Finding Michelangelo in six works of art

The Last Judgement

The life and genius of Michelangelo is examined through six of his masterworks in this new biography by art historian, Miles Unger.

A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles Unger (Simon & Schuster)

Review by Travis Nichols in The Washington Post.

In this enjoyable but curious biography, Miles Unger presents the High Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti through six of his major works: The Pieta, David, two segments of the Sistine Chapel frescoes (Creation of Adam and 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.

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, decades-long 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.”

A Life in Six Masterpieces has a fine selection of details such as this, but thankfully Unger manages not to get too bogged down in them. He knows just what details 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.

Michelangelo’s long life (1475-1564) spanned nine popes, multiple wars and Western civilisation’s two major cultural upheavals, from medieval times to the High Renaissance, and then from Renaissance to Reformation. It would be easy to get sidetracked in all the palace intrigue, 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.

The only true flaw in this book (other than an overreliance on bravura as an adjective) is that at no point are we told why Unger chose this method of approaching his subject.

Read full review: ‘A Life in Six Masterpieces’ provides insightful perspective on Michelangelo (The Washington Post)

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