After hours listening to art history lectures, wading through biographies and art history books, I found A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome refreshingly informative and compact. Angela Nickerson finds the perfect balance between the man, his era, and his art. Michelangelo’s creations are a product of the intellectual fervor, the spiritual upheaval, and the political patronage system of the Renaissance. In the opening chapters, the book gives an overview of the events that shaped Michelangelo’s world. The book then continues with a focus on his life and his work. Without any information, Michelangelo’s works are beautiful, but with the right background, their brilliance grows.
His Art – Technical and Fun
With luscious photographs, Angela leads us through Michelangelo’s life in art, from The Madonna of the Stairs to the Florentine Pieta. Angela points out the unique aspects of each piece of art and the interesting stories behind them. While thousands of words could be written about the Rome Pieta, Angela precisely points out Michelangelo’s mastery:
The composition Michelangelo created involved carving two full-sized figures from one block of marble–a difficult task. Michelangelo bent the rules of proportion to his own purposes: Mary is much larger than Jesus to support the weight of a life-sized figure in her lap, but their heads are the same size, making the difference in size hard to detect. Mary’s size serves as a structural purpose, but it also allows the grieving mother to hold her son on her lap, creating a tableau that is both powerful and tender.
And the gossip about the piece? After it was installed in St. Peter’s, Michelangelo overheard someone attribute the work to another artist. Not happy, Michelangelo carved his name along Mary’s sash. This is the only work he ever signed. I love back stories; I frequently find the art more intimate and memorable after hearing them.
I enjoyed the pairing of photographs of Michelangelo’s work of art with the inspiration for the art, something usually only found in art history classes or huge art history books, not in a portable book. I can’t view the ancient Laocoon and Michelangelo’s Moses at that same time, they are miles apart, but having the photos side-by-side, I could look at one in person and see how it was in dialogue with the other.
In my very limited experience, Michelangelo’s architectural work is frequently overshadowed by his sculpture and painting. Angela describes his impact on St. Peter’s and his design for the Capitoline Hill. When I walked up the Capitoline Hill, into one of the most beautiful piazzas ever, the Piazza del Campidoglio, I was so grateful I had read A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome. Without Angela’s guidance, I would have missed all that Michelangelo accomplished there.
Michelangelo – The Man
A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome isn’t limited to Michelangelo’s art. Angela gives insight into his family relationships, his friends, his spirituality, and his work habits. I found his relationship with Vittoria Colonna is fascinating. The book provides a history of the relationship and a map showing where they met to talk for hours about their faith. Attacked by his enemies, Angela describes Michelangelo’s struggles with other artists, the Pope (the tomb project would plague him) and papal advisors. Cesena disagrees with Michelangelo’s portrayal of nudes and earns a portrait of himself as Minos in The Last Judgment, beautiful photo of which is included in the book.
The Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome extends beyond Michelangelo’s lifetime, describing the drama over the location of his body (it was stolen and sent to Florence), the work on his tomb, and the artists he influenced. Interestingly, Vasari, who gives a contemporaneous view of Michelangelo in his Lives of the Artists, receives the commission to complete Michelangelo’s tomb. Vasari’s design, in Florence’s Santa Croce, does not compare with Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta, which he started to sculpt for his tomb, but never completed.
The combination of both personal and professional, with photos and maps, results in an art history book that invaluable to the Roman visitor and a joy for the armchair traveler.