by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fear of Failure

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA 15 November 2006
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Sketch for the façade of San Lorenzo in Florence by Michelangelo, c.1517



The 'Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, Painter, Sculptor and Architect' of Giorgio Vasari's Lives, the only living artist to be included in this compendious work, at one time or another denied he was any of the above, except 'Florentine'.

The only formal training he ever received was as a painter. But when Julius II called on him to fresco the Sistine chapel ceiling, the self-taught sculptor claimed he was unqualified for the task, recommending Raphael. When in 1546 Paul IV sought his advice on the Vatican's defences, we find the artist maintaining that, while he 'knew little of sculpture or painting', fortifications were indeed very much his occupation. This bizarre affectation of ignorance was primarily a sarcastic salvo directed at his rival consultant Antonio da Sangallo, scion of Europe's leading military engineering dynasty. Michelangelo added that he knew more about building bastions than 'Sangallo and his whole family put together'.

In the same year, after over 30 years of designing monumental altar pieces, tombs, chapels, façades, a library and a square, Michelangelo was summoned by Paul to complete the plans and execution of St Peter's; he initially refused, saying that 'architecture was not his art'.

Michelangelo had a pathological fear of being categorised. He became an artist in the face of family opposition and was ever conscious of his gentle birth. And, despite his universally recognised brilliance in every art he turned his hand to (including poetry), he seems to have been haunted by the improbable prospect of being mistaken for some rude mechanical. At the same time, he set himself almost impossibly high standards, this being the reason, as Vasari recorded Michelangelo saying of himself, 'why he produced so few statues and pictures'. For beneath the proud and difficult exterior there lurked the autodidact, constantly in fear of failure.

One of Michelangelo's trademark disclaimers – 'Farò ciò che saprò, benché non sia mia professione' ('I'll do what I can, although it's not my profession') – is the subtitle of the revelatory Michelangelo and Architectural Drawing, curated by Caroline Elam, who notes that the artist spent more of his long career engaged in architecture than in any other field.

By the time of this particular claim to amateur status, made in 1524 when he was asked to provide plans for the Laurentian Library in Florence, the artist had a decade's experience as an architect under his belt.

He destroyed many of his papers before his death – 'in order', as Vasari writes, 'that no one should perceive his labours and tentative efforts, that he might not appear less than perfect'. But one of his sketches on show here reveals that he borrowed a friend's manuscript collection of architectural drawings (now known as the Codex Coner), copying them freely in chalk as he put himself through a do-it-yourself course to master the language of contemporary, classically inspired architecture. His early designs followed ancient models in the manner of Raphael and Sangallo, but soon he was casting aside the rule books and existing models and instituting entirely new ways of doing things.

The Florentine's method of working, derived from his sculptural techniques of preparation and realisation, was novel. Rather than starting with an outline sketch, and moving from sheet to sheet as his conception became clearer and more detailed, he habitually drew over his first rough outlines, modifying the design as he went, often using several different media, from ink and coloured chalks to washes. These drawings can be a gripping record of the creative process in action, and the intensity with which Michelangelo applied himself to projects.

The multilayered nature of these drawings was translated into highly original, organically developing architectural forms, which defied the distinctions between structure and decoration, overall design and detail. Often, for example, we see him trying out several superimposed frames for doorways and windows, before opting not for one or the other, but melding two or more of them into a single whole.

He had little interest in theory, being, in Vasari's words, 'restricted by no laws of architecture, ancient or modern'. He thought a mastery of figure drawing infinitely more important than a knowledge of Vitruvius (the only complete architectural treatise to survive from antiquity), and the connection between the human body and harmonious proportions in architecture more a mystical relationship than something that could be reduced to quantifiable measurements.

Yet he was thoroughly practical. When, having taken over the construction of Palazzo Farnese from Sangallo, he designed a new cornice for the building, he had a full-scale wooden model of a section made and hoisted into position to see what it looked like in place.

It was a combination of faith in his hands-on ability to get a job done and a profound spirituality that impelled him to devote almost the last 20 years of his life to radically redesigning St Peter's, providing the model and the impetus to bring about its eventual completion, a task which he came to regard as a penance, and for which he regularly declined payment. He reaped his reward in death, if not in life, by placing his stamp, more than any of the other famous architects who worked on this project for over a century, on the greatest building in Christendom.

First published: The Spectator