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Sculptor in one dimension

Nicholas Cranfield on an unflattering study of an Italian genius

Michelangelo: A tormented life
Antonio Forcellino
Polity Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

JACOPO SANSOVINO had worked alongside his fellow-countryman Michelangelo (1475-1564), but in the summer of 1517 he despaired: “I never saw you do a good deed for anyone else and, as far as I am concerned, expecting you to do so would be like expecting water not to flow.” This bitter condemnation is at odds with the flattering profile that another Tuscan, Giorgio Vasari, offered in his contemporary Life.

Which to believe — the avari­cious misanthrope, or the single-handed genius who surrendered his all for his art? For once, the answer does not lie squarely in the middle.

Forcellino is an art-restorer and critic who paints a picture of an intolerant, hubristic artist with a brilliant mind, working with teams of assistants (many of whom he sacked, some of whom he be­friended). To telling effect, he has used the fiscal accounts that Rab Hatfield published in 2002 to show that Michelangelo was a miserly if astute financier who channelled funds into mortgages and estates back home.

Vasari’s fictions are exposed, but a somewhat one-dimensional figure emerges: there is nothing here to suggest the humanity (and strong calligraphy) of the writer of epitaphs for the 15-year-old nephew of his friend Luigi del Riccio (Florence, Casa Buonarotti, Arch B, xiii, 33).

Rejecting the comparative affluence of his home background, Michelangelo formed no intimate relationships after he moved to Rome until comparatively late in life. We are treated lightly to his crushes on much younger men: both Tommaso Cavalieri, for whom he made some of his most powerful drawings as gifts when even the money of princes could buy nothing, and who would later complete the design of the Campidoglio after his friend’s death; and a serving lad, Francesco Urbino.

Forcellino is at his best in understanding his platonic relationship with Vittoria Colonna in the 1540s, whose early death in 1547, just after he had taken over as master architect at St Peter’s, clearly destabilised him.

This friendship drew him into the unorthodox circle of the so-called Spirituals (the Viterbo group), who followed the reforming teaching of Juan de Valdés and who had a papabile candidate in Cardinal Reginald Pole (1549). Pole was a member of the English royal family, and, at one point, La Colonna asked him to surrender his spectacles so that the poor ageing artist might see better to work — an extraordinary gesture in any age.

In Italy, Forcellino is well regarded: he is at his best writing about sculpture and, to a degree, about paintings. Little appears of his subject’s architectural projects, but my godsons, who live there, found that his scholarship dominates the Italian Wikipedia site. His own work on restoring the tomb of Julius II and the statue of Moses features in the current exhibition of Michel­angelo as architect (Capitol­ine Museums), although he has not contributed directly to it. He has more recently written on Raphael, and begins his latest book, 1545: The last year of the Renaissance (published in Italian), with Titian’s brief visit to Rome.

Like so many books, this volume suffers in translation. All Saints’ Day was never on 2 November, and “recission” is not an English word, while a passage about visitors to the studio is rendered in gibberish.

Allan Cameron has not always rescued his author from leaden repetition, while introducing his own grating phrases. Use of the pluperfect might have made more sense of the last, critical, 20 years of Michelangelo’s life, spanning the Council of Trent.

The Revd Dr Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

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