Saturday, December 22, 2012

Michelangelo's Lost Hercules

In 1492, at the age of seventeen, Michelangelo carved the first free-standing over-life-size statue to be created in 1500 years. He had been living in the Medici palace as a guest of Lorenzo de Medici, and this experience brought him into contact with ideas, scholars, artists, and philosophers that awakened his mind and shaped the man he would become. It was an idyllic time of over three years that came to an abrupt end when Lorenzo died.
Paul Joannides, professor of art history at University of Cambridge, has suggested that a small bronze figure of Hercules in the Victorian and Albert Museum may be a miniature of Michelangelo’s eight-foot-tall Hercules, carved when he was seventeen, immediately after the death of Lorenzo and Michelangelo’s return to his father’s home.

<!--[if !vml]-->Such small bronzes, made for wealthy patrons and travelers, were based on extant sculpture, similar to the plaster copies of David that can be found for sale everywhere in Florence today.  Very small bronze Davids were being produced within a few years of the statue's completion.
If the small bronze does reflect a larger sculpture, what sculpture would that be?  We have no large sculpture that conforms to this small bronze, so the small bronze may represent a now lost life-size or larger figure important enough to be desirable to patrons in the form of small reproductions.
What, if anything, makes us think this small bronze may be a copy, or an iffy or weak copy, or even a bastardization of the lost Michelangelo?  Joannides points out that the small bronze figure’s legs are crossed, fine enough in a small sculpture, but a dangerous engineering practice when designing a large free-standing figure, especially in stone.  Supporting all that weight on the strength of a crossed-legged pose would require an audaciousness we have come to understand was characteristic of Michelangelo.  
When we look at the David we see that Michelangelo supported six tons of stone on two thin ankles, the bulk of the weight falling on the figure’s right leg, which Michelangelo helped support with the addition of a small stump.  Other artists would have supported such a figure with a tree, a pillar, or some other very large structure to help carry the weight.

But, apart from sheer audaciousness, is there any possible symbolic significance to crossed legs that add to the suggestion that the small statue may indeed represent a lost Hercules?
The myth of Leda and the Swan tells the story of Zeus appearing before the mortal Leda, impregnating her with the demigod twins, Castor and Pollux.  These sons came (thru the narrative of a larger myth) to represent the spring and the fall equinoxes, respectively.  Castor can be found, especially in Mithraic statuary, raising a torch above his head, thereby signifying the rising sun of spring renewal, whereas his twin, Pollux, is illustrated with his torch aimed down at the ground, head bent down, representing fall; together the two may represent life and death. We might also note that the figure rests on his club, much as Pollux does, and looks downward. 

The small bronze Hercules rests on his club, again much as Pollux does, as he looks downward toward the earth.  While Hercules’ club represents the sun, the symbolic interpolation from torch--a symbol of life-giving power--it is also a symbol of political or corporeal power.
It is worth noting that the marble Hercules was created immediately after the death of Lorenzo de Medici and Michelangelo’s return to his father’s home.  It was a hard period of time for the young Michelangelo.  Lorenzo had become a surrogate father to him, one of several he would adopt throughout his life.  His own father had little use for or understanding of art, and had wanted the young Michelangelo to drop all this artist nonsense and go into banking.So the Hercules was, we know, created during the year immediately after the death of Lorenzo (and Michelangelo’s metaphorical expulsion from the Medici circle, even if self-imposed) and a period of time in which he was in mourning.
Michelangelo would return to the subject of the loss of Lorenzo later in life with a fragment of a poem beginning:  “Broken are the high column and the green laurel that gave shade to my weary care,” and it is reasonable to think that during the year-long Hercules project, Lorenzo was on Michelangelo’s mind, and that the untimely death of the Florentine patron, a herculean figure in Michelangelo’s life if ever there was one before the Pope, clouded his emotions, disturbed what had been an easy and optimistic life.   
In his later poem, “high column”may remind Michelangelo of the column of marble from which he carved his statue.  He might well have intended a play on words with “green laurel”:  laurel = Laurus, and Laurus (Lorenzo) is gone, broken.  (See: Barkan, “Michelangelo, a Life on Paper.”)
It is also reasonable to suggest that after the death of Lorenzo, Michelangelo’s first thought would have been to create some work of art to commemorate the great man.  The choice of Hercules, in itself, is enough to link the figure to Lorenzo. 
Until a better counter-argument is made, we can draw a reasonable inference that the small bronze does reflect Michelangelo’s lost Hercules.
One other element may support this claim as well. While most images of Hercules are massive-bodied sculptures, even hypertrophied giants, the small bronze depicts Hercules as a much more slim, although muscled, figure.  Michelangelo would not create massive-bodied sculptures for many years, and the drawings we have from this period of time leading up to the tight, hard-bodied David, demonstrate an aesthetic approach to the body that was anything other than gigantic.

We might now turn to a drawing by Rubens, said to be of the lost Hercules of Michelangelo.  This drawing diverges in important ways from the figure we have been developing up until now.  The legs are not crossed, most specifically. 

But the Rubens figure does show a non-standard slimness, and Rubens' Hercules wears a kind of head scarf or turban.  If a turban, this could suggest a self-reference; self-portraits often used a turban to indicate the subject as painter. (Cezanne, Rembrandt, Jan Van Eyck.)

If Michelangelo’s lost Hercules was based on the idea of Pollux (also known as Cautopates), a figure in Mithraic imagery always wearing a loose cloth Phrygian Cap, designating a status as slave, this could explain the head-scarf/turban of the Rubens drawing.  Whether or not we need to—or can—take the next step and attribute to the pseudo-Phrygian cap the symbolism of “slave” or “freed slave” as found in Roman relief sculpture, we are free in, but not entirely uncautioned against, attaching slave symbolism to the image of Hercules. As with the David, there is close self-identification of Hercules with Michelangelo himself. Hercules becomes both Lorenzo and Michelangelo; the self-reference of slave cap could indicate his being forever bound to Lorenzo, or perhaps finally freed (albeit with the attendant terrors of a newly freed slave) to wander the world.  (The degree to which Lorenzo shaped Michelangelo’s idea of himself is impossible to fully fathom.)
Michelangelo’s self-identification with David was strong. We see this in his own writing, but also from obvious comparisons between the two figures and their confrontations with seemingly insurmountable tasks, and (I believe) from the proportions of the David. We know that Michelangelo was of medium build with broad shoulders, not particularly heavily built, but with immense strength and endurance This is a fair description of the marble David as well.  (See Charles Seymour, Michelangelo’s David, a  Search for Identity,” 1974.)
Why then does the Rubens drawing diverge from the lost Hercules, if Rubens was working directly from it?  It’s possible that he could have been drawing from a written description, a memory of a brief encounter (see Leo Steinberg on Goethe about Leonardo’s “Last Supper”), or this drawing may be an invention of Rubens' own, loosely based on the lost Hercules. Or indeed the suppositions behind the Rubens' attribution may be wrong, and the drawing may have nothing to do with the actual work by Michelangelo.
Setting aside the issue of the Rubens (especially in the light of work done by Weinberg on the identification in French etchings of Fontainebleau), we return to the idea that the small bronze was certainly based on something.  There’s no known work, lost or not, that compares to the small bronze; the audacious design suggests an audacious sculptor, and the possible identification with Pollux, mythical personification of fall, may reasonably be attached to Michelangelo’s grief over the recent death of his friend and mentor, a man he certainly remembered as mythic throughout his long life.

The Sublime and the Ridiculous Michelangelo in Buffalo, What Bronze Does to the Magical Last Eighth-Inch

How I found it is anybody’s guess, but if you’ve ever stalked the byways of the night streets of the Internet, bleary towards dawn, you know that these things happen. 
Somehow I came upon a page for a tourist site for BuffaloNew York and a bronze replica of the David.  The image was a postage stamp sized jpeg, 13 k maybe, but it was enough.  A scrap of info located it someplace called Delaware Park.  This was, at best, I suspected, a casting taken from the reproduction carved in 1900 to replace the real David when it was moved from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Accademia.  I also knew that whatever this was, it was only two hours away from where I live in Pennsylvania.
In Florence I’d walked icily past the marble copy in the Palazzo Signoria so as not to contaminate my experience of the real thing, a practice I would recommend to anyone serious about art.  Because even though copyists, with their measuring tools, pointing machines, and immense skill could, and certainly did, bring their copy of the David to within an eighth of an inch of the real thing, it’s in that eighth of an inch, or even a sixteenth, that the magic happens.  I’m something of a copyist myself, at least to the extent that I’ve made microscopically precise molds of my own sculpture using state of the art synthetic casting rubbers that will lift details finer than fingerprints, and yet the resulting castings, accurate to with microns, have lost something in the translation.  Nothing is as good as the fresh clay.  Something is lost even when the clay dries—yes, water, and a few percent mass, but that’s not it, or not only it.  It’s the difference between a perfect copy of a perfect thing and the perfect thing itself. 
And the 1900 marble David is imperfect.  As would a bronze casting made from it be.  In each step something is lost.  Or changed, anyway.
But.  On the other hand, bronze is, in itself, a magic material.  Magic here meaning it is a charged material much like raw clay or cut marble.  It is rich.  It has power.  It contributes something to the process of making sculpture.  A bronze casting can be, if not better than the original, then at least as good and significantly different.  Depending on what the original is made out of, the bronze can indeed be better.  I take a lump of red plastecine and shape a small head and it’s good, but it’s red, and waxy and shiny, with a cheap plastic sheen.  Cast in bronze, the head roars to life with a mass and weight and depth that was already there in the sculpture but hidden by the oil-base clay.  I carve a figure out of foam plastic and Bondo and it looks like plastic and Bondo.  But  merely paint it to look like bronze and it emerges with a solidity and complexity and depth that turn the swirls of Bondo into nuanced modeled textures.
So a trip to Buffalo to see a bronze casting of a David, even if it’s a casting of a replica David  has merit, because the Buffalo David may be distinguishable from the real thing, but the bronze will add its own music.  It will react with the air around it to fill in that critical and otherwise unforgiving eighth-inch with vibratory metallic energy and Michelangelo’s David will exist full blast, full-bore right there in front of me, all for the cost of a quarter tank of gas.
Oh, we are going to Delaware Park.
It’s a hot Saturday July 16 and we are on our way.  As we drive to Buffalo I’ll answer some quick questions.  Why was I up late prowling on-line?  I work a graveyard shift.  Why do I work a graveyard shift?  I gave up teaching my writing workshops.  I gave up teaching sculpture.  I closed my studio and gallery.  I dumped my writing clients.  I shuttered m small y publishing house.  I all but dropped out of the art crit scene, reviewing only those exhibitions that I really thought needed to be cover or I thought could be allow me to hammer home for some point I thought was important.  I took a low-pressure, low-pay job as the night manager at a restored Victorian inn that once flourished in the late 1800s with the health nut frenzy of “the waters” of CambridgePennsylvania, the drinking of, and bathing in which was believed to prevent disease and restore heath.  It was a big deal.  Thousands of people came from all over the country.  Many great hotels grew.  Forty trains a day stopped to deposit the supposedly ill and reuptake the supposedly newly healthy.  The fad passed.  Cambridge Springs fell on hard times from which it has not yet recovered except that here in this one last standing hotel—the rest of them burnt down—prosperity retains its tenuous purchase, and I sit here, five nights a week, 11:00 to 7:00, in case anybody wants anything, which they almost never do.  I read all night.  I read about the Italian Renaissance.  I write about Michelangelo.  I am left alone.  It pays the bills, barely.   I am saving up for a third trip to Rome in March.  It could be worse.
Delaware ParkBuffalo. We enter the bronze David’s  force field.  He stands on a six-foot-tall stone plinth set on a rising hill and against a sky unmarred by a city skyline dominating the air around it, radiating into the otherwise invisible and meaningless space, defining a charged zone you hadn’t known existed. 
The bronze David is powerful.  The bronze itself adds some missing dimension as it catches the sun coming in hard from the east, and splashing white against the dark blue-green. 
It’s a windy day.  The sky is clear.  The David is real.  I’m all the more made aware of the line about the real David in his Florentine alcove in the Accademia, as being trapped “in a birdcage.”  We never see the David in any light other than the one uniform artificial light of the gallery.  But outside, here in Buffalo, the light is already moving—a bit sharper even in the few minutes I’ve circled it taking pictures.  I think about coming back in the evening to see what it’ll look like with deep orange sunset lighting it, face-on.  I consider coming up throughout the year and seeing what the light does, maybe talking to whoever is in charge and getting permission to bring a ladder or a bucket lift to get close-ups—do a whole series: “David in New York.”  Pitch a book to Taschen.
None of this is diluting, nor is a record of the dilution of, the experience of confrontation with this immense being.   He is Adam thinking, “Uh oh, God’s coming!” He’s Jesus looking at the cross.  He’s Superman, Joshua, Julius Caesar.  “We’re counting on you.”  “You are, huh?”  He’s Michelangelo himself.  “Can I pull this off?” “I can pull this off.”  David flung a stone at Goliath; Michelangelo will sling this stone at history.  No wonder he thought he could do anything after he’d done this.
And here on this copse we can stand farther back than we ever can at the Accademia, and see the figure far off, his back to us, standing on the horizon.  We can pull away and see him through the trees, vanishing against the sky.

 We can get in close and stare up and up and up. 

“. . . man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about.”
  We walk back to the car and I wonder what it looks like at night.  Does it catch city-light?  It’s right on highway 198 east.  What would passing headlights do in a time exposure?  We may find out.
Heading home, nearly back home, we are in northwest Pennsylvania rolling down a two-lane blacktop.  Route 19.  I don’t usually go this way, but I know it, and it’s a little different and possibly a little quicker
My partner Diana wants to stop at an antique store, a junk shop, really, secondhand knickknacks a few decades old, cheap glass vases, rusty veterinary irrigation syringes, and tin muffin pans.  The place is full of crumbling wicker, tarnished coffee pots, moldy books, a few mediocre kitchen chairs, and rusty toolboxes.  Things with chickens painted on them.  I am killing time.  Diana is accumulating stuff.  I’m tired.  I’ve been driving.  My back hurts.  I’m thirsty.  I want to go home.  And then: “You are kidding me.”
There on a shelf of chochkees is a little figure, maybe 4 inches tall.  I may be the only guy in a fifty-mile radius who knows what it is.  I pick it up.  “Look at this,” I say to Diana.  “This is a souvenir knockoff of a sculpture by a minor nineteenth century artist, Cesare Zocchi.  The original is about two-thirds life-size.  It’s marble.  Get this.  It’s “The Boy Michelangelo Carving the Mask of a Faun.” What are the odds? 

 It’s a little cast plaster figurine, in cheap bronze paint, but it’s not bad, not a bad job.  The original is a piece of nineteenth century realistic vignette dreck.  However, as earnestly chintzy as it is (the original), it has found an odd little purchase in art history simply as an illustration of Michelangelo as a boy.  There he is, hunched over, a chisel in his left hand, a mallet in his right, his clothing detailed to within an inch of its life, as he taps away.  For what it is, it’s really well done.  But like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s 1868 painting of “Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends” it’s just so very nineteenth century illustration. 

The Buffalo David was exactly sublime but the Zocchi isn’t exactly ridiculous. 
But as a bookend to this trip? It’s perfect. 
Twenty bucks? No no no no no. I’m not coughing up twenty bucks for this.
Diana says, “You have to get that.  Offer ‘em fifteen.” And the intense synchronicity starts to really hit me.  Yes, I do have to get this because, after all, what the hell is it doing here?  Who once bought it? Who, for that matter, made it?  What home thought it needed a little figurine of Michelangelo as a boy sculpting the head of a faun?  Around here?  How did this happen?  How did it happen that in remote rural deerhunter country, a passing customer looks down and says, “Zocchi”?  And “The original is in the Casa Buonarotti.”
I've seen Zocchi’s other work.  It’s what you’d expect. 

Melodramatic 19th century dramaturgy, arms flailing, histrionics wound tight and tent-pegged to a grim bedrock realism. They thought they were following in Michelangelo’s footsteps.  They all did.  For three hundred years and change,  1564 to 1878.  They all thought Michelangelo was a realist.  I think back to the Buffalo David and Diana’s sudden realization that his right hand is too big.  It’s never hit her before.  “Yeah,” I say, “it’s too big.  This isn’t a realistic sculpture.  Nothing Michelangelo ever did was realistic.  At all.  He wasn’t a realist.”
I’m looking at the little Zocchi sitting on top of a stack of books.  In its own way it isn’t realistic either.  It’s idealized—a distillation of Zocchi’s reading of Michelangelo, the eternal earnest force.  The stone boy carving himself.
But the bronze David is as real a Michelangelo as this plaster boy is really Michelangelo and I must keep that in mind.  I can Band-Aid up the road rash but only if Italy is and Michelangelo are the end of the road.  Which, so far, they are.