The men who shaped the great sculptor's life

Three men - Michelangelo, Leonar-do da Vinci, and Raphael - were the central artistic figures of the Italian Renaissance. It is, of course, foolish to try to select one as the "most important," but, as James Beck notes in his wonderful new biography, "Three Worlds of Michelangelo," there was little doubt in the Renaissance: the Florentine sculptor, architect, painter and poet was - unlike his colleagues - regarded as "divine."

Beck is a preeminent art historian who has devoted much of his career to discouraging the overrestoration of Renaissance works of art. In this book, he analyzes the artist by studying the role of three individuals who shaped Michelangelo's life.

Lorenzo di Medici arranged for the young artist to be apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio and then welcomed him at the school that he set up in the Medici gardens even before the apprenticeship was concluded. The well-known philosophers and artists who were part of Lorenzo's world enriched Michelangelo's thinking and, at the same time, allowed him to start sculpting.

A second decisive influence was the artist's father, Lodovico, who vigor-ously opposed Michelangelo's chosen career. But Michelangelo had a strong sense of family obligation and provided generous financial and emotional support for his father and four brothers throughout his lifetime.

Michelangelo's greatest patron was Pope Julius II, with whom the artist had a tempestuous relationship. Initially, Julius wanted Michelangelo to carve his tomb, but the massive project dragged on for years and few pieces of it were completed. The primary legacy of the collaboration between the artist and the pontiff was the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, one of the greatest artistic accomplishments of Western civilization.

Beck's analysis will result in a reassessment of the artist in several areas. He considers, for example, the question of Michelangelo's sexuality and concludes that the artist was probably not a homosexual, as is widely believed. The evidence on this point is sketchy, but Beck's review of it, coupled with the artist's secretiveness on sexual matters, leads him to the conclusion that Michelangelo's "sexual experiences ... were minimal, and possibly even nonexistent."

Another new perspective comes from his assessment of Michelangelo's alleged temper. Both Michelangelo and Julius have long been regarded as individuals who terrified others. After reviewing the artist's letters, Beck concludes that, while Julius II was temperamental, the artist was often gentle and compassionate. Indeed, Beck argues persuasively that Michelangelo was a dependable, agreeable friend.

Michelangelo is an ideal subject for a biographer because there are so many sources. Two biographies were written during the artist's lifetime. He left a substantial body of work and wrote roughly 500 letters that survive.

Beck deftly reviews these sources and succinctly combines them with his own extraordinary knowledge of the Renaissance. Many parts of the book - such as his account of the sculpting of "David" and the decision of where it would be placed in Florence - are simply fascinating. The end product is a beautifully written volume that will satisfy the scholar's desire for precision and detail while remaining completely accessible to the interested lay reader.

*Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

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