Nudes of the World
Smith, Joan, The Independent (London, England)
IN 1550 Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his Lives of Renaissance artists, an invaluable guide to painters and sculptors from Cimabue to the still-living Michelangelo Buonarroti. Vasari's purpose was didactic as well as documentary, presenting his earlier subjects in the role of prophets preparing the way for the towering genius of Michelangelo.
Vasari claimed that "Michele Agnolo" was given his name to mark the birth of a celestial and divine phenomenon and urged other painters "to imitate Michelangelo in everything you do". Although Michelangelo responded with an approving sonnet, Vasari's extravagant praise does not seem to have satisfied him; according to his latest biographer, George Bull, he felt that it did not sufficiently emphasise the extent to which he stood alone, owing virtually nothing to the influence of other artists.
Three years later another book appeared, this time a 30,000-word biography of Michelangelo. The author, a young painter of no great talent called Ascanio Condivi, began with a letter to readers in which he said that his project was inspired by the failure of other (unnamed) writers to give a full and accurate account of "this rare man". Condivi claimed to be more "familiar" with Michelangelo's life than previous authors and supplied a partisan account of one of its strangest episodes, the contract to design and build a monumental tomb in Rome for Pope Julius II.
This project, commissioned by Julius himself, remained uncompleted 30 years later, in spite of wranglings between the artist and the dead Pope's family and numerous revisions of the contract. Michelangelo's version, relayed by Condivi, was one of endless mishaps with shipments of marble from Carrara, as well as misunderstandings and even deceptions over the money promised him by the Pope's heirs. The saga, which functions as a sort of anecdotal anaphora in George Bull's biography, prompts questions about the artist's tendency to procrastinate and his attraction to colossal and unrealisable projects.
The tomb, as envisaged in 1505, was to consist of a free-standing marble monument adorned with more than 40 statues and several bronze scenes in bas-relief. The measurements of the base, 34.5 feet by 23, give some indication of how vast a project Michelangelo had undertaken. In 1542, the Pope's long-suffering heirs agreed that other artists should be allocated portions of the work as Michelangelo was too busy on other projects, and that he should pay a substantial sum towards its completion. At the time of this agreement, Michelangelo wrote a long, self-exculpatory letter in which he complained that "I have lost all my youth tied to this tomb" and "my trusting nature has gone unrewarded and been my ruin". Yet only five years before he had been forced to reach a settlement on another huge and unfinished project, 15 statues for the Piccolomini chapel in the duomo in Siena, for which he had been contracted as long ago as 1501, and which he had recklessly promised to complete in three years.
What these grandiose schemes suggest at first is that Michelangelo continually overestimated his rate of production, particularly as a sculptor. Yet there is more interesting interpretation, which is …
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Publication information: Article title: Nudes of the World. Contributors: Smith, Joan - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: January 21, 1996. Page number: 28. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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