The soul tries out a thousand cures, in vain;
Since I was taken from my early road,
Vainly it worries how it can return.
—Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1522 (translated by Creighton Gilbert)
Today, many people think of Michelangelo (Florence 1475–Rome 1564) as a sculptor, but he received his early training as a painter, in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), a leading master in Florence. It was only in about 1490, following this apprenticeship, that he learned to carve marble. Michelangelo's biographers—Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) and Ascanio Condivi (1525–1574)—tell us that, aside from some drawings, his first work was a painted copy after a well-known engraving by Martin Schongauer (1448–1491) showing Saint Anthony tormented by demons. Made about 1487–88 under the guidance of his friend and fellow pupil Francesco Granacci, Michelangelo's painting was much admired; it was even said to have incited Ghirlandaio's envy.
Schongauer's engraving, dating to the 1470s, illustrates a passage from The Golden Legend (ca. 1260) by Jacobus de Voragine that describes how "divers savage beasts" set upon Saint Anthony, tearing "at him with their teeth, their horns, and their claws." Schongauer departed from tradition by showing the saint in midair surrounded by a dense swarm of winged monsters. The theme resonated with the young Michelangelo, who must have admired the masterful arrangement of exotic creatures in complex poses as well as the fantastic creatures. In typical fashion, he revised the earlier composition, making it more compact. He simplified the forms and gave the monsters more animal-like features, notably adding fish scales to one of them. The folds of Saint Anthony's habit were also simplified and his face was given a serene expression. The young artist added a landscape that contrasts a rocky outcropping and dead trees with a green hill and a boat making its way safely through a vast seascape—perhaps an allegorical reference to the voyage of the soul epitomized by Anthony's resigned detachment from the torments he undergoes. The color combinations, especially the apple green and lavender, are peculiar to Michelangelo and forecast those he employed in the Sistine Chapel.
In one of Michelangelo's earliest sculptures, a marble relief showing a battle of centaurs, we also find a centrally placed figure isolated amid the tumult. It is a motif to which Michelangelo returned in a number of compositions, including his fresco of the Last Judgment on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As one scholar commented: "Michelangelo sees the larger world as a battleground of titanic moral and spiritual forces."
Though it has been known to scholars since the 1830s, when it was purchased in Pisa by a French sculptor, this painting has not always received proper attention. Accumulations of discolored varnish and disfiguring overpaints had obscured the qualities of the picture's masterful execution and remarkable color palette. A careful cleaning, carried out by Michael Gallagher, the Metropolitan Museum's Conservator in Charge of Paintings Conservation, transformed the painting, while infrared reflectography revealed how the artist modified and elaborated on Schongauer's composition.
Before its recent cleaning and restoration at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, many of the qualities of execution evident in The Torment of Saint Anthony were almost completely obscured. There was little sense of depth, and the spatial relationships and volumes of the figure group were severely impaired. Moreover, the remarkable color palette and refined handling were little in evidence. Cleaning has transformed the painting and permitted a more accurate appraisal of the means used to create it.
The preparation of the panel and the painting materials are typical of Italian painting at the end of the fifteenth century. The poplar panel was prepared with a ground of gesso, a mixture of animal glue and gypsum. On top of that the artist executed a preparatory drawing in a liquid medium in order to plan the composition and place the main figures. Digital infrared reflectography allows us to image the carbon-based drawing that lies beneath the visible paint layers. Taking the Schongauer print as a model, Michelangelo systematically refined the shapes and forms and made numerous alterations to the contours of wings, limbs, and drapery. This refining of outline appears to have been extremely important to the artist. The lines visible around the figures are fine and assured. Broader, more painterly brushstrokes in the underdrawing can be detected in Saint Anthony's cloak.
Frequently, forms overlap previously painted details, while in other areas paint has been scraped away. This suggests a rather intuitive, piecemeal approach to the sequence of painting, as one might expect of a young, inexperienced, but bold artist. Michelangelo was consistently preoccupied with the refinement of outline. Several figures have fine incisions where contours were emphasized or repositioned at a late stage in the painting's execution. The artist also scraped back paint layers in order to clarify, sharpen, and anchor forms while in other areas he built up substantial texture and relief.