Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Ugly Cleopatra, by Michelangelo

Megan Gannon of LiveScience writes of an "ugly" Cleopatra portrait, sketched on the back of a legitimate Michelangelo in which Cleopatra is depicted as beautiful.  She references a single scholar,  William E. Wallace, who explains this discrepancy by suggesting that the "ugly" version may not have been a true Michelangelo.  Your hypothesis is interesting and credible, Mr. Wallace, but it relies on a certain assumption.  You assume that the "ugly" version could not possibly have been a true Michelangelo, because you assume that Cleopatra really was beautiful.  I have a few different ideas.

Moses has horns! by HarshLight
For one thing, Michelangelo was known to have a sense of humor.  He designed the ridiculous Vatican Swiss Guard uniform, and he put horns on the statue of Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II.  There is a very credible hypothesis that he pulled off possibly the greatest artistic trickery of all time, and if my friend Sara McBride will ever get off her procrastinating butt and publish her outstanding novel on the subject, I'll let you know what that hypothesis is.

For another thing, Michelangelo's women were notoriously mannish. They were chiseled and muscular and their breasts looked like horrible implants by a plastic surgeon who should have his license revoked.  So it is perhaps not too far of a stretch to suggest that the brilliant Michelangelo could create a female sketch that does not conform to our modern, heterosexual, European standards for beauty.  To be honest, I'm more surprised that he created a sketch that does.

And last, but certainly not least, Cleopatra really was ugly.  Especially by the criteria we are choosing to set forth as "we" judge the aesthetic qualities of these images.  The coins minted by Cleopatra in her lifetime demonstrate the likeness she chose to portray for posterity. Gigantic bug eyes.  Prominent hooked nose.  Corners of mouth pointed downward as if the figure is disgusted.  The ancient Egyptian version of a headband, holding the hair back and away from the face.

Now look again at the image of the "ugly" Cleopatra, the one far too ugly to have been sketched by Michelangelo.  Could it be that Michelangelo actually set out to sketch the true Cleopatra?  Perhaps his commissioner was displeased.  Perhaps Michelangelo then started over and created an image that would conform to the accepted standards for beauty.

But perhaps he incorporated a few subtleties into the final image as a hidden mockery of this standard.  The asp woven into Cleopatra's hair, making the two things almost indistinguishable from one another.  A bizarre breast in the middle of the sketch from which the asp seems to be breast-feeding rather than poisoning the queen.  Perhaps these little inconsistencies are the equivalents of the horns on Moses and the uniforms he endowed upon the Swiss Guard.  Perhaps they are Michelangelo's way of getting the last laugh.

Photo credit: Moses has horns! by HarshLight is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For more, see this excerpt from The Vesuvius Isotope.
See the Michelangelo sketches as part of the “Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane, Master Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti” exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, April 21-June 30, 2013.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

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