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Spike's book presents nuanced look at Michelangelo's formative years

{{youtube:medium|ZmCSW8_tZDg, John T. Spike discusses his new book "Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine."}}

Michelangelo seemed to have it all. He was famous, fawned upon by society’s elite, rich: “richer,” according to biographer John T. Spike, “than any man in Europe—apart from those who owned their own countries.”

 Indeed, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni knew every single person of influence and wealth in Italy during what has become that nation’s—and perhaps civilization’s—most celebrated timeframe, the Renaissance. Furthermore, among them, Michelangelo was the most vigilant in ensuring that his own life was documented; 400 letters and poems that he wrote and two biographies, largely bearing his imprint, were written and published during his lifetime.

All of which presented a daunting challenge for Spike, who, nearly 500 years after Michelangelo’s death, conceived of a contemporary biography of the artist. He, of course, had written his Caravaggio (2011) and his Masaccio (1996). He figured he could complete the full lifespan of  Michelangelo in about four years. The resulting volume, Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine, covers only the first third the subject’s life; it took Spike six years.

 Spike, distinguished artist-in-residence at William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art, explained the shift in intent. In order to tell his story in an engaging way, he had to write multiple mini-biographies—those of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Machiavelli, Leonardo, the hell-fire Florentine preacher Savonarola before he was burned at the stake, etc. He also had to present these personalities in a manner that, according to Spike, did “not let the old Michelangelo speak for the young Michelangelo.”

“I am telling what he knew about these people when he encountered them,” Spike said. “It is not a history book; it is a biography, but in reading it a person discovers that they know a lot not just about Michelangelo but about the Renaissance.”

The resulting work presents a “behind-the-shoulder” peek as, for instance, a pre-adolescent Michelangelo enters the studio of painter Dominico Ghirlandaio and ends up “correcting” the “lines” of the master or as a slightly more-seasoned Michelangelo sculpts his impeccable ‘David’ from a bruised block of marble against all popular speculation.

Along the way, the Michelangelo that Spike reveals becomes more alive, more nuanced in terms of several key traits that would come to define him.

For instance, Michelangelo was convinced that he had a unique ability to raise his thought to the indescribable beauty of the divine, according to Spike. Also, according to the author, Michelangelo considered himself in rivalry with every major artist who ever had earned praise. In business, his manner would be misinterpreted for arrogance as “he absolutely refused to do anything that he did not really want to do,” Spike said.

Throughout his life, Michelangelo would remain concerned for the welfare of his family. He was proud of his name, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, and its connections to the 1200s and the founding of the Republic of Florence. The family, out of favor with the ruling Medici’s, had fallen on hard times. It was, in large part, to re-establish the family that Michelangelo “set out to make his fortune,” Spike said. “Not only did he do that, he succeeded to the extent that no member of his family had to work for the next 300 years.”

Even as a young man, it becomes apparent that Michelangelo would leave numerous works unfinished. In some cases, he did so in order for others to observe how he worked, how pieces were coming into being, as it were, Spike said. In other instances, his failure to complete projects had an economic bent, Spike added.

The artist realized early on that if he sold a piece of his work to a patron and the patron later sold the piece for an exceedingly large profit that he, as the artist, did not share in that profit, Spike explained. In the end, it seems the patrons would not press him; they seemed happy to accept the “bit of genius” he was able to deliver, Spike observed.

In summarizing Michelangelo’s passion, Spike said, “What he tries to do in his works is accomplish the supreme human beauty, beauty that he understands is but a shadow of or a glimpse of what beauty is in heaven.”

What Spike has done with Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine is present a superb vehicle from which to appreciate Michelangelo’s ascent.