Artibus et Historiae no. 69 (XXXV)

2014, ISSN 0391-9064

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PAULA CARABELL - Figura Serpentinata: Becoming over Being in Michelangelo’s Unfinished Works (pp. 79–96)

It is well known that Michelangelo completed few works. Of those he did finish, the David, takes its inspiration from the conventions of classical contrapposto, that is, from the interplay of binary oppositions. The works he left in a state of non-finito, however, often exhibit a different compositional strategy, one that opts for a more complex structure. Michelangelo’s Victory, for example, seems instead to turn in upon itself, unsettling the structuralist dualities set out in the David. Historically, this twisting mass, or figura serpentinata, may have first been developed by Leonardo da Vinci or, more likely, as Lomazzo suggests, codified and then expressed in its most difficult and sophisticated form by Michelangelo himself. Such a schema describes, nonetheless, a complex torsion that provides the figure with a sense of perpetual animation, an appearance of unending motion that ultimately calls to mind a post-structuralist aesthetic, particularly that of ‘the fold’ as it is described by Giles Deleuze. This epistemological paradigm has, of course, long been associated with the work of Leibniz, but again resurfaces, albeit redefined, at the turn of the twentieth century in the work of Aby Warburg, who was fascinated by the persistence of what he called Pathosformel, a formal and existential trope that he traced from antiquity to the Renaissance and on again to modern Native American culture. The serpentine forms that he studied and that are taken up again in late twentieth century critical discourse by Deleuze are implicitly prefigured by Michelangelo’s Victory; they ultimately point to the notion of an irreducible state of becoming and make clear that the idea of completion exists as unrealizable goal.

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