Michelangelo: His Epic Life (book review)

The greatest strength of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford is the way that Gayford distills the sweeping genius of Michelangelo into accessible, journalistic prose, a style of writing directed at the curious layman, rather than the pontificating specialist.

Like all young artists, Michelangelo faced severe, sometimes, physical resistance to his choice of career from his family the Buonarotti. Gayford demonstrates the timeless struggle of artist versus bourgeois security in a clear and contemporary way.

‘We read about the ‘rise of the artist’ in Renaissance Italy, but of course such changes are not homogenous, any more than the causes of racial and gender equality have been in our own times…. Not everyone was so admiring of artists and the arts. The Buonarotti brothers, it seems, saw nothing but painful social slippage. A clever boy who might have become a bishop was determined instead to become an artisan who worked with hands. They probably felt it was their duty to try to beat it out of him.’ (pg45)

Gayford is an aproachable storyteller, able to get out out of the way of the story, while at the same time succinctly brief us on the context and background of the drama of Renaissance life.

He brilliantly sets up Michelangelo’s place in his time, capturing the way the man was both a product of the society into which he was born, but how he fought against these circumstances. It is this paradox of inheriting the ambitions of his forerunners and his patrons, but not being content to follow their script that makes Michelangelo worth returning to for biographers.

‘One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, “he formed the wish to make a colossus that would be visible to mariners from a afar.” In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure. One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body.’ (pg 211)

Storytelling clarity and accessibility are pre-eminent in Gayford’s short discussion of Michelangelo’s early painting copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer – The Temptation of St Anthony.

‘Schongauer’s St Anthony was a powerful example of a new medium which some people were probably already hanging on their walls as an affordable substitute for a picture. The thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Michelangelo was therefore doing something shrewd and timely by transposing it into colour. It was also a bizarre phantasmagoria of an image which it is easy imagining appealing to a teenager. In modern terms, as art historian Keith Christiansen has put it, this is “a Star Wars picture.” “…a fastidious sense of line and form, a willingness to work ferociously hard to produce as sharply telling as possible and an overpowering urge to compete.”‘ (pg 59 and pg 61)

Michelangelo comes across as exactly the temperamental genius we always assume him to be. However, his irascibility, his grumpy egotism and aggressive ambitions, don’t take away from the essential lovability of the man. Gayford calls him a ‘….hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man…’

Gayford is never shy of demonstrating the man’s limitations emotionally, nor his lack of hygiene and his manifestly anti-social character. What’s strange, though, is that the overall result of Gayford’s portrait is not an artist whose arrogance and violent moods make us hate him, but a brilliant and sometimes unstable genius whose volatility was necessary to his achievements.

‘[Ascanio] Condivi reported some thoroughly insanitary habits: “When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and in the boots he had always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s.’ Vasari had little more information on that last, revolting, point. The buskins were dog skin, worn next to the skin, with which they bonded.’’’ (pg228)

Gayford points out that the more Michelangelo complained and threw tantrums against his family, friends and even his patrons, the more brilliant and historic the work he must have been working on.

This offers a point worth considering. Mood swings and aggressive paranoia do not, as we often lazily suppose, go hand in hand with creative ability. There are plenty of stable, compliant and socially adaptive people who are creative, and man great artists who are too.

However, visionary power, the ability and proclivity to see beyond your times, to entertain impossible feats and to have the obsessive, arrogant and hubristic determination to carry them out – these qualities seem necessary linked to some kind of peculiarly neurotic genius. Civilisation comes at a cost, and that cost is very often an epic and violent discontent, both within the artist, and his surroundings.

Michelangelo was a malcontent, oblivious social norms, gentilisms and social expectations. His only considerations of class seem purely egotistical, given his desire to elevate the status of his family name through his achievements.

Gayford illustrates this brilliantly by contrasting Michelangelo with Raphael:

‘Raphael’s art projected just this sense of mastery with ease, whereas Michelangelo expressed heroic effort and passionate vehemence. A sixteenth century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures looked like porters. Clearly, Raphael had the manners of a courier himself. It was rumoured that Leo X intended to make him a cardinal, but was prevented by Raphael’s early death. This, too, emphasizes the contrast: it is impossible to imagine Michelangelo as a prince of the Church – a hermit or a mystic, perhaps, but not a cardinal.’ (pg 257)
One of the mysteries of Michelangelo is how he was able to sustain his characteristic levels of physical and mental concentration. From an angle of pure physical labour, the Sistine Chapel is a superhuman accomplishment. And that’s before we consider the grandeur of the aesthetic achievement.

The decision by Michelangelo to include scenes from the gospel that had not been covered by the existing frescoes on the lower walls of the chapel, is probably the key to what makes the work truly great, rather than just a work of genius. As a simple depiction of the Apostles, the project could have had no particular interest to Michelangelo, it was a decorative assignment. But with a multidimensional creative design, suddenly the rolling and shifting challenges of cramming so much poetry into the limited designs of the architecture of the ceiling, must have given Michelangelo enough sense of shifting possibilities, to make it worth the blood and the sweat.

Gayford’s Michelangelo is gruff, anti-social, cruel and egotistical. Yes, he’s a product of his times. Yes, he’s a deranged genius. Yes, he’s a self-mythologiser, and all the things we have come to associate with the self-aggrandising Renaissance man. However, the sincerity of the man, and the limitless poetic ambition of imagination are what redeem him, and it is this crucial element in the Renaissance and in Michelangelo, that is often forgotten in the impersonal, critical hindsight art history that seeks to reduce individual greatness to impersonal forces.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (Penguin) is available on Amazon

 

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