Review by Jacqueline Thompson Graves

Michelangelo – painter of the Sistine Chapel, sculptor of David, architect of St. Peter’s dome. We know his works. We’ve heard the stories – how he lay on his back to paint the Ceiling (not true).  But Michelangelo – worrier, uncle, poet, lover – this Michelangelo we don’t know.

Reading Michelangelo’s Notebooks is climbing into his attic, opening a tattered trunk and sifting through decades of letters, sketches, sonnets, musings. Probably none of it the author intended for public consumption which just makes it all the more delicious. One sketch details part of an arm, an absent-minded “what if this” kind of doodle, while the next page reveals the Fury, a life-like man, his curly hair and clothes swirling, neck veins protruding as he screams, his contorted face a hideous picture of frozen hatred. All through the book it goes, the spectacular followed by the mundane.

Page 110 “three different lists of foods” is like happening across Michelangelo’s grocery list, illustrated. Why is that in the trunk? Who keeps a shopping list for decades? These delightful surprises pop up all through the book, odd items, boring notes, letters to dealers in marble and stone, letters about land and houses, letters to banks, sketches of legs, Greek gods, buildings, pigs.

Years ago when I read Florence Littauer’s Personality Plus, she offered up Michelangelo as the example of a purely melancholy personality. His correspondence demonstrates this, this man who is almost never happy. If his nephew sends him six new shirts, Michelangelo yells at Lionardo in his next missive for spending money. If Lionardo doesn’t send anything, he’s labeled selfish. The very things that made Michelangelo a perfectionist, capable of creating breathtaking art, frustrated those who loved him.  He wrote at one point “I have no friends” which may have been true at times.

He had at least two people he dearly loved besides his nephew and to these he addressed many of his sonnets. Love, loss, God, and my favorite, a firefly (“What Time Bright Pheobus”) – these are themes of Michelangelo’s sonnets. His poetry reflects his pursuit of the perfect, worked over until it is exactly right.

I believe each person who reads Michelangelo’s Notebooks will take away something different. I can’t draw a stick man, so the art part, to be honest, spoke little to me. Rather I was impressed by how unhappy Michelangelo appeared. This man, whom we know instantly by first name, who bequeathed such beauty that to this day millions line up and pay to shake heads in wonder, this man drew so little joy from his work, his relationships, his life. My takeaway from Michelangelo’s Notebooks is a warning.

“If Thou Thy blood so lovingly didst pour,

Let not that bounty fail or suffer dearth,

Withholding faith that opes the doors of heaven.”

from “There’s Not on Earth”, a sonnet by Michelangelo Buonarroti


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Jacqueline Thompson Graves

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