'Fare una cosa morta parer viva': Michelangelo, Rosso, and the (un)divinity of art.

Author:Campbell, Stephen J.
Position:Rosso Fiorentino

... because painting comes from Shades, and Sculpture from Idols.--Anton Francesco Doni, 1549 (1)

Whenever (as very rarely happens) a great painter makes a work that seems false and deceitful, that falseness is truth, and greater truth in that place would be a lie.--attributed to Michelangelo (2)

Michelangelo Buonarotti was not the first or the last artist to be called divine. (3) Yet from the close of the fifteenth century, the Florentine artistic culture from which Michelangelo emerged shows signs of a very particular preoccupation with the analogies between human making and the creative act of God. Whether implicitly or explicitly, artists claimed to provide at least the appearance of life or being, of a superhuman beauty generated from "nothing" that ultimately transcends the limitations of the visible and the material. Thus, artists grappled in their work with a tension between two modalities of the image while arguably finding creative sustenance in it. On the one hand, the image was a manifestation of divine authority and an authentic object of devotional attention. Certain images that had come into being through miraculous rather than human means, or those in which divine approbation was revealed through the working of miracles, occupied a fundamental place in the devotional life of the city. (4) On the other hand, the image was a display of human virtuosity, wherein a repertoire of increasingly refined artistic skills and techniques creates a powerful, emotionally affecting, and completely illusory simulation of presence--including divine presence. (5)

By 1550, when Giorgio Vasari produced his Lives of the Artists, Michelangelo had come to epitomize the conception of a divine artist, to the extent that he appeared to have overcome the distinction between the two modalities. In his near-hagiographic portrait, Vasari asserted that Michelangelo not only embodied the triumph of human art worthy of being compared with the work of God but also that he was the living ideal of the Christian artist. Moreover, Michelangelo's seemingly divine ability to make inanimate figures seem alive was no mere emulation of God's creation but the result of an authentic visionary power. For instance, the artist's Last Judgment is no less than the image of the "true judgment" and the "true resurrection" of the body, willed by God himself to men "so that they will see what fate does when supreme intellects descend to earth infused with grace and with the divine wisdom." (6)

Vasari's underscoring of the artist's godlike status with piety and a divinely ordained mission arose from a distinctly defensive purpose. He was writing in the wake of a series of devastating attacks on Michelangelo, which insisted on the perverse, irreligious, and corrupting character of his religious painting. Yet while Counter-Reformation polemic may have motivated Vasari's attempt to redeem artistic divinity, we shall see that his remarks stand as the climax to more than half a century of intense preoccupation with the analogy of human and divine making on the part of the artists of Florence. In the decades before Vasari wrote, certain of Michelangelo's contemporaries responded to his work in terms that both draw on and call into question the possibility of a divine basis for human art. In the verse of the Florentine poet Francesco Berni and in the early artistic practice of the younger painter Rosso Fiorentino, such claims, while recognized, are also subjected to an ironic scrutiny and even challenged. The "eccentric" tendencies in the early work of Rosso, who is usually understood (not without reason) as a Michelangelo follower, can be shown to be informed by a body of theoretical, meta-artistic concerns already circulating in the practice of his contemporaries. As will be demonstrated below, the concerns raised in Rosso's art can be seen to have touched Michelangelo himself, in a manner that is most in evidence in the Medici Chapel project of the 1520s and in the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment, the work that resulted in a massive critical backlash against the artist and an increasingly anxious preoccupation on the part of the Church with the place of art in the service of religion.

Michelangelo and Rosso Fiorentino

The context for the single documented encounter of Michelangelo with Rosso seems at first glance far removed from the domain of artistic exchange and theoretical speculation. By all accounts their interaction was a fraught one, marked by rivalry and jealously guarded professional hierarchy. The younger artist, it appears, had overreached himself, causing offense to the dominating (albeit absent) figure of the Roman artistic scene, or at least to his followers in Rome. From the letter of apology, dated October 6,1526, that Rosso sent to Michelangelo in Florence, it can be inferred that Rosso was reported to have made disparaging remarks about the Sistine ceiling: "you were persuaded that I, on getting here [to Rome] and going into that chapel painted by you, declared that I did not wish to work in that style." But Rosso claims he has been slandered. He hastens to assure Michelangelo that he had really "never pronounced it to be otherwise than divinely made [divinamentefacta]." Rosso insists (perhaps too much) that both Michelangelo and his art are divine, the authentic image of each other, and asserts that he had spoken of the divinity "not only of that work [the Sistine] but of you and all your other works.... Nor do I think you will attribute this to vile adulation, for I am absolutely certain that you yourself are aware of it, since without that awareness you would not be able to work...." (7)

Not much has been made of the fact that Rosso's comment is a rather precocious ascription of divinity to Michelangelo Buonarotti. It is conventionally held that the first to do so was Ludovico Ariosto, who, in his 1516 version of Orlando Furioso, acclaimed "Michel piu che mortal Angel divino." However, the notion of artistic divinity was particularly "in the air" in Rome following the death of Raphael in 1520. Poets such as Antonio Tebaldeo had conferred an extraordinary posthumous canonization and deification on Michelangelo's chief rival, comparing his death on Good Friday at the alleged age of thirty-three (he was actually thirty-seven) to the death of Christ: "What wonder that you lost the light like Christ / He is the God of Nature, you the one of art." (8) Similarly, Rosso's proclamation of Michelangelo's divinity seems to be a far from casual usage. Rosso urgently insists that he really means it, and that Michelangelo, too, must believe it.

The word divine in the sixteenth century had a commonplace sense, as it does today, with many nonliteral applications. (9) But certain usages of divino seem stronger and more deliberate, with a polemical and defensive dimension that has not often been acknowledged. Those who applied the term to Michelangelo, as we will see, often explicitly drew attention to the word's primary connotations. In a letter to the artist of 1543, Anton Francesco Doni asserted that "your marbles and your colors deserve more honor and more reverence than the gods themselves, so that you should be adored by men and without dying be raised by angels to one of the most splendid thrones of Paradise." A subsequent remark by Doni reveals his awareness of the potentially blasphemous nature of such a comparison: "And certainly I take you to be a God," he adds, "but with license from our faith." (10) Vasari establishes Michelangelo's superhuman character through a systematic analogy with the sublime figures he produces and through a pointed and deliberate usage of terms such as divino. God's creation in the Sistine Chapel is worthy of being rendered only through the supremely divine hands (divinissime mani) of Michelangelo, who wanted to show together "the perfection of art and the greatness of God." (11) Vasari's divinization of Michelangelo influenced a more than commonplace usage of the term at midcentury by other writers. The 1550 biography of Michelangelo very likely inspired Benvenuto Cellini's highly literal appropriation of the role of divine artist for himself (complete with prophetic visions and halo) in his own Vita composed in the 1550s, in which a divine agency authorizes and sanctifies a deeply transgressive authorial persona.

The very year in which Vasari's first edition of the Lives would give the phrase "il divino Michelangelo" widespread currency, the notion of the artist's divine nature was deployed with particularly ruthless irony by Pietro Aretino. This was in the notorious letter to Michelangelo, published in 1550, in which the writer roundly denounced the pagan profanity and immoderate artistic license of The Last Judgment. For Aretino, the pretensions of Michelangelo's high style, applied to the most sublime event in sacred history, produced a spectacle worthy of a brothel or a bathhouse: "For how can that Michelangelo of such stupendous fame, that Michelangelo of outstanding prudence, that Michelangelo of admirable habits, have wanted to show to the people no less religious impiety than artistic perfection? Is it possible for you, who through being divine do not condescend to the company of men, to have made this in the foremost temple of God?" (12) Aretino's facetious deployment of the term divino places Vasari's usage in a more defensive light, especially as Aretino, as we shall see, was not the first to cast ironic aspersions on Michelangelo's divinity.

The analogy between the artist and God rests particularly on what Michelangelo's defenders considered the most characteristic singular feature of his performance: his ability to create the illusion of life, to "make" human figures with a dynamic energy and superhuman beauty that betoken beings conceived in the Promethean fantasia of the artist rather than after human models. David Summers observes that the ignudi of the Sistine Chapel ceiling...

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