Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 1, 2018
Bernadine Barnes Michelangelo and the Viewer in His Time Renaissance Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 240 pp.; 40 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $22.50 (9781780237404)

What flight of fancy, delusion of grandeur, or insidious demonic force could tempt a contemporary author to write yet another book on Michelangelo (1475–1564)? The depth of Michelangelo’s genius has elicited sustained inquiry in modern art historical research for well over a century. One may ask, is there anything left to see or say? Bernadine Barnes’s new book entitled Michelangelo and the Viewer in His Time yields the answer yes on both counts. This book is not only worth reading, it has the necessary ingredients to remind contemporary Michelangelo scholars of a desirable style of writing and research that places clarity of expression and concepts above the conceit of cleverness. One needs only to peruse Charles de Tolnay’s magisterial five-volume series (published 1943–60) on Michelangelo to discern this point. The scope of Barnes’s inquiry, both chronologically and thematically, is ambitious. The clarity of her prose is crystalline.

The current state of Michelangelo studies tends toward analyses targeting very specific aspects of the master’s life and work. This method of approach is reasonable given the volume and intellectual intensity within the field, as it has drawn some of the greatest minds of our discipline past and present. Yet during the last decade we have witnessed an increase in more comprehensive treatments of Michelangelo. One senses a latent desire for a more global approach, if only substantiated by the publication of four biographies of the artist from prominent Michelangelo scholars since 2009.

Barnes’s book is a hybrid of the best sort. It interlaces biographical detail drawn from Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, the artist’s letters, and modern scholarship with insightful meditations on the meanings of Michelangelo’s art. She treats the artist’s diverse multimedia corpus with intensity and affection (perhaps less so for his poetry). The thread that runs throughout is her consideration of how the viewer contemporary to Michelangelo could have understood his works within their original contexts. Such contexts include the spatial relationship between the viewer and the work of art, the function of that space whether it be public, private, or liturgical, and the literary, epistolary, and graphic responses to his work during the sixteenth century.

Barnes organizes her study by superimposing two primary concerns simultaneously. First is a chronological progression of Michelangelo from his earliest works as an unknown artist through his last efforts as a painter, sculptor, and importantly—architect. Second are the thematic lenses that Barnes assigns to the long chronological continuum of Michelangelo’s artistic output, granting coherence to the narrative that she builds throughout. Thus, chapter 1 begins with “The Artist in Search of an Audience” as the master pursues fame early in his career. Chapter 2 follows with the theme of “The Heroic Body,” catalyzed by the enormous success of the David (1501–4) in Florence.

As each chapter introduces a new thematic lens, chronological overlap occurs by necessity, allowing the reader to encounter the multidirectional nature of the artist’s thinking and output at any given moment. The superimposition of chronology and analytical motifs aid the reader in following perhaps the most challenging dimensions of Barnes’s pursuit, which are the contextual shifts the author exploits in interpreting discrete works of art. The author situates the viewer contemporary to Michelangelo within physical space, society, and religion depending on the qualities Barnes wishes to emphasize in relation to specific artworks. Her conceit of the viewer emerges not as a theoretical premise but rather as an active variable within the shifting contexts each object creates. The author’s method is therefore situational.

An example of Barnes’s method is her analysis of the figures Michelangelo sculpted to enrich the Arca di San Domenico in the Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna. Begun in the thirteenth century, this large marble reliquary held the remains of St. Dominic, a preacher who founded the Dominican order. Michelangelo contributed a kneeling angel and statues of saints Petronius and Proculus (1494), taking their place amidst preexistent figures. Here, Barnes takes care to assert that Michelangelo was well aware of the stylistic and spatial constraints of the sacred monument. The sculptor crafted his figures to blend stylistically with the preexistent figures and understood the spatial constraints for viewing St. Proculus, who is positioned at the back of the shrine within its chapel. We are therefore required to view this figure at a raking angle as the chapel wall is in close proximity to the tomb. Barnes therefore contends that Michelangelo adjusted the proportions of the figure to be seen in this manner, rather than at eye level as the sculpture is often presented in photographic reproductions.

Space and the viewer’s movement and vantage point within it are recurrent considerations throughout. In her meditations on the Sistine Chapel (1508–12), Medici Chapel (1520–34), Laurentian Library (1523–34), and Pauline Chapel (ca. 1541–49), Barnes examines how the viewer could have moved through each space given its respective functions—whether religious or artistic.

In her analysis of the complex history of the Medici Chapel, for instance, Barnes asserts that while the chapel became a destination for the esteemed citizens of Florence and beyond to admire the artist’s work, its primary function was sacred and liturgical. Barnes cites the papal bull issued by Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’Medici, 1478–1534) on November 14, 1532, requiring three masses for the dead to be celebrated daily, as well as the entire book of Psalms to be chanted day and night in perpetuity. Thus Barnes asserts that the sculptural figures of the Medici Capitani (Lorenzo and Giuliano), placed above their respective tombs opposite one another across the chapel, both turn toward the altar in observation of the liturgical activities celebrated in their honor.

The liturgical functions inherent to the religious spaces for which Michelangelo designed and created art to adorn, therefore assumed a particularly important position in the author’s thinking. And this is quite refreshing. It can be easy to forget (or deny) that for twenty-first-century norms in the West, Michelangelo and the world Michelangelo inhabited was radically more religious than our own. The book asserts that he and much of the art he created cannot be understood in isolation from the religious atmosphere of sixteenth-century Italy.

The last two chapters of the book culminate with Michelangelo’s work as an architect in Rome and the two final sculptures of his career that were intended for his own tomb. Barnes’s attention to the viewer in space throughout the book reaches its summit in her discussion of the master’s architecture. As previously established in her analysis of the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library in Florence from earlier in the artist’s career, our attention is directed once again to the architect’s original approach to the canons of classical architecture. Projects for the Campidoglio (ca. 1537, seat of Rome’s secular government) and the cornice of the Farnese Palace (ca. 1546) demonstrate Michelangelo’s ability to breathe life into structures and spaces that had long since been under construction.

After 1546, Michelangelo was named chief architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. Although many parts of Michelangelo’s plans for the basilica were subsequently altered after his death, Barnes situates the viewer, and the reader, within the complex interplays of form, light, and space that characterize Michelangelo’s original designs. Particular focus is directed toward the architect’s attention to light within St. Peter’s, including the sixteen extant windows on the dome’s drum, designed by Michelangelo, that funnel light downward toward the main altar above St. Peter’s tomb.

It is worth noting that Barnes masterfully negotiates the mountainous primary and secondary literature on Michelangelo with enviable grace, without encumbering her text with an equally mountainous cadre of footnotes and citations. In her analysis of the Doni Tondo (ca. 1504), for instance, Barnes acknowledges the ambiguous movement of the Christ child between Mary and Joseph without succumbing to a myopic digression into the quite substantial disagreements regarding this point. Her gloss exhibits scholarly poise and mastery of the debate.

Of the many sensations Barnes’s book arouses, the predominant effect is one of satisfaction. With ample color images and silky prose, Barnes accomplishes a difficult feat. She provides a broad overview of Michelangelo’s art perceived through the lens of the viewer in Michelangelo’s time, simultaneously presenting fresh perspectives that even Tolnay would admire. The book is scholarly and accessible. But perhaps most importantly, it is simply a pleasure to read. 

James P. Anno
American Friends of Capodimonte Curatorial Fellow, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy