THE last great Florentine master of the Renaissance was Michelangelo. His mighty personality towers like some Titan of old above his contemporaries, and the grandeur of his genius imposes itself upon the whole of the sixteenth century. His long life extends over a memorable period in the history of Florence. He grew up in the days of her brightest prosperity, when the State was feared and respected, and all the arts flourished under the rule of the Magnificent Lorenzo, and after witnessing Savonarola’s revival, and the successive revolutions of the next thirty years, he lived to mourn over the downfall of his country and the final loss of her liberties.
The works of Michelangelo represent the culminating point of the art of the Italian Renaissance. They are the fruit of three centuries of continual effort and research, of classical learning and direct study of nature. In them the problems of form and movement which had occupied Florentine masters since the days of Giotto, find their highest development The influence of pagan art and the teaching of Platonist scholars formed the great master’s ideas and moulded his genius, but he clung to the faith of past ages with unshaken trust, and inherited the creed of Dante and the Christian sentiment of early Tuscan sculptors. So, while he became the creator of a new and original style, he held fast to the old traditions, and in his art we find the seriousness and devotion of the Middle Ages, widened and deepened by the knowledge of Plato. ” Because the beauty of the world is fragile and deceitful,” he writes, ” I seek to attain the eternal and universal Beauty.” Early in life the study of the antiques in the Medici Palace inspired him with a prfound sense of the beauty and wonder of the human form, and he realised what such artists as Antonio Pollaiuolo and Luca Signorelli had dimly felt before, that the most complete rendering of life and movement can only be attained by means of the nude. While Leonardo loved Nature in all its varied forms, and lingered tenderly over the smallest details of rock and flower, Michelangelo’s thoughts were wholly centred on the study of man. ” God,” as he says in one of his sonnets, ” has nowhere revealed Himself more fully than in the sublime beauty of the human form.” From the first, the great master saw and understood the full significance of the body, its value for decorative purposes, and as a means of expressing spiritual and intellectual thought. Again, while Leonardo’s art owes its serenity and repose to his clear and lucid intellect, Michelangelo’s creations all bear the stamp of his restless and struggling nature. The most subjective of artists, every picture he painted and every statue he carved tell the secrets of his deep thinking, passionately-striving, much-suffering soul. No artist felt the joy and glory of life more keenly, no one was more oppressed with a ‘sense of its weariness and misery. His own life was one long tragedy of broken hopes and frustrated purposes. But from boyhood to old age his mighty powers were devoted with unswerving constancy to the service of art, and in spite of hindrances and disappointments he fulfilled the end of life, and revealed himself in a series of great and heroic conceptions.
Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was a many-sided genius, and three supreme conceptions the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, the Medici tombs, and the Dome of St. Peter remain to prove his skill as architect, sculptor, and painter. But, unlike his great rival, sculpture and not painting was the form in which he preferred to express his thoughts. Painting, as he told Pope Julius II., was not his trade, and in all his letters from Rome, he signed himself Michelangelo, scultore,” as if to emphasise this statement. ” Let the whole world know I am not a painter,” are the words with which he ends one of his sonnets, in which the same conviction is expressed. His paintings tell the same story. All their finest qualities, their masterly design, vigorous modelling, and admirable relief, betray the sculptor’s hand, and show the same passion for plastic beauty. In later years his enthusiasm for science and marvellous knowledge of anatomy led him to crowd his frescoes with exaggerated gestures and distorted attitudes. He neglected beauty for strength, and allowed force to degenerate into brutality. But in spite of these obvious defects, and of the baneful influence which his example exerted on contemporary art, Michelangelo has left the world a vision of radiant and glorious humanity which, alone among the creations of modem times, is worthy to rank with the immortal works of Greek sculpture.
On the 6th of March, 1475, Michelangelo Buonarroti was born at the castle of Caprese, in the mountains above Arezzo, between the valleys of the Arno and the Tiber, close to St. Francis’s favourite sanctuary of La Vernia, which Dante describes as “Quel crudo sasso intra Tevere ed Arno.” His father, Lodovico, belonged to a good old Florentine family which claimed descent from the Count of Canossa, and held the honourable office of Podestà of Caprese at the time of his son’s birth. When his term office expired, he returned to Florence with his young wife, Francesca, and his infant sort was left to be nursed in the family of a stone-cutter of Settignano. ” Giorgio,” the great master once said to Vasari, ” if there is anything good in me, it comes from the pure air of your Arezzo hills where I was born, and perhaps also from the milk of my nurse with which I sucked in the chisels and hammers with which I used to carve my figures.”
As soon as he was old enough to leave his nurse the boy was sent to school in Florence, but showed little taste for learning and spent his time in drawing. In vain his father, who looked on painting as an inferior profession, punished him for neglecting his studies. One day, Francesco Granacci, a young apprentice in Ghirlandajo’s shop, with whom he had made friends, showed his master a drawing which the boy had made in imitation of a print by Schöngauer, of St. Anthony surrounded by beasts and fishes, carefully copied from those which he saw in the market. The painter, seeing the boy’s evident talent for drawing, offered to take him into his shop, and on the 1st of April, 1488, Michelangelo was apprenticed to Ghirlandajo for a period of three years. His powers of draughtmanship were the surprise and envy of his comrades, and one day when he made a sketch of his master and his assistants at work on the scaffolding in the choir of Santa Maria Novella, Ghirlandajo exclaimed” The boy knows more than I do!” Even then his irritable temper and sharp speeches often excited the wrath of his companions, and one day when the young artists were copying Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, Piero Torrigiano struck him a blow on the nose, and, as he told Cellini, left a mark which the great master carried with him to the grave. But Michelangelo did not remain long in Ghirlandajo’s shop. In 1489, when he and Granacci were drawing antiques in the Medici gardens, Lorenzo saw the boy copying a marble Faun, and was so much struck at the skill with which he knocked a tooth out of the upper jaw of the head, to make it appear older, that he took him into his own house-hold. For the next two years Michelangelo lived in the palace of Via Larga, dining at the same table as the Magnifico’s children, and treated as one of the family. There he met the best painters and foremost scholars of the day, and saw the finest art of past and present times the paintings of Pollaiuolo and Botticelli, and the gems and intaglios of Lorenzo’s collection. He was one of the joyous company who met on summer evenings in the Piazza where Pulci recited his verses, or Tuscan maidens sang Lorenzo’s songs. And he accompanied Poliziano and Pico to hear Savonarola’s sermons, and was as deeply moved as they were by the Frate’s fiery eloquence. His own brother Leonardo joined the Dominican Order, and became a friar of San Marco, where he died in 151o. Michelangelo himself, writing from Rome in 1497, thanks another of his brothers for telling him of the acts of the saintly Fra Girolamo, of whom all Rome is talking. Here, indeed, he adds, people call him a pestilent heretic, but only let him come and preach in Rome, and they will canonise him ere long ! Years afterwards we find Michelangelo still counting himself among his followers, and saying that he must employ a certain artist, or his friends, the piagnoni, will never forgive him. During his residence in the Medici Palace the young artist carved a bas-relief of the Battle of the Centaurs, at Poliziano’s suggestion, on a block of marble given him by Lorenzo, who praised his work warmly, and presented him with a violet mantle and a monthly allowance of five florins. This fine composition which has all the fire and originality of youthful genius, was kept by Michelangelo to his dying day, and is still in the Casa Buonarroti, together with an early Madonna in Donatello’s style. But these happy days ended all too soon.
In April, 1492, Lorenzo de’ Medici died at Careggi, and Michelangelo, deprived of his powerful patron, returned to his father’s house, and devoted himself to the study of anatomy. The Prior of S. Spirito allowed him to dissect dead bodies in a room of his convent, and in return for his kindness, Michelangelo carved a life-size crucifix in wood for his chapel. Before long, however, Lorenzo’s son, Piero, sent for the sculptor one winter’s day, to model a colossal snow-man, and he once more took up his abode in his old quarters. Little as Piero resembled his father, he was glad to avail himself of Michelangelo’s advice in the purchase of cameos and gems, and was fond of saying that he valued him almost as highly as one of his Spanish grooms, who could run as fast as a horse at full gallop. Whether this patronage was not to Michelangelo’s taste, or whether he foresaw the storm that was about to burst, he left Florence a few weeks before Piero was expelled, and spent some time in Bologna, where he carved the lovely kneeling angel on Niccolo Pisano’s Arca di S. Domenico. There he saw Jacopo della Quercia’s bas-reliefs of the story of Creation, on the doors of San Petronio, and was profoundly impressed, as the Sistine frescoes show, by their grand and massive types.
On his return to Florence, he found a new patron in Botticelli’s friend, Lorenzo di Pierofrancesco de’ Medici, at whose suggestion he made a sleeping Cupid, which was taken to Rome by a dealer, and sold as an antique to the Cardinal di San Giorgio. The dealer’s fraud was discovered, but Michelangelo’s Cupid became famous, and after passing from the palace of Urbino into the hands of Caesar Borgia, eventually found a home in Isabella d’Este’s Studio at Mantua. Michelangelo himself received an invitation from the Cardinal di San Giorgio, and spent the next five years in Rome, working for different patrons. The admirable statue of Bacchus in the Bargello, and the beautiful Pietà in St. Peter’s in Rome, both belong to this period, and were executed in the last years of the century, the one for the banker Jacopo Gallo, the other for the Abbot of St. Denis, the French envoy at the papal court. The Madonna of Bruges, another marble group, which combines the sweetness and devotion of the early Tuscan sculptors with Michelangelo’s knowledge of form and masterly execution, and the unfinished circular bas-reliefs of Madonnas in the Bargello, and at Burlington House, were probably carved soon after the artist’s return to Florence in While Michelangelo was engaged on these works, his father and brother found themselves in great difficulties, and their importunate appeals were the chief cause of his return from Rome. On the expulsion of the Medici, Lodovico had lost a small post in the customs, which had been given him by Lorenzo, and his idle and incapable sons were always complaining of poverty, and writing begging letters to their absent brother. The more he gave, the more they demanded, and their ingratitude and rapacity excited Michelangelo’s bitterest indignation. But they always turned to him for help and advice, and nothing is more remarkable in the great man’s character than his constant affection for these worth-less relatives. His correspondence with his father and brother begins in 1497, and gives us many interesting details regarding his habits and peculiarities. Lodovico repeatedly begs him to consider his health, and not to live in so penurious a manner.
Although he was always liberal to others, Michelangelo’s own habits were singularly frugal. ” Ascanio,” he often remarked to his friend and biographer Condivi, ” rich as I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.” He dined off a crust of bread which he ate in the midst of his labours, and slept little, generally going to bed in his clothes and high boots, and often sharing his room, and even his bed, with his assistants. A poet and a dreamer by nature, he devoted his spare moments to the study of Dante and Petrarch’s poetry and the composition of sonnets, and his love of solitude, and irritable and suspicious temper, made him shrink from the society of others. Unlike Raphael, he formed no school, and never confided the execution of his designs to assistants. But to the few scholars such as Vasari, Sebastian del Piombo or Daniele da Volterra, who attached themselves to his person, his kindness and generosity were unbounded, and both his letters and sonnets reveal the depth of love and tenderness in his heart.
On his return to Florence, Michelangelo received an important commission from the Board of Works of the Duomo, who charged him to make a colossal statue out of a block of marble which had been spoilt by an inferior sculptor some years before. From this misshapen block, Michelangelo now carved his giant David, and on the 25th of January, 1504, eighteen leading Florentine masters met to choose a site for the new colossus. Sandro Botticelli and Cosimo Rosselli recommended the Piazza of the Duomo, Leonardo and the architect San Gallo were strongly of opinion that the statue should be placed in the shelter of the Loggia dei Lanzi, while Filippino and Piero di Cosimo thought that the choice of the site ought to be left to Michelangelo. This last proposal was eventually adopted, and the David was set up on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, where it stood for more than three centuries. Once during a popular tumult in 1527, the left arm of the statue was broken, but the pieces were carefully picked up by Vasari, and put together again sixteen years later. On the whole, however, the colossus suffered very little damage, and now stands in a hall in the Accademia, where it was placed for greater security in 1873.
The success of this statue added enormously to Michelangelo’s reputation. Before it was completed, important orders poured in upon him from all sides. The Board of Works of the Duomo gave him a commission for twelve life-sized statues of Apostles, to stand inside the Cathedral, and Piero Soderini ordered him to paint a fresco in the Council Hall, opposite the work on which Leonardo was already engaged. But only one Apostle was ever begun, the roughly-hewn St. Matthew, now in the court of the Accademia and the fresco was never painted. The cartoon which Michelangelo designed, and at which he worked during many months, both in 1504 and in 1506, hung during several years together with that of Leonardo in the Pope’s hall, where it was admired and copied by every artist of the day. After this it was removed to the Medici Palace, and disappeared, torn in pieces, according to Vasari, during the confusion that reigned in the house at the time of Giuliano de’ Medici’s death. A few drawings in the Albertina at Vienna, and a chiaroscuro copy by Aristotile di San Gallo, of a portion of the work at Holkham Hall, are all that remain of this famous composition which Cellini declares to have surpassed the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. The subject chosen by Michelangelo was an incident in the war with Pisa, when a troop of Florentine soldiers were surprised by the foe, while they were bathing in the Arno, and victoriously repulsed their assailants. The representation of these groups of men and youths, in every variety of attitude, some lying asleep on the ground, or climbing up the banks, and running to arms, while others are engaged in a hand-to-hand fight, was admirably suited to Michelangelo’s genius, and the mastery with which he accomplished his task excited universal admiration among his contemporaries, and deepens the regret we must feel for this irreparable loss.
Two smaller paintings of this period have fortunately been preserved, and are the more precious, as being the only genuine works of the kind still in existence. One is the unfinished Deposition of the National Gallery, which formerly belonged to Cardinal Fesch, and was discovered fifty years ago in a dealer’s shop in Rome. Several critics have disputed the authenticity of this fine study, but the grandeur of the design and fine modelling of the forms leave little room for doubt on the subject. The figure of one of the Maries on the right recalls Ghirlandajo’s types, and reminds us that he was Michelangelo’s first master, while the dead Christ bears a marked likeness to the marble Pieta in St. Peter’s. The other picture of this period is the tondo of the Holy Family, which he painted in 1504, for his friend Angelo Doni. This wealthy but parsimonious patron, whose features are familiar to us in Raphael’s portrait, sent Michelangelo forty florins, instead of the sixty for which he had asked, upon which the master returned the money indignantly, and demanded him to send back the picture. Angelo Doni, however, knew the value of the work too well to let it go, and after a prolonged wrangle, he sent Michelangelo seventy florins, and kept the painting which now adorns the Tribune of the Uffizi. It is a singularly powerful and original work, characteristic alike of the master’s defects and qualities. The Virgin, a strong handsome young Tuscan peasant-woman, kneels on the ground, and turns round with uplifted arms to receive the Child from St. Joseph. Behind a parapet, the young St. John is seen fixing his eager gaze on the Child, and five nude youths are introduced, sitting or leaning on a balustrade in the background. The figures are admirably fore-shortened, and their complicated attitudes are rendered with consummate skill, while the nudes in their manly beauty are prototypes of the genii of the Sistina. There is little of Raphael’s charm, or of Leonardo’s suavity, but the expression of the Virgin’s upturned face is noble and reverent, and the whole group is marked by a severe majesty that is highly characteristic of the artist.
Early in 1505, Michelangelo was called to Rome by the new Pope Julius II., and entered on the second period of his career. The rest of his long life was spent in the service of successive pontiffs, and his best years were wasted in planning vast schemes, never destined to be realised, for these imperious and changeable masters. Julius II, in his passion for gigantic works, began by employing him to construct a colossal monument for his own tomb. This huge structure was to stand in the tribune of St. Peter’s, and was to be adorned with countless statues and reliefs, illustrating the Pope’s triumphs. But this elaborate project was never carried out. The Tragedy of the Tomb, as Condivi calls it, dragged its weary course through forty years, and embittered Michelangelo’s whole life. The Pope sent him to quarry marbles at Carrara, and took a childish delight in counting the cart-loads of masonic blocks which reached the Vatican. He paid constant visits to the sculptor’s shop, gave him a house to live in, and loaded him with favours. But whether his thoughts were absorbed by his new campaign against Bologna, or whether, as Michelangelo firmly believed, his mind was poisoned by the jealous intrigues of Bramante, he soon grew tired of this scheme, and treated the artist with neglect. One day Michelangelo, being in urgent need of money, asked to see His Holiness, and was turned away by a groom. ” Tell the Pope,” he exclaimed, ” that the next time he wants me, he will find me elsewhere.” That evening he left Rome for Florence, and neither the Pope’s commands, nor the prayers of his friends, could induce him to return. Julius sent no less than three papal briefs to the Signory, demanding that Michelangelo should be given up to him, and it was not until the Gonfaloniere told the artist that the city could not go to war on his account, that he consented to obey the Pope’s summons. In November, 1506, he joined the pontiff at Bologna, and spent the next year in making a bronze statue of His Holiness, which was placed over the doors of S. Petronio, but which was unfortunately destroyed in a popular tumult three years later.
In March, 1508, Michelangelo returned to Rome, hoping to resume his work on the statues of the Tomb, but the Pope ordered him to abandon sculpture for the present and paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel. In vain Michelangelo declared that painting was not his trade, and that Raphael of Urbino was the right man for the work. Julius insisted, and the artist reluctantly began to prepare cartoons for his mighty task. When we consider the immense extent of the chapel roof, and the variety of curves, spandrels, and pendentives which break up its surface, when we remember that this vast space contains some two hundred figures of colossal height, and recall the marvellous beauty and animation of the whole, we begin to realise the stupendous greatness of the work which Michelangelo executed almost entirely alone. The able artists whom he had summoned from Florence to act as his assistants, including Granacci, Bugiardini and Aristotile di San Gallo, failed to satisfy his requirements, and were summarily dismissed. But in spite of endless troubles and disappointments, Michelangelo succeeded in accomplishing the whole work in the space of four years and a half. His letters during this time unfold a piteous tale of petty grievances and wrongs. His enemies were busy at their old intrigues, his servants cheated and annoyed him, and the Pope was absent and short of money. Twice over Michelangelo had to leave his work and travel to Bologna to beg for supplies. Each time he returned without a farthing. At home his brothers were quarrelsome and wasteful, and treated their old father unkindly. On all sides people seemed to conspire to vex and thwart him.
” I am living here in discontent,” he wrote in June, 1508, “never well and undergoing great fatigues; without money or friends.”
And, the following January, in a letter to his father, he says :
“I am still all perplexed, for I have not received any money whatever from the Pope, and I do not ask him for any, as my work is not far enough advanced to receive payment. This is because of the difficulty of the work and because such painting is not my profession, so I waste my time in vain. God help me ”
On the Feast of All Saints, 1509, a portion of the vault was uncovered to satisfy the Pope’s impatience, and excited general admiration. But the work was still far from being complete, and the great master had still many difficulties to overcome.
“I am suffering greater hardships than ever man endured,” he wrote in a black fit of despondency in July, 1512. “I am ill and overwhelmed with labour. But I put up with all, if only I can reach the desired end.”
A few weeks later he preached patience to his father, who was grumbling at the over-heavy taxes which the Florentines had to pay :
“If you are treated worse than others, refuse to pay. Let them seize your goods and tell me. But if you are treated the same as others, be patient and hope in God. It is enough to have bread and to live, as I do, in the faith of Christ. I live humbly here and care little for the world’s honour. I endure great weariness and hopelessness, but so it has been with me for the last fifteen years I have never known an hour’s comfort. You have never believed how hard I have tried to help you. God forgive us all ! I am ready, as far as I can, to do the same as long as I live.”
Through failure and despondency the great master worked steadily on, and at length, in October, 1512, the whole of the vault was uncovered, and all Rome flocked to see the result of his labours. That day Michelangelo’s triumph was complete. Friends and foes alike rejoiced over the magnificent work, and Raphael was foremost among the painters who recognised his rival’s complete success. ” Look at Raphael,” said Pope Julius to Sebastian del Piombo, “who, after seeing Michelangelo’s frescoes, immediately abandoned Perugino’s manner and tried to imitate that of Buonarroti.” Michelangelo himself announced the completion of the work to his father in these simple words : ” I have finished the painting of the chapel. The Pope is very well satisfied, but other things are not as I should wish.”
The frescoes of the Sistina were the grandest achievement of Michelangelo’s, art. In them we see the most sublime manifestation of his creative faculties and technical powers, produced at a time when he was in the fulness of bodily strength and mental vigour. Whether we regard the artistic beauty and grandeur of the decoration, or the intellectual conception of the scheme, the work is alike marvellous. The whole story of Creation, of the Fall of Man and the Deluge is set forth in the nine large compartments of the central vault. On the spandrels in the angles of the roof, four special mercies to God’s people the Brazen Serpent, the Death of Goliath, the Punishment of Haman, and the Triumph of Judith are represented as types of the world’s redemption. Twelve figures of Sibyls and Prophets in the spaces between the windows, bear witness to the coming of Christ, and the lunettes above are filled with family groups of the royal line of David and ancestors of the Virgin Mary. But Michelangelo’s labours did not end here. After unfolding the story of the great Christian epic on the stone vault, he filled up the angles, curves, and cornices of the roof with nude forms of youths and children in every variety of attitude. And there, prominent among this great army of living creatures, he placed those twenty heroic figures, in whose youthful strength and loveliness we see the most perfect expression of the painter’s dream.
Unfortunately, just at this moment when Michelangelo’s powers were at their best and his style was fully developed, his time and strength were frittered away upon a series of architectural and engineering schemes which consumed the most precious years of his life. Four months after the completion of the Sistina frescoes, Julius II. died, and was succeeded by Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who assumed the title of Leo X. The new Pope, who had known Michelangelo as a boy in his father’s home, was anxious to employ him for his own ends, and, in 1514, he summoned him to erect a façade for the church of S. Lorenzo in Florence.
During the last year, Michelangelo had devoted all his energies to the Tomb of Julius II., and had produced the famous Moses and the two Slaves of the Louvre which, in perfection of manly beauty, rival the genii of the Sistina, while in power of expression they equal his finest works in marble. It was with the greatest reluctance that he once more abandoned his unfinished work at the new Pope’s command, and left Rome “with tears in his eyes.” In spite, how-ever, of his repeated protests that architecture was not his profession, he soon threw himself with habitual energy into this new work, and wrote from Carrara, where he was engaged in quarrying marbles with an army of stone-cutters and road-makers under his orders, that he “hoped with God’s help to produce the finest thing that Italy had ever seen.” He built large workshops in Florence, and brought huge columns and blocks of marble from Carrara and Serravezza. Suddenly the Pope changed his mind and cancelled the contract for the façade, to the bitter indignation of the master, who justly complained of the insult to himself, and of the cruel waste of his time and powers during these five years, But Leo X. had never fully appreciated Michelangelo’s work, and found, as he said to Sebastian del Piombo, that he was too terrible a man for him.
The next Medici Pope, Clement VII., employed the great master to build the Laurentian Library and design the new Sacristy of S. Lorenzo, to contain the tombs of his kinsmen. The interior of the Sacristy was to be decorated with frescoes and bas-reliefs, and six sarcophagi placed in the midst, adorned with portrait-statues of the great Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, of Popes Leo X. and Clement VII., and of the Dukes of Urbino and Nemours. As before, however, Michelangelo found himself sadly hampered in the execution of his project, and although Clement treated him with more consideration than his predecessors, his kindly intentions were frustrated by the disastrous events of 1527. Rome was taken and sacked by the Imperial troops, the Medici were expelled from Florence, and a Republic was once more proclaimed. Two years later, Charles V. made peace with Clement, and Florence was sacrificed to the Pope’s vengeance. In 1529, the Imperial armies besieged the city, and Michelangelo was appointed director of the fortifica.. tions by the Signoria. He took an active part in the defence, and traces of the works which he constructed on the heights of San Miniato are still in existence. All through the siege, however, he worked in secret at the Medici tombs, and when Florence was betrayed to her foes, and the Imperial troops entered the city in August, 1530, he was left at liberty, by the Pope’s orders, in order that he might resume his work in S. Lorenzo. His plans for the decoration of the Sacristy were never carried out, his colossal Madonna remains unfinished, and the figures of Cosimo and Damiano were executed by assistants. But his statues of the two dukes, and recumbent figures of Night and Day, Twilight and Dawn, are among the grandest works of Renaissance sculpture. There is no attempt at portraiture. As he said himself : ” Who will care in another thousand years if these features are theirs or not ? ” This warrior Duke, with the helmet overshadowing his dark face, as, wrapt in gloomy meditation, he broods over the doom of Florence this martial youth with the bâton on his knee, waiting to rise and go forth, these weary Titans reclining at their feet, are immortal allegories of life and death, of thought and action. In this Dawn, wearily waking out of sleep, in this Night sunk in death-like slumber, Michelangelo gave utterance to the grief and shame of his own soul, and the burden of his eternal regrets. If anything were needed to tell us this, the lines which he wrote on the Notte, would be enough to show the thoughts that were working in his brain, when, at the bidding of a Medici Pope, he carved these marbles within the walls of captive Florence.
” Caro m’è it sonno, e più lesser di sasso, Mentre il danno e la vergogna dura : Non veder, non sentir, m’è gran ventura Però non mi destar. Deh I parla basso I”
“Good it is to slumber, and better still to be marble. Not to see, not to feel, is fortunate in these days of shame and misery. Therefore, do not wake me. Speak low, I pray you!”
In his early works, drawing his inspiration from antique marbles, Michelangelo had given expression to the radiant beauty and god-like strength of manhood; in the masterpieces of his middle period, the pride of life, the moral and physical sovereignty of man, had been the thought that was uppermost in his mind. In the creations of his latter days we read the sense of revolt and resistance, of scorn and suffering, which opposition and injustice had aroused in his breast, until last of all, every other feeling gives way to profound melancholy and unutterable weariness, and the wish to see and feel nothing, to sleep and wake no more.
In 1534, Michelangelo’s father died at the age of ninety, and after writing a touching poem to his memory, the great master left Florence. He never saw his native city again, and the remaining thirty years of his life were spent in Rome. Two days after his arrival Clement VII. died, and the first act of his successor, Paul III., was to appoint Michelangelo chief architect, sculptor and painter of the Vatican. At his command the great master painted the Last Judgment on the wall above the altar of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco was uncovered on Christmas day, 1541, and the fame of Michelangelo’s latest work spread throughout Italy. It is impossible to judge this celebrated work fairly, in its present ruined state. Time and neglect, smoke and grime, the decorator’s hand and the restorer’s brush, have irreparably destroyed the colour, and we can only study the details of that scheme of composition which excited the wonder of his contemporaries. What Vasari describes as the grand style, ” con-summate knowledge of the human form, absolute perfection of proportions, and the greatest possible variety of attitudes, passions, and emotions,” are certainly seen here. But the subject was little suited to Michelangelo’s genius, and in spite of its vigorous conception and execution, the work bears evident signs of fatigue and discontent. The living fire that animates every face and form of the countless host on the vault overhead, is lacking here. The painter’s science has become more barren, his types are cold and lifeless. The same dulness and formalism strike us still more forcibly in the frescoes of the Martyrdom of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul, which Michelangelo painted in the Cappella Paolina of the Vatican, a short time before the Pope’s death. Here the faces are cold and inexpressive, and the figures, in spite of their violent action and distorted attitudes, are wanting in life and vigour. The decay of power is evident, and we think sadly of the seven years of ” great effort and fatigue ” which they cost the aged master. When he finished these frescoes, Michelangelo was already seventy-five, and as he told Vasari, “fresco-painting was not fit work for old men.”
His last years were chiefly devoted to architectural works. In 1547, Paul III. appointed him architect of St. Peter’s, and he held this office under five successive Popes, without accepting any salary, “solely out of love to God and reverence for the Prince of the Apostles.” In vain Duke Cosimo de’ Medici sent Vasari and Cellini to implore him to return to Florence. No offers or entreaties could induce him to desert his post.
” I was set to work upon St. Peter’s against my will,” he wrote, “and I have served eight years without wages, and with great injury and discomfort to my health. Now that the work is being pushed forward and I am on the point of vaulting in the Cupola, my departure from Rome would ruin the structure and would be a great disgrace to Christendom, and a grievous sin on my part.”
After Michelangelo’s death, however, the building was entirely remodelled, the plan of a Latin cross was substituted for the Greek one which he had designed, and Bernini’s modern façade was allowed to destroy the imposing effect of the cupola which he had modelled. It is only when we look down on the dome of St. Peter’s from the seven hills of Rome or the far plains of the Campagna that we realise the glory of Michelangelo’s last great creation. To the end his brain was busy with vast projects. The completion of the Farnese palace and the reconstruction of the Capitol were among the labours of his closing years. He it was who placed the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the pedestal in the centre of the Piazza and designed the flight of steps leading up to Ara Coeli, and the grand stair-case of the Palazzo del Senatore.
The tragic fate which had attended so many of Michelangelo’s grandest works, above all, the infinite trouble and perpetual quarrels which arose over the unfinished Tomb of Julius IL, clouded his last years with a sense of gloom and failure.
“My whole youth and manhood have been lost,” he wrote on one occasion, “tied down to this tomb. Painting and sculpture, labour and good faith have been my ruin, and I go steadily from bad to worse. Better would it have been for me, if I had learnt to make matches in my youth. At least I should not suffer such distress of mind as I do now.”
But his friendship with Vittoria Colonna threw a ray of light on his sorrowful old age. Michelangelo first met the widowed Marchesa of Pescara in 1438, when she was living in a Benedictine convent in Rome, spending her time in devotional exercises and writing poetry, and enjoying the society of a few serious thinkers such as Ochino and Contarini, who had been strongly influenced by the movement of the Reformation. The great master, who read his Bible constantly and retained his old veneration for Savonarola, found in this illustrious lady a friend who shared his deepest thoughts. Together they talked of art and poetry, of God and the soul. When she paid her yearly visits to Orvieto and Viterbo, she wrote frequent letters to her ” more than dearest friend,” and he in return sent her sonnets and drawings of Crucified Christs and Pietàs.
” I had the greatest faith in God,” she writes, in acknowledging one of these, “that He would, bestow upon you supernatural grace for the making of this Christ. The design is in all parts perfect and consummate, and I could not desire more. I tell you that I am greatly pleased to see the angel on the right hand is by far the fairer, since he, Michael, will place you, Michelangelo, upon the right hand of our Lord on that last day. Meanwhile, I cannot serve you better than by praying to this sweet Christ, whom you have drawn so well and perfectly, and begging you to hold me ever at your service.”
Michelangelo often took part in the Sunday gatherings at the Marchesa’s rooms, where churchmen and scholars met to discuss literary and aesthetic subjects, and the painter, Francesco d’Olanda, has recorded some interesting fragments of the great man’s conversation. His defence of the eccentricities of artists is very characteristic, and is in reality an apology for his own habits :
“You accuse painters of being rude and ill-mannered, but the fact is, they are bound to refrain from idle compliments because their art claims their whole energies. I can assure your Excellency that even His Holiness annoys me sometimes, by asking me why I do not appear more often in his presence. Then I tell him that l can serve him better by working at home than by dancing attendance for a whole day in his reception-rooms. Happily, the serious labours of my life give me so much liberty that in talking to the Pope, I often forget where I am, and put my hat on my head. However, he does not put me to death on that account, but treats me with indulgence, knowing that it is just at such times that I am working the hardest to serve him.”
The words recall a remark which is said to have been made by Pope Clement VII.:
” When Buonarroti comes to see me, I always take a seat and beg him to be seated, feeling sure that he will do so without waiting for my leave.”
Another time the Marchesa contrived to turn the conversation on art, and asked Michelangelo if he held it best for a painter to work slowly or quickly. He replied that no doubt artists who could paint rapidly without sacrificing any degree of excellence deserved the highest praise, but that a good master would never allow the impetuosity of his nature to mar the perfection of his art. The one unpardonable fault, he insists, is bad work. Speaking of religious art, he took up Savonarola’s argument and maintained, as he had said before to the sculptor Ammanati, that ” good Christians always make good and beautiful figures. In order to represent the adored image of our Lord, it is not enough that a master should be great and able. I maintain that he must also be a man of good morals and conduct, if possible a saint, in order that the Holy Ghost may give him inspiration.”
Vittoria Colonna died in 1547, and Michelangelo poured out his love and grief in the sonnets which he wrote at the time, and in a touching letter in which he says : ” She felt the greatest affection for me and I not less for her. Death has robbed me of a dear friend.” And he told Condivi how much he regretted that when he took leave of her as she lay dying, he had only kissed her hand and not her forehead. The religious feelings which his intercourse with her had deepened, found expression in those drawings of Crucified Christs and Pietas which are still to be seen in many collections. The great picture which he had in his mind at the time was never painted, but his idea was partly realised in the unfinished marble Pietà behind the high altar in the Duomo of Florence, which he originally intended for his own tomb. And the pathetic sonnet which he sent to Vasari when he was past eighty is the last and most sublime expression of the tired soul turning back to God.
” Ne’ pinger ne scolpir fia più’ che queti, L’anima volta a quell’ Amor Divino Ch’ aperse a prender noi in croce le braccia.”
” Neither painting nor sculpture can any longer bring peace to the soul that seeks the Divine Love which opened its arms on the cross to receive us.”
The correspondence of the aged master with his nephew Leonardo gives us many interesting details about his last years. His tone is often querulous and irritable, but he is full of concern for his nephew’s happiness. He improved the old family house in the Via Ghibellina now the Museo Buonarroti and was very anxious that his race should not die out. Art he had always said was the only wife he needed, and the works he left behind him would be his children. ” Woe to Ghiberti if he had not made the gates of San Giovanni. His children soon squandered his fortune, but the gates are still in their places.” But he urged his nephew to marry, and was much gratified when, in May, 1554, Leonardo’s wife bore him a son. Vasari sent him an account of the christening festivities, and he thanked him for thinking of the poor old man in Rome, but complained there had been too much pomp and show, and told his nephew that he had done wrong in ” celebrating a birth with a mirth and rejoicing that should rather be reserved for the death of one who has lived well.” In these last days of increasing feebleness he spent much of his time in reading Savonarola’s sermons, and often spoke of the great Friar whom he honoured as the champion of the liberties of Florence and of the faith of Christ.
In 1555, he suffered a heavy loss in the death of his faithful servant Urbino, over whom he sorrowed deeply.
“Even more than dying,” he wrote to Vasari, ” it grieved him to leave me alive in this treacherous world, with so many troubles, and yet the better part of me is gone with him.”
He lingered on eight years, tenderly cared for by his friends Condivi and Tommaso Cavalieri and the artist Daniele da Volterra, until the 18th of February, 1564, when he passed quietly away at the hour of the Ave Maria, begging his friends, when their last hour came, to “think upon the sufferings of Jesus Christ.”
So entirely did the Romans consider Michelangelo to be one of themselves, that they made preparations for his burial in the SS. Apostoli, and his nephew Leonardo was obliged to remove the body by night from the church and send it secretly to Florence. On the evening of the 12th of March, the members of Duke Cosimo’s new Academy, which had chosen Michelangelo for their first President, bore the illustrious dead in solemn procession to Santa Croce. Here, four months later, an imposing funeral service was held, and the tasteless monument erected by Vasari bore witness to the general decadence of art in Italy.
Michelangelo had outlived all the painters of his generation, Raphael had been dead forty-four years, Leonardo forty-five, and of all the illustrious company who had met to choose the site of David, sixty years before, not one was left. With him the race of giants who had made the sixteenth century famous passed away. Before his death, Florence had already lost much of her old glory, and had ceased to be the home of art and culture and the centre of Italian civilization. Her great days were over, and, deprived of freedom and independence, the city of Dante and Savonarola sank into obscurity and insignificance. The arts which had blossomed on the banks of Arno during three centuries and more, fell into decay, and the great movement of the Renaissance reached its appointed end.
Florence.Uffizi: 1139. Holy Family.
Rome. Sistine Chapel: Frescoes–Ceiling: Story of Creation, Fall of Man, Deluge, Brazen Serpent, David and Goliath, Haman, Judith, Prophets and Sibyls.
Cappella Paolina: Frescoes Conversion of St. Paul, Martyrdom of St. Peter.
London.National Gallery: 790. Deposition (unfinished).