Up the Rome Staircase

Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine By John T. Spike Vendome Press, 272 pages, $27.95

Raphael’s The School of Athens, 1509–10, contains a rare contemporary portrait of a young Michelangelo: the figure, seated front and center, writing in a notebook.


In fiction and in fact, Michelangelo has come down to us as a tempestuous genius in an age of outsize egos and dazzling talents. Biographers have seemingly documented his every step, from his earliest painting (recently shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to his last sketch, for the dome of St. Peter’s. Synthesizing recent scholarship with the earlier narratives, John Spike’s excellent account of the master’s early trajectory focuses on his years up to 1507. That year Michelangelo was coaxed back to Rome, at age 33, to continue his labors for Pope Julius II, culminating in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the monumental papal tomb.

Drawing on 16th-century biographies by Vasari and Condivi and a wealth of primary and secondary sources (including recent, detailed accounts of Michelangelo’s financial transactions), Spike offers a compelling portrait not just of a young artist staking out his turf but of the cast of characters who made this one of the liveliest eras in art history. Accounts of Michelangelo’s dealings with his immediate family, who were constantly petitioning for support and money, depict a close clan scrambling to regain respectability after years of bad fortune. At the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo found the ambience and encouragement that would shape his mind and art, and Spike deftly lays out the personalities, feuds, and conspiracies that made Florence such a turbulent city in the waning years of the Quattrocento. Outside Lorenzo’s tranquil academy, the mad monk Savonarola held the populace in thrall, and after the Magnifico’s death, Florence fell into political disarray. Michelangelo fled to Rome.

For the next 13 years, he would divide his time between Rome and Florence (with a brief stay in Bologna). Still in his twenties, he completed two of his best-loved sculptures—the Pietà (1499), now installed at St. Peter’s in Rome, and the David (ca. 1501–4), which remained in Florence’s central square for more than 350 years. The biographer is skilled at analyzing these and other works’ formal qualities and esthetic achievements within the context of the larger narrative.

During this same period the artist established himself as a force to be reckoned with, both for his formidable gifts and his notorious temper. Spike recounts an incident that neatly sums up the master’s huge ambitions: “One day as Michel­angelo stood on a high precipice looking out at the vastness of the sea, he experienced a kind of delirium. Suddenly he was seized by a desire to carve the mountaintop into a giant colossus that would be visible from afar to seafarers.”

The artist that emerges from Spike’s accessible and lively account is not the most likable of characters: Michelangelo seems to have had many admirers but no friends or lovers. Even his most powerful supporters often found it best to keep their distance from the volatile genius. “Perhaps no artist in history had ever been treated so gingerly,” the author tells us.

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