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- The terrible master

Michelangelo: His epic life By Martin Gayford, Penguin, Rs 1,699

Great artists are usually aware of their own greatness. This often takes the form of their having, at every waking and dreaming moment, an almost architectural sense of the shape of their entire life and body of work. So, they soon become their own performers, curators, biographers and canonizers — sometimes, even their own interviewers. Perhaps this is what Keats meant when he wrote, in a letter, that “a man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory”. “Of any worth” is important; Keats is not talking about ordinary lives here. He saw Shakespeare, for instance, as living such a life of allegory, his plays and poems being the “comments” on it. Even someone as self-effacing as Shakespeare remains, therefore, in masterly control of the making of his own life’s allegory. And this will-to-control, even when it remains well-hidden, is integral to his art.

With the Old Masters and Mistresses, we often get the sense, while reading, looking at or listening to a particular work, of something like a tutelary spirit hovering dimly somewhere above this scene of encounter. It is the spectre of the Whole overseeing the birth (or rebirth) of the Part. So, when we listen, say, to the slow movement of an early piano concerto by Mozart, we are also listening to its fuller blossoming in an aria from a much later opera. This experience of being haunted by a ghost from the future is not, or not entirely, a trick of our memory. Rather, it is as if, in the timeless simultaneity of Mozart’s genius, the Early and the Late are held together in a single idea or impulse, so that the unfolding of the Early towards the Late becomes the temporal realization of that synchronicity. This quality could even be a working definition of greatness.

Martin Gayford calls his cannily researched, elegantly told and handsomely produced 662-page biography of Michelangelo an “epic life”. Beginning at the end — in 1564, with the almost-89-year-old artist restlessly gathering a small band of old faithfuls around what would, in a few days, turn out to be his deathbed — Gayford plunges into the deep end of his story. He starts with how Michelangelo invested the perception of his own life — its stupendous achievements as well as its notable incompletions — with the larger-than-life quality, the legendary giganticism, of his art and architecture. Through a prolific output of letters and poems, together with semi- public appearances, he had even created his own vocabulary for such a scale of living and making. This centred around the word, terribilità, which takes on a faintly comic ring when rendered as ‘terribleness’. Like his two burials and two funerals in two different cities, involving the smuggling out of his miraculously undecayed corpse from Rome to Florence, Michelangelo had two biographies published during his lifetime. There was Giorgio Vasari’s “Life of Michelangelo” in the Lives (1550), full of inaccuracies and omissions and written from limited personal acquaintance with its subject, and then Vita di Michelangnolo Buonarroti (1553) ostensibly by the artist’s assistant, Ascanio Condivi, but ghost-written by the more literary Annibale Caro, who had extensive access to Michelangelo. A compelling image of this process of self-sculpting, presented early in Gayford’s narrative, is that of a dying Michelangelo going through his own volume of Condivi’s Vita in the company of an old friend, who is made by the artist to mark and annotate everything that required correction or amplification in Condivi’s account, so that these may be incorporated in Vasari’s second edition. These changes never reached Vasari, whose “ficto-facts”, as Coetzee would call them, became part of the allegory of “the greatest artist that ever lived”, in the words of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, speaking on behalf of the Florentine Academy immediately after Michelangelo’s death.

A chronology of the eight popes who came and went in Michelangelo’s lifetime, together with the family trees of the Medicis and the Buonarrotis in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, hallows the portals through which we enter the life of “this hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man”, for one day of dealing with whom, a contemporary complains, “the patience of Job would not suffice”. Gayford deftly weaves into and around this difficult and Mannerist chiaroscuro of self-making, the endless layers of personal, local, national and international politics, of intellectual and social history, and the religious and temporal worlds of art-making and patronage — the Picos, Ficinos and Machiavellis, the bewilderingly many Juliuses, Piuses and Pauls, or Lorenzos, Pieros and Cosimos, and among them, the peerless Tommaso and the rare Vittoria, the two great beacons of platonic (and Platonic) amatory inspiration in the artist’s life. These constitute the changing vortex of European history, near whose “dynamic centre of events”, Michelangelo worked for decade after decade of his extraordinarily long life, lived in the two cities of Florence and Rome at the peak of their perpetually infirm glory.

Although he has studied philosophy and art history in two fairly traditional institutions, Gayford has written widely and unusually on not only art but also jazz. His books on art range from studies of Van Gogh’s relationship with Gaugin and Constable’s relationship with love and money to conversations with David Hockney, an anthology of art-writing and, most interestingly, an account of what it was like to sit for a portrait by Lucien Freud. So, in this, his first extensive work on an early-modern artist, beneath the impeccably tended top-soil of social history, art history and literary history married to a veritable cornucopia of archival evidence relating to Michelangelo’s life and times (apart from his voluminous correspondence and poetry), there is the darker, though no less fertile, subsoil of another kind of pleasure, proffered with a subtlety and reticence that may have come from other, less academic and more literary, sources of inspiration. In his understanding of what happens around and within an artist as he lives out his ordinary and extraordinary lives, his private and his secret lives, his historically verifiable as well as unknowable lives, Gayford presents us with a book that is not essentially very different in the insight it affords or denies into art, from a ‘modern’ Bildungsroman about an artist — from a book like Patrick White’s The Vivisector, or even David Sylvester’s book of long conversations with Francis Bacon. This is not to deny the historicity of Michelangelo’s life and work, or to say that Gayford has given us a highbrow rehash of The Agony and the Ecstasy, but to make a different sort of historical — rather than, say, ‘timelessly’ psychoanalytic — point: that Michelangelo was perhaps the first modern artist, the self-conscious inventor of a sublimity of inwardness, obscurity and scale on which subsequent conceptions of the Western artist, from the Romantic to the Modernist, would be founded, of course with significant historical variations. The terribilità of Michelangelo and the terribilità of Patrick White’s Hurtle Duffield are part of the same mythic genealogy of their own making — with the cutting up of bodies and souls for the sake of the truth of their art as a shared compulsion. To explore the possibility of such continuities is not a retrospective projection on the part of a biographer, or a blindness to history, but a recognition, rather, of how long its shadows might be.

During a particularly gloomy period in the late 1540s, Michelangelo, in his early seventies, wrote a poem on being “locked up” in old age that would have made Hurtle Duffield drool: “Around my door I find huge piles of shit/ since those who gorge on grapes or take a purge/ can find no better place to void their guts/ I’ve learned by now to be a proper judge/ of piss and of its pipe, seen through the cracks/ where dawn’s light filters through into my cage./… Lumbagoed, ruptured, knackered — that’s the way/ my toil has left me; death has come to be/ the tavern where I live and eat, and pay./… Making all those big dolls, I wonder what/ the point was, if my end is still like one/ who swims cross the sea, then drowns in snot./ The art for which in bygone days I won/ golden opinions brings me here at last,/ poor, old and servant to another’s will,/ so that I’m done for, if I don’t die first.” Of course, after writing this poem, Michelangelo went on to design the dome and outer walls of St Peter’s, and made two more “big dolls”: a Pietà that he smashed and another one, the Rondanini Pietà, which he “semi-smashed” and left incomplete.