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Michelangelo's greatest work may not be what you think

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"Michelangelo, God's Architect"

"Michelangelo, God’s Architect"

By William E. Wallace

Published by Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $29.95

On sale Nov. 19 

Mention the name Michelangelo, and most people will automatically think of his renowned sculptures such as “David” or “The Pieta,” or his majestic painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But in “Michelangelo, God’s Architect,” William E. Wallace argues that instead of being seduced by the beauty of only those works, anyone looking at the long arc of Michelangelo’s career should value his architecture, particularly his work on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as his crowning achievement.

Wallace — professor of art history at Washington University — has written previously on Michelangelo’s works and career, but in his latest book, he says the end of the artist’s life, as he entered his 70s, deserves a brighter spotlight:

“I became increasingly drawn to the poignant narrative of an aging artist confronting the greatest challenge of his creative life: to build New St. Peter’s all the while knowing he would never see it to completion.”

As old friends and patrons passed away, Michelangelo doggedly continued his career in architecture. Pope Paul III persuaded him to take over the work at St. Peter’s, and Wallace says the commission “gave new purpose and focus to Michelangelo’s life, becoming his greatest, lifelong responsibility and inducing him to put aside his private concerns and sorrows. St. Peter’s offered a final mission and the best reason for the artist not to yield to old age, despair, or death.”

Not that the work was easy. Wallace details the variety of challenges Michelangelo faced, and he also gives insight into what the artist considered to be not only his worldly overseers but also his heavenly one.

The many questions and obstacles he faced ranged from the mundane — should he provide wine to the workers who labored at the highest levels of construction? — to the more serious and sublime:

“… how many lives would be lost; would another foreman get fired, move away, or get himself murdered; would Michelangelo’s friends in the fabbrica live long enough; would the pope live long enough; would Michelangelo live long enough? Could he, as architect of God’s church, fulfill God’s expectations?”

As what Wallace dubs “the first modern ‘Starchitect,’” Michelangelo dealt with temperamental co-workers and subordinates as well as shifting political alliances and the weakening stamina of old age. Though he did not live to see St. Peter’s finished — he died in 1564, just shy of his 89th birthday — anyone who visits the magnificent structure today can see his genius shine through its 150-year construction history.

“None of the changes compromise the fact and perception that this is Michelangelo’s building,” Wallace writes. “It was less important to Michelangelo to build a specific design than to protect the integrity of the church. It was God’s church and he was God’s architect.”

Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in West St. Louis County.


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