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The Faun in the Garden: Michelangelo and the Poetic Origins of Italian Renaissance Art.

The theme of Barolsky's engaging and smartly-produced book is that the conventional biographies of Michelangelo by Vasari (1550, 1568) and Condivi (1553) are grossly fictionalized accounts, although scholars continue to accept them as bona fide "sources." He alerts the field of art history - and Renaissance history, for that matter - that the basis for the construction of Michelangelo's life, along with other Vasari-treated Renaissance artists, is fragile indeed. He goes to great pains to demonstrate that some of our favorite tidbits about the divine artist are fables, little romances concerning Michelangelo's noble origins, his relations with Lorenzo il Magnifico, or his rapport with Julius II. Such constructions should be understood from the aperture of literary and especially poetic, pastoral traditions rather than that of actual fact. As a sub-theme, Barolsky considers Condivi's text, as well as parts of Vasari's second edition and Michelangelo's own letters - the latter which were consciously orchestrated to create a biography of himself as he wished posterity to view him.

The consequence of this line of reasoning is that a large portion of what we have come to consider as essential for reconstructing Michelangelo's life has been threatened virtually to the point of elimination by Barolsky's always good-natured analysis. His challenges begin at the very beginning, with Michelangelo's supposed stint in the Medici Gardens, where he is said to have executed the head of a faun, hence the title of the book. The author undermines one favorite anecdote after another about the life of the artist, including the events surrounding Michelangelo's dramatic flight from Rome in 1505 which, to be sure, surfaces in divine and slightly conflicting accounts. Michelangelo, after all is said and done, is not divine but instead the consummate liar of the Renaissance - surely one of Barolsky's more provocative claims. With what is left of Michelangelo as the author has delineated him, one is now tempted to ask, will the real Michelangelo please stand up, because he is certainly hard to pin down, and no lies here please!

Vasari, of course, depended upon the vague recollections of older painters concerning the "good old days," such as Ridolfo, the son of Domenico Ghirlandaio, with whom Michelangelo was definitely placed (indeed, there is no myth here, although surrounding circumstances may have been embellished). Vasari also made use of earlier texts, including, for example, an autobiography of sons written by Ghlberti, and the precocious biography of Brunelleschi by Manetti. Vasari thus had inherited a tradition of artistic biography. But we also know that Vasari was sensitive to the need to control data, not only fact-checking but even producing an archival text of the 1488 agreement between Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo's father for the 1568 edition. Furthermore, confirmations are found within the letters and the documents surrounding, for example, Michelangelo's relationship to the Florentine republican government in the years following the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. I find that the situation concerning the all'antica cupid which had been sold in Rome when Michelangelo was a young aspiring sculptor is also well confirmed by Michelangelo's earliest extant letter.

Barolsky's text is closer to maniera than rinascimento in mode, tone and execution. He has intimately studied and pondered the letters, over five hundred of which were written by Michelangelo and hundreds to or about him; he has mulled over the poems, and pondered the paintings and drawings. In addition he has engaged himself in the contemporary literal tradition close to Michelangelo, not only the Florentine heritage of Dante and Boccaccio, but also the ancients, with special attention to Ovid. His powers of linking various visual and literary elements is admirable, and unique among modern Michelangelo scholars, as we are offered insights into the artist and his art, including viable, critical suggestions to help interpret the vexing issue of the nonfinito.

Giorgio Vasari, not Michelangelo, is the real hero of Barolsky's previous trilogy, including Michelangelo's Nose: A Myth and Its Maker - which I like to call the "Nose Knows" - of which the present book is a summation and continuation. In fact, the author's most sympathetic evaluation is reserved for the Aretine painter/writer who, after all, single-handedly created the saga of Italian art. We learn a good deal about Barolsky too, as he reveals himself to be poetic, sensitive, insightful, civilized and literate.

JAMES BECK Columbia University
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Author:Beck, James
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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