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New Book: Charting Michelangelo’s Rise to Fame

James Hall —  a freelance art critic and historian who has written two books about Michelangelo — ends his review of Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal with this note: “…biographers will undoubtedly be redrawing Michelangelo for many centuries to come.”

Nonetheless, the book in question, by Michael Hirst, a London-based Michelangelo scholar, is long-awaited and does seem to have its virtues. I enjoyed several of Hall’s observations and anecdotes, presumably drawn from Hirst. The review tells us, for example, that Michelangelo’s magnificent David (1501-04) was made from marble that “had been lying around in the cathedral workshops since the 1460s after a previous attempt to carve a statue.” Michelangelo recycled the abandoned block.

And who knew that Michelangelo was as busy writing letters in his day as people using Twitter today? Hall writes:

There are around 1,400 surviving letters to and from the artist (Saturday was his letter-writing day), as well as memorandums, contracts, bank-account details, poems—even the odd shopping list. He is easily the best documented Renaissance artist. Most of the letters and memorandums were given to the city of Florence in 1858 by Michelangelo’s last descendant, but on condition that they not be copied. It was only in 1964 that this stipulation was lifted. The material has now been published in eight big scholarly volumes, the last of which appeared in 2005. The restoration of the Sistine Chapel from 1980 to 1994, and of many other works, has also furnished masses of new information.

This book deals with Michelangelo’s career up to 1534, when he moves permanently to Rome at the age of 59 to paint “The Last Judgment.” Known for his crankiness, Michelangelo had to help support his brothers and fathers, although he falsely claimed noble heritage. “Michelangelo preferred to think of himself as a self-made genius,” but while “we still don’t know who taught him how to carve,” Hirst shows that the artist learned a lot in the studio of Ghirlandaio, which he entered at age 13, and — says Hall in the review — “The younger artist was hugely indebted to Ghirlandaio’s painting methods and his workshop organization, with its careful division of labor. When painting the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo initially had six assistants, virtually the same number as Ghirlandaio used for his major fresco cycles. ”

We also learn that Michelangelo’s “first sculpture, “Bacchus,” was rejected by the cardinal who had commissioned it—no doubt because this god of wine really does look very tipsy” and that “It was the St. Peter’s Pietà (1498-9), made for the tomb of a French cardinal, that made his name. It is the only work that Michelangelo signed, and he did so with a lover’s boldness, on the strap that passes between the Virgin’s breasts. From then on, he was never seriously short of commissions or money. His perennial problem was making realistic proposals, completing work and knowing when to say no.”

Hall’s review of the book is lukewarm, saying it lacks “passion and vision.” Hence, the first sentence of this post. But if you’re curious about the artist’s life, the “day-to-day detail,” Hirst’s 438 pages, published by Yale University Press, are for you. And a second volume is planned.

 

 

Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Dobrzynski,

    You write “I enjoyed several of Hall’s observations and anecdotes, presumably drawn from Hirst. The review tells us, for example, that Michelangelo’s magnificent David (1501-04) was made from marble that “had been lying around in the cathedral workshops since the 1460s after a previous attempt to carve a statue.” Michelangelo recycled the abandoned block.And who knew that Michelangelo was as busy writing letters in his day as people using Twitter today?”

    I would answer: Just about anybody who has read even one measly biography about Michelangelo, or looked into a book about the history of the visual arts would know these basic facts. Michelangelo’s poems have been set to music by countless composers, and it is well-known that he had extensive correspondence with his family, Vittoria Colonna and other members of her circle of friends (who were all possibly members of the secret Illuminati society along with Michelangelo).

    That you seem so thrilled about these “revelations” in the review of Michael Hirst’s book makes me believe you have done neither.

    • Sorry I have disappointed you — I knew of Michelangelo’s poems, of course, but not the volume of his letters and other documents. Hirst certainly found new things to say based on them. Also, please keep in mind that not every reader of RCA is an art historian. Perhaps you will find other revelations in the book and the review that I did not mention.

  2. Luke Benedict says:

    Very interesting Judith.

    “And who knew that Michelangelo was as busy writing letters in his day as people using Twitter today?”

    I think much of the archive has been digitized and may even be available online now (Casa Buonarroti archive?).

    I’ve just finished reading an ebook/historical novel about Michelangelo during the same period (up to 1532) which has changed my view of the artist quite a lot. The letters to and from Michelangelo seem to have been copiously used by the author (George Freart). The book focuses on the story of the disappearance of his last easel painting ‘Leda and the Swan’ rather than the artist himself, but still, it’s the most realistic treatment of a great artist that I’ve come across in literature. As an artist, I’d say it was written by a fellow artist. I don’t know how easy it will be to go back to dry biographies now but if I do, I’ll give your recomendation a try 🙂

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