George Bull tells how when Michelangelo was about to start work on his frescoes for the Vatican's Pauline Chapel, he told his friend, the businessman Luigi del Riccio, that "painting and sculpture, hard work and honest behavior had ruined him and he would better have been put in his youth to making sulphur matches."
Saying that was just like him, but the artist who could (and did) boast "I toil harder than any man" went to work anyway. Mr. Bull further relates how seven years later, Pope Paul III came to inspect the paintings of Paul and Peter he had commissioned and "very carefully climbed a ladder to where Michelangelo was completing the painting of the crucifixion of St. Peter. . . . The two old Italian Catholics - the artist seventy-five, the pope eighty-two - stared together at St. Peter, and St. Peter, upside down, lifted his head by superhuman effort from the wood and stared at them."
The scene is an unforgettable one, besides which the writer's description of the painting itself, for whose "bands of cloudy sky, desert hills, gesticulating bodies and barren rock, Michelangelo used rich blues, reds, greens and yellows," though bright enough, nevertheless pales. This is that sort of book.
Nor will those "rich blues, reds, greens and yellows" be seen in "Michelangelo: A Biography." Mr. Bull's generous and thoughtful selection of 65 illustrations (and two maps) showing the artist's works of all sorts, plus a few by people he knew (Giorgio Vasari's allegorical scene "Nations Paying Homage" to Pope Paul, Benvenuto Cellini's bronze bust of Duke Cosimo I) are all in black and white. Also, Mr. Bull does not give an example of Michelangelo's handwriting, which he clearly admires.
Both the "beautiful handwriting like lace" and Vatican frescoes (in the Sistine Chapel) flowing over with dazzling color (critics would say garish) may be found in fine new companion reading, however: "Michelangelo: The Vatican Frescoes," by Pierluigi de Vecchi and Gianluigi Colalucci (Abbeville, $85, 271 pages).
The authors have little time for naysayers who maintain that the restorers stripped away, in addition to grime and lampblack, some of Michelangelo's overlaid layers of color - understandably, inasmuch as Mr. Colalucci is the Vatican's chief restorer. He describes the methods used in a concluding essay.
Mr. Bull doesn't worry over the restoration either, the question being, as he would say, one for art historians. He himself is on another tack, going after the man rather than the works per se.
He takes up the "subtle challenge" of Vittoria Colonna, marchesa of Pescara and another friend of Michelangelo's middle years. She presided over the meetings in the garden of the convent of San Silvestro where the friends' discussions of the relative merits of drawing vs. painting and other matters were recorded by Francisco de Holanda. It was she who "remarked that those who knew [Michelangelo] esteemed him more than his works and that those who did not know him esteemed the least part of him, which was his works."
On the face of it, that would seem impossible, for the works - drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture (including design of fortifications) and lovely poetry ("O notte, o dolce tempo, benche nero . . . ") that included sonnets and lines set to music in madrigals - remain unsurpassed in their sweep, power and effect upon other artists.
But Mr. Bull, taking his time in a leisurely narrative that picks up speed and intensity as it goes along, succeeds in portraying a Michelangelo who, for all the famous rough edges, measures up to the lady's estimate. He has, too, plenty of materials at hand for the job: the artist's own considerable body of writings; recorded impressions of contemporaries; Paolo Giovio's brief life of the artist, depicting him in his mid- to late-40s; and the biographies of Michelangelo by Vasari and Ascania …