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 Dürer, 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.

These omissions are surprising, especially since the first edition is far more informative about several other artists active in Florence in the years around 1500, such as Giuliano da Sangallo and Raphael. Equally surprising is the fact that there is a good deal of material about Michelangelo which appears only in other Lives in that edition, notably in those of Giuliano da Sangallo and Sebastiano del Piombo. In the same way, in the Life of Torrigiano, although we are told that he was a rival of Michelangelo in his youth, and that he was short-tempered and envious, there is nothing about his breaking Michelangelo’s nose. Lorenzo’s garden is also mentioned here, as it is in the biography of Granacci, but in neither passage is there any reference to its location, to the presence of antiques, or to Bertoldo.

Such inconsistencies are not uncommon in the first edition, though they are seldom discussed. Never mentioned, probably because it is only evident if one reads the whole book straight through, as few people have occasion to do, are the startling discrepancies in style, historical knowledge, descriptive method, and critical language between individual biographies. The eighty or so very short ones are almost all very similar in character; but the longer ones are much more heterogeneous, so much so that it seems inconceivable that they could all be by one author, let alone by the author of the short biographies. The same is true of the new biographies added in the second edition, where, for example, the Life of Vasari’s assistant and friend Cristofano Gherardi could not be more different from that of, say, Pontormo or Bandinelli. As I suggested in an earlier review, Vasari’s book is a collaborative work, and although his name alone is on the title page, the text manifestly records the views and knowledge of several authors.1

Given that Condivi’s biography was evidently produced with Michelangelo’s participation, it is a far more authoritative text than Vasari’s. It is also much more informative, not least because of a wealth of anecdotal material and references to Michelangelo’s friends. But it is likely that Michelangelo sometimes misrepresented events, either by omission or by the particular slant that he wished to give them. This emerges most obviously in the almost total silence about his debt to other artists. Granacci is mentioned for having encouraged him to frequent the workshop of Ghirlandaio, and for bringing him to Lorenzo’s garden at San Marco, but Condivi stresses that Ghirlandaio, despite Michelangelo’s admiration for him as a man and as an artist, taught him nothing of value. The name of Bertoldo does not appear, nor is there any reference to the role of Giuliano da Sangallo in encouraging Julius to employ him, although there is much on this topic in the very accurate biography of Giuliano in Vasari’s first edition.

In Condivi’s account, Michelangelo was taken to Lorenzo’s garden simply to see the antique statues there, among them the head of a faun, which he decided to copy; so he borrowed tools from some masons who were working in the garden on marble blocks for a library which Lorenzo was intending to construct. The story of the library, although sometimes considered a fiction, seems to be true, since this is described as “half-built” in 1494.2 Lorenzo was so taken by Michelangelo’s sculpted head that he decided to take him into his household, giving him a room in the Medici palace and treating him like a son. Here Michelangelo remained for about two years, and during this period he was encouraged by the poet Poliziano, who suggested the subject of his relief of the Battle of the Centaurs. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492 Michelangelo returned home, but one day, after a heavy fall of snow, Lorenzo’s son Piero asked him to make a statue from the snow in the palace courtyard, and then gave him back his old room, on the same terms as his father had done. This arrangement, Condivi tells us, lasted until Piero was expelled from Florence in 1494.

The account of Lorenzo’s garden is much enlarged in Vasari’s second edition. Almost all the information supplied by Condivi is repeated in the new biography of Michelangelo, and there is also a substantial addition to the Life of Torrigiano. Here we are told that the garden at San Marco served as “a school and academy” for young painters and sculptors and to “everyone else interested in design,” particularly young noblemen. The pupils were given an allowance by Lorenzo, and were supervised by Bertoldo, who gave them access not only to the antique statues, but also to drawings, cartoons, and models by modern artists such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and others.

According to Vasari, the antiques at San Marco were all sold after the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici, although many were recovered on the return of the Medici in 1512. Nine artists are named in the Life of Torrigiano as having worked in the garden, but this information is not always repeated in their own biographies. More unexpectedly, in the Life of Mariotto Albertinelli we are told not merely that Mariotto (who was born a year before Michelangelo) studied antiques in the garden of Palazzo Medici, rather than at San Marco, but also that these antiques, several of which were precisely identified and which, as we know from many earlier sources, certainly were kept at the palace, were studied by all the other painters and sculptors of his time. Nothing of this is said in the corresponding Life in the first edition.

The story of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s school for young artists in his garden at San Marco, with Michelangelo as the star pupil, was inevitably mentioned in the oration delivered at the sculptor’s funeral, but a painting on his catafalque showed him with Lorenzo in the garden of the palace. It was recounted on countless occasions later, until around 1950 when first E.H. Gombrich and then André Chastel suggested that it was an invention of Vasari, who wished to create a precedent for the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, organized in his own time under the auspices of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. Certainly the statements on the topic in Vasari’s two editions are hardly consistent. In particular, the modest institution which Lorenzo wished to establish, with just three pupils, mentioned in the 1550 Life of Michelangelo, is transformed in the 1568 Life of Torrigiano into a fully fledged art school, attended even by young noblemen, while in the 1568 Life of Albertinelli we are told about young artists studying Medici antiques in a different garden altogether. The author of that particular biography evidently was not aware of or did not believe the account given in the Life of Torrigiano.

It has now been established that Lorenzo owned a garden at San Marco, containing a loggia and various other structures, at least from the early 1470s. Unfortunately, this does not get us very far, for no one has yet found any clear evidence before Vasari’s first edition that this garden ever contained ancient sculpture. Moreover, the statement in the 1568 Life of Torrigiano that the antiques there were sold in 1494 seems to be wrong. According to Paolo Giovio, writing when he was in the service of mem-bers of the Medici family, the garden at San Marco, with its “rich furnishings,” was looted by the Florentines after the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici, but the Medici palace, with its outstanding collection of ancient and modern works of art, did not suffer this fate, although the antiques displayed at the palace were subsequently sold.

In addition to the texts of Vasari and Condivi, those who believe in Lorenzo’s school have also drawn attention to a passage in a manuscript collection of notes on Florence artists, compiled in the 1540s by a writer known today as “the Anonimo Magliabechiano.” In a draft for a brief biography of Leonardo, drawn partly from surviving notes and partly from lost ones, he tells us, in a rather clumsy sentence, that

As a young man he stayed with Magnificent Lorenzo de Medici, and giving him a salary, he employed him in the garden on the Piazza of San Marco in Florence, and when he was 30 he was sent by the said Magnificent Lorenzo to the Duke of Milan.

Leonardo, born in 1452, was still in the workshop of Verrocchio in 1476 and was first recorded in Milan in 1483, so this would seem to place his period in the garden between 1476 and 1482.

At first sight this passage seems to confirm Vasari’s story that Lorenzo employed promising artists at his garden, and it implies that he was already doing so in the 1470s. But given the complete absence of earlier corroboration and given that Leonardo, at the period in question, is known from documents to have been working as an independent master, accepting important altarpiece commissions, a certain skepticism is in order, especially since the Anonimo was in other respects ill informed about Leonardo’s early years, nowhere mentioning, for example, that he had been a pupil of Verrocchio. I suspect that the passage about the garden is an invention. A few pages later in his notes the Anonimo records that the young Michelangelo was supported by Lorenzo; knowing that Leonardo had been sent to Milan by Lorenzo, he assumed that he, too, had been a Medici protégé.3

Whatever the truth of the matter, the status of the Anonimo’s remark about Leonardo is too open to question and the events described too distant in time to place much faith in it. His testimony about Lorenzo’s encouragement of the young Michelangelo is more credible and more significant, because it is consistent with the slightly later accounts of Vasari and Condivi. Finally, there is a letter of 1494, reporting Michelangelo’s flight from Florence just before the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici, in which it is said that “Michelangelo the sculptor from the garden has gone to Venice, without saying anything to Piero.” The evidence that Michelangelo was associated with the Medici, and with the garden at San Marco, is difficult to dispute, even though the idea that this was a school for young artists, founded by Lorenzo, seems to be an invention. What was he doing there?

Unlike myself, Beck believes in the school. In his account, as in Vasari’s, Lorenzo’s support of Michelangelo is entirely disinterested, and there is much speculation about him discussing the treasures of the Medici collection with the young sculptor, for whom Poliziano becomes “his own personal guide.” Later Beck even writes of “the remarkable, all-encompassing cultural grip of Lorenzo de’ Medici” on the young Michelangelo. Renaissance art historians have a weakness for rich patrons, who tend to be described as enlightened, or discriminating, or both; and in recent years Lorenzo has received more than his fair share of this kind of adulation, on the basis of surprisingly little evidence beyond the tainted testimony of Vasari.

In fact, Lorenzo’s taste, in the time he could spare from running the Florentine state and promoting the interests of his family, seems to have been much more directed to learning and literature, to expensive antique objets d’art, and even to racehorses, than to modern works of painting or sculpture. If he chose to employ Michelangelo, it was surely for some practical purpose; but there is no firm evidence that he ever owned or wanted to acquire original works by the young sculptor. And if there is anything in Condivi’s anecdote about the head of the faun, then it seems reasonable to suppose that Michelangelo’s job was to restore antique sculptures, as has often been proposed. Of his known works, the one with the best claim to date from this early period is the Battle of the Centaurs, which is among the most explicit imitations of ancient sculpture produced in Florence up to that time.

Then there is the story, recounted by Condivi and confirmed by documents, of a marble Cupid made by Michelangelo. Condivi tells us that Lorenzo il Magnifico’s cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (who, incidentally, was a keen collector of modern art, and whose possessions included Botticelli’s Primavera) suggested that the sculptor would get a better price by making it look as if the statue had just been excavated and then selling it in Rome as an antique. The deception was a complete success, even though Michelangelo was then defrauded by the dealer in Rome. Evidently he had already acquired one of the essential skills of the restorer, the ability to make marble look old.

Beck puts the best construction he can on this episode, arguing that the Cupid “should be understood not so much as an experiment in fakery but as a vivid demonstration of bravura by an ambitious twenty-year-old.” This is consistent with the attitude he takes throughout the book, which is extremely sympathetic to the young sculptor. Thus he does not mention, for example, an incident recounted by the Anonimo, of Michelangelo being temporarily imprisoned in Florence after wounding a member of the Lippi family, or Giovio’s comments, written before 1530, about his “boorish and uncivilized character” and “the incredible squalour of his domestic life.” As an accomplished courtier, Giovio evidently had little in common with a man who did not share his values, but Michelangelo’s uneasy relations with several of his most powerful patrons and his lack of social graces makes one wonder whether his early association with Lorenzo il Magnifico was so close or so influential as Beck would have us believe.

Beck’s idea of constructing his narrative around Michelangelo’s three supposed father figures is not altogether successful. Overemphasized in the case of Lorenzo, it seems particularly contrived in that of Julius II, whom the sculptor did not meet until he was thirty. The discussion of Michelangelo’s relationship with his father Lodovico, although perceptive, does not cast much light on his development in the crucial decade after the expulsion of the Medici, when he emerged as the foremost sculptor as well as one of the leading painters of his generation.

It was in this period, particularly in the Pietà and the David, that he established himself as the most technically accomplished sculptor in marble since classical antiquity. At the same time he created the belief that the representation of the male nude was the supreme test of artistic excellence, an idea largely based on an intense response to a small number of ancient sculptures, such as the Belvedere Torso, now in the Vatican. Compared with the earlier and later periods, Beck’s account of these years is cursory and somewhat selective. Like Condivi and Vasari, he prefers to concentrate on Michelangelo’s dealings with the famous and powerful, although his cast of leading characters is larger, including as it does, for example, Ficino and Savonarola. Whether it was public figures such as these rather than Michelangelo’s own circle of friends or artistic contemporaries that had the most formative influence on Michelangelo’s attitudes toward his life and his work is open to question. But it is certainly the case that at just this period Michelangelo would have encountered a belief strongly held among his fellow artists, notably his Florentine friend Giuliano da Sangallo. This was the view that ancient art was not merely the only kind of art worth emulating, but also that this could only be achieved by understanding the basic principles supposedly exemplified in a limited number of carefully selected models. Although Beck does not entirely neglect these developments or these artists, they play a relatively minor part in his account. In short, he has created a portrait that is perhaps unduly idealized and too strongly colored by the prejudices and priorities of Michelangelo’s earliest biographers.

This Issue

June 24, 1999