Copying Michelangelo

“Now that’s what I call style!” one of them said.

It might have been Vasari, Cellini, Pontormo, Parmaginino, Tintoretto, El Greco, Rosso, or a dozen other young artists who crowded into the Medici Chapel to copy Michelangelo’s figures.


Tintoretto made these copies of Day:



Naldini copied Giuliano de Medici’s head and long neck:


And here on the base of Benvenuto Cellini’s famous salt cellar are  two of the Four Winds, take -offs on Michelangelo’s Dusk and Day:




The figures were the master’s latest and most stylized work. “In the four [Medici Chapel] statues,”  wrote the nineteenth-century historian and art critic Jakob Burckhardt, “Michelangelo…proclaimed his boldest ideas on the limits and aim of his art.”
Wasn’t an artist supposed to not merely copy nature but to improve on it? Here was improvement all right, here was artistic manner.


The older art lovers were a little disappointed. “The master has gone too far mannering the women,” they said. “Those aren’t women. Imagine what they would look like if they stood up.”

But the young artists smiled at that old generation who weren’t able to comprehend the revolution coming.  They smiled and they went home and tried out Michelangelo’s new manner on their own canvasses.

“And that was the straight road to [their] ruin,” said Burckhardt.

By “ruin” he meant Mannerism—a style of art they toyed with for thirty years.

The great Tintoretto was intrigued by the bunches of muscles everywhere on both sexes.  Many wanted to experiment with the curious masculine shapes Michelangelo gave to the female nudes Night and Dawn, and their unusual  elongation.

“Long is pretty,” they told themselves and proceeded to stretch their figures and give them long necks and small heads for elegance.  Cellini put both innovations into this Nymph of Fontainebleau that he sculpted for a delighted King Francis.


Nymph of Fontainebleau, Louvre, Paris

Parmigianino thickened this Venus’ waist à la Michelangelo:


And stretched out this Virgin and Child:


Even the old Titian gave this Venus a  Mannerist look:


The Death of Actaeon, National Gallery, London

El Greco was the one who made most of the snaking.  He  found the distortions of figure and space just right for his immaterial world. He was the most spiritual of artists. He turned bodies into souls.


Laocoön by El Greco

What happened to Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel innovations?  They became world famous  when he exploited them on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, in his Last Judgment. From then on, as one critic put it, Michelangelo became the destiny of Italian art. The great Baroque painters were still drowsy with his dream a hundred years later.


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17 Responses to Copying Michelangelo

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Wonderfully put and illustrated, Swallows! El Greco “made most of the snaking.” I won’t forget that line soon.

    Though I never really ‘studied’ Mannerism, as I have other periods of art, it has stayed with me more than many. Mainly because it always seems to be the best example of a maxim I think everyone, not just artists, would do well to remember: progress isn’t always progress. Nothing, especially art, moves inexorably on towards something better.

  2. Michelangelo says:


    When great minds copy, progress can be made. When lesser minds copy, it is only vanity in the name of progress. Such are the nature of hacks…The way I created Form, any such “distortions” were, in details, what Nature had not vision to achieve; the world was made in only 7 days..these designs were the result of extensive thought and understanding of effect the human body has upon those whose eyes will happen to see…An elongated neck, or fingers, or waist because it suits the whim of the artist, because it is what “progressive” artists do with the art, is really the blind navigating a ship…Perhaps I had taken Art to such a level; who can go higher lest they are one with the gods?

  3. Rich says:

    Thanks to the discussion on “Michelangelos Last Paintings” (thanks to Ken also) I now know better what mannerism is all about.
    Before, if you would have asked me: “What’s the difference between Mannerism and Expressionism”, I would have answered “it might be both about the same – kind of a subjective exaggeritism.”

    As far as I have understood: Mannerism in the art world is somewhat reserved to the human figure. Perhaps a mannered horse may exist. Don’t know. Perhaps trees can be mannered as well…
    Just asking.

  4. wrjones says:

    Some beautiful work. They were so skilled. Still I wonder if some of the elongation was not just an error.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: I suppose you don’t mean an error in the artist’s judgment as he painted (the neck, say, was too long and he didn’t realize it) but an aesthetic error which he thought might be worth challenging and so committed on purpose. I would say they all went into a cul de sac if it weren’t for the best paintings of Tintoretto, Bronzino, and El Greco.

  5. Rich says:

    Yes, Swallow’s “cul de sac” is a fine explanation.

    El Greco somehow evaded this cul – at least the Laocöon depicted here is one of my favorite mannerist paintings.

  6. expat21 says:

    I didn’t know about this lengthening. You’ve given us good examples of it here, for us to see.

    Expat 21

    • 100swallows says:

      Expat21: Yes, but remember that the lengthening was just one of the new tricks. Another was the strange crowding of space and the messing with perspective. I bet you wouldn’t like that either.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    I’m really starting to dislike El Greco being labeled as “mannerist”. Why does he have to be boxed in? His style is so different from the other mannerists’. He stands alone like Bosch, there’s no one like him before or after him, he’s not part of any group.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: That’s an art historians’ thing. I agree he deserves his own page in their books. You wonder how patrons in that conservative old city “put up ” with that weird style of his in the sixteenth century. But just back from a good exhibition of his work, I can only say that the style works, the paintings take you in.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    It’s been interesting reading these comments, especially on El Greco. And it reminds me that I did have one reservation as I wrote about how striking the “made most of the snaking” phrase was. It concentrates on stylistic similarities of the artists portrayed here. And it really is wonderfully put! But Swallows follows with another phrase: “He turned bodies into souls”.

    I think that phrase probably more accurately reflects the substance of El Greco. I haven’t seem him in years, though I used to pass the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Art Institute of Chicago every time I visited. My guess is that Erika’s complaint about boxing him in and Rich’s about evading the cul de sac of style both relate to this. There is much substance to El Greco, and even though his snaking style seems like so many of the others, there is much more to him than style……..

  9. zeladoniac says:

    That’s an fascinating connection of the dots: Michelangelo to Mannerism. I wouldn’t have guessed, but it makes sense. Does anyone think the Mannerists were more than a cul de sac? They certainly took anatomy to strange lengths…that Virgin and Child is a good (and weird) example. The Tintoretto sketches, however, are gorgeous.

    • 100swallows says:

      Zeladoniac: That Tintoretto looks a little bumpy. Reminds one that some people called Michelangelo’s men “sacks of potatoes”. But notice who turned them into those—not Michelangelo. It does seem that Tintoretto spun off in all the wrong directions. Most of those Mannerist experiments fizzled out, their devices disappeared. The two big Baroque artists, Rubens and Bernini, went back to Michelangelo basics like Titan-size, swirling poses, a bottled-energy look, classical proportions. A painter like Velazquez even considered Michelangelo and Rafael too “Manneristic”.

  10. Tintoretto made these copies of Day:

    Now if an eminent medical man of the 21st c was to diagnose a “condition” here it would I think, be more believable than the breast cancer diagnosis on a previous post.

    Such are the dangers of applying science to Art at times.

    I mean no detrimental criticism of the works here, quite the contrary.

    Did you see the comment about the mole hill in William III’s statue 100swallows?

    • 100swallows says:

      Robert: I hope you don’t mean any detrimental criticism to Medicine either (a smiley). I just got through telling Zeladoniac I thought Tintoretto’s copy made Night look bumpy. Might I suggest the Bubonic Plague? It looks very much like a witch’s curse on Mike and all his works.
      No, I didn’t see that comment and I was just at your place this morning, admiring all the fine foundry photographs. I’ll hurry over now.

  11. drawings says:

    thank you for good information!

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