July 2014

Rachel Cole Dalamangas

nonfiction

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger

Tortured, closeted, and brilliant, Michelangelo Buonarroti indisputably deserves the adulation that began early in his life and has persisted centuries after his death. Like most others admitted to the exclusive pantheon of greats, he was male, associated with the felicitous bureaucrats of his day, gifted with a truly anomalous level of genius, congenitally ambitious, and by all accounts something of a complicated asshole.

While every subsequent generation will be tempted to reinterpret the prodigies of the past, and certainly any living generation cannot meaningfully understand itself without appreciating the heroes of yesteryear, an artist as exhaustively written about as Michelangelo is unlikely to require yet another homage that focuses on his most celebrated and discussed works.

Miles J. Unger attempts to deliver on an original appraisal of the artist's life and work that is relevant to present-day art in Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. As the title suggests, the book elucidates over the course of six chapters the biography of the artist through the plot of the creation of six of his masterpieces, preceded by an introductory chapter. Unger's choices are the received canon of Michelangelo: "The Pieta," "David," the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Medici tombs, "The Last Judgment," and the Basilica. (Each of these chapters, however, is generously dappled with tangential anecdotes about lesser-celebrated works).

Unger opens the book with the contention that "Michelangelo was the first truly modern artist." This thread cringingly persists throughout the text, referencing Michelangelo's quarrels with mentors, patrons, and popes for creative license, as well as his campaign to hoist fine art onto the same pedestal of political and religious elitism.

This assertion isn't so much mistaken as it is superficial as well as problematic. Unger only implies what he takes for "modern" and never clearly defines his use of the word in an art historical, critical sense. Michelangelo's struggle for artistic autonomy, while harrowing, was neither novel nor indicative of modern art. His ambition to make art crucial to the world stage, while undeniable, is also a shaky branch upon which to drape the author's grand claim that Michelangelo was "the first modern artist." Any contemporary critic knows that modern artists are a cacophony and have the potential to be just as sycophantic as any of their pre-modern predecessors.

Furthermore, if we are to sincerely appropriate Michelangelo as a contemporary of living artists, it would be great fun to imagine his response to James Franco and crapstraction. However, such reveries can only be speculation. Then again, one can imagine that Michelangelo would have thrived just as prodigiously in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2014 as he did in Renaissance Florence. Perhaps even done better, as a young, opinionated gay man in Carharts and second-hand T-shirts smoking American Spirits and competing among the other wunderkinds, both authentic and manufactured, of the auction houses. There is, for example, in Unger's book, a rather delightful anecdote about Michelangelo pretending to "fix" the nose of David at the request of Piero Soderini. Unger has missed a great opportunity for satire.

Fantasy aside, the point remains: does the author really mean to assert that we have Michelangelo to thank for the bloat of egos, mediocre one-hit "masterpieces," and static noise funded by our own foolish tyrants that overwhelms the truly exquisite if underappreciated shit? That is, there are greats of modern and contemporary art, doubtless. To make, if I may, a very modern assertion of my own: the consensus of "artistic genius" in any society is dicey at best and unfortunately hobbled to an extent by the prejudices and bullshit of the bean counters and bullies of the day. That is, Michelangelo, like anyone who has ever gotten anywhere with anything primarily preoccupied by the elite class, was also very, very lucky -- even if he was also legitimately brilliant. Ultimately, he received a tag for a place in history that is even more amorphous and overused to the point of meaningless than "modern": Michelangelo (like Shakespeare and Bach and so on) is timeless.

Within this constellation of ideas -- art, progress, elitism, the historical evaluation of genius -- Unger could have written an extremely interesting and perhaps crucial assessment of Michelangelo as an artist who with god-given talents reinforced by authentic discipline crushed many of his rivals and outdid many of his predecessors and raised the bar several notches for future artists, in spite of a modest upbringing, unsupportive family, dejected personal life, personal pain, and tumultuous political landscape.

The special sauce that Unger does bring to his biographical survey of Michelangelo's work is understated. Unger has written a well-received biography of Lorenzo de' Medici, Magnifico, and thus his insights into Michelangelo's relationship with the dynasty of Florence is especially animated by comparison to other biographers, even more rigorous than the unassailable Howard Hibbard. Unger writes his knowledge of this complex aspect of Michelangelo's life with such sophisticated craft as foreshadowing and a sense of suspense unusual to art history writing that the reader is given a rare sense of narrative and character.

Additionally, Unger writes especially compellingly about "The Last Judgment":

Not only does Michelangelo's celestial realm lack signposts that would allow us to orient ourselves, it confronts head-on the unpredictability of grace. Instead of being greeted by neat ranks of well-labeled saints that explain our place in the celestial bureaucracy, we are thrown in with the clamorous mob, a confusing jumble of "acrobats and actors," many of them nude or half nude so that to many observers they looked less like the elect than like participants in an orgy.

If one needed Michelangelo's late magnum opus explained in thrilling and illuminating terms, this is it. The passage is further written in a way that performs what Unger set out to achieve: interpretations of Michelangelo that are meaningful to the modern psyche, which is entrenched in chaos, meaningless meaning, and awe.

Michelangelo is not dead as a subject that enlivens the contemporary reader. The strength of Unger's accounts of Michelangelo is that he does mimic modern modes of storytelling by adopting episodic narrative. When Unger avoids attempts to tie Michelangelo shallowly to modern art, he writes a version of Michelangelo that is fleshy, captivating, and intimate.

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1451678741
448 pages