Books Italy

Roll over, Vasari

First volume of Michael Hirst’s life of Michelangelo is a triumph of scholarship

Michelangelo's Pietà, 1498-99

It would seem that biographies of Michelangelo are like London buses—you wait for ages for one to appear, and then two turn up at once. As if this were not enough of a spooky coincidence, they compound it by both electing to concentrate on the first half of the great man’s career, although John Spike calls a halt in 1508 with Michelangelo signing up to paint the Sistine ceiling, whereas Michael Hirst carries on to 1534.

In other respects, too, these are very different books. Hirst’s first publication to discuss Michelangelo was a learned article of exceptional brilliance, which appeared in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes for 1961. He has been thinking about Michelangelo and writing about his art for more than half a century, and has long been almost universally acknowledged as the supreme authority on his work as a painter, draughtsman, sculptor and architect. Yet it is not his eminence as an art historian that makes this book such an extraordinary achievement. Its merits derive from the fact that Hirst studied history before he switched to art history, and he has always remained a historian at heart. His depth of knowledge about the life, career and associates of his hero shines forth from every page, but so does his passionate engagement with and profound curiosity about the period more generally.

Michelangelo’s immense fame in his lifetime inspired both Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi to pen lives of him, which are unprecedentedly substantial within the realm of artistic biography. Moreover, an immense number of letters from him, to him and about him have been preserved, and all these tools mean we have a unique awareness of both his day-to-day activity and his remarkable personality. Hirst’s brand of scholarship is ferociously uncompromising, and he has written the book he wanted to, which is austerely free, for example, of pop psychology. It has not been designed to please the lowest common denominator. One of the most striking consequences of this is that there are, to all intents and purposes, no purple—or even pale violet—passages about works of art. Thus, the discussion of Michelangelo’s early Pietà, 1498-99, does not actually say where it has ended up, although that information does accompany the illustration of the work. There is certainly no mention of the hammer attack that damaged it in 1971, which in contrast is a very important part of its story as far as Spike is concerned (although even he does not comment on the fact that the group is now so far away behind its protective glass that it is impossible to admire its miraculous surface in detail, even with binoculars).

For a scholarly audience, Hirst’s biography is the last word on its subject, and it is impossible to imagine it being surpassed. Its footnotes contain all sorts of fascinating leads—and quotations in Italian and Latin—which are bound to inspire future research, but the main body of the text is beautifully written and will prove perfectly approachable to that all but extinct creature, the intelligent general reader.Spike’s style is altogether more pacey and racy, and—as with the Pietà—he follows the works out of their own time up to the present. In the case of the early wooden crucifix, around 1492, for example, he relates the compelling story of how it was rediscovered by Margrit Lisner in November 1962 in a corridor leading to the kitchen of Santo Spirito in Florence, the very church that Condivi recorded the piece as having been executed in.All of this might seem to indicate that the major difference between these biographies is one of tone and, to a lesser extent, emphasis. Where they differ most of all, however, is in the fact that Hirst all but confines himself to the biography of his hero, whereas Spike has in effect produced a “life and times”, in which almost as much attention is accorded to his most celebrated contemporaries as to Michelangelo himself. To give one example among many, Hirst refers en passant to the death of Savonarola, but not to the manner of his death, whereas Spike gives a chillingly vivid account of his burning at the stake.

Unfortunately, there is another difference, and it concerns reliability. On page 61 of his biography, Spike refers to Antonio Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Nudes, 1465-75, as “an engraving of seven naked men armed to the teeth”. He also illustrates the print in question, which makes it easy for his readers to ascertain that it contains ten figures, not seven. It might be objected that this is simply an unfortunate slip, and I cannot claim to have made a list of all the Homeric nods on offer, but the problem is that mastering such a daunting body of material is no easy matter, and that all indications of a failure to do so can hardly fail to induce a measure of unease about the author’s trustworthiness as an interpreter of evidence. As stated above, the wooden crucifix by Michelangelo, which is uncomplicatedly accepted as his work, re-emerged a mere half-century ago. Moreover, a handful of major and equally unimpeachable drawings by his hand have been identified in the intervening decades, so there is no inherent reason why the two paintings that are the subject of Antonio Forcellino’s The Lost Michelangelos might not be by the master (although Lady Bracknell might have worried about there being two of them).

Even without having studied the originals, I have a powerful suspicion that these particular postulants will sink without trace. One of the three reviews on the back cover says that this “new book reads like a detective story”, but stops short of a total endorsement. Maybe the learned professor responsible for it wisely recalled that detective stories are, as a rule, works of fiction.

Michelangelo: Volume I: the Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534, Michael Hirst, Yale University Press, 416 pp, £30 (hb)

Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine, John T. Spike, Duckworth, 336 pp, £20 (hb)

The Lost Michelangelos, Antonio Forcellino, Polity Press, 180 pp, £18.99 (pb)

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