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Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur.

By William Wallace. Cambridge University Press. 1994. 40 [pounds sterling].

The subtitle of Wallace's book sets out his stall: here is Michelangelo opening up quarries, hiring workers, organising building sites, upbraiding sculptors whose work was slapdash. Not the solitary and moody artist but the man who had to get things built. There is a great advantage to focusing on Michelangelo in that we get close detail -- rather too much at times.--relating to the work of a great individual. Wallace has traced the relationship of most of the craftsmen who worked on the San Lorenzo commissions and a good deal of their personal histories. Wage books, employment rosters, Michelangelo's copious correspondence: all are sifted to produce not another aesthetic analysis, but a view of daily building progress. Some sacrifice in generality is inevitable, and Richard Goldthwaite's book, The Building of Renaissance Florence, would make an excellent companion volume to balance this study. Without it one might read a innovatory many of the building practices that were in fact continuations of medieval methods Even Wallace appears sometimes to make this mistake, expressing surprise when a model of the Medici chapel was used as a contract document, as if this were an original occurrence. In fact it had been very much standard practice for several centuries.

I am not sure that Wallace's intention to show that Michelangelo was not the petulant and irascible artist of legend quite succeeds. He puts forward so many examples of this kind of behaviour that at best he justifies the artist's temperament. And why not? Michelangelo evidently regarded his commissions as opportunities for artistic creation. In the sixteenth century this creation was an indissoluble mix of design and construction, proceeding hand in hand with what Ackerman has called a `peculiarly biological character'. And how can he not have been irritated as dozens of people moved in to claim pieces of the rich cake that these papal commissions must have been?

`Think to ornament it (the Medici Chapel) as much as possible, and don't consider the cost...' `Spare no expense', `spend whatever monies you want' (Laurentian Library) -- and these are the clients' words. It is almost as if the fact were well known that Michelangelo were un po'tirchio, a bit stingy, and had to be forced against his will to extravagance. But this attitude extended to himself as well. When asked in 1524 how much he wanted as a salary his answer shocked his employers, who gave him nearly four times the requested sum.

The developed picture of Michelangelo that Wallace eventually produces is of a singleminded individual, impatient with obstruction and immensely patient with his art. Since his art involved an extended network of friends, relatives and neighbours, he took good care of the people who worked for him, though he would not put up with dishonesty, obstruction or bad workmanship. Undoubtedly irritable but by no means ruthless.

The book had its oddities, but Wallace succeeds in giving us a highly detailed account of the intricate and intimate world in which Michelangelo worked.
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Author:McIntyre, Anthony
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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