The story goes that once upon a time, during the Italian Renaissance, there was an artist who cut himself a jacket out of the skin of a corpse.
Now, who would that be? Caravaggio? Pollaiuolo?
Swiss art historian and essayist Jacob Burckhardt tells the story in his classic, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860. This book is a compelling read full of heft about the lasting significance of the Renaissance on Western modernity, and it is also a volume with no small amount of exquisite page-turning Renaissance trivia.
Unfortunately, Burckhardt does not identify the artist. He mentions the account only in passing in a section on the practice of magic during the Renaissance. Scientific observation was rapidly overtaking magical thinking, even among artists. Although, he says, “One of them, in his anatomical studies, may have cut himself a jacket out of the skin of a corpse, but at the advice of his confessor he put it again into the grave.”
Oh, Jacob, how could you just let it go at that?
Imagine the mind of this man in the throes of his anatomical studies contemplating what it would be like to wear the skin of a dead man. Did he expect any special powers? It’s impossible not playfully imagine the narrative possibilities if one has ever developed any of the instincts of a writer or storyteller. Did the jacket have brass buttons, a silk lining, pockets? Did he wear it walking the night where he crossed the Arno’s dark waters over the unluckiest of bridges, the Ponte Vecchio. If not that, did he stroll about in the Piazza della Signoria in broad daylight for all to see and whisper about the peculiarities of artists and their dark Faustian ways?
From what little Burckhardt shares with us, we know something frightful must have happened to this artist. It always does in such stories. A man is drawn by some dark impulse, his fortunes turn for the worse, fears for his soul and regrets dabbling in the dark matter of human existence. In this cautionary tale, the artist gets religion and enters the confessional booth to disclose to a priest the wicked thing he has done.