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Nudes of the world

BOOKS MICHELANGELO: A Biography by George Bull, Viking pounds 25
IN 1550 Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his Lives of Renaissance artists, an invaluable guide to painters and sculptors from Cimabue to the still-living Michelangelo Buonarroti. Vasari's purpose was didactic as well as documentary, presenting his earlier subjects in the role of prophets preparing the way for the towering genius of Michelangelo.

Vasari claimed that "Michele Agnolo" was given his name to mark the birth of a celestial and divine phenomenon and urged other painters "to imitate Michelangelo in everything you do". Although Michelangelo responded with an approving sonnet, Vasari's extravagant praise does not seem to have satisfied him; according to his latest biographer, George Bull, he felt that it did not sufficiently emphasise the extent to which he stood alone, owing virtually nothing to the influence of other artists.

Three years later another book appeared, this time a 30,000-word biography of Michelangelo. The author, a young painter of no great talent called Ascanio Condivi, began with a letter to readers in which he said that his project was inspired by the failure of other (unnamed) writers to give a full and accurate account of "this rare man". Condivi claimed to be more "familiar" with Michelangelo's life than previous authors and supplied a partisan account of one of its strangest episodes, the contract to design and build a monumental tomb in Rome for Pope Julius II.

This project, commissioned by Julius himself, remained uncompleted 30 years later, in spite of wranglings between the artist and the dead Pope's family and numerous revisions of the contract. Michelangelo's version, relayed by Condivi, was one of endless mishaps with shipments of marble from Carrara, as well as misunderstandings and even deceptions over the money promised him by the Pope's heirs. The saga, which functions as a sort of anecdotal anaphora in George Bull's biography, prompts questions about the artist's tendency to procrastinate and his attraction to colossal and unrealisable projects.

The tomb, as envisaged in 1505, was to consist of a free-standing marble monument adorned with more than 40 statues and several bronze scenes in bas-relief. The measurements of the base, 34.5 feet by 23, give some indication of how vast a project Michelangelo had undertaken. In 1542, the Pope's long-suffering heirs agreed that other artists should be allocated portions of the work as Michelangelo was too busy on other projects, and that he should pay a substantial sum towards its completion. At the time of this agreement, Michelangelo wrote a long, self-exculpatory letter in which he complained that "I have lost all my youth tied to this tomb" and "my trusting nature has gone unrewarded and been my ruin". Yet only five years before he had been forced to reach a settlement on another huge and unfinished project, 15 statues for the Piccolomini chapel in the duomo in Siena, for which he had been contracted as long ago as 1501, and which he had recklessly promised to complete in three years.

What these grandiose schemes suggest at first is that Michelangelo continually overestimated his rate of production, particularly as a sculptor. Yet there is more interesting interpretation, which is that they fostered his notion of himself as a frustrated genius. Unfinished work attracts a different type of criticism - and one which is more easily deflected - than a completed work of art; and Michelangelo's work was vulnerable to precisely the type of critique made by his older rival, Leonardo da Vinci, and by the poet Pietro Aretino.

As early as 1502, when Michelangelo was only 27, Leonardo had attacked artists who "make their nudes woody and graceless so that they appear to see them as bags of nuts and bunches of radishes rather than muscular nudes". Aretino, who disliked Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgement for entirely prudish reasons, was closer to the mark when he complained that the artist's nude figures failed to observe the differences in age and sex which Raphael had managed so well. "Whoever sees one figure of Michelangelo sees them all," Aretino observes in 1557 in a fictional dialogue on art.

This criticism is certainly true of Michelangelo's female figures of Night and Dawn for the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo, Florence: Night, in particular, has the powerful thighs and muscular stomach of a man, with breasts like unripened pomegranates (they are also in the wrong place). Michelangelo's nudes - and his inability to "see" women - raise the subject of his sexuality, which is dealt with so discreetly by George Bull that it more or less sidles into the text in an observation that the design of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512, was influenced by the artist's "religious and sexual feelings".

The subject is then dropped until 1532, when it becomes unavoidable because of Michelangelo's infatuation with the young nobleman Tommaso de'Cavalieri. Cavalieri was in his early 20s to Michelangelo's 57, and soon the artist was sending him passionate letters and sonnets. Precisely because of his prolonged reticence, Bull's evaluation of this relationship cannot help but sound like a further evasion: "Emotionally very physical and fatherly on Michelangelo's part, deeply filial and responsive on the part of Cavalieri, the relationship was tense with complicity of shared unspoken understanding of its true nature."

The penalties for sodomy in Renaissance Italy were severe and Michelangelo's fascination with the male nude and his "known kindliness and concern for young men" had already given rise to gossip. But the reluctance of a 20th- century commentator to approach the subject is hard to understand, especially when it denies Bull the possibility of making those intuitive leaps which lift biography from the pedestrian level of dates and family events.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to him, for example, that Michelangelo's reputation as a procrastinator, and his quarrels with powerful patrons, may have served as a distraction from more dangerous accusations. In this respect, Bull's book suffers by comparison with Serge Bramly's magnificent biography of Leonardo da Vinci, published in 1992, which attempted psychological depth without blurring the distinction between fact and speculation. What Bull has produced, like Vasari and Condivi, is a hagiography - and one whose bizarre achievement is to make Michelangelo's long life appear unexpectedly dull and uneventful.