Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is perhaps best remembered by millions of cinema-goers as Charlton Heston, trading terribilita with Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), a film well encapsulated by the critic David Thomson as a picturesque hoot. Millions more have read the Irving Stone book on which it was based, first published in 1961 and still regularly reprinted. Stone specialised in what he called "biographical novels" of major artists. These monumental works were painstakingly researched, skilfully wrought and profoundly silly. ("'A rivederci, as the fox said to the furrier,' Granacci twitted. 'Oh, I'll take a skinning,' he responded grimly, 'but unlike the fox I shall come out alive.'") They made blockbuster after blockbuster.
Less obviously commercial yet almost as popular, Vasari's Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550, included a hagiographical life of Michelangelo, who helped to shape it in conversations with the author. Vasari was not exactly an authorised biographer, but he was given some sort of licence; and, evocative as it is, his Michelangelo is not always to be relied on when it comes to facts, dates and other contingencies. Moreover, the uncarved (or carved-up) original was still alive to read it - and indeed to object to it, especially for its slighting of what he believed (falsely) to be his noble origins. To set things straight, Michelangelo commissioned a life of his own, by his pupil and amanuensis Condivi, whose panegyric appeared three dutiful years later.
Michelangelo's biography is "fraught with fiction", therefore, as William Wallace observes. Curiously, Wallace himself has elected to compound the confusion by interpolating into a knowledgeable and sensible life and times three "imaginary accounts" of the beginning, middle and end of the artist's life. These episodes are an unhappy mix of speculation and reconstruction, heavy with the weight of the author's learning ("The Florentines' first impressions were necessarily spotty, but not inaccurate"), and further burdened by effortful attempts at fine writing ("The low winter sun struggled weakly against a lowering sky") or period characterisation ("And what about that artist who lived in his house, Daniele, and the man's rather coarse-mannered house servant, Antonio? Both were snivellers, distraught with uncommon grief.").
For better or worse, William Wallace is no Irving Stone. The page-turner eludes him. Style is not his forte. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel defeats him. "Like Verdi's Requiem or Milton's Paradise Lost, the Ceiling is a transcendent work of genius that will never be exhausted through looking or describing." Coming down to earth, he is good on Michelangelo's habitus and habits - his features, his clothes, his routine, his eating (sparing), his washing (even more sparing), his ailments (kidney stones, over-exertion); even his slippers have a walk-on part. "Doodling on the back of a letter, Michelangelo noted his most recent meals: one consisted of pasta, a herring, two rolls, and a jug of wine; the second was more substantial: salad greens, four rolls, a plate of spinach, four anchovies, some Tortelli pasta, and wine. And then tonight's frugal repast (after hours spent carving): fennel soup, a herring, bread, and wine."
All of this might suggest that Wallace is happiest when mining the documentary record (abundant by contemporary standards). He does it expertly, making excellent use of Michelangelo's poetry, for example, which becomes one of the most interesting strands of the work. Wallace has some suggestive passages on the continuities of artistic creation - the rhythm of sculpture and poetry - the alliance of the hand that ponders and the eye that fashions. Michelangelo's writing is revealing; amazingly, some is very good. On the death of his inamorata Vittoria Colonna: "But since heaven's stolen both that cordial flame/And its splendour that warmed my life, sustained it too,/I'm a smothered coal, that's all: brief feeble flashes."
There are some surprising omissions. The author himself remarks on Michelangelo's great wealth - unprecedented for an artist - but merely refers to someone else's study of it. The same goes for his celebrity in his lifetime, and the consideration of posterity. There are a few perfunctory references to "the legend of Michelangelo", but the afterlife is a void and the conclusion is summary indeed. "Few artists have achieved as much as Michelangelo in such diverse fields of endeavour; few so completely embody the notion of artistic genius. However, his legacy is greater than the sum of his works. More than any of his contemporaries, he significantly raised the stature of his profession, from craftsman to genius, from artisan to gentleman. He demanded respect from his patrons, and he earned prestige as an artist. The era of the superstar artist was dawning."
Scene one, take one. Enter Charlton Heston. "Quiet please ... AND CUT. It's a wrap. Fabulous. Chuck, have you ever thought about doing Moses?"
Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times
By William Wallace. Cambridge University Press 428pp, £19.99. ISBN 9780521111997. Published 10 December 2009