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Book Review: Michelangelo – A Life in Six Masterpieces

By (July 20, 2014) No Comment

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpiecesmichelangelo cover

By Miles J. Unger

Simon & Schuster, 2014


The great Renaissance artist known as Michelangelo lived to be almost 90 and created new works for almost the whole of that time. So it’s not just longevity but longevity of productivity that has made him an irresistible target for biographers from his own day to this. Hugely talented Renaissance historian Miles Unger (author of, among other things, 2008’s wonderful Lorenzo de’ Medici, Magnifico) takes up the subject in a typically inventive way, mapping the man’s long life onto six signature works of art: the Pieta, the great David, the Creation panels from the Sistine Chapel, the Medici tomb sculptures, the Last Judgment frescos, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

This approach, reading the life and nature of the artist through his artworks, is something Michelangelo himself made thinkable, according to Unger:

Before Michelangelo, it was possible to tell the story of art without reference to the artist. The artist was a man possessed of expertise, and his biography might throw an interesting light on his creations, elucidating the evolution of his style or the meaning of certain passages, but his works stood largely on their own. Michelangelo’s art refuses such anonymity. His paintings and sculptures can be forceful, strident, even belligerent; they are sometimes arrogantly confident and sometimes convulsed by agonized self-doubt; they can thunder across vast public spaces or communicate in a confessional whisper; in all cases they demand to be heard.

Unger traces the familiar outline of Michelangelo’s life, the turbulent relationship with his father, the equally-turbulent relationship with his various powerful patrons, and his interminable quarrels with basically everybody he ever came in contact with, from workmen to prelates to Leonardo da Vinci. Unger is a brisk narrator of all this, and although he’s a strikingly sensitive appreciator of the man’s artwork, he remains sternly evaluative when it comes to the man himself; “Michelangelo was never one to stand on principle,” he writes at one point, “if a principled stance would compromise his physical safety or interfere with his art.”

Michelangelo’s artwork is Unger’s main focus; he tends to take a conservative, non-combative stance on all the controversies in his subject’s life, including the most controversial of all, Michelangelo’s sexuality and all those explosively homoerotic letters and poems that the artist’s admirers tried so hard to airbrush out of the paper trail. “Attachments could be intense without being erotic,” Unger calmingly assures us, “and it was not regarded as improper to express affection in the most effusive terms.”

Whether or not readers buy that line, they’ll appreciate how conscientiously Unger keeps in mind the gaps in what we know about his subject – and the gaps in that lifelong productivity. Michelangelo notoriously almost never turned down a commission, greedily taking on far more work than he could do even if he hadn’t managed to alienate almost all the assistants he ever had. As Unger movingly points out, this led to an entire shadow-corpus of uncompleted work:

More than any other artist in history Michelangelo left behind an impressive body of half-completed works, many of which are masterpieces in their own right. In fact, a list of his unfinished works would be far longer than a list of paintings and sculptures fully executed. But even works like the New Sacristy or the captives meant for [Pope] Julius’s tomb – fragments of a larger whole that by no stretch of the imagination can be said to reflect Michelangelo’s initial conception – remain compelling, not despite their half-realized state but largely because of it.

But as his book’s sub-title indicates, Unger’s main focus is on his six emblematic works of art, and it’s in these discussions that Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces rises to its greatest strengths of insight and rhetorical power. Unger has read extensively on each of the six creations in his focus, but more importantly, he’s also stepped back and looked at them, and that fresh outlook makes his book very lively reading:

In these last few frames Michelangelo carries us on such a fast-paced, vertiginous journey that by the time we reach the panel God Separating the Light from the Dark our heads are spinning. The cyclonic energy generated by that creative act radiates outward I concentric circles, causing everyone and everything to sway like wind-lashed treetops in the wake of an approaching storm. Even the massive prophets and sibyls who occupy this torrid zone cannot resist the propulsive forces unleashed by Creation.

In fact, the “six masterpieces” perspective, although useful in providing a framework, only minorly commands the narrative. Unger has really constructed a full-dress life of Michelangelo, one that doesn’t hesitate to extend even into areas not technically “covered” by the six masterpieces. The resulting book may not be as scholarly or comprehensive as, for instance, the recent volume by Michael Hirst, but it’s enormously intelligent and engaging contribution to the shelf and a perfect introduction to this most towering and problematic of all artists.