grief and melancholy of one who has lost something great and noble…” Giorgio Vasari, Life of Michelangelo

Notice the moon and star on her forehead and the beautiful owl beside her, emblems of the night.

“In this statue Michelangelo expressed the very essence of sleep,” says Vasari. Somebody wrote this poem about her:

The Night that you see sleeping in such loveliness was by an angel carved in this rock; and by her sleeping she has life; wake her if you disbelieve, and she will speak to you.

And Michelangelo himself replied, speaking in the person of Night:

Dear to me is sleep, and dearer to be of stone while wrongdoing and shame prevail; not to see, not to hear, is a great blessing: so do not awaken me; speak softly.

What wrongdoing and shame was prevailing?

“While Michelangelo was laboring with intense love and solitude on these works, Florence was besieged, and this decisively frustrated their completion. Because of the siege, Michelangelo [who was put in charge of the city’s fortifications] did little or no more work on the statues.” (Vasari)

The besieger took the city and Michelangelo had to hide and was lucky not to be murdered.

Night is not the familiar female figure but a hybrid of Michelangelo’s creation. He goes farther away from nature in these Medici figures than in any of his others and requires greater acquiescence from his viewers. Many are not willing to let him lift them so high off the ground. “She may be beautiful but she’s not a woman,” they say.


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For example, few or none have called her breasts pretty. One oncologist thinks he has discovered Michelangelo’s intention. “’Night’ has cancer,” he says. “See that lump in the left breast and the twisted nipple and dented areola?  A tumor.” But why would Michelangelo sculpt a breast tumor? “He was trying to show that in Beauty live the seeds of Death. He probably got some model with a tumor to model for him.”  See his article.

A clever explanation of the singularity of those breasts.  But don’t this woman’s breasts, which he painted almost twenty years earlier on the Sistine ceiling, look similar? Two tumors here, doctor?


Fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Wikipedia photo)

The ugliness of the doctor’s theory is that it makes the beautiful Night disgusting to everyone but an oncologist.

But why did Michelangelo make Night’s breasts like that?  He represented them as life-giving fruit, great stores of nourishment and fertility.  He turned down the “spigot”, as mother’s do, to make it more accessible and  alluring. The unusual relief  is his characteristic way of giving it life and movement.


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27 Responses to Night by Michelangelo

  1. erikatakacs says:

    “Night is not the familiar female figure but a hybrid of Michelangelo’s creation. He goes farther away from nature in these Medici figures than in any of his others and requires greater acquiesence from his viewers. Many are not willing to let him lift them so high off the ground. “She may be beautiful but she’s not a woman,” they say.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Swallows. Before reading the post I looked at the picture and thought Michelangelo recreated the female body to his tastes. Like God. And he is very modern in this sense. Did anyone else dare do something like this until the 20th century?

    The claim tumor, how ridiculous. It could only come from an oncologist. Why do they always have to explain the unexplainable?

    This work is such a revelation to me. Finally Vasari’s “Divine Michelangelo” clicks with me. I have to agree with him.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: I’m going to write a post on precisely what some other artists did after seeing these Medici Chapel figures. It was the beginning of what art historians call “mannerism”.
      I do understand the oncologist. What could he do when he recognized the clear signs of a tumor? It must have struck him as too much coincidence. And then he has probably read that Michelangelo dissected many cadavers (but I bet not a woman’s) in order to learn the secrets of anatomy. So maybe he DID know about tumors. If he DID, then he couldn’t really have sculpted that breast “innocently”, right? The doctor perhaps didn’t know that both Leonardo and Michelangelo, though not always consciously, let art overrrule science.

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  3. wrjones says:

    Not the most attractive female. Looks like a hybrid male/female body. Still amazing in stone.

  4. Rich says:

    Wow! Great!
    Those massive upper thighs…are they exaggerated?
    Anyhow, those breasts look almost faint in contrast. But the ulna by the side looks somehow enhanced.
    Somehow the whole figure looks well balanced out to me.

    The cancer diagnosis of that doctor! Isn’t that grotesque? The expert probably didn’t look at the figure as a whole. To me it looks so sound and wholesome. How can one associate any illness there? Must be that medical’s stance: “Healthy people? There aren’t any – there are only those who haven’t been examinated thoroughly enough yet!”

    And that night-owl is beautiful. Michelangelo placed it in between those thighs, there where the sun never shines-;)

    Magnificent pose of this figure – can’t stop looking at it!

  5. kimiam says:

    I agree with Bills. Hybrid body is painful to look at. Night’s face is suprisingly beautiful, though.

    I have never gotten the chance to see the real thing, but I did get to see a plaster reproduction of this one, cast from the original, on display at the Slater Memorial Museum in CT.

  6. Like the proverbial “trout” I will not rise to this one 100swallows, we are out of season here in England! I do however hope you have survived the gales, we have significant snow coming and going and more to come they say.

    PS I can’t get used to the bright colours of the restored Sistene ceiling, can’t quite make up my mind about it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Robert, aren’t you funny! I think you would get a good following on this one (the hybrid–I suppose you’d say the Frankenstein).
      I heard about your weather there, poor things. At least here it’s still possible to go for walks every other day if you bundle up.
      I can’t get used to those restored colors (if that’s what they are) either.

  7. Rich says:

    eeeh sorry…I’ve been re-reading what I wrote…
    and come to the conclusion:
    “Don’t comment and drink”

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Not to worry. Your observations were a little more exuberant than usual but as good as ever. I actually had trouble figuring out how to say just where the owl was standing. Ended up with that silly “beside” her!

  8. The temptation is very difficult to resist I agree and I have a hundred things I want to say but I must go back to work or we will starve, it is difficult to make a living at the best of times but they say there is trouble in the wind so I had better try harder and work longer in case they are right.

  9. Rich says:

    …on a more sober note I’d better have gone with Walt Whitman and his
    “Out of the Ninth-month midnight”

  10. yalosabes says:

    Me han dicho que tienes algo sobre el Cid, y llevo media hora buscándolo, pero no encuentro nada. ¿No podrías decirme dónde está? Que me vendría muy bien para un trabajo del colegio, pero no te preocupes, que no lo voy a copiar, sólo quiero verlo a título informativo.
    Un saludo.

  11. yalosabes says:

    Pues ya lo estoy leyendo en inglés. No sé hablar, pero leer, sí, un poco. Además, el Goggle tiene un programa que lo traduce todo, y queda bastante bien.

    Hasta luego.

  12. AnnaKate says:

    The oncologist clearly knows NOTHING about Michaelangelo or the history of art.
    Michaelangelo was gay.He was unfamiliar with the female form.And without a wife or mistress to use as muse,the morals of the time made getting access to a live nude female that you didn’t know to use as a model sometimes rather difficult.He was a master of the male form,but it’s generally agreed by most art historians that when it comes to the female form,Mickey was flying blind. You only have to compare his statues to those of the only modern sculptor to rival him,Rodin. Rodin,who used the women in his life as muses,clearly had seen a naked woman in the flesh.The knowledge of female form is clearly apparent,something that is missing in Michaelangelo’s work. Yes,he was the greatest sculptor ever,but his ignorance of the female shape is obvious.

    • Lyndsay Lane says:

      A lot of artists were not familiar with the woman’s body, because women weren’t supposed to model. So if an artist had never had sex with a woman for whatever reason, he didn’t know what the female form looked like. Michaelangelo was gay, so he obviously had not had sex with a woman and probably had little to no interest in the female body. However, he did amazingly with his portrayal of naked men. :-)

  13. Sue Tatem says:

    100 swallows, I am writing about anatomy in Michelangelo and would like to cite your observation. Write me. Sue

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  15. Lyndsay Lane says:

    We learned in Art History that a lot of painters during the Renaissance did not portray women well, aside from some exceptions like Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn’t socially acceptable for women to model for painters, so if they had never (or rarely) seen a naked woman they had nothing to refer to.

  16. Tal says:

    Well, nobody here has advanced any sort of plausible explanation for the anomalous dimples. We have a doctor’s opinion that, regardless of Michelangelo’s intentions, if they were modeled on a real breast, that breast had cancer.

    “don’t this woman’s breasts, which he painted almost twenty years earlier on the Sistine ceiling, look similar?” – er, no. I see no dimples.

    “The unusual relief is his characteristic way of giving it life and movement” – strange then that these dimples are found on no other sculpture of his, not even the other breast on Night!

    “Michelangelo was unfamiliar with the female form” – codswallop. From Wikipedia: “During the 16th century, women’s fashions displaying their breasts were common in society, from Queens to common prostitutes, and emulated by all classes”. Michelangelo knew what boobs looked like.

    Think about the themes in “Night” – sleep, loss, ending, darkness. Breast cancer was a well-known fatal disease even in Michelangelo’s time. Michelangelo was fascinated by anatomy, both from a medical and an artistic standpoint. It was no slip of the chisel, so is it really a huge stretch for him to have done it on purpose?

    • 100swallows says:

      Tal: How can I say that such an thing is impossible? Only that I believe it is unlikely since I can’t think of another instance where Michelangelo purposely made something repugnant.

      Yes, he was an anatomy man; of course he knew what boobs looked like. (Whether he would spend time on a cancerous one is another matter.) Why he chose to make them in a way which would please few people, or none, no one can say. They don’t look natural. That is what disappoints everybody about them. They look clopped onto the pectoral muscles like pomegranates. They don’t look pretty, which is a terrible disappointment in a figure of such beauty and lyricism. I can’t explain that. Neither Vasari nor Condivi even tried.
      Now to that disappointment the doctor wants to add revulsion.
      The doctor’s theory is that Michelangelo purposely depicted a diseased breast, like an apple with a worm hole, to remind us that beauty is always on the rot. There are such ideas everywhere in his poems (and Shakespeare’s!)and other declarations, but I think it is unlike him to actually depict the rot. Caravaggio, yes; Buonarroti, no.

      Of course, what is my gripe? That the doctor calls the crowd to come look at an ugly detail of one of the most beautiful figures by a great master. He does this with the authority of an oncologist. I believe the dimple was intentional (not a slip of the chisel), but for the reasons I gave in the post, and that the similarity with the lumps of the disease is a coincidence. I understand that if doc saw cancer, it surprised him. And no, this is not really like the astronaut who sees a space capsule in a Middle Ages document. And he has every right to make sense out of such an apparently faithful representation of the cancer. But I believe it is his sense, not Michelangelo’s.

    • mmgilchrist says:

      As an art historian who also works on medical history, I’m inclined to agree with you. It’s not just the dimpling, it’s the shape, the hardness – unlike Night’s partner, Dawn. The owl and the Tragic mask accompany her: night = sleep and death. Perhaps she is based on one of the infirmary bodies: just because he’s not interested in women’s bodies sexually doesn’t mean he’s not interested scientifically and artistically. (Leonardo certainly studied female corpses – see his drawings on gestation.)

      I don’t find the breast detail repugnant or grotesque: she’s a beautiful woman who is suffering; the beautiful young man in his San Pietro Pietà has also been suffering. Pain and tragedy are part of Michelangelo’s world, and he transforms them with art into tender and poignant images.

  17. Chels says:

    If I’m being honest it looks like a man that he decided to make a woman at the last minute

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  19. Maia T. says:

    “…it makes the beautiful Night disgusting to everyone but an oncologist”

    I hope no one who has cancer ever has to be around any of you people. I know what I find ugly, and it isn’t that breast.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Clearly, Michelangelo Buonarroti made a statue of a man, then slapped some breasts on. Surely he did see women in his life, it was his artistic choice and his Eve with all the biceps and triceps is no better. Sad, actually.

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