Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2004
Paul Barolsky Michelangelo and the Finger of God Atlanta: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2003. 84 pp.; 5 b/w ills. Cloth $12.00 (0915977494)

We know a great deal about Michelangelo: we have his poetry, his letters, the biographies written by Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari—individuals who knew him well—and many comments made by friends, acquaintances, and enemies. Of course we also have his art and architecture, which we can assess with our own eyes. That art, studied in relationship to the sixteenth-century writings about the artist’s life and his works, offers a rich heritage that is still open to new interpretation, despite decades of scholarship on the topic.

This volume, which publishes three lectures—“The Metamorphoses of Marble,” “The Finger of God,” and “The Gravity of Art”—given by Paul Barolsky at the Georgia Museum of Art, is small only in size and price. What Barolsky shared with his audience in Athens and shares with us in this volume is a wealth of new insights into Michelangelo as a man and an artist. The author’s ideas are in part based on his analysis of the words used by Vasari, Condivi, and others to describe Michelangelo and his works. Barolsky ruminates over each word, examining its source, its connotation, its “cultural implication,” and, on occasion, its intentional ambiguity, all in order to bring us closer to the great Italian Renaissance master and his works. In discussing a possible interpretation of the early Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, Barolsky poses a connection between the protagonists—the Lapiti—and their “lapides, the stones with which they lapidate their enemies,” coining a phrase for his own method when he refers to the process of “detecting … wordplay made visible…” (17).

The “visible” part of Barolsky’s approach comes when he urges us to reexamine works we think we know well. Pointing out that the bases of some of Michelangelo’s finely finished figures look like unworked stone, for example, he concludes: “Such fictions of faceted stones are paradoxically a finished form of the non finito, since they are the illusion of stone that has been faceted by the carver to resemble stone that has not been carved at all” (22–23).

In the essay from which the book takes its title, Barolsky points out that the figure of Adam in the Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling demonstrates another kind of non finito because the figure is represented awaiting the gift of spirit from God. Tracing the history of the representation of God the Father in Italian art, Barolsky demonstrates that Michelangelo’s full-length, weighty, flying figure of God in this scene is not only a new kind of representation of the deity, but also one that fulfills the Biblical description of God as being “spirit-filled.” Barolsky also relates Michelangelo’s emphasis on God’s “divine digit” to the manner in which “finger” and “spirit” are used interchangeably to refer to God in Genesis, as well as to the importance of this finger as the means by which God wrote the tablets of the law. He also points out that this prominent finger is a reference to God as the creator—the first artist and architect. Reminding us that Michelangelo’s Adam carries a reference to the second Adam, Jesus, Barolsky concludes that a more complete title for the famous fresco would be God Creating Adam as the Prophecy of the Descent from Heaven of the Spiritual Body. Such a notion relates the ceiling’s Genesis cycle to the figures of prophets and sybils that enframe it. By highlighting the physical similarities between the muscular bodies of God and Adam, Barolsky emphasizes that Michelangelo was “the first artist to make fully and forcefully visible what the Bible tells us” when it stated that God made Adam in his own image (36); what is most often taught as a stylistic preference thus has a strong textual imperative.

Among the expansive topics Barolsky addresses are Michelangelo’s concern with his own mortality, his identity as a “man of stone,” and his relationship to his patrons. Barolsky emphasizes that in their writing Michelangelo and others chose groups of words that, when understood as a whole, can be revealing. Michelangelo’s fear that he was the prisoner of his patrons, for example, is explained by Barolsky in a passage in which the author analyzes a group of words used by both Michelangelo and Condivi:

Lacci, catena, giogo, correggia, carcere, prigione, legato, istiavo—snares, chain, yoke, rope, prison, bound slave—this language, resonating throughout his poetry, letters, and autobiography as recorded by Condivi, contributes ultimately to the image of Michelangelo petrified in his own Captives, forever memorials to his anguished captivity. (5)

Barolsky’s last chapter examines how Vasari’s retelling of Michelangelo’s experience as he painted the Sistine Ceiling can be understood as a parallel to Dante’s spiritual journey in his Divina Commedia, a text that Michelangelo knew well. Barolsky also points out that Vasari’s role in the sanctification of Michelangelo is evident is his use of the same words to describe both God and Buonarroti. Barolsky’s own attitude toward the artist is no less reverent.

Being invited to give public lectures at a museum offers the scholar an exciting opportunity: a chance to pick a topic of broad general interest and to speculate about it before an enthusiastic public. One senses Barolsky’s delight in bringing to his listeners, and now to his readers, a view of Michelangelo that moves us closer to what the artist thought about himself and what his contemporaries thought about him and his work in the sixteenth century; the lectures are sweeping in their scope and impressive in the depth of their scholarship. Barolsky includes a bibliography, but rightly eschews footnotes in order to keep our attention focused on broader issues. Published lectures were a staple of art-historical scholarship in the past, but this practice seems to have virtually ceased; this volume is a most happy recent exception.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome