Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 7, 2005
Francis Ames-Lewis and Paul Joannides, eds. Reactions to the Master: Michelangelo’s Effect on Art and Artists in the Sixteenth Century Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003. 286 pp.; 78 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (0754608077)
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When Giorgio Vasari wrote in the 1568 edition of the Lives that Michelangelo had surpassed the ancients, art, and nature itself, he codified a familiar characterization that had already been current in critical commentaries and published letters for decades. Michelangelo was, of course, the hero of Vasari’s history, and it was therefore inevitable that in his construction of the progressive perfection of art, Michelangelo represented an exemplar of inimitable perfection. But, however politically and ideologically motivated Vasari’s Lives may be as a work of critical theory and literary biography, there is also a great deal of truth in what he claims—Michelangelo’s unparalleled achievement in painting, sculpture, and architecture was both a source of profound inspiration and a frustrating obstacle to artists working during his lifetime, as it was to many who inherited his legacy during the following generations. Any artist with ambitions to succeed during the sixteenth century, particularly those working in central Italy, had to confront Michelangelo’s art, whether through imitation, assimilation, or transformation.

While there is an abundance of scholarly literature on sixteenth-century textual criticism and theory with respect to Michelangelo and many of his contemporaries, there has been relatively little attention devoted to the ways in which artists responded visually to Michelangelo as a topic of study. This collection of essays is the first book-length attempt to address this important and complex issue, and it is a provocative and welcome addition to the field.

As Francis Ames-Lewis and Paul Joannides explain in their intellectually generous introduction, these essays had their genesis in an informal, one-day conference they organized in conjunction with a London exhibition of drawings from the Royal Collection. Just as the exhibition focused on drawings after or inspired by Michelangelo’s graphic, pictorial, and sculptural work, together with several autograph drawings by Michelangelo himself, so too this volume retains the same emphasis. The subject of architecture is omitted (as it was in the exhibition), but such an undertaking would have surely required a separate exhibition and a separate volume. In addition to the six essays contributed by the speakers, the editors solicited essays from two other scholars and contributed one each themselves, bringing the total for the volume to ten. While the scope of the volume is necessarily circumscribed, the specific topics addressed in the essays are quite diverse and cover some of the most prominent artists of the sixteenth century, including Allori, Bronzino, Battista Franco, Parmigianino, Pontormo, Salviati, Raphael, Vasari, Marcello Venusti, and Alessandro Vittoria. The reader will also find discussions of other artists who were significant participants in defining the visual culture of their generation, but who are perhaps less well-studied than those mentioned above, including Giovanni Battista Naldini, Cornelis Cort, Santi di Tito, Pietro Candido, Francesco Morandini, and the Spaniards Alonso Berruguete, Gaspar Becerra, and Pablo de Céspedes. Such a diversity of artists and topics might have easily become a disorganized mosaic were it not for the judicious organization of the volume by the editors. The essays follow one another more or less chronologically according to the artists discussed in each, and thus they invite the reader to pose questions and draw comparisons between them.

The central premise of the volume and the exhibition that preceded it place “a particular—though not exclusive—emphasis on drawings, for it is in drawings that artists reveal their thought-patterns most intimately, and it is from drawings that one can recreate most plausibly the conversations that artists and works of art hold with one another” (4). Within this premise, the theme of “borrowings and copies” informs all of the essays to a greater or lesser degree, which further helps to create a cohesiveness between the variety of interpretive approaches and subjects presented by the authors. As the brevity of this review prohibits discussing each essay individually, a summary of some of the highlights will have to stand as pars pro toto.

In “Raphael’s Responsiveness to Michelangelo’s Draughtsmanship,” Ames-Lewis offers an insightful and expansive discussion of the ways in which Raphael understood and responded to Michelangelo’s conception of the male figure through his draughtsmanship. Ames-Lewis’s analyses of drawings is purposeful and perceptive as he outlines the two particular phases in Raphael’s career where his engagement with Michelangelo’s formulation of “rilievo” through the muscular nude in motion was most pronounced: the later part of his Florentine period (dominated by the Borghese Entombment) and immediately following his first experience of the Sistine Ceiling in Rome.

Ames-Lewis convincingly locates the identity of these two phases in the different graphic techniques Raphael cultivated in each, which likewise mirror two similar phases in Michelangelo’s early draughtsmanship. The important issue of Raphael’s accessibility to Michelangelo’s drawings during these two periods is woven throughout the discussion, and the reader comes away with a clear understanding of not only Raphael’s intense engagement with Michelangelo’s draughtsmanship, but also how the different graphic techniques imparted different stylistic meaning to the ideal body.

The complexity and stylistic variation of Francesco Salviati’s art and his response to Michelangelo is taken up by Joannides in his essay, “Salviati and Michelangelo,” a significantly revised and expanded version of the essay he contributed to the 1998 exhibition catalogue, Francesco Salviati o la Bella Maniera (Milan: Electa, 1998, 53-55). Joannides argues that Salviati’s experience with Michelangelo’s art underwent a variety of manifestations throughout a career largely determined by circumstance: the fortuitous access to drawings or the conceptual goals of a particular commission.

Joannides also skillfully tackles the challenge of integrating the broad and porous community of artists, patrons, and friends in which Salviati worked, and effectively addresses its role in Salviati’s choices and opportunities. This essay is rich in the material it offers the reader. Joannides proposes some important new attributions, suggests plausible hypotheses about what Salviati might have seen of Michelangelo’s work and when—whether originals, copies, or drawings by other artists inspired by Michelangelo—and discusses the ways in which Salviati reformulated Michelangelo’s art in developing his own visual language.

The resonating impact of Michelangelo’s “New Sacristy” during the sixteenth century is the subject of Raphael Rosenberg’s essay on the chapel’s “reproduction and publication” in drawings and prints by Franco, Salviati, Naldini, and Cort. While it is likely that many more drawings after the “New Sacristy” were made than now exist, Rosenberg examines a selection of high quality, more finished drawings, and argues that their primary purpose was to provide visual models for the reproduction of Michelangelo’s sculpture in frescoes, prints, and other drawings.

Through close visual analysis, Rosenberg distinguishes between drawings that were intended for the purpose of study and those that were clearly destined to serve as models for other images. Rosenberg also revisits some problematic attributions and offers a few new ones that help to clarify previous ambiguities in the scholarly literature. The issue of the “reproduction” of Michelangelo’s sculpture as models for other works of art is in itself fascinating, and it raises the much larger question of how the unprecedented style of the “New Sacristy” figures was understood and contextualized by artists both as a current exemplar of Florentine cultural identity and as the most prolific example of Michelangelo’s sculpture.

Michelangelo’s collaboration with other artists has long been a subject of tentative fascination among art historians who have, for the most part, preferred to cultivate the construct of “individual genius” initiated by Vasari and his generation and perpetuated by critics and scholars ever since. In “Michelangelo and Marcello Venusti: A Case of Multiple Authorship,” William Wallace addresses this issue head on in a lucid and enlightening discussion of Michelangelo’s rather extensive collaboration during the later part of his career with Marcello Venusti. Probably most well known today for the copy of the “Last Judgment” he made for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1548, Venusti was also a successful and highly regarded painter in his own right and, as Wallace convincingly argues, was a talented and trusted associate of Michelangelo.

The immediate context for this collaboration was an increased demand for works by Michelangelo at a time when his age and “waning energy” required him to focus on only the most significant projects. Wallace concentrates on the altarpiece commissioned for the Cesi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome as the principal example of this collaboration, but also discusses several other paintings by Venusti where Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings are seen in relation to Venusti’s interpretation and realization of them. Wallace also underscores important distinctions between sixteenth-century ideas of authorship and authenticity and their contemporary definitions, which renders all the more valid the concept of collaboration as Wallace presents it.

There are other high points in this volume, such as Rick Scorza’s excellent essay on “Vasari, Borghini and Michelangelo,” where much engaging new material is presented on this important and relatively understudied subject. As with many collections of essays assembled as a book under a shared theme, there is a noticeable unevenness in the quality of the essays, particularly in their critical depth and formal analyses. At times, the reader encounters obvious formal descriptions and visual comparisons that beg for more substantial and incisive interpretations. Despite these occasional shortcomings, this collection is significant and will undoubtedly succeed in fulfilling the editors’ hope of stimulating “further work on this general area which, given Michelangelo’s overarching influence throughout the century, has been comparatively neglected and still offers great scope for scholarly research” (10).

Melinda Schlitt
Professor, Art History; William W. Edel Prof. of Humanities, Dickinson

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.