Michelangelo is one of those figures who occupy so central a place in Western culture as to almost cease to seem real; like Shakespeare or Beethoven, he is less a human being than the incarnation of our values and aspirations. And if the word incarnation summons up the image of Jesus Christ, that is only appropriate, since Michelangelo spent his entire working life illustrating the Christian mythos. His most famous works, from the Pietà, completed when he was just twenty-five, to the Last Judgment, which he finished at age sixty-seven, revolve around the mystery of God in human form. Indeed, the most iconic image Michelangelo produced — it may be the most iconic imagine in all of European art — is the burly, floating God who stretches out his finger to create Adam, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Yet as Miles J. Unger shows in Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, his accessible and compelling new book about the artist, Michelangelo’s relationship to Christianity was anything but conventional. Born in Florence in 1474, he died just before his eighty-ninth birthday, long enough to see the High Renaissance and then the Lutheran Reformation work deep transformations in the Christian imagination. Employed mainly by a series of popes — the wealthiest and most aesthetically advanced patrons of art in Renaissance Italy — Michelangelo participated in and helped to shape the strange fusion of the profane and the spiritual that defined the Catholic Church in his era. It is no coincidence that the artist’s most important patron, Pope Julius II — who commissioned Michelangelo to create the Sistine ceiling, as well as his own magnificent tomb — took his name not from any Christian saint but from Julius Caesar. This was a pope for an era whose religious impulses took the most concrete and worldly forms.
Unger excels at showing just how Michelangelo embodied these tensions in his work. Take the Pietà.
When Michelangelo took up the subject, however, his goal was not to create a usable cult object but a noble and self-sufficient work of art. “Fame, not piety, was his primary motivation,” Unger writes, “and he would measure the success of the sculpture by how effectively it reminded viewers of his unique genius.” In short, “he was creating, first and foremost, a work of art.” And Unger argues that this devotion to art as art — a unique realm of meaning, religious in content but humanist in spirit and form — was the distinctively Renaissance contribution that Michelangelo made to Western culture. Medieval Pietàs were made anonymously, but Michelangelo, in a gesture of breathtaking confidence (or egotism), signed his sculpture directly on the strap that encircles the bosom of the Virgin Mary.
His friend Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Painters helped to propagate the Michelangelo myth, wrote that the artist added this signature after overhearing some tourists mistakenly ascribe the sculpture to someone else. But Unger believes that this is a fiction: “clearly, this was not an afterthought but rather something Michelangelo had planned from the moment he began to work with mallet and chisel. The fact that Vasari felt compelled to concoct this improbable story is a sign of how uncomfortable Michelangelo’s champions were with this intrusion of artistic ego into a sacred tableau.”
Michelangelo was one of the first artists to insist on the priority of his own genius, to demand to be treated not just as an artisan but as an aristocrat of the spirit. In Unger’s words, his “long, illustrious career marks the point at which the artist definitively transcends his humble origins in the laboring class and takes his place alongside scholars and princes of the Church as an intellectual and spiritual leader.” Indeed, Michelangelo regularly set conditions and issued demands to popes and dukes, who readily met them: they recognized that only an artist of genius could grant them the fame, the immortality in stone and paint, that they wanted. In particular, the artist was adept at playing off the demands of the Medicis, who ruled Florence against the popes, who governed Rome; the two cities engaged in a competition for his services, making him a wealthy man.
To some extent, this pride was Michelangelo’s family inheritance. The Buonarrotis were a decayed but aristocratic Florentine family, most of whose members were too proud of their nobility to exert themselves toward making a living. Michelangelo shared this pride — “I was never a painter or a sculptor like one who keeps a shop,” he said — but his life’s goal was to redeem the family’s status, and finances, through his own efforts. One of the running themes of Unger’s book is the artist’s squabbles with his father and brothers, all of whom lived off their famous relative but showed him little gratitude.
Michelangelo’s personal life, however, is not Unger’s primary interest, and anyone who turns to Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces for details of, say, his sexuality or his day-to-day activities will go away disappointed. Unger’s real focus is on how the political and ideological climate of Michelangelo’s day affected his art, and here he is authoritative and highly illuminating. The years around 1500 were Italy’s most glorious, aesthetically speaking; Leonardo da Vinci was Michelangelo’s older contemporary and Raphael his younger rival. But geopolitically it was a time of constant warfare, as the Holy Roman Empire and the French monarchy jockeyed for position among the Italian city-states. The very popes who built St. Peter’s Basilica also helped to provoke the Reformation, when they paid for their project by mulcting the faithful through the sale of indulgences.
Michelangelo was buffeted by the rough winds of Florentine politics — his David was, among other things, an icon of the city’s republican government, soon to be replaced by Medici rule. And in the tumult and terror of his Last Judgment, Unger sees the influence of the sack of Rome, which devastated the city in 1527, as well as the ideological confusion of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The chaotic disposition of naked bodies in this fresco, so different from the orderly tableaux of earlier treatments of the theme, seems to Unger to register “the disruptive religious upheaval” of the time. Tellingly, conservative critics objected to the plethora of nudity in the picture, a sign of the increasing polarization of the once tolerant and worldly Church.
Disruption, strain, and struggle are, Unger shows, the constant subjects of Michelangelo’s work, in every genre. The restrained power of his Moses, the torqued figures of his sculptures for the Medici tomb, the muscular stretching and turning of the Biblical characters on the Sistine ceiling, even the idiosyncratic use of columns and domes in his architectural projects — for Unger, all of these are signs of Michelangelo’s striving, Promethean spirit. Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces offers an excellent introduction to his sensibility, which, more than the details of his life, is why he continues to dominate our imagination of the artist.