Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 1999
Michelangelo Buonarroti The Complete Poems of Michelangelo Trans. John Frederick Nims. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 185 pp.; 2 b/w ills. Cloth $25.00 (0226080331)
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Call this a time when translations of Michelangelo’s notoriously difficult poetry have entered into their own in English, and be grateful for the heroic labors of so many first-rate translators. John Frederick Nims’s fine new rendition of Michelangelo’s complete poems is the fifth major one to appear since 1960.

In that year Joseph Tusiani offered the first rendition of the entire corpus in appropriately elevated, energetic, often enigmatic verse. Three years later Creighton Gilbert produced a marvelously exact, tonally accurate, scrupulously scholarly translation. In 1987, George Bull produced a documentary version with useful notes and apparatus. 1991 brought James Saslow’s dense, dramatic, and sometimes provocatively daring version, replete with first-rate apparatus and revisionary commentary.

Both Gilbert and Saslow are art historians, and they bring to their work an enormous erudition and mastery of philological detail, source study, contextual awareness, and multilayered exegetical reconstruction. Nims and Tusiani are poets, the latter a native Italian, the former a much-honored creative writer and translator of Spanish (notably St. John of the Cross) as well as of French, Greek, and other Italian poetry. Nims’s efforts allow us to imagine the spontaneity, the attentiveness, the craft of a verbal artist who was not afraid to push the syntactic and semantic envelopes of his language in quest of complex representations.

Consider the extended sonnet 5 addressed to John of Pistoia about painting the Sistine ceiling, “A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning.” Tusiani exploits the topic’s comic potential in his rhyme: “Defend,” he writes, “my honor which grows fainter: / The place is bad; besides, I am no painter.” Nims gets an extra dollop of comic wit by yielding a staccato rhythm: “I don’t belong! / Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.” Without being literal about it, and of course missing the aspersion cast at the physical location of the ceiling, Nims nonetheless catches the free-wheeling fun of the poem. Tone or fidelity, which matters more?

Gilbert consistently comes closest of all in fidelity to the literal statement of the original, so how do his renditions compare with Nims’s? Consider the celebrated sonnet 151, translated by Nims as “Nothing the best of artists can conceive / but lies, potential in a block of stone, / superfluous matter around it.” To sculpt is to chip away at stone, to reach every possible form that already exists inside matter. Gilbert translates these lines as “The best of artists never has a concept / A single marble block does not contain / Inside its husk.” That version is less circuitous, perhaps, than the original Italian, but it is illuminating and conceptually rich. Nims, on the other hand, aims for complex expression and dramatic beat, often through hypermetric rhythm: “I’m doomed, I groan: / art thwarting the very end it longs to have.”

For erotic subtext and narrative momentum James Saslow’s translation is hard to beat. Here is his version of the key lines of sonnet 94, where the speaker wishes he were a silkworm to clothe Tommaso de’ Cavalieri’s hunky chest (bel seno) with “furry pelt” (l’irsuta pelle): “I wish it were my own fate thus to clothe / my lord’s living body with my dead hide.” Nims’s version projects the speaker’s urgency, if not exactly his unrequited desire, to provide a “plushy pelt” for Tommaso’s idealized frame: “To clothe my living lord, how I wish I / could flay my dying hide to drape his shoulders.” Desexualizing the chest to a pair of well-formed shoulders, Nims approaches the enigmatic detachment of the original where flesh and artistry stare each other down.

The famous fragment 247, spoken by the figure of Night on the Medici tombs, carries Michelangelo’s enigmatic detachment to the limit. “To sleep,” Nims translates, “even more be made of stone: how these / are sweet, in a world of jobbery and shame.” The sense of social criticism in this versions is only latent in the original. Nims brings a contemporaneity to his work that reveals a wonderfully many-sided Michelangelo. Just how far the artist consciously pursued some of these sides remains open to question. We are grateful to Nims for heightening the possibilities.

William J. Kennedy
Department of Comparative Literature, Cornell University

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