13 Best Books About Michelangelo, His Life and Work

Headstrong, uncompromising, solitary, genius. All of these words have been used to describe Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known simply as Michelangelo.

Many pages of text have been devoted to trying to understand the man behind the masterpieces, but which are the best books about Michelangelo?

From biographies to page-turning novels, and including Michelangelo books for kids (and the young at heart), here is my pick of the bunch.

white stone bust of the head of Michelangelo who has been the subject of many books

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Novels About Michelangelo

The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone (1961)

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Start with The Agony and the Ecstasy, the most famous biographical novel about Michelangelo. Part of the book was made into a film in 1965, starring Charlton Heston.

Whilst a fictional work, it is one closely based on history. Irving Stone lived in Italy for several years, visiting many of the locations where Michelangelo lived and worked and translating all 495 of the artist’s letters.

But this is no dry biography. Instead, it’s a romping read and a compelling portrait of a complex man.

It is my favourite Michelangelo book and one of the best books set in Florence.

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Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Stephanie Storey (2016)

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Stephanie Storey’s biographical novel explores the rivalry between Michelangelo and one of the other big beasts of the Italian High Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci. I love the tagline for this novel: Leonardo versus Michelangelo. Mona Lisa versus David.

This art historical thriller is set in 16th-century Florence. Whilst Leonardo’s bright star was waning, the young upstart Michelangelo had just won the commission to carve David.

And then Da Vinci meets a merchant’s wife, whom he was commissioned to paint. Guess what her name was?

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The Giant. A Novel of Michelangelo’s David, Laura Morelli (2020)

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David is not only one of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures. It is also one of the greatest sculptures in the history of Western art.

It should be at the top of your things to see in Florence.

Set in Florence at the same time as Oil and Marble, it uses the creation of the David statue as the framework on which to hang the narrative. Based on a true story, the focus is less on Michelangelo and more on Jacopo Torni, a painter who longs for a prestigious commission.

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marble statue of David by Michelangelo

Best Michelangelo Biographies

Michelangelo had a long, illustrious and sometimes troubled life.

Born on the 6 March 1475 in the Tuscan town of Caprese, near Arezzo, he learnt his craft with the mighty Medici in Florence. He moved to Rome in 1496, serving under seven popes, where he remained until his death in 1564.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life, Martin Gayford (2017)

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An epic tome for an epic life.

In this meticulously researched book, Martin Gayford, the art critic for The Spectator, covers the sweep of the master’s life, from his unruly apprenticeship to the glory of the dome of St. Peter’s. It is beautifully illustrated, scholarly yet readable.

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Michelangelo, Gilles Néret (2022)

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But perhaps you are looking for a brief introduction to Michelangelo?

If so, dive into this publication from the excellent Taschen series. In less than 100 pages, Néret’s beautifully illustrated book takes you through his life and achievements in an easily digestible manner.

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bust of the artist michelangelo
Michelangelo

Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times, William E. Wallace (2011)

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Understandably, many Michelangelo biographies tell his story through his works. What sets Wallace’s book apart is that it also focuses on Michelangelo the man, warts and all.

It’s a compelling portrait of a flawed genius.

William Wallace is an internationally recognised authority on Michelangelo.

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Books on Michelangelo’s Works of Art

Few people had more of an influence on Western art than Michelangelo, from the spellbinding ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to his fabulous sculptures in Florence.

marble statue of David which has been the subject of many books about  Michelangelo

Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting & Architecture, William E. Wallace (2009)

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This second book by William E. Wallace is a companion volume for Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times. Gorgeously illustrated and packed with information about Michelangelo’s life and work, this is the ideal coffee table book. It is better suited to dipping into than reading from cover to cover.

This book is a work of art in itself. Michelangelo’s frescoes are reproduced on onion skin paper to simulate light reflecting off plaster walls, and the rich details of his marble sculptures are brought to life through a four-colour printing technique.

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Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, Miles J. Unger (2016)

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Miles Unger explores the life of Il Divino through the lens of six of his greatest works: David and the Medici tombs in Florence, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pietà, the Last Judgement and the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome. As well as a detailed study of some of Michelangelo’s greatest works of art, this is also a superb and detailed biography.

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Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, Andrew Graham-Dixon (2008)

The Sistine Chapel is the crowning glory of Michelangelo’s illustrious career and should be on everyone’s Rome bucket list. He reluctantly accepted the commission from the powerful Julius II, convinced he was being set up for failure as part of a conspiracy between his rivals and the pope.

The rest, as they say, is history. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s richly illustrated book paints the story behind the decoration of the chapel, equal parts art criticism and human story.

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Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King (2006)

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Like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is the story of how Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But it also introduces us to other famous people from that time – Raphael, Girolamo Savonarola, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther amongst them –  and to the upheaval of early-sixteenth-century Italy.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling was nominated for the Governor-General’s Literary Award (Canada) and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Books About Michelangelo for Kids (or the Young at Heart)

Michelangelo for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities, Simonetta Carr (2016)

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I argue that this is not just a Michelangelo book for children.

Written by a former teacher, this glossy book follows his life from childhood to old age. It has fun and creative activities to breathe life into Michelangelo’s artistic media and Renaissance times.

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Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, Jane Sutcliffe (2014)

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The titular giant is a hulking block of Carrara marble that lay abandoned for nearly 40 years until Michelangelo saw his David in it. This is a fabulous introduction to art history for kids through one monumental piece of work.

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Find Tom in Time: Michelangelo’s Italy, Fatti Burke (2022)

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Whilst this is broader than just Michelangelo, I couldn’t resist adding this to the list.

This British Museum publication is a colourful, fun-filled puzzle book for children aged six and above. They can find over 100 historical goodies, including an apprentice working on a sculpture, whilst digesting fascinating Renaissance Florence facts.

I am tempted to buy it for myself!

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The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection

Michelangelo Buonarroti