Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no? Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for the republicans who expelled the Medici has become an embarrassment since their return. So you tell Pope Clement VII that, yes, you will move to Rome and paint a Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters

Fascinating forgeries: Art and Artifice – Fakes from the Collection, at the Courtauld, reviewed

In 1998 curators at the Courtauld Institute received an anonymous phone call informing them that 11 drawings in their collection were fakes. The caller intimated that he was an associate of the notorious forger Eric Hebborn, who had claimed in his 1991 memoir, Drawn to Trouble, to have sold the institute a fake Rowlandson. The Sienese turned their training as restorers of Renaissance paintings to more profitable use The Courtauld had, in fact, already rumbled the Rowlandson before Hebborn boasted of putting one over on it; now it looked like it could be more than one. The other ten included three sketches by Tiepolo, three by Guardi and a drawing

She’s pop’s Damien Hirst: Beyoncé’s Renaissance reviewed

You feel a little sorry for Renaissance, the first solo album by Beyoncé in more than six years. It just wants to dance, but will anybody let it? Such are the claims made for the singer as a cultural figure – superwoman, warrior queen, saviour of Black America – that everything she does carries a weight of expectation which would crush granite, let alone a pop record. The songs on her last album, Lemonade, released in 2016, spun out from the infidelity of her husband, Jay-Z, linking a personal breach of trust to fissures in her family history and racial divides in the United States, past and present. It was

Raphael – saint or hustler?

For tourists to Rome, the must-see event of 1833 was the exhumation of Raphael from his tomb in the Pantheon. For years the city’s Accademia di San Luca had been claiming possession of the artist’s skull and running a profitable line in souvenirs. That September, the question would be settled. Was the ‘most eminent painter’, lauded in his friend Pietro Bembo’s fulsome epitaph as having ‘lived virtuously 37 virtuous years’, really buried there? And did his skeleton have a head? Hans Christian Andersen was one of 3,000 ticket holders for the six-day lying-in-state. The skeleton was there all right, complete with head, but its dignity, reported Andersen, was somewhat dented

Renaissance radical: Carlo Crivelli – Shadows on the Sky at Ikon Gallery reviewed

‘Camp,’ wrote Susan Sontag, ‘is the paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l’oeil insects and cracks in the masonry.’ She didn’t even mention the renaissance painter’s curious cucumber fetish. Nor the unwittingly comedic homoeroticism of his portrait of Saint Roch, one stocking rolled down coquettishly to reveal a decorous inner-thigh wound. Nor the extraordinarily ugly baby Jesus clutching an apple as big as his head while his mother, understandably, averts her eyes. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious,’ argued Sontag. Sontag wasn’t alone in not taking Crivelli (c.1430–95) seriously. Giorgio Vasari, who scorned the illusionism that some have taken to be Crivelli’s USP, erased him from his art history.

Beautiful and revealing: The Three Pietàs of Michelangelo, at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, reviewed

The room is immersed in semi-darkness. Light filters down from above, glistening on polished marble as if it were flesh. This is the installation for Le Tre Pietà, a remarkable micro-exhibition that has just opened at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. It is low in quantity, containing just three works. But stratospherically high in quality, since it comprises Michelangelo’s three versions of the Pietà – that is, the Madonna mourning the dead Christ. He carved these over almost 70 years: one in his early twenties, the next in his seventies, the last in his eighties. Admittedly, the first and the last are present only in a rather old-fashioned

A celebration of natural wonders: the best of the year’s art books

If one of the purposes of art is to help us see the world around us, then Sebastião Salgado’s photographs in Amazônia (Taschen, £100) does so in the most spectacular way imaginable. Not only are they ravishing in themselves; they show us sights that very few have ever seen. To take these shots, Salgado trekked deep into the rainforest, sailed the rivers, visited remote tribes and flew over the vast terrain in the helicopters of the Brazilian air force. During those flights he saw immense vistas over trees, billowing cloudscapes and snaking rivers covering an area larger than the EU. The resulting pictures, all the more powerful for being in

Albrecht Dürer was a 16th-century Andy Warhol

On 6 January 1506, Albrecht Dürer wrote from Venice to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who was at home in Nuremberg. The artist had already been in the city for a little while, and like many people who visit Venice he had spent a good deal of time shopping. Pirckheimer had asked him to buy some jewellery for him, ‘a few pearls and precious stones’, and the artist had been looking out for something suitable. There were, however, difficulties. For one thing, he says: ‘I can find nothing good enough or worth the money; everything is snapped up by the Germans.’ For another, Dürer complained, there were a lot of swindlers

Josquin changed musical history – why don’t we hear more of him?

Stepping into the Sistine Chapel, the choir loft is probably the last thing you’d notice. ‘Loft’ is, frankly, a stretch for what amounts to a small alcove with a wooden bench, carved out of the chapel’s wall. But if you made your way up there and ran your hand over the stone you’d feel something unexpected. Etched into the wall in haphazard graffiti are hundreds of names. In most cases the carvings are all that remain of centuries of singers from the papal choir. But one is different: ‘JOSQUINJ’. Chances are it’s the only surviving signature of Josquin des Prez — a composer whose name and legacy are carved just

How we became a nation of choirs and carollers

Between the ages of 15 and 17 I had a secret. Every Monday night I’d gulp down dinner before rushing out to the scrubby patch of ground just past the playing fields, where a car would be waiting. Hours later — long after the ceremonial nightly locking of the boarding house — I’d sneak back, knocking softly on a window to be let in. I’d love to say that it was alcohol or drugs that lured me out. It wasn’t even boys — or, at least, not like that. My weekly assignation was with Joseph and Johann, Henry, Ben and Ralph. My addiction? Choral music. Better than some and worse

Antony Gormley: why sculpture is far superior to painting

Antony Gormley: In the beginning was the thing! The reason I chose sculpture as a vocation was to escape words, to communicate in a physical way. It was a means of confronting the way things were, of getting to know them in material terms. The origins of making physical objects go back to before the advent of Homo sapiens, earlier even than the appearance of our Neanderthal cousins. Sculpture emerges from material culture. At the beginning there was an urge to make objects and you could argue that making them was the catalyst for the emergence of the modern mind. Martin Gayford: The earliest sculpture so far discovered is often

Entertaining – but there’s one abomination: National Gallery’s Sin reviewed

Obviously, we’re living through an era of censorious puritanism. Granted, the contemporary creeds are different from those of the 16th century. But the imperious self–righteousness is much the same — which gives the entertaining little exhibition at the National Gallery entitled Sin an unexpectedly contemporary edge. Personally, I’ve always thought that the doctrine of original sin has a great deal of explanatory power (it explains why history can’t ‘end’ and plenty of things will always go wrong — because that’s the way people are). Arguably, the medieval list of deadly failings — anger, pride, sloth, etc — provides a better summary of human nature than many later attempts. At any

Sumptuous and saucy: Compton Verney’s Cranach show reviewed

‘Naughty little nudes,’ my history of art teacher used to say of Cranach’s Eves and Venuses. Aren’t they just? Coquettish and compact. Kenneth Clark thought they had ‘chic’. Cranach’s nudes are rarely truly naked. They wear Ascot hats, golden chokers, filmy wisps of gossamer girdle. Take the goddess in the National Gallery’s ‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’ (c.1526–7). Don’t you long for her to take off her ostrich feather hat and tickle you with it? ‘Hallo, Jungs.’ See how she plays footsie with a branch of the tree. How she brushes the back of her hand against its trunk. Note the double necklace. Always accessorise. ‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’ has been

To ‘review’ such supreme paintings is slightly absurd: Titian at the National Gallery reviewed

In 1576 Venice was gripped by plague. The island of the Lazzaretto Vecchio, on which the afflicted were crammed three to a bed, was compared to hell itself. In the midst of this horror Tiziano Vecellio, the greatest painter in Europe, died — apparently of something else. He was in his eighties and working, it seems, almost to the end. Titian: Love, Desire, Death, which was briefly on at the National Gallery, before it was closed down this week by our own plague, contained several of the greatest masterpieces of his old age — and also of European art. It comprises just seven canvases, all done for Philip II of

The shock of the nude

Early in the 16th century, Fra Bartolomeo painted an altarpiece of St Sebastian for the church of San Marco in Florence. Though stuck full of arrows, the martyr was, according to Vasari, distinctly good-looking in this picture: ‘sweet in countenance, and likewise executed with corresponding beauty of person’. By and by the friars of San Marco discovered through the confessional that this image was giving rise to ‘light and evil thoughts’ among women in the congregation. It was removed and eventually sold to the King of France (who was presumably less bothered by that sort of thing). So even during the heyday of Michelangelo and Raphael depictions of human bodies

Martin Gayford visits the greatest one-artist show on Earth

For a good deal of this autumn, I was living in Venice. This wasn’t exactly a holiday, I’d like to point out, but a suitable place to work while beginning a new book. The result was, though, that week after week, when I had finished writing, I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, Dorsoduro, which very quickly came to feel like home. One thing I realised as I wandered around, between buying the groceries and admiring the view, was just how crammed the city was with works by Tintoretto. There must have been well over 70 within a few minutes of the apartment where I was staying. There are

Birth of a masterpiece

In the early 1370s an elderly Scandinavian woman living in Rome had a vision of the Nativity. Her name was Birgitta Birgersdotter, and she was later venerated as St Bridget of Sweden. In her account of the experience, transcribed by her confessor, she described herself as an eye witness. Her narrative began: ‘When I was present by the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem…’ Around a century later, Piero della Francesca (c.1412–92) used Bridget’s vision — or parts of it — as a starting point for a painting. This picture, now in the National Gallery, is one of the best-loved depictions of this immensely popular subject in the history of

Face time | 15 November 2018

You can, perhaps, glimpse Lorenzo Lotto himself in the National Gallery’s marvellous exhibition, Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits. At the base of an altarpiece from 1541 a gaggle of paupers stretch their arms up in hopes of receiving the charity being handed out by Dominican friars above. One of these, a bearded, red-robed man, is supposed to be a self-portrait. If that is the case, it was a characteristic place to put himself. Lotto (1480/1–1556/7) was an intensely pious man and, in later life, poverty-stricken. But the most unusual point about this picture is that for the rest of the crowd of indigents he made studies from life of genuine poor people

The big sleep | 8 November 2018

‘I want big things to do and vast spaces,’ Edward Burne-Jones wrote to his wife Georgiana in the 1870s. ‘And for common people to see them and say, “Oh! — only Oh!”’ That, however, was only the first part of my own reaction to the exhibition at Tate Britain of Burne-Jones’s works. Perhaps I’ve got a blind spot when it comes to B-J, but time and again I found myself thinking, ‘Oh no!’ Nonetheless, this comprehensive display and the accompanying catalogue give plenty of clues as to where he went wrong. Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–98) followed an extremely unusual career path. He was the son of a struggling framer

All together now | 18 October 2018

‘About suffering’, W.H. Auden memorably argued in his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, the old masters ‘were never wrong’. Great and terrible events — martyrdoms and nativities — took place amid everyday life, while other people were eating, opening a window or ‘just walking dully along’. As an example, Auden took ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As it happens, Auden himself was wrong there, because the work he cited is no long thought to be by the painter after all. This picture is not, therefore, included in the exhibition Bruegel at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. However, the fact that Icarus has now been consigned to the