Why Michelangelo Was In A Class Of His Own

LORENZO DE’ MEDICI, ruler of the Florentine Republic, was so taken by a statue carved by an adolescent that he proposed to make the sculptor a member of his household. The boy’s father was not impressed. He told Lorenzo that his family would be demeaned if his son were to become a stonemason. But the youth believed that he had been born to carve stone, and so the father relented. In the Medici court the young sculptor was given a violet cloak, paid five ducats a month and treated as an artist. As it turned out, the sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti, was also born to paint, write poetry and be an architect. He even showed considerable talent for military engineering.

Michelangelo died in 1564 at the age of 88. The scale, variety and quality of his work during his long life are staggering. Generations of historians and biographers have tried both to explain and describe it. He was the subject of two biographies during his lifetime, and he appeared prominently in Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”, a seminal work of 16th-century art criticism. In Martin Gayford’s monumental new epic, the bibliography alone covers 15 pages. There will always be something worth saying about the man who sculpted a naked David 17 feet (5.5 metres) high and who painted the ceiling (detail pictured below) and the awesome “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. He came to architecture late in life but his staircase to the Laurentian Library in Florence is so beautiful that it transforms an architectural detail into a dazzling work of art.

Recent biographies of artists such as Titian and Vincent van Gogh have not been light reading, in either the literary or the literal sense. To distinguish their work from earlier biographies, authors dig deep into the social and political context in which these artists worked, and so does Mr Gayford. A gifted popular art historian, he has also become a student of the papacy in the 16th century. He writes that Michelangelo, who worked for ten popes, also argued with them and sometimes refused to do their bidding: “highly unwise, but revolutionary,” says Mr Gayford. Only in Florence did the church authorities know how to cope with him. “His disposition is such that, if spoken to kindly, he will do everything,” they told Pope Julius II, his patron. “It is necessary to show him love and favour him.”

That was not easy. Michelangelo was the most uncompromising of men; he insisted that he had not been taught anything by anyone and he preferred to work alone. He was also a miserly curmudgeon, given to complaining–about his tailor in Florence, for instance, who did not let him try on a doublet that turned out to be tight across the chest. Although he was entranced by handsome young men, he seemed to have had little appetite for sex. Eventually he quarrelled with nearly every one of his friends.

Although he was a contemporary–and unrelenting rival–of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo is an incomparable figure among artists, in a rarefied league with Shakespeare and Mozart. It is the job of a popular historian to remind each generation of the remarkable qualities of real genius. Mr Gayford’s readable life does just that.