Michelangelo among His Friends
Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
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 Condivi, also writing during the artist's lifetime.
(Both Vasari's and Ascani's writings figure in Mr. Bull's long list of works translated from the Italian, which include Cellini's "Autobiography," Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince" and Vasari's two-volume "Lives of the Artists" in the Penguin Classics series.)
Michelangelo's long life (1475-1564) was lived during a period of vast change and upheaval, by no means limited to alternating republicanism and despotism in Florence; armies foreign and domestic marching up and down Italy, from Charles VIII's invasion (and triumphant entrance into Florence painted by Michelangelo's boyhood friend Francesco Granacci) to the sack of Rome; discovery of and increasing travel to the New World; the Reformation and later Counter-Reformation that would lead to the censorious addition of "braghe" (trousers) to some of the nudes in "The Last Judgment"; and emergence of Mannerism in the arts.
Did living in turbulent times contribute to Michelangelo's tendency to flee at critical moments, simply leave town? It is almost the only real crack in a personality otherwise betraying very forgivable sins, such as confidence in his work and impatience with those who would impede it; verbal bluntness, including sarcasm; irritability with a dependent and worrisome Buonarroti family of father, brothers, a nephew and female in-laws dependent upon him; and worry about money.
Mr. Bull maps the whole 89-year journey. He tells of the father's farm at Settignano and small property in Florence. He gives us the budding artist in Domenico Ghirlandaio's workshop, the 15-year-old picked up by Lorenzo de' Medici. At this time, the scholar Angelo Poliziano, tutor to the sons of il Magnifico, became a friend and source of inspiration.
Mr. Bull takes time to discuss the fledgling's work and emerging techniques with brush, claw chisel and drill. At 22, he was off to Carrara, looking for marble for Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas' "Pieta," and at 26 he was back in Florence from his first stint in Rome, where much of his life would be spent. In 1505, he was summoned back there by Pope Julius II to begin work on the pontiff's tomb, which would be both burden and curse for 40 years and more - lying unfinished and cause of bad conscience for the artist despite repeated new contracts with the frustrated della Rovere family.
Mr. Bull takes in the other major projects, the giant "David," the Sistine Chapel, the commission for the facade of St. Lorenzo given and then taken away, a new sacristy for St. Lorenzo and the Medici tombs, the Laurentian Library and architectural work late in life on the new St. Peter's.
All this was achieved (though, as the artist admitted to Vasari, the path was strewn with uncompleted works) while Michelangelo was caught up in intense personal relationships that included struggles to keep his family together; emotional involvements, often of many years' duration, with younger assistants; plus other friendships and love affairs still erupting to transform and renew artist and man well into middle age.
In architecture, Michelangelo took the work of predecessors such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Michelozzo di Bartolommeo and achieved new heights. His long painting career involved giving to, competing with and outlasting Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael of Urbino and others. As a sculptor, he was from early on in a league of his own. And he worked hard, coming close to ruining his prodigious physical capacity and ability to work round-the-clock himself while managing others.
He died in Rome with Duke Cosimo badly wanting him back in Florence for one last effort on the San Lorenzo project and chagrined to learn how many drawings and plans Michelangelo, playing his cards close to the chest as usual, had burned before expiring.
Vittoria Colonna, with whom Mr. Bull began, influenced Michelangelo's religious development very much, and in old age, he was tormented by choices made lifelong. "I now know well," went one of his late religious poems, "how laden with error was the impassioned fantasy that made [my] art both idol and monarch, like the things every man desires despite himself." Such, the great works apart, was the measure of the man.
MICHELANGELO: A BIOGRAPHY
By George Bull
St. Martin's, $29.95, 504 pages, illus.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Michelangelo among His Friends. Contributors: Walters, Colin - Author. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: February 23, 1997. Page number: 6. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.