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Michelangelo: A Tormented Life by Antonio Forcellino

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Michelangelo: A Tormented Life by Antonio Forcellino
Michelangelo: A Tormented Life
by Antonio Forcellino, translation by Allan Cameron
Polity, 300 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

When Art Meets Politics and Religion

Until a few days before he died in Rome at age eighty-nine on February 15, 1564, Michelangelo Buonarotti was still hard at work, still living in his customary humble circumstances, and still dressing in the rough artist’s smock. Nevertheless he was the most celebrated artist of his day, praised throughout Europe, and so the Church in Rome claimed his body for what was expected to be an ostentatious burial offering abundant reflected glory. This did not prevent Vatican hirelings from ransacking his house, which overlooked the pastureland that was once the ancient Roman Forum. From its ground floor workshop they spirited away all the works he personally owned and a number of incomplete sculptures. His corpse was temporarily deposited in the Church of the Santi Apostoli, a few hundred yards from his home.

Before dawn on the morning of February 18 a group of Florentines entered the church stealthily and stole Michelangelo’s body, which they concealed on a farm cart. Upon arrival of the corpse three days later in Florence, thousands of citizens turned out spontaneously, dressed in workmen’s and artists’ smocks like those Michelangelo himself wore. Many wept as they accompanied the bier in an improvised procession through the dark streets. No such a procession, as if for a saint, had ever been seen there before.

The battle for possession of his body synthesizes the contentious relationship of the arts, religion and politics existing throughout the lifetime of Michelangelo. Lorenzo de’ Medici’s patronage first introduced the young painter’s apprentice to sculpture, but only a few years after Lorenzo died, the monk Savonarola was preaching against the “vanities,” and paintings were among the objects of luxury put to the torch. Not surprisingly, Michelangelo fled to Rome, where his first work was a gloriously handsome adolescent Bacchus, a sculpture which he could never have crafted at that time in Florence. Decades later, however, the mature artist, who sympathized with reformers within the Church, was challenging and rewriting, in his art, the rigid instructions that limited religious iconography to the emphatically inspirational.

Antonio Forcellino’s welcome new biography of Michelangelo tells what amounts to a breath-taking and even thrilling story offering much that is brand new in an obviously crowded field. Forcellino has had unique access to up-to-date research, including from newly opened Vatican archives studied by Adriano Prosperi and Massimo Firpo. Nineteenth-century documents have been recently reordered philologically by Giovanni Poggi and Paola Barocchi while Rab Hatfield has analyzed Michelangelo’s financial records, which prove that the artist was not above telling bold lies when it suited him. Beyond these written sources, Forcellino, who is an art restorer himself as well as art historian and the author of a biography of Raphael, brings his own perceptions and insights. There can be few other art biographers in the world who have physically restored the sculptures they write about, and these hands-on descriptions of the colors of the paint, the surfaces, the details of sculpture help us to see Michelangelo in a new and more informed manner.

We first meet Michelangelo in Florence, where the patrician Buonarotti family has suffered so many reversals that the boy of twelve was put to work grinding colors and cleaning brushes and other tools for the Ghirlandaio brothers, who had won the commission for a fresco cycle in Santa Maria Novella; it is believed that the new apprentice may have worked on one. Even as an apprentice, however, Michelangelo was keenly aware of his own value, and was caught sniggering over a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio which he deemed unworthy. Shortly afterward the cheeky apprentice was released from that workshop and became a protégé of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Michelangelo had been away from Florence for six years when he was invited to carve a Pietà. The cardinal who commissioned the sculpture was French, Jean de Bilhères. As Forcellino explains, the theme of the Deposition of Christ was “an image very dear to northern religiosity…. The Germans called it Vesperbild because it was particularly suited to melancholic contemplations of the evening, when nuns concentrated their thoughts and prayers on that agonized maternity.” Even at the time Michelangelo was criticized for giving the Madonna the face of a very young woman, but—as he retorted—virgins age less than other women (!)

To the written accounts Forcellino adds fascinating and enriching insights into the construction and finishing of the sculpture itself; he personally restored Michelangelo’s four-statue complex of the Tomb of Julius II in Rome’s St. Peter in Chains. Although this writer has seen the Vatican’s Pietà numerous times, including before it was separated from viewers by a wall of bullet-proof glass, Forcellino’s description made me see it as if for the first time. The same is true of the Julius II tomb, with its beloved Moses, where Forcellino recounts his own emotions at finding original marble dust left by Michelangelo himself in crannies inside the statue.

Among the lesser known periods of Michelangelo’s life was during the three Councils of Trent. Along with Vittoria Colonna and others dissatisfied with the corruption of the Church decried by the Lutherans, Michelangelo fell under the sway of an English cardinal Reginald Pole, who was promoting the sort of reforms within the Church that, they hoped, would heal the breach with North Europe. Pole’s circle was known as the “Spirituals,” and in his paintings—specifically, his last wall painting cycle, for the Pauline Chapel inside the Vatican Palace—Michelangelo stubbornly ignored conventional Church restrictions on iconography and invented his own, which reflected the courageous theological interpretations of the Spirituals. Pole was at one time a leading candidate to become pope, but he was not elected and indeed was forced to explain himself before the Church fathers. Michelangelo’s Pauline Chapel, in which conclaves to elect a new pope were held at that time, was later embarrassing to the Church as theologically defiant, and the last council of Trent issued orders limiting the artists’ rights to devise their own interpretations.

Allan Cameron’s translating task must not have been easy, given the technical terms of art restoration. Forcellino is an art restorer, not a professional writer, but his skills in his own field more than compensate for occasional literary lapses.

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