Shortly after returning from a trip to Italy, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of Michelangelo: A Tormented Life by Antonio Forcellino. Having had the opportunity to marvel at Michelangelo’s works, I was eager to read this book and find out more about the person who created these icons of western art.
Overall, I found the book to be slightly tedious and slow at times. That said, there was still enough interesting material to allow me to make it from cover to cover. My biggest criticism, though, was the abundance of typos and grammatical errors. Having worked as a proofreader and editor, I am fully aware that an occasional error will slip past, and I am completely forgiving of that, but when a book is presented as a scholarly piece of art history and I lose count of the number of noticeable mistakes, that to me is not acceptable.
OK, now that I’ve had my cathartic moment, I’ll talk about some of the things I found interesting. I was not surprised to read about Michelangelo’s homosexual desires. Just looking at his works, you can see that he was fascinated by the beauty of the male form. I did find it fascinating to read about his internal conflicts, trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his inner passions. I personally feel that it was this inner struggle that fueled his creative genius. There was one time that he openly expressed how he felt about men, and that was in the sonnets. Ironically, Michelangelo’s nephew’s son later changed the gender of the words in the sonnets to hide the artist’s homosexual passions (p. 9).
I think what I found the most interesting in the book was the historical background of the period. I have always had this romantic view of Florence during the Italian Renaissance, that it was a place where ideas were openly shared and explored, where the arts were supported, where there was a desire to advance humanity. That doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, Italy during that period doesn’t seem that different to today’s world. There was lots of violence, women were not considered equal to men, and artists were exploited by the rich to create propaganda promoting the elite and powerful. Add to that the religious tensions and wars, and the horrific atrocities associated with those conflicts, and you have a world view that parallels ours. The passage from the book that really stands out for me is: “No violence is comparable with the violence generated by religious hatred” (p. 163). Well said, and sadly still true today.
I don’t think this book is for everyone. If you are interested art and art history, or if you love Italy as much as I do, then you will get something out of it. If not, I suspect you’ll toss the book aside before you finish the first hundred pages.