Almost all the famous anecdotes about Michelangelo come from two books. One is Giorgio Vasari’s Life and the other is Ascanio Condivi’s. Both those writers knew Michelangelo and wrote while he was alive.
Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is the first great history of art and he is a good example of how you don’t need to be a genius to change the world. Or perhaps of how the pen is mightier than the paintbrush. Because though Vasari made his living, and a good living, as a painter, architect, and sculptor, his lasting and influential work was a book. And through that book the excellence of the world’s greatest painters got into men’s heads better than their works did or could. Most men cannot tell good painting from bad but they all could be told where and how to look. And those who couldn’t bring themselves to look and yet needed familiarity with the masters could read lively and memorable stories about them, along with Vasari’s criticism. And that criticism came complete with a ranking of all the artists; and for many it has not changed in all these four hundred and fifty years. Vasari told the world what to think and the world, that passive pupil, took it all dutifully in.
He could spot a good story and he collected them for his book. The stories he tells about the famous painters are so good, so evocative, so original they’ve long ago hopped out of his book. Teachers, preachers, writers all use them as illustrations or to point a moral. There are few books like that in the world—another is Plutarch’s Lives. The world could well have done without Vasari’s paintings but it would have been poorer without his book. He loved painting and sculpture but thank God he also had an eye for colorful human nature. His written portraits of those famous men are better than painted ones: they say more, mean more to more men, last longer in men’s minds.
The anecdotes about Michelangelo are the most plentiful and the best. Without them we wouldn’t know a tenth of what we do about the Master. His life would have remained in the dark, just as he would have wanted it, the old recluse.
Condivi or The Other Life of Michelangelo
Vasari had been Michelangelo’s pupil. Another pupil named Ascanio Condivi showed up many years later, when the Master was nearly seventy and living in Rome. Like Vasari, Condivi came from a little village and wanted to be an artist; though, unlike him, he wasn’t talented. Michelangelo seems to have tried hard to teach him how to draw and to paint but he never learned. Meanwhile, however, the Master got used to having him around and talking to him, lecturing to him. Condivi was a fervent, uncritical listener of Michelangelo’s confidences. He knew he was privileged: few men had ever heard those things from Michelangelo himself, who was close to no one.
When Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo appeared, Michelangelo at first had nothing but praise for it; then as time went by and he became more familiar with it and mulled over the things it said, he started to dislike some of them. He must have complained around the shop to his big-eyed pupil Ascanio Condivi, who was always at hand to listen and sympathize. Maybe Michelangelo himself pushed his helper into writing a rectified Life. Many people at the time wondered how that uneducated apprentice could have written it. But he more or less followed Vasari’s outline and wrote down what Michelangelo told him.
That makes the book very authoritative, of course. Some have even called it Michelangelo’s autobiography because the versions of all the stories come supposedly from his mouth, if by way of Condivi’s ear. But that isn’t fair to the Master, who would have done it much better. He was a poet, remember, and a man with a deep side that was invisible to Condivi. Yet Michelangelo’s complaints come through better here than in the Vasari, as well as those justifications and “for the record” explanations that caused the book to be written.
The more closely you compare the two biographies, the better you understand just what old scores Michelangelo was trying to settle. You can just hear him, his hammer lifted, complaining to the wide-eyed Condivi for the umpteenth time about Bramante, his enemy, or how he told Pope Julius’s emissaries, who had ridden after him when he fled from Rome and finally caught up, to go to hell and to take the Pope with them.
Yet, while he himself was astute and would have given them a reasonable or believable guise, or hidden them very skillfully from the unknowing reader, his pupil Condivi, whose purpose was to vindicate his master, spills the beans for all to see and at times actually exposes Michelangelo embarrassingly. He is like the little boy who tells a neighbor at the door: “My father said that if you came to the door I should say he isn’t at home.” The book reads like a dutiful and not too bright boy’s version of what his father told him in confidence. Through the boy’s innocence and dullness, his father’s unshaven, sometimes undressed, portrait appears. Is that the man’s autobiography?