A very well written biography of one of the most complex and individualistic artists ever to have lived. Michelangelo's long life allows us to look closely into the Renaissance, its cultural, political and religious aspects all intertwined. This is Florence, Rome; this is the time of the nepotistic and corrupt papacies, the aristoctrats turned patrons of the arts; the struggle for power over Europe between the royal houses and the Vatican; this is, specially, a time that called for reform within the shamefully perverted and corrupt Roman Catholic church. A time for change that would split Europe, north and south, spiritually. There were so many rivalries, national and familial, that it was a dangerous time to live in, and your life depended on whose side you had taken at every turn of events. Michelangelo's life is so interesting because he happened to be an oddity for his time. He managed to save a remnant of independence in his life and his work in a time when independence, financial or spiritual, was not possible unless tolerated by the spiritual powers of the domiant church or by the temporal powers of the aristocrats. And if Michelangelo managed it was through the marvelous quality of his work. Dukes and popes admired and tolerated him in the interest of having his art as their possessions. The author does a good job revealing all the details that are known of his life, but never making conclusions from them, because -and that is the key to the man- even added up through a long life they never are concluding evidence to reveal who Michelangelo really was. That is the weird thing: we know what he worked on, what he did, who his friends were, what made him angry and what made him happy, but we still cannot come to conclusions as to add a single adjective next to his name. His sexual life -or lack of it, is a clear example of how hard it is to judge the man. There seem to be hints enough to think he was homosexual, but never anything conclusive, he even was a pious man, someone who towards the end of his life would have fitted better within the camp of the Luteran reformers than with the Catholic sellers of indugencies. His sexual or asexual life is open to everyone's own conclusions, and the author does very well in leaving those conclusions, fittingly, to the reader.
His life is full of ambiguities. Was he a greedy man, a miser man? He did earn a lot of money, and by the standards of his time, was quite a rich man, and he saved it up mostly. He was keenly interested in being paid and being paid well, and recognized. But we cannot say conclusively that we was greedy or a miser because he did give away much too, to those he loved most dearly. He was a grumpy old fellow, he didn't keep his friends for long, always breaking up good and lasting relations, but we cannot assume that in all those cases he was not justied in doing so. If one adjective seems to come closer to describe the man I guess it could be ambiguous, which is not properly a description of him but an ackowledgment of how little we understand about him. My impression is that, aside from his public life, which is absolutely interesting and truly epic, the man Michelangelo was an artist who fought all his life for his artistic independence. He worked hard, even obsessively on his art, whether it was painting, sculpture or architecture, knowing well that only achieving perfection could he earn some degree or independence and be able to choose his next master, rather than being himself chosen and told what to do. Individualism was, I believe, his credo. He did something no artist had done before, in the words of the author: “He transformed the notion of what an artist could be.” That's what puts him above other great artists like Raphael or Titian. Being requested by the powerful oligarchy and well paid was not an end in itself, it was a means towards another end, the acknowledgment of his own dignity as an individual, the dignity of man who values freedom first.
And if he was a strange person, or a hard to understand person, it was because he was struggling hard to be that free man in a world where only the powerful could be so. Michelangelo had in his mind and through his hands the tools that could earn him his freedom. Well thought, it is indeed weird: he became free without having power; within that freedom he was equal to his powerful masters the popes and the dukes. Maybe he wasn't so strange; maybe the strange were everybody else.