Genius at Work

Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times by William E. Wallace

Art Books History

To write a biography of Michelangelo is a daunting task. He was a titan whose life spanned almost nine decades at the centre of European politics, an artist who gave the world its archetypes of Biblical figures such as Adam and David, a man equally adept in the three arts of sculpture, painting and architecture and a writer who created some of the most beautiful Italian poetry since Dante. Long before his death in 1564, Michelangelo achieved mythic status as a godlike figure.

Broadly speaking, Michelangelo’s life is familiar enough: his early success in carving the colossal statue of David for his native city of Florence led to a summons by Pope Julius II to create an equally colossal tomb which would have kept a dozen sculptors hard at work for a lifetime. The impulse that made Michelangelo drop other commitments to serve the Pope illustrates an unattractive tendency to pursue the main chance and elbow out competition. In the end, Michelangelo paid bitterly for his eagerness; Julius dropped the project in favour of the challenge of frescoing the ceiling of the papal chapel, a backbreaking feat for someone such as Michelangelo, with limited experience as a painter.

Of course, the Sistine ceiling succeeded beyond even Michelangelo’s dreams and may well represent the high water mark of his reputation in terms of popular opinion. But it set in motion a pattern for much of Michelangelo’s career: a series of demanding projects for successive popes, some of which were finished while others languished incomplete, a source of shame and embarrassment. Of the latter, none was worse than Julius’s unfinished tomb, which kept recurring like a nightmare for almost 40 years. Defending himself against charges of financial impropriety in this matter became a burning issue for Michelangelo as he sought to justify his behaviour against the insinuations of powerful enemies, who claimed that he pocketed enormous sums with little to show for it. Moreover, Michelangelo secretly gave two of the sculptures from the tomb to a close friend, Roberto Strozzi, who then passed them on to the king of France.

It was Michelangelo’s longevity that helped him prevail, for he outlived his scandal-mongering foes. He spent his last two decades as architect of St Peter’s Basilica, creating a structural masterpiece by fashioning a dome to cap the huge dimensions of its crossing piers. Both the scale and novelty of Michelangelo’s architecture posed challenges for later architects, as well as setting them free to experiment with the classical tradition. By the same token, unfinished works — like the so-called Slaves or Captives that were intended for the tomb of Julius II — were considered bizarre in Michelangelo’s day only to be regarded as precursors of modern sculpture by late 19th-century artists such as Rodin.

The Punishment of Tityus, (c1953), one of the many erotic drawings that Michelangelo dedicated to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri

Any potential biographer of Michelangelo must have the skills of a general historian, an art historian, a literary critic and a theologian, not to mention a mastery of the volume of written material by and about his or her subject. Few could be better prepared than William Wallace, who has spent a lifetime studying and writing about all aspects of Michelangelo’s life and career. His Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times encompasses this great range. With only ten colour illustrations, the narrative is predominantly weighted towards the life as illuminated by Michelangelo’s correspondence and other documents. Wallace is especially good on the culture in which Michelangelo moved and the way he refashioned his career to enhance his social status. He takes a sensible view on issues such as the homoerotic element in the artist’s life and art, arguing persuasively that his cult of the male body and fervid relationships with younger men were part of a homo-social culture in which such conduct was not considered abnormal. Michelangelo told one of his biographers that sexual abstinence was responsible for his longevity.His relationship with the young and beautiful Tommaso de’ Cavalieri may have been platonic, as was his devotion to the austerely religious poet Vittoria Colonna.

Wallace excels in highlighting lesser-known aspects of Michelangelo’s life, such as his months in the quarries of Carrara where he supervised the dangerous excavation of marble. Also compelling is his account of one week during which Michelangelo directed 100 men working on the Medici church of San Lorenzo in Florence. His engagement on the façade of this church and, latterly, a mausoleum for the Medici dynasty belies the conventional image of the solitary, antisocial artist of Romantic lore: Michelangelo supervised accounts, provided food and equipment, negotiated with bargemen and made a quick trip to the quarries — all in the space of seven days while still maintaining a steady flow of designs and working intermittently on sculpture.

Wallace’s book conveys a well-rounded picture of Michelangelo the man, but it does assume great familiarity with the artist’s creations-or at least access to images in other books. For centuries, art history was essentially a literary exercise in conjuring up images through words. When Herman Grimm or John Addington Symonds published their pioneering lives of Michelangelo in the 19th century, books had few or no illustrations. As a consequence, much space was devoted to the evocation in words of works of art, which was not only necessary but also helpful in guiding others to appreciate the fruits of long acquaintance with an artist’s work. Since then, book illustrations have proliferated to such an extent that our attitude towards description has changed, making it seem otiose. 

The decision to scale back illustrations here may reflect our modern saturation with images, but it is not always compensated for by adequate treatment of Michelangelo’s art, which is the primary reason we want to read about him. Although Wallace’s account is crisp and condensed, one sometimes wishes for the descriptive amplitude of a John Addington Symonds.