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Selected Poems of Michelangelo

Awakening Slave

St. Matthew

Young Slave

Dying(?) Slave (detail)

Figures intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II


Source: Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, A Documentary History of Art: volume II, pp. 21-22.

Non ha l'ottimo artista

The best of artists never has a concept

A single marble block does not contain

Inside its husk, but to it may attain

Only if hand follows the intellect.


The good I pledge myself, bad I reject.

Hide, O my lady, beautiful, proud, divine,

Just thus in you, but now my life must end,

Since my skill works against the wished effect.


It is not love then, fortune, or your beauty,

Or your hardness and scorn, in all my ill

That are to blame, neither my luck nor fate.


If at the same time both death and pity

Are present in your heart, and my low skill,

Burning, can grasp nothing but death from it.

This sonnet is the most explicit definition of Michelangelo's theory of art as relating to his personal twist of the current theological-philosophical fashions. Reversing metaphor and subject, it may be phrased: As the beloved contains potentially any fate for the lover, who according as he is wise and worthy will extract from her the most favorable of them, so the crude block of marble potentially contains any statue, but only the best sculptor can extract the successful work of art. The statue as a metaphor of potentiality goes back in one form to Aristotle, but is also connected with a Neoplatonic metaphor of stone sculpture as man who released the pure being of the soul (the statue inside when perfected) by digging away the gross impeding physical body.



Se'l mio rozzo martello

If my rough hammer in hard stones can form

A human semblance, one and then another,

Set moving by the agent who is holder

Watcher and guide, its course is not its own.


But that divine One , staying in Heaven at home,

Gives others beauty, more to itself, self-mover;

If hammers can't be made without a hammer,

From that One living all the others come.


And since a blow will have the greatest force

As at the forge it's lifted up the highest,

This above mine to Heaven has run and flown.


Wherefore with me, unfinished, all is lost,

Unless the divine workshops will assist

In making it; on earth it was alone.