At the turn of the 16th century, Italy was a turbulent territory made up of independent states, each at war with or intriguing against its neighbor. There were the proud, cultivated, and degenerate Sforzas in Milan, and in Rome, the corrupt Spanish family of the Borgia whose head, Rodrigo, ascended to St Peter's throne as Pope Alexander VI. In Florence, a golden age of culture and sophistication ended with the death of the greatest of the Medici family, Lorenzo the Magnificent, giving way to an era of uncertainty, cruelty, and religious fundamentalism.
In the midst of this turmoil, there existed the greatest concentration of artists that Europe has ever known. Influenced by the rediscovery of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, artists and thinkers such as Botticelli and da Vinci threw off the shackles of the Middle Ages to produce one of the most creative periods in history - the Renaissance.
This is the story of twelve years when war, plague, famine, and chaos made their mark on a volatile Italy, and when a young, erratic genius, Michelangelo Buonarroti, made his first great statue - the David. It was to become a symbol not only of the independence and defiance of the city of Florence but also of the tortured soul who created it. Anton Gill's Il Gigante is a wonderful history of the artist, his times, and one of his most magnificent works.
The 12 years between the death of Lorenzo de' Medici and the unveiling of the David are "the most dramatic in the history of Florence, and... the most dramatic of Michelangelo's life," according to Gill (Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim). That drama never fully emerges, however, in this hit-and-miss account. Picking up Michelangelo as "the flower in bud" as he apprentices to the great fresco painter Ghirlandaio, Gill tracks the artist as he begins to sculpt for the de' Medici, produces the early portents of the David, accomplishes the Piet and completes his "first and only monumental statue," il Gigante, the nickname early given to the David. In presenting the works (fleshed out in 10 illustrations and an eight-page color insert), fellow artists (da Vinci, Donatello, Verocchio) and an assortment of popes, dukes and kings, Gill's tone swings between lively (Savonarola as "a true hell-fire preacher," the Bacchus as "a real drunk," frescos as "the blockbuster movies of their day") and dutiful, as he offers correspondence and contractual minutiae. Complicated political maneuvering tumbles onto the page, while Pope Alexander's "bloated and unpleasant corpse" lies in state for three days and three pages. According to Gill, his book is "designed to give people who do not already know it a taste of a world in which great creativity lived alongside political realism." But such tastes prove the book's undoing; by the end the reader feels like a cocktail party guest who arrived too hungry, gobbled too many hors d'oeuvres and left feeling both overstuffed and unfed.