Continuing his explorations of the meeting of East and West, French novelist Énard (Compass, 2017) imagines a lost episode in the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti.
History tells us that the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid, having rejected a design by Leonardo da Vinci to join Europe to Asia by a bridge over the Golden Horn, approached Michelangelo with the same project. History adds that Michelangelo said no. But what if the answer, Énard posits, had been yes, as newly discovered documents suggest? Michelangelo, after all, had been having endless troubles getting paid by Julius II, “the warlike, authoritarian pope who has treated him so poorly.” The temptation to slip across the border of the Papal States into Florence and thence to Venice and Constantinople would have been great, especially because the sultan knew just how to appeal to him by contrasting him to Leonardo: “You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal….” That, and he’d quintuple his salary. Intrigue immediately ensues, for there are spies—of the pope, of Venice, of the sultan—everywhere, and where there are spies, there are lures and temptations. And then there’s Mesihi, the Kosovar Muslim who guides Michelangelo between two worlds and becomes more than a Virgil in the bargain, first taking Michelangelo to the former cathedral and now mosque of the Hagia Sophia, now devoted, as Michelangelo thinks, to “the one Dante sends to the fifth circle of Hell.” In his way, Mesihi is as great an artist as the master, a man who “loved men and women, women and men, sang the praises of his patron and the delights of spring, both sweet and full of despair at the same time.” Naturally, cultures and personalities come into collision, and all does not end well for Michelangelo, “afraid of love just as he’s afraid of Hell,” or, for that matter, for anyone in Michelangelo’s orbit.
An elegant meditation on what might have been.