Rome and the School (part III)

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If his life was simply one long drama, it was because he separated himself from men too much to commune with them, and because he had too high an opinion of mankind to accept their inferiority and admit their baseness. But we compel other men to forget their ills when we force our own into silence and open the gates of the world to those intellectual harmonies which alone go beyond sorrow. "Italian painting," he said, "will never cause a tear to be shed." He led those who know how to suffer to the threshold of heroic happiness.

He came from Florence. Born amid its last storms, he had in him the fire of the passion through which she had lived. He had appeared there twenty years after da Vinci, at the moment when Florence was reaching the most feverish point in her history. He had read Plato. He was never without his Dante. A pupil of Ghirlandajo, the most direct of the painters of the period, he sought the intimacy of the works of Giotto, of Masaccio, of della Quercia, of Donatello, and Piero della Francesca. He knew Savonarola and followed him. At twenty-six years of age, he had torn from the marble the gigantic David which summarizes the sorrowing youth and the tense energy of the city.

He was, or wanted to be, everything that she had been: a constructor, a painter, a sculptor, and a poet. In order to become acquainted with the human body, he shut himself up with cadavers until the odor drove him out of doors. If the whole of the dream and all the science of the spirited city were in accord in the work of da Vinci, they never ceased to struggle with each other in him. His great soul was like the summit of a wave which rose and fell with the surges of energy and with the crises resulting from the cowardice of the unhappy city of his birth. Out of despair he left it. When he returned, it was to try to save it. Perhaps, alone in fallen Italy, his heart bore the weight of her servitude: "It is sweet for me to sleep; it is sweeter for me to be of stone; as long as misfortune and shame endure. To see nothing, to feel nothing, therein lies my greatest happiness. Do not, I beg, awaken me! Speak low! . . ."

On his way from Florence to Rome, at Orvieto, he saw the newly painted frescoes of Luca Signorelli, who had already covered the walls of the Convent of Monte Oliveto with powerful decorations in which the discipline of Piero della Francesca revived the enervated soul of the old masters of Florence. Here he saw Herculean forms, twisted under their garments, strive to burst their bonds in their explosion of strength and fury. Or, again, the human body, stretched like a bundle of cords, had become a thing of mechanical expression where the nerves, almost bare, hurled passion into the limbs, in short, repeated jets of flame. These frescoes were imprinted in the memory of the young man as if made by the gashes of a sword. They were the first anatomical nudes. The Italian science of the human body was unveiled in them with uncompromising precision. Save a few archangels clad in iron who guard the gates of heaven, all the figures were nudes. There were skinned corpses, painted directly, reanimated, and cast back into the current of life with incredible violence. The foreshortening was violent; bones cracked, jaws contracted, tendons were hard as metal cables, men and women howled; there was a ferocious welter of bodies martyrized by demons whose membranous wings stretch into sinister veils as in a heaven devoid of hope. A great work. Passion, knowledge, everything, indeed, moved toward a common goal. When his son dies, Signorelli, suppressing his sorrow, undresses him and paints him, without a tear. His great virile drawing strikes and strikes again like a steel blade. Savanorola had just hurled his anathema at the times and been burned alive on the Piazza della Signoria. A breath of fear forces repentant Italy to bow down, and although Signorelli is more healthy than Botticelli, and little given to mysticism, he, as well as Botticelli, obeys the voice of the prophet casting into the Christian hell that which was thought of at that time as pagan form—as if a form could live otherwise than through its relationship with the whole of society, its atmosphere, its history; as if it ever returned to the earth in the same shape in which it had appeared before.

Alone with these great memories, Michael Angelo lived at Rome. There he saw six popes die, never yielding to their menaces nor obeying their orders, save to revenge himself for his slavery through the freedom of his art. He needed that frame in order to exalt his dream and to make it bear witness to the power within him, a power through which he could cope with the most overwhelming problems. His surroundings were sufficiently materialistic and demoralized for him to decide to wrap himself in silence and to develop in him that formidable sense of shame that inspired him to strip the gods naked in order to crush the conclave of cardinals under the weight of primitive heroism.

His entire life is a conflict between the passion that dragged him on toward the admirable appearances of material Nature and the will for purification which his pride imposed upon him. With such a love for what exists, for what moves, for what is defined by a volume in space, one must suffer through one's inability to be all-inclusive. And he who, in such a state of absolute sensual power, feels that the encounter between the soul and the flesh would calm that suffering, such a man is accursed, but he may become a hero if he refuses to exhaust his desire and reserves his own power of exaltation to exalt the men who are to come and for the glory of his spirit. Resistance to love is not an ideal to all men—to propose it would be the ruin of the world—but for those who are haunted and pursued relentlessly by love, resistance to love, by causing the repressed forces of tenderness and desire to flow back upon themselves, may bring about inner government of their being and the sovereign domain over the forms of the universe.

What incomparable power is promised to him who gathers up the absolute science which those who came before him seem to have prepared for his use, who builds in such fashion that his work shall resist the daily assault of the temptations accumulated by two centuries of intense material and moral civilization, and who appears at the culminating point of the thought of a people, the weight of whose fall he converts into his own ascent! Italy, by searching her heart and by examining thoroughly into her soul and her body, by demanding of the dead humanities the secret of life, and the secret of death from living humanity, had forged the language of her passion in blood and in fever. What was she now to say with it? Was there then no direction to give to the life of our feelings? Must we, like Raphael, unite all its currents into an indifferent harmony wherein we would be able to find repose only at the moment when we yielded ourselves to it? Beyond the natural rhythm which a great spirit, free from disquietude, could find in a world in which the hour was sounding for it to satisfy the desire which had dictated its effort, were there no other rhythms which could console the despair of men when they came to feel that the equilibrium attained for a moment was escaping them? After Mozart, Beethoven. The greatness of Michael Angelo is that he understood and said that positive happiness is not accessible to us, that humanity seeks repose so that it may escape further suffering and, in order that it may not die, plunges back into suffering as soon as it has found repose. The martyrdom of Florence, torn unwittingly between its need for defining form and its wild spirituality, is born of its own uncertainty. Michael Angelo, in whom this martyrdom is prolonged, seizes upon certitude, but expresses the very pain which one endures in seizing it. The central composition of the ceiling of the Sistine is the center of his thought. The serpent whose coils twine around the solitary tree is at the same time the temptation which bends over man and woman, and the angel that drives them forth from Paradise. There is no possibility of choice. If we will not taste of knowledge, we shall not taste of pleasure. As soon as we have knowledge we begin to suffer. Michael Angelo reveals to men that they can hope for nothing beyond an equilibrium which does not satisfy them and, embittered at the idea of his impotence, he disdainfully presents the equilibrium to them.

Sometimes—and the greater part of his sculptures avow it—he succumbs.  And then he is seized with wrath. It is in vain that he passes his days and even his nights, the lamp at his forehead, locked up in his studio with the marble which he attacks from all sides—he, small and frail—and though he makes it quiver with every chip that flies, the material dominates him. Donatello and above all della Quercia were sculptors more than he was. There are some heroic pieces: the somber "Night," and the pregnant "Dawn," with her arms and her legs as full in form as the boughs of a tree, and her countenance where despair rises with her awakening; there is his "Torso," with its knotted limbs, its cracking knees, its twist, its terrible folds. Not an ensemble survives. The slave may twist his chains, the knees of the Virgin may support the weight of a god, the child may turn to bite at the mother's breast, and the dusk and sleep may pour darkness upon the brows and blot out the eyes: the drama lies elsewhere. Our emotion is like a revolt, a disquietude with which we are vexed when we know that we have been touched by it. It comes from his exhausting struggle against a rebellious material whose violent caprices he cannot control.

The error of the last schools of Greece had not, however, escaped him. He was repelled by the play of light and shade on carved stone. He knew that the expression of volume in space was the extreme limit of plastic effort, line being really no more than a conventional sign, and color having only an uncertain and variable existence, determined by the hour, the season, the lighting, and the most fleeting shades of our sensibility. He rejected polychromy itself and demanded that the marble be as naked as the idea. He has said all of this in terms so clear that one gets into the way of seeing in them only the danger which they conceal, the danger into which the doctrinaires of the following century will fall and in whose toils David will be caught. "Painting is beautiful in the measure that it approaches sculpture; sculpture is bad the more it approaches painting."

How was it that he did not perceive that he himself was much nearer sculpture when he covered the walls with frescoes than when he attacked the material of the wall? Each time that he takes up the chisel, he is the victim of his practically absolute science of muscular anatomy. The tempest that thunders within his forms is dispersed at the barrier of their muscles. It does not radiate in infinite waves like the spirit which issues from Egyptian statues, in balanced waves like the spirit that issues from the marbles of Olympia, or in penetrating waves like the spirit that issues from the old French sculptures. He composed movement into its material elements. He knew too well how the muscles were made. It was in vain that he kneaded and twisted them in all directions; he permits himself, only on the rarest occasions, to gather them all into synthetic masses which render his thought with a vigor proportionate to the degree in which they define the architecture of the bodies of which they form a part. If, in general, he had a wrong idea of the great expressive surfaces, it was because he knew the mechanism of expression too well.

But painting liberates him. At first, he does not want to paint the Sistine. Then, through weakness, he yields, learns all by himself an art which he did not know before, and remains shut in for four years in the chapel, alone with God. His brushes obey the fury of a mind for which marble, a material too hard to work, had ever been sluggish in its response. When he had produced half of a colossus, he had already passed beyond it—other torments, other victories, and other defeats demanded their turn. It was almost never that he finished his statues, and never his monumental ensembles. He will finish the Sistine, the most spacious decorative ensemble in the world. He is a great painter in spite of himself, and in spite of himself it is in painting that he is himself.

In this art, his science serves him. He can cause to stand out from the wall the volumes that he wants, he can send others back into it; he can dazzle us by the audacity and the violence of his foreshortenings, and pour forth darkness and light at will. He can subject his tempestuous dream to the yoke of his terrible will. When the scaffoldings fall, there are a hundred living colossuses on the immense vault, in groups or solitary, a hundred Herculean bodies that cause the temple to tremble and seem to create the tempest that rolls in the structure; their clamor merges with the flight of the clouds and the maelstroms of the suns.

If one has not been there, if one has not seen that work, one cannot imagine it. One must hear it. I have spoken; one hears it. It is the drama of Genesis, but more exalted. The symbolism of the formidable biblical mind multiplies its force upon contact with reason. One sees nothing but man confronted with his destiny. One knows surrounding life no more. One is at the edge of the primitive abyss. The burned-out blues, the silver grays, and the dull reds combine into something like a pale, powdered gold like that which trails in the wake of comets and with which the Milky Way fills the spaces of the heavens. God wanders in his solitude. The stars are born. The lightning passes from the finger of God to the finger of man. Our ancestress, young and naked, comes forth from sleep, showing her breasts and her flanks which shall not be exhausted. The first sorrow comes forth from the first hope. The deluge crushes life and draws the figures into an embrace in order to rend asunder more readily the limbs that knot themselves with other limbs like vines. Powerful maternities are divined in the shadows, the prophets thunder, the Sibyls open and close the book of fate. At the bottom of the decoration in the last days, primitive bestiality piles up bodies like bunches of grapes in fortuitous embrace, the temple crumbles, the Cross itself is uprooted by the storm. The wind which arose in the beginning blows until the end. The figures of beauty, of fecundity, and of youth are whirled in it like leaves.

Doubtless, he is the only one who has dared to seize upon painting in order to express the moral tragedy, and has remained unconquered. When one possesses form to such a degree, when it pours out of one with the leaps of the muscles, the tortures of the flesh, and the horror of meditation upon forgetfulness and death, one has the right to use it like a weapon and to command it to obey the mind. It was as if a man, who had been swept away by a river, had had the power to turn suddenly to stop it with his two hands and breast, and to force it back into its course. On the eve of her long sleep, Italy found once more the iron words of Dante. Greece had discovered her soul in form, Israel had attempted to impose her soul upon form without dreaming of the living grandeur that words, which are form also, gave to her. There came a man who had at once the senses of an artist and the heart of a prophet, and who caused his poem to leap forth from the shock of passion and of knowledge. All the forces which the philosophers oppose to one another he possessed in the highest degree of exaltation, each one demanding its rights uncompromisingly; but his will dominated them all and harmonized them. Sick and suffering, he lived eighty-eight years and saw his race decline—he, who was his race attaining its maturity. The soul of a giant dwelt in his weak body, and it was to small-skulled athletes that he confided the mission of expressing thought which, in its harmony, rises as high as that of Aeschylus. His prophetic fury did not prevent an invincible grace from manifesting itself at every moment He doubted everything and himself, he was afraid of everything and of himself, yet when he took up his tools he asserted himself with the most brilliant courage. He loved only one woman and she would not return his love. He lived alone because he knew that there were in him such wells of tenderness that a terrible modesty prevented him from opening them. Chaste and scorning the flesh, he embraced all flesh in the sensuality of his intelligence. His virginity made fruitful the dead womb of Italy.

Never was there a man less mystic nor more religious than that one. He knew too much to surrender himself to the troubled intoxication of the mystics, he was too well aware of his ignorance not to be religious. His work is the epic of the intellectual Passion. Whatever the tortures that await him, his intelligence will overtake the feeling that runs ahead of it and will compel it, despite its revolt, to surrender itself. Reason attains its summit, but it is coupled with a lyricism too intense to permit it to devour itself. From that time on, freed from all the ancient dogmas, standing above Christianity which is almost dead and paganism which cannot be revived and Judaism which willed to know nothing save the spirit, Michael Angelo is face to face with the divine idea; he grapples with the eternal symbolism. When he touches the supreme symbol, when he feels himself upon the brink of the final abstraction, when he approaches God, he is seized with terror at the idea of his solitude, he makes a desperate effort, and, realizing in a flash the highest equilibrium, he violently forces form into the void of which he has just caught a glimpse.

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