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Michelangelo Was A Poet, Though We Barely Know It


Michelangelo may be best known as the artist who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and sculpted the statue of David. He was also a poet - and we didn't even know it.

Enter Professor Leonard Barkan. He teaches comparative literature at Princeton University and he's been studying hundreds of Michelangelo's old papers. He's written a book about them. It's called "Michelangelo: A Life on Paper." Professor Barkan joins us from Princeton University. Welcome to the program.

Professor LEONARD BARKAN (Comparative Literature, Princeton University): Thank you. It's a pleasure and an honor.

HANSEN: Thank you. You actually have a, I guess I could call it, a tongue-in-cheek love poem. Would you read that excerpt for us, please?

Mr. BARKAN: I will. I should set it up. I said...

HANSEN: Go right ahead.

Mr. BARKAN: ...that this is next to an exquisite drawing of a Madonna and child. And I think one has to start with that (unintelligible). That is a gorgeous pencil sketch, very elaborate and very perfect, unusually perfect. And as though carved into the same imaginary piece of marble, he has written:

(Reading) You have a face sweeter than boiled grape juice. It looks as if a snail had walked across it, it shines so much. And prettier than a turnip and teeth as white as parsnips, so much so that you could entice the Pope. And eyes the color of a medicinal brew and hair whiter and blonder than a leek so that I'll die if you give me no relief.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You can't tell if he loves her or hates, right?

Mr. BARKAN: Or what he thinks about himself because he goes on to say, you know, that I'm kind of a fool but I'm trying to love you. And the very last thing he says is:

(Reading) If only I had blocks of stone, I would do something amazing for you.

So, he does peer in at the end, that this kind of bumpkin who can only compare her to, you know, things in the produce section is in fact a sculptor.

HANSEN: Oh, right. I was going to say, what does this poem tell you about Michelangelo? Is he a bumpkin? No.

Mr. BARKAN: It's one of the possible ways he looks at himself. After all, he spent a great deal of his life not finishing projects. Art historians talk about il non-finito - the not finished - in connection with Michelangelo.

HANSEN: What do you think of him as a poet though? I mean, given the example that you read.

Mr. BARKAN: He is a remarkable poet, one would say ahead of his time. He was a tortured user of words and often of agonized desire. The desire in that poem I read is turned comic but most of the poems - and we have something like 300 poems in various states themselves of being unfinished, many - the desire we see in most of them is tortured, indirect, shot through with religious longings at the same time as they are erotic longings.

And, of course, it's clear that some of his desire was of a homosexual kind, though not necessarily all of it. It's desire that cannot quite be realized, which, of course, is the theme in a way of all love poems.

HANSEN: Is there one example of some of those small poems?

Mr. BARKAN: Well, I will read from another poem where, again, my prejudice here is, of course, towards poems that have an interesting relationship on the sheet of paper itself. This is a poem about the death of a loved one. And we're not really quite sure which loved one - it might be his brother. And I'll read from the later part of it:

(Reading) Excessive pain still makes me survive and live, like one who, going faster than all others, seems himself reaching the end of his days after them. Cruel mercy and merciless grace left me alive and cut you off from me, breaking but not extinguishing our bond. And not only did they deprive me of your memory....

And that's where he breaks off.

So, we never know not only but what, but he does do something. At that moment, not only did they deprive me of your memory - and the word in Italian is a dear memory there - but he turns the sheet 90 degrees and draws a self-portrait of his left hand with the index finger pointing precisely to that last truncated word. So, when words fail him, he draws pictures. In other situations, when pictures fail him he writes words.

HANSEN: Leonard Barkan is the author of "Michelangelo: A Life on Paper." He teaches comparative literature at Princeton University where he joined us. Thank you so much.

Mr. BARKAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And to see some of Michelangelo's papers, visit our Facebook page at Facebook.com/NPRWeekend.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.