By Ross King
Penguin, 318 pages, 2003
Biographer Ross King did the almost impossible: write a bad book about Michelangelo, history’s greatest artist.
King recalls every obscure artist of the era, their character, hometown, who they were apprenticed to, their principal works and where the art is located. He writes at length about Raphael paintings, mentions many architects and their buildings and details constant wars. Needless digressions.
The book is jammed with conjecture: “probably,” “quite possibly,” “presumably,” “seems to have,” “must have been” and “would certainly have.”
The book is too long by 50 pages. It is poorly edited with clichés like “a ripe old age,” “at the drop of a hat” and “washed down with wine.” It contains unedited phrases like “reverted back” and the annoying use of many unnecessary of courses.
King keeps noting that Michelangelo was temperamental. Many artists are.
He says Michelangelo was arrogant with Pope Julius II, his patron. He should have been. He was a great artist, Julius merely one of the worst “bad popes.”
Julius was corrupt, obscenely wealthy, holder of vast acreage, sired children and dallied with mistresses, several of whom gave him syphilis. Benvenuto Cellini, wonderful, boasting autobiographer during the 16th century, wrote that syphilis was “fond of priests, especially rich priests.”)
Among other sins of the “Supreme Pontiff’: he indulged in simony, led papal armies in battle and held dominion over 1 million people.
Michelangelo’s rival for the title of the world’s greatest artist, Leonardo da Vinci, left so many of his projects unfinished or never started. Leonardo’s one great achievement: “The Last Supper” in Milan. In contrast, look at Michelangelo’s record:
• Glorious sculptures of the “Pietà” in the Vatican, “David” in Florence and the sculpture of Moses for the tomb of Julius in Rome. And the incredible frescoes on the “pope’s ceiling,” the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
• 300 poems, including a sonnet tribute to Dante: “Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.”
The biggest failing of King’s book is its shoddy art. Sketches and pictures are often so murky they should not have been printed. But what is much worse: King’s book about Michelangelo is without pictures of his incredibly beautiful “Pietà” and monumental “David.”
Michelangelo’s ceiling is perhaps the single greatest work of art ever. But even here King fails. His picture of it is cramped. He does not include its best panel, the powerful “The Last Judgment.” That panel is packed with the drama of Charon, the ferryman gatekeeper of hell.
His body is huge, powerful, his ears gigantic and pointed. He’s a menacing figure with an oar held behind his head, ready to beat those reluctant sinners going to Hades after being ferried across the river Styx. Charon’s bulging eyes are threatening.
Dante in the “Inferno” describes him: “Charon, the devil, with eyes of glowing coal … with an oar strikes the laggard sinners.” (Mark Musa translation.) The panel is a hideous embodiment of tortured souls arriving on the shore of Hell.
Dan Brown in his novel, “Inferno,” noting that Michelangelo was under Medici tutelage while living in the family palace as an adolescent in Florence, called him “the Medici’s greatest gift to humankind.” Fiction, yes, but Brown’s history is impeccable.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno