Today is the 546th birthday of the artist Michelangelo. He is noted as saying “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
AKA: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simone
DATE OF BIRTH: 6-Mar-1475
PLACE OF BIRTH: Caprese, Tuscany, Italy
DATE OF DEATH: 18-Feb-1564
PLACE OF DEATH: Rome, Italy
CAUSE OF DEATH: Fever
REMAINS: Buried, Santa Croce Church, Florence, Italy
RELIGION: Roman Catholic
FATHER: Ludovico Buonarroti
MOTHER: Francesca dei Neri
BEST KNOWN FOR: Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo created the ‘David’ and ‘Pieta’ sculptures and the Sistine Chapel and ‘Last Judgment’ paintings.
The most famous of the great Florentine artists of the Renaissance, the son of Ludovico Buonarroti, a poor gentleman of that city, and of his wife Francesca dei Neri. The Buonarroti Simoni were an old and pure Florentine stock of the Guelf faction: in the days of Michelangelo’s fame a connection of the family with the counts of Canossa was imagined and admitted on both sides, but has no foundation in fact. Ludovico was barely able to live on the income of his estate, but made it his boast that he had never stooped to add to it by mercantile or mechanical pursuits. The favor of the Medici procured him temporary employment in minor offices of state, among them that of podestà or resident magistrate for six months, from the autumn of 1474, at Castello di Chiusi and Caprese in the Casentino. At Caprese, on the 6th of March 1475, his second son Michelagniolo or Michelangelo was born. Immediately afterwards the family returned to Florence, and the child was put to nurse with a marble-worker’s wife of Settignano. His mother’s health had already, it would seem, begun to fail; at all events in a few years from this time, after she had borne her husband three more sons, she died. While still a young boy Michelangelo determined, in spite of his father’s opposition, to be an artist. He had sucked in the passion, as he himself used to say, with his foster-mother’s milk. After a sharp struggle his stubborn will overcome his father’s pride of gentility, and at thirteen he got himself articled as a paid assistant in the workshop of the brothers Ghirlandaio. Domenico Ghirlandaio, bred a jeweller, had become by this time the foremost painter of Florence. In his service the young Michelangelo laid the foundations of that skill in fresco with which twenty years afterwards he confounded his detractors at Rome. He studied also, like all the Florentine artists of that age, in the Brancacci chapel, where the frescoes of Masaccio, painted some sixty years before, still victoriously held their own; and here, in reply, to a taunt he had flung at a fellow-student, Torrigiano, he received the blow on the nose which disfigured him to his dying day.
Though Michelangelo’s earliest studies were directed towards painting, he was by nature and predilection much more inclined to sculpture. In that art he presently received encouragement and training under the eye of an illustrious patron, Lorenzo de Medici. On the recommendation, it is said, of Ghirlandaio, he was transferred, before the term of his apprenticeship as a painter had expired, to the school of sculpture established by Lorenzo in the Medici gardens. Here he could learn to match himself against his great predecessor, Donatello, one of whose pupils and assistants, the aged Bertoldo, was director of the school, and to compare the works of that master and his Tuscan contemporaries with the antiques collected for the instruction of the scholars. Here, too, he could listen to discourses on Platonism, and steep himself in the doctrines of an enthusiastic philosophy which sought to reconcile with Christian faith the lore and the doctrines of the Academy. Michelangelo remained a Christian Platonist to the end of his days; he was also from his youth up a devoted student of Dante. His powers of mind and hand soon attracted attention, and secured him the regard and favor of his patrons in spite of his rugged exterior and scornful unsociable temper.
Michelangelo had been attached to the school and household of the Medici for barely three years when, in 1492, his great patron Lorenzo died. Lorenzo’s son Piero de Medici inherited the position but not the qualities of his father; Florence soon chafed under his authority; and towards the autumn of 1494 it became apparent that disaster was impending over him and his adherents. Michelangelo was constitutionally subject to dark and sudden presentiments: one such seized him now, and without awaiting the popular outbreak, which soon followed, he took horse with two companions and fled to Bologna. There, being now in his twentieth year, he was received with kindness by a member of the Aldovrandi family, on whose commission he executed two figures of saints and one of an angel for the shrine of St. Dominic in the church of St. Petronius. After about a year, work at Bologna failing, and his name having been included in his absence on the list of artists appointed to provide a new hall of assembly for the great council of Florence, Michelangelo returned home. The strange theocracy established by Savonarola was now in force, and the whole character of civic life at Florence was for the time being changed. The influence of the fervent Dominican upon the mind and character of the young Michelangelo became as profound as that of the Platonists and of Dante. He was not left without employment. He found a friend in another Lorenzo, the son of Pierfrancesco de Medici, for whom he at this time executed a statue of the boy St. John. Having also carved a recumbent Cupid in imitation of the antique, it was suggested to him by the same patron that it should be so tinted and treated as to look like a real antique, and sold accordingly. Without increasing the price he put upon the work, Michelangelo for amusement lent himself to the counterfeit, and the piece was then actually sold for a large sum, as a genuine work of antiquity, to a Roman collector, Raffaelle Riario, cardinal di San Giorgio; the dealer appropriating the profits. When the cardinal discovered the fraud he caused the dealer to refund; but as to Michelangelo himself, it was represented to the young sculptor that if he went to Rome the amateur who had just involuntarily paid so high a tribute to his skill would certainly befriend him. He set forth accordingly, and arrived at Rome for the first time at the end of June 1496. Such hopes as he may have entertained of countenance from the cardinal di San Giorgio were quickly dispelled. Neither did the banished Piero de Medici, who also was now living at Rome, do anything to help him. On the other hand Michelangelo won the favor of a Roman nobleman, Jacopo Galli, and through him of the French cardinal Jean de Villiers de la Grolaie, abbot of St. Denis. From the former he received a commission for a “Cupid” and a “Bacchus”, from the latter for a “Pietà” or “Mary lamenting over the body of Christ” — works of which the two last named only are preserved. Equal originality of conception and magnificence of technical execution mark the two contrasted subjects — one as noble and the other as nearly ignoble as anything Michelangelo ever did — of the mother with the dead son on her lap, indicating with a contained but eloquent gesture of her left hand a tragedy too great for outcries, and the titubant sensual young wine-god (a condition in which ancient art would never have exhibited the god himself, but only his satellites).
Michelangelo’s stay in Rome at this time lasted five years, from the summer of 1496 until that of 1501. The interval had been one of extreme political distraction at Florence. The excitement of the French invasion, the mystic and ascetic regimen of Savonarola, the reaction which led to his overthrow, and finally the external wars and internal dissidences which preceded a new settlement, had all created an atmosphere most unfavorable to art. Nevertheless Ludovico Buonarroti, who in the troubles of 1494 had lost a small permanent appointment he held in the customs, and had come to regard his son Michelangelo as the mainstay of his house, had been repeatedly urging him to come home. A spirit of family duty and family pride was the ruling principle in all Michelangelo’s conduct. During the best years of his life he submitted himself sternly and without a murmur to pinching hardship and almost superhuman labor for the sake of his father and brothers, who were ever selfishly ready to be fed and helped by him. Having now, after an illness, come home in 1501, Michelangelo was requested by the cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to adorn with a number of sculptured figures a shrine already begun in the cathedral of Siena in honor of the most distinguished member of his house, Pope Pius II. Four only of these figures were ever executed, and those not apparently, or only in small part, by the master’s hand. A work of greater interest in Florence itself had diverted him from his engagement to his Sienese patrons. This was the execution of the famous colossal statue of David, popularly known as “the Giant.” It was carved out of a huge block of marble on which another sculptor, Agostino d’Antonio, had begun unsuccessfully to work forty years before, and which had been lying idle ever since. Michelangelo had here a difficult problem before him. Without much regard to the traditional treatment of the subject or the historical character of his hero, he carved out of the vast but cramped mass of material an adolescent, frowning colossus, tensely watchful and self-balanced in preparation for his great action. The result amazed every beholder by its freedom and science of execution and its victorious energy of expression. All the best artists of Florence were called in council to determine on what site it should be set up, and after much debate the terrace of the palace of the Signory was chosen, in preference to the neighboring Loggia dei Lanzi. Here accordingly the colossal “David” of Michelangelo took, in the month of May 1504, the place which it continued to hold until in 1882 it was removed for the sake of protection to a hall in the Academy of Fine Arts, where it inevitably looks crushed and cabined. Other works of sculpture belong to the same period: among them a second “David”, in bronze and on a smaller scale, commissioned by the maréchal Pierre Rohan and left by the young master to be finished by Benedetto da Rovezzano, who despatched it to France in 1508; a great rough-hewn “St. Matthew” begun but never completed for the cathedral of Florence; a “Madonna and Child” executed on the commission of a merchant of Bruges; and two unfinished bas-reliefs of the same subject.
Neither was Michelangelo idle at the same time as a painter. Leaving disputed works for the moment out of sight, he in these days at any rate painted for his and Raphael’s common patron, Angelo Doni, the “Holy Family” now in the Uffizi at Florence. In the autumn of 1504, the year of the completion of the “David”, he received from the Florentine state a commission for a work of monumental painting on a heroic scale. Leonardo Da Vinci had been for some months engaged on his great cartoon of the “Battle of Anghiari”, to be painted on the wall of the great hall of the municipal council. The gonfaloniere Piero Soderini now procured for Michelangelo the commission to design a companion work. Michelangelo chose an incident at the battle of Cascina during the Pisan war of 1364, when the Florentine soldiery had been surprised by the enemy in the act of bathing. He dashed at the task with his accustomed fiery energy, and had carried a great part of the cartoon to completion when, in the early spring of 1505, he broke off the work in order to obey a call to Rome which reached him from Pope Julius II. His unfinished cartoon, in its power over the varieties and contrasts of energetic and vitally significant action, showed how greatly Michelangelo had profited by the example of his elder rival, Leonardo, little as, personally, he yielded to Leonardo’s charm or could bring himself to respond to his courtesy. The work of Michelangelo’s youth is for the most part comparatively tranquil in character. His early sculpture, showing a degree of science and perfection unequalled since the antique, has also something of the antique serenity. It bears strongly the stamp of intellectual research, but not by any means that of storm or strain. In the cartoon of the “Bathers” the qualities afterwards proverbially associated with Michelangelo — his furia, his terribilità, the tempest and hurricane of the spirit which accompanied his unequalled technical mastery and knowledge — first found expression.
With Michelangelo’s departure to Rome early in 1505 the first part of his artistic career may be said to end. It will be convenient here to recapitulate its principal results in sculpture and painting, both those preserved and those recorded but lost.
Sculpture. Florence, 1489-94: “Head of a Faun”, marble; lost. Condivi describes Michelangelo’s first essay in sculpture as a head of an aged faun with a front tooth knocked out, this latter point having been an afterthought suggested by Lorenzo de Medici. The head is sometimes identified with one in the National Museum at Florence, which however bears no marks of Michelangelo’s early style and is in all probability spurious. “Madonna seated on a Step”, bronze; Casa Buonarroti, Florence. This bas-relief, executed in imitation of the technical style of Donatello, is a genuine example of Michelangelo’s early work in the Medicean school under Bertoldo. “Centauromachia”, marble; Casa Buonarroti. A fine and genuine work in full relief, of probably somewhat later date than the last-mentioned. The subject occurs often in ancient sarcophagus reliefs: Michelangelo has followed the antique in his conception and treatment of the nude, but the arrangement of the subject is his own.
Bologna, 1494-95: Statuettes of “St. Petronius”, “St. Proculus”, and a “Kneeling Angel”, marble; part of the decorations of the shrine of St. Dominic in the church of that saint at Bologna: the style of all three much influenced by the work of Jacopo Della Quercia in the same church; the attitude of the kneeling angel with the candelabrum imitated from an ancient has-relief.
Florence, 1495-96: “St. John in the Wilderness”, executed for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, marble; probably lost. Declared in 1874 to have been found again in the possession of Count Gualandi-Rossalmini at Pisa. Vehement and prolonged discussion arose as to the authenticity of this newly-found work, and at last it was bought for the Berlin Museum, where its genuineness was long stoutly maintained. But the finicking and affected elegance of the conception denote a different temperament from Michelangelo’s and probably a later date. With this figure must be given up also the restoration of an antique group of “Bacchus and Ampelus” at the Uffizi, which is clearly by the same hand and is claimed also as an early work of Michelangelo. “Recumbent Cupid”, bought by the cardinal San Giorgio as an antique, marble; lost. The attempts to recognize it in certain extant copies or servile imitations of the antique, especially one now at Turin, must be held mistaken.
Rome, 1495-1501: “Virgin lamenting the dead Christ”, commissioned by the abbot de la Grolaie; marble, St. Peter’s, Rome. “Bacchus and young Faun”, commissioned by Jacopo Galli; marble, National Museum, Florence. (Of these two masterpieces of Michelangelo’s youth enough has been said above). “Cupid”, commissioned by the abbot de la Grolaie; marble; lost; has been commonly identified as the “Kneeling Cupid” of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but this, if by Michelangelo at all, which is not quite certain, must in all likelihood belong to a later time.
Florence, 1501-06: “Five Saints, in niches decorating the shrine of Pius II”, commissioned by the Piccolomini family; marble; cathedral of Siena. The contract for the sculptured decoration of this shrine was one of those which the pressure of other work prevented the artist from ever taking seriously in hand. Of the five saints in niches, traditionally reputed to be his work, the St. Peter alone shows any clear marks of his style; the other four were probably designed, and certainly carried out, by weaker hands. “David” (“the Gigante”), commissioned for the city of Florence by Piero Soderini; marble; Florence Academy. Besides what has been said above, it has only to be added that a wax model in the Casa Buonarroti, showing nearly the same design with a different movement of the legs, is probably Michelangelo’s original sketch for the subject. “David”, commissioned by Pierre Rohan: bronze, lost; a clay model in the National Museum, Florence, may probably be a sketch for it; more than one bronze has been brought forward with claims to be the original, but none has stood the test of criticism. “Virgin and Child”, commissioned for Taddeo Taddei; circular relief, unfinished, marble; London, Royal Academy. The motive of the Christ-child frightened by the flutterings of the bird held out by St. John is the most playful in all Michelangelo’s work; the whole design shows the influence of Leonardo in his gentler, as much as the cartoon of the “Bathers” shows it in his more violent moods. “Virgin and Child with St. John”, commissioned by Bartolommeo Pitti; nearly circular relief, unfinished, marble; Florence, National Museum: a more tranquil and very charming presentment. “Madonna and Child”, sold to the Mouscron family of Bruges (known in Italy as Moscheroni), and by them presented to the church of Notre Dame in that city; group in the round, marble; church of Notre Dame, Bruges. A meditative seated Virgin with upright head, the naked child seated between her knees, his smoothly rounded form in strong contrast with her complicated draperies. “St. Matthew”: one of a set of twelve statues of Apostles commissioned by the consuls of the Arte della Lana for the cathedral at Florence; marble; National Museum, Florence. Unfinished (only roughly blocked out), the other figures of the set never having been so much as begun; the contract was signed in 1503 and cancelled in 1505. There is an early drawing by Raphael from this statue.
Painting. “Holy Family”, painted for Angelo Doni; tempera, circular: Florence, Uffizi. The only perfectly well-attested panel painting of Michelangelo which exists. His love of restless and somewhat strained actions is illustrated by the gesture of the Madonna, who kneels on the ground holding up the child on her right shoulder; his love of the nude by the introduction (wherein he follows Luca Signorelli) of some otherwise purposeless undraped figures in the background. “Virgin and Child with Four Angels”; tempera; National Gallery, London. This unfinished painting, strongly marked by the influence of Michelangelo in his work at this period, has been confidently claimed for him, but lacks his strength and mastery, and is far more probably the work of his imitator and intimate associate, Francesco Granacci. “Cartoon of the Bathers”; lost and utterly perished. The only authentic records of it are contained in a few early engravings by Marcantonio and Agostino Veneziano and a certain number of sketches and studies by the master himself, chiefly at the Albertina, Vienna, the British Museum and the University Galleries, Oxford. An elaborate drawing of many figures at Holkham Hall, well known and often engraved, seems to be a later cento destitute of real authority.
Michelangelo had not been long in Rome before Pope Julius devised fit employment for him. That capacious and headstrong spirit, on fire with great enterprises, had conceived the idea of a sepulchral monument to commemorate his glory when he should be dead, and to be executed according to his own plans while he was still living. He entrusted this congenial task to Michelangelo. The design being approved, the artist spent the winter of 1505-06 at the quarries of Carrara, superintending the excavation and shipment of the necessary marbles. In the spring he returned to Rome, and when the marbles arrived fell to with all his energy at the preparations for the work. For a while the pope followed their progress eagerly, and was all kindness to the young sculptor. But presently his disposition changed. In Michelangelo’s absence an artist who was no friend of his, Donato Bramante of Urbino, had been selected by Julius to carry out a new architectural scheme, commensurate with the usual vastness of his conceptions — the rebuilding of St. Peter’s church. To the influence and the malice of Bramante Michelangelo attributed the unwelcome invitation he now received to interrupt the great work of sculpture which he had just begun in order to decorate the Sistine chapel with frescoes. Soon, however, schemes of war and conquest interposed to divert the thoughts of Julius, not from the progress of his own monument merely, but from artistic enterprises altogether. One day Michelangelo heard him say at table to his jeweller that he meant to spend no more money on pebbles, either small or great. To add to the artist’s discomfiture, when he went to apply in person for payments due, he was first put off from day to day, and at last actually with scant courtesy dismissed. At this his dark mood got the mastery of him. Convinced that not his employment only but his life was threatened, he suddenly took horse and left Rome, and before the messengers of the pope could overtake him was safe on Florentine territory. Michelangelo’s flight took place in April 1506. Once among his own people, he turned a deaf ear to all overtures made from Rome for his return, and stayed throughout the summer at Florence, now occupied we are not distinctly informed, but apparently, among other things, on the continuation of his great battle cartoon.
During the same summer Julius planned and executed the victorious military campaign which ended with his unopposed entry at the head of his army into Bologna. To there, under strict safe-conduct and promises of renewed favor, Michelangelo was at last persuaded to betake himself. Julius received the truant artist kindly, as indeed between these two volcanic natures there existed a natural affinity, and ordered of him his own colossal likeness in bronze, to be set up, as a symbol of his conquering authority, over the principal entrance of the church of St. Petronius. For the next fifteen months Michelangelo devoted his whole strength to this new task. The price at which he undertook it left him, as it turned out, hardly any margin to subsist on. Moreover in the technical art of metal casting he was inexperienced, and an assistant whom he had summoned from Florence proved insubordinate and had to be dismissed. Nevertheless his genius prevailed over every hardship and difficulty, and on the 21st of February 1508 the majestic bronze colossus of the seated pope, robed and mitred, with one hand grasping the keys and the other extended in a gesture of benediction and command, was duly raised to its station over the church porch. Three years later it was destroyed in a revolution. The people of Bologna rose against the authority of Julius; his delegates and partisans were cast out, and his effigy hurled from its place. The work of Michelangelo, after being trailed in derision through the streets, was broken up and its fragments cast into the furnace.
Meanwhile the artist himself, as soon as his work was done, had followed his reconciled master back to Rome. The task that here awaited him, however, was after all not the resumption of the papal monument, but the execution of the series of paintings in the Sistine chapel which had been mooted before his departure. Painting, he always averred, was not his business; he was aware of his enemy’s hopes that a great enterprise in fresco-painting would prove beyond his powers; and he entered with misgiving and reluctance upon his new undertaking. Destiny, however, so ruled that the work thus thrust upon him remains his chief title to glory. His history is one of indomitable will and almost superhuman energy, yet of will that hardly ever had its way, and of energy continually at war with circumstance. The only work which in all his life he was able to complete as he had conceived it was this of the decoration of the Sistine ceiling. The pope had at first desired a scheme including figures of the twelve apostles only. Michelangelo began accordingly, but could rest content with nothing so meagre, and soon proposed instead a design of many hundred figures embodying the story of Genesis from the Creation to the Flood, with accessory personages of prophets and sibyls dreaming on the new dispensation to come, and, in addition, those of the forefathers of Christ. The whole was to be enclosed and divided by an elaborate framework of painted architecture, with a multitude of nameless human shapes supporting its several members or reposing among them — shapes mediating, as it were, between the features of the inanimate framework and those of the great dramatic and prophetic scenes themselves. The pope bade the artist do as he pleased. By May 1508 the preparations in the chapel had been completed and the work begun. Later in the same year Michelangelo summoned a number of assistant painters from Florence. Trained in the traditions of the earlier Florentine school, they were unable, it seems, to interpret Michelangelo’s designs in fresco either with sufficient freedom or sufficient uniformity of style to satisfy him. At any rate he soon dismissed them, and carried out the remainder of his colossal task alone, except for the necessary amount of purely mechanical and subordinate help. The physical conditions of prolonged work, face upwards, upon this vast expanse of ceiling were adverse and trying in the extreme. After four and a half years of toil the task was accomplished. Michelangelo had during its progress been harassed alike by delays of payment and by hostile intrigue, his ill-wishers casting doubts on his capacity, and vaunting the superior powers of Raphael. That gentle spirit would by nature have been no man’s enemy, but unluckily Michelangelo’s moody, self-concentrated temper prevented the two artists being on terms of amity such as might have stopped the mouths of mischief-makers. Absolute need of funds for the furtherance of the undertaking constrained him at one moment to break off work and pursue his inconsiderate patron as far as Bologna. This was between September 1510, by which time the whole of the great series of subjects along the center of the vault were completed, and January 1511, when the master set to work again and began filling the complicated lateral spaces of his decorative scheme.
The main field of the Sistine ceiling — in form a depressed barrel vault — is divided in Michelangelo’s scheme into four larger, alternating with five smaller fields. The following is the order of the subjects depicted in them: (1) the dividing of the light from the darkness; (2) the creation of sun, moon and stars; (3) the creation of the waters; (4) the creation of man; (5) the creation of woman; (6) the temptation and expulsion; (7) the sacrifice of Noah; (8) the deluge; (9) the drunkenness of Noah. The figures in the last three of these scenes are on a smaller scale than those in the first six. In numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 the field of the picture is reduced by the encroachments of the architectural framework with its seated pairs of supporters, commonly known as “Slaves” or “Atlases.” Flanking these smaller compositions, along the lateral spaces between the crown of the vault and the walls on either side, are seated figures of prophets, and sibyls alternately; two other prophets are introduced at each extremity of the series — making seven prophets and five sibyls in all. In the triangles to right and left of the prophets at the two extremities are the death of Goliath, the death of Holofernes, the brazen serpent and the punishment of Haman. In the twelve lunettes above the windows are groups of the ancestors of Christ, their names designated by inscriptions, and in the twelve triangles above them (between the prophets and sibyls) other kindred groups crouched or sitting. These last are all shown in relatively simple human actions and household relations, heightened but not falsified by the artist’s genius, and rising into majestic significance from roots deep in daily human nature. The work represents all the powers of Michelangelo at their best. Disdaining all the accessory allurements of the painter’s art, he has concentrated himself upon the exclusive delineation of the human form and face at their highest power. His imagination has conceived, and his knowledge and certainty of hand have enabled him to realize, attitudes and combinations of unmatched variety and grandeur, and countenances of unmatched expressiveness and power. But he has not trusted, as he came later to trust, to science and acquired knowledge merely; neither do his personages, so far as they did afterwards, transcend human possibility or leave the facts of actual life behind them. The profoundest knowledge and the most searching realism serve to embody all this inspiration and sustain all this sublimity; the sublimity, moreover is combined with the noblest elements of grace and even of tenderness. As for the intellectual meanings of his vast design, over and above those which reveal themselves at a first glance or by a bare description, they are from the nature of the case inexhaustible, and can never be perfectly defined. Whatever the soul of this great Florentine, the spiritual heir of Dante, with the Christianity of the middle ages not shaken in his mind, but expanded and transcendentalized, by the knowledge and love of Plato — whatever the soul of such a man, full of suppressed tenderness and righteous indignation, and of anxious questionings of coming fate could conceive — that Michelangelo has expressed or shadowed forth in this great and significant scheme of paintings. The powers of the artist seem to have expanded with the progress of his work. He seems to have begun (as the spectator entering the chapel has to begin) with what is chronologically the last subject of the series, the drunkenness of Noah, and to have worked backwards, increasing the scale of his figures for their better effect from the fourth subject (the Temptation and Expulsion), and rising in ascending scale of majesty through the successive acts of creation from the last to the first.
The Sistine chapel was no sooner completed than Michelangelo resumed work upon the marbles for the monument of Julius. But four months only had passed when Julius died. His heirs immediately entered (in the summer of 1513) into a new contract with Michelangelo for the execution of the monument on a reduced scale. What the precise nature and extent of the original design had been we do not know, only that the monument was to be detached from the wall, and to stand four-square and free — a thing hitherto unknown in Renaissance sepulchral architecture — in one of the chapels of St. Peter’s. But the new design was extensive and magnificent enough. It was to consist of a great three-sided structure, two courses high, projecting from the church wall, and decorated on its three unattached sides with statues. On the upper course was to be placed the colossal recumbent figures of the pope, with a vision of the Virgin and Child above him, angels mourning at the sides, and prophetic and allegoric personages at the angles — sixteen figures in all. The lower course was to be enriched with twenty-four figures in niches and on projecting pedestals: in the niches, Victories; in front of terminal pilasters between them, slaves or captives denoting, it would seem, either conquered provinces or arts and sciences in bondage after their patron’s death. A much injured and not indisputable sketch by the master at Berlin, with a copy of the same by Sacchetti, are supposed to show the design at this stage of its reduction. The entire work was to be completed in nine years’ time. During the next three years, it would seem, Michelangelo brought to completion three at least of the promised figures, for which the blocks had reached Rome from Carrara as early as July 1508; and they are among the most famous of all existing works of the sculptor’s art — namely, the “Moses”, now in the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli at Rome and the two “Slaves” at the Louvre.
The “Moses”, originally intended for one of the angles of the upper course, is now placed at the level of the eye; in the center of the principal face of the monument as it was at last finished, on a deplorably reduced and altered scale, by Michelangelo and his assistants in his old age. The prophet, supposed to have just come down from Mount Sinai and found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, sits, heavily bearded and draped, with only his right arm bare, his left foot drawn back, his head raised and turned to the left, his left hand laid on his lap and his right grasping the tables of the law — an incarnation of majestic indignation and menace. The work, except in one or two places, is of the utmost finish, and the statue looks like one of the prophets of the Sistine ceiling done in marble. The “Slaves” at the Louvre are youthful male figures of equally perfect execution, nude but for the band which passes over the breast of one and the right leg of the other. One, with his left hand raised to his head and his right pressed to his bosom, his eyes almost closed, seems succumbing to the agonies of death; the other, with his arms bound behind his back, looks upward still hopelessly struggling. All three of these figures were finished between 1513 and 1516.
By 1516 Michelangelo’s evil star was again in the ascendant. Julius II had been succeeded on the papal throne by Cardinal Giovanni de Medici under the title of Pope Leo X. The Medici, too, had about the same time by force and fraud re-established their sway in Florence, overthrowing the free institutions that had prevailed there since the days of Savonarola. Now, on the one hand, this family were the hereditary friends and patrons of Michelangelo; on the other hand he was a patriotic son of republican Florence; so that henceforward his personal allegiance and his political sympathies were in conflict. Over much of his art, as has been thought, the pain and perplexity of this conifict have cast their shadow. For the present the consequence to him of the rise to power of the Medici was a fresh interruption of his cherished work on the tomb of Julius. Leo X and his kinsmen were full of a vast new scheme for the enrichment and adornment of the façade of their own family church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Michelangelo, carried away by the idea and forgetful of his other still great and onerous task, offered his services for the new façade. They were eagerly accepted, although for a moment the idea had been entertained of entrusting the work to Leonardo da Vinci. The heirs of Julius on their part showed an accommodating temper, and at the request of Leo allowed their three-years-old contract to be cancelled in favor of another, whereby the scale and sculptured decorations of the Julian monument were again to be reduced by nearly a half. Michelangelo soon produced for the San Lorenzo façade a design of combined sculpture and architecture as splendid and ambitious in its way as had been that for the original monument of Julius. The contract was signed in January 1518, and the artist went to Carrara to superintend the excavation of the marbles.
Michelangelo was now in his forty-fourth year. Though half his life was yet to come, yet its best days had, as it proved, been spent. All the hindrances which he had encountered to this point were as nothing to those which began to beset him now. For the supply of materials for the façade of San Lorenzo he had set a firm of masons to work, and had himself, it seems, entered into a kind of partnership with them, at Carrara, where he knew the quarries well, and where the industry was hereditary and well understood. When all was well in progress there under his own eye, reasons of state induced the Medici and the Florentine magistracy to bid him resort instead to certain new quarries at Pietrasanta, near Serravalle in the territory of Florence. There, to the disgust of his old clients at Carrara and to his own, Michelangelo accordingly had to transfer the scene of his labors. Presently he found himself so impeded and enraged by the mechanical difficulties of raising and transporting the marbles, and by the disloyalty and incompetence of those with whom he had to deal, that he was fain to throw up the commission altogether. The contracts for the façade of San Lorenzo were rescinded in March 1518, and the whole magnificent scheme came to nothing. Michelangelo then returned to Florence, where proposals of work poured in on him from many quarters. The king of France desired something from his hand to place beside the two pictures he possessed by Raphael. The authorities of Bologna wanted him to design a façade for their church of St. Petronius; those of Genoa to cast a statue in bronze of their great commander, Andrea Doria. Cardinal Grimani begged hard for any picture or statue he might have to spare; other amateurs importuned him for so much as a pencil drawing or sketch. Lastly his friend and partisan Sebastian del Piombo at Rome, ever eager to keep up the feud between the followers of Michelangelo and those of Raphael, besought him on Raphael’s death to return at once to Rome, and take out of the hands of the dead master’s pupils the work of painting still remaining to be done in the Vatican chambers. Michelangelo complied with none of these requests. All that we certainly know of his doing between 1518 and 1522 is the blocking out in the rough of four more of the “Slaves” for the tomb of Julius, and carrying out a commission, which he had received from three citizens of Rome as early as 1514, for a statue of the risen Christ. The roughed-out “Slaves” now stand immured in a grotto in the Boboli Gardens, Florence; the Christ, practically finished by the master but with the last touches added by pupils, stands in the church, for which it was destined, of Sta. Maria sopra Minerva at Rome; there is little in it either of devotional spirit or imaginative power, although, in those parts which Michelangelo himself finished, there is extreme accomplishment of design and workmanship.
The next twelve years of Michelangelo’s life (1522-34) were spent at Florence, and again employed principally in the service of his capricious and uncongenial patrons, the Medici. The plan of a great group of monuments to deceased members of this family, to be set up in a new sacristy or mortuary chapel in San Lorenzo, was first broached to Michelangelo in 1520 by Cardinal Giulio de Medici. No practical impulse, however, was given to the work until Giulio, after the death of Leo X and the brief pontificate of the puritanical and iconoclastic Pope Adrian VI, had in his turn become pope in 1523 under the title of Pope Clement VII. Even then the impulse was a wavering one. First Clement proposed to associate another artist, Sansovino, with Michelangelo in his task. This proposal being on Michelangelo’s peremptory demand abandoned, Clement next distracted the artist with an order for a new architectural design — that, namely, for the proposed Medicean or “Laurentian” library. When at last after many changes of scope and scheme the plans for the sepulchral chapel or “Sagrestìa nuova” took shape, they did not include, as had been at first intended, memorials to the founders of the house’s greatness, Cosimo de Medici (pater patriae) and Lorenzo the Magnificent, or even to Pope Leo X himself, but only to two younger members of the house lately deceased, Giuliano, duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo, duke of Urbino. Michelangelo brooded long over various designs for this work, and was still engaged on its execution — his time being partly also taken up by the building-plans for the Medicean library — when political revolutions interposed to divert his industry. In 1527 came to pass the sack of Rome by the Austrians, and the apparently irretrievable ruin of Pope Clement. The Florentines seized the occasion to expel the Medici from their city, and set up a free republican government once more. Naturally no more funds for the works in San Lorenzo were forthcoming, and Michelangelo, on the invitation of the new signory, occupied himself for a while with designs for a group of Hercules and Cacus, and another of Samson and the Philistines — the latter to be wrought out of a block of marble which had been rough-hewn already for another purpose by Baccio Bandinelli. Soon, however, he was called to help in defending the city itself from danger. Clement and his enemy Charles V having become reconciled, both alike were now bent on bringing Florence again under the rule of the Medici. In view of the approaching siege, Michelangelo was appointed engineer-in-chief of the fortifications. He spent the early summer of 1529 in strengthening the defenses of San Miniato; from July to September he was absent on a diplomatic mission to Ferrara and Venice. Returning in the middle of the latter month, he found the cause of Florence hopeless from internal treachery and from the overwhelming strength of her enemies. One of his dark seizures overcame him, and he departed again suddenly for Venice. There for a while he remained, negotiating for a future residence in France. Then, while the siege was still in progress, he returned once more to Florence; but in the final death-struggle of her liberties he bore no part. When in 1530 the city submitted to her conquerors, no mercy was shown to most of those who had taken part in her defense. Michelangelo believed himself in danger with the rest, but on the intervention of Baccio Valori he was presently taken back into favor and employment by Pope Clement. For four years more he continued to work at intervals on the completion of the Medici monuments, with the help from 1532 of Giovanni Montorsoli and other pupils, and on the building of the Laurentian library. In 1531 he suffered a severe illness; in 1532 he made a long stay at Rome, and entered upon yet another contract for the completion of the Julian monument, to be reduced now to a still more shrunken scale and to be placed not in St. Peter’s but in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. In the autumn of 1534 he left Florence for good. What remained to be done in the Medici chapel was done by pupils, and the chapel was not finally opened to view until 1545.
The statues of the Medici monument take rank beside the “Moses” and the “Slaves” as the finest work of Michelangelo’s central time in sculpture. They consist of a Madonna and Child and of the two famous monumental groups, each composed of an armed and seated portrait-statue in a niche, with two emblematic figures reclining on each side of a sarcophagus below. The “Madonna and Child” (left unfinished because the marble was short in bulk) combines astonishingly the divers qualities of realistic motive and natural animation with learned complexity of design and imposing majesty of effect. It was set up finally — not at all in accordance with the artist’s first intention — against a blank wall of the chapel, and flanked at wide intervals by statues of Saints Cosmo and Damian, the work of pupils. The portraits are treated not realistically but typically. In that of Lorenzo seems to be typified the mood of crafty brooding and concentrated inward thought; in that of Giuliano, the type of alert and confident practical survey immediately preceding action. To this contrast of the meditative and active characters corresponds a contrast in the emblematic groups accompanying the portraits. At the feet of the duke Giuliano recline the shapes of “Night” and “Day” — the former a female, the latter a male, personification; the former sunk in an attitude of deep but uneasy slumber, the latter (whose head and face are merely blocked out of the marble) lifting himself in one of wrathful and disturbed awakening. But for Michelangelo’s unfailing grandeur of style, and for the sense which his works convey of a compulsive heat and tempest of thought and feeling in the spirit that thus conceived them, both these attitudes might be charged with extravagance. As grand, but far less violent, are those of the two companion figures that recline between sleep and waking on the sarcophagus of the pensive Lorenzo. Of these, the male figure is known as “Evening”, the female as “Morning” (Crepusculo and Aurora). In Michelangelo’s original idea, partly founded on antique precedent in pedimental and sarcophagus groups, figures of “Earth” and “Heaven” were to be associated with those of “Night” and “Day” on the monument of Giuliano, and others — no doubt of a corresponding nature, with those of the Morning and Evening Twilight on that of Lorenzo. These figures afterwards fell out of the scheme, and the recesses designed for them remain empty. Michelangelo’s obvious and fundamental idea was, as some words of his own record, to exhibit the elements and the powers of earth and heaven lamenting the death of the princes. River gods were to recline on the broad bases at the foot of the monuments. These too are lacking. They were never finished, but a bronze cast from a small model of one of them, and the torso of a large model, have been identified, the former in the National Museum and the latter in the Academy at Florence.
Other works of 1522-34: “Victory” marble (National Museum, Florence). A youthful conqueror standing over a bearded enemy, whose shoulders he crushes down with his left knee. Fine and finished work: whether intended for one of the emblematic Victories of the Julian monument, or having some connection with the “Hercules and Cacus” and “Samson and the Philistine”, subjects undertaken for the Signory in 1528, must remain uncertain. For the former of these two subjects a wax model at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for the latter a plaster model at the Casa Buonarroti, are claimed, perhaps rightly, as original. “David” (formerly called “Apollo”), marble, unfinished (National Museum, Florence). Both the authenticity and the approximate date of this fine work are beyond doubt: of its origin and destination we are uninformed. “Crouching boy”, marble,, unfinished (the Hermitage, Petersburg). Another masterly sketch in marble; the seated lad stoops forward between his parted knees, having both hands occupied with his left foot; the figure blocked out of the marble, with the least possible sacrifice of the material; the subject and motive enigmatical. “Cupid”, kneeling, apparently in the act of shooting downward with a bow, marble (Victoria and Albert Museum). Probably, but not quite certainly, authentic; if so, then of 1530 or thereabouts; its identification with the early Cupid done for Jacopo Galli at Rome in 1496 is untenable. “Leda”, painting, done for the duke of Ferrara, but withheld because of the misconduct of his messenger, and given by the master to his pupil Antonio Mini in 1531; lost. A fine injured tempera painting of the subject in the storerooms of the National Gallery in London may presumably be an early copy.
Michelangelo had fully purposed, as soon as he could get free of his task on the Medici tombs, to devote all his powers to the completion of the Julian monument in accordance with the new contract of 1532. But his intention was again frustrated. Pope Clement insisted that he must complete his decorations of the Sistine Chapel by painting anew the great end wall above the altar, adorned until then by frescoes of Perugino. The subject chosen was the Last Judgment; and Michelangelo began to prepare sketches. In the autumn of 1534, in his sixtieth year, he settled finally, and for the remainder of his life, at Rome. Immediately afterwards Clement died, and was succeeded by a Farnese under the title of Pope Paul III. Even more than his predecessor, Paul insisted on claiming the main services of Michelangelo for himself, and forced him to let all other engagements drift. For the first seven years after the artist’s return to Rome, his time was principally taken up with the painting of the colossal and multitudinous “Last Judgment.” This being completed in 1541, he was next compelled to undertake two more great frescoes — one of the Conversion of Paul and another of the Martyrdom of Peter — in a new chapel which the pope had caused to be built in the Vatican, and named after himself — Capella Paolina.
The fresco of the “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel ranks among the most famous single pictures in the world. In it Michelangelo shows more than ever the omnipotence of his artistic science, and the fiery daring of his conceptions. But the work, so far as its deplorably deteriorated condition admits comparison, is hardly comparable in the qualities of color and decorative effect to the earlier and far more nobly inspired frescoes of the ceiling. It is to these and not to the “Last Judgment” that the student must turn if he would realize what is best and greatest in the art of Michelangelo.
The frescoes of the Pauline Chapel are on their part so injured as to be hardly susceptible of useful study or criticism. In their ruined state they bear evidence of the same tendencies that made the art of Michelangelo in its latest phase so dangerous an example to weaker men — the tendency, that is, to seek for unqualified energy and violence of action, both in place and out, for “terribleness” quand même, and to design actions not by help of direct study from nature, but by scientific deduction from the abstract laws of structure and movement. At best these frescoes can never have been happy examples of Michelangelo’s art.
Other Work of the years 1534-49: Sculpture. During the fifteen years when Michelangelo was mainly engaged on these paintings, he had also at last been enabled to acquit himself, although in a manner that can have been satisfactory to none concerned, of his engagements to the heirs of Julius. Once more the influence of the pope had prevailed on them to accept a compromise altogether to their disadvantage. By a final contract dated 1542, it was agreed that the “Moses” executed thirty years before, seated on a low plinth in a central recess, should be the chief figure of the new scheme; in niches at either side of him were to be standing figures of “Leah” and “Rachel.” These Michelangelo himself executed hastily with the help of assistants. To pupils entirely was left the carrying out of the upper cornice, with the recumbent effigy of the pope occupying the center of a weak and incongruous architectural scheme, a Madonna and Child in a niche above, and a prophet and a sibyl in recesses at either side. Meantime all idea of incorporating any of the “Slaves” in the new design had been abandoned. The master gave the two that had been finished in 1513-16 to Robert Strozzi, who gave them to Francis I; while the four that had been roughed out between 1518 and 1522 remained at Florence. “Brutus”, marble (National Museum, Florence). Probably executed soon after 1539, in memory of the tyrannicide Lorenzino de Medici. To the end of this period or to a year or two later belongs the infinitely pathetic unfinished sketch in marble of a life-size “Pietà” (Palazzo Rondini, Rome) — the mourning mother, standing on an elevation behind her son, holds his body upright in front of her by the shoulders. Still later, after 1550, is the more complicated and more finished group of the “Pietà”, with the corpse of Christ collapsing in utter relaxation through the arms of those who try to uphold it: this Michelangelo destined for his own sepulchre; it stands now in the cathedral at Florence.
Painting. “The Entombment of Christ” (National Gallery, London). This unfinished painting bears all the marks of Michelangelo’s design, and must have been begun from a cartoon by him, probably of about 1535-40. The touch of his own hand seems evident in some parts, particularly the body of Christ; other parts, in various degrees of incompletion, are apparently the work of various pupils or imitators.
For nearly all his great life-works mentioned above, preparatory sketches and studies by the master’s hand exist. These, with a large number of other drawings, finished and unfinished, done for their own sakes and not for any ulterior use, are of infinite value and interest to the student. Michelangelo was the most learned and scientific as well as the most inspired and daring of draughtsmen, and from boyhood to extreme old age never ceased to practice with pen, chalk or pencil. He is said to have burned vast numbers of his drawings with his own hand and caused others to be burned by friends and pupils to whom he had given them; so that what we possess must be less than a tithe of what he executed. But there are some 250 genuine sheets — enough to let us follow and understand his modes of conceiving, preparing and maturing, his designs at all periods of his life. They are scattered amongst various collections, chiefly public; those in England (at the British Museum, the University Galleries, Oxford, and the Royal Library, Windsor), are quite half the whole number; other important examples remain still at what was for centuries the home of his heirs, the Casa Buonarroti at Florence; others at the Uffizi, Florence; the Venice Academy; the Albertina, Vienna; the Louvre; the Condé Museum at Chantilly; the Berlin Museum; and, not least, the Teyler Museum at Haarlem. By means of these drawings and the many published facsimiles we are best able to trace the progress of the master’s genius and its secrets. We see him diligently copying in youth from the frescoes of Giotto, Masaccio, and his own master Ghirlandaio. At this date his instrument was the pen only, used in a manner of hatching: sometimes extremely careful and close, at others fiercely bold and free, and in either case all his own. Sketches and studies thus drawn with the pen exist for the “David”, the “Bathers Surprised”, the accessory figures for the tomb of Julius as first conceived, and the great series of the Sistine Chapel decorations. By, or even before, the date of the Sistine Chapel, chalk (red or black) comes into use along with the pen, and many of the finest studies for the “Slaves” or “Atlases” and other decorative figures of the ceiling are in the latter material. Many more studies are preserved for these subordinate figures than for the main compositions. After the Sistine Chapel period the pen gives way to red or black chalk almost entirely. Sketches are rare for the great abortive scheme of the Julius monument; almost non-existent for the equally abortive San Lorenzo façade; fairly abundant for the various stages of the Medici monument scheme in its architectural parts, but not for the great figures. About the time of Michelangelo’s final change of domicile from Florence to Rome (1532-35) he began the practice of making highly finished and fully shaded drawings of classic or symbolic subjects in red or black chalk for presentation to his friends, especially to young Tommaso Cavalieri, the object of his passionate Platonic affection, from about 1532. The “Fall of Phaeton”, the “Tityos”, the “Ganymede”, the “Men shooting at a Mark”, are well-known examples; in this class of work the Windsor collection is far the richest. At the same time or soon afterwards, were produced drawings little less powerful and finished of Christian subjects, especially the “Crucifixion”, “Entombment” and “Resurrection.” Then comes the great fresco of the “Last Judgment”, for which there exist both general sketches and particular studies. In the few extant drawings for the Cappella Paolina a faltering both of the imagination and of the hand become discernible. To the same or to still later years belong many beautiful but somewhat tentative drawings done either directly for, or nearly in the spirit of, the famous “Crucifixion” which he is recorded to have painted with so much devotion for Vittoria Colonna. About many of these, for all their intensity of feeling, there is a wavering touch betraying the approach of infirmity; so there is about many of the architectural studies done for the buildings of which he had charge in his last years at Rome; but signs of the old impressive power and penetration are not wanting in some even of the latest drawings that have come down to us.
During his later years the long-pent, human elements of fervor and tenderness in Michelangelo’s nature had found vent and utterance such as they had never found before. He had occasionally practiced poetry in youth, and there are signs of some transient love passages, during his life at Bologna. But it was not until towards his sixtieth year that the springs of feeling were fairly opened in the heart of this solitary, this masterful and stern, life-wearied and labor-hardened man. About 1533-34 we find him beginning to address impassioned sonnets — of which the sentiment is curiously comparable to that expressed in some of Shakespeare’s — to a beautiful and gifted youth, the young Roman noble Tommaso Cavalieri. Soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of the pious, accomplished, and high-souled lady, Vittoria Colonna, widow of the Marquess Pescara. For ten years until her death, which happened in 1547, her friendship was the great solace of Michelangelo’s life. On her, in all loyalty and reverence, he poured out all the treasures of his mind and all his imprisoned powers of tenderness and devotion. She was the chief inspirer of his poetry — of which, along with her praises, the main themes are the Christian religion, the joys of Platonic love, and the power and mysteries of art. Michelangelo’s poetical style is strenuous and concentrated like the man. He wrote with labor and much self-correction; we seem to feel him flinging himself on the material of language with the same overwhelming energy and vehemence with which contemporaries describe him as flinging himself on the material of marble — the same impetuosity of temperament combined with the same fierce desire of perfection, but with far less either of innate instinct for the material or of trained mastery over its difficulties.
And so the mighty sculptor, painter, and poet reached old age. An infirmity which settled on him in 1544, and the death of Vittoria Colonna in 1547, left him broken in health and heart. But his strength held on for many a year longer yet. His father and brothers were dead, and his family sentiment concentrated itself on a nephew, Leonardo, to whom he showed unremitting practical kindness, coupled with his usual suspiciousness and fitfulness of temper. In almost all his relations the old man continued to the end to manifest the same loyal and righteous heart, accompanied by the same masterful, moody, and estranging temper, as in youth. Among the artists of the younger generation he held a position of absolute ascendancy and authority; nor was his example, as we have said, by any means altogether salutary for them. To artists, and to a certain number of chosen friends, belonging chiefly to the lettered, diplomatic, and secretarial classes, he was more accessible and affable than he had been to anyone in earlier days, though still formidable in moods of scorn and scoffing. His great age and fame made him the most honored citizen of Rome, to whom the highest, both of his fellow countrymen and foreigners, were eager to do homage. During the last years of his life he made but few more essays in sculpture, and those not successful, but was much employed in the fourth art in which he excelled — that of architecture. A succession of popes demanded his services for the embellishment of Rome. Between 1536 and 1546 he was engaged on plans for the rearrangement and reconstruction of the great group of buildings on the Capitol — plans which were only partially and imperfectly carried out during his lifetime and after his death. For Paul III he finished the palace called after the name of the pope’s family the Farnese. On the death of Antonio da San Gallo he succeeded to the onerous and coveted office of chief architect of St. Peter’s church, for which he remodelled all the designs, living to see some of the main features, including the supports and lower portion of the great central dome, carried out in spite of all obstacles, according to his plans. The dome as it stands is his most conspicuous and one of his noblest monuments: the body of the church was completed in a manner quite different from his devising. Other great architectural tasks on which he was engaged were the reconstruction of the Porta Pia, and the conversion of a portion of the baths of Diocletian into the church of Sta. Maria degli Angeli; the great cloister with its hundred columns, now used as the Museo delle Terme, is the only part of this reconstruction which remains as he designed it. At length, in the midst of these vast schemes and responsibilities, the heroic old man’s last remains of strength gave way. He died on the threshold of his ninetieth year, on the 18th of February 1564.
The Torment of Saint Anthony (1488)
The Entombment (1501)
Sistine Chapel (1508-12)
The Last Judgement (1534-41)
The Conversion of Saul (1545)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1550)
Palazzo Farnese (1546)
St. Peter’s Basilica (1564)
Porta Pia (1565)
Laurentian Library (1571)