Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpiecesby Miles J. Unger
The life of one of the most revolutionary artists in history, told through the story of six of his greatest masterpieces.
Among the immortals—Leonardo, Rembrandt, Picasso—Michelangelo stands alone as a master of painting, sculpture, and architecture. He was not only the greatest artist in an age of giants, but a man who reinvented the practice of art
The life of one of the most revolutionary artists in history, told through the story of six of his greatest masterpieces.
Among the immortals—Leonardo, Rembrandt, Picasso—Michelangelo stands alone as a master of painting, sculpture, and architecture. He was not only the greatest artist in an age of giants, but a man who reinvented the practice of art itself. Throughout his long career he clashed with patrons by insisting that he had no master but his own demanding muse and promoting the novel idea that it was the artist, rather than the lord who paid for it, who was creative force behind the work.
Miles Unger narrates the astonishing life of this driven and difficult man through six of his greatest masterpieces. Each work expanded the expressive range of the medium, from the Pietà Michelangelo carved as a brash young man, to the apocalyptic Last Judgment, the work of an old man tested by personal trials. Throughout the course of his career he explored the full range of human possibility. In the gargantuan David he depicts Man in the glory of his youth, while in the tombs he carved for the Medici he offers a sustained meditation on death and the afterlife. In the Sistine Chapel ceiling he tells the epic story of Creation, from the perfection of God’s initial procreative act to the corruption introduced by His imperfect children. In the final decades of his life, his hands too unsteady to wield the brush and chisel, he exercised his mind by raising the soaring vaults and dome of St. Peter’s in a final tribute to his God.
A work of deep artistic understanding, Miles Unger’s Michelangelo brings to life the irascible, egotistical, and undeniably brilliant man whose artistry continues to amaze and inspire us after 500 years.
This fine combination of biography, artistic development, and social and political history by art historian and journalist Unger (Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici; Machiavelli: A Biography) focuses on six major works of Michelangelo's career—the Pieta, David, The Creation, the Medici tombs, The Last Judgement, and the basilica of Saint Peter's—to follow the artist's burgeoning talent and fame, along with his notoriety and impulsivity. The author asserts that Michelangelo's art, sculpture, paintings, and poetry transformed the role that the artist plays in the creative act; he then places this idea into social and political settings of the time: the struggle for supremacy between Florence and Rome, which deeply involved Michelangelo in his various commissions and often led to the production of some works at the expense of others. By examining the artist's progress, readers get a refreshed view of the performance of invention as well as one of Michelangelo himself. With great perception, Unger creates a portrait of a magnificent craftsman and an often troubled human being. VERDICT This splendid combination of scholarship and insight is written in a graceful style that captivates the reader from the first sentence.—Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York
Art historian and journalist Unger (Machiavelli, 2011, etc.) organizes his life of Michelangelo by focusing on six masterpieces of varying media that compose the pillars of his creative life.Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti Simone (1475-1564) was a cantankerous genius whose works emerged not just from Italian marble, but from the even more adamantine stone of the political realities of his time. The six works that Unger focuses on include Pietà, David, the Sistine ceiling, Medici Tombs, Last Judgment and St. Peter's Basilica. The author tells us about the idea, the creation (Michelangelo was notoriously secretive about his work and did not like others, especially his patrons, looking in and making suggestions), the political and interpersonal difficulties he faced, and the public receptions. This last varied widely: The Sistine ceiling brought cries of admiration; Last Judgment elicited cries of another sort—another painter disguised some nudity. Unger excels at showing us the artist at work: his reluctance, his caginess, his temperament (easily hurt and angered, he sometimes tried to run away) and his jealousies (da Vinci and Raphael among them). We marvel, too, at his mastery of so many different types of media. Unger describes his contentious relationships with members of his own family, especially his hectoring letters to his siblings. Readers will find it astonishing how many of Michelangelo's letters remain; he died in 1564, the year of the birth of Shakespeare, who left no letters (or other manuscript material). We also see Michelangelo's ferocious work habits and perfectionism and his ascetic lifestyle, which didn't really change until later in his life when his financial situation became more comfortable. Michelangelo outlived numerous popes (his relationships with them were significant), local rulers and families, and other notable artists.Unger's edged prose shows us a clear Michelangelo emerging from the stone of history.
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Read an Excerpt
Michael, more than mortal man, angel divine . . .
—Ariosto, Orlando Furioso
In the spring of 1548, Michelangelo Buonarroti dashed off a brief note to his nephew Lionardo in Florence. As was often the case with the seventy-three-year-old artist, he felt aggrieved. “Tell the priest not to write me any longer as ‘Michelangelo sculptor,’ ” he wrote in a huff, “because here [in Rome] I’m known only as Michelangelo Buonarroti, and if a Florentine citizen wants to have an altarpiece painted, he must find himself a painter. I was never a painter or a sculptor like one who keeps a shop. I haven’t done so in order to uphold the honor of my father and brothers. While it is true that I have served three popes, that was only because I was forced to.”
One reason for his annoyance was practical. As he suggests at the end of the letter where he enlists his nephew in a little deception—“ . . . as to what I’ve just written, don’t say anything to the priest because I wish him to think that I never received your letter”—there are other sculptors in Rome with similar names and any imprecision in the form of the address is likely to cause his mail to go astray. But the real explanation lies elsewhere. The priest has not only been careless: worse, he has misunderstood the nature of his calling. Michelangelo bristles at being mistaken for one of those daubers who hangs out a shingle advertising Madonnas and portraits to order and priced by the square foot. Nothing could be further from the truth, he tells Lionardo, as if he too needed to be reminded of the kind of man his uncle is. He is an artist, a visionary whose unique gift sets him apart from ordinary mortals.
In this petulant note—written in haste by an old man whose crankiness was exacerbated by a recent attack of kidney stones—we can sense the frustration that came from a lifetime spent battling those who viewed his profession with contempt. In the face of the skeptics and the scoffers, Michelangelo promoted a new conception of the artist, one in which the crass demands of commerce and the demeaning associations of manual labor have been sloughed off to reveal a creature as yet ill-defined but still thoroughly magnificent.
“I was never a painter or a sculptor like one who keeps a shop,” he insists. But if not, what kind of artist is he? Implicit in Michelangelo’s outburst is a radical claim: the painter or sculptor was no longer just a humble craftsman but a shaman or secular prophet, and the work of his hands was akin to holy writ.
Michelangelo’s letter to his nephew offers a telling insight into the artist’s state of mind, one that’s all the more valuable for being private and unrehearsed. Precisely because there’s so little at stake, and because the people involved were of no particular importance, we get the feeling we are peeking through the curtains and seeing the man as he really was when no one was looking, in his robe and slippers, his hair uncombed. The touchiness and fragile vanity Michelangelo displays are perhaps surprising, since by the time he wrote the letter he had already achieved a worldly success almost unparalleled for any artist in any age. “[W]hat greater and clearer sign can we ever have of the excellence of this man than the contention of the Princes of the world for him?” asked Ascanio Condivi, his friend and biographer. Courted by the greatest lords of Europe who begged for even a minor work from his hands, why bother to respond to a tactless Florentine nobody?
The truth is that the priest had touched him where he was most tender. Michelangelo’s peevish response is a farcical echo of those epic battles with popes and princes who were often just as blind to the nature of his achievement. In fact, Michelangelo’s entire life was a rebuke to those who thought the artist’s job was to supply pretty images to order for anyone with a few ducats in his pocket. Michelangelo insisted that the purpose of art, at least when practiced at the highest level, was to channel the most profound aspirations of the human spirit. These could not be summoned at will or purchased like melons in the market. By stubbornly, even pugnaciously, pursuing this ideal, Michelangelo transformed both the practice of art and our conception of the artist’s role in society.
Michelangelo’s 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. As Michelangelo’s fame spread, some of his patrons persisted in treating him as little more than a household servant—albeit of a particularly eccentric and disobedient sort—but many contemporaries acknowledged that he was a new kind of artist, indeed a new kind of man, a secular saint who was to be exalted but also feared. Even someone as powerful as Pope Leo X was daunted by the prospect of employing him, grumbling, “[H]e is terrible, as you see. It is impossible to work with him.” Leo’s cousin, Pope Clement VII, was more amused than outraged at his servant’s insubordination. “When Buonarroti comes to see me,” he said, laughing, “I always take a seat and bid him to be seated, feeling that he will do so without leave.”
Michelangelo’s determination to chart a new course embroiled him in endless quarrels as his claim of superiority clashed with his employers’ own considerable egos. While patrons tended to regard him and his colleagues as, at best, highly trained professionals tasked with carrying out their vision, Michelangelo insisted on an unprecedented degree of freedom to pursue his own vision, on his own terms. Cardinal Cervini (soon to be elected Pope Marcellus II), in charge of overseeing the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, was one of many who discovered how difficult it was to control the headstrong artist. When he asked Michelangelo to inform him of his plans, the artist snapped; “I am not obliged, nor do I intend to be obliged to say either to your highness or to any other person what I am bound or desirous to do.” Even when his relationship with a patron was one of mutual respect, Michelangelo chafed at any restrictions placed on his freedom. “If Your Holiness wishes me to accomplish anything,” he wrote to Pope Clement VII, “I beg you not to have authorities set over me in my own trade, but to have faith in me and give me a free hand. Your Holiness will see what I shall accomplish and the account I shall give of myself.”
Michelangelo’s greatest achievement was to fuse the artist and his work. He was the prototype of the temperamental genius, beholden to no one and responsible only to the dictates of his own inspiration. The term terribilità—the power to inspire awe and terror—was transferred by some subtle alchemy from the artist to his paintings and sculptures, and then back again, so that the man and his work became one. Michelangelo himself tended to blur the line between life and art. Asked why he never married, he responded, “I have too much of a wife, which is this art that has always given me tribulation, and my children will be the works that I shall leave.” In a sonnet, he took this analogy one step further, writing of his unforgiving muse:
This savage woman, by no strictures bound,
Has ruled that I’m to burn, die, suffer. . . .
My blood, however, she drains pound by pound;
She strips my nerves the better to undo
My soul. . . .
Fueled by his outsized ambition and stamped by his outsized personality, these epic paintings and monumental sculptures reflect their creator; they are an expression of his will and a mirror held up to his turbulent soul. It required a leap of faith to commission a work from such a master, since it was certain to defy convention. When finally unveiled to a curious public, the work was likely to challenge not only artistic precedent but often orthodoxy itself. In the case of The Last Judgment, the outcry from indignant Christians was so loud that even the pope could not resist their calls to cover up the most offensive parts. Those who preferred to play it safe simply hired more pliant servants.
Even in an age of towering giants, Michelangelo was the first artist to be the subject of a cult of personality. His character was as much a matter for public speculation as the meaning of the works he created, and it was impossible to understand the one without the insight provided by the other. It has become a cliché to say that an artist must express himself in his work, but this commonplace was largely Michelangelo’s invention. To be an artist in the new sense of the word, it was not sufficient to possess supreme skill. Skill was only the means to an end, which was to make the work embody the self.
This explains why the private lives of his great rivals—Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian, to name only the most prominent—were never subject to the same kind of scrutiny that routinely followed Michelangelo. Most focused on his eccentricities, his preference for solitude, his melancholy, his ill temper. Even his personal hygiene became a matter of public comment. “[W]hile a man of so great genius,” an early chronicler observed, “he was by nature so coarse and wild as to inform his domestic life with an incredible shabbiness.”
But rather than diminish his reputation, these observations merely heightened Michelangelo’s mystique. Michelangelo was the first truly modern artist, emancipated not only from a slavish subservience to his patrons but from social norms altogether. His brooding temperament and contempt for social norms was a crucial aspect of a mythologizing that began in his own lifetime. As a youth, recalled Condivi, “he almost withdrew from the fellowship of men, only consorting with a few. So that by some he was held to be proud, and by others odd and eccentric . . . company not only did not please him but even annoyed him, as interrupting his meditations; he was never less solitary than when alone.”
Because his contemporaries were fascinated with details of his private life, Michelangelo, even after the passage of five centuries, comes across as a fully formed human being: driven, passionate, mercurial, irascible, devoted to his few close friends but also quick to accuse them of betrayal. He could inspire fierce loyalty, but also an intense aversion, particularly among those who felt the bite of his anger or the sting of his ridicule. To some of his employees he acted like an indulgent father, nursing them when they were sick or providing generously for their families after they died. But he could also treat his underlings harshly, dismissing them for minor offenses and then publicizing their faults so they had difficulty finding any other work. He was generous to those he considered the deserving poor, but his tendency to pocket his commissions and then fail to deliver what he ’d promised led to charges of greed and even outright fraud.
Even so, one must be careful not to accept everything at face value. Both he and his allies recognized that even a “warts-and-all” depiction could work to his advantage. In flouting norms he merely confirmed his originality, and it was originality that distinguished the true artist from the humble craftsman, the creative genius from the hack. Who’s ever heard of a tormented carpenter? Or a mercurial glass blower? Of course, these skilled trades have their share of neurotics, but no one believes it’s part of the job description.
Michelangelo, by contrast, deliberately broke down the barriers between life and art, setting up a paradigm—most fully embraced by the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century—in which suffering is regarded as the basis of creativity. In his poetry, Michelangelo lays bare his troubles, his vaunting pride and crippling doubt, the exaltation of desire and the crushing burden of shame. “I live to sin,” he despaired in an unfinished madrigal,
for the soul that living dies,
my life being no more mine,
but to wickedness enslaved.
Works like the famous Captives or the late pietàs are almost equally confessional. Even when the artist does not appear onstage, we can feel him lurking in the background, dominating the action through the force of his will.
Michelangelo was fully complicit in the project to turn his life into legend. His earliest biographers, Condivi and Vasari, were younger colleagues who stood in awe of the great man and were only too happy to promote him as a demigod who trafficked in only the most profound truths. The writer Anton Francesco Doni remarked, as if it were common knowledge: “And certainly I take you to be a God,” though he added the disclaimer, “but with license from our faith.” Others took up the torch as well. In his epic poem Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto puns on the artist’s name, calling him “Michel, più che mortale, Angelo divino” (Michael, more than mortal man, angel divine), though what began as praise could be turned by his enemies into a source of derision. The equally distinguished Pietro Aretino, smarting from a perceived insult at the hands of the artist, wrote a letter in which he sneered at “that Michelangelo of stupendous fame . . . who since you are divine do not deign to consort with men,” proving that a social-climbing man of letters could be every bit as touchy as an insecure artist.
Michelangelo’s conception of himself as a superior being was not based solely, or perhaps even principally, on his immense talent. As his letter to his nephew reveals, it sprang initially from his pride in belonging to an ancient and noble lineage. “[H]ere I’m known only as Michelangelo Buonarroti,” he boasts, as if it is the family name rather than his profession that best defines him. Obsessed with upholding the family honor, he cannot embrace the title of sculptor or painter, which he associates with degraded manual labor. The priest’s error is not that he looked down on the great majority of artists, but rather that he associated him with that lowly breed.
Driven to become an artist, a profession he knew was beneath his dignity, Michelangelo simply redefined the term. Ironically, the new reality Michelangelo himself helped bring about makes his anxiety about the family pedigree seem faintly ridiculous. The Buonarroti would long ago have faded into obscurity were it not for the famous artist who bore that name, a reversal of the natural order to which Michelangelo never fully reconciled himself.
Michelangelo’s decision to become an artist sprang from a deep need, but his restless ambition and his irritable pride were fueled as much by the circumstances of his birth, or at least the circumstances as he understood them, since the basis of his family’s claims to nobility was as much a product of hope as of cold-eyed realism. Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti SimoneI was born on March 6, 1475, in the provincial village of Caprese, where his father, Lodovico, was serving a term as the mayor. In a typically dry entry, Lodovico marked the momentous occasion in his Ricordanza: “I record that today, this 6th day of March, 1474,II a son was born to me. I named him Michelangelo. He was born on Monday morning 4 or 5 hours before daybreak while I was Podestà at Caprese. . . . He was baptized on the 8th day of said month in the Church of Santo Giovanni at Caprese.”
Michelangelo was the second of what would ultimately grow into a brood of five boys, each of whom would come to depend on their famous brother to one degree or another.III It is ironic that the child who defied his father to become an artist turned out to be the one effectual breadwinner among the lot. It was Michelangelo’s wealth and fame that sustained the family when those who chose more conventional careers faltered.
Lodovico was both proud and poor, traits that left an indelible mark on his second son. It was from his father that Michelangelo inherited an obsession with the dignity of the family name and a horror of anything that could be seen as dragging the Buonarroti down to that low estate to which outward appearance suggested they already belonged. Early on, the young Michelangelo and his four brothers learned that, though they were barely scraping by, the Buonarroti were not only a distinguished Florentine clan, but that they were descended from perhaps the most famous dynasty in all of Tuscany: the counts of Canossa. Throughout his long life Michelangelo set great store by this connection. Ironically, Michelangelo’s fame in a socially suspect profession meant that the current head of the clan, Count Alessandro, was only too happy to acknowledge the dubious connection, addressing his correspondence to “my much beloved and honored kinsman messer Michelangelo da Canossa worthy sculptor.” Near the end of his life Michelangelo tried to impress upon his nephew the importance of this honor, recalling how the count “once came to visit me in Rome as a relative.”
Though kinship with the counts of Canossa seems to have been based on little more than family lore, the Buonarroti were in fact members of the Florentine ruling class and could boast many ancestors serving in the highest levels of government. In bourgeois, mercantile Florence, it was participation in elective office rather than an ancient landed title that defined the ruling elite, and on this basis alone the Buonarroti had a more-than-respectable lineage. By staking so much on the more aristocratic pedigree of the counts of Canossa, Michelangelo revealed himself to be not only a snob but one of a particularly conservative stripe.
A sounder claim to highborn status came via Michelangelo’s mother, Francesca, daughter of Neri di Miniato del Sera and Bonda Rucellai. The Rucellai family was one of the richest and most powerful in Florence. Merchants who had grown prosperous by importing a plant used to create a prized purple dye, they were staunch allies of the ruling Medici clan and flourished along with that powerful family. This connection, rather than the spurious kinship with the descendants of Countess Matilda, could have paid real dividends, but Lodovico never seems to have turned it to his advantage.
For all their pretensions, however, at the time of Michelangelo’s birth the Buonarroti were barely clinging to respectability. This had nothing to do with ancestry but rather with the lack of cold, hard cash, the other critical measure of status in mercantile Florence. Michelangelo’s grandfather Lionardo had been so poor that he could not scrape together enough money to provide his daughter with a dowry and had to pledge his house on the Piazza dei Peruzzi to secure a suitable groom. Failure to provide for a marriageable daughter was a source of shame to a Florentine patrician as well as a practical obstacle, since dowerless women could not be deployed to forge the connections with other successful families necessary to rise in the world.
Large City View of Florence (Catena Map). C. 1500/1510. bpk, Berlin/Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany/Jörg P. Anders/Art Resource, NY
This blow to family pride occurred in 1449, but neither Lodovico nor his brother had done anything in the interim to improve their situation. Michelangelo’s uncle, Francesco, was a small-time money changer who kept a table in the New Market, but unlike the vast majority of his compatriots he seemed to possess little aptitude for turning a profit. Lodovico’s attempts at restoring the family’s fortunes were even more halfhearted. For the most part, he preferred life as a gentleman of modest means. Lacking the drive to get ahead in business, he and his growing family had to be content to live off the income derived from a modest property in Florence and a small farm in the neighboring village of Settignano, supplemented by an occasional stint as a minor civil servant.
Michelangelo was less than a month old when Lodovico and his family returned to his native city of Florence at the end of his term in office. In 1475, about 50,000 people lived within the Tuscan capital’s high walls; at least an equal number lived in the contado, the surrounding countryside where for thousands of years a large number of peasants and a smaller number of gentleman farmers had cultivated wine, grain, and olives in the rocky hillsides. The city itself was a crowded maze of streets and alleyways hugging either side of the Arno River. From the surrounding hills of Fiesole, Bellosguardo, and Settignano, the city was a sea of terra-cotta roofs overtopped by magnificent basilicas and bristling towers. Much of the city was given over to fetid slums filled with crowded tenements, home to the workers who were the muscle behind the thriving textile industries, but there were plenty of gracious homes fronting wide boulevards and spacious piazzas where merchant princes lived in opulent splendor. It was these successful men of business who, along with the Church, gave steady employment to the city’s many artists.
Florence was a city built by merchants and run by merchants, equally suspicious of the proud feudal nobility and the downtrodden masses, both of whom would like nothing better than to plunder the wealth they had so patiently accumulated over the centuries. Every banker or wealthy trader lived in fear of having his throat slit in the night, a not unreasonable concern given Florence’s history of murder and riot. This history was built into the architecture itself, with leading families—and even the Signoria, the collective lordship of Florence—residing in fortresslike structures with high stone walls, crenellations, and narrow windows.
In theory, the form of government was republican. Middle-class artisans and wealthy merchants were all eligible for public office, though not the urban proletariat, who, however long they resided in Florence, were not considered citizens. Frequent elections made for a lively political scene as Florentines competed for the honor and power that came from winning a place among the Tre Maggiori, the three most prestigious offices in the state. In reality, effective control remained in the firm grasp of the Medici family and their allies. For decades they had skillfully played one faction off against another and, through a combination of intimidation and bribery, had managed to grasp the levers of power while retaining the outward forms of democracy. The current head of the family, Lorenzo—known to history as Il Magnifico—the Magnificent—for both his legendary wealth and his patronage of artists and writers—reconciled the people to their loss of freedom by staging splendid pageants for their amusement and generally keeping the city in peace and prosperity.
Though still ruling over an extensive empire—in which Lodovico played a small part as podestà for the towns of Chiusi and Caprese—Florence was already falling behind other Italian states. The Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice in the north, the Papal States surrounding Florentine territory on three sides, and the Kingdom of Naples in the south, could all deploy more men and resources. And compared to the rising nation-states of Spain and France, hungrily eyeing the rich but politically divided Italian peninsula, Florence was little more than a tasty morsel.
The one area where Florence was still preeminent was in the arts, building on a tradition that extended back centuries, to Cimabue and Giotto in painting, to Donatello in sculpture, and to Dante and Boccaccio in literature. In the final years of Lorenzo de ’ Medici’s reign, his good friend Marsilio Ficino could still write: “This is an age of gold, which has brought back to life the almost extinguished liberal disciplines of poetry, eloquence, painting, architecture, sculpture, music, and singing to the Orphic Lyre. And all this in Florence!” This proud history was one of the reasons that Michelangelo remained loyal to his native land. No matter how long he lived outside its walls, Michelangelo always thought of himself as a Florentine, celebrating its victories and mourning its defeats. He maintained these ties even beyond the grave, insisting, much to the chagrin of the Romans who felt they had contributed more to his everlasting fame, that his body be returned to his native land for burial.
For the first few years, Michelangelo did not live under his father’s roof in the modest house on the Via de ’ Bentaccordi; as was customary for Florentine children, the infant boy was shipped out to live with a wet nurse. He was taken in by a stonecutter’s wife in Settignano, a town located in the hills just to the northeast of Florence where the Buonarroti owned a small farm. Crucially for Michelangelo’s development as a sculptor, this village was the site of ancient quarries that for centuries had been home to many of Florence ’s most skilled stoneworkers.IV Michelangelo viewed this early environment as providential, telling his friend Vasari: “Giorgio, if I have anything of the good in my brain, it comes from my being born in the pure air of your country of Arezzo [near Caprese], even as I sucked in with my nurse ’s milk the chisels and hammer with which I make my figures.”
This remark was more than a literary conceit. There is very little in Michelangelo’s formal training as an artist to suggest how he mastered the difficult art of stone carving. His skill in a medium that had all but died out in Florence by the time of his birth, his natural affinity for the material and affection for the humble quarrymen who excavated the marble blocks from which many of his masterpieces were carved, all point to the formative experience of a youth spent clambering among the rocky hills and consorting with the scarpellini (stonecutters) of Settignano. Michelangelo’s admiration for these workers was genuine. He respected not only the skilled artisans who carved the columns and decorative moldings of Florence ’s churches and palaces, but also the brawny, illiterate laborers who at great risk to life and limb actually hacked the blocks from the quarries. This generosity stands in marked contrast to the disdain he felt for those who called themselves artists and claimed to be his equals.
In addition to the arrival of three younger brothers—Buonarroto (1477), Giovansimone (1479), and Gismondo (1481)—the first event of note in the life of young Michelangelo was the death, when he was only six, of his mother, Francesca. Not surprisingly, the impact of this early bereavement has given rise to much forensic psychoanalysis. The mother-and-child motif is the single most common theme in all of Michelangelo’s art, from his earliest known work, the Madonna of the Stairs, to his last, the so-called Rondanini Pietà, left incomplete in his studio at the time of his death. Could it be that his almost obsessive engagement with the theme reflects a grown man’s response to a childhood loss? While Michelangelo was certainly preoccupied with the intense, psychologically fraught maternal bond, it would be simplistic to attribute his fascination primarily to this experience. Not only is the mother-and-child a universal theme, but it was particularly popular in the Renaissance when the Virgin Mary and her son—shown either as an infant, or after his descent from the Cross—was perhaps the most common subject of religious art. Indeed, while it is tantalizing to speculate about the effect of such a loss on a young, impressionable boy, there is no indication that Michelangelo was permanently scarred by his mother’s early death.
A more critical factor in Michelangelo’s development was the Oedipal struggle with his father over his decision to become an artist. In 1485, the same year that Lodovico remarried (to Lucrezia Ubaldini), he sent Michelangelo to the grammar school of Francesco da Urbino, where he was expected to acquire a facility with reading and writing in his native Italian before moving on to master Latin letters, essential for any Florentine who wished to pursue a respectable career. At the same time, Michelangelo struck up a friendship with the sixteen-year-old Francesco Granacci, an apprentice in the studio of the painters Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio, one of the busiest and most successful shops in all of Florence. Michelangelo was bored by the instruction he received at Master Francesco’s school, though he later regretted his lack of Latin and was embarrassed when contracts had to be translated so that he could read them. It was his friendship with Granacci that would prove more consequential, for it was this amiable youth—the sort of good-natured, unambitious man the always competitive Michelangelo preferred to surround himself with—who introduced Michelangelo to the delights of drawing and painting and to the studio where he was to take his first steps toward becoming an artist himself.
Michelangelo’s decision to become an artist was clearly the fulfillment of a deep-seated compulsion. “[T]he heavens and his nature,” Condivi wrote, “both difficult to withstand, drew him towards the study of painting, so that he could not resist, whenever he could steal the time, drawing now here, now there, and seeking the company of painters.” Late in life, Michelangelo still vividly recalled what happened when he was discovered neglecting his studies to spend his time in the studio: “[H]is father and his uncles, who held the art in contempt, were much displeased, and often beat him severely for it,” Condivi recorded; “they were so ignorant of the excellence and nobility of art that they thought shame to have her in the house.” This tale, in which the idealistic young man defies his parents to pursue his dream of becoming an artist, has a familiar ring; it’s been a staple of the mythology since at least the time of the Renaissance. But in Michelangelo’s case the story is particularly powerful since the artist himself shared some of his father’s doubts about his chosen career, a conflicted attitude that spurred his ambition and compelled him to raise the status of his profession to new heights. Indeed, eradicating the taint of manual labor became something of an obsession on his part. Condivi explained that “he has always desired to cultivate the arts in persons of nobility, as was the manner of the ancients, and not in plebeians.” All the pride his father invested in the family name, Michelangelo hoped to recoup through his immortal fame, demonstrating that art could be a noble pursuit proudly pursued by noble men.
As it turned out, father and son were engaged in an unequal contest. The willful boy soon broke down Lodovico’s resistance, perhaps in part because even the small salary he would draw as an apprentice in Ghirlandaio’s bustling atelier meant that he would be adding to the family coffers. The 24 gold florins the Ghirlandaio brothers were to pay Lodovico to acquire Michelangelo’s services for three years could make a real difference to a family barely keeping its head above water.V From this day forward, and increasingly with the passage of years, the artist will become the principal support for his feckless relatives.
Later in life Michelangelo sought to conceal the truth about his initiation into the artistic profession. One of the most telling examples of the artist altering his biography comes in Condivi’s discussion of his earliest training. In 1550, Michelangelo’s younger friend and colleague Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (usually shortened to Lives of the Artists), a magisterial collective biography of the greatest Italian masters of the last three centuries. The work, in many ways an homage to his famous friend, culminated in a life of Michelangelo himself, the first time such an honor had been accorded a living artist. Here, Vasari offered an effusive portrait of the great man. “The most blessed Ruler of the Universe,” he wrote,
seeing the infinite futility of all that toil, the most ardent studies without fruit and the presumptuous opinions of men—farther from the truth than shadow is from the light—and to relieve us of such errors, took pity by sending to us here on earth a spirit with universal mastery of every art. . . . And he chose to endow this man as well with true moral philosophy and with every ornament of sweet poetry, so that the world might admire him and hold him up as a model to be followed, in life, in work, in holiness of character and all human striving, so that we believed him heaven-sent rather than of this world.
Despite this treatment more appropriate to the life of a saint than of an artist, Michelangelo was unhappy with some of the details contained in Vasari’s biography, and prevailed upon Ascanio Condivi to “correct” the record. Perhaps the most telling change has to do with Michelangelo’s relationship to his first teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio, a prolific frescoist beloved by Florentine patricians who enjoyed seeing themselves flatteringly portrayed in the religious scenes with which he covered walls and ceilings of the city’s churches.VI Directly contradicting Vasari’s account, Condivi insists that Michelangelo “received absolutely no assistance from him,” claiming instead that Ghirlandaio’s attitude toward the talented young artist was one of “envy.”
Denying Ghirlandaio’s role in launching Michelangelo’s career was such a transparent deception that even the usually accommodating Vasari balked, going to great lengths in the second edition of his Lives (1568) to rebut Condivi’s claims by quoting at length from the actual contract.
Why did Michelangelo try so hard to alter the record? One explanation is that throughout his career Michelangelo claimed sculpture as his principal art; admitting that his formal training was as a painter in the shop of the era’s most successful practitioner of this medium tended to undercut that argument. More significantly, the narrative of his apprenticeship reveals that he began his career like any other youth wishing to become an artist, grinding colors, preparing brushes, doing all the menial chores associated with an entry-level position. Far from suggesting an aristocrat pursuing independently a high and cerebral calling, the true story of his apprenticeship betrayed the artisanal origins of Michelangelo’s glorious career.
In fact, the kind of bottega Ghirlandaio ran was antithetical to everything Michelangelo stood for: it was an art factory, turning out panel paintings and frescoes almost like an assembly line, with apprentices and assistants suppressing their own individuality in order to produce a uniform product. When Michelangelo said he never kept a shop, he must have had in mind his own introduction to the art world, an initiation he still regarded with contempt.
If Michelangelo’s initiation into the world of art turns out to have been more prosaic than he claimed, the next phase of his career has become the stuff of legend. For two years Michelangelo learned the rudiments of his craft in Ghirlandaio’s studio, working alongside Francesco Granacci as the studio cranked out portraits, devotional paintings, and the large-scale fresco series for which the shop was famous. At the time, the Ghirlandaio brothers were at work on frescoes in the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella, specifically the chapel of the Tornabuoni family depicting the lives of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist. While no one has successfully identified the hand of the young Michelangelo in the work, it is probable that the artist helped in such tasks as preparing the smooth coat of wet plaster that was to be painted on by the masters, and perhaps even composing some of the secondary figures and backgrounds. Though Michelangelo refused to admit his debt to his first master, he was fortunate to have this training to fall back on when he was commissioned to paint monumental frescoes of his own, summoning skills he claimed he never learned from a master he was reluctant to acknowledge.
Both Vasari and Condivi confirm the young Michelangelo’s precocious talent, Condivi (rather inconsistently) claiming that Ghirlandaio was jealous of his abilities even though they ostensibly had no working relationship. Curiously, the two biographers agree that one of the young Michelangelo’s greatest talents was as a forger. Not only did he make copies from drawings that the studio kept on hand for the edification of its young students, but, according to Vasari, “he counterfeited sheets by the hands of various old masters, making them so similar that they could not be detected, for, tinting them and giving them the appearance of age with smoke and various other materials, he made them so dark that they looked old, and, when compared with the originals, one could not be distinguished from the other.” Emphasizing his skill in mimicking the work of others fits awkwardly into a narrative that was meant to highlight Michelangelo’s originality, but stories of a neophyte putting the master to shame is a common motif in Vasari’s work. In his life of Leonardo, Vasari recounts that Andrea Verrocchio was so startled upon first seeing his young pupil’s efforts that he never painted again, “dismayed that a child knew more than he.” Similarly, Vasari claimed to have in his possession a drawing by Ghirlandaio to which Michelangelo had made a few judicious alterations, “showing the excellence of a mere lad who was so spirited and bold, that he had the courage to correct the work of his master.”
Beating the master at his own game was, in fact, almost a rite of passage for the aspiring genius. One doesn’t need to accept Condivi’s dismissive account of Ghirlandaio’s contribution to believe that Michelangelo quickly learned all he could from that pleasing but uninspired master. After only two years in the Ghirlandaio shop, the fifteen-year-old painter’s apprentice was looking for new horizons to conquer. Happily, at the very same moment Florence ’s leading citizen, Lorenzo Il Magnifico, was combing the studios of the city in search of talented artists willing to learn the sculptor’s craft by studying in his garden filled with ancient statues. Vasari explained Lorenzo’s motives: “Given the great love he had for both painting and sculpture, he despaired that in his time one could not find famous or noble sculptors to equal the many great painters of note, and so he determined . . . to create a school.”
Few episodes in the history of art have stirred as much debate. Some scholars have sought to diminish the significance of this so-called school of sculpture, insisting it was little more than an informal gathering of dilettantes with no real program; others have gone even further, claiming that the myth of Lorenzo’s sculpture garden was invented out of whole cloth by Vasari himself as a means of flattering another Medici, his patron and Lorenzo’s distant relative, Duke Cosimo de ’ Medici. Contemporary documents, however, confirm its existence. Not only did Michelangelo recall the time he spent there with great affection, but the garden itself, located off the Piazza San Marco near the Medici Palace, was marked as a notable site on a map made by one Piero del Massaio. It is even possible to trace the origin of Lorenzo’s project to a specific moment in 1489 when the Duke of Milan wrote to the ruler of Florence requesting help with the bronze equestrian statue of his father. Much to his chagrin, Lorenzo was forced to admit, “I cannot find any master who satisfies me . . . and this pains me no end.” Lorenzo was acutely aware of how much Florence ’s prestige in the world depended upon its reputation as a home for the muses, and his inability to honor Duke Sforza’s request must have spurred him to action. Offering up his vast collection of ancient and modern statuary as models and using his clout to persuade the leading masters to lend some of their most promising students, Lorenzo set out to reverse the decline of an art form that had once been the pride of Florence.
If Lorenzo’s motive for establishing a training ground for young sculptors is straightforward, less clear is the exact nature of the school. Even more obscure is what Michelangelo actually learned there. Bertoldo di Giovanni, an accomplished modeler in bronze who had been a pupil of the great Donatello himself, was apparently hired to provide instruction, but it is unlikely that students there received anything like the rigorous training available at Ghirlandaio’s shop. By 1489, when Michelangelo first began to attend sessions at Lorenzo’s garden, Bertoldo was a sickly old man (he would die two years later), and he worked almost exclusively in bronze, a medium Michelangelo famously despised.
It is probable that at first Michelangelo divided his time between Ghirlandaio’s studio and Lorenzo’s sculpture garden. Sketching alongside him among the cypresses and laurel hedges were not only his friend from Ghirlandaio’s atelier, Francesco Granacci, but also Giovanfrancesco Rustici (the man who would later realize some of Leonardo’s sculptural designs), Giuliano Bugiardini, and Pietro Torrigiano. It was in Lorenzo’s garden that Michelangelo made his first sculpture, a head of a faun based on an ancient model in Lorenzo’s collection. As Condivi tells the story, the sculpture, though little more than a student exercise, transformed Michelangelo’s life:
One day, [Michelangelo] was examining among these works the Head of a Faun, already old in appearance, with a long beard and laughing countenance, though the mouth, on account of its antiquity, could hardly be distinguished or recognized for what it was; and, as he liked it inordinately, he decided to copy it in marble. . . . He set about copying the Faun with such care and study that in a few days he had perfected it, supplying from his imagination all that was lacking in the ancient work, that is, the open mouth as of a man laughing, so that the hollow of the mouth and all the teeth could be seen. In the midst of this, the Magnificent, coming to see what point his works had reached, found the boy engaged in polishing the head and, approaching quite near, he was much amazed, considering first the excellence and then the boy’s age; and although he did praise the work, nonetheless he joked with him as with a child and said, “Oh, you have made this Faun old and left him all his teeth. Don’t you know that old men of that age are always missing a few?”
To Michelangelo it seemed a thousand years before the Magnificent went away so that he could correct the mistake; and, when he was alone, he removed an upper tooth from his old man, drilling the gum as if it had come out with the root, and the following day he awaited the Magnificent with eager longing. When he had come and noted the boy’s goodness and simplicity, he laughed at him very much; but then, when he weighed in his mind the perfection of the thing and the age of the boy, he, who was the father of all virtù, resolved to help and encourage such great genius and to take him into his household; and, learning from him whose son he was, he said, “Inform your father that I would like to speak to him.”
At first, Condivi tells us, Lodovico was appalled, “lamenting that his son would be led astray . . . moreover, that he would never suffer his son to become a stonemason.” As much as he loathed the idea of his son becoming a common artisan, he was equally upset by the thought (and not without reason) that Michelangelo would be corrupted by the loose morals of that famously libertine crowd. But in the end he could not resist a summons from the uncrowned ruler of Florence. The meeting between the proud but poor Lodovico Buonarroti di Simone and Il Magnifico in the intimidating surroundings of the Medici Palace has a slightly comic tinge. When Lorenzo asked Michelangelo’s father what he did for a living, Lodovico replied, “I have never practiced any profession; but have always lived upon my meager income looking after the small property left to me by my ancestors. . . .” Face-to-face with the powerful Medici lord, Lodovico’s resolution crumbled. Of course, he declared, “not only Michelangelo, but all of us, with our lives and all our best faculties, are at the service of your Magnificence.” All he asked in return was to be named to a post in the customs house. Upon hearing this modest request, “[t]he Magnificent put his hand upon his shoulder and, smiling, said: ‘You will always be poor,’ for he expected that he would ask for some great thing.”
It is possible that Condivi embellished this story, but the basic outlines are not in dispute. In 1490, Michelangelo left his shabby paternal home in the quarter of Santa Croce and moved into the magnificent Medici Palace, where, again according to his own account, Il Magnifico provided “a good room in his own house with all that he needed, treating him like a son, with a seat at his table.”
In light of Michelangelo’s tendency to burnish his biography, it is reasonable to treat this last characterization with caution, if not outright skepticism. Being treated like a son by the magnificent Lorenzo de ’ Medici would place Michelangelo in rarefied company and remove any suspicion that he was little more than a glorified household servant. It also helped erase the embarrassing facts of his humble origins. But while the story is certainly self-serving, there is in fact plenty of evidence to suggest that in this case Michelangelo did not stray too far from the truth. Years later, when Lorenzo’s second son, Giovanni, was sitting on the throne of St. Peter as Pope Leo X, he recalled the happy period when Michelangelo lived at the palace. “When he speaks of you,” reported the painter Sebastiano del Piombo, “it is almost with tears in his eyes, because as he told me, you two were raised together. . . .”
No doubt there was an element of noblesse oblige in Lorenzo’s kindness. He worked hard to cultivate his image as a simple citizen of Florence even as he consolidated his hold over the government, and his generosity toward talented men was a large part of the mystique that earned him the title Il Magnifico. Lorenzo’s “court” was filled with men of great gifts and small means, men like the poets Luigi Pulci and Angelo Poliziano. Not only did he genuinely enjoy their company, but these eloquent and influential figures repaid his generosity in full by broadcasting his virtues to the world.
It is difficult to overstate the significance for Michelangelo of the two years he spent under Lorenzo’s roof. In a very real sense, Il Magnifico was the father he wished he had and felt he deserved, a man not only of unquestioned pedigree but one who, unlike the dour Lodovico, held artists and writers in high regard. Where Lodovico cut a shabby figure, Lorenzo was magnificence itself; while Lodovico expressed his contempt for art and artists, Il Magnifico demonstrated their true worth by showering them with riches.
By focusing on his two-year residence at the Medici Palace rather than his equally brief stint as a lowly apprentice in Ghirlandaio’s studio, Michelangelo created a new origin story for himself as an artist. In the palace, Michelangelo was tutored by the brilliant Poliziano and scholarly Ficino, men whose reputations as intellectuals elevated them above artists who worked with their hands. Conversing with these cultivated men, he became convinced that painting and sculpture were not merely crafts but tangible philosophy.
Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, c. 1492.
Of the two sculptures Michelangelo executed while in residence at the Medici Palace, one of them at least was inspired by Poliziano, who had taken the young artist’s education in hand. The so-called Battle of the Centaurs depicts an obscure mythological theme of the kind beloved by the humanists in Lorenzo de ’ Medici’s circle. The battle between the Lapiths and the savage centaurs is an allegory of Man overcoming his bestial nature; happily for Michelangelo, it also offered an opportunity to depict the male nude in action, the theme he will explore in most of his greatest works. Michelangelo himself believed this early work contained the seeds of all he would later accomplish. Seeing this youthful exercise again after many years, he told Condivi “how much wrong he had done to his nature in not following promptly the art of sculpture, judging by that work how well he might have succeeded. . . .”
The small-scale relief also recalls the work of his first sculptural master, Bertoldo di Giovanni, whose most accomplished piece was a bronze battle scene modeled on an ancient Roman sarcophagus. Bertoldo’s influence can also be detected in Michelangelo’s earliest extant sculpture, the small relief known as the Madonna of the Stairs, which probably dates from 1491, the first year Michelangelo spent at the Medici Palace. The small marble of the Virgin with the infant Jesus is done in a technique that Michelangelo rarely employed, what Italians call rilievo schiacciato, or flattened relief. The form was pioneered by Donatello in the early fifteenth century and would have been familiar to his pupil Bertoldo. It is, in effect, a form of drawing in stone in which the depth of the carving does not so much correspond to three-dimensional forms as suggest them through subtle modulations of light and shadow. Vasari deems the technique, which he traces back to ancient cameos and coins, “very difficult . . . demand[ing] great skill and invention. . . .” Though the depth of the actual carving can be measured in mere millimeters, Michelangelo has managed to pack a lot into a little: a monumental Virgin Mary seated stoically on her blocklike throne; the baby Jesus twisting in her arms; and a staircase leading to another room sufficiently commodious to serve as the perch for three cherubs carrying a sheet (symbolizing the shroud that will drape the dead Christ’s body).
Michelangelo has depicted Mary in a style that recalls classical Greek funerary monuments and reflects the erudite humanism of the Medici Palace, where Lorenzo was constantly adding to his collection of ancient statues, cameos, and vases and where the wisdom of the ancients was examined with the reverence of Holy Scripture. Even her profile is distinctively “Greek,” with her brow and nose forming a single, unbroken line, in keeping with classical canons of beauty. The most original (and nonclassical) element is the Christ child himself. He is seen from the back, his head protectively buried in the folds of his mother’s dress. His pose is curious. Is he turning to take his mother’s breast, or recoiling in fear as he sees his own fate foreshadowed in the form of the burial shroud? There is an uncomfortable psychological distance between the mother and her child, whom she envelops but largely ignores. She tends to him distractedly, her gaze drawn by the putti, whose activities seem to rehearse the sorrow of the Passion. Jesus, for his part, appears to simultaneously burrow into the protective folds of his mother’s garments, while struggling to free himself from her suffocating embrace. Michelangelo will employ the same complex, twisting pose—suggestive of struggle and internal contradictions—in mature works like the famous Night from the Medici tombs.
The technique of rilievo schiacciato that Michelangelo employed in the Madonna of the Stairs would prove to be an artistic dead end. Even when he worked in two dimensions, he usually strived for three-dimensionality. His paintings exhibit a brittle quality that some contemporaries compared unfavorably to the atmospheric subtleties of Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian. Indeed, Michelangelo, rebutting Leonardo’s claim that painting was superior to sculpture, famously remarked: “[I]t seems to me that painting may be held good in the degree in which it approximates to relief, and relief to be bad in the degree in which it approximates to painting”—a standard that if applied to the Madonna of the Stairs would brand it an utter failure.
The two years Michelangelo lived in Il Magnifico’s palace reinforced his sense of superiority and his faith in the natural affinity of art and other more refined pursuits. The works he created there, especially the Battle of the Centaurs, were philosophical allegories realized in three dimensions. Poliziano, Ficino, Pico, and Lorenzo himself all encouraged him to think of art in rarefied terms, as a product of the mind rather than of the hands. At a later period in his life, when he was beset by many cares, he excused his dilatoriness by reminding his correspondent, “you work with your mind and not with your hands,” an attitude that reflected the cultured atmosphere of the Medici Palace but would have been considered laughable in the busy atelier of the Ghirlandaios, where no distractions could be allowed to interfere with productivity.
Meet the Author
Miles J. Unger is an art historian and journalist. Formerly the managing editor of Art New England, he served for many years as a contributing writer to The New York Times. In addition to Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, he is the author of The Watercolors of Winslow Homer; Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici; and Machiavelli: A Biography. Visit MilesJUnger.com.
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