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'Michelangelo': A biography told through six masterpieces

"Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces" by Miles

"Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces" by Miles J. Unger (Simon and Schuster, July 2014). Credit: Simon and Schuster

MICHELANGELO: A Life in Six Masterpieces, by Miles J. Unger. Simon & Schuster, 432 pp. $29.95.

In this enjoyable but curious biography, art historian Miles J. Unger presents the High Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti through six of his major works: the Pietà, David, two segments of the Sistine Chapel frescos (the Creation of Adam and the Last Judgment), the Medici Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. For each one, Unger gives the political and personal context, and he uses choice biographical anecdotes to bring the artist to life.

So we get both the architectural theory behind Michelangelo's choice of columns at St. Peter's and the story of how, when the workers finished a major milestone in the arduous, decades-long construction process, Michelangelo "celebrated not with a formal ceremony attended by princes of the church but with the humble bricklayers on site. The meal, delivered from the nearby inn of the Paradiso, included on the menu fried pig's liver, wine, bread, and 100 pounds of sausage."

"A Life in Six Masterpieces" has a fine selection of details such as this, but thankfully Unger manages not to get too bogged down in them. Michelangelo's long life (1475-1564) spanned nine popes, multiple wars and Western civilization's two major cultural upheavals, from medieval times to the High Renaissance, and then from Renaissance to Reformation. It would be easy to get sidetracked in all the palace intrigue, but Unger shows just enough to facilitate understanding of the art.

The only true flaw in "A Life in Six Masterpieces" (other than an overreliance on "bravura" as an adjective) is that at no point are we told why Unger chose this method of approaching his subject. Some explanation would have helped.

As it is, we're left wondering if the world needs another book about Michelangelo. We already have Vasari's "Lives of the Painters," Irving Stone's novel "The Agony and the Ecstasy" and the hundreds of biographies, illustrated guides and even business-strategy treatises. There is no earthly reason for "Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces" except that it is a finely made thing. And as Unger explains in this light, airy journey, that would be good enough for Michelangelo himself. Unger tells us early and often that the "secular saint" advocated art's value above and beyond its political or commercial use.

Unger has followed his lead somewhat, creating a biography that doesn't troll for scandal with lurid personal speculation or use the artist's works as scaffolding upon which to drape crackpot theories. And while the result is modest -- Unger is no literary Michelangelo -- it is a thoroughly enjoyable minor work.

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