Frank Lin asked:
Who do you think was the better sculptor, Bernini or Michelangelo? ….I’d say Bernini surpasses Michelangelo in skill, facile of skill, and dramatization. He has a larger body of work, was more prolific…
I agree. Bernini was a faster stone carver. He could run circles around Michelangelo. And Bernini had more ideas, more ease at expressing them, less hesitation.
Yet I think Michelangelo was the better artist. Why?
There is more of Michelangelo in his statues than there is of Bernini in his. Every stroke of the hammer seems to come after he has thought about it; and there is no part of his figure that he didn’t re-create. Nothing is merely copied from a real nude. He never just does “a toe” or “an arm for this gesture”. He transforms every single feature, makes it part of a very tight general design; and the design is a vision of his, not a model sitting on a stool.
There is something halting about Michelangelo’s style. Let’s say it is like Hemingway’s style versus Scott Fitzgerald’s. You see that each word of Hemingway’s is molded to fit a rhythm and a sound, and those words mean as much—or more than—the story. Fitzgerald writes well, but it is the story itself he is concerned with and there is no impression that he wouldn’t exchange any word for another, let alone a sound.
Michelangelo’s work is more abstract and so less bound to the real flesh and bone contraption.
His men are Renaissance architecture—they are governed by strict laws of symmetry and geometric design, which here and there he relaxes for surprise and grace. He turns the body into a sort of building. He sculpts broad masses and then decorates them with the accidents of flesh or cloth that serve his architecture.
Michelangelo exaggerated that (geometric) design, Bernini and the Baroque exaggerated gesture. It is typical of Michelangelo’s statues—it was even supposedly a rule of his—that they are compact, that no limbs protrude; and of Bernini’s, that arms and legs and drapery stick out everywhere.
Bernini shows them acting. Bernini entertains. His statues call. Bernini knows that no one will spend time looking at a statue unless it is spectacular, unless it comes half-way toward him.
Michelangelo makes his figure as deep and as beautiful as he can and leaves the viewer to his own resources. His figures meditate—it is as though you surprise them in thought and your look is indiscreet.
The one (Bernini) was an extrovert, the other (Michelangelo), a reclusive brooder. Michelangelo was always trying to please only himself. Bernini was like the stage director as well as the playwright, minding the show. Michelangelo sculpts a lyric poem, Bernini hammers out a catchy ballad.
Bernini’s beauty is of a fleshly kind. He never manages to get into another realm, try as he might—and he tries. His figures stay outside you. You look (since they are invariably DOING something, you watch), you admire. But the action or the detail they show anchors them forever to the material world. Their struggle doesn’t pass from them to you, the viewer.
Michelangelo’s was the stronger personality. Which of his figures could be done by another? Which parts of them?
Our own time feels more affinity with Bernini’s sculpture, partly because its excellence is more easily reach-able. Michelangelo’s vast mental universe with all its Renaissance swagger and tragedy is long gone. His ideas of perfection too. No one has heard his muse in centuries.