ST. LOUIS — When you picture Michelangelo, does the image in your mind resemble Moses? Ben-Hur? In other words, Charlton Heston?
Heston’s portrayal of Michelangelo in the classic film “The Agony and the Ecstasy” has largely shaped our collective impression of the artist. Based on an Irving Stone novel, the movie portrays Michelangelo as a loner, a prodigy, a pain.
But a new biography by William Wallace, a Washington University art history professor and leading Renaissance expert, challenges those enduring myths.
“The last great biography of Michelangelo is more than 100 years old,” Wallace said. “Some people read ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ as a biography but, of course, it is a novel. In 100 years, we’ve learned a lot about him.”
Wallace is responsible for a sizable chunk of that new research. He has published dozens of articles, and has written and edited four books on Michelangelo. He has traveled to the quarries where Michelangelo mined marble for the Pieta, lived in the neighborhoods once occupied by Michelangelo’s best friends, and examined the artist’s paintings, sculptures, drawings and poetry.
“I look at the work differently every time I see it, and that’s part of the wonder,” Wallace said.
In his latest work, “Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and His Times,” Wallace draws on about 900 letters, never published in English, written to Michelangelo by friends and family. In them, he finds a dramatically different Michelangelo than the one scholars encountered in the artist’s 500 surviving letters.
“We tend to think that he’s petty, and we assumed that he was too great a genius to get along with people, and that’s just not true,” Wallace said. “We have enough evidence that shows he had a huge number of friends, and he is very loyal to them and his family.
“Michelangelo only wrote letters if there was a problem. His letters certainly are not chatty — ‘Here I am having a great time painting the Sistine Chapel.’ The problem with ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ is Irving Stone had all of Michelangelo’s letters that had been translated into English, but you didn’t have the 900 that provide a different viewpoint.”
We talked with Wallace about Michelangelo, his relationships and how he forever changed the artist’s place in society.
Q: Michelangelo didn’t work alone, even employing craftsmen to paint portions of the Sistine Chapel. Was he a good boss?
A: You can’t undertake a huge architectural project without an immense amount of help. We tended to assume that Michelangelo didn’t bother with these people, but in fact we have the lists of their names. We know who they are, where they lived, how much he paid them, how he managed them.
I was interested in the nitty gritty of how does a great genius get a huge crew of talented people to realize his vision. The most remarkable revelation is that his creativity is not interrupted by these details. He’s able to move between the mundane and sublime with absolute ease. On one hand, he can argue with a carver about the weight of marble and, on another, he’ll be thinking about a sculpture. He has a left-right brain that functions beautifully.
Q: Michelangelo isn’t afraid to tell off popes or make them wait in line for a sculpture. How did he get away with such insolence?
A: He ended up working for nine popes. He worked well with people who showed him respect, and that’s what he earned from popes. They realized they were very lucky to be working with him. He was always working on gigantic projects and, if he didn’t want to work for you, all he had to say was, ‘I’m busy,’ and it was true.
Q: Michelangelo never married, but he was devoted to his father and his only nephew. Does it surprise you how concerned he was with their medications and real estate investments?
A: That’s certainly the unexpected side of Michelangelo. Not only is he close to his family, but he really cares for their well-being. He helps them invest and is concerned about providing a legacy. If you were to ask him in his old age what was his most important concern, he would say the continuation of his family.
It’s surprising because artists at the time came from a low-class. They are craftsmen, and there is no idea of a family history or background. Many of them don’t even have proper last names. Leonardo, for example, is named after the town where he was born. Many don’t get married because they don’t make a lot of money, and if you can’t make money, no one wants to marry their daughter to you.
It’s still true nowadays. No one wants an artist as a son-in-law. So Michelangelo is unusual from birth in coming from an important family. He takes great pride in the ancestry of his own family. So in that sense, he is so much different from Renaissance artists.
Q: So why did he become an artist if it was beneath him?
A: That is the question. There’s that wonderful story of his father beating him when he wants to be an artist. I don’t think he set out to be an artist. There is this myth that he was a prodigy because a prodigy is something that goes along with genius.
But Michelangelo comes to art rather late and haphazardly because of his relationship with the Medici family. He becomes a person of court — someone who writes poetry, maybe plays a lute and dabbles art. He did more than any other artist to raise the stature of the artistic profession.
It was a craft before him, and it becomes a profession of geniuses after him. Now, artists have a certain dignity in society even if they are still considered marginal weirdos.