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Marble and more marble

24 April 2012

But where is a great artist’s passion, asks Nicholas Cranfield

Rarely mentioned: Michelangelo’s marble Madonna of the Stairs (in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence). It was, Hirst says, not brought to complete finish; was first described in print by Vasari in his 1568 life of the artist; and was presented by the artist’s nephew to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici

Rarely mentioned: Michelangelo’s marble Madonna of the Stairs (in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence). It was, Hirst says, not brought to complete finish; ...

IRVING STONE’s novel The Agony and the Ecstasy appeared in 1961, and cost 25s. Michael Hirst first wrote of Michelangelo in the same year (an article on the Chigi family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Pace). In 1994, he staged an exhibition at the National Gallery, “The Young Michelangelo”.

Stone, with the help of Bernard Berenson, brought to English read­ers the letters and poems hitherto unknown to all but Italian readers of this remarkable artist. Four years later, Charlton Heston breathed life into this gargantuan figure on film.

Seven volumes of Michelangelo’s letters, contracts, and accounts have appeared in print since then, mak­ing possible a more comprehensive biography. Hirst is clearly the Eng­lish authority to write it, and for £30 is served well by Yale. Antonio For­cel­lino’s excellent, if more gen­eral, biography appeared in 2009 (Books for Christmas, 27 November 2009).

That Hirst has left no stone unturned in writing the first part of a projected two-volume life of this artist (to 1534) is immediately ap­parent. By page 26, at the end of chap­ter one, the professor has notched up 114 footnotes, repeat­edly citing “dependable sources”, “familiar passages”, and the like. Where Verdi once claimed that he would set Shakespeare’s laundry list to music, we are here treated to shop­ping lists for marble, salmon, bread, more marble, bread rolls, and I know not what. And I thought I knew something about Michelangelo.

When I was 17, I went to live in a monastery in Settignano outside Florence where the artist was born in 1475. Since then, I have chalked up many of his works; although the original version of the Risen Christ (S. Maria sopra Minerva), in the Parish Church of S. Vincent in Bassano Romano, has continued to elude me, I always enjoy (for free) the Taddei tondo in Burlington House.

The dense text, assumed know­ledge, and single focus on Michelan­gelo makes me wonder whom the author intends to address. A family tree might help to navigate the extended and financially troubled family of the Buonarroti, and a running header with a date would make available a timeline for this most dilatory of artists.

I had to turn to my 2099-page copy of Garzanti’s dictionary to establish that “ballatoio” is an archi­tec­tural term for a balcony; nothing in the text tells me if this is inside or around the outside of the dome of the cathedral in Florence. Francesco d’Amadore makes a one-off appear­ance as a go-between simply called “Urbino”.

He delivered a sketch to Tom­maso Cavalieri, with whom the artist was infatuated, but on the last page we never do learn with whom Michelan­gelo may have had a less than chaste relationship. Was it Febo di Poggio, “a recent young protégé”? Maybe we have to wait for volume two.

I do not doubt that Hirst’s is as accurate a reading of one man’s life as we could ever expect to read, but it is almost as if Michelangelo lived in a vacuum. Little of the fire and passion so convincingly evinced by Stone is present in this monu­mentally academic account.

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

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