Shakespeare's Sonnets Between Michelangelo and Petrarch: Shakespeare's Sonnets of Art
by William Shakespeare

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Between Michelangelo and Petrarch: Shakespeare's Sonnets of Art

(Shakespearean Criticism)

John Kerrigan, St John's College, Cambridge

The year 1494 found Michelangelo in Bologna: young, brash, and full of promise. Behind him lay his first major work, the Madonna of the Steps, a low relief carved with all the delicate solidity of Donatello, though left—like so many of Michelangelo's most emotional compositions—unfinished. Before him lay Rome, and a whole series of sculptural triumphs: the Bacchus, the Pietà, the bronze and marble Davids of 1501-2, and the first designs for the Julius tomb. But, for twelve months or so, the young artist stayed in Bologna, at the house of Gianfrancesco Aldrovandi, carving very little, yet drawing, writing and reading. Michelangelo had already encountered—in the circle of Lorenzo de' Medici—Ficino, Poliziano and Pico della Mirandola; and he must have absorbed, during those years in Florence, the neoplatonic doctrines which were to influence him for the rest of his life. Now, in Bologna, he steeped himself in the poets. 'Every evening', writes a contemporary biographer, Aldrovandi made Michelangelo 'read from Dante or from Petrarch and now and then from Boccaccio, until he fell asleep."1 Just how important Petrarch became can be judged from a sketch made for the two statues of David. Down the margin of the page, beside the strong right arm of the marble giant, the artist has written: 'Davicte cholla fromba/e io chollarco/Michelagniolo//Rocte lalta cholonna el ver … '2—at which point the text breaks off. 'David with the sling, and I with the bow; Michelangelo. The high column is broken, and the … ' This jotting has puzzled art historians for many years, and its secrets are not quickly unlocked. If, however, we follow the clues offered by that last line, with its arresting quotation from the Canzoniere, we can make some progress towards understanding what it meant to write artful sonnets, in English as well as Italian, after Petrarch.

David could represent many things in 1502—not least, in Republican Florence, opposition to the Medici family, the political Goliath of Tuscany. But his standard significance, sanctioned by centuries of Biblical exegesis, was 'fortitude'. No doubt it was this tradition which led Michelangelo to model his marble David on the Fortitude which Nicola Pisano had carved into a column in the Pisan Baptistry. As images of stubborn strength, the pillar and David would persist. Leonardo, in 1504, doodles a sketch of Michelangelo's statue among pilastered buildings in his notebook. In Apianus and Amantius' Inscriptiones Sacrosanctae Vetustatis (1534) the broken column is classicized as a vulnerable emblem of immortality.3 Puttenham, 'in Italie conuersant with a certaine gentleman', helped disseminate the motif in England, observing, in his Arte of English Poesie, that 'By this figure is signified stay, support, rest, state and magnificence'.4 Michelangelo's mind will have passed from David to Petrarch's 'broken column', then, because he associated both with 'fortitude'. A second link is provided by artistic ambition. Canzoniere 269 is a love-lament. It bewails the sudden deaths of Petrarch's patron, Giovanni Colonna, and of Laura. 'Rotta è l'alta colonna e '1 verde lauro' the line reads in full: 'the high column is broken, and the green laurel.'5 While Giovanni is identified with 'una colonna' broken short, the laurels of creative success (such as were granted Petrarch by Robert of Naples in 1341)6 are put in question. Preparing to carve his first important Florentine statue, and (as often when sketching major work) full of self-doubt, Michelangelo quoted Petrarch to record his fears of blasted fame. There is a third connection, the most subtle but far-reaching. 'Davicte cholla fromba/e io chollarco': the weapon which Michelangelo means to wield against Goliath is primarily a running-drill, the 'bow' used to turn the shaft which engraves fine details on sculpture. But it associates, inevitably, with the 'bow' used by the god of love. In Michelangelo's verse, bows repeatedly tend...

(The entire section is 7,352 words.)