Rachel Cohen

Michelangelo, Stairs for a Library

Michelangelo Stairs for a Library

Michelangelo, Designs for the Profiles of Moldings and Column Bases, Sketches of the Staircase in the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library; Figure Studies by a Pupil. Pen and brown ink, over red and black chalk. Casa Buonarroti, Florence. Photos Rachel Cohen.

While I was working on the biography I wrote of Bernard Berenson, which was published in 2013, I was able to go to Florence twice. This was before I had a phone with a camera, and I did not take pictures on these trips.

Berenson’s lists of Italian paintings and painters are still foundational for all the work of identifying who painted what in the complicated annals of late Medieval and Renaissance art in Italy. He was extremely gifted at discerning the artistic personality that had been at work in a certain piece – this is the way so-and-so does window casements in the background of a landscape, or this is a characteristic tilt of neck in a Madonna. And he was also very good at grasping the artistic personality of a city or region, which is a bit more diffuse, but, in Italy, coherent. City-regions were the organizing principle of Berenson’s series of introductory volumes about Italian art, volumes which educated many Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Trying to understand Berenson’s way of seeing was interesting. I had traveled in Italy before, and had impressions of various paintings and places, but I made a concerted effort on those two trips to Florence. I fell in love with the sensibility, and it was like going over a cliff, it was so uncompromising.

It was a mathematical sensibility. One way to think of its origins is to imagine Donatello, Alberti and Brunelleschi all having little coffees together in about 1440 and talking over vanishing point perspective and bodies standing according to principle and the great domes and patterned ceilings of the churches that Brunelleschi had been building all over the city. It was not really utopian, it was clear. They had the math from the Arab countries of North Africa. Fibonacci had brought Hindu-Arabic numerals from Bejaia in what is now Algeria back to Pisa, and published a book about them in 1202 (these numbers had earlier traveled out of Sanskrit manuscripts). And the Florentines had the classical architecture of the Romans and the Greeks to study. And they were still devout, and thought in terms of realms. Sculpture, architecture, drawing, mathematics, these were ways to pursue an understanding.

Michelangelo came a century later – he grew up among the churches these three had built and decorated together – the chapel that Brunelleschi designed and Donatello did the sculptures for – the view of painting and sculpture that Alberti had codified in his books and that had shaped the great workshops of Florentine painting.


On one of the two trips I made to Florence, I went to the Laurentian Library. Built for the Medici collections, which were formidable, the commission was given to Michelangelo in 1523, and construction began in 1525.

They first completed the walls of the reading room, the long walls, background white, with pattern of inset gray columns and gray window shapes each with a cornice, the pattern of a building, as if in an architectural drawing of a façade.

The reading room walls set the tone for the project before Michelangelo left Florence in 1534. He continued to send plans and give verbal instructions to three other architects (Tribolo, Vasari and Ammannati) over the next thirty years. When Michelangelo died in 1564 the library was much closer to completion, though still not entirely finished when it was opened in 1571.


There are two spaces – the vestibule and the long reading room – and the colors of all the walls are gray and white. When I close my eyes and try to get back the experience of walking in, what I remember is mounting the stairs, a very peculiar feeling of flattened stone beneath my shoes and a kind of tilting, and then I remember the tranquility and clarity of the long horizontal reading room, and the desire to walk slowly all the length of it.

The vestibule is a vertical rectangular space, nearly half of which is occupied by a staircase of deep gray stone. This staircase was of the utmost importance. It had to convert height to length, it had to bring the humanist into the library, and his studies, it had to achieve movement and transformation within the rigorous scheme of architectural drawing that was the determined atmosphere of the space.


Michelangelo wrote a letter in 1555 that he had dreamed the design for the staircase. I can’t tell from the exhibition materials, but I think this dreamed staircase may be the one he worked on in these two drawings, on either side of the same sheet of paper.

In the dream version, it was to be two staircases that joined at the doorway. This was not what they built, which is one of the wonders of the architectural world, here reproduced in an internet photo:

This actual staircase was worked out later, in 1559, by Ammannati from a clay model that Michelangelo made for him. The clay model is lost. The resulting staircase is unified, with central, extending ovular steps, and two accompanying squared sets of stairs.


Even though it is an entirely different staircase, when I came upon the drawings in the exhibition in New York, some six or seven years after I had been in the library itself, I immediately knew the library. The drawings are done on what’s called a modano, a piece of paper cut so that stoneworkers could use it to cut stone for capitals and ornaments. The paper also has drawings of heads made by some of Michelangelo’s students, which he drew over and among.

Part of the exaltation, I think, comes from the fact that they knew it was a kind of strain on the human body, and on our perceptions, to enter this particular abstract conception. And that, when you went through this strain, you would be able to come into a different kind of contact with certain learning, developed by certain men and women, in Athens, Bejaia, Pisa, Florence.

Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Giotto, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers, Arena Chapel, Padua

What was stolen were my minutes, fifteen of them. I’d been under the mistaken impression that for my twenty-seven euros – thirteen each for me and for M., one for the baby – we were to be vouchsafed half an hour in the presence of one of the greatest fresco sequences in the western world. I knew that we were to spend fifteen minutes cooling down in an air-conditioned portal prior to being allowed entry to the sacred place, but I counted on half an hour to try to snatch a few glimpses of Giotto’s eternal understanding. The bell, though, rang after fifteen minutes.

The whole thing of course is absurd – each panel, and there are dozens, ranks among the greatest paintings we have – any one could be profitably studied for many half-hours. For how long is it right to contemplate Giacchino asleep with the angel curving down his vision and the shepherds, still and aware? Five minutes tracing the steady tender robes of the figures presenting the baby Christ at the temple would not be wasted. Nevertheless, there would be a settled internal logic to spending fifteen minutes in general awe and survey and a further quarter of an hour in contemplation of a few moments. Robbed of this latter experience I could hardly feel that I had seen the paintings at all.

“Cynical,” M. said after we had left; they had simply given up on whether their visitors would have a real experience of the paintings and focused on how to get a maximum of funds in short increments of time.

But then again, in another way, one does apprehend the greatness of Giotto almost instantly. What Giotto founded for the next eight hundred years of art to struggle with was the sense that his figures existed, feet on the ground in front of us, in time. He was the master of significant form. As Bernard Berenson rightly pointed out, Giotto’s genius was for significance, for what would read immediately:

With the simplest means, with almost rudimentary light and shade, and functional line, he contrives to render, out of all the possible outlines, out of all the possible variations of light and shade that a given figure may have, only those that we must isolate for special attention when we are actually realizing it. This determines his types, his schemes of colour, even his compositions.… Obliged to get the utmost out of his rudimentary light and shade, he makes his scheme of colour of the lightest that his contrasts may be of the strongest. In his compositions he aims at clearness of grouping… Note in the [picture] we have been looking at, how the shadows compel us to realize every concavity, and the lights every convexity, and how, with the play of the two, under the guidance of line, we realize the significant parts of each figure, whether draped or undraped… Above all, every line is functional; that is to say, charged with purpose… Follow any line here, say in the figure… kneeling to the left, and see how it outlines and models, how it enables you to realize the head, the torso, the hips, the legs the feet, and how its direction, its tension, is always determined by the action.  {Berenson, Bernard, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, vol. II, New York: Phaidon, 1968, 6-7.}

Rendering his figures in time, Giotto gives the wondering viewer the sense of freshness, of “just now.”

On the way art has for many centuries mediated relationships between time and money there is of course much to say. (I tried to say something about this in a piece for The Believer, at http://www.believermag.com/issues/201211/?read=article_cohen). A few things, though, come directly to mind. The Arena Chapel, famously, was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, who was known to practice usury, which was at that time prohibited by the Catholic Church. When Giotto undertook the commission, around 1300, it was understood that the family chapel was to be a sort of lavish expiation. Giotto’s friend Dante, who admired the chapel greatly (and who, one feels sure, spent more than fifteen minutes engrossed there) mentioned Giotto in the Divine Comedy and also had Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, as the head of the usurers in the seventh circle of hell. On the chapel’s great fresco of judgment toward the bottom the figure of Enrico Scrovegni offers up a painted maquette of the chapel in which the viewer is standing.

There is an alchemical irony in the fact that Giotto’s act transmuted Scrovegni’s gold into something as nearly eternal as the individual human being can manage and that that divinity is now changed back, by latter-day Scrovegnis, into gold. I wrote, in “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering,” of how, just around 1300, time began to be measured incrementally, of how this was part of the understanding of purgatory, only incorporated into church doctrine in the 13th century, and then given masterful form by Dante. Purgatory creates a passageway between heaven and hell through which you can move step by step in both time and money. And the incrementalization and measurability of time was also very useful in building the practice of usury – which calculates how money will grow, from itself, over time.

All this, which I spent years studying, was in the background of my aggravation when the bell rang at the Arena Chapel. But what’s really caught my mind in the days since is the relationship between my feeling about time and my feeling about money – captured, I think, in that complex word, “to spend.”

“To spend,” derives from the Latin expendere, “to weigh out money, to pay down.” (The tangibility is interesting in the old word, from a time when money had a specific gravity.) Expendere was generally borrowed by all the Germanic tongues and became in Old English spendan (with forspenden meaning “to use up.”) As explained by etymonline, “In reference to labor, thoughts, time, etc. attested from c.1300.”

It is interesting that, in one of those cosmic shifts of understanding that periodically encompass the globe, at precisely the moment Giotto was painting the ground on the Arena Chapel, in English people began to spend time. But, at least in my ears and usage, in the phrases “I spend time,” and “I spend money,” the “spend” is not congruent. The difference becomes more evident as quantities and further objects are adjoined. “I spent a lot of time with the painting.” “I spent a lot of money on the painting.” It is absolutely clear that in the first case the net result is an augmentation and in the second a depletion. Time is not money. Time spent is something gained. Even wasting time has more so to speak profit in it than wasting money.

In some profound sense, one understood, I feel sure, by every figure in the Arena Chapel, my time is not my own. And not just because it is borrowed from some person or deity to whom it really does belong but because it is that in which we all live and move. It is the awareness of the movement of time that makes significant form possible. Lines and significance are drawn out, corporeal existence has its structured purposes, in time. And, even though the time in which we move cannot be ours, ironically I think it is only when time bears this relationship to significance that we can feel that time has been stolen from us. If I look at a carved wooden Madonna from 1100, my heart full of rebellious fury at how my father, dead at sixty-seven, was robbed of his time, that Madonna looks on incomprehendingly. But all the people in Giotto – the sleeping guards, the Madonnas with their hands outstretched, the Judas and the woman who look on – all of them, they know.

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Giotto, Noli me tangere, Arena Chapel, Padua

Acquisition and Time

Acquisition and Time
Working on a talk to be given at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – about the collection of Italian pictures that Gardner acquired with significant help from Bernard Berenson – has been the occasion for thinking again about the collector’s passion.  When one stands in a gallery in front of a picture one is not only affected by the passions of the painter, or made aware of the forces of history, one is directly confronted with provenance, namely, by what combination of human passions did this object come to be here?  

Isabella Gardner’s letters to Berenson came dashing across the Atlantic, mixed with a flurry of cables – “Of course I want the Giotto—” “if our stupid and impossible Art Museum does not get the Giorgione (the Christ head, you know) please get it for me…. They won’t move quickly enough to get it I fear.”  I’ve been struck again by the strange urgency collectors feel seemingly as part of their decision to buy a painting.  Before the painting presents itself, it is an ordinary day – one will play with the dog, read the papers – and then the opportunity arrives, an offering letter, cable, call, a dealer at a gallery makes a discreet suggestion – and suddenly there is frenzy, haste, all the wonderful uncertainty of romance, will they call, is one making a fool of oneself, to what lengths is one willing to go.

I think I can guess something of the feeling from my own experience of buying concert tickets, or books I want very badly.  Every aspect of the transaction seems fraught and significant – I can hardly believe the chance will not be snatched away for me, even when the white envelope with the tickets arrives in the mail, I feel certain I’ll lose them.  I always have a great stab of anxiety as I walk up to the usher to present these pieces of paper, my claim.

There is something fundamentally strange about acquisition.  One lives in a household of objects, in a soul full of experiences, a few precious, many not, and one feels these things as one’s familiars – books have a known heft, trousers carry the spot from a sandwich, a memory of a particular quartet arises unbidden and is pleasurable again.  Very mysteriously, one can promise something that one already feels a little uncertain is actually a possession, a portion of a number in an account, to some institution in another part of town or on another continent, and this can result in an experience or an object leaving the wide world and crossing over into one’s narrower private realm, to sit by the bed and be mulled over in the night.

Of course this has to do with the strangeness of money itself.  Something that can render dental services and turpentine and a Rembrandt into commensurate terms must occupy an oddly-shaped conceptual space. But what’s interesting to me at the moment is how much the anxiety of acquisition seems to affect and be affected by one’s sense of time.  The most important gambit for the salesman is that ‘time is running out.’  “If you don’t take it,” Berenson wrote to Gardner, “the Paris Rothschilds almost certainly will.” But this urgency only intensifies as one begins to take hold.  My feeling in acquisition at least is a desperate desire to get across the field of empty time and to the safety of possession.  I will decide to buy in part to ward off the sensation that to pause is fatal, and, once I have decided, it will feel that the time left to wait is unbearable.

It may be that these two fears are one fear, and that every negotiation to acquire is really a small negotiation with one’s own mortality. This whole train of thought would then just be another way of arriving at a thought that already feels familiar and likely: the great desire and anxiety unleashed in us by wanting to possess art is bound up with the sense that time is running out for me.