John Addington Symonds.

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Aldovrandini at Bologna, he used to spend a portion of his time in reading
Dante aloud to his protector;[414] and the indignation expressed against
Florence, then as ever fickle and ungrateful, the _gente avara, invidiosa,
e superba_, to use Dante's own words, seems proper to a period of just
resentment. Still there is no certainty that they belong to 1495; for
throughout his long life Michael Angelo was occupied with Dante. A story
told of him in 1506, together with the dialogues reported by Donato
Giannotti, prove that he was regarded by his fellow-citizens as an
authority upon the meaning of the "Divine Comedy."[415] In 1518, when the
Florentine Academy petitioned Leo X. to transport the bones of Dante from
Ravenna to Florence, Michael Angelo subscribed the document and offered to
erect a statue worthy of the poet.[416] How deeply the study of Dante
influenced his art, appears not only in the lower part of the "Last
Judgment:" we feel that source of stern and lofty inspiration in his style
at large; nor can we reckon what the world lost when his volume of
drawings in illustration of the "Divine Comedy" perished at sea.[417] The
two following sonnets, therefore, whenever written, may be taken as
expressing his settled feeling about the first and greatest of Italian
poets:[418] -


From heaven his spirit came, and robed in clay
The realms of justice and of mercy trod,
Then rose a living man to gaze on God,
That he might make the truth as clear as day.
For that pure star that brightened with his ray
The ill-deserving nest where I was born,
The whole wide world would be a prize to scorn;
None but his Maker can due guerdon pay.

I speak of Dante, whose high work remains
Unknown, unhonoured by that thankless brood,
Who only to just men deny their wage.
Were I but he! Born for like lingering pains,
Against his exile coupled with his good
I'd gladly change the world's best heritage!


No tongue can tell of him what should be told,
For on blind eyes his splendour shines too strong;
'Twere easier to blame those who wrought him wrong,
Than sound his least praise with a mouth of gold.

He to explore the place of pain was bold,
Then soared to God, to teach our souls by song;
The gates heaven oped to bear his feet along,
Against his just desire his country rolled.

Thankless I call her, and to her own pain
The nurse of fell mischance; for sign take this,
That ever to the best she deals more scorn:
Among a thousand proofs let one remain;
Though ne'er was fortune more unjust than his,
His equal or his better ne'er was born.

About the date of the two next sonnets there is less doubt. The first was
clearly written when Michael Angelo was smarting under a sense of the
ill-treatment he received from Julius. The second, composed at Rome, is
interesting as the only proof we possess of the impression made upon his
mind by the anomalies of the Papal rule. Here, in the capital of
Christendom, he writes, holy things are sold for money to be used in
warfare, and the pontiff, _quel nel manto_, paralyses the powers of the
sculptor by refusing him employment.[419]


My Lord! if ever ancient saw spake sooth,
Hear this which saith: Who can, doth never will.
Lo! thou hast lent thine ear to fables still,
Rewarding those who hate the name of truth.
I am thy drudge and have been from my youth -
Thine, like the rays which the sun's circle fill;
Yet of my dear time's waste thou think'st no ills
The more I toil, the less I move thy ruth.

Once 'twas my hope to raise me by thy height;
But 'tis the balance and the powerful sword
Of Justice, not false Echo, that we need.
Heaven, as it seems, plants virtue in despite
Here on the earth, if this be our reward -
To seek for fruit on trees too dry to breed.


Here helms and swords are made of chalices:
The blood of Christ is sold so much the quart:
His cross and thorns are spears and shields; and short
Must be the time ere even his patience cease.
Nay let Him come no more to raise the fees
Of fraud and sacrilege beyond report!
For Rome still slays and sells Him at the court,
Where paths are closed to virtue's fair increase.

Now were fit time for me to scrape a treasure,
Seeing that work and gain are gone; while he
Who wears the robe, is my Medusa still.
Perchance in heaven poverty is a pleasure:
But of that better life what hope have we,
When the blessed banner leads to nought but ill?

A third sonnet of this period is intended to be half burlesque, and,
therefore, is composed _a coda_, as the Italians describe the lengthened
form of the conclusion. It was written while Michael Angelo was painting
the roof of the Sistine, and was sent to his friend Giovanni da Pistoja.
The effect of this work, as Vasari tells us, on his eyesight was so
injurious, that, for some time after its completion, he could only read by
placing the book or manuscript above his head and looking up.[420]


I've grown a goitre by dwelling in this den -
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be -
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind;
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;

In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Backward I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.

The majority of the sonnets are devoted to love and beauty, conceived in
the spirit of exalted Platonism. They are supposed to have been written in
the latter period of his life, when he was about sixty years of age; and
though we do not know for certain to whom they were in every case
addressed, they may be used in confirmation of what I have said about his
admiration for Vittoria Colonna and Tommaso Cavalieri.[421] The following,
with its somewhat obscure adaptation of a Platonic theory of creation to
his own art, was probably composed soon after Vittoria Colonna's


When my rude hammer to the stubborn stone
Gives human shape, now that, now this, at will,
Following his hand who wields and guides it still,
It moves upon another's feet alone.
But He who dwells in heaven all things doth fill
With beauty by pure motions of his own;
And since tools fashion tools which else were none,
His life makes all that lives with living skill.

Now, for that every stroke excels the more
The closer to the forge it still ascend,
Her soul that quickened mine hath sought the skies:
Wherefore I find my toil will never end,
If God, the great artificer, denies
That tool which was my only aid before.

The next is peculiarly valuable, as proving with what intense and
religious fervour Michael Angelo addressed himself to the worship of
intellectual beauty. He alone, in that age of sensuality and animalism,
pierced through the form of flesh and sought the divine idea it
imprisoned:[423] -


As one who will reseek her home of light,
Thy form immortal to this prison-house
Descended, like an angel piteous,
To heal all hearts and make the whole world bright.
'Tis this that thralls my heart in love's delight,
Not thy clear face of beauty glorious;
For he who harbours virtue, still will choose
To love what neither years nor death can blight.

So fares it ever with things high and rare,
Wrought in the sweat of nature; heaven above
Showers on their birth the blessings of her prime;
Nor hath God deigned to show Himself elsewhere
More clearly than in human forms sublime;
Which, since they image Him, compel my love.

The same Platonic theme is slightly varied in the two following
sonnets:[424] -


Choice soul, in whom, as in a glass, we see,
Mirrored in thy pure form and delicate,
What beauties heaven and nature can create,
The paragon of all their works to be!
Fair soul, in whom love, pity, piety,
Have found a home, as from thy outward state
We clearly read, and are so rare and great
That they adorn none other like to thee!

Love takes me captive; beauty binds my soul;
Pity and mercy with their gentle eyes
Wake in my heart a hope that cannot cheat.
What law, what destiny, what fell control,
What cruelty, or late or soon, denies
That death should spare perfection so complete?


From sweet laments to bitter joys, from peace
Eternal to a brief and hollow truce,
How have I fallen! - when 'tis truth we lose,
Mere sense survives our reason's dear decease.
I know not if my heart bred this disease,
That still more pleasing grows with growing use;
Or else thy face, thine eyes, in which the hues
And fires of Paradise dart ecstasies.

Thy beauty is no mortal thing; 'twas sent
From heaven on high to make our earth divine:
Wherefore, though wasting, burning, I'm content;
For in thy sight what could I do but pine?
If God Himself thus rules my destiny,
Who, when I die, can lay the blame on thee?

The next is saddened by old age and death. Love has yielded to piety, and
is only remembered as what used to be. Yet in form and feeling this is
quite one of the most beautiful in the series supposed to refer to
Vittoria Colonna:[425] -


Bring back the time when blind desire ran free,
With bit and rein too loose to curb his flight;
Give back the buried face, once angel-bright,
That hides in earth all comely things from me;
Bring back those journeys ta'en so toilsomely,
So toilsome-slow to him whose hairs are white;
Those tears and flames that in one breast unite;
If thou wilt once more take thy fill of me!

Yet Love! Suppose it true that thou dost thrive
Only on bitter honey-dews of tears,
Small profit hast thou of a weak old man.
My soul that toward the other shore doth strive,
Wards off thy darts with shafts of holier fears;
And fire feeds ill on brands no breath can fan.

After this it only remains to quote the celebrated sonnet used by Varchi
for his dissertation, the best known of all Michael Angelo's poems.[426]
The thought is this: just as a sculptor hews from a block of marble the
form that lies concealed within, so the lover has to extract from his
lady's heart the life or death of his soul,


The best of artists hath no thought to show
Which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
Doth not include: to break the marble spell
Is all the hand that serves the brain can do.
The ill I shun, the good I seek, even so
In thee, fair lady, proud, ineffable,
Lies hidden: but the art I wield so well
Works adverse to my wish, and lays me low.

Therefore not love, nor thy transcendent face,
Nor cruelty, nor fortune, nor disdain,
Cause my mischance, nor fate, nor destiny:
Since in thy heart thou carriest death and grace
Enclosed together, and my worthless brain
Can draw forth only death to feed on me.

The fire of youth was not extinct, we feel, after reading these last
sonnets. There is, indeed, an almost pathetic intensity of passion in the
recurrence of Michael Angelo's thoughts to a sublime love on the verge of
the grave. Not less important in their bearing on his state of feeling are
the sonnets addressed to Cavalieri; and though his modern editor shrinks
from putting a literal interpretation upon them, I am convinced that we
must accept them simply as an expression of the artist's homage for the
worth and beauty of an excellent young man. The two sonnets I intend to
quote next[427] were written, according to Varchi's direct testimony, for
Tommaso Cavalieri, "in whom" - the words are Varchi's - "I discovered,
besides incomparable personal beauty, so much charm of nature, such
excellent abilities, and such a graceful manner, that he deserved, and
still deserves, to be the better loved the more he is known." The play of
words upon Cavalieri's name in the last line of the first sonnet, the
evidence of Varchi, and the indirect witness of Condivi, together with
Michael Angelo's own letters,[428] are sufficient in my judgment to
warrant the explanation I have given above. Nor do I think that the doubts
expressed by Guasti about the intention of the sonnets,[429] or Gotti's
curious theory that the letters, though addressed to Cavalieri, were meant
for Vittoria Colonna,[430] are much more honourable to Michael Angelo's
reputation than the garbling process whereby the verses were rendered
unintelligible in the edition of 1623.


Why should I seek to ease intense desire
With still more tears and windy words of grief,
When heaven, or late or soon, sends no relief
To souls whom love hath robed around with fire?
Why need my aching heart to death aspire
When all must die? Nay, death beyond belief
Unto these eyes would be both sweet and brief,
Since in my sum of woes all joys expire!

Therefore because I cannot shun the blow
I rather seek, say who must rule my breast,
Gliding between her gladness and her woe?
If only chains and bands can make me blest,
No marvel if alone and bare I go
An armed Knight's captive and slave confessed.


With your fair eyes a charming light I see,
For which my own blind eyes would peer in vain;
Stayed by your feet the burden I sustain
Which my lame feet find all too strong for me;
Wingless upon your pinions forth I fly;
Heavenward your spirit stirreth me to strain;
E'en as you will, I blush and blanch again,
Freeze in the sun, burn 'neath a frosty sky.

Your will includes and is the lord of mine;
Life to my thoughts within your heart is given;
My words begin to breathe upon your breath:
Like to the moon am I, that cannot shine
Alone; for lo! our eyes see nought in heaven
Save what the living sun illumineth.

Whether we are justified in assigning the following pair to the Cavalieri
series is more doubtful. They seem, however, to proceed from a similar
mood of the poet's mind.[431]


If love be chaste, if virtue conquer ill,
If fortune bind both lovers in one bond,
If either at the other's grief despond,
If both be governed by one life, one will;
If in two bodies one soul triumph still,
Raising the twain from earth to heaven beyond,
If love with one blow and one golden wand
Have power both smitten breasts to pierce and thrill;

If each the other love, himself foregoing,
With such delight, such savour, and so well,
That both to one sole end their wills combine;
If thousands of these thoughts all thought outgoing
Fail the least part of their firm love to tell;
Say, can mere angry spite this knot untwine?


He who ordained, when first the world began,
Time that was not before creation's hour,
Divided it, and gave the sun's high power
To rule the one, the moon the other span:
Thence fate and changeful chance and fortune's ban
Did in one moment down on mortals shower:
To me they portioned darkness for a dower;
Dark hath my lot been since I was a man.

Myself am ever mine own counterfeit;
And as deep night grows still more dim and dun,
So still of more mis-doing must I rue:
Meanwhile this solace to my soul is sweet,
That my black night doth make more clear the sun
Which at your birth was given to wait on you.

A sonnet written for Luigi del Riccio, on the death of his friend Cecchino
Bracci, is curious on account of its conceit.[432] Michael Angelo says:
"Cecchino, whom you loved, is dead; and if I am to make his portrait, I
can only do so by drawing you, in whom he still lives." Here, again, we
trace the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of
beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover's soul. This
Cecchino was a boy who died at the age of seventeen. Michael Angelo wrote
his epicedion in several centuries of verses, distributed among his
friends in the form of what he terms _polizzini_, as though they were


Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes
Which to thy living eyes are life and light,
When closed at last in death's injurious night
He opened them on God in Paradise.
I know it and I weep, too late made wise:
Yet was the fault not mine; for death's fell spite
Robbed my desire of that supreme delight,
Which in thy better memory never dies.

Therefore, Luigi, if the task be mine
To make unique Cecchino smile in stone
For ever, now that earth hath made him dim,
If the beloved within the lover shine,
Since art without him cannot work alone,
Thee must I carve to tell the world of him.

In contrast with the philosophical obscurity of many of the sonnets
hitherto quoted, I place the following address to Night - one, certainly,
of Michael Angelo's most beautiful and characteristic compositions, as it
is also the most transparent in style[433]: -


O night, O sweet though sombre span of time! -
All things find rest upon their journey's end -
Whoso hath praised thee, well doth apprehend;
And whoso honours thee, hath wisdom's prime.
Our cares thou canst to quietude sublime,
For dews and darkness are of peace the friend;
Often by thee in dreams upborne I wend
From earth to heaven, where yet I hope to climb.

Thou shade of Death, through whom the soul at length
Shuns pain and sadness hostile to the heart,
Whom mourners find their last and sure relief!
Thou dost restore our suffering flesh to strength,
Driest our tears, assuagest every smart,
Purging the spirits of the pure from grief.

The religious sonnets have been reserved to the last. These were composed
in old age, when the early impressions of Savonarola's teaching revived,
and when Michael Angelo had grown to regard even his art and the beauty he
had loved go purely, as a snare. If we did not bear in mind the piety
expressed throughout his correspondence, their ascetic tone, and the
remorse they seem to indicate, would convey a painful sense of
cheerlessness and disappointment. As it is, they strike me as the natural
utterance of a profoundly devout and somewhat melancholy man, in whom
religion has survived all other interests, and who, reviewing his past
life of fame and toil, finds that the sole reality is God. The two first
of these compositions are addressed to Giorgio Vasari.[434]


Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden ere the final judgment fall,
Of good or evil deeds to pay the fee.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.

Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.


The fables of the world have filched away
The time I had for thinking upon God;
His grace lies buried deep 'neath oblivion's sod,
Whence springs an evil-crop of sins alway.
What makes another wise, leads me astray,
Slow to discern the bad path I have trod:
Hope fades; but still desire ascends that God
May free me from self-love, my sure decay.

Shorten half-way my road to heaven from earth?
Dear Lord, I cannot even half-way rise,
Unless Thou help me on this pilgrimage:
Teach me to hate the world so little worth,
And all the lovely things I once did prize;
That endless life, not death, may be my wage.

The same note is struck in the following, which breathes the spirit of a
Penitential Psalm:[435] -


Burdened with years and full of sinfulness,
With evil custom grown inveterate,
Both deaths I dread that close before me wait,
Yet feed my heart on poisonous thoughts no less.
No strength I find in mine own feebleness
To change or life or love or use or fate,
Unless Thy heavenly guidance come, though late,
Which only helps and stays our nothingness.

'Tis not enough, dear Lord, to make me yearn
For that celestial home, where yet my soul
May be new made, and not, as erst, of nought:
Nay, ere Thou strip her mortal vestment, turn
My steps toward the steep ascent, that whole
And pure before Thy face she may be brought.

In reading the two next, we may remember that, at the end of his life,
Michael Angelo was occupied with designs for a picture of the Crucifixion,
which he never executed, though he gave a drawing of Christ upon the cross
to Vittoria Colonna; and that his last work in marble was the unfinished
"Pietà" in the Duomo at Florence.[436]


Freed from a burden sore and grievous band,
Dear Lord, and from this wearying world untied,
Like a frail bark I turn me to Thy side,
As from a fierce storm to a tranquil land.
Thy thorns, Thy nails, and either bleeding hand,
With Thy mild gentle piteous face, provide
Promise of help and mercies multiplied,
And hope that yet my soul secure may stand.

Let not Thy holy eyes be just to see
My evil past, Thy chastened ears to hear
And stretch the arm of judgment to my crime:
Let Thy blood only lave and succour me,
Yielding more perfect pardon, better cheer
As older still I grow with lengthening time.


Not less elate than smitten with wild woe
To see not them but Thee by death undone,
Were those blest souls, when Thou above the sun
Didst raise, by dying, men that lay so low:
Elate, since freedom from all ills that flow
From their first fault for Adam's race was won;
Sore smitten, since in torment fierce God's son
Served servants on the cruel cross below.

Heaven showed she knew Thee, who Thou wert and whence,
Veiling her eyes above the riven earth;
The mountains trembled and the seas were troubled:
He took the Fathers from hell's darkness dense:
The torments of the damned fiends redoubled:
Man only joyed, who gained baptismal birth.

The collection of his poems is closed with yet another sonnet in the same
lofty strain of prayer, and faith, and hope in God.[437]


Mid weariness and woe I find some cheer
In thinking of the past, when I recall
My weakness and my sins and reckon all
The vain expense of days that disappear:
This cheers by making, ere I die, more clear
The frailty of what men delight miscall;
But saddens me to think how rarely fall
God's grace and mercies in life's latest year.

For though Thy promises our faith compel,
Yet, Lord, what man shall venture to maintain
That pity will condone our long neglect?
Still, from Thy blood poured forth we know full well
How without measure was Thy martyr's pain,

Online LibraryJohn Addington SymondsRenaissance in Italy Volume 3 The Fine Arts → online text (page 32 of 33)