Paper Trail: Michelangelo in a New, Old Medium

“My beard points to heaven, and I feel the nape of my neck on my hump,” Michelangelo wrote in a poem about his experience painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “I bend my breast like a harpy’s, and, with nonstop dripping from above, my brush makes my face a richly decorated floor.” To accompany that poem, the artist sketched himself at work, stretching up to apply paint to the freshly applied plaster (detail shown above). In Michelangelo: A Life on Paper, Leonard Barkan, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, examines how Michelangelo—best known for timeless works chiseled from stone or painted on architectural surfaces—revealed his deepest self on that most fragile of media, paper. By following Michelangelo’s paper trail, Barkan discovers a more versatile artist of both pictures and words who seems more human and strikingly more modern than the Renaissance genius of legend.


Of the nearly 600 sheets of paper with drawings attributed to Michelangelo, one third contain writing as well. One quarter of Michelangelo’s 300 poems appear with drawings on the same page. “Michelangelo… was an assiduous writer,” Barkan argues, listing 500 letters, thousands of memos, and other writings in addition to the poetry, which scholars have examined for centuries, but usually separately from the art. “[W]e cannot understand Michelangelo without a radical sense of the way that pictures and words entangled themselves within his creative imagination,” Barkan says by way of justifying going where other scholars have feared, or not cared, to tread. By untangling that entanglement, Barkan cracks the code of the living cipher that Michelangelo was to contemporaries and continues to be to us today.

Barkan first paints an interesting backdrop of how words and images operated up to and within the Renaissance. As far back as Cimabue, artists placed words in their art in coordination with the images “in the interest of mutual elucidation,” as Barkan puts it. Whereas Leonardo da Vinci in his illustrated notebooks used images and text to “nail down the truth,” Barkan argues, in Michelangelo’s illustrated writings “the juxtaposed figure and word tend rather to signal the artist’s deepest uncertainties.” If Leonardo knows all the answers, Michelangelo asks all the questions.

Part of that uncertainty in Michelangelo comes from his desire not to be categorized. In the poem on the Sistine Chapel ordeal, Michelangelo’s face itself becomes a work of art, Barkan asserts, thus making Michelangelo the focus of attention and not any individual work of his hand and heart, even one as grand as the Sistine ceiling. “I think what turns [Michelangelo] into a painting-denying poet,” Barkan believes, is hope “that his talent places him in some heroic category of artist that is quite independent of any particular medium—especially, his current work for hire, fresco-painting.” Michelangelo’s defines himself as an artist who is “not just a painter, but rather a painter in the loftiest sense of the term: one whose eyes were made by the heavens to discriminate between the different modalities of beauty,” Barkan continues.

Barkan’s point is subtle, but he squeezes meaning from every squiggle and convincingly argues that Michelangelo strove to be a multimedia artist as much as possible within the confines of the 16th century. Writing and drawing thus become “neighbors on a continuum of creation” for Michelangelo, bringing together every aspect of the artist and showing a striving, struggling, longing mind to counter the age-old myth of the effortless artist doing the (art) work of God on Earth.

At times, Michelangelo’s “associative thinking,” as Barkan calls it, can be hard to follow, but the Princeton professor proves an able guide through the reams of drawings and writings, the most significant of which are illustrated nearby for easy references. Michelangelo the “exasperated instructor” guiding his pupils also comes through in Barkan’s examination. These classroom exchanges as well as other sheets strewn with seemingly disconnected words and pictures “are not stationary monuments but objects in active social commerce,” Barkan writes, and full of the energy of collaboration and creativity pushed beyond simple connections. “Viewed from the age of YouTube and Facebook,” Barkan writes of these entangled social pages, “the sixteenth century begins to look strangely familiar.” It’s not too much of an imaginative stretch to conclude that, if Michelangelo were alive today, he’d have a very cluttered and very active Facebook wall.

Barkan brings Michelangelo into the 21st century quite convincingly with such connections. Walter Pater once wrote that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” In Michelangelo’s case, all his art aspired to the condition of language, with all the rhetorical power of poetry as well as the playfulness of puns. With a similar spirit of pure joy in language’s capacity to illuminate great art and great artists, Leonard Barkan in Michelangelo: A Life on Paper gives us a more human Michelangelo who looks and sounds a lot like us today, but with all the genius left intact.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Leonard Barkan’s Michelangelo: A Life on Paper.]

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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