Freud’s method of investigation in figurative art… and his findings as well

The bird of Leonardo and the Moses of Michelangelo

Think|Tank. Il saggio del mese [maggio 2019]

Go the articles of the series “Think|Tank
See also The flaws in Freud’s Study of Leonardo da Vinci by Rudolf e Margot Wittkover

Right, Freud sketched di Salvator Dalì (1938). Left, newly identified sketch of Leonardo da Vinci, c.1517–18, by an assistant of Leonardo.


First, let me explain why I chose this theme — apparently far away from my field of interest, History — for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death on 2 May 1519. And I can imagine your scepticism about my attempting to marry the work of the historian with that of the psychoanalyst, many of whose raids into the fields of history and art history have raised many objections from us. We know that an icon is not a collection of sexual symbols waiting to be read and explained. But I think that the method set up by Freud, with which the analyst moulds the material at his disposal, is also a powerful tool of investigation for non-analyst disciplines and themes.

What is the value of works of art for historical research? What Kind of historical information does a work of art contain? How can we extract it properly? With which technique?. These are my original questions.

And there is nothing new in that at the beginning of our century the innovative German historian, Karl Lamprecht, was pioneering the marriage of history with art and psychology. For Lamprecht :

Art is the supreme indicator of the psychological make-up of a given period and an understanding of its underlying principles must lead us straight to the centre and core of the epoch. Once we had this key we would understand its poetry, its system of government, and its methods of production because the essential mentality behind all these activities must be the same. (quotation from Gombrich)

Certainly icons mean something for centuries they were not made as art for the sake of art. And in the meaning of their many meanings rests the interest of the historian.

Iconography is the discipline which deals with the content and the meaning of works of art. And in reading the studies of the founders of modern iconography, I was struck by the quasi-obsessive reference to psychological categories and findings. But what psychology? Certainly not the academic psychology, but rather the newly born psychoanalysis that was seen as a new frontier.

Erwin Panofsky, the author of “Studies in Iconology” (1939), maybe the most influential text in iconology.

For instance, Aby Warburg, one of the founders of modern iconography, liked defining himself as a psycho-historian. In Panofsky’s classical definition of iconography we find two Freudian key-words, “unconscious” and “personality” and the methodology, outlined by Panofsky in Study in Iconology, with his three strata of meaning looks like an adaptation of Freudian concepts of id, ego and super-ego. And moreover art historians have always employed in their investigation a sort of everyday common-sense psychology.

Freud himself wrote in a footnote that the mode of thought of the icon interpreter has a certain resemblance to the methodology of psychoanalysis. And recently a Freudian interpreter have written that psychoanalysis is a theory of meaning, it is hermeneutics, and iconography is hermeneutics as well.

So coming from history via iconography I landed into the foreign land of psychology, but the purpose of understanding why it is considered so important by the people who deal with Icons.

Today I’ll present the very provisional results of my excursion outside my own domain, started more for intellectual curiosity than tor sound reasons. And I beg you to consider what I’m going to say in the spirit of a divertissement.


My whys

When I look for a meaning in a work of art, I always ask myself: “What did the artist have in his head when he created the work?” “What does it mean?”

“What does it represent?”, “Why that scene?”, “Why that posture?”, “Why that lay-out?”, “Why that subject-matter?” and many other whys.

In other word I wonder what was the intention of the artist, what was his program, and why he chose that way of representing it.

Was it only a matter of style, or did something more influence the artist?

I often think that these questions are wrong or without any answer and I cannot imagine: how we, centuries later and in a completely different world of signs, could uncover the possible “latent meaning” of the work.

On the other hand I am sure that somewhere in the painting the artist has hidden the key to his work. But how can we uncover that key?

Scotland Yard is not enough

Hercule Poirot (1920–1975). The Belgian detective at the time of his hectic journey on board of the Orient Express. Poirot id gifted with an acute sense of observation and a capacity to draw intelligent conclusions from watching people’s behaviour and linking it to deeply human psychological traits and the context in which stories occur.

There is a duo who could find that key. This duo is composed by two brilliant detectives:

Monsieur Hercule Poirot, the Belgian, five feet four inches retired cop with his stiff moustache and his egg-shaped head, and

Doctor Sigmund Freud, the cultivated and refined archaeologist of the mind, or, according to Levi-Strauss’ definition, the creator of “the modern version of shamanistic technique”.

But before explaining “Why Poirot?” and “Why Freud?” I’d like to introduce other elements.

Other whys, other answers

“What is a figurative work of art?” Among lots and lots of answers, one is particularly fascinating for me: The work of an is a visual document, Is a piece of evidence. Document of what? Evidence of what? Document written in which language?

It’s a document of three things:

1) It’s a document of a culture, meaning the literary and intellectual tradition of the time in which it was produced;

2) It’s a document of a mentality, meaning the system of prevailing beliefs and values of the time;

3) It’s a document of a personality, that of the artist, in the psychoanalytic meaning of the word.

If the work of art concerns these three directions can be investigated following a threefold approach:

1) that of cultural history, along the path of Burckhardt and Huizinga;

2) that of cultural psychology, along the path of Warburg, Panofsky and the iconologists of the Warburg Institute;

3) that of psychoanalysis, along the path of Freud, Jones, Kris and their followers and of Jung as well.

A symbolic language, but not always

A work of art speaks a language, which of course is not of words, but it is still a language. It is a language of forms and sometimes it communicates by means of symbols. Of course not everything in painting is allegorical, but some icons convey a personal or collective message.

I don’t want to embark on a discussion about the concept of symbol and it is enough to say that as far as figurative art is concerned the symbols are not standard, because they are not so universal as some cheap psychoanalytic school might suggest. The meaning stems from a definite historical and personal context and rests on it.

So for decoding that language easy formulae are useless. And since works of art are products of a personality within an historical and artistic context, a psycho-historian detective is requested.

Well, here we are. back to our original question Why Poirot?, Why Freud?

Hercule Poirot

A picture from “Death on the Nile” (1978) directed by John Guillermin. From right Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline De Bellefort), and Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), the triangle of love and death. Hercule Poirot, a casual onlooker, murmured to himself: “Une qui aime et un qui se lasse aimer… She cares too much. It is not safe. No, it is not safe.” This is the ultimate clue that drives Poirot straight to the solution of an apparently perfect crime.

Hercule is smarter than Holmes

Let’s take Hercule Poirot, first.

Why Poirot? I have to confess that I derive the idea of the detective from the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, but unlike Ginzburg I think that the name to be associated with Freud is not Sherlock Holmes, but Hercule Poirot. The technique of Holmes is completely positivistic, it is a scientific laboratory analysis of solid pieces of evidence visible through a magnifying glass. The method of Poirot is mainly psychologically founded. Holmes is to Breuer — the physiologist, Freud’s mentor — as Poirot Is to Freud.

Psychological intuition and a familiarity with the tools of psychological investigation are the characteristics of Poirot’s technique. Many times we hear him say “It is wrong psychologically” even though the material proof, in the sense of Holmes, are pointing to a sound solution.

An amazing manifestation of his powerful psychological intuition is shown in Death on the Nile, where a minor and casual psychological clue drives Poirot straight to the solution of an apparently perfect crime.

An even more astonishing display of his psychological skill is Poirot’s investigation in Five Little Pigs, an investigation in retrospect of a crime which happened sixteen years before. Here are the words with which Miss Carla convinced Poirot to accept the case:

It’s psychology that interests you, isn’t it? Well, that doesn’t change with time. The tangible things are gone — the cigarette end and the footprint and the bent blades of grass. You can’t look for those anymore. But you can go over all the facts of the case, and perhaps talk to the people who were there at the time… and then you can lie back in your chair and think. And you’ll know what really happened.

So analysing five personalities and interweaving their features, only on the basis of psychological considerations, Poirot is able to reconstruct the enigma, the dynamics of events. And the main clue dwells in the childhood experiences of just two of the characters.

The portrait of a lady in “Five Little Pigs”. Poirot said: “I should have known when I first saw the picture. It is a picture of a girl watching her lover die”. In the picture lies the clue. This picture, designed by Karel Thole, is the cover ot the Italian edition of “Five Little Pigs”.

Poirot’s method is a sort of creative induction from small tangible pieces of evidence (this is the objective side of the investigation in which an inductive logic rules) and from a chain of psychological observations (this is the subjective side of the work where a deductive analysis rules).

But Poirot is endowed as well with an excellent capacity of divination, a sort of intuition or fifth sense that he shares with the icon interpreter. Here is the proof:

Hercule Poirot gestured toward the picture on the wall. “I should have known — he said — when I first saw that picture. It’s a very remarkable picture. It is the picture of a murderess painted by her victim — it is a picture of a girl watching her lover die”.

Needless to say the psychology of Poirot is very different from the psychoanalysis of Freud. It is like comparing an old manual typewriter with a new and powerful processor.

Sigmund Freud

Freud’s blitzes

Sigmund Freud in 1912 on the veranda of his home in Vienna. In the background a copy of the “Prisoner” of Michelangelo for the Tomb of Julius II, and the reproduction of “St. Peter raising Tabihita”, one of Masolino-Massaccio’s frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.

But, let’s take Freud. Actually Freud wrote two brilliant and famous detective-stories on Renaissance art: The first one was published in 1910 called A Childhood Memory of Leonardo da Vinci, and the second one was published in 1914 called The Moses of Michelangelo.

What approach does Freud follow in his investigation of artistic subjects? He follows· a two-fold approach:

1. The approach of psychoanalysing the artist in Leonardo.

2. The approach of psychoanalysing the work of art in The Moses of Michelangelo.

But before analysing these two fascinating studies I have to give more general details on Freud’s interest in figurative art and on his general approach to art and the artist.

Poirot, Morelli, Freud: same technique?

When I was reading Freud’s paper on The Moses of Michelangelo a sentence struck me. Talking about the method of attributing paintings developed by one of the founders of modern art-connoisseurship, Giovanni Morelli, Freud writes:

It seems to me that his method of inquiry is closely related to the technique of psycho-analysis. It, too, is accustomed to divine secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observations.

Different shapes of ears by different Renaissance artists. The sketches were drawn by Giovanni Morelli from his observations, and published in his study “Kunstkritische Studien über Italienische Malerei”.

I would like to recall your attention to the words: divine, despised, concealed, rubbish-heap. What Freud postulates in this passage is that, in spite of the great differences between art criticism and psychoanalysis, an understanding of some features of a work of art can be carried on in the same way as the understanding of the raw material of his psychoanalyst (dreams, slips, memories), since all of them speak the same language: the jargon of a deeper content revealed in trivial details.

And this general approach, based on the “gift of divination” and on fossicking amongst the leftovers, tries to establish a consistent connection between the fragment-meaning and the meaning of the whole.

Fragments are all

And in doing that there is no precise set of rules, only a sort of general frame, and some analogies. The dream analyst, the detective, the iconographer, and the archaeologist as well are all concerned with an enigma and in coping with it they follow a common path associating fragments consistent with a context which is to be built. Their method is based on the same principle: pars pro toto (the part for the sake of the whole).

In doing that they accept anything which comes from a collection of random scattered and irrelevant fragments, as equally interpretable. Then through the association-game every fragment takes its meaning and its place in the whole

A general theory of art ?

Freud, the minimalist

But let’s return to Freud. First of all we should record Freud’s scepticism on psychology’s claim to a comprehensive theory of aesthetics. Freud, not only didn’t develop anything that could be called a general theory of art, but also throughout his life he persistently denied that his psychoanalysis could find the key to the artist’s creativity.

In 1913 he wrote explicitly:

Psycho-analysis throws a satisfactory light upon some of the problems concerning arts and artists; but others escape it entirely… Whence it is that the artist derives his creative capacity is not a question for psychology.

Why is it not a question for psychology? For whom is it a question?

Are the roots of aesthetics meta-psychological? Perhaps are they biological? Or more radically: “is it the artist’s mind that breaks through his art, or is it art that informs his mind” (Gombrich)? What influence do the tradition and the medium have on the artist’s way of creating”?

Freud never answered these questions and his pupils did so only in a unsatisfactory way.

What I can say is that perhaps Freud was not aiming at a general theory of culture or simply that he considered his findings not sufficiently wide and safe for that general theory, even if he flirted throughout his life with the humanities and encouraged many psychoanalytic studies in that field.

Actually in his investigation Freud didn’t display any particular interest in the quality and the formal properties of art. His main concern was always the subject-matter. In the first lines of The Moses of Michelangelo Freud confesses:

I have often observed that the subject-matter of works of art has a stronger attraction for me than their formal and technical qualities.

But more tools for the iconographer

But if Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian as well have contributed little to the field of aesthetic criticism, they have inspired a new wave of iconographical studies. I think that the flexible Freudian equipment is chiefly useful for comprehending the artist’s intention and sometimes some features of his or her personality.

Certainly Freud’s findings enriched the paraphernalia of the art semiologist. To say more might be unwise, even if everyone, myself included, feels the charm of its call.

The psychoanalysis of the artist

Artist = successful neurotic

Well, let’s return to the problem of the two approaches. Let’s take the first one, the artist on the analyst’s couch

Freud presents the artist’s activity as an act of sublimation, as a near-neurotic condition turned successfully into art through the use of aesthetic rules.

The artist, like a neurotic, is oppressed by powerful instinctual needs which he or she manages to turn into art because he or she is endowed with free access to sources “which — Freud writes — will have not yet opened up for science”.

In the life of the creative person and in the work itself, psychoanalysis traces the mental development which underlies the artist’s leitmotifs and “the sort of subject matter it is fated to choose”.

Psychoanalytic biography

So the biography of the artist and first and foremost his or her earliest childhood are the raw materials and the main field of investigation of the art analyst. In 1913 Freud wrote:

The connection between the impressions of the artist’s childhood and his life-history on the one hand and his work, as reaction to those impressions, on the other, is one of the most attractive subjects of analytic examination.

The technique of investigation of the artist’s biography follows the classical Freudian pattern and uses his categories of analysis and synthesis.

Work of art/dream relation

In this context the work of the independent and innovative artist can represent a biographical clue. It can be interpreted and evaluated as … reservoir of symbols, signs or traces of the unconscious activity along the model of dream interpretation.

In this approach Freud aims to reconstruct the psychogenesis of the work and its relation to the artist’s early childhood.

Leonardo, the obsessional neurotic

The clue which keeps awake

In this journal Freud published in 1910 his study “A Childhood Memory of Leonardo da Vinci”, and in 1914 the paper on “The Moses of Michelangelo”.

The approach of psychoanalysing the artist is applied by Freud to the personality of Leonardo da Vinci in his book of 1910, A Childhood Memory of Leonardo da Vinci

Freud regarded himself as a scientist and throughout his life he was obsessed by the preoccupation of making scientific (for the scientific paradigm of his time) his method and his findings. He was keen to avoid being “classed — according to his own words in one of his later writings — amongst· the Scholastics and the Talmudists who are content to exercise their ingenuity without worrying themselves with the degree of truth in their assumptions”. So why did he embark on the risky and highly uncertain enterprise of analysing the enigmatic and elusive figure of Leonardo?

Freud did that, in my opinion, for two reasons which are peculiar to his detective’s mind: first he had found out in Leonardo’s biography a clue — Leonardo’s chastity — which kept Freud awake at night. Secondly he had recently solved a similar case, having cured a patient with the same symptomatology. The material was enough for the first psychoanalytic biography and for the first psycho-detective story.

Leonardo’s neuroses dwell in Vinci

The village of Vinci, Leonardo’s Birthplace, sketched by the artist when he was 21. The drawing is dated 5 August 1473 and named “Entitled Landscape 8P”. The sketch suggest the setting may be a combination of different places, including the Montalbano mountain ridge and the bordering Valdinievole valley in Tuscany.

In the first chapter of the book Leonardo is portrayed by Freud as the most successful embodiment and model of the sublimation principle operating at the service of art and science. But it is a particular kind of sublimation: it is a sublimation in which at the end “investigating has taken the place of acting and creating”. This sublimation has led to a regression from creativity into the realm of neurosis revealed by his indifference to his artistic production, left almost always unfinished, and by his obsessive brooding on nature’s laws.

The reason for that can be traced to Vinci during his childhood experience as an illegitimate child, and precisely

– in the excessive tenderness and love of his natural mother, and

– in the absence of the father, who married a wealthy lady, later Leonardo’s stepmother.

Freud the maximalist

This profile is reconstructed from apparently trifling fragments from Leonardo’s Notebooks: a childhood memory, the list of expenses, meaningless repetitions and so on. It’s Freud’s conviction that these are clues rooted in the unconscious and expressed forcibly in an extravagant and distorted form. But they are of the highest value: they deserve a book.

In his Notebooks Leonardo wrote that when still in the cradle he was visited by a bird of prey which struck him repeatedly on the mouth with its tail. On the psychoanalytic translation of this childhood fantasy rests not only the interpretation of Leonardo’s inner life but also of some aspects of his artistic production.

In other word, Freud uses his psychoanalytic clue not only to reconstruct the mental development of Leonardo as a person, but also to explain some features of his external reality, that of his artistic achievement in which also non-psychical elements took part.

Art historians, bite the bullet

Well, let’s see Freud’s contributions to art criticism on Leonardo:

1. Leonardo’s enigmatic smiling figures from Mona Lisa onward are “nothing other than the repetitions of his natural mother… who possessed that mysterious smile” that was awakened again in Leonardo’s mind at the sight of Monna Lisa del Giocondo.

2. The ruinous choice of the oil painting technique for his fresco “The Last Supper” in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan was the first manifestation of his obsessional neurosis: the growing dissociation from his art for the sake of science.

3. The androgynous nature of Leonardo’s male figures represents his wish for fusion with his mother, the wish, at the roots of his sublimated homosexuality, and of the narcissistic pattern of his sexuality.

The similarity in age between The Virgin (the daughter) and St. Anne (the mother) represents, according to Freud, uncovers the two mothers of Leonardo’s childohood

4. “Mary, the Child and St. Anne” in the Louvre, where what is striking is the similarity in age between the mother and the daughter”, represents the “two mothers of his childhood melted into a single form”. The painting is seen by Freud as the synopsis “of the history of Leonardo’s childhood”. Unfortunately, Freud offers to his readers a wrong illustration of the painting as you can see from this comparison.

5. Leonardo’s lack of concern for his work stems from his wish for identification with his careless and absent father. And his mental Independence and non-conformism can be traced in the absence of the authority principle due to the absence of the repressive figure of the father. From the same process derives his apathy for religion revealed by the sensuality of his religious subjects.

6. Leonardo’s interest in mechanical toys, extravagant things and his taste for caricature are seen by Freud as a carry over from childhood of his fulfilled play-instinct.

What a disaster if the patient tells lies

It is well known that this great and fascinating book was criticized by almost all for its many imprecisions. First of all for the mistranslation of the name of the bird of the “childhood memory”. The bird is not a vulture but a kite, Freud is not responsible for the mistranslation which he derived from professional art historians.

Unfortunately on this mistranlation Freud manufactured an amazing red herring. And certainly, Freudian circles are wrong when they say that the vexed question of the type of bird of the fantasy is irrelevant to the whole body of Freudian interpretation. It should be remembered that Freud based his book on the many meanings of the vulture as a symbol of Leonardo’s pleasure-giving mother. And the Kite, the real bird of the memory, is a bird notorious to Leonardo himself for being cruel with its offspring, and so it also seems to symbolize, if it symbolizes anything, rather a mother who is hard.

Rather, as Schapiro shows, “Leonardo’s choice of the kite as the bird of his destiny has apparently more to do with his scientific problem of flight than Freud supposed”.

Doctor, please, bring better proofs !

The main problem is however the quality and the value of the data available to Freud. He knew very well that they were very weak, casual and above all philologically unverified. Concluding his paper Freud confesses that if his analysis of Leonardo is a failure, and “probably — Freud writes — it is, it’s himself who is to be held responsible” because he “forced psycho-analysis to pronounce an expert opinion on the basis of such insufficient material”.

Despite Freud’s uncommon honesty we have the impression that Freud, after having created from his clinical observations some typologies of interpretation of the development of the mind, tried to force Leonardo into one of these schema, singling out in his highly uncertain biography only the data which were consistent with that schema, regardless· of any philological considerations. It is an unconvincing short cut from the long and exhausting process of the psychoanalytic interview.

And borrowing the words from Peter Munz, we can say: “There is no way in which evidence can be obtained other than in a clinico-therapeutic setting”.

And borrowing the ‘words from Poirot, we can say: “ There is no sufficient evidence — there are only inferences, no facts”.

The data are beyond reach.

Conclusion on the artist on the couch

In short the psychoanalysis of the artist of the past, though fascinating and appealing as it may appear, seems unrewarding in the field of art criticism.

I would like to quote a couple of passages drawn by art historians, sympathetic to psychoanalysis.

Ernst Gombrich

For try as we may, we historians just cannot raise the dead and put them on your couch. It is a commonplace that there is no substitute for the psycho-analytic interview. Such attempts as have been made therefore, to tiptoe cross the chasm of the centuries on fragile rope made of strays of information can never be more than a jeu d’esprit, even if the performance is as dazzling as Freud’s Leonardo “.

Meyer Schapiro

I believe this study of Freud’s book points to weaknesses which will be found in other works by psychoanalysts in the cultural fields: the habit of building explanation of complex phenomena on a single datum and the too little attention given to history and social situation in dealing with individuals and even with the origins of customs, beliefs, and institutions.

Ernst Kris

Also Kris, the specialist of aesthetics in the Freudian school, was fully aware of the precariousness of a psychoanalytic investigation in the art field which uses data obtained by “methods other than psychoanalytic observation and therapy”. And Kris adds:

The critical — philological and historical evaluation of source material [is a] method more than accidentally related to that of psychoanalysis itself.

And Kris was also aware that art is the outlet of an interaction between medium, tradition and personality and that a redutio ad unum of this trinity was a methodological abuse.

The psychoanalysis of the work of art

A new patient: a marble statue

Tomb of Pope Julius II, general view. Rome, san Pietro in Vincoli.

Let’s take now the second approach that of the psychoanalysis of the work of art. In this approach Freud studies the work as a self-sufficient entity, without reference to the artist’s biography or psychic life. It’s the subject-matter that is important.

The most interesting example of this approach is the paper The Moses of Michelangelo. The Moses is an impressive marble statue sculpted by Michelangelo for the tomb of Julius II, today in S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.

Freud’s aims

Before turning to Freud’s method of Investigation we have to explain the aim of Freud’s detective work. His aim is not the comprehension of the artist’s intention but to discover the meaning of the content. Freud writes at this regard:

I must first find out the meaning and content of what is represented in the work; I must, in other words, be able to interpret it… And perhaps where great works of art are concerned this would never be possible without the application of psycho-analysis.

On how to do that Freud has many things to teach us.

Why the tables are tilted and upside down ?

The doctor is back, but with better proof

Unlike in the paper on Leonardo, in this new study Freud was deeply concerned with the quality and the value of the evidence he was collecting. This serious preoccupation is shown by his long hesitations to publish the paper which finally came out, anonymously, in 1914. Freud was not able to decide in a definite manner if the details he was picking out as relevant were created by the artist for stylistic and formal reasons or intentionally to communicate some iconographical message.

Intuition is the comet in the night

The titanic struggle to command his inner drives surfaces in the eyes of Moses, and in the grimace of the mouth.

In his paper, like Poirot, Freud starts recording his personal feelings toward the object of his investigation. In front of Moses Freud has the impression that the great marble figure does not convey wrath and anger as it was commonly thought, but a sort of titanic effort to subdue his inner emotions.

Scotland Yard failed, but only in connecting the proofs

There follows an accurate review of the discussion amongst art historians on the general meaning of the figure and of its details. It turns up a great confusion of view. Some elements of the solution had been uncovered and made visible, but these investigations did not succeed in combining the general meaning and the details in a proper way.

The original iconographical programme of the tomb of Julius II offers an answer to the riddle of the general meaning: the statue was planned as one of a group of seated figures representing types of human characters. Consequently, Moses is not in the act of raising, breaking the Tables of the Law, descending the Mount Sinai and punishing his people for the worshipping of the Golden Calf, as it was commonly interpreted. But which human type does Moses represent and how ?

The dynamics of events

To answer those questions it is essential, Freud writes, to “emancipate ourselves from the visual appealing and grandeur of the figure and to concentrate on the significance of minor details revealed through an accurate anatomical analysis of the statue. It is interesting to quote Freud’s memory on his obsessive research of meaningful details:

For three lonely September weeks in 1913 — he writes — I stood every day in the Church in front of the statue, studied it, measured it, sketched it, until I captured the understanding of it.

And Freud was certainly right in doing what he did. The two revealing details he found out are the pressure of the right index finger against the left side of Moses’ beard and the upside down and tilted position of the Tables of the Law. This unusual treatment calls for an interpretation. The two details are connected by a relation of cause and effect resulting from a sequence of events and, stormy movements.

Freud’s filmic sequence

The drawings of Moses by Sigmund Freud. During his long stay in Rome in front of the sculpture Freud made some sketches to build the action conceived by Michelangelo.

1Moses is sitting quietly, carrying the tables perpendicularly under his right arm. His right hand grasps their lower edge and find a hold in the projection on their front part. The fact that this makes them easier to carry sufficiently accounts for the upside down position in which the tables are held.

2Then comes the moment when Moses’s calm is broken by the disturbance. He turns his head in its direction, and when he sees his people worshipping the Calf, he lifts his foot preparatory to starting up, lets go the Tables with his hand, and plunge it to left and upwards into his beard, as though to turn his violence against his own body. The Tables are now consigned to the pressure on his harm, which has to squeeze them against his body. But his support is not sufficient and the Tables begin to slip in a forward and downward direction. The upper edge, which was held horizontally, now begins to face forwards and downwards; and the lower edge, deprived of its stay, is nearing the stone seat with its front corner. Another instant and the tables would pivot upon this new point of support hit the ground with the upper edge and foremost, and shatter to pieces.

3It is to prevent this that the right hand retreats, lets go the beard, a part of which is drawn back with it unintentionally, came against the upper of the tables in time and holds them near the hind corner, which has is uppermost. Thus the singularly constrained area of the whole can be traced to that one passionate movement.

This dynamics reveals the intention of Michelangelo to create Moses in the moment in which, at the sight of his people adoring the Golden Calf, he is controlling his anger and instinctual drives in order to preserve the integrity of the Tables of the Law written by Gold Himself which, because of that impulsive reaction to that sight, were about to fall down and break.

Michelangelo il terribile si pente

Michelangelo’s representation of Moses goes beyond every previous historical or biblical tradition. Here is, in Freud’s words, the leitmotif of Michelangelo:

The giant frame with his tremendous psychical power becomes only a concrete expression of the highest mental achievement that is possible in man, that of struggling successfully against an inward passion for the sake of the cause, to which he has devoted himself.

So the Moses of Michelangelo is the prototype of the civilized man who for the sake of society has repressed his instinctual life. In psychoanalytic terms Moses could be defined as the powerful Father Imago.

In this peculiar representation of Moses can be traced also historical motifs and political and personal messages:

1. an admonition against the impulsive and obsessional action of the kind undertaken by Julius II (here the reference is to his unsuccessful and impatient attempt to unify Italy under the papal supremacy), a man who shared with Michelangelo and Moses the reputation of terribilità (to be frighteningly powerful) due to the overwhelming force of his will;

2. an invitation to prudence and political moderation on the part of the Roman Church in the face of the rising action of the newly created German protestant movement. Certainly this latter significance evoked in Freud his similar problem with his own protestants: Jung and Adler. Freud was projecting on Moses his own feelings: an illustrious case of empathy.

The message or Moses is a message addressed by Michelangelo to the Political and religious milieus in Rome and to himself as well, whose impatience and impulsiveness was damaging his artistic and private life.

Is Freud’s reconstruction correct? It is difficult to say, even if Freud’s study changed the way of looking at the statue. Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings and the traditional element of the touching the beard in the iconography of Moses; seem to suggest that the figure of Moses took the posture we see for formal and visual reasons. But we cannot reach a definite degree of certainty.

Conclusion on the psychoanalysis of the work of art

It’s time to sum up and to draw some conclusions on Freud’s method of investigation in his analysis of Moses.

1. The intuition is the spark. To follow the first general impression is not wrong as a beginning.

2. A review of the existing literature is the second step;

3. To research the traces of the original iconographical programme and documentary evidences on the work is the third phase;

4. The anatomy of the work is the decisive next step. To spend many hours in front of the work, to measure it, to sketch It, to fill a questionnaire with pre-arranged questions is not a waste of time. During this work it is useful to remember the motto of the founder of iconography, Aby Warburg, who used to say “God is in Minutiae”;

5. To evaluate the quality and the value of the collected proofs through a cross check is pre-requisite for building a sound interpretation;

6. Then desk-detective work follows, consisting of associating the details, brooding over their meaning and consistency. The most anomalous and insignificant one must be the first to be studied. Bearing in mind that a work of art can be approached as a dynamic interplay of ideas and feelings disguised in symbols, the method of free association of psychoanalytic derivation can be very helpful;

7. There follows a comparison of the selected material with the iconographical and textual tradition of representing that subject-matter and the selected details;

8. Finally we can write a good piece of detective literature, revealing in the last two pages the general meaning of the work and the intention of the artist.

I can conclude now saying that the paper The Moses of Michelangelo is an impressive demonstration of the power of the method of investigation set up by Freud and applied to a non-analytical theme. In this case psychoanalysis can be considered ancillae artis.

So I don’t think that the psychoanalytic technique and findings are a panacea, but I do believe that they can help the humanities, history and art history included, to explain some elements which are not reachable through the traditional and codified tool that each discipline makes available to its own disciples.

As far as Freud’s writings are concerned I share completely Peter Munz’s opinion when he writes:

There is not a sentence written by Freud which one does not read with respect… Not a sentence from which one does not gain an insight and which does not represent a rational challenge, either, to the reader or to a well-establiahed opinion.

Laureatosi in storia a Firenze nel 1977, è entrato nell’editoria dopo essersi imbattuto in un computer Mac nel 1984. Pensò: Apple cambierà tutto. Così è stato.

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