It was only a matter of time before Michelle Obama’s guns were back in the news.
This month, Women’s Health magazine features an article titled “The First Lady’s Fitness Secrets.” The story reveals that Michelle Obama’s trainer has put her through an “intense weight- training routine made up of compound movements that work multiple muscle groups” and that the first lady has built herself up over the course of 1,872 workouts. (And often at 5:30am! OMG! No way!) Yesterday NBC’s Today show piled on, inviting the magazine’s editors onto the program to talk about the First Lady’s amazing arms.
When did a woman’s nicely superbly-built arms become such a major topic of discussion, a national focus, an object of covetous, even lusty admiration? Oh, starting in about 1503, in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, wherein the artist made a Madonna into the Michelle Obama of her day. (History does not record whether Michelangelo was invited onto the Programma Oggi.)
Here’s the story: In her thrilling 2002 book “Renaissance Rivals,” art historian Rona Goffen points out that Michelangelo often used men as models for his Madonnas. We know this because one of Michelangelo’s preparatory drawing for the Bruges Madonna shows the Virgin as a fantastically well-cut man, later well-disguised. (The drawing is in the collection of the British Museum. I couldn’t find it online.)
Enter the Doni Tondo (at right), Michelangelo’s only surviving, completed panel painting. Goffen notes that the sculpted Madonna in Doni Tondo is in direct opposition to the soft, rounded, dewily feminine Madonnas that Leonardo was making. Goffen and other art historians believe that Michelangelo saw Leonardo’s Madonnas and was reacting to or against them.
There is nothing traditionally, gently womanly about Michelangelo’s Madonna in the Doni Tondo. To put it in the lingua franca of our day, the Michelangelo Madonna’s got guns and she’s showing them off. In the detail image (below) you can see that Mary is holding baby Jesus in a way that exhibits her right bicep while the position of her left arm shows off a taut tricep and a bangin’ deltoid. While Leonardo covers his Madonnas’ arms with folds of fabric, Michelangelo’s Mary features a rolled-up sleeve-of-sorts.
The composition of the Doni Tondo creates invisible lines that seem to end right at Mary’s triceps and deltoid: The fence on which all those naked folks in the background are sitting runs directly behind Mary’s left arm. Mary’s arm is directly below Joseph’s left eye, a line which establishes the central axis of the panel. Mary’s left elbow is the apex of an assertively composed triangle that has its other two points at Mary’s left knee and her right hip. The painting is designed to impress you with Mary’s build. Mission accomplished.
Of course there’s a difference between 1503 and 2009. Michelangelo masculinizes his Madonna to bring her closer to a 16thC male ideal of athletic manliness. (Goffen calls Michelangelo’s Mary “virile,” which is perfect.)
“Believing (with most of his contemporaries) that the male was superior to the female,” Goffen writes, “Michelangelo intended to honor Mary by making her male… In images, the Renaissance norm remained the feminine ideal embodied by such Madonnas as Leonardo’s. But Michelangelo abandoned this tradition, masculinizing Mary in part to exempt her from his own society’s oppression of women and to shield her from dangerous and inappropriate female sexuality.”
Compare that to today: None of the discussion about Michelle Obama’s guns is about her build personifying an idealized male body, but is instead about her having an idealized female body. While Michelangelo’s Mary is a woman masculinized to separate her from the way women were viewed in the 16thC, Michelle Obama’s presentation of herself explicitly associates her muscular womanhood with modernity.
Finally, the sexualization of Michelle Obama’s buffness — and make no mistake, it is sexualization — is about about our acceptance of her presentation of what we now consider an idealized female build. Five hundred years ago Michelangelo needed to use a man to create an exalted female form. Michelle Obama doesn’t.