Michelangelo got his first commission in Bologna: two small statues of saints. He had been studying the human body and found that he liked it above all other subjects. He would have liked to carve a beautiful nude but with a fourth-century saint for a subject that was out of the question.
Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, Italy, for which Michelangelo carved his first two statues (photo by Sailko licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Dominican friars who ran the church wanted two saint statues like all the rest, dressed in long robes and looking saintly—that is, sleepy.
“Well,” he thought. “If I can’t do a nude, I’ll at least try to put some life into the little figure by messing up the Saint’s habit.”
Clothes can make the man
Folds can show you much of the body underneath a garment and mark its movements. Michelangelo decided he would as good as strip that old saint while leaving his habit on. He would cover him all over with the reglamentary cloth (well, a little thinner than habits are supposed to be) and a cape too, but that didn’t mean the man would be in a straight-jacket. You were going to see through that habit where the legs were and how they moved. The habit would tell you what was going on underneath it by clinging to some parts and falling off others; by smoothing out over lifted or prominent areas and dropping in folds over recesses. The folds themselves could be made to have a life of their own: springy, swinging, falling, lying in great, relaxed rings. You could make them do capricious things like double over or bunch up so that they bother a pretty sense of order, like a boy’s cowlick or a disobedient flap of a bedspread. You could give the folds a rhythm, like the ripples in a lake. You could show them flying—still in the air after the movement that preceded them. You could do all kinds of things.
St. Petronius, 1494 (height 64 cm.) In the Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna (Wikiart.org photo)
All in all, when the Petronius was finished, in spite of Michelangelo’s fold-work, it looked pretty much like just any of the saints in churches everywhere, except it was more restless.
For the other saint—the Proculus—Michelangelo made up his mind he was going to have things much more his way.
Michelangelo’s Jogging Saint
St. Proculus, 1494 (height 59 cm.) In the Basilica of St. Domenico, Bologna (Wikiart.org. photo) See this enlarged version
St. Proculus is almost comically—cartoonishly—alive. No habit on this little saint: he’s wearing the clothes of a contemporary Renaissance youth. And there are so many folds and wrinkles in his clothes and so much nervous movement everywhere that he is tiring to look at. He might almost be jogging. Rather than a saint, he looks like a young gallant ready for adventure; and the scowl, which is of course an ancestor of the frown of the great David, makes one suppose he is about to throw off that cape and run to avenge himself, dagger in hand.
Detail of Michelangelo’s David (a Wikimedia public domain photo cropped from Image:Dithering algorithms.png)
Michelangelo couldn’t keep still. He couldn’t make a statue that kept still. He wanted the stone man to come alive, to seem to act.
Sculptors since way back in Greek times had been looking for ways to do that. A man standing stiffly with both feet together, such as it would be natural to carve out of a wooden pole or a stone pillar, is lifeless. That was all right for an idol, like the Egyptian idols or Indian or African totems, which are really just symbols; but now that the sculptor was trying to give you a man, a flesh and blood man, that kind of stiffness wasn’t good enough. Life is movement, tension, variety.
In conversation with the Prior
Maybe while Michelangelo was working on his models for the little statues of Proculus and Petronius, the Prior dropped in on him to see how things were coming along. He was perhaps a man who liked beautiful figures and smiled in surprise when he saw these lively studies by the young sculptor. Then he thought a moment and the smile died. He might have asked: “Are those our two great saints?”
“Yes, prior,” said Michelangelo. “This is Petronius and this is Proculus.”
“Do you think people dressed like that in their time?”
“I don’t know,” said Michelangelo. “They might have.”
“Proculus is very active,” said the old prelate, a bit foxily. “What do you think he is doing? He looks annoyed or angry—not a very saintly expression, is it?”
Though he was not yet twenty, Michelangelo wasn’t a stranger to philosophical or theological talk. At the Medici palace he had dined with and heard some of the best minds of Italy discussing all the important problems. He quickly came up with an answer:
“He could be going out to fight the battle for the Faith. Perhaps he is angry at some injustice. Christ was angry and looked so when he drove the money-changers out of the temple.”
The prelate looked hard at Michelangelo for a moment to see if he knew he was being hypocritical, decided he did, and relaxed, nodded.
“That might well be but he does look a lot like a young man who is no saint at all. Don’t forget: these statues are going to be placed in church, where all can see them while they pray. A church should be a place of recollection, a place of retreat from the world outside. The outside should stay outside. Nothing a Christian’s eyes might fall on should distract him from the deep meaning of life. These our two saints were examples of how to live.”
“But they would not have prayed all the time,” said Michelangelo.
The prelate was ready to give up. “No, I suppose they wouldn’t.” He didn’t really want to quarrel: he didn’t really want to stop the young sculptor from making his vigorous little statue. He wasn’t sure himself just how much of the world a man could enjoy with a good conscience. “Go on with your little Proculus,” he said. “It’s a very nice figure. I only want you to think about what you are doing, about the propriety of such a figure in church. Promise me you will.”
Girolamo Savonarola by (1497) by Fra Bartolomeo, Florence, Museo di San Marco (public domain photo, published here)
Michelangelo couldn’t help remembering the teachings of the Friar Savonarola, who asked: Which is it—this world or the next? Why show off the human body? What is the reason for glorifying it? Sure, it is the temple of the soul but it is also a trap. Are we going to turn away from the delights of this world or fondle them dangerously?
At that very moment back in Florence the great painter Sandro Botticelli was taking a last look at some of his beautiful paintings—the most worldly of them, as he thought. “God forgive me,” he said. “How could I have been so wrong?” And he threw them onto a bonfire. Savonarola had convinced him of his error.
Spring, by Botticelli (c. 1485-1487); 203 × 314 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy ( photo released into the public domain by The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, published here).
Michelangelo would think about this contradiction the rest of his long life. As he matured, the nervous, robust beauty of his figures changed. By the time he was an old man the defiant scowls of his Proculus and his David had long since given way to faces of resignation and grief: the old Nicodemus of the Duomo Pietà, which Michelangelo meant for his own grave, is his self-portrait.
Michelangelo’s self-portrait as Nicodemus in the Duomo Pietá, Florence (a GNU Free Documentation License photo, published here)