DURING the three years of Raphael’s life at Florence, whose fruits we have described in the last chap-ter, Michelangelo had been working at Rome for the Pope who so powerfully influenced the destinies of both artists. Called thither on the strength of his already great reputation, to give shape to the somewhat vaguely imagined artistic schemes of Julius II., Michelangelo had been kindly received at the Vatican, and at once charged with a commission which was to involve him in embarrassments and anxieties so much out of proportion with the final result, that could he have estimated them be would assuredly have refused a work which he prosecuted in alternate hope and despair for nearly half a century. It is strange to reflect that while the mausoleum of Julius II., which was to have been the greatest of his works, has contributed but little to his glory, the frescos of the Sistine Chapel, which he feared to undertake, have done more than all else to make his name famous throughout the world.
Michelangelo’s first interview with the Pope was a turning-point in his life, and we can have no doubt that he carried from it the im-pression that he had met his match in strength of will and energy of character. Julius was a man of war, who would not brook the slightest opposition to his wishes. When men stood in his way he set his foot on them, and when cities rebelled against him, he mounted his horse and rode in triumph over their ruined walls.1 But one man in the world, so far as we know, ever dared to oppose him, and that was Michelangelo, but although infinitely his superior both morally and intellectually, he did so in vain. Sparks will fly when flint and steel are brought into sharp contact, and so when their views clashed fire ensued. Had they not mutually esteemed each other they would have soon separated; but as vindictiveness was not in the nature of either, their frequent quarrels were followed by reconciliations, brought about through such concessions and explanations as each could make without undue sacrifice of dignity. To Raphael, whose pliant and gentle nature provoked no opposition, Julius was kind and gentle ; but when he met Michelangelo he bristled like the fretful porcupine, feeling that, though he might compel him to submit, he could not subdue him. Nevertheless, the truthfulness, sincerity, and honesty of his nature commanded the Pontiff’s respect; his strength and high endowments won his admiration, and bred in him a savage kind of affection, which was never satisfied unless its object was in sight and apparently content to be so. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was naturally in sympathy with resolute natures like his own, and attached to the Pope, but a disturbing element of mistrust, which was sufficient to prevent his giving him a full measure of respect, lurked in his mind. He knew that Julius would not scruple to break his word if he thought it for his interest to do so. Had he not purchased his election to the papacy by promising Csar Borgia to make him gonfaloniere of the Church if he would lend him his powerful aid, and then, when it was given, and the prize secured, had he not broken his promise on the ground that pacts made with Satan are not obligatory, and can be broken without risk of damnation ?
Julius was neither a libertine like Alexander VI., nor a spendthrift like Leo X. His sole aim was to increase the temporal power of the Church as centred in himself He took the name of Julius because it had been that of Caesar, and loved war not as a means but as an end. The large sum of money which he left in the papal treasury at his death proved that, despite the ceaseless wars in which he was engaged during his reign, he had managed the affairs of the state with remarkable economy. His nature was neither artistic nor studious, yet he did so much for arts and letters that he stands to Leo X. in the same relation as the Albizzi to the Medici. Seeing the full-blown flower, we are apt to forget the hand which fostered and trained the plant, and give credit for its beauty where credit is not altogether due. Thus in our admiration for the golden age of Leo we forget that it owed much of its literary and artistic glory to Julius, who first patronized and protected Bembo, Sadoleto, Castiglione, Flaminio, Bramante, Ariosto, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others to whom it owed its lustre. It is true that the favor which he showed them was partly induced by the feeling that they would promote his fame as a sovereign, and there is no doubt that his disposition to play the part of a Maecenas was encouraged by the example and advice of Leo himself, then Cardinal de’ Medici, the intimate friend of his favorite nephew, Galeotto della Rovere, whose early death strengthened the bonds between them ; but while we give these points due weight in determining the just position of Julius II. among great patrons of art and literature, we feel that to have given Michelangelo and Raphael the opportunity of developing their genius by the creation of those stupendous works which have immortalized their names, is in itself enough to entitle his name to grateful recollection ; though we regret that he allowed the destruction of the venerable basilica of St. Peter to make room for Michelangelo’s new church, and that of many mural paintings in the Vatican to provide place for Raphael’s frescos.
During the first years of his reign, Julius II. had little time to think of anything else than war ; but after the final expulsion of the French from Italy, and the conclusion of a treaty between Louis XII. and Ferdinand of Naples, Caesar Borgia and Piero de’ Medici being both dead, and the succession to the Duchy of Urbino secured to his nephew, Giuliano della Rovere, – he turned his attention for a few months to the arts of peace, and conceived the project of erecting a monument to himself which should surpass all other monuments in size and splendor. Michelangelo was commissioned to give sub-stance to this great scheme, and could the design which he produced have been carried out in all its details, there can be no doubt that the result would have fully satisfied the ambition of its projector. As no part of the basilica of St. Peter was capable of receiving a marble structure covering eight hundred square feet, and consisting of three storeys, the lower one of which was thirteen feet in height, the question of site had first to be considered. The plan suggested and adopted was the completion of the new Tribune begun by Pope Nicholas V. (1447 -1455), and this led to the destruction of the whole church, and its reconstruction on its present magnificent scale. The hand of the destroyer, once raised, was never stayed till every vestige of the venerable and precious shrine had been swept away. This act of vandalism was not even condoned by the carrying out of the scheme which had prompted it. Executed only in part by Michelangelo, the shrunken monument of Pope Julius stands at San Pietro in Vincula, and with the exception of one statue, responds in no sense either to the ambition of the Pon-tiff or the grand conception of the sculptor.
The descriptions of Vasari and Condivi, and a pen-and-ink sketch in the Casa Buonarroti at Florence, show us that it was to have been an immense quadrangular structure, thirty-six by twenty-seven feet at the base, raised upon a platform reached by steps. The lower storey was to have been decorated with niches, separated by terminal figures sup-porting a projecting cornice, and containing statues of prisoners naked and bound, symbolic either of the provinces added to the patrimony of the church by Julius, or of the arts and sciences rendered power-less by his death. Colossal statues of Moses, St. Paul, Rachel, and Leah were to have been placed above the cornice at the four corners of the flat surface of the monument, whose centre contained the papal effigy watched over by the angels of Grief and Consolation. This effigy, according to Vasari’s account, was to have rested upon the shoulders of two figures representing Heaven rejoicing and Earth grieving over the Pope’s death.
Of its forty statues, and its multiple bas-reliefs, cornices, and mouldings in marble and bronze, but few were even commenced, as we shall see when we come to speak of that later period of Michelangelo’s life to which they belong
Within four months of his first interview with the Pope, Michelangelo started for Carrara, where he spent eight months in superintending the extraction of marbles, in blocking out certain figures intended for this monument, and in planning a colossal work like that proposed by Dinocrates to Alexander the Great. One of the Carrara mountain-peaks was to be shaped into a gigantic figure, which could be seen far out at sea, but what it was to have represented we do not know. Anxious to return home, he abandoned the idea as soon as he was no longer needed at the quarries, and after spending a few days at Florence continued his journey to Rome, which he reached late in the month of November.
His one desire was to begin the monument as soon as possible, and in order that he might do so the Pope gave him a house in the immediate neighborhood of the Vatican, — too near, as it proved, for a long continuance of their friendly relations. To find himself subject to a visit from Julius, whenever the whim seized him to cross the bridge which had been built between the Vatican and his studio, must have been intolerable to Michelangelo, who loved privacy and was unaccustomed to work under supervision. This we suspect was one of the causes of the catastrophe which the Pope might have foreseen, had he known the nature of the man with whom he had to deal. Michelangelo does not, however, allude to it in the letter which he wrote to Giuliano da Sangallo after he reached Florence, the following extract from which shows, among other things, that the Pope had begun to count the cost of those great blocks of marble lying in the square behind St. Peter’s, ” whose number seemed to the people sufficient for the building of a temple rather than a tomb.”
“Talking at table with a jeweller and a master of the ceremonies, I heard that the Pope had said that he would not spend another bajocco upon big stones or little stones. Astonished at this, I determined be-fore leaving Rome to ask for a part of the money needed for the continuation of my work. When I did so, his Holiness sent me word to come again on Monday, and so I did, and also on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. At last on Friday the door was shut in my face by an attendant who said that he knew me very well, but that he must obey orders. This, however, was not the only cause of my departure ; there was also another reason, which I do not wish to mention.” This reason doubtless Was, that Julius had changed his mind about the monument, and had proposed to Michelangelo to decorate the Sistine Chapel with frescos. Both Vasari and Condivi tell us that this was brought about by Bramante, with the desire to ruin Michelangelo and thus bring Raphael forward. They say that he told his Holiness that he would hasten his death by building his own monument, and advised him to employ Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, hoping that he would fail in the attempt and thereby lose all favor at the Vatican. From these charges Bramante cannot be altogether exonerated, for it is evident that he had some hand in the matter from the testimony of Pietro Roselli, who, writing to Michelangelo, tells him that Bramante, being told by the Pope in his presence that Sangallo was to be sent to Florence to bring him back, replied, “It will be of no use, for I have heard him say several times that he would not paint the chapel as the Pope had ordered him to do,” adding, ” In my opinion Michelangelo is afraid to try his hand at a work which is out of his line.” ” This,” writes Roselli, ” I denied, and told the Pope that I would stake my head that you had never said a word to Bramante on the subject.” It is clear that, for some reason or other, Bramante placed himself in Michelangelo’s way, prevented him from doing what he had set his heart upon, and turned his powers in a direction in which most men would have said they were likely to be wasted. If this was his object we cannot characterize his spirit as other than malignant ; and yet we have reason to be grateful to him, for had he done otherwise, the world would have lost the sublime frescos of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for which the monument to Julius would have been but a poor compensation. Whether Bramante’s intrigues were prompted by jealousy, or, as we are told, by the desire to clear the way for Raphael, is a matter of consequence only so far as he is concerned; but it can hardly have been the latter, as he began them more than two years before Raphael came to Rome, when the fame of the young Umbrian was not great enough to give any one grounds for believing him capable of taking Michelangelo’s place.
It was on a Saturday in the month of May, 1506, that Michelangelo, who had paid for the last shipment of marbles from Carrara out of his own pocket, took the road to Florence, angry at the ill-treatment which he had received, and fully determined henceforward to leave the Pope to shift for himself. Pursued and overtaken by a messenger who used every argument to induce him to return, he kept on his way, and it was perhaps well for him that Julius had other rebels to deal with, and plans for their reduction to turn over in his mind while his anger was at white heat, else the towers of Florence, like those of Perugia and Bologna, might have shaken with the sound of his cannon. His demands that the fugitive should be immediately sent back were so imperious, and his menaces so violent, that Soderini was really alarmed as to the consequences of delayed compliance. “You have dared,” he said to Michelangelo, “to treat the Pope in a way the king of France would not have done, and as we are not inclined to risk our independence and go to war on your account, you had better make up your mind to obey.” Answering one of the papal briefs on the subject, he writes, ” Michelangelo the sculptor is so frightened that, not-withstanding the promise of forgiveness conveyed to him in this brief, he will not return unless you send us a signed letter promising him security and immunity.” That the gonfaloniere was frightened there is no doubt, but Michelangelo was not a man to be intimidated by threats, though, as Soderini wrote to his brother, the Cardinal of Volterra, ” if you speak kindly to him and treat him affectionately, you can do any-thing you please with him.” After three months spent in working upon his unfinished cartoon at Florence, he consented to go to Bologna ” with a halter round his neck,” to use his own words, ” to ask pardon of the Pope,” not because he was afraid to refuse, but because he did not wish to bring trouble upon his friends and fellow-citizens ; because he wished to return to Rome as soon as possible ; and lastly, because his Holiness had sent him word by the Cardinal of Pavia, in a letter addressed to the Signory of Florence, that ” he would receive him kindly and set him to work immediately.”
As Perugia and Bologna had submitted to the Pope after his bold march from Rome, Michelangelo had every reason to hope that he should find him in a comparatively amiable frame of mind when, after an absence of fifteen years, he re-entered the gates of Bologna, at the latter end of November. He was recognized by one of the Pope’s servants while attending mass at the cathedral of St. Petronius, and conducted to the palace where Julius had taken up his residence. After the irritation which showed itself in the first words addressed to him had spent itself upon a meddling Monsignore who proffered an unasked excuse for the culprit, the papal brow relaxed its frown, and the papal eyes once more looked kindly on the repentant fugitive, who was needed for the realization of a new project. This was to make a colossal bronze statue of the Pope, which, seated above the great door of St. Petronius, would perpetually remind the Bolognese of their absent master. The clay model, which was immediately begun, was nearly finished before the 22d of February, when Julius, alarmed at the movements of Louis XII. of France, who was preparing to make a descent into Italy to reduce revolted Genoa to obedience, left Bologna for Rome. His last words to Michelangelo about the statue are characteristic of the man. Questioned as to whether the left hand of the figure should hold a book, the right being raised in a menacing attitude, he replied, “Rather a sword, for I am no reader.”
At the end of April, when the figure was ready to be cast in bronze, Michelangelo seems suddenly to have remembered that, as he knew nothing of the processes of the font, he could not go on further with-out the assistance of a skilled workman. He accordingly wrote to Florence for Maestro Bernardino d’Antonio, a master of artillery in the service of the Florentine Republic, much renowned as a bronze-caster, who, after obtaining the necessary permission, joined him at Bologna towards the end of May. A month later an attempt was made to cast the figure, but, as he says in a letter to his brother, ” either on account of the ignorance or misfortune of Bernardino it has failed. Half the bronze has stuck in the furnace, which must be taken to pieces in order to get it out. When this is done, all will go well I trust, but not without great annoyance, fatigue, and expense. So great was my faith in Bernardino, that I was ready to believe that he could have cast the statue without fire ; not that I mean to say that he is not a skilful artist, or that he did not do his best. But those who work are liable to fail. And he has failed, not only to my injury but to his own, for he is blamed in such a fashion that he hardly dares to raise his eyes in Bologna.”
The second casting succeeded much better, but even this seems to have been less perfect than might have been hoped, as several months of hard work were afterwards spent in cleaning and polishing the surface of the statue. In November it was finished ; but as the Pope had made Michelangelo promise to remain at Bologna until it was actually placed above the door of the basilica, he was obliged to restrain his impatience until the 21st of February, 1508, when the final ceremony took place with the accustomed rejoicings. Pipes, trumpets, drums, and bells made the day sonorous, and fêtes and fireworks made the night joyous. Four years later, when the Bentivogli came back to enjoy their own again, a furious rabble gathered in the square before the church, bent on the destruction of this effigy of a now detested taskmaster (December 30, 1511). Lowered to the pavement upon which, despite every precaution, it left the impress of its enormous weight, it was delivered over to the insults of the populace, and then broken into fragments which were given, in exchange for some pieces of artillery, to the Duke of Ferrara, who recast them in the shape of a huge cannon, fit symbol of so bellicose a pope as Julius II.
The many letters written by Michelangelo to his brother Buonarroti during his forced and prolonged stay at Bologna, are filled with expressions of discontent. “Like everything else here,” he writes, “the wine is dear and bad, so that life is a burden, and it seems to me a thou-sand years before I can come to you”; and again, ” I must stick to my work, else it will detain me another six months”; and again, “Know that I desire a speedy return even more than you desire it for me, for I live here in the greatest discomfort and undergo the most extreme fatigues, working day and night; you would be sorry for me if you knew how I am situated here.” Writing to his younger brother Giovan Simone, he alludes in a half-joking way to the plague which had broken out at Bologna. “You tell me that you have heard from one of your friends, a physician, that the pest is a bad disease which kills. I am glad that you have heard this, for we have it here, and these Bolognese have not yet found out that it is a mortal sickness.” These letters, like many others addressed to his two brothers, his father, and his nephew, give us a strong impression of the warmth of Michelangelo’s natural affections. They show him to have been a most dutiful son and a kind brother, who gave his money and thought, and what time he could spare from work, to help his relations. ” I wish you to feel,” he writes to his father, for whom he had a never-failing sense of reverence, “that my labors have always been as much for you as for myself; that which I have bought was bought to be yours as long as you live, for if you had not been living I should not have bought it.” When his brother Giovan Simone had ill treated his father, he wrote to him in the most severe terms: : “I have done my best for many years by kind words and deeds to make you live peaceably with your father and with us, and yet you go on from bad to worse. I will not call you a rascal, but you are so to such an extent that you no longer please me or any one else To speak concisely, I tell you that all that you have I have given you, believing you to be my brother like the rest. Now I know surely that you are not, for if you were you would not have threatened my father; you are a brute, and deserve to be treated like a brute. If you will behave yourself decently, and reverence and honor your father, I will help you like the rest, and will soon establish you in a good trade. But if you continue to conduct yourself ill, you. may expect me to come and teach you what you are better than you ever knew,” etc.
The postscript to this letter is as pathetic as it energetic. “For twelve years,” says the writer, “I have wandered about Italy, bearing all sorts of affronts, suffering every extremity, wearing out my body with overwork and exposing myself to every danger, and this only that I might help my relations ; and now, just as I am beginning to set my house on its legs, you, with your escapades and bad deeds, are trying to destroy in an hour the work of years, and toils without number. By the body of Christ you shall not do it, for if need be I am able to thwart a thousand fellows like you. Be warned in time, and take care how you again rouse my anger.”
The privations and labors to which Michelangelo alludes in this postscript are not in any wise exaggerated, nor is their object, namely, that he might assist his relations, incorrectly stated. His personal expenditure was always extremely restricted, so much so that his father, while advising economy, warns him against penurious habits. His disposition was not miserly, but he allowed himself only what was strictly necessary, that he might indulge himself in the luxury of giving. He was not by nature inclined to self-indulgence of any sort. Work was his one idea, and recreation a word unknown in his vocabulary. In this as in every other respect he was unlike the members of his family, who were all men of mediocre abilities. His father, Ludovico, being both weak and grasping, was constantly getting into difficulties out of which he was as constantly helped by his dutiful son both before and after the time when, by a legal act, he resigned all claim upon him for support. The best of his brothers was Buonarroto, whom he established in business as a cloth merchant, and to whom he was much attached, despite his frequent ingratitude. Of Gian Simone we have already spoken, and of his bad and wasteful habits. Little is known of his eldest brother, Lionardo, who under the influence of Savonarola became a monk; or of Sigismund, the youngest of the family, who, after fighting under many banners, settled quietly at Settigriano on the family domain. Of his mother, history tells us nothing save her name. We may therefore suppose that she was in no wise remarkable, and, as he alludes to her neither in his letters nor his sonnets, conclude that he had no special reverence for her memory. He inherited neither his genius, his character, his heart, nor his intellect from either parent, and in all respects he towers above his brothers in solitary grandeur, “as the cypress above the humble vines.”
On his return to Florence from Bologna (March, 1508), Michelangelo took a year’s lease of the house in the Borgo Pinti, which had been built for him by the Board of Works of the Cathedral, at the time when he accepted the commission for the statues of the Twelve Apostles, with the intention of completing these and other works which he had begun before he entered the papal service ; but as the Pope insisted upon his return, not indeed to go on with his monument, which he would gladly have resumed, but to paint frescos in the Sistine Chapel, which he had no inclination to undertake, he changed his plans, and taking the road to Rome arrived there before the end of June.
Raphael had either preceded him by a couple of months, or followed him almost immediately. We know by the date of a letter to his uncle Simone Ciarla that he was at Florence in April, and by that of his well-known epistle to Francesco Francia that he was at Rome in September. Italy’s two greatest artists were thus established in her ancient capital in the summer of 1508.
They met in the papal antechamber, or on the steps of the Vatican; the one walking solitary and alone, “like an executioner,” the other surrounded by a troup of students and friends, ” like a prince.” Though seemingly unconscious of each other’s presence, each recognized the other as a king among the artists of his time, and one at least probably regretted the antagonisms which kept them apart. Not only were their aims, their views, and their characters absolutely opposed, but the circumstances connected with Raphael’s call to Rome were such as to prejudice Michelangelo strongly against him, and to render it impossible for even so amiable a person as Raphael to make any advances calculated to promote a more friendly feeling between them. In him Michelangelo saw the relative of Bramante, who had influenced the Pope to abandon a work to which he had hoped to dedicate his best years, and to force him to another for which, in the beginning at least, he had no mind. This was in itself enough to make him shrink from contact with one whom he was already inclined to shun as the scholar of Perugino, whose person and art were alike distasteful to him. While then we can fully understand the motives of Michelangelo’s dislike to Raphael, we are sure that he was incapable of the petty jealousy which so often blinds the eyes of little men to the talent of those who belong to their own profession. ” To recognize their equal, even their better, when they meet him,” says Swinburne,18 “must be the greatest delight of great men.” “All the gods,” says a French essayist, “delight in worship. Is one lesser for the other’s godhead ? Divine things give divine thanks for companionship; the stars sang not one at once, but all together.” Thus Michelangelo, though he said but little about the genius of Raphael, must have acknowledged it to himself, and have watched its growth and culmination with interest. As for Raphael, we know that so far from feeling jealous of his great contemporary, he “thanked God that he had been born in the same century with him.” Outside causes for Michelangelo’s antagonism to Raphael are easily to be found in the partisan spirit of his followers, to whose innuendoes and disparaging criticisms he did not always shut his ears, as a man of an equally noble but of a less morose disposition would have done. Living much by himself, and shunning the contact-of all who did not actually thrust themselves upon him, he believed many things which Sebastiano del Piombo and Lionardo di Compagno said against Raphael, and took no pains to verify the truth of their statements.
When they first met at Rome, he was completely absorbed by the many perplexities and anxieties growing out of his new task ; and, save when his papal tormentor shook him rudely by the shoulder and forced him to raise his eyes in sorrow or in wrath, he moved in a world of his own, peopled only with the gigantic shadows whose images he was about to represent upon the roof of the Sistine Chapel. On his return to Rome he had urged to wilfully deaf ears that he was no painter, that sculpture was his art, and that he wished to go on with the Julius monument, until wearied with combating a will even stronger than his own, he accepted the work, and bravely commenced it before the close of the year 1508, which was indeed what the Germans would call a “wonder year ” at Rome. With Michelangelo at work in the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael in the Stanze of the Vatican, the Pope’s ambition to be regarded as the pivot of artistic activity must have been fully satisfied. Maximilian had his Albert Dürer, and Ludovico Sforza his Lionardo da Vinci, but since the days when Lysippus the sculptor and Apelles the painter served Alexander the Great, no sovereign had kept the two greatest artists of his time simultaneously employed.
After he had unwillingly accepted the task of decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo did not immediately begin to work upon so grand a scale as that which he afterwards adopted. Like a ship putting to sea against head-winds, forced to tack from side to side, he seemed uncertain what course to take. He first proposed to paint figures of the Twelve Apostles in the lunettes, and to fill the rest of the space with ornamental work ; and then, dissatisfied, told the Pope that this would lead to a poor result, and would not be content until he was told to do what he liked. The scaffold which Bramante, as papal architect, had been ordered to prepare, did not suit him, and again he complained, and again was allowed to have his way.
Then he doubted his capacity to paint in fresco, and sent to Florence for skilled men to paint under his direction. Among them came his old friend Francesco Granacci, whom he welcomed at first, but being soon vexed and disappointed with the slowness and dulness of his work, as well as that of his associates, he destroyed what they had done, and single-handed grappled with the difficulties of his herculean task. It is not, however, to be supposed that he performed the manual as well as the artistic labor connected with it, or that he refused to keep a workman to prepare his colors, as stated by Vasari. With the Pope ever grumbling at his back because he did not get on fast enough to satisfy his impatient spirit, we may be sure that Michelangelo wasted no time in unnecessary work. There was more than enough of a kind which he alone could do to occupy him unceasingly, not only for twenty months, as Vasari would have us believe, but for four years, during which he worked in the chapel or for it, when not compelled by physical and mental exhaustion to take rest in a change of occupation. He spent month after month shut up in a gloomy and solitary space between the ceiling of the chapel and the top of the scaffold erected to reach it, now painting, now poring over the writings of the Prophets and the sermons of Savonarola, living, says Michelet, ” like Elias in the cave of Carmel.”
Day after day he sat with his head thrown back and his eyes turned upwards, or lay on a couch placed on a movable scaffold, until his eye-sight was so much affected that for months afterwards he could neither read letters nor look at drawings without holding them above his head. In a sonnet to his friend Giovanni da Pistoja, he thus graphically describes the troubles and inconveniences incident to his position: –
“I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den, As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be, Which drives the belly close beneath the chin : My beard turns up to heaven ; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine ; my breastbone visibly Grows like a harp ; a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin ; My loins into my paunch like levers grind ; My buttock like a crupper bears my weight ; My feet unguided wander to and fro ; In front my skin grows loose and long, behind By bending it becomes more taut and straight: Backward I strain me like a Syrian bow, Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye : For ill can aim the gun that bends awry Come then, Giovanni, try To succor my dead pictures and my fame ; Since foul I fare, and painting is my shame.
If we consider the state of the chapel when Michelangelo began to paint in it, we shall realize how large an area of wall-surface had yet to be covered. The side walls had been decorated with a series of frescos painted before the death of Sixtus IV. by Luca Signorelli, Perugino, Roselli, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, and Ghirlandajo (some of which were afterwards destroyed to make room at the end of the chapel for the Last Judgment), and with a continuous row of draperies directly under them filled the space between the floor and the cornice, with the exception of that occupied by six round-headed windows on each side of the chapel, and by two at the upper end.
Michelangelo divided the vaulted ceiling into compartments, within which he painted scenes from the Book of Genesis. In the pendentives he represented the sublime figures of the Sibyls and Prophets, and in the lunettes scenes from the Old Testament. All these he bound together by a simulated architectural framework, vivified by figures representing the genii of architecture.
On entering the Sistine Chapel for the first time, the mind receives a somewhat confused impression, owing to the multiplicity of compositions and figures. Gigantic forms are strewn with an unsparing hand over the great vaulted space, like stars in the firmament, – a galaxy of human shapes, forming separate constellations, whose limits are de-fined by architectural divisions, and ornaments painted in relief. It is as if the historical scenes and prophetic aspects of the Old Testament had been suddenly unrolled before our eyes, and we were called upon to take in their double meaning at a glance. Seeking the key, we naturally begin by looking at the frescos of Ghirlandajo and Perugino on the side walls, representing incidents belonging to the old and the new dispensation, the law of Moses and the law of Christ, but, admirable as we might think them elsewhere, we have here eyes for Michelangelo only. Compared with the lyric grandeur of inspiration which animates his work, the spirit of the older masters seems cold and lifeless. In looking at their work we can talk about the laws of composition and form, and coldly analyze, but when we look upwards we are swept along by the resistless current of the artist’s inspiration. Throwing aside traditions, precepts, maxims, laws, canons of proportion and of taste, and all other weapons of criticism, we give ourselves up to the master-spirit to do with us as he will.
The theme of the great poem which he has spread before us is man and his redemption. The separation of light from darkness, the creation of the sun and moon, and of man and woman by the hand of God, the Fall and Expulsion from Paradise, the Deluge, the Sacrifice and Drunkenness of Noah, and many typical incidents of Jewish history are represented in it, and the compartments which contain these compositions are separated from each other by nude figures seated upon pedestals, placed on either side of the spaces filled by the sublime forms of the Prophets and Sibyls, whose names, as foretellers of the coming of Christ, are inscribed upon tablets held aloft by genii. Painted in dark tones of stone or bronze, they serve to bind the whole together, to divide space into clearly appreciable masses, and to give the ceiling that aspect of solidity which is attained in real construction by material means. The nude figures which have been called the genii of architecture, though more properly, perhaps, they might be called the genii of decorative art, have a faun-like character expressing exuberance of life. They show us that the human form was so absolutely all in all to Michelangelo, that he used it decoratively in lieu of grotesques, arabesques, and conventional foliage, and thus imparted a unity of effect to his ceiling which could not have been attained in any other way.
Before he had proceeded far with his work Michelangelo was thrown into a state of despair by the appearance of mould upon the freshly painted surface. “I told you,” he said to the Pope, “that I was no fresco-painter ; what I have done is ruined. If you doubt it, send some one to look at it.” When Giuliano da Sangallo came, he consoled the alarmed artist by telling him that it arose from the peculiar quality of the Roman plaster, and would disappear as that gradually became dry.25 With his mind set at ease, he began to paint the Deluge, but finding that, on account of their small size, the figures produced no effect when looked at from the floor of the chapel, he adopted in the remaining compartments that far grander scale of pro-portion which met all requirements, and gave him a much greater opportunity for the display of his powers. This is not at all incompatible with his having prepared a general design before he began to paint,26 for in this there would have been no question of relative scale to height of ceiling from floor. The great crowd of figures in the Deluge, as he designed it, necessarily limited their size, and may have led him into an error which he might have avoided, had he duly considered the dimensions of the compartment in which it was to be painted, and expressed his subject by a group.
If we were asked to point out the finest figure in the Sistine Chapel, we should unhesitatingly select the Adam, perhaps the grandest single figure to be met with in the whole range of modern art. The fresco to which it belongs represents God the Father, as a venerable old man, stretching forth his right hand until it touches that of Adam, which rises to meet it, as if compelled by a magnetic power. Reclining upon his mother earth, and but half awakened to consciousness, the first man draws his first breath, and receives the gift of life from the Divine Hand. His attitude recalls that of the Theseus, and like it the Adam is a noble abstract of form, an abstract less pure, less in accordance with the higher laws of sculpture than the Parthenon marble, but yet nearer to the Greek standard than any modern figure with which we are acquainted.
The Creation of Eve, like that of Adam, is one of those compositions which establish a type. God here calls the mother of mankind into existence, and she comes at his command, bending forward with clasped hands, her first act one of adoration. The Temptation and the Expulsion from Paradise, which fill the next compartment of the ceiling, represent progressive stages of the story of the Fall in one composition, a common practice in earlier times, of which it will be sufficient to cite the reliefs by Ghiberti upon the second gate of the Baptistery, and the frescos by Masaccio and Filippino Lippi in the Carmine Chapel at Florence as typical examples. The skill with which Michelangelo has combined two actions in this fresco, so as to keep them distinct and yet give a single impression to the eye, is such that he who can quarrel with the result must be overstrict about the unities. Few works are finer in composition, and few more powerful in expression, and yet the impression left upon the mind is somewhat distasteful. The Preparation for a Sacrifice and the Drunkenness of Noah, represented in the two other compartments of the ceiling, as well as the Judith and Holofernes, the David and Goliath, the Brazen Serpent, and the Hanging of Haman, in the pendentives, are conceived in the same grand spirit as the rest, but we shall not treat of them in detail, as we prefer to dwell upon the general character of the frescos rather than to repeat descriptions given abundantly elsewhere.
One of their most striking and admirable characteristics is their thoroughly Biblical nature. They are the work of an artist who has so imbibed the spirit of Sacred Writ, that even when dealing with the Sibyls, whose connection with ancient life might have led him out of the sphere of the Scriptures, he treats them as seers filled with the spirit of prophecy and occupied only with the Messiah’s advent.
The Delphic Sibyl, once Apollo’s mouthpiece (the eloquent virgin who died and was buried in the wood sacred to the Sminthian Apollo in the Troad), has revived to announce the coming of the Saviour. With raised head, and hands which hold the sacred scroll, she looks out with noble confidence upon a world whose future is assured. The Cumaean Sibyl, who foretold the greatness of Rome and the end of the world, is poring over the pages of a book, as if not yet mistress of the greater secret which her sisters have mastered. The Libyan, daughter of Jupiter and granddaughter of Neptune, forgetting the fables of classic days, sits in strangely contorted attitude like a Delphic priestess upon her tripod, while she recounts the future miracles of Christ, and speaks of the virgin who shall nourish him in her bosom. The Erythraean Sibyl (Fig. 8), who sees the Saviour, and the Persian, who talks of the Deluge and calls herself a Christian, appear more calmly before the world, the first with her hand resting upon the open pages of a book, the second intently reading in a volume which she holds in her uplifted hands.
These grand female figures alternate with those of the Prophets in the pendentives of the ceiling. Isaiah (Fig. 9), Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, who starts forward as if he saw the celestial vision which he has recorded, are all here, together with three of the lesser prophets, Jonah, Joel, and Zachariah,27 each one attended by a familiar spirit who prompts his utterance.
“Seeing on all sides these terrible faces,” says Michelet,28 “one does not know who first to listen to, nor from whom to ask an explanation. The gigantic creatures are so intently absorbed that one does not dare to address them. Ezekiel is engaged in a furious dispute; Daniel copies, copies, without stopping even to breathe; the Lybica is about to rise from her seat ; Zachariah, aged and bald, in his eagerness to read is unaware of the fatiguing attitude which he has taken ; the Persica, with pointed nose, wrapped in her old woman’s mantle which covers her head, humpbacked through age and through centuries of reading, miserly and envious, wears out her eager eyes over a little book written in illegible characters. She doubtless reads late into the night, for I see beside her the beautiful Erythrea, who has relighted her smouldering fire and trimmed her lamp, that she may write. Studious and learned Sibyls, ye belong to the sixteenth century. The youngest, the Delphica, who thunders from her tripod, is the only ancient one among you. Virgin and fruitful, overflowing with the spirit of prophecy, with swollen breasts and dilated nostrils, she launches a bitter glance from her eyes, that of the Virgin of Tauris.”
All these Sibyls and Prophets form the chorus to the great drama of humanity upon the ceiling. Their inspired voices ring out the noble lines of Virgil which announce the return of Astraea and the sending down of a new progeny from high heaven, but with a deeper meaning. As we listen to them we seem to hear such prophetic words as these in which the Celtic bards predicted a better future :
1. Three things diminish day by day, as day by day antagonism grows, – hatred, injustice, and ignorance.
“2. Three things strengthen day by day, as day by day the world tends toward them, – love, science, and justice.
“3. Three things continually diminish, – obscurity, error, and death.
“4. Three things continually grow, – light, truth, and life. ” These things will in the end predominate over all the rest, and then evil will be destroyed.”
Michelangelo did his part as man and as artist in the great work of which that consummation will be the result. He fought perpetually against hatred, injustice, ignorance, and error. He grew in love, attained science, and had a high sense of justice; he conquered death by a strong faith, and walking with truth and aiming at the life eternal, advanced steadily to the light.
To have conceived and executed such a work as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel demanded a man who was all that he was. He here showed himself as architect in construction, as sculptor in form, as painter in design and color, as poet in imagination. Perhaps no other man ever lived who could have grappled successfully with such an enterprise, for even if we could name one who had the requisite knowledge of all the arts of design, and the poetical genius, this knowledge and that gift would not have been sufficient for the task without his titanic boldness of spirit. To Michelangelo the blank wall and the shapeless marble from the quarry were full of illimitable possibilities; the brush and the chisel were the keys with which he opened the doors of the temple of humanity, out of which came prophets and kings and prisoners at his bidding. To will and to do, to think and to act, to attempt what seemed beyond human power and to succeed, to materialize the creatures of his imagination, however abstract, in marble or color – this he did through that self-reliance which gave him courage to undertake what no one else could have carried through.
It is precisely on account of his daring contempt of limitations, that the painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling seems to us far greater than the sculptor of the Medici tombs. The same power, the same maniera terribile, shows itself in both, but in the one its use is much more legitimate than in the other, for of all the arts sculpture is the most limited in its range of expression.
In the ” Laocoön,” which treats of the proper limits of painting and poetry, Lessing sustains the just theory that the arts can only be brought to perfection by rigorously confining each to its separate do-main. This domain is more or less wide according as the art in question is more or less fettered by the material which forms its avenue of expression. The range widens for painting and music, and attains perfect freedom of expression in poetry. That of sculpture is, then, the narrowest of all, for its office is to represent form in marble. That of painting, with all the resources of grouping, color, perspective, and light and shade, is wider, though even it is far less free than poetry. The poet, “not being obliged, like the painter, to limit his subject to a moment of time, takes any subject which pleases him, and follows it up from its source through every change. Each phase, which would cost the painter a separate work, costs him but a single stroke of the pen ; and lest this stroke, taken by itself, should trouble the imagination of his auditor, it may be so prepared by what gees before, or so softened and improved by that which follows, as to leave the happiest impression upon his mind.” If we accept the above reasoning as sound, we see why Michelangelo sinned least against canons of taste in the art which allowed him most freedom, namely, in that of painting, though here, too, he often overstepped legitimate bounds. Better than any other artist he could have signed his statues ” Pictor,” and his pictures ” Sculptor,” for he used the chisel like a brush and oftentimes the brush like a chisel. In the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the sculptor everywhere shows his face behind the painter’s work, and yet Michelangelo was greater as a painter than as a sculptor, because painting allowed his thoughts quicker expression, since it placed fewer material obstacles in his way. It was because he would not acknowledge to himself that the sculptor is more or less enslaved by material exigencies that he has left us so many half-finished statues.
Had he followed in his art the advice which he gave to his father, “Do what you have to do without getting into a passion about it, for there is nothing which we are called upon to do, however great, that will not appear small if approached calmly,” these would have been fewer, and had he applied it to circumstances, half the troubles and annoyances of his life would have been avoided. They were manifold while he was painting in the Sistine Chapel. In June, 1508, when preparing to commence his work there, he writes, “I am sick at heart, ill, and worn out with fatigue, helpless and penniless. For thirteen months the Pope has paid me nothing.” A year later, he complains, “the Pope has given me no money for a twelvemonth ; but I do not ask for it, for I feel that I have not earned it, and this because painting is not the sort of work which I am fit for. I waste my time and perfect nothing,” In one of these moments of despair and discontent he wrote that powerful sonnet in which he protests against the uses to which papal tyranny has subjected him. What bitter words are these of his to Julius :
“I am thy drudge, and have been from my youth. Thine, like the rays which the sun’s circle fill ; Yet of my dear time’s waste thou think’st no ill : The more I toil, the less I move thy ruth.”