Michelangelo is known to be one of history’s greatest sculptors and painters, and countless books analysing his countless artistic works reside in libraries, bookshops and on to-be-read piles everywhere. Extensive documentation of his life manifests in small sketches as well as rich frescoes adorning the world’s most famous walls, so it might seem that historians ought to know everything about his life there is to know. In comparison to others, Michelangelo’s paper trail is vast, but he remains a figure of much debate concerning the man, the works, and even the perspectives of those who have sought to understand him.
The invention of the history of art is commonly attributed to Giorgio Vasari, who created what Georges Didi-Huberman interprets as a religion that sought to venerate the artists of his own time, as the works they produced had reached the ‘highest degree of perfection.’ Those who had found access to this artistic heaven became the subjects of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, more colloquially referred to as The Lives. In this ‘treasure trove’ of information about artists of many varieties and origins, Michelangelo is exalted as Il Divino (the Divine). He represented the culmination of the artistic supremacy that had blossomed during the Renaissance, those whom Vasari saw as his responsibility to save from being forgotten in the same way that he perceived the classical artists of antiquity had been. In a literal sense, the term ‘renaissance’ means ‘rebirth,’ and it alludes to the contrast between the new approach to art (that is, the attempt to imitate nature as closely as possible) and the regression into pictorial inaccuracy that Vasari argues dominated Medieval art. Thus, Vasari’s primary motivation was the preservation of artistic brilliance, in the hope of avoiding a similar relapse into the creative dormancy that preceded the resurrection brought about by Giotto (hence the need to make meticulous documentation of artists’ biographies, styles, and specific works). Despite Vasari’s efforts, it is impossible to record everything.
One snowy winter in Florence, Michelangelo built a snowman. By its very nature, we were never destined to know more about it than the fact that it was ‘very beautiful,’ as recorded by Vasari, but inevitably, it melted and was confined to the memories of the few that saw it. It was never to be described in any other way and now it can only be left to our imagination. We could theorize about the form it took; was it an idea for a sculpture? It may have been an imitation of Piero de’ Medici who commissioned it, or maybe it was made in a similar way to the snowmen that children have been building for centuries. The existence of these questions and our inability to answer them presents a problem. Regardless of how painstakingly historians have tried to record every minute detail, part of the challenge is accepting that this cannot be done and appreciate that the study of history could be better this way. Relying on the opportunity to debate, historians, can provide different perspectives and expand the horizons of what can be understood about the past, motivating them to open new avenues of research and inspire generation after generation of new historians. For this reason, a considerable portion of our understanding is owed to the fact that, paradoxically, our understanding cannot be definitive.
A further example of where the borders of our knowledge are limited is when potential histories never came to fruition. In the year 1504, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and set out to depict the victorious Battle of Cascina which had been fought between Florence and Pisa in 1364. During this period, Italy consisted of many city-states, the citizens of which felt a strong sense of civic pride which was represented in artistic works such as this. As a symbol of significant Florentine power, the painting was to be executed by the artist whom both Renaissance and modern writers have described as having surpassed the abilities of the classical artists that inspired this new artistic flourishment. It has been argued that Michelangelo even depicted nature more accurately than nature itself. To further enhance this monumental fresco, Leonardo Da Vinci was simultaneously commissioned to paint another Florentine victory in the same room: the Battle of Anghiari. With the desire to outshine his bitter rival, the incentive to represent the vibrancy of their culture and city with utmost political importance, and the regard of all those who witnessed his work, this painting should have amazed the viewer almost beyond conception. It was never completed.
Being called away to Rome to design the tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo never passed the stage of drawing ‘cartoons’ of the fresco, many of which still survive, but only in fragments. The destruction of his drawings is attributed to fellow artist Baccio Bandinelli, who tore apart the plans in an act of severe professional jealousy. It is tempting to question if the painting would have been executed had the cartoons remained intact. Within the limited context of Michelangelo’s work, this is another example of how, despite the mass of other evidence and the many reasons for which this work should have been preserved, very little survives. All that remains is a collection of isolated sketches, to the detriment of our conception of Michelangelo in his prime, our understanding of the role art played in political affairs and the potency of the competition between Michelangelo and Da Vinci, two of the most influential artists in European history.
Vasari’s commentary of the initial drawings exists to describe that those who saw them ‘were seized with admiration and astonishment,’ commenting that ‘there has never been seen any work, either by his hand or by the hands of others, no matter how great their genius.’ Part of the reason for this is that it was saturated with Michelangelo’s favourite subject to portray: the male nude. Artistic trends venerated the human form in its heavenly beauty, acting as proof of the perfection of God’s creation. As others likened Michelangelo to a divine being himself, the figures he portrayed are his own creation, giving form to his appreciation of the temporality of the human body with the same desire as Vasari to eternally preserve what will inevitably be lost.
Michelangelo imposed the facial features of important figures onto subjects within many of his paintings, including the political leader of Florence and generous patron of the arts: Lorenzo de’Medici. Maria Luisa Rizzati argues that their features were manipulated beyond recognition, and in response to accusations of idealisation, Michelangelo asked, ‘Who will remember their faces in a thousand years?’ Therefore, aware of the discrepancy between what is accurate and what can be understood from artistic evidence alone, Michelangelo himself complicates the efforts of Vasari and historians everywhere trying to contend with the loss of evidence and the passing of time.
Using art as means to record history undoubtedly presents issues, as does the recording of the history of art itself. Depictions can be inaccurate, paintings can be destroyed, snowmen can melt. The impossibility of recording everything, coupled with the task of questioning sources and the validity of what they tell us means that sometimes, debates last far longer than the people or events they concern. One of the tasks of a historian is to attack the questions that will never get a conclusive answer or even the reassurance that one will one day come to light. This may be a burden or a privilege, but is a responsibility taken on by anyone willing to examine the past.
Written by Ruth Cullen
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Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists; translated with an introduction and notes by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.