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A compelling immersion in the art and history of Michelangelo and his work in Florence and Rome.

Book Review: ‘Michelangelo’ by Miles J. Unger

Try to imagine what success must feel like to a young sculptor starting out in 15th century Florence and Rome. Now imagine you are seeing the radiance of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Michelangelo’s massive statue of David.

These are among the magical elements of Michelangelo’s expansive creativity, as described in Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger.

The six masterpieces of the title represent an extraordinary amount of work that consumed the life of the talented artist from Florence, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Michelangelo was born in 1475, the second of five sons. His mother’s death when he was a six-year-old boy is often seen as the impetus for his many artistic portrayals of the Madonna and Child. He also struggled with his father over the decision to become an artist. Yet as soon as he showed he could earn much-needed money for the family as an apprentice at the Ghirlandaio painting studios, his career was formed, and young Michelangelo became the family breadwinner.

From an early age Michelangelo felt that the purpose of art, at the highest level, was to channel the most profound aspirations of the human spirit.

Author Miles J. Unger states Michelangelo was “the prototype of the temperamental genius, beholden to no one and responsible only to the dictates of his own inspiration.” Michelangelo quickly began to seem larger than life and was subject to more scrutiny than his rivals, including Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian.

After extraordinary success creating the “Pieta” in Florence, at the age of 24, his fame grew and so did his ambition to work in Rome, where he was commissioned to create greater works.

The heart of Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces is a full portrayal of this fascinating character, but the book also devotes a full chapter to each of his most famous works.

michelangelo pietaWith knowledge of anatomy gained from cadavers, Michelangelo overcame initial struggles with creating the massive statue of David, fully aware of the long journey to source and transfer the marble and the enormous amount of work needed to create the sculpture.

After commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Pope Julius died just days after seeing the project completed, in 1512. Rather than losing a patron, Michelangelo learned the Pope had set aside funds for Michelangelo to create the Medici Tombs. Even then, at age 75, Michelangelo still “burned with creative fire” and stressed that he worked with his mind and not his hands and still had much to contribute. The book concludes with the extraordinary story of “The Last Judgment,” a fitting final project for this legendary, masterful artist.

“The Last Judgment,” completed when he was an old man, was another success for this man who had endless struggles along the way to success, yet never lost site of the range of human possibility.

This book includes as an Appendix a “Guide to Viewing Michelangelo’s Works in Florence and Rome” and also has an extensive bibliography.

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