Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds

The great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was the subject of much biographical interest in his own lifetime.  He lived to see two full-fledged biographies, both by rather historically unimportant painters, Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) and Ascanio Condivi (1525–1574).  Both men were friends of Michelangelo, and that in itself is a testament to their stamina and quality of mercy.  As an artist, no one could touch Michelangelo; as a human being no one wanted to touch him…

In the centuries following Michelangelo’s death, many people attempted to retell his life, including his nephew.  Most of these books following his death are fairly worthless.  The Renaissance was a remarkable time in many ways, and one of the more interesting things about it is that manners and mores were changing at an alarming rate.  One of the facets of his life that raised eyebrows soon after his death was his love for Tommaso dei Cavalieri (c. 1509–1587). This relationship was the subject of much debate in his lifetime, and grew more loaded as the populace became more religious and faithful.  Michelangelo wrote many love sonnets to the young man, who was 23 years old when Michelangelo met him in 1532, at the age of 57.  Another beautiful youth, Cecchino dei Bracci, inspired Michelangelo to write 48 funeral epigrams.  When Michelangelo’s nephew gathered these love poems for publication, he changed the genders of the intended to the female.

Another enduring myth generated post-mortem was that the great love of his life was aristocratic widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538 and corresponded with for decades.  Many have tried to build a legend of romance between the two, but the exchange of sonnets and the occasional afternoon grappa does not a grand romance make.

Credit for the first truly authoritative biography of the great artist must go to aesthete, Renaissance scholar and minor poet John Addington Symonds (1840 - 1893), who wrote The Life of Michelangelo Buounarroti in 1893.  Symonds was the first scholar to have full complete access to the Michelangelo family archives.  This alone is astonishing – the archives had remained closely guarded and only fragments were made available by friends of the Buonarroti family.  The Italian government gave Symonds full access to the archives in the early 1880s, thanks largely in part to Symonds’ impeccable Renaissance scholarship.

It was not just the breadth and depth of Symonds’ historical knowledge, but also the feeling and sensitivity of his artistic judgment that made him the ideal man for the job.  Symonds was also the translator of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, still the most poetic translation extant, as well as the author of biographies of Shelley and Ben Johnson.

Symonds also suffered much from his own conflicted sexuality.  Though largely homosexual, he married Janet Catherine North, and spent the rest of his life in passionate friendships with other (often younger) men.  As would be expected by someone so conflicted (and given the historical period, just two years before Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for “gross indecency”), Symonds vacillates between insisting that Michelangelo’s love of younger men was “spiritual,” or arguing that he was a remarkable man even if it were not.

And Symonds is a compelling, erudite and fascinating writer.  Here is he is, writing about Michelangelo’s David:  In the David Michelangelo first displayed that quality of terribilità, of spirit-quailing, awe-inspiring force, for which he afterwards became so famous. The statue imposes, not merely by its size and majesty and might, but by something vehement in the conception. He was, however, far, from having yet adopted those systematic proportions for the human body which later on gave an air of monotonous impressiveness to all his figures. On the contrary, this young giant strongly recalls the model; still more strongly indeed that the Bacchus did. Wishing perhaps to adhere strictly to the Biblical story, Michelangelo studied a lad whose frame was not developed. The David, to state the matter frankly, is a colossal hobbledehoy. His body, in breadth of the thorax, depth of the abdomen, and general stoutness, has not grown up to the scale of the enormous hands and feet and heavy head. We feel that he wants at least two years to become a fully developed man, passing from adolescence to the maturity of strength and beauty. This close observance of the imperfections of the model at a certain stage of physical growth is very remarkable, and not altogether pleasing in a statue more than nine feet high. Both Donatello and Verocchio had treated their Davids in the same realistic manner, but they were working on a small scale and in bronze.

Symonds’ The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is available free for your e-readers at or Project Gutenberg, but there is also a splendid two volume edition published by the University of Pennsylvania Press with an introduction by art historian Creighton E. Gilbert that is quite wonderful.  If you have a serious interest in the life of the one of the greatest figures in art history, this is the place to start.

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