Michelangelo may very well be the most famous artist the world has seen. He’s such a towering figure that it’s often difficult to keep in mind that his staggering work was created amid the turmoil and difficulties of a life.
Miles Unger’s “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces” dramatizes how the artist rose from a family near poverty to become “the first truly modern artist, emancipated not only from a slavish subservience to his patrons but from social norms altogether.”
Unger, an art historian and journalist, aims to organize the life around a half dozen of the artist’s most famous works — the Pietà, David, the Sistine Chapel (one chapter on the ceiling, another on “Last Judgment’’) the Medici Tombs, and Saint Peter’s Basilica (he assisted in the building’s design). The art and artist remain central, but Unger also devotes significant space to the political realities of Renaissance Europe.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in the village of Caprese in 1475 and died in Rome in 1564.
During that 88-year period, he revolutionized the arts of sculpture and painting, giving the world a series of masterpieces and, as Unger writes, inventing “the very notion of genius, if by that term we mean greatness that flows from the peculiarities of an individual life and personality.’’
Michelangelo’s path from apprentice to master was short. His artistic temperament was almost fully formed by the time he took up the hammer and chisel. His faith in his power as an artist, and his refusal to adhere strictly to his masters’ or patrons’ desires over his own ambitions, were ever-present components of his working life.
The trajectory, therefore, isn’t so much a development of skill as an expanding of ambition — each of the six pieces Unger focuses on reveals how Michelangelo was most enthusiastic about projects whose scale matched his nearly boundless artistic self-confidence — and personally he was vindictive and devious.
Since Michelangelo’s life serves as a kind of urtext for what we mean by genius, it comes as no surprise that his family was more hindrance than help.
As Unger shows, most Buonarrotis were slackers, and for most of Michelangelo’s life his family relied on his wealth and fame. Michelangelo had a difficult relationship with his father, a tempestuous and paranoid man who often blamed his most accomplished son of working against him.
Michelangelo seemed to have inherited some of his father’s paranoia. According to Unger, Michelangelo was suspicious of his peers and colleagues; he wasn’t a large fan of Leonardo, and he held the younger artist Raphael in contempt. It seems that the artist often felt that the world conspired against his talent.
Not that Renaissance Italy lacked intrigue and danger. Much more so than today, artists were essential to political and national self-interest and self-presentation. Concretely, artists were often drafted to design military fortifications, as Michelangelo did for his beloved Florence.
Michelangelo worked at the pleasure of his patrons, for the most part, but his patrons changed with both the political and papal winds. Michelangelo served numerous popes during his career, each with different levels of indulgence for the artist’s often irascible temper.
“Michelangelo” does an admirable job summarizing this 16th-century inside baseball, but even Unger’s swift style can’t make these sections come alive. The result is history that’s too opaque for general readers yet too generic to be of use to specialists.
The biography proves more compelling when Unger stays closer to the specific circumstances of the artist’s work. Michelangelo, ever impatient and ambitious, always kept a lookout for the next challenge. For much of his life he was behind on projects, bargaining for time and revising his plans in the usually vain hope of completing the work.
“His insistence on controlling every aspect of his work was a source of his greatness,’’ Unger writes, “but it often led to disappointment when the magnificent visions he conjured surpassed the ability of any one man to bring them to fruition.”
Which brings us to one of Unger’s more poignant assertions: “More than any artist in history, Michelangelo left behind an impressive body of half-completed works . . . In fact, a list of his unfinished works would be far longer than a list of paintings and sculptures fully executed.”
Every project — every life — is in many ways a working out of the futility of ambition. When viewing the work of the “masters” it’s easy to forget the humanity of the creators. At its best, “Michelangelo” delivers a deeply human tribute to one of the most accomplished and fascinating figures in the history of Western culture.Michael Washburn is the interim director of the department of public programs at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He be reached at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @Whalelines.