The Works Of Michelangelo



IN the year 1501 Michelangelo was commissioned by Soderini, then gonfaloniere of Florence, to carve a statue from a huge block of marble which the sculptor Bartolommeo di Pietro, called Baccellino, had unsuccessfully begun to work on forty years before, and which had been lying thus damaged and idle ever since. The ambitious task was undertaken by the master, and his colossal figure of David — popularly called ` The Giant ‘— was the result. When it was completed, a meeting of all the principal artists in Florence was called to decide upon the best site for it. Various positions were suggested, but the final decision was left to Michelangelo himself, who chose a spot in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, where the statue remained until 1873, when it was removed, for protection, to a hall in the Florentine Academy. ” In the ` David,’ ” writes Symonds, ” Michelangelo first displayed that quality of terribilità, of spirit-quailing, awe-inspiring force, for which he afterwards became so famous. The statue imposes, not merely by its size and majesty and might, but by something vehement in the conception. Wishing perhaps to adhere strictly to the Biblical story, Michelangelo studied a lad whose frame was not developed. The ` David,’ to state the matter frankly, is a colossal hobbledehoy. His body, in breadth of the thorax, depth of the abdomen, and general stoutness, has not grown up to the scale of the enormous hands and feet and heavy head. We feel that he wants at least two years to become a fully developed man, passing from adolescence to the maturity of strength and beauty. The attitude selected is one of great dignity and vigor. The heroic boy, quite certain of victory, is excited by the coming contest. His brows are violently contracted, the nostrils tense and quivering, the eyes fixed keenly on the distant Philistine. In his right hand, kept at a just middle point between the hip and knee, he holds the piece of wood on which his sling is hung. The sling runs round his back, and the centre of it, where the stone bulges, is held with the left hand, poised upon the left shoulder, ready to be loosed. Michelangelo invariably chose some decisive moment in the action he had to represent, and though he was working here under difficulties, owing to the limitations of the damaged block, he contrived to suggest the imminence of swift and sudden energy which shall disturb the equilibrium of his young giant’s pose.”


THE Pietà was executed in Rome in 1499, by order of the Abbot of St. Denis, when Michelangelo was twenty-four years old. Vasari tells us that such was the love and care which the master had given to this group, that hearing the work one day ascribed to Christoforo Solari, a Lombard sculptor, he shut himself by night into the chapel where it then stood, in the old basilica of St. Peter’s, and engraved his name upon the cincture of the Madonna’s robe, ” a thing he never did again for any work.”

” The composition of the group is pathetic,” writes the sculptor M. Guillaume. “Although the figures are not quite life size, the ensemble is imposing, and from every point of view the mass is excellent. The Virgin holds the body of her son supine on her knees. Grief breathes from her whole attitude and person. She is the Virgin, she is the mother, and the dead Christ lies in the lap where she has so often borne Him as a little child. In her face all is purity, forgetfulness of self, and sanctity ; but a sanctity so pro-found, so wide and universal, that we may find its equivalent even upon the Buddhist images. The figure of Christ is marvellous in its suppleness. The lithe harmony of the form is perfect. The two figures are not only juxtaposed, but they are identified. The body of Christ, dragging down the drapery be-hind it by its weight, thus, with most exquisite art, takes on something of the character of a bas-relief.”

” Here, more completely than in any other work of modern sculpture,” writes Perkins, ” art and Christianity are allied ; and 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, in his own peculiar language, rises to the lofty height of the inspired Hebrew writers ; but he is not, from the nature of the subjects with which he there dealt, what he is in his ` Pietà,’ — 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. . . .

“Sculptured in the very last years of the fifteenth century, the ` Pietà’ stands like a boundary-stone on the extreme limits of the Quattrocento. Its devotional spirit marks its connection with the art of the past, while its anatomical precision and masterly treatment connect it with that of the future. With it the first period of Michelangelo’s development ends.”


” IF Vasari can be trusted,” writes Symonds, ” it was during his residence at Florence, when his hands were fully occupied, that Michelangelo found time to carve the two unfinished Madonnas in relief, enclosed in circular spaces, one of which is now in the Royal Academy, London, and the other, made for Bartolommeo Pitti, in the National Museum at Florence. We might fancifully call them a pair of native pearls or uncut gems, lovely by reason even of their sketchiness. They illustrate what Cellini and Vasari have already taught us about his method : that he refused to work by piecemeal, but began by disengaging the first, the second, then the third surfaces, following a model and a drawing.”

Of the two reliefs, that of the National Museum is the simpler, more tranquil, and more stately. Eugène Müntz writes of it, ” Seated upon a block of stone (remark the distaste of Michelangelo for all such inventions of the decorative arts as thrones, canopies, and the like), the Virgin holds the infant Jesus, who, half asleep, as it were, leans upon the open book which lies upon his mother’s lap. Behind appears the head of the little St. John Baptist. The Virgin is posed with perfect freedom and grace, and the whole motive, though one of the simplest that Michelangelo ever employed, is full both of charm and power. It shows us the sculptor as still young in heart, still susceptible to fresh, smiling, and amiable impressions.”


THIS statue was one of the two so-called `Captives,’ or `Slaves,’ originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. ; but when the mausoleum was planned on a reduced scale Michelangelo gave both figures to his friend Roberto Strozzi, by whom they were taken to France, where they became the property of the Constable de Montmorency, remaining in his chateau at Ecouen until 1632, when they were given to Cardinal Richelieu, who removed them to Poitou. In 1749 they were in the possession of the cardinal’s nephew, the Maréchal de Richelieu, whose wife somewhat later put them in the stable of her house in Paris, where M. Alexandre Lenoir found them in 1793, and purchased them for the French nation.

“Among all Michelangelo’s works,” writes Perkins, ” there is perhaps none more beautiful than this sleeping prisoner, who, worn out with futile efforts to escape, rests with his noble head thrown back so as to expose his throat, his left arm raised and bent above his head, and his right reposing upon his breast.” “It deserves,” writes Symonds, “to be called the most fascinating creation of the master’s genius, and together with the `Adam,’ may be taken as fixing his standard of masculine beauty. Praxiteles might have so expressed the Genius of Eternal Repose; but no Greek sculptor would have given that huge girth to the thorax, or have exaggerated the mighty hand with such delight in sinewy force. These qualities, peculiar to Buonarroti’s sense of form, do not detract from the languid pose and supple rhythm of the figure, which flows down, a sinuous line of beauty, through the slightly swelling flanks, along the finely moulded thighs, to the loveliest feet emerging from the marble. Like melody, this figure tells no story, awakes no desire, but fills the soul with something beyond thought or passion, subtler and more penetrating than words.”


ALTHOUGH both Condivi and Vasari speak of a work sculptured by Michelangelo for certain Flemish merchants as a relief in bronze, it is now believed that these early biographers were mistaken in so describing it, and that the beautiful marble group of the `Madonna and Child’ in Bruges, perhaps the most charming of the master’s works, is the one sent by Michelangelo to Flanders. Albrecht Dürer saw it when he was in Bruges in 1521, and wrote in his journal, Then I saw in Our Lady’s Church the alabaster Madonna sculptured by Michelangelo of Rome.” The date of its execution is uncertain, but it is generally supposed to be later than that of the `Pieta ‘ in St. Peter’s.


“FITLY to estimate the power of Michelangelo as a sculptor,” writes the sculptor William Wetmore Story, ” we must study the great works in the Medici Chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, which show the culmination of his genius in this branch of art.

“The original Church of San Lorenzo was founded in 930, and is one of the most ancient in Italy. It was burned in 1423 , but one hundred years later, by the order of Leo X., Michelangelo designed and began to execute the new sacristy, which was intended to serve as a mausoleum to Giuliano de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours, brother of Leo X., and younger son of Lorenzo the Magnificent; and to Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, and grandson of the great Lorenzo. Within this mausoleum were placed the statues of Giuliano and Lorenzo. They are both seated on lofty pedestals, and face each other on opposite sides of the chapel. At the base of Giuliano’s tomb, reclining on a huge sarcophagus, are the colossal figures of ` Day’ and `Night,’ and at the base of Lorenzo’s the figures of ` Dawn’ and `Twilight.’

” The chapel is quite separated from the church itself. It is solemn, cold, bare, white, and lighted from above by a lantern open to the sky. A chill comes over you as you enter it ; and the whole place is awed into silence by these majestic and solemn figures. You at once feel yourself to be in the presence of an influence serious, grand, impressive, and powerful, and of a character totally different from anything that sculpture has hitherto produced, either in the ancient or modern world. Whatever may be the defects of these great works, and they are many and evident, one feels that here a lofty intellect and power has struggled, and fought its way, so to speak, into the marble, and brought forth from the insensate stone a giant brood of almost supernatural shapes. It is not nature that he has striven to render, but rather to embody thoughts, and to clothe in form conceptions which surpass the limits of ordinary nature. It is idle to apply here the rigid rules of realism. The attitudes are distorted and almost impossible. No figure could ever retain the position of the `Night’ at best for more than a moment, and to sleep, in such an attitude would be scarcely possible. And yet a mighty burden of sleep weighs down this figure, and the solemnity of night itself broods over it. So also the ` Day ‘ is more like a primeval Titanic form than the representation of a human being. The head itself is merely blocked out, and scarcely indicated in its features. But this very fact is in itself a stroke of genius ; for the suggestion of mystery in this vague and unfinished face is far more impressive than any elaborated head could have been. It is sup-posed that he left it thus because he found the action too strained. So be it ; but here is `Day’ still involved in clouds, but now arousing from its slumbers, throwing off the mists of darkness, and rising with a tremendous energy of awakening life. The same character also pervades the ` Dawn ‘ and ` Twilight.’ They are not man and woman they are types of ideas. One lifts its head, for the morning is coming ; one holds its head abased, for the gloom of evening is drawing on. A terrible sadness and seriousness oppresses them. `Dawn’ does not smile at the coming of the light, is n& glad, has little hope, but looks upon it with a terrible weariness, almost with despair— for it sees little promise, and doubts far more than it hopes. `Twilight,’ again, almost disdainfully sinks to repose. The day has accomplished nothing ; op-pressed and hopeless, it sees the darkness close about it.

” What Michelangelo meant to embody in these statues can only be guessed — but certainly it was no trivial thought. It was not beauty, or grace, or simple truth to nature, that he sought to express. In making them, the weight of the unexplained mystery of life hung over him ; the struggle of humanity against superior forces oppressed him. The doubts, the despair, the power, the indomitable will of his own nature, are in them. They are not the expressions of the natural day of the world, of the glory of the sunrise, the tenderness of the twilight, the broad gladness of day, or the calm repose of night ; but they are seasons and epochs of the spirit of man —its doubts and fears, its sorrows and longings and unrealized hopes. The sad condition of his country oppressed him. Its shame overwhelmed him. His heart was with Savonarola, to whose excited preaching he had listened, and his mind was inflamed by the hope of a spiritual regeneration of Italy and the world. The gloom of Dante enshrouded him, and terrible shapes of the `Inferno’ had made deeper impression on his nature than all the sublime glories of the ` Paradiso.’ His colossal spirit stood fronting the agitated storms of passions which then shook his country, like a rugged cliff that braves the tempest-whipped sea—disdainfully casting from it violent and raging waves, and longing almost with a vain hope for the time when peace, honor, liberty, and religion should rule the world.

“This at least would seem to be implied in the lines he wrote under his statue of `Night,’ in response to the quatrain written there by Giovan’ Battista Strozzi. These are the lines of Strozzi –

‘Night, which in peaceful attitude you see ‘Here sleeping, from, this stone an Angel wrought. ‘Sleeping, it lives. If you believe it not, ‘Awaken it, and it will speak to thee.’ ‘And this was Michelangelo’s response : — ‘Grateful is sleep — and more, of stone to be ; ‘So long as crime and shame here hold their state, ‘Who cannot see or feel is fortunate—’ ‘Therefore speak low, and do not waken me.’

” This would clearly seem to show that under these giant shapes he meant to embody allegorically at once the sad condition of humanity and the op-pressed condition of his country. What lends itself still more to this interpretation is the character and expression of both the statues of Lorenzo and Giuliano, and particularly that of Lorenzo, who leans forward with his hand raised to his chin in so profound and sad a meditation that the world has sometimes given it the name of ` Il Pensiero ‘ — not even calling it ` Il Pensieroso,’ the thinker, but ` Il Pensiero,’ thought itself; while the attitude and expression of Giuliano is of one who helplessly holds the sceptre and lets the world go, heedless of all its crime and folly, and too weak to lend his hand to set it right.

“But whatever the interpretation to be given these statues, in power, originality, and grandeur of character they have never been surpassed. There is a lift of power, an energy of conception, a grandeur and boldness of treatment, which redeems all defects. They are the work of a great mind, spurning the literal, daring almost the impossible, and using human form as a means of thought and expression. In them is a spirit which was unknown to the Greeks and Romans. The antique sculptors sought the simple, the dignified, the natural; beauty was their aim and object. Their ideal was a quiet, passionless repose, with little action, little insistence of parts. Their gods looked down upon earth through the noblest forms of Phidias with serenity, heedless of the violent struggles of humanity, like grand and peaceful presences. But here in these Titans of Michelangelo there is a new spirit — better or worse, it is new. It represents humanity caught in the terrible net of Fate, storming the heavens, Prometheus-like, breaking forth from the bonds of convention, and terrible as grand.

“Every man has a right to be judged by his best. It is not the number of his failures but the value of his successes which afford the just gauge of every man’s genius. In these great statues Michelangelo succeeded, and they are the highest tide-mark. of his power as a sculptor.”


THE history of the tomb of Pope Julius II. has been outlined in the preceding life of the sculptor (see page 23). According to Condivi’s account of the original design, the tomb was to have been in general shape a great rectangle, standing isolated in the tribune of St. Peter’s, ornamented with bronze bas-reliefs and more than forty statues. The lower part, or pedestal, was to have been adorned with niches containing statues, and against the pilasters between these niches were to have stood ten figures bound like prisoners, typifying the Liberal Arts as taken captive by the pope’s death, since they would never find such another patron. The platform. surmounting this base was to have been ornamented by four heroic figures, one of which we may safely identify as the ` Moses.’ Above this platform, on a second level, was to have stood a sarcophagus, supported by angels. After the pope’s death Michelangelo modified the original plan in some particulars, but his specifications for this second scheme are not sufficiently explicit to enable us to reconstruct it with any accuracy. The only figures for the tomb which Michelangelo in any degree completed are the ` Moses,’ now in San Pietro in Vincoli, and the two ` Bound Captives’ of the Louvre.

” The ` Moses,’ ” writes Eugène Guillaume, ” would alone have sufficed to make its sculptor forever glorious. It sums up and gives the measure of his art. Moses has the grandiose aspect of the prophets in the Sistine Chapel; like them he is seated on a throne-like marble chair. His attitude expresses a majestic calm and breathes the authority of him who has talked alone with God within the cloud on Sinai. His eye, looking into the future, seems to foresee the continuance of his race and the permanence of those mighty laws engraven upon the table on which his right arm leans. But the repose of the law-giver is charged with animation ; he is ready at the word of divine command to start up and lead his people forth. The character of the Israelite race is strongly marked on his features, and, conforming to the text of Exodus, his forehead bears two horns.

“The dominant notes of the figure are grandeur, vitality, and simplicity. It matches the majestic narrative of the Bible. Here are none of those torments under which the slaves and the figures in the Medici Chapel writhe in a sort of grim despair ; but instead the calm energy of an exalted faith.

“The costume of Moses has been criticised, and indeed is strange in some particulars, but detracts in no way from the aspect of the work as a whole. The workmanship is of an extreme perfection ; and one feels that Michelangelo, brooding over his design for the great tomb, came back again and again to this statue and lavished all pains upon it. With the exception of the ` Il Pensieroso,’ which seems a conception still more perfect, saner, and more enduring in its character, it is his masterpiece.”



BELGIUM. BRUGES, CHURCH OF NOTRE DAME: Madonna and Child —ENGLAND. LONDON, ROYAL ACADEMY: Madonna and Child (bas-relief) —Lox-DON, SOUTH KENSINGTON MUSEUM: Cupid—FRANCE. PARIS, LOUVRE: Bound Captive Bound Captive—GERMANY. BERLIN MUSEUM: St. John (attributed)—ITALY. BOLOGNA, CHURCH OF SAN DOMENICO: Kneeling Angel ; St. Petronius (drapery Only)—FLORENCE, ACADEMY: David (Plate I); St. Matthew—FLORENCE, BOBOLI GARDENS: Four Unfinished Figures—FLORENCE, CASA BUONARROTI: Centaurs (bas-relief); Madonna and Child (bas-relief)—FLORENCE, CATHEDRAL: Descent from the Cross—FLORENCE, NATIONAL MUSEUM: Bacchus; Brutus; Madonna and Child, bas-relief (Plate III); Apollo; Adonis; Victory —FLORENCE, SACRISTY OF SAN LORENZO: Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Plates VI, VII); Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici (Plates IX, X); Madonna and Child—ROME, ST. PETER’S: Pieta —ROME, CHURCH OF SAN PIETRO IN VINCOLI: Moses (Plate VIII)—ROME, CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA SOPRA MINERVAL Christ with the Cross.

NOTE — A brief list of the principal books on Michelangelo will be found in the next issue of this SERIES, in which his works in painting are to be considered.