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Sonnet, Sculpture, Death: the Mediums of Michaelangelo's Self–Imaging

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This essay proposes a new reading of Michelangelo's sonnet 151, ‘Non ha l’ottimo artista’, emphasizing the text's insistence on death as the recalled condition of the self. Sonnet 151 begins with a conceit about the art of sculpture as a process of confronting a marble block and turns to recollections about the state of the self phrased in abstract, moral terms. Comparison with the artist's last sculptures, the Florence Deposition and the Rondanini Pietà reveals a coherent though unresolved project of the self representationally seeking a medium. These media are the marble block, death, and, arguably, the body of Christ. Exploring close intertextual relationships to Petrarch’s sonnet 170 and St Paul’s Letter to the Romans clarifies Michelangelo's distinctive conception of death as a medium of self–recognition. The implications of this recognition configure a stark division between exterior surface and interior reality and cast Michelangelo's professional identity as a sculptor functioning in a Christian framework of belief as fraught and threatened.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: State University of New York, Geneseo

Publication date: December 1, 1997

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