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.