After quoting Goethe, our guide pauses by the door to add part of a sonnet that Michelangelo wrote to a friend about the physical toll that this project took on his body. But right after that it’s time to hurry on to the 1527 sack of Rome, which, we’re told, was like the Battle of Cannae (in which the ancient Republic lost nearly as many soldiers to the Carthaginians in a single day as the United States did through the entire Vietnam War) in its effect on Roman self-confidence. Rapacious Lutheran landsknechts rampage through the Eternal City in search of rapine and loot. Note the heroic conduct of the Swiss Guard, who lost fully 458 of their 500 men but succeeded in smuggling Pope Clement out of the Vatican to relative safety in the Castel Sant’Angelo. All this was “the end of the Renaissance papacy in Rome, that short and glorious thing.”
But no time for further elegy, because it’s back into the Chapel again to see The Last Judgment, completed by Michelangelo 30 years after he finished the ceiling and presumably informed by whatever he witnessed during the 1527 sack; and then quickly through subsequent disapproving popes, among them Pius IV, who hired another painter to add loincloths to Michelangelo’s figures, to the much more recent controversy over the ceiling’s cleaning. After declaring clearly in favor of conservation—the colors of Michelangelo’s single surviving painting, he says, demonstrate that the cloudy grayness that once obscured the ceiling was the work of centuries’ worth of candle smoke and not a deliberate final coat of the artist’s—Mr. Hughes steps out from behind the city and reveals himself directly, one of only three times in the book.
While working for Time, he experienced what he calls “the most vivid” privilege in 50 years of art reviewing: he was allowed to spend three days on the moving “ponte” that was erected for the cleaning of the Chapel’s ceiling, examining Michelangelo’s masterpiece from inches away. (The other two reveals are a prologue about his first visit and the concluding paean to Fellini.) The book, likewise, comprises the author’s own vast and colorful vision of Rome, but only this once does he invite the reader to join him on the ponte.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect a man who went to Jesuit schools to approach the problem of identity like a Buddhist or even like a psychoanalyst, but every history needs its dose of historiography. A book that could have been tied together by the question implicit in its beginning—just which Rome are we talking about?—instead feels slightly unmanned by it. While Michelangelo was on his back painting, thousands of other people were eating, arguing, being knifed or on their backs in bed, and the only reason to talk about one life rather than the others is either because it supports an argument or because, for reasons of your own, you find it more compelling. Of course we know why Mr. Hughes finds Michelangelo more compelling—we’re given ample information, both implicitly and in frequent, unguarded hyperboles and swipes at contemporary art. But we’re left, like a tourist in a teeming city, to come to our own conclusion.