Young Michelangelo: The Path to The Sistine - John T. Spike

December 18, 2010

If you are a fan of Michelangelo and Renaissance history, then I can most definitely recommend the great new book by John T. Spike, Young Michelangelo: The Path to The Sistine, published by Vendome Press. Despite having an analogous background to Michael Fried, Spike does not seem to be as self absorbed, and most importantly has the ability to both write and speak in a manner that is engaging and entertaining to all. Admittedly, most writers insert a great deal of themselves into their work, but Spike does this in a manner that presents interesting evidence and points of discussion along the way.

Spike uses Battle of The Lapiths and Centaurs (c.1492) to illustrate Michelangelo's fascination with the classical nude, something greatly fostered by the Medici, yet criticised by Savonarola.

I enjoyed reading about aspects of Michelangelo's character revealed by contemporary accounts, and relating this to his works. It should come as no surprise that Michelangelo viewed his life as a series of contests, against other artists and patrons, where he always struggled against not only achieving the demands of a commission, but also reaching a level of personal satisfaction with his work. With this Spike makes an interesting comment about how Michelangelo is comparable to Leonardo in this way, accounting for the significant proportion of unfinished works by both artists.

Particularly fascinating to me was his description of Raphael as a bane to Michelangelo! We do have accounts of Michelangelo's low opinion of Raphael, and one can only imagine his response to being depicted as a brooding philosopher in School of Athens.

I am pleased Spike expressed this, given Raphael's history of exposure to these two artists, it simply makes sense for him to have included these visual references to them. There are some scholars who argue against it - with arguments perhaps more ruled by their own perspective than a consideration of historical facts.

It is interesting to note that Michelangelo, despite not identifying himself as a painter was quite happy to tell his biographer Ascanio Condivi that Raphael "learnt all he knew of painting" from him! Knowing Raphael's previous exposure to Perugino and Leonardo (among others), this was perhaps Michelangelo's way of acknowledging Raphael's talent. 

What is most impressive about Spike is the constant attention he pays to historical events as he relates the events of Michelangelo's early career. I can now see how his earlier book (and CD-ROM) on Caravaggio was so influential on Andrew Graham-Dixon's recent Caravaggio title - also packed with historical detail. 

To hear Spike expand on points covered in the book himself, please have a listen to this wonderful lecture presented recently at the National Galley of Art in Washington. To subscribe to more of their amazing, free podcasts, visit their site.  For an extended preview of the book itself, there is a great look inside at amazon.

Michelangelo: in the beginning presented by John T. Spike [NGA Washington October 2010]


Dr. F said...


What's happening in the Doni Tondo? Is Mary handing off the Child to Joseph, or vice versa? The infant Baptist is in the mid ground behind the parapet. One scholar has argued that the three male nudes in the right background are the sons of Noah, only two of whom (the good ones) appear in the left background. Bringing Noah into the picture reinforces the baptism motif. Also note the exposed muscular arm of the Madonna.


Unknown said...

You should listen to the podcast Frank - Spike discusses it in more detail - as well as the Manchester Madonna which you have referenced with regards to the Tempesta :)


Ben J Hamilton said...

I better put this on my wishlist. Great posts recently - Ben Miller's sketches are a gold mine for your blog. I love the printing press version in the last episode. Merry Christmas mate

Unknown said...

Cheers Ben! A Merry Christmas to you too - and best wishes for 2011!


Simon Abrahams said...

Thanks for letting me know about this book. I didn't know that Spike had come out with it. Look forward to reading it.

Incidentally I was going to blog on Mary Beard too! Great minds think alike...

All the best, Simon

Unknown said...

Cheers Simon!

What a wonderful compliment! If my mind is anything near as perceptive as yours when it comes to piercing the truth behind the history of art then I'd be blessed indeed!

Kind Regards


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