By Jerry Brotton
9 November 2013
Martin Gayford is one of our most distinguished writers on what makes modern artists tick. In a series of deft and intimate books written over the past decade he has explored John Constable’s passions,discoursed on art with David Hockney, and provided a riveting account of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. The Yellow House was his compelling account of the turbulent relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin from October to December 1888.
What Gayford does best is to get up close and personal with an artist, preferably one still living. Over a relatively short, intense period of time he is able to explore the fragile and fleeting act of artistic creation with a skill and sympathy that few other writers possess. So to take on the culturally and historically distant life of Michelangelo, without any apparent training in Renaissance art or Italian is not only an epic, but extremely brave, and some might even suggest foolhardy undertaking.
Michelangelo is second only to Shakespeare in requiring no more popular or scholarly biographies speculating on his public and private life, nor any further pointless speculations about who he slept with. The difficulties of writing his biography are compounded by the inconvenient facts that he simply did so much, and lived so long, through one of the most interesting periods of western history. By the time he died in 1564 aged 88, he had survived the invasion of northern Italy, the rise and fall of his great patrons the Medici, the religious Reformation of Luther as well as its Counter-Reformation centred on his adopted home of Rome, and managed in the process to work for some of the bloodiest autocrats of his day, including eight popes for whom he created some of the greatest art the world has ever seen. The task isn’t made any easier when Gayford admits that “there are grounds for disliking Michelangelo” and agrees with one of the artist’s contemporaries that “the patience of Job would not suffice for one day of dealing with this man”.
So do we really need another biography of Michelangelo? It is a testament to Gayford’s skill as a writer that he nearly manages to convince us that the answer is yes. The main problem is that over nearly 700 pages his portrait is carved with such painstaking care to get everything down and in the right place that there is no room for anything recognisably new or distinctive about “his” Michelangelo. The early life is dutifully retold: the enduringly difficult relations with his father, the adoption by the Medici, his precocious talent, and notorious refusal to acknowledge his artistic debt to anyone but himself. Gayford is at his best when catching the nuance of a line from Vasari’s Lives, a fragment from Michelangelo’s letters, or an overlooked drawing on the back of a sketch, revealing the artist’s “bizarre, extraordinary imagination – his fantasia – in free play, not harnessed to any task”.
But these are infrequent flashes of insight that often get lost in retellings of the labyrinthine religious and dynastic squabbles that defined 16th-century Italian political life, and through which Michelangelo, despite his passionate and irascible nature, somehow managed to survive. Ill at ease with the historical context, Gayford can too easily reach for glib or anachronistic analogies: the claims that a “plentiful supply of water” led to the Renaissance, and that the Medicis fixed the Florentine constitution show that he might have been more successful in writing a book a third as long that stuck to quarrying Michelangelo’s works and letters to build up a closer profile of the man.
It is very difficult to cut through the thicket of generations of scholarship and say anything new about David, the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment, the Basilica of St Peter’s or many of Michelangelo’s other masterpieces, but Gayford manages to do so by encouraging us to think – and look – at both the obvious and the overlooked. David is “a monster whose parts do not add up to any real human frame”, a fully grown adult in the proportions of a boy. The speed at which the final sections of the Sistine Chapel were finished reveal how the “whirlwind of God’s creation and Michelangelo’s own merge into one”.
When the relations are human, Gayford’s writing comes alive, as he weaves in and out of Michelangelo’s close but tempestuous relationship with Pope Julius II, the cat and mouse game played over commissions, the feuds with everyone from Leonardo in Florence to Raphael and Sangallo in Rome, and the tortured, erotically charged poetry addressed to his lifelong friend, the young, handsome Tommaso dei Cavalieri.
The later sections concerning the 1550s and 1560s are well told, and capture effectively the shifting religious and political atmosphere in Counter-Reformation Rome that led to fig leaves being placed over Michelangelo’s Sistine frescoes, even as the octogenarian artist exhibited what Gayford calls his terribilità in fighting off young pretenders to his crown as the greatest living artist. Ultimately, Gayford is overwhelmed by his task, but it is hard to imagine who would not be when faced with such a Herculean challenge. For a brisk and reliable read on Michelangelo’s life, with flashes of intuitive brilliance on the works, Gayford’s book does what it sets out to achieve, but I hope he soon returns to what he does best: pursuing the fugitive fragment, rather than the epic colossus.
Fig Tree, 688pp, Telegraph offer price: £26 plus £1.35 p&p (RRP £30). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk
A life of Michelangelo on the grand scale
Martin Gayford's Michelangelo: an Epic Life bucks the trend for micro-history in compelling style
14 December 2013
Early on in this dazzling new biography, Martin Gayford compares Michelangelo, with his daunting artistic tasks, to Hercules, the subject of an early (and now lost) sculpture. A Michelangelo biographer is likewise faced with an intimidatingly Herculean task. ‘Few other human beings except the founders of religions,’ acknowledges Gayford, ‘have been more intensively studied and discussed.’ Such was Michelangelo’s fame — he became ‘something approximating to a modern media celebrity’ — that in his own lifetime he was the subject of three biographies.
And he does not make things easy for biographers. He was an enigmatic, paradoxical figure, with his earliest biographer, Paolo Giovio, ruefully noting the disparity between his divine gifts and his ‘unbelievable meanness’. He was also incredibly long-lived: born in 1475, in the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici, he died almost nine decades later in Rome, during the height of the Counter-Reformation.
Indefatigably active as an artist until only weeks before his death, he produced a staggeringly abundant body of work: paintings, sculpture and architecture, as well as countless drawings and more than 300 poems. For over half a century, he was at the heart of political and ecclesiastical power, coveted by princes and the intimate of popes, one of whom, Julius III, planned to keep his embalmed corpse faithfully by his side if Michelangelo predeceased him (fortunately, the pope died first).
Gayford is the author of two lively, poignant studies of crucial episodes in the history of art: The Yellow House, detailing Gauguin and Van Gogh’s tragic interplay during their nine weeks together in Arles in 1888, and Constable in Love, which follows the painter’s love affair with his muse, Maria Bicknell.
Here, bucking the trend for micro-histories and slimmed-down biographies, he turns to history on a grander scale, attempting to render full justice to a figure even more titanic than Constable or Van Gogh. His biography is therefore something of an epic in its own right, exhaustively researched and absorbing everything from contemporary letters and those first gossipy biographies, to the latest research into the finer points of Michelangelo’s (surprisingly effective) business methods.
The end result is a perceptive and finely nuanced biography that’s as compellingly readable as Gayford’s earlier histories. Despite its size, the work is a marvel of economy as it hurtles smartly through the action-packed decades that see Michelangelo scurrying back and forth from Florence to Rome, with long forays in the marble quarries of Carrara.
The narrative is at its most engrossing when tracing the ups and downs of Michelangelo’s erratic mid-life career. After the brilliant beginnings of the Pietà and the David — both completed before he reached the age of 30 — came many unhappy years of frustrated and often fruitless toil. The Sistine Chapel fresco was a triumph, but Gayford shows how, with excruciating consistency, various other projects either languished incomplete or disastrously came a-cropper. Even the great Michelangelo, he reminds us as a corrective to the romantic hero-worship, ‘could be mediocre’.
He may have been known in his own lifetime as Il Divino, but few of his works, even the greatest, escaped criticism of one sort of another. The David was regarded by many, Gayford points out, as a ‘freakish oddity’. No sooner did it emerge from the workshop than it was pelted with stones (the doing of either a pro-Medici faction or ‘Florentine yobs’), and its privates were hastily garlanded with gilded leaves — evidently to the satisfaction of Leonardo da Vinci, who sniffed that he wished it to have ‘decent ornaments’.
It would not be the last time Michelangelo’s insistence on nudity challenged viewers. His Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel — painted in the 1530s and memorably described by Gayford as a throng of ‘groins, penises, breasts, testicles and buttocks’ — struck a wrong note in a sober age of religious reform.
If Michelangelo’s artistic adversities were the result of sanctimonious prudery, political vicisissitudes, and impossibly overambitious schemes (one project mooted by Pope Clement VII was a 76-foot-high marble colossus), much was also down to the artist’s own stubborn and ornery nature. Gayford is clearly entranced by this bizarre and at times appalling character whose personality was as strained and contorted as one of his sculptures: the social snob who believed himself descended from ‘the bluest blood in Tuscany’, yet who mixed best with humble village stonemasons; the penny-pincher who extorted large sums from his patrons (and who died with a fortune in ducats squirrelled away in household jars), yet who could be ‘extraordinarily, embarrassingly generous’; and the pious Christian whose ‘strongest feelings of desire were denounced as sinful by the Church in which he believed’.
Gayford avoids undue speculation — most notably regarding Michelangelo’s exasperatingly shrouded sex life — and sticks to the known facts. But he is imaginative and inquisitive throughout, distilling the tomes of scholarship and judiciously sifting the evidence. Mercifully, no doubt, he shies away from the numerous scholarly spats and knotty problems of attribution, although I would have enjoyed his frank take on a number of contentious works, such as ‘The Entombment’ and ‘The Manchester Madonna’, two unfinished works in the National Gallery.
The modern-day analogies occasionally jar: Pietro Torrigiano as Flashman; the fashion for love-sick sonnets taking hold in 16th-century Italy ‘as rock and roll did in 1950s Europe’. But for anyone who believes that little is left to say about Michelangelo’s paintings or sculpture, Gayford presents shrewd insights into their fascinating minutiae, such as the tantalisingly incomplete signature on the Pietà, or the way the nudity of the David was necessitated by the shape of the marble. He also punctures some age-old myths, and suggests that Michelangelo and Leonardo might actually have started off as mutual admirers and even possibly friends, sharing notes on a Latin teacher and copying each other’s work.
A 1568 biography of Michelangelo declared him the greatest man the arts had ever known. Yet it is sobering to think that, at the end of his long life, he doubted his achievement. A despairing poem questions the worth of his sculptures (‘so many toys’) and wonders ‘what /The point was’. He need not have feared. As Gayford shows, Michelangelo’s greatest achievement lay not in even his finest works but rather in his own brilliant, belligerent, larger-than-life personality — in the way that, thanks to his energy and ambition, he ‘transformed the notion of what an artist could be’.
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