Gombrich Explains Michelangelo

As the V&A prepares its cast of David for display, we look at why the human form held no secrets for the sculptor
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Conservator Johanna Puisto unveils the cast of Michelangelo's David post conservation, Nov 2014 in the Weston Cast Court
Conservator Johanna Puisto unveils the cast of Michelangelo's David post conservation, Nov 2014 in the Weston Cast Court

A little Renaissance beauty returns to London this coming weekend, when the Victoria and Albert Museum reopens its newly restored Weston Cast Court on November 29.

This huge, day-lit space was built to house one of the most comprehensive collections of casts of post-classical European sculpture. Chief among these is a five-metre high plaster cast of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s David, which is also being put back on display. The 1856 copy of the Italian Renaissance marble sculpture, created in Florence 1501-4, is magnificent, yet why should Londoners and visitors single it out, among the many thousands of other art objects on offer in the capital this weekend?

Because, as the art historian, EH Gombrich makes clear in his eight-million selling book, The Story of Art, no one else sculpted bodies quite like Michelangelo. As Gombrich explains in the chapter, Tuscany and Rome, Early Sixteenth Century, the Florentine artist, apprenticed as a painter at the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, before going on to study the great Greek and Roman sculptures in the Medici collection.

 

Conservator Johanna Puisto dusts the cast of Michelangelo's David post conservation, Nov 2014 in the Weston Cast Court
Conservator Johanna Puisto dusts the cast of Michelangelo's David post conservation, Nov 2014 in the Weston Cast Court

However, Gombrich writes, Michelangelo “was not content with learning the laws of anatomy secondhand, as it were, from antique sculpture. He made his own research into human anatomy, dissecting bodies, and drew from models, till the human form did not seem to hold any secrets for him. But, unlike Leonardo, for whom man was only one of the many fascinating riddles of nature, Michelangelo strove with an incredible singleness of purpose to master this one problem, but to master it fully.”

The depiction of human form seems less mysterious today, in an age of x-rays and life-drawing classes, yet, as Gombrich argues, Michelangelo was drawn to the challenges of human anatomy, because, back then, they were so difficult: “Attitudes and angles which many a great Quattrocento [15th century] artist might have hesitated to introduce into his picture, for fear of failing to represent them convincingly, only stimulated his artistic ambition.”

Indeed, as Gombrich goes on, “it may not be easy for us to grasp the tremendous admiration which Michelangelo’s sheer skill and knowledge aroused in his day. By the time he was thirty, he was generally acknowledged to be one of the outstanding masters of the age, equal in his own way to the genius of Leonardo.”

 

Conservator Johanna Puisto dusts the cast of Michelangelo's David post conservation, Nov 2014 in the Weston Cast Court
Conservator Johanna Puisto dusts the cast of Michelangelo's David post conservation, Nov 2014 in the Weston Cast Court

While some of this genius stems from Michelangelo’s understanding of the human body, the artist was also incredibly skilled in the way the he worked with marble, his chosen sculptural medium. Gombrich describes Michelangelo’s marble sculptures as seeming to move before our eyes.

“This is probably the effect Michelangelo aimed at,” Gombrich writes. “It is one of the secrets of his art that has been admired ever since, that, however much he lets the bodies of his figures twist and turn in violent movement, their outline always remains firm, simple and restful.”

How did the artist achieve this effect? Gombrich thinks it starts in the very moment the artist’s sculptures were conceived. “From the very beginning,” he explains, “Michelangelo, always tried to conceive his figures as lying hidden in the block of marble on which he was working; the task he set himself as a sculptor was merely to remove the stone which covered them. Thus the simple shape of a block was always reflected in the outline of the statues, and held it together in one lucid design, however much movement there was in the figure.”

Something to consider, if you’re taking in this striking plaster copy in London or the original in Florence. For greater insight into this important artist, buy a copy of this monograph; and for more on this era and many others, buy a copy of EH Gombrich’s best-selling The Story of Art here.


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