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Michelangelo, redefined

This detailed portrait of the master brings to life the man but not his times

By Jonathan Lopez
December 27, 2009

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William Wallace, a professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis, is widely considered America’s preeminent authority on Michelangelo. In an array of scholarly books and articles written over the past 20 years, he has argued for a fundamental reassessment of the great Renaissance master’s personal and professional character. Through Wallace’s meticulously documented research and analysis, Michelangelo has emerged not as the isolated, brooding loner of legend, but as an entrepreneur of the arts, deftly negotiating complex networks of patronage and influence while directing a lively band of assistants, who were both his employees and his friends.

In his new book, “Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times,’’ Wallace attempts to make these insights accessible to a wider audience, offering a manageably sized but richly detailed narrative of the artist’s life and career. This book is not without faults, but it is probably the best biography of Michelangelo in existence - more reliable than J.A. Symonds’s outdated, if elegantly composed, “The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti” (1893) and less doctrinaire than Charles de Tolnay’s five-volume “Michelangelo’’ (1943-1960), whose continuing utility as a work of reference is undermined, to a considerable degree, by a tendency toward egregious over-interpretation.

There exists no shortage of books on Michelangelo. He was the first artist in Western history to see his biography written and published during his own lifetime - specifically, the chapter devoted to him in Giorgio Vasari’s “The Lives of the Artists.” Longevity played a role in this singular honor. Vasari also profiled several of Michelangelo’s contemporaries - Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, et al. - but they had died by the time the book appeared in 1550.

Michelangelo was then 75 years old and could look back with pride on a lengthy and miraculous record of achievement: his early sculptural triumphs with the “Pietà” and “David,” the famed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the late-life fresco masterpiece of “The Last Judgment.” And yet the artist still had 14 more years of productivity ahead of him.

Aside from designing the dome for St. Peter’s Basilica and continuing his practice as a sculptor, Michelangelo also worked tirelessly in old age to shape his image for posterity. Although Vasari could hardly have been more glowing in his assessment of Michelangelo’s genius - with regard to “David,” he wrote, “Truly may we affirm that this Statue surpasses all others whether ancient or modern, Greek or Latin” - the master himself found Vasari’s account somewhat lacking, particularly where the all-important issue of mystique was concerned. And so Michelangelo found a friend, Ascanio Condivi, to write what amounted to the world’s first “authorized” artist’s biography.

In Condivi’s telling, Michelangelo is a force of nature, a completely self-taught artist who never called any man master. (Vasari, in contrast, noted correctly that Michelangelo had at one time worked as a paid assistant to the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.) Of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Condivi writes that Michelangelo “finished this entire work in twenty months, without any help whatever, not even someone to grind his colors for him.’’ This is of course the familiar figure of Michelangelo, the solitary genius, whose myth would be passed down through the centuries and eventually inspire Irving Stone’s wildly popular novel “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” later made into a film starring Charlton Heston. As Wallace takes pains to show, citing a variety of archival sources as well as Michelangelo’s surviving correspondence, it bears virtually no relationship to reality.

More than a dozen people worked with Michelangelo when he painted the Sistine Chapel. “They hauled water, slaked lime for plaster, ground and mixed pigments, prepared brushes, and pricked, cut, and transferred cartoons,’’ writes Wallace. “Michelangelo’s assistants painted minor figures and ornament as well as miles of architectural decoration, while the artist reserved most of the central narratives and all the important figures for himself.’’

Laboring side by side, Michelangelo and his assistants developed an easygoing camaraderie, especially during those periods when the master was engaged in the type of large-scale sculptural projects that he most enjoyed. “Almost half of his workforce had some sort of pet name: the Stick, the Basket, the Little Liar, the Dolt, Oddball, Fats, Thorny, Knobby, Lefty, Stumpy, and Gloomy,’’ Wallace notes. “Because he was his own bookkeeper, Michelangelo recorded their names, number of days worked, and the wage of every employee every week. Having grown up in the stoneworking town of Settignano, Michelangelo was personally acquainted with most of his assistants; he was familiar with their talents and employed their fathers, cousins, and neighbors. Such familiarity was a form of quality control and provided an unusual degree of labor stability.”

It is with this type of minutely, almost microscopically detailed narration that Wallace is at his best. Unfortunately, the larger picture sometimes gets lost as a result. If any single artist could be said to embody what Simon Schama has called “the big cake’’ of history, it would have to be Michelangelo, a towering figure, a man whose life story touches upon fundamental developments not only in the arts but in politics, religious history, and the history of ideas. For all of his zealous efforts to dispel misconceptions about his subject, Wallace tends to stint its grandeur, adopting an approach whose tight focus yields an intensely vivid picture of Michelangelo’s personality but only a hazy idea of the world that this incomparably creative man bestrode like a colossus.

Jonathan Lopez is a columnist for Art & Antiques and author of “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” a biography of the forger Han van Meegeren.

MICHELANGELO: The Artist, the Man, and His Times
By William Wallace
Cambridge University, 401 pp., illustrated, $30

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