“Try to think of your whole life as a unity, rather than a series of unrelated fragments.” —Prior Bichiellina (to Michelangelo)
Outside in shimmering, early day heat, throngs of people move past the rows of scooters, wild palettes of gelatos and pizzas. A restaurant I peer into has just one table. If you follow your nose along the gracefully curvy streets, you will end up going exactly 180 degrees from the direction you think you are going, every time. Beautiful girls. I have never seen so many people kissing—every street corner and park. The barista in Caffe Fiorella pulls his first espresso of the day, singing. It is a summer morning in Florence.
I went to the Duomo museum to see their Michelangelo. Inside, there is a great hall with side balconies with creamy white marble balustrades carved deep like butter and a marble archway over the front staging area. Our own school’s great hall has none of these, it is plain. The entry archway in the Duomo museum is constructed in colorful Italian marble—ours has wood slats.
Duomo, great quattrocento cathedral of satin-polished marbles and ornate gold: indulgent ruling class greed and humble expressions of passionate faith merge here.
Michelangelo lived this conflict—most, if not all, great work arises from conflict—and his work has been an ultimate source of inspiration since it was created, 500 years ago. Down all roads from here is the Eternal City, Rome.
Can our work endure for 500 years? The King’s School in Canterbury was established back then and is still going. What do they know that Michelangelo knew? What could we do so that our school will be here in 500 years?
Almost surreptitiously, I move into the room that houses Michelangelo’s last sculpture, “The Descent,” a slightly larger than life marble Pieta, an expression of faith and pity. Nicodemas removes Jesus from the cross and is holding the lifeless body up by the armpits. Except Nicodemas, eyes retreating from the world under bony brows, cast down at Jesus workmanlike, just doing his job, has the face of the artist himself. There he is, Michelangelo, in his own last sculpture, with that crushed and flattened nose from when, in his youth, a fellow apprentice plowed a fist into his face from the anger of jealousy.
He had lived a long, long life, that was so many years ago, and now that wide nose just looks easy to peer down knowingly, not damaged or even imperfect. It is not a Roman nose, it is an artist nose.
Before Michelangelo, there were craftsmen and entertainers and artisans, and warriors, and admittedly, there was Masaccio, but Michelangelo was the first 100% artist. I think they should have made a saint out of him because he obviously had miraculous access to divine and eternal human passion. He even slept in his clothes and I’m pretty sure God does that, too.
As sculpture became more pure and idealized for him, no medium on earth could accommodate it. And so, around the end of and after many months of this sculpting, his final sculpting, of what is called his “personal Pieta,” the artist grew angered at imperfections he found in the stone, Carrera marble. He had already polished the front parts of the sculpture with fine pumice, the leg and arm of Jesus buffed with straw and sulfur, while the back and some of the forms were still rough and only partially emerged from the block, but the flawed marble was not shearing off into fresh snow before his chisels as he dreamed it should. At last he took a harsh hammer and shattered the left arm and a few other parts of the nearly complete, pure labor of love until they fell to the floor. The Medici’s repaired it, so it exists, and now we can behold not only the intrinsic, graceful art and symmetry still trying to emerge from this stone, but feel the passion, the agony and the ecstasy and the utter inability to separate these two, that went into it.
I have abandoned students but never fully lost faith that something would become of them. And I know I will never live to see the completion of my school. The best and harshest judgments of my peers and patrons are meaningful to me but can never reach the depth of my own. And, outside, the state of education and all the new money seems to trend in the opposite direction than we do.
“You have created a masterpiece,” one patron told us recently about The Grauer School. This is true. And we said: “Thank you.” We are fools to be ignorant of our own weakness, ego and vulnerability—but to be inspired and strengthened by genius and enduring vision is a conceit too great to pass up. It was a long year and it was good to be in Florence.
In the presence of his last sculpture, we can breathe pure art even as it is hopeless, and I handled that by recommitting to doing only art in my own work, to sculpting all night long with a candle on my head if that’s what it takes, to holding the development of my work and even the small details to classical and universal principles such as we can only experience through passion and faith. Consumed with this spirit, I veered out of the room to see the famous bronze doors that took Ghiberti 21 years to create, approached them with a quickening pulse, and walked face first into the bullet-proof glass that protects the doors from tourists—I never saw the glass until after my nose was flattened against it.
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