In this issue only Michelangelo’s works in sculpture are illustrated. His achievements in painting will be considered in the next number of this SERIES.
JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS RENAISSANCE IN ITALY’
MICHELANGELO was born in 1475, at Caprese, where his father, Lodovico, held the office of podestà. His ancestry was honorable ; the Buonarroti even claimed descent, but apparently without due reason, from the princely house of Canossa. His mother gave him to be nursed by a stone-cutter’s wife at Settignano, so that in after-days he used to say that he had drawn in the love of chisels and mallets with his nurse’s milk.
As he grew, the boy developed an invincible determination toward the arts. Lodovico, from motives of pride and prudence, opposed his wishes, but with-out success, and at last Michelangelo induced his father to sign articles apprenticing him to the painter Domenico Ghirlandajo. In Ghirlandajo’s workshop he learned the rudiments of art, helping in the execution of the frescos at Santa Maria Novella, until such time as the pupil proved his superiority as a draughtsman to his teacher.
After leaving Ghirlandajo’s bottega, at the age of sixteen, Michelangelo procured an introduction to the Medici, and frequented those gardens of San Marco where Lorenzo de’ Medici had placed his collection of antiquities. There the youth discovered his vocation. Having begged a piece of marble and a chisel, he struck out a Faun’s mask. One is still shown in the Bargello as his work. It is worth noticing that Michelangelo seems to have done no merely prentice work. Not a fragment of his labor from the earliest to the latest was insignificant. There was nothing tentative in his genius. Into art, as into a rich land, he came and conquered. . . .
Lorenzo de’ Medici discerned in Michelangelo a youth of eminent genius, and took the lad into his own household. The astonished father found him-self suddenly provided with a comfortable post and courted for the sake of the young sculptor. In Lorenzo’s palace the real education of Michelangelo began. He sat at the same table with Ficino, Pico, and Poliziano, listening to dialogues on Plato and drinking in the golden poetry of Greece. At the same time he heard the preaching of Savonarola. Another portion of his soul was touched, and he acquired that deep religious tone which gives its majesty and terror to the Sistine. While Michelangelo was thus engaged in studying antique sculpture and in listening to Pico and Savonarola, he carved his first bas-relief, a ` Battle of Hercules with the Centaurs.’
Meantime Lorenzo died. His successor, Piero, set the young man, it is said, to model a snow statue, and then melted like a shape of snow himself down from his pedestal of power in Florence. Upon the expulsion of the tyrant and the proclamation of the new republic it was dangerous for house-friends of the Medici to be seen in the city. Michelangelo therefore made his way to Bologna, where he spent some months in the palace of Gian Francesco Aldovrandini, studying Dante, and working at an angel for the shrine of St. Dominic. As soon, however, as it seemed safe to do so, he returned to Florence ; and to this period belongs the lost statue of the `Sleeping Cupid,’ which was sold as an antique to the Cardinal Raffaello Riario.
A dispute about the price of this `Cupid’ took Michelangelo, in 1496, to Rome, where it was destined that the greater portion of his life should be spent and his noblest works of art should be produced. Here, while the Borgias were turning the Vatican into a den of thieves and harlots, he executed the purest of all his statues, a `Pieta ‘ in marble. In 1501 he returned to Florence, where he stayed until the year 1505. This period was fruitful of results on which his after-fame depended. The great statue of ` David,’ the two unfinished medallions in relief of the Madonna, the ` Holy Family’ of the Tribune, and the cartoon of the ` Bathing Soldiers’ were now produced ; and no man’s name, not even Leonardo’s, stood higher in esteem thence-forward.
Since Michelangelo at this time was employed in the service of masters who had superseded his old friends and patrons, it may be well to review here his attitude in general toward the house of Medici. Throughout his lifetime there continued a conflict between the artist and the citizen, the artist owing education and employment to successive members of that house, the citizen resenting their despotism and at times doing all that in him lay to keep them out of Florence. As a patriot, as the student of Dante and the disciple of Savonarola, Michelangelo detested tyrants. As an artist, owing his advancement to Lorenzo, he had accepted favors binding him by ties of gratitude to the Medici, and even involving him in the downfall of their house. For Leo X. he undertook to build the façade of San Lorenzo and the Laurentian Library. For Clement VII. he began the statues for the Medici tombs. Yet, while accepting these commissions from Medicean popes, he could not keep his tongue from speaking openly against their despotism. During the siege of Florence, in 1529, he fortified San Miniato, and allowed himself to be named one of the Otto di Guerra chosen for the express purpose of defending Florence against the Medici; yet after the fall of the city he made peace with Clement by consenting to finish the tombs of San Lorenzo. When Clement VII. died the last representative of Michelangelo’s old patrons perished, and the sculptor was free to quit Florence forever. It is thus clear that the patriot, the artist, and the man of honor were at odds in him. Loyalty obliged him to serve the family to whom he owed so much ; he was, moreover, de-pendent for opportunities of doing great work on the very men whose public policy he execrated. Hence arose a compromise and a confusion, hard to accommodate with our conception of his upright and unyielding temper. Only by voluntary exile, and after age had made him stubborn to resist seductive offers, could Michelangelo declare himself a citizen who held no truce with tyrants.
This digression, though necessary for the right understanding of Michelangelo’s relation to the Medici, has carried me beyond his Florentine residence in 1501-1505. The great achievement of that period was not the ` David,’ but the cartoon for the ` Bathing Soldiers.’ The hall of the Consiglio Grande had been opened, and one wall had been assigned to Leonardo. Michelangelo was now invited by the signory to prepare a design for another side of the state chamber. When he displayed his cartoon to the Florentines they pronounced that Da Vinci, hitherto the undisputed prince of painting, was surpassed. It is impossible for us to form an opinion in this matter, since both cartoons are lost beyond recovery. We only know that, as Cellini says, “while they lasted, they formed the school of the whole world,” and made an epoch in the history of art. When we inquire what was the subject of Michelangelo’s famous picture, we find that he had aimed at representing nothing of more moment than a group of soldiers suddenly surprised by a trumpet-call to battle while bathing in the Arno, a crowd of naked men in every posture indicating haste, anxiety, and struggle. Not for its intellectual meaning, not for its color, not for its sentiment, was this design so highly prized. Its science won the admiration of artists and the public.
Meanwhile, a new pope had been elected, and in 1505 Michelangelo was once more called to Rome. Throughout his artist’s life he oscillated thus between Rome and Florence Florence the city of his ancestry, and Rome the city of his soul ; Florence where he learned his art, and Rome where he displayed what art can do of highest. Julius was a patron of different stamp from Lorenzo the Magnificent. Between Julius and Michelangelo there existed the strong bond of sympathy due to community of temperament. Both aimed at colossal achievements in their respective fields of action. Both were uomini terribili, to use a phrase denoting vigor of character made formidable by an abrupt, uncompromising temper. Both worked con furia, with the impetuosity of demonic natures, and both left the impress of their individuality graven indelibly upon their age.
Julius ordered the sculptor to prepare his mausoleum. Michelangelo asked, ” Where am I to place it ? ” Julius replied, ” In St. Peter’s.” But the old basilica was too small for this ambitious pontiff’s sepulchre as designed by the audacious artist. It was therefore decreed that a new St. Peter’s should be built to hold it. In this way the two great labors of Buonarroti’s life were mapped out for him in a moment. But, by a strange contrariety of fate, to Bramante and San Gallo fell respectively the planning and the spoiling of St. Peter’s. It was only in extreme old age that Michelangelo crowned it with that world’s miracle, the dome. The mausoleum, to form a canopy for which the building was designed, dwindled down at last to the statue of ` Moses’ thrust out of the way in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. “La tragedia della Sepoltura,” as Condivi aptly terms the history of Julius’ monument, began thus in 1505 and dragged on till 1545. Rarely did Michelangelo undertake a work commensurate with his creative power but something came to interrupt its execution ; while tasks outside his sphere, for which he never bargained, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, the façade of San Lorenzo, the fortification of San Miniato, were thrust upon him in the midst of other more congenial labors. What we possess of his achievements is a torso of his huge designs.
Julius’ tomb, as Michelangelo conceived it, would have been the most stupendous monument of sculpture in the world. Of this gigantic scheme only one imperfect drawing now remains. The `Moses’ and the `Bound Captives’ are all that Michelangelo accomplished. For forty years the `Moses’ remained in his workshop. For forty years he cherished a hope that his plan might still in part be executed, complaining the while that it would have been better for him to have made sulphur matches all his life than to have taken up the desolating artist’s trade. ” Every day,” he cries, ” I am stoned as though I had crucified Christ. My youth has been lost, bound hand and foot to this tomb.”
Michelangelo spent eight months at this period among the stone-quarries of Carrara, selecting marble for the pope’s tomb. In November, 1505, the marble was shipped, and the quays of Rome were soon crowded with blocks destined for the mausoleum. But when the sculptor arrived he found that enemies had been poisoning the pope’s mind against him, and that Julius had abandoned the scheme of the mausoleum. On six successive days he was denied entrance to the Vatican, and the last time with such rudeness that he determined to quit Rome. He hurried straightway to his house, sold his effects, mounted, and rode without further ceremony toward Florence, sending to the pope a written message bidding him to seek for Michelangelo elsewhere in future than in Rome. It is related that Julius, anxious to recover what had been so lightly lost, sent several couriers to bring him back. Michelangelo announced that he intended to accept the Sul-tan’s commission for building a bridge at Pera, and refused to be persuaded to return to Rome. When the sculptor had reached Florence Julius ad-dressed himself to Soderini, who, unwilling to displease the pope, induced Michelangelo to seek the pardon of the master he had so abruptly quitted. It was at Bologna that they met. “You have waited thus long, it seems,” said the pope, well satisfied but surly, “till we should come ourselves to seek you.” The prelate who had introduced the sculptor now began to make excuses for him, whereupon Julius turned in a fury upon the officious courtier, and had him beaten from his presence. A few days after this encounter Michelangelo was ordered to cast a bronze statue of Julius (later destroyed) for the frontispiece of St. Petronius of that city.
It seems that Michelangelo’s flight from Rome in 1506 was due not only to his disappointment about the tomb, but also to his fear lest Julius should give him uncongenial work to do. Bramante, if we may believe the old story, had whispered that it was ill-omened for a man to build his own sepulchre, and that it would be well to employ the sculptor’s genius upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Accordingly, on his return to Rome in 1508, this new task was allotted him. In vain did Michelangelo remind his master of the months wasted in the quarries of Carrara ; in vain he pointed to his designs for the monument, and pleaded that he was not a painter by profession. Julius had made up his mind that he should paint the Sistine. What-ever the sculptor’s original reluctance may have been, it was speedily over-come ; and the cartoons for the ceiling, projected with the unity belonging to a single great conception, were ready by the summer of 1508.
The difficulty of his new task aroused the artist’s energy. If we could accept the legend whereby contemporaries expressed their admiration for this Titanic labor, we should have to believe the impossible, that only twenty months were devoted to the execution of a series of paintings almost unequalled in their delicacy, and surpassed by few single masterpieces in extent. Though some uncertainty remains as to the exact dates of the commencement and completion of the vault, we now know that Michelangelo continued painting it at intervals during four successive years ; and though we are not accurately informed about his helpers, we no longer can doubt that able craftsmen yielded him assistance. There is good reason to believe that he began his painting during the autumn of 1508 ; and before the end of the year 1512 the whole was completed. The conception was entirely his own. The execution, except in subordinate details and in matters pertaining to the mason’s craft, was also his. The rapidity with which he labored was astounding. Nor need we strip the romance from that time-honored tale of the great master’s solitude. Lying on his back beneath the dreary vault, communing with Dante, Savonarola, and the Hebrew prophets in the intervals of labor, locking up the chapel doors in order to elude the jealous curiosity of rivals, eating but little and scarcely sleeping, he accomplished in sixteen months the first part of his gigantic task. From time to time Julius climbed the scaffold and inspected the painter’s progress. Dreading lest death should come before the work was finished, he kept crying, “When will you make an end ? ” “When I can,” answered the painter. “You seem to want,” rejoined the petulant old man, ” that I should have you thrown down from the scaffold.” Then Michelangelo’s brush stopped. The machinery was removed, and the frescos were uncovered in their incompleteness to the eyes of Rome. . . .
The star of Raphael, meanwhile, had arisen over Rome. It does not appear that the two artists engaged in petty rivalries, or that they came much into personal contact with each other. While Michelangelo was so framed that he could learn from no man, Raphael gladly learned of Michelangelo ; and after the uncovering of the Sistine frescos, his manner showed evident signs of alteration.
After the death of Julius, Leo X., in character the reverse of his fiery predecessor, and by temperament unsympathetic to the austere Michelangelo, found nothing better for the sculptor’s genius than to set him at work upon the façade of San Lorenzo at Florence. The better part of the years between 1516 and 1520 was spent in quarrying marble at Carrara, Pietra Santa, and Seravezza. This is the most arid and unfruitful period of Michelangelo’s long life, a period of delays-and thwarted schemes and servile labors. ‘What makes the sense of disappointment greater is that the façade of San Lorenzo was not even finished. We hurry over this wilderness of wasted months, and arrive at another epoch of artistic production.
Already in 1520 the Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici had conceived the notion of building a sacristy in San Lorenzo to receive the monuments of Cosimo, the founder of the house ; Lorenzo the Magnificent ; Giuliano, Duke of Nemours ; Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino ; Leo X., and himself. To Michelangelo was committed the design, and in 1521 he began to apply himself to the work. This new undertaking occupied him at intervals between 1521 and 1534, a space of time decisive for the fortunes of the Medici in Florence. Leo died, and Giulio, after a few years, succeeded him as Clement VII. Rome was sacked by the Imperial troops ; then Michelangelo quitted the statues and helped to defend his native city against the Prince of Orange. After the failure of the Republicans he was recalled to his labors by command of Clement. Sullenly and sadly he quarried marbles for the sacristy. Sadly and sullenly he used his chisel year by year, making the very stones cry that shame and ruin were the doom of his country. At last, in 1534, Clement died. Then Michelangelo flung down his mallet. The monuments remained forever unfinished, and the sculptor set foot in Florence no more.
Michelangelo had now reached his fifty-ninth year. Leonardo and Raphael had already passed away, and were remembered as the giants of a bygone age of gold. Correggio was in his last year. Andrea del Sarto was dead. Nowhere except at Venice did Italian art still flourish ; and the mundane style of Titian was not to the sculptor’s taste. He had overlived the greatness of his country, and saw Italy in ruins. Yet he was destined to survive another thirty years, and to witness still worse days. When we call ]Michelangelo the interpreter of the burden and the pain of the Renaissance, we must remember this long, weary old age, during which in solitude and silence he watched the extinction of Florence, the institution of the Inquisition, and the abasement of the Italian spirit beneath the tyranny of Spain. His sonnets, written chiefly in this latter period of life, turn often on the thought of death. His love of art yields to religious hope and fear, and he bemoans a youth and manhood spent in vanity.
In 1534 the Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was made pope under the name of Paul III. Michelangelo had shed lustre on the reigns of three popes, his predecessors. After Julius, Leo, and Clement, the time was now come for the heroic craftsman to serve Paul. The pope found him at work in his bottega on the tomb of Julius ; for the ” tragedy of the mausoleum ” still dragged on. The statue of Moses however was finished. “That,” said Paul, “is enough for one pope. Give me your contract with the Duke of Urbino ; I will tear it. Have I waited all these years, and now that I am pope at last, shall I not have you for myself ? I want you in the Sistine Chapel.” Accordingly Michelangelo, who had already made cartoons for the `Last Judgment’ during the life of Clement, once more laid aside the chisel and took up the brush. For eight years, between 1534 and 1542, he labored at the fresco, devoting his terrible genius to a subject worthy of the times in which he lived.
After the painting of the `Last Judgment,’ one more great labor was reserved for him. By a brief of September 1535, Paul III. had made him the chief architect, as well as sculptor and painter, of the Holy See. He was now called upon to superintend the building of St. Peter’s, and to this task, undertaken for the repose of his soul without emolument, he devoted the last years of his life, and the dome of St. Peter’s, as seen from Tivoli or the Alban hills, like a cloud upon the Campagna, is Buonarroti’s.
Michelangelo’s thoughts meanwhile were turned more and more, as time advanced, to piety ; and many of his sonnets breathe an almost ascetic spirit of religion. It is pleasant to know that these last years were also the happiest and calmest. Though his brothers had passed away before him one by one, his nephew Leonardo had married, and begotten a son called Michelangelo. Thus he had the satisfaction of hoping that his name would endure and flourish, as indeed it has done almost to this very day in Florence. What consolation this thought must have brought him is clear to those who have studied his correspondence and observed the tender care and continual anxiety he had for his kinsmen. Wealth now belonged to him ; but he had never cared for money, and he continued to live like a poor man, dressing soberly and eating sparely, often taking but one meal in the day, and that of bread and wine. He slept little, and rose by night to work upon his statues, wearing a cap with a candle stuck in front of it that he might see where to drive the chisel home. During his whole life he had been solitary, partly by preference, partly by devotion to his art, and partly because he kept men at a distance by his manner. Not that Michelangelo was sour or haughty ; but he spoke his mind out very plainly, had no tolerance for fools, and was apt to fly into passions. Time had now softened his temper and removed all causes of discouragement. He had survived every rival, and the world was convinced of his supremacy. Princes courted him ; the Count of Canossa was proud to claim him for a kinsman ; strangers, when they visited Rome, were eager to behold in him its greatest living wonder. His old age was the serene and splendid evening of a toilsome day. But better than all this, he now enjoyed both love and friendship.
If Michelangelo could ever have been handsome is more than doubtful. Early in his youth a quarrelsome fellow pupil broke his nose with a blow of the fist. Henceforth the artist’s soul looked forth from a sad face, with small gray eyes, flat nostrils, and rugged weight of jutting brows. Good care was thus taken that light love should not trifle with the man who was destined to be the prophet of his age in art. He seemed incapable of attaching himself to any merely mortal object, and wedded the ideal. In that century of intrigue and amour, we hear of nothing to imply that Michelangelo was a lover till he reached the age of sixty. How he may have loved in the earlier periods of his life, whereof no record now remains, can only be guessed from the tenderness and passion outpoured in the poems of his later years. That his morality was pure and his converse without stain is emphatically witnessed by both Vasari and Condivi. But that his emotion was intense, and that to beauty in all its human forms he was throughout his life a slave, we have his own sonnets to prove.
In the year 1534 he first became acquainted with the noble lady Vittoria, daughter of Fabrizio Colonna, and widow of the Marquis of Pescara. She was then aged forty-four. Living in retirement in Rome, she employed her leisure with philosophy and poetry. Artists and men of letters were admitted to her society. Among the subjects she had most at heart was the reform of the Church and the restoration of religion to its evangelical purity. Between her and Michelangelo a tender affection sprang up, based upon the sympathy of ardent and high-seeking natures. If love be the right name for this exalted and yet fervid attachment, Michelangelo may be said to have loved her with all the pent-up forces of his heart. When they were together in Rome they met frequently for conversation on the themes of art and piety they both held dear. When they were separated they exchanged poems and wrote letters, some of which remain. On the death of Vittoria, in 1547, the light of life seemed to be extinguished for our sculptor. It is said that he waited by her bedside, and kissed her hand when she was dying. The sonnets he afterwards composed show that his soul followed her to heaven.
At last the moment came when this strong solitary spirit, much suffering and much loving, had to render its account. On the eighteenth of February, 1564, having bequeathed his soul to God, his body to the earth, and his worldly goods to his kinsfolk, praying them on his death-bed to think upon Christ’s passion, he breathed his last. His corpse was transported to Florence, and buried in the church of Santa Croce with great pomp and honor by the Duke, the city, and the Florentine Academy.