Michelangelo’s ‘The Fall of Man’ (1510), one of the Sistine Chapel frescoes

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Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford, Fig Tree, RRP£30, 688 pages

Martin Gayford acknowledges that there is already “an Apuan Alp of writing” about Michelangelo. However, he points out that the “sheer mass of academic books ... the enormous length of his life and the tumultuous historical events he experienced ... combine to make it difficult to see man and work together as a coherent whole”. Gayford succeeds in redressing the balance. His triumph is a measure not only of his gift for textual synthesis but also of his empathy with the artistic sensibility.

Previously, Gayford has written illuminating portraits of Constable, Van Gogh, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. Yet these mighty artists cannot compare to Michelangelo. Responsible for a work, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, that attracts more than 5m visitors a year, his unparalleled fame commenced in his own lifetime.

As Gayford points out, Michelangelo is possibly the first individual in history to have had more than one biography written while he was still alive. Those accounts – one by Giorgio Vasari, the other by Michelangelo’s assistant Ascanio Condivi (in collaboration with others) – provide a backbone to a life fleshed out through copious letters and poems by the artist’s own hand and numerous other contemporary texts.

The richness of the sources reflects the explosion of publishing in Michelangelo’s lifetime. Yet that was just one of many revolutions he witnessed. He was born in 1475 when Catholicism appeared the natural order and Rome was entering a golden age. By the time he died in 1564, Protestantism had swept through northern Europe; the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had brought Rome to its knees and the Counter-Reformation was fighting back.

By 37, Michelangelo had completed the “Pietà”, “David” and the Sistine Chapel, the works for which he is still most famous. As a result, his early career has been charted countless times. Gayford maps it meticulously, from his birth into a poor but genteel family and babyhood farmed out to a wet nurse in Settignano, Tuscany, through to his apprenticeship with Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, and his sojourn at the Medici palace where, despite his lack of Latin, he was inculcated into the classical humanism championed by Lorenzo the Magnificent and his circle.

This familiar story is revitalised by Gayford’s decision to employ the era’s artists as illustrators. For example, the benign yet ruthless essence of the lantern-jawed Lorenzo is captured by Ghirlandaio in a painting depicting “The Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule”.

Most valuable, however, is the lucid way Gayford documents the birth of the paradox that fuelled Michelangelo’s vision. On the one hand, the young sculptor soaked up the Neoplatonism that was the lifeblood of Medici culture. Gayford, whose gift for ferreting out illuminating quotations is one of his greatest strengths, plucks a sentence from Marsilio Ficino, the philosopher who was Lorenzo’s tutor and the first to translate Plato’s corpus into Latin. “The appearance of a man, which because of an interior goodness given him by God, is beautiful to see, frequently shoots a ray of his splendour, through the eyes of those looking at him, into their souls,” writes Ficino, explaining Plato’s belief that earthly beauty was a route to its divine counterpart and thereby illuminating the young Michelangelo’s predilection for Utopian physiques.

Yet a contradictory credo called just as fervently. Scourge of the Medici and of the humanism he regarded as pagan, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola advocated an “intense, reformed Christianity centring on a personal relationship with Christ”.

According to Condivi, Michelangelo heard Savonarola as a “living voice” throughout his life. Gayford analyses the artist’s puritan streak through a consideration of the crucifix he made for the Church of Santo Spirito. A spare, unflinching expression of bodily suffering, the crucifix corresponds to Savonarola’s belief that Christ was acutely susceptible to pain because of a “noble and delicate sense of touch”.

The tensions that animated Michelangelo’s art mirrored a character that was simultaneously aggressive and affectionate, mercenary and generous, uncouth and refined, loyal yet rebellious.

As the sculptor entered the second phase of his career and his “architectural imagination [takes] wing”, the biography truly comes alive. Most enlightening is Gayford’s analysis of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Most art historians focus on his spectacular sculpture “Night” but Gayford pauses to consider also his drawings of the church façade. Though never realised, they show the Tuscan “zeroing in on ... entablatures and columns” to reduce Roman classical architecture to “its practical essence”.

Equally riveting is the explanation of why San Lorenzo’s New Sacristy heralds mannerism. Acknowledging his debt to architectural historian Caroline Elam, Gayford pinpoints the windows as a “wilful, witty breaking of the classical rules ... These windows are dynamic. [They] flex and contract like a muscle.”

The abstract nature of architecture permitted Michelangelo to conceal his spiritual core. Not so painting. Perceptive analyses of his two late masterpieces betray how the elderly artist’s evolving faith influenced his style. In the “Last Judgment”, the contrast between the sensuality of the nudes and the despair etched on the faces of the damned shows that Michelangelo’s inner Neoplatonist is wrestling with a new sense of Christianity as a raw, unmediated experience.

One of his final works, ‘Rondanini Pietà’ (1564)

Just a few months later, his frescoes in the Pauline Chapel are populated by “lumpen” mortals who are “huddled, crushed and awestruck”. Fanned by his friendship with the reformist, aristocratic poet Vittoria Colonna, a rapport mapped with delicacy by Gayford, Michelangelo surrenders his faith in physical beauty as a route to the divine.

His final decades were marked by sadness. The death of Vittoria was followed by that of a beloved assistant, Urbino, which left the sculptor declaring that it would have been “more easeful to die with him”. Pope Paul IV, a viciously intolerant Counter-Reformation Pope, withdrew his salary. An error in his design for St Peter’s left him prostrate with “shame and grief”.

Yet there were comforts. Thanks to his wealth and generosity – grudging but constant – the status of his family had been restored. Most importantly, his creativity never wavered. Probably his last sculpture is the “Rondanini Pietà”, which shows mother and son as “feeble, whittled” figures barely delineated from the marble.

It is the work of an artist whose vision is shifting from transcendence to immanence. It is a measure of his magnitude, and of Gayford’s skill in capturing it, that you finish this book wishing that Michelangelo had lived longer and created more.

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