Adventures in Aesthetics
with Cardinal Ratsael

One has much more freedom as a genius than as a saint. Humility is normally seen as a prerequisite for sanctity, but why is it that men of genius feel so wont to carp at their peers; indeed it is not so much a freedom as an impulsion which is known technically in the world of aesthetics as bitching.

I say 'men' of genius rather than 'humans' or 'people' or even 'women', as I hope to refrain in these few words from that malaise of the human spirit called 'political correctness'. Believe me I shall avoid politics altogether. And as to the word 'bitching' I do not herein asperse to the genus of a dog, the genius of a dog, the sex of a dog (though not in principle excluding a hair of the dog), I am simply referring to human bipeds, a supposed characteristic of certain quadrupeds; a form of reverse anthromorphism.

Michelangelo Buonaroti was an awful bitch. Vasari tells us so. He even bitched about Vasari who was his sycophantic hagiographer, his propagandist and lap dog (the term 'lap dog' is employed here only in a waggish sense; it is historically attested to that Vasari could not dance).

Sometime around 1545/6 Michelangelo and his Boswell, Vasari, called in to see Tiziano Vecello the painter known to us as Titian, who was working in Rome for Pope Paul III. The picture they saw was of Danae on a bed, about to be seduced by Jupiter disguised as a shower of gold. She has a rather wistful look on her face perhaps mindful that Jupiter more often came as a bull (this latter verb is herein offered to avoid the rather unfortunate connotations of the term 'arrived').

Michelangelo duly praised Titian's work to his face. They were both giants of the Renaissance, 'mortal gods' as Vasari would have it. Titian was a prince among painters, at ease with emperor and pope. So afterwards, on the way home, Michelangelo could not avoid having a go at Titian's draughtsmanship. This famous incident was all par for the course, of course, the Florentines against the Venetians, desegno versus colorito. (The word 'famous' here is used in the sense that no one is concerned about it except academics who are embarrassed at having to repeat it.)

But Michelangelo himself is not immune from criticism. His 'Christ' of the 'Last Judgement' is a figure whose musculature is such that he appears to have severe difficulty in attempting to stand. And his sculpture of Night in the Medici Chapel is a beautiful boy ruined by what appears to be, rather unprofessional silicone implants (he did after all use a male model).

Michelangelo cuts a lonely figure, his work was said to have terribilita (awesomeness), which is also a good word to describe his own genius. One can imagine him receiving his deserved reward in the eternal life, but how close to the throne? Would he be before or next to, Leonardo or Raphael, or close to the apostles? Yet even at the Last Supper the Apostles argued over whom among themselves was the greatest (Luke 22:24), and James and John even put Jesus out by vying to be seated next to Him in His glory.

It would perhaps take a truly extraordinary genius not to bitch about another's work. When a painter from Crete called Domenikos Theotokopoulos arrived in Rome he helpfully offered to repaint the Sistine Ceiling. We know him as El Greco and his opinion of Michelangelo was: 'a good man but he could not paint'.

(This article was first published in start, by the South Tipperary Arts Centre.)