08 April 2010

Michelangelo speaks

Portrait of Michelangelo (after 1535) by Jacopino del Conte

My post this morning about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel reminded me that I have a collected works of Michelangelo in my book case. I dug it out and found this:

   A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
—bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, 's all out of whack.
     Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback's lump would be.
I'm pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled—see?—
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
     my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.
Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle around, erratic.
     Up front my hide's tight elastic; in the rear
it's slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused.
I'm bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic.
     Not odd that what's on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don't berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
     Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don't belong!
Who's a painter? Me? No way! They've got me wrong.

The Complete Poems of Michelangelo
©1998, 198 pages, Translated by John Frederick Nims

He wrote that while he was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Clearly, spending four years on a scaffold looking up took a toll on his body.

It's difficult to see his humanity when you look at his work. He achieved a state of artistic perfection that's otherworldly to say the least. Reading that abbreviated sonnet puts a human face on him.


  1. You always teach me something new. I had no idea he had written any poetry. Wonderful post! I will never forget walking into the Sistine Chapel the first time. It's breathtaking.

  2. And not just any poetry, cranky poetry. That's the best kind! He was pretty prolific actually, though most of his letters are gone. I would love to get a window on his letter writing. He seems to have had a pretty wicked sense of humor.

  3. Wow- that's wild! I, too, was not aware of the Master's poetic voice. I see that his written expressions are as vivid and conscious as his painterly and sculptural works. A keen eye and depth of awareness that colors the result in a breath-taking, almost painful reality... this man truly "saw" his subjects, including himself, and was able to translate that vision into lasting forms that we can still access today. And, in turn, see into his world, a microcosm of our mutual, human condition. Timeless.

  4. Well-said Richard. He had a really advanced mindset for the era when he lived and I'm sure he found his clarity to be both a blessing and a curse.

  5. When I was on tour of the Sistine Chapel in 2008,the tour-guides clarified that he was NOT on his back painting the ceiling, but standing on the scaffolding with his neck bent up, which clearly explains his physical deteriation as referenced to his goiter!!

  6. I think the story about him on his back came from Hollywood. I suppose it made a better movie that way. But in his own words, he was pretty clearly standing the whole time. He used to wear a wide brimmed hat and he used to insert lit candles into the brim so he could work at night. That would have been kind of hard to do if he were lying down.


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