Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no? Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for the republicans who expelled the Medici has become an embarrassment since their return. So you tell Pope Clement VII that, yes, you will move to Rome and paint a Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters

Artistic achievements that changed the world

‘Astonish me!’ was the celebrated demand that the impresario Sergei Diaghilev made of Jean Cocteau when he was devising Erik Satie’s ballet Parade. Dominic Dromgoole has taken it as the title for a collection of essays on a series of seismic first nights, ranging across different public art forms. It is a celebration of the artistic achievements that overcame the odds to change the story of culture, and whose effects rippled out to change the world. The author is a distinguished theatre director, and his focus is on performance. He is at pains to reject the notion of the solitary artist and argues that, from the dawn of history, the

Art and aspiration

When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone who’d once had dinner with the sister of a close friend of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist’. Having sent a tape of his songs over, he settled down to ‘write jokes for comedians. It seemed like a plan for life’. In a way it was. Though Gopnik has yet to hear back from Garfunkel, his oratorio about

Raphael – saint or hustler?

For tourists to Rome, the must-see event of 1833 was the exhumation of Raphael from his tomb in the Pantheon. For years the city’s Accademia di San Luca had been claiming possession of the artist’s skull and running a profitable line in souvenirs. That September, the question would be settled. Was the ‘most eminent painter’, lauded in his friend Pietro Bembo’s fulsome epitaph as having ‘lived virtuously 37 virtuous years’, really buried there? And did his skeleton have a head? Hans Christian Andersen was one of 3,000 ticket holders for the six-day lying-in-state. The skeleton was there all right, complete with head, but its dignity, reported Andersen, was somewhat dented

Beautiful and revealing: The Three Pietàs of Michelangelo, at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, reviewed

The room is immersed in semi-darkness. Light filters down from above, glistening on polished marble as if it were flesh. This is the installation for Le Tre Pietà, a remarkable micro-exhibition that has just opened at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. It is low in quantity, containing just three works. But stratospherically high in quality, since it comprises Michelangelo’s three versions of the Pietà – that is, the Madonna mourning the dead Christ. He carved these over almost 70 years: one in his early twenties, the next in his seventies, the last in his eighties. Admittedly, the first and the last are present only in a rather old-fashioned

The Sistine Chapel as you’ve never seen it before

‘The World’s Most Lavish Art Book’ is a pretty big claim, but when two men lugged it through my front door I conceded that The Sistine Chapel is one monster tome. Three, actually. Three hardback volumes, each two feet-tall, each weighing nearly two stone, each in its own calico bag, comprising of digitally perfect photographic recreations of the artwork in the 15th-century chapel. The first volume deals with the masterpieces along the walls, while volumes two and three are a quasi-Greatest Hits, one covering the Sistine ceiling and one the ‘Last Judgment’, both of course by Michelangelo and one of the most famous art sequences on the planet. Lavish, yes,

Antony Gormley: why sculpture is far superior to painting

Antony Gormley: In the beginning was the thing! The reason I chose sculpture as a vocation was to escape words, to communicate in a physical way. It was a means of confronting the way things were, of getting to know them in material terms. The origins of making physical objects go back to before the advent of Homo sapiens, earlier even than the appearance of our Neanderthal cousins. Sculpture emerges from material culture. At the beginning there was an urge to make objects and you could argue that making them was the catalyst for the emergence of the modern mind. Martin Gayford: The earliest sculpture so far discovered is often

Entertaining – but there’s one abomination: National Gallery’s Sin reviewed

Obviously, we’re living through an era of censorious puritanism. Granted, the contemporary creeds are different from those of the 16th century. But the imperious self–righteousness is much the same — which gives the entertaining little exhibition at the National Gallery entitled Sin an unexpectedly contemporary edge. Personally, I’ve always thought that the doctrine of original sin has a great deal of explanatory power (it explains why history can’t ‘end’ and plenty of things will always go wrong — because that’s the way people are). Arguably, the medieval list of deadly failings — anger, pride, sloth, etc — provides a better summary of human nature than many later attempts. At any

Why the Royal Academy is wrong to consider selling their precious Michelangelo

How much does a Michelangelo cost? It is, as they say, a good question, meaning: nobody really knows. The reason for this odd state of affairs is that almost none of them have ever been bought and sold on the open market, which is how the prices of most things are established. It’s hard to think of many examples of his sculptures being traded in that way over the past 500 years. Strangely, the main exception is the ‘Taddei Tondo’, otherwise known as ‘Virgin and Child with the Infant St John’, which, reportedly, some members of the Royal Academy are suggesting the RA should sell. If that were to happen,

Why did David Bomberg disappear?

David Bomberg was only 23 when his first solo exhibition opened in July 1914 at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea. ‘I am searching for an Intenser expression,’ the brash young painter wrote in the introduction to the catalogue. ‘I hate… the Fat Man of the Renaissance.’ As if to advertise his radical intentions, the first work in the exhibition, the strikingly geometric ‘The Mud Bath’, was hung outside the gallery, facing the street. Bomberg was endowed with a self-belief bordering on conceit. Born in 1890, the fifth of 11 children of Polish-Jewish immigrants, he spent his childhood in the overcrowded slums of Birmingham and east London. An educational loan allowed

The odd couple | 31 January 2019

The joint exhibition of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Bill Viola at the Royal Academy is, at first glance, an extremely improbable double act. Viola is one of the contemporary-art stars of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. He was one of the first to achieve fame in the new medium of video art, and is still its best-known exponent. While Michelangelo, as they say in showbusiness, needs no introduction. But there’s more to this bromance, across eras and continents, between a 16th-century Florentine and a contemporary Californian than might immediately be apparent. The more you think about the pairing, and follow the argument of the curator Martin Clayton, the more

The pursuit of beauty

Michelangelo seems never to have travelled to Turkey to advise the Sultan on a bridge to span the Golden Horn, but he was asked to provide an architectural drawing after the design of his great rival, Leonardo da Vinci, was rejected. An ‘Author’s Note’ to this enigmatic novella references a sketch attributed to Michelangelo ‘recently discovered in the Ottoman archives’, together with a list purporting to be an inventory of possessions he left behind. From these intriguing if flimsy historical traces, Mathias Enard imagines the 30-year-old Michelangelo in Constantinople in 1506, transfixed by the majestic city and its captivating people, but baffled by court ritual and the scale of the

Academic questions

What is the Royal Academy? This question set me thinking as I wandered through the crowds that celebrated the opening of the RA’s new, greatly extended building. After all, there is nothing else quite like this institution anywhere else in the world. It was a terrific party: a mêlée of artists, journalists, politicians and media types such as I have not seen since the inauguration of Tate Modern 18 years ago (with the unexpected addition of DJs and high-volume music). The whole gang was there, and rightly so. This is a significant addition to the amenities of London, including, among other things, two new suites of galleries at 6 Burlington

The better angels of our nature

Late one afternoon, early in the year, I was walking through the Vatican Stanze with a small group of critics and art historians. While we were admiring the Raphael frescoes that fill these private apartments of the Renaissance popes, Matthias Wivel, curator of the Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery, made the most eloquent case for the painter I have ever heard. Suddenly, I felt a new enthusiasm for Raphael. Essentially what he said is that Raphael is the supreme master of depicting human beings in interaction. Each of the frescoes around us, Wivel pointed out, was made up of a huge number of figures, all engaged with

The odd couple | 16 March 2017

Only once did Michelangelo sign a sculpture. It was the ‘Pietà’ of 1497–1500, and he did so using an incomplete sentence in the past imperfect: ‘Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine was making…’. The implication was that actually completing a perfect masterpiece was an unattainable goal, so instead he just had to leave off (a great many artists still feel the same about finishing a picture). The ‘Pietà’ is included in Michelangelo & Sebastiano, a remarkably ambitious new exhibition at the National Gallery: not, of course, the original marble, which remains in St Peter’s, but a plaster cast from 1975. Nonetheless, in some ways, the cast gives you a better view than

Back in the USSR

For much of 1517 Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy quarrying marble in the mountains near Carrara. From time to time, however, he received letters relating how his affairs were going in Rome. These contained updates on — among other matters — how his friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo was getting on with a big altarpiece which he hoped, with Michelangelo’s help, would vanquish their joint rival, Raphael. This picture, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, has been in the National Gallery for almost 200 years now (it is No. 1 in the inventory of the collection). Next March it will be one of the centrepieces in an ambitious exhibition that inaugurates the


Barbed wire, concrete, razor blades, passports, Bakelite and the sewage system are all crucial to the way we live now yet what do most of us know about who, when, how they were invented? In an ambitious new series for the World Service, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, Tim Harford intends to put us straight, taking one thing each week over the next year and in just nine, tight, well-ordered minutes giving us its potted history. This weekend, for instance, Harford introduced us to the Haber-Bosch process, which he argues is ‘the most significant invention of the 20th century’, allowing the world’s population to grow exponentially from four

The spaces in between

The unfinished is, of course, something which tells us about the history of a work of art’s creation. A work of art may have been interrupted by the artist’s death, as with the paintings that Klimt left behind in his studio. Or it may simply have been abandoned when a patron failed to fulfil his obligations, or the painter had grown bored with the subject and moved on to something else. These spaces and gaps give us a glimpse of an artist at work and invite us to speculate about what Mondrian, for instance, was doing abandoning the 1934 ‘Composition with Double Lines’ or Cézanne the 1898 ‘Bouquet of Peonies’.

Moving statues

One of the stranger disputes of the past few weeks has concerned a Victorian figure that has occupied a niche in the centre of Oxford for more than a century without, for the most part, attracting any attention at all. Now, of course, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is demanding that the sculpture — its subject having been posthumously found guilty of racism and imperialism — should be taken down from the façade of Oriel College. The controversy is a reminder of the fact, sometimes forgotten by the British, that public statues are intensely political. This was clear — until quite recently, at least — when one drove into the

Seeking closure | 13 August 2015

A while ago, David Hockney mused on a proposal to tax the works of art stored in artists’ studios. ‘You’d only have to say they weren’t finished, and you are the only one who could say if they were,’ he suggested. ‘There’d be nothing they could do.’ This is the state of affairs examined in Unfinished, a thought-provoking little exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. Once upon a time, it was as clear whether a painter had completed a picture as it was whether the gardener had thoroughly mowed the lawn. Indisputably, Perino del Vaga downed tools for some reason halfway through his ‘Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist’ (1528–37).