Michelangelo's Signature Imperfection

John Byron Kuhner |

The Great Artist Gives Us A Lesson in the Subtleties of Latin Tenses.

The Pieta by Michelangelo as it appeared with devotional additions (angels, crown, halo on Christ) until restorations in the late 20th century.
The Pieta by Michelangelo as it appeared with devotional additions (angels, crown, halo on Christ) until restorations in the late 20th century.

At times, we human beings can sense that a work of our own hands is important. Criminals, it is said, if the crime is significant enough, will return to the scene of their crime. We want to see what we have done, if we think it is meaningful. So it was that the twenty-four-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti, in 1499, stepped through a doorway in the ancient, decrepit basilica of St. Peter, and found himself in a mausoleum more than a thousand years old. In the fifth century there had been added to the transept of St. Peter’s an octagonal rotunda, much like the one Michelangelo would later build beside San Lorenzo as tomb for the Medicis. It was lined with tombs and was known as the Mausoleum of St. Petronilla. Everything he saw there — altars, frescoes, medieval mosaics, and through the door the basilica itself — would soon be gone, torn down to make way for the new basilica begun by Bramante. Except for one thing: there was a new statue that had just been installed at the altar of St. Petronilla. It would survive the coming demolition. Michelangelo walked up to it. It was Mary, in all the beauty of youth, holding the body of her son Jesus, in polished white marble. Two men, Milanese men, stood before it, admiring this marvel of art.

Chi l’aveva fatto?” one asked. “Who made this?”

Il Gobbo nostro, da Milano!” “Our very own hunchback, from Milan!” the other responded, referring to Cristoforo Solari, a contemporary sculptor known for his (excellent) funerary monument for Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d’Este.

Michelangelo stood there in silence. This was his Pietà, the creation by which he hoped to achieve renown equal to the Ancients — and within a year of its installation, people did not know who sculpted it. This was his deathless fame: he could stand in the same room as the Pietà and listen to it being ascribed to another man.

What he did next he would regret for the rest of his life. Under cover of darkness, Michelangelo returned to the mausoleum. By candlelight he cut letters — in Latin, the linguistic option thought to have the longest shelf life — into the stone:


He had carved his own name right across Mary’s chest. Later he considered this a rank and gross impiety. He had placed his own ego at the center of the Pietà. He was never again to place his own name on any of his artistic creations.

The only signature we have for any work of Michelangelo, right across the chest of the Madonna.
The only signature we have for any work of Michelangelo, right across the chest of the Madonna.

You can still see the haste and nervousness of his hand, more than five hundred years later. The letters of “Michael” are rough, the “N” in “Angelus” is omitted (though N and M are almost optional in contemporary Latin inscriptions, often reduced to a single line placed above the previous letter); in the latter half, clearly running out of room, he carved smaller letters, abbreviated “Florentinus” (“the Florentine”) and began more aggressively placing letters inside other letters.

He also did something unusual with his Latin. Latin has three different past tenses, any of which could be used by an artist to sign a work. The most common and obvious is what is called the perfect tense, which we translate into English as the simple past: PINXIT. Painted. SCULPSIT. Sculpted. FECIT. Made. The perfect tense is Latin’s natural vehicle for boasting about achievement. Caesar’s VENI VIDI VICI was an inscription written to serve as the history of the Pontic War — it’s all in the perfect tense. Marcus Agrippa put up Rome’s most famous inscription when he boasted that he made (FECIT) the Pantheon. But Michelangelo did not use the perfect tense when he signed the Pietà. He used the imperfect tense, used in Latin for actions that are contemporary with other past actions, or are incomplete. “Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine was making this.” It can even have a conative meaning: “Michelangelo tried to make this [and did not particularly succeed].”

Why did Michelangelo sign the Pietà this way? A clue can be found among the ancients. Pliny, in the preface to his Natural History, suggests that his own work is merely an attempt, and that the greatest Greek artists, to confess their own imperfections as artists, signed their work using the imperfect tense:

Ex illis mox velim intellegi pingendi fingendique conditoribus… absoluta opera et illa quoque, quae mirando non satiamur, pendenti titulo inscripsisse, ut APELLES FACIEBAT aut POLYCLITUS, tamquam inchoata semper arte et imperfecta.
I should like to be understood by the example of those Greek masters of painting and creating… who signed their finished works — even those which we cannot admire enough — with a notice of incompleteness, as “Apelles was working on this,” or “Polyclitus tried to do this,” as though with an art always inchoate and imperfect.

In honor of Pliny — who otherwise would have only catastrophic volcanism ascribed to his name — the use of an imperfect verb to sign a work is now sometimes called a “Plinian signature.” Michelangelo was at times wildly egotistical — the sort of man who would write his name between the Virgin’s breasts — but coupled with this egotism was a desperate, unresting criticism. Vasari does not hesitate to call this self-criticism “great,” and perhaps such unhappiness is the essence of greatness. “The judgement of this man was so grande,” says Vasari, “that he was never contented with anything he made.” For this reason, Vasari continues, Michelangelo left so many of his statues unfinished — imperfette in Italian. Throughout his life, he could never settle on a plan, but constantly revisited and revised: the Tomb of Julius II, the Sistine Ceiling, St. Peter’s, all saw continual reinvention; many of his statues show the marks of alterations of plan in the midst of sculpting. Vasari boasted that Michelangelo’s technique specifically made room for this kind of perpetual tinkering. He says that the unfinished St. Matthew, visible today in the Accademia in Florence, “teaches sculptors in what manner marble figures may be shaped, without coming out disfigured, so as to be capable of continual improvement by removing — with discretion — the stone, and having for themselves the power to pull back, and change something, should it be necessary.”

The problem with this artistic approach, of course, was that in a man of such intense self-criticism it makes completion impossible. It was always possible to revisit his work. And indeed, in the prime of Michelangelo’s life — his virilità, as Vasari terms it — he was almost incapable of finishing sculptures, turning out fragment after fragment.

An ancient exemplar of a Plinian inscription was in Rome at the time, and sure enough, it was a sculpture well known to Michelangelo. The Belvedere torso — for which Michelangelo perpetually professed the deepest admiration — bears the signature “Apollonios, son of Nestor, the Athenian epoiei,” “was making this,” the precise, imperfect equivalent of faciebat. Apollonios’s signature — first name, patronymic (the Greek equivalent of a last name), city, verb — obviously provided the formula for Michelangelo’s.

Michelangelo took it all one step further though. The inscription itself is not complete: the verb lacks its ending. It should almost certainly read “FACIEBAT.” (FACIEBAM is slightly less typical but entirely possible as well.) But all Michelangelo wrote was FACIEBA. Not only does he use the imperfect tense to suggest incompletion — he leaves the verb itself imperfect and incomplete. If he wished simply to abbreviate the verb to save space, there were several common ways of doing that: “F” is regarded as a proper way to abbreviate “FACIEBAT,” as is “FAC.” But Michelangelo wrote “FACIEBA,” the most awkward and obviously imperfect way of inscribing the stone.

Latin students groan when memorizing their charts of Latin’s perfect and imperfect verb endings, but examples like this show how these details of language can be immensely expressive. More than a mere imitation of the antique, Michelangelo’s signature captures the contradictions and enigmas of the great artist’s personality. He brands his most deeply religious and sensitive work with the banner of his own brash ego. Yet at the same time he confesses an absolute humility before Art itself, with an acknowledgement that even this his most finished work must forever be only an unfinishable gesture, a confession that any man’s art is “always inchoate and imperfect.” In a single choice of verb form — a Latin imperfect in place of a perfect — Michelangelo confessed his deep dissatisfaction with himself. It was this dissatisfaction which drove him to achieve things others thought utterly impossible, but tormented him also, and led to a lifetime of brilliant fragments and unrealized dreams. It is justly Michelangelo’s sole artistic signature — for nothing so perfectly encapsulates his restless, striving, discontented, pious, egotistical, desirous and ultimately imperfect soul.

John Byron Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is Editor of In Medias Res. Formerly president of SALVI, he is currently writing a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio.


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