Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times
by William E. Wallace
“The greatest artist does not have any concept
Which a single piece of marble does not itself contain
Within its excess, though only
A hand that obeys the intellect can discover it.”
― Michelangelo, I Sonetti Di Michelangelo: The 78 Sonnets of Michelangelo with Verse Translation
Oscar Wilde once said, "I think a man should invent his own myth." One man for whom it could be said that he did this, at least indirectly through his contributions, is Michelangelo. He was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy to a family of moderate means in the banking business. He became an apprentice to a painter before studying in the sculpture gardens of the powerful Medici family. What followed was a remarkable career as an artist in the Italian Renaissance, recognized in his own time for his artistic virtuosity. It was a career of "an aristocrat who made art" according to his biographer William Wallace. Wallace's biography is compact at less than four hundred pages but it provides a generous amount of detail and interesting theories about the nature and importance of Michelangelo's life. Wallace studied biographies of other artists in his preparation for this work including those written by Richard Ellman, David Cairns, and Maynard Solomon. I think this helped him shape a worthy life of Michelangelo.
That Michelangelo was an artist worthy of note is a notion that began in his own lifetime as his contemporaries were writing about his life when he was in his early fifties. He was the only living artist to be included in Giorgio Vasari's famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects in 1550. Although this was an honor, perceived inaccuracies in Vasari's text led Michelangelo to ask his pupil and amanuensis, Ascanio Condivi, to write his biography. This Life of Michelangelo appeared three years later and emphasized, among other things, Michelangelo's noble origins. Thus the potential myth-making began. Wallace relies on many original documents including the letters of Michelangelo, of which there were more than a thousand, his records, and his family correspondence. I was interested in the attention paid to his poetry as I have long been fond of his sonnets. Not unexpectedly, however, the documentation for his life is uneven with gaps that make some of his life, especially the earlier years, more difficult to portray.
I appreciated the biographer's attention to the culture of the Renaissance and Michelangelo's place in it. The cultural history of society was presented with a focus on his times in Rome and Florence during progressive artistic periods of his life. The story of the artist reminded me of the story of other artists as Michelangelo was like many others who had difficulty persuading their father that the career of an artist was better than a prestigious profession and an advantageous marriage. Yet, even while Michelangelo insisted on an artistic career he still sometimes harbored misgivings and had doubts; nonetheless forging ahead in a direction that he thought would "resuscitate" his family name. Even more important to him, and this was an aspect of the life of painters and sculptors of his day, was his insistence that he was truly an artist; not a mere artisan running a workshop.
With works that include the "David" and "Pieta" statues and the ceiling paintings of Rome's Sistine Chapel, including the "Last Judgment" we look at him today as one of the greatest sculptors and painters of all time--a true genius. While Michelangelo lived most of his life in Rome, where he died in 1564 at age 88, he always considered himself a Florentine. He also was a generous family man who created great works of art for patrons that were more often than not his friends.
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