by Roderick Conway Morris

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Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 6 November 1999
National Gallery, London
'The Manchester Madonna' by Michelangelo, c. 1494



Michelangelo was highly successful in almost everything he did, including the doctoring of his own life story to establish the myth that he was an artist without masters, a self-generated, divinely inspired genius who emerged into the world fully armed, like the goddess Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus.

Reading between the lines even of his friend and principal 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, it is still possible to discern that Michelangelo Buonarroti's version of his early years was exaggerated, not to say seriously distorted - although critics in the thrall of the legend have often been slow to recognize this or to take Vasari at his word when he is giving accurate information. The problem for more dispassionate commentators has been to identify a sufficient sample of youthful works to chart his development from eager apprentice to fully fledged master.

This challenging task is undertaken by 'Giovinezza di Michelangelo' (The Youth of Michelangelo), an exhibition of more than 80 works, some by the artist, some attributed to him and others by his teachers and contemporaries, at the Palazzo Vecchio and the Casa Buonarroti, the artist's house nearby, until Jan. 9.

When Vasari writes in his 1568 'life' of the artist that 'he often destroyed his work, and I know for a fact that shortly before he died he burned a large number of his own drawings, sketches and cartoons so that no one should see the labors he endured and the ways he tested his genius, and lest he should appear less than perfect,' he shows why it has been so difficult to reconstruct the formative period.

Inevitably, quite a number of examples escaped this rigorous effort to edit Michelangelo's oeuvre for posterity. But it has been the fate of some of these fugitive pieces that do not conform to the received idea of his grand manner, to be rejected, even when there is documentary evidence suggesting they are genuine.

And while Vasari put a spin on the Michelangelo story, very much in keeping with the image the artist himself was eager to disseminate, some of what Vasari wrote implicitly undermines it. Vasari's account, for example, of Lorenzo the Magnificent's academy at the 'Garden of San Marco,' designed to promote the visual arts in Florence and frequented by the teenage Michelangelo, came to be regarded by many specialists as fanciful, but has more recently been taken seriously again. The head of this somewhat informal institution was Bertoldo di Giovanni, an outstanding pupil of Donatello, who was much admired in Florence at the time. Only bronzes by Bertoldo survive today and it is not known if he also worked in marble. There was, however, another extremely accomplished sculptor on the scene: Benedetto da Maiano, who worked in stone and may well have taught Michelangelo how to carve marble.

Thus, at least two of Michelangelo's probable mentors, both first-class artists in their own right, emerge from semi-obscurity in the Palazzo Vecchio section of the show - the juxtaposition of their sculptures with Michelangelo's known and putative early works making for a bold and convincing snapshot of Florentine sculpture at the time when the young man was launching himself on his career, and demonstrating his great good fortune to be born into a milieu of such sophistication and technical expertise.

The picture is further filled out by well-chosen pieces by other leading artists in the Medici circle, including Botticelli and Verrocchio.

Two of the exhibition's star turns - the 'Manchester Madonna' and the 'Young Archer' - are not universally accepted as works by Michelangelo, though their presentation in this context will bolster their candidacy for inclusion in the catalogue of his early productions. Indeed, if either of them could be shown beyond question to be by Michelangelo, the other would most likely achieve acceptance as an authentic work, too, so strong are some of their common characteristics.

Both works have been attributed to Michelangelo in the past: the 'Manchester Madonna' (whose improbable name became attached to it when this unfinished painting appeared in an exhibition in 1857 in that northern English city), at least as long ago as 1700, when it was still in the Borghese collection in Rome; and the fragmentary statue of the 'Young Archer' (also at one time owned by the Borghese and 'rediscovered' in Manhattan in 1996), when it came up for auction in London in 1902.

It may well never be possible to settle once and for all the paternity of these pieces. But the show certainly gives a glimpse of a more lyrical, intimate, Botticellesque Michelangelo. And, far from reducing his stature, it adds a dimension to an artist who can seem Olympian almost to the point of remoteness from the rest of the human race.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024