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Martin Gayford: Michelangelo - His Epic Life (Fig Tree)

Afew years ago I spent an indelible day in the Apuan Alps in the company of an Italian chef who drove his beast of a car as if hellbent on our mutual destruction.

The destination was the village of Colonnata, in the heart of anarchist country. What drew my chauffeur to it was its eponymous and much-lauded lardo which, in essence, is fat, but which, when served in slivers with rosemary and a benediction of olive oil, makes the most sensational hors d'oeuvre.

Colonnata's other claim to fame, however, is that it is the epicentre of marble mining. From a distance, from the coastal town of Carrara, the mountains look as if they are cloaked permanently in snow; close up, you realise that the blinding whiteness is caused by the excavation of marble prized for centuries by sculptors for its unrivalled purity.

It was here, as Martin Gayford acknowledges in this most readable, stimulating and witty biography of Michelangelo, that the embodiment of the Renaissance came in search of his raw material. It was like the Klondyke, except for the fact that to transport tons of marble requires a level of ingenuity unheard of even by the most successful of gold prospectors. Many of the works which are now recognised as masterpieces - including the Pieta and David - were carved from stone quarried in this inhospitable terrain.

Indeed, as Gayford notes, it was while in the Apuan mountains that Michelangelo had the idea to produce David. But how? For, as Gayford writes, "Even with modern power tools, such mountain carving is a difficult and lengthy process. A memorial to the Native American warrior Crazy Horse begun in the Black Hills of Dakota in 1948 still has not been completed."

Not the least of the joys of Michelangelo: An Epic Life are such asides. Gayford writes like a man confident of his opinions and at ease with his subject. Needless to say, we do not want for books about Michelangelo but few slip over as easily and enjoyably as this one.

The 'epic' epithet is well-chosen. Living at a time when life expectancy was short for all manner of reasons, Michelangelo survived to the age of 88. Born in 1475, when Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli were at the foothills of their careers, he died in 1564. His was a journey few travel. His beginnings may have been humble but he was early recognised as a genius - as a precocious 12-year-old he may have assisted Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence's Santa Maria Novella - and when he died he was borne amid grieving crowds to Santa Croce, in which part of the city his family had always lived.

In the interim he had achieved a stupendous amount. Having at first had as a patron Lorenzo de' Medici, he later counted no fewer than eight popes among his employers. He was up betimes and late to bed, often having to be reminded to eat.

Though he amassed a great wealth - his estate included a sum of money not far short of that which a few years previously had paid for the humongous Pitti Palace - he appeared to live frugally. He never married and, while obviously attracted to young men, as his numerous nude paintings and sculptures of them attest, suggestions that he was homosexual remain unproven.

What is not in doubt is the prodigiousness of his output and the prodigality of his talent. He was a supreme painter, a sublime poet, an inspired architect and, perhaps above all, the sculptor against whom all others must be measured. "Even," remarks Gayford, "his unfinished buildings and sculptures were revered as masterpieces and exerted enormous influence on other artists." In short, he was the ultimate renaissance man.

Michelangelo always thought big, be it the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter's in Rome or David. Moreover, he was invariably competitive and always eager to outdo or improve on his rivals whose inferiority he was often inclined to mock mercilessly. Thus, he was not necessarily a nice man. He was tetchy and temperamental but he could also be kind and considerate, especially to those lower down the social ladder.

Inevitably, Gayford draws heavily on Giorgio Vasari's indispensable life of Michelangelo. Vasari was personally acquainted with his subject, even claiming to have been his pupil. So in awe was he of him that their relationship was akin to that of Boswell's to Dr Johnson. It appears to have been a real friendship, one surely worthy of a book in itself.

To Vasari, for example, we are indebted for the information that in order to continue carving in the dark, Michelangelo wore a cap of his own design. It included a burning candle, the better to see what he was doing, and which allowed him to keep both hands free. Even geniuses, it seems, must have their practical side.

Martin Gayford is at Aye Write! on April 6

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