Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 29, 2013
Deborah Parker Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 156 pp.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (9780521761406)
Michael Hirst Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475–1534 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 416 pp.; 25 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780300118612)

Michelangelo is the best-documented person of the early modern period, including his more famous and more powerful contemporaries. Even before he died at the age of 89 on February 18, 1564, the artist boasted three published biographies, a short one by Paolo Giovio published in 1546, and the longer texts by Giorgio Vasari of 1550 and republished in expanded form in 1568, and one by Ascanio Condivi, published in 1553. There are about 1,400 letters to and from the artist, dating from 1496 to four days before his death, in addition to a large amount of ricordi, entries in a record book that document payments and other agreements. All of this is now published. There are modern, annotated editions of the sixteenth-century biographies; the letters have been issued in five volumes between 1965 and 1994, the Ricordi as one volume in 1970. The Carteggio indiretto, published in two volumes in 1988 and 1995, records letters by Michelangelo’s closest friends and acquaintances in which Michelangelo is mentioned. A volume with the artist’s surviving contracts for commissions was published in 2005. The only thing that seems to be lacking on the side of documentary evidence is something like John Shearman’s Raphael in Early Modern Sources (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), which reproduces all known published and unpublished references to Raphael up to the seventeenth century, including payments. The Michelangelo scholar needs to make do with Ernst Steinmann and Rudolf Wittkower’s indispensible Michelangelo Bibliografie I (1510–1926), published in 1927. Payments to Michelangelo are still spread over specialized studies, some now more than a century old.

Unlike the poetry, the letters do not offer a grand theory of art that elucidates Michelangelo’s painting, sculpture, and architecture, although it often goes unnoticed that there is some revealing information about Michelangelo’s theory of architecture, particularly about questions of authorship and invention, in his correspondence. The aim of the letters is mainly to transact business, guide family affairs, and complain about the vicissitudes of life as an artist. This is the reason why nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians were not that interested in the contents of the Carteggio, except for issues of dating. The letters have recently been explored more fully in order to lay bare Michelangelo’s social network and his workshop organization (see, among others, William E. Wallace, Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994; Wallace, Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009; and Rab Hatfield, The Wealth of Michelangelo, Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2002).

The aim of Deborah Parker’s book is to read the letters differently. She reads them not only for their contents but also for their form—their rhetoric. Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing is a fascinating study, written by one of the foremost scholars on Renaissance artists’ writings. Placing Michelangelo’s Carteggio in the culture of Renaissance letter writing, Parker points to its exceptional status. Even if Michelangelo had no intention to have letters published, he still wrote them in an elegant, humanist cursive script, including letters penned in haste. This was a unique feature for an artist at the time, something that sharply contrasted, for example, with Titian’s handwriting. The neatness of Michelangelo’s hand can perhaps best be compared to that of Bronzino’s.

The main argument of Parker’s book is that artifice and self-representation inform Michelangelo’s correspondence as much as it does his art and poetry. She identifies three distinctive features in the letters: aphorism, repetition, and contrast. She argues that these features intersect with some of the main concerns in Michelangelo’s art. In his letters, the repeated use of aphorisms allows him to distill information cleverly in the same way that his art, which is famously deprived of details, achieves a maximum effect via a minimum of means. Michelangelo’s preference for oppositions not only structures his letters, it also informs statues like the paired Leah and Rachel in the Julius monument, the opposition of Adam and Eve on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the contrast between Lorenzo and Giuliano in the Medici Chapel. And Parker interprets the studied symmetry and rehearsal of motifs in Michelangelo’s oeuvre as a phenomenon that runs parallel to the repetitive and consistent use of words in the Carteggio.

Another parallel consists of Michelangelo’s repetitive recourse to metaphors of bonding and obligation in the letters, which has no precedent in letter writing of the time. The Slaves in the Louvre (1513–16) struggle against the bonds that tie them, either because they try to break free from the block from which they were carved or because they stand in for the Neoplatonic notion of the soul trapped inside the body. Both these interpretations are warranted by Michelangelo’s poetry, but Parker broadens the ligatures’ interpretive scope by attending to Michelangelo’s epistolary treatment of the theme. Parker is not very forthcoming about where exactly the gained breadth of interpretation would lead, except for pointing in the direction of William Butler Yeats’s “foul rug-and-bone shop of the heart.” Read as part of a more quotidian side of Michelangelo’s life, these bonds might have gathered meaning in relationship to the continuous obligation Michelangelo felt toward the heirs of the dead Pope Julius II, for whose grave memorial the Prisoners were made. There is indeed some indication that Michelangelo himself read the Louvre statues in rather more mundane terms. In 1546 he offered the statues to Roberto Strozzi, an ardent opponent of the Medici regime who was living in exile in France. Trying to break free from the binds that entrap them, the Prisoners perhaps became symbols for Florence’s struggle for liberty from the Medici.

Parker’s book reveals an artist in tune with the rhetoric of letter writing in the period, an aspect of his thought previous scholars have almost completely ignored. Given the fact that Parker, more than any art historian, is so at home in the culture of letter writing, it is slightly disappointing that she does not discuss Michelangelo’s wit as it bespeaks the letters. One would have loved to hear Parker’s comments on the self-mocking tone of Michelangelo’s letter of 1519 to Cardinal Bibbiena, who called himself the “sniveller” (Moccicone), and who features in a passage of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano on jokes.

The second book under review here is the first of two volumes of Michael Hirst’s biography of the artist. It surveys the artist’s life until 1534, when Michelangelo relocated to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life. Hirst’s book is mainly concerned with chronology. And even if this reviewer would have liked to hear more comments on the artworks themselves, the emphasis on chronology offers remarkably fresh insights into Michelangelo’s oeuvre. The book is well-informed and includes virtuoso readings of primary source material.

Remarkably enough, the dearth of primary material has never really resolved questions of dating. Part of this has to do with the fact that Michelangelo worked on many projects at once. His work on the grave memorial for Pope Julius II, commissioned in 1505, spanned four decades, arguably the most productive in the artist’s career, and therefore overlapped with work on the Sistine ceiling and the Medici Chapel. Hirst brilliantly untangles the first phases of work on the memorial from the other projects. Between 1513 and 1516 Michelangelo was at work on the two Slaves and the Moses; the latter was the only statue made then that would end up in the final project in San Pietro in Vincoli. The four Prisoners now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence were carved in Michelangelo’s Florentine workshop just after 1522, where they still were at the time of Michelangelo’s death in 1564. Hirst shows that Michelangelo carved the four statues for Julius prior to the Medici Chapel sculptures because it took a long time for the marble for the latter project to arrive in Florence. In October 1524, Michelangelo was still short of stone for the Medici statues, and he decided to use the marble reserved for the Julius tomb for the Day and Night, a suggestion once made by Hirst’s teacher, Johannes Wilde, that somehow never entered the mainstream of Michelangelo Studies. Hirst further suggests that the Victory for the Julius Tomb was carved in the wake of Francesco Maria della Rovere’s visit to Florence in the spring of 1527. Francesco was one of the deceased Pope Julius’s heirs who tried to keep the artist’s promise to finish the tomb.

What arises from Hirst’s neat reconstruction of chronology is the remarkable autonomy Michelangelo allowed for the statues he carved for Julius and his heirs. It sometimes looks as if he carved some of the statues as self-sufficient artworks, with no intention to ever install them in Julius’s memorial. Hirst points out, for example, that Michelangelo was reluctant to send the four Slaves carved in Florence to Rome; in fact, the statues never left Florence. This lack of site-specificity anticipates much later chapters in the history of Western sculpture.

There is very little debate with other art historians in the main pages of Hirst’s book. Some discussion is referred to the notes. This makes for easy reading, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish Hirst’s own contribution from earlier scholarship. It might be helpful for future scholars to highlight Hirst’s main finds here, some of which amount to subtle yet important shifts in emphasis.

We learn that Michelangelo could have met Lorenzo de’ Medici before he entered Lorenzo’s household because the artist’s maternal grandmother had a private villa in Fiesole close to a Medici villa there, which had a room reserved for Lorenzo. Hirst emphasizes the artist’s close relationship with Giuliano da Sangallo and points out that the two could have met in the early 1480s when Michelangelo worked in the Ghirlandaio workshop and Giuliano was making the frame for Ghirlandaio’s Innocenti altarpiece. One of the companions with whom Michelangelo fled to Bologna after the Medici expulsion in November 1492 could have been the sculptor Baccio da Montelupo; the two artists both ended up working at the church of San Domenico in Bologna. We also learn that Pope Leo X had been planning to build a facade for the church of San Lorenzo some time before the pope’s triumphal entry into Florence in November 1515, which is the date usually maintained by Michelangelo students. Michelangelo did not carve the second version of the Minerva Christ until after 1518 because the marble for the statue was held up at Carrara due to a blockage. And the Palazzo Medici windows should not be dated in 1516 or 1517 but in 1520.

There are some rare lapses in the book. The lost bronze David was not the first work by Michelangelo to leave Italy; this was the Bruges Madonna, which left the peninsula in late 1506 or early 1507. The statues for the New Sacristy were removed from the Via Monza workshop and brought to the Sacristy at least by the 1530s, not after 1540.

Finally, one largely forgotten document that Hirst does not mention might be added to Michelangelo’s early biography. In December 1504, Michelangelo is mentioned as having been present at the restoration of the stained glass windows in the cathedral of Florence. This is published in Giovanni Poggi’s compendium of documents for the cathedral, but it has gone unnoticed in Michelangelo scholarship, probably because the reference slipped the otherwise reliable index compiled by Margaret Haines (Giovanni Poggi, Il Duomo di Firenze: Documenti sulla decorazione della chiesa e del campanile, ed., Margaret Haines, Florence: Edizioni Medicea, 1988, vol. 1: 167 [doc. 862]). Michelangelo’s advisory role, awarded after the artist had been commissioned to carve twelve Apostles for the same church and about a year after the cathedral had lost the David to the Palazzo della Signoria, anticipates the artist’s later advice about the cathedral’s ballatoio (open gallery) and strengthens the idea of Michelangelo as a multi-media artist. It is hoped that future Michelangelo students will try to integrate the rich biographical frame that Parker’s and Hirst’s books offer with the study of the artworks and buildings proper.

Joost Keizer
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, Yale University

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