About the Author
Miles J. Unger writes on art, books, and culture for The Economist. Formerly the managing editor of Art New England, he was a contributing writer to The New York Times. He is the author of The Watercolors of Winslow Homer; Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici; Machiavelli: A Biography; and Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. Visit MilesJunger.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Michelangelo: The Myth and the Man
Michael, more than mortal man, angel divine . . .
—Ariosto, Orlando Furioso
I. MICHAEL, MORE THAN MORTAL MAN, ANGEL DIVINE
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.
II. THE PAINTER’S APPRENTICE
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.”
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