Martin Gayford is amongst the best of art biographers. I read both hisYellow House which depicts the time that Van Gogh and Gauguin spent in Arles and his life of John Constable and was impressed by both. His biography of Michelangelo did not scale the heights of these two as in it he was rather preoccupied with the history of the times, the High Renaissance, and less with the appreciation of the artistic production of Michelangelo. I anticipated there would be pages of art critique and much on his personality, but instead the historical context of the two great superpowers, the Holy Roman and France, the Reformation andVatican politics rather overshadowed the biography.
Despite two contemporary works Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and Condivi’s biography, the nature of Michelangelo’s personality remains obscure – notably the key question of whether he was a practising homosexual with relationships, or a predatory one, remains unanswered in this biography. As his sculptures and paintings were almost exclusively centred on the male body he never married, and his only know heterosexual relationship was with writer Vittoria Colonna, it seems likely that he was homosexual. Likely, but not certain, as for example there is no evidence of a sexual though very close relationship with his apprentice Urbino who was married nor with Tommaso Cavilieri, a young Roman nobleman to whom he wrote many sonnets, but it seems likely that their relationship was platonic.
Michelangelo was a driven, hard-working man who oversaw every detail of his sculpture, from the quarrying of the stone to the demands of various pontiffs on their large scale requests, some of which never reached fruition. As a man he was uncouth, with little personal hygiene and although he drove a hard financial bargain and amassed a fortune there seems little interest in the grand life. Of his great contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were the more courteous, whilst Titian painted in oil, female nudes, portraiture and natural landscape, none of which interested Michelangelo that much.
Where can be no room for doubt is the scale of his genius. He had an early and brilliant career as sculptor with David and la Pieta; he was master of frescoes, though he did not like oils; without training he became a formidable architect too involved in the basilica of St Peter. He was also a poet and masterminded the fortifications of Florence when it was under siege from the army of the Holy Roman Empire, which sacked Rome in1527. Many of his drawings (and letters) he destroyed as he deemed them not good enough and other works disappeared for various reasons. Nonetheless the Sistine Chapel, Pieta and David are as great a legacy as any artist.