The Philosophical Development of Michelangelo and the Artistic Contribution to the Italian Renaissance

The High Renaissance began at the turn of the sixteenth century, and various artists adopted a new approach which was influenced by a Christian reworking of Plato’s ideology, or Neoplatonism. Artists dedicated to the principles of Neoplatonism, which was encouraged by the Latin translation of Plato’s work in the early 1400s, would create artwork centred around the glorification of God’s ultimate reason. Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor, painter, architect and poet born in the small village of Caprese in 1475. His art and philosophy was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, which influenced him to create art that encouraged an understanding of God and His grace in order to begin to comprehend divine beauty. His familiarity with Neoplatonic theory was stimulated by his relationship with the Medici family in Florence and their interest in Marsilio Ficino’s reworking of Platonic theory. This ideology helped Michelangelo construct a vision of the ideal representation of the human form, as a way of celebrating being made in the likeness of God. In this essay, I will examine Michelangelo’s artworks, how they are influenced by Neoplatonism and link his art to his poetry in order to elaborate on his philosophical development and artistic contribution to the Italian Renaissance.

Giorgio Vasari, author of The Lives of Artists, viewed Michelangelo’s David as the masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, claiming that ‘anyone who sees this statue need not be concerned with seeing any other piece of sculpture done in our times or in any other period by any other artist.’ Michelangelo achieved great fame after completing the statue of David, and due to its artistry and scale, it became a symbol of the Renaissance. David is a Christian symbol of bravery and God’s power. The story of David and Goliath follows a young peasant who volunteers to slay a Philistine giant in order to protect his homeland. Michelangelo draws the attention not to David’s armour or weaponry, like Donatello does in his bronze David, but to the power of God represented by David; God gave a young man the strength to defeat a giant with just a sling and a stone and without any armour. Michelangelo’s David was sculpted in the controppasto – or counter-balanced – stance and is triple the height of the average human, which is unrealistic in terms of David’s Biblical portrayal; however, he over-exaggerated his height partly because the statue’s original location was supposed to be high above the ground as a part of the roof of the Florentine Duomo. Because of its mass and beauty, it was displayed in the Piazza del Signoria instead. This change in location made it more accessible for the public to appreciate and understand the message of God’s power and grace and the way He incorporates His glory into the human form.

Michelangelo viewed everything in line with his idea of concetto; ‘he knew that the artist gifted with intelletto can see the inner form which the marble block hides from others.’ The Idea exists beneath the work of art as not only a representation of something, but a recreation of ideal forms. As Leon Battista Alberti says, sculptors have the power to ‘[reveal] in the marble a form… the potential shape of man, which was at first concealed. This concept became known as levare, or the belief that the ideal form, preconceived by God, exists beneath the marble and the recreation of divine beauty waits for an artist equipped with intellect to unveil its form. Thus, Michelangelo saw his David hidden beneath the marble when his colleagues thought the marred block was useless. Going against typical iconography, Michelangelo’s David focuses on the power of the body through anatomical appreciation that is encouraged by the power of God, instead of a contextually accurate nude. Therefore, Michelangelo uses Neoplatonic ideas to highlight the perfection of the human figure as a reflection of divine form. Michelangelo reflects upon his belief that human beauty mirrors the divine beauty of God in his poetry:

In order to return where it came from,

the immortal form came down to its earthly prison

like an angel so full of compassion

that it heals every mind and honours the world […]

nor does God, in his grace, show himself to me

anywhere more than in some fair mortal veil;

and that alone I love, since he’s mirrored in it.

To Michelangelo, the soul is eternal and must be housed in a corporeal shell during its time on earth, but will return as a soul when reunited with heaven. In order to achieve divine love, one must love the eternal soul rather than the body which is subject to decay. Human love is the precursor of divine love; it is the first step to appreciating God’s grace beyond the beauty of humans. Sonnet number 83 was written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri in light of God:

To people of good judgement, every beauty

seen here resembles, more than anything else does,

that merciful fountain from which all derive;

nor have we another sample or other fruit

of heaven on earth; so he who loves you in faith

rises up to God and holds death sweet.

In this excerpt of the poem, Michelangelo describes beauty on Earth as simply a resemblance of the destiny of the flesh. Human beauty is imperfect but God’s beauty is eternal. In the words of Michelangelo, ‘good painting is nothing but a copy of the perfections of God and a recollection of His painting.’ God is the ultimate artist of the universe and His ‘creations are more infallible than those of nature itself,’ therefore man can merely strive to recreate the beauty he poured into the creation of the universe. At the core of Michelangelo’s philosophy is his preoccupation with what lies underneath, for underneath every ‘mortal veil’ is evidence for the power of God’s creation. This is similar to David; Michelangelo shows interest in uncovering the knowledge of the source of all beauty, which is and always will be God, instead of focusing on the beauty of the body.

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is one part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was commissioned by Julius II in 1508. The painting follows God’s creation of mankind and displays God reaching out who comes to give life to a reclined Adam. God is muscular and wise, and Adam is young and well-built. Adam and God seem to be at the same level and they have a similar anatomical composition, which invites the viewer to discern the similarities between Adam, a human, and God, a divine being. Once God creates man, he gives man the power of feeling the divine within themselves, therefore Michelangelo views God and humanity as equal parts of the universe, the only thing separating us from God is our earthly sin and mortal plight. Rather than breathing the breath of life into Adam, God seems to be reaching out to Adam as if he would transfer life to Adam through a single touch. Adam, however, appears to be alive already, as he is able to lift his arm to meet with God’s. Adam becomes an allegory for dust, which God supposedly formed man from, lifeless and stable, waiting for God to gift its mind with consciousness. God’s touch can then be associated with the mind; his touch gave mankind the ability to have a conscious mind. After all, the vehicle of flowing fabric that carries God to Adam appears to hold the shape of a human brain. Vasari mentions that ‘on many occasions Michelangelo dissected dead bodies in order to study the details of anatomy, and began to perfect the great skill,’ so a familiarity with the human brain is not an impossible interpretation of the painting. Therefore, God’s touch becomes a symbol of the giver of a mind that is latent with the beauty and grace that embodies God, which exist exclusively in heaven and the human mind and soul. The beauty of nature exists outside of art, and this divine beauty is present within our minds. God has gifted humans with ‘an apparent expression and declaration of the concetto which one carries in the soul and of that which is likewise imagined in the mind and formed in the Idea.’ This apotheosised vision of beauty that is present within our minds gives us the capability to discern divine forms through their earthly moulds, because, according to Plato, what we can see in the physical realm is a reflection of a divine form, and, with regards to Neoplatonism, it is a reflection of the glory of the Creator. Within our conscience we have the divinity of God, but our corporeal flaws divide the human figure from the divine one. Michelangelo thinks of the artist as minor to God, but still a mirror of him:

If my crude hammer shapes the hard stones

into one human appearance or another,

deriving its motion from the master who guides it,

watches and holds it, it moves at another’s pace.

But that divine one, which lodges and dwells in heaven,

beautifies self and others by its own action;

and if no hammer can be made without a hammer,

by that living one every other one is made.

Michelangelo is creating an argument for the existence of God: nothing can be made without something that is capable of creating it. If humans exist, then something must have existed before us, therefore God has to exist, otherwise humans would not have been created. This is much like The Creation because Michelangelo is reflecting on the concept of beauty rather than the real. He is celebrating the beauty of God that is clear within the human mind but cannot be represented in art.

Because God shares the divinity of his soul with humanity, the source of beauty is within the human soul because it is a mirror of God’s grace. Michelangelo reflects on the gracefulness of the soul in Sonnet number 151:

Not even the best artists have any conception

that a single marble block does not contain

within its excess, and that is only attained

by the hand that obeys the intellect.

The pain I flee from and the joy I hope for

are similarly hidden in you, lovely lady,

lofty and divine; but, to my mortal harm,

my art gives results the reverse of what I wish.

The beauty of the divine soul is incapable of being represented; it is hidden within the human body just as the reproduction of an ideal form hides beneath the marble. Michelangelo is not celebrating the physical beauty of Vittoria Colonna, the woman in which Michelangelo dedicated this sonnet to, but instead he praises her spiritual beauty. The artist must strive to represent the soul rather than the body because the soul is the closest earthly link to the divinity of God, and the best way to do this is to produce art that is non-finito. Leaving his artwork unfinished is the only way the viewer can grasp an idea of the soul; it encourages sympathetic engagement. In his sculpture Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo goes beyond the Renaissance and begins to embody the idea of mannerism. Mannerism is the ‘dependence on artificial and derivative representational formulae that depart from natural appearances’ and uses visual hyperbole to bring the viewer closer to the symbolic meaning of the artwork. This is why Michelangelo represents the figure of Jesus with a completely detached arm. Michelangelo wants to draw our attention to the arm as symbol of Jesus’s fractured body and loss of human condition in order to achieve something beyond it. He sculpts them in a standing position as a nod to the art of the Middle Ages; elongated figures express the idea of going towards a higher position in the world. By representing the soul of the piece, Michelangelo is encouraging the viewer to see Jesus’s sacrifice as God’s plan, which liberates the soul from the confines of the body. Michelangelo is aware that the ‘hand that obeys the intellect’ could never come close to representing the devastation of Jesus’s death, so he leaves it unfinished. The statue is an allegory for the imperfection of an earthly life and the perfection of God’s plan and creation.

With Neoplatonist theory as a foundation, Michelangelo succeeded in producing art that glorified the creation and grace of God and the way he transfers this grace into human beings. It could be argued that Leonardo da Vinci was more in tune with the aims of the Renaissance. He was mostly concerned with the science and anatomy of the body and how it could be accurately represented in art; he celebrated science as a form close to God because it explains God’s creation. This was the opposite of Michelangelo’s approach, as Michelangelo was more interested in the power of the body, and in representing the body in a way that highlights its power – whether this is a realistic approach or not – he was focusing on the power of God as the driving force. Michelangelo’s approach was more convincing because he did not use science as a mediator for God’s grace, but instead he sought to represent His grace directly through the human soul. Michelangelo’s contribution to the Renaissance was artwork drenched in the Christian faith; his solid beliefs allowed him to create art that is representative of the God-given beauty he felt within his soul. Thus, Michelangelo not only created art that was immensely beautiful, his artwork becomes a historical snapshot that embodies Christian devotion during the end of the Renaissance.   

07 July 2022
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