Missed Connections: A Novel Imagines Michelangelo in Istanbul

Vebjørn Sand: da Vinci Bridge, 2001, laminated wood and steel; in Ås, Norway. Courtesy Galleri Sand.

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In 1502, Leonardo da Vinci submitted a detailed sketch to Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire, proposing a single-span footbridge over the Golden Horn, formed of a pressed bow and two parabolic arches. Deemed technologically unfeasible by the Sultan’s engineers, Leonardo’s concept was resurrected in 2001 by the Norwegian artist Vebjørn Sand, who built the bridge over a highway on the outskirts of Oslo. Sand had visions of replicating the bridge around the world, but didn’t get further than producing a few versions in ice. At the turn of the millennium, less than a decade since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Maastricht Treaty, global boosterism still reigned, and it must have been hard not to think of the bridge as a triumphalist symbol. A writer for the Wall Street Journal described it as a “logo for all the nations,” a one-size-fits-all bridge for the world’s myriad divisions.

In Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (New Directions, 2018), the French novelist and Middle East scholar Mathias Énard challenges the narrative of an inevitable, almost fatalistic march toward globalization, through a counterfactual history. After rejecting the design, Bayezid tried to commission Leonardo’s younger rival, Michelangelo, who had recently finished his statue of David in Florence. Michelangelo refused, but the prospect of his journey to Istanbul becomes the starting point for this slim, beguiling volume, a passionate call for a cosmopolitan globalism that would engage with local differences rather than relying on ubiquity and uniformity.

Énard, who speaks Persian and Arabic, has lived in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. For more than a decade he has pursued a dizzyingly ambitious project to demonstrate the inseparability of East and West. In the novel Zone (2008), a 517-page stream-of-consciousness excavation of war crimes around the Mediterranean, a veteran of the Yugoslav Wars meditates on how hatred and fear of the “other” inevitably spills over into violence. Compass (2015), the Prix Goncourt–winning novel that propelled Énard to international fame, inhabits the mind of an Austrian musicologist over a sleepless night, as he ruminates on various artists, “orientalists,” archaeologists, and spies who melded their identities with what originally appeared alien. “We had to find . . . beyond the stupid repentance of some or the colonial nostalgia of others, a new vision that includes the other in the self,” says one character. “On both sides.” Like Tell Them of Battles, these books are beautifully translated by Charlotte Mandell.

In Zone and Compass, a fictional narrator ventures into history. Tell Them of Battles inverts that process, using historical events as the basis of a fictional narrative. Énard studied Michelangelo’s diaries, letters, and other historical records, and his blending of these fragments produces delightful encounters. The Ottoman poet Mesihi of Prishtina appears as a Virgilian guide leading Michelangelo through Istanbul’s back alleys and drinking parlors. Michelangelo becomes enamored with an androgynous Andalusian singer, who provides a nested, Scheherazade-like vehicle for the novel’s fragmentary chapters, and shares the narration with Énard’s third-person voice.

Michelangelo, however, is an unlikely choice for anyone’s idea of a cosmopolitan. The Renaissance sculptor never travelled to Istanbul. Especially when compared with Leonardo, who was handsome, urbane, and more fully “out” than his contemporary, the historical “Il Divino” can come across as a bible-thumping, closeted reactionary. “There was great ill-feeling” between the two, writes Vasari in The Lives of the Artists, “on which account Michael Angelo left Florence.” (According to one anonymous account, Michelangelo enraged Leonardo by mocking his inability to complete a gargantuan, equestrian bronze; Leonardo responded by persuading the city of Florence to cover David’s genitals). Many biographers, curators, and auctioneers have built a cult of genius around Leonardo, and it is this figure, renowned more for his scientific inventions than his artworks, who seems to anticipate the globalized world of the twentieth century, whereas Michelangelo dead-ends in the insular, Western self-consciousness of Mannerism.

Unlike Leonardo, however, Michelangelo did consider decamping for the Ottoman Empire in 1506. (In a contemporaneous biography, one of several historical sources cited in the novel, Ascanio Condivi recounts how Michelangelo received the Sultan’s invitation at the height of his feud with Pope Julius II.) In Énard’s retelling, Michelangelo’s intransigence becomes an asset if given the right context; when Michelangelo begins to “overcome his fear and distaste for Muslim things,” he embarks on a path that ends in his adorning the Sistine Chapel with Turkish figures. Énard finds particular meaning in Michelangelo’s use of marble, a substance “soft in hardness,” difficult to craft but durable when finished. In contrast, Leonardo—“that oaf who scorns sculpture,” as Énard’s Michelangelo says—has a fluidity that lets him “sell himself to any purse, to help any army at war, with ideas from another time on Art and the nature of things.” Through the two Renaissance masters, Énard sketches out two modes of living with difference: one a way to confront, understand, and ultimately reconcile ourselves with our conception of the foreign, the other a way merely to inhabit interchangeable positions.

The artists’ bridge designs inscribe their personal characteristics in an aesthetic confrontation. On entering his workshop in Istanbul for the first time, Michelangelo is so affected by the mock-ups that Turkish engineers made of Leonardo’s design that he immediately destroys them. “Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is devoid of interest because he is thinking neither of the Sultan, nor of the city, nor of the fortress,” Énard writes. “Instinctively, Michelangelo knows he will go much further, that he will succeed, because he has seen Constantinople, because he has understood that the work demanded of him is not a vertiginous footbridge, but the cement of a city, of the city of emperors and sultans.”

Against Leonardo’s technological daring, Michelangelo is portrayed as an urban planner keyed to the organic life of the city and dismissive of any attempts to engineer public spaces according to abstract principles. When Michelangelo finally builds his bridge—a stone construction with piers, buttresses, and four seamless arches—it resembles “two hands placed majestically on the waters, two slender fingers that touch each other”: an echo of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but also a symbolic meeting of two shores. The bridge is a natural extension of Istanbul to its outer districts, where the Ottoman Empire has recently settled the many Muslim and Jewish refugees from newly reconquered Christian Andalusia.

Michelangelo’s bridge collapses while still under construction, in the earthquake of 1509. It is difficult to imagine its fictional design being resurrected and transplanted in a project like Sand’s, which took a  proposal for a transcultural pathway and turned it into a footbridge connecting one swath of Norwegian soil with another. Both Leonardo and Sand, with their interest in the bridge’s form independent of its context, believed in connectivity as an end in itself.

In a recent interview with Granta magazine, Énard gave what might be his most explicit political statement to date. Speaking of the independence movement in Catalonia, where he has lived for fifteen years, Énard recasts a seemingly paradoxical push for a smaller nation within a supranational entity as a plea for localism within globalism. “You want to act very locally, but think globally. To link small regions to other small regions,” Énard said. “Maybe we could just think about having a huge European Union with small entities inside it.” If all you have is a bridge, then everything begins to look like a chasm; the incessant drive to overcome all differences has, unsurprisingly, created more division. Énard’s radical suggestion has been, instead, to think about who is being connected to whom, and what is being bypassed along the way.