Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Er voll der Marmorschale Rund

A Lesson From Michelangelo by James Fenton is the first essay in his collection The Strength of Poetry, which is drawn from his Oxford lectures. It's one of the best essays I've ever read. Fenton, a war reporter, poet, and critic, talks in the most sympathetic way possible about human failings and triumphs in the context of artistic influence.

Here's how the essay starts:
In old age, Giambologna used to tell his friends the story of how, as a young man, a Flemish sculptor newly arrived in Rome, he made a model to his own original design, finished it coll'alito, "with his breath"—that is to say, with the utmost care, bringing it to the very peak of finish—and went to show it to the great Michelangelo. And Michelangelo took the model in his hands and completely destroyed it, and then remodeled it according to his way of thinking, and did so with marvelous skill, so that the outcome was quite the opposite of what the young man had done. And then Michelangelo said to Giambologna: Now go and learn the art of modeling before you learn the art of finishing.

Here's a random wonderful paragraph:
It's not enough to fail. You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the middle of the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse—My failure, my very own failure, I thought I'd left it behind in Florence, but look, it's followed me here to Rome. And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. This is after all the failure for which you were responsible. Why are you neglecting your failure?

Well, read the whole thing. Fenton has pithy, hilarious things to say about relationships between Renaissance sculptors, about Wordsworth and Keats, about the Wordsworths and "Kubla Khan". He describes Flaubert reading The Temptation of St. Anthony to two friends for thirty-two hours then asking what they thought, upon which one looked at the other and said, We think you should throw it in the fire and never speak of it again.

In fact it turns out in fact that the essay is not exactly about artistic influence, it's about artistic influence and friendship. It ends with Giambologna having a dialogue with himself and then a companion that's too true to life to be false, e.g.,
And Giambologna says: "Michelangelo's idea of modeling, I mean, his idea of modeling, is sticking a couple of breasts on a bloke to make a woman. That's his idea of modeling!"

And the friend says: "Yes, Jean, yes, come and have a drink."

But Giambologna says: "He talks about learning to model before you learn to finish. I mean—what does he know about finishing? When was the last time he ever finished anything? Tell me! When?"

"Sistine Chapel?" says the friend, but Giambologna doesn't hear.

If the NY Review of Books link doesn't work for you - I can see it today, yesterday I couldn't - you can find the essay in The Strength of Poetry (the rest of which is good but not scintillating for the most part - well, there's excellent stuff about Auden) or in The Best American Essays 1996.

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