To Light Up Moses

The Michelangelo sculpture that obsessed Sigmund Freud

Michelangelo, Moses (detail of the tomb of Pope Julius II), 1513-15, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. Courtesy: San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome and Getty Images

Michelangelo, Moses (detail of the tomb of Pope Julius II), 1513-15, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. Courtesy: San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome and Getty Images

‘No piece of statuary has ever made a stronger impression on me than this,’ wrote Sigmund Freud of Michelangelo’s monumental statue of Moses from 1513–15, which dominates the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. The sculpture, which adorns the tomb of Pope Julius II, was the subject of an essay that Freud published anonymously in the art-history journal Imago in 1914. As he sat alone regarding it, in the murky dark of the silent church, the psychoanalyst became, he wrote, almost afraid: ‘How often have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero’s glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned.’ Stone might, it seemed, turn flesh. 

Freud’s Moses was paternal and godlike and frightening. When I encountered the statue, I thought it was erotic, at least by proxy. Half a lifetime ago, I also came to this church. It was my first time in Rome and I turned 21 the day I arrived. One day, a friend and I visited San Pietro in Vincoli. As I remember it, the church was empty but for us. We stood by the rail that ran around the sculptural group and spent a long time looking at Moses. For my friend, the prophet was handsome and powerful: he lavished attention on the statue’s well-developed shoulders, the strong arms with well-defined muscles, their veins and sinews. His Moses was perhaps bound up with a new sense of sexual freedom and masculinity. I looked at the sculpture with his eyes and tried to understand.

When I returned after the passage of 22 years, the church was no longer deserted, nor was the square outside: a busker played tangos on the accordion and the motor of a refreshment stand hummed. Within, a crowd flocked around the tomb. The ‘half-gloom’ that Freud described was banished: a sign, handwritten in charmingly curlicued letters, informed visitors that per illuminare Mosè – to light up Moses – one could insert a €1 coin. It was not possible, as it had been on my first trip, to approach the sculpture at close quarters. A red rope stopped visitors about two metres short of the tomb. It would sink into shadow every so often, between coins. My head was full of memories of the first encounter with the statue, but I felt both a great distance from it and a great longing: I could see, for example, that the prophet’s great left knee and right forearm shone more brightly than the rest of his figure, meaning that, for some of the sculpture’s life, visitors had touched and caressed those splendid limbs, which I would never be able to do. After a while, having photographed Moses on my smartphone like everyone else, I went to the back room of the church and bought four postcards. Together, they formed a kind of procession, each image taken from a closer viewpoint than the last: the first showed the tomb as a whole; the fourth bore a detail of the prophet’s head and shoulders. In buying the postcards, I understood that I was indulg­ing a nostalgic feeling: after all, you can search Google image for Moses and find him at every angle, rank upon rank of him, to be scrutinized and consumed at will.

Standing near the doorway of the church, I pulled that last postcard out of its paper bag and looked at it. I realized that it was only by studying the image that I could remark, for example, the small fold of skin at the base of Moses’s right little finger, the veins on the backs of his hands, the creases on his knuckles and even the large veins coursing through his forearms. From behind the red-rope barrier, all these things were invisible to me, even the sinews that had so attracted my friend 22 years before. Then I understood that the procession of postcards was not leading me towards the sculpture, but away from it. It was receding. I was unable to light up Moses.

Charlotte Higgins is the chief culture writer of the Guardian. Her next book, for Jonathan Cape, will be about labyrinths.

Issue 5

First published in Issue 5

October 2016

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