OLD age, though brightened by the reflected splendor of a life spent in immortal labors, is sad to contemplate, unless, while the frame has lost its strength and the right hand its cunning, the spirit has grown strong through the steady contemplation of things beyond the reach of change. It was thus with Michelangelo, for, as he drew nearer and nearer to his end, his mind was more and more filled with thoughts of things heavenly. The burden of his later sonnets is ever, ” Lord, be merciful to me a sinner”; and their never-ceasing aspiration, rest in the Eternal arms.
“Burdened with years, and full of sinfulness, With evil custom grown inveterate, Both deaths I dread that close before me wait, Yet feed my heart on poisonous thoughts no less. No strength I find in my own feebleness To change or life or love or use or fate, Unless thy heavenly guidance come, though late, Which only helps and stays our nothingness. ‘T is not enough, dear Lord, to make me yearn For that celestial home, where yet my soul May be new made, and not, as erst, of naught : Nay, ere thou strip her mortal vestment, turn My steps towards the steep ascent, that whole And pure before thy face she may be brought.”
While in these lines the poet recognizes the impossibility of overcoming sinful tendencies without Divine help, and utters an earnest prayer for assistance, in the following sonnet he welcomes death as a fire which will refine and purify his earthly nature.
“Not without fire can any workman mould The iron to his preconceived design ; Nor can the artist without fire refine And purify from all its dross the gold. Nor can revive the phoenix, we are told, Except by fire. Hence, if such death be mine, I hope to rise again with the divine, Whom death augments, and time cannot make old. O sweet, sweet death ! O fortunate fire that burns Within me still to renovate my days, Though I am almost numbered with the dead ! If, by its nature, unto Heaven returns This element, me, kindled in its blaze, Will it bear upward when my life is fled.”
The thought of death seems to have been much in his mind, and it found frequent expression both in his verses and his conversation. Thus at the end of Giannotti’s first Dialogue, when the friends who have taken part in it would persuade Michelangelo to go and dine with them, he refuses, wishing, he says, to be alone, “this being a time to weep rather than to dance.” “I would remind you,” he says, ” that it is not desirable to seek amusements and gayeties if you would enter into and enjoy communion with your own spirit; to do this you must think upon death. This is the only thought which makes us know ourselves, which keeps us united in ourselves, so that we cannot be taken possession of by relations or friends or great masters, nor by ambition, avarice, or any other of the vices and sins which steal man from man, and keep him in an unsteady and thoughtless state of mind, unable to reflect and meditate. Wonderful is the effect of this thought of death, which, being itself destructive of all things, preserves and sustains those who think upon it, and defends them against all human passions. I remember that I have already pointed this out in one of my madrigals, in which, talking of love, I concluded that nothing can protect us from it so completely as the thought of death.”
When he was eighty-one years old he wrote two sonnets, – one of which we cite here, – and sent them to Vasari with a note, saying, “I do so that you may see where I keep my thoughts” :
“The fables of the world have filched away The time I had for thinking upon God ; His grace lies buried ‘neath oblivion’s sod, Whence springs a grievous crop of sins alway. What makes another wise leads me astray, Slow to discern the bad path I have trod : Hope fades ; but still desire ascends that God. May free me from self-love, my sure decay. Shorten half-way my road from heaven to earth, Dear Lord ! I cannot even half-way rise, Unless thou help me on this pilgrimage. Teach me to hate the world so little worth, And all the holy things I once did prize, That endless life, not death, may be my wage.”
The above admirable translations will enable even those who are not conversant with the language in which these poems were written to appreciate their power, feeling, and ingenuity. Though often obscure in thought and rugged in form, they are full of fervor, quaint in conceit, and eminently vital. Vitality is perhaps their most striking characteristic, as it is that of the poet-artist’s statues and paintings. As we read Michelangelo’s verses we feel that we have been admitted into the innermost sanctuary of his nature, and know its aspirations, fears, hopes, and desires. Iii his own eyes he was ” but a tyro in the art of poesy ” ; one who wrote verses ” merely for his own pleasure and that of his friends “; but so he said he was no painter, and no architect, and yet he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and built the dome of St. Peter’s. His contemporaries showed that they considered him a true poet by placing the statue of Poetry with those of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting upon the steps of the temporary monument which they erected at Sta Croce at the time of his funeral obsequies ; and the many ways in which eminent literary men of his own and succeeding generations have labored to make his poems known to the world, prove past and present appreciation of their merit. While he was yet living Berni declared them to be a mine of Platonic philosophy, Donato Giannotti praised them for their Dantesque form, and Benedetto Varchi read an elaborate essay before the Florentine Academy upon that finest of his sonnets, “Whate’er conception a great artist fires.” Several of the madrigals were set to music by contemporary composers, among whom were Archadelt, a Flemish musician settled at Rome; Costanzo Testa, a Roman; and Tromboncino, a Veronese. In 1623 the collected poems were first published, with revisions by his namesake and grand-nephew, Michelangelo the younger, prefaced by two admirable essays from the pen of Guiducci. Poets of our own day, among whom are Wordsworth, Southey, Longfellow, and Symonds, have translated some of the finest sonnets and madrigals into English, and with wonderful success, considering the difficulties involved.
Among the sonnets, those addressed to Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, that dear and trusted friend whose influence over him during his latter years was paramount, are perhaps the most widely known and most deservedly celebrated. Often as the story of their friendship has been told, it cannot be passed over by any one who undertakes to write about Michelangelo, so important were its bearings upon his mental and spiritual development. The period of his life during which he lived in almost daily intercourse with this “lady both great and good,” corresponds to the Indian summer in our late autumn season, which beneficently stays the winter’s coming, and, as it sheds its warm glow over the landscape, cheats us into the belief that ice and snow are illusions, and cold blasts not inevitable evils. Their friendship began between 1536 and 1538, when Michelangelo was frequently at Rome, though possibly a few years earlier8 Vittoria Colonna was then living, by Papal permission, in the convent of “San Silvestro in Capite,” where she had taken refuge after the death of her ever-lamented husband, Alfonso d’Avalos, on the battle-field of Pavia, with the intention of taking the veil. Being unable to obtain the Pope’s consent to this step, she contented herself with a life of seclusion in a religious house at Rome or Viterbo, where she could “weep, pray, study, and write poetry, and whence she could lend a helping hand to the needy.” In these pious, intellectual, and charitable exercises she passed the remainder of her existence, cheered by frequent converse with the great artist, between whom and herself existed “a firm friendship and a most unchangeable affection, bound in a Christian knot.” The topics discussed at their interviews were, for the most part, of a religious nature, but occasionally, as we are told by Francois de Hollande, art and philosophy also engaged their attention. Valuable as the diary of the Portuguese painter is as the only record of Michelangelo’s opinions upon subjects connected with his profession, it does not compare in interest with his own letters and sonnets to the Marchesa, which, in language perfectly suitable to their respective rank and age, tell us of his deep attachment to her, and prove the great influence which she had in shaping his religious opinions.
Knowing what a foothold the Reformers had gained in Italy at a time when, as stated in the rescript of Clement VII., both the laity and the clergy were affected by Lutheran doctrines, and having the testimony of Giannone as to the powerful effect of the sermons of Valdez, the Spaniard, and Ochino, the converted Capuchin friar, upon many men and women of high rank, we cannot doubt that Michelangelo shared the general feeling as to the necessity of a radical reform in the Roman Catholic Church, and looked, like them, upon the calamities which had fallen upon Rome and Florence as direct judgments of Heaven for the corrupt lives of the clergy and the abuses of the Papal court. Though he does not recant any of the Romish dogmas in his letters or his sonnets, some of the latter are Protestant in spirit, in so far as they directly appeal to Christ for pardon and aid. The seventy-third sonnet,12 for instance, written while he was painting a picture of the Crucifixion, illustrates this point forcibly : –
“Freed from a burden sore, and grievous load, Dear Lord, and from this wearying world untied, Like a frail bark I turn me to thy side, As from a fierce storm to a tranquil land. Thy thorns, thy nails, and either bleeding hand, With thy mild, gentle, piteous face, provide Promise of help and mercies multiplied, And hope that yet my soul secure may stand. Let not thy holy eyes be just to see My evil part, thy chastened ears to hear, And stretch the arm of judgment to my crime : Let thy blood only love and succor me, Yielding more perfect pardon, better cheer, As older still I grow with lengthening time.
Valdez and Ochino preached the same dependence of man upon God through Christ, and, with an eloquence which, as the Emperor Charles V. said, ” was enough to make the stones weep,” declared the Bible to be the source of all truth. By its light they set forth the true view of justification by faith, purgatory, and the Papal power, about which their hearers had hitherto accepted the dicta of Roman Catholic theologians. They spoke at Naples before vast audiences made up of people of all ranks, among whom two of the most conspicuous for a time were Giulia Gonzaga and Vittoria Colonna. In Fra Ochino they recognized one of those men whom God sends into the world from time to time to rouse those who sleep, and to revive the drooping spirits of those who are fainting by the roadside. “His age, the austere tenor of his life, the roughness of his dress, his long beard falling below his breast, his gray hairs, his pallid and wasted visage, and a certain appearance of infirmity and weakness affected with much art, together with the general opinion as to his sanctity, caused him to be looked upon as an extraordinary man. Not only the people, but the greatest sovereigns and nobles, revered him as a saint, went to meet him on his arrival, received him with the utmost honor and every possible mark of affection, and escorted him on his road when he departed.” “You ask me,” writes Vittoria Colonna to one of her correspondents, “about Fra Bernandino of Siena (Ochino), and I answer that he has left behind him in Milan a name so good, and such universal contrition, that all esteem him to be a truly Christian man. May it please God,” she adds, ” to let him persevere in his work.” This letter was written before Fra Ochino concluded to return to Geneva, instead of giving himself up to the court of Rome, which would have amounted to voluntary martyrdom. By so doing he left those who had been half won over to his religious opinions exposed to strong counter influences, which in many cases availed to win them back to their former state of unquestioning obedience to the Roman Catholic Church. The Marchioness of Pescara seems to have been one of these, if we may judge by her letter to Pope Marcellus IV. in which she writes, “It grieves me deeply that the more he [Fra Ochino] endeavors to excuse, the more he accuses himself ; and the more he thirsts to save others from shipwreck, the more he exposes them to the deluge, being himself an outcast from the ark which saves and assures.”
To put down the fast-spreading contagion of reform, Rome used her wonted weapons. In 1542 Paul III. organized the inquisition and the censorship ; the faint-hearted were terrified into submission by threats of confiscation and banishment, and the city where Leo X. and his cardinals had so lately smiled when they heard men doubt the existence of a God and the immortality of the soul, now saw Jews and heretics burned for non-acceptance of Romish dogmas.
We shall never know how much Michelangelo was affected by Protestant ideas, but that they found some favor in his sight seems not improbable, if we reflect that in his youth he had learned from Savonarola to look upon the Bible as the reformers did, to regard the state of the church as corrupt, and that during his long residence at Rome he afterwards had ample opportunity of convincing himself of the necessity of extensive reforms.
In those early days he had also learned, by study of the philosophy of Plato, to aspire to the beautiful and the good as emanations from a Divine but vaguely defined source. This sufficed him until, captivated by the beauty and the genius of Vittoria Colonna, and filled with reverence for her piety, he was brought into sympathy with her religious views, and found the peace for which his soul yearned. The following sonnet shows how absolutely he gave himself up to her guidance, and how fully he relied upon its efficacy:
“As one who having lost the light of heaven Bewildered strays, whatever path he takes, I, lady, to your sacred penmanship Present the blank page of my troubled mind, That you in dissipation of my doubts May on it write how my benighted soul Of its desired end may not so fail As to incur at last a fatal fall. Be you the writer who have taught me how To tread by fairest paths the way to heaven.”
Many and ingenious are the conceits and quaint are the metaphors used by Michelangelo in his poems to express his deep feelings of tender affection for the noble guide and friend who blessed his life. “As the stone when an intaglio is cut upon it becomes more precious than it was in its natural state, so am I of greater worth since your image has been graven on my heart. When a sculptor would give shape to an idea, he makes a model in some vile material, such as clay or wax; then he puts it into marble and assures its immortality. So I, born but the model of my future self, have been reformed and re-made by you, O lofty and noble lady, in more perfect form.”
A still more abstruse and curious comparison forms the subject of his fifteenth sonnet, here given in a new and admirable translation: –
“Nothing the greatest artist can conceive That every marble block doth not confine Within itself ; and only this design The hand that follows intellect can achieve. The ill I flee, the good that I believe, In thee, fair lady, lofty and divine, Thus hidden lie ; and to make ruin mine, Art of desired success doth me bereave. Love is not guilty then, nor thy fair face, Nor fortune, cruelty, nor great disdain Of my disgrace, nor chance, nor destiny, If in thy heart both death and love find place At the same time, and my distracted brain, Burning, can nothing draw but death from thee.”
The seventeenth sonnet, translated by the same distinguished poet, will, if we are not mistaken, be new to English readers, and it is one of the most beautiful : –
“Lady, how can it chance -yet this we see In our experience, that will longer last A living visage carved from quarries vast Than its own maker, who dies presently ? Cause yieldeth to effect if this so be, And even nature is by art surpassed. This know I, who to art have given the past, But see that time breaking faith with nie. Perhaps on both of us long life can I Either in color or in stone bestow, By now portraying each in look and mien, So that a thousand years after we die, How fair thou wast, and I how full of woe, And wherefore I so loved thee, may be seen.”
Seeing the strong affection expressed in these poems, we can measure the deep sorrow which the poet felt when death removed its object from his sight. This sad event took place in February, 1547, at the house of Giuliano Cesarini, husband of Giulia Colonna, the last surviving relative of the Marchesa. She had been carried there from the monastery when it was known that she could not recover, and Michelangelo was among those who stood near her bedside at the last, kissing her cold hand and weeping over it with many tears. But, although dead, she walked with him in spirit so long as he lived, inspiring him by her example, guiding him by her precepts, and sustaining him by her well-remembered counsels.
Of the four sonnets which he wrote after her death we shall quote two, that the reader may judge of its effect upon him:
“When the prime mover of my many sighs Heaven took through death from out her earthly place, Nature, that never made so fair a face, Remained ashamed, and tears were in all eyes. O fate, unheeding my impassioned cries! O hopes fallacious ! O thou spirit of grace, Where art thou now ? Earth holds in its embrace Thy lovely limbs, thy holy thoughts the skies. Vainly did cruel Death attempt to stay The rumor of thy virtuous renown, That Lethe’s waters could not wash away ! A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down, Speak of thee, nor to thee would heaven convey, Except through death, a refuge and a crown.”
These lines must have been written in the first anguish of a grief whose intensity was too great to allow of any search for ingenious tropes and skilfully contrived metaphors, but the next sonnet would seem to have been composed when the writer’s feelings were more under command, and artistic considerations had freer play : –
” When my rude hammer to the stubborn stone Gives human shape, now that, now this, at will, Following his hand who guides and wields it still, It moves upon another’s feet alone. But he who dwells in Heaven all things doth fill With beauty by pure motions of his own ; And since tools fashion tools which else were none, His life makes all that lives with living skill. Now for that every stroke excels the more The closer to the forge it still ascend, Her soul that quickened mine hath sought the skies: Wherefore I find my toil will never end, If God, the great artificer, denies That tool which was my only aid before.”
In one of his letters to Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo mentions Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a Roman gentleman of good family, and an amateur artist, to whom he wrote frequently in terms so passionate and so extravagantly eulogistic, that one of his late biographers suggests that they were really addressed to the Marchesa under cover of his name. Did not our own and other languages furnish examples of prose and poetry in which friendship speaks with the voice of love, or could we discover any reason why Michelangelo should have thus masked his correspondence with the Marchesa, we might accept this theory ; but we are hardly inclined to do so, as he wrote to her and talked with her freely, and made no secret of his great admiration for her, while at the same time he lived on the most intimate terms with Cavalieri. His attachment to the young Roman, who was one of the few faithful attendants upon him in his last moments, showed itself also in deeds, as, for instance, when he sent him a drawing of the Pall of Phaeton as a present, with these words : “Sir Tommaso, if this sketch does not please you, tell Urbino so, that I may find time to make you another as I promised, and if it does please, and you would like to have it, say so, that I may finish it for you.”
The following sonnet has no address, but there can be no doubt that it was written to Cavalieri, from the play upon his name in the last line which is lost in the English version by the substitution of the word “Knight” for ” Cavalier,” used in the original: –
“Why should I seek to ease intense desire With still more tears and windy words of grief, When heaven, or late or soon, sends no relief To souls whom love hath robéd round with fire ? Why need my aching heart to death aspire, When all must die ? Nay, death beyond belief Unto these eyes would be both sweet and brief, Since in my sum of woes all joys expire ! Then, too, because I cannot shun the blow I rather seek, say who must rule my breast, Gliding between her gladness and her woe ? If only chains and bonds can make nie blest, Nor marvel if alone and bare I go, An armèd Knight’s captive and slave confessed.”
Michelangelo’s letters to Cavalieri are equally warm in tone, and are filled with praises suited to a Dante or a Shakespeare. “You must excuse me if I show myself incompetent to sail over the waves of the sea of your mighty genius ; you must pardon me and not be angered at my failure, nor ask from me that which is not in me ; because he who stands alone in all things cannot have companions in any. It is not strange that your Signory, being the unique light of our century in the world, should be unable to take pleasure in the work of any other person, having no one who is equal or like to yourself. Sooner can I forget the food which poorly nourishes my body only, than your name, which nourishes both body and soul, filling both with such sweetness, that so long as memory preserves it I can feel neither weariness nor fear of death.”
It was not only about his own friends, but also about those of others who were dear to him, that Michelangelo wrote in terms of extravagant eulogy. Thus when Luigi del Riccio asked him to make a bust of his beloved pupil, Cecchino Bracci, who died at the age of sixteen, he replied in a sonnet, ” As I cannot take his likeness I will take yours, which will be the same thing, as those who love are one,” and sent him no less than forty-three epitaphs, of which the few here given are perhaps the most worthy of translation : 2-
“No. 4. Death wished to slay, but yet without the employ Of years injurious, and hard days of need, The beauty that lies here, so it might speed With presence all unchanged into heaven’s joy.
“No. 7. Here am I buried, who was born of late ; To whom came Death with such untimely speed, That scarcely did my naked soul give heed, In leaving earth, that she had changed her state.
“No. 9. The soul within from without is not seen, As we see not the face this tomb shuts in. Yet if in heaven were not as fair an inn, Thus snatched by Death it surely had not been.
“No. 38. In this the monument speaks, – With Braccio’s, the sun of nature’s day For aye extinct, I here lock up and seal. Death surely slew him, without sword or steel ; For flowers of spring small breeze doth bear away.
“No. 43. Erst mortal Cecchino, now I am divine : Shut while on earth, but blessed in heaven for aye. For such exchange my thanks to death I pay, Who, used to taking life, to me gave mine.”
This pathetic letter, written by Luigi del Riccio to Donato Giannotti, shows how deeply he mourned over the death of this rare youth: –
“Alas, Messer Donato, our Cecchino is dead. I pray you to preserve the memory of that love and reverence which we bore him, and that of his goad and rare qualities, which had infinitely multiplied since your departure. Heaven, which always carries off the best, has taken him from us. All Rome weeps his loss. Messer Michelangelo has designed for me a beautiful monument of marble, and I pray you to write the epitaph and send it to me with a letter of condolence, if it can be sent in time, for my heart is rent in twain. Patience ; I live now with a thousand deaths every hour. O God ! how fortune has changed for me !
“LUIGI DEL RICCIO.”
Luigi might soon have had also to mourn for Michelangelo, had he not nursed him through a very dangerous illness at the Casa Strozzi, of which he was the intendant, after moving him from his own house, where he could not be properly cared for. Writing to Roberto de Filippo Strozzi, in answer to a letter of inquiry from Lyons, Luigi sends Michelangelo thanks for the shelter given him, and in his name asks Filippo to remind the King of France that he has offered to make his equestrian statue in bronze and erect it on the Piazza della Signoria at Florence, if he will restore the republic.
We have many letters, or rather notes, from Michelangelo to Luigi between 1542 and 1547, the year of his death, which show how close was their friendship. In one he asks his advice as to a fitting present for the Flemish composer, Archadelt, who had set two of his madrigals to music ; in another he prays him to use his best endeavors to bring about a reconciliation between his faithful servant, Francesco d’ Amadore, called Urbino, and a marble-worker named Giovanni de’ Marchesi da Saltri, who had quarrelled about the work allotted to them upon the monument of Julius II.; in still another he confides to him his own annoyances concerning the final contract for that monument, and begs him to urge the Pope to settle his differences with the Duke of Urbino, bitterly exclaiming : “For my thirty-six years of faith in others, to whom I gave myself, I deserve my fate ; painting and sculpture, fatigue and trust, have ruined me, and things go on from bad to worse. Better would it have been for me, if in my youth I had set myself to the making of sulphur matches, in which case I should have escaped this present misery.” In another letter he recounts to him the whole history of his connection with Pope Julius II., and once, for some unknown reason, writes thus angrily : ” He who saved me from death may abuse me if he likes, but I know not which is the worst, abuse or death,” signing himself in this strange fashion, “Michelagniolo Buonarroti, neither painter, sculptor, nor architect ; but anything you like, excepting a drunkard, as I told you at home.”
In a like gust of sudden wrath, which shows that his irritable temper had not cooled with age, he sends the following lines to his nephew, who had hurried to Rome from Florence on hearing of his dangerous illness : “Lionardo, I have been ill, and you, by the advice of Ser Giovan Francesco, have come to kill me, and to see what property I have left. Did you not have enough of what belongs to me at Florence ? You’ cannot deny that you are like your father, who drove me out of my own house at Florence. Learn that I have made my will in such a way that you will have no reason to trouble yourself about what I own at Rome. Be off, then, and do not venture into my presence, and never write to me again.”
We have no reason to suppose that this treatment was deserved, or to believe that Michelangelo himself thought what he said. He was really very fond of his nephew, and their quarrels were, like those of lovers, soon made up, One of his letters is addressed to ” Lionardo Buonarroti, in Florence, beloved as if he were my son” ; and many are filled with counsel as to the selection of a proper person for him to marry, “What you want,” he writes in one of these, “is a wife who will be docile and stay at home, not being inclined to romps and vanities, or anxious for banquets and weddings every day in the week”
When Lionardo at last fixed his choice on Cassandra de’ Ridolfi, Michelangelo approved it most heartily, and wrote to say that he had commissioned a goldsmith from Urbino to find him a beautiful “set of pearls which he can present to her.” Instead of these he ultimately sent her two rings, a diamond and a ruby, in an enamelled box, with instructions to have their value estimated, “as he is himself no connoisseur of such things, and wishes to be sure that he has not paid too much for them.”
The two most touching letters of Michelangelo to his nephew are those in which he tells him of the illness and death of his faithful and beloved servant Urbino, which caused him much sorrow. In the first he writes : “I am here in great anxiety about Urbino, who is dangerously ill; what will be the end of it I cannot say; if he were my son I could not be more grieved, both because he has served me faithfully for twenty-five years, and because I am old and can never find another who will be to me what he has been.” In the next letter he thus announces the end : “Last night, at four o’clock, on the 3d of December, 1555, to my great sorrow, Francesco, called Urbino, passed from this life, leaving me so deeply afflicted, that for the love which I bore him it would have been sweeter for me to have died with him. He deserved indeed all that I could give him, for he was an honorable man, full of faith and loyalty : wherefore it seems to me that by his death I have become lifeless, and cannot find peace for my soul.” To Giorgio Vasari he writes on the same subject : ” You know of Urbino’s death, in the which God has shown great mercy to me, though it has been to me a terrible loss and a cause of infinite grief. The mercy has been, that while living he kept me alive, dying he has taught me to die, not with reluctance, but with a longing for death. I kept him with me for twenty-five years, during which he was always loyal and faithful, and now that I had enriched him and hoped that he would be the staff and repose of my old age, he has left me with no other hope than that of seeing him again in Paradise.”
Michelangelo’s affection for this faithful servant showed itself not only in words but in deeds of kindness to his widow, Cornelia, and to their children, one of whom bore his honored name. From Castel Durante, where she went to live with her relations after her husband’s death, Cornelia wrote to tell him of her sorrow at having been obliged to part with two of his drawings to the Duke of Urbino, who had set his heart on having them and would not be refused, and to beg him. to write to her and tranquillize her mind, which will not be at peace until she knows that he is content. In another letter she relates how a certain ” Abbate” and her own father have tried to induce her to marry a good-for-nothing fellow who has an eye to her property, and thus expresses her feelings towards Michelangelo : “The loving courtesy which your Signory has always shown me and my children has been such that I can truly say it has far surpassed that of my father, my mother, or any of my relations. Knowing this to be so in truth, I have always loved, obeyed, and revered you as my most loving father and patron, and have always been most ready to serve, honor, and obey you, nor have I ever thought of doing any-thing without first obtaining your consent and advice.” Could there be a better proof of the affection with which Michelangelo inspired his dependants, than the letter of this worthy woman, who signs her-self, “Your loving daughter, Cornelia” ?
One of his most devoted followers and admirers in these latter years of his life was Giorgio Vasari, whose biography of him in the Lives of the Painters is the only one of a then living artist. The filial affection of Vasari for Michelangelo, who was thirty-seven years his senior, met with a warm recognition, as many letters attest. “Could I believe myself to be in any way what you think me,” he writes in one of these, “I should rejoice for no other reason than that it would prove that you have a servant of some value. But I do not wonder that you, being a resuscitator of dead men, can prolong the lives of the living, or, in other words, that you can keep off death for a long time from those whose lives have been ill-spent.”
In the same affectionate and half-sportive tone he writes a few months later : “Dear friend Giorgio, you will say that I am too old and crazy to write sonnets, but I choose to do so, because many say that I am in my second childhood. Your letter shows how much you love me, etc.”
He then excuses himself for refusing to accept the Grand Duke’s pressing invitation to return to Florence, on the ground of duty to the great work of building St. Peter’s. “If I went away, now that I have served eight years, not only without compensation, but with great annoyance and injury to myself, when I have at last got money to spend, and am about to vault the cupola, it would be the ruin of the building, which would be a disgrace to all Christendom and a great sin upon my soul. Tell this to the Duke, and commend me to him. Dear Messer Giorgio, I know that you know that I am near my last hour, and that death is ever in my thoughts. God grant me a few years more of life.”
There were other reasons which made Michelangelo refuse to return to Florence, or he would have gone there in the summer of 1556, when he made a pilgrimage to Loreto and passed more than a month at a convent in the mountains near Spoleto. He was ill, and knew that the Tuscan air was not good for him, and he wanted rest, which he could not have found at the Florentine court, where every one would have labored to. do him honor.
Rome was then threatened by the Spanish army under the Duke of Alva, and filled with alarm at the prospect of a siege whose anticipated terrors were enhanced by the recollection of the last visit of Spanish troops under the Constable de Bourbon ; all work at St. Peter’s was for the time suspended ; and as Michelangelo was too old to fight, and too ill to bear the trials and sufferings incident to war, he prudently withdrew to await the moment when he should be able to resume his work.
In a letter to his nephew he mentions that when all work at St. Peter’s ceased he went to Loreto on a pilgrimage (” per alcuna mia divozione “), and that, being weary when he arrived at Spoleto, he remained there until he was sent for by the Pope. Writing to Vasari, December 29, 1556, he says, ” I obeyed the summons with considerable reluctance, having greatly enjoyed my visits to certain hermits living in the mountains near that town, and discovered that peace is only to be found in the woods.”
It is not astonishing that, being eighty-one years old, he should have preferred the quiet of this temporary retreat to his necessarily disturbed existence at Rome, where demands were constantly made upon him, to some of which he could not refuse to listen. Among these were the flattering request of Catharine de’ Medici that he would design an equestrian statue of her murdered husband, Henry II. of France ; and that of his countrymen that he would make plans for the completion of San Giovanni, the church of the Florentines at Rome Pope Pius IV. also asked him to make designs for a monument to his brother, the Marquis of Marignano,to be placed in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and also for the Porta Pia at Rome. As his hand now trembled so that it could not draw a straight line, Michelangelo was obliged to dictate these plans to Tiberio Calcagni, one of his assistants. Three years before his death he virtually gave up his superintendence of the works at St. Peter’s, though he received daily accounts of their progress from his subordinates.
Early in the year 1564 it became evident that his life could not be greatly prolonged, and on the 15th of February his friend Diomede Lioni wrote to Lionardo Buonarroti : “I advise you to come as soon as possible from Florence, starting immediately, but not hurrying over-much, because if, as God forbid, the master’s life is in danger, you cannot get here with the utmost haste in time to find him alive ; for, owing to his great age and his disease, he cannot live a great while. . . . . .
You may be certain in your absence that Messer Tommaso del Cavalieri, Messer Daniele [Ricciarelli, the painter], and I will not fail in our duty. Besides which Antonio del Francesco [who had succeeded Urbino as manager of Michelangelo’s household], the master’s old and faithful servant, is one who will do himself credit in any possible circumstances in which it may please God to place him . . . .
To give you an account of the master’s condition at this moment, it being the third hour of the night, I will tell you that I just now left him in full possession of his faculties, but troubled with constant drowsiness. He got on horseback this afternoon, according to his usual habit when the weather is good, to chase it away, but the coldness of the weather and the weakness of his head and limbs made it impossible for him to ride, and he returned to his chair by the fire, which he much prefers to his bed.” Two days later another letter was despatched to hasten the coming of Lionardo, and on the next day, February 18th, the great artist breathed his last with these words upon his lips : 50 “I give my soul to God, my body to the earth, and my worldly goods to my nearest relations, charging them through life to keep in remembrance the sufferings of Jesus Christ.”
The feelings with which he met death breathe in the beautiful sonnet to Vasari, written ten years before it came to set his spirit free: –
” The course of my long life has reached at last, In fragile bark o’er a tempestuous sea, The common harbor, where must rendered be Account of all the actions of the past. The impassioned fantasy, that, vague and vast, Made art an idol and a king to me, Was an illusion, and but vanity Were the desires that lured me and harassed. The dreams of love, that were so sweet of yore, What are they now, when two deaths may be mine, One sure, and one forecasting its alarms? Painting and sculpture satisfy no more The soul now turning to the Love Divine That oped, to embrace us, on the cross its arms.”
Lionardo Buonarroti arrived at Rome three days after the death of his uncle, as we know from the letter written by Daniel of Volterra to Vasari, which also informs us that in accordance with the express wish of Michelangelo he ordered that the body should be removed to Florence. So great, however, was the love of the Romans for the illustrious dead, and so desirous was the Pope to give his remains the peculiar honor of burial at St. Peter’s, that it was found necessary to send the corpse to Florence as a bale of merchandise. It remained at the Custom-House until the 11th of March, when it was transferred to the church of San Piero Maggiore preparatory to its removal to Santa Croce. The funeral obsequies were celebrated, with the utmost pomp and circumstance, at the church of San Lorenzo, under the direction of Vasari, Bronzino, Cellini, and Ammanati, deputed for that purpose by the Academy of Artists, and the oration was pronounced by Benedetto Varchi.
That Duke Cosimo should do everything in his power to make the ceremonies memorable, and that all the artists in the city should assemble to do honor to him whom they regarded as their chief, was to be expected; but no one could have foretold how universal a homage would be paid t.) Michelangelo by the people of his native city. ” Perceiving the intense feeling of the multitude, and thinking that it would content many,” says Grazzini in his account to the deputies already referred to,53 “the prior, who, as he afterwards confessed, desired to see him dead whom he had never seen living, or had seen when so young that he had hardly any recollection of his appearance, decided to have the coffin opened, which, as you will believe, met the wishes of all ; so, entering into the sacristy, he gave the necessary orders. Both he and we expected to find the body in a state of decomposition, as it had lain in the coffin twenty-two days or more, and had been dead twenty-five ; but when it was opened no bad odor came from it, and you would have sworn that it was lying in a sweet and most quiet sleep. The lines of the face and the complexion, saving a somewhat deathly pallor, were unchanged, no limb was injured, or in any way disagreeable to look upon; and when we touched the head and cheeks, as all did, to our wonder we found them flexible and natural, as if life had departed but a few hours before.”
Thus the last impression of Michelangelo’s face was solemn and peaceful, and since, as often happens after death, many deeply furrowed lines had disappeared, wore a more youthful appearance than in life. We could wish that for us also some marks of suffering and disappointment could be smoothed away from it, or at least that we had some likeness of him in his youth, so that we could know how he looked before he had fought his battle and won his crown. Could such a portrait be found, the world would greet it with the same feelings of delight with which it greeted the recovered portrait of the young Dante, painted by Giotto on the wall at the Bargello before the sorrows of exile had left their deep and solemn impress upon his well-known features. This can never be, nor can we by the utmost effort of imagination smooth out the wrinkles, straighten the crushed nose, fill out the sunken cheeks, and give color to the whitened locks of Michelangelo, but must ever think of him as a man advanced in years and burdened with care. We would not, indeed, exchange these evidences of past struggles for the fresh smoothness of youth, for they are precious to us as records of the efforts which made him what he was; but we would gladly know how he looked before he entered upon them, if only that we might estimate their intensity. So if we stood upon a battlefield where a nation had lately won its freedom, and saw the deep ruts made by cannon-wheels, and the marks of the trampling hoofs of victorious legions, we should not indeed desire to restore the once green expanse to its former smoothness, if at the cost of effacing the memory of brave deeds there done, but we might wish that we had seen it as it once was, that we could the better estimate the price which brave men have paid for victory.
Condivi tells us that Michelangelo was somewhat sickly in his younger days, and describes him in his seventy-ninth year ” as of middle height, with broad shoulders and thin legs, having a large head, a face small in proportion to the size of his skull, a square forehead, full temples, high-cheek bones, and a nose made flat by the fist of that beastly and proud man, Torrigiano de’ Torrigiani.” “His lips,” he adds, ” are thin, and the lower, being the larger, appears to protrude slightly when his face is seen in profile. His eyebrows are sparse ; his eyes small, gray, spotted with yellow and blue lights, and ever varying ; his ears of just proportion; his hair, once black, is streaked with gray, as is his thin forked beard, which is four or five fingers’ breadth in length.” In all important particulars the portraits known to us corroborate the exactness of this description. The face even in youth can never have been handsome, though its energy, earnestness, and intelligence must at all times have made it interesting. It is the face of a man who would put his will into whatever work he had on hand, making that for the time his one object in life. This, indeed, Michelangelo did in all relations and occupations ; for whether we look at him as artist, patriot, son, brother, or friend, we see that his whole soul was absorbed in present work. In all respects he was one of the most remarkable men the world has known, so multiple were his intellectual gifts, so admirable were his moral attributes. While Raphael is like a crystal sphere, ” teres atque rotundus,” Michelangelo is like a diamond cut in facets, each one of which, as we turn the precious stone in our hand, catches and throws out fresh rays of light.
Deposition from the Cross 1550 Cathedral, Florence.
Unfinished group of Deposition from the Cross ? Palazzo Barberini, Rome.
Unfinished group of Deposition from the Cross ? Palazzo Fevoli, Rome.
Death of Michelangelo, February 18, 1564.