Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Michelangelo's Apollo/David Mystery Solved, Perhaps

Michelangelo’s Apollo/David Was Never David and Didn't Start out as an Apollo
The Lost Michelangelo Venus We Didn't Know Was Lost

In January of 2013, finding myself in Baltimore prior to a trip to Mexico, there to gain, I hoped, inspiration for a work of sculpture I was somewhat stymied about, I made my way to Washington D.C.  to the National Gallery of Art.  The Gallery was for a short time hosting a single sculpture by Michelangelo, on loan to the U.S.  from Florence ’s Borghese.  I had seen the unfinished figure, resignedly dubbed an Apollo/David, thrice in Florence , and while the figure is not possessed of the pyrotechnics of the David, or the thunderous bombast of the Moses, it is clearly Michelangelo.  It is as enigmatic, even sphinx-like in its massive youthful power, unfocused in an almost ennuiactic torpor.
Of all of Michelangelo’s sculptures this one is the figure we have no clear way to identify.  The so-called Captives are allegorical figures, the Victory is a fairly conventional victory group that may have secondary and/or personal meanings as well, but at least we can say it’s a victory group.  The Florentine Pieta is actually a Deposition, although I believe there is enough Christian iconography to support the contention that it is (or is also) a Resurrection.  The Rondanini Pieta is headed toward a Resurrection even if the sculptor did not get there.  Michelangelo’s David has at least five distinct meanings; the Pieta yields three interpretations.  So what do we call this one?
I had not come to the Gallery to determine if the figure was a David or an Apollo.  I had come because here in The Gallery in Washington one was allowed to take pictures, a thing that in Florence is simply forbidden, not only in the Borghese but also in the Accademia, the Medici Chapel and almost everywhere else a postcardable Michelangelo is found.  The Palazzo Vecchio isn’t so particular.  I photographed the many assembled Victory groups there.
This was not even so much a voyage photographique as it was a mere pilgrimage.  Although I did have camerae.  Three of them.  And while I was photographing and videographing the statue I saw something that it is hard to believe no one has noticed since 1530.
Vasari first mentions this work and calls it an Apollo.  And while Vasari is regularly dismissed as notoriously unreliable, he was a close friend of Michelangelo and he was certainly in a better position to know what this sculpture was than was some anonymous inventory-taker spooking around in the Medici art collection and taking his best guess.
 The figure is unsatisfying as either an Apollo or a David.  It does not bear Apollo’s traditional hairstyle, famous from the Apollo Belvedere and so traditional a signifier of the charter that Michelangelo used it for Christ later in his Last Judgment fresco.

And the only real reasons we have ever thought this to be a David is the inventoriare’s assumption and that the rock on which the figure stands is not simply a rock.  Were this lump a simple rough hewn undifferentiated thing on which to stand, we’d not suspect this could have been intended as a David.  After all, we know who it was made for and when.  In 1530 Bacchio Valori was imposed on the Florentine people as their governor after the second wave Medici had taken control of the city by force.  Michelangelo had fought on the side of the republic.  After the fall of Florence an order was issued by the Medici for Michelangelo’s execution.  Spared, Michelangelo set to work to make a figure for the governor.  A David, being as he was a symbol of republican independence, would scarcely have been wise.
 So is this an Apollo? Vasari says so; Apollo was, among other things, an archer, and he seems half-asleep, which might make him Apollo Lyceus, usually pictured leaning on a tree or something exhausted.  (The Lycean Apollo is a good place to start when trying to unpack the complexities of the Dying Slave, or for that matter the Accademia Giants.  [Note: I have re-christened these four huge figures “Giants” because neither ‘slaves’ nor ‘captives’ suit them and both terms inflect our reading of these figures for which the artist’s original idea of ‘slaves’ does not seem to fit as well as it might.])
In addition to this glaring political argument against a David, we see no signs of anything like a sling.  Although the remaining block of marble on the figure’s back certainly does look like a quiver, we see no sign of a strap that might hold it on the young figure.  This I suspect is a corner into which Michelangelo carved himself, i.e.  not giving himself enough material on the figure’s torso for a strap.  (This was not the fist time he had created this kind of problem for himself.  [See the right side of the so-called Rebellious Slave{Louvre}].)
While the object on which the figure places his foot is well worked, it certainly does not look like a severed head, nor does there appear to be enough material out of which the sculptor could have carved one.  Its assiduously worked surface might, I thought for a moment, be the first efforts toward a helmet, but it isn’t big enough to be a helmet, with or without a head, giant or otherwise, in it.  What does a turtle have to do with Apollo?  The story goes that the youthful Hermes stole cattle from Apollo and hid them in a cave wherein he found a turtle.  He killed the turtle and made a lyre out of the creature’s shell.   Apollo heard Hermes playing the lyre and Apollo, being the god of music, loved the instrument so much that he offered to exchange the cattle that had been stolen from him in return for the turtle shell lyre. This is iconography enough to allow for the provisional title of Apollo, and our insistence or cowardice, in continuing to imply that there is any reason to anoint this a David is distracting at the very least. 
As I was photographing the back of the head, I noticed that the figure wears his hair in a long braid, parted in the middle with dual rolls of hair at either temple.  The braid starts wide at the top of the head and forms a steep geometric herringboned V with deliberate, if initial, cuts for braids.  This hair style is strikingly like that of the female figure called (reductively and unhelpfully) Night in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo .

Down the figure’s back from right shoulder to right hand and significantly beneath a panel of herringbone cuts strongly similar to the angled chisel marks of the hair as it comes down from the figure’s head, we find a series of very rough chisel marks, characteristic only of the most coarse and cursory work, absent any of the tell-tale refined parallelism of Michelangelo’s stone-cutting method.  The effect is of a swath of stone hammered off in a hurry.  But the area of cross hatching as it comes down over the right shoulder is not raw excavation but rather fairly well developed preparatory sculpture for, it seems to me, carrying the hair down the shoulder and back, clear to the right hand, This swatch of braided hair has been hammered away for the most part with great energy and little restraint.
Next to this rash of chisel marks hangs the quiver, a remnant I believe of an original plan to give the figure dual braids as with Night, one braid running down the back, the right hand braid held in the right hand.
The angle of the hand is far to sharp too be that of a man pulling an arrow out of a quiver.  The quiver stands at 90 degrees; the hand draws this supposed arrow from 45 degrees.  Arrows don’t bend.

Could this be, I wondered, the remnant of an early attempt to carve a female figure? If so, that plan would have been first because the body we now have does not present enough marble from which to carve breasts, although Michelangelo’s fairly muscular women could have been shaped from the figure if he had left himself enough material on the upper torso.
 If female, who? I think a Venus.  A symbol of peace, a Venus would have been politically neutral, available to the Medici as a commemoration of a victory (Venus Victrix) and as reassurance of their need to be seen as peacemakers.  Michelangelo would have hated these Medici and their tyrannical rule of his beloved city, so the use of Venus might also have allowed him a subtle barb, for Venus is also the protector of Prostitutes.  Venus Victrix is the goddess of easy victories, suggesting that the Medici conquest of Florence was scarcely a feat of military genius.  Venus has many attributes and Michelangelo’s agile mind could have combined in any number of imaginative ways to imply a Venus for his own political or personal statements.
But there’s that lump the figure stands on to deal with.  Perhaps it is Hermes's turtle shell lyre  but why would Apollo stand on it?  It could more convincingly be the outline of a sea shell.  At the front left of this object as we stand directly in front of the figure, who turns his (her?) head away in a much remarked upon half-sleep, Michelangelo carved a small flat protuberance that runs round the left-hand curve of the circular lump.  To me this looks like the hinge of a shell.


Does the iconography of Venus from the Romans thru the first quarter of the cinquecento comport with the Apollo/David?  These examples show the image of Venus rising from the sea and wringing out her hair, typical birth images with which Michelangelo was (I think it is fair to assume) familiar.

At the time he created this sculpture, others were rendering Venus Anadyomene in similar poses:


The pose of the figure’s left arm and hand could easily be that of a person reaching across to pull up a long braid to ring it dry.
Ironically, the brochure for the exhibition of the Apollo/David at the National Gallery presents photographs of a Venus from its own collection, but only to demonstrate the similarity of the stances of the two figures and to make a point about serpentina composition.

I suggest that Michelangelo began this sculpture as a Venus, which was politically safe, then in a wave of exasperation and perhaps some late-night bravado began to change the figure into a David (by means of a double mastectomy thereby giving himself no room to preserve female anatomy and leaving a muscular but soft figure consistent with his tendency to create muscular females who looks like males or so the typical complaint goes).  Then, in the clear light of day, realizing with renewed alarm how dangerous the Medici were (and also knowing he’d ultimately have to flee his city) shifted again and started to convert the figured into an Apollo.  In the end he abandoned the figure, leaving it more ambiguous than any work he’d ever done.
Thus it became a record of political intrigue, the brutish impulses of a tyrant clan, the restrictions under which the artist worked, and ultimately (and providentially) a catalogue of Michelangelo’s inability to complete work under the mercurial hand of a dynasty of rogues.

Ancillary Evidence
The “ Benghazi Venus”

Notice the way the two braids course down from the top of the forehead making parallel roles of hair at the temples and over the ears.  Compare to the figure in question.

The Apollo Belvedere

Compare the bow of hair typical of Apollo and notice the raised lump of hair at the Michelangelo figure’s forehead.  It appears to have been carved down, perhaps from an Apollonian bow.

The Lycean Apollo and  the so-called Dying Slave

The Lycean Apollo                                                Compare to the so-called Dying Slave

The Lycean Apollo compared to the Accademia Giants
Youthful Giant                                Awakening Giant
Atlas Giant                            Bearded Giant

Both Dawn and Apollo seem to be brushing away sleep.


Titian’s Sleeping Venus