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Writings on art; ‘The Captives’

As you enter the corridor in Florence’s Accademia that leads towards Michelangelo’s David, it is very easy to pass by four large figures on either side with barely a glance.

The light is poor, which doesn’t help; the people sweep you onwards, the presence of that famous figure too overwhelming to be ignored without an effort of restraint.

And all the time one stands – trying to focus on these quiet, difficult pieces of hewn rock – that heroic figure at the end draws the attention, pulling with some powerful gravity of his own. But stop we must, for these giants have something worth stopping for; something deep and profound, hardly to be found elsewhere.

What are we looking at? Great chunks of mountain out of place here, with areas of coarse, bare rock between roughed-in limbs and torsos, unfinished and crude and often hard to discern; particularly when contrasted with the smooth, sensual finish and elegance of his other figures. Knots of muscle  in the centre form an axis around which a storm of indeterminate shapes swirl, in and out of focus. These are dark figures, in spite of the light of the corridor: out of place, out of time, emerging from the shadows, still concealing secrets. Emerging from a dark world of labour and pain, or struggling under some unnamed, unspecified weight of their own.

And what do these rough-hewn, looming giants stand for? We know they are unfinished pieces of Julius’s tomb, muscular caryatids abandoned in despair by an overstretched Michelangelo called away to paint the Sistine ceiling…but why this powerful sense of pain and struggle? They seem to say “We are made from the earth. And to the earth we shall return. Our bones and hair are like the rocks and the wind…this earthbound state is a prison and our spirits in torment. Old age, sickness and death come to us all but our hearts cry out in protest!”

They have a poignancy and a sadness to them in their lost and unfinished state; but it is this very unfinished  state that expresses something that the more finished works do not, especially to our more modern eyes. The contrast of textures of the flesh and the bare rough-hewn rock have an austerity of penance and the desert about them. These are not the sensual sleepers just waking up in the Louvre…

If they had been finished off and included as part of some great monument, they may have remained even more imprisoned. But faced with just a single statue of the human form, we find reflected back at us our own selves, more effectively than any mirror. They remind us of our inner world, the swirling thoughts and emotions, feelings of confusion and doubt, of confidence and desire, of heartache and loss. We see our frustrations, yearnings, pain and our sadness laid bare. It is an open display of our human state in all its different forms. And it is this naked clarity which makes them so powerful. They are not young men but they have such strength and virility; these are hardened middle-aged men with experience of the world and they surge out of the stone with barely contained violence and energy…but constrained they are, all too painfully. They are in mortal pain – a pain we all feel at some time in our lives – writhing in a state of disturbing agony of inner turmoil, fighting against their earthbound state, yet built with grandeur and  nobility. They contain the pain that we all face, the inevitable problems of life, but at the same time suggesting by their sheer manliness and vitality that this struggle is a noble one and that this mortal frame is still magnificent. That despite the limitations of our bodily state, the spirit remains unconquered, forever straining in some way to be free.

We can move on and join the admiring throng around David’s magnificent radiant form – bursting with the freedom of youth – and gaze in awe; but for me those shadowy men still stand there waiting.

They have stayed there with me, in the back of my mind, the shadowy inner world, haunting my memory…waiting for me to return.

The Captives by Michelangelo can be seen in the Galleries of the Accademia, Florence.