AT the time when Raphael became the pupil of Perugino, Michelangelo was already looked upon as an artist of extraordinary ability both at Rome and Florence. With twice as many years then before him as those of Raphael’s whole life, he had every advantage in the race, – the start, the earlier acquired strength, and that inborn self-reliance which leads to rapid development of power. To understand the artistic growth of Raphael without an intimate knowledge of his predecessors and contemporaries is impossible ; but it is much less necessary for the comprehension of that of Michelangelo. Not that his art was uninfluenced by the past, or that he disdained the use of those appliances and discoveries which it had brought within his reach, but that from the first he stood on his own ground, and made use of all things in his own peculiar way. It is for this reason that, while we can trace the influences which shaped Raphael’s development to their source, and follow those which led him on from style to style, we cannot do so with his great rival who, though revealing fresh phases of genius and unlooked-for capacities as he grew older, started almost on the level which he was to keep, and showed the hand of power —which was by and by to paint the Adam of the Sistine Chapel and sculpture the Day at San Lorenzo – in the Taunton Madonna at the National Gallery and the Faun’s Head at the Uffizi.
Considering that he looked upon ” the rough stone ” as including every possible shape, and that sculpture was the art of his predilection; it is interesting to observe the many ways in which he was associated with it. The historical stronghold of the Counts of Canossa, from whom he supposed himself to be descended, was a mountain fortress ; his birthplace was a castle built on the summit of a rock; and his. wet-nurse was the wife of a stone-mason, so that, as he humorously said, he imbibed his love for marble with his first nourishment.
Michelangelo was born on Sunday, March 6, 1475, at eight o’clock in the evening, in the castle of Chiusi e Caprese in Casentino, a Tuscan stronghold on the upper waters of the Tiber, of which his father, Ludovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni, was podesta. Returning to Florence when his year of office had expired, with his wife, Francesca di Neri di Miniato del Sera, Ludovico stopped at Settignano, where he had a villa, to place their infant son in charge of the stone-cutter’s wife. Thus almost the first objects upon which Michelangelo’s eyes rested were the blocks of stone quarried by his foster-father, and the chisels and hammers which he used in his daily work. Does it seem altogether fanciful to suppose that such early associations with the implements of his special art may have fostered those plastic instincts which nature had implanted in him at his birth ?
As soon as he grew old enough Michelangelo was sent to a school at Florence, kept by Francesco Venturini of Urbino,5 whom Maffei supposes to have been afterwards the master of Raphael.6 If this be so, their school discipline was the same, though that of their respective homes was as different as their dispositions. Raphael was blessed with a gentle and pliant temper, and was the child of an artist who fostered in every way the development of his dawning powers; Michelangelo, on the contrary, was the self-willed and quick-tempered son of a man who looked upon the profession of an artist as derogatory, and who, so far from putting the pallet or the chisel into his hands, was deter-mined that he should follow the silk and woollen trade like his brothers. But Nature would not be thwarted. She evidently intended him to be an artist, for the boy drew in school and out of school, patiently enduring the scoldings and beatings which were the consequence, until in good time he gained his point, and on the 1st of April, 1488, was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandajo, one of whose pupils, Francesco Granacci, had long supplied him with drawings from the studio of his master. Thanks to his proficiency, he at once took the advanced position of an assistant, at a progressive salary of six florins for the first year, eight for the second, and ten for the third. The discipline of a studio, and the direct supervision of such an artist as Ghirlandajo, were undoubtedly of great service to one who had so far been his own master; but Michelangelo’s character was so independent, and there was so little affinity between his talent and that of Ghirlandajo, that he was not at all influenced by him as Raphael was by Perugino.
Domenico Bigordi, who inherited the surname of Ghirlandajo from his father, was born at Florence in 1451. He was taught to paint by Alesso Baldovinetti, an artist who was noted for his extreme finish, as also for his love of laying on colors with experimental mediums, whose deleterious action has destroyed the greater part of his works. Ghirlandajo was of a more cautious nature, and painted in distemper, – a method about whose durability there could be no question, -with the same careful minuteness as his master. The rich landscape in his fine altar-piece of the Adoration of the Magi, formerly in the Sassetti Chapel at Sta Trinita, and now in the Academy at Florence, is crowded with elaborate detail, worked out with a patience and skill which reminds us of the Van Eycks. The hill to the right of the composition, with its trees and shrubs and grazing sheep, is a marvel of finish. The winding road is filled with a procession of men and horses following in the train of the Magi, who kneel tranquilly to the left in the fore-ground, not in royal garments richly decked with gems of price, but in the guise of good Florentine citizens, whom Ghirlandajo painted with all that realistic truth which entitles him to be called the Holbein of Florence. The picture is peculiarly interesting as a compendium of the best qualities of the Florentine school of the period. Love of detail shows itself everywhere ; naturalism in the heads and hands of the Magi; and a classical spirit in the fine Corinthian columns which support the roof of the lowly cattle-shed, and in the richly sculptured antique sarcophagus in the foreground, with its festoons and elaborate Latin inscription. From one tendency of the time it is, how-ever, happily exempt, namely, that tendency to exaggeration in movement which marks the works of the Pollajuoli, Luca Signorelli, and other noted painters. It rather suggests the influence of Lionardo da Vinci’s school, which also originated in that of Masaccio. Lionardo himself or Lorenzo di Credi might have painted the Madonna with her sweet face, veiled head, and clasped hands, and the quaint little child who lies at her feet to receive the adoration which is his due.
The frescos of the Sassetti Chapel show the peculiar excellences of Ghirlandajo even more than the altar-piece, which was painted in 1485, and prove that, like so many other painters of Florence, he formed his dignified, noble, and severe style upon the great works of Masaccio, at the Carmine Chapel. Nothing in portraiture surpasses in truth the figures of Francesco Sassetti and his wife Nera, kneeling as donor and donatrix on either side of the altar; and yet heads by the score, of equal truth and character, may be found in his frescos at Sta Trinita and Sta Croce, heads, purely and firmly drawn, of Florentine men and women whom the painter, after the manner of Masaccio, introduced as spectators of some central incident. In all Ghirlandajo’s great compositions the picture plane represents a stage upon which the actors are arranged as in a tableau vivant. They generally appear as lookers-on, who take little or no part in the action ; but in the Death of St. Francis, perhaps the finest of his works, and in the Birth of the Virgin, at Santa Maria Novella, they play a more active part. The same love of truth, which made Ghirlandajo so admirable a painter of portraits, induced him to represent existing buildings and landscapes in his backgrounds. He was a realist in the higher sense of the term, who wanted the supreme grace of Filippino Lippi and the elegance of Botticelli, but who was never mannered like the Pollajuoli nor hard like Verocchio. Less scientific than Mantegna, less mystical than Angelico, and incapable of depicting the serene rapture which Perugino attained in his finest heads, he was an admirable draughtsman, skilled in perspective, and master of the laws of composition according to a somewhat formal code. He had, however, little feeling for color. Perugino was indeed no Venetian, but he always used color agreeably and sometimes with special charm, whereas the flesh-tones of Ghirlandajo are often disagreeable, and his association of hues is markedly inharmonious. In personal influence the two cannot be compared ; for while the Florentine master had no pupils of note excepting Michelangelo, who owed him little in the formation of his style, Pietro Vanucci moulded Raphael, and counted among his scholars such eminent painters as Lo Spagna, L’ Ingegno, Pinturicchio, Pietro Alfani, and Girolamo Genga.
That Ghirlandajo had so little effect upon Michelangelo, is partly to be accounted for by his having been sent to study the antique and modern treasures of art, which Lorenzo de’ Medici had gathered together in the Gardens of St. Mark, within a year after he became his pupil, and by his having found in them the food which his spirit needed for its nourishment. Although his work under Ghirlandajo taught him many desirable and necessary technicalities, it cannot have greatly advanced him in the higher walks of art. It consisted in preparing colors, fresco grounds, and panels for tempera painting ; in copying his master’s drawings ; in counterfeiting those of other eminent artists, which he did with wonderful fidelity, sometimes endeavoring to improve upon them, as when he painted a picture from Martin Schoen’s engraving of St. Anthony tormented by devils, to whose scales he gave the bright hues of those of the fishes which he selected at the market. It is impossible to suppose that the ardent spirit of one of the most original of men of genius can have satisfied itself with such imitative work as this. It must have tried its strength upon something more congenial, and though we have no such positive proof of creative effort as would be furnished by a dated picture, we feel inclined, when we look at the Taunton Madonna, to believe with the best critics, that it was painted at this rather than at a later time, although if so it is the most wonderful of juvenile works in any art.
The same difficulty, of assigning a fixed date to this picture, meets us in all Michelangelo’s undated works. While Raphael’s three styles are as distinct and separate as the three sides of a triangle, the works of Michelangelo show no such marked division, but like the circle have apparently neither beginning nor end. He painted under Ghirlandajo, and yet, so far as we know, never imitated his manner; he studied the frescos of Masaccio and Filippino Lippi at the Carmine, and showed no special trace of their influence upon him; and although he probably painted the Taunton Madonna while studying the antique, it shows no signs of such study, but is as Michelangelesque as the unfinished group of the Madonna and Child in the Medici Chapel, with which it has such strong affinities. The central group of the Virgin holding the infant Saviour is conceived in the same grand spirit, and has enough of the maniera terribile about it to recall the Sibyls of the Sistine Chapel. There is, however, a sweetness coupled with strength in the two groups of angels, which may well induce us to believe that the artist was young when he painted them. They are types of adolescence, scions of a vigorous race, with a freshness of youth about them which is in itself a great charm. They are also eminently plastic, showing, like all Michelangelo’s works, that he was always and before all a sculptor.
His opportunities for studying sculpture at the Academy opened by Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Gardens of St. Mark were altogether exceptional, and Michelangelo seized them with avidity. Many of the antique and modern marbles, bronzes, paintings, gems, cameos, and other works of art there collected belonged to the Medici treasures amassed by Cosmo, “Pater Patrice,” and added to by his grandson Lorenzo.
Some of these are now at the Uffizi, but as no inventory of the Medici collections exists, it is impossible to identify them with any certainty.” This is greatly to be regretted, because they exercised an important influence upon Michelangelo and other artists of the later Renaissance, after having, at an earlier period, aided in the education of those of Cosmo’s time, some of whose works were to take an honored place with the antiques from which they had learned so much. That Donatello’s David and his St. John were among these, or that he was otherwise worthily represented at the Academy, cannot be doubted, since the director was his old scholar Bertoldo ; and that Michelangelo studied his works is proved by a bas-relief of the Madonna and Child in the Casa Buonarroti, which is a creditable imitation of Donatello’s style.
We are told that Michelangelo had never taken a chisel in his hand until he entered Lorenzo’s Academy, and that the first use he made of it as to sculpture, after an antique model, the mask of a Faun or Satyr (Fig. 4), which, according to Vasari, gained him the friendship of Lorenzo de’ Medici. At first he filled the open mouth with a full set of teeth ; but when Lorenzo remarked that old people rarely kept all their teeth, the young sculptor, we are told, knocked out some of them with his hammer. The truth of this story is not, however, substantiated by the head itself, which is preserved at the Uffizi, as it shows a mouth with side teeth or tusks widely separated, leaving an imperfect cavity partially filled by the tongue, evidently so modelled to mark the antique distinction between the Satyr’s mouth and that of man. It was by his diligence and his marked superiority to his fellow-pupils, and not by any such special act of deference to his opinion, that Michelangelo attracted the notice of Lorenzo, who took him to live with him at the Palazzo de’ Medici, where he was treated with marked consideration and kindness by such men as Politian, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandula, and came in contact with many persons who were to play important parts in his after life. Among these were Bibbiena, the future Cardinal, Raphael’s relative and chief protector at the Court of Leo X.; Count Bernardo Castiglione, of whom so much has been already said in the preceding chapter; and also Giovanni and Giulio de’ Medici, the two sons of Lorenzo, who as Popes Leo X. and Clement VII. were to have great influence over his future career.
The four years which Michelangelo spent at the Medici Palace were the halcyon years of his life, unclouded by care, full of hope and promise, and joyful through the consciousness of expanding powers. They were also the years which did more than any others towards the formation of his mind and character, in which he learnt to love poetry, philosophy, and religion. The two first were daily subjects of conversation between Lorenzo and his associates, and the last stirred the hearts. of all who lived within the range of Savonarola’s warning voice. Michelangelo was not one of those who strove to shut it out, for, as he himself said in his later years, its sound still rang in his ears. It did not now work with full effect upon his preoccupied mind, while art held the first place in his thoughts and poetry the next. Philosophy was to be the mistress of his mature life, and religion was to sanctify its end. This succession of guiding influences shows itself plainly in his poems, which reflect, as in a mirror, the period when they were composed.13 The Platonic and the more especially religious sonnets were written during the middle and latter part of his life, but many of the madrigals seem as plainly to belong to that youthful time
“When blind Desire ran free, With bit and rein too loose to curb his flight.”
Like Dante, who personified theology in Beatrice, and philosophy in the Lady of the Convito, Michelangelo often speaks allegorically when he appears to be addressing a living mistress ; but as Dante was inspired by his love for a real Beatrice, so Michelangelo seems to have been moved to poetry by the magic power of some fair face. Such lines as these from the third madrigal,
“What shall defend me from the grace, The winning beauties of thy face ; What from the living splendor of thine eyes, Where Love embattled points his airy sorceries?”
or these from the thirty-ninth :
“Even when she slays me, my loved Fair Delights to act a double part : Her eyes speak passion, whilst her air And mien strike daggers through my heart” ;
or these from the twenty-fifth:
can hardly have been addressed to an abstract object. They read like the outpourings of a lovesick poet, writing in all the fervor of youth, and not like the verses of a man of sixty, fanning the embers of long-spent fires. To whom they were addressed we cannot even conjecture, for no woman’s name is coupled with that of Michelangelo by either of his biographers, save that of the noble Marchioness of Pescara, for whom his sentiments were of a very different nature. The story of his attachment to Luisa de’ Medici, the youngest daughter of Lorenzo, has no foundation. Betrothed at a very early age to one of the sons of Pier Francesco de’ Medici, she died unmarried (1494) at the age of seventeen. She was but twelve years old when Michelangelo came to live in her father’s palace, and though it is possible that he may have made her the subject of his day-dreams, we have not the slightest grounds for believing that such was the case. Whoever Michelangelo loved, we may rest assured that he loved nobly and loftily. No artist bears a fairer reputation for high moral character. “I have often,” says Condivi, “heard him speak about love ; and others who have listened to him on this subject will bear me out in saying that the only love of which he spoke was that kind of love which is to be read of in Plato’s works. For my part,” he adds, “I do not know what Plato says, but one thing I, who have lived with him so long and so intimately, can assert, that I have never heard any but the purest words issue from his mouth.”
This reference to the great Greek philosopher brings us to our second point, that influence of Platonic philosophy upon Michelangelo’s mind, which shows itself so plainly in his designation of ideal beauty as the true aim of art. It was certainly first brought to bear upon him while living at the Medici Palace, where he heard the most abstruse philosophic questions constantly and ably discussed; but he was then too young and too much absorbed by art – that Jacob’s ladder, rising from earth to heaven, upon which the angels of his fancy were ever ascending and descending – to do more than receive an impression which was calculated to bear fruit in his later years. The tone of his Platonic sonnets, as compared with that of such madrigals as we have quoted, proves that they cannot have been written at the same period. These are poems of youth, while they are the utterances of a soul which has risen above the perishable, and loves that which is eternal.
“Not thy clear face of beauty glorious; For he who harbors virtue still will choose To love what neither years nor death can blight.”
The poet of the sonnets loves beauty, not for itself, but because
“God hath not deigned to show himself elsewhere More clearly than in human forms sublime ; Which, since they image him, compel my love.”
The third great influence which shaped the character of Michelangelo was religion, While the guest of Lorenzo, he was wont from time to time to steal away from the lordly halls of a palace where wit and unbelief went hand in hand, to the Duomo, where a trembling and heart-stricken multitude sat at the feet of the prophet monk. As he listened to the reproaches addressed by Savonarola to Lorenzo de’ Medici and other princes who like him had crushed the liberties of Italy and corrupted the hearts of Italians, that dormant patriotism was stirred within him which long afterwards gave proof of its vitality by a noble devotion to his country’s cause ; and as he heard the earnest appeals made by the preacher to seek for truth in the Bible only, the religious instincts of his nature were moved, until like Festus he was ready to cry aloud, ” Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” The time when the living Vittoria Colonna added her influence to that of the dead Savonarola was yet far distant. The seeds then sown. in his heart did not quicken while other and more constant influences absorbed his time and his thoughts.
It was natural that, living in a palace frequented by ardent lovers of Greek and Roman literature, and filled with treasures of ancient art, Michelangelo should have selected a classical subject for his first important work in marble. By the advice of Politian he took that of the battle between Hercules and the Centaurs, and made a bas-relief, which is still preserved in the Casa Buonarroti. It is filled with an intricate web of struggling forms, whose vigor and energy of expression are eminently characteristic, and though wanting in clearness, concentration, and repose, is boldly conceived and executed. As the work of a boy of eighteen it is a marvel. A critic who of all the works of Michelangelo knew it and the Taunton Madonna only, could write a chapter upon his genius without missing one of its distinguishing characteristics. Dealing with nothing but the human form, and seeking no plastic ideal through the Greek method of selection and rejection, he took Nature as he found her, with her qualities and defects, and combining them into a whole, leavened it with the sublime. It is the impress of this element upon all which he touched that reconciles us to the exaggerated attitudes, the excessive muscular development, and the strained and unnatural positions of the head and limbs of so many of the great master’s sculptured figures. Take away the sublime, and you have the vapid style of his imitators, the husk without the kernel, the forced utterance of the ranter in lieu of the impassioned but natural speech of the true actor.
The bas-relief, and more especially the picture of which we have been speaking, illustrate what has already been pointed out as the most striking thing about Michelangelo’s beginnings in art, that, stepping at once upon his own ground, he began as he was to go on, ignoring the trammels of the schools, paying no attention to architectural or landscape backgrounds, not busying himself with the realistic imitation of objects around him, and disdaining to make a show of his knowledge of perspective, although he understood it like an Uccello or a Mantegna, or a parade of finish, although when he saw fit he could give as smooth a surface to marble or canvas as any artist of his time. From the first he recognized the human form as the great object of study, and strove to represent it in every possible and, we had almost said, impossible attitude. He shared with Winckelmann the Greek feeling that ” the highest object of art for thinking men is man,” and with this conviction, planting his midnight torch in the breast of a corpse, he pursued his investigations until he had mastered all the springs of action and could work them at will.
It was by such researches into the form that Michelangelo sought to alleviate his deep grief for the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1492, April.8) He was enabled to pursue these through the kindness of his friend the prior of S Spirito, who gave him a cell in the convent, where he could dissect dead bodies obtained lay the foundation of that few equals.
The loss of his best friend and patron, that first great sorrow of Michelangelo’s life, was all the more keenly felt because his shy, subjective nature led him to have little converse with men.Lonely and dispirited he went back to his father’s house, and remained there until Piero de’ Medici induced him to return to the Medici Palace, where he treated him as a hired servant, and employed him to build up a snow statue in his courtyard, fit emblem of the then unstable and crumbling fortunes of his house (January 20, 1494). Michelangelo’s sense of obligation to Lorenzo reconciled him at first to his position, but it was impossible for him to hold it long under such a representative of the family. The only way for him to shake himself free of Piero was to quit Florence, but to do so at this moment was no light matter for an honorable man, as it was to fly before a danger every loyal adherent of the family was called upon to share.
In August, 1494, the Alps were black with the gathering masses of the French army Charles VIII. was leading into Italy, at the invitation of Ludovico Sforza, with the avowed object of seizing upon the crown of Naples, which he claimed as the rightful heir of the house of Anjou. Florence stood in the invader’s path, and as the liberals within her walls, with Savonarola at their head, looked to Charles to deliver them from the tyranny of the Medici, it was a foregone conclusion that Piero would be driven into exile. We may suppose that Michelangelo reconciled his conscience to the step he was about to take, by reasoning, that to wait for the catastrophe would be worse than to depart before it happened, since he would then be obliged to fly with the man whom he despised. This would set him in a bad light before his fellow-citizens, a result he wished to avoid, as he fully sympathized with the popular party, to which, if he awaited the moment of its triumph, he would not be able to adhere openly, without appearing to be a traitor to the memory of his benefactor. Nothing, then, remained for him to do but to leave Florence while Piero still weakly held the reins of power. Having arrived at this conclusion, he went to Venice, where he remained only a few days, and thence, being out of funds, returned to Bologna. As Michelangelo’s purse was not a long one, and his luggage was light, he doubtless accomplished much of his long journey on foot.
In the mean time political events had ripened. Piero de’ Medici had quitted Florence in November, just in time to escape the French, and before Michelangelo reached Bologna had taken refuge there with his family and a few adherents, to the great dissatisfaction of the Bolognese. The city was so agitated, and the general condition of Italy so unsettled, that a law had been lately made by which any stranger entering or leaving the gates without having a seal of red wax upon his thumb-nail by which he could be recognized as such, had to pay a fine of fifty francs, or go to prison. Having neglected the required formality, and being unable to pay the fine, Michelangelo would have been imprisoned, had not a counterpart of the good Samaritan in the person of a magistrate, named Gian Francesco Aldovrandi, who happened to pass by at the very moment when he was about to be led away to prison, inquired his name and circumstances, ordered him to be set free, and offered him shelter in his house. It seems hardly probable that Aldovrandi’s act of kindness was induced by anything which he had heard of Michelangelo, whose reputation was not great enough to have preceded him at Bologna ; but rather that, being a cultivated man, fond of literature and the arts, and kindly disposed to all artists, he felt compassion for one whom he found in distress. The impulse was a noble one, and the yielding to it proved a mutual benefit ; for while, on the one hand, Michelangelo gained a home and a friend, his host secured the society of a man of rare genius, who could not only talk admirably upon many subjects, but who could read Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio aloud to him with the rare expression and deep appreciation of one who was himself a poet of a high order. While thus engaged, or when his mind was busy with the deep problems of art, philosophy, and religion, which were its habitual subjects of consideration, Michelangelo may have forgotten his past sorrows and future uncertainties ; but there must have been many hours when they pressed heavily upon one accustomed to the society of highly cultivated and learned men, and hitherto surrounded with works of art calculated to stimulate his imagination and cultivate his taste. Although Bologna seemed to him a place of exile, he could not return to Florence until political matters had assumed a more definite shape. Work of an absorbing character would have been a boon meanwhile, could he have found it, but all that his friend could procure for him, and this probably not without much difficulty on account of the jealousy of the Bolognese sculptors, were commissions from the monks of St. Domenick to finish a statuette of St. Petronius, begun by Niccola da Bari in the fifteenth century, for the monumental altar of the titular saint,” and to sculpture a kneeling angel holding a candelabrum, for the altar table. The angel (Fig. 6), which still keeps its place in the church, is sweet and pleasing, but wanting in that strength and fire which marked Michelangelo’s début at Florence, and were it the product of an unknown artist would hardly attract attention. Its heavy draperies remind us of those of Giacomo della Quercia (1425 -1433), whose bas-reliefs upon the doors of the basilica of St. Petronius Michelangelo undoubtedly studied. We have but to compare one of these the Creation of Adam by Quercia, who has been called Michelangelo’s precursor with the far mightier conception upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to feel that, consciously or unconsciously, Michelangelo must have had it in his mind. The actual similarity of the two compositions would not, indeed, impress us so strongly as proving Quercia’s influence, for both find their prototype in Ghiberti’s rendering of the same subject, were it not for their analogous feeling and sentiment.
It cannot be said that the time spent by Michelangelo at Bologna was barren of results if it thus aided in his artistic development. On his return to Florence, he found the city at peace under a comparatively stable republican government. Lorenzo and Giovanni, the sons of Pier Francesco de’ Medici, had given their allegiance to the new order of things and adopted the title of ” Popolani,” and Michelangelo could at last call himself a republican without any appearance of -ingratitude to their family. A complete transformation had taken place during his absence. Liberty had been regained without the shed-ding of a single drop of blood, and the beautiful city was now governed by equitable laws, framed with a recognition of individual rights and of the common dependence of all upon the Creator. The best citizens, under the guidance of Savonarola and the gonfaloniere Soderini, ruled the state, order and sobriety were everywhere visible, and the danger which threatened on all sides served but to bind men’s hearts together, with a firm resolve to maintain the republic at all hazards against the Medici, whose partisans unceasingly labored to bring about their return to power. The popular party were slow to believe in the liberalism of those who had been in any way connected with the Medici, and looked with distrust upon men who, like Michelangelo, kept up friendly relations with the ” Popolani,” whose adhesion to the republic every one knew to be insincere. In his case these relations did not imply bad faith, for it was natural that Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had inherited the literary and artistic tastes of his name-sake ” Il Magnifico,” should be interested in an artist whose education had been begun under his fostering care, and that, when he showed it, his advances should be met with the warmth of a grateful spirit, which could not forget the past. We have, however, no reason to suppose that he or his brother Giuliano made any attempt to engage Michelangelo in their political intrigues. Lorenzo gave him employment, and as the story goes, it was by his advice that he sent his latest work, a sleeping Cupid, to a Milanese dealer at Rome named Baldassare, with instructions to bury it in the ground until the marble surface had lost its freshness, and then sell it as an antique. This somewhat unworthy trick having been played upon the Cardinal di San Giorgio, who bought the statue for two hundred ducats and placed it in his palace on the Lungara, Baldassare endeavored to cheat Michelangelo into believing that the thirty ducats which he sent him was the whole sum which he had received for it. Not long after the cheat was discovered, and the statue was returned on the dealer’s hands. The Cardinal sent an emissary to Florence, who identified Michelangelo as the sculptor of the Cupid, and having assured himself that he had not been a party to the fraud, invited him to Rome in the name of his master.23 Anxious to get his statue, or a fair price for it, Michelangelo left Florence for Rome, and arrived there on the 15th of June, 1496. In his first letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici he states that he has been very kindly received at the palace, but that he has failed in his effort to get possession of the statue. He also mentions that the Cardinal sent him to look at certain statues in his palace, and asked him if he felt able ” to make something beautiful” for him. ” To this,” he adds, ” I replied that I would do my best to satisfy his Eminence, and I have since bought a piece of marble for a figure the size of life, and intend to begin it immediately.”
In reading this letter we cannot but regret that it contains no record of the writer’s first impressions of the Eternal City, though this could hardly have been expected from Michelangelo, whose letters are generally filled with statements of his personal affairs, coupled with energetic and laconic records of annoyances and disappointments connected with works commenced or lately finished, and contain few accounts of persons or surroundings. His provoking taciturnity in regard to places furnishes us with another illustration of the fact that descriptive writing is essentially modern. We have but to glance over the whole range of literature from ancient times up to the last century, when it came into vogue, to see that this is the case. What treasures the books of Pausanius would have been to us, had they been written in the spirit of a modern traveller ; or the Italian letters of Milton, had they been prodigal of details like those of Goethe in the Italienische Reise !
Flattered by the Cardinal’s reception, and sensible of the superior advantages of Rome as a residence for an artist, Michelangelo took a studio and remained there for four years,27 during which time he produced two works of an extremely opposite character, one of which, the famous Pietà at St. Peter’s, may be considered as an expression of the religious feelings which had been awakened in him by Savonarola, and the other, the Bacchus of the Uffizi, which he sculptured for Jacopo Gallo, may be taken as a typical representation of the life which surrounded him at Rome, then ruled by Alexander VI. Between the group and the statue there is that wide gap which separates the noble from the ignoble. The Bacchus represents a drunken youth with a wine-cup in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other, from which a little satyr is stealthily regaling himself. It embodies the vulgar idea of the god of wine, who differs from the inspired Dionysos as the Venus Pandemos from the Venus Urania, and scantily atones for its want of ideality by skilful modelling and anatomic correctness. We can only excuse Michelangelo for selecting such a subject by sup-posing that he consulted the taste of his employer rather than his own. In the Pietà, on the contrary, we may believe that he found a theme congenial to his mind.
He must have often wandered under the vast roof of the venerable basilica, so rich in associations with the purer ages of the Church, and so full of tombs of great and good men of past times, whose faith was a standing reproach to the scandalous unbelief of those in which his lot was cast. Impressed with the religio loci, and proud to think that a work from his hand was to be placed within the walls of this central edifice of Christendom, he determined to make his Pietà worthy of it, never dreaming that it was to be the first stone of the new temple which he was destined to raise upon the ruins of the old. Had he been told that it would stand in a new church planned by himself, and crowned with a dome which was to be the greatest monument to his memory, he would have looked sadly upon the venerable edifice whose last days were numbered.
The Pietà (see tail-piece) represents the mother of the Saviour of mankind gazing upon the mortal remains of him who is himself the spring of life, the fountain of faith in things unseen. To behold him lifeless whom she knew to be divine, was a source of wonder to one of her mortal nature ; but supposing, as we may, that since the day when the angel spoke to her, she had walked in the light of knowledge, we may believe that her feelings were not of a nature to call forth strong signs of grief when at last she bent over the lifeless body in which his divine spirit had deigned to dwell. Her chief office in art at all periods is to show her divine son to the world. While he is yet a child he sits enthroned upon her arm, or stands erect upon her lap like a statue upon its pedestal; and when he has grown to manhood and has consummated the mighty sacrifice which he came on earth to make, she lays him reverently across her knees, and sits in calm dignity, that all may see the blessed corpse of him who died that they might live.
Here, more completely than in any other work of modern sculpture, art and Christianity are allied; here alone, among the plastic works of Michelangelo, do we find evidence of that religious spirit which he embodied in his sonnets. In his sublime frescos at the Sistine Chapel he is a historian of sacred things, who rises to the lofty height of the inspired Hebrew writers in his own peculiar language, but he is not, from the nature of the subjects with which he there dealt, what he is in his Pieta, an exponent, through form, of the gospel spirit of absolute submission to the will of God, whose type is the prostrate figure of the dead Christ. In his sculptured Holy Families and Ma-donnas there is no show of Christian fervor ; still less in his mannered and unmeaning statue of Christ at the Minerva ; but little in his half-finished groups of the Deposition at Rome, Palestrina, and Florence ; and in the bas-relief at the Albergo dei Poveri at Genoa. Considering how truly religious he was, it seems strange that such slight trace of it is to be found in that art which, as he loved it most, would, we should have supposed, have been that in which his deepest feelings would have found expression.
Raphael’s mind was infinitely less religious than Michelangelo’s, and yet, judged by his works, he was the more Christian artist of the two. He not only entered into the spirit of the Old Testament, when he dealt with subjects drawn from it, but also into that of the New, when it became the fountain of his inspiration. Where is faith in Christ more fervently expressed than in the St. Peter of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes ? Where are humility and endurance more fully embodied than in the Christ of the Spasimo ? Where is the Divinity so wonderfully incarnated as in the infant Saviour of the San Sisto ? To parallel these and many others which we might cite among Raphael’s works, we have but the Pieta among those of Michelangelo. Harmoniously composed, its lines combine admirably from every point of view. Nor is the inner harmony of parts with each other less remarkable than that which they bear to the whole. What the Greeks call vraBos, that is, the unity of feeling which runs through the whole body of the dead Christ, is wonderfully rendered. The drooping head, the fallen arm, and the helpless hanging of the feet all tell of death, – of death which has not yet stiffened the limbs or robbed them of their suppleness. Unlike his later works, there is here no turgid swelling of muscles, or exaggeration of form, but all is simple, true to nature, and nobly pathetic.
Sculptured in the very last years of the fifteenth century, the Pieta stands like a boundary-stone on the extreme limits of the quattrocento. Its devotional spirit marks its connection with the art of the past, as its anatomical precision and masterly treatment connect it with that of the future. With it the first period of Michelangelo’s development ends. The curtain falls on Rome, and the scene opens with the new century at Florence, to which he returned, after an absence of four years, to begin a new phase of his life, to show a fresh development of his genius, and to engage with Lionardo da Vinci, who, after a nineteen years’ residence at Milan, had just returned to the banks of the Arno, in a world-renowned contest under the eyes of the young Raphael, who in this same year had commenced that course of training at Perugia which laid the foundations of a fame second to that of neither.
Born March 6, 1475. Apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandajo, April 1, 1488.
1. Marble mask of a Faun or Satyr, 14891490. Uffizi, Florence.
2. Battle of Hercules and the Centaurs, marble bas-relief, 1490 1492. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
3. Madonna and Child. Marble bas-relief in Donatello’s style, 1490-1492. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
4. The Madonna and Child with angels, called the Taunton Madonna. A painting in tempera now in the National Gallery was perhaps painted at this time.
5. Marble statue of Hercules, 14921493. Sent to France. At Fontainebleau in the ” Jardin de l’Étang” up to 1642. The garden was destroyed in 1713, and nothing is known as to the fate of the statue.
6. Wooden Crucifix sculptured for the Prior of Santo Spirito, 1494. Lost.
7. Marble Angel, 1494 1495. Altar of the Church of St. Domenick at Bologna.
8. Marble St. John, 1495. Doubtfully identified as that in the possession of Count
Rosselmini Gualandi at Pisa.
9. A sleeping Cupid, 14951496. Perhaps the one in the Museum at Mantua.
10. A cartoon of St. Francis receiving the Stigmata, 1496. Formerly at San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. Not extant.
11. Marble Bacchus, 14961500. Uffizi.
12. Marble Cupid, 1496-1500. Identified with that at the South Kensington Museum.
13. The, Pietà, 1499-1500. Chapel of St. Petronilla at St. Peter’s.