Male and Female 1: Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl

Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl is one of the five sibyls portrayed alongside other seers, or prophets on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Figure 1). Sibyls were female figures from ancient mythology who were endowed with divine inspiration and the gift of prophecy.[1] The Libyan Sibyl is depicted in a contrapposto pose, gracefully closing (or opening) what is understood to be a large book of prophesy.[2] Her muscular back, broad shoulders and strong arms exude masculinity, while her head, feet and braided hair confirm her feminine identity.[3] As the preparatory drawings for the Libyan Sibyl confirm (Figure 2, 3 and 4), Michelangelo drew the body of the Sibyl from a male model, with careful attention given to the anatomical structure of the muscles.[4] This masculine female body, so pervasive in Michelangelo’s works, brings up an on-going argument between art historians: is Michelangelo’s work a manifestation of his individual preference for the male body based on his own sexuality, or does it exemplify the cultural and iconographic values of the time?[5]

Although many art historians have insisted that Michelangelo’s masculine female bodies were a product of his personal sexual preferences, there is sufficient evidence supporting that he was simply manifesting society’s ideology regarding women’s bodies and ideal beauty. Renaissance beliefs about the difference between men and women and how each should comport themselves according to decorum were of the highest importance.[6] There was widespread belief that women were not only inferior to men intellectually, their bodies were also an inferior variation of a man’s body. [7] This was primarily due to the concept of the one-sex body, which was the common anatomical understanding of male/female during the Renaissance based on the belief that ‘the matrix of the woman is nothing but the scrotum and penis of the man inverted.’[8] How women should act was also a matter of great concern, as seen in numerous treatises and advice books, such as Baldesar Castiglione’s The Courtier, where he insists that ladies should not take part in ‘robust and strenuous manly exercises.’[9] By Castiglione’s standards, the Libyan Sibyl would not be an appropriate depiction of a woman, but Michelangelo is depicting a heavenly body, and therefore the ‘physical prowess and intellectual supremacy’ of men are adeptly appropriated in order to demonstrate her heroism.[10]

Androgyny was a highly praised ideal of composite beauty from the harmonisation of female and male attributes.[11] As the humanist Mario Equicola wrote, ‘the visage of a woman is praised if it has the features of a man; the face of the man if it has the feminine features, hence the proverb: “the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect.”’[12] Additionally, the very combination of masculine and female aesthetic beauty was praised as a ‘demonstration of artful virtuosity.’[13] As Kenneth Clark asserts, the concept of ideal beauty was based on the belief that there was no individual body that was perfect, instead an artist had to take different perfect parts from different bodies to create one perfect whole.[14] In Pietro Aretino’s letter to the Duke of Urbino in 1542, he praises Michelangelo’s masculine depiction of female bodies: ‘with the body of the female and the muscles of the male so that with an elegant vivacity of artifice she is moved by masculine and feminine sentiments…’[15] Although Aretino was referring to Michelangelo’s Venus Reclining with Cupid, 1532-33, the same praise could apply to the body of the Libyan Sibyl. For Michelangelo and other artists of his time, the ambiguity and plurality of meaning that is achieved through the combination of the perfect elements of male and female beauty was seen as a great accomplishment.[16] By understanding the social and cultural sentiments that would have played a role in Michelangelo’s depiction of the Libyan Sibyl, we have a better understanding of why her masculine body has been met with praise and wonder.

 

Notes

[1] Yael Even, ‘The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art,’ in Woman’s Art Journal, Vol.11, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1990): 29, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1358384.

[2] Even, ‘The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art,’ 29.

[3] Even, ‘The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art,’ 29.

[4] Bryson Burroughs, ‘Drawings by Michelangelo for the Libyan Sibyl,’ in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1925): 6, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3254867.

[5] Even, ‘The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art,’ 29.

[6] Jonathan Nelson, ‘The Florentine “Venus and Cupid”: A Heroic Female Nude and the Power of Love,’ in Franca Falletti and Jonathan Nelson, Venere e amore: Michelangelo e la nuova bellezza ideale = Venus and love: Michelangelo and the new ideal of beauty (Florence: Giunti, 2002), 38.

[7] Nelson, ‘The Florentine “Venus and Cupid”: A Heroic Female Nude and the Power of Love,’ 38.

[8] Guillaume Bouchet, Les Sérés de Guillaume Boucher, ed. C. E. Roybet, six vols. (Paris, 1873-1882), 1.96. Quoted and translated in Thomas Laqueur, ‘New Science, One Flesh,’ in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p.63.

[9] Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (London: Penguin, 2003), 191.

[10] Even, ‘The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art,’ 31.

[11] Maya Corry, ‘The Alluring Beauty of a Leonardesque Ideal: Masculinity and Spirituality in Renaissance Milan,’ in Gender and History, Vol. 25.3 (2013): 581.

[12] Mario Equicola, ‘Libro di natura d’amore,’ in Paola Barocchi (ed.), Scritti d’arte del cinquecento, 3 vols (Milan: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1971-76). Quoted and translated in Fredrika H. Jacobs, ‘Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No.1, (Mar., 2000): 56.

[13] Fredrika H. Jacobs, ‘Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No.1, (Mar., 2000): 59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3051364

[14] Kenneth Clark, ‘The Naked and the Nude,’ in The Nude (London: John Murray, 1956), 10.

[15] Pietro Aretino, letter to the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo della Rovere, 1542. Quoted and translated in Fredrika H. Jacobs, ‘Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No.1, (Mar., 2000): 63.

[16] Corry, ‘The Alluring Beauty of a Leonardesque Ideal: Masculinity and Spirituality in Renaissance Milan,’ 582.

Bibliography

Aretino, Pietro. Letter to the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo della Rovere, 1542. Quoted and translated in Fredrika H. Jacobs, ‘Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No.1, (Mar., 2000): 63.

Bouchet, Guillaume. Les Sérés de Guillaume Boucher, ed. C. E. Roybet, six vols. (Paris, 1873-1882), 1.96. Quoted and translated in Thomas Laqueur, ‘New Science, One Flesh.’ In Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 63.

Burroughs, Bryson. ‘Drawings by Michelangelo for the Libyan Sibyl.’ In The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1925): 6-14. www.jstor.org/stable/3254867.

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier (London: Penguin, 2003).

Clark, Kenneth. ‘The Naked and the Nude.’ In The Nude (London: John Murray, 1956), 1-25.

Corry, Maya. ‘The Alluring Beauty of a Leonardesque Ideal: Masculinity and Spirituality in Renaissance Milan.’ In Gender and History, Vol. 25.3 (2013): 565-589.

Equicola, Mario. ‘Libro di natura d’amore.’ In Paola Barocchi (ed.), Scritti d’arte del cinquecento, 3 vols (Milan: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1971-76). Quoted and translated in Fredrika H. Jacobs, ‘Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia.’ In The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No.1, (Mar., 2000), 56.

Even, Yael. ‘The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo’s Art.’ In Woman’s Art Journal, Vol.11, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1990): 29-33. www.jstor.org/stable/1358384.

Jacobs, Fredrika H. ‘Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia.’ In The Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, No.1, (Mar., 2000): 51-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3051364

Nelson, Jonathan. ‘The Florentine “Venus and Cupid”: A Heroic Female Nude and the Power of Love.’ In Franca Falletti and Jonathan Nelson, Venere e amore: Michelangelo e la nuova bellezza ideale = Venus and love: Michelangelo and the new ideal of beauty (Florence: Giunti, 2002), 26-63.

 

Eloisa Sisson

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