icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Michelangelo in Bologna II

Another day should not pass without Daisy seeing with her own eyes three sculptures by the young Michelangelo here in Bologna. He was nineteen years old and lived here for eleven months—October 1494 – September ’95-- so he experienced the seasons in the Emilio-Romagna valley, the winters damp, cold, and the winds blow and hold in the Etruscan porticos which, on the one hand, protect you from the rain and also, in all the seasons, from the sun. Bologna’s ground for the most part is hard, unforgiving, made up of stones which have washed black from soot and age. He rode over the Apennines from Florence on his steed, about a day’s ride. Once he was assigned his three small, decorative pieces for the tomb of Saint Dominic in the Basilica of that name, a major first commission, Michelangelo sent for the quantity and size of the marble required for his three pieces. The requisitioned marble followed in his wake in a wagon along the mule trail up, over and down the Apennines into Bologna. There were many towers when Michelangelo was here, unlike today when there are essentially two, the taller one called the Asinelli, the smaller, leaning tower called the Garisenda. Michelangelo stood before the towers and took them in, as had Dante Alighieri, whom Michelangelo had read. The Basilica is a five-minute wagon ride from the Towers, and Michelangelo waited outside the basilica for his marble. The basilica was built on the exact spot where Dominic had died and so a workshop went up not too far away so that commissioned artists could feel inspired, blessed, and in this way also commissioned pieces, especially sculptures, did not have far to travel to their installations. Nevertheless, Michelangelo’s first commissioned piece, his candelabra-supporting angel--three toes broke off the left foot, perhaps en route, which damage was discovered inside the basilica, and the decision was made not to affix new toes, not at the time and not down through the centuries, so that more supportive power is allotted to the remaining toes, especially the large one which bears most of the hefty young angel’s substantial, genuflected weight. Daisy walks beside me dressed in pink and white, and the sun shines down on us and on the hard black stones under foot and we breathe the air of the Emilia-Romagna valley. We pass the gypsy woman begging alms at the door. Often, beggars in Italy are accompanied by children and dogs, both extremely docile, silent, unmoving, in expectation of a coin. My good friend Sifa Erkaya of Rome told me that on their wedding day, gypsies ride in a solid gold carriage. Daisy and I enter the basilica exactly when the 11-o’clock high mass has let out and so we enter in the wake of parishioners prayers which immediately launches me to Radio City Music Hall in New York City when I was a boy, entering the lobby beside my father, who had bribed the ticket seller—the vastness, the grandeur of this indoor space tantamount to the immense sky outside, and it seats six thousand, in the dark, in cushioned seats, and has a stage show and movie, all expectant eyes directed down to stage left where a organist under one spotlight begins to play, and then, miraculously, the orchestra rises as if from the bottom of the earth, then the instruments tune, pause, and begin to play all together. Before the movie there is a stage show, with the constant feature of the Rockettes—a line of dancing girls all of the same height, and gorgeous legs kicking up and then down, up and then down, in perfect rhythm. Just before coming to Bologna on this commission, Michelangelo was experimenting with nudes, it’s written that he had special papal dispensation for the use of nude models, and I have also read that in order to study human anatomy, artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci stole into Florence’s cemetery in the dead of night, disinterred corpses and dissected them. Imagine Michelangelo sitting beside me in a darkened Radio City Music Hall, when I was about 12, wide- eyes trained down at the beautiful girls kicking in unison—up, down, up, down--naked except for halters, mesh stockings and high heels. St. Dominic’s ornamental sarcophagus is located right-rear in its own chapel and gate with two entrances: a wide one with donation box at the center for departing, a narrow one at the right for entering. The sub-deacon wearing a pair of blue jeans directs traffic annoying at first, re-directing everyone, losing his voice --“Be careful, he could be god,” my mother cautions.
“That his, the little angel over there?” Daisy says, pointing to the Michelangelo, and I walk her over to it. I take great pride in saying, “It’s 51 centimeters high, solid marble, wholesome, thick-boned, muscles breaking through tunic, as you see holding a candelabra with candle burning for centuries.” The majestic work is a few feet from our eyes, the marble kneeling boy-angel balancing the female-angel on the crypt’s opposite side sculpted by someone else--“Come round here I want to show you the broken toes,” and she circles to me. “See, the supporting big toe and toes beside it are intact but the other toes which in this position would have been vulnerable, up in the air, serving no great purpose, have broken off.” It is Easter Sunday 2014—how many times had the greeting “Buona Pasqua!” formed on the young artist’s wide, narrow lips? And on this day centuries’ ago he must have imagined life returning to the dead Christ’s body, human humors filling it once again, and the great white rock at the burial cave’s entrance mysteriously rolled away, shocking Mary Magdalene, always Mary Magdalene, and she entered and saw that it was empty and she wept, her eyes glowing red. Michelangelo Buonarotti was not out to replicate human life through the human body in his sculptures, approach as close as possible in a sculpted object is humanness—rather, he set out and continued throughout his long, illustrious, stormy career and life to capture the life in a block of unformed marble, sometimes damaged, repair to incredible beauty, using the human body as his subject which his patrons and public could readily recognize—“Oh, that looks so real!” No, it was always about the marble, fashioning a shape out of it so that it, the marble, could breathe.
A likeness of Saint Petronius, patron saint of this city of Bologna, breathes atop the sarcophagus
“Up there, “ I was saying, “is Saint Petronius,” but when I turn, Daisy is part of a tour guided by a Dominican priest, wearing the black carapace and white tunic of his Order, and dark-frame eyeglasses, slightly portly. “Wait a minute,” I say to Daisy and this priest, reaching out for her, desiring to finish showing her Michelangelo’s three pieces, Saint Petronius remaining as well as Saint Procolo on the back side, excited to tell her that it clearly presages the magnificent David, ten years in the future, in some ways, in its fine lines, even more sublime. I begin going back there, hoping to draw Daisy with me as some sort of magnet, but she stays in her group and the priest, turning to me and smiling.
Take a seat in the first of several pews, listen but do not hear, eyes focus on the boy-angel, a piece of marble in the form of an angel, kneeling, holding a candelabra,
its central axis balancing the whole piece perfectly, lending it the illusion of human weight proportioned perfectly, in the act of holding an object aloft, in this case a candelabra.
Afterwards, as we walk out together, Daisy says that the priest was a very good guide, and she mentions the fact that Dominic himself had wanted to be martyred but was not, had wanted to feel as much human pain as was possible, his body chopped into many small pieces, believing that his body would live on, and he would be able to feel pain after the first lethal mutilation, so that when he encountered God, the extent of his human suffering would be worthy of his love for Him.

Be the first to comment