If Michelangelo were alive today, I’m sure he would be blogging along with all his other work.

In Michelangelo: A Life on Paper, Leonard Barkan doesn’t focus on the parts of Michelangelo’s life and work that that most people know – sculpture, painting and architecture. As the title says, this book looks at his “life on paper” which is the collection of hundreds of sheets (some in color) with drawings, letters, memos, small sketches, instructions to his assistants, marginalia, notes to himself and poems.

I think what Barkan (a comparative lit professor at Princeton) is looking for in the papers is how Michelangelo was thinking which you can sometimes see in someone’s less formal writing and drawing.

Michelangelo did a lot of his big work early on. In his 20s, he completed the David and the St. Peter’s Pieta. His design for the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, got him the nickname amongst his contemporaries of il Divino (the Divine One).

But the book looks at the sheets of paper that are rather complicated combinations of drawings over words, poems on top of drawings, and erasures. The work is often at different angles in order to fill in leftover white space. There are also additions by his students and assistants.

This kind of page might be called a palimpsest – a manuscript page that has been “scraped off” and used again. (The word “palimpsest” comes through Latin from Greek – palin “again” + psao “I scrape.”)

What came first – the poem or the drawing? Sometimes the overlay indicates that; sometimes not. And Michelangelo was famously ADD – easily distracted and often abandoning work partly done – so some of the verse is probably just idea fragments.

It’s not that these are papers have never been studied. What Barkan did that is different is that rather than focus on one thing (like all the figure studies) he looks at the sheets as a whole.

Though I find the odd juxtapositions of some drawings and words very interesting, you have to assume that some of those crossings don’t really have any connection or deeper meaning.

For example, there are some anatomical drawings of legs and muscles (which remind me of the Leonardo da Vinci notebooks) where Michelangelo has added three lines of verse about eyebrows.

socto duo belle ciglia
chom pace e meraviglia
a posto ’l fren de’ mie pensieri amore.

Under two beautiful eyebrows
With peace and wonderment
Love has placed the brakes on my thoughts.

What’s the connection?

Was M. drawing those legs but staring at the owner’s eyebrows? Or was there just some blank space that he used on the page?

Of course, we will never know. But it’s interesting to surmise.

Read an excerpt of the book at http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9263.pdf