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Michelangelo’s First Biographies

Michelangelo was the first artist to have a biography written about him while he was still alive, in fact there were two biographies written and published during his lifetime.  His biographers were Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, both men knew Michelangelo as a friend.

Giorgio Vasari was a painter, architect, writer and historian who is most famous today for his book Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550.  ViteHis book contains an encyclopedia of artists’ biographies including one for Michelangelo.  Vasari was a friend and admirer of Michelangelo whose influence can be seen in both his painting and his architecture.

Vasari’s book offered a critique of historical artistic style as well as a series of artist biographies.  When unable to determine facts, Vasari took liberties with questionable information. He also showed his bias towards Italian art, specifically in Tuscany.

Condivi moved to Rome in 1545 where he met Michelangelo and became a student in his workshop with high hopes of becoming a painter.  Unfortunately, Condivi did not become a master painter and was instead considered insignificant and mediocre.  He did, however, take advantage of his situation with Michelangelo and made a name for himself as the author who wrote Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti which was published in 1553.  Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti The biography is told from an intimate personal knowledge and tells the story of Michelangelo’s life as well as his objectives as an artist, his accomplishments and his relationships.

Numerous rumors surrounded Michelangelo and the Vita worked to negate these as well as to set straight the inaccuracies of Vasari’s biography of Michelangelo in the first edition of his book Lives.  Many believe that in writing the biography, Condivi simply recorded what Michelangelo dictated to him.  At times Condivi’s Vita seems a direct dictation from Michelangelo.  Assuming Condivi’s Vita was from Michelangelo’s own mouth some refer to it as an autobiography.  Whether a biography or autobiography, most agree that its source makes it one of the most important writings concerning Michelangelo.

A signed letter by Condivi has been deemed inarticulate leading many to believe he didn’t truly write the Vita.  It is suspected that the Vita, which contains outstanding literary qualities, might have been co-written, or written entirely, by Annibale Caro, a poet and friend of Michelangelo’s and a relative of Condivi’s wife.

Giorgio Vasari used Condivi’s rich Michelangelo biography to create a second edition of his own book published in 1568, rewriting and correcting discrepancies.  In his lifetime there were numerous myths and legends surrounding Michelangelo making it difficult to separate fact from fiction even in his day.

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