Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 2, 2020
Christian K. Kleinbub Michelangelo’s Inner Anatomies University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 260 pp.; 40 color ills.; 77 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271083780)

Among premodern artists, Michelangelo is by far the most written-about individual. Through books, articles, and popular culture we are inundated with information and interpretation about him. While the onslaught of literature will and must continue, it is rare when a book offers a fundamentally new way of considering the artist. Christian K. Kleinbub’s book Michelangelo’s Inner Anatomies does just that. It offers meaningful and original investigations into Michelangelo’s sense of self and the meaning of his art.

Kleinbub seeks to turn Michelangelo and his art inside out. Rather than looking at surfaces and outward appearance, Kleinbub investigates how Michelangelo might have understood the orchestrations inside the human body that gave rise to his artistic forms. As expressed by the author, Michelangelo’s figures “embodied meanings that were intended to reveal the soul and spirit at work inside and through its corporeal encasement” (63). In particular, the book explains in masterful and accessible prose how Michelangelo envisioned the workings of the human brain, heart, and liver and then expressed those beliefs through his art. Kleinbub looks carefully at gestures and poses that might seem incidental and proves that for Michelangelo, they are invariably purposeful and fundamental to interpretive nuance. We gain insight into Michelangelo’s own brain and heart, not to mention his liver.

After an introduction through which the author lays out his basic methodology, the book advances through case studies that rely on this new consideration of the body’s interior. Many of the featured works are relatively obscure, thus presenting some challenges. On the one hand the reader longs for similar illumination of more famous works—the Rome Pietà, the David, the Moses, the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a whole. On the other hand, such new forms of investigation can lead to the pitfall of seeing everything through too narrow a lens and thus risk rhetorical exaggeration that compromises the reliability of the basic thesis. The seesaw at times tips both ways, but the book ultimately offers fresh avenues into Michelangelo studies.

Chapter 1 commences discussion by way of two admired drawings by Michelangelo intended for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Kleinbub introduces The Rape of Ganymede, using a sheet attributed to Michelangelo in the Fogg Museum (Cambridge, MA), and The Punishment of Tityus, in the Royal Collection (Windsor, UK), both circa 1532. Kleinbub begins with the basic interpretation of Erwin Panofsky that the drawings may be understood in the context of sacred and profane love, specifically addressing intellectual and sensual pleasures, respectively. Kleinbub persuasively argues that there is more going on, with Ganymede’s visual reference upward and toward the brain, the body’s most divine organ, while the horizontal Tityus emphasizes the liver, believed to be the seat of physical desire. Kleinbub thus enriches Panofsky’s long-standing account and the book is off and running. Kleinbub similarly advances Panofsky’s analysis of the Louvre Captives originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Here the author sees not only a struggle between the spiritual and the physical but also a battle between the intellect (brain) and desire (the liver).

Michelangelo’s drawings for Tommaso are among the most beautiful and evocative in the history of art. One thus wonders how other works might factor into this narrative of interiority. Even drawings not directly related to Tommaso might be considered in this context, such as the enigmatic Archers (Windsor Castle, UK) who shoot toward a Herm but are mostly oddly weaponless. Even if this sheet was not intended for Tommaso, why wouldn’t interiority apply? Or one might consider the theme of The Fall of Phaeton, known in different versions that clearly refer to various realms of being.

Chapter 2 takes Michelangelo’s poetry as the artist’s primary vehicle for expressing the role of the heart, especially regarding love. Kleinbub introduces the “eyes-heart axis,” whereby the eyes act as the visual means through which a person falls in love. Michelangelo expresses this simply and directly in a poem by writing, “Anything that seems beautiful to my eyes / passes through them instantly into my heart” (68). Much of the love poetry again relates to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, highlighting this particular and unique relationship.

Kleinbub relates these concepts to other works of art, specifically drawings Michelangelo made for the fortifications of Florence, which Kleinbub dates to circa 1528–29. Kleinbub convincingly explains that it is not unreasonable to see analogies between a military assault and the assault of love. The city’s gates thus become the eyes through which an assailant (or lover) threatens the heart of the city (or beloved). There is a long history of anthropomorphizing architecture, with the author noting sources at least as early as Vitruvius that reach elaborate theoretical expression in the Renaissance through Leon Battista Alberti and Francesco di Giorgio Martini. We might still today refer to the apse of the church as its head, the nave as its body, the transept as arms, and so on. For Michelangelo to think of the city’s walls as a skin and its gates as eyes, all protecting the vulnerable heart of a physical core, was consistent with period rhetoric.

The third chapter primarily considers the enigmatic painting of Venus and Cupid, designed by Michelangelo and executed by Pontormo, circa 1532–33. It was a widely copied image and one with a potent eroticism. Kleinbub posits that the painting’s key is the index finger of Venus’s left hand, which points to her heart. He takes us through myriad interpretations and other related pictures and ultimately offers the key theme as amorous wounding, or physical love as a choice “to put reason aside; one takes the arrow and wounds one’s own breast willfully” (95). In effect, desire wins out over reason. While this argument has merit, perhaps the message can be better summed up as a warning than as a conclusion.

The fourth chapter features another collaboration between Michelangelo and Pontormo in the painting of Noli me tangere (Do not touch me), circa 1531–32, which exists in multiple versions and copies. Regarding interpretation of this work, the author and I must agree to disagree. In my view of the painting, though Christ’s fingers visually overlap with Mary’s chest, there can be no physical touch, as Kleinbub asserts; Christ points toward Mary’s heart, and if the implied three-dimensionality of the scene were witnessed from a different view, I believe a space would be seen between them. The invisibility of the space only adds to the dramatic tension. The most famous nontouch in art is certainly the visible gap between the hands of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Though often incorrectly described as the moment before God confers the spark of life, it is actually the moment just after. Adam is clearly alive—his eyes open and his body actively posed—and the moment represents the separation of God from humankind, thus making the coming of a new Adam, Christ, necessary and inevitable. In Noli me tangere we again witness a poignant moment of separation: Christ does not touch but gestures to the Magdalene’s heart. Indeed, based on Kleinbub’s argument of “Christ’s planting of the seed of faith in the heart of the Magdalene” (125), in this way Christ metaphorically touches her soul. There is no need for an actual touch—it is part of the miracle of faith.

Chapter 5 takes as its starting point the scene of the Brazen Serpent from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, generally understood as a prefiguration of the raising of the cross. Gesture is paramount as one figure points to the brain of a companion and another to a person’s heart. Kleinbub links the gestures and argues that the brain and heart operate in tandem and complement the healing of the body with the healing of the soul. He explains that Michelangelo understood the ventricular model of the brain (a familiarity that is implied in Michelangelo’s poetry), whereby the front of the brain contains senses and imagination, the middle judgment, and the back memory. This might also help explain a remarkable drawing known as The Dream (Il Sogno), meant for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, where Kleinbub specifies the placement of the trumpet on the anterior ventricle—the site of imagination.

Finally, Kleinbub addresses the Pauline Chapel frescoes—among the most frustrating of Michelangelo’s works both stylistically and in their meaning. The author interprets these paintings as addressing faith: “to embrace faith and then act on that belief” (157). One must search for some of the details, but once they are pointed out it is impossible not to note them as relevant. Indeed, Kleinbub’s close looking rewards the reader by unlocking some of these works’ finer mysteries.

In his conclusion, Kleinbub investigates Michelangelo’s late designs for an Annunciation—carried out by Marcello Venusti after 1546—as known through copies and related drawings. In one basic design, the Archangel Gabriel points to Mary’s brain and in another later design points to her heart. Kleinbub reasons, based on his reading of Augustine, that they were “intended to signify Christ’s preliminary incarnation in the Virgin’s mind before his incarnation in the flesh of her womb” (176). Kleinbub ultimately reveals that with Michelangelo, when it comes to the heart versus the brain, the heart usually wins.

A. Victor Coonin
Rhodes College

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