Last Thursday at the Clark Art Institute, William Wallace, the Visiting Clark Professor of Art History, gave a lecture entitled “Michelangelo Aristocrat: The Social Aspirations of a Renaissance Artist.” Wallace, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is visiting Williams this semester and teaching ARTH 234: Italian High Renaissance Art.
Currently, Wallace is working on a biography of Michelangelo, which will be his fourth book about the Florentine artist. He admits to the apparent overkill of writing a fourth book when one of his previous works is entitled The Complete Michelangelo. However, he asserts that a factual and complete biography of the artist still has not been published. In fact, he did his dissertation under the late Howard Hibbard, himself author of Michelangelo, a 1985 biography. Wallace’s most notable predecessor in the field of the life of Michelangelo, though, was Irving Stone, the author of The Agony and the Ecstasy, a work often cited by critics of Wallace’s project. Wallace himself refers to the book as “historical fiction.” He also pointed out that this book, while an insufficient biography, has prevented subsequent writers and historians from investigating the life of Michelangelo, because they hold the attitude that it has already been done.
What Wallace is doing has most certainly not already been done. He views Michelangelo as a man, not just an artist. He wants to include all of the often conflicting qualities that create a man, not a myth. To pick apart all the clues, Wallace has read personal letters, scrutinized artworks and studied all the archived information he can find. “The Italians haven’t thrown away a scrap of paper since about 1200,” said Wallace, half-jokingly, but half explanatorily. He has garnered insight into the artist from the sorts of minutiae that most people would have routinely cleaned out of their files.
Wallace’s level of insight into Michelangelo as a man extends far beyond the evidence in his art or in conventional texts. He began his lecture with Michelangelo’s commission for the Medici chapel at San Lorenzo. He used the artist’s daily employment logs to ascertain his style of executing the project. While Michelangelo certainly did much of the more complex sculpture himself, he also had many artists working under him to complete the less intricate aspects of the project. For these workers, he maintained flawlessly handwritten logs of hours and wages. “He’s an A-type personality and kept micro-managed control over this project,” said Wallace. “This is only the tip of the bureaucratic iceberg.”
Wallace acknowledges the discomfiture people may have with the notion of Michelangelo, Renaissance artist extraordinaire, obsessing over everyday trivia. This legendary man seems above ordinary life. This is just one of the puzzling conflicts that Wallace has uncovered â€“ how Michelangelo could “operate simultaneously in the world of the mundane, while at the same time creating these sublime works.”
In fact, Michelangelo was eminently aware of life outside his workshop. He made firm claims to his lineage as nobility. And in fact, despite current doubts to his “evidence,” Michelangelo was, at the very least, of a very well-established, aristocratic family. Simply the fact that he had a last name â€“ Buonarotti â€“ suggests a respectable social status. Leonardo, for example, was simply da Vinci; that is, from the town of Vinci. Michelangelo was very conscious of living the life of an aristocrat, proper to his family line. “Much of his larger endeavor was not just to succeed as an artist, but to raise the status of his own family in Florence,” said Wallace.
Michelangelo was quite careful about how he presented himself to the world. Wallace pointed to portraits showing him wearing fashionable black garb and signatures in which he referred to himself as “patrician.” Michelangelo was extremely concerned with the appearance he projected into the world and that level of concern seems anomalous to his artistic achievements.
By his death, Michelangelo was certainly a millionaire, but, according to Wallace, he never lived like one. His home was comfortable, but modest. When he died, he had the equivalent of $50,000 tied up in socks underneath his bed.
In assembling his biography of Michelangelo, William Wallace has looked deep for his information. He has managed not to be blinded by the genius in the artwork, and he has discovered in the details the Michelangelo of the everyday. Michelangelo was a man who was just as swept up by the humdrum of daily life as anyone, yet simultaneously managed to create works of art which have awed viewers for centuries.