Michelangelo: Martin Gayford at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Article published on October 9, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

Upon his death at just short of 89, Michelangelo’s body was spirited back to Florence, where a vast crowd spontaneously gathered to pay their respects. The legend goes that, despite having been dead for a month, his body was untainted by decay; evidence of sainthood. Michelangelo, Martin Gayford observed, was a “saint of art.” But how did the son of a man who ‘did nothing’ as Gayford said, end up as one of the most revered artists in history?
A prolific arts writer, Gayford’s new book, ‘Michelangelo: His Epic Life,’ is published by Fig Tree in November of this year. In an intriguing talk on the opening day of Cheltenham Literature Festival, he told the story of the early life of the man known by contemporaries as ‘Il Divino’ (“the divine one”).

Michelangelo was born into what Gayford called “genteel poverty.” For generations, his family, the Buonarottis, had been small-scale bankers, although in recent years had been less than successful. Growing up with this contrast between the family’s lofty idea of its status and a relative dearth of cash, Gayford argued, may have been responsible for Michelangelo’s later reputation as something of a miser. His father, Ludovico, enrolled Michelangelo in a grammar school with apparent dreams of his son becoming a lawyer. Michelangelo did not share this vision, and despite frequent ferocious beatings, Michelangelo held fast to his dreams of becoming an artist.

At fifteen, he was talent-spotted by Lorenzo de Medici, a prominent Florentine statesman, plotter and patron of the arts. The Medici household as Gayford described it must have been a fascinating place; part literary salon, part political think tank, and with strong overtones of the Kray brothers. Guests at the Medici table were as diverse as they were influential. On any given day, the adolescent Michelangelo might have found himself sitting down alongside a diplomat or philosopher. With the death of Lorenzo, however, the Medici family star waned. By 1496, Michelangelo had left the household and, desperate for money, forged a Roman sculpture. Sold to a French Cardinal for 200 duckets, eventually it attracted the suspicion of the purchaser, who first asked for a refund, then to meet the sculptor. The Cardinal, Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas, then commissioned the young Michelangelo to sculpt the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. The resulting sculpture, La Pieta, made Michaelangelo’s name. At 25, he had a masterpiece on prominent display in Rome. A further commission followed, but Michaelangelo never completed it. Hearing that a sought after block of marble had become available, he set about working on this. That block of marble became David. The statue was so stunning that, according to contemporary biographer Giorgio Vasari, anyone who had seen it need never see any other sculpture.

Taking questions from the audience, Gayford assessed how the magnitude of Michelangelo’s fame affected the rather negative view of artists held at the time. His fame was “almost unprecedentedly colossal,” Gayford responded. Great rival Leonardo da Vinci was getting there, and Raphael may have done had he not died young. Michelangelo’s, however, was so vast that he was allowed a remarkable amount of latitude in political affairs. A delay in the delivery of a commission by the French was an almost daily source of friction, as correspondence from the time indicates. Pressure from the French for delivery was not passed on to Michelangelo; instead, Florentine diplomats, among them Niccolo Machiavelli, went to great lengths to excuse Michelangelo and allow him time to finish.

Gayford’s expertise is undeniable, and his delivery was assured. It’s clear he could have talked for several more hours on the subject, and with his new book weighing in at just shy of 700 pages, no doubt he’d still not have run out of material!

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