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Every time I am in Florence, I spend time meditating on one of my favorite sculptures: the pietà of Michelangelo, often referred to as “The Deposition.” Now housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, it is one of three depictions of Mary mourning over the body of the crucified Jesus that Michelangelo produced over his lifetime. Unlike the pietas in Rome and Milan, which feature only Mary and Jesus, the Florentine sculpture also includes Mary Magdalene and Nicodemus (or in some interpretations, Joseph of Arimathea). Originally, Michelangelo intended the work for his own tombstone—and in this deeply personal work, the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. In fact, Michelangelo labored over the statue for most of his 70s, but for reasons that are still debated, eight years into the project, he grew dissatisfied with it—and tried to destroy it, wielding a hammer that broke off several significant pieces.
I find the piece incredibly evocative, particularly the face of Nicodemus. But a significant part of why I love it is that it is a work that has been repaired. After Michelangelo’s attempted destruction, his friend and student, Tiberio Calcagni, worked to counteract the damage. It was Calcagni who reattached the broken pieces—repairs that can be seen as one looks at the statue. Controversially, he even continued sculpting the face of Mary Magdalen (something of which art historians are not big fans). But these things have never really mattered to me: the intensity and beauty of Michelangelo’s work is profound and profoundly moving—it’s as if it literalizes the brokenness of Christ’s body and heightens the sorrow of Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Nicodemus.
I’m just finishing a semester teaching an upper-division British literature course on the early 19th century, the time of the Romantics. In poems like “Ozymandias” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a quite persuasive argument is made for the power of the poet, of the creator, of the original mind.
I don’t disagree, but I guess I think that there are other necessary roles. Call it the Calcagni Club, but I believe there is a need in the world for the appreciator, the bolsterer, the friend of the artist. Whose primary gift is not creative but supportive. When I teach, I love to tell the stories of all the times we would not have incredible literature without the sometime interventions, the sometime encouragement of people brave enough to believe in the talents of their friends. Here’s a few of the people on my gratitude list:
- Nicholas Ferrar, who was entrusted by George Herbert with the manuscript of The Temple. As Herbert was dying, he told Ferrar he should either burn the manuscript or, if he felt it had any merit, to publish it. Imagine a world without Herbert’s work.
- Robert Bridges, who was a Poet Laureate himself, but who cheered on his friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, throughout his life and worked after Hopkins’ death to bring out the first edition of Hopkins’ poetry. Today, Hopkins is the far more esteemed poet, and yet, I bless the memory of Bridges and his role in promoting his friend.
- Max Brod, who refused to destroy the work of Franz Kafka as Kafka had directed him to in his will.
And just recently, the New York Times devoted a longform piece to Johanna Bonger, who was married to Theo van Gogh, and who spent most of her adult life promoting her brother-in-law, Vincent. The whole article is well worth reading as it chronicles how she is “the force who opened the world’s eyes to his genius.” It was amazing to read of the effort it took on her part, a lifetime of dedicated advocacy.
One wonders what art and literature languishes or never emerges because it lacks a Calcagni, a Ferrar, a Bonger.
Yet, the Romantic myth of the solitary genius continues to have a strong hold on our imagination–even though it is not only a myth, but a toxic one at that. But most creatives know just how much bucking up they need—it’s why the acknowledgements section is so fun to read; in it, we get insight into the circles of family and colleagues and friends that enable imagination to flower and flourish. It’s why I love book groups and craft fairs and student art ventures and amateur musical performances: all places to cultivate our inner Barnabus by encouraging, even if only by our attendance, the talents of others.
Doing any good work—whether it’s creatively focused or the stuff of the day—is so very difficult. Providentially, as I was turning to this conclusion, it wrote itself when I received the most heartening email. It made me tear up to feel so seen and appreciated. But like the best of Calcagni buoying, it also made me so eager to return to the work. Whatever our other talents, may we all aspire to be active members of that club!