Miles J. Unger’s magisterial new biography, Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, tells its subject’s life story through the lens of his art—appropriately so, given Michelangelo’s willful transmutation of the role of the Renaissance artist. When Michelangelo began his apprenticeship, artists were seen as little more than craftsmen, churning out statuary and paintings to decorate the villas and churches of the wealthy nobility. Michelangelo’s greatest achievement—in Unger’s portrayal—is not to be found in his artwork (the statue of David or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) but rather in his creation of the artist himself as secular genius.

Sequencing the artist’s life through a chronological series of his artworks, Unger tells a vibrant and lively story of how this particularly difficult man made his enduring works of art. Although Michelangelo’s first apprenticeship was to a painter, he thought of himself primarily as a sculptor. His “Pietà” was his first major commission, for which he spent four months in the mountains quarrying for the perfect specimen of pure white Carrara marble. Michelangelo thought of sculpture as a cutting away of the surface to reveal the perfection within, a strategy at work in the statue “David” as well. Painting, for Michelangelo, was more like a building up—as in his famous ceiling of the Sistine chapel, created from the raw materials of sand, limestone, sweat and years.

Michelangelo’s personality was stoic, thorny and obsessive. His drive to create art outweighed the needs of his body, and he consistently lived in abstemious squalor. His loyalty was to the work of art, and not to his patrons, who included the Florentine Medicis and the Roman papacy.

This fascinating new biography is highly recommended as a guide to anyone seeking to understand the immortal works of art created by this singular man.

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