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Thursday, January 19, 2017

“Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling”, by Ross King

304 pages, Walker Books, ISBN-13: 978-0802713957

Perhaps the most famous fresco in the world is the Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (or just Michelangelo to you and me), a cornerstone of High Renaissance art, but as any reader of Irving Stone’s 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy (or any viewer of the 1965 film adaptation of the same) will know, Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor above all else and had no desire to paint this ceiling; in fact, as Ross King makes clear in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, the artist only consented to the command of Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling as a stepping stone to get back to the project he really desired: the sculpting of Julius’s tomb (a tomb that was never even begun, much less completed).

Michelangelo’s artistic achievements were great, wide and varied, but by focusing on this single, famous project that occupied better than three years of his life, King is able to give us a living portrait of this genius: we get to see his petulance and penny-pinching, as well as his fantastic work; we get to see his fights with family, assistants and pope, as well as his tireless work to better his family and amaze his observers; we get to see a man more like us with his cares and worries, as well as his triumphs. It is a story told with a plethora of detail...arguably, too much detail, as every artist and every assistant artist (and many of their relatives and patrons) are given, along with their towns and some of their history, often with little relevance to the story of the ceiling. This is a lot to wade through and is more than is necessary, I think.

There is also a fair amount of repetition, as well, as when we are told (three times at least) that, contrary to the (supposed) popular belief, Michelangelo was not a single man lying on his back, covered in paint working on his masterpiece, but was rather leading a team of assistants of varying competence, standing on his specially designed-and-constructed platform with head tilted back to paint the ceiling. Some details are, however, truly enlightening, as when we learn that, rather than a flawless work created as a single outpouring of genius, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was made by a man who made mistakes and tried to fix them, who learned from (as well as inspired) other artists, and whose work improved as he worked and mastered the skills of fresco.

Arguably, the person who has the most developed and interesting character is not the artist but the man who commissioned him, Pope Julius II, “il papa terribilea”, perhaps the most domineering, vain and aggressive man ever to wear the Papal triple-crown (and that’s saying something), who was perhaps more interested in the power struggles among the Vatican and the Italian city-states (and against France) in the 16th Century than in the finer points of the Catholic faith. We never get a definitive idea of how Michelangelo himself felt about Julius (though in balance it seems rather negative) and we also don’t get much info on Michelangelo’s attitude toward religion, though it is suggested that he was a believer (with little supporting evidence).

Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, inadequate knowledge of the art of fresco, and the pope’s impatience, Michelangelo created figures, depicting the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood, so beautiful that, when they were unveiled in 1512, they stunned his onlookers. Modern anatomy has yet to find names for some of the muscles on his nudes, they are painted in such detail. While he worked, Rome teemed around him, its politics and rivalries with other city-states and with France at fever pitch, often intruding on his work. From Michelangelo’s experiments with the composition of pigment and plaster to his bitter competition with the famed painter Raphael, who was working on the neighboring Papal Apartments, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling presents a magnificent tapestry of day-to-day life on the ingenious Sistine scaffolding and outside in the upheaval of early-16th Century Rome.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

“Mysteries of the Middle Ages And the Beginning of the Modern World”, by Thomas Cahill

368 pages, Anchor, ISBN-13: 978-0385495561

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World by Thomas Cahill is the fifth book in a series he is writing called the “Hinges of History” (who knew?) and covers a wide swath of oft-despised European history as the author seeks to portray the Middle Ages as a time in which the roots of Modern Europe were established while simultaneously fighting the idea that Medieval Europe was a wasted period of time where nothing happened (except the decline of Western Civilization) until the Renaissance (a period of time that Cahill argues is, in fact, a part of the Middle Ages). Of the many frustrating things about this book is the formatting: the book begins in Alexandria, Egypt, then moves onto Rome, then moves onto Hildegard von Bingen, then onto the topic of sex in the Middle Ages, onwards and upwards to Eleanor of Aquitaine, before transitioning to Francis of Assisi with this sentence, “[i]n 1182 three years after the death of Hildegard and in the same year Eleanor turned sixty, a boy was born…” and then ending the chapter section with, “[a]nd that is how romance became prayer…” (despite the fact that “romance” doesn’t even appear in any of the pages before this sentence) thence transitioning awkwardly from Francis of Assisi to his next (seemingly random) topic by inserting a brief “Intermezzo” (as he calls it)…and by this point Mysteries of the Middle Ages feels like there has been four different books.

It isn’t until the third chapter that this work begins to coalesce as Cahill swings from the University of Paris and Peter Abelard, to Thomas Aquinas and the court of Henry II, then fluidly into chapter four and the University of Oxford and Roger Bacon. From these great academic minds Cahill transitions to the arts, with Bonaventure to Giotto and Dante; however, the flow of the book still seemed impeded by the Cahill’s gushing over Giotto, whose writings seem to be more about how the man moved him than about how the man moved history, which is what his book is supposed to be about. From there the book starts for the third time (so it seemed to me) with the issue of the Cult of the Virgin, and here Cahill’s tendency to use specific individuals to make grander points comes into its true fruition. This is seen in terms of his points on Feminism, of which his first supporting point is the Cult of the Virgin. In order to show his perspective that feminism was growing or improved upon in the Middle Ages, Cahill used a grand total of two – TWO – women: Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine. These two women are not just exceptions to the rules; they are exceptions to the exceptions, for they are as rare a couple of characters as one could hope to find in history. It is almost impossible to find more writings by a single woman in the course of history than those of Hildegard, a woman whose virtue allowed her to be accepted across gender lines, though it is more likely that what she was capable of doing this not because of her gender, but rather a mix of superstition and an assumed holiness that allowed her to be so widely accepted. Eleanor gained her power the old fashioned way: she married it.

Ultimately, the biggest weakness of this book is that it tries to cover too much in too little space. Cahill tries to show major themes in specific characters, but what it actually does is show specific exceptions and not general rules. It could be argued that Dante gave more to the Italian language than he did to literature, and it is easily argued that Hildegard gave more to Christianity than she gave to feminism. These weak points of the book coupled with Cahill’s use of opinion and emphatic statements at times when he isn’t sure of all the facts leads to an unpersuasive, though admittedly well-written, book.