Single Point Perspective: Michelangelo’s Telltale Elbow

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “St. Peter (after Massaccio) with Arm Studies” (ca. 1492). Inv. 2191 Z. (© Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, München. Image courtesy the Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

One of the standouts of the new exhibition Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich at the Morgan Library and Museum — if not the standout — is Michelangelo’s “St. Peter (after Massaccio) with Arm Studies.” (And for an exhibition bristling with stunners by Matthias Grünewald, Andrea Mantegna, and Fra Bartolomeo — not to mention Dürer and de Kooning — that’s saying a lot.)

Sketched around 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the artist was all of 17 years old, the drawing is a copy of a detail from “The Tribute Money” in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, the landmark fresco painted by Masaccio around 1425.

In 1988, the Drawing Center in New York presented a show called Creative Copies, which featured several centuries’ worth of drawings inspired by previous works of art. The show’s earliest example was this very Michelangelo after Masaccio, and the latest was a Picasso after Renoir, with nearly seventy other copies in between. Each was paired with a photo of the original work.

The show was given a substantial review by Adam Gopnick in the July 4, 1988, issue of The New Yorker. Gopnick ponders at length the irony of Michelangelo having left St. Peter’s feet out of his copy, since Masaccio’s fresco was much admired for the way its cast of characters dealt with gravity:

They are the very first figures in Italian art who have, in every sense, both feet on the ground. Their soles rest flat on the earth, and the feet are correctly foreshortened according to the rules of perspective.

Except for the feet, he writes, Michelangelo’s drawing is an “otherwise fanatically precise and meticulously crosshatched copy. “ But then he backtracks:

Looking more closely […] we discover that what had seemed at first a faithful, even dutiful replication — an act of filial piety — is in certain crucial ways not faithful at all.

He then describes a fold in St. Peter’s robe under the saint’s right shoulder, which appears as “a triangular brace” reinforcing “the plumb line of the figure from feet to halo” in the Masaccio, but in the Michelangelo becomes “an irregular shape” that corresponds to “the force of St. Peter’s gesture as he swings his arm around his body.”

Michelangelo’s variation makes “anatomical sense of out what remained in Masaccio an essentially abstract form,” thereby indicating the transition from Early Renaissance orthodoxy to High Renaissance humanism. The change also serves as a convenient illustration for Gopnick’s argument in this segment of the review:

Indeed, the whole point of the Renaissance theory of copying was to emphasize that making comes before meaning. Through the act of faithful copying […] the artist would produce small alterations that could yield new symbolic forms.

This freer understanding of copying stands in contrast with the more familiar kind, which evolved “in the academies of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”:

Copying was then considered not an act of making, which would generate minor variations, but an act of fixed transmission of essential truths.

This practice resulted in drawings that were by and large, like Degas’ copies of Raphael, “completely accomplished and completely dead.”

Michelangelo, however, goes much further than “minor variations,” taking complete possession of the older artist’s work — much in the same way that he turned an engraving by Martin Schongauer (ca. 1445–1491) of St. Anthony tormented by demons into a Technicolor quattrocento acid trip when he was 12 or 13.

It is interesting to note that Gopnick applies the term “filial piety” to Michelangelo’s copy even as he subverts it, since Michelangelo approached his biological father with fear and loathing, and he did all he could to distance himself from his first artistic master, Ghirlandaio, with whom he apprenticed beginning in 1487 or 1488.

It is also interesting to note that the man Michelangelo might actually have regarded as a true father figure, Lorenzo de’ Medici, died in 1492, the year the copy was supposedly sketched.

Both works demonstrate that Michelangelo was never really a student but always his own master, grabbing whatever he could to fuel his headlong rush toward divinitá.

Masaccio’s Peter is very much the rock — equally solid and stolid — upon whom Christ would build his church (Matthew 16:18). There are only two deviations from his no-nonsense verticality: his head, which is jammed into his shoulders at a slight angle and capped by a cymbal-like halo tilted in the opposite direction; and his right arm, stiff as a board and lodged at a 45-degree angle, frozen in the act of paying off a scarlet-frocked tax collector.

Michelangelo “takes an aggressive ‘wholesale’ approach” to his reinvention of the figure, as described by Alexander Nagel in his book, Michelangelo and the Reform of Art (Cambridge University Press, 2000):

He makes subtle changes to every part of the figure, reconstituting it in a new, ampler style. The relations between the figure’s extended arm, back, and neck, for example, have been thought through from scratch, resulting in a subtle but complete reinterpretation of the figure’s posture — a reinterpretation with important implications for the subject’s significance, because it directly concerns the issue of Peter’s will and obedience.

The “complete reinterpretation” includes the saint’s curls, which are somewhat fluffier than those in the fresco; his beard, which is completely visible above his shoulder; and his expression, which is a good deal more hangdog than Masaccio’s. The drawing is cut off at the top of Peter’s skull, but it is obvious that his halo is missing.

Nagel leaves the question of “Peter’s will and obedience” tantalizingly unanswered. The visual and historical evidence, however, is ripe for conjecture.

The story of the tribute money (Matthew 17:24-27) is an account of a minor miracle: when confronted by the above-mentioned official demanding a two-drachma tribute in order to enter the temple at Capernaum, Jesus directs Peter to:

[…] go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.

In the fresco, the arms of Peter and the tax collector form a V that conjoins the saint’s rigorous geometry with his counterpart’s more relaxed, almost contrapposto pose. Michelangelo’s de-haloed saint, however, matches that flexibility, with a noticeable crook in his elbow. Does this pliability suggest that he is just as fallible as his morally dubious antagonist?

By the time he made this drawing, Michelangelo would have been well aware of the teachings of the puritanical firebrand Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), who in 1490 began his apocalyptic sermons from the monastery of San Marco, inveighing against the greed of the Medicis, the materialism of the Florentines and the corrupt papacy of Alexander VI.

Savonarola, who in his first year as a monk wrote a poem called “On the Decline of the Church,” so rattled the political and clerical authorities with his calls for reform and repentance that within six years of Michelangelo’s sketch of St. Peter, he was excommunicated, tried in civil and ecclesiastical courts, condemned to death, hanged and burned.

The moral force of the church in Masaccio’s time is reflected in the downward thrust of St. Peter’s arm. It drives the coin into the tax collector’s palm in a gesture as unambiguous as the choice between God and mammon. The crook in the elbow of Michelangelo’s version, however, connotes a muddier set of circumstances.

From one perspective, it could imply a moment of hesitation, which might further imply forgiveness of, or even a sense of identification with, the tax collector’s sins.

Or, viewed another way, Peter’s gesture can be interpreted as picking up rather than putting down. This is where things can get really farfetched: is Michelangelo casting the Vicar of Christ — Alexander VI, the Borgia pope — as slipping the tribute money from the tax collector’s hand into his own?

Peter’s expression, however, doesn’t denote greed as much as sorrow. Is he mourning what has become of the church in the hands of his successors? Or is he quietly resigned to the ways of the world — his head signifying one moral path while his hands depict another?

Or is the young Michelangelo, on the cusp of the most brilliant career in art history, anticipating his complicity with the power structures unequivocally damned by Savonarola? Has he already begun his lifelong terror over the fate of his immortal soul?

Could these speculations be among the “new symbolic forms” that Gopnick suggests are engendered by “small alterations” in the act of copying? Most likely not. But meanings that are unsupportable are not necessarily inadmissible.

This was, after all, arguably the most formative time of Michelangelo’s life, and his influences were profound. When he was in his sixties and at work on the “Last Judgment,” he didn’t fail to include Savonarola crawling out of his grave and virtually into the lap of the Catholic hierarchy.

The extent to which Savonarola’s teachings could have guided Michelangelo’s reinvention of Masaccio’s St. Peter is forever indeterminable, but they are difficult to dismiss. They constitute the first link in a chain that leads all the way to the artist’s deathbed where, as legend has it, the voice he heard in the monastery of San Marco was still ringing in his ears.

Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.

Michelangelo’s “St. Peter (after Massaccio) with Arm Studies” (1492) is on view as part of Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich, which continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 6, 2013.

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