Pub. Date:
Princeton University Press
Michelangelo: A Life on Paper

Michelangelo: A Life on Paper

by Leonard Barkan


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Michelangelo is best known for great artistic achievements such as the Sistine ceiling, the David, the Pietà, and the dome of St. Peter's. Yet throughout his seventy-five year career, he was engaged in another artistic act that until now has been largely overlooked: he not only filled hundreds of sheets of paper with exquisite drawings, sketches, and doodles, but also, on fully a third of these sheets, composed his own words. Here we can read the artist's marginal notes to his most enduring masterpieces; workaday memos to assistants and pupils; poetry and letters; and achingly personal expressions of ambition and despair surely meant for nobody's eyes but his own. Michelangelo: A Life on Paper is the first book to examine this intriguing interplay of words and images, providing insight into his life and work as never before.

This sumptuous volume brings together more than two hundred stunning, museum-quality reproductions of Michelangelo's most private papers, many in color. Accompanying them is Leonard Barkan's vivid narrative, which explains the important role the written word played in the artist's monumental public output. What emerges is a wealth of startling juxtapositions: perfectly inscribed sonnets and tantalizing fragments, such as "Have patience, love me, sufficient consolation"; careful notations listing money spent for chickens, oxen, and funeral rites for the artist's father; a beautiful drawing of a Madonna and child next to a mock love poem that begins, "You have a face sweeter than boiled grape juice, and a snail seems to have passed over it." Magnificently illustrated and superbly detailed, this book provides a rare and intimate look at how Michelangelo's artistic genius expressed itself in words as well as pictures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691147666
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/12/2010
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 10.46(w) x 11.60(h) x 1.16(d)

About the Author

Leonard Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. His books include Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture; The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism; and Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter 1: Hieroglyphs of the Mind 1

Chapter 2: O n the Same Page 35

Chapter 3: Picture Writing 69

Chapter 4: Making a Name 97

Chapter 5: Crowded Sheets 127

Chapter 6: Private in Public 173

Chapter 7: V at. lat. 3211 235

Chapter 8: Drawing the Line 287

Notes 305

Credits 353

Index 357

What People are Saying About This

Alexander Nagel

Open this book and sit down at Michelangelo's worktable, where writing and art-making happen one on top of the other. Writing surfaces continually invite doodles, while stunning feats of draftsmanship meet an unrelenting stream of bills, letters, poems, and inside jokes. In the congenial company of a preeminent critic of the art and literature of the Renaissance, we follow the careers of sheets of paper marked up, handed off to assistants, corrected, then revisited years later, then sent off—or, more often, filed away in Michelangelo's scrupulous archive. From the midst of this productive chaos, Leonard Barkan counsels us to abandon the dream of a congruent collaboration of word and image, pointing the way instead to a concrete and strangely familiar poetics of intersection and interruption.
Alexander Nagel, New York University

Stephen Greenblatt

Michelangelo: A Life on Paper manages to capture the restless movement of the great artist's quicksilver mind. It takes us deep into Michelangelo's creative process, a place where public and private, sacredness and carnality, grandeur and pettiness, vast ambition and self-tormenting doubts are all tangled together. Barkan seems to possess, as if vividly inscribed in his own memory, the hundreds of sheets of paper on which Michelangelo set down his sketches and poems. By sharply focusing on the complex relation on these sheets between words and images, this remarkable book chronicles what Barkan calls the artist's lifelong acts of 'personal refashioning.'
Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University


Barkan's book challenges the vast body of studies on Michelangelo with a strikingly new and revealing perspective. In his analysis of surviving sheets that contain writings relating to the artist's adjacent figural and architectural studies, Barkan illuminates Michelangelo's career as an artist, his psychological and spiritual evolution, his social and professional relationships, and the creation of poems for which he was equally celebrated in his time. His interpretations are consistently perceptive and informed by a command of both the art-historical and literary corpus of scholarship.
James S. Ackerman, author of "The Architecture of Michelangelo"

David Rosand

Leonard Barkan has discovered and explored the many dimensions of Michelangelo's life on paper, that is, those sheets on which the artist juxtaposed text and image, sublime pictorial and poetic ideas with the most quotidian concerns, graphic notions of the imagination alongside mundane shopping lists. Analyzing the shifting dynamics of mise-en-page, of ellipsis and parataxis, of private and public expression, Barkan draws a rich portrait of the man; this is a portrait all the more convincing for its recognition of tension and conflict resolvable not in the life but only within the world of the paper.
David Rosand, Columbia University

Richard Howard

In the excitement of what amounts to a paper chase—poems, drawings, and a wilderness of scribbling—Barkan reaches ever deeper into the Michelangelo arcanum; what had seemed entanglement is by patient sifting discovered to be a solution, the problem proved: 'Mortal flesh made God.'
Richard Howard, series editor of the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation and author of "Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003"

Larry Silver

This is a most significant topic by a scholar at the top of his game. Barkan has altered many of my own settled understandings of the artist. This book is an important contribution to Renaissance studies, and a stimulating and fresh approach to Michelangelo scholarship. Like the drawings and inscriptions it analyzes, it must be savored over multiple visits.
Larry Silver, author of "Marketing Maximilian: The Visual Ideology of a Holy Roman Emperor"

Jas Elsner

Barkan's careful, empathetic investigation reveals a mind of ceaseless experimentation, clustered with fragments, memories, allusions, desires in which the dialogue of writing and drawing reveals the creative paradoxes and mysteries of Michelangelo's genius, what Barkan calls 'the psychopathologies of his everyday life.' Superbly researched, exquisitely illustrated, and scintillatingly written, this book changes our understanding of the most colossal master of the Renaissance.
Jas Elsner, University of Oxford


This is a brilliant book. Barkan is an accomplished scholar of Renaissance literature and poetry, and a person completely conversant and adept in analyzing and discussing visual imagery. The manner in which he deftly moves between writing and drawing, between word and image, is breathtaking. An exhilarating study.
William E. Wallace, author of "Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture"

Irving Lavin

In a series of elegant, often provocative essays covering the entire arc of Michelangelo's visual signing, Barkan's analytic perspective elicits new connections and new levels of significance that have eluded his predecessors. Thanks to Barkan, future students of Michelangelo's graphic work will have to look and think harder.
Irving Lavin, professor emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study

Brenda Wineapple

Leonard Barkan's evocative Michelangelo: A Life on Paper limns the mysteries of expression in the so-called hieroglyphs of Michelangelo and traces, with Barkan's characteristic brilliance, how word and image overlay, interplay, consort, and ultimately compose the solitary artist's signature language. An astute reading of interior life and outer symbol, methodologically sound, and deeply empathetic, Michelangelo: A Life on Paper is an illuminating analysis of the relation of art and life and where we might go to find it.
Brenda Wineapple, author of "White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson"

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Michelangelo: A Life on Paper 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Laura400 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully put together and well-printed. It looks at loose drawings of Michaelangelo -- really sheets of sketches, not generally finished work -- and theorizes on the relationship between these sketches and the marginal notes written on the same pieces of paper. In general, it is an interesting idea, and well-researched and presented, but it seems a little thin to hold one's interest over the length of an entire book. More for specialists and academics, I think. It does provide a look at work that you wouldn't see otherwise.