Don’t we already know a lot about Michelangelo? Most of us are aware of his awe-inspiring achievements in sculpture, painting and architecture, but perhaps not that he was a prodigious poet who strove to find in words a vehicle for connecting ever more closely with the divine. We know that, as a young man in Florence at the end of the 15th century, he already displayed prodigious talent. While still in his 20s, he completed two of the most remarkable sculptures in the Western canon: the David and the St. Peter’s Pieta. Art historians and popular audiences alike have marveled at the sculptor’s extraordinary technical skill and been moved by the subtlety and grandeur of his translations of Biblical moments into material form. His large public projects, like the design for the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cemented his fame as an artist-hero. He was celebrated in his own time, and he has remained in the popular imagination ever since. In America, the older generation will remember Charlton Heston’s portrayal of the artist’s fierce struggles for perfection, while the younger generation turns up the volume as the Counting Crows sing “When I Dream of Michelangelo.” The sculptor’s contemporaries simply called him il Divino.
Leonard Barkan’s ingenious, lavishly illustrated study does not linger over the familiar aspects of the Divine One’s life and work. It focuses instead on the artist’s “life on paper,” the hundreds of sheets that have survived containing drawings, poems, doodles, instructions to assistants and “notes to self.” For Barkan, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton, these sheets are a treasure trove of aesthetic delights; traces of the historical context of Renaissance art making; and, most important, a window onto the personality and artistic practice of a figure who came to define genius. Even genius, though, doesn’t produce final products without a searching, sometimes circuitous process. Drawing is just such a process: a way of thinking, of working out artistic problems and of exploring personal obsessions.