Earlier this week, we saw the signature which Michelangelo added to his famous sculpture of the Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica, “Michael Angelus Bonarotus Florentinus faciebat. – Michelangelo Buonarroti, a Florentine, was the maker (of this work.)” The question arises as to why the verb is in the imperfect tense “faciebat”, rather than the perfect “fecit.”
The explanation for this comes from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which was translated into Italian for the first time when Michelangelo was a child of one, in 1476. The translation was commissioned by his fellow Florentine Filippo Strozzi (called ‘the Elder’ to distinguish him from his son), the head of one of the city’s great banking families, and long-time rival of the artist’s future patrons, the Medicis. The translator himself, Cristoforo Landino, was one of the great scholars of the age, and very much a promotor of the use of the vernacular. In his early teenage years, when Michelangelo was an apprentice in Florence, he became familiar with Pliny through this translation.
In chapter 25 of the Prologue, which is addressed to the Emperor Titus, Pliny gives the following explanation for the simplicity of his title as compared to the more elaborate ones typically used by Greek writers.
Me non paenitet nullum festiviorem excogitasse titulum et, ne in totum videar Graecos insectari, ex illis mox velim intellegi pingendi fingendique conditoribus, quos in libellis his invenies, absoluta opera et illa quoque, quae mirando non satiamur, pendenti titulo inscripsisse, ut APELLES FACIEBAT aut POLYCLITUS, tamquam inchoata semper arte et inperfecta, ut contra iudiciorum varietates superesset artifici regressus ad veniam, velut emendaturo quicquid desideraretur, si non esset interceptus. Quare plenum verecundiae illud, quod omnia opera tamquam novissima inscripsere et tamquam singulis fato adempti. tria non amplius, ut opinor, absolute traduntur inscripta ILLE FECIT, quae suis locis reddam. quo apparuit summam artis securitatem auctori placuisse, et ob id magna invidia fuere omnia ea.
(The Belvedere Torso, a fragmentary sculpture very much admired by Michelangelo, which has a so-called Plinian inscription on its base: Ἀπολλώνιος Νέστορος Ἀθηναῖος ἐποίει – Apollonius, the son of Nestor, an Athenian was making this. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Jean-Pol Grandmont, cropped; CC BY-SA 3.0)
I am not sorry not to having thought up any livelier title, and lest I seem to be wholly railing against the Greeks, I should like to be understood as one of those founders of painting and sculpture who, as you will find in these volumes, when their works had been finished, even those which we never tire of admiring, inscribed them with a provisional title, such as “Apelles” or “Polyclitus was working (on this)”, as though their art was always a thing begun and not completed, so that against the varied opinions of the critics, the artist might still have a way to recur to their indulgence, as if to say he would have corrected the work as required, if he had not been interrupted. Hence, it is the fullness of modesty for them to have inscribed all their works as if they were their last, and as though they had been snatched away from each such work by fate. Three works, and no more, I believe, are said to have been simply inscribed with “so-and-so made it”, which I will mention in their proper places. And this made it seem that the author of the work was fully confidet about it, and for this reason, they were all very unpopular.
This passage was so well known that a signature of this kind is sometimes called a Plinian Signature. Michelangelo was not the first to use it during the Renaissance, but his enormous prestige as an artist made it a very popular custom among those who came after him.
Our thanks to Dr Daniel Gallagher for information which he provided for this article.
(An engraved portrait of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, by Michelangelo’s contemporary Albrecht Dürer, with the Plinian Signature “Albertus Durer Nur(emburgensis) faciebat.” Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)