Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2011
William Wallace Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 428 pp.; 10 color ills. Cloth $30.00 (9780521111997)
Bernadine Barnes Michelangelo in Print: Reproductions as Response in the Sixteenth Century Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 244 pp.; 71 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780754663782)

Two new books on Michelangelo Buonarroti explore his life and work from different yet complementary vantage points. With Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times, William Wallace offers a new biography that aims to present a balanced portrait to counter persistent characterizations of the artist as “an isolated, tortured genius, with few friends, an unappreciative family, and impossibly demanding patrons” (7). To this end, Wallace relies heavily on Michelangelo’s correspondence, professional records, and poetry as well as letters written among family members and friends and related documents including contracts, accounting records, and the highly influential biographies by Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari. The book is divided into two parts of eight chapters each. The first explores his early life and career divided between Florence, Bologna, and Rome. The second begins after his final departure from Florence in September 1534 and describes his final three decades in the Eternal City. Events are presented in more or less chronological order and alternate between accounts of Michelangelo’s private relationships with family and friends and his business dealings with patrons and associates.

A recurring theme is Michelangelo’s concern with the Buonarroti name (the family claimed descent from the medieval counts of Canossa) and its continuation through his nephew Lionardo. Woven into his day-to-day concerns about money, property, and family are descriptions of the commissions and designs that made him famous. This balance of the mundane and the sublime allows Wallace to contextualize and humanize Michelangelo the artist but may leave some readers yearning for him to write a more traditional monograph, as some of the book’s most exciting and beautifully written passages are those that describe Michelangelo’s art. Unfortunately, only ten of these projects are reproduced without reference to corresponding plate numbers in the text, thus requiring readers to be fairly familiar with the artist’s oeuvre.

An introductory note indicates three deliberate departures “from the historian’s objective voice” to devise “informed reconstructions based on extant evidence” (xvi). Chapter 1 imagines the young Michelangelo’s first visit to Rome in 1496 using letters written at the time to family in Florence. Chapter 7 creates a “story of one week in [Michelangelo’s] busy life” while working in Florence on the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo. Though set in July 1525, this account “is a condensation of actual events that transpired” between 1518 and 1526 (358 n. 1). Chapter 16 narrates the removal of Michelangelo’s body to Florence after his death in Rome on February 18, 1564. These narrative episodes, while vibrant, are frustrating and somewhat confusing interruptions in Wallace’s otherwise clearly documented history of Michelangelo’s life. Despite Wallace’s demonstrations of the artist’s wit, warmth, and concern for family and friends, Michelangelo still earns his reputation for melancholy and ill temper, his disquiet evident in many of the quoted letters and poems. Especially poignant are the artist’s struggles with old age, both physical and emotional, as we watch him lose friends and family, strength, and a steady hand. Ultimately Michelangelo emerges from Wallace’s text as both ordinary and extraordinary. His concerns with money, family name, and prestige are typical of his Florentine culture and elite social status. His longevity, unorthodox working methods, abandonment of certain important projects, and unparalleled success with others set him apart.

In Michelangelo in Print, Bernadine Barnes returns to the subject of the artist’s reception, this time through examination of the rich yet underexplored corpus of early reproductive prints after the master. Though not “prints of invention,” these reproductions of Michelangelo’s works (perhaps better called re-presentations) are worthy of study not only because they typify sixteenth-century Italian printmaking but also because they offer “an important form of response, an indicator of how a wider public was seeing, understanding, and valuing Michelangelo’s work” (4). A brief introduction sets out various biases against reproductive prints and their more recent acceptance as worthy subjects among print specialists as well as Barnes’s intention to use them as a means to understand both critical and popular reaction to the artist. Rather than “deformations” or “contaminations,” alterations and additions to Michelangelo’s inventions are seen as “part of a complex, thoughtful process . . . involving selection, transcription, and distribution that served [Michelangelo] by making his work accessible to people other than the original patrons, and visible in places where it could not otherwise be seen” (6).

Seven thematic and somewhat chronological chapters explore various Italian and northern European engravers and publishers who took Michelangelo’s designs as their subjects over the course of the sixteenth century. While this organization requires Barnes to make references to other chapters throughout her text and prevents a clear view of individual printers’ oeuvres, it allows her to keep the focus on Michelangelo and the artworks that inspired so many of his own and successive generations to produce graphic and written interpretations of his work. The first four chapters address prints based on Michelangelo’s paintings and drawings, followed by chapters on those after his architecture and sculpture. The final chapter explores the relationship between visual and verbal descriptions of his designs, and the consistent separation of the two, with particular attention to those found in the biographies by Paolo Giovio (ca. 1528), Vasari (first published in 1550) and Condivi (1553), and the dialogues by Giovanni Andrea Gilio (1564) and Raffaello Borghini (1584).

Chapter 1 explores the common practice among engravers to select single figures or small groups to be reproduced with new settings and/or framing elements. Such “fragmenting” of Michelangelo’s compositions, especially in the case of the lost cartoon for The Battle of Cascina (1503–4), recalls the long-standing workshop practice of students copying individual figures to master both anatomy and movement and reflects the somewhat piecemeal nature of Michelangelo’s compositions, which appear more as collections of figure pairs and groups than integrated wholes. The selective reproduction of certain figures by artists like Marcantonio Raimondi, Agostino (Musi) Veneziano, and Cherubino Alberti underscores the wide recognition among artists and critics of Michelangelo’s mastery of anatomy, specifically “his command of the human body, set in poses that were both artificial and yet very beautiful for their complexity” (18). This appreciation may explain why engravings after the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508–12), the subject of chapter 2, primarily focus on the prophets, sibyls, and corner pendentives, though Barnes speculates that it may be simply that the figures from the lunettes and pendentives were easier to copy than the narratives on the ceiling. Though interest in the ceiling was fueled by the unveiling of the Last Judgment in 1541, only the engraving of 1588–90 by Ambrogio Brambilla after Giacomo Vivio dell’Aquila attempts to show the full complexity of the Sistine Chapel program; however, the ceiling elements (and some invented narratives) are depicted as a frame to the Last Judgment and thus do not indicate the chapel’s organization (fig. 2.8). While selective and sometimes inaccurate, prints after the Sistine Ceiling allowed a much wider audience to appreciate the frescoes than those invited into the pope’s chapel. Continuing the discussion of how engravers like Nicolas Beatrizet, Giulio Bonasone, Cornelis Bos, Giorgio Ghisi, Enea Vico, Adamo Scultori, and others widened the circle of viewers for Michelangelo’s works, chapter 3 examines prints after the highly finished drawings made for Tommaso de’Cavalieri and Vittoria Colonna as well as designs given to other painters like Marcello Venusti and Sebastiano del Piombo. Chapter 4 presents prints after the Last Judgment and the even more difficult to access frescoes from the Pauline chapel. Controversy and curiosity about the former led to great demand for prints, and numerous printmakers undertook single and multi-plate reproductions of the fresco in its entirety as well as single plates of certain sections and figures. The Pauline Chapel frescoes, despite their even more limited availability for viewing, did not engender the same level of excitement, and consequently inspired many fewer reproductions.

Throughout these discussions, Barnes raises interesting questions about why certain motifs and works were chosen—revealing that a Roman provenance was almost always a factor—and about why patrons were willing to allow copies, adaptations, and dissemination of their Michelangelo originals. Publishers sought to satisfy a variety of buyers with their prints, including artists looking for models, antiquarians interested in Michelangelo’s art, and Christian viewers seeking religious imagery for devotional use. Barnes astutely points out that most printmakers did not create true facsimiles of Michelangelo’s designs but rather revised, reframed, and embellished his inventions. Whether as artistic tool, collectible, or religious object, many of the prints under review prominently identified Michelangelo’s role as inventor even when significant modifications were included. Barnes does not see “these sorts of changes as signs of disrespect toward the artist’s invention [but rather] as adaptations, designed to appeal to new audiences” (85), whether through landscape elements, accompanying texts, or clarifications of iconography. She finds much evidence that engravers relied on drawings, other prints, or paintings after Michelangelo’s designs rather than on firsthand experience with his originals, which—together with the frequent modifications—show the sixteenth-century understanding of authorship and invention to be broader and looser than our own. Indeed, prints after paintings by Venusti and Sebastiano del Piombo, even when they embellished the original design, routinely credit Michelangelo as their inventor while omitting credit for their executors.

Chapter 5 focuses on prints after Michelangelo’s architectural designs. Once again, Florentine projects are absent from the printed oeuvre, which reproduces papal commissions in Rome. Like prints after the Sistine Chapel frescoes, “images of [these buildings] served to enhance the reputation of the pope” (121). Moreover, prints of architectural projects often completed buildings only minimally imagined or constructed at the time of printing, as revealed through comparisons between engraving and structure as built. Interestingly, certain engravings showing the Farnese Palace, Capitoline project, and St. Peter’s do not contain Michelangelo’s name, which seems to have been included on architectural prints only after his death, perhaps reflecting the artist’s “own reluctance to document his design in print while it was still in flux” (133). Reproductions of Michelangelo’s sculptural projects, the subject of chapter 6, are rare, comprising less than thirteen percent of known prints. While this may stem in part from the relative difficulty of translating three-dimensional objects into graphic form, the more likely explanation is whether a work was in Rome, as in the cases of the reproduced Bacchus, Vatican Pietà, Tomb of Julius II, Risen Christ, and so-called Florentine Pietà, still in the Eternal City at the end of the sixteenth century. One exception is a group of engravings by Cornelis Cort after elements in the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence (fig. 6.7), which Barnes theorizes were created not only to honor Cosimo I but also in hope of securing his patronage, which did not come to pass.

Though handsomely illustrated, it is not always clear why some prints were chosen for reproduction rather than others, and there are several instances of extensively discussed engravings lacking a corresponding illustration. Equally frustrating is the almost complete absence of photographs of Michelangelo’s originals, which, notwithstanding Barnes’s thorough descriptions of variations between Michelangelo and his followers, prevents side-by-side comparison of invention and adaptation. Barnes provides a useful checklist of 141 prints after Michelangelo divided by subject with references to her own illustrations as well as The Illustrated Bartsch and the volumes by F. W. H. Hollstein. Equally welcome would have been an alphabetical list with brief biographical information on the Italian, German, French, Flemish, and Dutch printmakers and publishers discussed in the text (akin to the “Cast of Principal Characters” included at the end of Wallace’s biography) rather than the excurses interspersed throughout the chapters. Despite these minor detractions, this highly interesting volume will be of great use to students of Michelangelo, Italian printmaking, and sixteenth-century reception theory. While perhaps more accessible to those well-versed in Michelangelo studies, both of these books attest to the rich rewards even the most familiar artists still offer to the historian.

Anne Leader
Editor, IASblog, Italian Art Society