restricted access Michelangelo: A Life on Paper (review)
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Leonard Barkan, Michelangelo: A Life on Paper (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2011) 366 pp., ill.

Michelangelo: A Life on Paper is an ambitious undertaking that addresses not so much a group of artworks, but rather an idea: that of the interrelation of text and image in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. Articulating the challenge in his preface, Leonard Barkan writes, “We cannot understand Michelangelo without a radical sense of the way that pictures and words entangled themselves within his creative imagination.” It is this nebulous task to which the author devotes the next eight chapters. As the title suggests, the book is tied together with only the loose thread of the medium of paper. The drawings, notes, correspondences, and poems have little to do with one another except for sharing a maker and a medium. To call it a common medium perhaps too strongly links these productions, since they were often sketched using a variety of inks and chalks. Considering [End Page 157] the importance of the artist, however, the risks inherent in such an undertaking are well worth the rewards.

Barkan’s treatment of the source material is not comprehensive, nor is it strictly chronological, yet the end product is both highly cerebral and digestible. The chapters function as a series of case studies that examine increasingly complex issues involved in the production and interpretation of documents that mingle the literary with the graphic. The first chapter looks at the word-image production of Leonardo da Vinci and compares these drawings and notes to those of Michelangelo. Chapter 2 discusses some of the historical aspects of the use of paper while focusing on how the medium was employed in Michelangelo’s workshop. The third chapter deals with a few instances in which the relation of text and image were explicitly understood by the artist within a particular production, while Michelangelo’s signature is the subject of chapter 4. Chapters 5 through 7 follow a general chronology as the first of this triad examines a number of works from the early Cinquecento, the second concentrates on productions from the 1520s, and the third deals with a codex of poems written by Michelangelo during the final decades of his life. The book appropriately ends with a short chapter in which Barkan draws a number of conclusions about the sprawling material and concepts addressed in the nearly three hundred preceding pages.

The documents that comprise the subject of the book are so divergent in nature, and their sheer quantity so staggering, that it would have been impossible for Barkan to address them in any other fashion. A comprehensive analysis would not have been feasible as up to six hundred drawings are believed to exist, along with approximately three hundred poems, five hundred letters, and thousands of ricordi, or memos. The author’s discussion of the papers is rich with context. In an analysis of the signature, for example, Barkan begins with a long history of the artist’s funeral before eventually returning to the original subject of Michelangelo’s name. The prose of a lesser scholar would simply ramble, but Barkan is able to craft a coherent narrative out of seemingly disparate elements while simultaneously communicating a clear point to the reader.

The book’s subject is ostensibly the work of Michelangelo, but the author makes it clear that he is truly interested in how text and image are employed in relation to one another. He addresses the history of the interrelation of poems and pictures, which spans from Socrates to Cicero to Francis Bacon. The sprawling nature of his writing makes the book a challenging read, but it also makes it that much more valuable. Considering the importance of Michelangelo and the quality of Barkan’s scholarship, this book will serve as a useful tool, not only for students of the Renaissance but also to anyone interested in media that combine images with the written word. Michelangelo: A Life on Paper will find crossover appeal for people working on illuminated manuscripts, drawings, political cartoons, and numismatics.

James Fishburne
Italian Renaissance Art History, UCLA