Poetry sheds light on life of visionary artist

A lecture by literature professor Antonio Corsaro discussed a lesser-known side of the Renaissance master Michelangelo’s groundbreaking and multidisciplinary work: his poetry. / Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

On March 29, Antonio Corsaro visited Vassar to give a lecture entitled “Art, Love and Divinity in Michelangelo’s Poetry.” Addressing an audience composed of members of the campus community, the Renaissance expert spent an hour discussing the little-known writings of famed mononymous High Renaissance artist and visionary Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti. Preceding the event was an introduction of Corsaro by Associate Professor of Art Yvonne Elet, whose academic specialties include Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. She and other faculty members of the Medieval & Renaissance Studies Program coordinated the event.

Corsaro is currently an associate professor of Italian literature at the University of Urbino, a public university located in the north-eastern part of central Italy. In addition to teaching, he also serves as the director of an Anglophone study abroad program in Renaissance Studies for the school as well as a part-time consultant to Michelangelo’s house-turned-museum Casa Buonarroti. In previous years, he has worked as a visiting professor at other universities and colleges across both Europe and the United States.

As a writer and expert in Italian Renaissance literature, Corsaro regularly publishes essays and textual criticisms on comical, satirical and burlesque poetry from the 15th to 17th centuries. His studies include historical Italian figures ranging from Ariosto to Machiavelli. His newest work, a critical edition of Michelangelo’s poetry, was the basis for Wednesday’s talk.

Throughout his lecture, Corsaro highlighted the importance of Michelangelo’s written work, presenting a range of primary texts: letters from the young artist to his father detailing complications in the construction of the Sistine ceiling; musings on painting and sculpture’s battle for artistic superiority, a seething debate of the time known as the paragone; and sonnets that deal with spirituality and love. He spoke of how around one-third of the Tuscan artist’s drawings include text of some kind before going on to compare Michelangelo to Phoebus, a contemporary Greek pop songwriter, and Apelles of Kos, a painter of Ancient Greece famed for his allegedly masterful portrait of Alexander the Great.

What struck student Kushin Mukherjee ’19 most about the talk was the reoccurring theme of Michelangelo’s polymathic nature. In his synopsis on the lecture, he stated, “An interesting note on the lecture, especially given the context on it being delivered on a liberal arts college campus, is the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to any field.”

Though Michelangelo’s written works were never officially published, their wide dissemination earned him a reputation as a man of letters in his lifetime—a reputation that would become secondary to his artistic talents after his death. Despite his fame, his personal correspondences reveal him to be both a spiritual and humble man, especially later in his life. In his advanced age, he grew to see beauty as a cardinal sin, writing about their perceived profaneness when not exchanging love sonnets with widow and fellow poet Vittoria Colonna.

Commenting on how audience members included students and faculty hailing from radically different departments, Mukherjee drew comparisons between Michelangelo’s pursuits and the interdisciplinary academic curiosity of Vassar: “One of the main organizational forces behind the lecture, the interdisciplinary Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, had sought to bring a literary scholar of Michelangelo and Machiavelli to appeal to such a broad audience. Poetry, painting and sculpture, though disparate, found unification through artists such as Michelangelo as did the pedagogically diverse audience through Corsaro’s lecture.

Will Tseng ’17, an economics and philosophy double major who has taken classes in the art history department, said in an emailed statement, “I personally find it interesting to read about Michelangelo’s poems to get an insight about what it must have been like for him when he painted the Sistine Chapel.”

453 years after completing the Duomo Pietà, his final sculpture and oeuvre, the late artist continues to make headlines both on and off college campuses nationwide. On April 3, The Guardian reported an ongoing exhibition hosted in London’s National Gallery that explores the precarious relationship between Michelangelo and his mentor-turned-artistic-rival Sebastiano del Piombo. Included in the exhibit are enrapturing, albeit unfinished, Michelangelo statues on loan from the Royal Academy and San Vincenzo Monastery, letters between him and del Piombo and paintings by del Piombo that bear a suspicious resemblance to those of his more famous colleague (The Guardian, “Michelangelo and Sebastiano review – of gods and men,” 03.13.2017).

The two’s relationship was born from Michelangelo’s resentment towards Raphael, whom his adoptive brother Pope Leo X, in a petty act of fraternal jealousy, came to favor over him. After being cast away to Florence by the Pope to work on a pointless architectural project, he sent designs that could rival Raphael’s works to del Piombo. What resulted was del Piombo’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” a painting meant to compete with Raphael’s masterpiece, “The Transfiguration.” The National Gallery has owned the expansive tableau since 1824, and it can now be viewed next to Michelangelo’s preliminary sketches. Perhaps the most revealing part of the exhibition, notes Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, is not the paintings, but rather the passionate letters between Michelangelo and his colleagues, which all humanize an otherwise larger-than-life figure.

This same goal was on clear display in the lecture last week, as Corsaro contextualized Michelangelo’s poetry within the booming humanistic culture of Renaissance Florence, a time when the arts and letters both flourished in an unprecendented manner. As Professor Elet summed up, “Antonio Corsaro’s richly interdisciplinary analysis of Michelangelo’s poetry highlights deep continuities between the master’s writings and his works of art. I think [Corsaro] makes a very important contribution to a more holistic view of Michelangelo as a visual, spatial and literary artist, and to our understanding of broader issues of the relation of word and image in early modern culture.”

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