Art historian and journalist Unger (Machiavelli, 2011, etc.) organizes his life of Michelangelo by focusing on six masterpieces of varying media that compose the pillars of his creative life.
Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti Simone (1475-1564) was a cantankerous genius whose works emerged not just from Italian marble, but from the even more adamantine stone of the political realities of his time. The six works that Unger focuses on include Pietà, David, the Sistine ceiling, Medici Tombs, Last Judgment and St. Peter’s Basilica. The author tells us about the idea, the creation (Michelangelo was notoriously secretive about his work and did not like others, especially his patrons, looking in and making suggestions), the political and interpersonal difficulties he faced, and the public receptions. This last varied widely: The Sistine ceiling brought cries of admiration; Last Judgment elicited cries of another sort—another painter disguised some nudity. Unger excels at showing us the artist at work: his reluctance, his caginess, his temperament (easily hurt and angered, he sometimes tried to run away) and his jealousies (da Vinci and Raphael among them). We marvel, too, at his mastery of so many different types of media. Unger describes his contentious relationships with members of his own family, especially his hectoring letters to his siblings. Readers will find it astonishing how many of Michelangelo’s letters remain; he died in 1564, the year of the birth of Shakespeare, who left no letters (or other manuscript material). We also see Michelangelo’s ferocious work habits and perfectionism and his ascetic lifestyle, which didn’t really change until later in his life when his financial situation became more comfortable. Michelangelo outlived numerous popes (his relationships with them were significant), local rulers and families, and other notable artists.
Unger’s edged prose shows us a clear Michelangelo emerging from the stone of history.