On the 6th day of March, 1474, at the castle of Chiusa, in Tuscany, was born Michelangelo Buonarotti. He was descended from the princely house of Canossa. His mother gave him to be nursed by a stone-cutter’s wife at Settinagno, a few miles from Florence, high up in the mountains. “Giorgio,” said Michelangelo to Vasari, “whatever of acrid my temper may have in it, I ascribe to the keen air of your hills of Arrezzo, and as to my chisel and mallet, I conclude my love for them was imbibed with my foster-mother’s milk.”
As he grew up, he developed an invincible determination toward the arts. His father objected, but to no purpose, and the boy found his way into the studio of Ghirlandajo. He soon proved superior to his master. A criticism on the master’s drawing, a few sharp words, and he leaves the studio forever, only sixteen, yet thenceforth to pursue his art alone. The Medici were rulers of Florence. Lorenzo the Magnificent had filled the gardens of San Marco with statuary, and established there a school for the study of ancient art. Here Michelangelo discovered his vocation. He begged a piece of marble and struck out the head of a laughing Faun, still to be seen in the Bargello. No person of genius escaped the keen eye of Lorenzo di Medici. One glance at the Faun’s head, and Lorenzo invites the lad into his own house, and here his real education began. He was a close student of Dante, a devoted admirer of Savonarola, and lived in his Bible. He was architect, painter, poet, sculptor and master of each.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps wrote:
“Wise was the word the wise man spake, who said Angelo was the only man to whom God gave four souls The soul of sculpture, and of song, Of architecture, and of art, these all For God so loved him, as if he were his only son, And grouped about those brows ideals of himself ; Not angels mild, as those that flit and beckon other lives, But cherubim and seraphim, tall, strong, unsleeping, terrible.”
Michelangelo’s life was filled with disappointment; his was perhaps the saddest of all the artists’ lives. Sculpture was his supreme gift, but he was not allowed to devote himself to that alone. He worked for a succession of Popes, none of whom, save Julius II., comprehended his genius.
It was the blundering obstinacy of Pope Leo X. which kept him seven of the best years of his life engaged in opening a road to the marble quarries in the highest part of the mountains of Pietra Santa.
Longfellow, in his drama of Michelangelo, makes him say of this time :
“Yes, whenever I think of anything besides my work, I think of Florence. I remember, too, The bitter days I passed among the quarries Of Seravezza and Pietra Santa; Road building in the marshes ; stupid people, And cold and rain incessant, and mad gusts Of mountain wind, like howling dervishes, That spun and whirled the eddying snow about As if it were a garment ; aye, vexations And troubles of all kinds, that ended only In loss of time and money.”
Michelangelo gave to architecture the dome of St. Peter’s, to painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to sculpture the statue of Moses, and to poetry his sonnets.
He died in Rome on the 17th day of February, 1562, in the 89th year of his age. His body was brought to Florence, and buried with great pomp in the church of Santa Croce.
Mr. Symonds says : “Read his sonnets ; they reach from the thought of Dante, through Plato, to the thought of Christ. In communion with these highest souls, Michelangelo habitually lived, for he was born of their high lineage, and, like them, a life long alien on the earth.”
( Originally Published 1912 )
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