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Michelangelo

The Ephemeral and the Eternal

How brilliantly perceptive of the last of the great philosophers of antiquity, Plotinus, to realize that the challenge each one of us faces and that constitutes the kernel of our shared human condition is that of finding ourselves - at least in this seemingly unending stage our evolutionary odyssey - half way between the animals and the gods.

No wonder that human nature and human psychology are so complex and that the integration of the disparate elements that continuously exert their influence upon us - our material body, subject to decay, and the experience of consciousness with its associated sensations, emotions and desires - becomes a hero’s task only attained by the best amongst us.

Arguably no one embodied the inherent contradictions of our human condition in his time as he who, after a long and complex life and an artistic legacy without match, came to be regarded as the greatest amongst the great of the Renaissance. I am of course referring to Michelangelo, a man who exerted a decisive influence not only in the history of Art but crucially — even though this has remained largely unknown to the general public - in its philosophy.

In 1532, at the age of fifty seven, the immortal Florentine fell desperately in love with the young Roman aristocrat Tommaso Cavalieri, thirty four years his junior. Michelangelo saw in him the epitome of the physical and spiritual male perfection he had ardently pursued throughout his life. Unlike some of his predecessors, who had self-servingly taken advantage of the old master’s recurrent infatuations, Tommaso grew to respect and appreciate the sincere devotion of which he had become the object.

The sonnets the Italian genius wrote for his beloved have stood the test of time and reached us in their full splendour in English thanks to the work of the notable Victorian poet John Addington Symonds, who lifted the veil of censorship after a spell of almost 300 years and ended once and for all the discombobulation by replacing every feminine pronoun with the original masculine one. The impassioned verses reveal the profound and genuine love that Michelangelo felt for the "infinitely beautiful" Tommaso:

Just as the moon owes its illumination To the sun’s light, so I am blind until To every part of heaven your rays will reach.

It is highly unlikely that the love between the two ever led to a physical consummation. Tommaso was to marry later in his life, though we are told that his sincere devotion for Michelangelo never dwindled. "I have never wished for a friendship more than wish for thine" he wrote to him on one occasion. The increasingly melancholy, socially isolated and tormented Florentine must have found great comfort in this heartfelt appreciation in his twilight years, spent as we know fully consecrated to his art.

And to what effect. The passing of time has not diminished the indelible impression that his colossal David leaves upon us. Even today we are held in awe not only by that unmatched nobility of form but also by the profound symbolism the great master imparted to his celebrated masterpiece. And what shall we say of the monumental Dome of St Peter’s Cathedral, the Medici Chapel, the Sistine chapel frescos and so many other incomparable works? From what seemingly inexhaustible source of creativity and talent did they originate?

It is precisely while articulating an answer to this question that Michelangelo was to make a contribution to philosophy and to psychology that, inconceivable as this may sound, matches and even outshines his artistic production. For it was he who dared to once and for all correct Plato and establish the foundations of a new conception of Art that - thanks largely to the work of Walter Pater - would be almost unanimously adopted by the Victorians and later divulged and popularized by amongst others Pater’s famed pupil Oscar Wilde. This is the view of Art the great public overwhelmingly subscribes to and that makes us spontaneously rebel against those sorry spectacles we are often exposed to in contemporary art galleries and museums - like the scattered rubbish or the cows cut in half.

Let us follow Michelangelo’s reasoning. It is widely known that Plato did not hold artists or art in particularly high esteem. For the classical philosopher, art strived to transmit the perfection of that true and eternal world our senses can never fully experience or comprehend and which can only be grasped through mystical union or an enlightenment experience. The beauty conferred by the artist to his creation would not therefore be more than at best a copy, an imitation, a pale reflection of the Beauty that is the Source of all that in our world can be deemed beautiful. And as we all know an imitation can never be superior to the original it is based upon. On these premises, Plato disdained art as an inferior means of knowledge.

Using as a metaphor one of the blocks of Carrara marble he habitually used for his sculptures, Michelangelo was to forever reinterpret the role and the true value of Art. For Art is not an imitation, as Plato wrongly believed, he declared, but it is precisely through Art that Beauty is revealed in our world when the artist (in proportion to his talent) gives shape to a sculpture, freeing in the process a Form that was already latent in that noble material and impatient to be manifested and brought to life for our benefit.

This interpretation may initially sound disconcerting. Upon closer reflection, however, we will come to realise that it is due to its implicit acceptance that we intuitively know that a work of art - unlike any other object - is a given that cannot be altered or improved in any way, for it belongs to the realm of the Absolute, from which it is an incarnation. This is precisely why each true work of art (speaking in the broadest sense and including the seven Arts) possesses an incalculable intrinsic value not just in the material but also in the historical and spiritual senses. As Michelangelo realized, Art uses the ephemeral to bring us ever closer to the eternal. We can all ascertain the validity of this statement when we so to speak ’connect’ with a painting, a sculpture or a song and experience a true spiritual communion that lifts us to much higher planes. Art transports us to the Source of everything and it is there that its unique value lies.

It is no coincidence that five hundred years later another adopted Florentine - the former disciple of Freud Roberto Assagioli - would create a school of psychology that explicitly defends the value of Art as a tool of choice to succeed in solving the challenge Plotinus referred to of integrating and developing the various elements that make up our personality. In Assagioli’s system, which he suitably named Psychosynthesis, the therapeutic value of Art is recognised and applied for the benefit of all. As Michelangelo intuited, self-therapy based upon deep reflection and meditation on images or melodies that have left their mark upon us has the potential to act as both a catalyst and a lighthouse that will guide us to the best of ourselves, to the plenitude of our existence.

Michelangelo lived a life full of passion, with - just as the rest of us - successes and failures, joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments. A life, though, in which Beauty always shined and was never to abandon him. "It was conferred to me at birth the Idea of Beauty," he once declared, "which has ever since remained a mirror and a lamp to my art." This light, never to be extinguished, continues to shine today with the same brilliance that inspired Michelangelo, inviting us to follow in his footsteps and to be willing participants - as spectators or creators - in its eternal radiance.

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