Resuscitating the master

Michelangelo: A Biography by George Bull Viking, pounds 25 Was Michelan gelo the first modern artist? Bruce Boucher considers a new life

When Giorgio Vasari presented Michelangelo with a copy of his Lives of the Artists, the sculptor called him a "resuscitator of the dead". The response was characteristic of Michelangelo - mordant, lapidary, and deliberately ambiguous. Though disparaging about Vasari's efforts, Michelangelo took great care over his public image, even going so far as to commission an official biography from a minor painter called Ascanio Condivi. Through this book, Michelangelo refashioned his image, for Condivi stressed his subject's aristocratic pedigree and, contradicting Vasari, suppressed any mention of Michelangelo's having served an apprenticeship to Ghirlandaio. He also defended Michelangelo against rumours that he pocketed money for work then abandoned or shabbily finished, most controversially in the case of the tomb of Pope Julius II. "The tragedy of the tomb", as Condivi called it, overshadowed Michelangelo's life for decades, but by his death in 1564, he had earned the reputation of a saint while toiling away unpaid over the completion of the new St Peter's in Rome.

When surveying Michelangelo's achievements, one is struck by the sheer length of his career - more than three times than of Raphael - and by the way in which he turned all his major commissions into personal statements. His arch-rival Leonardo may have shown greater range, but there is in Michelangelo a consistency of focus, coupled with supreme technical gifts that resulted in profound statements on the human condition. Many sculptors carved statues of David; many painters depicted the creation of the world. Yet so powerful are Michelangelo's versions that they have become our archetypal images, supplanting all others.

Such was the force of his personality that princes and popes let Michelangelo have his own way, allowing him to follow the dictates of his genius, even when this led to unexpected results. In The Last Judgment, space and perspective are abolished, figures float in eerie silence about an implacable Christ. Has anyone been saved? Is there any hope for humanity, sucked into this vortex of pessimism? Again, with the ill-starred tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo radically altered the scale of his sculptures and subtly shifted their allegorical burden over the decades, apparently oblivious to anything other than his self-imposed standards. Such high-handed actions were unprecedented, and with them Michelangelo inaugurated a new era in art, that of the artist as an individual responding to his own creative impulse.

Michelangelo's achievements are so varied, and his career so exhaustively documented, that it requires the talents of an art historian, an historian and a literary critic to "resuscitate" him today. Most recent studies have concentrated on his art and architecture, but George Bull's new biography seeks a more rounded image of the man. As the translator of Vasari and Cellini, Bull comes to the task with an intimate knowledge of the primary sources and has read diligently in later literature. At over 400 pages, his text may be daunting for the casual reader, but it is broken up into bite-sized chapters and garnished with quotations from the artist's correspondence.

The book succeeds in evoking Michelangelo's world, his demanding patrons and exasperating family, but it is less successful in discussing his art. It avoids any probing analysis of the works and occasionally shows a degree of confusion about what is actually being discussed. For example, Bull's text describes the controversial National Gallery Entombment as the altarpiece Michelangelo was painting in Rome around 1500, but he shifts his ground in the notes by saying that the London painting was "arguably" the work destined for the Roman church of Sant' Agostino. Although Michelangelo's passionate friendship with Tommaso de' Cavalieri is discussed, the question of his sexual orientation and its impact on his art is never seriously raised. An indifferent selection of black and white illustrations also suggests that understanding Michelangelo's art is not top of the author's agenda. But Bull is a genial and urbane cicerone, who wears his learning lightly. His book will find an audience, but those who want to understand Michelangelo's works should still turn to earlier surveys by von Einem, Hibbard or Murray.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003