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Review: Michelangelo's life framed in 'Six Masterpieces'

Michelangelo Buonarroti was, despite his first name, no angel. He was intensely, ungraciously competitive, overly sensitive to any behavior he considered a slight, and his loyalties and allegiance generally swung with the political winds. He left many projects unfinished to the dismay and anger of his patrons because he would lose interest when presented with a new challenge. His brilliance superseded those personality traits for many of the wealthy and powerful who coveted his art, and he did more than any other artist of his time to shift the perception of an artist as a gifted servant to one who was a superior individual because of those gifts.

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger joins the extensive list of books about his life and adds no new scholarship to them. Unger distinguishes his by using the organizational trope of building the biography around six of Michelangelo's greatest works: the Pieta, David, two huge paintings in the Sistine Chapel, the Medici tombs and St. Peter's Basilica. The choices allow Unger to elaborate on the artist's success with sculpture, painting and architecture. The author is a distinguished and elegant writer, and this book is a good read for those not already familiar with the details of Michelangelo's life and career.

They were, from the beginning, defined by his family's pretensions, though tenuous, to a noble heritage, to which Michelangelo clung. He took seriously his role as provider for his father and brothers (his mother died when he was 6) and throughout his life tried unsuccessfully to gain the approval of his irascible father, who considered his profession a lowly one. That dynamic, established in his youth, led Michelangelo to demand respect from others for himself and his art and to refuse to be told how to do it.

"He invented the notion of genius," Unger writes, "if by that term we mean greatness that flows from the peculiarities of an individual life and personality, not merely the application of great skill to a given medium."

Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, and his two best-known sculptures, the Pieta (1498-99) and David (1501-04), were created before he was 30. At 24, while living in Rome, he was commissioned by a French cardinal who was also the French ambassador to the Holy See to create "a Pieta out of marble ... that is a Virgin Mary clothed with the dead Christ in her arms."

What he created was astonishing, unexpected and revolutionary, Unger writes: "When Michelangelo set out to create his own version of the Pieta, it is clear. ... Fame, not piety, was his single motivation, and he would measure the success of the sculpture by how effectively it reminded viewers of his unique genius."

David was a civic commission in Florence, using a massive piece of marble almost 20 feet high. It was made in a time when the city state's fortunes were in decline and it felt threatened by war with other city states. The young man who felled the giant Goliath would be a public symbol of Florence's resilience. It, too, caused a sensation when unveiled. It took more than 40 men four days to roll it from Michelangelo's studio to the entrance of the city hall, where it towered over the mortals who passed it.

"Here for the first time and in spectacular form," Unger writes, "is the New Man celebrated by Renaissance writers. ... no longer the weak, sinful creature of the medieval imagination ..."

Though he was considered the greatest sculptor in Europe, Michelangelo was insecure about his skills as a painter, especially because he worked in the shadow of the greatest painter, Leonardo.

"He had no use for Leonardo's famous sfumate, the atmospheric haze that softens every contour and submerges form beneath an enveloping penumbra," Unger writes. "Michelangelo employs shading ... not to mask contours but to give them greater clarity. Even as a painter, (he) is a sculptor."

After David, Michelangelo went back to Rome to build Pope Julius II's tomb, which he worked on for years but never finished, being pulled away on other assignments. One of them was the Sistine Chapel ceiling, originally a modest commission that blossomed into a glorious behemoth, a "polyphonic choir," that tells the Genesis story on an oddly proportioned palette measuring 134 feet in length and 44 feet in width. Many of the figures in it are well known, but none more than those of Adam and God stretching their fingers toward each other. After the Mona Lisa, it's probably the most appropriated art in the Western canon. Through the ceiling, which was begun in 1508 and completed in 1512, Unger explains Michelangelo's development as a painter. Even more, "What we see is the product of Michelangelo's genius, not merely the skills of a consummate craftsman illustrating a theological text, but the passionate, unconventional vision of an artist who thought deeply about the miracle of Creation and developed his own unique language to confront life's most profound mysteries."

In the early 1520s, Michelangelo returned to Florence to design a chapel for the Medici family. It was his first venture into architecture, a daring design that reinterpreted classical motifs, though he never completed that, either. But by 1533, he had finished some of the planned sculptures, including four that were allegorical figures representing night and day, dawn and dusk, for two tomb lids. That they weren't the usual effigies of the deceased was untraditional, but Michelangelo's choice was more a deep philosophical statement, "duality ... raised to the status of a universal principal: male cleaves to female, light is separated from dark; life is inevitably followed by death," Unger writes.

In 1535, when the artist was in his 60s, he was once again in the Sistine Chapel for a new project under a new pope: to paint an end-of-times mural on the altar wall as a companion for the ceiling. It's a harrowing vision of salvation and damnation measuring 2,000 square feet with more than 400 figures.

"Radical foreshortenings and telescoping perspectives show how much he had learned from painting the ceiling," Unger writes. It was controversial, criticized for misrepresenting Scripture and containing too much nudity. In 1563, a year before his death, the Church hired another artist to cover up much of the nudity.

St. Peter's Basilica, with its famous dome, was the last great project of Michelangelo. He began working on it in 1547 and continued, with many delays, until 1564, the year of his death. After many more delays, it was completed in 1590, much of it greatly modified from his design.

"On Feb. 12, 1564, Michelangelo took up his tools for the last time. ... The following afternoon (he) suffered a minor stroke," Unger writes. He died six days later at age 88. Though he died in Rome, he was buried in his beloved Florence.

"Before Michelangelo, it was possible to tell the story of art without reference to the artist," writes Unger at the book's end. It's an interesting statement I'm thinking about. But I do agree with Unger's belief that "Despite what his friends believed, he was no saint, nor are the things he touched possessed of any supernatural power. He was a simple man, mortal and very flawed. But after five centuries, the works he left behind offer something more nourishing than the faint perfume of sanctity. They throb with the earthy, pulsing, difficult stuff of life."

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces

By Miles J. Unger

Simon and Schuster, 432 pages, $29.95

Review: Michelangelo's life framed in 'Six Masterpieces' 08/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 10:02am]

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