Miles J. Unger’s ‘Michelangelo’ tells artist’s story through six works

08/01/2014 7:00 AM

08/01/2014 12:00 PM

The High Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti’s long life (1475-1564) spanned nine popes, multiple wars and Western civilization’s two major cultural upheavals, from medieval times to the High Renaissance, and then from Renaissance to Reformation.

In an enjoyable but curious biography, art historian Miles J. Unger presents the artist through six of his major works: the Pieta, David, two segments of the Sistine Chapel frescoes (“The Creation of Adam” and “The Last Judgment”), the Medici Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

For each one, Unger gives the political and personal context, and he employs choice biographical anecdotes to bring the artist to life.

It would be easy to get sidetracked in all the intrigues of popes and dukes, but Unger shows just enough to facilitate understanding of the art. For the most part, he carves away the extraneous and gives us a glimpse of the true artist.

So we get both the architectural theory behind Michelangelo’s choice of columns at St. Peter’s and the story of how, when the workers finished a major milestone in the arduous, decadeslong construction process, Michelangelo “celebrated not with a formal ceremony attended by princes of the church but with the humble bricklayers on site. The meal, delivered from the nearby inn of the Paradiso, included on the menu fried pig’s liver, wine, bread, and 100 pounds of sausage.”

“Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces” has a fine selection of such details, but thankfully Unger manages not to get too bogged down in them. He knows just what will interest readers, such as the fact that an early rival’s most lasting sculptural legacy was breaking Michelangelo’s nose.

“One can’t help feeling a certain amount of sympathy for the assailant who never achieved for his work in bronze or marble the notoriety that came from his one attempt at a composition in living flesh and bone.”

Unger also includes a striking tale of detractors who tried to take down the David by throwing stones at it.

The only true flaw in “A Life in Six Masterpieces” (other than an over-reliance on “bravura” as an adjective) is that at no point are we told why Unger chose this method of approaching his subject.

Telling an artist’s life via his works served Joe LeSueur well in his “Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara,” and in some ways Unger’s book is “Digressions on Some Masterpieces by Michelangelo.” But some explanation as to why Unger chose these six works in particular would have helped.

As it is, we’re left wondering if the world needs another book about Michelangelo. We already have Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Painters,” Irving Stone’s novel “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and the hundreds of biographies, illustrated guides and scholarly tomes published at regular intervals since the 16th century.

So has some scholarly information recently been unearthed? Alas, no.

There is no earthly reason for “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces” except that it is a finely made thing. And as Unger explains in this light, airy journey, that would be good enough for Michelangelo himself.

Unger tells us early and often that the “secular saint” advocated art’s value above and beyond its immediate political or commercial use. Unger has followed his lead somewhat, creating a biography that follows no publishing trends — he doesn’t troll for scandal with lurid personal speculation or use the artist’s works as scaffolding upon which to drape crackpot theories.

And while the result is modest — Unger is no literary Michelangelo — it is a thoroughly enjoyable minor work.

It should be noted that Unger reveals Michelangelo as a misogynistic, temperamental jackass who drove five popes and countless bureaucrats nearly insane with his demands and flights of fancy.

When times called for principled stands (as they often did in 16th-century Italy), he could be counted on to take the coward’s way out. As Unger says, “His artistic courage was always more pronounced than the political or physical variety.”

But he also made some of the most enduring art in Western civilization and profoundly changed the way we think about artists. Thoughtful exploration of his work, which this book most definitely is, will always be rewarding.

Travis Nichols is a poet and novelist. His most recent novel is “The More You Ignore Me.”

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, by Miles J. Unger (432 pages; Simon & Schuster; $29.95)

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