The Artist Hands the Renaissance Baton to Shakespeare
Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.
Michelangelo — On The Brink of Death
In this profile I’m using Martin Gayford’s biography, Michelangelo — His Epic Life, as my guide, as there is no other work that comes anywhere near it.
In the first pages Gayford informs us that Michelangelo Buonarroti died at 4.45pm on the 18th February 1564, in Rome. The artist was a couple of weeks short of his 90th birthday. And although Gayford doesn’t suggest it, the chances are that on that very same day Mary Shakespeare, a thousand miles away in Stratford-upon-Avon, felt her son William stir inside her, already anxious to be born and explore the wonderful and dangerous world he was heading for.
And when Shakespeare first encountered that world two months later the news of the death of Michelangelo would have reached the small and rather dull (in comparison to Florence) Warwickshire town where, I’m convinced, the Florentine’s vast artistic spirit must have entered the psyche of the mewling new born poet and playwright.
With the baton handed from Michelangelo Buonarroti to William Shakespeare in 1564 the world changed.
And of course Michelangelo was also a poet (whose work may very well have been read by Shakespeare)who wrote reams of stuff that were as epic as his statues and vast canvases and the odd chapel ceiling, with subjects that were “…metaphors for his own fate as a hapless lover, or simply for the human condition…,” as is the case, surely, with many of Shakespeare’s dramas: very loud and very bloody, both a reporting of, and something of a divergence from, the brutality of real life. And like Michelangelo’s output, Shakespeare’s work was always autobiographical, whether he realised it or not, in a time when state murder was quite a spectacle.
Gayford writes about the savage executions that took place in the Campo de Fiori in Rome:
“ …an extremely short walk from the Isola Galli, where Michelangelo lived and worked. Savage executions took place there regularly. On 7 April 1498, for example, there was a spectacularly horrible death, of the Moorish — presumably black — servant of a courtesan named Cursetta. He had been in the habit of going around wearing women’s clothes under the name of ‘Spanish Barbara’ and committing acts of ignominy that Johann Burchard, the Papal Master of Ceremonies [the organiser of the liturgies and ceremonies performed by the pope] who narrated these events, could only guess at. ‘Spanish Barbara’ was taken to the Campo de Fiori with his dress raised so that all could see his testicles and burnt at the pillory (though there was trouble getting the fire to light, owing to the wood being wet after heavy rain).”
Such scenes suggest how dark real life was for the majority of the populations of most European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries, and perhaps not so dissimilar to the things Shakespeare would certainly have witnessed in London: it was both entertainment, and a dreadful warning.
Unless Shakespeare travelled to Italy and witnessed the art of Michelangelo (which it would have been easy enough to do) there was no opportunity for him to have seen the Florentine’s work in London, let alone Stratford, but he may certainly have read Michelangelo’s vivid autobiography (which was published in the artist’s lifetime) which would undoubtedly have been available in London. The inquisitive Shakespeare might also have spoken to many a merchant seaman just returned from Florence or Rome, who may have seen the public sculptures of Michelangelo. Perhaps Shakespeare saw copies of the Master’s work drawn by travelling artists, or engraved copies of his architectural plans?
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Shakespeare — Sonnet 55
Martin Gayford’s epic life of Michelangelo is, as you might expect of a biography of an artist who lived to such an old age, extremely detailed yet reads with the pace of a good thriller, pulling every emotional and historical string he can fit within the huge story of the Renaissance, the Medici, and not least the other artists who hated the man for his huge talent, prolificacy and miserliness when they asked him for money.
Before Gayford’s book first came out in 2013, my only real knowledge of Michelangelo was his art, which was almost too much to take in at times , with characters who were so much larger than life (as are Shakespeare’s), both physically and emotionally, and the excellent novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone, and the 1965 film based on that novel, starring Charlton Heston. Both are good introductions to the artist’s life, and good primers for the 660 page volume that is Gayford’s beautifully produced book.
Gayford’s book explores every aspect of Michelangelo’s life, and pretty much every piece of art he created (and some that he never managed to finish, or even start), with investigations into his sexuality, and the sexuality of his times, not least the attitudes toward homosexuality by the authorities who limited the punishment for repeated sodomy (if you were wealthy or of good family)to a small fine, and a suspended jail sentence, if, and only if, the accused owned up. If you didn’t have the money, or were a cross dresser, you were either thrown in jail, or, as mentioned earlier, burned alive.
And if you were an artist, especially a brilliant artist under contract to the murderous and bonkers Medici family, you lived every day of your life as if it might be your last, unless, like Michelangelo, you were either very brave, or very mad, and galloped off into exile, only to hear a little while later that they had employed another artist to finish your work, the news of which sent Michelangelo into an apoplectic rage and galloping back to his unfinished work, much to the satisfaction of whichever Medici, or pope, was in power at the time. That Michelangelo lived to be 89+ is a miracle.
Michelangelo — His Epic Life is a perfect way to become re-acquainted with an artist we probably take for granted these days (as we do Shakespeare), and by extrapolation, the work of William Blake (hugely influenced by Michelangelo), and, more recently, Picasso and the rest.
And as the brilliant, and rather infamous Frank Harris wrote of Shakespeare:
“ I find that in the English historical plays the manly characters, Hotspur, Harry V, the great Bastard, and Richard III, are all taken from tradition or from old plays, and Shakespeare did nothing more than copy the traits which were given to him; on the other hand, the weak, irresolute, gentle, melancholy characters are his own, and he shows extraordinary resource in revealing the secret workings of their souls.”
The Renaissance goes on, and on.
Martin Gayford has also written about Lucian Freud, David Hockney, John Constable, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Martin Gayford’s Michelangelo — His Epic Life is now available in paperback
Michelangelo — His Epic Life is published by Fig Tree (an imprint of Penguin Books)