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The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti online

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truth, he who imagines to arrive at any excellence without following
this system (which is the source of a true theory in the arts), shoots
very wide indeed of his mark."

Condivi perhaps exaggerated the influence of lovely nature, horses,
dogs, flowers, hills, woods, &c., on Michelangelo's genius. His work,
as we know, is singularly deficient in motives drawn from any province
but human beauty; and his poems and letters contain hardly a trace of
sympathy with the external world. Yet, in the main contention, Condivi
told the truth. Michelangelo's poems and letters, and the whole series
of his works in fresco and marble, suggest no single detail which is
sensuous, seductive, enfeebling to the moral principles. Their tone
may be passionate; it is indeed often red-hot with a passion like that
of Lucretius and Beethoven; but the genius of the man transports the
mind to spiritual altitudes, where the lust of the eye and the
longings of the flesh are left behind us in a lower region. Only a
soul attuned to the same chord of intellectual rapture can breathe in
that fiery atmosphere and feel the vibrations of its electricity.


I have used Michelangelo's poems freely throughout this work as
documents illustrative of his opinions and sentiments, and also in
their bearing on the events of his life. I have made them reveal the
man in his personal relations to Pope Julius II., to Vittoria Colonna,
to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, to Luigi del Riccio, to Febo di Poggio. I
have let them tell their own tale, when sorrow came upon him in the
death of his father and Urbino, and when old age shook his lofty
spirit with the thought of approaching death. I have appealed to them
for lighter incidents: matters of courtesy, the completion of the
Sistine vault, the statue of Night at S. Lorenzo, the subjection of
Florence to the Medici, his heart-felt admiration for Dante's genius.
Examples of his poetic work, so far as these can be applied to the
explanation of his psychology, his theory of art, his sympathies, his
feeling under several moods of passion, will consequently be found
scattered up and down by volumes. Translation, indeed, is difficult to
the writer, and unsatisfactory to the reader. But I have been at pains
to direct an honest student to the original sources, so that he may,
if he wishes, compare my versions with the text. Therefore I do not
think it necessary to load this chapter with voluminous citations.
Still, there remains something to be said about Michelangelo as poet,
and about the place he occupies as poet in Italian literature.

The value of Michelangelo's poetry is rather psychological than purely
literary. He never claimed to be more than an amateur, writing to
amuse himself. His style is obscure, crabbed, ungrammatical.
Expression only finds a smooth and flowing outlet when the man's
nature is profoundly stirred by some powerful emotion, as in the
sonnets to Cavalieri, or the sonnets on the deaths of Vittoria Colonna
and Urbino, or the sonnets on the thought of his own death. For the
most part, it is clear that he found great difficulty in mastering his
thoughts and images. This we discover from the innumerable variants of
the same madrigal or sonnet which he made, and his habit of returning
to them at intervals long after their composition. A good fourth of
the Codex Vaticanus consists of repetitions and _rifacimenti_. He was
also wont to submit what he wrote to the judgment of his friends,
requesting them to alter and improve. He often had recourse to Luigi
del Riccio's assistance in such matters. I may here adduce an inedited
letter from two friends in Rome, Giovanni Francesco Bini and Giovanni
Francesco Stella, who returned a poem they had handled in this manner:
"We have done our best to alter some things in your sonnet, but not to
set it all to rights, since there was not much wanting. Now that it is
changed or put in order, according as the kindness of your nature
wished, the result will be more due to your own judgment than to ours,
since you have the true conception of the subject in your mind. We
shall be greatly pleased if you find yourself as well served as we
earnestly desire that you should command us." It was the custom of
amateur poets to have recourse to literary craftsmen before they
ventured to circulate their compositions. An amusing instance of this
will be found in Professor Biagi's monograph upon Tullia d'Aragona,
all of whose verses passed through the crucible of Benedetto Varchi's

The thoughts and images out of which Michelangelo's poetry is woven
are characteristically abstract and arid. He borrows no illustrations
from external nature. The beauty of the world and all that lives in it
might have been non-existent so far as he was concerned. Nor do his
octave stanzas in praise of rural life form an exception to this
statement; for these are imitated from Poliziano, so far as they
attempt pictures of the country, and their chief poetical feature is
the masque of vices belonging to human nature in the city. His
stock-in-trade consists of a few Platonic notions and a few Petrarchan
antitheses. In the very large number of compositions which are devoted
to love, this one idea predominates: that physical beauty is a direct
beam sent from the eternal source of all reality, in order to elevate
the lover's soul and lead him on the upward path toward heaven. Carnal
passion he regards with the aversion of an ascetic. It is impossible
to say for certain to whom these mystical love-poems were addressed.
Whether a man or a woman is in the case (for both were probably the
objects of his aesthetical admiration), the tone of feeling, the
language, and the philosophy do not vary. He uses the same imagery,
the same conceits, the same abstract ideas for both sexes, and adapts
the leading motive which he had invented for a person of one sex to a
person of the other when it suits his purpose. In our absolute
incapacity to fix any amative connection upon Michelangelo, or to link
his name with that of any contemporary beauty, we arrive at the
conclusion, strange as this may be, that the greater part of his
love-poetry is a scholastic exercise upon emotions transmuted into
metaphysical and mystical conceptions. Only two pieces in the long
series break this monotony by a touch of realism. They are divided by
a period of more than thirty years. The first seems to date from an
early epoch of his life: -

_What joy hath yon glad wreath of flowers that is
Around her golden hair so deftly twined,
Each blossom pressing forward from behind,
As though to be the first her brows to kiss!
The livelong day her dress hath perfect bliss,
That now reveals her breast, now seems to bind:
And that fair woven net of gold refined
Rests on her cheek and throat in happiness!
Yet still more blissful seems to me the band,
Gilt at the tips, so sweetly doth it ring,
And clasp the bosom that it serves to lace:
Yea, and the belt, to such as understand,
Bound round her waist, saith: Here I'd ever cling!
What would my arms do in that girdle's place?_

The second can be ascribed with probability to the year 1534 or 1535.
It is written upon the back of a rather singular letter addressed to
him by a certain Pierantonio, when both men were in Rome together: -

_Kind to the world, but to itself unkind,
A worm is born, that, dying noiselessly,
Despoils itself to clothe fair limbs, and be
In its true worth alone by death divined.
Would I might die for my dear lord to find
Raiment in my outworn mortality;
That, changing like the snake, I might be free
To cast the slough wherein I dwell confined!
Nay, were it mine, that shaggy fleece that stays,
Woven and wrought into a vestment fair,
Around yon breast so beauteous in such bliss!
All through the day thou'd have me! Would I were
The shoes that bear that burden! when the ways
Were wet with rain, thy feet I then should kiss!_

I have already alluded to the fact that we can trace two widely
different styles of writing in Michelangelo's poetry. Some of his
sonnets, like the two just quoted, and those we can refer with
certainty to the Cavalieri series, together with occasional
compositions upon the deaths of Cecchino and Urbino, seem to come
straight from the heart, and their manuscripts offer few variants to
the editor. Others, of a different quality, where he is dealing with
Platonic subtleties or Petrarchan conceits, have been twisted into so
many forms, and tortured by such frequent re-handlings, that it is
difficult now to settle a final text. The Codex Vaticanus is
peculiarly rich in examples of these compositions. Madrigal lvii. and
Sonnet lx., for example, recur with wearisome reiteration. These
laboured and scholastic exercises, unlike the more spontaneous
utterances of his feelings, are worked up into different forms, and
the same conceits are not seldom used for various persons and on
divers occasions.

One of the great difficulties under which a critic labours in
discussing these personal poems is that their chronology cannot be
ascertained in the majority of instances. Another is that we are
continually hampered by the false traditions invented by Michelangelo
the younger. Books like Lannan Rolland's "Michel-Ange et Vittoria
Colonna" have no value whatsoever, because they are based upon that
unlucky grand-nephew's deliberately corrupted text. Even Wadsworth's
translations, fine as they are, have lost a large portion of their
interest since the publication of the autographs by Cesare Guasti in
1863. It is certain that the younger Michelangelo meant well to his
illustrious ancestor. He was anxious to give his rugged compositions
the elegance and suavity of academical versification. He wished also
to defend his character from the imputation of immorality. Therefore
he rearranged the order of stanzas in the longer poems, pieced
fragments together, changed whole lines, ideas, images, amplified and
mutilated, altered phrases which seemed to him suspicious. Only one
who has examined the manuscripts of the Buonarroti Archives knows what
pains he bestowed upon this ungrateful and disastrous task. But the
net result of his meddlesome benevolence is that now for nearly three
centuries the greatest genius of the Italian Renaissance has worn a
mask concealing the real nature of his emotion, and that a false
legend concerning his relations to Vittoria Colonna has become
inextricably interwoven with the story of his life.

The extraordinary importance attached by Michelangelo in old age to
the passions of his youth is almost sufficient to justify those
psychological investigators who regard him as the subject of a nervous
disorder. It does not seem to be accounted for by anything known to us
regarding his stern and solitary life, his aloofness from the vulgar,
and his self-dedication to study. In addition to the splendid
devotional sonnets addressed to Vasari, which will appear in their
proper place, I may corroborate these remarks by the translation of a
set of three madrigals bearing on the topic.

_Ah me, ah me! how have I been betrayed
By my swift-flitting years, and by the glass,
Which yet tells truth to those who firmly gaze!
Thus happens it when one too long delays,
As I have done, nor feels time fleet and, fade: -
One morn he finds himself grown old, alas!
To gird my loins, repent, my path repass,
Sound counsel take, I cannot, now death's near;
Foe to myself, each tear,
Each sigh, is idly to the light wind sent,
For there's no loss to equal time ill-spent.

Ah me, ah me! I wander telling o'er
Past years, and yet in all I cannot view
One day that might be rightly reckoned mine.
Delusive hopes and vain desires entwine
My soul that loves, weeps, burns, and sighs full sore.
Too well I know and prove that this is true,
Since of man's passions none to me are new.
Far from the truth my steps have gone astray,
In peril now I stay,
For, lo! the brief span of my life is o'er.
Yet, were it lengthened, I should love once more.

Ah me! I wander tired, and know not whither:
I fear to sight my goal, the years gone by
Point it too plain; nor will closed eyes avail.
Now Time hath changed and gnawed this mortal veil,
Death and the soul in conflict strive together
About my future fate that looms so nigh.
Unless my judgment greatly goes awry,
Which God in mercy grant, I can but see
Eternal penalty
Waiting my wasted will, my misused mind,
And know not, Lord, where health and hope to find._

After reading these lamentations, it is well to remember that
Michelangelo at times indulged a sense of humour. As examples of his
lighter vein, we might allude to the sonnet on the Sistine and the
capitolo in answer to Francesco Berni, written in the name of Fra
Sebastiano. Sometimes his satire becomes malignant, as in the sonnet
against the people of Pistoja, which breathes the spirit of Dantesque
invective. Sometimes the fierceness of it is turned against himself,
as in the capitolo upon old age and its infirmities. The grotesqueness
of this lurid descant on senility and death is marked by something
rather Teutonic than Italian, a "Danse Macabre" intensity of loathing;
and it winds up with the bitter reflections, peculiar to him in his
latest years, upon the vanity of art. "My much-prized art, on which I
relied and which brought me fame, has now reduced me to this. I am
poor and old, the slave of others. To the dogs I must go, unless I die

A proper conclusion to this chapter may be borrowed from the
peroration of Varchi's discourse upon the philosophical love-poetry of
Michelangelo. This time he chooses for his text the second of those
sonnets (No. lii.) which caused the poet's grand-nephew so much
perplexity, inducing him to alter the word _amici_ in the last line
into _animi_. It runs as follows: -

_I saw no mortal beauty with these eyes
When perfect peace in thy fair eyes I found;
But far within, where all is holy ground,
My soul felt Love, her comrade of the skies:
For she was born with God in Paradise;
Else should we still to transient love be bound;
But, finding these so false, we pass beyond
Unto the Love of loves that never dies.
Nay, things that die cannot assuage the thirst
Of souls undying; nor Eternity
Serves Time, where all must fade that flourisheth
_Sense is not love, but lawlessness accurst:
This kills the soul; while our love lifts on high
Our friends on earth - higher in heaven through death._

"From this sonnet," says Varchi, "I think that any man possessed of
judgment will be able to discern to what extent this angel, or rather
archangel, in addition to his three first and most noble professions
of architecture, sculpture, and painting, wherein without dispute he
not only eclipses all the moderns, but even surpasses the ancients,
proves himself also excellent, nay singular, in poetry, and in the
true art of loving; the which art is neither less fair nor less
difficult, albeit it be more necessary and more profitable than the
other four. Whereof no one ought to wonder: for this reason; that,
over and above what is manifest to everybody, namely that nature,
desirous of exhibiting her utmost power, chose to fashion a complete
man, and (as the Latins say) one furnished in all proper parts; he, in
addition to the gifts of nature, of such sort and so liberally
scattered, added such study and a diligence so great that, even had he
been by birth most rugged, he might through these means have become
consummate in all virtue: and supposing he were born, I do not say in
Florence and of a very noble family, in the time too of Lorenzo the
Magnificent, who recognised, willed, knew, and had the power to
elevate so vast a genius; but in Scythia, of any stock or stem you
like, under some commonplace barbarian chief, a fellow not disdainful
merely, but furiously hostile to all intellectual ability; still, in
all circumstances, under any star, he would have been Michelangelo,
that is to say, the unique painter, the singular sculptor, the most
perfect architect, the most excellent poet, and a lover of the most
divinest. For the which reasons I (it is now many years ago), holding
his name not only in admiration, but also in veneration, before I knew
that he was architect already, made a sonnet; with which (although it
be as much below the supreme greatness of his worth as it is unworthy
of your most refined and chastened ears) I mean to close this present
conference; reserving the discussion on the arts (in obedience to our
Consul's orders) for another lecture.

_Illustrious sculptor, 'twas enough and more,
Not with the chisel-and bruised bronze alone,
But also with brush, colour, pencil, tone,
To rival, nay, surpass that fame of yore.
But now, transcending what those laurels bore
Of pride and beauty for our age and zone.
You climb of poetry the third high throne,
Singing love's strife and-peace, love's sweet and sore.
O wise, and dear to God, old man well born,
Who in so many, so fair ways, make fair
This world, how shall your dues be dully paid?
Doomed by eternal charters to adorn
Nature and art, yourself their mirror are,
None, first before, nor second after, made."_

In the above translation of Varchi's peroration I have endeavoured to
sustain those long-winded periods of which he was so perfect and
professed a master. We must remember that he actually read this
dissertation before the Florentine Academy on the second Sunday in
Lent, in the year 1546, when Michelangelo was still alive and hearty.
He afterwards sent it to the press; and the studied trumpet-tones of
eulogy, conferring upon Michelangelo the quintuple crown of
pre-eminence in painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and loving,
sounded from Venice down to Naples. The style of the oration may
strike us as _rococo_ now, but the accent of praise and appreciation
is surely genuine. Varchi's enthusiastic comment on the sonnets xxx,
xxxi, and lii, published to men of letters, taste, and learning in
Florence and all Italy, is the strongest vindication of their
innocence against editors and scholars who in various ways have
attempted to disfigure or to misconstrue them.



The correspondence which I used in the eleventh chapter, while
describing Michelangelo's difficulties regarding the final contract
with the Duke of Urbino, proves that he had not begun to paint the
frescoes of the Cappella Paolina in October 1542. They were carried on
with interruptions during the next seven years. These pictures, the
last on which his talents were employed, are two large subjects: the
Conversion of S. Paul, and the Martyrdom of S. Peter. They have
suffered from smoke and other injuries of time even more than the
frescoes of the Sistine, and can now be scarcely appreciated owing to
discoloration. Nevertheless, at no period, even when fresh from the
master's hand, can they have been typical of his style. It is true
that contemporaries were not of this opinion. Condivi calls both of
them "stupendous not only in the general exposition of the histories
but also in the details of each figure." It is also true that the
technical finish of these large compositions shows a perfect mastery
of painting, and that the great designer has not lost his power of
dealing at will with the human body. But the frigidity of old age had
fallen on his feeling and imagination. The faces of his saints and
angels here are more inexpressive than those of the Last Judgment. The
type of form has become still more rigidly schematic. All those
figures in violent attitudes have been invented in the artist's brain
without reference to nature; and the activity of movement which he
means to suggest, is frozen, petrified, suspended. The suppleness, the
elasticity, the sympathy with which Michelangelo handled the nude,
when he began to paint in the Sistine Chapel, have disappeared. We
cannot refrain from regretting that seven years of his energetic old
age should have been devoted to work so obviously indicative of
decaying faculties.

The Cappella Paolina ran a risk of destruction by fire during the
course of his operations there. Michelangelo wrote to Del Riccio in
1545, reminding him that part of the roof had been consumed, and that
it would be necessary to cover it in roughly at once, since the rain
was damaging the frescoes and weakening the walls. When they were
finished, Paul III. appointed an official guardian with a fixed
salary, whose sole business it should be "to clean the frescoes well
and keep them in a state of cleanliness, free from dust and other
impurities, as also from the smoke of candles lighted in both chapels
during divine service." This man had charge of the Sistine as well as
the Pauline Chapel; but his office does not seem to have been
continued after the death of the Farnese. The first guardian nominated
was Buonarroti's favourite servant Urbino.

Vasari, after describing these frescoes in some detail, but without
his customary enthusiasm, goes on to observe: "Michelangelo attended
only, as I have elsewhere said, to the perfection of art. There are no
landscapes, nor trees, nor houses; nor again do we find in his work
that variety of movement and prettiness which may be noticed in the
pictures of other men. He always neglected such decoration, being
unwilling to lower his lofty genius to these details." This is indeed
true of the arid desert of the Pauline frescoes. Then he adds: "They
were his last productions in painting. He was seventy-five years old
when he carried them to completion; and, as he informed me, he did so
with great effort and fatigue - painting, after a certain age, and
especially fresco-painting, not being in truth fit work for old men."

The first of two acute illnesses, which showed that Michelangelo's
constitution was beginning to give way, happened in the summer of
1544. On this occasion Luigi del Riccio took him into his own
apartments at the Casa Strozzi; and here he nursed him with such
personal devotion that the old man afterwards regarded Del Riccio as
the saviour of his life. We learn this from the following pathetic
sonnet: -

_It happens that the sweet unfathomed sea
Of seeming courtesy sometimes doth hide
Offence to life and honour. This descried,
I hold less dear the health restored to me.
He who lends wings of hope, while secretly
He spreads a traitorous snare by the wayside,
Hath dulled the flame of love, and mortified
Friendship where friendship burns most fervently.
Keep then, my dear Luigi, clear and fare,
That ancient love to which my life I owe,
That neither wind nor storm its calm may mar.
For wrath and pain our gratitude obscure;
And if the truest truth of love I know,
One pang outweighs a thousand pleasures far._

Ruberto Strozzi, who was then in France, wrote anxiously inquiring
after his health. In reply, Michelangelo sent Strozzi a singular
message by Luigi del Riccio, to the effect that "if the king of France
restored Florence to liberty, he was ready to make his statue on
horseback out of bronze at his own cost, and set it up in the Piazza."
This throws some light upon a passage in a letter addressed
subsequently to Lionardo Buonarroti, when the tyrannous law, termed
"La Polverina," enacted against malcontents by the Duke Cosimo de'
Medici, was disturbing the minds of Florentine citizens. Michelangelo
then wrote as follows: "I am glad that you gave me news of the edict;
because, if I have been careful up to this date in my conversation
with exiles, I shall take more precautions for the future. As to my
having been laid up with an illness in the house of the Strozzi, I do
not hold that I was in their house, but in the apartment of Messer
Luigi del Riccio, who was my intimate friend; and after the death of
Bartolommeo Angelini, I found no one better able to transact my
affairs, or more faithfully, than he did. When he died, I ceased to
frequent the house, as all Rome can bear me witness; as they can also
with regard to the general tenor of my life, inasmuch as I am always
alone, go little around, and talk to no one, least of all to
Florentines. When I am saluted on the open street, I cannot do less
than respond with fair words and pass upon my way. Had I knowledge of
the exiles, who they are, I would not reply to them in any manner. As
I have said, I shall henceforward protect myself with diligence, the

Online LibraryJohn Addington SymondsThe Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti → online text (page 34 of 45)