Be prepared, after reading this book, to want to book an immediate trip to Italy — to Rome and Florence, specifically, that is.
Miles J. Unger’s Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces is part biography, part art analysis and thoroughly tantalizing. By focusing on six works, presented in chronological order, Unger presents a portrait of the artist that gives a panoramic view of Michelangelo’s life but also focuses keenly on putting the artwork itself in context, giving readers the whys and wherefores that provide a rich, provocative understanding.
There is much to love about this book, especially for those of us who weren’t art history majors and don’t know much about the man behind the masterpieces. And Michelangelo’s story is a good one, as Unger tells it.
Born in Florence on March 6, 1475, Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti Simone had perhaps not the whole deck of cards stacked against him at first, but certainly a significant portion.
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His family had a sound lineage, but they were poor. And when Michelangelo began spending time in an art studio with painters, his father and uncles would beat him for neglecting his schoolwork, as artists were, at that time, seen as lowly manual laborers, charged with doing the bidding of their patrons.
But at the age of 15, he got a lucky break that would form the connections that would be invaluable to his career and give his talent the stage it deserved. As Unger explains, “Florence’s leading citizen, Lorenzo II Magnifico, was combing the studios of the city in search of talented young artists willing to learn the sculptor’s craft by studying in his garden filled with ancient statues.”
Lorenzo was a Medici, and the Medici family was the most rich and powerful in the city. By 1490, the promising young sculptor was invited to live in the Medici Palace, and the relationships began to form that would bring him some of the most coveted commissions first in Florence, and then in Rome.
Unger digs into Michelangelo’s emotional life, which was full of turmoil. “The artist himself shared some of his father’s doubts about his chosen career,” Unger notes. In addition, Michelangelo struggled with his sexuality. He was gay and saw this as a moral weakness, which Unger documents through both the artist’s writings and through analysis of his work.
What’s interesting is that Unger argues that it was Michelangelo’s conflicted feelings about being an artist that ultimately led to his success, causing him to be more ambitious and, in the process, to revolutionize the way artists as a whole were viewed; Unger’s thesis is that Michelangelo was the first artist whose works show the distinctive, unique point of view of the creator, rather than simply fulfilling the wish of a patron or displaying a great but anonymous expertise.
Unger’s argument that Michelangelo became the first artist to develop a cult of personality is intriguing and well documented.
As Michelangelo’s talent was realized, he got the attention of Rome, and a long series of papal commissions began. But Unger shows that even if the artist was able to put his own point of view into the work he was doing, he didn’t have a whole lot of control over what he was working on or where he would live and when.
If he was in Florence working on a project but the current pope summoned him to Rome for work, for example, off Michelangelo went. With an ever-changing succession of popes with different attitudes toward art and ever-shifting power structures in Florence, too, Michelangelo was a bit of a political football, tossed back and forth between the two cities.
If he was out of favor with the current pope, he fled Rome, sometimes fearing for his life. At some points, his lifelong connections with the Medicis would bring him the best commissions, while at others, they were a cause for concern.
Unger also puts the varying public reaction to Michelangelo’s works in context. When, for example, he completed the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it was the high Renaissance, and his emotionally charged scenes of The Creation of Adam were seen as visionary.
Two decades later, when he returned to the Chapel to paint frescoes of The Last Judgment, expressing a point of view that salvation is a personal matter between the individual and God, his work was seen was almost heretical, and the nudes in the scene caused scandal and were soon painted over.
The ideals of the Renaissance had faded, and the years of the Inquisition were beginning; art was once again being seen mainly as a means to promote a ruling ideology.
The reader also learns much about the artist as a man.
Michelangelo wasn’t good looking, he was antisocial and he kept an air of secrecy about his work. A perfectionist, he didn’t like to delegate tasks, and more often than not, he left works unfinished. He was also very competitive with other artists.
Unger gives interesting historical tidbits that show Michelangelo’s feelings toward his contemporaries who would also much later have their names appropriated by a group of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael, to be exact.
All of Unger’s historical context helps readers imagine the challenging and exhausting but undeniably monumental life of Michelangelo, which came to an end on Feb. 18, 1564.
In addition to all the fascinating biographical detail, Unger gives long, detailed analyses of the six works he focuses on, including sculpture (Michelangelo’s preferred art form at the beginning of his career; in fact, he didn’t consider himself a painter when he started the Sistine ceiling), painting and architecture.
These include: Pietà, 1498-99; David, 1501-1504; The Creation of Adam, the Sistine ceiling, 1510-11; the Medici Tombs, San Lorenzo, 1520-34; The Last Judgment, 1536-41; and St. Peter’s Basilica, 1547-64.
Historical context helps the reader see why certain artistic decisions made by Michelangelo were important, while Unger’s insight into techniques, style and perspectives is equally compelling. It is clear that Unger has studied these works closely.
And here I come to what I think is the flaw of this book, and that is the lack of visual imagery to accompany Unger’s excellent narrative. There are some good black-and-white images throughout the text, to be sure, but only nine color images, all relegated to an insert.
It’s just not enough. Unger’s detailed descriptions of Michelangelo’s works lose a lot of impact when the visuals must be left to the imagination of the reader.
The narrative ends with an appendix, “A Guide to Viewing Michelangelo’s Art in Florence and Rome.” And, as I said, this is exactly what you’ll want to do when you finish reading the book — partly because you’ll be frustrated that you can’t see the wonders Unger is describing but mostly because you’ll likely be inspired to see the masterpieces in person.
I’d also suggest you finish reading the book before you go — it’s scholarly and not your typical breezy vacation read — but be sure to take it with you on the trip. What I would do is to flag the sections where Unger analyzes the works, and then read those again while viewing the art.
But even if a trip to Italy is not on your horizon, this is a good read for anyone interested in art history or in the concept of artistic vision, or for those who just like a good biography.
Because while the art is his legacy and takes the focus of this book, ultimately this is the story of a man — a flawed, conflicted, genius of a man whose work may have reached ethereal heights but who, like all of us, was bound by the constraints of time and place and struggled with the limitations of being human.