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The Michelangelo Mystique

By Fred McCarthy

            I tell how instead of concentrating on my syndicated cartoon, I go to Italy to sketch Michelangelo sculptures and thereby meet the woman who’ll become my wife.

            In the early 60’s (hey, that’s the 1960s), just when I should have been sharpening my cartoon skills, I was waxing more enthusiastic over illustration, particularly for Michelangelo’s body of work.

            Anytime I caught sight of Saturday Evening Post illustrators La Gatta or Parker at NYC’s Pen and Pencil Restaurant, I’d approach their table, tip my cap and bow profoundly, even though I was well aware they weren’t in the same league as Michelangelo.

            Thus it was in 1964 I found myself aboard a liner bound for Italy in company with a Manhattan monsignor. The entire sea voyage was a dream. We’d barely registered at Rome’s Venus D’Milo Arms when I put the monsignor in charge of gaining permission for me to draw Michelangelo’s Pieta statue. Taking a bunch of my best drawings he entered Vatican HQ and went to work.

            In less than a week I found myself ensconced in a side chapel at St. Peter’s, barely three feet from the Pieta. I went to work, and in two days I’d made two good-sized (2’ x3’) copies, but was unhappy with both.

            On day three, I began with a prayer for divine assistance. Evidently aided by supernatural help my pencil instantly improved. Just as I was finishing my pencil rough, the tiny chapel in which I labored filled with a busload of Danish tourists. Their Italian travel guide kept mouthing memorized phrases but my meager grasp of Italian told me he knew nothing about the Pieta, which in a short time would thrill millions of visitors at the New York World’s Fair.

            A fine looking Danish woman stood close behind me to watch my drawing in process. This gladdened me because I felt this was one of the most excellent drawings I had ever done. I was now smudging in shadows with my thumb and erasing lines I didn’t like with a kneaded eraser. I am sure that both were quite exciting to watch.

            The Danes began moving back into the massive basilica but the Danish “froiken” remained just where she was. Turning my head I inquired “Do you speak English, ma'm?” She did indeed (better than I did) and she continued to explain, “I took two years of art classes at Hans Christian Anderson School in Copenhagen. My professor told us that to sketch a still-life is to make a translation from real life onto paper. You are making a number of translations, working as you are with pen, pencil and charcoal.” “You’re right, ma’m, but I suggest you check on your tour group. I don’t want you to miss your bus on my account, but if you’ve a little time you can watch me complete this.”

            She went out, and I now removed from my artist’s valise a sable paint brush and small bottle of white oxide paint. She returned to tell me her bus group would be engaged in the study of Michelangelo’s massive dome and cupola for at least thirty more minutes. Uncorking the bright white oxide I laid on swatches of it to highlight the faces and bodies of Mary and her dead son. The effect seemed to lift each up off the page towards the viewer. “How beautiful!” said the young woman. As soon as the paint had dried I sprayed my drawing with a special lacquer that would protect it from a number of things that could, in time, cause harm. It took but a minute and half to dry. I now carefully rolled the large sketch into a smooth coil, tied it with a blue ribbon and presented it to my new friend.

            “Oh no” she demurred. “I cannot accept this. You’ve re-created another masterpiece here.” This made my heart sing. I insistently pressed the coiled gift between the fingers of both of her hands, and then instructed her. “Take this to your hotel. Ask them to cover it on both sides with heavy cord and ship it to your home in Denmark.” She ended up gratefully accepting what I knew to be a splendid piece of work…

            “Now” I asked, “would you like to learn just a tiny bit about the great Michelangelo?” She nodded her pretty head yes. First, I brought her close to the Pieta itself. “Lean down,” I directed. “See how the sculptor has braced one of the dear Lord’s legs against that tiny tree trunk. Now, study the tree trunk itself. Note how it has not died but is flowering with a leafy stem that grows from it. This is Michelangelo revealing his faith to his audience. The flowering tree trunk is his symbol of Jesus’ return – his way of echoing Christ’s very own words: ‘I have power to lay down my life and power to take it up again’.”

            I went on to tell her a word or two about the artist himself. Little Mike was a dirt poor kid growing up in a Renaissance filled with genius. As a mere teenager he would earn a special place at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence. Under the instruction of Domenico Ghirlandaio he became a master sculptor after getting his nose broken in a fight with the class bully who was jealous of his improving skills. Within years this wiry young man with the fractured nose would be called a “Giant” and “Titan.” Though he was not large, no sculptor could carve marble as swiftly as he.

            Next he tried his hand at poetry and his sonnets soon surpassed those of Italy’s leading poets, some of whom were his teachers.

            He became an accomplished painter as well. Upon learning that he worked harder than anyone, Pope Julius II hired him to decorate the Sistine Chapel. Over four years of unrelenting toil at this task made him a genius at painting.

            He got ticked off at people denying that the Pieta was his. One midnight he snuck into St. Peter’s to carve on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s ribbon, “Michelangelo Buonarroti created this sculpture.” As a working calligrapher I can attest that this is the most perfect piece of calligraphy I have ever seen. Thus, at age 40, Michelangelo is accomplished in a number of artistic fields. By the age of 50, Mike is an absolute genius in four unique fields of art: sculpture, poetry, painting, and calligraphy. We’ll not even mention his surprising skills in architecture. He is probably the greatest artist who ever lived.

            There is one curse that weighed heavily on him for decades: a greedy nothing of a father who never wearied of hounding him for money, which meant very little to him by life’s end.

            The Danish tour group was now ready to leave. My new friend, whose name was Lilly, exchanged addresses with me as we said, “Arriverderci.”

            Later that year I would fly to Copenhagen, meet her at the home of her parents, and then bring her back with me to Florida where we were wed by my monsignor buddy in a Miami church. And, as they say, “they lived happily ever after.”



McCarthy, Fred.  My Mostly True Autobiography. ed. Richard Santana. Unpublished


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