Writers' Workshop for ARCH 531 / McGill University / School of Architecture / Fall 2012

Week Eleven: The Sonnets of Michelangelo










The marble not yet carved can hold the form
Of every thought the greatest artist has,
And no conception can yet come to pass
Unless the hand obeys the intellect.


That cause to the effect yields and gives place,
Nature by art is overcome at last.
I know too well who work with sculptor’s grace
That time and death resign me to the past.


With glorious art – that gift received from heaven –
That conquers nature and in every way
Clings to all human longing and desire;


More precious am I to myself than ever
I used to be, since you possessed my heart,
Just as the stone that’s chiselled by the carver
Has far more value than in its rough state.

Please take one sonnet of Michelangelo’s either from the excerpts above or of your own choosing.  Present the work to us and then reflect upon it.  In particular,  discuss how the writing might give us insights into his architectural workings.  Kindly choose verse not mentioned by a previous blogger.

11 responses

  1. XV.


    Non ha l’ ottimo artista.

    The best of artists hath no thought to show
    Which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
    Doth not include: to break the marble spell
    Is all the hand that serves the brain can do.
    The ill I shun, the good I seek, even so
    In thee, fair lady, proud, ineffable,
    Lies hidden: but the art I wield so well
    Works adverse to my wish, and lays me low.
    Therefore not love, nor thy transcendent face,
    Nor cruelty, nor fortune, nor disdain,
    Cause my mischance, nor fate, nor destiny;
    Since in thy heart thou carriest death and grace
    Enclosed together, and my worthless brain
    Can draw forth only death to feed on me.

    This sonnet, in particular is indicative of Michelangelo’s thoughts regarding the role of the artist. Art is not a conscious decision but is dictated by the material which seeks to reveal its beauty. The role of the artist, then is to release the sculpture from its primitive shell. This is perhaps best demonstrated in his work entitled ‘Awakening Slave’ a work that is considered unfinished but in my estimation is a tremendous example of this notion of release, the marble yielding to the hand of the artist, revealing its true nature.
    This revelation could, to a certain extent, be read in the Porta Pia project, where the roughness of the reddish brick reveals more clearly articulated marble elements. The separation is distinct, but can be read in the same manner as the rest of the structure. Materiality is different, and each is treated with care, showcasing the most appropriate representation of each. Brick wants to be rough, absorbing light and eliciting uncomfortable tactile interaction, whereas marble wants to be smooth, reflecting light and inciting tactile desire.
    But Michelangelo’s humour and desire to incite tension in architecture is wholly present in this particular work also. While the brick can be seen as revealing the more refined nature of the marble, the fact that the building is actually set on marble encased footings reiterates the tension between the ground and the dominant material, the brick. If the building is seen as being in the process of transformation, then the footing would make more sense if it were manufactured out of brick. By using marble, Michelangelo questions our assumptions about materiality and the completeness of the work.

    November 16, 2012 at 2:45 pm

  2. Trebuh

    Sfumato certainly choose an interesting topic and supports it using one of Michelangelo’s most famous poems: “No poem explains more clearly the basic process of art than the following quatrain”.[1] The sonnet effectively underlines the notions of the material, the hand and the intellect. In addition to Michelangelo envisioning the relationship between these three concepts, so did the Renaissance sculptor Vincenzo Danti. His words relate perfectly with Michelangelo’s poem ‘Non ha l’ottimo artista’ and described this process of art: “the intelletto which conceived of the work originally and implanted it in nature; the mano which obeys the intelleto and ‘discovers’ the implanted forms; and the material which is custodian of the form …”. [2] Mainly, Danti refers to the process of sculpting materials as a direct extension of one’s intellect. Thus, your hands act based on your thought, which dictates the way the material needs to be sculpted. The following quatrain emphasizes the idea described bellow:

    The marble not yet carved can hold the form

    Of every thought the greatest artist has,

    And no conception can yet come to pass

    Unless the hand obeys the intellect.

    This sonnet likely describes sculpture more than architecture, although Michelangelo’s architecture had some sculptural qualities. The sonnet also underlines the importance of the intellect during the creation process. Assumptions can be made regarding the relation between ‘Non ha l’ottimo artista’ and this sonnet. While architecture and artistic sculpture differ, the idea that architecture is tightly linked with the material is a concept I presume Michelangelo believed. In ‘Non ha l’ottimo artista’ the intellect is envisioned as the creative force, which is ultimately produced by your hands. Perhaps the material is equally important to the form as is the creative idea itself. Effectively, the right material must be chosen to formalize the idea put forth by the intellect and the choosing of the right material needs to be made before the hands begin to sculpt the vision conveyed by the intellect.

    [1] CLEMENTS Robert J, The Poetry of Michelangelo, New York University Press, New York,1965, p.64

    [2] Ibid

    November 18, 2012 at 8:58 pm

  3. LADY, how can it chance—yet this we see
    In long experience—that will longer last
    A living image carved from quarries vast
    Than its own maker, who dies presently?

    Cause yieldeth to effect if this so be,
    And even Nature is by Art surpassed;
    This know I, who to Art have given the past,
    But see that Time is breaking faith with me.

    Perhaps on both of us long life can I
    Either in color or in stone bestow,
    By now portraying each in look and mien;

    So that a thousand years after we die,
    How fair thou wast, and I how full of woe,
    And wherefore I so loved thee, may be seen.[1]

    Michelangelo in his poem to Vittoria Colonna shows a profound understanding of how art can surpass life and nature. As if to prove his words, his works have reached us and are still moving. The desire to congeal in time something that is by nature ephemeral shows a profound belief in the powers of humans to impact their future. I would think that such a belief comes along with a strong sense of responsibility and care. Michelangelo becomes responsible for adequately rendering the emotions he seek to convey—for which skill, as Trebuh and Sfumato pointed out, requiring the fusion between hand and intellect. I would argue that this burden is of a serious nature—whether bestowed by God or himself—and that he has employed his life to live up to this pledge, whether through painting, sculpture or architecture. The care put in his work is immense and little are they who can aspire to such powerful images, such moving scenes and such long-lasting designs. Through the tension between death and love, this sonnet explicits a very different approach to time and excellence that were embedded in Michelangelo’s life.

    [1] Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Horace E. Scudder. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1893; Bartleby.com, 2011.

    November 20, 2012 at 9:37 am

  4. beaupré

    Just as the stone that’s chiselled by the carver
    Has far more value than in its rough state.

    From this quote, we can deduce that Michelangelo treated every block of stone as if it contained a statue inside each one of them and saw it as the role of the sculptor to release it from the stone. He would often abandon these works if he saw himself imposing his own will of the artist onto the sculpture. His series of “Slaves” was a testament to these abandoned works left prisoner in the stone. It is interesting that he attributes such value to the role of the carver in a way that in revealing the stone, the artist is attributing tremendous value to it. His creation of works of art and architecture are in service of some greater power, perceiving works of art as a shadow of divine perfection. To elevate these raw materials towards the divine, they then become the true purpose of the artist. Architecture could then be seen as the arrangement of these cut stones according to certain geometries to further this goal.

    [1] CLEMENTS Robert J, The Poetry of Michelangelo, New York University Press, New York, 1965, p.64

    November 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm

  5. somer

    I think that Beaupre’s comments are very interesting. However, it’s important to note that many of Michelangelo’s attempts at architecture were met with frustration and disappointment, as he never actually saw the works completed. The Basilica di San Lorenzo was commissioned by the pope, and meant to be a “mirror of architecture and sculpture of all of Italy.” To this goal, Michelangelo invested three years of his time, making trips to Carrara and Servezza to seek out the perfect blocks of marble for the project. However, the project was suddenly canceled, abandoned without any explanation from the royal see. The line from the sonnet

    More precious am I to myself than ever
    I used to be, since you possessed my heart,

    Actually the precursor to Beaupre ‘s quote, explains some of the turmoil that this architect must have felt, as he had invested a part of his own soul into each of these projects: to see them abandoned, as those unfinished Slave sculptures, represent the anguish of this artist.

    [1] http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/artwork/michelangelo-buildings1.htm
    [2] CLEMENTS Robert J, The Poetry of Michelangelo, New York University Press, New York, 1965, p.64

    November 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  6. Esiolé

    We know very well Michelangelo the architect, the sculptor, the painter, in short, the artist. But we know less of Michelangelo the poet, even though he wrote a considerable amount of poems. He even states “Writing is a great nuisance to me, for it isn’t my art.” [1] Even though his poetry fosters an interesting understanding of art and architecture through words, it is not precise enough. Words cannot craft as hands do, neither can they build something truly material. This is why writing was never a big part of Michelangelo’s life, as were painting, sculpting and architecture. “Michelangelo suspected words of being too often inadequate to communicate thoughts. […] Read the heart and not the letter, because the pen cannot approach right intent.” (CDXI) [2] However, he still indulged in writing even though he believed he was not very good at it, maybe because “He found that the creative processes and demands of poetry were not unlike those of the arts.” [3]

    Only with fire can the smith shape iron
    From his conception into fine, dear work;
    Neither, without fire, can any artist
    Refine and bring gold to its highest state,
    Nor can the unique phoenix be revived
    Unless first burned. And so, if I die burning,
    I hope to rise again brighter among those
    Whom death augments and time no longer hurts,
    I’m fortunate that the fire of which I speak
    Still finds a place within me, to renew me,
    Since already I’m almost numbered among the dead;
    Or, since by its nature it ascends to heaven,
    To its own element, if I should be transformed
    Into fire, how could it not bear me up with it? [4]

    In this particular sonnet, Michelangelo speaks about the fire in many thought provoking ways. The fire in itself a strong image, because of the inherent symbolism and meanings it embodies. For Michelangelo, the fire is a tool that makes crafting and building possible, but it is also the very first intention and idea that is at the core of the process of crafting and building. “Drawing simultaneously records and reveals the correspondence between speaking and doing, making and imagining, things and ideas, imagination and time, materiality and the immaterial: ‘Only fire forges iron.’” [5] The fire is what destroys, but also what makes anew; it embodies both the destruction and reconstruction, as a whole. By destroying, something else is created, that is stronger, more powerful, more meaningful than it was before its alteration. Regarding this notion of fire, of creating, of building, there is a strong and interesting parallel to make with art and architecture, which are all about transforming, burning, and crafting untouched materials in order to make them better, purer, more significant. This revelation of the true nature of the material can only be attained through its modification, its crafting. In the same way, the fire that lives within us is what shapes us, what destroys us, but then what renews us, mends us. This creating will drives us to make not only the world more beautiful; it also transforms us. “In view of Michelangelo’s total dedication to art, we can only assume that he was now totally aware of the unending intrecciature between literature and art.” [6]

    [1] CLEMENTS Robert J, The Poetry of Michelangelo, New York University Press, New York,1965.
    [2] Idem
    [3] Idem
    [4] Excerpts from The Poetry of Michelangelo, translated by James M. Saslow, 1991 Yale University Press. (http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/arthumanities/pdfs/arthum_michel_reader.PDF)
    [5] LYNCH, Patrick. Only Fire Forges Iron: The Architectural Drawings of Michelangelo, in Drawing: The Process, Intellect, March 2005.
    [6] [1] CLEMENTS Robert J, The Poetry of Michelangelo, New York University Press, New York,1965.

    November 20, 2012 at 7:09 pm

  7. Amalin

    “Michelangelo’s own attitude to his poetry is ambiguous, referring as he does to his writing as polizini (scribbles), cose goffe (clumsy things) or scombicchieri (jottings).” [1] Regardless of what he may have believed, Michelangelo certainly conveyed a strong artistic awareness in his poetry. Madeck has emphasized the responsibility felt by Michelangelo and the skill involved in his work – this sense of duty consumed him and the creative process required a union of body and mind. For this reason, the Renaissance dream theory provided an interesting solution because it “articulates the distinction between the mental, interior activity of creation and the physical labor of execution” [2] Michelangelo recognized dreams as divine inspiration and his poetry certainly confirms his alliance with the contemporary theory. In this sonnet, he honours his dreams and celebrates the creative inspiration they provide:

    O night, O time so sweet, even though black,
    who infuses all labor with peace at the day’s end,
    whoever exalts you shows good judgment and vision
    and whoever honors you has a sound mind.
    You cut short and break off every tiring thought,
    enfolding them in your moist shade and quiet,
    and often in a dream you bear my soul from the lowest
    to the highest sphere, to which I hope to journey.
    O shadow of death, by whom is stilled
    every misery hostile to the heart and soul,
    last and effective remedy for the afflicted:
    You restore our ailing flesh to health,
    wipe dry our tears and put to rest all toil,
    and take from him who lives rightly all wrath and weariness.

    Michelangelo celebrated the night, explaining that it would “show good judgement and vision”, thus making a distinction between those who were simply rewarded by the restorative effects of sleep, and those who could part the body from the mind. “The dream is made clearer in instances when artists relate dreams directly to their creative product. Like the poets who found inspiration in dreams, artists, too, attributed new inventions to dreaming.” [2] Consequently, when Michelangelo described the staircase for the Laurentian Library to Vasari (in Carteggio, vol. 5, no. 1215), he made reference to his architectural inspiration: “A certain staircase appears in my mind, like a dream.” Whether this dream experience was meant to be literal or metaphorical has little importance. It is the artistic invention that is a result of the artist’s vision that is of great significance.

    1 Donovan, Kevin, Michelangelo Extans: Sonnet 89 and the Medici Chapel as Works of Subversion, Building Material , No. 12, morality and architecture (autumn 2004), 37.
    2 Ruvoldt, Maria, Michelangelo’s Dream, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 2003), 103.
    3 Ibid.

    November 20, 2012 at 7:42 pm

  8. labyrinth

    “Al cor di zolfo”

    A heart of flaming sulphur, flesh of tow,
    Bones of dry wood, a soul without a guide
    To curb the fiery will, the ruffling pride
    Of fierce desires that from the passions flow;
    A sightless mind that weak and lame doth go
    Mid snares and pitfalls scattered far and wide;–
    What wonder if the first chance brand applied
    To fuel massed like this should make it glow?
    And beauteous art, which, brought with us from heaven,
    Will conquer nature;–so divine a power
    Belongs to him who strives with every nerve.
    If I was made for art, from childhood given
    A prey for burning beauty to devour,
    I blame the mistress I was born to serve.

    As has been made clear in the previous comments, Michelangelo placed a strong emphasis on the connection between beauty and matter. He believed that the role of the artist was to reveal beauty from the material itself, the whole process being dictated by his intellect and skilled hand. Contrary to other contemporaries, Michelangelo stressed an inherent beauty in the material, rather than a beauty imposed on a material by mathematics and proportions.

    The sonnet quoted above serves to reinforce these notions. The first part of the sonnet describes an inward passion and “fiery will” that is contained within the heart. He then makes a direct connection between art and the divine, stating that beautiful art, which was “brought with us from heaven, Will conquer nature; so divine a power Belongs to him who strives with every nerve”. It is clear that he associates beauty directly with the divine, and only by God’s will can beauty be made manifest on earth. It is through the internal passion of the artist, who has been bestowed with this “fiery will” from the heavens, that beauty can be created. Using this divine power, it is the role of the artist to then bring forth the beauty inherent in the material. Thus, the role of the artist is more that of a medium through which the divine powers act. This view can be extended further to explain his architectural thought: beautiful architecture is created when the architect carefully crafts the building to allow the beauty that is already manifested in the material and form to appear, rather than creating beauty by imposing mathematical theory onto the construction.

    [1] Clements, Robert J. “The Poetry of Michelangelo”. New York University Press: New York, 1965.

    November 20, 2012 at 10:43 pm

  9. reckon

    Com’ esser, donna, puo.

    How can that be, lady, which all men learn
    By long experience? Shapes that seem alive,
    Wrought in hard mountain marble, will survive
    Their maker, whom the years to dust return!

    Thus to effect cause yields. Art hath her turn,
    And triumphs over Nature. I, who strive
    With Sculpture, know this well; her wonders live
    In spite of time and death, those tyrants stern.

    So I can give long life to both of us
    In either way, by colour or by stone,
    Making the semblance of thy face and mine.

    Centuries hence when both are buried, thus
    Thy beauty and my sadness shall be shown,
    And men shall say, ‘For her ’twas wise to pine.’

    It has been fairly stated that Michelangelo believed art to be the revealing of the true nature of a material. Furthermore, Michelangelo implies that Art is the key to immortality. In this excerpt, Michelangelo anthropomorphizes Art and Nature as female deities and proceeds to pit them against each other. However, the match is easily won; Art “triumphs over Nature” and “her wonders live in spite of time and death.” Thus, by revealing himself through painting or sculpture, Michelangelo guarantees himself “long life.” It is his aspiration that centuries later, people will know him through his art (they will see his sadness and her beauty and draw a deeper understanding of him). It can then be deduced that, just as Michelangelo distills a likeness of himself in a painting or sculpture, his architecture too would have telling signs of his own character. Bearing in mind that Michelangelo thought himself to be near-divine, he holds a certain significance to his own abiding reputation. He appreciates that that which he has left behind exists independently of time and therefore all art and architecture would necessarily be explicitly representative of himself.

    November 20, 2012 at 11:36 pm

  10. UVN

    When Divine Art

    When divine Art conceives a form or face,
    She bids the craftsman for his first essay
    To shape a simple model in mere clay:
    This is the earliest birth of Art’s embrace.
    From the live marble in its own space,
    His mallet brings into the light of day
    A thing so beautiful that who can say
    When time shall conquer that immortal grace?
    Thus my own model I was born to be
    The model of the nobler human self,
    Whereto schooled by your pity, lady,
    I shall grow each overplus, each deficiency
    You will make good. What penance then is due
    For my fierce heat, chastened and taught by you?

    Michelangelo believed that the architect, the sculptor, and the artist were guided by divine imagination; creativity and genius was endowed to a select few as a result of divine inspiration. In working the stone and material which was full of potential embedded by God, the artist released its most perfect forms; and it is in the process of creating the art that he reaches salvation: “When divine Art conceives a form or face / She bids the craftsman for his first essay / To shape a simple model in mere clay: This is the earliest birth of Art’s embrace.” “Art” in these verses is capitalized, alluding to its divine character, and also perhaps as a personification of art through the presence of God, full of beauty and eternal life. God communicated Himself to humanity though beauty, which in turn had spiritual significance. Also, this beauty was archetypally represented by the human body: “Thus my own model I was born to be / The model of the nobler human self” The body was at once the exemplar of sublime purpose, and at once the ultimate vehicle for expression; the living body – in motion – was thus an important subject for dissection.

    Michelangelo therefore understood the creation of architecture through the imagination, which was a gift from God, and through the understanding of anatomy in the qualitative sense, revealing the intention of nature the way it was meant to be (ie. conveying a sense, rather than a meaning).

    November 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm

  11. Michelangelo’s “Non ha l’ottimo artista” has been compared by Sfumato to the Porta Pia archway in terms of the tensions between materials and of the artist releasing the work from some kind of shell. The hidden work mentioned in the sonnet does seem to have been bewitched by the marble material. Michelangelo comes across with great humility here, as he does in many of your examples. Trebuh chooses a sonnet which points to the significance of the intellect. Madeck’s example, translated by Longfellow, stresses the importance of responsible action for the artist. In Beaupré’s sample, the importance of not imposing the hand of the artist comes through. Somer analyzes a sonnet from the standpoint of the anguish of the sculptor. Esiolé elaborates on the destructive-cum-generative power of fire. This metaphor is seen in relation to the making of architecture. Amalin illustrates the celebration of dreams and of night in one sonnet. Labyrinth describes Michelangelo’s striving to reach an inherent and divine beauty within material. Reckon feels that Michelangelo’s architecture, like his sculpture, will reveal the artist’s character. Even his sonnets, which were mostly written in last decades of his life, have an almost confessional quality to them.

    November 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm