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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

All Michelangelo's Witches


Michelangelo is often presented as a forerunner of Neoclassicism, and he was. But we shouldn't forget that he was a Renaissance man, so that his interest in classical art and literature was very different from the point of view of Neoclassicism proper in the 18th and 19th centuries. A major difference, besides, between Michelangelo and the more "typical" Renaissance artists is that he used to conceal what they used to show; and often, the official titles of his works didn't correspond to the actual subjects. By looking carefully at some of his masterpieces, for example, we can discover witches where they were not supposed to belong. Clockwise from top left:

Leah, officially the symbol of active life "against" contemplative life (her sister Rachel). But she holds a jar with the face of a demon, so the statue maybe portrays a witch "against" a saint (Rachel prays) as two opposite, but both legitimate, ways of life;

The Cumaean Sibyl, a proverbially old Wiccan of Southern Italy. In the Greek and Roman societies, a great number of witches worked; their job would be carried on throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The poet Virgil himself was honored as a wizard, even by Dante (see). Going back to our Sibyl, both strega in Italian and "witch, hag" in English can still indicate an old, ugly woman;

The Night, whose statue includes a mask -- a symbol of secrecy -- and a barn owl, incidentally placed between her legs. The Latin name of the barn owl was precisely strix, from which strega, witch, comes.