Museum staff at the British Museum looking up at a projection of Michelangelo's “Creation of Adam”. Photo: Getty
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Was Michelangelo the first celebrity artist?

The life and death of Michelangelo was a monumental celebrity affair.

On 14 February 1564, a young Florentine living in Rome named Tiberio Calcagni heard rumours that Michelangelo Buonarroti was gravely ill. Immediately, he made his way to the great man’s home in the street of Macel de’ Corvi near Trajan’s Column and the church of Santa Maria di Loreto. When he got there he found the artist outside, wandering around in the rain. Calcagni remonstrated with him. “What do you want me to do?” Michelangelo answered. “I am ill and can find no rest anywhere.”

Somehow Calcagni persuaded him to go indoors but he was alarmed by what he saw. Later in the day, he wrote to Lionardo Buonarroti, Michelangelo’s nephew, in Florence. “The uncertainty of his speech togetherwith his look and the colour of his face makes me concerned for his life. The end may not come just now, but I fear it cannot be far away.” On that damp Monday, Michelangelo was three weeks short of his 89th birthday, a great age in any era and a remarkable one for the mid-16th century.

Later on, Michelangelo sent for other friends. He asked one of these, an artist known as Daniele da Volterra, to write a letter to Lionardo. Without quite saying that Michelangelo was dying, Daniele said it would be desirable for him to come to Rome as soon as he could. This letter was signed by Daniele and also underneath by Michelangelo himself: a weak, straggling signature, the last he ever wrote.

Despite his evident illness, Michelangelo’s enormous energy had still not entirely ebbed away. He remained conscious and in possession of his faculties, but was tormented by lack of sleep. In the late afternoon, an hour or two before sunset, he tried to go out riding, as was his habit when the weather was fine – Michelangelo loved horses – but his legs were weak, he was dizzy and the day was cold. He remained in a chair near the fire. All this was reported to Lionardo Buonarroti in a further letter sent that day. This was written in the evening by Diomede Leoni, a Sienese friend of the master, who advised Lionardo to come to Rome, but to take no risks in riding at speed over the bad roads at that time of year.

After another day in the chair, Michelangelo was forced to take to his bed. At his home were members of his inner circle: Diomede Leoni, Daniele da Volterra, his servant Antonio del Francese and a Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, some four decades his junior, who had been perhaps the love of Michelangelo’s life. Michelangelo wrote no formal will but made a terse statement of his last wishes: “I commit my soul into the hands of God, my body to the earth and my possessions to my nearest relatives, enjoining them when their hour comes to meditate on the sufferings of Jesus.” For a while, he followed the last of those recommendations himself, listening to his friends reading from the Gospels, passages concerning the Passion of Christ. He died on 18 February at about 4.45pm.

Thus ended the mortal existence of the most celebrated artist who had ever lived, indeed by many measures the most renowned to have existed until the present day. Few other human beings except the founders of religions have been more intensively studied and discussed. Michelangelo’s life, work and fame transformed for ever our idea of what an artist could be.

In 1506, when he was only 31 years old, the government of Florence described Michelangelo in a diplomatic communication with the Pope as “an excellent young man and in his profession unequalled in Italy, perhaps in the whole world”. At that point, he had almost six decades of his career still to come.

There was an epic quality to Michelangelo’s life. Like a hero of classical mythology, he was subject to constant trials and labours. Many of his works were vast and involved formidable technical difficulties: the huge frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgement, the marble giant David. Michelangelo’s larger projects – the tomb of Julius II, the façade and the new sacristy at San Lorenzo, the great Roman Basilica of St Peter – were so ambitious in their scale that he was unable to complete any of them as he had originally intended. However, even his unfinished buildings and sculptures were revered as masterpieces and exerted enormous influence on other artists.

Michelangelo continued to work, for decade after decade, near the dynamic centre of events: the vortex in which European history was changing. When he was born, in 1475, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli were starting out on their artistic careers. The Italian peninsula was a patchwork of small independent states, dukedoms, republics and self-governing cities. By the time he died, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had taken place. The political and spiritual map of Europe had altered completely; France and Spain had invaded Italy and turned it into a traumatised war zone. The unity of Christendom had shattered: Protestants had split from the authority of the Pope in Rome. Catholicism was resurgent in a more tightly orthodox and militant form. A century of religious strife had begun.

While still in his mid-teens, Michelangelo became a member of the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, one of the figures around whom our idea of the Renaissance has coalesced. He worked in turn for no fewer than eight popes. He had grown up with the two Medici popes, Leo X (reigned 1513- 21) and Clement VII (reigned 1523-34), at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The former spoke of him “almost with tears in his eyes” (but found him dauntingly difficult to deal with). With Clement VII, Michelangelo’s connection was even closer. According to Ascanio Condivi’s early biography, he regarded Michelangelo “as something sacred and he conversed with him, on both light and serious matters, with as much intimacy as he would have done with an equal”. Clement died in 1534 but Michelangelo still had 30 years to live and four more popes to serve.

The huge church of St Peter rose, very slowly, under his direction. Rome and Christianity metamorphosed around him. The Jesuit order and the Roman Inquisition were founded and Europe froze into a religious divide between Catholic and Protestant quite as ferocious and lethal as any of the ideological struggles of the 20th century. Still Michelangelo was there, acknowledged as the supreme artist in the world. Not just in his time, but of all time.

The day after Michelangelo died, an inventory was made of his goods. It listed the contents of a house that was sparsely furnished but rich in other ways. In the room where he slept there was an iron-framed bed with one straw mattress and three stuffed with wool, a couple of woollen covers and one of kid skin and a linen canopy. The clothes in his wardrobe suggested a touch of luxury, including a selection of black silken caps, two coats lined with fox fur and a fine cape. In addition, Michelangelo owned a variety of sheets, towels and underwear, including 19 used shirts and five new ones.

Apart from these, the house seemed bare. There was nothing in the dining room except some empty wine barrels and bottles. The cellar contained some big flagons of water and a half-bottle of vinegar. Two large unfinished statues – one of “St Peter”, perhaps in fact an effigy of Julius II once intended for his tomb; the other described as “Christ with another figure above, attached together” – remained in a workshop behind the house. There was also a little incomplete statuette of Christ carrying the cross.

Some drawings were found in Michelangelo’s bedroom, though a very small number in relation to the quantity he had made over the years. Most of these concerned his current building projects, particularly the Basilica of St Peter. Of the thousands of others he had made, some had been given away, some remained in Florence, where he had not set foot for almost 30 years, but a huge number had been deliberately destroyed by Michelangelo in a series of bonfires.

Also in the bedroom was a walnut chest. This was opened in the presence of the notaries carrying out the inventory. It turned out to contain, secreted in bags and small jugs of maiolica and copper, some 8,289 gold ducats and scudi, plus silver coins.

Michelangelo remarked: “However rich I may have been, I have always lived as a poor man.” Clearly, he was not joking, on either count. The inventory gives the impression of a decidedly spartan style of life; the gold and silver in that chest represented a fortune. Stored in his bedroom was a sum just a few hundred ducats short of the amount that Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, had paid 15 years before for one of the grandest dwellings in Florence: the Palazzo Pitti.

The gold in Michelangelo’s strongbox was considerably less than half of his total assets, most of which were invested in property. He was not only the most famous painter or sculptor in history, he was probably richer than any artist who had ever been. This was just one of many contradictions in Michelangelo’s nature: a wealthy man who lived frugally; a skinflint who could be extraordinarily, embarrassingly generous; a private, enigmatic individual who spent three-quarters of a century near the heart of power.

By the time Michelangelo died, the praise of him as “divine” was taken almost literally. Some, at least, regarded him as a new variety of saint. The strength of the veneration felt for him was similar to that in which martyrs were held. As a result, Michelangelo had two funerals and two burials in two different places.

The first was in Rome, in the church of Santi Apostoli not far from the house on Macel de’ Corvi, where the artist and pioneer art historian Giorgio Vasari described how he was “followed to the tomb by a great concourse of artists, friends and Florentines”. There Michelangelo was laid to rest “in the presence of all Rome”. Pope Pius IV expressed an intention of eventually erecting a monument to him in Michelangelo’s own masterwork, the Basilica of St Peter (at that point still a domeless building site).

This state of affairs was intolerable to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, who for many years had tried without success to lure the old man to return to his native city. He resolved that Rome should not retain the artist’s corpse. The great man’s body was smuggled out of the city by some merchants, “concealed in a bale so that there should be no tumult to frustrate the duke’s plan”. Arrangements for an elaborate state funeral and interment were made. When the corpse arrived in Florence, on Saturday 11 March, it was taken to a crypt behind the altar in the church of San Pier Maggiore. There, the next day, the artists of the city assembled at nightfall around the bier, on which Michelangelo was now placed in a coffin covered by a velvet pall richly embroidered with gold. Each of the most senior carried a torch, which would have created a scene of sombre magnificence, the flickering flames illuminating the casket draped in black.

Next Michelangelo was carried in procession to the huge Gothic Basilica of Santa Croce, the heart of the quarter to which his family had always belonged. When word got around of whose body was being moved through the dark streets, a crowd began to assemble. Soon the procession was mobbed by Florentine citizens: “Only with the greatest difficulty was the corpse carried to the sacristy, there to be freed from its wrappings and laid to rest.” After the friars had said the Office of the Dead, the writer and courtier Vincenzo Borghini, representing the duke, ordered the coffin to be opened, partly – according to Vasari, who was there – to satisfy his own curiosity, partly to please the crush of people present. Then, it seems, something extraordinary was discovered.

Borghini “and all of us who were present were expecting to find that the body was already decomposed and spoilt”. After all, Michelangelo had been dead at this point for the best part of a month. Yet Vasari claimed: “On the contrary we found it [his corpse] still perfect in every part and so free from any evil odour that we were tempted to believe that he was merely sunk in a sweet and quiet sleep. Not only were his features exactly the same as when he was alive (although touched with the pallor of death) but his limbs were clean and intact and his face and cheeks felt as if he had died only a few hours before.”

Of course, an incorrupt corpse was one of the traditional signs of sanctity.

This is an extract from Martin Gayford’s “Michelangelo: His Epic Life” (Fig Tree, £30)

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser