Books: Unknowable genius of stone

Written By: Mike Parker
Published: August 2, 2017 Last modified: August 2, 2017

Michelangelo: His Epic Life
by Martin Gayford
Penguin Fig Tree £16.99

Can I say this? I don’t actually much like the work of Michelangelo. There, it’s done…

I’m not criticising! I was as awestruck as anyone when I saw the Sistine Chapel, despite being packed in like a Tokyo commuter (literally, since most of the fellow visitors appeared to be Japanese tourists, flashing away – photographically, that is – despite the pleas of the chapel attendants). And I could only stand in wonder at the otherworldly skill required to produce the Vatican Pietá, or the homoerotic and ironically Goliath-like David in Florence. But must admiration for the work equal affection?

But too much piety. Too much muscle. Too many exaggerated body forms. Execution extraordinary, imagination overwrought.

In a way, it’s not surprising that, considering the length of his career, from his entry into the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1487 at the age of 12, to his death in 1564 at 90, Michelangelo actually completed so few works. The physical effort, in itself enormous, must still have been small compared to the mental cost of fashioning, in his best works, such pure, naked emotion out of rock.

A curmudgeonly perfectionist, I would venture that Michelangelo was also – though Martin Gayford does not use the term – bi-polar; the volatile swings of mood, the periods of action and inaction, the difficulties in personal relations (not least familial), the occasional follies, the many jobs left undone … they are all classic symptoms.

And it’s difficult from Gayford’s book, to know whether anyone actually liked the man. He certainly had followers and admirers (inevitably less talented than him, such as the painter Sebastiano and the artist and writer Vasari), and possibly (male) lovers – though it’s impossible, as Gayford realises, to be sure whether his affections ever extended beyond the emotional to the physical. But he also made enemies: clients whose commissions went unfinished or undelivered, disgruntled former employees, movers and shakers distrustful of his political and religious allegiances.

The artistic reputation he earned, though, and the willingness of all but one of the Popes through whose reigns he worked to tolerate his foibles and missteps, suggest that there was something about him, beyond his genius, that for us, at such distance, is unknowable.

Irving Stone created a vivid fictionalised portrait of Michelangelo in his novel The Agony And The Ecstasy, one that was well transferred to the screen by Charlton Heston. Interestingly, in another novel, Lust For Life, he wrote about Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s sojourn in Arles, a subject Gayford has also written about in his superb The Yellow House. Gayford may not have freedom to fill gaps with imagination and invention like Stone, but he has the ability to write biography with a novelist’s skill and accessibility. Weighty though this book may be, it’s a great read, and wonderfully illustrated. Having been first published in 2013, its belated appearance in paperback is to be welcomed. Great holiday reading for art lovers!

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker is Literary Editor and Production Editor of Tribune