Review of 'Leonardo's Nephew, Three Worlds of Michaelangelo and What Painting Is'
- By Paul Trachtman
- Smithsonian magazine, June 1999, Subscribe
When you look at a great painting or sculpture, what more would you like to know about it? Three recent books examine familiar works of art from very different angles. Whether or not they really illuminate these works depends on what you would like to know. James Fenton's essays in Leonardo's Nephew are extravaganzas of social history; James Beck's Three Worlds of Michelangelo sets genius in the context of family and political biography; and James Elkins' What Painting Is digs into the nature of paint, and shows how a painting reveals the artist's mind and hand at work.
With journalistic panache, James Fenton cuts a wide and eclectic swath across the centuries, from Egyptian mummy paintings to the table talk of Degas to Freud's obsession with statuettes, and on to the department store window displays of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Fenton's essays, culled from the New York Review of Books, are a particularly literary response to art. He is a poet and treats museums almost as a metaphor, leaping from the artwork to stories of the patrons, dealers, collectors, rivals, mistresses and scandals that surround it — especially the abiding and compelling scandals.
If you want to know that the immortal Florentine sculptor Bernini broke his brother's ribs with a crowbar and sent a servant to disfigure his mistress — after discovering the brother and mistress together — you'll find that grisly story recounted here.
Viewing a Seurat show inspires Fenton to write at length on the question of whether the boys shown bathing in the Seine, in The Bathers, were actually bathing in raw sewage. Probably not, he concludes. This "broad approach to the elucidation of art through social history" has its virtues. Fenton gives us wonderful glimpses of painting en plein air in the 1700s, complete with details of the paint boxes, palettes and glass paint tubes used at the time, or the curriculum of an art school in Paris in Degas's day. In his essay on Leonardo's nephew Pierino da Vinci, he gives a lucid account of how the artist transformed Dante's poetry into a bronze relief. But Fenton's erudition, and his love of gossip, often seem more a distraction than an appreciation of art.
Three Worlds of Michaelangelo
James Beck's biography, the author tells us, "is intended as an interpretation of the personality of Michelangelo." Beck is an academic art historian and gives us Michelangelo's life from the remains of his letters, the accounts of contemporaries, the works of early biographers, the histories of the Medicis in Florence and the popes in Rome, and even the proverbs and scuttlebutt circulating in the streets and courts of the day. Beck transforms all these sources into stories. As a student in the Medici Gardens, Michelangelo got into a dispute with the sculptor Torrigiani over the merits of their Florentine predecessor, the great painter Masaccio. Here's what Torrigiani later told Benvenuto Cellini of the outcome: "I extended my hand, giving him such a hard punch on the nose that I felt the bone and cartilage of the nose give way, as if it were a sponge cake; and thus, marked by me, he will remain for the rest of his life."
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