There are lots of questions that come up in every art history classroom or lecture hall. We hear them over and over again. What is art, really, and how can you define it? Why is the Mona Lisa smiling? What happened to the Winged Victory’s arms? And then there's another one that you'll hear, or that you'll even think yourself, especially if you are a fan or scholar of a particular Renaissance master's works.
It's a question that I have personally heard asked point-blank in class and whispered in sacred spaces in Rome and in Florence. Visitors straining their necks to stare up at a ceiling, and others sneaking peeks at gleaming marble tombs have asked this question. Why, they wonder. Why… are Michelangelo’s women so… Well, so un-womanly?
The colossal sibyls and Old Testament heroines that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in Rome, for example, and his marble personification of Night on the tomb of Giuliano de Medici in Florence have many of the same attributes. Essentially, these ladies are cut. The Cumaen Sibyl has bigger guns than most pro athletes, and Night’s got a six pack and quads so large that it looks like she spends her down time on the elliptical. Michelangelo's ladies have the most beautiful, angelically pure faces. But when stripped down, many of them look very, very muscular and almost manly. And then… There's the problem of Night’s left breast. The thing looks almost tacked on, like a misshapen afterthought. What's going on here?
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we are going to uncover the conundrum of Michelangelo's women and some theories behind their design, including one fascinating hypothesis set aside by a 21st century physician. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
I want to take a quick moment before we jump into today's episode to note something to you, and that's this-- I am going to be slightly annoying and pronounce the artist's name in the Italianate way- Michelangelo -- instead of the Americanized version of Michelangelo- partially because it was metaphorically beaten out of me in grad school, but also because Michelangelo, for me, will always be a ninja turtle. There- now that we have gotten that out of the way, let's get on to the artist himself.
Michelangelo is arguably one of the greatest artists of all time. That man, like his fellow renaissance man Leonardo, could really do anything. He could create vast architectural monuments such as the square in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, he was a poet who has written lyrical sonnets, he could paint gorgeously, and his sculptures are some of the most perfect ever created. People have been waxing poetic about his sculpture of David for hundreds of years. Artists’ biographer and fervent admirer of Michelangelo's, Giorgio Vasari, extolled that sculpture’s perfection in an essay in 1550, writing quote, “For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.” And when you see David in person, you agree- Michelangelo could really create the perfect man out of stone or pigment.
But the perfect woman? Well, no. Not so much, or at least not to our 21st century eyes, trained on photo realism or, really, just photos. For someone who could visualize masculine corporeality so wonderfully, Michelangelo looks almost inept when it comes to his presentation of women. I want to be clear here and note that when I talk about Michelangelo's women, particularly these quote unquote “badly” rendered subjects, I am talking mainly of his nude women, or those with large portions of their skin revealed- especially their arms, shoulders, chests, and backs. For the sake of argument, I am firmly excluding Michelangelo’s other most famous sculpture, his Pieta, which is located today in St. Peter's in Rome, as well as other smaller works featuring women, such as the small and sometimes overlooked Bruges Madonna. Let's all just agree right now that his Roman Pieta is possibly the most tragically beautiful sculpture in all of art history. If I could look at only one artwork for the rest of my life, I'd choose the virgin’s incomparable face. It's that brilliant. But why am I excluding it and the Bruges Madonna today? Well, because those women are completely clothed- even their arms are fully covered. But when Michelangelo portrayed partially uncovered or nude women, all bets were off. His images of women are still stunning and still amazing- but it doesn't take an art historian to point out that something is just a little bit...off. Why, though, is the big question. Visual artists are usually so adept at seeing, really seeing, and being able to delineate details of anatomy in a naturalistic way, particularly from the Renaissance onward. So, really-- why did Michelangelo make his women so manly?
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born On March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy. His father didn't necessarily want his son to become an art apprentice, so Michelangelo didn't actively pursue this career until the age of 13, which was considered somewhat late in life, believe it or not, to begin an artistic endeavor. He started out by apprenticing with the most prominent painter of Florence, Domenico Ghirlandaio, who intended Michelangelo to study and learn from him for three full years, but Michelangelo left after one year, because, as his biographer Ascanio Condivi wrote, Michelangelo has nothing else to learn. Apparently he was that good. (And if you listened to the very first episode of ArtCurious where we talked about Leonardo da Vinci, this story might sound a bit familiar to you- who knows if it is true, or if this student-surpassing-the-master tale is just a trope).
After he left Ghirlandaio’s studio, Michelangelo lucked out. He was noticed by Florence's ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo considered himself to be a great patron of the arts, and he sought to surround himself with the best and brightest of his day. What a huge coup for the teenaged Michelangelo to be amongst them. Not only did he have access, then, to the Medici family and their cultural connections, but he also had access to the Medici family's own art collection, which included some incredible fragments of ancient Greco-Roman sculpture. Just by looking at many of Michelangelo's works, you can tell that ancient sculpture had a particularly huge influence on the artist and his style. This, of course, was not unique to Michelangelo. Plenty of artists during the Renaissance were looking back at the ancients for inspiration, back towards the human body as the artistic ideal, moving away from the staid and stiff forms of the medieval period. But no one would imitate the ancients quite as well as Michelangelo would. Some of his time even thought that he outdid the ancients. Indeed, our old friend Vasari wrote about the David, quote “When all was finished, it cannot be denied that this work has carried off the palm from all other statues, modern or ancient, Greek or Latin; no other artwork is equal to it in any respect, with such just proportion, beauty and excellence did Michelangelo finish it.”
Michelangelo moved away from Florence in 1494, not too long before the Medici family was deposed. He lived in Bologna for a few years before moving to another hotbed of cultural production, Rome. And it was in Rome that Michelangelo created his first masterpiece- his sculpture of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. As we might suspect, given Michelangelo's study of Roman sculpture, the Bacchus itself was based on ancient marbles such as those he studied in the home of Lorenzo the magnificent. However, there is a complexity and an energy that is found in Bacchus that just isn't as present in most ancient sculpture. Wine goblet raised, Bacchus seems to peer out through clouded eyes, his balance rather precarious, as if he could topple at any minute. Behind Bacchus, a small Pan or satyr nibbles naughtily on a bunch of grapes, with the most self-satisfied smile. How different this seems to the cold ancient sculpture that we might be used to seeing--in contrast, Michelangelo's marbles almost seem to breathe, with muscles so taut that we might hold our own breaths while we view them.
For Michelangelo, this was a huge turning point. His Bacchus was considered so fantastic, so revolutionary for the time period, that it led to one of the most important commissions of his life- the commission for his Pieta, in St. Peter's Basilica. Truly there's something unbelievably great about this work, and it did not go unnoticed. And it was from this point forward that Michelangelo's career began to snowball in the best possible way- commission after commission came in, and each masterwork begat another. The Pieta led to the David, which led to his private commissions for smaller sculptures, as well as luminous paintings such as his Doni Tondo, a circular image of the Madonna and Child with St. Joseph. Mary, dressed in glowing pinks and blues, hoists the infant Jesus above her head towards Joseph, her arm muscles bulging-- her right bicep so defined and her arm cocked at a ninety-degree angle that makes her seem like a Renaissance precursor to Rosie the Riveter. Mary’s body is shaped like a triangle-- a pyramid, really, and this was quite purposeful on the artist’s part. The pyramid was considered to be the most stable shape in all of art history, beginning with the ancient Egyptians, naturally, and moving throughout time onwards towards the 20th century. Artists have long engaged in pyramidal structures to give a sense of power and permanence, and to guide the eye towards the most important figures in a composition. Like with the Bacchus, when you look at Michelangelo’s paintings, you really get that sense of action, motion, energy, and strength. To me, the Doni Tondo feels like a direct precursor for what came next for our artist.
In 1503, Julius the Second became Pope, and ushered in a golden period of Vatican artistic commissions during the ten years of his reign. Like the Medici family in Rome, Julius had an eye for talent, and he requested the greatest contemporary artists to complete some truly massive undertakings within the Papal palace (and yeah-- don’t forget this-- all artists were, at one point, considered contemporary, so think about that next time you see an installation that you find inscrutable). Julius the Second requested that Raphael complete a series of stunning murals for the papal stanze (or reception rooms), and those are a fascinating topic in their own right-- so perhaps we will circle back to them in a future episode. But for most of us, when we hear about Julius, one commission really springs to mind-- the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
The Sistine Chapel has particular symbolism for the papacy and for the Catholic Church as a whole. It is used for various rather special events, but it is primarily known as the site where a new pope is elected and inaugurated. What happens there, then, is among the most Sacred modern day events in the Catholic worldview. As such, the location already was highly decorated with wall paintings and tapestries, but the ceiling, up to that point, had been… a little ignored. Originally consisting of a dark blue sky emblazoned with gold stars, Michelangelo was asked instead to come up with a new theme. At first, the agreed-upon idea would be the twelve apostles, but Michelangelo instead took things in a new and different direction-- first, he painted twelve figures, but they weren't the ones that Julius and Vatican officials originally had in mind. Instead of apostles, he painted seven prophets and five sibyls, or female prophets as traditionally depicted in ancient Greco-Roman art and mentioned in classical texts. Down the center of the ceiling, then, he painted important scenes from the Old Testament book of Genesis-- the creation of the world, including the travails of Adam and Eve, as well as stories about Noah, before and after the Ark. All of this was surrounded with many other figures (representing the forty generations of Christ’s ancestors), as well as innumerable decorative flourishes. The craziest part of all of this? Michelangelo completed the project in less than four years- between 1508 and 1512-- and this would have been an unbelievable achievement for any artist, really, but this is also coming from someone who didn't consider himself a very good painter. It's easy to laugh today to think of Michelangelo saying that about himself, but it's true. He didn't think he was truly cut out for his paintbrush, and was far more at home with a chisel in his hand.
But no matter if he was painting or sculpting them, Michelangelo’s women are all a little too built-- shoulders that an Olympic swimmer would envy. Thighs as thick as tree trunks-- in a good way, really. Arms that could crush you. My personal favorite of the five sibyls is the Libyan Sibyl, the prophetess who was said to have lived at the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert. Bathed in the most brilliant orange gold tunic, the Libyan Sibyl’s body corkscrews as she turns back to either grab or replace a humongous text on a shelf behind her-- and just from the size of that book alone, you’ve got to know that it must weigh a ridiculous amount. As she lifts, the muscles in her back ripple and her shoulders bulge. And yet she’s so beautiful, so graceful. These sibyls just as monumental as their prophet counterparts in the Sistine Chapel, and there's nothing remotely soft about them as they threaten to bust out of the painted architecture surrounding them-- in fact, women like the Libyan Sibyl, or even the Madonna from the Doni Tondo, seem to have little in common with the sweet, albeit massive, Roman Pieta. Why are they so muscular? What did Michelangelo base the design of his women on? Is it just as simple as… Perhaps he based all of his women on men?
Jill Burke, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has written a wonderful series where she directly delves into this topic with a not-so-subtle blog post titled “Men with Breasts.” She begins her discussion by saying that a common explanation for the whole phenomena of women who look like men in Michelangelo’s works is because of the lack of access to the nude female model during the Renaissance. It was deemed inappropriate at best, and completely morally reprehensible at worst, for women to be nude in the company of men to whom they were not married. This has long been the accepted theory, with numerous reiterations of this theme mentioned in equally numerous publications.
Jill Burke notes that this explanation is right… And wrong, too. As she very clearly explains, for many women, especially women from the upper classes, there were strict controls over dress and comportment in the Renaissance, as well as long after. It’s also true that many of the female figures in renaissance paintings were based on male models – this was common practice for many artists of the time, so Michelangelo drafting and designing from the nude model is not out of line here. What’s not true is that male models necessarily made for unconvincing depictions of women – multiple masterpieces are known to have been based on the male nude, only to be very feminine in final appearance--Burke points specifically to Raphael’s St. Catherine of Alexandria, as an example, which we’ve posted an image of on the blog. She’s curvy and buxom, with her right hip jutting out in a sensuous curve. Raphael could really paint a lady.
And don't forget that in every time period, there was also a strong contingent of women who were willing to model nude for money, or for other favors in return. Burke writes, quote, Although there’s not very many drawings after the female nude still in existence, there’s plenty of evidence for renaissance artists having naked women models, especially after 1500. As a matter of fact, one of the handful of extant renaissance drawings after the female nude is by Michelangelo (now in the Louvre). This image of a naked kneeling woman, her hair plaited around her head, is a study for Mary Magdalene in his unfinished Entombment panel, which was painted around 1500 for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome. If Michelangelo, then, knew what women’s bodies looked like, and was clearly able to draw them (being quite handy at drawing), we have to assume that the appearance of his women was through deliberate choice rather than ignorance.
There is, of course, another point frequently made in lecture halls and introductory art history classes--Michelangelo was gay, and thus his images of women don't necessarily point only to his lack of access to nude women from which to paint or sculpt, but to his complete disinterest, or even disgust, towards women’s bodies. Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you today that I know what a man who lived 600 years ago was thinking, but I can say this: doesn't it seem a bit reductive to assume that if a man indeed was gay, that it would affect his own artistic abilities? Michelangelo could draw. That much is certain. His draftsmanship was nearly unparalleled during the Renaissance, so I am fairly certain that he could accurately depict the human body however he wanted. And it also seems limiting to think that someone could be so turned off by the opposite sex that it would affect his artistic abilities, though I suppose that it is possible. Another theory very closely related to this focuses not on disgust, but on attraction. Historians have long argued that Michelangelo, being gay, simply found the male form to be more empirically beautiful-- so, in response, if Michelangelo was hoping to portray a beautiful woman, than he’d simply design her to appear as close to a man as possible.
There’s nothing more that an art historian loves than context. And the context that’s frequently given for these works of art stems from the discussion of Renaissance Italy as an aggressively patriarchal society.The difference between the genders was rather vast in the Renaissance, and of course women were not seen as remotely equal to men in any way-- but especially not physically. Historian Thomas Lacquer has written, quote, “there was only one canonical body and that body was male.” Meaning that everything else was considered imperfect, sub-par, a deviation from the preferred or the normative. This line of thinking was so ingrained that for hundreds of years, the bodies used to demonstrate human physiology in anatomy manuscripts were always male, unless the text specifically covered childbirth. Because if there’s nothing else that we haven’t learned from looking back in time, it’s that women aren’t worth much if they aren’t procreating, right? Even preeminent art historian Kenneth Clark subscribed to this theory, stating that quote “the artist considered the female physique to be inferior to that of the male.”
There seems to be an additional theological or psychological bent to this theory, too. Burke takes this “women as a substandard version of men” argument back-- all the way back-- and reminds us that in Genesis, Eve was literally made from Adam’s Rib. Adam-- the first man-- was also the first human, and thus Eve is a derivative copy. And let’s not forget that the Creation of Eve is actually depicted in Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling! So, was Michelangelo as misogynistic as we are led to believe?
Well, not according to yet another art historian. This time, Elizabeth Lev, who lives and works in Rome and gives frequent talks and tours about art in the Vatican, says that Michelangelo was far from misogynistic. In fact, he grew up in a household full of women, and his quote-unquote official biography by Condivi begins with an incredibly reverent discussion of Michelangelo’s mother and his close relationship to her. Later in life, He had a very devoted relationship with a widow named Vittoria Colonna, a noblewoman and poet with whom he frequently exchanged letters and verses. And remember, too, that Mary, the mother of Jesus was one of Michelangelo’s most frequent subjects-- some, yes, were commissioned works, but others were created simply because the artist was drawn to depict this particular figure. Michelangelo may not have been sexually attracted to women, but I very much doubt that he despised and detested them.
For me, I love to think about things in terms of symbolism, so I prefer one specific reading of Michelangelo's mighty women. All of these figures-- Mary from the Doni Tondo, the Sistine Chapel Sibyls, even Michelangelo’s own take on St. Catherine of Alexandria, who is far more robust than Raphael’s version-- are the physical embodiment of strength, particularly Christian religious strength. This was one of the arguments posited by art historian Yael Even, whose specialty is the study of women in art. In fact, Even’s article is one of the few I’ve ever seen which distinctly looks at the entirety of Michelangelo’s artistic output and notes that she sees two specific categories of women represented there--first are the Pieta women, who are the embodiment of the traditional female virtues of humility, piety, submission, and even resignation. The Virgin of the Pieta is one who is lamenting and resigned to the sorrow of losing her beloved son. This is contrasted with the second type of Michelangelo woman, who is sturdy, strong, and heroic. The images of these women are as capable and victorious individuals. So, How best to make these women into heroines, particularly heroines for the greater good of God? Well, you need to give them the physical attributes of heroes-- so they have to be strong, muscular, mighty and massive. Just like men. For me, this theory tracks and plays out well within Michelangelo's depictions. And it would also make sense that he would be using other design-based attributes to drive the point home even further, as in the pyramid shape of the Madonna in the Doni Tondo, as we mentioned earlier.
One of the prime comparisons that Yael Even makes to illustrate her point about the two types of Michelangelo women stem from the very same project: The Medici Chapel in the basilica di San Lorenzo, in Florence, Italy. These tombs hold the final remains of two semi-insignificant Medici sons--Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici, and Lorenzo di Piero de Medici. Michelangelo designed both tombs so that each have two flanking nude figures--one male, one female. Each nude is a personification of a time of day-- for the women, we have a representation of Night on the tomb of Giuliano, and Dawn on the tomb of Lorenzo. But the women, presenting opposite times of day, also have fairly opposite physical attributes. I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to note that Dawn is more languid, sensual, and curvy, lounging upon Lorenzo's tomb with a slightly softened belly and more rounded breasts. Night, as I mentioned at the beginning, is a much odder creature. Head bowed and huge muscular thigh bent upwards towards her belly-- which is somewhat misshapen but still hugely robust-- Night is an anomaly. She's even more androgynous than most Michelangelo women, outpacing the Doni Tondo for sure, and certainly moving past the Sistine Sibyls as well. And the one thing that most people-- professional and amateur art historians alike-- fixate upon is the representation of Night's breasts. They are misshapen, and lumpy, high upon the woman's chest and splayed out to each side. For many, this links directly back to the whole male-model-in-the-place-of-the-female-model idea. Some art historians, including Jill Burke, have noted that Renaissance writers extolled the virtues of a particular breast shape and type-- small, rounded, and quote hard as apples. Here, it isn't hard to imagine that Michelangelo may have taken the idea of a Man's chest, and simply superimposed two apples there. And it has been suggested that Michelangelo did, in fact, derive many of the parts of Night from a male model-- a preparatory study of Night can be found in the British Museum, dating from around 1520, seems to confirm this. But I don't buy it as the only explanation for Night's appearance. Again, I'd like to think that Michelangelo was no novice or dummy. And remember that Night's counterpart of Dawn, just steps away, doesn't have the same physiological problems. No, Michelangelo sculpted Night like that on purpose. The question is: Why?
It may come down to the simplest answer of the contrast between opposites. Dawn is open, waking up, rising to the day, while Night is closed, partially hidden from the viewer's gaze, resigning herself to the end of the day. Dawn is life, or the resurrection, or afterlife-- Night, simply, is death. And the masculine and feminine elements just further play into this distinction.
With the revisionism of the 20th century came new theories about Night in particular, and Michelangelo's women as a whole. One that I find particularly intriguing is that the body shapes of Night and Dawn are meant to illustrate the different phases of life-- which, again,checks out, when you think about the symbolism of Night as the end and Dawn as the beginning. But some certainly took this viewpoint to the extreme. For Old-school art historians like Erwin Panofsky, Dawn was a young woman's easily life--softened yet firm, full of vigor and energy, not yet hardened by life. Panofsky even uses the word virginal to describe her. In direct opposition, then, there's Night. Panofsky says that Night's body has been quote distorted by childbirth and lactation. It seems vaguely misogynistic for Panofsky to say this, and again, I'm not sure that I entirely buy it, but it is a rather interesting thought. But there's one more point about night that I find even more fascinating.
In November of 2000, a letter to the editor was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. This letter is fairly short and succinct, and was written by a physician hailing from Portsmouth, Virginia named James Stark. He was inspired to write the letter after visiting the Medici Chapel in Florence in the company of an art historian named Jonathan Katz Nelson. And like many others before him, Stark fixated on Night’s strange appearance. But unlike most of us who ask “Why?” Dr. Stark, an oncologist, said, I have an explanation. What follows are excerpts from Stark’s letter. Quote:
"I found three abnormalities associated with locally advanced cancer in the left breast. There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple–areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple… These features indicate a tumor. These findings do not appear in the right breast of “Night” or in “Dawn,” another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo. We suggest that Michelangelo carefully inspected a woman with advanced breast cancer and accurately reproduced the physical signs in stone. Even if he did not see the disease in a model, he could have studied the corpse of a woman; moreover, autopsies were legal at that time. Given that Michelangelo depicted a lump in only one breast, he presumably recognized this as an anomaly. Many doctors in his day could probably diagnose this condition in a woman. Historians of breast cancer agree that the disease and its treatment were discussed, often at length, and described as cancer by the most famous medical authorities of antiquity and by several prominent medieval authors. For these reasons, there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer. If Michelangelo indeed depicted “Night” as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel of life and death, and further help us understand his study of the female body.”
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, narrated, and edited by me, Jennifer Dasal, with production assistance from Kaboonki Creative. Learn more about all the ways that Kaboonki can help you with your personal and business creative needs at www.kaboonki.coom-- that's K A B O O N K I dot com.
For images that relate to today’s story, as well as links to further information about this episode and our previous episodes, please visit our website at artcuriouspodcast.com. As always, I will post links to the articles mentioned in the show today as well as several texts that I used during the course of my research. If you liked this show, let us know! You can get hold of us in many different ways-- check out our website, or email us at email@example.com, or find us on Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. Got an idea or a request for an upcoming episode? Feel free to let us know that, too. And of course I'd love to know your thoughts on the theories we cover in the show. Do you think that the Mona Lisa is fake? Why do you think Michelangelo s women look the way they do? Don't be shy-- talk to us! And, most of all, please subscribe and rate us on iTunes and recommend us to your friends and fellow art aficionados, so that we can find more listeners and share the love. If you write a review for us on iTunes-- it's quick and easy to do, I promise-- it will help us tremendously to get an even more committed following. That way, I can keep bringing the you more of these stories. For those of you who have already submitted a review, I can’t thank you enough. Please check back in a couple of weeks for a new episode as we continue to bring you the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history.