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American Imago 60.1 (2003) 21-40

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Sacred Objects/Illusory Idols:
The Fake in Freud's "The Moses of Michelangelo"

Aviva Briefel

Before earning the status of a great original, Michelangelo began his career as a forger. Vasari (1568) recounts that the young artist made copies of Old Master drawings, smoking and staining them to give them an authentic appearance. He later fashioned a statue of a sleeping Cupid, which Lorenzo di Medici allegedly encouraged him to pass off as an ancient artifact. Vasari argues that the believability of his forgery was a major catalyst in establishing Michelangelo's reputation (421-23). Subsequent biographies of Michelangelo include fascinated descriptions of the artist as forger, attributing other fakes to the master's corpus. According to one of these accounts, after making a bust of the goddess Ceres, breaking off its arm, and burying it, Michelangelo informed a group of archeologists that he had discovered an ancient statue, which, upon examination, they attributed to the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. As they were admiring their find, Michelangelo produced the broken arm, showed that it fit the amputated body perfectly, and exclaimed, "I am Praxiteles!" (Eudel 1884, 387; Demeure 1951, 120-21). Whether this seductive narrative of the birth of Michelangelo as artist is itself true or feigned, it presents authorship as a category that must be dismantled before it can be established. As the statue must first be broken before it can be recognized as a whole, so the author or artist needs to fragment his identity in order to monumentalize it; "I am Praxiteles" thus becomes the most direct way of asserting, "I am Michelangelo."

Freud adopts this "deconstructionist" model of authorship in "The Moses of Michelangelo" (1914). The essay is [End Page 21] peculiar in eschewing a straightforwardly psychoanalytic approach to its subject, instead trying to identify what particular moment during Moses' visits to Mt. Sinai Michelangelo intended to represent in his "inscrutable" statue (213). From the outset, Freud acknowledges the incongruity of his decision to write about an artwork with the disclaimer: "I may say at once that I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman. . . . I am unable rightly to appreciate many of the methods used and the effects obtained in art" (211). What is more, in a parallel to Michelangelo's misattribution of his own work preceding his self-identification as its true father, the essay was originally published anonymously in Imago. 1 Writing (in English) to Ernest Jones on January 16, 1914, Freud wondered: "Why disgrace Moses by putting my name to it? It is a fun and perhaps no bad one" (Paskauskas 1993, 256). 2 Freud formally "adopted" the "Moses" as his own only with the publication of his Gesammelte Schriften in 1924. In a letter of April 12, 1933, to its Italian translator, Edoardo Weiss, Freud culminates his identification with his essay by using the vocabulary of family romance to transform what he had once dismissed as a jeu d'esprit into an extension of himself: "My feeling for this piece of work is rather like that towards a love-child. For three lonely September weeks in 1913 I stood every day in the church in front of the statue, studied it, measured it, sketched it, until I captured the understanding for it which I ventured to express in the essay only anonymously. Only much later did I legitimatize this non-analytical child" (quoted in Jones 1955, 367).

Critics tend to account for Freud's conflicted relation to "The Moses of Michelangelo" by invoking a scenario of the "return of the repressed," ostensibly treating it as a nonpsychoanalytic aberration in his corpus, only to reclaim it in the course of their discussions as an unquestionably Freudian work. Addressing the uncharacteristic nature of Freud's subject matter and approach, Jean-Joseph Goux initially portrays the essay as a type of forgery: "The text could well have been written by someone else: Freud did not leave his unmistakable mark upon it" (1990, 134). Without explaining what this "unmistakable mark" might be (a signature...