- - Thursday, January 1, 2015


Last year marked the 450th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s greatest artists, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.

Michelangelo is regarded, along with his fellow Italian artistic contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, as one of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance period. Only a small group of individuals have ever matched Michelangelo’s painting, drawing, sculpting and architectural skills. Viewing his life’s work up close and personal, including the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and his statue of David, is an enriching and life-changing experience.

To commemorate this important anniversary, Taschen has reissued Frank Zollner’s classic 2007 book, “Michelangelo: Complete Works.” The edition has been updated in various ways, including: affordability ($69.99, versus the original price tag of $200), style (this “scientifically updated version” contains sharper images, colors and details) and presentation (it comes with a slipcase that folds into a bookstand). It goes without saying that this book meets Taschen’s high standards for producing detailed, well-researched and beautifully constructed examinations of art and culture.

Putting Michelangelo’s life and legacy into proper context is of vital importance — and this task has been left in capable hands. Mr. Zollner, the book’s editor and author, is a professor of medieval and modern art at Germany’s University of Leipzig. There are also significant contributions by two academics and art historians, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Popper.

This 736-page book is divided into stages of Michelangelo’s artistic career.

He apprenticed with the Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, a “particularly suitable teacher” who was “executing monumental fresco cycles in Florence and who also contributed to the first phase of decorations for the Sistine Chapel.” Mr. Zollner, in his acute description of Michelangelo’s early drawings and sketches, writes that they “perfectly mirror the periodization of art history described” by da Vinci, but “arose less out of the study of nature than from the imitation of earlier and contemporary masters: Giotto, Masaccio and Schongauer’s engraving.” To be sure, all artists learn, grow and develop in different ways. The inspiring lessons and techniques that Michelangelo acquired from other Renaissance painters helped him become a great artist — and, more to the point, a great artistic visionary in his time.

Michelangelo’s status among Italian patrons grew quickly, and his work was in high demand. The book contains superb descriptions of his many paintings and sculptures, and a litany of stunning photographs of his various masterpieces. This includes statues of Bacchus (“an unusual figure in almost every respect imitated antiquity in order simultaneously to surpass it with his wit”), Pieta (“Michelangelo’s breakthrough as the leading sculptor of his epoch”) and, of course, David (“a quite extraordinary sculpture a credit to his name from an artistic point of view”).

The most impressive chapter in “Michelangelo: Complete Works” deals with the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II originally asked the great artist to work on his tomb in 1505, and ultimately commissioned him to paint the chapel’s ceiling, too. Michelangelo completed this monumental task in a mere four years (1508-1512) and, according to Mr. Zollner, “also used the frescoing of the Sistine ceiling as an opportunity to reflect upon himself and his work as an artist.” Every conceivable nook and cranny of this incredible project, which details nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, is captured in vivid, full-color photographs.

Descriptions of Michelangelo’s later work are just as illuminating. He was evidently willing to cross certain boundaries as an artist and sculptor, and often provided several possible interpretations of his work.

“The Risen Christ” (1519-1521) “appears with the instruments of the Passion, the rope, sponge and reed, recalling the medieval tradition of the Christ as a Man of Sorrows,” for example. Yet the statue “also grasps in both hands a comparatively solid cross, which can be interpreted not only as an instrument of the Passion but also as a triumphal cross.” Meanwhile, his work on “The Last Judgment” from 1536 to 1541 on the Sistine Chapel’s altar wall would certainly be regarded as “traditional and innovative.” At the same time, “his beardless, muscular, over-life-size, towering and forcefully gesticulating Christ, entirely naked but for a loincloth, was more than unusual for his day.”

Then again, should we be surprised? In Mr. Zollner’s esteemed view, “[s]uch a bold step could probably have been risked only by Michelangelo, undisputed as the greatest artist of his day.” He’s right. And, as readers will quickly discover in his book, these bold steps also made Michelangelo the greatest artist of any period.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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