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Michelangelo’s Sculpture

Selected Essays

Edited by Sheila Schwartz
With an Introduction by Richard Neer
Leo Steinberg was one of the most original and daring art historians of the twentieth century, known for taking interpretative risks that challenged the profession by overturning reigning orthodoxies. In essays and lectures that ranged from old masters to contemporary art, he combined scholarly erudition with an eloquent prose that illuminated his subject and a credo that privileged the visual evidence of the image over the literature written about it. His works, sometimes provocative and controversial, remain vital and influential reading.
For half a century, Steinberg delved into Michelangelo’s work, revealing the symbolic structures underlying the artist’s highly charged idiom. This volume of essays and unpublished lectures explicates many of Michelangelo’s most celebrated sculptures, applying principles gleaned from long, hard looking. Almost everything Steinberg wrote included passages of old-fashioned formal analysis, but here put to the service of interpretation. He understood that Michelangelo’s rendering of figures as well as their gestures and interrelations conveys an emblematic significance masquerading under the guise of naturalism. Michelangelo pushed Renaissance naturalism into the furthest reaches of metaphor, using the language of the body and its actions to express fundamental Christian tenets once expressible only by poets and preachers—or, as Steinberg put it, in Michelangelo’s art, “anatomy becomes theology.”
Michelangelo’s Sculpture is the first in a series of volumes of Steinberg’s selected writings and unpublished lectures, edited by his longtime associate Sheila Schwartz. The volume also includes a book review debunking psychoanalytic interpretation of the master’s work, a light-hearted look at Michelangelo and the medical profession and, finally, the shortest piece Steinberg ever published.

320 pages | 121 color plates, 127 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2018

Essays by Leo Steinberg

Art: American Art, Art Criticism, European Art

History: European History

Religion: Christianity


"Steinberg returns the act of looking to center stage, insisting on it as the primary, indispensable instrument for understanding works of art. In an intellectual climate that holds that reading—critical theory—is the only true path to wisdom, the return of Leo Steinberg’s singular eye and mind could not be more timely or necessary."

Eric Gibson | New Criterion

"This book is the first in a series of five volumes in the 'Essays by Leo Steinberg' series, which will offer selected treasures, some obscure, revealing the unique erudition and insight of the late Steinberg (1920–2011). Steinberg was one of the most important art historians of his generation, but not everything he wrote made it into print before his death. The present volume makes available not only Steinberg's published essays and their subsequent revisions but also unpublished lectures, a review, and other revealing addenda to his life and legacy. The essays focus on Michelangelo’s sculpture . . . but also included and important are Steinberg's writings about his method of looking at and writing about art. Schwartz's preface, an introduction by art historian Richard Neer (Univ. of Chicago), and a lengthy chronology help make the man just as fascinating as his writings, here listed in a comprehensive bibliography. Schwartz has produced a respectful and erudite trove for all students and scholars interested in art. These writings, and those in forthcoming volumes in the series . . . will have inestimable value for anyone willing to take the rewarding plunge into Steinberg’s mind. . . . Summing Up: Highly recommended."


"Posthumously collected in Michelangelo’s Sculpture: Selected Essays are five previously published articles and two unpublished lectures, attentively edited and freshly illustrated."

The Art Newspaper

"In this well-illustrated collection Steinberg focuses on Michelangelo's sculpted Pietàs, presciently treating issues of historical and contemporary reception, of the status and evidentiary value of copies, and of the 'mixed temporality' of Renaissance art. . . . While by now it is a trope of Steinberg reviews to comment on the lucidity, elegance and engaging quality of his writing style, the praise bears repeating here. What I found most impressive in this moment of increased scholarly isolation was the sense of voice and presence that Steinberg brings to his writing. One often feels as if in direct conversation with the author, and moments of genuine hilarity bubble up throughout the text. . . . I can find virtually no fault with this compelling collection: even up to fifty years later, Leo Steinberg's words still give food for thought, granting us the rare opportunity to 'look anew' at some cherished old masterpieces."


“Sheila Schwartz, an art historian who worked closely with Steinberg, has edited these essays with a discernment that’s matched by the elegance of the volumes, which are among the most beautifully produced art books of recent years.”

New York Review of Books

"This collection of Steinberg’s essays is beautiful, scholarly, and a credit to Schultz, Neer, and Steinberg himself."

Renaissance and Reformation

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments, Sheila Schwartz
Introduction, Richard Neer

1. The Metaphors of Love and Birth in Michelangelo’s Pietàs
2. The Roman Pietà: Michelangelo at Twenty-Three
3. Michelangelo’s Medici Madonna and Related Works
4. Body and Symbol in the Medici Madonna
5. Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After
6. The Michelangelo Next Door
7. Shrinking Michelangelo
8. Michelangelo and the Doctors
9. What Would You Ask Michelangelo?
Leo Steinberg: Chronology
Leo Steinberg: Publications (1947–2010)
Photography Credits

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