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.

The young Michelangelo was focused on making a name for himself, which he did literally by sculpting his signature onto the chest of the Virgin in his St Peter’s Pieta. His relationship to his David was more subtle and even more bold. Through a careful, nuanced reading of the artist’s drawings and notes, Barkan shows how Michelangelo placed himself in the sculpture. Like the Biblical David, the artist is working with a rock, but “since the premise is that he is outdoing David, he is declaring himself in the end to be just as much a conqueror as the figure he is sculpting; indeed, he is conquering the conqueror.” Michelangelo wrote of “David with his slingshot, and I with my bow,” and Barkan shows how the artist strove to supplant the youthful hero, with God on his side.

The hundreds of sheets of paper that survive oscillate “between orderly representation and a kind of visual cacophony.” Michelangelo draws over words, and he writes poems over his drawings. He turns the paper 90 degrees to take on a new task, and sometimes he passes the sheet to his students and assistants, who then try to imitate the work of the master. Making sense of these palimpsests is no easy task, and Barkan is a tentative but deeply learned interpreter. His close readings of these complex traces are marvels of erudition, even though he understands that claims about the meaning of these images will never be proven. For example, it is often difficult to know which writings on a page came first, or whether the master or one of his students had pencil in hand. The historical reconstructions, like Freudian interpretations of dreams, are fraught with ambiguity, and we realize that the “calligraphic stuttering” of the great artist may mean different things to different beholders. Barkan presses on, giving us voluminous visual evidence with which to make sense of Michelangelo’s artistic practice, and much of what he shares with the reader is beautiful to behold.

Michelangelo wrestled on paper with his ambitions and his frustrations, his longings and his fears. He wanted clarity and beauty, earthly satisfaction and divine reward. “The folio is not merely a site for drafting poetry,” Barkan writes, “but the ground where he sketches out the contradictions of his life.” The artist struggled to understand his creative gifts in relation to his possible salvation. Michelangelo wrote, “Art and death do not go well together: in what, then, should I place my greatest hope?”

Barkan is a sensitive and thoughtful guide through this fragile legacy of a monumental figure. Michelangelo, he writes, “remains stuck in the paradox of a godlike creativity that cannot bring him closer to God.” This biography of the artist’s “life on paper” reveals both his solitude and his efforts at communion. Barkan’s reading of the richly evocative paper trail reminds us how much we still have to learn about this towering, quivering man.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University.


A Life on Paper

By Leonard Barkan

Princeton Univ. 366 pp. $49.50