Works in Progress - Autumn 2009

The Inexhaustible Florentine

By Elyse Graham | June 27, 2013


Leonard Barkan has spent much of his career straddling the worlds of pictures and words. Now the writer and professor of comparative literature at Princeton is completing a book, “Michelangelo: The Hieroglyphs of the Mind,” that addresses the creativity of Michelangelo from just that perspective: What does it mean for the painter of the Sistine Chapel and the author of hundreds of sonnets to mix his several voices self-consciously and deliberately in the sketches and on the chaotic pages of his notebooks?

“The writing alone, on a single page, can be of an extremely varied nature, from highly formal poetry to memos and lists of expenditures,” he says. “These pieces of paper are the battlegrounds for the different emotions, and the different jobs, Michelangelo had in life.”

The issue of managing vast enterprises governs one section of Barkan’s ongoing investigation. Following the lead of the art historian William Wallace, he focuses on Michelangelo as a man of relationships, a thinker who drew out his ideas using conversations with others, an artist whose process relied on a studio of underlings—all of which contradicts the familiar image of a solitary genius. “He was an artist, maker, pedagogue, colleague”—a social person with antisocial tendencies, Barkan says, but “very attracted to society.”

Such contradictions appeal to Barkan. “I’m very drawn to big canonical figures like Shakespeare and Mozart and Michelangelo,” he says. “They always seemed to me inexhaustible, and there are concrete senses in which Michelangelo is inexhaustible. He was extremely self-reflective: five to six thousand letters, 200 poems. There is always more, there are always surprises.”

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