Night (Notte) by Michelangelo (a Wikigallery public domain photo)
She is of white marble and rests on the tomb of Giuliano de Medici in San Lorenzo Church, Florence.
“What can I say of the ‘Night’…? Who has ever seen a sculpture of any period, ancient or modern, to compare with this? For in her may be seen not only the stillness of one who is sleeping but also the grief and melancholy of one who has lost something great and noble…” Giorgio Vasari, Life of Michelangelo
Notice the moon and star on her forehead and the beautiful owl beside her, emblems of the night.
“In this statue Michelangelo expressed the very essence of sleep,” says Vasari. Somebody wrote this poem about her:
The Night that you see sleeping in such loveliness was by an angel carved in this rock; and by her sleeping she has life; wake her if you disbelieve, and she will speak to you.
And Michelangelo himself replied, speaking in the person of Night:
Dear to me is sleep, and dearer to be of stone while wrongdoing and shame prevail; not to see, not to hear, is a great blessing: so do not awaken me; speak softly.
What wrongdoing and shame was prevailing?
“While Michelangelo was laboring with intense love and solitude on these works, Florence was besieged, and this decisively frustrated their completion. Because of the siege, Michelangelo [who was put in charge of the city’s fortifications] did little or no more work on the statues.” (Vasari)
The besieger took the city and Michelangelo had to hide and was lucky not to be murdered.
Night is not the familiar female figure but a hybrid of Michelangelo’s creation. He goes farther away from nature in these Medici figures than in any of his others and requires greater acquiescence from his viewers. Many are not willing to let him lift them so high off the ground. “She may be beautiful but she’s not a woman,” they say.
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For example, few or none have called her breasts pretty. One oncologist thinks he has discovered Michelangelo’s intention. “’Night’ has cancer,” he says. “See that lump in the left breast and the twisted nipple and dented areola? A tumor.” But why would Michelangelo sculpt a breast tumor? “He was trying to show that in Beauty live the seeds of Death. He probably got some model with a tumor to model for him.” See his article.
A clever explanation of the singularity of those breasts. But don’t this woman’s breasts, which he painted almost twenty years earlier on the Sistine ceiling, look similar? Two tumors here, doctor?
Fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Wikipedia photo)
The ugliness of the doctor’s theory is that it makes the beautiful Night disgusting to everyone but an oncologist.
But why did Michelangelo make Night’s breasts like that? He represented them as life-giving fruit, great stores of nourishment and fertility. He turned down the “spigot”, as mother’s do, to make it more accessible and alluring. The unusual relief is his characteristic way of giving it life and movement.