- Michelangelo’s Christian Mysticism: Spirituality, Poetry and Art in Sixteenth-Century Italy by Sarah Rolfe Prodan
It is fair to acknowledge that Michelangelo’s art, life, and tormented soul have produced a multitude of readings—biographical, historical, aesthetic, psychoanalytic, religious, and others less prominent. Few studies, however, have tried to look at Michelangelo “the poet” to obtain a deeper understanding of his art and spirituality. Sarah Rolfe Prodan’s fine book on Michelangelo’s Christian mysticism combines a literary, historical, and aesthetic approach to highlight the Augustinian matrix at the heart of the protagonist’s religious life. In eight highly erudite chapters [End Page 644] interrelated in two micro-studies (Part I: Michelangelo and Renaissance Augustinianism; Part II: Michelangelo and Viterban Spirituality), the uniqueness of Augustinian mystical theology, as well as the pneumatological aspect of piety within the Viterbo circle, are considered authoritatively in order to enhance our understanding of Michelangelo’s spiritual writings.
Part I offers an enthralling reading of key imagery in St. Augustine’s soteriology (“the sea,” “the mountain,” “the fire with the sword”), which can also be discerned in Michelangelo’s rime. The author discusses how these allegorical images have been absorbed by Michelangelo not just from the Confessions and other selected works by Augustine but also from Dante’s Commedia and Cristoforo Landino’s Comento. Although this reading is not new to Michelangelo scholars, Prodan’s intellectually rich discourse places emphasis on those poems which best bring to light the similarity of spiritual identity with the journey of Dante’s pilgrim and Augustine’s description of the spiritual consequences of concupiscence in terms of the ascent of spiritual gravitation. Chapter 4 in particular (“The Fire with Sword: Grace and Divine Presence”) provides a stimulating analysis of how the allegorical interpretation of the flaming sword in the Bible, in Augustine, in the Commedia (Purg. VIII, 25–27) and in Landino’s Comento (specifically in relation to his interpretation of Purgatorio VIII) have contributed to the illumination of the allegorical significance of images of fire in some of Michelangelo’s poems.
Part II explores Michelangelo’s poetry and aesthetics in the context of the spirituality of the reform-minded intellectuals who animated the Ecclesia Viterbiensis in the mid-1540s. In this section Prodan has largely left aside the matter of Michelangelo’s contribution to poetic or artistic innovation in the context of the so-called Italian Reformation, acknowledging, however, that it has already been well represented in recent scholarship (Alexander Nagel, Antonio Forcellino, Abigail Brundin, and Ambra Moroncini are among the scholars to which the author refers). Her investigation, therefore, is mainly focused on examining the influence of the Italian lauda tradition—specifically the Quattrocento Florentine lauda—and the contemplation of religious images in relation to Michelangelo’s poetry. Her scholarly discourse is once again elegantly conducted, helping the reader to understand the connection forged among lauda singing, preaching, devotional images, and personal piety. She concludes that the “poetry of reform-minded Catholics in Italy came to echo the poetry of mystical writers, especially those who composed lauds” (p. 155). Hence, Michelangelo’s Christian mysticism is read with a prise de position that favors his Catholic orthodoxy.
Reading is facilitated by English translations of all quoted poems, and copious notes are provided with generous bibliographical references. Textual anomalies such as “devozione erotica” instead of “erotica” in relation to Forcellino’s study (p. 159n7; p. 206n2; p. 232) and some reservations about Matteo Residori’s article—“E a me consegnaro il tempo bruno: Michelangelo e la Notte”—referenced in the context of the Italian Reformation (p. 159n7), stand in contrast to the overarching tone of Prodan’s book, which is without doubt a commendable study on Michelangelo’s [End Page 645] complex spirituality. It won the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione 2013 Publication Award for a Manuscript in Italian Literary Studies.