Three Worlds of Michelangelo
by James H. Beck
Norton, 269 pp., $25.95
When the future Philip II, on his first journey outside his native Spain, made his ceremonial entry into Antwerp in 1549, a series of triumphal arches was erected in his honor, including one financed by the local community of Florentine merchants. As one might expect, its purpose was both to celebrate the young prince and to advertise the wealth, culture, and antiquity of Florence, most obviously in a series of statues of famous Florentine worthies. These included not just the usual selection of warriors and writers, but also Giotto and Michelangelo. The presence of artists in this kind of setting seems to have been unprecedented; the fact that one of them was still alive was even more unusual. But it demonstrates that among the Florentines Michelangelo had already acquired an almost mythic status even before the publication of the first edition of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550.
His importance in the culture of Florence was illustrated again in the funeral organized for him in 1564 by the Accademia del Disegno, whose members included virtually all the local artists. Michelangelo had died in Rome, but through the intervention of Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici his body was brought back for burial in his native city. In the second edition of the Lives, published in 1568, Vasari introduced an element of drama into the story by claiming, misleadingly, that this was done in secret. He also said that, even though three weeks had passed since Michelangelo had died, the body was found to be perfectly preserved, a quasi-miraculous event normally associated with saints. The funeral itself, which took place in the church of San Lorenzo, close to many of Michelangelo’s most celebrated works, was the most elaborate ever given to an artist, its principal feature being a catafalque decorated with allegorical figures and narrative paintings illustrating notable events from his life. All of the chosen subjects emphasized the patronage and honors he had received from rulers, including members of the Medici family, a succession of popes, and a Venetian doge.
Toward the end of 1565 Michelangelo was commemorated once more, in a painting displayed at the entrance to Florence for the arrival of the new wife of Cosimo’s elder son and heir, Francesco. This showed the most famous Florentine artists of the previous two and a half centuries, divided into five groups. The most distant group was gathered around Cimabue, who held a small lamp; the next was led by Giotto, with a larger lamp; then came Ghirlandaio, with a torch, and then Masaccio, with Brunelleschi, Donatello, and others, and finally, in the foreground, Michelangelo, accompanied by Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, and other artists of the modern period. Rather surprisingly the arrangement did not echo the basic scheme of Vasari’s Lives, which is divided into three periods; instead, the artists were grouped according to their supposed ability rather than chronologically. But here too Michelangelo was represented as the embodiment of artistic perfection, and, as in …