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A Book Review . . . Debunking A Plethora Of Myths About Michelangelo

November 22, 2021 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES BARESEL

Michelangelo, God’s Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest Masterpiece by William E. Wallace, Princeton University Press, 2021.

Popular memory treats Michelangelo simply as a man of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Tuscan High Renaissance that was centered on Florence and Rome. That was the time that he rose to fame, sculpted his Pieta and his David, and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That was when his chief rivals were the aging Leonardo da Vinci and the young but prematurely deceased Raphael.
The Tuscan artistic school, to which all three belonged, was at its apogee after a century of development by such geniuses as Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Bramante — and was the one major school of Renaissance art and architecture favoring strict classicism over more widespread (if less remembered) Renaissance efforts to build on a combination of classical and medieval aesthetics.
That same time also saw the more secular, sensualist, and pagan oriented variants of the Renaissance at their most pervasive and influential. Corruptions and immorality were as widespread among the clergy as at almost any time in Church history. Yet Europe remained unified in at least nominal Catholicism.
Michelangelo, then, is made to fit into a view of the Renaissance as a more or less uniform and classically oriented movement that rejected medieval Christendom and began laying the foundations for “modernity.” In fact, however, he was part of a different tendency within the actually multiform Renaissance — part of a tendency whose turn away from the Middle Ages attempted to pick up where the Christian classicism of the late Fathers of the Church left off.
And the Tuscan High Renaissance only saw him live the first half of a life that would continue until less than two weeks before what would have been his 89th birthday — in 1564. By then the Council of Trent had concluded and the Church was in the middle of a rapid and fervent reform that many in Michelangelo’s younger years might have thought would take at least another century to develop.
What was the aging artist doing during the two decades over which the Council of Trent took place? Working on what was not just one of his greatest achievements but the one most symbolically appropriate in its timing — the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica.
God’s Architect takes this phase of Michelangelo’s life as its subject and debunks a plethora of myths. Though not of an outgoing, sociable personality, he didn’t live as the isolated, solitary crank of legend but within a (small) circle of close friends. His correspondence gives a lopsided view of him since he rarely treated it as a form of long-distance socializing. For him it was a means to conduct business and to solve problems when he couldn’t be on the spot. It is for that reason that they can give to false impression of a chronic complainer.
Michelangelo’s full role in rebuilding St. Peter’s receives the bulk of the book’s attention. The common story is that after half a century of failed efforts, the task was given to Michelangelo — who returned to and slightly modified an earlier design (created by Bramante) that had been abandoned. Design problems can seem to have been the sole cause of delay. As far as it concerns Michelangelo’s role in designing the basilica as it now looks, the story is accurate.
What it overlooks (and what Wallace examines in detail) is the fact that Michelangelo became manager of the construction team and transformed its efficiency and output — so that a stalled project began to proceed at about as rapid a pace as technology allowed for and was completed not long after his death.

Devout And Faithful

The most important aspect of Michelangelo’s life assessed in God’s Architect is, however, his Catholicism. This was not a matter of unthinking convention or conformity. Michelangelo was, rather, personally devout and moved in circles devoted to religious reform. Some within these circles, it is true, tended toward an early sixteenth-century, pre-Tridentine “reformism” that, while remaining within the Catholic Church and opposed to Protestantism, was not always the most orthodox.
Not being educated in theological (or even in the Latin language needed to read all but introductory texts and devotional works), Michelangelo was excessively deferential to those with better educations. Because of this, God’s Architect raises questions concerning Michelangelo’s “material orthodoxy” — which has nothing to do with whether a person unknowingly misunderstands Church teaching or dissents deliberately.
Michelangelo’s desire to conform to Church precepts is evident in other facts to which Wallace calls attention.

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