What Art Is Online


Even Michelangelo Designed Works
of Decorative Art

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Lest anyone take lightly Ayn Rand's claim that the design of attractive utilitarian objects "such as rugs, textiles, [and] lighting fixtures, . . . is a valuable task, often performed by talented artists" ("Art and Cognition," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 75), the recent discovery of a drawing of an elaborate candelabrum widely attributed to Michelangelo lends new weight to her proposition. The 17- by-10-inch drawing, in black chalk and brown wash, was found among a batch of drawings for decorative designs at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, the branch of the Smithsonian Institution devoted to the decorative arts.

As described in the New York Times (10 July 2002), the design depicted in the drawing features

a two-part pedestal of monumental grandeur, typical of Michelangelo's architectural vocabulary. The pedestal, supported by lion's feet, flanked by winged seraphs perched on volutes, is a virtual encylopedia of Renaissance ornaments: garlands, rams' heads, masks and urns. The pedestal supports on equally complex multipart shaft of vases, more urns, balusters and branches, which are lightly drawn.

According to Smithsonian magazine (September 2002), the candelabrum, if built, would have stood nearly 16 feet high. Sir Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh--the intrepid researcher who instantly recognized the distinctive style of Michelangelo in the drawing--speculates that it was intended for the funerary chapel of the Medici in Florence, a project that was never realized. It had previously been attributed to a minor artist named Perino del Vaga, a contemporary of the great master.

That a great artist did not regard such a project as beneath him was not at all unusual in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the extant drawings unquestionably by the hand of Michelangelo, in fact, is a design for so modest a project as a saltcellar. Other Renaissance artists known to have designed decorative objects included Botticelli and Raphael.

The Cooper-Hewitt drawing, for which the museum paid $60 in 1942, is worth millions if the Michelangelo attribution remains largely unchallenged.[*] Though that monetary value undoubtedly derives from his stature as an artist of genius, the drawing--which was found in a box labeled "lighting fixtures"-- is a reminder of the high esteem in which the minor arts of decoration were once held. When the Pope asked Michelangelo to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the artist's completed fresco cycle clearly transcended mere "decoration." Yet even from the hand of Michelangelo, a candelabrum, however glorious, remains a candelabrum.

November 2002

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* The maverick Columbia University art historian James Beck, author of Three Worlds of Michelangelo (New York: Norton, 1999), has questioned the attribution, calling the drawing "uncharacteristic if not unique for Michelangelo. "Eye of the Beholder," Newsday (New York), 21 July 2002. Beck's view leaves unchallenged the chief point I make here, however, since Michelangelo's involvement with decorative art is attested beyond doubt by his signed and documented drawing of a saltcellar for the Duke of Urbino, in the collection of the British Museum.

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above remarks relate to Chapter 11: "Decorative Art and Craft." Copyright is held by the authors.

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