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Michelangelo and the Viewer in His Time

Today most of us enjoy the work of famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo by perusing art books or strolling along the galleries of a museum—and the luckier of us have had a chance to see his extraordinary frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But as Bernadine Barnes shows in this book, even a visit to a well-preserved historical sight doesn’t quite afford the experience the artist intended us to have. Bringing together the latest historical research, she offers us an accurate account of how Michelangelo’s art would have been seen in its own time.
As Barnes shows, Michelangelo’s works were made to be viewed in churches, homes, and political settings, by people who brought their own specific needs and expectations to them. Rarely were his paintings and sculptures viewed in quiet isolation—as we might today in the stark halls of a museum. Instead, they were an integral part of ritual and ceremonies, and viewers would have experienced them under specific lighting conditions and from particular vantages; they would have moved through spaces in particular ways and been compelled to relate various works with others nearby. Reconstructing some of the settings in which Michelangelo’s works appeared, Barnes reassembles these experiences for the modern viewer. Moving throughout his career, she considers how his audience changed, and how this led him to produce works for different purposes, sometimes for conventional religious settings, but sometimes for more open-minded patrons. She also shows how the development of print and art criticism changed the nature of the viewing public, further altering the dynamics between artist and audience.
Historically attuned, this book encourages today’s viewers to take a fresh look at this iconic artist, seeing his work as they were truly meant to be seen.

240 pages | 40 color plates, 20 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2017

Renaissance Lives



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"This book is not only worth reading, it has the necessary ingredients to remind contemporary Michelangelo scholars of a desirable style of writing and research that places clarity of expression and concepts above the conceit of cleverness. . . . The scope of Barnes’s inquiry, both chronologically and thematically, is ambitious. The clarity of her prose is crystalline. . . . A hybrid of the best sort. . . . Barnes masterfully negotiates the mountainous primary and secondary literature on Michelangelo with enviable grace, without encumbering her text with an equally mountainous cadre of footnotes and citations. . . . With ample color images and silky prose, Barnes accomplishes a difficult feat. She provides a broad overview of Michelangelo’s art perceived through the lens of the viewer in Michelangelo’s time, simultaneously presenting fresh perspectives that even Tolnay would admire. The book is scholarly and accessible. But perhaps most importantly, it is simply a pleasure to read."

James P. Anno, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples | CAA Reviews

“[Barnes's] lively and clear prose is certainly appropriate for non-specialists; however, Barnes’s emphasis on Michelangelo’s process of thematization offers even to specialists a provocative model for reconsidering the artist’s corpus. . . . In the course of examining the many ways in which viewership shaped Michelangelo’s designs throughout his career, Barnes’s study presents all of the artist’s major works in roughly chronological order. The book also presupposes little knowledge of the Renaissance, and clearly explains basic terms such as tondo and cangiante with lucid prose and seventy illustrations (fifty-five which are in color). Nonetheless, in her rich development of the theme of artistic thematization, Barnes’s nuanced depiction of Michelangelo’s intellect also makes the book a worthwhile read for scholars of the Italian Renaissance.”

Sixteenth Century Journal

“With this illuminating monograph, Barnes offers at once a full professional biography of Michelangelo Buonarroti, a survey and history of his works from commission through creation to reception, a study of the artist’s understanding of vision and his use of perspective, and a profound sense of the viewer in his day. Michelangelo emerges from the pages of this rich volume as an artist with palpably deep and wide-ranging concerns about the reception of his creative production, from installation and physical viewing through interpretation and afterlife. Barnes addresses them all in this comprehensive study. . . . It is a distinct pleasure—here as elsewhere—to see Michelangelo’s works through Barnes’s uniquely sensitive and well-trained eyes. Michelangelo and the Viewer in His Time is a scintillating and welcome addition to the field.”

Renaissance and Reformation

“Barnes presents a lucid, readable, and jargon-free account of Michelangelo’s art with a particular emphasis on understanding it in light of his viewers. The book provides a concise, reliable history of Michelangelo’s major works and the Renaissance context in which it was produced. Well illustrated, with many color plates, it is a welcome addition to the Michelangelo literature and students will be well served by this up-to-date and reasoned approach.”

Victor Coonin, Rhodes College

“How did individuals and society at large respond to Michelangelo’s art? This is the central question explored in Barnes’s refreshingly original examination of Michelangelo’s life, works, and varied audiences. Barnes leaves aside the heroic but fictionalized story of Michelangelo the lone genius to focus on the private individuals and viewing public who were highly attentive to how the artist’s creations were seen and displayed, praised and criticized.”

William E. Wallace, Washington University

“This important book builds upon Barnes’s earlier research to integrate the Renaissance viewer more fully into study of Michelangelo’s art works. Compiling evidence from multiple sources—including contracts, prints, contemporary accounts, iconography, technical studies, and site analysis—it offers a lucid reconstruction of the material conditions of artistic creation and reception. This approach, which also understands audiences to occupy variously ideal, real, pious, intimate, fixed, and shifting viewpoints, situates Michelangelo’s enduring achievements more securely in time and space.”

Kim Butler Wingfield, American University

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