Book Review: Michelangelo
by Michael Hirst
Yale University Press, 2012
Renowned Michelangelo scholar Michael Hirst has embarked on an ambitious two-volume biography of the artist that’s clearly on schedule to become the 21st century’s definitive work on the Italian Renaissance’s greatest artist. Michelangelo was born in 1475 and lived an incredibly long life; even when he left his beloved Florence forever in 1534 (the point at which Hirst’s first volume stops), at age fifty-nine, he still had three decades of vigorous creativity in front of him.
That long and vigorous life fairly bristles with documentation – letters, doodles, receipts, contracts, the agitated testimonies of many contemporaries – so it’s naturally attracted biographers aplenty over the centuries: there’s quite a bit for Hirst to draw on, and quite a bit to measure him against. He acquits himself magnificently throughout this first volume (well-made by Yale, including a full suite of gorgeously reproduced pictures of the artwork), patiently and engagingly going through every stage of his subject’s formation, early frustration, and enormous fame, and doing it all without a hint of the romantic hysteria that so often afflicts Michelangelo’s biographers, especially the hysteria-prone Victorians. In John Addington Symonds’ fantastic 1893 work, for example, we get many breathless passages like this:
He lives for ever as the type and symbol of a man, much-suffering, continually laboring, gifted with keen but rarely indulged passions, whose energies from boyhood to extreme old age were dedicated with unswerving purpose to the service of one master, plastic art … we cannot cite another hero of the modern world who more fully and with greater intensity realised the main end of human life, which is self-effectuation, self-realisation, self-manifestation in one of the many lines of labour to which men may be called and chosen. Had we more of such individualities, the symphony of civilisation would be infinitely glorious.
There’s no such opera in Hirst’s book. Instead, Michelangelo’s genius is presumed to need little extolling, and instead Michelangelo the man – warts and all – is brought forward, a ‘much-suffering’ man who could nevertheless be shrewd, far-sighted, and actively duplicitous in his dealings with patrons (on this last score Hirst gently chides Symonds and other effusive biographers for falling into the trap laid for them by the two fairly adulatory Michelangelo books written during the artist’s own lifetime). The end result is a very different composite than Carlyle’s hero-worship; it’s far more typical of the 20th Century’s disabused and unsentimental artist-biographies. It’s oddly illuminating: every detail of money-scrimping or hypochondria or back-biting (also, the artist had a father you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy) serves somehow to offset the glories of the artwork all the more.
Most of those glories – the signature pieces everybody knows – get created during the time-span covered by this first volume, and even in the story of those creations, Hirst is an unfailingly clear-eyed guide, brushing away the accumulated legends and consulting an enormous array of primary sources in order to give us a glimpse of what really happened, as when the Florentine authorities decided where and when to install Michelangelo’s famous David upon its completion. The monstrous Gigante‘s procession to its original home wasn’t quite the triumphal procession many biographies (and at least one TV mini-series) have characterized it:
Nevertheless, events surrounding the moving of the statue had progressed extremely slowly. The silence would be effectively broken on 1 April, when the cathedral consuls and operai directed Cronaca and Michelangelo to transport the statute to the Piazza della Signoria. But serious delays would follow, and the government was compelled to intervene. The diarist Landucci reported that the statute reached the piazza on 18 May, but only on 28 May did the Signoria that had assumed office on 1 May decree that the statute should replace the Judith before the palace. Nothing could be further from the courtly decision-making projected decades later by Vasari. The journey of the statue to the piazza, if we may believe Landcucci, took four days, and it suffered stoning on its journey.
As to the hastily-added garlands covering up young David’s other stones, Hirst has a practical explanation that doesn’t have anything to do with the fulminations of Savonarola: “The overt display of David’s genitals may have proved too much for [Florentine gonfaloniere Piero Soderini's wife] Argentina Soderini and her retinue to accept.” In this as in so many other matters big and small, he’s almost certainly right.
The period following the events of this book – Michelangelo’s self-imposed Roman exile – isn’t quite as dramatic either artistically or politically as the events this volume covers, but the grace, good judgement, and fine writing of The Achievement of Fame banish all doubt that the next volume will feel like an anticlimax. Just the opposite: anybody who flies through this first book will turn the last page wanting nothing more than for the story to continue right away. We live in an age that will see the death of multi-volume biographies, so it’s all the more cause for satisfaction that this one got in under the wire.