Who has ever stood in Florence, and been warmed by her sunlight, refreshed by her fragrant flowers, and ennobled by her divine art, without saying with the poet Rogers,—
Pitiful in her struggles for freedom, the very centre of art and learning in the fifteenth century, she has to-day a charm peculiarly her own.
“Other though not many cities have histories as noble, treasures as vast; but no other city has them living, and ever present in her midst, familiar as household words, and touched by every baby’s hand and peasant’s step, as Florence has.
“Every line, every road, every gable, every tower, has some story of the past present in it. Every tocsin that sounds is a chronicle; every bridge that unites the two banks of the river,[Pg 8] unites also the crowds of the living with the heroism of the dead.
“The beauty of the past goes with you at every step in Florence. Buy eggs in the market, and you buy them where Donatello bought those which fell down in a broken heap before the wonder of the crucifix. Pause in a narrow by-street in a crowd, and it shall be that Borgo Allegri, which the people so baptized for love of the old painter and the new-born art. Stray into a great dark church at evening time, where peasants tell their beads in the vast marble silence, and you are where the whole city flocked, weeping, at midnight, to look their last upon the dead face of their Michael Angelo. Buy a knot of March anemones or April arum lilies, and you may bear them with you through the same city ward in which the child Ghirlandaio once played amidst the gold and silver garlands that his father fashioned for the young heads of the Renaissance. Ask for a shoemaker, and you shall find the cobbler sitting with his board in the same old twisting, shadowy street-way where the old man Toscanelli drew his charts that served a fair-haired sailor of Genoa, called Columbus.”
Florence, Shelley’s “Smokeless City,” was the ardently loved home of Michael Angelo. He was born March 6, 1475, or, according to some authorities, 1474, the Florentines reckoning time from the incarnation of Christ, instead of his birth.
Lodovico Buonarotti, the father of Michael [Pg 9]Angelo, had been appointed governor of Caprese and Chiusi, and had moved from Florence to the Castle of Caprese, where this boy, his second child, was born. The mother, Francesca, was, like her husband, of noble family, and but little more than half his age, being nineteen and he thirty-one.
After two years they returned to Florence, leaving the child at Settignano, three miles from the city, on an estate of the Buonarottis’. He was intrusted to the care of a stone-mason’s wife, as nurse. Living among the quarrymen and sculptors of this picturesque region, he began to draw as soon as he could use his hands. He took delight in the work of the masons, and they in turn loved the bright, active child. On the walls of the stone-mason’s house he made charcoal sketches, which were doubtless praised by the foster-parents.
Lodovico, who was quite too proud for manual labor, designed that his son should become a dealer in silks and woollens, as probably he would thus amass wealth. With such a project in mind, he was certainly unwise to place the child in the exhilarating air of the mountains, where nature would be almost sure to win him away from the counting-room.
When the boy was old enough he was sent by his father to a grammar school in Florence, kept by Francesco of Urbino, a noted grammarian. He made little progress in his studies, for nearly all of his time was spent in drawing and in visiting the ateliers of the different artists of the city. Vasari[Pg 10] says he was beaten by his father and other elders; but the beatings did no good,—indeed, they probably made the quiet, self-poised lad more indifferent to trade and more devoted to art.
Fortunately, in these early years, as has so often happened to men of genius, Michael Angelo found a congenial friend, Francesco Granacci, a talented youth of good family, lovable in nature, and a student in art. He was a pupil of one of the best painters in Italy, Domenico Ghirlandaio. He loaned drawings to Michael Angelo, and made the boy of fourteen more anxious than ever to be an artist.
Lodovico at last saw that a lad so absorbed in art would probably be a failure in silk and wool, and placed him in the studio of Ghirlandaio, with the promise of his receiving six gold florins the first year, eight the second, and ten the third.
Granacci, who was nineteen, and Michael Angelo now worked happily together. The master had undertaken to paint the choir of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, and thus the boys were brought into important work.
One day, when the painters were absent, Michael Angelo drew the scaffolding, with all who worked on it, so perfectly that Ghirlandaio exclaimed, when he saw it: “This youth understands more than I do myself.” He also corrected one of the master’s drawings, the draped form of a woman. Sixty years afterwards, when this sketch was shown to Michael Angelo, he said, “I almost think that I[Pg 11] knew more art in my youth than I do in my old age.”
The young artist now painted his first picture, a plate of Martin Schöngauer’s of Germany, representing St. Anthony tormented by devils. One pulls his hair, one his garments, one seizes the book hanging from his girdle, one snatches a stick from his hand, while others pinch, and tease, and roll over him. Claws, scales, horns, and the like, all help to make up these monsters. Michael Angelo went to the fish-market, and carefully studied the eyes and scales of the fish, with their colors, and painted such a picture that it was mistaken for the original.
After a year spent with Ghirlandaio, the master seems to have become envious, and the three-years’ contract was mutually broken, through a fortunate opening for Michael Angelo. Cosmo de’ Medici, “Pater Patriæ,” had collected ancient and modern sculptures and paintings, and these art treasures were enriched by his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who opened them to students, with prizes for the best work. He founded an academy and placed it under the charge of Bertoldo, the favorite disciple of Donatello.
Lorenzo made himself the idol of the people by his generosity, consideration, and unquestioned ability to lead. He arranged public festivities, and wrote verses to be sung by girls as they danced in the public square, in the month of May. All the young people knew and loved him.
On one of these festive occasions, when the triumphal procession of Paulus Æmilius was being represented, Granacci found an opportunity of winning Lorenzo’s favor, and thereby gained access to the art treasures. At once he thought of his friend, and Michael Angelo was soon studying the marbles and pictures of the great Medici.
The boy of fifteen quickly made friends with the stone-masons, and, getting from them a piece of marble, began to copy the antique masque of a faun. However, his work was not like the original, but the mouth was open so that the teeth were visible. When Lorenzo came among the pupils he observed the masque and praised it, but said to the boy, “You have made your faun so old, and yet you have left him all his teeth; you should have known that at such an advanced age there are generally some wanting.”
At once Michael Angelo broke out a tooth, filling the gum as though it had dropped out. When Lorenzo came again he was delighted, and told the boy to send for his father. Lodovico came reluctantly, for he was not yet reconciled to the choice of “art and poverty” which his son had made.
Lorenzo received him cordially and asked his occupation. “I have never followed any business,” was the reply; “but I live upon the small income of the possessions left me by my ancestors. These I endeavor to keep in order, and, so far as I can, to improve them.”
Lodovico received a vacant post in the customhouse, and Michael Angelo was taken into the Medici palace and treated as a son. For three years he lived in this regal home, meeting all the great and learned men of Italy: Politian, the poet and philosopher; Ficino, the head of the Platonic Academy; Pico della Mirandola, the prince and scholar, and many others.
Who can estimate such influence over a youth? Who can measure the good that Lorenzo de’ Medici was doing for the world unwittingly? To develop a grand man from a boy, is more than to carve a statue from the marble.
Michael Angelo was now of middle height, with dark hair, small gray eyes, and of delicate appearance, but he became robust as he grew older.
Politian was the tutor of the two Medici youths, Giovanni and Giulio, who afterwards became Leo X. and Clement VII. He encouraged Michael Angelo, when eighteen, to make a marble bas-relief of the battle of Hercules with the Centaurs. This is still preserved in the Buonarotti family, as the sculptor would never part with it. The head of the faun is in the Uffizi gallery.
Michael Angelo now executed a Madonna in bronze, and copied the wonderful frescos of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine (usually called the Carmine Chapel),[Pg 14] the same which inspired Fra Angelico, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto. “The importance of these frescos arises from the fact that they hold the same place in the history of art during the fifteenth century as the works of Giotto, in the Arena Chapel at Padua, hold during the fourteenth. Each series forms an epoch in painting, from which may be dated one of those great and sudden onward steps which have in various ages and countries marked the development of art. The history of Italian painting is divided into three distinct and well-defined periods, by the Arena and Brancacci Chapels, and the frescos of Michael Angelo and Raphael in the Vatican.”
While Michael Angelo was copying these paintings of Masaccio, he took no holidays, and gave the hours of night to his labors. Ambition made work a delight. He studied anatomy like a devotee. Dead bodies were conveyed from the hospital to a cell in the convent of Santo Spirito, the artist rewarding the prior by a crucifix almost as large as life, which he carved from wood.
The youth could but know his superiority to others, and was not always wise enough to conceal his contempt for mediocrity, or for the young men who played at life. One of his fellow-students, Torrigiani, grew so angry at him, probably from some slighting remark, that he struck him with his fist, disfiguring his face for life. Michael Angelo is said to have merely replied to this brutal assault, “You will be remembered only as the man who[Pg 15] broke my nose.” Torrigiani was at once banished, and died miserably in the Spanish Inquisition.
In April, 1492, Lorenzo the Magnificent died, in the very prime of his life. Michael Angelo was so overcome that for a long time he was unable to collect his thoughts for work. The self-reliant young man, cold outwardly, had a warm and generous heart.
He went home to the Buonarotti mansion, opened a studio, purchased a piece of marble and made a Hercules four feet in height. It stood for many years in the Strozzi Palace in Florence, was sold to France, and is now lost.
Piero de’ Medici succeeded to his father Lorenzo, who is said to have remarked that “he had three sons: the first good, the second clever, the third a fool. The good one was Giuliano, thirteen years old at the death of his father; the clever one was Giovanni, seventeen years old, but a cardinal already by favor of the pope, whose son had married a daughter of Lorenzo’s; and the fool was Piero.”
In January, 1494, an unusual storm occurred in Florence, and the snow lay from four to six feet deep. Piero, with childish enthusiasm, sent for Michael Angelo and bade him form a statue of snow in the courtyard of the palace. The Medici was so pleased with the result that he brought the artist to sit at his own table, and to live in the same rooms assigned to him by Lorenzo his father.
Piero is said, however, to have valued equally with the sculptor a Spaniard who served in his stables, because he could outrun a horse at full gallop.
Piero was proud, without the virtues of his father, and soon alienated the affections of the Florentines. Savonarola, the Dominican monk of San Marco, was preaching against the luxuries and vices of the age. So popular was he, says Burlamacchi, that “the people got up in the middle of the night to get places for the sermon, and came to the door of the cathedral, waiting outside till it should be opened, making no account of any inconvenience, neither of the cold, nor the mud, nor of standing in winter with their feet on the marble; and among them were young and old, women and children, of every sort, who came with such jubilee and rejoicing that it was bewildering to hear them, going to the sermon as to a wedding.
“Then the silence was great in the church, each one going to his place; and he who could read, with a taper in his hand, read the service and other prayers. And though many thousand people were thus collected together, no sound was to be heard, not even a ‘hush,’ until the arrival of the children who sang hymns with so much sweetness that heaven seemed to have opened. Thus they waited three or four hours till the padre entered the pulpit, and the attention of so great a mass of people, all with eyes and ears intent upon the preacher, was wonderful; they listened so that when the[Pg 17] sermon reached its end it seemed to them that it had scarcely begun.”
Piero’s weakness and Savonarola’s power soon bore fruit. Michael Angelo foresaw the fall of the Medici, and, unwilling to fight for a ruler whom he could not respect, fled to Venice. But his scanty supply of money was soon exhausted, and he returned to Bologna, on his way back to Florence.
At Bologna, the law required that every foreigner entering the gates should have a seal of red wax on his thumb, showing permission. This Michael Angelo and his friends neglected to obtain, and were at once arrested and fined. They would have been imprisoned save that Aldovrandi, a member of the council, and of a distinguished family, set them free, and invited the sculptor to his own house, where he remained for a year. Together they read Dante and Petrarch, and the magistrate soon became ardently attached to the bright youth of nineteen.
In the Church of San Petronio are the bones of St. Domenico in a marble coffin; on the sarcophagus two kneeling figures were to be placed by Nicolo Pisano, a contemporary of Cimabue. One was unfinished in its drapery, and the other, a kneeling angel holding a candelabrum, was not even begun. At Aldovrandi’s request Michael Angelo completed this work. So exasperated were the artists of Bologna at his skill that he felt obliged to leave their city, and return to Florence. What a pitiful exhibition of human weakness!
Meantime Piero had fled from Florence. Charles VIII. of France had made a triumphal entrance into the city, and Savonarola had become lawgiver. “Jesus Christ is the King of Florence,” was written over the gates of the Palazzo Vecchio, hymns were sung in the streets instead of ballads, the sacrament was received daily, and worldly books, even Petrarch and Virgil, and sensuous works of art, were burned on a huge pile. “Even Fra Bartolomeo was so carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment as to bring his life-academy studies to be consumed on this pyre, forgetful that, in the absence of such studies, he could never have risen above low mediocrity. Lorenzo di Credi, another and devoted follower of Savonarola, did the same.”
Michael Angelo, though an ardent admirer of Savonarola, and an attendant upon his preaching, seems not to have lost his good judgment, or to have considered the making of a sleeping Cupid a sin. When the beautiful work was completed, at the suggestion of a friend, it was buried in the ground for a season, to give it the appearance of an antique, and then sold to Cardinal San Giorgio for two hundred ducats, though Michael Angelo received but thirty as his share. Soon after, the cardinal ascertained how he had been imposed upon, and invited the artist to Rome, with the hope that the hundred and seventy ducats could be obtained from the dishonest agent who effected the sale. Vasari states that many persons believed that the agent, and not Michael Angelo, buried the statue[Pg 19] for gain, which seems probable from all we know of the artist’s upright character.
Michael Angelo went to the Eternal City in June, 1496. He was still young, only twenty-one. “The idea,” says Hermann Grimm, in his scholarly life of the artist, “that the young Michael Angelo, full of the bustle of the fanatically excited Florence, was led by his fate to Rome, and trod for the first time that soil where the most corrupt doings were, nevertheless, lost sight of in the calm grandeur of the past, has something in it that awakens thought. It was the first step in his actual life. He had before been led hither and thither by men and by his own indistinct views; now, thrown upon his own resources, he takes a new start for his future, and what he now produces begins the series of his masterly works.”
Michael Angelo’s first efforts in Rome were for a noble and cultivated man, Jacopo Galli: a Cupid, now lost, and a Bacchus, nearly as large as life, which Shelley declared “a revolting misunderstanding of the spirit and the idea of Bacchus.” Perhaps the artist did not put much heart into the statue of the intoxicated youth. His next work, however, the Pietà, executed for Cardinal St. Denis, the French ambassador at Rome, who desired to leave some monument of himself in the great city, made Michael Angelo famous. Sonnets were written to the Pietà, the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ.
Of this work Grimm says: “The position of[Pg 20] the body, resting on the knees of the woman; the folds of her dress, which is gathered together by a band across the bosom; the inclination of the head, as she bends over her son in a manner inconsolable and yet sublime, or his, as it rests in her arms dead, exhausted, and with mild features,—we feel every touch was for the first time created by Michael Angelo, and that that in which he imitated others in this group, was only common property, which he used because its use was customary….
“Our deepest sympathy is awakened by the sight of Christ,—the two legs, with weary feet, hanging down sideways from the mother’s knee; the falling arm; the failing, sunken body; the head drooping backwards,—the attitude of the whole human form lying there, as if by death he had again become a child whom the mother had taken in her arms; at the same time, in the countenance there is a wonderful blending of the old customary Byzantine type,—the longish features and parted beard, and the noblest elements of the national Jewish expression. None before Michael Angelo would have thought of this; the oftener the work is contemplated, the more touching does its beauty become,—everywhere the purest nature, in harmony both in spirit and exterior.
“Whatever previously to this work had been produced by sculptors in Italy passes into shadow, and assumes the appearance of attempts in which there is something lacking, whether in idea or in execution; here, both are provided for. The artist,[Pg 21] the work, and the circumstances of the time, combine together; and the result is something that deserves to be called perfect. Michael Angelo numbered four and twenty years when he had finished his Pietà. He was the first master in Italy, the first in the world from henceforth, says Condivi; indeed, they go so far as to maintain, he says further, that Michael Angelo surpassed the ancient masters.”
How could Michael Angelo have carved this work at twenty-four? His knowledge of anatomy was surprising. He had become imbued with great and noble thoughts from Savonarola’s preaching, and from his ardent reading of Dante and Petrarch; he was eager for fame, and he believed in his own power. And, besides all this, he was in love with art. When a friend said to him, years afterwards, “‘Tis a pity that you have not married, that you might have left children to inherit the fruit of these honorable toils,” he replied, “I have only too much of a wife in my art, and she has given me trouble enough. As to my children, they are the works that I shall leave; and if they are not worth much, they will at least live for some time. Woe to Lorenzo Ghiberti if he had not made the gates of San Giovanni; for his children and grandchildren have sold or squandered all that he left; but the gates are still in their place. These are so beautiful that they are worthy of being the gates of Paradise.”
The Pietà is now in St. Peter’s. When some [Pg 22]person criticised the youthful appearance of the Virgin, and captiously asked where a mother could be found, like this one, younger than her son, the painter answered, “In Paradise.”
“The love and care,” says Vasari, “which Michael Angelo had given to this group were such that he there left his name—a thing he never did again for any work—on the cincture which girdles the robe of Our Lady; for it happened one day that Michael Angelo, entering the place where it was erected, found a large assemblage of strangers from Lombardy there, who were praising it highly; one of them, asking who had done it, was told, ‘Our Hunchback of Milan;’ hearing which, Michael Angelo remained silent, although surprised that his work should be attributed to another. But one night he repaired to St. Peter’s with a light and his chisels, to engrave his name on the figure, which seems to breathe a spirit as perfect as her form and countenance.”
Michael Angelo was now urged by his father and brother to return to Florence. Lodovico, his father, writes him: “Buonarotto tells me that you live with great economy, or rather penury. Economy is good, but penury is bad, because it is a vice displeasing to God and to the people of this world, and, besides, will do harm both to soul and body.”
However, when his son returned, after four years in Rome, carrying the money he had saved to establish his brothers in business, the proud father was not displeased with the “penury.” This [Pg 23]self-denial the great artist practised through life for his not always grateful or appreciative family. He said in his old age, “Rich as I am, I have always lived like a poor man.”
Matters had greatly changed in Florence. Savonarola and his two principal followers, excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI., because they had preached against the corruptions of Rome, calling his court the Romish Babylon, had been burned at the stake.
While the mob had assisted at the death of the great and good friar, the people of Florence were sad at heart. Michael Angelo, who loved him and deeply loved republican Florence, was sad also, and perhaps thereby wrought all the more earnestly, never being frivolous either in thought or work.
Upon his return to Florence, Cardinal Piccolomini, afterwards Pius III., made a contract with him for fifteen statues of Carrara marble to embellish the family chapel in the cathedral of Siena. Three years were allowed for this work. The artist finished but four statues, Peter, Paul, Gregory, and Pius, because of other labors which were pressed upon him.
The marble Madonna in the Church of Notre Dame at Bruges was carved about this time. “This,” says Grimm, “is one of Michael Angelo’s finest works. It is life-size. She sits there enveloped in the softest drapery; the child stands between her knees, leaning on the left one, the foot of which rests on a block of stone, so that it is[Pg 24] raised a little higher than the right. On this stone the child also stands, and seems about to step down. His mother holds him back with her left hand, while the right rests on her lap with a book. She is looking straight forward; a handkerchief is placed across her hair, and falls softly, on both sides, on her neck and shoulders. In her countenance, in her look, there is a wonderful majesty, a queenly gravity, as if she felt the thousand pious glances of the people who look up to her on the altar.”
An opportunity now presented itself for the already famous sculptor to distinguish himself in his own city. Years before a marble block, eighteen feet high, had been brought from Carrara to Florence, from which the wool-weavers’ guild intended to have a prophet made for Santa Maria del Fiore. One sculptor had attempted and failed. Others to whom it was offered said nothing could be done with the one block, but more pieces of marble should be added.
Michael Angelo was willing to undertake the making of a statue. He was allowed two years in which to complete it, with a monthly salary of six gold florins. His only preparation for the work was a little wax model which he moulded, now in the Uffizi. He worked untiringly, so that he often slept with his clothes on, to be ready for his beloved statue as soon as the morning dawned. He had shut himself away from the public gaze by planks and masonry, and worked alone, not [Pg 25]intrusting a stroke to other hands. He felt what Emerson preached years later, that “society is fatal.” The great essayist urged that while we may keep our hands in society “we must keep our head in solitude.” Great thoughts are not born usually in the whirl of social life.
Finally, when the statue was finished in January, 1504, and the colossal David stood unveiled before the people, they said: “It is as great a miracle as if a dead body had been raised to life.” Vasari says Michael Angelo intended, by this work, to teach the Florentines that as David “had defended his people and governed justly, so they who were then ruling that city should defend it with courage and govern it uprightly.”
The statue weighed eighteen thousand pounds, and required forty men four days to drag it by ropes a quarter of a mile to the place where it was to stand in the Piazza della Signoria. Notwithstanding that the praise of the sculptor was on every lip, still there was so much jealousy among the artists that some of their followers threw stones at the statue during the nights when it was being carried to the Piazza, and eight persons were arrested and put in prison.
Vasari tells a story which, whether true or false, illustrates the character of those who profess much because they know little. “When the statue was set up, it chanced that Soderini, whom it greatly pleased, came to look at it while Michael Angelo was retouching it at certain points, and told the[Pg 26] artist that he thought the nose too short. Michael Angelo perceived that Soderini was in such a position beneath the figure that he could not see it conveniently; yet, to satisfy him, he mounted the scaffold with his chisel and a little powder gathered from the floor in his hand, when striking lightly with the chisel, but without altering the nose, he suffered a little of the powder to fall, and then said to the gonfaloniere, who stood below, ‘Look at it now.’
“‘I like it better now,’ was the reply; ‘you have given it life.’ Michael Angelo then descended, not without compassion for those who desire to appear good judges of matters whereof they know nothing.” But the artist very wisely made no remarks, and thus retained the friendship of Soderini. In 1873, after nearly four centuries, this famous statue was removed to the Academy of Fine Arts in the old Monastery of St. Mark, lest in the distant future it should be injured by exposure.
Work now poured in upon Michael Angelo. In three years he received commissions to carve thirty-seven statues. For the cathedral of Florence he promised colossal statues of the twelve apostles, but was able to attempt only one, St. Matthew, now in the Florentine Academy. For Agnolo Doni he painted a Madonna, now in the Tribune at Florence. The price was sixty ducats, but the parsimonious Agnolo said he would give but forty, though he knew it was worth more. Michael Angelo at once sent a messenger demanding a hundred ducats or[Pg 27] the picture, but, not inclined to lose so valuable a work by a famous artist, Agnolo gladly offered the sixty which he at first refused to pay. Offended by such penuriousness, Michael Angelo demanded and received one hundred and forty ducats!
In 1504, Gonfaloniere Soderini desired to adorn the great Municipal Hall with the paintings of two masters, Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo. The latter was only twenty-nine, while Da Vinci was over fifty. He had recently come from Milan, where he had been painting the “Last Supper,” which, Grimm says, “in moments of admiration, forces from us the assertion that it is the finest and sublimest composition ever produced by an Italian master.”
And now with this “first painter in Italy” the first sculptor, Michael Angelo, was asked to compete, and he dared to accept the offer.
He chose for his subject an incident of the Pisan war. As the weather was very warm, the Florentines had laid aside their armor and were bathing in the Arno. Sir John Hawkwood, the commander of the opposing forces, seized this moment to make the attack. The bathers rushed to the shore, and Michael Angelo has depicted them climbing the bank, buckling on their armor, and with all haste returning the assault.
“It is not possible,” says Grimm, “to describe all the separate figures, the fore-shortenings, the boldness with which the most difficult attitude is ever chosen, or the art with which it is depicted.[Pg 28] This cartoon was the school for a whole generation of artists, who made their first studies from it.”
Da Vinci’s painting represented a scene at the battle of Anghiari, where the Florentines had defeated the Milanese in 1440. “While these cartoons thus hung opposite to each other,” says Benvenuto Cellini, “they formed the school of the world.” Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and others made studies from them. Da Vinci’s faded, and Michael Angelo’s was cut in pieces by some enemy.
Before the artist had finished his painting he was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II., the great patron of art and literature, who desired a monument for himself in St. Peter’s. The mausoleum was to be three stories high; with sixteen statues of the captive liberal arts, and ten statues of Victory treading upon conquered provinces, for the first story; the sarcophagus of the pope, with his statue and attendant angels, for the second; and, above all, more cherubs and apostles.
“It will cost a hundred thousand crowns,” said the artist.
“Let it cost twice that sum,” said the pope.
At once Michael Angelo hastened to the marble quarries of Carrara, in the most northern part of Tuscany, where he remained for eight months. His task was a difficult one. He wrote to his father after he had gone back to Rome, “I should be quite contented here if only my marble would come. I am unhappy about it; for not for two days only, but as long as I have been here, we have had good[Pg 29] weather. A few days ago, a bark, which has just arrived, was within a hair’s-breadth of perishing. When from bad weather the blocks were conveyed by land, the river overflowed, and placed them under water; so that up to this day I have been able to do nothing. I must endeavor to keep the pope in good humor by empty words, so that his good temper may not fail. I hope all may soon be in order, and that I may begin my work. God grant it!”
When the marble reached Rome, the people were astonished, for there seemed enough to build a temple, instead of a tomb. The sculptor resided in a house near the Vatican, a covered way being constructed by the pope between the atelier and the palace, that he might visit the artist familiarly and see him at his work.
Meantime an envious artist was whispering in the ears of Julius that it was an evil omen to build one’s monument in one’s lifetime, and that he would be apt to die early. This was not agreeable news, and when Michael Angelo returned from a second journey to Carrara the pope refused to advance any money, and even gave orders that he should not be admitted to the palace.
With commendable pride the artist left Rome at once, and hastened to Florence, leaving a letter in which he said, “Most Holy Father,—If you require me in the future, you can seek me elsewhere than in Rome.”
The proud Julius at once perceived his mistake,[Pg 30] and sent a messenger to bid him return, on pain of his displeasure. But Michael Angelo paid no attention to the mandate. Then Julius II. applied to Soderini the Gonfaloniere, who said to the sculptor, “You have treated the pope in a manner such as the King of France would not have done! There must be an end of trifling with him now. We will not for your sake begin a war with the pope, and risk the safety of the state.”
The Sultan Bajazet II., who had heard of Michael Angelo’s fame, now urged him to come to Turkey and build a bridge between Constantinople and Pera, across the Golden Horn. Soderini tried to persuade him that he had better “die siding with the pope, than live passing over to the Turk,” and meantime wrote Julius that he could do nothing with him. The pope saw that kindness alone would win back the self-reliant and independent artist, and finally prevailed upon him to return to Rome.
When he arrived, Julius, half angry, said, “You have waited thus long, it seems, till we should ourselves come to seek you.”
An ecclesiastic standing near officiously begged his Holiness not to be too severe with Michael Angelo, as he was a man of no education, and as artists did not know how to behave except where their own art was concerned.
The pope was now fully angry, and exclaimed, “Do you venture to say things to this man which I would not have said to him myself? You are[Pg 31] yourself a man of no education, a miserable fellow, and this he is not. Leave our presence.” The man was borne out of the hall, nearly fainting.
Michael Angelo was at once commissioned to make a bronze statue of Julius, fourteen feet high, to be placed before the Church of St. Petronio, in Bologna. When the pope wished to know the cost, the artist told him he thought it would be about three thousand ducats, but was not sure whether the cast would succeed.
“You will mould it until it succeeds,” said the pope, “and you shall be paid as much as you require.”
When the clay model was ready for the pope to look at, he was asked if he would like to be represented holding a book in his left hand.
“Give me a sword!” he exclaimed; “I am no scholar. And what does the raised right hand denote? Am I dispensing a curse, or a blessing?”
“You are advising the people of Bologna to be wise,” replied Michael Angelo.
The bronze statue was a difficult work. The first cast was unsuccessful. The sculptor wrote home, “If I had a second time to undertake this intense work, which gives me no rest night or day, I scarcely think I should be able to accomplish it. I am convinced that no one else upon whom this immense task might have been imposed would have persevered. My belief is that your prayers have kept me sustained and well. For no one in Bologna, not even after the successful issue of the[Pg 32] cast, thought that I should finish the statue satisfactorily; before that no one thought that the cast would succeed.”
After the statue was completed, Michael Angelo, at the earnest request of the helpless Buonarotti family, went back to Florence, and carried there what he had earned. Grimm naïvely remarks, “I could almost suppose that it had been designed by Fate, as may be often observed in similar cases, to compensate for Michael Angelo’s extraordinary gifts by a corresponding lack of them in the family.” The case of Galileo, struggling through life for helpless relatives, is similar to that of Michael Angelo.
He was soon summoned again to Rome, not to complete the monument, as he had hoped, but to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He hesitated to undertake so important a work in painting, and begged that Raphael be chosen; but the pope would not consent.
He therefore began to make designs, and sent for some of his boyhood friends to aid him, Granacci and others. His method was to make the first draught in red or black chalk on a very small scale. From this he marked out the full-sized cartoons or working drawings, nailing these to the wall, and cutting away the paper around the figures. He soon found that his assistants were a hinderance rather than a help, and, unable to wound their feelings by telling them, he shut up the chapel and went away. They understood it, and, if some were[Pg 33] hurt or offended, Granacci was not, but always remained an earnest friend.
Michael Angelo now worked alone, seeing nobody except his color-grinder and the pope. His eyes became so injured by holding his head back for his work that for a long period afterwards he could read only by keeping the page above his head. After he had painted for some time the walls began to mould, and, discouraged, he hastened to the pope, saying, “I told your Holiness, from the first, that painting was not my profession; all that I have painted is destroyed. If you do not believe it, send and let some one else see.” It was soon found that he had made the plaster too wet, but that no harm would result.
He worked now so constantly that he scarcely took time to eat or sleep, and became ill from overexertion. In the midst of his labors and illness, he writes his father, “Do not lose courage, and let not a trace of inward sadness gain ground in you; for, if you have lost your property, life is not lost, and I will do more for you than all you have lost. Still, do not rely upon it; it is always a doubtful matter. Use, rather, all possible precaution; and thank God that, as this chastisement of heaven was to come, it came at a time when you could better extricate yourself from it than you would perhaps have been earlier able to do. Take care of your health, and rather part with all your possessions than impose privations on yourself. For it is of greater consequence to me that you should[Pg 34] remain alive, although a poor man, than that you should perish for the sake of all the money in the world.
Your Michael Angelo.”
He writes also to his younger brother, Giovanni Simone, who appears to have spent much and earned little: “If you will take care to do well, and to honor and revere your father, I will aid you like the others and will soon establish you in a good shop…. I have gone about through all Italy for twelve years, leading a dog’s life; bearing all manner of insults, enduring all sorts of drudgery, lacerating my body with many toils, placing my life itself under a thousand perils, solely to aid my family; and now that I have commenced to raise it up a little, thou alone wishest to do that which shall confound and ruin in an hour everything that I have done in so many years and with so many fatigues.”
Meantime the pope, as eager as a child to see the painting which he knew would help to immortalize himself, urged the artist to work faster, and continually asked when it would be finished and the scaffolding taken down. “When I can, holy father,” replied the artist. “When I can—when I can! I’ll make thee finish it, and quickly, as thou shalt see!” And he struck Michael Angelo with the staff which he held in his hand.
The sculptor at once left the painting and started for Florence. But Julius sent after him, and gave him five hundred crowns to pacify him. It [Pg 35]certainly would have been a pecuniary saving to the pontiff not to have given way to his temper and used his staff!
When half the ceiling was completed, at Julius’s request the scaffolding was removed, and all Rome crowded to see the wonderful work on All Saints’ Day, 1509.
Kugler says, “The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel contains the most perfect works done by Michael Angelo in his long and active life. Here his great spirit appears in its noblest dignity, in its highest purity; here the attention is not disturbed by that arbitrary display to which his great power not unfrequently seduced him in other works.”
The paintings represent God the Father separating the light from the darkness; he creates the sun and moon; surrounded by angels, he commands the waters to bring forth all kinds of animals which can live in the sea; he breathes into man the breath of life; he forms Eve; both are driven from the garden; Abel is sacrificed; the flood comes; Noah and his family are saved in the ark.
Grimm thus describes a portion of this marvellous painting: “Adam lies on a dark mountain summit. His formation is finished; nothing more remains than that he should rise, and feel for the first time what life and waking are. It is as if the first emotion of his new condition thrilled through him; as if, still lying almost in a dream, he divined what was passing around him. God hovers slowly down over him from above, softly descending like[Pg 36] an evening cloud. Angel forms surround him on all sides, closely thronging round him as if they were bearing him; and his mantle, as if swelled out by a full gust of wind, forms a flowing tent around them all. These angels are children in appearance, with lovely countenances: some support him from below, others look over his shoulder. More wonderful still than the mantle which embraces them all is the garment which covers the form of God himself, violet-gray drapery, transparent as if woven out of clouds, closely surrounding the mighty and beautiful form with its small folds, covering him entirely down to the knees, and yet allowing every muscle to appear through it. I have never seen the portrait of a human body which equalled the beauty of this. Cornelius justly said that since Phidias its like has not been formed….
“God commands and Adam obeys. He signs him to rise, and Adam seizes his hand to raise himself up. Like an electric touch, God sends a spark of his own spirit, with life-giving power, into Adam’s body. Adam lay there powerless; the spirit moves within him; he raises his head to his Creator as a flower turns to the sun, impelled by that wonderful power which is neither will nor obedience….
“The next picture is the creation of Eve. Adam lies on his right side sunk in sleep, and completely turned to the spectator. One arm falls languidly on his breast, and the back of the fingers rest upon[Pg 37] the ground…. Eve stands behind Adam; we see her completely in profile…. We feel tempted to say she is the most beautiful picture of a woman which art has produced…. She is looking straight forward; and we feel that she breathes for the first time: but it seems as if life had not yet flowed through her veins, as if the adoring, God-turned position was not only the first dream-like movement, but as if the Creator himself had formed her, and called her from her slumber, in this position.”
The pope was anxious to have the scaffolding again erected, and the figures touched with gold. “It is unnecessary,” said Michael Angelo. “But it looks poor,” said Julius, who should have thought of this before he insisted on its being shown to the public. “They are poor people whom I have painted there,” said the artist; “they did not wear gold on their garments,” and Julius was pacified.
Raphael was now working near Michael Angelo in the Vatican palace, but it is probable that they did not become friends, though each admired the genius of the other, and Raphael “thanked God that he had been born in the same century as Michael Angelo.” But there was rivalry always between the followers of the two masters.
Raphael was gentle, affectionate, sympathetic, intense, lovable; Michael Angelo was tender at heart but austere in manner, doing only great works, and thinking great thoughts. “Raphael,” says Grimm, “had one excellence, which, perhaps,[Pg 38] as long as the world stands, no other artist has possessed to such an extent,—his works suit more closely the average human mind. There is no line drawn above or below. Michael Angelo’s ideals belong to a nobler, stronger generation, as if he had had demigods in his mind, just as Schiller’s poetical forms, in another manner, often outstep the measure of the ordinary mortal…. Leonardo sought for the fantastic, Michael Angelo for the difficult and the great; both labored with intense accuracy, both went their own ways, and impressed the stamp of nature on their works. Raphael proceeded quietly, often advancing in the completion only to a certain point, at which he rested, apparently not jealous at being confounded with others. He paints at first in the fashion of Perugino, and his portraits are in the delicate manner of Leonardo: a certain grace is almost the only characteristic of his works. At length he finds himself in Rome, opposed alone to Michael Angelo; then only does the true source of power burst out within him; and he produces works which stand so high above all his former ones that the air of Rome which he breathed seemed to have worked wonders in him…. Raphael served the court with agreeable obsequiousness; but under the outward veil of this subservient friendliness there dwelt a keen and royal mind, which bent before no power, and went its own way solitarily, like the soul of Michael Angelo.”
The Sistine Chapel was finished, probably, in[Pg 39] 1512, and Michael Angelo returned with ardor to the Julius monument, which, however, had been reduced in plan from the original. He worked on the central figure, Moses, with great joy, believing it would be his masterpiece. “This statue,” says Charles Christopher Black of Trinity College, Cambridge, “takes rank with the Prometheus of Æschylus, with the highest and noblest conceptions of Dante and Shakespeare.”
“He sits there,” says Grimm, “as if on the point of starting up, his head proudly raised; his hand, under the arm of which rest the tables of the law, is thrust in his beard, which falls in heavy, waving locks on his breast; his nostrils are wide and expanding, and his mouth looks as if the words were trembling on his lips. Such a man could well subdue a rebellious people, drawing them after him, like a moving magnet, through the wilderness and through the sea itself.
“What need we information, letters, supposititious records, respecting Michael Angelo, when we possess such a work, every line of which is a transcript of his mind?”
Emerson truly said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” No work either in literature or art can ever be great, or live beyond a decade or two, unless the author or artist puts himself into it,—his own glowing heart and earnest purpose. Mr. Black well says, “The highest aim of art is not to produce a counterpart of nature, but to convey by a judicious employment of natural[Pg 40] forms, and a wise deviation where required, the sentiment which it is the artist’s object to inculcate.”
The statues of the two chained youths, or “Fettered Slaves,” which were too large after the monument had been reduced in size, were sent to France. The “Dying Slave” will be recalled by all who have visited the Renaissance sculptures of the Louvre. Grimm says, “Perhaps the tender beauty of this dying youth is more penetrating than the power of Moses…. When I say that to me it is the most elevated piece of statuary that I know, I do so remembering the masterpieces of ancient art. Man is always limited. It is impossible, in the most comprehensive life, to have had everything before our eyes, and to have contemplated that which we have seen, in the best and worthiest state of feeling…. I ask myself what work of sculpture first comes to mind if I am to name the best, and at once the answer is ready,—the dying youth of Michael Angelo…. What work of any ancient master do we, however, know or possess which touches us so nearly as this,—which takes hold of our soul so completely as this exemplification of the highest and last human conflict does, in a being just developing? The last moment, between life and immortality,—the terror at once of departing and arriving,—the enfeebling of the powerful youthful limbs, which, like an empty and magnificent coat of mail, are cast off by the soul as she rises, and which, still losing what[Pg 41] they contained, seem nevertheless completely to veil it!
“He is chained to the pillar by a band running across the breast, below the shoulders; his powers are just ebbing; the band sustains him; he almost hangs in it; one shoulder is forced up, and towards this the head inclines as it falls backwards. The hand of this arm is placed on his breast; the other is raised in a bent position behind the head, in such an attitude as in sleep we make a pillow of an arm, and it is fettered at the wrist. The knees, drawn closely together, have no more firmness; no muscle is stretched; all has returned to that repose which indicates death.”
A year after the Sistine Chapel was finished, Pope Julius died, and was succeeded by Leo X., at whose side the artist had sat when a boy, in the palace of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was a man of taste and culture, and desired to build a monument to himself in his native Florence. He therefore commissioned Michael Angelo to build a beautiful, sculptured façade for the Church of San Lorenzo, erected by Cosmo de’ Medici from designs of Brunelleschi.
For nearly four years the sculptor remained among the mountains of Carrara, and the adjacent ones of Serravezza, taking out heavy blocks of marble, making roads over the steep rocks for their transportation, and studying architecture with great assiduity.
Meantime, Michael Angelo writes to his “Dearest[Pg 42] father: Take care of your health, and see whether you are not still able to get your daily bread; and, with God’s help, get through, poor but honest. I do not do otherwise; I live shabbily, and care not for outward honor; a thousand cares and works burden me; and thus I have now gone on for fifteen years without having a happy, quiet hour. And I have done all for the sake of supporting you, which you have never acknowledged or believed. God forgive us all! I am ready to go on working as long as I can, and as long as my powers hold out.”
Later he hears that his father is ill, and writes anxiously to his brother, “Take care, also, that nothing is lacking in his nursing; for I have exerted myself for him alone, in order that to the last he might have a life free of care. Your wife, too, must take care of him, and attend to his necessities; and all of you, if necessary, must spare no expenses, even if it should cost us everything.”
Finally the façade of San Lorenzo was abandoned by Leo X., who decided to erect a new chapel north of the church, for the reception of monuments to his brother and nephew, Giuliano and Lorenzo. The artist built the new sacristy, bringing thither three hundred cart-loads of marble from Carrara.
Leo died in 1521, and was succeeded by Adrian, who lived only a year, and then by Clement VII., the cousin of Leo X. He was a warm friend of Michael Angelo, and so desirous was he of keeping the artist in his service that he endeavored to have him take holy orders, but the offer was refused.
Like the other popes he wished to immortalize his name, and therefore gave the artist the building of the Laurentian library, adjoining San Lorenzo.
Meantime the relatives of Pope Julius were justly angry because his tomb was not completed, and threatened to imprison the sculptor for not fulfilling his contract. All art work was soon discontinued through the sacking of Rome by Charles V. of Germany, in 1527. Upon the inlaid marble floor of the Vatican the German soldiers lighted their fires, and with valuable documents made beds for their horses which stood in the Sistine Chapel. Rome had ninety thousand inhabitants under Leo X. A year after the conquest, she had scarcely a third of that number.
The Florentines now expelled the Medici, revived the republic, and appointed Michael Angelo to superintend the fortifications and defences of Florence. He had always loved liberty. Now he loaned his funds freely to the republic, fortified the hill of San Miniato, was sent to Ferrara by the government to study its fortifications, and also on an embassy to Venice. He showed himself as skilful in engineering as in architecture or painting.
With quick intuition he soon perceived that Malatesta Baglioni, the captain-general of the republic, was a traitor, and, warned that he himself was to be assassinated, he fled to Venice.
Venice offered Michael Angelo all possible inducements to remain, and Francis I. of France eagerly besought the artist to live at his court; but his heart was in Florence, and thither he returned, and bravely helped to defend her to the last. When the Medici were again triumphant, and freedom was dead, the artist being too great a man to imprison or kill, he was publicly pardoned by the pope, and went sadly to his work on the monuments in the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo.
Here he labored day and night, eating little and sleeping less, ill in body and suffering deeply in heart for his beloved Florence; working into the speaking stone his sorrow and his hopes. In 1534 the Medici Chapel was completed,—a massive piece of architecture, executed at an almost fabulous expense. On one side is the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with[Pg 45] his statue in a sitting posture, holding in his hand the bâton of a general. Beneath him, over the tomb, are the statues Day and Night. Opposite is the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the father of Catherine de’ Medici. It is clad in armor, with a helmet overshadowing the grave features. The Italians call it Il Pensiero (“Thought,” or “Meditation”).
Hawthorne said of this statue, “No such grandeur and majesty have elsewhere been put into human shape. It is all a miracle—the deep repose, and the deep life within it. It is as much a miracle to have achieved this as to make a statue that would rise up and walk…. This statue is one of the things which I look at with highest enjoyment, but also with grief and impatience, because I feel that I do not come at all to that which it involves, and that by and by I must go away and leave it forever. How wonderful! To take a block of marble, and convert it wholly into thought, and to do it through all the obstructions and impediments of drapery.”
Some authorities believe that the statue usually called Lorenzo was intended for Giuliano. Michael Angelo himself, when remonstrated with because the portraits were not correct likenesses, replied that he “did not suppose people a hundred years later would care much how the dukes looked!”
Under this statue are Dawn and Twilight. Ruskin calls these, with Night and Day, “Four ineffable types, not of darkness nor of day—not of[Pg 46] morning nor evening, but of the departure and the resurrection, the twilight and the dawn, of the souls of men.”
Day is a gigantic figure of a man; Night, of a woman in a profound sleep, with her foot resting on a thick bundle of poppy-heads. When this statue was exhibited for the first time, Giovanni Batista Strozzi wrote a verse, and attached it to the marble:—
To which Michael Angelo wrote the following reply:—
Of Day, Mrs. Oliphant says, in her “Makers of Florence,” “Bursting herculean from his strong prison, half heroic, nothing known of him but the great brow and resolute eyes, and those vast limbs, which were not yet free from the cohesion of the marble, though alive with such strain of action.”
Twilight is the strong figure of a man. Dawn, or Morning, Grimm considers “the most beautiful of all. She is lying outstretched on the gently sloping side of the lid of the sarcophagus. Not, however, resting, but as if, still in sleep, she had[Pg 47]moved towards us; so that, while the upper part of the back is still reclining, the lower part is turned to us. She is lying on her right side; the leg next us, only feebly bent at the knee is stretching itself out; the other is half drawn up, and with the knee bent out, as if it was stepping forward and seeking for sure footing. An entire symphony of Beethoven lies in this statue.”
In 1534, the same year in which the Medici statues were finished, Michael Angelo’s father died, at the age of ninety. The artist gave him a costly burial, and wrote a pathetic poem in his memory. The beloved brother, Buonarotto, had died in Michael Angelo’s arms. His young mother had died years before when he went to Rome, scarcely more than a boy.
Clement was now dead, and Paul III. was in the papal chair. He, like the others, desired that Michael Angelo should do some great work to immortalize his reign. Clement had wished the artist to paint the “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, and when Paul urged the carrying-out of this plan, Michael Angelo excused himself on account of the contract with the heirs of Julius II.
“It is now thirty years,” cried Paul III., “that I have had this desire; and, now that I am pope, shall I not be able to effect it? Where is the contract, that I may tear it?”
One day he appeared in the studio of the painter, bringing with him eight cardinals, all of whom wished to see the designs for the “Last Judgment.”
The artist was still at work on Moses. “This one statue is sufficient to be a worthy monument to Pope Julius,” said the cardinal of Mantua. Paul III. refused to release Michael Angelo, and he began work on the Sistine Chapel.
The painting was not completed until nearly eight years had passed. There are three hundred figures and heads in this vast fresco. Says M. F. Sweetser, in his concise and excellent life of Michael Angelo, “About Christ are many renowned saints,—the Madonna, gazing mildly at the blessed and redeemed souls; Adam and Eve,[Pg 49] curiously regarding the Judge; and a group of pleading apostles, bearing their emblems. These are surrounded by a vast throng of saints and martyrs, safe in Heaven, all of whom exemplify the saying that ‘Michael Angelo nowhere admits, either into heaven or hell, any but the physically powerful.’ Below the Judge are four angels blowing trumpets towards the four quarters of the universe, and four others holding the books by which the dead are to be judged. Under these the land and sea are giving up their dead…. As a work of art, the Last Judgment was one of the grandest productions of the famous art-century.”
Biagio da Cesena, the pope’s master of ceremonies, complained that so many naked figures made the painting more appropriate for bath-rooms and stables than for a chapel. What was the surprise of Biagio, when the painting was thrown open to the public, to find that the infernal judge Minos, with ass’s ears, was his own portrait! He begged the pope to punish the artist; but Paul replied, “If the painter had placed thee in purgatory, I should have used every effort to help thee; but since he has put thee in hell, it is useless to have recourse to me, because ex infernis nulla est redemptio.”
Paul IV. later complained that the figures were shamefully nude, and desired to have them covered. “Tell his Holiness,” said Michael Angelo, “that this is a mere trifle, and can be easily done; let him mend the world, paintings are easily mended.” Paul finally had the nude figures draped by Daniele[Pg 50] da Volterra, who thereupon bore the nickname of “the breeches-maker.”
While painting this picture, the artist fell from the scaffold and injured his leg seriously. He refused to allow anything to be done for him, but his friend, the surgeon Rontini, forced his way into the house, and cared for him until he recovered.
These eight years had been the happiest of Michael Angelo’s life. Before this time he had been cold in manner, often melancholy, and sometimes overbearing; now he was gentle, cheerful, and affectionate. He had written home in early life, “I have no friends; I need none, and wish to have none.” Now he had found, what every human being needs, a friend whose tastes and aspirations were like his own. At sixty, he met and loved Vittoria Colonna, a woman whose mind was henceforward to be his inspiration, and whose sweet nature was to be his rest and satisfaction forever. For such a mind as Michael Angelo’s there are few kindred spirits. Fortunate was he that the blessed gift came, even though late in life.
Vittoria was the daughter of Fabrizio Colonna, and the widow of Marchese di Pescara, the two highest nobles and generals of her time. Tenderly reared and highly educated, she had married at nineteen, her husband soon after engaging in the wars of the time. He was wounded at Pavia, and died before his young wife could reach him. He[Pg 51] was buried at Milan, but the body was afterwards removed to Naples with great magnificence.
Vittoria, childless, well-nigh heart-broken, turned to literature as her solace. She desired to enter a convent; but the bishop of Carpentros, afterwards a cardinal, and an intimate friend of Vittoria, hastened to Paul III., who forbade the abbess and nuns of San Silvestro, on pain of excommunication, to permit her to take the veil. Vittoria must not be lost to the world.
When her poems were published, says T. Adolphus Trollope, in his life of this charming woman, “copies were as eagerly sought for as the novel of the season at a nineteenth-century circulating library. Cardinals, bishops, poets, wits, diplomatists, passed them from one to another, made them the subject of their correspondence with each other and with the fair mourner.”
Hallam says, “The rare virtues and consummate talents of this lady were the theme of all Italy in that brilliant age of her literature.”
Vittoria Colonna is one of the best illustrations in history of what a noble and intellectual woman can do for the upbuilding of society. Many gifted men gave her a sincere affection, and she held that affection while life lasted. She was well read in history, religious matters, and classic literature. Her first visit to Rome was a continued ovation. Even the Emperor Charles V. called upon her. Unselfish, sympathetic, with a gentle and winsome manner that drew every one into confidence, she[Pg 52] proved herself a companion for the most highly educated, and a helper for the lowly.
When she visited Ferrara, Duke Hercules II., who had married Renée of France, the daughter of Louis XII., received her, says Trollope, “with every possible distinction on the score of her poetical celebrity, and deemed his city honored by her presence. He invited, we are told, the most distinguished poets and men of letters of Venice and Lombardy to meet her at Ferrara. And so much was her visit prized that when Cardinal Giberto sent thither his secretary, Francesco della Torre, to persuade her to visit his episcopal city, Verona, that ambassador wrote to his friend Bembo, at Venice, that he had like to have been banished by the Duke, and stoned by the people, for coming there with the intention of robbing Ferrara of its most precious treasure, for the purpose of enriching Verona.”… The learned and elegant Bembo writes of her that he considered her poetical judgment as sound and authoritative as that of the greatest masters of the art of song…. Bernardo Tasso made her the subject of several of his poems. Giovio dedicated to her his life of Pescara, and Cardinal Pompeo Colonna his book on “The Praises of Women;” and Contarini paid her the far more remarkable compliment of dedicating to her his work “On Free Will.”
“Paul III. was,” as Muratori says, “by no means well disposed towards the Colonna family. Yet Vittoria must have had influence with the[Pg 53] haughty and severe old Farnese. For both Bembo and Fregoso, the Bishop of Naples, have taken occasion to acknowledge that they owed their promotion to the purple in great measure to her.”
It is probable that she first met Michael Angelo in the year 1536. He was then sixty-one, and she forty-six. “A woman,” says Grimm, “needs not extreme youth to captivate the mind of a man who discovers in her the highest intelligence…. She belonged to that class of women who, apparently with no will of their own, never seek to extort anything by force, and yet obtain everything which is placed before them…. How tenderly she exercised her authority over Michael Angelo, who had never before been approached; whom she now for the first time inspired with the happiness of yielding to a woman, and for whom the years which she passed at that time in Rome she made a period of happiness, which he had never before known…. Whenever we contemplate the life of great men, the most beautiful part of their existence is that, when meeting with a power equal to their own, they find one worthy of measuring the depths of their mind…. There is no deeper desire than that of meeting such a mind; no greater happiness than having found it; no greater sorrow than to resign this happiness, whether it be that it has never been enjoyed, or that it has been lost.”
Francesco d’Ollanda, a portrait-painter, has described one of the Sundays which he spent in the[Pg 54] company of Michael Angelo and Vittoria, “the latter of whom he calls beautiful, pure in conduct, and acquainted with the Latin tongue; in short, she is adorned with every grace which can redound to a woman’s praise.”
When Michael Angelo arrived at her home on that Sunday, Vittoria, “who could never speak without elevating those with whom she conversed and even the place where she was, began to lead the conversation with the greatest art upon all possible things, without, however, touching even remotely upon painting. She wished to give Michael Angelo assurance.” She said to him, “I cannot but admire the manner in which you withdraw yourself from the world, from useless conversation, and from all the offers of princes who desire paintings from your hand,—how you avoid it all, and how you have disposed the labor of your whole life as one single, great work.”
“Gracious lady,” replied Michael Angelo, “these are undeserved praises; but, as the conversation has taken this turn, I must here complain of the public. A thousand silly reproaches are brought against artists of importance. They say that they are strange people, that they are not to be approached, that there is no bearing with them. No one, on the contrary, can be so natural and human as great artists…. How should an artist, absorbed in his work, take from it time and thought to drive away other people’s ennui?… An artist who, instead of satisfying the highest demands of[Pg 55] his art, tries to suit himself to the great public, who has nothing strange or peculiar in his personal exterior, or rather what the world calls so,—will never become an extraordinary mind. It is true, as regards the ordinary race of artists, we need take no lantern to look for them; they stand at the corner of every street throughout the world, ready for all who seek them…. True art is made noble and religious by the mind producing it. For, for those who feel it, nothing makes the soul so religious and pure as the endeavor to create something perfect, for God is perfection, and whoever strives after it is striving after something divine. True painting is only an image of the perfection of God, a shadow of the pencil with which he paints,—a melody, a striving after harmony.”
And then, says d’Ollanda, “Vittoria began a eulogium upon painting; she spoke of its ennobling influence upon a people,—how it led them to piety, to glory, to greatness, until the tears came into her eyes from the emotion within.”
For ten or twelve years, in the midst of long separations and many sorrows, this affection of Vittoria and Michael Angelo shed its transcendent light over two great lives. It was impossible not to love a woman with such tenderness, sympathy, and sincerity. We may admire a beautiful or a brilliant woman, but if she lacks tenderness and sincerity the world soon loses its allegiance. When political changes made it necessary for her to leave Rome and go to the Convent of St. Catherine at Viterbo,[Pg 56]Michael Angelo wrote her daily, while he painted in the Pauline Chapel, after the “Last Judgment” was finished, the “Crucifixion of Peter,” and the “Conversion of Paul.” In 1542 she wrote him tenderly, “I have not answered your letter before, thinking that if you and I continue to write according to my obligation and your courtesy, it will be necessary that I leave St. Catherine’s Chapel, without finding myself with the sisters at the appointed hours, and that you must abandon the Pauline Chapel, and not keep yourself all the day long in sweet colloquy with your paintings … so that I from the brides of Christ, and you from his vicar, shall fall away.”
However she may chide him for writing too frequently, his words and works are most precious to her. When he paints for her a picture, she writes, “I had the greatest faith in God, that he would give you a supernatural grace to paint this Christ; then I saw it, so wonderful that it surpassed in every way my expectations. Being emboldened by your miracles, I desired that which I now see marvellously fulfilled, that is, that it should stand in every part in the highest perfection, and that one could not desire more nor reach forward to desire so much. And I tell you that it gave me joy that the angel on the right hand is so beautiful; for the Archangel Michael will place you, Michael Angelo, on the right hand of the Lord at the judgment day. And meanwhile I know not how to serve you otherwise than to pray to this sweet Christ, whom you have so well and perfectly[Pg 57]painted, and to entreat you to command me as altogether yours in all and through all.”
What delicate appreciation of the genius of the man she loved! How it must have stimulated and blessed him! But more than all else she loved Michael Angelo for the one thing women value most in men, the strength and constancy of a nature that gives a single and lasting devotion.
She gave to Michael Angelo a vellum book, containing one hundred and three of her sonnets, and sent him forty new ones which she composed at the convent of Viterbo. These he had bound up in the same book which he received from her; her for whom, he said, “I would have done more than for any one else whom I could name in the world.” He wrote back his thanks with the sweet self-abnegation of love.
She inspired him to write poetry. “The productions of our great artist’s pen,” says John Edward Taylor, “rank unquestionably in the number of the most perfect of his own or any subsequent age. Stamped by a flow of eloquence, a purity of style, an habitual nobleness of sentiment, they discover a depth of thought rarely equalled, and frequently approaching to the sublimity of Dante.”
Several of his most beautiful sonnets were to Vittoria:—
In 1544 the Colonna estates were confiscated by the pope, after a contest between Paul III. and the[Pg 59] powerful Colonnas, in which the latter were defeated, and Vittoria retired to the Benedictine Convent of St. Anna. Here her health failed. The celebrated physician and poet Fracastoro said, “Would that a physician for her mind could be found! Otherwise, the fairest light in this world will, from causes by no means clear, be extinguished and taken from our eyes.”
At the beginning of 1547 she became dangerously ill, and was conveyed to the palace of her relative Giuliano Cesarini, the only one of her kindred in Rome. She died towards the last of February, 1547, at the age of fifty-seven.
She requested to be buried like the sisters with whom she last resided, and so entirely were her wishes carried out that her place of sepulture is unknown.
Michael Angelo staid beside her to the very last. When she was gone he almost lost his senses. Says his pupil, Condivi, “He bore such a love to her that I remember to have heard him say that he grieved at nothing so much as that when he went to see her pass from this life he had not kissed her brow or her face, as he kissed her hand. After her death he frequently stood trembling and as if insensible.”
He wrote several sonnets to her memory.
The monument of Julius had at last been completed, and placed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincola. In 1546, Antonio di San Gallo, the director of the building of St. Peter’s, died, and Michael Angelo was commissioned to carry forward the work. Fortunately Vittoria lived to see this honor conferred upon him.
He was now seventy-one years old. For the remaining eighteen years of his life, he devoted himself to this great labor, without compensation. When Paul III., with Cardinal Marcello, summoned Michael Angelo to talk over some alleged defects, the aged artist boldly replied to the cardinal, “I am not nor will I consent to be obliged to tell, to your eminence or any one else, what I ought or wish to do. Your office is to bring money and guard it from thieves, and the designing of the building is left to me.” Then he said to the pope, “Holy Father, you see what I gain; if these fatigues which I endure do not benefit my soul, I lose both time and labor.” The pope, who loved him, placed[Pg 61] his hands on his shoulders, saying, “You benefit both soul and body: do not doubt.”
When asked if the new dome would not surpass that of the Duomo of Florence, by Brunelleschi, he said, “It will be more grand, but not more beautiful.”
Michael Angelo lived very simply in Rome, though he had amassed a large property, most of which he left to his nephew Leonardo, to whom and his family he was tenderly attached. When this nephew was married, the sculptor wrote him “not to care about a great dowry, but that you should look to a healthy mind, a healthy body, good blood, and good education, and what sort of family it is…. Above all, seek the counsel of God, for it is a great step.”
Michael Angelo was devotedly attached to Urbino, who had been his servant for twenty-six years, and who loved him so much, says Vasari, “that he had nursed him in sickness, and slept at night in his clothes beside him, the better to watch for his comforts.” One day the artist said to him, “When I die, what wilt thou do?”—”Serve some one else,” was the reply. “Thou poor creature, I must save thee from that,” said the sculptor, and immediately gave him two thousand crowns.
At Urbino’s death, when his master was about eighty, Michael Angelo wrote Vasari, in deep grief, of his “infinite loss.” “Nor have I now left any other hope than that of rejoining him in Paradise. But of this God has given me a foretaste, in the[Pg 62] most blessed death that he has died; his own departure did not grieve him, as did the leaving me in this treacherous world, with so many troubles. Truly is the best part of my being gone with him, nor is anything now left me except an infinite sorrow.”
The artist was again and again urged to return to Florence, by the reigning dukes, but he replied, “You must see by my handwriting that I touch the twenty-fourth hour, and no thought is now born in my mind in which death is not mixed.”
He was implored on every side to carve statues and paint pictures. He promised Francis I. of France a work in marble, in bronze, and in painting. “Should death interrupt this desire,” said Michael Angelo, “then, if it be possible to sculpture or paint in the other world, I shall not fail to do so, where no one becomes old.”
He furnished plans for several Roman gates which Pius IV., who succeeded Paul IV., wished to rebuild, and made designs for various other buildings and public squares. He erected the Church of St. Mary of the Angels, amid the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. “Nothing exists in architecture,” says Mr. Heath Wilson, “which exceeds the plan of this church in beauty and variety of form. The general proportions are so harmonious, the lines of the plan so gracefully disposed, the form of the whole so original, that, without looking at the elevations, the eye is delighted by the evidence on all sides of the imagination, taste, and skill[Pg 63] shown by the venerable architect in this superb work.”
The great sculptor never ceased to work or to study. When old he drew a picture representing himself as an aged man in a cart, with these words underneath: Ancora impara (still learning). He painted but two portraits, one of Vittoria Colonna, and one of young Tommaso dei Cavalieri, whom he tenderly loved. To this youth, whom Varchi, the Florentine professor and court scholar, declared to be the most attractive young man he had ever known, Michael Angelo wrote this beautiful sonnet:—
His last work was a group of the Virgin and the dead Christ, which he intended should be placed on an altar over his own tomb; but it was left unfinished from a flaw in the marble, and is now in the cathedral in Florence. Vasari found the aged artist working at it late at night, when he had[Pg 64] arisen from his bed because he could not sleep. A tallow candle was placed in his pasteboard cap, so as to leave his hands free for work. Once, as they were looking at the statue, Michael Angelo suffered the lantern which he held in his hand to fall, and they were left in darkness. He remarked, “I am so old that Death often pulls me by the cape, and bids me go with him; some day I shall fall myself, like this lamp, and the light of life will be extinguished.”
To the last Michael Angelo was always learning. He used often to visit the Vatican to study the Torso Belvedere, which he declared had been of the greatest benefit to him.
In 1563-64 he was elected vice-president of the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. That winter his strength failed rapidly, though all was done for him that love and honor could possibly do, for he had many devoted friends among all classes, and was constantly aiding artists and others. He did not fear death, for he said, “If life be a pleasure, since death also is sent by the hand of the same master, neither should that displease us.”
Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon of the 18th of February, 1564, the same month in which Vittoria died, the great man passed away, in the ninetieth year of his age. Daniele da Volterra, Condivi, and Cavalieri stood by his bedside. His last words to them were, “I give my soul to God, my body to the earth, and my worldly possessions to my nearest of kin.”
The pope and the Romans were determined to[Pg 65] keep the dead Michael Angelo in Rome; but his wish had been to lie in Florence. The body, therefore, was conveyed to the latter city, disguised as a bale of merchandise, and buried in Santa Croce, on Sunday night, March 12th, the Tuscan artists following with their lighted torches, accompanied by thousands of citizens. In the month of July a grand memorial service was held, in the Church of San Lorenzo, for the illustrious dead, paintings and statuary surrounding a catafalque fifty-four feet high.
After thirty years of voluntary exile, the melancholy, solitary, great-souled man lay in his native Florence. He had loved liberty and uprightness. He had been ambitious, and devoted to his masterly work, with the will-power and intensity which belong to genius. He had allowed no obstacles to stand in his path,—neither lack of money nor jealousy of artists. He had faith in himself. He spoke sometimes too plainly, but almost always justly. Cold and unapproachable though he was, children loved him, and for them he would stop and make sketches on the street. He had the fearlessness of one who rightly counts manhood above all titles. He was too noble to be trifling, or petty, or self-indulgent. Great in sculpture, painting, poetry, architecture, engineering, character, he has left an imperishable name. Taine says, “There are four men in the world of art and of literature exalted above all others, and to such a degree as to seem to belong to another race; namely, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michael Angelo.”
Categories: English Literature