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 Vasari’s book, specifically as the artist who, more than any other, had demonstrated how to solve the most challenging technical problems of painting, sculpture, and architecture, such as foreshortening, the representation of the nude, and the use of the human body as a vehicle for the expression of emotion.
Michelangelo himself played no small part in the creation of his own image, even encouraging the publication in 1553 of a biography by an obscure pupil named Ascanio Condivi, in which he sought to correct certain aspects of the extremely flattering Life published by Vasari in 1550. In particular, he was anxious to refute the charge that he was responsible for delays in the execution of the tomb of Pope Julius II, which dragged on for almost forty years and was finally completed in a much-reduced form; he blamed the pressures of patrons too powerful to resist. At the same time, he fostered the idea that he was not only essentially self-taught, but also that most of his work had been carried out without close collaborators. Much of Condivi’s account was incorporated in Vasari’s second edition, which thus combined Florentine cultural propaganda with Michelangelo’s selective and scarcely objective account of his own career.
By the mid-1560s, however, his reputation had already long been under challenge. The process had begun at least twenty years earlier, partly because of ill-feeling caused by the fiasco of the Julius tomb, but even more because of the supposed indecency of the Last Judgment, in which Michelangelo was accused of indulging his artistic preoccupations regardless of the needs of decorum. The most serious and carefully argued criticisms appeared in 1557, in a dialogue by Lodovico Dolce called L’Aretino. Here one of the two protagonists, a Florentine named Fabrini, who is portrayed, like Vasari, as an uncritical admirer of Michelangelo, is gradually persuaded that for all his mastery of the male nude, Michelangelo had neglected other, equally vital aspects of art, such as the ability to create effective and memorable narratives involving protagonists of all kinds, and that he was therefore a more limited artist than either Raphael or Titian.
There was an obvious parallel here, which Dolce did not fail to make, with the contemporary discussion about the relative merits of Dante and the more pleasing and then more widely admired figure of Petrarch. Although L’Aretino seems to have had rather limited circulation at the time, over the next couple of centuries Dolce’s judgment was vindicated. Raphael and Titian, together with an interpretation of ancient art rather different from Michelangelo’s, came to be seen as embodying an artistic ideal, imitated and admired by countless artists throughout Europe, whereas Michelangelo was increasingly regarded as a lonely and eccentric genius, single-mindedly pursuing his overwhelming but narrow artistic vision, often with scant regard for the wishes of his most generous patrons. In particular, his obsession with the heroic male nude and the limited range of his subject matter made his work largely irrelevant to the needs of painters and sculptors of the Counter-Reformation.
But the idea of Michelangelo as a superhuman figure, uncompromising in the pursuit of his ideals and largely indifferent to the work of his contemporaries, was of course precisely the one that Vasari and Condivi had fostered in his lifetime and they transmitted it to posterity. Even after the publication of a vast amount of documen-tary material, including over five hundred of the artist’s own letters (very few of which, alas, date from before his thirties), these biographies, written when Michelangelo was already old, have retained their importance in shaping ideas about him up to the present day. In particular, it is virtually impossible to separate the man from the myth, and art historians, almost as much as their public, have often been reluctant to do so.
An example of this comes at the very beginning of James Beck’s book, where he quite correctly observes that in his own time Michelangelo was often given the epithet of “divine.” Perhaps the first person to do this was Ariosto, in the second edition of his Orlando Furioso, published in 1532, where, in a famous stanza listing outstanding modern artists, we find him described as “Michael, more than mortal, divine angel.” Given his name, the conceit was almost inevitable. But Beck tells us that Michelangelo was alone among artists in being called divine, and that Titian and Leonardo, for example, were never honored in this way.
Unfortunately, this attractive and quite widely held theory is untrue. Titian, his work or his talent, is called divine about thirty times by eight different writers before 1550 (at which point I stopped counting). Poets are regularly called divine (among them Pietro Bembo, Bernardo Tasso, and Pietro Aretino), as are other painters and sculptors (Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, Leone Leoni, Sansovino, and Cellini), noble women, courtesans, historians, calligraphers, and even the bronze horses of San Marco in Venice. Sixteenth-century writers tended to hyperbole, and many of them used “divine” almost as freely as old-fashioned English actors still do today.
The problem of separating legend from reality is particularly acute in connection with Michelangelo’s early career, for which the documentary evidence is relatively scarce, and for which, accordingly, our principal sources of information are Vasari and Condivi. This period, up to and including the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1512, is the subject of Beck’s book, which is designed for a nonspecialist readership and which is loosely structured around the artist’s relationship with three men who supposedly acted as real or surrogate father figures: first, his earliest patron and protector, Lorenzo de’ Medici “il Magnifico,” then Michelangelo’s natural father, Lodovico Buonarroti, and finally Pope Julius II, for whom he painted the ceiling.
The account of Michelangelo’s early years in Vasari’s first edition is rather brief. We are told, incorrectly, that he was born in Florence, but the date of birth, 1474, is correct, assuming Vasari was using the Florentine calendar; in modern style the date is 1475. Then it is said that his father Lodovico apprenticed him for three years to his friend Domenico Ghirlandaio, and here, most unusually, is a reference to documentary evidence about their agreement still preserved by Domenico’s son Ridolfo. There is very little about Michelangelo’s activity at this period, beyond a reference to a copy he had made of a print, wrongly attributed to D端rer, of the Temptation of Saint Anthony.
At this point Lorenzo il Magnifico enters the story. It is said that he employed the old sculptor Bertoldo at his garden at San Marco, where he had assembled a fine collection of antique sculptures. Bertoldo’s job was not so much to look after the collection as to supervise a school that Lorenzo hoped to establish for sculptors, of whom there were then very few in Florence, whereas there was no lack of painters. For this purpose Lorenzo approached Ghirlandaio to find out if he had any suitable candidates in his studio. Ghirlandaio responded by sending Michelangelo and Francesco Granacci, who duly came to the garden, where they found the young Torrigiano already at work. After a few days Michelangelo made a copy in marble of an antique head preserved in the garden, which so impressed Lorenzo that he gave him a regular salary, as well as finding a post in the customs service for his father. Unfortunately, Michelangelo’s success aroused the envy of Torrigiano, who punched his nose, breaking it and marking him for life.
The biography of Michelangelo in Vasari’s first edition is not particularly well informed. For example, his early period in Bologna is overlooked; his quarrel with Julius II and flight from Rome is dated to the period of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, rather than to 1506, when he was working on Julius’s tomb; and several works are omitted entirely, among them the early relief of the Battle of the Centaurs, then preserved in Florence, and the two Slaves from the tomb of Julius, which were then in Rome.