Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 26, 2001
Alexander Nagel Michelangelo and the Reform of Art Cambridge University Press, 2000. 303 pp.; 105 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0521662923)

In his sustained and enlightening meditation on Michelangelo and the figure of the dead Christ, Alexander Nagel has persuasively repositioned the artist’s work within a climate of historicism and reform. He has also achieved much more than this.

Long before Vasari, as Nagel reminds us, artists had been mindful of art’s own history. Their definition of change—whether stylistic or iconographic—and their attitude toward it, embodied the highest kind of self-consciousness. With respect to art in the High Renaissance, Nagel wishes to revise the seasoned art-historical narrative in which change, conceived as innovation, assumes the nature of an identifying “cultural assumption,” applied, as it were, from the outside. He suggests looking at change as an “historical problem” that was itself part of a quickening art-historical awareness embedded in the consciousness of artists (1). And Michelangelo was nothing if not an erudite art historian.

In works that have seemed to earlier commentators to be puzzling, counterintuitive, or simply failures, Michelangelo reveals himself to be a discriminating observer of the past. It is one of the merits of this book, in fact, that Nagel focuses on the problematic, the anomalous, and the contested by way of restoring to us not only a fuller, more nuanced account of the artist’s range, but something of Michelangelo’s creative dilemmas—his dialogue with himself. In the Introduction, for example, the author retraces Michelangelo’s early drawings after Giotto and Masaccio by asking how the past is being interpreted here. Nagel demonstrates how the results in each case are the product of a delicately calibrated historical sensitivity, showing how he “wrestled with the father but paid homage to the grandfather” (8). The compositional and stylistic anomalies of the London Entombment—the work that is most central to this book’s argument and that occupies more than half of its length—are beautifully analyzed despite, or perhaps because of, that work’s own controversial and somewhat clouded genealogy. Since it is so central, in fact, it is a pity not to have at least this painting reproduced in color. Surely we could talk, for instance, about the implications of color in the artist’s depiction of the dead or seemingly dead Christ, a kind of archaism of color. Michelangelo’s awareness of art’s history, furthermore, is the key to unlocking the relation of his formal and iconographic experimentation to the reforming religious climate of the sixteenth century—aesthetic reform meets spiritual reform in the crucible of history. Michelangelo turned to the past precisely because of its “past-ness,” its guarantee of purified spiritual authenticity, and in order to marry archaism with artistic and religious renewal.

This is a bold thesis that is well argued in the two major parts of the book: “History Painting and Cult Image in the Altarpiece” and “Presentation and Withdrawal: Michelangelo’s Late Pietàs.” This journey takes us from the painted Entombment to the sculpted Rondanini Pietà, from archaism to archaeology in the author’s apt formulation (16). This division allows Nagel to move both backwards and forwards in time, beginning with fifteenth-century conventions in painting sacred history and devotional imagery in the altarpiece. He focuses in Part One on the challenge of representing the imago pietatis, the body of the deceased Christ, as both subject and object, corpse and Corpus, in symbolic and physical relation to the altar. The chapters of Part One (“Transport and Transitus,” “Man of Sorrows and Entombment,” “Humanism and the Altar Image,” and “The Altarpiece in the Age of History Painting”) guide us through the “`intra-artistic’ processes” (27) by which Michelangelo came to his unsettling Entombment composition. Here, he brings to bear both Albertian historia and classical conceptions of tragedy, as well as the powerful, emotive movement of the ancient Meleager relief and Mantegna’s figural language. His perceptive articulation of Michelangelo’s interest in “conveyance” and “trajectory” (46) shows how the artist conversed with Fra Angelico and Rogier van der Weyden, especially their Deposition and Carrying of Christ subjects. Nagel shows, too, with equally careful and elegant insight, how the equivocally dead Man of Sorrows becomes transformed by Michelangelo to full-length in the Italian context, becoming the major subject of a painting.

One wonders if the artist contemplated weight as spiritual metaphor as well as physical problem, an idea that would undergird Nagel’s encapsulation of bodily transport becoming a universal transitus across history (48). This idea of spiritual encumbrance also supports his argument for connections with the humanist context, since antique culture supplied the very engine of reform through bacchic and ecstatic motifs. The ceremonial mystery of this new type of the Dead Christ is affirmed through a refashioned and allegorized interpretation of art’s own legacy, both Christian and pagan. Ultimately, Michelangelo arrives at the accomplishment of an altarpiece “that no longer needs an altar” (112), a break with the past that was well understood by Raphael and artists later in the sixteenth century.

As much as the Entombment represents a dialectical engagement with tradition, Michelangelo’s later works in drawing and sculpture constitute a withdrawal from it; they are part of a kind of supradialectic, Nagel seems to imply, that is driven not only by Michelangelo’s religiosity but by the increasingly restless reform currents of the mid-sixteenth century. These include the contemporaneous critical view that the image itself was in “crisis,” a view identified by Hans Belting and others (143). The popular Beneficio di Christi of ca. 1542 was perhaps the most conspicuous of the written tracts articulating a restored relationship with the divine. Nagel takes us through Michelangelo’s response to these currents in the shorter Part Two, accompanying us through the quiet, more private and abstract themes of “Passionate Withdrawal,” “Artwork and Cult Image,” and “Sculpture as Relic.” He begins with the presentation drawings in which the Man of Sorrows type reappears. These reach their apogee in the extraordinary series of finished drawings portraying the Pietà for Vittoria Colonna from ca. 1540. The divine body, taken out of history, hovers between death and resurrection. Yet it alludes to both events in its pristine, pulsing, and yet often ambiguously rendered outlines. These are the graphic traces, then, of a kind of rhetorical dismantling preceding the spiritual renewal of which reformers spoke. Here, too, the antique, in the form of the bacchanal, allows Michelangelo to probe the question of the regenerative function of religious art and the representation of the Passion. The drawing as gift, further, is itself a product of this same questioning whereby the single and personal language of giving parallels the interiorized human dialogue with divine grace, and iterates the sense of excess that distinguishes a gift from the mere commerce of exchange. The author’s steady analysis of the whole series of Passion drawings—some contested in attribution and others simply awkward—is one of the finest contributions of this book to Michelangelo studies.

Nagel discusses, finally, the late sculptures as introspection on a grand and devastatingly moving scale. They belong to the era of a larger separation of art and religion that characterizes the Reformation in the North and Tridentine culture in Italy. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment itself stands at this watershed. In this anxious climate, the artist’s shift from panel to wall, and from painting to drawing, takes its place. So, too, does his final “retreat” to sculpture that asserts the medium’s prominence not only within the framework of the paragone but, essentially linked to this, in its capacity to reform (199). The Rondanini Pietà stands at the end of the journey as unfinished, stripped and lacking all historical referent, and our sympathy is invited here as much by absence as by presence.

If there are two major achievements to be singled out among the many of this important book, they would be, first, the investigation of the concept of reform as it is engaged by art and in terms of art’s own history. Nagel mentions early on the sovereign study, perhaps an underappreciated one, of Gerhart B. Ladner by way of introducing the subject, and he grounds his inquiry on more recent scholarship, such as that of John O’Malley and others, as this relates to the sixteenth century. He also interweaves throughout his book the commentaries of sixteenth-century critics responding to works of art themselves—the opponent of Michelangelo, Giovanni Andrea Gilio, is an example. In so doing, Nagel shapes his account of change in Michelangelo from both within and without. He shows, in this way, how art was a constituent as well as an instrument of reform, and how it could be as opinionated, contradictory, and hermeneutically sophisticated as any written production. Second, and related to this, there is the notion of archaism. This is the means by which an artist makes polemical use of the past to solve a problem in the present. Archaism constitutes a self-conscious, even ironic, and necessarily assertive adaptation of earlier modes of expression. In the case of Michelangelo, it helped to shatter the boundaries between the work of art and the observer, between aesthetic delight and prayerful contemplation, and ultimately between the work of art as devotional object and gallery artifact.

Meredith J. Gill
University of Notre Dame

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