A Divine Task

Michelangelo, God’s Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest Masterpiece

by William E. Wallace
2019 Princeton University Press, 328 pages, $29.95 hardcover, $19.96 paperback
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It is not difficult to imagine an alternative history where, when Pope Paul III approached Michelangelo to take over as head architect on the construction of the new Saint Peter’s, the answer he received was a polite but resolute “no.”

After all, the artist was seventy-one years old, and the building that had been under construction for half of his life was a muddled hodgepodge. Only the palest ghost of Bramante’s lucid, geometrically pure conception for the church remained, obscured by the second-rate modifications of intervening architects. 

What’s more, Michelangelo was a man in agony. In the previous year, he had lost no fewer than five of his closest friends. Grief-stricken, frail, plagued with both recurring illnesses and doubts about the worth of his life’s pursuits, it was with understandable reluctance that Michelangelo accepted this august appointment. Remarkably, he would live another seventeen years, outlasting the younger Paul III (and four other popes as well). 

In Michelangelo, God’s Architect, William E. Wallace zeroes in on this final, astonishingly fruitful period of the artist’s life. Wallace, who holds a chair in art history at Washington University in Saint Louis, describes a period when Michelangelo devoted himself to innumerable projects that he knew he would never see completed. Chief among them was the one he saw as his divine task and his “greatest hope for salvation”: the design and construction of the new Saint Peter’s. 

Sculpting, Michelangelo’s first talent and greatest passion, is an art of subtraction. Figures are emancipated by the chisel from the mass of stone they inhabit. Michelangelo brought to his work at Saint Peter’s something of the sculptor’s ethos. 

He purged the building of the profusion of ambulatories that had been constructed under the supervision of Antonio da Sangallo and extracted the essence of Bramante’s original design—reinterpreted according to his own unique vision—and this time realistically engineered to support the weight of the structure, a consideration that Bramante had overlooked. 

While his artistic gifts were unmatched, Michelangelo’s knack for project organization and management was equally virtuosic. Wallace sheds light on this aspect of his achievement, which is historically overshadowed by the brilliance of his design. With Michelangelo at the helm, it wasn’t long before the worksite that for thirty-odd years had been beset by financial waste, labor inefficiencies, and petty corruption, was running smoothly. 

Whether performing quality control on quarried stone, managing inflated prices, designing more efficient hoisting mechanisms, or devising ramps for horses to bring material to the tops of the piers, there was no aspect of construction, however mundane, that he was not closely involved in. Wallace revels in the bustle of construction and has a flair for bringing to life the daily flurry of activity on the worksite. 

In Michelangelo’s final years, the number of projects he enhanced with his genius increased even as his individual involvement in each project decreased. No longer the sole father of his art, he became a master delegator-cum-advisor, dashing off drawings for others to develop or complete. Nevertheless, his manner is so powerful, so pervasive, that his presence is still keenly felt on many of those projects. 

In a poignant interlude, Wallace details the two efforts at solitary production Michelangelo attempted late in life: the Florentine Pietà and the Rondanini Pietà. Taken up five years apart, both sculpture groupings were bold, ambitious arrangements, and both were intended to be Michelangelo’s grave marker. 

Ultimately, they were both abandoned before completion, deemed failures by the aging artist whose daring ideas had outstripped his physical capacity. These episodes highlight one of the central conflicts of Michelangelo’s later life: the clash between his desire to achieve lasting beauty and the relentlessness of time. 

“Michael, more than mortal, angel divine.” So Ariosto characterized Michelangelo in his epic poem Orlando Furioso. Not the supernatural genius of Ariosto, Wallace’s Michelangelo is firmly earth-bound, with all the failings, aspirations, friendships, vanities, grief, and, in the end, mortality that his humanity demanded. 

Perhaps paradoxically, this framework does not diminish the man. Rather, against the backdrop of his many worries and afflictions, one feels a sense of awe—even reverence—for his unwavering devotion to his divinely ordained mission.

A master storyteller, Wallace invites us into the life and mind of this great artist and reminds us that the built masterpiece, like the man, was made great through honest toil.