10 Great Quotes from “Michelangelo: His Epic Life” by Martin Gayford (2013)

I recently read Martin Gayford’s insightful biography on the life of the great Florentine artist Michelangelo. The book is titled Michelangelo: His Epic Life and was originally published in 2013. Here ten quotes from the book that particularly stood out to me.


“Early financial anxiety combined with an engrained family belief that the Buonarroti were really grander than their current circumstances would suggest goes some way to explaining Michelangelo’s eccentricities. In later life, he showed a strong, indeed neurotic, desire for money together with an equally powerful urge not to spend it.”

“A plentiful supply of paper – just as much as the study of ancient sculpture or single-point perspective – was among the factors that led to what we call the Renaissance. It allowed artists to think and work in different ways, a transformation as significant as the Internet and computer technology have been in the early twenty-first century.”

“Michelangelo, however, stood apart from these musical parties. It sounds as though, even as an adolescent, he was already antisocial, reclusive and driven: constantly drawing and carving. Only such dedication could explain the rapidity of the progress he made. Within two years, he had become as skillful a sculptor in marble as any alive.”

(In addition, later in the book, Gayford writes: “Indeed, in his view, being difficult – ‘singular and reserved, or whatever you may be pleased to call it’ – was actually a necessity for those who wanted to achieve remarkable things.”)

“[…] so often with Michelangelo, the strangeness is inseparable from the power of the work.”

“The popular reaction to David seems to have been wonder at his size rather than at the artistry of his carving. He was a spectacle, a freakish oddity.”

“There was another, theological reason for nudes to be painted, which neatly dovetailed with the cult of ancient art. In these decades, from the 1490s to the 1520s, preachers in Rome laid great stress on the doctrine of the incarnation, that is, the fact that Christ was God made man. And this meant that the human body – which, in turn, because of the automatic misogyny of the times, meant the male body – was not the shameful, sinful thing it had been considered to be through much of the Middle Ages, but glorious, beautiful and holy.”

“To understand Michelangelo and his art, it is necessary to accept both these truths. He believed that the sight of beautiful individuals was a path to the divine beauty and goodness of God. Simultaneously, it was a source of hopeless erotic yearning.”

“Night’ was a code word for sodomy in Tuscan comic literature – as is suggested by the title of the magistrates specifically detailed to deal with the problem, the Officers of the Night. According to court records, most encounters between casual male partners took place between sunset, when work ended, and the third or fourth hour after nightfall, the time of curfew, when the taverns closed.”

“His sonnet no. 152 uses the metaphor of sculpture for salvation: ‘By what we take away, lady, we give to a rugged mountain stone/A figure that can live? And which grows greater when the stone grows less.’ Here was the fascination with sculpture as an act of discovery within a piece of marble: by chipping away, the figure was slowly revealed.”

“St Peter’s – as Michelangelo re-imagined it – was the prototypical baroque church. Elderly, grief-stricken, constipated, Michelangelo made himself a great master of architecture: an art that, of course, was not even his profession.”

Click here to buy Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford.

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