Along with The Thinker (1880) and The Kiss (1882), The Gates of Hell (begun 1880) is arguably Auguste Rodin’s most famous work. And the two most famous facts about it are, first, that he worked on it almost his entire life and, second, that amid the vast array of figures there are many that were repurposed rather than newly invented.

The Gates originated in an 1880 commission to design doors for a planned museum of decorative arts in Paris bearing reliefs illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. The museum was never built, but Rodin kept working on the project until his death in 1917 at age seventy-seven. The Dantean theme fell away, too, replaced by a more generalized vision of man’s tragic fate. In creating the Gates, the artist resorted to what the Rodin scholar Albert E. Elsen has termed “the serious play of sculptural matchmaking.” For example, the Three Shades that crowns the Gates consists of casts of the same figure. Falling Man appears in at least three places: toppling backward off the lintel of the left door; twinned with Crouching Woman to form a group titled I Am Beautiful on the right pilaster just below the cornice; and again on its own and inverted, at the bottom of the right door panel.

Indeed, this recycling practice turns up throughout Rodin’s oeuvre, perhaps most famously in The Walking Man (1877–1900), in which a headless, armless torso is attached to a separate pair of legs from another sculpture. Off the Gates, the horizontal Damned Woman from the right tympanum becomes Meditation, an upright, freestanding figure whose arms have been shorn off. The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia has one of the most haunting of such examples, a small plaster sculpture of piled-up heads and hands from the Burghers of Calais (1884–95), all contained within the wide embrace of a winged figure who is, as Elsen has written, “one of the damned from the Gates of Hell transformed into a Victory.”

Rodin’s was, of course, a revolutionary approach to making sculpture, one that anticipated the assemblage aesthetic pioneered by Picasso. That may be why scholars have shown little interest in exploring how Rodin came to adopt it. It must have seemed sui generis, just another example of his far-seeing modernism. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a source, moreover one rooted in an earlier epoch of art?

That thought occurred to me as I watched Cammy Brothers, a scholar of the Renaissance at Northeastern University, deliver last year’s Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Her topic was “Michelangelo, Raphael, and the Genius Paradox.” By “paradox,” she meant the discrepancy between our perception of such figures as fountainheads of ceaseless creativity and invention and “several aspects of Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s practice that would seem, at least superficially, to be antithetical” to that notion. She had in mind their habit of “repetition, in some cases self-citation and imitation, or what we more commonly call copying.” While Michelangelo is known for being overwhelmingly concerned with the human figure, “what’s less well-acknowledged is the way he returned repeatedly to certain figural motifs, poses, and solutions.”

One of her examples centered on the figure of Haman. It started as a drawing of a studio model now in the British Museum, Four Studies of a Crucified Man (1512), which shows a standing male nude with his left leg flexed and both arms outthrust. It migrated to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where it became the protagonist of The Punishment of Haman (1512), a crucifixion scene. Two decades later that pose reappears, rotated ninety degrees to the left, in Tityus (1531), a drawing now in Windsor Castle. Michelangelo subsequently turned over the sheet and traced the contour of the Tityus figure, recasting it as a risen Christ in two circa 1532 drawings, also in Windsor Castle, and another in the Louvre. In a different sequence of images, Brothers showed how the pose of Adam in the Sistine Chapel’s Creation of Adam (ca. 1508–12) reappears as Noah in The Drunkenness of Noah (ca. 1510). His slouched pose then became the starting point for Night (1526–31), in the Medici Chapel, and Leda in a now-lost painting.

As I listened to these and similar observations, four words kept coursing through my mind: The Gates of Hell. Rodin was obsessed with Michelangelo for much of his life, and the artist’s formal influence is extensive and well-documented. To take just two examples, the non finito character of Rodin’s marbles derives directly from the unfinished Slaves for the tomb of Pope Julius II, while the pose of the dying soldier in his Call to Arms (1879), the model for an unrealized monument, combines those of St. Matthew (1506) in the Accademia in Florence and the dead Christ of the Duomo’s Deposition (also known as the Florentine Pietà and dating to the late 1540s). Could it be that Rodin’s revolutionary technique was not entirely his own invention after all, but that Michelangelo’s influence went beyond formal concerns to include his practice as well? In her lecture Brothers noted that “The imperative in the Sistine Ceiling had been to come up with hundreds of figural poses, and this inevitably made it a site for the reuse of poses, sometimes in unexpected ways.” Rodin may have been motivated by a similar impulse with the Gates, since by one count there are nearly two hundred figures spread across it.

But the likelihood of such an influence seemed slim. Rodin traveled to Italy in 1876. He was at an impasse with a sculpture of a life-size standing male nude that later became The Age of Bronze (1875) and was looking to Michelangelo for guidance. As Ruth Butler tells it in her 1993 biography,

He was not after a motif or instant inspiration for a single work, some point of reference in Michelangelo’s work that would be instantly recognizable to Salon viewers. Rodin wanted a whole new system. . . . He wanted to remove the formulaic quality from contemporary sculpture in order to give new life to the sculpted body.

Rodin’s very specific agenda for his trip, combined with his artist’s eye, means that he would have been examining Michelangelo’s handling of the figure with exceptional acuity, attentive to every detail and nuance. We know something about the nature of an artist’s eye from a letter written by the young Jean-Antoine Houdon. In 1766, while a Prix de Rome recipient, he had approached someone outside St. Peter’s, asking him to model, but had been rebuffed. So, as he wrote, “I studied him carefully and stored it in my head as best I could.” The result was St. John the Baptist (1767).

Rodin was cut from the same cloth. For three years beginning when he was fourteen, he attended the Petite École, where he received a unique form of drawing instruction. His teacher “encouraged his students to rely on memory, showing them how to observe an object closely and then draw it once it was out of view,” as Butler writes. This gave Rodin an exceptionally sharp eye and a prodigious visual memory that lasted his whole life.

Rodin’s Italian trip took him to Turin, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Rome, and Naples, then back north to Siena, Florence again, Padua, and Venice. He was in Italy for about three weeks, one third of that time in Florence. But the documentary evidence of what he saw and how it affected him is sparse. The fullest record we have is a letter sent from Italy to his companion, Rose Beuret. “To tell you that since my first hour in Florence I have been making a study of Michelangelo will not astonish you, and I believe the great magician is giving up a few of his secrets to me,” he wrote. The Medici tombs seem to have made the strongest impression, for they alone are singled out. “Everything that I have seen of photographs or plasters gives no idea of the sacristy of San Lorenzo. These tombs must be seen in profile, in three-quarters,” he wrote.

Yet on the other hand, the pose is profoundly anti-naturalistic.

It’s easy to understand why he responded as he did to the tombs, which commemorate Giuliano di Lorenzo, Duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo di Piero, Duke of Urbino. Because in Day (1526–31), the right-hand figure on Giuliano’s sarcophagus, Rodin would have glimpsed his future, the “whole new system” he was seeking. The sculpture is a reclining male nude in a corkscrew pose, his torso twisting away from us to expose a heavily muscled back, itself a masterpiece of relief carving, while the head turns the opposite way to look out at us. The left leg crosses over the right, and the left arm is folded up behind him. On the one hand, Day is so faithful a representation of the human figure that not even the most mandarin Salon jury could find fault with it. Yet on the other hand, the pose is profoundly anti-naturalistic: nobody reclines like that, especially not with an arm torqued up behind himself. This break with academic realism offered Rodin a way forward, a method of introducing a new expressiveness to the human figure through pose and gesture rather than conventional narrative, and thus a pathway to giving “new life to the sculpted body.” This insight played out in works such as Adam (1880–81).

Another piece of documentary evidence comes from Judith Cladel’s 1908 life of Rodin, in which she records that the artist was powerfully affected by Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà when he saw it during Mass at the cathedral. He made sketches after Michelangelo’s David–Apollo (ca. 1530) in the Bargello, which means Rodin would also have seen the Bacchus (1496–97), Pitti Tondo (1503–04), and bust of Brutus (1539–40). Finally, Butler tells us that, when in Rome, Rodin drew one of the figures in The Last Judgment (1536–41). All in all, there is not much here on which to build a case for influence, at least when it comes to his working method.

Subsequent research has, however, revealed that Rodin’s exposure to Michelangelo in Florence was far broader and deeper than previously known. In 1997, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted “Rodin and Michelangelo: A Study in Artistic Inspiration.” For anyone interested in exploring this topic, the catalogue essays by Flagio Fergonzi, Maria Mimita Lamberti, Pina Ragionieri, and Christopher Riopelle and associated bibliography are a veritable gold mine. (Almost all of the information that follows about Rodin’s encounter with Michelangelo is drawn from those sources.)

The timing of Rodin’s visit to Florence could not have been better. It took place a year after the city had organized an all-the-stops-out celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of its most famous native son, an event widely reported on not only in Italy but also throughout Europe. One element was the opening to the public for the first time of the Casa Buonarroti. The French press had given big play to that event, so it’s hard to imagine Rodin bypassing it. There he would have seen, among other things, two early reliefs, Battle of the Centaurs (ca. 1491–92) and Madonna of the Steps (ca. 1490–92), and a group of Michelangelo’s drawings.

But any such correspondences would have been too few and far between to come across as anything more than coincidence.

Between his visits to the Casa Buonarroti, the Medici Chapel, and, later, The Last Judgment, Rodin, with his artist’s eye, would have been in a position to make the kinds of connections that Brothers did. For example, he might have noticed, as later scholars did, that the turned-back left arm in the figure of Day is prefigured in the position of the Christ Child’s right arm in the Madonna of the Steps four decades earlier, and that the raised right arm of the central figure in the Battle of the Centaurs, carved at the beginning of Michelangelo’s career, appears again in the figure of Christ in The Last Judgment, painted near the end of it. But any such correspondences would have been too few and far between to come across as anything more than coincidence. What was needed was contact with a broad swath of work in all media, enough for any such insight into Michelangelo’s unorthodox approach to evolve in Rodin’s perception from coincidence to pattern to willed action, until finally registering as something indispensable to his art. As it happens, there was such a critical mass in Florence during his visit.

By far the greatest revelation in the Philadelphia catalogue was the report that one of the highlights of Florence’s quadricentennial celebration was a massive Michelangelo exhibition at the Accademia—and that it was still on view when Rodin arrived in Florence a year later. A major component was a series of full-scale plaster casts of Michelangelo’s sculptures. At one end of the galleria was the marble David flanked by casts of the Louvre’s Slaves. Just in front of them and facing each other across the galleria were casts of the Roman Pietà and Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II. The marble St. Matthew was on view, though the Slaves from the Julius tomb that we see there today were then displayed in a grotto in the Boboli Gardens. Besides some works no longer attributed to Michelangelo, the exhibition included plasters of the Madonna of Bruges, the Taddei Tondo, the Rondanini Pietà, the Risen Christ from Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Leah and Rachel from the Julius tomb, the bust of Brutus, the kneeling angel and figure of San Petronio from Bologna, and, in the ultimate coals-to-Newcastle move, Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk from the Medici tombs, along with the head of Giuliano. (In his letter to Beuret, Rodin’s differentiation between the stone originals of these figures and their plaster copies—the latter notable for their “dullness and . . . ability to simplify aspects of the modeling,” as the Philadelphia catalogue tells us—is the measure of how closely he was looking at Michelangelo on this trip.)

The plasters were supplemented by photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s drawings from European public and private collections. The numbers are staggering: twenty-nine of the Louvre’s drawings were included, along with photographs of a further fifteen drawings from other French collections; sixteen from Germany; fifteen of Windsor Castle’s twenty-two drawings (which means images of the Tityus and Risen Christ drawings that Brothers mentioned were almost certainly included); and over a dozen drawings from other British collections.

Photography was still a relatively young medium, so it’s easy to assume that these would have been rather crude efforts bearing little relation to the originals. On the contrary, they had all been taken by Adolphe Braun (1812–77), a pioneering technician who had devised a method of reproducing the drawings with a high degree of fidelity. According to Naomi Rosenblum in a 2000 Braun exhibition catalogue, he employed colors in addition to black: sepia, reddish purple, sanguine, green, and blue. So faithful were Braun’s photographs to the drawn originals, the Philadelphia catalogue tells us, that they “made a deep impression on visitors (to many they seemed the best part of the show).”

There’s more. Also in the Accademia show were 118 of the 125 photographs that Braun had shot of the Sistine Chapel in 1869. The bulk of the fifteen-by-nineteen-inch images—114 out of 125—were devoted to the Sistine Ceiling. (The existence of the Sistine Chapel portfolio was pointed out to me by the late photography critic Richard B. Woodward.) Astonishing in its ambition and scope, Braun’s is a remarkable compendium, at the time the only such photographic record of its kind.

There is something almost cinematic in Braun’s approach.

There is something almost cinematic in Braun’s approach. He starts wide, like a director with an establishing shot, then moves in for ever-tighter close-ups, first of the major images and then of the subordinate ones. This gives the series an overall order and unity it might not otherwise have had. Thus the series begins with an interior shot of the chapel in which the whole of The Last Judgment and just over half of the ceiling are visible. There is no overall shot of the ceiling itself, presumably because, despite Braun’s considerable technical ingenuity, it was impossible. So he settles for photographing it initially in three sections. There follow seven shots in which Braun captures one, sometimes two, of the central scenes along with the respective Ignudi and the cornice of the fictive architecture framing them. Then come images of the central scenes individually, some with additional detail shots. The Flood is one of them. Especially useful for anyone, like Rodin, studying Michelangelo’s approach to the figure, there are close-ups of each of the left, right, and central figure groups. Seventeen of the twenty Ignudi merit individual photographs. Each Sibyl does too, as do all the prophets save Zachariah, In every case there are two, one with its adjacent Ignudo and one alone. All the pendentives and six of the eight spandrels were photographed, the latter with the fictive architecture and putti. Finally, each figure in all fourteen lunettes was photographed individually, in some cases supplemented by a shot of the entire lunette. Braun’s Sistine Ceiling portfolio would have formed an invaluable trove for Rodin, an opportunity to study, close-up and at eye level, images normally only visible some sixty feet overhead.

Nor was the chance to study Michelangelo in depth limited to Florence. Back in Paris, casts of Renaissance sculpture from the Louvre’s gallery of plasters were transferred to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1876, where they were placed on public view for the first time. These included Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà (the one Cladel said Rodin had reacted to so strongly in the cathedral) and the Medici tomb figures and were supplemented by the plasters earlier displayed at the Accademia exhibition that had been shipped up from Florence, bringing the total of Michelangelo works on view to thirty, “almost the entire catalog of work ascribed to the master,” as the Philadelphia catalogue notes. Just as valuable, hanging in the same gallery was a full-scale copy of The Last Judgment made in 1833 by the Romantic painter Xavier Sigalon. This would have allowed Rodin to study this painting, with its hundreds of figures, at close range, something the brevity of his visit to Rome likely made impossible. In the same building were displayed reproductions of details of the Sistine Ceiling sent back to Paris by Prix de Rome recipients as “envois,” or examples of the work they were doing there. At the same time, the Louvre put on display thirty-seven drawings by Michelangelo and his school. And in 1879 the École des Beaux-Arts mounted a major exhibition of Old Master drawings from private French, English, and Italian collections that included the study for The Punishment of Haman. Rodin thus had abundant access to Michelangelo’s graphic work in the original.

All this means that, between the displays in Florence and Paris, Rodin would have had something close to a total immersion in Michelangelo’s figural lexicon, and thus ample opportunity to make the same connections as Brothers later did, and more besides. For example, he might have noticed that the pose of one of the lunette figures on the south side of the Sistine Chapel is similar to that of the Delphic Sibyl on the north one.

Still, that only takes us so far. Rodin’s deep exposure to Michelangelo might explain his subsequent practice of repurposing individual figures. But it is a large leap from there to fragmenting and recombining them. In other words, what exactly made Rodin start seeing the human body as an agglomeration of parts rather than, as it had been historically, a unity? There was seemingly no precedent for this in Michelangelo.

Yet there was. In her lecture Brothers observed that in the Haman painting, “The recently awoken figure to the right is derived from the figure of Adam, but in a transformation reminiscent of a children’s game, he’s given the head of God.” More importantly, at the Casa Buonarroti, Rodin would have seen displays of small, modeled body parts—three torsos, an arm, and a left hand. There were more in the Accademia show in the form of a collection of small plaster casts of body parts thought at the time to have been made by Michelangelo. The Philadelphia catalogue juxtaposes two photographs. One is of this display, which featured torsos; three arms, two of which are attached to a shoulder; and a thigh, with buttock and lower back at its top and at the bottom part a calf, the whole flexed in a Z configuration. The other photo is of plaster casts of Rodin’s own studies of body parts in his studio in Meudon. But the curators drew no large conclusions from this similarity regarding practical influence, limiting their observations to stating that in the miniature Michelangelos, Rodin “could detect an intimation of that expressive autonomy of the individual anatomical details that a few decades later would astonish his contemporaries,” and going on to speculate that Rodin’s primary interest in this material would have been for what it could tell him about “the characteristics of Michelangelo’s anatomical construction.”

In Michelangelo’s modeled parts he would have seen the opposite: unlimited aesthetic possibility.

All this is undoubtedly true. But I think there was a deeper motivation. If, as Butler says, Rodin wanted to revivify the sculptured body, why not start with the way it was conceived and thus abandon the age-old view of the figure as something holistic and unchanging in favor of a vision of it as fragmentary and contingent? That would truly break with the past. And since the principle of mutability had already been established for Rodin by Michelangelo’s repurposings of figures and poses, perhaps it was not such a large leap for him at all, after studying the small plaster models, to extend this to the fine grain of anatomy itself. Whereas in the antique sculptures that Rodin admired he saw, despite their missing heads and limbs, aesthetic completeness, in Michelangelo’s modeled parts he would have seen the opposite: unlimited aesthetic possibility. This, I believe, was the real lesson Rodin drew from those displays, making it the most transformative of all the “secrets” the “great magician” bequeathed to him.

Supporting this idea is the fact that Rodin’s working method changed soon after his return from Italy. He completed The Age of Bronze, then turned to St. John the Baptist (1878–79). As with the former sculpture he worked from a model, but unlike in that earlier sculpture, once the model had left, Rodin would detach body parts to work on them individually. The Walking Man also dates from this period. After that came the Gates and Rodin’s move into a revolutionary approach to making sculpture. It’s hard to see this as anything other than the result of Rodin’s encounter with Michelangelo.

Of course, none of this can ever be proved. It is all so much speculation. But wouldn’t it be interesting if one of modernism’s most radical innovations—assemblage—turned out to have its roots in the practice of a storied Renaissance master?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 4, on page 16
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