Sublime, sublime. Didn’t Michelangelo ever try to be funny?
Here are two grotesque masks that Michelangelo used as decoration on the cuirass (armor) of his great marble figure of Giuliano de’ Medici:
Giuliano de Medici See a large version here)
Perhaps they are Medusas—faces meant to frighten the enemy. Yet, because they are so silly, perhaps they were supposed to be insulting as well. Insulting?
The Renaissance idea of funny wasn’t like ours. Many jokes and stories were triumphantly mean. The man who was superior or felt himself superior pulled a good one over his enemy and then insulted him, mocked him. “[Already] in the Middle Ages we read how hostile armies, princes, and nobles provoked one another with symbolic insults, and how the defeated party was then loaded with symbolic outrage,” says Jakob Burckhardt in his study of Renaissance wit.
By Renaissance days, when many were trying to become great heroes and personalities, this victory wit had become popular. Italy was full of beffe and burle—clever tricks and remarks to put the other guy down or stamp on him when he was underfoot.
Today these do not seem very funny, though a mask like this one (not by Michelangelo) might make us crack a smile:
Could mockery have been the aim of this mask by Michelangelo on the keystone of the Porta Pia in Rome?
The three masks by Michelangelo are taken from Ludwig Goldscheider’s unsurpassed Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, first published in 1953 by Phaidon Press, Ltd.