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MICHELANGELO

THE ARTIST, THE MAN AND HIS TIMES

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By William E. Wallace

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The Montréal Review, December 2011

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 "Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times" by William E. Wallace (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

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"...the artist who emerges from these pages is paradoxically a far richer character than the one captured in fiction-as complicated as his art, and as fiercely intelligent as his times."

-Ann Landi, ArtNews

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Michelangelo Buonarroti is universally recognized to be among the greatest artists of all time. This vividly written, richly documented, and accessible biography offers a substantially new portrait of the famous Renaissance artist: Michelangelo was not only a great sculptor, painter, architect and poet, but also a successful entrepreneur and a Florentine patrician who firmly believed in the ancient and noble origins of his family. The belief in his patrician status fueled the artist's lifelong efforts to improve his family's financial situation and to raise the social standing of artists. Michelangelo's ambitions are evident in his writing, dress, and comportment, as well as in his ability to befriend, influence, and occasionally say "no" to popes, kings, and princes. He did more than any previous artist to raise the stature of his profession, from craftsman to genius, from artisan to gentleman.

This is the most important re-assessment of Michelangelo in more than one hundred years. Not since Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy has there been such a compelling and human portrayal of this remarkable yet credible human individual -- a profoundly religious man deeply attached to friends, family, and his many assistants. Written from the words of Michelangelo and his contemporaries, this biography allows the artist to tell his own story, placing him firmly in his times, among family, friends, popes and patrons. Imagine Rome in 1496 or 1550, or the marble quarries in 1521. This book takes you there.

Michelangelo achieved such renown in his lifetime that he was celebrated as "Il Divino," or the Divine One. In five hundred years his fame has scarcely diminished. He set new and still unsurpassed standards of excellence in all fields of visual creativity -- sculpture, painting, architecture -- and was, in addition, an accomplished poet and engineer. Along with Dante and Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven, he stands as one of the giants of Western Civilization.

Michelangelo's life spanned from the humanist culture of Renaissance Florence to the first stirrings of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He lived through the reigns of thirteen popes and worked for nine of them. Although his art occasionally was criticized (he was accused of impropriety in the Last Judgment), Michelangelo's influence and reputation have always been acknowledged. Many of his works -- including the Pietà, David, Moses, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling -- are ubiquitous cultural icons. Despite the familiarity of Michelangelo's art, the large quantity of primary documentation (more than any previous artist), and a voluminous secondary literature, many aspects of Michelangelo's art and life remain open to interpretation.

In contrast to the romantic conception of the artist as a lone genius, the author of this new biography views Michelangelo in a broad historical and social context. The artist firmly believed that he belonged to a noble family who traced an ancient lineage from the Medieval Counts of Canossa. His proud ancestry was affirmed in the opening lines of the biography written by his friend and pupil, Ascanio Condivi (published 1553): "Michelangelo Buonarroti...traced his origin from the counts of Canossa, noble and illustrious family of the territory of Reggio...." Michelangelo's concerns with family lineage and social status place him squarely in a contemporary milieu, sharing the most cherished values of his fellow citizens. At the same time, these concerns distinguish him from most of his fellow artists, few of whom could claim noble origins, a coat of arms, or even a proper family name. The tension between his patrician birth and his fundamentally manual profession occasionally caused Michelangelo to experience doubt about his art (best expressed in his poetry), and to encounter conflict with his patrons.

Michelangelo's father was a contemporary and distant relation of the great Renaissance Maecenas, Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-92). It was probably thanks to this familial bond that Michelangelo spent approximately two years in the Medici household (c. 1490-92) where he received the beginnings of a humanist education alongside two future popes and patrons, Giovanni (Leo X, 1513-21) and Giulio (Clement VII, 1523-34). The Medici were especially important to Michelangelo's early career, providing him with opportunities and letters of introduction which permitted the young man to pursue an unconventional course independent of Florence's guild system and highly competitive artisan profession. Rather, he lived on the basis of comparatively few commissions, obtained by skillfully navigating a dense web of family, friendship, and patronage ties.

From early in his career, Michelangelo made art as a privileged commodity for a few select persons. His oeuvre is marked by a series of unique objects that are never repeated and scarcely imitable: Bacchus, Pietà, David, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Last Judgment, tomb of Julius II, New St. Peter's. Like Leonardo da Vinci before him, Michelangelo attempted to live as a sort of artist-courtier where mutually beneficial and reciprocal relations blurred the distinction between artist and patron, between professional and personal obligations. In his final years, Michelangelo considered it unseemly to be paid a daily wage for his work at St. Peter's. Instead he accepted remuneration as a favor from the pope, mostly in the form of lucrative benefices.

While preoccupied with worldly matters of social standing and "raising up the family," Michelangelo was simultaneously a profoundly religious person. Although he carved, painted, and drew works with pagan subject matter (e.g. Battle of the Centaurs, Bacchus, Leda), the majority of his artistic production is sacred in content and character. Manifesting the spirit of Neo-Platonic humanism in which he was raised, Michelangelo's art fuses Christian and pagan elements: on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for example, nude youths ( ignudi ) frame scenes from Genesis suggesting the diversity and munificence of God's creation.

Michelangelo's artistic career spanned nearly seventy-five years and three distinct eras: he was born into a world dominated by a universal catholic church; he witnessed the splintering of that authority with the advent of the Reformation, and he lived long enough to become an instrument of the Counter-Reformation. His early work reflects his humanist upbringing; his late works, such as the Last Judgment , Pauline Chapel, and New St. Peter's, are bold affirmations of a belief in saints, relics, and the dominion of the Catholic Church.

More than any previous artist, Michelangelo's success in forging a life as both artist and aristocrat was instrumental in advancing the social status of his profession. No other artist achieved as much in diverse fields of endeavor; few so completely embody our notion of genius. But more than just individual attainments, Michelangelo fashioned works of universal significance that still astonish and inspire us more than five hundred years later. In the words of his admiring contemporary, Pietro Aretino: "The world has many kings and only one Michelangelo."

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William E. Wallace is the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis and an internationally recognized authority on Michelangelo and his contemporaries. He is author of Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture (Universe, 2009) and Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur (Cambridge, 1994).

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