Monday, May 3, 2010


This past week I read two new biographies of Renaissance painters. Each of them conveyed useful knowledge, but neither the one nor the other was a very good book. Mark Hudson's Titian is the sort of high-end journalism where you find out much more about the author and his travels and thoughts than you ever find out about the culturally prestigious subject who was the pretext for the book contract that allowed Mark Hudson to pursue his travels and think his thoughts. Antonio Forcellino's Michelangelo suffers from the opposite problem – an author whose attitude toward his subject is so worshipful that the book resembles a spiderweb of vague superlatives ("sublime!" "transcendent!" "glorious!").

Titian and Michelangelo (in real life, in the 16th century) had a distant, respectful awareness of one another and did meet a few times, although nobody seems to suggest that they influenced each other very much. But what I had not known about either one of them (and what the two books make painfully plain) is that these two more or less contemporary geniuses – who were recognized in their own lifetimes as geniuses and have never at any point in the last five hundred years lost any of their genius-status – were both preoccupied throughout their very long lives by one overwhelming passion. It wasn't love. It wasn't fame. Not religion, not friendship, not even beauty.

It was money.