The Artists Signature

One of the most interesting things that we notice as artists move into the Renaissance from the Medieval period is the signing of artwork. During the Middle Ages most artwork was displayed in Churches and financed by the church or its wealthy parishioners and it was considered vain to take credit for your work. Pride being one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

As time moves forward we see art move outside the Church and into public spaces with its creation not necessarily linked to the Church and artists begin to take credit for their work. By the late 15th century, early 16th century it was common place. Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of the first known works to be signed.

Though religious in nature, Michelangelo’s Pieta (1498-1499), a sculpture of Mary and Jesus just after he was removed from the cross was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères as his funeral monument. Pieta is made of a single piece of Carrara marble and shows the remarkable craftsmanship and detail which Michelagnolo is know for.

There are two separate stories as to why Michelangelo decided to sign this piece. The first is documented by George Vasari’s in Lives of the Artists. In which Michelangelo over heard strangers from Lombardy state that is was a creation from “Our Gabbo from Milan.” Vasari writes that Michelangelo felt it strange that credit for his work should be given to another, so one night Michelangelo locked himself in the room and carved his name along Mary’s sash. The excerpt below.

“Here is perfect sweetness in the expression of the head, harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the pulses and veins so wrought, that in truth Wonder herself must marvel that the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute so divinely and so perfectly, in so short a time, a work so admirable; and it is certainly a miracle that a stone without any shape at the beginning should ever have been reduced to such perfection as Nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Such were Michelagnolo’s love and zeal together in this work, that he left his name a thing that he never did again in any other work written across a girdle that encircles the bosom of Our Lady. And the reason was that one day Michelagnolo, entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan.” Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.Here is perfect sweetness in the expression of the head, harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the pulses and veins so wrought, that in truth Wonder herself must marvel that the hand of a craftsman should have been able to execute so divinely and so perfectly, in so short a time, a work so admirable; and it is certainly a miracle that a stone without any shape at the beginning should ever have been reduced to such perfection as Nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh. Such were Michelagnolo’s love and zeal together in this work, that he left his name a thing that he never did again in any other work written across a girdle that encircles the bosom of Our Lady. And the reason was that one day Michelagnolo, entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan.” Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.” ~ Vasari

Another version, of which I heard from Dr. Emily Jordan, a History Professor at ODU, was that the Cardinal was late with payments for the sculpture. Pieta is the only work that Michelangelo ever signed. He supposedly felt very bad afterwards, giving reason to believe that one of the above tends to be the case.

Art completely transformed itself during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, it very well may have had something to do with The Catholic Churches many issues during the same time. Personally, I feel that the signing of art work may be one of the greatest impacts the transition made on todays art world. You would never hear of an artist not signing their own work today. They want the credit and the notoriety that comes with their signature. It very well may have been Michelangelo’s signature on the Pieta that made him one of the most sought after artists of his time.

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