Renaissance Sculpture – Michael Angelo

As A sculptor Michael Angelo stood on the shoulders of Donatello and Verocchio and added to their supreme science the passion, frenzy, and explosive power of his own volcanic nature. His peculiar quality is best appreciated from his later works, the Moses of San Pietro in Vinculi at Rome and the Tombs of the Medici in Florence.

The Moses is the most important figure and feature of the tomb of Pope Julius II., who was the artist’s greatest patron and warmest appreciator. The whole character of Michael Angelo is revealed by his conception of Moses as witnessing the worship of the golden calf; as about to spring from his seat and dash to fragments the tablets of the law which had been revealed to him.

There is a closer relation to the history of his own time and his own life in this statue than we might suspect. In political life Michael Angelo had been a warm partisan and the military commander for the Commonwealth of Florence in its final struggle and downfall (p. 36). He belonged then to the party of the old Republic and hated the party of foreign despotism and success. Commercial and money-making interests played no small part in this revolution. The Medici who were credited with having overthrown the liberties of Florence, belonged to the richest and most prominent banking family of that state. Spain and the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria were working in their interest.

What Michael Angelo saw as an Italian patriot was the fast coming decadence of his country and a social revolution which had brought the meaner and more grasping tendencies of life to the front. His ” Moses” was the pro-test against a worship of the golden calf which he saw in his own time and which had embittered his own life.

In the same way his Tombs of the Medici are well known to have been in his own view and that of his time, the tombs of the Florentine Republic. Made in the service and for the glory of a family which he hated, he disguised in these works the sorrow of the patriot and the regrets of the lost cause.

The tombs are those of the last two legitimate members of the Medici family, Giuliano and Lorenzo. Their seated figures are placed in niches, beneath which are the sarcophagi supporting respectively figures of “Dawn ” and “Twilight,” “Day and Night.” “Dawn” and “Twilight” are allegories of the twilight of the expiring moments of life on earth and of the dawn of the spirit life. “Day” and “Night” are conceived as the antitheses of life and death. These tombs are in a chapel of the Florentine Church of San Lorenzo, whose erection by Brunellesco has been mentioned (p.73), and were finished about 1534.

Of earlier date, about 1513, are the two “Captives” now in the Louvre. An entire series of these figures was to have surrounded the tomb of Julius II., emblematic of the arts and sciences held captive by Julius II. and dying with him. After the death of the pope the diminished plan of his tomb made it impossible to connect these finished figures with it, and they found their way to France.

Here again the prophetic misanthropy of Michael Angelo has its own inner meaning. We have seen how the court of Leo X. was one of mainly borrowed glories (p. 140), and how the invasions of Milan and Naples at the close of the fifteenth century had already indicated the approaching downfall of Italy. The pontificate of Julius II. was devoted to the expulsion of the foreign invaders of Italy. His death was the signal for new invasions whose results after 1520 we have described. There is no doubt that the political foresight of the artist had its part in this allegory of the Captives. Certainly their prophecy was fulfilled.

Contortions and twistings of the human figure are the sign manual of the artist’s mood in most of these various works, a reflex of his own irritability and unhappiness. No doubt his anatomic studies and desire to produce new and startling effects are also accountable for this manner. At all events he is the first artist in whom we detect the disappearance of early Renaissance unconsciousness and simplicity. (See also notes on the “Last Judgment,” p. 155.) The grandeur of his thought and conception makes it impossible to reckon this mannerism against him, but it infected the imitators and weaker followers of his greatness.

The inflated style of the decadence found its type in Michael Angelo. In his very protest against the coming epoch he was fated to influence its forms.

In the two greatest early works of this sculptor we find a more dignified and serener art. These are his colossal David in Florence and the Dead Savior in the lap of the Virgin in St. Peter’s at Rome. His earliest youthful work, the mask of a Faun, is still preserved in Florence. Here also are his statues of Bacchus and Adonis. The list of his important works also includes the Cupid at South Kensington in Lon-don, a Madonna in Bruges, and the Christ of the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.

The story of Michael Angelo’ s life as told by Vasari, who personally knew him, is an almost essential thing to the comprehension of his art. Deep piety and warm kindness of heart were cloaked by surly manners and concealed by solitude. I have already mentioned Grimm’s ” Life of Michael Angelo” as giving not only the artist’s life, but also the political history of Italy as connected with it. It also contains a summary of the whole Italian art history of the time.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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