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In My Good Books

Marginal Benefit

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
8 April 2006

It is well known that The Life of Michelangelo by Ascanio Condivi, first published in 1553, was prompted by the artist himself. Coming three years after the first edition of Vasari's Lives, it was motivated in part by Michelangelo's desire to present himself in a good light, particularly over the question of his dealings with Pope Julius II and his unfinished tomb. And people sometimes give the impression that Condivi more or less took it down verbatim from the old man.

This gives a particular piquancy to Condivi's short book (which is included in the Oxford World's Classics volume, Michelangelo, Life, Letters and Poetry). When we learn how, when Florence was under siege, Michelangelo arranged for mattresses to be tied around the exterior of the tower of San Miniato church to protect it from cannon-balls, we can take it that this piece of military engineering was something he took a particular pride in recalling, in his late 70s. Likewise, when Condivi mentions that Michelangelo was asked by Piero, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, to make a snowman, we can hear the sculptor himself telling the story.

But Condivi sometimes gets things wrong. There exists a copy of his book with contemporary annotations, which have been shown to be a record of Michelangelo's reactions to the book. Tiberio Calcagni, a member of his close circle, wrote down these reactions, perhaps in order to pass them on to Vasari, for his second edition of Lives

They never reached Vasari, or he never made use of them, and they were not published until 1966. There are only 24 of these comments, but what is extraordinary about them is the access they give us to Michelangelo's informal conversation. For instance, at the end of his biography Condivi refers to Michelangelo's practice of sexual abstinence. The marginal comment records the artist's words to Calcagni: "This I have always done, and if you want to prolong your life, do not [practise coitus] or at least as little as possible."

This confirms a point made earlier in Condivi, that all Michelangelo's relations with young men had been on a purely platonic level, despite the gossip. You may believe this or not, but it is worth remembering that Condivi makes the point in no uncertain terms, and that Michelangelo is his authority.

Some curious stories are given support in these marginalia. For instance, Condivi tells us that Michelangelo, when working in the mountains at Carrara, conceived an ambition to make a colossus "that would be visible to mariners from afar". The note tells us: "He said, this was a madness that came over me, so to speak. But if I had been sure of living four times longer than I have lived, I would have gone in for it."

Another strange story: in 1504-6, 10 years before he had actually built anything, he was approached by the Ottoman Sultan, Bajazet II, to design a bridge over the Golden Horn, to link Pera to Constantinople. He was seriously tempted by the offer and the marginal note in Condivi reads: "He said to me, that was true, and I had already made a model of it." Leonardo da Vinci had also been approached to build such a bridge, and there is a letter from Leonardo, translated into Turkish, in the Topkapi archive. Leonardo's drawing of this bridge is in the Louvre.

There is every reason to read Condivi's Life of Michelangelo in the World's Classics edition, in George Bull's translation, which also includes Peter Porter's versions of a selection of the poems. But if you want the marginalia and a full account of their significance, you need the Italian edition of 1998, edited by Giovanni Nencioni, with essays in English by Michael Hirst and Caroline Elam, published in a series called Tabulae Artium.

From this you learn that Michelangelo denied spending much effort on the study of perspective because "it seems to me too much of a waste of time". He tells us, also, that he never neglected his studies in order to learn the lute or improvisation. From this, as I understand it, we can conclude that he never set his own madrigals to music, or indeed sang them himself. Two settings of his songs, by Jacques Arcadelt, survive, but whether there are any other surviving settings by his contemporaries my books do not tell me.

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