AMONG Michelangelo’s works is an unfinished bust of Brutus (Plate IX.). The shape of the head fully corresponds to the expression of the face, which is stern, defiant, and resolute. The exact date of this work, and the circumstances under which it was commenced and abandoned, are not known, but it was probably begun shortly before the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici, as a relief to feelings under whose influence the artist thought of Brutus only as a passionate lover of liberty, and given up when the dagger of the ” Tuscan Brutus” laid that ignoble Caesar low, and brought before him the nature of such a deed in all its heinousness. We know what Michelangelo thought of tyrannicide as a remedy for political evils by the words which he addressed to certain Florentine exiles at Rome a few years later, as reported in one of the dialogues of Giannotti. They were discussing the question as to why Dante consigned Brutus and Cassius to the jaws of Lucifer, and Michelangelo suggested that “perhaps the poet may have thought that Csar, had he lived, would have grown weary of absolute power, and, like Sulla, have reorganized the republic. If so, those who killed him caused an irreparable evil, for his successors proved to be greater tyrants than himself, thus showing that tyranny does not always perish with a tyrant, and that assassination is often as fruitless as it is criminal. Something good,” he added, ” may be hoped for from a living prince, but no one can say whether any will result from his death. I detest those who think an evil deed can be the source of good. Times change, new chances arise, wishes vary, men grow weary, and thus beyond all reasonable hope the desired end may come about in the natural course of things, without the criminal agency of any one.”
It was with some such reasonings as these that Michelangelo probably endeavored to comfort himself while residing at Florence during the latter part of Clement VII.’s reign. Alessandro de’ Medici regarded him with suspicion and dislike, and had it not been for the Pope’s protection might have proceeded to some overt act against him, and anxious as he was to return to Rome on this account, and because he wished to fulfil his contract with the Duke of Urbino, it was impossible to do so, as the Pope ordered him, under pain of excommunication, to remain and devote his time wholly to the Medici Chapel and the Laurentian Library . He was allowed to pay only one or two flying visits to Rome until September, 1534, when, having completed all necessary arrangements for the prosecution of the work at Florence by his assistants, he hurried to Rome and arrived there only two days before Clement breathed his lasts Condivi says that it was well for him that he was out of the Duke’s reach; but it is clear that he was not afraid to trust himself within it, for he returned to Florence almost immediately to look after his workmen, who were thrown out of employment when within a fortnight of completing the ceiling of the Medici Chapel.
The new Pope, Paul III., whose election took place in December, was a Farnese, and indifferent to the posthumous glory of the Medici. As little did he care for that of the Della Rovere, so that when he summoned Michelangelo back to Rome it was not to bid him finish the monuments of Lorenzo and Giuliano, and the Laurentian Library, nor to allow him to work upon the monument of Julius II., but to carry out a scheme conceived by his predecessor, which would reflect glory upon his own reign. He knew that designs for a fresco of the Last Judgment, to be painted in the Sistine Chapel, had been prepared for Clement’s acceptance, and when he went to Michelangelo’s studio to see them, it was with the determination that they should be used immediately.
Among the cardinals who accompanied him was his Eminence of Mantua, who, on beholding the Moses, declared it to be in itself a sufficient monument to Julius II. Seizing this idea, the Pope over-ruled the plea of Michelangelo that he must complete his contract with the Duke of Urbino before he could undertake to paint the Last Judgment, and promised to make the Duke content himself with the Moses and two other statues as a final arrangement. Preparations for the fresco were actively carried on during the following year, and he commenced it in September, 1534, as chief architect, sculptor, and painter to the Pope, with an annual salary of twelve hundred golden florins. For the next seven years it occupied his thoughts, and formed the chief object of his labors. Regarded as his masterpiece by con-temporary critics, those of our own time place it lower in the scale of his works than the stupendous frescos of the ceiling above it. Not that any sign of waning power is shown in it, either in conception or execution, but that the subject is one which demanded incompatible qualities for anything approaching adequate treatment. The Last Judgment, by Fra Angelico in the Academy at Florence, is the work of a painter who could conceive the joy of the redeemed, the rapture of the blessed, and the bliss of meeting between those whom death had parted for a season, and represent them in a technically imperfect manner which rather adds to the spiritual effect, but who was incapable of imagining, and still less of depicting, the terror and despair of lost souls, and the cruel joy of fiends who claim them as their rightful prey.
In Michelangelo’s fresco, on the contrary, the inconceivable raptures of the last day, upon which the painter monk dwelt with an all-absorbing devotion, are incompetently treated, while its dread horrors, which Fra Angelico could not grapple with, are made so prominent that we think of them only when looking at it.
“Who is there,” wrote Pietro Aretino, “that would not tremble and fear to dedicate his pencil to such a subject ?
“And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and there was found no place for them.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God ; and the books were opened : and another book was opened which is the book of life : and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it ; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them : and they were judged every man according to their works. “And Death and Hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” – Revelations, xx. 11-15.
Never for a moment did Michelangelo propose to himself to translate these words of the Apocalypse into color and form. He neither trembled nor feared when he undertook to paint the Last Judgment, because it presented itself to his mind only as a subject which would afford unlimited opportunity for dealing with the naked human form in every variety of attitude, and swayed by every variety of emotion. No idea of the impropriety of stripping the angels of their robes of light occurred to him, and we are convinced that the outcry which was raised against the nudity of his figures as scandalous in a consecrated place – an outcry so general that Paul IV. at one time contemplated their destruction – only roused his contempt. To paint the human form was his joy and delight. He filled the vast space with forms alike athletic, whether they belonged to the hosts of heaven 8 and the redeemed, or to the cruel, sensual, and powerful demons and their terror-stricken victims.
“Down they fall, Driven headlong from the pitch of heaven, down into the deep,”
like the rebel angels in Paradise Lost. No words could more accurately describe the central figure of the upper portion of the Last Judgment than those of Milton, whose Christ resembles the Christ of Michelangelo so closely that reminiscences of the Sistine Chapel would seem to have been floating in his mind when he called him
“The angry victor [who] bath not yet recalled His ministers of vengeance and pursuit Back to the gates of heaven.”
He is ” an angry victor,” in every respect the antithesis of the dignified and stately Judge represented by the earlier masters, incapable of wrath even when meting out justice to sinners.
As a composition the Last Judgment is wonderfully clear. Though it contains an infinite number of figures, all confusion to the eye is avoided by its division into four appreciable masses skilfully connected by isolated groups. The uppermost portion contains two groups of angels, one bearing the column of the Flagellation and the other the Cross of the Crucifixion. Below these are Christ and the Madonna with hosts of angels, holy men who died before His advent, saints and martyrs carrying the instruments upon which they suffered death for His sake. The blessed, who are caught up into the air to the right, connect this great host with that of the lost sinners who vainly struggle with demons to escape their doom.
Other victims rise from their graves to the right of the cavernous mouth of Hell, while Charon, standing in the stern of the Stygian boat, drives his trembling crew headlong over its prow into the bottomless pit.
Even when Milton visited Rome, about a century after the death of Michelangelo, the fresco had greatly suffered under the brushes of restorers, and the smoke of torches and of incense ; and with the lapse of two more centuries a far greater degradation has taken place. Stains and spots and retouched portions have destroyed all unity of tone, and made it but the shadow of its former self. Assisted as we are by Michelangelo’s drawings of groups and single figures, we trace leading lines, and here and there make out forms and faces; but in many parts this is impossible. It is for the most part. a ruin or a palimpsest. We can excuse those mediaeval scribes who, ignorant of the value of a manuscript, buried its precious characters under their own worthless rubbish ; but we can only cry shame upon the men who obliterated forms and outlines, of whose excellence they were fully aware. Owing to them and to other deleterious though irresponsible agencies, it is rather, as we have said, from drawings that we receive an impression of the power of Michelangelo’s work than from what we can see of it in the chapel. Among these one called the Lost Soul (Plate X.) belongs to the same train of thought, and although not used in it, epitomizes its spirit. The eyes glare as if they saw “the grisly Terror,” which is Death, ” the offspring of Satan and Sin.” The hair rises like flames from the head, which seems ablaze with them. A wind-swept mantle enframes the countenance, which is full of fear, rage, and agony. The mouth opens to give forth a cry of pain, and the muscles of the throat stand out like whipcords. This is one of those souls which, tormented by the fall of “the dilated fiakes of fire which rain down upon the saud-waste like flakes of snow on Alps, without a wind,” live where
“Sighs, complaints, and ululations loud Resound throughout the air without a star,”
” Languages diverse, horrible dialects, Accents of agony, words of agony.”
It would seem as if Michelangelo, when he first painted in the Sistine Chapel, foresaw that twenty years later he would be called upon to paint the Last Judgment, for directly over the space which it was to occupy he placed Jonah, the type of the Resurrection. As the pendentive divides the top of the fresco into two arches, this colossal figure strikes the eye as belonging to it, and the connection between them is thus made apparent. No other prophet could so well have occupied this place, for, as has been well remarked, the real subject of the fresco is the Resurrection and not the Judgment.
Its prototype is the Last Judgment by Luca Signorelli at Orvieto, Both painters made their subject a pretext for anatomical display, and both gave preponderating importance to that side of it which allowed of an almost exclusive treatment of the nude. Both lost sight of the merciful qualities of the judge, and inadequately conceived the joy of the redeemed ; both sacrificed the spiritual to the material. Great as are the analogies between the two works in these respects, they are in others superficial, and in point of style null. Where Signorelli is meagre in his treatment of form, vehement in utterance, and mannered in action, Michelangelo is rich, powerful, and sublime. So abundantly did he endow the dry bones of his predecessor with life, that he can in no sense be said to have imitated him ; and yet, as Signorelli gave the key-note to the conception of a subject which both treated, it is a question whether Michelangelo’s originality is not more gravely compromised by the Last Judgment, at Orvieto, than Raphael’s by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This criticism is, however, of no other value than to remind us that Michelangelo would have done well to remember what he himself owed to Signorelli when he said, “All that Raphael knows he owes to me.”
We do not wish to exaggerate Michelangelo’s debt to Signorelli, or to accuse him of conscious or unconscious imitation. We consider the coincidences between their two representations of the Last Judgment as due to an equally strong passion for representing the nude, which led them to conceive the subject in the same way, and this despite the great admiration which Michelangelo expressed for Signorelli’s work, an admiration which, as Vasari naïvely expresses it, “led him courteously (gentilmente) to make use of some parts of it, such as angels, demons, etc., and even to imitate Signorelli’s manner, as any-body may see.”
A closer critic might have noted that in his Last Judgment Michelangelo began to imitate himself. Instead of constantly recurring to nature to verify and correct his ideas after the living model, he often trusted to his memory, which, however prodigious, could not always be safely relied on. In the next decade of his life, though it had grown weaker both by reason of his greater age and diminished health, he trusted to it still more absolutely, and in the frescos of the Pauline Chapel became the mannered shadow of his former self. We shall not pause to search for veins of gold in this lump of quartz, we who have handled wellnigh unalloyed bars of the precious metal as it came forth from the mine of the artist’s genius. Better write a volume upon the Prophets and Sibyls of the Sistine Chapel than five lines upon the Conversion of St. Paul, – ” Guarda e passa.” Michelangelo accomplished other work while he had the Pauline frescos in hand, and after he completed them, which showed that his mind could work vigorously in new directions if not as strongly in the old. As painter, his work has but a retrospective interest after the Last Judgment, and so also as sculptor, after the Moses and the tombs of the Medici; but as architect and poet, he rose in his latter years to new heights of distinction, and as a man grew daily in all qualities calculated to command respect and veneration.
In 1546 Michelangelo succeeded Antonio da Sangallo as head architect of St. Peter’s Church, and completed his commenced restoration of the Palazzo Farnese by adding a fine cornice of classical design, by building the great windows over its principal doorway, and by projecting a bridge across the Tiber to unite the Farnese with the Farnesina. These works were carried on simultaneously with those at St. Peter’s, of which he received the official charge by papal brief issued on New Year’s Day, 1547, when he was seventy-six years old. He accepted it, without salary, so that he might act with absolute independence, and he kept it until a few months before his death at the age of eighty-four, never faltering in the discharge of a duty which he looked upon as sacred. Neither the pressing invitations to visit Florence which he received from the Duke of Tuscany, nor the solicitations of his friend Vasari, availed to turn him from it. “I should love,” he writes to him, ” to lay my bones near those of my father, as you urge me to do ; but did I leave Rome at present, I should be the cause of great harm to St. Peter’s, bring disgrace upon myself, and commit a grievous sin.”
Michelangelo’s chief desire was to finish the building so far that no one could alter the design. Abused and opposed as he was by the Sangallo sect, he had no little reason to fear that this would happen in case he was removed by death before he had made a change of plan impossible ; and he therefore remained at his post firm and unmoved, like a rock amid the breakers.
The position of an architect who is called upon to carry on a work projected by others and already far advanced, is at the best beset with difficulties. If the plan has been mapped out in all its details, and meets with his approval, he has, if he chooses to follow it, a comparatively easy task ; but if, as was the case with St. Peter’s, four eminent architects have preceded him, each one of whom has taken individual views in many respects opposed to his own, the endeavor to bring what has been done into harmony is a task of no little difficulty. This was increased in Michelangelo’s case by the intrigues and unending hostility of Sangallo’s partisans, against whom he could hardly have maintained his ground had he not had the Pope on his side, and had he not, by his refusal to accept money for his services, taken a position from which all their efforts could not dislodge him. To explain what he did for St. Peter’s, it will be necessary to say a few words about what had already been done by his predecessors, Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, and Antonio da Sangallo. In his design, Bramante gave to his successors a masterly programme of an immense building adorned with niches and decorated with pilasters, which was to them an inexhaustible mine for study. He established a new relation of niches and pilasters to each other and to the edifice of which he made them an integral instead of an accidental part, and as in all the buildings of his second style, such as the Palace of the Cancellaria at Rome, and the little temple on the Janiculum, showed that feeling for harmony of proportion and elegance of line which gives his works a first place among those of the great Renaissance architects. The ground-plan of St. Peter’s as he designed it was a Greek cross, and it is not quite clear who among his successors first suggested the prolongation of the nave which fixed it in the Latin form; but if a drawing in the Barberini Library, attributed to Raphael, be really his work, the mistake is his. His reverence for Bramante, to whom he owed his knowledge of architecture and with whom he always maintained the most friendly relations, would rather incline us to believe Serlio’s statement that he adhered to the Greek cross in his own design, as did Balthasar Peruzzi who succeeded him, and Michelangelo when he became chief architect of the building. Antonio da Sangallo had made other changes which Michelangelo regarded as meretricious and faulty, such as the adding of a vast vestibule, and the placing of a double row of superposed columns around the base of the proposed cupola. Writing to Ammanati the sculptor soon after his own appointment, he denounced Sangallo’s plan, and in a somewhat exaggerated strain said that two hundred thousand scudi and three centuries of time would be saved by a re-turn to that of Bramante, who was ” as great an architect as the world has seen since the days of the ancients.” Holding this opinion, Michelangelo conformed, as far as possible, to the intentions of Bramante in the construction of the pilasters, niches, cornices, and vaulted roof, and, as we know from the painting after his design at the Vatican Library, would have shaped it as a cross with equal arms ; but Carlo Maderno, who completed the church in 1616, prolonged the nave, and thus caused the lofty attic to hide the dome from the view of those who approach the church from the Piazza. He also is responsible for the party-colored marble decoration of the interior which so greatly detracts from its grandeur of effect.
Three years after Michelangelo had assumed the direction of the works, the naves and transepts had been roofed in, the external elevation fixed, the two great stairways completed, and the foundations of the great piers under the dome, as well as the four arches upon which it rests, strengthened. This was necessary, as his dome, instead of being a half-sphere, as projected by Bramante, was a double drum composed of two thin shells connected by interposed bands, like the famous dome of Brunelleschi at Florence. ” Io la faro piu grande si, ma non pia bella,” he said, when asked if he hoped to surpass that admirable model. The result showed that he had underestimated his powers, for the dome of St. Peter’s is not only larger, but finer in effect and more perfect in its proportions than that of its rival at Florence. At certain hours the flood of light which pours into the church from the sixteen windows with which it is pierced, streams like a banner of golden vapor across the chancel, bathing the great Baldacchino in its splendor (Plate XII.). Then if you look up into the dome which over-hangs it, you will seem to be gazing into the spacious firmament, so vast, so luminous, and so lofty does it appear. Disturbed by many inharmonious details of ornament, fretted by the tortured and twisted draperies of the statues with which Bernini and his scholars have filled the surrounding niches, and intolerant of the white marble cherubs in medallions with which the great pillars of the nave are spotted, you have perhaps confessed yourself disappointed in the great basilica; but now, as you receive the full impression of this its chief glory, the part stands for the whole in your mind, and it becomes to you the paragon of churches.
It was a grand ending to a noble career, this crowning of the first of Christian temples with a Dome (see tail-piece), so loftily enthroned upon its pedestal that it is the first object seen by the traveller on his approach to Rome, and the last upon which his eyes rest when he leaves it. If you traverse the city until you reach its extreme limits, or drive miles away from its gates upon any of the great roads which cross the Campagna, so long as no hill intervenes to shut it out, so long will you see the mighty dome of St. Peter’s, so long will you have the name of Michelangelo upon your lips.
At Rome, like this mighty creation of his genius, he is rarely out of sight. The Sistine Chapel, the Campidoglio, the Farnese Palace ; the noble church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which he shaped out of the ruins of Diocletian’s Baths ; the cypresses which he planted in the midst of the adjoining cloisters, where they mirror their sombre foliage in undisturbed waters ; the deserted villa of Pope Julius III., near the Arco Scuro, which he designed ; the monument of Julius II. at San Pietro in Vincola, which cost him so many years of trouble and disappointment; the Pietà at St. Peter’s which he sculptured; the Torso of the Belvidere which he so much admired ; the Laocoön which he restored ; the Porta Pia which he built ; the house near the steps of the Capitol where he once lived; and the little church of San Silvestro on the Quirinal where he held converse with Vittoria Colonna, – these are but a few of the many objects which recall him to our minds as we tread the streets of the Eternal City.