Michelangelo Buonarroti is, in some ways, a mystery. We know nothing of his sex life, despite the rainforests torn up in speculation. He habitually destroyed his drawings, with only about 500 remaining. So many (presumably) beautiful things are lost, among them the cartoons for The Battle of Cascina and two lunettes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the latter destroyed to make way for The Last Judgment. And yet we also know an extraordinary amount about his long life: the environments in which he lived, his collaborations, his finances, his daily existence. A list of clothes made by his father even survives.
Martin Gayford’s biography is a bold effort to put this, along with continents of art criticism, into a single volume. It does so, for the most part, with a terrific lightness of touch. On previous form, Gayford is more at home with modern art than the Renaissance, but he is an excellent storyteller: his narrative moves confidently between paying close attention to Michelangelo’s art, actions and materials, and embarking upon digressions on stone-mining in Italy and wet nursing, among other subjects.
So what is distinctive about this account when compared to existing biographies? Gayford’s Michelangelo is first and foremost a sculptor rather than a painter. However, because of his commitment to artisanal skill, he is also emphasised as an accomplished architect, poet and military engineer. He is the anti- Leonardo, making poetry (as opposed to science) out of the body: indeed, this antithesis recurs throughout the book. As for ‘sodomy’ – as contemporaries and much modern criticism persists in referring to homosexual acts – there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that he was attracted to beautiful young men and had sex with them. Or we may be misreading the evidence, misled by the prudish language of the time and the way in which non-sexual affection was frequently clothed in the same language as amorousness. Thankfully, this account largely avoids pointless speculation.
Gayford’s Michelangelo is competitive, as the artistic culture of Renaissance Florence and Rome encouraged; he is also ill-tempered, antisocial, occasionally high-handed, acquisitive of money, yet frugal in spending on himself, irascible in an understated way, republican, proudly Florentine, and theologically dissident. He resents the hand that feeds him, whether Medici, papal, or both. He feels enslaved to his patrons and, because of this – as well as turbulent Italian politics – commissions for tombs for the Medicis and Pope Julius II torment him for years. He doesn’t like to smile too much.
Gayford admits that his subject was dislikable. But can one really dislike a man so Eeyorish that, when completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he remarked: “Other things have not turned out for me as I’d hoped. For this I blame the times, which are very unfavourable to our art.” While there may be nothing essentially distinctive about Gayford’s Michelangelo, this is an engaging, authoritative portrait that mixes history, art and biography with deft storytelling.
Joad Raymond is professor of Renaissance studies and co-director of the Centre for Early Modern Mapping, News and Networks at Queen Mary University of London